The Mysteries of Loneliness

What I’m about to say might be best off as a poem. But let’s try it like this anyway.

This year I’ve lived alone for the first time in my life, and I can’t imagine giving it up. Solitude is a luxury equal to none. This place is my place with things where I put them and all my own beloved oddities on the wall. With the world being what it is, I can even order exactly the food I want to my door—I can choose what suits me at any given moment. I am not responsible for others, for understanding them or for making myself understood. I eat dinner anytime between 4:30 and 11:30. I sit in all my different chairs in turn and take long baths without guilt. I think aloud to myself. I look at a book or a screen or a wall or a pen in my hand or the mirror or out the window where the rain puddles on my neighbor’s paving stones. It’s so easy to be alone.

But sometimes I suspect it’s too easy. With the freedom I have, I choose less for myself. I choose a smaller, more manageable world in which obligations are trimmed to the bone and disruptions are strictly outlawed. But just because I am my own favorite company doesn’t mean I’m my own best company. And perhaps I should already know that I’m meant to have company other than myself.

For much of history this world has not been a place in which someone, particularly a woman, could survive well on her own. Except for believers who sequestered themselves as a decades-long spiritual discipline, people needed community: someone to fix the leaks and someone to bake the bread and someone to stitch the sheets and someone to take out the waste, someone to fill the cabinets with medicine, someone to feed the cattle and someone to keep the hearthfire burning. It took more than two hands to support the flourishing of a human life. In the popular imagination (or at least in mine) people who are perpetually alone eventually starve to death in cramped garrets in Paris while the world dances on just outside their door.

Which is all very confusing when being alone feels so nice.

On top of that, from what we see of Christ in scripture, he was just alone here and there—only when he expressly planned to be. In fact, his moments of solitude are notable exceptions in the midst of a full-to-overflowing life and ministry, just as devout hermits were notable exceptions in the midst of a general population of families and villages and towns. But of course, his life for the first thirty years, before his ministry really began, may have looked much different. We can’t take the pace of Jesus’ early thirties as an exactly prescriptive blueprint for the entirety of our own lives. (And yet, we shouldn’t just ignore it either…)

Perhaps it’s clear already that I have no closing statement to make. Really, I’m just beginning a conversation with myself. It’s not really a discussion of whether or not I should be alone, but rather how I should treat the solitude which already exists within and around me: As a restorative? As a reward? As a natural and unavoidable state? As a place to hide? As a place to create? As a place from which to escape? Or as a place into which to welcome others, a place which can be expanded? And if so, how? (And where and why and when?)

Shared Books and Belonging

Ever since I was a kid, whenever I read a book and love it, just really love it, I have a hard time comprehending that anyone else has ever read it too. There has always been something about a good story, especially when I was young and starry-eyed and consuming two or three books at a time on long summer days, that made me believe the magic of it could only be for me. It belonged to me and I belonged to it—we existed together, eternally solitary and melancholically happy. In some ways, the last twenty years of my life have simply been the journey of unlearning that, of coming to understand that, just maybe, other people might know and love the things that I know and love. Perhaps they even knew and loved them first.

This revelation that it is possible for others to read what I have read and experience it in a similar way has been a surprising discovery, but overall a happy one. It has, in fact, given rise to one of my more dangerous habits: book-lending. I habitually lend out books and, for obvious reasons, they’re usually my favorite ones. A bit perilous, but, as my dad always used to say, “Ships in a harbor are safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” True, he didn’t usually use the metaphor to refer to mold-speckled paperbacks, but I digress…

I’ve lent out more books than usual in the past few months. I only have a portion of my library here in Vancouver, but still I’ve found myself handing out much-loved volumes, first to housemates, but more recently to other friends as well. It’s been everything from The Thief Lord to True Grit, either of which has the power to make you fall back in love with fiction.

And I myself have been re-reading books fit for sharing. Gradually, beginning back in the Spring, it was the Narnia books. Many people I know are familiar with them and have read them multiple times themselves, so there is a peculiar joy in being able to casually mention to a friend that Uncle Andrew is just the worst, and have them know precisely what I mean, even though strictly speaking Uncle Andrew has never existed. This sharing of the story increases its joy and somehow even its truth.

