Being more alone has become a curious experience; the more it occurs, the more its vagaries and useful qualities surface. And the longer I live within it, the more I find a home within its mutable parameters.
It’s similar–though granted, non-material in essential nature– to the first time wearing a new pair of jeans. I mean real jeans, not the ones with plenty of helpful stretch. Think how they feel somewhat stiff, perhaps unfriendly to hips and other rounded bits when squatting, stretching, even sitting a long while. Much more in the newness except easing in, out and walking about is not that great until they relent under the bulk of your body. In time, though, they get used to your personal configurations and you, theirs. The denim and seams, zipper and brass button begin to conform to the owner’s shape and every requisite movement. After thorough washing several times and repeated wear and stretch, you begin to forget they were once new. They become much better than new–that is, comfortable, a pleasing part of your wardrobe and even the easiest option. Trustworthy, you might say.
The analogy works pretty well but it stops here since the state of being alone is not an object, of course, not disposable or shareable. Unlike blue jeans, its innate and defined nature would be altered entirely: it is no longer be aloneness when including another person. Since I am not talking about the trying experience of acute loneliness–which can move into a danger zone–being alone necessarily exists in a modified vacuum ( things and events can exist in the same time/space). A situation separate from others’ direct impact. This state is at the beck and call of the one who inhabits it. Aloneness can sought out, welcomed and then shaped by what is added or subtracted. It can be avidly protected and nurtured and made into something delectable. And also found wanting, even despised and rejected. Being alone in itself seems to me a neutral state that can be managed for various purposes. It can be a metamorphose into a deepening, complex thing whether it is left to itself or designed with care. It’s nature reflects the one who is alone, the current emotional needs, spiritual flux and physical health.
Since no longer working away from home in a 11-12 hour a day position, it has been a more frequent experience. The first couple of years of (somewhat early) retirement I felt out of sorts being home every day, was more restless than usual. Much was missing suddenly. I found myself seeking contact with storekeepers or people walking their dogs on the street, even the neighbor with a grumpy affect whom I usually avoided. I visited book stores or coffee shops for an hour or two to be a visible part of gathered Homo sapiens. And noticed for the first time that others might be doing the same. I often felt guilty about wasting time but no one else hung their heads in embarrassment or shame. So this was how it was to be anywhere I wanted with no scheduled appointments, doing little of import at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon. I found it extraordinary. Weird. I felt like a wastrel in between moments of enjoying myself.
Lest I forget, let me include the fact–for those who don’t know much about me–that I am married. So, I might agree, not strictly alone in the long run. But he works worse hours than I used to and his business can require travelling. Thus, I’ve ever not had adult company around day in and out. I am often asked if this has bothered me but it became status quo after the first few years of marriage. It was not that relevant even raising five children. We all do what we need to do; I certainly didn’t count myself heroic or unusual as a kind of single parent. Being an independent sort, anyway, I didn’t require his constant presence. I was seldom truly alone with all those kids–and their friends and the pets that came and went. My familial community thrived from my early twenties to late forties–and a couple children returned a short time.
So how much have I even had alone time? The truth is, I’ve had a lifelong kinship with introversion and solitude–as well as moderate extroversion. My work as a human services employee and later, a counselor, kept me connected to large networks of co-workers and clients with emotionally diverse exchanges each day. Beyond work, though not an avid seeker of memberships to groups, there have been some I did enjoy, like choirs or writing critique groups, dance classes and gyms–those which reflect interests.
So when being part of the fray in the work world ceased, I was surprised to find myself out of the loop. Alone. Not dismayed but discombobulated. I was unable to reconcile this outgoing part of my nature with such sudden loss of routine interactions. I am sure most who cannot or do not get up and go to work know what I mean. I had a few months of estrangement wherein a couple of “Meet Ups” with neighborhood writers and also some tai chi students were sampled. Those were dissatisfying. I decided to wait things out, see what developed. How I might change.
There was plenty to do in the meantime with all this elective isolation from the outside world. There were ubiquitous, repetitive household tasks and errands. I read and wrote several hours daily and prepared more submissions for journals. I spent time with my family and a handful of friends when they weren’t working or otherwise engaged. I power walked daily at least an hour–an old habit now possible before nightfall–and did finally join a gym for a year. And, of course, my marriage kept me engaged. We share activities every week-end possible.
