Thurlow sat in a small office. His nerves were like the third rail, like if he thought too much about what had just happened with Esme, he'd electrocute himself. He took a few deep breaths and focused on his speech instead. He thought of the audience, which calmed him down. Five thousand people who'd come to plead their needs. Bodies packed like spices in the rack. Faces upturned, hope ascendant. Tell us something great, Thurlow. Charge the heart of solitude and get us the hell out.
He stayed in the back for half an hour, then marched onstage. In the room: eyes pooled with light, skins pale as soap. He leaned into the mic and began.
"Here is something you should know: we are living in an age of pandemic. Of pandemic and paradox. To be more interconnected than ever and yet lonelier than ever. To be almost immortal with what science is doing for us and yet plagued with feelings that are actually revising how we operate on a biological level. Want to know what that means?"
Decor in the warehouse was bare-bones. Just a couple of spotlights trained on him and the dais, and a screen that lit up just then with a double helix. The sound from the speakers wasn't reverbed, but it was gritty. The upshot was to make this gathering lowbrow and intimate, despite how many people were there.
"It means," he said, "that loneliness is changing our DNA. Wrecking our hormones and making us ill. Mentally, physically, spiritually. When I was a young man, I felt like if I didn't connect with another human being in the next three seconds, I would die. Or that I was already dead and my body just didn't know it. Sound extreme? I bet not. I was lonely by myself; I was lonely in a group. So let me ask you: how many of you feel disassociated from the people you love and who love you most?"
He heard, from the audience, nodding, grunts, snuffles. Applause from a group cozied in the rafters. And a woman who began to cry. To wail with her head flung back, so that her arms seemed to lift of their own accord. She began to talk to her neighbors. She'd been married thirty-five years. Could you really be this alone after thirty-five years? Her husband worked for the Department of the Interior. He was about to turn sixty, was a good and kind man. And yet here she was. Someone passed her a microphone; she shared her story with the room. Sometimes, she said, she'd wake up in the night, stare at the stranger next to her, and say: Olgo, I like cheese sticks and corn in the can, and when no one's looking I wet my finger and dip it in the rainbow sprinkles at the back of the cupboard, and you love these things about me, you know me, so why can't I be reached? And then she cried some more.
Two Helix came up on each side of her. They held her hands. They said: We know.
The woman blotted her eyes with the cuff of her sweatshirt. She would join, no doubt. She might as well. It cost only ten dollars a head to be here, but the reward was priceless. The idea, thus: Come in with your best friends, whose lives are as alien to you as yours is to them, come in steeped in the tide of loneliness and despair that grows out of precisely these moments when you're supposed to feel a part of things, because, after all, you're hanging out with your best friends. Come in a wreck, leave happy. How? Start from the beginning. Start over, start fresh. Tell me something real. At issue was not just isolation born of actual, literal solitude, but the solitude of consciousness. The very thing that lets you apprehend feelings for other people also tends to keep you severed from them.
There was a Pack for her not two hours away. As soon as membership cleared five thousand in any one area, a Pack was born. The Helix was seventeen Packs in seventeen states. Fifty-two million website hits a month. Bonds nationwide.
Thurlow drank from a water bottle. He said, "Now, I know what people say. They say that extreme detachment usually means mental illness, but that the pioneering spirit of individuality just means you're American. Freethinking and unencumbered. But what we have today? When so many of us are destitute of intimacy with other people — intimacy of any kind — that's American, too. And it's not right. Now, believe me, because I know. I know firsthand. From my life and also from polling and statistical modeling procedures that corroborate a decline in frequency of every single form of social, civic, religious, and professional engagement since 1950. These stats are the God of tedium. But I've read them. The Roper Social and Political Trends survey, the General Social Survey, the DDB Needham Life Style studies, Gallup opinion polls, Mason-Dixon reports, and Zogby files. The bottom line? We are cocooned in all things, at all times, and it's only getting worse. Today we debrief with our pets and bed down with Internet porn. So what can we do?" He paused here while the crowd said, "Tell me something real!"
"That's right," he said. "Tell me something real. Talk to each other. Get back to basics. And start feeling better."
As he spoke, he managed to contact the audience with his eyes, to see people one by one, and in this way to blinker and laser his attention.
When he was done, he thanked everyone for coming. He said they'd made his day.
Cheers, applause, exeunt.
Fiona Maazel. Excerpt from Woke Up Lonely. Copyright 2013 by Fiona Maazel. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.