BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
When did I become busy? When did we become too busy? When did personal writing, letter writing (even emails), become things of the past? When did we become lonelier, in the modern age, than ever?
This loneliness permeates us like salt water is filling our bodies and renders us useless. Sometimes, everything feels like it has become too long, too treacherous, too difficult; #TLDR. There are words everywhere for us, and yet, none of them are personal. None of them make us feel in the way that keeps making you feel for days after.
Or so it seems.
There is more of everything right now when it comes to excessive and quick communication - and yet, why do so many of us feel lonelier than we remember feeling before? Americans, reportedly, are having less sex than ever; this fact, of course, is nuanced. Does this suggest we’re more preoccupied with our online selves, or is the pressure to have sex when we don’t want to waning (and for good reason), or has the #MeToo movement finally shed light on consent, or is it a decline in religious institutions as meeting places, or is it the rising cost of living affecting long-term dating?
It’s probably all of these reasons. Researchers at the Institute for Family Studies, who wrote this article The Atlantic, suggest so:
What’s more, as the #MeToo era has taught us, there has been too much unwanted or nonconsensual sex out there, which is obviously bad for the (more often female) target of such advances. From this perspective, the so-called sex recession might just amount to a sexual recalibration, with a lot of bad sex being eliminated from our social lives—and this would be a good thing. For all these reasons, the feminist family historian Stephanie Coontz is “suspicious of any hand-wringing” about the sex recession.
But the significant and ongoing rise in sexlessness still gives us pause, both because it appears to be making some Americans appreciably less happy, and because it may be an indicator of the trouble facing young adults when it comes to love and marriage. Indeed, while marriage composition independently has only a modest effect on society-wide happiness, the decline in sexual frequency is itself related to postponed marriage: Married people have sex more often. Finding a spouse can be hard and, crucially, one of the places young adults have historically found their spouses is church. Thus, while most of the decline in happiness is about declining sex, that’s not the end of the story. Declining sex is at least partly about family and religious changes that make it harder for people to achieve stable, coupled life at a young age. If we’d like more young adults to experience the joy of sex, we will have to either revive these institutions or find new ways to kindle love in the rising generation.
I began writing letters to my best friend from elementary school when she moved back to Japan with her parents. Our letters ended soon, prematurely, but we tried as much as youth can try. We shared a bond that went beyond watching TV together (Sailor Moon was our favorite) and taking afternoon naps on our sleeping bags (mine was from Barney).
As I got older, I began writing more ferociously to friends, new, old, online, and then, eventually, romantic partners. I made mixed CDs and sometimes mailed them too, occasionally including leaves or flower petals, as if to say, this is real. We are real. Our love, platonic or not, or something in-between, is real. I always wanted everything to be real.
In letters, I could create a narrative where I felt we were the main characters of our own story. I could finally be my own main character, both the antagonist and protagonist.
I don’t usually expect an answer back anymore. Most of the time, there isn’t an answer back. Just silence.
Sometimes I enjoy silence. I enjoy spending time alone, seeing new cities by myself. This enjoyment of my own solitude worries me at times: Have I grown too used to being alone, because it’s easier to be? Because I’ve stopped expecting not to be?
Have I become too independent?
A few years ago, I started a project where I would send a letter or postcard to anyone who wanted one; I posted a status on my social media accounts. I did this several times and have written upwards of hundreds of letters since.
What struck out to me the most: People were surprised and shocked anyone would write them a letter.
Why shouldn’t I, I would sometimes write back. Shouldn’t we all make more time for each other to be seen, to be felt? If we’re not living for each other, and ourselves, who and what are we living for? That next raise, that bonus, the next book deal, the next meal? These are all significant aspects of our lives, but if we’re merely ghosts in each other’s lives, who are the books and the music and the restaurants for, if we aren’t even really there? If we’re just living half-lives.
When did we become ghosts on a ghost ship passing through the night?
Sometimes I wonder if our preoccupation with serial killers in the media has become related to our seemingly inescapable loneliness. Between the Netflix documentary on Ted Bundy (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) to the movie on his life starring Zac Efron (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) to shows like Mindhunter, it’s hard to ignore U.S. culture’s obsession with murderous white men who weren’t actually evil geniuses, just white men who existed before modern forensics and smartphones with GPS locators existed. As writer Ashley Alese Edwards wrote:
He did not lure women with his wit, but rather tricked them by pretending to have a broken arm or pretending to be law enforcement. He snuck up behind them at night, when there was no one around. He crept into their rooms under the cover of darkness while they were fast asleep, at their most vulnerable. Bundy was able to evade capture for so long simply because in the 1970s when women began disappearing, police departments did not have the DNA technology nor coordination between different jurisdictions to link the crimes to him.
Violence has always existed, it just changes shape, changes bodies, and morphs through time. It’s easy to say that the rise of suburbs and our tidy, neat idea of the “American Dream” where everyone has a family and a house contributes to this in a major way. It might, but so could the fast-paced anonymity and cramped urban life just as well (which long existed before suburbia); and what about the violence of wars, of colonialism, of feudalism, of the U.S.’s own expansion out west, of domestic violence, of political violence, of sexual violence, of our current crisis with gun violence?
There are endless time periods where violence has existed; there are numerous reasons why violence happens (racism, sexism, imperialism, greed). Serial killers are just part of this picture, part of the symptom of the greater structural issues with human civilization and our progression into different types of lifestyles and governments and technologies. Violence never truly goes away, it just changes form in whatever way it can, in whatever way it can go undetected.
Violence is found in language - or the lack of it. Sometimes, the irony isn’t lost on me, when we’re all sitting in front of our computers and TVs watching Netflix documentaries and movies, wondering how this violence manifested itself, wondering where and how these men went wrong, if evil actually exists, or if this type of violence stems from something else, something innately human.
As much as we want to separate violence out of being human, isn’t it one of the most human things about us, however grotesque and wrong?
I don’t write to you but I want to. It’s your birthday and I wanted to send you a card, but I wonder if I’m just writing to myself, to the version of you I want you to be, but isn’t you. I’ve written to you before, but I don’t even know what your handwriting looks like.
I haven’t written a letter in two months. Have I let this part of myself go? Or am I just afraid of rejection like everyone else, to the point of submitting to my own isolation, to my own marriage with loneliness?
Am I too tired of putting intimate parts of myself out there, unread? Does it even matter if I go unread?
Later when I go home, I watch another TV show about another murder and wonder if my body is too desensitized. Can it be un-desensitized? I hope so. I promised myself I wouldn’t let myself be part of the murder obsession anymore, but I can’t help it - just like how none of us can seem to help it anymore.
I want to look back to another time when I felt more connected, when we all felt more connected and less harried, but I wonder if my memory is just a faulty rose-colored edit of itself. Did that time ever really exist? Nostalgia is a dangerous dream, after all.
Still, sometimes I look back anyway, and write letters and sometimes I send them, and sometimes, I don’t.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams, The Gods Are Dead, Marys of the Sea, Sexting Ghosts, Xenos, No(body) (forthcoming, Madhouse Press, 2019), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault. They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Them, Brooklyn Magazine, BUST, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente / FB: joannacvalente