jack and nick

Nick, Jack’s brother, knocks softly several times, hears his brother’s voice, then opens the door to the garage. She stands behind Nick, reading the warning messages childishly scrawled on the closed door. The opening door reveals a scene that has existed since she moved to her new property; this is a condition she has lived next to for months, without knowing it.

She can’t take in all the detail. It hits her in the face, the hard cold dark concrete reality. Buckets full of urine, foamy on top, line the walls. Garbage everywhere, some in weirdly neat configurations. Partially eaten food. Lots of soda cans and cups. Feces. An illuminated lamp on a small side table otherwise covered in cups and napkins and wrappers. (No drugs; Jack’s disease is mental illness, not addiction.)

Jack slowly, almost inexplicably, unfolds; he stands up, his tall thin frame rising and emerging from behind a big open umbrella lying on the concrete. He’s created a little private spot where it appears he spends most of his time. He is wearing badly ripped fishnet stockings and ancient high-heeled strappy flip-flops. A filthy short denim skirt hangs under a tee-shirt almost as long. In this hard hypermasculinist place. 

Jack is skin and bones, literally a walking skeleton. Nick tells her that Jack has started walking into traffic again on the highway. The roar of trucks blasts her from the side, about 25 feet to her right, as she meets Jack for the first time. 

During their short conversation, Jack keeps his head tilted down while his long curly hair covers his face. (Nick quietly left the room as soon as he opened the door. He is walking in a square now, around and around a large manhole cover, next to the highway. He will do this for the next 2 hours. Sometimes he heads to the market in town, where he stands in front, smiling and flapping and singing like a small bird for the shoppers going in and out. This is new behavior, just having freshly arrived in the last month.)

Jack twitches, jerks, peeks through his long curls a couple of times—eyes quickly darting up at her, then back down at the floor. Jack is present, Nick is mostly not, and they are living in circumstances she’s only read about, hideous circumstances. And there is no help for them in this place. None.

These are her new neighbors. Turning away is impossible.


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First Rural Portal Project edition anticipated January 20, 2020 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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a note

A Note to Solitary Researchers in Hostile Field Environments (HFE)

As a solitary researcher, you’ll find yourself in social and professional environments designed to annihilate your sense of self and lock down your agency. Living and working solo, navigating loneliness, and surviving isolation all require a set of skills. While you’re away from home (some of you for several years), the following can help you develop that skill set.

First rule of isolation: Don’t tell anyone you’re isolated. Seriously. You might think a response would be compassionate, maybe an, “Oh, wow, no one should be isolated—I’m sorry about that!” Instead, most assume that there’s something wrong with you, that you probably deserve to be alone. They may assume you have no one because you’re dishonest or mean or stupid. They may tell you with their intentional turning away that you’re not worth anyone’s time. Being honest about being solo is being stupid. So don’t do it.

Then,

  • Get comfortable with pain. That no one knows you will drop on you regularly, even if you pretend it won’t. Work on those legs—you’ll need their strength to keep you upright. Or, you may choose to just let the pain fall, drive you to your knees, and pin you further in your isolation. Either way, get used to pain.
  • Get comfortable talking to yourself. Just let go. Be both sides. Be all sides. Let those convos rip—where they go will surprise you, especially when you’re the only one listening, the only one responding. (A small round blue mirror worked for me.)
  • Get comfortable finding many ways to express yourself. If you have a lot to say, the round blue mirror will only get you so far. You will need to find new creative modes and vehicles for your expression. You may ultimately find that you are not a writer or a photographer or a teacher: you may find that you are an artist–a learner–who always looks for new creative vehicles for sharing your new modes of expression.
  • Get comfortable with the fear of blinking out. When you don’t exist for others, disappearing becomes a real possibility, if not an actual one. (Right? I mean, if a human screams from her isolation, but no one hears–or they hear and choose to ignore her–does she exist? I don’t think so.) If you exist in no world but your own, post to Instagram; get a LinkedIn profile so you can show up in searches; make yourself a website so you can obsessively check stats. Pretend existence is better than none. Or if an imaginary existence online isn’t possible because you’re not connected to the electronic world, go outside. You always exist among the trees.
  • Get comfortable getting to know yourself in ways you never thought possible. Think of isolation as a time to get closer to who you really are, without all the human interactions. Without the expectations, the treadmills of busy; without the imposed outside standards. Who you find may surprise you, and maybe even in a good way.
  • Get comfortable telling yourself stories. Since no one keeps isolated humans in the loop, you’ll need to create stories for yourself to make sense of things. Let your imagination run through those fields of daisies. Isolation can produce extraordinary self-storytelling. You’ll find that, really, everything is a story. And, in your isolation, your narrative could be groundbreaking.
  • Get comfortable learning your mind’s resting places. All those spots your mind sits when it’s not working, where it rests and contemplates? You’ll become acquainted with them all. All the other humans you used to know may join you. All the conversations, the arguments, the humiliations, the joys will make appearances. Your fears will find you there. So will self-knowledge. And, you’ll create new resting places, maybe decorate them for the arrival of guests someday.
  • Get comfortable always being the stranger. Humans categorize, especially when overwhelmed with information. Strangers are big truckloads of new information, and if they can be ignored, life is easier to navigate, especially with all our other demands. You’ll find that humans make it easy to ignore strangers, to disrespect them, exclude them. This is a good time for self-storytelling: you are the mysterious stranger who isn’t really a stranger, after all, but someone who knows this place intimately, from another life, and has come back to reckon.
  • Get comfortable never seeing yourself in anyone else’s eyes. This one will be especially difficult for those of you who’ve had many human mirrors, who’ve had others to tell them who they are, reflect back their power. There are no human mirrors in isolation, only wooden human walls and opaque closed doors. No reflections. Make your own.
  • Get comfortable keeping your own history. Start gathering all the pieces of your life now so you have some coherency in your own mind. That is the only place your history exists: in your own mind. Be sure to note those birthdays, the holidays, the goals reached, the milestones. With no one else to notice or to hold your history, you must do that work for yourself.
  • Get comfortable with no physical human touch. If possible, hire a CMT, sit in hot baths, hug yourself. The lack of human contact in isolation means finding other ways to feel like you exist and affect the world around you. (An electric chainsaw worked for me.) Keep in mind if you hurt yourself, you’ll need to take care of that on your own, too. In isolation, there is no friend to call. Sick? Hurt your foot? Get out of bed. Hop around the house. You got this.

Remember that the work you are doing is crucial and worth the isolation and hostility. Try not to shut down, even after the thousands of rejections you’ll experience: your ignored smiles, your dismissed waves, the lack of eye contact with you, the invisibility created when they refuse to say your name, your blown off attempts at small talk, the perpetual gatekeeping, the blocked access to resources, the dogs they let run at you, the sideways looks they give you, the “no” you will hear over and over and over.

Try to remember that shutting down is the problem and that your work will help recreate human connection in hostile environments. Remember: isolation is a relation that can be changed. And, even if no one ever says your name in an HFE, you exist in the work you do, the good you leave behind, and the kindness you offer.

You can help support the Center’s research-based creative work by purchasing a Newsletter subscription for as little as $100.

1 Year Newsletter Subscription

First Rural Portal Project edition anticipated January 20, 2020 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies is an Accelerate Publishing project. Accelerate: A Niche Publishing & Communications Consulting Co.,–est. in 2015–is a socially just for-profit small business in California.