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.

Meg’s Helpful Holiday Hint (Just one, really.)

toffee

Homemade toffee– I make about ten trays of this every season.

I love Christmas. LOVE IT.  Bring it on—sparkly lights, crowded stores, Bing Crosby…I want all of it. I don’t have a Bah Humbug bone in my body.

Here is my secret to a stress-free holiday season. When you find yourself getting stressed about Christmas, remember my one helpful tip: BLOW IT OFF. NONE OF THIS IS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT.

It’s December 12. Here’s what’s left on my to-do list:

Put up the tree. Usually, it goes up the day after Thanksgiving, but this year, it didn’t, and guess what? No one seems to have noticed. My tree is fake and pre-lighted, thank-you-very-much.  People get so worked up about having a real tree, but not me. Fourteen years ago, for my first post-divorce Christmas (I wonder if Hallmark makes a commemorative ornament for that one?), I tried to buy a real tree. I nearly died trying to straighten it in the stand. After the spiders all crawled out and the water sloshed on the carpet and the needles accumulated for weeks, I determined I would never have another real tree. I love my fake one.  I light a pine-scented candle, and that is plenty festive for me.

Make Christmas cards. I hand-stamp them. This also should have been done by Thanksgiving, but it wasn’t.  I could go buy cards like a normal person, but making cards is way more fun than sending cards, so why bother sending them if I can’t make them? Now that it’s mid-December, the pressure is on. Making Christmas cards under duress is less fun, so it might not happen, especially if something more fun comes along…then I will blow those Christmas cards right off. And you won’t even notice if you don’t get a card from me. Because WHO CARES? It’s just a Christmas card!

Shop. I don’t actually shop for very many people. One bonus of being a perpetual hardship case is that my friends and family have pretty low expectations. This works for me, because even when I have money, I don’t always find something worth giving, and I’m not buying some stupid Snuggie/ singing fish/ Chia Pet just to check someone off my list. Besides, if you can’t say to your friend, “Hey, I ran out of money/time/ideas and I didn’t get you a present– let’s just have a drink instead,” then that friend doesn’t deserve a gift anyway.

Wrap. Wrapping is like making Christmas cards: it’s fun to be creative, and I enjoy it when I have time. If I don’t have time, no biggie. I just obscure the gift with some kind of opaque covering and no one cares whether it’s a masterpiece. Also I’m not willing to spend a bazillion dollars on something that gets immediately torn up and thrown away.

Make toffee. Toffee has four ingredients and takes about 15 minutes per batch, plus cooling and bagging time. It’s delicious and pretty, and people go crazy for it and make me feel like Martha Stewart whenever I give them some. So really–let’s be honest–this is about my ego.  Toffee will happen, because in a pinch, it can replace shopping and wrapping and baking—I could just hand everyone toffee and that would get me off the hook.

Bake cookies. Despite the extensive toffee-production that occurs in my kitchen, my daughter still expects me to bake. So, for her sake, I will spend at least one or two days knocking out five or six kinds of cookies. Okay, the truth is that I bake because I cannot let the year end without consuming at least three dozen Molasses Crackles. Have you had those? Best cookie ever, with the possible exception of Finish Ribbon Cookies. And Chocolate-Covered-Cherry Cookies. Anyway, I have to bake the cookies so I can eat the cookies. This one is kind of time-sensitive because if I don’t bake and eat all the cookies before the January diet kicks in, that would suck. But the world would not end if I missed a cookie binge.

Host an intimate yet elegant holiday gathering. Just kidding. I do love to entertain. The ghetto cottage is tiny but it’s getting cuter and more comfortable every day, and I’m starting to feel like maybe I want someone to come over.  I envision a swanky little cocktail party with delicious finger foods and pretty stemware. In real life, I would shove all the wrapping paper off the dining room table into a Hefty bag, lay out some tacos that I picked up on the way home from work and then struggle to find the beer opener in the middle of the baking mess. Feliz Navidad. Watch for your invitation in the mail, sometime after the Christmas card shows up.

Okay, so that’s a lot to get done in two weeks. It’s not likely to happen, and I don’t care. If I stress about what’s not getting done, I will ruin all the wonderful things that are.

Christmas is something to enjoy, not something to achieve.  I’m not falling for the myth that I must be the perfect shopper-decorator-craftypants-baker. Just because there are one million adorable and affordable homemade gift ideas on Pinterest does not mean that you or I are required to execute them.

Instead, I will do what I enjoy doing to the extent that I enjoy it and give what I can give without stressing myself out or going into debt. If it doesn’t happen, guess what? The deadline is COMPLETELY ARTIFICIAL. There are 364 other days in the year. All of them are also excellent days to celebrate, decorate, bake, sing, give and show your loved ones that you love them.

See? No pressure. Merry Christmas!