Keeping on, keeping on

I’ve just finished reading Sara Donati’s Fire in the Sky, committing to myself to find the next book in her series about the Bonner family, and life in upstate New York in America’s early years. In an afterward, Donati states that she hopes she has done her work well enough for readers to seek out histories of the period, the War of 1812, which she feels is given short shrift in school history lessons. If my own experience is any indicator, she’s correct. My recollection of what I learned in elementary school about that war is limited to the battle at Fort McHenry and its role in the origin of our national anthem. High school American history class gave me even less about the War of 1812 – undoubtedly because the lesson was taught in a school in Paris, by a British woman who dismissed the entire affair as a “skirmish on the edge” of the important war happening at that time – Britain versus Napoleonic France.

My take-away from Donati’s writing is not, however, an interest in researching the complexities of what U.S. history books also refer to as the ”period between the French and Indian Wars and the settling of the West” (i.e. all the anguish and horror of the Amerindian experience with European intolerance). My take-away from Donati’s well written, engrossing series is far more personal – a profound feeling of loss, and a bone-deep sense of aloneness. Unlike the characters in this novel, who are an extended family with deep interconnections and emotional commitments to one another – unlike these people written into vivid life – I am alone. Profoundly alone. Only child of older parents long deceased, no first cousins, formerly married to a loner whose own small family (one brother and his children) made me welcome but with whom I have too little in common to connect. I have no children of my own, and never had the occasion to adopt any.

Mind you, I am not lonely. I like my own company, indeed find that I need solitude and tire quickly of constant interaction on those occasions when I am in extended social situations. When, with my husband, we went to visit his brother for a weekend, my sister-in-law was first puzzled, then amused to know that if I went missing, she could usually find me settled in the back seat of our car, with a book. Never happy unless surrounded by the noise and chatter of her children, nephews, cousins and visitors, my sister-in-law struggled to understand how overwhelming so many people could be to a person like me. I was raised in a home dominated by the quiet of parents who, because they did not like each other much, spoke little and went their own ways – until my mother would explode in rage. Noisy interaction, to me, means anger, shouting, ugly accusations, slaps, and being punished for non-existent infractions of unstated rules.

I am well aware of other types of noisy, social family dynamics. Adults happy to be together, chattering about their shared past and planned future, children busy with invented games that send them chasing among the adults, teens congregated on the porch giggling and talking (now also texting) their secrets to one another… I see all this around me as a positive experience, but know myself unable, now, to become part of it. Know that I was set onto my solitary path as early as kindergarten, where my tentative efforts to join the other children and make friends were undermined by my mother’s belief that it wasn’t safe for me to visit in any of their homes, or get to know them outside of the classroom. I know, as an adult, that it was her own self-doubt, her own fears that she was projecting outward, creating an environment around me that forbade socializing in groups.

I’m grateful that I’ve learned to enjoy people, and have been blessed over the years with companions and close friends. I’m also blessed with the ability to enjoy life as a single person, not needing to be part of a couple or in anyone’s company to eat at a restaurant, go to a concert or play, take a road trip, or vacation abroad. I have seen how family dynamics can become warped, twisted into lifelong animosities and unforgiven grudges. I know that much of the appeal in Donati’s stories (beyond the fact that she is an excellent writer) lies in becoming engaged with an ideal of family caring. The members support each other through their various trials, remaining in the end united despite distance or even death. The appeal of romances is that they portray an ideal, of love overcoming obstacles, achieved in the end. The appeal of traditional westerns is of clear cut right and wrong, an ideal justice achieved in the end.

The appeal of an ideal… Is there an ideal of solitude?

Not noticeably in fiction, but perhaps in religion or spiritual pursuits. The Buddha, sitting alone in contemplation. The Benedictine brothers at Christ in the Desert, living a vow of silence in their isolated monastery. The occasional lone backwoodsman – Robbie, in Donati’s Lake in the Clouds – an exemplar of a character choosing to live alone. Spiritual practitioners of solitude do carry the qualities of an ideal. The fictional characters do not. They are portrayed, even the most positive of them, as missing some important element of life. They are portrayed as strong enough to live alone, but nonetheless in some way damaged and unable to connect appropriately with society.

