Long, Long Ago
In junior high, my nickname was Guts. I was an attention-seeker. I believed I had nothing to lose, but hoped there was something I could gain. My friends hid nearby while I’d break into homes and steal a few cans of beer for us to share. I’d shoplift clothes and jewelry I had no interest in wearing just so I could give them to others. I had no curfew so I walked the streets at all hours. I was an insomniac so anything but bed was inviting. Night after night, nothing but lying in bed surrounded by nocturnal visions of being dropped into hell.
Next August I’ll turn 60. My job has turned dour. If I quit, I lose my health insurance. If I stay, I lose what little is left of my self-esteem.
By the time I graduated from high school, I learned my idyllic hometown wasn’t a safe place for girls. The first murder was of a young girl found in the dunes by Lake Michigan. Later, the murders involved girls I knew personally. Murders unsolved to this day. Yet, we all have our hunches. It wasn’t even those murders that left me feeling unsafe. It was the men who’d jump out of their cars at night while I was walking home, the men whose faces I didn’t see clearly while they chased me down the street. Fortunately, I was a fast runner. I was restless to enjoy life more fully and fearful of dying young in my hometown so I boarded a bus and set off to explore the West. People expected that I’d die hitchhiking and backpacking by myself, not walking back to my apartment in my hometown.
At thirty-two, I became pregnant by man who was basically a stranger. Wrapping up my last semester of graduate school, I made an appointment for an abortion. Then I cancelled. For years, I had been a special education teacher. My baby was born in September, a time I thought I’d be landing my first academic job or returning to a public school. Instead, the relationship with the father ended, and my baby, dog and I spent her first months living out of my truck in the desert and doing housesitting gigs for friends. I wasn’t a stranger to poverty, but I never imagined myself being a mother with absolutely no money. The man who interviewed me when I applied for food stamps said, “Let me guess. You got pregnant by a married man.” When I didn’t answer, he simply laughed. “Happens all the time.”
Over the years of living in this town, I have grown more disconnected. Friends have moved to other towns or simply died. As I was enduring endless surgeries on broken bones and this and that for a few years, my social life dwindled. As my health and luck improved, I realized I lost my stamina for rebuilding my social life. I receive texts from my twenty-six-year-old daughter asking how long has it been since I’ve seen anyone. I tell her I’ve lost track and she tells me lonely people develop dementia earlier. I can see how that could be intentional, the same way people drink to forget. She tells me I could die and no one would know and the cats and dogs would eat me. I move the phone far away, dreading any more prophetic text messages.
Before Giving Birth
Not knowing much about the country, other than simply wanting to travel in India (I had bought a ticket when I was nineteen, thinking I’d head to Calcutta and be some hippy form of Sister Teresa, but then I lost my courage and returned my ticket) before I was thirty, I filled a huge backpack with supplies and tromped through the Himalayas. People would invite me to their homes, such a rare sight, a woman traveling alone while all that trouble was brewing in Kashmir. Unlike years earlier in my hometown, I didn’t feel my life was at risk because of men, but there were times while crossing a rickety bridge or fallen log dangling over a rushing river, I wondered if I’d die. No one would know, but eventually, everyone would assume. Once while on a long trek alone, I saw shepherds on the other side of the Zanskar River, and we’d wave to each other. I’d watch them gather dung to start the fire for their tea, wishing there was a way I could safely cross the river and walk with them. I didn’t care where they were heading. I had no idea where I was heading but I was tired of being alone.
Those Were the Days My Friend
Moving used to be easy. Load up the tiny car and move. Find work. Live. There wasn’t all this fretting about health insurance. You don’t worry about health insurance until your body starts to fall apart. You don’t think about location in terms of real estate until they say this house value is all about location, location, location. You think about the geography: mountains to climb and rivers to cross. Earn enough money to pay the rent and save a few bucks for travel. Shovel snow off roofs. Fill in for secretaries having tummy tucks. Waitress. Tutor kids. Tutor adults. No fretting about IRAs and Social Security.
In the Beginning
In the beginning, it seems I was afraid of everything: worms -so the boys would hold me down and drop a coffee can filled with worms on top of me; going in the basement to get something from the ungrounded refrigerator—so my dad would turn off the light while I was screaming first from the shock of touching the refrigerator and next from the lights being turned off; the bogeyman who lived in my bedroom—so I’d push my younger sister in first and insist she check beneath the bed, the closet, the little attic. There was no #MeToo back then.
