Loneliness & Solitude

You know what’s terrible when you’re lonely? Facebook. It’s like watching a parade through the three-inch window of your prison cell.

I used to be great at being alone. I was proud of my independence, my lack of neediness.

Something shifted, though. For whatever reason, I’ve been struggling with loneliness in a way that I never have before. This is a brutal sort of loneliness that ambushes me at all hours. It’s accompanied by a vicious cataloging of all my flaws, all of the “reasons” why I’m alone. And it’s bleak, casting long shadows over my future, a doomsday prophet telling me to get used to it; this is how it will always be.

I’ve done my best to fight it. I packed my schedule with activity. I made to-do lists and set goals and started projects and joined groups. I drank too much. And the internet dates…ugh, the internet dates.

I’ve heard many times that if you want to get over something, you have to first let yourself really feel it. I thought maybe I would try that. Lean into the loneliness. Own it. Thoroughly experience it so that I could then let it go.

I don’t recommend it, leaning into loneliness. If you go looking for evidence that you are alone, you will find it, and it will hurt.

I decided that if I was going to be alone, I would be alone. I stopped trying to convince people to spend time with me. I stopped reaching out, and I stopped expecting them to reach out to me. I stopped scheduling every minute. And, probably most helpful, I turned off social media. I forced myself to stop the endless casting about on Facebook and Twitter for I don’t know what…Company? Attention? Distraction?

Once I did that, the clamoring inside me subsided a bit. I was left with something quieter and more peaceful: solitude.

Solitude is the graceful cousin of loneliness.

Loneliness stems from comparison and envy. I see a happy couple and immediately compare my state with theirs: loneliness. I see friends checking in on Facebook and feel another stabbing comparison: they are out having fun together and I am here, alone. Loneliness is a lack, a feeling of less-than, a focus on what you’re missing.

Solitude, on the other hand, is just the state of being alone. It’s being present with yourself, only yourself. Solitude focuses on what is, not what is lacking.

In solitude, there’s freedom. Do what you like. Listen to what you like. Sleep if you’re sleepy; eat if you’re hungry.

I spent a gorgeous weekend in solitude, puttering in the garage like I used to, in those days when I was great at being alone. I left my phone in the bedroom and forgot about it. I finished a painting. I worked in the yard. When the daylight faded, I curled up with a glass of wine and a book. These are things I love. Solitude gives me time to do them.

I began to recognize both loneliness and solitude as spirals. Solitude gives. Loneliness takes.

When you’re drowning in loneliness, you’re not just reaching for people; you’re clutching. You feel it. They feel it. You approach relationships—both existing and potential relationships—from a place of scarcity. When you show up with that sort of neediness, it’s a negative experience for you and for those with whom you interact, which may cause them (or you) to withdraw. Negativity and withdrawal reinforce your loneliness.

On the other hand, solitude allows you to fill up, recharge, and come to your relationships open-handed. You come from a place of abundance. You’re in a position to give, which feels good to you and to others, making you more likely to seek their company and them more likely to seek yours.

After a little healthy solitude, I can show up and be gracious again. I can feel happy for the happy couples instead of resentful and jealous. I can relax and joke with my friends. They laugh; I hear that they enjoy me, which makes me feel valued—an upward spiral.

I wish I could say that the loneliness is gone, but it isn’t. It’s right there, like a bruise that hurts if I touch it. The sensible thing, then, is to stop touching it.

No more leaning into loneliness. If you’re lonely, lean into solitude.

If you're struggling with loneliness, lean into solitude.

Philadelphia Flourishing

So, it’s been two weeks since I left my daughter in Philadelphia.  I’m doing alright. She’s doing alright. I miss her. It was harder than I thought, letting her go.

I listened to Pema Chodron talk once about getting through emotional difficulty. She advised that if you feel like you’re going to get swallowed up in grief, or loneliness, or fear—try to step back and imagine you’re watching a movie of your life. There are sad parts and happy parts, funny parts, romantic parts…all in the course of the movie.  You feel sad in the sad parts of a movie, but you don’t lose yourself; you don’t come undone with sadness.

This is a helpful tool for me. In the movie of my life, this is the part where Maddy and I are separate for a while. It’s the part where I resume my own life, now that the hands-on, daily parenting part is over.  I know there are more happy parts coming. I feel sad, but I won’t come undone.

The part in Philadelphia was really hard. I watched it like a movie. The harder it got, the more movie-like it became.

