A Quiet Habit of Connection: Reflections on Seek You by Kristen Radtke
By Rachel Schwartzmann
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the eighth installment of this series, Rachel reflects on Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke.
In high school, a teacher once remarked that my writing voice was louder than my speaking voice. It wasn’t a malicious comment, but I still blushed with shame. A secret resurfaced in my mind: I was held back a grade because of my shyness. (Alright, held back might be a bit dramatic. But it was recommended that I repeat a year of preschool to become more accustomed to the social expectations of the classroom.)
During this time, I quietly glided around clusters of students by, as my preschool teacher put it, “tiptoeing like a little ballerina.” While I don’t remember this habit, I do remember that my penchant for alone time was often at odds with a broader feeling of loneliness—even at a young age. So I indulged in creative habits that allowed me to be more in sync with my surroundings and those who occupied them. My world felt fuller as (finger) paint blanketed the paper, as girlhood scribbles evolved into short stories, and (unsurprisingly) as tiptoeing gave way to dancing en pointe. Alone in the room or not, I began to feel life emerge in the pockets of those empty spaces.
These days, my reading habit sustains that feeling of connection in a time of fracture and isolation. While reading itself is a solitary act, the tactile quality of books is a foolproof way to engage the senses. From observing the details of a book’s cover design to breathing in the inviting scent of its pages, these small acts make me feel a little less lonely in my body, even when I’m alone with my mind. This duality was at play while reading Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke.
In this brilliant work of creative nonfiction, Radtke writes about—and illustrates—the isolation that’s pervaded contemporary American life. Against the backdrop of muted greens, burnt oranges, and charcoal greys, Seek You unfolds in five sections: “LISTEN,” “WATCH,” “CLICK,” “TOUCH,” and ending again with “LISTEN.” Radtke traverses art, science, pop culture, and personal history, and the result is a compelling portrait of how we understand, feel, consume—and even perform—loneliness.
While Radtke began writing Seek You in 2016, she opens the first section of the book with a childhood anecdote about her father, who would spend many nights transmitting radio frequencies known as CQ calls (which function as an invitation to connect across wavelengths). “When pronounced in French, the official language for international telecommunications, ‘CQ’ sounds like the first two syllables of “sécurité” used to mean ‘pay attention,’” Radtke writes. “Over time, English speakers took it to stand for ‘Seek You.’”
Radtke goes on to mention that she didn’t realize her father craved connection beyond what she could see during the day-to-day. (“My uncle’s story was the first time I had access to my dad’s need for anything other than order,” she writes. “I’d seen no evidence of desire beyond it—I’d never thought that he’d have looked for, of all things, connection.”) With these opening pages, I began to notice how loneliness casts hefty shadows next to the spotlight on what typically holds our attention in life. It provides refuge for the habits we didn’t know we needed to break.
At least, that’s been the case for me.
There’s no question that my feelings of loneliness have never felt more pronounced than they have in the past few years. While the digital age has created conditions where using one’s (physical) voice isn’t necessarily needed to show up—an introvert’s ideal circumstance—it has heightened our ability to see shared experiences unfold within the four corners of a screen.
This essay could have easily been an exploration of the ways we let technology inform our habits and override our ability to connect. But as Radtke touches on in the book, I’ve also grown to acknowledge that this is a symptom of a much larger threat: Allowing the act of passively seeing life overtake the possibility of seeking the connection that drives it in the first place.
There is an illustration in Seek You that I know will always bring me back to my body. It is one of the first within a series of human beings falling into a body of water. In the drawing, a pair of human legs hang from the top right hand corner of the page. There is a murky quality to the color. On the page, Radtke writes: “Loneliness feels to me like being underwater, fumbling against a muted world in which the sound of your own body is loud against the quiet of everything else. The simple gestures you enacted so easily on the ground become laborious, pushing against a weight no body is built to move through.”
When I feel a bout of anxiety or shyness coming, it manifests physically first. Butterflies in my stomach abruptly give way to crashing waves of nausea. Sweat forms a glistening sheen on my face. My mouth feels dry. It’s a lonely feeling to know your words have become trapped within a swirl of somatic disruptions—but I’ve realized I don’t have to experience this quiet chaos alone.
I’ve learned to recognize when a hand reaches toward me offline or when an encouraging comment appears online. And this convergence of modern life lets me know that I have a body—feet to run (or tiptoe!), hands to hold or respond to messages, eyes to see, dreams to seek out—I have a voice.
Radtke suggests that “perhaps we see loneliness in others simply to feel less lonely ourselves.” It’s possible that my high school teacher’s remark wasn’t an affront but an invitation. She was paying attention to me—though it was a call I was not quite ready to answer. Yet as I move through the world today—both online and off—I no longer tiptoe around the possibility of connection.
To this day, I still feel sentences dissolve on my tongue as I struggle to overcome my shyness. But in an effort to carry on Radtke’s work, I take a deep breath and echo her words: “Is there anyone out there?”