Issue 086
November, 5, 2023

Tokyo Walk, TBOT Cover, Aloneness

Notes on aloneness vs. solitude

Roden Readers —

My third big Tokyo walk kicks off tomorrow today in a couple hours — TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO³, a six day, 150km walk from edge to edge of Tōkyō-to. More info on it here, and you can sign up directly here.

I’m Craig Mod, and it looks like I might be walking through some typhoons this coming week. But I also got my second skin cancer biopsy back the other day and — hooray hooray, just a dumb mole.

TBOT Cover

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I revealed a little bit of the Things Become Other Things book cover last Roden. Here is the finished cover (still not yet bound in this photo, of course). I am really happy with how this turned out. SPECIAL PROJECTS members who are subscribed to my behind-the-scenes Nightingalingale newsletter know how arduous it was to get here — a blind-debossed title with white foil debossed illustrations. Much more complicated than expected, but the usual simpler solutions produced unacceptable results. In spite of all the stress (we basically speed ran product iterations on three editions at once), I’m psyched about the results, and ever more psyched to get it in your hands — the whole book, not just the cover. It feels and looks great. (It’s about 70% thicker than Kissa by Kissa) The book is set to launch on November 21 for SP members, and November 22 for the rest of the world. If you want a signed copy (limited to 1,000 editions, 1,500 unsigned for this first run), I recommend becoming a member. (Also, as a member you’ll get some big discounts on the book, limited edition prints, and Kissa by Kissa combo packs, and be supporting my projects like TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO³ which are entirely membership driven.)

Sign up here to be notified for availability of purchase on launch day. (Announcements order will be: SPECIAL PROJECTS members, then the next day folks on this special TBOT announcement list, then Roden and Ridgeline newsletters and finally, social media.)

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I’ve been thinking about aloneness recently. Well, I’ve been thinking about it my whole life. It’s difficult to remember a time where I didn’t feel alone or apart or “on my own.” And I’ve spent the majority of my adult life — from 17 onward — living mostly alone, going to bed alone, and waking up alone. Left to my own volition to somehow transmute that aloneness into forward momentum, “output,” (“content” ha ha) and positive habits.

Aloneness sucks. It’s insidious and becomes habitual. It’s rapacious. It saps the spirit. It twists a peaceful dude all truculent and paranoid. It renders decision making oddly cumbersome. It’s more difficult to feel elevated as a human when swaddled in aloneness. Self-worth plummets as aloneness rises.

And aloneness as a default is tremendously difficult for some folks to understand.

For many, being surrounded by big families or long-term partners is so normalized, that to empathize with someone who is deep in aloneness (which I distinguish from solitude or quietude, more volitional and opted-into states) is akin to imagining what it’s like to fart your way to the moon.

Aloneness is not just individual, of course. Entire communities can and do feel abandoned, alone, cut off from the world. These can be as small as a block in Brooklyn, to entire countries. This in spite of us having the resources and technology to elevate and support pretty much everyone, everywhere — autarky for all! — and ultimately mitigate that sense of abandonment. (This is what I think our great-grandkids will be most confounded by: Us having all the capability to alleviate vast swaths of pain, and yet choosing / being systemically unable to do so.)

I just turned 43 the other day. As part of the fun of embracing mid-life crises, I’m in pattern matching mode. Two decades of watching friends either pair up and start families (or just embark on paired adventures), or continue down paths of aloneness. It seems to get more and more acute — the effects of aloneness — as folks drift into their 40s. It also seems to be more and more difficult to break habits connected with aloneness the older we get. This makes sense. Habits self-reinforce. And the folks with families have less time for solo people, creating even more dissonance.

I’ve spent the last five and half years speaking weekly with a therapist in New York over FaceTime. I started because I was exhausted. I recognized toxic relationship patterns that I had held onto since my teenage years, and wanted to break free. And I recognized that I had spent roughly twenty years not being able to do that on my own. (I had made some strides, of course, in fits and starts; most notably when I was 27, then: at the lowest of lows, I began running in the middle of the night (2am, feeling like I was losing my mind, put on my shoes, and ran the silent moonlit summer streets of Tokyo until my lungs burned and I felt back on the ground), soon completing two full marathons, felt my sense of value and self-worth rise, charged more for my time, made my way to Palo Alto, worked with incredible talent, made real money, big projects, huge scale, proved to myself I wasn’t stuck — it was an incredible stretch, thinking back on it now, a stretch of life-transformational love and hugs and sense of support, all initially catalyzed by feeling more alone than ever before, a yawning endless aloneness, and wanting to crawl out of that well before someone came and sealed the top.) Back to five years ago — I was 37 and stuck and thought — OK, let’s try something new. Hence: calling in for support (finally!).

