A Solitary Cat

In the small hours of the morning I lie awake, thoughts and feelings flooding through me in delayed response to the previous day’s news, which brought about a shift in my daily life patterns. A death, unexpected, the necessary response to which has once again made salient a frequent awareness that I have, in the past, repeatedly sought to ignore or overturn.

If required to pick a single word to describe my life experience, I would unquestioningly choose “solitary”. Seemingly odd, for someone who has spent nearly 40 years in the married state, but nonetheless accurate. With a few more words I would say my life experience has been that of an outsider, looking at others, families and couples, living normal lives of mutual engagement. Not necessarily happy engagement, because I clearly see the tensions, the jealousies that make relationships – especially sibling ones – difficult.

Difficult or easy, the relationship ties are strong, and the interactions engaging. And I am on the outside, looking on.

I was the only child of an only child mother, and a father who was so estranged from his two siblings that I did not know they were still alive until I was in my mid-teens. So no siblings, no cousins, virtually no family at all except my maternal grandfather. My mother was mentally ill, my father shy, distant, emotionally withdrawn. I vividly remember nights (rather like this one) when I would waken from a few hours sleep, and lie in bed feeling deep solitude. Then, my cry expressed itself as “why can’t we be a family like other families are?”. I would imagine that I had been adopted, and somewhere – out there – were sisters and a brother I could belong to, if only I could find out how to identify them.

But I was not adopted, I was born into a loveless marriage that had been founded on illusion and was sustained by obligation. I benefited from the circumstances in that I was made to learn quickly how to be flexible and self reliant. I set myself a goal in those early years, to make for myself a home, which I then defined from a poem studied in school as “the place, where when you come there, they have to take you in, a place you don’t have to deserve.”

I achieved that goal in the early 1970s when I bought my first “house” – a 150 year old railroad boxcar, on property rented from the railroad, with only cold running water, and two out houses in lieu of a bathroom. An adobe addition had been added to the boxcar in the past, but the roof had fallen in and the walls partially eroded. I paid $500 for the place, then invested a few thousand more, and a lot of hard labor, to install a toilet, hot water heater and tub, run propane in for the water heater and a cook stove, clean out the debris and re-roof the addition, and lay down a flagstone floor in what became the living room, with a sleeping loft above part of it. I had my home.

Over the years, I moved on – started afresh with 11 acres and a mobile home onto which I added rooms and a workshop, then sold that to move to my present, smaller but more efficient home on four acres, with solar heating supplemented by wood and propane, relatively easy to maintain and to keep me comfortable in both heat and cold.

I’ve shared these homes with others – obviously, since I’ve been married much of the time. But the marriages were not “traditional” and included 8 years of being alone while my then husband was imprisoned. More years were functionally alone, for various reasons – ill health, poor choices, incompatibility. The reasons don’t matter, the effect is what I now recognize as my life’s path, to be consistently and solely responsible for all that occurs in my life without recourse to anyone to depend on, no partner or – I love the old fashioned word – helpmate.

Until about four years ago, that is.

Whether from the lessons of early childhood, from innate nature, or from Divine intent, I am in essence “the cat who walks by itself.” I have long recognized that I am uncomfortable in larger social groups, unless I have a role to fulfill – teacher or hostess being the two most frequent. In small dinner parties of 3-4 people, I can relax and talk, enjoying an exchange of ideas with my companions. As soon as the group gets larger, I am inclined to stay quiet, sit slightly apart, observe and rarely speak – once again taking on the position of an outsider looking in to family/group life going on beside me, including when my husband’s country-mates gather for a meal, discussion of soccer, and of the troublesome politics at home.

I am comfortable with silence. Living alone I may talk to my pets, and put on the radio to listen to the news (though rarely these days, there being nothing I care to hear). I equally rarely play music, or feel any need for sound to fill a void I do not experience. It has, you may conclude, therefore been an interesting adaptation to live with my current husband, who grew amidst the constant uproar of a large family in a culture that non-Africans perceive as “noisy”. He plays music even when studying. I’ve learned to enjoy most of his selections, only occasionally asking him to turn the sound down so I can think.

For the four years now that we have been together, I have experienced more of the meaning of family life than in all my years before. I thought I might get to enjoy having a sister but that has not proven true. I have come to deeply appreciate my husband’s unique character, his depth of understanding of his siblings, his learned skill at managing his responsibilities as designated successor to his father and head of the family. I am offering what I can by way of experience and supervision to his/our children with whom we are able to talk daily, thanks to the wonders of a technology that did not exist when I was, at age 12, taken halfway around the world and away from the emotional anchor of weekly visits with my grandfather. Blessings be for What’sApp.

Now, suddenly, I am faced with renewed solitude. Not for long, only about six weeks, but sufficient to make me vividly aware of the way in which I have, over so many years, persistently sought and not found a permanent sense of belonging. What first came to mind, at 3:30 AM, was a story told by my spiritual teacher, of the wealthy ruler who had all the riches of a full and engaged life, but instructed that when he died he should be buried with one open hand left extended above the earth, to show to his people that no matter how much we have in life, no matter how close we are with family and friends, we leave this world empty-handed. Elsewhere, we are reminded that we come into life alone, and leave it alone. Not exactly ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but echoed in the song refrain “all we are is dust in the wind”.

I have no doubt that I will manage my work, my health, my home responsibilities alone while my husband is in his home country attending to the family needs which have just arisen. Political unrest there precludes me accompanying him, as I might otherwise have done. “You will be a target, it is too unsafe.” The U.S, and British embassies have already instructed their citizens in the country not to venture outside the capital city, and we would be traveling to a small village in the heart of the “rebel” region. I am aware that managing life here on my own is not the challenge facing me. I can do that easily enough. Instead, my basic concern is for my husband’s safety and the stress of living day to day with an underlying current of uneasiness, waiting for the next phone call to update me on how he is managing, and to reassure me that he is safe and not, as a recent returnee from the West, targeted to be a hostage in the political upheaval.

I did not find it easy, four years ago, to learn to accept help, a partner, support, suggestions, redirection. But I realize now that I have done that adapting, have relaxed into it, and deeply enjoy it. In consequence, returning to self-reliance, while quite doable is not particularly desirable. I find myself wondering, in the small hours of the night, whether this experience is meant to remind me not to become too dependent on another person? Or simply to give me the opportunity to reflect back on my life overall? Or perhaps both of these, plus the most important reason which is to reinforce the teachings of my Master that the first and only place to look for guidance and support is “in and up” to one’s own Divine essence , as revealed through the grace and the training of the Master. With my attention where it needs to be placed, all else will be as it should be.

Baraka bashad.

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