I am never alone, and I don’t mean in the Jesus way.
Someone is always touching me or talking to me. I mother two monkeys five and under and have a fifteen year old who is, comparative to her peers, overly physically affectionate, and so they are on me, beside me, or about to be all day long–the little ones up with the electronic roosters we pretend are in our alarm clocks, and the big one up until the pages put her to sleep.
I take a mom break at work, but at work, I’m still the center. Because so many contemporary students have developed unfortunate, chronic allergies to professors’ office hours, I cannot get from the door to the desk in my classroom most days without having to barrel through a veritable obstacle course of questions, excuses, and comments as though I am the nerdy version of an American Gladiator.
The end of class would offer a retreat, but I land in my office (a.k.a. the makeshift faculty lounge because I have one of “those faces” and am an accidental marvel at active listening even when I do not mean to be). I once joked that one of my fixer-colleagues would find on her headstone, “Whaddya need?” Meanwhile, mine, across the mausoleum hall, would read, “Gosh, that’s so hard. I can’t even imagine. What do you do?”
The people find me in every shape I’ve ever been. They ask. They share. They commiserate. I identify. Again, “That’s so hard. I can’t even imagine. What do you do?”
A woman told me today she was lonely.
The word felt foreign and kind of awkward in the air. How, I thought, can anyone be lonely in a season like this? We’re all so . . . peopley.
I started to say, “That’s so hard. I can’t even imagine—” but the trouble was I could, imagine.
A life change in our household has left me feeling a bit like a roommate some days. I used to joke, as my daughter would come to ask us to keep it down a little so that she could sleep, that Jonathan and I had unknowingly enrolled in what had become the world’s longest-running summer camp.
But sometimes we’re here but not here, you know? And it’s so hard as you can imagine.
I resent talking about tasks we must share. Talking about adult things makes the house sound as though a bolt has come loose in the washing machine. I turn ostrich sometimes and just hope that the clothes will come out clean enough, noise be damned.
I’ll even say sometimes, “I feel like I haven’t seen you in days,” to which he’ll respond, “What are you talking about? We just watched four Mindy Projects.” And I’ll say, “Exactly,” and he knows what I’m talking about because your best friend from summer camp always does. He hears you even above the sound of the bolt in the washer.
I don’t know how to fix my friend. Be around more people, I want to say. But that’s dumb because I have people to spare, and I feel the same way she does sometimes.
I want to tell her, Think quality, not quantity. Ditch the numbers for the value. I love Shauna Niequist’s concept of the home team—our nearests and dearests who love us fiercely and hold us daily. I’m bad at that, too, though. I feel like I have so little to offer in this season that I’m a taker, and I don’t want to be like that, so I shy away from the closeness almost hoping to insulate my loves from the vortex of neediness I am these days.
I wonder sometimes if I miss myself or if my friend misses herself. In the selfie culture, it sounds like a vapid, horrible thing to say, but what if it isn’t? And what if it’s a real, live cause of loneliness—or at least that sense that you’ve been run over slowly and no one’s come to check your vitals.
What if it’s the little things like being able to pick the pizza toppings? What if it’s the luxury of having enough rest to finish a chapter in a book the next night? What if it’s closing your eyes and their not burning from exhaustion for once? What if it’s being the one to drink the last of the milk so that there’s no surprise that there isn’t any the next day?
These are small things, but what if the big things are made up of the small things?
What if we creators who used to paint and draw and make beauty where beauty was not feel as though our last good palette is drying up, and we’re powerless to preserve it? What if every little comment someone made about our shortcomings had somehow made its way into our pockets and begun to aggregate and weigh us down? What if we didn’t even notice they were there? We just felt slow and heavy and believed it was our fault.
I wouldn’t know where to begin to find myself anymore. I’m too many people to count. One ‘self’ isn’t possibly enough to contain me.
And maybe you wouldn’t know where to find yourself anymore either. It’s possible we’re both precisely and perfectly at a loss together—and something about that notion comforts me as though I’m Emily Dickinson and you are Nobody, her celebrated dear.
It’s putting it down on paper sometimes that’s the prescription that steadies the hand.
Let this confirmation be a beacon to buy us time.