Aloneness or Lonliness?
Aloneness or Lonliness? by cogdogblog
posted 16 Nov ’08, 4.54am MST PST on flickr

Perhaps it is a fine line, but as a very sparsely populated, expansive– and moving into winter– dark place, Iceland can offer you plenty of time, space for reflective alone time… or toss you into an abyss of isolation.

My measure seems to fluctuate with the ins and outs of my internet connection.


This month in Iceland was an opportunity I could not refuse and am glad I have not done so. It is quite different living in a different culture versus visiting as a tourist or a parachuting presenter. My free time for getting out an exploring fit in around the fact (or my own compulsion) that I have to work as well.

Fortunately, the nature of our work at the NMC is that we can work where-ever we are if there is internet. And all the stars were aligned when I was doing my bits from here for the Rock the Academy conference we ran in Second Life.

It has taken time shifts; some of driven by local conditions; there is not even any hint of daylight until after 9:00am, so unless I am wakened by the dog (which she has gotten into a 7:00am, sometimes 6am, and once, damnit 4:30am habit), I sleep late, have a leisurely breakfast, do my web hounding for weird stuff and blogging, post flickr photos. I start my NMC work maybe by 2:00PM and it is not really until 5PM that the “work day” has started for everyone in our office. So I ened up eating at 9PM, and working until midnight, sometimes 1, 2am.

Snow Whipped Froth

The snow that came yesterday morning (into afternoon) was a lovely sight, but the howling winds, and unsureness of local road conditions, made me dawdle about heading out for some sightseeing (it was Saturday, after all). Even equipped with my magical Goretex clothing (best investment ever), trying to photograph waterfalls in near gale force winds did not sound like fun.

Then there was a knock at the door.

Which has happened about 2 times since I have been here.

There was a white haired gent holding out an item wrapped in plastic. He gestured to it, pushing it gently my way. It looked like a combo brush / ice scraper, but it was all written in Icelandic. I said, “Sorry I don’t understand”.

He said a sentence full of consonants, and gestured again at the label.

“I am sorry, I don’t speak the language.” I shrugged.

Ge got the message and left. Maybe I met the Icelandic Fuller Brush Salesman. But given he arrived in a car similar to mine, I knew it was okay to head out.

Social contact!

The other form of that is turning on the GPS so at least someone speaks to me, even if she is a Brit and telling me “Turn right in 300 meters”. She is not much of a conversationalist.

This was not much of an adventure, since at 3:00PM there was not a whole lot of daylight left, so I went to Selfoss to stock up on food (was out of bread, milk, and butter, so I got that and about 25 other things!).

It is still pretty solitary. People pretty much ignore/leave me alone. I am guess it is obvious I am an “outlander”. At least someone spoke my way on check out when I did not realize I had to tell her how many plastic sacks I would use (they charge you for them).

One more stop at the VinBud, the state run liquor stores for some more beer adventures.

Trip to the VinBud

But I am not hear to be clubbing or carousing. I did, in many ways, come for the sheer aspect of being able to say, “I lived a month in Iceland”– how many times might that come your way.

And I came to reflect.

On what?

Foggy Morning Breakdown

That is the thing about reflection, at least for me. There are no big light bulbs, no shouting “Eureka!”, no obvious “ahas!”. The ideas come slowly, more like settling over your soul like a layer of ash, or subtly like a warming glow form within. And often, they are not even things I can type out on Remember the Milk.

It seems more to just build and flow from within, and then emerges at other times, maybe months after I leave here. So even if I don’t come to any Profound Revelations or Big Ideas, the time, space, of being here I consider as part of the chaotic mixture that is me.

So to keep some external stimulation, I listen to music on my laptop. To get voices, I use iTunes to tune into radio, mostly WAMU public radio from American University, where I get a great mix of NPR and BBC stories, plus in the mornings (which is wee hours there), some funky music.

When I can time it, I try to tune into KJZZ in Phoenix for the Sunday Lowdown Blues with Bob Corritore (the best blues show in the universe).

A challenge is that my internet connect here, while extremely fast (> 2 MBs download and even more upload speed), has some external issue where it drops the connection for about 2 minutes several times an hour. So sometimes I lose a chunk of a story.

And it was appropriate this morning when I tuned into This American Life for a series of stories on Home Alone:

A 79-year-old woman, Mary Ann, dies in Los Angeles. She’s lived alone for decades. No one knows her””or her next of kin. There’s a body to be buried, a house full of stuff to get rid of. It so happens there’s a county bureaucracy for just this type of problem. In this show, we follow around the person charged with figuring out what to do with the remains of Mary Ann’s life. This and other stories about what happens when people are left alone.

Besides the mystery of Mary Ann (and the description of the mass grave for people who die lacking kin is extremely moving), we hear from Yvonne who likes being doing Thanksgiving alone, how a teen in the projects survived alone for 5 months while his Mom was in the hospital (he feared being removed by Child Protective Services), and a woman’s experience as a child of how her mom cleverly dealt with being held hostage by a gunman seeking her drug dealing father.

I am far from being the only who who relishes TAL, and their web site has a vast archive going back to 1995. But again and again, while listening to their stories, I am so amazed at how well they are crafted and presented in one (old form) medium, an are so engaging. There is no video, no interactivity, no images, yes they are linear, just a story. A well written, crafted, artistic story. You can never go wrong with good writing.

So here I sit, in Iceland, looking at an expanse of brown grass hills draped with snow, stretching into the oblivion of grey fog – a rather narrow muted histogram of tones. and okay being alone… for a while longer. I would not make this a habit or habitat.