I feel guilty for having access to this therapist. I want everyone to have access to someone like this. The world would be whole if you gave everyone a talented therapist and a cat. I can’t overstate how transformational my weekly act of analysis has been. I am still broken in many obvious (and non-unique) ways. But through these weekly sessions I’ve mitigated a huge chunk of lingering aloneness.

Therapy is simple. You load up FaceTime and speak out loud the things you’re most terrified about in life. Be radically open and honest, treating yourself as a third party, kindly observant without judgement. This came naturally to me. I was shocked by how easy it was for me to do this, to “do therapy.” Like I had been waiting my entire life for a patient, true listener. And here he was, a floating head on a screen. One I felt an immediate trusting bond with. To me, in that moment, it was like being handed a soda water and bitters in a pint glass just pulled from the freezer, after having run a hundred kilometers through fields of lava. The performance of therapy (which it is, a bit, or a lot) has been a consistent way to short circuit aloneness, even for just an hour a week. Those hours add up. (Over 250!) I’ve found that the honesty I embody (“perform”) during those therapy sessions has spilled into the day to day. Honesty imbricated, a suit of honest. The proof is in life itself: I’ve had more emotionally resonant experiences of non-aloneness in the last five years than my entire life prior. I’ve felt more connected and worthwhile. All the work I’ve done these last five years (both self-work and work-work — and they have been indisputably the most productive, best working years of my life) and the community I’ve been able to build (hi, you all) — I attribute it mostly to having upended the aloneness quotient.

I still feel a deep and terrifying aloneness — mostly when when I’m worn down. But now I can slightly detach myself from it, tell myself that we’ve felt this before, that we’ve come out of it, and believe in that pending emergence. If I admit to a friend that I’m experiencing these grueling bouts of crushing aloneness, I often get responses like: How can you feel alone?! You have so many people in your corner and support and love and friends! This is a terrible response. (But I know well meaning!) Aloneness and depression go hand in hand, and for someone not depressed, the idea of your body weighing ten thousand pounds, of wearing that lead cloak, of not being able to get out of bed in the morning, is unthinkable, unfathomable. So, too, with that sense of aloneness. How can you feel alone? How can you feel so isolated and hopeless?

Here’s an example: For many people in the world — and especially in big cities (and I imagine cities like New York and Tokyo exacerbate this maximally) — if they don’t initiate contact, don’t set up a dinner, don’t reach out to someone, don’t actively invest the energy to put something on the schedule, they go days or weeks with no inbound calls, no invitations, no sense of someone buoying them up in the turbulent seas of life. For folks with teeming families, children screaming in every room, this might sound like heaven, but for folks entering their fourth decade in life, still in this configuration, it can feel like death itself. I believe the number of people experiencing this is rising, and will only continue to rise. This is probably the most toxic corollary of remote work — replacing implicit daily in-person human interactions (as boring or banal or infuriating they may have been) with the need to actively invest energy to snap free from your aloneness.

The real shitter is that if you’ve inured yourself to living in this state of aloneness, it can be difficult — nay, impossible — to break the habits that have led to it. Aloneness as default becomes comforting, and habits built around aloneness, too, feel palliative because they’re known, and we tend to repeat familiar actions, even if they hurt us. (Heeeeeey there’s the therapy.) Five and half years ago, when I reached out to friends for therapist recommendations, I was doing so to actively subvert this from happening. I didn’t know it at the time (I didn’t have enough insight into my own aloneness back then), but that’s what I was responding to. I had been “alone” for decades, and I didn’t want to be alone anymore, and I didn’t know what to do.

