She’s always been a criminal. The rules never really applied to her. If she could think her way around something, she could justifiably ignore the rule. She wears this conditioned confidence like an invisible shield, something people feel but can’t really see or understand. It does not endear her to others.
She loves to trespass. That breathless feeling of dropping from the top of the ferris wheel every time she slides under a fence keeps her hooked. That jolt of discovery, of finding a hidden spot. Of finding a presence in what’s been left behind. The wonder of the new, of the never seen, of what seems meant just for her.
She hunts for art. For voces. For underground meaning.
She finds the warehouse by accident. On a cold, wet hike along the Point Richmond waterfront. Middle of a Monday. Grey skies. She walks quickly, no running. Head up, shoulders back, direct eye contact toward the goal. She walks like she owns the place. Her breathing picks up, but she stays calm. Her heart bangs like a triphammer. Clear NO TRESPASSING signs everywhere.
She takes a controlled, casual look around. No law enforcement. No one else here, either. Weird. About 200 more feet to go before she’s in the warehouse, free and clear. A sound from her left. She lets her eyes move to see, keeping her head still, walking steadily, with purpose. The sound was nothing.
She’s in. Her eyes adjust to the low light. And what she sees changes her life.
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.
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.