Monday, May 05, 2014

Among the lumberjacks

Waiting for the bus in Bangkok
Still at Bluefin and now alone.  I read “Gentleman in the Parlor,” a book by Somerset Maugham, while journeying through Southeast Asia, saving the introduction by Paul Theroux till the end.  It turns out that while Maugham was jaunting about—almost dying of malaria in a Bangkok hotel, trekking by mule from Burma—he really had his much younger male confidante and lover along with him.  “A drunkard and something of a rogue,” Paul Theroux called Gerald Haxton, Maugham’s companion.

So when Maugham wanted to be left by himself in his hotel room, to be introverted and write, his partner dragged him out to party with locals.  Hence, the book.

And now here I am, for real, no K. to drag me out among locals.  He flew out last week, back to work on the boat, and I insisted on staying.  I wanted to study Thai, or travel by myself—to do something truly adventurous.  Alone.

I am well and truly in the thick of it.  Theroux adds:  “There is no shame in this, though it makes the actual solitary wanderers, such as Doughty on camel back in the Empty Quarter of Arabia Deserta, seem almost heroic.”

I’ve written at times in the past as if I were alone, as Maugham does in his book.  And of course anything that “we” could do “I” could do just as well.  Do we go to the market?  Or do I go to the market?  In Thai it is irrelevant, no pronoun necessary.  Simply “go to market.”  But almost always I am going with someone.  I began hiking the Appalachian Trail without a companion, and traveled from France to Poland.  But those adventures are years behind me.  Even my solo camping trips from Chattanooga days seem far behind.

There’s something about being alone.  About the way it stimulates your creativity, or just gives you an urge to hide away.  The way it changes your interactions with other people.  Opens you up or closes you off.  Gives you the ability to make your own decisions, to make your own failures and successes dependent on yourself alone.  Forbids the blaming of another individual.

People who write about the ability of couples to make it over the long-term stress the advantage of these kinds of separations from one another.  One must always feel the pull of the partner against the other.  It’s not just I-Thou but I-Thou-Them.  We go away from each other so that we can come back together stronger and braver.

As Donne wrote:
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
    Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to airy thinness beat.
And still I cherish this time by myself, wrap it around my heart like a blanket, even as already I feel guilt for all the things I’m not doing, all of the things I’d resolved to do.  It turns out that doing this without a six-foot-tall partner holding me by the hand I’m a lot more timid.  I hide out.  I feel like Marilynne Robinson, she who said:
I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it.
I remember those solitary months in Aroostook where I could dive into myself, into my time at my desk, my time in the woods, not missing the sound of another human being’s voice.  How did I think I could pressure myself out of my cozy-desked room into the roiling mass of Bangkok?  Although when I do, every time is rewarding.  A mini-date with myself or random Thai strangers.  Last night, over sehn yai moo daeng, I met an entire Thai family and conversed with them, practicing my Thai as I’m intended to be doing.

Maybe one day I’ll start visiting all of the museums and temples and famed street stalls I’m supposed to. Maybe I’ll yet screw my courage to the sticking place.  If nothing else, I’m going to need to, because I have to do another visa run.  Soon.  As a solitary wanderer.

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