27 September, 2021 — Lonely Hearts and Impermanence: The Graphic Memoirs of Kristen Radtke

Recently, I discovered and read in quick succession two graphic memoirs by Kristen Radtke — Imagine Wanting Only This and Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. Parts of the latter book, in particular, hit close to home. I thought this days ago, before I spent both Friday and Saturday night home alone.

Lonely people, explains Radtke in Seek You, “tend to scoop out larger spaces of isolation to burrow into by cutting themselves off from others — triggering the self-fulfilling prophecy of preventing rejection by avoiding opportunities for connection.”

I get that it can’t be healthy to spend one’s free time by having conversations that take place either only with the resident cats or entirely within one’s head. So I force myself to attend (for example) multiplayer board game nights, even on weeks when, truth be told, I’d have been just as happy to give it a miss. Evenings filled with ridiculous banter and never-endingly rehashed debates — over the Allman Brothers, or Tom Petty, or the 12-minute version of [fill in the blank from any number of interchangeable and endlessly extended concert jam options] from the spring 1975 Grateful Dead tour, or 1980s music overall, or bluegrass music from any and every decade — and over whether any or all of them rule or suck, are actually healthful pursuits (setting aside the counter covered in empty beer cans), mental health-wise. Though mustering up the energy to attend games night constitutes very low-hanging fruit, given that there is no possibility of rejection. (Plus my results have really improved of late, so even the chance of a last-place humiliation appears to be greatly reduced.)

Young or not-so-young, we are all wired to be social creatures. COVID-19 has provided first-hand evidence of the negative impacts which arise, for every age cohort, from the removal of interactive opportunities. For me personally, loneliness has been a recurring thread running through these articles — and, correspondingly, through my head — from the beginning, and of course pre-pandemic as well. But there has also, to cite only one example, been a dramatic improvement in my daughter Jessie’s demeanour so far this school year, as she has been regularly setting out for morning classes in a (nearly helmetless, sigh) bicycle convoy with 5 friends, who she then also sees at lunch. Compare this to the lockdown-filled 2020–21 school year, when a shortened and only-every-2nd-day-in-person school schedule which was the opposite to that of almost all her friends led to clear signs of depression such as weight loss and prolonged academic disinterest.

Radtke describes loneliness as feeling “like being underwater, fumbling against a muted world…. The simple gestures you enacted so easily on the ground become laborious, pushing against a weight no body is built to move through.” This imagery immediately put me in mind of the walking-through-quicksand sense I’ve felt when interacting with colleagues at the office (pre-March 2020, back when daily commutes to large, public servant-filled buildings were still a normal weekday activity) and attending social engagements on my own over the past two years. So often, in the initial months after my ex and I separated, it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other when obligated to extract myself from my cubicle and sit around a boardroom table with co-workers. And there was no internal debate over whether or not to plan a 50th birthday party for myself (had that even been possible, provincial health restriction-wise); the answer was a firm no, as I just wasn’t in the mood for socialising, let alone celebrating. The pandemic provided the perfect excuse to further dig into that isolation burrow.

While Imagine Wanting Only This also touches on loneliness, its subject is broader; the 2017 book is described as “a graphic memoir about loss, love and confronting grief… [dealing] with ruins and with people and places left behind.” In essence, as reviewer Emily Heiden summarized in the online journal Brevity, it is “a book about abandonment… the ways we leave places and people, and the ways they leave us.” Consideration of ruins of various sorts — physical structures, hearts (in relationships), hearts (the organ itself, within bodies) — leads Radtke to meditate on the impermanence which marks all aspects of life.

It was surely the combination of Radtke’s subject matter, her black and white drawings and the fact that much of her first book is set in a small town in middle America (Iowa City) which brought to mind John Mellencamp’s 1985 hit “Lonely Ol’ Night.” Specifically, I recalled and rewatched the song’s black and white video, which depicts the late night lights of a carnival midway. On display amongst the spinning rides and games of chance are unvarnished attempts at human connection, both successful and desperate.

As a 15-year-old, I loved that song (and Mellencamp’s entire Scarecrow album, which was a huge commercial success and has also been cited as a pioneering and influential early alt-country release). Through repeated viewings of the grainy images, I imagined having the confidence to be interesting and attractive enough for someone to want to spend a night exploring the fair with me. Or maybe I was only wishing that such an event would even happen in my small hometown of Chesley, Ontario. Over 35 years later, the details of how exactly the music and my perpetual insecurities made me feel at the time have become hazy because, over time, they’ve kaleidoscopically shifted. Ever-adjusting and reforming, our continually-evolving thoughts are just one more impermanent part of life. (Not the case, as it turns out, for music videos from the 1980s, which seem destined to outlive both their creators and fans.)

“Custom made for two lonely people like me and you… like me and you.”

Kristen Radtke, Imagine Wanting Only This
Kristen Radtke, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness
John Mellencamp, Scarecrow

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Jason Thomson

Jason Thomson

Music, single parenting, and pandemic-tinted views of the world from central Ottawa, Canada.