Walking near my home through Harms Woods, or standing in my backyard on a soft winter’s night searching for the moon between the house’s roofline and the big oak’s limbs, or perhaps sitting low in a stuffed chair in the library in a carved out space among tall bookshelves, or even typing this at my desk where I write, I have considered how I am my best when alone. Perhaps it has been the sunless days of January—and a thick ceiling of gray seemingly required to be cut with a knife to let escape the light—that prompted the solitude. Whether my trail running feet followed a path through the barren woods, or stood together, still, in search of celestial light in the dark of night, or tucked here in a corner of a small room of my home, I was alone with my thoughts.
I thought of my first experience of when I understood what it meant to be alone.
One afternoon, she directed us to find an activity. One corner of the room held an easel and tempera paints. Another was a grouping of desks with puzzle pieces, and another with colored construction paper, tiny scissors, and glue. My kindergarten classmates scurried to their favorite activities upon the clap of Mrs. Wilmert’s hands. I stood next to her, anxious, feeling her gentle nudge on my back to join the others. When she knew I wasn’t going to have any of it, she quickly ushered me to an empty table, created a new activity desk with crayons and heavy black lined drawings of houses and flowers. I delighted in being alone, just me, with busy hands and creative thoughts in colored pictures.
I was alone, but I did not feel lonely. Maybe it’s because of the type of person I am. As an introvert, being with myself or with one or two others suites me just fine. I find energy, imagination, and creativity when alone. Maybe you get your energy from being with many others?
Seemingly running on two separate tracks, alone is a state of being, while loneliness is an emotional state. I think back to when I read Of Mice And Men. How Steinbeck showed us his characters’ loneliness, isolation, and disconnection.
Until when being alone and loneliness intersected much later in my life.
How ironic that I, a reflective writer of the natural world, would be given the gift of the summer months, to spend outside during the final weeks of my mother’s life. I pushed her from behind, having now required a wheelchair, through automatic doors, and out into the hot sun beaming from the best blue overhead we’ve ever seen, to find a spot to park on the patio under the shade of overgrown ashes. Though robbed of most of her vision and hearing by now, she delighted in noticing a squirrel scampering close, or hearing the high pitch tweet of sparrows and wrens flocking to the nearby birdfeeder. I looked at her, really had a look, through her Jackie O sunglasses, to find eyes no longer open windows, but weary and closing soon, a once rosy complexion now faded, a head of thin, graying fuzzy hair that had not been under the direction of a stylist’s hands in weeks.
I had been a caregiver of her, through a pandemic, to doctor appointments, ordering medication, making meals, taking her for groceries, reading mail she thought was important. And in her final year, hospital . . . rehab . . . nursing homes . . . unable to grant her wish to not die in a strange place, untrusting of others to care for her, for me to be the only one to ensure that the volume on the speaker of her phone, her only lifeline to communication to the outside world, is always turned up.
How I had screamed I just couldn’t handle this myself. I questioned all my decisions I made for her and if I shouldn’t be doing something more, but no one would answer.
How alone I was. And how lonely I felt.
That afternoon, she broke our silence when she said, “Being out here makes everything right with the world.”
I repeat her words now when walking through the woods, while standing in night’s darkness in my backyard, in a corner of a public space, or here at my desk in a small room, and I understand how she showed me with a nod of her head, a slow smile, and with one sentence her reconciling herself with a world she would soon leave.
We belonged with the natural world that day, feeling its power to connect, to make us feel not alone, or even not lonely.
Emerson once said, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
When being alone and loneliness intersect, the convergence is a learned lesson of something larger. To discover peace of self.