Lauded Ohio-born poet, essayist, and editor Athena Dixon is the author of The Loneliness Files, The Incredible Shrinking Woman and No God In This Room. Recipient of the prose fellowship from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Athena has worked across genre: her work is included in the anthology The BreakBeat Poets Vol.2: Black Girl Magic, and her craft work appears in Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction. Athena now resides in Philadelphia.
Below is an excerpt from The Loneliness Files and the author herself on connection through the internet, isolation, and friendship.
When my building super and an exterminator knock on my door one day, to make up for my missed appointment from the month before, I feel there is more to their visit. The exterminator asks, “Is everything okay in here?” while his eyes sweep across the art and open space of my apartment. I think he believes I am a hoarder. Too many packages in and too few trips out, according to a neighbor I see near the dumpsters one day. I wish I would have said his perception of me is nothing more than simple consumerism—filling the void of depression with a brief jolt of materialistic serotonin. Sometimes my home echoes, and I am doing my best to manage this both physically and emotionally.
In the built-in dining room shelves there are rows and rows of colorful Fiesta teacups and matching saucers. Replacements of my favorite childhood toys and art prints I’m still buying frames for. I get package after package of vintage leather Coach purses, which I add to the shelves in the bedroom, and books that spill from cases in three rooms, a basket next to my sofa, and the storage space beneath it. I bring in clinking bags of candles that make my home smell like linen, lavender, and Nag Champa. There is the Black Americana that makes occasional visitors ask about the cast-iron water fountain signs and why I want to surround myself with these types of reminders.
Later that evening, the loneliness is a weight that affixes my body to the sofa—my mind knows I must move but is unable to gather my limbs. There is a sadness swimming beneath this feeling. It is more than exhaustion amid the endless global isolation ahead and behind. When the world opens again, in whatever form that may be, I am unsure I will be able to get out from under it. I’ve trained myself to think I am always okay with these feelings. I know that I am not, but it is how I survive when long stretches of time pass and I feel too needy to reach out to the world lest I come across as too much to bear.
Excerpted from The Loneliness Files by Athena Dixon. Reprinted with permission from Tin House. Copyright (c) 2023 by Athena Dixon.
How do you think loneliness has taken a different shape in the age of the internet?
I think loneliness is a bit sneakier now. It's easier to hide those feelings in online connections because as long as you maintain a presence it appears you are actively engaged. The ability to hide feelings of disconnect and loneliness exists in these kinds of shadows. And so there can be many illusions that the internet has helped alleviate these feelings. I think, in some ways, the internet can make feelings of loneliness worse. There's so much potential for comparison and selective sharing that feeling as if your life isn't as pulled together can make a person shy away. That can only increase loneliness. However, I can't ignore that the internet has opened up the opposite potential as well. For those who feel loneliness in their physical spaces, the internet is, of course, a wonderful way to find connections that may not be readily available to them in the easily accessible world around them.
There's this buzz phrase going around the internet: "the male loneliness epidemic." Do you think that there is a gender gap in terms of community-building? Do you think there is, perhaps, also a female loneliness epidemic?
I have heard the phrase, but I've never really thought of a gender difference in loneliness. Instead, I've always thought about it as much more of an internal vs. external experience. I wonder if the need to label these feelings by gender could be tied to holding too closely to traditional gender roles and not allowing for a full life experience. Can there be loneliness for men because the outlets and connections needed to alleviate them are not along the path expected and aren't able to be accessed?
Writing can be a lonesome activity, and writing a memoir that kind of manifests in and around this tragic Joyce Carol Vincent story seems like it would make you acutely aware of your own experience of loneliness or isolation. How do you think the process of writing this novel changed your relationship to loneliness?
Joyce Carol Vincent's story was one of the first times I really realized how possible it was to slip into isolation and loneliness in a more tragic way. I'd never regarded my loneliness as necessarily tragic, but coming across stories similar to hers made me take stock of the decisions I was making and to start dissecting the choices I'd made, and how I could accept the parts of the isolation I needed and the parts of those feelings that required attention, and reversal, of course.
How has writing become your companion?
Writing has been one of the most constant things in my life and like a friend I've come to rely on it as a way to experience the world, to give me more perspective, and to help guide me through a wide range of feelings such as grief, joy, and curiosity. I think writing, just like a friend, requires me to be honest with myself as well as it encourages me to be kind to myself.
Where are you finding community these days?
I'm finding community in many of the same ways I always have. However, I've made a more conscious effort to make my online community building a much more organic process. I'm very interested in how I can interact with people in a more well-rounded way versus my prior hyper-focus on only our shared interests. I want to know not only about those common interests but also their other passions. I think this helps build deeper connections and allows for the expansion of my own knowledge and community at the same time by bringing in others who may be connected to these friends, too.
What is the most important quality to you in a friend?
Boundaries, but also understanding that those boundaries can be fluid. I think a balanced friendship involves questions and discussions about those boundaries and how both parties can get the best out of the friendship.