I take notes during all my sessions (it’s one of the perks about FaceTime therapy, too weird to do in person) and I have a giant file with major bullet points going back to the very first call. The file contains … 31,000 words (I’ve never checked that before) as of today — remember, these are just abbreviated little blips to remind me what was discussed. There’s a lot in there! Do I go back over it? Sometimes. Truly. To get a sense of distance bridged, which can be difficult to estimate. What’s been accomplished in these years is almost impossible to actively hold entirely in the mind. How much have I changed since that first session in June 2018? Maybe not that much in the end. Maybe a ton. As per my notes, I know I’ve made strides in overturning aloneness. But, still, even now, I find myself sliding back into shitty patterns that I’ve held onto for decades. It takes a long time to unfurl lifelong nurtured impulses.

Mainly, I’m bringing all of this up because I’ve started to see friends grow older, stay stuck. I ask: Do you want to stay stuck in these loops? No, of course not. It’s a crushing thing to witness, this stuckness, this self-subversion when they could be producing more art or poetry or engineering new tools or whatever — acts that multiply joy in the world. But they’re without a framework to address their aloneness. The skeins of aloneness are woven deep. There is virtually no culture of therapy in Japan. I recommend therapy but it’s hopeless. The stigma is too great. (The great therapists too few?) On the flip side, I love telling people that I see a therapist weekly just to freak them out. Oh, how long have you been doing that?

I’ve come to recognize that I am far more productive, happy, kind, and patient, when I supplant that sense of aloneness. When my life has passive, meaningful connections spilling out into my days. This is not to say I am avoiding solitude or alone time. No — as a card-carrying introvert, I live for appropriately doled out solitude.

Example: I don’t think I could have done my first big solo walk from Tokyo to Kyoto (30 days+) if I hadn’t been in a trusting, healthy relationship. And had not had the support of early SPECIAL PROJECTS members behind me. And I don’t think I could have been in that relationship (or had the guts to start that membership program) if I hadn’t begun therapy a year before. During the walk, there was something about simply knowing that someone was there for me (though they were physically distant!) that allowed me to double-down on the solitude of the walk. That’s the real joy of subverting aloneness — luxuriating in solitude. A wholly different, generative beast, apart from aloneness. Solitude is where you cash in on your non-aloneness savings. Retreating into solitude for the day in your backyard shed with no internet connection and a nice keyboard and laptop is one of the greatest feelings in the world, but only because you know you’re emerging at the end of it into a hug, a goofy animal bounding with nincompoop love, a curious kid, cooking dinner — something, anything, that will passively envelop you in non-aloneness, that will make you feel valuable.

Subverting habits means replacing habits. What I’ve learned from my walks is that every day — every step — on the road is a chance for self-renewal, to cast off some small micron of a past, shittier, scared, low-self-worth, less-kind self, and replace it with a more patient, more empathetic, higher value bizarro self. Someone you could have been earlier in life, given a different set of circumstances. Micron by micron, atom by atom, it adds up (one hopes!). For me, the combination of regular, honest analysis, combined with loving relationships, stirred by the satisfaction and unexpected optimism you feel on a long walk, has become my three-pronged attack against aloneness.

I’m not looking for pure analgesia — just enough healthy mental time to make the most of life.

Therapy is just one tool. Animals work well, too. Even just a cat who hates your guts (until it’s hungry, and then, ohhhhhh, now it loves you (I love cats)) sitting nearby can elevate a mind. Emotional support animals make so much sense to me.

Is there a point to this little essay of jejune tidbits? If this resonates with you, I guess what I’m trying to say is: you’re seen. There are so many folks — hundreds of millions? billions? — feeling that aloneness everyday. It sucks. We’ve concocted social structures to make aloneness far more the default than it’s ever been. I struggle mightily with it. I think being adopted embeds an extra heavy dollop of aloneness, or at least it has in my case. Unravelling those feelings is a never ending process and I suspect I’ll be battling aloneness and depression for the rest of my life. But today, at 43, I’ve cobbled together my outré toolkit. And tomorrow today, when TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO³ kicks off (the walking starts tomorrow, but the meditations on the walk begin tonight) I’ll be activating one of my most potent tools: days of walking strung together, using the body up, looking closely at the world, photographing, taking notes, greeting people with alacrity like some village idiot, thinking about what was, what is, and what could be in this strange, fleeting, often painful — but just as often breathtaking — world of ours.