People Talk

by Madeleine Cohen

I'm what you might call an introverted extrovert: an extrovert who needs and likes to spend an extraordinary amount of time alone. The order of that classification may seem arbitrary - what distinguishes an introverted extrovert from an extroverted introvert? For me, it's clear. When I spend too much time with people, I can get tired, depleted even. When I spend too much time alone, I feel like I'm dissolving.

Grad school forced me to walk the fine line between those states. I liked the stillness of thinking, reading, and writing, and the activity in seminars, our surprisingly not awful department softball team, and the post-softball beers for which the team was a glorified excuse. On the whole, the balance was comfortable. But at the apex of a semester, when your entire job is sitting, in a library, alone, for all the hours of the day you can reasonably stand, my introverted self started to wane.

I confronted this one day ordering coffee at the library cafe that was actually just a corridor, from a barista probably desperate to eat a sandwich and go home.

"What can I get you today?"

"Fine thank you," I answered.

"Was that an order?"

"You too," was my immediate and seemingly appropriate reply.

This interaction could be explained by the fact that I was in desperate need of the coffee I was trying and failing to order. It actually occurred, however, because that hapless young woman was the first person I had spoken words to that day.

For hours and hours and hours, I was having a conversation with myself and any number of people whose books and papers and, occasionally, advice columns (like any student, I procrastinated) I was reading, but not with actual people. In the world. And this happened a lot. Most days, in fact, and for a good stretch. Even though the point of grad school - if you ask a select bunch - is to learn broadly about what people have to say, I almost completely forgot how to talk.

I forgot how to talk because I was alone. So alone that I forgot that I was.

On the days I remembered how to talk, when I had an unexpected run-in with a friend in the stacks, or even on the days I was successful in having a logical conversation with the barista, I not only felt like every word, emotion, and thought I ever had came rushing back to me in a vivid, effortless flow, but that there were millions more words and feelings and thoughts to have.

I wanted all my time alone, but the human contact I had, however brief it sometimes was, was what allowed me to want anything in the first place. A five minute conversation about absolutely nothing could change my entire day. The university campus could be transformed instantaneously from an apocalyptic horror vision of inchoate ideas flying out of one hell-fire earth crevice into the next into a beautiful vista of calm possibility (albeit with a large concrete turkey lurking somewhere in the distance).

When I'm connecting with people, I feel like a human. There are lots of other ways to feel human too. Not being in grad school for too long is a good start. But any reminder of the uncanny way even a few moments with others can give all the hours we spend alone their satisfying shape and colour, is one worth having. I hope both introverted extroverts and extroverted introverts agree.

Just Cuddle offers a poignant glimpse into those moments when people can make all the difference be it day to day, or even minute to minute. It examines loneliness and connection in ways that few projects do. I hope you'll consider what it can offer you, whether you're in a library filled with strangers, or a room filled with familiar faces.