It was a movie starring me, Maddy and Benjamin Franklin. Really.

Before the movie, I imagined the part where I had to say goodbye to Maddy. I imagined all the wise, inspiring, helpful things I would say. When it came time, standing in her dorm room, I couldn’t say anything at all. I just stood there, crying in her hair, and finally managed to choke out, “Please be careful.”

Then I sat on a curb outside the building, waiting for the crying to stop long enough for me to call a cab. Only I didn’t have to call one, because this is a movie, remember? And in movies the cab just drives up and you wave at it and it stops. So that’s what happened.   “7th and Pine,” I mumbled to the cab driver, because my tourist map labeled that corner “Antique Row.” I had four hours to kill between leaving Maddy and catching my flight back to Orange County.

You may know me as a dramatic sort of person, and I admit that I’m all for exaggeration if it gets me a laugh or makes my point. But I say this with no trace of hyperbole: if you had asked me, that day as I wandered through the city, what it feels like to choke on your own heart, I could not have replied because of the lump in my throat. But I would have known the answer.

The antique shops weren’t open yet but the buildings were beautiful, and the windows were full of antiques so old they blew my West Coast mind.

I found a community garden, a cheerful pocket of green between the buildings, and snapped a picture of this plant because of its stunning purple pods.

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There is a character in an Ann Tyler book who wonders, as she prepares for the funeral of a loved one, whether it is possible to experience grief so severe that you stop observing yourself in it.  I reminded myself of that character, hurting but watching myself in my movie, walking alone with tears running down my face in such a picturesque place. I felt ridiculous and cliché. I laughed at myself, then realized that laughing must make me look even crazier.

I walked another block or two, taking in the lovely old architecture all around me, thinking how fortunate I was to have such an amazing setting to walk off my heartache.  I turned a corner and saw this building:

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It’s the Pennsylvania Hospital, the oldest hospital in America, founded by Ben Franklin in 1755.  It’s still a functioning hospital, though this original structure contains offices now. I wandered through the park-like grounds til I got close enough to the building to read this sign. Read the words; I love them:

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“Well Mr. Franklin,” I thought to myself, “I am certainly miserable. I could use some relief.”

There’s no way he could have known, when he wrote that inscription 258 years ago, that the city was going to crowd up around his amazing building, and a heartbroken mother was going to stumble through it and find herself in this restful place.

As I sat there, thinking about that inscription, thinking about the brilliance of Ben Franklin and his reach through the centuries, I found myself comforted by the phrase, “Philadelphia Flourishing.” It’s a beautiful phrase, just the sound of it. I’m a hoarder of words and phrases. All day long I’d been drowning  in weepy words like “bereft” and “alone” and “empty nest” but then here was this lifesaver: a definitive, triumphant, bold-stroke of a word–flourishing.

The phrase hung around all morning as I continued to explore. The city surrounded me with fascinating historic distractions: Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross’ house. History is like wilderness, the way it can make you feel small and your problems seem insignificant.

The people reached out to me, too. I ducked into a used book store where the clerk took one look at my face and said, “Can I help you? I mean really…you look like you need…something?”   Touched by her kindness, I burst into tears again, and choked out, “I’m just having a hard day.”

Then I stopped at Lore’s Chocolates where I met two sweet, senior ladies working there. “Oh, you’re from California? Did you enjoy your time in Philly?” they asked.

More tears. Yes, I said, but I left my youngest child this morning at Drexel…

”Oh honey,” one of them sympathized. “That’s going to hurt a while. I remember when I sent my son to school, and he wasn’t nearly so far away. I cried for a week.”   They gave me extra samples. Chocolate and sympathy is a good combination.

I visited Ben Franklin’s grave on my way back to the hotel. It was definitely underwhelming, which may be appropriate given Franklin’s earthy, democratic nature, or inappropriate, given his monumental genius and contribution to society.  (And his supernatural ability to speak to sad, modern-day moms.) Then I hoofed it back to my hotel at Penn’s Landing, where I had just enough time for a beer before catching the shuttle to the airport.

*       *        *

Woman waits alone in an airport terminal, holding a magazine but not reading it, looking back towards the city with tears in her eyes. Then she closes her eyes, shakes her head, and laughs at herself.

Roll closing credits.

So. Much. Change. AllAtOnce.

I haven’t blogged in over two months. So much has been happening, I don’t even know what to blog about. If you could screw off the top of my skull and release the contents of my brain, the thoughts would come leaping and scrambling out like clowns from a tiny car.