And I thinking back to the opposite sensation from a few weeks ago, being literally pressed by too many people in the human density of Japan. There, I was consoled that when I got home, to my quiet place in the mountains of Arizona, I’d have space and quiet.

There is no saying one is better than another, and where-ever we plant ourselves, people adapt (like 2 months form now here where daylight will be a dim memory). I am so fortunate to be able to sample it all, and am letting all these experiences swirl among my psyche.

And once I finish clicking the “publish” button, me and the dog are going to have a heated deep discussion on the philosophical underpinnings of conversation dynamics ;-)

Yeah right.

I may just head outside and take photos…

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

Comments

  1. I really have enjoyed living vicariously through your writing. I’m not sure I will ever have the chance to go to Iceland so thank you for sharing pictures and experiences.

  2. I traveled in Iceland for a month in 1981, and it still effects me! Dark ridges and rifts and green valleys filed with sheep in summer. Big and powerful terrain, light and airy, home of Norse giants and the most beautiful women and craggiest men. Sure, I recall Iceland. A superb self-reflective environment causing deep thoughts.

    Then ba-bhammm!!! – you are awakened from the half dream by a 1783 Laki-style eruption which kills short and long term with gas clouds and fierce lava flows.

  3. Alan,
    All very interesting – I spent a few (very organised) days in Iceland in November in company (for a project meeting) so I have an idea of your vistas if not your experience. However, I have had other trips in March and in the summer so I do know how different it is at different times of the year.I was curious about your picture – were you in Vik? I tried to compare you photo with this one http://www.flickr.com/photos/francesbell/437984483/in/set-72157600062411592/ .
    I wonder how your experience might be different if you spent a whole year there. I think that Icelanders have an annual rhythm, and the darkness of November is compensated by the lightness of June.
    Enjoy (or at least benefit from) your reflections.

  4. @Frances Bell: I have been here in June, it is different, and then again not. Don’t get me wrong, there is a ton of magic in the open, empty, craggines (to steal Mike’s words). I have not gotten to Vik yet; waiting for a clear day this week or this weekend. Want to go farther east as well.

  5. Iceland is sounding more and more like my kind of place. Guess because it sounds a bit like Alaska. Reykjavik is about the same Latitude as Fairbanks, so I’m guessing where you are has light patterns similar to ours.

    Alone is good, loneliness is not… and I thrive in the former and don’t suffer TOO much with the latter. If I could live 200 days of the year alone, 100 days connected via social networks, and spread 35 days around f2f with friends and family I would probably be happiest!

    The solitude seems to be doing good things for you, judging from your posts (in quality and quantity)!

  6. Hi Alan, again your tracks show up in my life. We met (in person) at the MCC Tech Conference after-party a few months ago, but had met online when I was at SCC years ago when you were doing tech stuff in the MCCCD . Bob (Those Lowdown Blues) just forwarded me the link to your Iceland blog that he came across in his regular Googling of his name; my other MCCCD gig besides teaching is part-time production work for the show. He was excited to know that someone was listening from Iceland and I had to tell him that you were an Arizona dog out wandering. Thanks from both of us (and Scott Williams) for the blog mention and link. I’m envious! Beautiful photos. Did Anna Thorlaks…. have something to do with this or do you have another Icelandic connection?

  7. @J: Hi Jen! Nice to cross tracks. Bob is fast; I just blogged that this morning, but I have been a long time fan, since I landed in the valley in the late 1980s.

    This was my own connection; a friend in Phoenix knows the house owner, so he connected me. I was here also back in 2000 do to some workshops.

    I cant say I’m up always to catch the shows live! It is 7 hours later here ;-)

  8. Hi Alan,
    I’ve followed your posts and read since you arrived to Iceland.
    Don’t feel alone, there are people like me , really far away but not too much, who are with you.
    I enjoyed your descriptions of Iceland and thinking about how are stores there and what can you buy in the stores, is everything cold? Don’t laugh, it’s just I don’t have any idea :-)
    Continue please, posting and telling us how life is there.
    Hugs from Mexico
    angelesb

  9. @angelesb: Hi Angeles – Although Iceland looks far north on a map, keep in mind there is a flow of warm water that originates down near the equator that keeps temperatures more temperate than you would think, although a little colder than Mexico.

    The stores have almost every kind of food one would need and the only problem is I cannot read a lot of the labels. Most of their produce is imported but I have also seen a lot of greenhouses where I guess they may grow some. There is plenty of meat here too, as I am surrounded my many ranches of cattle and sheep. And more seafood than you can imagine.

    Thanks for writing.

  10. We just finished putting together a 25th anniversary CD of live on-air guests that will be coming out soon. He started the show back in ’83 not long after he moved here from Chicago. He said there’s an annual blues festival in Reykjavik: http://www.blues.is/english.htm, but not until April.

  11. A beautiful post, Alan, and quite stunning when read next to your “Fast train” post from a few weeks ago. Together they capture such extremes of human place, each bringing out a powerful reflection. When we are thrown out of what is familiar, we are given glimpses of our true mettle, I think. You are in contact with your writer self in both places, stretched but not overwhelmed by either. I for one wonder how I would do in these places.

    Thanks for these posts, for taking us with you on your adventures into landscape and self.

  12. Once again, I enjoy reading your reflections on a place that I don’t know anything about. Your pictures are amazing! Did you see where Al Roeker from the Today Show is in Iceland this week? I was excited to see him this morning at the glacier you visited! See if you can find him…

  13. Hey Alan,

    Send me a mailing address in an email and I’ll get you a copy of the new CD of guests on the show. We just got them from the press Friday and I could get one out in the next day or two.

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