Choices in Loneliness

Two weeks ago I started this letter after building a fire in the woodstove of the cabin I was staying in. I have revised it several times, trying to keep up with the world’s changing. My clothes no longer smell like wood smoke and I cannot keep up with the news, so it’s time to send it as is and make space for something else. Much like you, I have no idea what that will be. The world has changed so much in these past two weeks, and yet the surface of my life feels very much the same. I am very lucky and very sad, and very much in need of connection, as we are all in different shades.

I had planned to be in meeting my extended family in Sicily that week I was building a fire, and had set aside my first real set of vacation days in 3 years, saved money, anxiously planned an itinerary with my parents. The trip had been called off the week prior, as the virus tore through northern Italy. I was devastated; my parents, who had planned this trip as a second attempt at a honeymoon in Italy 30 years later, were speechless. The first honeymoon had been called off because of a bombing at the Roman airport. It felt improbable that we had ever imagined ourselves in my nonna’s apartments, meeting a new baby and collecting geneology paperwork.

My working life has been difficult in 2020, my personal life complicated, and I was looking forward to the break and space to think. In fact, I was falling slightly to pieces by the week of my intended trip, and at my partner’s urging, took a family friend up on a loan of a cabin up north for a few days, to be spent alone in my favorite corner of Maine. And so I packed my bags and left for the woods. As I shared a dog walk with my elderly next-door neighbor the morning of my departure, she was shocked I would go alone, so far away, without even my dog for company. She said I was “very brave",” and I felt very much like a fraud and a coward.

The truth is I very much enjoy my own company, and love to be alone. I have travelled alone on almost every continent, gone months in foreign places where I knew few people and made fewer friends. This felt like an escape, like running, but I knew I was running on fumes. By the time I packed the car for Maine, I realized I had not been alone for more than 24 hours in almost a year, possibly longer. It felt like the only sane choice, to carve out space away from my normal life to be silent, to think, to breathe. I needed a sense of loneliness so desperately that I was like a thing caged, alternating between exhausted rage and demoralizing grief. At the moment my world felt very small and very claustrophobic. So I went to the grocery store to buy a steak, and I did not wash my hands, and I drove down the dirt road, and I built myself a fire when I arrived.

It does take some time to get used to voluntary loneliness. When the friend with the cabin key mentioned someone had been politely letting themselves into unoccupied cabins, I did not feel particularly brave. Instead I smoked a joint, locked the deadbolt, and got in the tub. The first step may have been a mistake; I got so nervous that first night I slept with a chef’s night under my pillow. But that did not stop me for enjoying the space, and I snowshoed in the mountains and listening to the breathing of the woods and read until I fell asleep for several days that I would otherwise be home, working and editing and possibly weeping for very little discernable reason. It was just what I needed, to be alone.

But the world was changing rapidly outside my elective loneliness, as texts from friends in Boston and New York and Chicago rolled in, detailing quarantine preparations and toilet paper shortages. I had intended to stay put through Sunday afternoon, but it became clear that if I did so, I would emerge into another universe entirely. I packed the car and came home, stopped at an apocalyptically bare Walmart on the way to stock up on groceries. The next day, when I supplemented my grocery store run with the local store, folks had already donned masks as they shopped. The universe has shifted while I was away.

I have left the house just once since, a run to supplement my groceries, mail last-minute packages, drop supplies to friends. I stood in a patient and well-spaced line at the local dispensary and marveled as I always do at the variety of patrons. Life looked mostly normal on a surface level in these interactions, but there is a cloud of layoffs, school closures, material shortages, and anxiety that feels like moving through molasses. Both my partner and I are working from home, but the only change for me is his company, since I have worked from home since 2016.

Had I known as I drove North on 95 with a car full of books and anxiety that I would be lonely indefinitely, fretfully in the extreme, I am not sure I would have gone. I am grateful I did spend that time because there are all kinds of loneliness, both necessary and unnecessary, the kinds we choose and the types that are foisted on us, varieties that come from heartbreak but also from freedom. My current flavor has company in a good partner and a good dog, video calls with friends and coworkers, group chats full of tenderness. It is still very hard, but it is not the kind of loneliness that sleeps with a knife under its pillow. It is something far more shared and tender, tinted with solidarity and care.

The most alone I have been in years was in that retreating week, standing in a clearing off a snowy trail at the foot of my most beloved mountain, following old snowshoe tracks to nowhere. I stopped and sat on a log, turning off my headphones, I simply sat and listened to the trees. There were no birds, not yet. Barely a scratch of squirrels on the bark. Just the wind in the evergreens and my own breath. I stayed there until my fingers were numb in my gloves, eyes unfocused, head as empty as a bowl. Loneliness as medicine. As preparation for the unknown.

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