Some children disdain others their age and seek the company of adults. Every playground has one. Mine is a five-year-old Japanese-American girl, a kindergartener with a gritty voice, Hollywood’s notion of a precocious tomboy, a Tatum O’Neal. Her hobbyhorse is bees, a subject she’s researching in the library. A girl she knows was stung last summer and she’s still twitchy, scanning the air when we stand in the middle of the flowerless, sand-covered soccer field. She stands close and moves around me in a geosynchronous orbit.
I know from the staff she’s an only child and her parents are busy people. They probably don’t know what to do with so bright a girl, and so she has learned what to do with herself. She’s proud, self-reliant, sarcastic and lonely. I don't think she suffers from the one-size-fits-all diagnosis, depression. I’m grateful I enjoy her company because she certainly enjoys mine.
In an Oct. 2, 1900, letter to his friend Morton Fullerton, the future lover of another friend, Edith Wharton, Henry James makes an extraordinary admission:
“The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life—and it seems to be the port also, in sooth to which my course again finally directs itself! This loneliness, (since I mention it!)–what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper about me, at any rate, than anything else: deeper than my `genius,’ deeper than my `discipline,’ deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep countermining of art.”
Fullerton’s preceding letter to James is lost and we can only speculate that the novelist was consoling Fullerton, an enthusiastic roué (the irony is best overlooked). It’s useful to remember that James at the time was writing his masterpiece, The Ambassadors. The editor of James’ letters, Leon Edel, reminds us he was working on Lambert Strether’s speech in Part V to Little Bilham:
“Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular as long as you have your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had? I’m too old—too old at any rate for what I see. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that.”
Loneliness is not the unhappiest state we’re susceptible to. Not living with enough spirit and attentiveness probably is. Most of us survive being lonely, only to know it again another day, and companionship is not the only or best antidote. I’m bringing a bag of sidewalk chalk to school so a five-year-old can draw and and live a little more, with others or alone.