Gradually I spent less and less time longing for and seeking others’ company. I can’t pinpoint when, exactly, it happened. I might take into account a few serious family needs that asked more of me. Or hurting my foot and not being able to exercise hard for months. But it started before then, perhaps the end of my first no-paycheck year, when I found the more I hung out with myself, the better it felt. Insidiously, imperceptibly, I changed from someone who longed to be with others every day–the chatty camaraderie and intense work and meetings and gatherings–to someone who didn’t miss it for days on end. Then weeks. That crammed schedule seven days a week faded from memory. The bone-deep tiredness that sometimes brought unbidden tears to my eyes as I finally drove home from work at nine o’clock at night accompanied by the thought: will I always feel overextended? It vanished.
There may have been a smear of loneliness hidden inside all that activity. It was partly an effect of being in a human services profession–it requires output of immense emotional energy, the mental presence that cannot afford to miss important cues, long hours that get longer if you want to do your best. But it was also a result of not refilling my emotional wellspring often enough. This is a hazard for counselors and others in helping professions. Oh, I believed I was exercising good self-care, allotting time to do things I enjoyed. But I needed more. I didn’t think “burn out” was hovering on my horizon nor the suffering from dreaded “compassion fatigue” that hits so many who do such work. Not even after decades. I had seen some bow out from this work after five years or ten. I knew how to avoid such a demise. Right? Of course.
But I may have to amend that now. I better understand I truly required more time…alone. To rest, to follow my separate creative passions, take assiduous care of my health to avoid another heart attack. To experience deep peace in sustainable, rewarding ways.
A memory comes forward of a younger co-worker, perhaps in her mid-thirties, who one day swiveled her chair away from her desk toward mine.
“Cynthia, I’m so tired of working…. I’m up for a promotion, you know–supervisor of the team. But I hate being copped up in an office, at times find it hard to listen so long to clients. I care about them, sure, but what I want is–oh, never mind.”
She turned away, acutely aware that she had let down her guard. We had been friendly, yes, but neither of us had time or the inclination to get that personal.
“What is it that you really want?” I asked.
“I mean, I want to advance and make more money. I guess. But I am an outdoors person first of all. I love sports and nature and just being on the move physically. It kills me to be sitting every day.”
“I can see that–you fidget, stand up to type, move your legs and feet all over even when you’re at your computer. I keep waiting for you to get up and do jumping jacks. So if you don’t want to be in an office, what would you be doing for work?”
She frowned. “Maybe I shouldn’t be saying all this. I could be your manager.”
I laughed. “No worries. If you’re ever my supervisor, I know you’ll be organized and direct–we’d be fine. And as far as that position–in the last ten years I was offered opportunities twice to get into management. Obviously, I declined. In my earlier career I ran a whole department for a Detroit area aging and home-bound services center, hired and trained and fired people, oversaw 350 clients’ welfare. I wouldn’t do it again though I learned much. I did love the client contact just as I do therapeutic contact here. But you don’t want to even be here…do you?”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Well, no.” She rolled closer and whispered. “I want to be a firefighter or a police officer, maybe an EMT. Is that nuts? But I am an adrenaline junkie, I’m physical, I love those kinds of challenges.” Her face, usually so composed, even emotionless, was fully animated.
“That’s great. So what’s stopping you?”
“Maybe I’m too old to start all over. Or maybe I would fail. And I don’t want to let down some people.”
“You’re stopping you, that’s all. You ought to do what you truly want to do. You can figure it out step by step.”
She nodded, stood up, then turned back leaning against her desk. “What about you? Is this your true calling?”
“Well…I fell in love with it accidentally. But my first passion is writing and I’m thrilled by the arts, though I also crave being outdoors. I’ve enjoyed counselling, yet I’ve waited a long time to do more of what my heart desires. I feel like I need to change that, I’m quitting soon. I’m not that pleased with the clinic’s politics, long hours–I’m just done.”
Her face registered genuine surprise.”But you’re good at this work!”
“So are you. But do you want to keep doing it because you’re good at it or do you want to do what you love most before you’re my age and wish you hadn’t put it off?”
She–a woman known for composed manner, reserved nature– smiled at me warmly. I thought how beautiful she was when she let herself be herself.
“Don’t give up your real dream.” I said.
“You’re right. Thanks… for hearing me.”
“Thanks for talking with me.”
We both went back to work but whenever we saw each other in the halls or at meetings, we exchanged more personal looks and words. We knew each other now in a way no one else there quite did. We each had plans, I imagined.
