Dedicated to the memory of Leelah Alcorn (11/15/97- 12/28/14), who I never had the privilege to know, and Christian Medved (05/13/94- 02/06/13), who I did.

“Without community, there can be no liberation.”

– Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”

Dear John & Paul, We Kind of Do Know Where All the Lonely People Come From

This month, a writer and publisher named Kristen Radtke came out with an article in The Atlantic called “What’s the Loneliest You’ve Ever Felt?”

Describing the occasion of her research about loneliness, Radtke explains that Americans continue to suffer under the influence of “notions of self-reliance and the attendant bootstrap-pulling, frontier-conquering, and make-it-on-your-own ideologies.” She writes,

Researchers claim that loneliness will be classified an epidemic by 2030, and the former U.S. Surgeon General has described loneliness as one of the country’s most pressing health risks. The effects of social isolation are so severe that studies have shown that it actually has the power to remap the makeup of human cells. So what happens to a society in which independence is so often the goal and isolation is frequently the result?

I came across Radtke’s project at a time when I have been doing a lot of thinking about the ways in which loneliness and social justice intertwine (hey 2018, you unapologetically fascist tapeworm). The topic has been on my mind even more often lately because I have been reading David Wojnarowicz’s incredible memoir Close to the Knives, and considering the ways in which the AIDS epidemic produced a generation of lonely people by taking their friends, partners, and loved ones away from them.*

Thinking about loneliness in the context of the world around me also makes me think of the immigrant families who are ripped apart from each other by deportation or the threat of starvation and violence in their home countries. I once read about the immigrant mothers who work housekeeping jobs in the U.S. and spend the entire day with FaceTime open so that they can feel like they are at home with their kids. I cannot imagine a deeper kind of missing: the obligation to take care of another person’s home, and perhaps even their children, so that your own can survive another day.

Ultimately, thinking about the social and political sources of loneliness makes the moments in which I have felt most lonely seem shallow in comparison. Eating lunch alone, for example, is nothing like watching purple sores form on the unlined face of the love of your life, to see him dead by winter, or watching your children’s stomachs bloat from malnutrition. Not to mention countless other examples of deep, expansive aloneness in this country of ours: the dehumanization of Native Americans as they were shorn like sheep, forbidden to speak their own languages, violated, and killed until many were the last survivors of their tribes; the isolation of trans women like Leelah Alcorn, who killed herself at 17 after her homophobic parents put her in conversion therapy; and the alienation of the brave people who endure bullying and prejudice as a result of living with disabilities.** But if I have learned anything from my years in therapy, it is that the politics of the oppression Olympics are never productive. They do not help ourselves or those enduring situations that we perceive to be worse. In other words, we can acknowledge our advantages at the same time as we acknowledge that our suffering is very real to us. In light of that idea, I will (nervously) share some of my loneliest days with you all.

Peep My Privileged Malaise: An Opera in Three Acts

I grew up in a loving family, so most of my experiences with loneliness resulted from the difficulty I had making friends in school and forging the kind of connections I wanted with others. It isn’t easy to write about these moments, but I think that what is beautiful about Radtke’s project is its capacity to bring us together through a very elemental human experience. In these “divided times” (a cliche I find fitting here, but also somewhat gross-sounding), we need to practice vulnerability more than ever, so I will write a few of them here–even if it chips away at my pride a little bit.  

1) In eighth grade, we went a class trip to tour colleges. With “alarming specificity”, as Radtke suggests, I remember sitting alone in the back of the bus on an eight hour bus ride listening to Modest Mouse’s “Dramamine” (a song that appropriately featured on the 1996 album This a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About) on repeat on my pink iPod Video. I remember being stuck on one line of that song in particular: “I think I knew my geography pretty damn well,” even though I didn’t quite understand what it meant. Everyone was singing and laughing together in the front of the bus, a scene that was pretty familiar to me at the time, and I remember feeling like I would never know what it was like to have fun with people my own age. That sixteen-hour trip felt like the longest and quietest period of my life, a single, aching moment stretched over the state of California. Today, it makes me sad that I gave up so quickly on the possibility of an existence that included companionship.