In the last couple weeks, I’ve also been re-reading the Mennyms books. I suspect you haven’t heard of them (though if you have please get in touch immediately). They are a quiet English children’s series about a very unusual family simply doing their best to live a normal life but finding the task difficult. I think of these books often, I talk about them often, I aspire to have something of their essence in my own fiction, but I hadn’t re-read them since college, and they’re even more extraordinary than I remember. 

They are stories about loneliness and otherness but also about what it means to be human and the devastating adventure of mere existence. They can be a little bleak and existential for children’s books, I realize now, but children themselves can be a little bleak and existential. And the books do ultimately contain plenty of hope, and not of the flimsy kind. Really, they are stories of unobtrusive, everyday perseverance in the face of unalterable limitations, of tough perennial joy in the midst of permanent uncertainty. They are strange books, and precious ones.

As I reread the series with all the venerable wisdom of my twenty-eight years, I realized that, unusually for me, I couldn’t remember the first time I encountered it. I couldn’t remember what chair I curled up in, what my pet worries and fears were at the time, even how old I was—somewhere between nine and twelve most likely. But I am now sure that from the first, even if I didn’t realize it, the Mennyms spoke to something which lived deep in me, which still lives in me, and I think always will: a keen, noiseless, unquenchable desire for belonging. And through a set of stories in which, ridiculously, a blue rag doll is the most moving character, I began to understand, am still years later beginning to understand, that an identically wrenching desire for kinship exists in the heart of every person I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Perhaps this is why I can read a book and you can read the same book, and together we can love it. Together, we can belong to it.

White Nights

Hello, friend! My blog looks new today. Yesterday, I started going through my posts and giving them semi-helpful tags and then I had to find a new theme and then I had to mess with my menu and then just essentially go down the rabbit hole of the blogosphere, but I am back now, and writing to you.

It is Holy Week and I am home. Many of my readings from the Psalms this week have felt repetitive. In the midst of Jesus’ descent to hell, they have focused on suffering, distress, betrayal, and anguish. They have felt foreign to me. As I have read over old entries I’m realizing that it has been a long time since I have felt that way.

In high school I used to call the bad times “white nights.” I stole the term from the third book in L.M. Montgomery’s Emily series. I’m convinced that Montgomery must have been going through severe depression herself as she was writing it, because her Emily has a lot of white nights, and very few soft, dark, sleepy ones. White nights are the aching ones without rest, nights when everything and nothing is wrong, when it does not seem that “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”

I do not know what they look like for other people, but for me there’s a solitary light, maybe a pen and paper, always tears a plenty, and a mirror, all the better to facilitate what my parents call “navel-gazing.” I say that lightly, but there is something terrifying about the wilderness of one’s own mind. My friend Hopkins wrote, “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.” At its most bleak, depression is a consuming beast, a lowering ceiling.

In my experience depression and anxiety are one part chemical (that’s the fact,) one part fear (that’s the temptation,) and one part narcissism (that’s the sin.) I say that not to discount the pain. Our God-given bodies are built out of chemicals, temptation can recolor our world, and sin rips and gnaws. I’ll give you Hopkins again for that. (He does know a great deal about it.)

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

But it has been a long time since my last true white night. Early last fall, perhaps? I seem to have come a long way since this time last year. I still get a sort of generalized anxiety, though.

A few weeks ago, I was anxious so I took a shower to calm down, which is my usual medicine if it is too dark or cold for a walk. I tried to remember the words to “Jesus Loves Me,” and I couldn’t do it. Through shaving my legs, shampooing, and conditioning, I could not remember the third line. I had to get out of the shower and look up “Jesus Loves Me” on the internet (oh, the shame.)

Jesus loves me—this I know,

For the Bible tells me so;

Little ones to Him belong—

They are weak, but He is strong.

I forgot belonging, I forgot that Christ’s perfect love means he is the Keeper of my soul, be it anguished or joyful. In fear, in gladness, in blindness, in sight, in the wilderness, and in Glory we are not our own.

