I don’t trust communities. Oh, in the abstract I believe in them, in their necessity and even in their pleasures. I don’t buy in the myth of the individual carving out a destiny alone. Sorry Ayn Rand. But something in me has also never completely found a home in any group. As a Kansan, I rejected the politics and the social conservatism; as a Catholic, I walked away from the hierarchy; as an Army brat, I’m a peacenik; as a man, I’m a feminist; as a husband and father, I’m the one who stays home with the kids, who arranges and rearranges the furniture; as a black, I never fit the urban stereotype, the Black Church upbringing.
But, truth to be told, I don’t know that I have to travel as far outward as a group to feel the itch for solitude. It’s not, I think, coincidental that I’ve chosen an art form—writing—that involves a pretty low level of collaboration. Writers sit in rooms, often alone, wrestling with the internal. However much research or reporting or fact-gathering or observation the work demands, at last the creation happens in the encounter between the writer and a blank, unoccupied space: a paper page, a computer screen. In my fondest childhood memories, I am alone; and one of the best presents I ever received was the three day stay my first wife paid for me to spend on my own at a Trappist monastery in northeastern Iowa (of course, she may consider the three days with me gone money well spent too).
At the same time, enjoying solitude isn’t the same as not wanting to connect. I’m no hermit, however much, from time to time, the life of Thomas Merton has appealed appeal to me. I’ve lived just long enough in the country to know that I’m a city boy through and through. I like music, interaction, public places, and the sounds of life. I like subways and busses and sidewalks full of all kinds of different people at all hours. I like the sounds of cafes and bars and restaurants, and the overlapping tumult of conversations.
But I only really connect one on one, face to face. I like to talk. And talk and talk and talk and talk. On the phone, on the computer, at a table, in bed, in a restaurant, in a library, sitting next to someone in a car or a theater or a living room. I haven’t yet met a person, I think, who matches my capacity for dialogue. I suppose that’s what I try to do when I write: to converse. The hard part for me is how little the world talks back. Individuals—however much they may like or love me—get tired; groups get threatened when the talk ranges too freely. And so, it’s only on the page that I can let my words flow and roam. Of course, without a face to face, it’s hard to know if anyone out there is really home.