2) I went through a pretty exquisitely painful breakup in my sophomore year of college. At the time, I was living in a house that was relatively far away from campus, and I used to walk for thirty-five minutes or so to get to and from my classes. Most days, I would walk to campus, go to class, and then come home to read before sleeping. Sometimes, I would take the bus downtown, so I could walk along the waterfront or go to the bookstore, but other than that, I barely went anywhere or saw anyone socially. During this ghosting era of my relationship, my ex-boyfriend would occasionally leave me messages in the drafts of a joint email account that we used to send each other messages and music. My day-to-day life felt wholly centered on walking to school in the morning and constantly refreshing that email account at night. I was waiting for any kind of message from the person that I loved, feeling pathetic and crazy and lost. At some point, I felt like I was losing the ability to talk to other people casually, as if I could not pretend to relate to their normal, busy lives.  

3) I had the opportunity to study abroad as a junior in college, and ended up choosing to live in Granada, Spain. There, I lived with one of my best friends in a host family’s piso near the Plaza de Toros. One night, we were all at a club that catered to American international students. Lately, I had been feeling like a lot of my friends didn’t actually want to experience the country, its culture, or what people in town were really like, but instead just wanted to party in a foreign city with cheaper drinks. It was sort of frustrating, but the reality was, I was letting my own bitterness exaggerate that reality. In fact, there were a lot of beautiful, exploratory people in my program, I was just too blind and self-interested to see things for what they really were.

Anyway, that night, I left this club feeling sort of angry and off and alone. I was kind of tired of ~the greatest hits of Pitbull***~ and middle-aged pulpos yanking strands of my hair as I walked by. And though I was sober as a judge (as a gopher? as a church mouse? I’m not sure which it is, but the point is was I not drinking at that time.), of course I got lost. Even though I wasn’t all that far from home, and the streets were filled with people, I was already feeling on edge that day, and after rooting around for the right narrow street for a while, I started panicking at some point, tripping over cobblestones in my heels and getting all teary-eyed. It was one of those moments where the trigger for an existential crisis isn’t itself something major, you just find yourself in an inconvenient situation and then, all of the sudden, you find yourself asking what am I doing here?, why am I the way that I am?, and why you can’t I seem to talk or act or exist in the precise way that I want to? It was the straw that broke the lonely camel’s back, or something like that.

At that moment, a young man and his partner, a beautiful woman with a wide, smile, approached me on the street and asked me if I was okay. I said yes, but we both agreed that the answer was probably no. This couple was–incredibly–from Sinaloa, the state in Mexico where I spent the happiest days of my childhood, a sure sign from the powers that be.  It’s hard to explain now, but in the most non-creepy way you can possibly imagine, the man wiped a few tears from my temple, pointed me the way home, and asked me if I needed help finding a taxi.

I end on this slightly maudlin tear-wiping scene to assert that thankfully, not all of the loneliest moments of our lives end in flatness or tragedy or even a more intense form of loneliness, though all of those progressions are common. Instead, by talking and writing about them, comparing them, and studying their contours– the ways in which they are caused by both our own actions and the things about society that we can’t hope to control– maybe we can see something worthwhile in the loneliest moments of our lives.

How Can We Be There for One Another?

We are given so many opportunities to reach out to one another. Just last week, I was substitute teaching at a local elementary school, and I saw a student sitting alone on the blacktop at recess, her eyes full of tears that had not fallen yet. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that she felt left out, and like no one really wanted to play with her. I could actually hear my heart cracking while I thrummed my fingers on the blacktop, thinking of how to respond. I thought of vague platitudes that I heard, sitting alone on a low fence at my own elementary recesses (“Of course they want to play with you!” “Have you asked that group of kids over there if they want to play?”), but I couldn’t bring myself to say any of them to her, knowing exactly how useless they would seem. I sat her with silently, trying to give her company without clichés, thinking of other times I had failed to comfort another solitary human being. Once, for example, in college, another freshman asked to sit down with me at lunch, and I gave a stupid, nervous excuse without thinking about leaving in a just a minute. As I went back to my dorm that day, I felt like a hypocrite. The universe was giving me this chance to show someone community– to remind him that although every person contains a complex and singular universe, our elemental differences are ultimately negligible– and I rejected him because I felt momentarily awkward.

As I drove home from teaching that day, I vowed that I would work harder to extend my hand and heart to those who feel like they have no one and who are convinced that they are insignificant. Sometimes, this requires us to give up little pieces of our own pride– kind of like the old Rainbow Fish methodology, but in a way that allows those pieces of pride to transform, to be worn as a feeling of comfort or solidarity on the skin of someone else. Though he was talking about creating art at the time, David Foster Wallace once wrote about “having the discipline to talk out the part of yourself that can love rather than the part of yourself that wants to be loved.”**** In my mind, as we confront this epidemic of loneliness, that kind of discipline feels less like a virtue and more like an obligation.


