Loneliness, or Performing for an Audience of One

The first few months I spent after graduating from college were some of the most demoralizing I had experienced in quite a long time.  Some of the reasons were obvious.  Shallowly-buried resentment and stress over my classic new-grad, barely-paid internship situation.  Long, exhausting days.  Changed place, changed routine, missing people.  I had left an elite liberal arts college and gone straight to the Carolina Piedmont countryside to be an apprentice farmhand on a small scale sustainable farm (it was my heart’s desire, no joke), and unexpectedly found myself spending most of my time alone – far more than I ever did in college, even in the days of 40 hour weeks alone in my studio.  The farm was shorthanded, and took a divide-and-conquer approach to staying afloat, which put a lot of pasture and woodland between me and the next worker most of the time.  In school I had always been able to use time alone to my advantage, particularly in contemplative art practice, or just to achieve clarity of thought but those hours spent solo in the fields left me with an awful lot of time in my own head, and this time it didn’t do me any favors.  I had expected the alone time and physical work of farming to be a fuel for creative work, not its killer, but it felt like there was an expansiveness to this aloneness that I never could get my head around to make anything positive of it.  I would go home at night and couldn’t figure out what to do except go to bed, or I would stare at the wall on my day off until I realized I would have to drag myself out of the house (trailer) to go somewhere, anywhere to keep my sanity.

Part of my dysphoria was run-of-the-mill loneliness, a physical lack of someone to talk to, someone to go places with, someone to love, but I there was something else too, harder to put my finger on.  It felt like a sort of disorientation.  Late in the season, starting to come out of my funk, I came to a strange realization about what might have been that mystery factor.  I had left my audience.  For years I had been performing, and here on the farm, the audience was gone.  It sounds so conceited to put it that way, it’s embarrassing to admit, but I think the phenomenon might be common to people who leave urban communities for rural ones.  I think it has to do with how we construct identities in cities.

Identity is a vague, slippery concept, as varied as the humans that are presumed to possess it, held deep inside the individual, but also performed.  Everyone performs some kind of identity, whether they mean to or not, just by being how they are.  American society puts great value on the intentional performance of identity, particularly in the form of conspicuous consumer goods such as clothing, cars, hairstyles, you name it, but mannerisms, modes of speech, activities, beliefs, and countless other cultural factors convey just as much information.  In an urban environment, the individual encounters a constant stream of other people, who both bear witness to said individual’s identity, and perform their own.  Through thousands of mundane interactions, the individual gives and receives countless micro-feedbacks about the self,  constantly perceiving similarities and differences between themselves and others in dress, speech, movement, ideas, interests, anything, and that experience is bound to heighten an awareness of one’s own identity.  Of course, by “heightened awareness” I don’t mean “self-actualization,” or any particularly deep understanding of the self.  I just mean a very basic, usually unconscious understanding of where one fits or doesn’t fit in the fabric of society based on signals from others.

When the (sub)urbanite such as myself enters farm life, the audience is suddenly gone.  All those little mundane interactions with strangers and acquaintances in public spaces are gone.  Nobody cares much what you look like, not even your boss.  Certainly not the chickens.  For me in particular, those long days alone in the fields meant fewer conversations and less time for activities aside from work.  It’s as if you had this solid outer humanity to push back against in order to define yourself, and you reach out one day and find it isn’t there.  You’re adrift in space.  That lonely space can be understandably disorienting, but if you (like me) never realized you were getting social validation from being a performer among myriad other performers, it would be hard to know what that feeling is at first.  When I finally did begin to recognize what I was grappling with, I understood that I faced a new challenge. I would have to learn to be fulfilled by performing for an audience of one.  Just myself.  It’s a kind of self-confidence they don’t teach you about in school, and rarely gets tested in urban life.  It requires being extraordinarily comfortable in your own head, continuing to be yourself not in spite of others, but in their absence.  I ended my season on the farm having only begun that process of learning, and though I plan to continue farming for plenty of other reasons, part of me wonders if meeting that challenge would be reason enough to farm another season.  I can’t help but think that an actor as satisfied to perform for an audience of one as a thousand must be an uncommonly independent character.

By the barn

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