By Megan Burbank The Seattle Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Columnist Megan Burbank shares how her experiences during the quarantine changed her outlook on being alone, more specifically, it opened her eyes to her need for people. (and a cat)
The morning I was supposed to file this story, I was cleaning cat vomit out of the carpet in my apartment, something that I could not have imagined doing three months ago, when the idea of a pet seemed nice, but I couldn't imagine leaving an animal alone all day. "My lifestyle doesn't really allow for it," I would say to friends, as if they were suggesting I adopt a human child and not a self-contained house cat.
What I really meant was: I like living alone and I'm afraid of change and commitment.
Living alone is a privilege, and before the coronavirus pandemic, I loved everything about it. I've always been an introvert with a hyperactive imagination, so to spend time alone is not a curse, but a pleasure. I love sleeping alone, watching movies alone, taking walks alone and coming home alone, and doing chores and cooking alone, with a podcast or audiobook in my earbuds for company.
After a busy day of work-related back-and-forth and my phone's relentless pings, I love nothing more than to put my devices in airplane mode and read a paper-and-ink book, undisturbed, until I've truly come home to my own brain again and feel ready to deal with the demands of the outside world once more.
In my 20s, when I was still living in a limbo of roommates and cohabitation, I had taken Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" as literally as some people take the Bible (conveniently ignoring the existence of Leonard Woolf). I am the kind of person who, at the end of a three-year relationship in my late 20s, was devastated AND subtly excited that I could go grocery shopping again without having to make compromises in the frozen foods section at Trader Joe's.
I took a perverse pride in being responsible for nothing but myself and an ever-growing plant collection. How embarrassing, how domestic, it would be to have to take care of anyone or anything else. My dream was to live alone, or in the event that I fell in love again, down the street from a hypothetical future partner, who would also Live Alone and Like It!
On weekday nights, I'd wipe down countertops in communal kitchens I shared with various sundry roommates, and long for the day when I could dispense with them altogether. If this all sounds mildly sociopathic, it may have been.
It is possible for fierce independence to teeter into its unpleasant cousin, unfettered solipsism, and living alone under a COVID-induced lockdown revealed the weak points in my "No man is an island but I, a woman, am one" routine.
Part of what had allowed me to enjoy being alone was a vast network of friends and family I knew I could call on whenever I needed to, and who frequently called on me. In the early days of Washington state's "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order, our interactions were limited to video chats. I could hardly remember the last time I'd been hugged. Living alone had never felt so isolating.
Holden Caulfield laments at the end of "The Catcher in the Rye" that eventually "you start missing everybody." And it was true. I missed seeing my friends and family in person. I missed high-fives and handshakes. I missed the people I used to see on my bus route. I missed the women in my ballet classes. I even missed my dentist's office.
I missed everybody. And if I was struggling, I couldn't imagine what this was like for extroverts. I felt so bad for all of us. I felt so bad I volunteered to foster a cat.
After having no luck at the Humane Society, where my application to adopt an older cat with some emotional challenges joined 900 others, I took in a goofy little cat named Luna for a breed-specific rescue. For the first time in my life, I would be solely responsible for a living thing bigger than a plant.
In the photo from the rescue, Luna wore a severe lion cut, a jaunty bow tie and a sour-looking expression. As it turns out, that's just what her face looks like.
Luna, who has been described by her vet as "a funny little lady," is an exotic shorthair whose bottom-line breeding means she has an extremely smooshed face and a teeny-tiny nose, and she's small for an adult cat. A friend has compared her to a slightly inbred royal with a Habsburg chin but a positive attitude, and this does not seem inaccurate. (Please don't buy purebred animals.) The effect is a tiny cat who is as friendly as a dog and breathes like a monster. I love her.
She had been surrendered because she was never appropriately socialized as a kitten, and was being aggressive and rude toward the other cats in her home. She needed to be in a space where she would be cared for and loved but where she could be the only cat. I could relate to this petite menace and her need for solitude, and immediately agreed to foster her. No cat is an island.
Luna enjoys: watching "Cheers" on the couch, murdering bugs who have the misfortune of crossing her path, taking luxurious naps on surfaces meant for humans, trying to eat the comb I brush her with weekly.
Luna does not enjoy: eyedrops, her carrier, having her paws handled, the vacuum.
Everyone who meets Luna falls in love with her. She is an objectively adorable cat who gets rave reviews at the vet, with huge amber Halloween eyes and a beautiful gray-white coat with blue markings.
I told myself I was "only fostering" but as we spent our first evening together watching horror movies on the couch side by side, I knew I wanted to keep her.
And so a global pandemic turned me from a "Room of One's Own" purist into one of those annoying people who make up voices for their pets (Luna's is sort of like an imperial guard in "Star Wars") and complain about fireworks' impact on their animals' mental health. I am above starting a dedicated Instagram account for Luna, but not too proud to hashtag. I clean up her messes and take her to the vet and sometimes even unhygienically let her sleep at the foot of my bed, which would likely horrify the person I was in my twenties.
I still love being alone, but if the past few months have taught me anything, it's that the American myth of self-sufficiency and bootstrapping is a dangerous one that reinforces long-fortified systems of oppression. It may be possible to get through this time, but it can't be done alone. That's why my neighbors now wear masks to protect strangers they'll never meet, why they've put up homemade Black Lives Matter signs in their windows, why waving kindly at a fellow stranger wearing a mask is the new smile-and-nod.
I always prided myself on being self-sufficient, but the truth is I'm not. No one is. Not really. Mutual care is the only way we survive. It's a luxury to have a room of one's own; it is harder to acknowledge your own need for care. It requires more vulnerability, at a time of tremendous, deep-rooted and lasting pain, to accept the importance and imperatives of softness, kindness and communion.
So I am leaning into those things right now, driving my cousin and her newborn daughter home from the hospital; drinking wine with my mom in her yard; paddling lazily across Green Lake with my brother in separate, inflatable dinghies; Venmoing drinking money to furloughed friends; and, yes, occasionally cleaning up cat vomit. No funny little lady is an island. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.