* There are so many incredible pieces of art devoted to the AIDS epidemic. For those who may not be interested in Wojnarowicz’s lyrical memoir, I highly recommend the documentary How to Survive a Plague, which focuses primarily on ACT UP. If you are an American who cares at all about issues of public health, the creation of legislation, governmental corruption, and human rights, I believe that this documentary is required reading.

** Some particularly inspiring people in my life have been Lizzie Velasquez, a woman with Marfanoid-progeroid-lipodystrophy syndrome, who internet trolls labeled the “Ugliest Woman in the World,”and Sam Berns, an amazing young man who lived with progeria

***Caveat: “Timber” is the greatest pop song of 2013. Change my mind.

**** This quotation comes to us from an interview with DFW originally published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction:

Further Reading

Though I could include some classic *white-man-experiences-existential-dread* texts here (i.e. Notes from Underground, Walden, or really anything from the Western canon), for further reading on loneliness, I am going to suggest just a few books here that explore uncommon angles of the phenomenon.

Exile and Pride by Eli Clare: I keep returning to this book, especially as the Trump Administration continues to denigrate and devalue the lives of transgender people. Clare does an incredible job talking about what it is like to grow up queer and disabled in a rural town (Port Orford, Oregon), and importantly highlights the ways in which queer Americans living outside of urban centers have survived isolation and exile.

Stranger in the Woods, by Michael Finkel: This work of nonfiction is Finkel’s account of Christopher Knight, who lived in the woods of Maine for 27 years without speaking to another person (with the exception of one brief “hello” to a hiker passing by). Finkel examines famous hermits both religious and secular to examine why Knight may have retreated to the woods. The most fascinating element of the story, though, is the way in which Knight resists classification and negates our attempts to save him from his alleged psychological distress– so much so, in fact, that removing him from his peaceful solitude feels less like a rescue and more like a kind of violence. An easy but provocative piece.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit: This book, which I also featured in my last post, made me rethink what it means to be both lost and alone. With her impeccable attention to historical and political detail, Solnit examines everything from Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s life among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to the color blue in order to explore facets of aloneness that you may never have considered before.

A Note

If you feel comfortable, share your loneliest moment(s) with me at berthamasonsattic@gmail.com.


“And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

– Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

About Me, Your Friendly Neighborhood Millennial:

I was your garden-variety smart kid, shuffled through GATE programs of every type from kindergarten onward. In sixth grade, I left the classroom in the afternoons to study Latin roots with our school’s principal for the spelling bee circuit. As you can probably imagine, I was bullied a lot (Apparently, no one likes a first-grader who says “in addition to” instead of “and.”). I went to a competitive high school near Silicon Valley, where– with my AP courses– I had a 4.0 cumulative GPA, but was not in the top 10% of my class.

After getting summarily rejected from the Ivies, I went to a small university in Oregon, where I worked harder than I thought possible to graduate a year early with two degrees. My reasons for adhering to this less-than-brilliant plan were the following: 1) the astronomical cost of college tuition, and 2) the desire to move to New York to be with my high school boyfriend, who ended up ghosting me at the end of my sophomore year in college (s/o to my ex, you heartless used gym sock*). Here comes the controversial part: I got both of my degrees in the humanities. I know, I know. I was young and naive. But I loved writing and reading more than anything else, and I wasn’t sure, especially given my intensifying feelings of loneliness and depression, that I would be able to graduate if I wasn’t doing something loved. I tacked on the Spanish degree because I loved studying the language, and hoped it would make me more marketable later on. Like most ambitious English majors, I hoped I would find work in either teaching or writing after graduation.

Long story short, I ended up graduating magna cum laude, won my department’s award, and learned that no one really wants to talk about E.M. Forster while playing beer pong. Go figure.

Post-graduation, I attended a fully-funded MA program in English with the hope of seeing if academia was a viable field for me. Though my most promising offer was from Boston College, I could not attend the program for financial reasons. Even as a fully-funded candidate, there is no way I could have afforded to live in the Boston metro area as a full-time student, and I already had an undergraduate student loan. I ended up accepting an offer from Oregon State University, where I would get to teach English Composition for a generous stipend.