A month or two later, I left that organization, the work that had become an avid calling. And have not looked back. Whether my co-worker made healthier choices, I do not know. But there needed to be a life change right then. I wanted to slip into a pool of sweet stillness, bask in a lifestyle of fewer demands, less crisis where one poor decision could impact a vulnerable client in terrible ways as well as good one.
I wanted to be more responsible to me, not just others and that mean more air and space inside and outside myself. Solitude beckoned me like along lost my intimate companion, resonating with possibilities. I believed in this separation from the one life for another. And after the first adjustments to make the fit better, my new schedule aligned more with body and mind. Life developed a different rhythm. It went from good to better.
The quietude in my home each morning is an edifying experience. I read meditations, pray while the tea kettle is brewing for a mug of Bengal Spice tea. Classical music is turned on, or jazz. I read from a few books or magazinea as I nibble a simple breakfast of toasted bagel and almond butter. I check my Moleskine planner–still useful. These lists include: WRITE, walk/dance, email or call (fill in blank), download and sort photographs, work on collage journal, WRITE. Paint, watch an online film, walk to tea shop, library, WRITE.
Yet sometimes I worry I could become a recluse. When I began this piece, that was the main thought while all the virtues of being alone rose up. I worry that I won’t do enough to aid others since I have not volunteered for any organization. Should I find ways to make a slew of new friends (who are also getting paid to work)? Will I look for more opportunities to just be kind and friendly? Will I run out of years before I get done all I find so compelling? Will I forget the value of social gatherings, how fascinating it is to spontaneously talk with strangers…will I lose the skill to interpret others’ unspoken selves or stop valuing the common ground of shared talents–and the brainstorming and the simple foolish moments?
You can see there is not a lack of things to stir up my brain even when I’m busy doing things I like. Perhaps it’s the lifetime spent rushing to assist others; one does get used to that mode of being. But it is natural, too, for me to seek other people; they intrigue me, mean something to me. Anyway, I worry, yes about the quality of this present life. And then I do not for long periods. I am becoming at home in the generous welcome of solitude.
I used to jot down story ideas between each clients. Now writing happens daily, and rewriting and more writing. So maybe I will become a woman whose life revolves around teetering towers of books, a love of photography and music. A woman whose life is defined by folders and stacks bursting with ramblings, odd musings, tales that will molder until someone is forced to come in and sweep things clean of all those odds and ends when my days here are done.
Perhaps this will be so. I feel less and less inclined to be concerned.
I trust the teachings of solitude. I see how it clears away my falseness, and renders me accessible to deeper feeling and being. It provides me with daily opportunities to take stock and blame no one but myself for errors. And to uphold my goals and ethics without constant defending of them or approval. My life is on me; the value comes from being alive, not accolades, not even responses from others. I have sought and honed the awareness that nourishment is yielded by constancy of God and I can respond with greater attention to my soul’s authenticity. I am carried into each moment. The directions taken arise from instinct and intuition, from sleep and waking. Small flashes of wonderment. I have a multitude of questions. Now there’s a good portion of time to seek knowledge.
There is also more to free up, snatches that circle within and then land well or clumsily on the page. Many stories may never leave this room. In solitude, who witnesses the joy or misery of what I discover know or undertake? We each face ourselves when alone. We sit with ourselves and are overwhelmed or find we are in acceptable company or some of both. I find it liberating, this going inward and beyond self to a greater embrace of life.
Some days aloneness can seem closer to lonely, its true. Not even my husband or family can abate that. It is being human. It may be the choices I have made. But it passes. I wrap myself in the beautiful patchwork cloak of solitude and it shelters me as I labor and meditate. I release it, let it fall away, and find the joy of other humans as I need to. Living is like being on a seesaw; we each find new points of gravity and balance. That requires careful thought and action.
We all maintain a symbiotic status that serves us well even when we do not share discourse. Whether you speak in the same room, I can still hear–feel–humanity’s hew and cry. Whether I need to come forward to respond more or not is part of what I am learning. How do I live a full and accountable life now that I am sixty-five? I am bursting with ideas. And I patiently toil and rest within this being alone, drawing inward toward more mysterious, opening doors. This time in my life I am giving my soul, mind, heart and body full permission to be still or to speak, to be alone or join others. To allow my writing its own power, relieved of the burden of any more punishing regrets.
Dear God, help me stay loyal to my chosen tasks and to give more freely. And dear readers, may you find your true path and make it a good home for your life.