I think I identified with George Clooney’s character in Up In the Air a little too much. Have you seen that film? If you haven’t, I am about to spoil it for you. I’m sorry.
In the movie, George goes through life accumulating no serious relationships. He isn’t that close with his family and he seems to have no friends. Most importantly, he is never in a long-term romantic relationship. These things weigh you down, George says. Make sure you keep your metaphorical backpack empty.
While I do have a few very close friendships, I have been following this baggage-free model of romantic life for quite some time now. I enjoy the opportunity to be selfish, to do whatever I want whenever I want, never to have to worry about taking someone else’s life into consideration when I make a decision about my own. Life as a singleton is so easy. So I was right there with George as he brandished his empty backpack to audience applause and then went home briefly to his empty apartment before taking yet another work trip to a strange town.
But I found myself rooting for the success of George’s budding relationship with the Vera Farmiga character (look, I never remember movie characters’ names, so just go with it here). In one of the deleted scenes on the DVD, we see George settling in to a nicer apartment, setting it up to really live there, filling the place with the visual signifiers of his habitation: a washing machine, kitchen items, flowers and plants. While I had been a subscriber to the empty backpack scenario, I wanted all of this to work.
When what happens at the end of the movie happened, and George was left alone again, and when his voice-over in the final scene declared the character to have returned to his high-flying, solo-living, empty-backpacking days, I felt strangely empty and scared. I really don’t want to be that guy, I thought.
Is it enough to have close friendships in my life? To have an apartment full of clothes and books and a dog? These are all items in the metaphorical backpack of life, surely. Mine is not empty. But I do still manage to live, for the most part, selfishly. Within reason, I do what I want when I want and I worry in no way about how this affects anyone else.
I don’t go looking for new friendships or relationships; I don’t try to establish new connections with others. I am happy, usually, to nurture the friendships I already have and otherwise to stay home enjoying the bliss of solitude, comfortably ensconced in my bubble-like apartment with the blinds down and no one but the dog and cat to require my attention. But I suppose that is changing.
Last semester, I had one of the best groups of literature students I have ever had. They were smart and thoughtful and interesting, and I was constantly being surprised by them. At the end of the year, so many of my students wrote about these kinds of ideas in their final papers: the importance of relationships and connections and community; the necessity to open ourselves up to other people, to lift others up and allow them to lift us up when we need it; the way other people can make us better.
It wasn’t an idea we ever really spent time on in class, but somehow it struck so many of them as worth writing about. I thought about what they’d written for a while — how easy it was for them to see, in both their own lives and in the texts we had been studying. How hard it can be for me to see myself.
I had been dithering about liking a guy, wondering how to make something happen, ready to try putting my hand out into the metaphorical void to see if it caught hold of anything out there. “Just do it, ” said my friend C., “run into him on purpose and ask him out.” “Grab him by the shirt collar and attack him,” said my friend B. I have wise friends.
The first time I went over to this dude’s house I saw his gorgeous collection of house plants, sprawling out in front of his huge, open, sunny front window. The way the light came in, the green, the old bookshelves and huge desk and orange cat immediately winding around my ankles — the whole place struck me as being one of the most warm and welcoming places I had ever stepped into. When he gave me my basil plant, he said it would need plenty of sunlight. “You’ll have to open your blinds, you know. Let some light in.” A few weeks later he came back from a work trip with a beautiful glass sun-catcher meant to be hung in the window.
The guy is good, I tell you what. He even got me to play a board game the other night. If you know me you know my deep aversion to board games (and really, games of all kinds). I don’t even know how it happened, me playing board games, but it happened. And, like, I think I actually had a good time. As I did with the Frisbee throwing a couple of weeks ago. Next thing you know I will be attending a college football game or going bowling or something equally improbable, all while having fun. It’s crazy; I know.
A couple of weeks ago I made some stupid comment about how I had to make a business-related call and I was hoping that the person I was calling wouldn’t answer — hoping, basically, to avoid having to speak on the phone and instead to be able to just leave a voice message. The guy friend found this, of course, ridiculous.
[Sidebar: Look, I can see that it is a bit ridiculous, maybe, but don’t you ever have this hope? I don’t think I’m really alone on this phone avoidance, am I?]
Anyway, he said it was like creating a wall between myself and others. Preventing myself from connecting with other human beings. He got all, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” with me.
I’m not sure how much of my own solitary personality I will ever really change, but I certainly have been opening up to the possibility of connecting with other people in ways I usually wouldn’t. I have been trying to engage. I have been keeping my blinds open, letting the light in.