Another long story short: It was fantastic. I loved it. But as many of my readers know, there are simply no jobs in the humanities, especially in English Lit. Like every baby academic who is just beginning to fall in love with Eve Sedgwick and affect theory, I wanted to continue on to my PhD, but I was also reaching graduation knowing that my future would likely end up like this:


or this:


The Job Search:

Before I finished graduate school, I met with a career counselor at OSU and explained that I might like to pursue a career where I could remain part of university life, i.e. as a low-level administrator. For jobs even at that tier, she told me I would likely need another MA in “Higher Education Administration”. Really? Another MA? That I would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for? To learn what, exactly? How to maximize enrollment using social media? How to spend eighteen months perfecting a diversity statement?

I heard her, but I also ended up applying to a lot of entry-level admin jobs, most of which amounted to working as a receptionist. I didn’t get any interviews.

After a summer of job searching, and increasingly desperate for cash, I began working retail at a local bookstore, thinking that I could continue looking for a position while I earned minimum wage. I ended up there for a year. Every few months, I was given tasks that increased in complexity and responsibility– everything from daily bookkeeping to making bank deposits for the store– while being told it wasn’t likely that I would ever get a raise beyond a cashier’s minimum wage. At the store, nearly all of us had a college education or more, but we were treated like high schoolers with little to no intelligence. For example, one member of upper management referred to us as “the blind leading the blind.” Another, when I gave my two weeks notice, assumed it was because I was starting college as a freshman in the fall, expressing utter shock after she learned that I was 24 with an MA degree. In addition to those comments, there was the daily drudgery of being condescended to and degraded by everyone’s favorite I-must-speak-to-the-manager-immediately shoppers, who a) routinely berate you for store policies you have no control over and b) treat you like a thoughtless robot.

Some ~special highlights~ from a couple of my favorite customers:

“Oh, I take everything a woman says with a pound and a half of salt.”

“I’m looking for books about the USSR. I bet you don’t know what that is, do you?”

“The fact that you don’t keep track of everything your customers purchase is just ridiculous. You know, it’s because of you that Jeff Bezos is winning.”

Later that year, I moved with my partner to a town about 40 minutes away from the bookstore. At that time, the owners of the store were running skeleton crew, and had almost no one to close the store at 9 PM.They were going to “promote me” for 25 cents more an hour to “be in charge” at night. In other words, they were going to ensure that I took mostly closing shifts by trying to inflate my ego with…a quarter. They offered me that quarter like it was the goddamn ambrosia of the gods.

Hitting 150:

While working at the bookstore, I applied to dozens of positions. But now, with no income, I had to increase the rate and quantity of my job applications. Anyone who has conducted a less-than-casual job search in 2018 will be familiar with the tedious nature of applying to jobs over the internet. You attach a resume and cover letter to whichever portal is associated with that position, then you have to re-insert every item of on your resume, including job experiences, references, demographic information, and educational experiences, into algorithm-friendly online forms, and then answer a variety of supplemental questions. I suppose all that makes a kind of sense. But lately, the process has become even more ridiculous.

For example, Indeed.com, my job search platform of choice, now has its own assessment quizzes according to job type. I’ve applied to a lot of receptionist positions, for example, where the company asks you to take a “Receptionist Quiz” filled with questions like “If this is Steve’s schedule, and this is Sarah’s, what time can they both meet with Client X?” and “How would you label a folder than contains information about Printer Setup?” I have taken this “Receptionist Assessment” about 15 times. None of the companies I took the quiz for ever met me in person, and I doubt a human being even looked at my application materials. I have also taken dozens of in-house corporate assessments, where you are asked to spend about 45 minutes rating your personal attributes on a 7-point Likert scale and then respond to multiple-choice questions about everything from shoplifting to coworker drug abuse. Again, for the ultimate reward of that sweet, sweet minimum wage.

In interviews, I am rarely asked anything about myself or my experiences, but instead given a list of corporate-sounding and depersonalized questions. I understand that for large businesses and universities, some of this is designed to eliminate bias in the interview process. That’s good. But more often than not, the result is an interview where you walk away feeling like your interviewers still don’t know a single thing about you or what you can offer them. Which is (please correct me if I’m wrong), kind of the point of an interview.

Another example: In the past year, the majority of my interviews have lasted around 15-25 minutes, and have consisted of an average of 10 questions that almost exclusively provide sample scenarios that you could probably solve a lot more efficiently after receiving training for the position you are applying for. The other questions are always enormously vague, and don’t provide a lot of opportunities to sell yourself. Here’s a really compelling question I got a few weeks ago; it was one of the only questions I was asked that day:

“Name a time where you were given technology that you had never used before, and explain how you overcame that challenge in detail.” Um, I don’t know, I used Google? I figured it out? 

