essay: i am a stranger at a cocktail party (and i like it)

“Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party.” – Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman 

this became my favorite quote of all time as soon as i read it. i felt like it finally put into words the feeling that had been the itch i couldn’t scratch for the longest time: the feeling of separateness from what is supposed to make you, you.

for context, this quote is placed in Go Set a Watchman when scout returns home to alabama after moving to new york city as a young adult. she grew up in the small town of maycomb. her childhood was shaped by the dusty streets of her hometown; she (and the rest of To Kill a Mockingbird fans) became attached to her gossiping neighbors, brave, tree-climbing brother, jem, and eloquent, intelligent lawyer father, atticus.

as an adult, scout learns that her hot, slow, sweet hometown isn’t how she remembered it. she is terrified to see maycomb for what it really is when she returns as an adult: a town tragically behind in the times and filled with residents who, if you tear back the curtain of “god bless their hearts”, tea time with perfect looking ladies, and church on sundays no matter what, are intolerant and in the case of her father, racist.

i can’t say i have ever come home to figure out everyone i love is a racist, but i have shared in scout’s sentiment of being the stranger at a cocktail party, in other words, being a stranger in your own home.

we all have. if you’ve ever grown apart from a close friend, broken up with a significant other, or looked at yourself in the mirror and asked, what the hell are you doing with your life? you’ve been a stranger at a cocktail party. the rooms are the same, the faces are familiar, and you haven’t gone anywhere new. but you have changed. therefore, the scene you “know” is now uncomfortable for you to be a part of. you have become a stranger in your own world. the one you thought you belonged in.

initially, this feeling sucks. take the growing apart from friends example: you get together with your group of friends and expect that warm nostalgic feeling of laughter and love to come flooding back, but instead you find yourself stirring your drink with a straw that’s broken in the middle repeatedly and nodding your head emphatically as if to prove to your friend and yourself that you care about what they are talking about; you are on the outside looking in (see The Great Gatsby for more on this sentiment). this emptiness hurts. are you a worse person now because you don’t connect with this individual who you used to love? did you do something wrong to become this way? and why are they being so boring? surely they weren’t always like this.

after choosing to beat myself up the first hundred times i felt like a stranger at a cocktail party (healthy), i adjusted my perspective because the hating myself thing wasn’t terribly enjoyable. being a stranger in a room that used to be familiar means growth. it means change. it means progress. it doesn’t mean you were stupid or ignorant or wrong in the past when that familiar room did truly feel like home. it just means that was then and this is now. it means time is moving on and you are evolving. and that means you are living.

so the stranger at a cocktail party line in Go Set a Watchman is, admittedly, kind of depressing. but it also makes me proud of scout for having the strength and courage to leave her little town and actually question the things that had made her who she was up until the point when she moved. and to call her loved ones out for what she disagreed with was even more impressive. because it was painful for her. just like it’s probably a lot less confrontational to keep sipping watered down gin and tonics with people who aren’t interesting to you for the sake of keeping up a tradition. and it can’t hurt to engage in those traditions every now and then. after all, friendships ebb and flow. but i don’t criticize myself anymore for having that stranger at a cocktail moment anymore. it is not a fault. i am proud of that status. i wear it like an ID badge.