We belong to One who was there first. Christ tasted bitter gall on the cross, and he had a white, sleepless night followed by an anguished, black noonday. He sweated blood. He suffered betrayal, mockery, and the only true loneliness man has ever known. His nail-pierced feet know well the paths of suffering.

He will light us out of the darkness of our sin-mired hearts, casting great stones aside that we may climb further up and further in to His new life.

Me, Myself….and Not Much Else

On the inside of all the stalls in my hall bathroom, there are flyers from the counseling center about “Transitions”, and every time I’m in there I diligently try to make sense of them. There are, apparently, three stages to a transition: Endings, a neutral stage, and New Beginnings. Basically, you feel sad, you transition, you feel happy.

Well, not me. I felt sad, I felt happy, then I was…lonely. And I’ve found  that’s a terrible thing to admit. When a friend asks what’s wrong when I’m crying, (because, of course, I have been crying…) I cannot say, “I’m strangely, desperately lonely late at night. I thought there would be people like me at college, and there aren’t. I miss being around people who I don’t have to explain myself to, and on top of that, two of the people who know me best are overseas, and I can’t call them like I want to every other second! That’s all…”

It sounds like such an accusation, and it’s a little overwhelming. I don’t know exactly how I got it into my head that Grove would be full of little personality twins, but it’s not. It is populated with happy, easily stressed people who like to abbreviate their words and have dance parties. They remind me of the people I’ve known all my life. They are lovely and I should be thankful, but I wonder. Where are the rest of the kids who care more about books than about grades, who don’t mind hard teachers if only they are learning, who only become more stubborn with extra pressure, and who still believe their lives can be a storybook? I thought I would find them here, but I haven’t. They do exist, don’t they? I suppose I am unique, but please, God, not that unique!

Of course, I am being overdramatic. I do have friends here, good friends, even a few dear ones. I think my sudden desire to be a type, to have those like myself, who know my secrets without being told, has just happened to coincide awkwardly with my first semester of college. But that rationalization unfortunately doesn’t really make me feel better. Late at night, I am still just me in my little box of me-ness, which is tiresome and sometimes frightening after eighteen years.

So, anyway, that is how I have been feeling. Yesterday I went to Discipleship Group and had myself a lovely little breakdown. I had a talk with my leader, and told her most all of it, I think, and a few other things about my state of mind which I am too ashamed to share with cyberspace. Not that she was anything less than kind, but I came out of that conversation with the distinct remembrance that I am very, very self-absorbed. Why do I feel that I must find people like myself? Oh…probably because I think I’m pretty great. Ya think, Alice?

And then, last night I had hall bible study, and a friend of my RA’s read a quote from C.S. Lewis’  The Weight of Glory, which I desperately wish I had on me, and cannot find in its entirety anywhere on the dumb internet, but here is part of it: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.” I was momentarily comforted with the thought that on the other side of that door I would be sure to meet legions of people like myself, and the stuffy little box of Alice would be busted up and forgotten. Everyone or most everyone, anyway, would be like me!

Then, for the first time in…well, eras, really, Truth hijacked my thought process. Everyone would be like me, but only in the ways in which I was like Christ. Anything in me which was not a reflection of him would be lost, burned away, drowned in death’s great river. I, in myself, am not worth being. Why am I desiring to find Alice in others when I should be looking for Christ? Lewis again, in The Problem of Pain, each “soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance…” He is there for the finding. Why am I only trying to learn about myself from others, when I am surrounded by those who have the image of the God of the universe painted in relief in their very souls?

So, I am not only self-absorbed, I am self-obsessed. I learned at an early age that the world at large does not revolve around me, but now, at eighteen, I am finally learning that neither can I revolve around myself. Certainly, I was not created to be lonely and miserable, but neither was I created to be the silly, vain creature I am at present. My Lord loves me enough to have bigger plans. He must increase, but I must decrease. Otherwise, when I get to the door Lewis speaks of, I may not even find it appealing, and that would be very truly tragic, for that door, and what lies beyond, are precisely was I was created for.