If you saw a dented Buick the color of duct tape head east through Iowa last March, pillows and DVDs askew in the back window ledge, it was probably my family. Minus me. I could not join our annual pilgrimage from the Midwest to New York City to bask in the presence of my lovely in-laws, because I had to work.
It wasn’t that I had no days off. I was in the hole for vacation days. My leave balance was a negative number. I owed my employer hours. It was my own fault for applying my paid-time-off benefits toward graduate school. But that early Thursday morning when my husband and children drove away from me, spring birds chirping as if nothing was horribly wrong, I didn’t care about my education. (To be fair, they’d wanted to change the plans and stay home, but I insisted they go.) Wearing my faded pink bathrobe and mussy hair, I waved at the silver sedan pulling out of the driveway, Bob at the wheel, kids hooked into respective travel electronics.
And then it was just me, standing by an empty garage with nothing but those annoying, happy, flying, feathery creatures yapping in the trees. You’d think I’d have enjoyed being home alone for a week, free from family demands. But I felt like the victim of an awful prank. As I watched the car disappear down the hill, “being alone” shifted instantly into “being lonely.”
Before I go on, I feel obligated to set forth this perspective about my lack of vacation days: I’ve spent a lot of time with the unemployed, the underemployed, and the unhappily employed, so I don’t take the fact that I was earning a paycheck lightly. While I didn’t have time off, I did have a job that helped pay our bills and I was grateful. (Keep the faith, job seekers, look for the light, and continue to network.) Still, all I could think about was how much I’d wanted to be crammed into that crappy car with my family, fighting for foot space and digging for toll-booth coins.
Being alone is different than being lonely. I like being alone. Most people do. Being alone is by choice and on your own terms. Being alone equalizes the noise of daily duties.
Being lonely is more like a persistent lack of intimacy. And intimacy is like food and water: You need it or you shrivel up. Being lonely is never by choice.
Recently I heard an interview with a 50-year-old man diagnosed with autism. He described his brain as “damaged” and said it impairs his ability to relate to people. He can’t hold a job and lives with his parents. He said he has a bad smell. The worst part about having an autistic brain, he said, was “The celibacy. The loneliness. The isolation.”
I’m starting to think that the worst part of anything is when it sets off loneliness. It’s not the situation or the status — whether its autism or something else that sets you apart — it’s the resulting social isolation that causes the greatest suffering.
For over 20 years my husband, Bob, fit and fabricated prosthetic limbs and orthotic braces in New York City. A lot of his time was spent in a dusty shop. He and his team molded and crafted arms, legs and devices to keep people mobile. Bob also made house-calls to clients who were homebound, in nursing facilities or hospitals. For years, Bob called on some of the most ignored people in the city — disabled, elderly folks on Medicaid assistance, cooped up in stale apartments in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. He returned home at night with stories that seemed funny at first but, on further thought, were terribly sad.
Often his clients had lost their sense of physical privacy, as if they couldn’t wait to reveal the pain beneath their clothing. Clients would lift their skirts or drop their pants, seemingly too readily, so the technician, Bob, could take a look and, in theory, fix. They hoped Bob could make them feel better by correcting their brace or adjusting their limb. But after examination, often there was nothing wrong with their respective device, in a technical sense. Bob mostly listened, counseled and encouraged. He gave exactly what they needed. Attention.
I think Lent is for the lonely. It’s for all the people who had no one to eat turkey with. It’s for all the people who were blue at Christmas. For the people who felt empty in the wake of a New Year. For the people who have no Valentine. When social festivals come around to remind us of our collective disappointments, I wish I could reassure people with this: Don’t worry, Lent is around the corner. If you’re lonely, let’s be lonely together.
I experience Lent viscerally. I feel it deep inside. I’m not a theologian and I can’t even begin to explain Lent with vocabulary. (Besides, all the explanations seem extra gloomy to me). For me, Lent is tactile and needs few words. It’s full of ashes and dust and music in minor keys. Every year I want to avoid it because from the outside it looks so dreary, yet every year I get drawn into it. Lent always makes me feel better. The Church (big C church) historically, sadly, has done a bang-up job in perpetuating loneliness — spurning people for this or that reason, somehow getting us to buy into the idea that Jesus set up a hierarchy of who’s in and who’s out. But don’t believe it. It can’t be true. Unless you understand Jesus to mean that the poor are in, and the rich are out. (Ouch.)
Lent is precisely for the lonely. And if you’re lucky enough to be a part of a community that expresses the season through music, art and unconditional love, you don’t have to worry about the words or making sense of it. You just soak it into your bones and know you’re not alone.
That morning last spring after my family drove away, I got dressed, went to work, and cried in my office all morning. A steady flow of tears dripped like a leaky faucet from my eyes while my fingers updated Web content. There wasn’t sobbing or blubbering. I was fully functioning but for the life of me, I couldn’t stop the dripping from my eyes. Teardrops plunked like raindrops right onto my desktop, and I kept working. Thankfully no one noticed.
In the ensuing 10 days I did plenty of emotional gymnastics to avoid fully turning into a puddle. I ended up spending non-working hours laboring around the house, scrubbing as if the dried food particles and shed hair were the last remaining DNA I had left to engage. I should have enjoyed that week of freedom, but my spirit acted like it had been sentenced to a solitary penal island.
It’s probably not right to call my 10 little days of missed spring break “loneliness.” It wasn’t chronic. Painful, yes, but it wasn’t like I was socially shunned, which is pretty much the worst thing that could happen to a human being. (Worse yet, when social rejection is endorsed in the name of Jesus. Shame on us.) When I was home alone, aka lonely, my dear friends came to the rescue, pitied me, and extended dinner invitations. Eventually, the dented Buick returned with my family intact, happy to find a curiously clean house. (Which lasted approximately three days.)
For all of you lamenting Valentine’s Day — take heart, we’ve got Lent. Let’s be lonely together.
Terri Mork Speirs recently completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. She is a writer and mother as well as a grant writer for Children & Families of Iowa.