Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Observations at Lunchtime

I have not been writing much at all of late. The Muse deserts me regularly and I suppose I just don't have very much to say now. A lack of turbulence in life's ocean means fewer nutrients being brought up from the depth and less flotsam and jetsam being washed up on the mind's shore.Things have been becalmed for so long now, I think I have forgotten how to perform the process of sifting through the ideas and pulling some closer for examination, which is what I used to do here mostly. Whilst a lack of storms means a quieter life, it also means that one has a tendency to drift in no direction at all due to lack of wind to fill the sails. It's been a while since any interesting new continents have drifted into view to stimulate that feeling of needing to explore and find adventure.

All is calm. Life continues largely uneventfully. I make beer, I bake bread, I dance sometimes. And the ripples draw away to who knows where. Nowhere probably. I go to work. There will be travel required again soon, now that Summer is over. But the terminal decline of the small empire which has provided employment for me for so long is evident and sooner or later, decisions will have to be made about the future: What to do next? Not write, that's for sure!

The workplace cafeteria is a lot emptier these days. We lost a substantial proportion of local employees in the last year in waves of redundancies. Subsequently the ones-and-twos who you suddenly realise have disappeared only when you walk past where they sat and observe their empty desk or when someone mentions them and it suddenly occurs to you that you haven't seen them for a few months.

Sitting alone at a table accommodating ten, I look around at the faces remaining. Seemingly random strokes of a pen, or more like deletions of cells on a spreadsheet, determined the worth-keeping and the let-go. Only the most deluded are now able to maintain a striding self-importance now that so many talented and useful people have been pruned from the organisational tree. We all are painfully aware of our disposable nature. No pretence of usefulness will help us now. The indiscriminate snips of the corporate secateurs lop off whole branches with no regard for how many productive leaves and promising buds they may have contained.

But some cliques continue to exist. I have always wondered at the tendency of people to cluster into groups. Oh, the grouping itself does not interest me in itself: "Like us" or "not like us" is fairly well understood. No, what intrigues me is the tendency to eschew members of other cliques even when one is alone. I sit at my table-for-ten alone and people I talk to every day, have conversations with in corridors, hold the door open for as I enter the building, walk straight past me, thousand-yard-stare alighting on some point in the distance which excludes me from their field of vision (though not the discomfort of their awareness, I can tell). Past me they walk to sit alone and in palpably uncomfortable solitude on another empty table. Well, perhaps they wanted to be alone. Who am I to know?

With the departure of so many good friends, I now have no people to go to lunch with. I have no direct colleagues here, being the sole representative of my team in the UK. The friends of 25 years I shared lunch with most days were made redundant in October last year, which I confess was a shock for me as much as them. I am a social animal. This is dispiriting for me.

So, I generally take tea breaks and lunch alone. Unless that is, I espy someone who I vaguely know who, surprised at my intrusion, will generally accede to my request to sit with them for lunch and will often, after a hesitant start, converse quite happily, making it plain my presence was not ultimately unwelcome. I often join unsuspecting acquaintances on spec. But almost never does anyone come to ask me if they can sit with me. Perhaps I smell or spray crumbs when I eat. Or am too blunt in my opinions.
When next I am sitting alone, past they will wander and alone they will sit, gazing into space as they contemplate their food or surroundings or life. Yes, I must be difficult to be with. That must be it.

To eat alone feels like failure. I don't know why. Perhaps the act of eating has such a social dimension that to eat antisocially alone feels wrong. So, we sit alone with our soup, our chicken stir fry or our sandwiches. We look anywhere but at others, lest our shame be observed and witnessed.

So, I sit, and I tune the conversations in an out of my consciousness with a control that I delight in (having not been able to for such a long time). And I let my gaze wander unashamedly at the groups of people and individuals and as they pass to dispose of their trays, I acknowledge them with a nod and a smile.
And I wonder how long before they or I will no longer be gracing a seat here.
Who will we lunch with then and who will we talk to? Lots more people I hope.

1 comment:

Librarian said...

One would think that, with so many people having left, the remnant would huddle together for self-assurance and company. Instead, they seem to stick to their self-enforced rules of cold, even impolite, isolation. I wonder why! It is not as if you look the kind of guy who joins someone at their table because you want to chat them up, or ask them for money, or start a nerve-wracking political debate.
The fact that usually a rather pleasant conversation ensues when you decide to join someone at their lonely table makes it obvious that the original choice of sitting alone has nothing to do with you. People are carefully avoiding invading someone's personal space and think they should not be imposing their (maybe unwelcome) company on others - pretty much the way you feel yourself. I observe this all the time when I am on my way to work. Unless they know each other anyway, people stand alone on the platform, sit alone in the train, walk alone from the station to the building where they work. If possible, they shut themselves further in by reading, texting, listening to music or simply closing their eyes against the world.
Sometimes I need that "me-time", too, especially when it has been a long day full of challenging tasks and long meetings. And as I live alone, I am used to having my meals alone, too. But when I am at work, I never eat alone; one or both of my project managers usually go to the canteen with me, and sometimes we invite others to join us so that there is often quite a sizeable crowd and conversation tends to be a continuation of topics already discussed in meetings (which sometimes makes me wish I'd have a real lunch break again, with a walk outside!).