Some ~special highlights~ from interviews I have been on:

  • While interviewing at a local law firm for a receptionist position, I was told in the first portion of the interview that it was clear that I had an introverted and submissive personality, and that it would be in my best interest to alter myself a bit before the lawyers came in to meet me because “they don’t really like people with the kind of personality that I have,” or something to that effect. No call or email back after the interview, even for a rejection.
  • At an interview for a classroom assistant position, I was led into an empty room, asked maybe three questions (while awkwardly standing across from my interviewer– we never even sat down), then thanked and sent on my way. I drove 45 minutes to that interview. For similar interviews that I have been on, I had to miss shifts at work. No call or email back after that interview, either.
  • At a nonprofit nursery for low-income families, I was told after the interview that I needed to apply to the Oregon Registry** as part of the job application process, and that the organization prefers employees to have about a Step 8 on the registry. It was a process that took nearly two months and tons of paperwork. When my registration was approved, I was given a Step 3 on the registry because “it wasn’t clear that I took AP Psychology in high school on my college transcript.” When I emailed the hiring manager about it, she never replied, not even to say that my step was too low for them to hire me, or that they would be pursuing other candidates. This, like most of the positions I have applied to, was a job that did not pay much more than minimum wage.

Throughout the year, I applied to positions in several different fields, but most were related to education, nonprofit work, child care, retail, and writing/editing, all of which I have at least some experience in. But it seemed like so many companies were looking for (random) qualifications and (expensive) certificates that I did not possess, like the Oregon Registry requirement. One of the most common qualifications for receptionist positions is an “AA or certificate in Office Occupations.”***

At some point during this mess of a job search, I discerned from the “Applied” section of my Indeed account, my email inbox, and my calendar that I’ve applied to over 150 jobs in just one year. As I write, that number has continued to grow to about 200.

Depression Tacos:

To cope with feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and regret that I ever attended college in the first place (when I clearly should have gotten a certificate in Office Occupations instead!), I have eaten a lot of tacos al pastor**** and gone to a lot of therapy. I have also started substitute teaching to make some extra cash while I figure out what I’m doing. Fun fact: they don’t interview you at all, nor do they make you take assessment quizzes, to be in charge of a room full of children. What a time to be alive.

This humble/ self-indulgent essay will not end in a success story, but it will end on a positive note that recalls Rebecca Solnit’s words in the introduction. As empty and washed out as I sometimes feel, I still believe that there are tangible ways I can contribute to the world around me, even if I do so outside of the workforce. In dark times of my life, I have discovered many ways to experience and share moments of beauty, and I am looking forward to sharing similar moments with you in this blog. At the risk of sounding like a tired cliche, we can be rich in loss together.


https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists This is the website that my mom, an MFT, recommends for finding a mental health professional that suits your needs. It is also the place where I found the therapist I currently work with. I have been seeing her for three years now, and she has helped me endure the trash fire that is 2018.

https://www.selloutyoursoul.com/2010/11/21/phd-in-english-and-life-after-grad-school/ This blog was influential in my decision not to pursue a PhD. The author tries to get you to buy stuff now, which I’m not a fan of, but that method makes sense given the blog’s premise. Especially if you have grad degrees in the humanities, I would recommend checking out some of the blog’s resources and guest articles.

berthamasonsattic@gmail.com If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness, or even if you just feel like you have become a failure in the eyes of the great machine of capitalism, feel free to shoot me an email. Though I’m obviously no expert on anything except the local taqueria scene, I have learned a few things that might be helpful to you.


* classy insult also courtesy of Rebecca Solnit, my eternal muse

** The registry looks at your work experiences, education, and other skills, and then assigns you a “step” based on how well your experiences align with the goals of Early Childhood Education. My understanding is that some workplaces need to know your step in order to decide what to pay you, but frankly, I still find the whole thing confusing and bureaucratic.

*** I have sincere respect for people doing administrative jobs and working in all kinds of entry-level and service positions in this country. I do not mean to disparage their skills or hard work. But I do believe I have demonstrated that I am capable of doing basic administrative work. If my education does not speak for itself, then I just wish that these businesses would give me a chance to prove that I’m willing to put a lot of effort and care into any task that I’m given.

**** s/o to Carniceria Mi Casita (Mis Primos): gracias por todo