My main social life is strolling about the mostly empty farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. I’m the loyal buyer dropping a few bucks at each vendor’s stand. One friendly vendor hands me an invite to an Essential Oil party, which sounds like a Tupperware party. She looks at her husband and explains how the essential oils have helped her aches and pains. “I just have my husband rub my shoulders here.” Then she pauses, remembering I’m single, and rightfully assuming there is no lover in my life, she adds, “I guess you could put it on yourself. It just wouldn’t be the same.” I can’t wait to increase my social life by attending this party filled with married women crooning about the hands of their husbands. I’m beginning to understand, though not appreciate, that dude I once considered dating until he mentioned how his blow-up doll kept him company.
Hiking through the mountains with daughter on my back and dog nearby, sometimes hikers would comment on my strong calves, which made me feel pretty damn good, yet others would comment on my lack of judgment for hiking alone with my infant daughter (my dog must not have counted), and I’d feel pretty damn bad.
Fear vs. Risk
For no apparent reason, while hiking with a lover in the Rockies and crossing a boulder field, I was suddenly struck with an immobilizing fear which left me blocking the trail for other hikers, who now had to step carefully around me, while I remained transfixed in a catatonic state as boyfriend hiked onward, oblivious to my absence. Another time, scuba diving in Mexico with this same lover, it didn’t matter that I was a distance swimmer, when I realized my partner was no longer in sight, I panicked beneath the dark waters. The panic resembled those disturbing nocturnal fears of the bogeyman. Later, in a swimming pool, while taking a lifeguard class at a college, at a pool where I swam two miles daily, I dove into the deep end and hyperventilated; that same darkness returned, the same darkness I had always escaped by taking endless risks to prove I could survive. All that strength vanished while in my natural element, the places I felt most centered: on top of a mountain or in water.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
In Judith Shulevitz’s article “The Lethality of Loneliness” in The New Republic, she writes about the therapist, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who “cured” Joanne Greenberg, author of the autobiographical novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. According to Fromm-Reichmann, “the lonely person was just about the most terrifying spectacle in the world.” The article then goes on to ponder: “Who are the lonely? They’re the outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different.” As if this article didn’t already cause me enough soul-searching reflection, especially about the italicized use of “the different” and being “the most terrifying spectacle in the world,” not just in my neighborhood, I also stumbled upon a tweet to promote the TV show Mr. Robot that declares: “Solitude breeds insanity if you’re not careful. Every mind needs a distraction.” I feel so much better now.
As I find myself sinking into a solitude—so unlike the solitude I envisioned when reading May Sarton’s journals at nineteen—where days pass with no human interaction, unless I see neighbors while walking the dogs; I know this is no longer solitude but loneliness. Last week on the phone with my sister, I mentioned my conundrum of simply relocating so I could live near friends and a pool. Forever the voice of reason and practicality, she asked about health care, then reminded me that I’m the only person in our family who hasn’t had cancer (yet). Is it just the thought of losing health care that prevents me from putting up the For-Sale sign, for finally sorting out my belongings and moving on? I need to find that part of me that didn’t spend weeks fretting over change, that part of me that believed taking risks freed me of something that needed to be released and moved me into a new territory where the possibility of change would strengthen and awaken me.
A news report surfaces on my Facebook feed: Loneliness Could Reduce Lifespan. There’s an element of shame involved with being lonely, especially after reaching out to others to meet for a lunch, to see a movie, and getting no positive responses. Today, Ruth Whippman writes in The New York Times: “The most significant thing we can do for our well-being is not to “find ourselves” or “go within.” (That’s a relief. I’d much prefer to lose myself.) “It’s to invest as much time and effort as we can into nurturing the relationships we have with the people in our lives.” Why does this Feel Good Advice make me think I should fill the chairs around the kitchen table with the cats and dogs and engage them with my riveting monologue?
Back to May Sarton
When May Sarton wrote her Journal of Solitude, she wanted a break from her active social life. When well-intentioned friends popped in to check on her, she felt a bit cheated of her loss of solitude. A neighbor kid knocks on the door to sell me popcorn, and I want to keep him with me for hours to talk about anything. I race outside when I see neighbors passing, just hoping for a few moments of human conversation, and they pick up their pace, the same way I do when the religious zealots are knocking on my door.
At least I’m not so starved for conversation that I am willing to listen to how I’ll burn in hell unless I crouch on the floor, wrap a snake around my neck, and get saved right this moment. The evangelists insist I’m risking my salvation by living a life devoid of Jesus. But, in truth, I’m risking my salvation by not doing something else to escape this lonely existence. Risks aren’t to be pondered over forever, infinitely dwelt upon, until one sinks into irreversible despair. I could squander all my energy, even my whole life, fearing the potential consequences of taking the plunge. Do I really want to keep prolonging this intense yearning for change and turn it into a paralysis by not doing anything?
Just step outside and put up the damn For Sale sign.