Why this disconnect between the positive image of spiritual solitude and the flawed one of social solitude? I am happy to have ample alone time for my spiritual practice, during which I feel embraced and held close in the joy of the Divine’s presence. I only question my aloneness when I encounter – usually in fiction, but occasionally in daily life experiences – the ideal of family, and then my emotional self begins to wonder if I’ve missed something important. A co-worker has been diagnosed with cancer. His family – sister and two adult daughters – have come from across the country to visit with him, provide support, and enjoy his company. Who would come if the same challenge were to arise for me?

I am looked after and cared for most completely by my spiritual Beloved. I know in my bones, in my gut, in my Soul, the certainty that I am not alone, not forgotten, not adrift in a life without purpose or meaning. As life challenges arise, the tools to meet them will be provided to me, in ways and forms I cannot invent nor imagine, as has already been proven true when I review my Path thus far. Indeed, my current querying of my state of aloneness, my curiosity as to whether I’ve missed out in some way by not experiencing the ties of family, my observation of the ideal of those ties as presented in fiction – all this reflection is an example of the process by which I am gifted to acquire whatever tools I will need going forward. It is just my mind, like a little child, tugging at my spiritual skirts and whining, “I want a sister, I want a brother, to talk to, to play and share with.”

Maybe next lifetime?
Careful, there. Remember the adage about being selective in what you ask for!

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5 Responses to “Solitude”

  1. Jane Foraker-Thompson Says:

    I have never thought of people who live alone, or who are not married and/or have little family to relate to as at a disadvantage. Even though I have ended up with way more family than I ever dreamed of (four of my own children, plus their spouses and seven grandchildren; plus four step-children and their spouses, plus six more grandchildren and three great-grandchildren), My sister and brother are still alive, and they have children and grandchildren. Yet I still want, need and enjoy a fair amount of “alone time.” Part of that is for spiritual discernment and development and part of it is social—I just want to be alone. I love being around people a certain amount, but I also need to be separate part of the time. I was married twice. First marriage ended in divorce and second marriage–which was very compatible, fun and fulfilling, ended in death of my partner. I have no desire to marry again, tho I enjoy both male and female company if I have values or pleasures in common with them. Being alone at least a certain amount is very healthy, I think. But that’s easy for me to say as I have lots of family and good friends to resort to if I have a need. Since I have moved around a lot in my life and have often not been near any family, I found that good friends became like family and we helped each other in times of need or distress. Good friends are often closer than family members.
    “Family” is what you make it. People we live near, work with, play or worship with, are often closer than family by blood. Look at all the LGBT families and how they have put themselves together. Often they have had to rely on friends as family members often have rejected them. But they carry on and often have a healthy life style, surrounding themselves with people who understand and accept them for who they are. That is the best any of us can do, I believe.

    • chelawriter Says:

      I agree with your important points, especially about making a family out of one’s friends and non-relation loved ones. It’s exciting to realize how far we’ve come, as a society, from the ‘strangeness’ that used to be associated with families in which the children were ‘yours, mine, and ours’. Despite close my own family-equivalent, I do remain curious about an experience I cannot have in this lifetime – that of having/being a blood sibling.

  2. Lesley S. King Says:

    Thank you, Niki. I am coming to see that when I am with the Belived I experience oneness with all creation and thus all feelings but love dissipates like mist in the morning sun.

    • chelawriter Says:

      The beauty of the Love with which we have been gifted is that, even when seemingly dissipated, it still envelops us and can be felt, tasted, seen, cuddled up to – accessed in myriad ways at any moment we remember to give it our attention.

  3. Ron Maltais Says:

    Your latest posting was much appreciated because it reflects my own experience to some degree. Although I have had a life which is rich with experiences and connections to others, much of my time is spent in isolation. Also, I have never experienced marriage or have never known the privilege of children I treasure many meaningful friendships and as an educator I have occasionally indulged in what I would call ‘parenting’ to assist young people in their own life journeys.

    Although I am physically unattached, I rarely feel lonely. Being alone
    is of course a choice to some degree, and I leave the possibility open for a partner, but it never seems to be on the top of my priority list. As an atheist I haven’t ever felt compelled to look to any organized religion for guidance. Yet there has been a certain path or logic in my life experience.

    We now live in times where single people of older age are (at least in the US) certainly not uncommon. How we are viewed by others is not something I care much about unless it involves denial of rights such as we sometimes see in people who are in same sex relationships. Luckily there is a recent sea change occurring which will hopefully “legitimize” such unions, This is not something I expected to see in my lifetime. It is welcome relief to know that on some levels we do move forward, however slowly.

    Ronald Maltais

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