Last year, I went with a friend to the Great Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition here in Seattle, and I blogged about it. I had a wonderful time. But beneath the surface, I was feeling this great, yawning, howling, aching chasm of loneliness.
While I spent most of the holidays bravely stuffing that down and trying not to let it overwhelm me, it was a very near thing. Sometimes I could feel it surging upward, and I knew that if I let it take over, I’d probably lose my battle with depression and start howling or something.
Even so, Figgy Pudding is a wonderful event, and I decided to make it part of my Christmas tradition. I went again this year with my husband. As we stood there, listening to the carolers beneath the glow of the huge Christmas tree, what I felt was joy. No physically painful ache in the pit of my stomach. No feeling of being on the verge of hysteria. Just contentment. What a gift this man is in my life. He’s all I need for Christmas.
And then I looked around at the crowd, and I realized that no one who looked at me this year or last would have known my state of mind. I’m sure there was a lot of joy in the crowd, but also a lot of longing for companionship. A lot of pervasive emotional pain. The fact that it often looks one and the same is a bit troubling.
I’m not saying that everyone in the whole world must walk about two by two in order to be happy. Some people are perfectly satisfied being alone. I know I felt that way for quite some time. Some people who are in relationships are even more lonely than their single friends, and that’s got to be even more emotionally excruciating.
I just find it kind of enlightening to realize that there’s really no way to know what’s going on beneath the surface unless you talk to someone. We need to communicate more. We need to put down our devices and actually connect.
And to those of you who are swirling in that deep dark pit of loneliness that I used to know all too well, I just want to say that it may feel like that’s your forever, but keep reaching out. You never know when someone will take your outstretched hand, and that changes everything. I’m living proof of that.
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I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Leo Kottke in concert the other day at a lovely little venue in Seattle called Demetriou’s Jazz Alley. I’ve written about Kottke before. He’s a supreme talent. I highly recommend that you see him if given the opportunity.
He intersperses his amazing music with stories that are often every bit as good. On this night, though, he said something that kind of made me sad. I’m paraphrasing here, but he mentioned that he tours alone and he lives alone, so talking to us is really his only social life.
He was half joking. But the man is 73 years old. The thought of that level of loneliness is kind of heartbreaking.
That got me thinking. There’s really nothing that corelates with loneliness. You certainly can’t tell by looking at a person. Kottke is talented, active, still touring. He’s led a successful life. None of that staves off loneliness.
You can be rich or poor, young or old, famous or unknown, smart or stupid, kind or cruel… and yet none of that prevents or encourages loneliness. It’s like there’s no real way to thwart it. There’s no loneliness vaccine.
You can do your best to spend time with other people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll befriend you. You can be active in your community, but that doesn’t mean anyone will want to spend time with you. You can dedicate your life to caring for others, but still, there’s no guarantee that anyone will care for you.
A lot of people are lonely in a crowd. So loneliness doesn’t even corelate with isolation. Loneliness stands alone. That’s scary as hell, if you ask me.
What’s the special sauce that prevents loneliness? I haven’t a clue. I’d love to hear your thoughts. The only thing I know is that we need to reach out to one another. We really do.
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During my wedding ceremony, one of the things I said to my husband-to-be was, “You’re the more cautious one.” Afterward, a friend came up to me and expressed her total shock about that. In a nice way. She’s a pure delight. But the implication was that she found it really hard to imagine that anyone could be more cautious than I am.
That, to me, is really fascinating.
Okay, standing beside that friend, I’m sure I come off as shy and retiring. She’s amazing. She’s colorful. She’s larger than life. Total strangers will stop her on the street to talk to her. (Which is wonderful, unless you’re with her and happen to be in a hurry.) She lights up every room that she enters. She’s got that indescribable “it” factor. Rock on, my friend!
But my being quiet, thoughtful, and ever-so-slightly slower moving does not necessarily equate with caution. Let’s review:
I’ve been to 19 countries.
I lived in Mexico, all alone, when I was 19.
I spent a summer away from home, doing construction work on an Air Force Base, when I was 16.
I used to camp deep in the forests of Appalachia, a week at a time, with only my dogs for company.
I survived a childhood of sexual abuse.
I have met several friends face to face that I had previously only known on line.
I worked graveyard shift, in total isolation, for 13 years.
I sold my house and moved three hours south, where I knew no one, to go back to college.
I started over, yet again, moving 3100 miles from Florida to Seattle, at age 49. It was a place where I had never been, and where I knew no one.
I managed not to have children despite intense societal pressure.
I got married for the first time at age 53.
Have poured my heart and soul out in this daily blog since 2012, revealing things about myself that many people wouldn’t even have told their best friends.
I’ve published a book.
None of this sounds particularly cautious to me.
I may not be flamboyant or loud or outgoing, but does that mean I’m cautious? Hell to the no!
I’m an introvert. I like peace and quiet. Alone is my natural state. I also love nature. The wind in the trees, the smell of dirt, the bugs, the very flora and fauna of it all. It grounds me.
You’d think I’d love fishing. I probably would, but for the fact that my stepfather loved fishing. He used to drag us fishing all the time when I was a child. Most likely I’d have enjoyed it if he hadn’t been a sick, twisted, sexual abuser, which meant that there was always this air of palpable tension and impending doom wherever we went. So now, in my head, the whole fishing concept is all tangled up with that disgusting pig.
I kind of resent that. He stole an activity from me that I would have taken to like a fish to water. (See what I did there? Sorry. Had to.) He put his slimy fingerprints all over it, and now it is forever tainted for me. I really shouldn’t give him this power.
I thought about trying to take that power back, but then I realized that I always felt bad baiting the hooks and hurting the fish. And forget about killing and cleaning them. No. Not my thing at all.
So maybe I just need to be an UN-fisherman. I could take all those elements I liked about fishing and apply them, and discard the rest. There’s nothing that says I can’t go out into the wilderness and sit on the banks of a river and just… quietly be.
Yeah. That’s what I’ll do.
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Recently I’ve felt a fundamental shift inside of me—a shift away from the desperate pursuit of love, with all its disappointments and body-blows to my self-esteem. No, I haven’t given up. I’ve just lost interest.
Or perhaps it’s better to say that my interests lie elsewhere. I want to focus on improvement projects for my new home. I want to take care of my neurotic dog, who seems to hate every human being on the planet except me. I want to read more, write more, sleep more, explore more. I don’t want to have to compromise or try so freakin’ hard. I feel absolutely no need to be anyone other than who I am.
No, I’m not choosing some austere life. I’m not punishing myself, and I don’t hate men. They don’t scare me. Nor am I sexually confused. There’s absolutely no reason to feel sorry for me.
I think the assumption that you aren’t a success unless you are part of a pair is antiquated and absurd. In this day and age, women can support themselves. We can live alone. We can choose not to have children. (Hallelujah to that.)
Being single is not some cross one has to bear. It’s not a sign of damage. It’s not a problem that needs solving. It’s just a state of being. One isn’t the loneliest number. It’s just another number.
But am I lonely? Sometimes. And I’m a very passionate person, so having those needs go unmet can be more than a little frustrating. (I’m not an animal, though. I need some sort of emotional connection to scratch that particular itch.) But for the most part, to be honest, I just can’t be bothered.
Will I feel this way tomorrow? Hard to say. But right here, right now, this is how I roll.