Remember the post about job hunting? Well, I have a new job. That job includes a new schedule and longer hours. Still haven’t figured out how there’s time to cook dinner and get some exercise and write and pay attention to my family and my boyfriend all before bedtime. (Plus there’s Netflix; damn all those TV shows.) I know that working moms all over the country do it—heck, I did it for years—but it’s kicking my hiney right now because I’ve had this cakewalk schedule for the last two years. Welcome back to the world of grownups, Meg.

Also, I moved. I read once that moving is the third most stressful event for humans, after death of a loved one and divorce. (Pretty sure “job change” was high up on that list, too.) So, I guess it could be worse, but yeah—it’s pretty stressful. Also included in moving stress: I shacked up with my sweetheart and we’re ADJUSTING.  “Adjusting” involves trying to fit two households into one home and trying to remember how to share space with someone after you’ve been single for 15 years. I’ve only freaked out once so far.

And the big, downhill-rolling boulder that is my daughter’s departure for college continues its rapid descent onto my poor mom-heart. Maddy leaves in less than a month. She needs plane tickets and dorm furnishings and a laptop and luggage and a warm winter coat. Hopefully I can come up with the money to pay for all of those things and still have enough left for a case of Two-Buck Chuck to drown my sorrows. It’s pretty bad. I’ll be driving down the freeway or doing the laundry—just minding my own business– and out of nowhere, BAM! Emotional ambush!  Fine one minute, a weepy mess the next.

So, all in all, this is a good time for me—new job, taking the relationship to the next level, kids are growing up and doing what they’re supposed to do—but it’s also a boatload of transition all at once. I’ve got no cause to whine because all my transitions are good transitions, but most days I feel like my life is racing ahead of me and I’m being dragged along behind it with a death-grip on the bumper.

Oh! Suddenly I thought of a metaphor! (I really thought of this right now, spontaneous-like.)  My life feels a little bit like parasailing right now.

Victor & I went parasailing a couple weeks ago. (Because, you know, things weren’t crazy enough—let’s get suspended 600 feet over the Pacific Ocean while hauling ass in a speedboat!)

I was totally game for the parasailing, when Victor asked me to go– I didn’t feel afraid at all. That was stupid, because as it turns out, parasailing is actually pretty terrifying. I was fine until it was time to go up.

We were on a boat with two other couples.  The staff harnessed us up in strangely loose-fitting harnesses, and offered no safety instructions whatsoever, except to say, “If you want to hold on, hold the rope; don’t touch the metal hooks. “

IF! IF you want to hold on! Holding on is optional! So my rational mind knew that it had to be pretty safe—they let any schmuck do it; you don’t have to be fit or strong or know what you’re doing, and obviously you can’t screw it up or they’d give you more directions. Must be safe, right?

We climbed up on the back of the boat in our big, loose harnesses and they hooked us up and ZOOOM! Up we went! 600 feet! It felt just like an elevator. My harness felt just like a swing. My boyfriend was with me, taking pictures all around with his iPhone, dangling next to me without a care in the world.

And I was CLUTCHING the ropes for dear life. White-knuckled, rigid arms—clutching. I understood that I was safe, that I could not fall, that holding on was optional—shoot, Vic was right next to me, happily using all his limbs—but NOTHING could have pried my fingers off those ropes. Nothing.

We were up there for about 12 minutes, I think. I managed to take in the amazing view; I marveled at the coastline and all the tiny people on the beach—probably pointing up at us lunatics dangling over the ocean—and I even enjoyed it when the captain reeled us in and dipped us low so our feet could trail in the water. But all the while, I held onto those ropes like my children’s lives depended on it. I squeezed so tight that my arms started to fatigue, and I was terrified that my strength would give out and I’d have to let go.

Vic took this...how's that for perspective?

Vic took this…how’s that for perspective?

There’s the metaphor: clutching. My life feels like it’s flying out ahead of me and all I can do is hold on. All this frantic feeling…all this desperate clutching for nothing…questioning my own strength when my strength is irrelevant, because this ride won’t stop no matter what I do.

Just like I knew I was safe in that harness, I know am safe now.  Everything is going to be fine. The clutching is instinctive, self-protective, but it’s not necessary, and I’d enjoy things so much more if I could just let go.

One way or another, I will let go. I’ll either wise up or wear out. And either way, I’ll be fine.