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or why you haven't heard from me in a while
I know, I know. Loneliness is at an all-time high. It’s the sneaky, insidious epidemic that is seriously underreported in how much life-force it robs us of.
I have Vivek Murthy’s book in the big stack at my bedside, and haven’t read it yet. I already know what it is going to say–a version of what I preach almost every week at a church in a liberal city that boasts about its weirdness but considers Christianity a little too weird. “Being part of a community has protective health factors far beyond almost anything else we can imagine. And (often) it’s free. So even if you don’t believe in God, or aren’t sure what you believe, it just makes sense to do something as counterculture as go to church.”
I preach it, because I know it’s true. I know what happens when humans don’t have enough real relationships, particularly with people who challenge them gently and lovingly; when they spend too much time in the echo chamber of their own mind; when anxiety snags them and buckles them into a little cart and takes them on a hellride with no destination, no getting off the ride, ever, just a series of funhouse doors with increasingly macabre images on them.
Being in community slows down the ride. It stops it. It allows us to get off and stand on shaky legs and feel the earth beneath our feet. To focus on what really matters, and what might be true. Chiefly: something besides our own narrow concerns and obsessions.
I was distinctly Not Lonely for 30 years. Before that, I was lonely a lot. I thought I was doomed to be congenitally lonely, despite having the best best friends, and interesting colleagues, and siblings who delighted me. But beneath it all there was a loneliness I couldn’t shake. Then, this boy who was a friend became my boyfriend. He pretty much moved in the week after our first kiss, and never moved out.
After that, I began serving a series of communities that were full of extremely talkative extroverts. These were communities where I didn’t feel like an interloper, but like someone who was wanted, needed, known and loved. In the midst of that, I had two children who were extremely talkative extroverts. When Rafe was about 7 and Carmen 3, and we were driving somewhere and they were both talking to me nonstop from the backseat, I pulled over, turned around, and said: “Will you PLEASE talk to each OTHER for a change? It’s why I had 2 of you.”
Periodically, a sister or another sister or a parent would move into my house, sometimes for years. Nope. No loneliness for me.
But about a month ago, something odd happened. First, my older kid moved in with his girlfriend for the summer. Then, my younger kid went to work at summer camp 3,000 miles away, for 7 weeks. Six weeks longer than we’d ever been separated before. She didn’t call, she didn’t write. She was finally, amazingly, an older teen who had better things to do than yuk it up with her mom!
I travelled for a bit: to see one of my sisters and her extremely talkative extroverted kids, then to a convention with 2,000+ extremely talkative and (at least temporarily) extroverted UCCers.
A convention at which I finally, and flamboyantly, got Covid for the first time.
It didn’t hit me till about 5 days later. I woke up for church on Sunday and had a scratchy throat, but tested negative. I felt the freight train of fever coming for me that night, but still tested negative. By the next night, after being pinned to the bed with pain, exhaustion and ontological angst all day, I realized I had to *think* about breathing in order to breathe. I took another test: finally positive.
I was really sick for a couple of days. Then pretty darn sick for a week or so. Then still really quite compromised for another couple weeks after that (part of why you haven’t heard from me).
And I spent a lot of time alone. At first, to not get Peter sick, we slept apart. Then when he started hacking anyway, we stayed in separate bedrooms so we wouldn’t wake each other up.
For days, I drifted from room to empty room, not able to do much but make bone broth and pour it down my throat. I was interacting a little bit by Zoom, but for the most part, my world was quiet and empty, and the few other humans I encountered felt like ghosts (or maybe I was the ghost?).
There have been times, many times, in the past three Covid years (like dog years, each one is a multiple of itself) in my tiny Bay Area house and my busy church when I have wanted to scream “CAN I JUST HAVE A FEW FUCKING MOMENTS TO MYSELF? CAN I JUST BE TRULY ALONE?!?!” My lifelong extroversion had cut and run. I wondered if I was changing from the inside out–if maybe I needed to go find a mountain and be a hermit for a decade or three.
I was finally getting my wish, due to illness and circumstance. And it was good–sort of. Really good! Mostly.
Something else happened in the past month to turbocharge my solitude. It turns out: Peter and I hocked everything and bought a place in the woods, on the Bear River in the Sierra foothills, a heavenly slice of sun, river, oak, pine, manzanita and lichen-covered granite outcroppings. It’s amazing!!!
So I’ve spent the past month, when I wasn’t doing my day job or hacking up a lung or taking to my bed with recurrent chills and fever, turning the place into an Airbnb. Eventually, it’ll become base camp for healing retreats of the psychedelic and other flavors. More on that later! But for these past few weeks, it has been my own healing retreat, where I have been entirely, splendidly, blissfully alone.
Except for all the new neighbors I’ve been getting to know. Abundant un-shy deer, curious gray foxes, omniscient vultures keeping a hungry eye on me, hawks, bats, alligator lizards, blue tailed skinks, hummingbirds, perfect little praying mantises, ticks, wolf spiders, polliwogs and mama frogs, small mouth bass, trout and (says the neighborhood rumor mill) bear and mountain lions (as yet unspotted by me).
(actual photos from our land!)
But they all went about their way, not stopping too long to chitchat. They didn’t ask me to solve their problems. They didn’t crowd me. I occasionally fed them (a blood meal, to the yellowjackets and mosquitos), but I didn’t even have to get up from my beach chair to do it.
(another actual photo from our land!)
It has been really something to spend time without the call of so many needs, unless it is the need to scrub grout or whack weeds or argue with insurance companies so that your Airbnb can start paying the mortgage. Women in particular spend so much of our adult lives tending the needs of others that we literally have no idea after a while what we ourselves like or need, what we want to do next, or even what we think or feel. A few weeks of quiet convalescence is not enough to mitigate several decades of high-intensity caregiving. But it’s an interesting and worthwhile endeavor.
My Enneagram coach tells me that 3s have trouble identifying and then actually feeling feelings–because feelings aren’t efficient, and we 3s have Things. To. Do. We don’t have the luxury of letting feelings slow us down. But this was one of the gifts of getting Covid pretty bad–there was a lot of time to feel. I wasn’t getting sucked into other people’s emotional fields (except for Peter, fellow 3, who was likewise low-key, another ghost). It was finally quiet enough in my world to hear what my own heart was saying.
And what my stomach was saying! Mostly, past the bone-broth stage, it didn’t want to a 5-course feast. It wanted cheese and good carrots from the farm stand down the road.
After a week or two of that, I realized: hey! I’m a little lonely! My lifelong extrovert was creeping back from the long cruise she’d gone on, wearing a big floppy hat and Elizabeth Taylor sunglasses. I missed PEOPLE and movement and loud storytelling and the back and forth of human drama. I wasn’t meant to be a hermit after all! Or maybe just a part-time hermit. I began to miss cooking for people! (and here’s where I need to take the advice I give to folks who live alone when they say it’s not worth it to cook for one–YOU matter enough to make a feast for).
I realize how much I need not just lizards and hawks but those other wild creatures, humans, to echolocate. To understand where I am in space, and who I am, and whose I am. I really do think I’d be some kind of maniac if I didn’t have people regularly intruding into my life and thoughts. Calling me in. Calling me to earth. Asking for help. Offering theirs. Or just being together in companionable silence or stirring conversation about nothing and everything.
I’ve decided strategic solitude is what I want more of in my life. Like Jesus got, escaping to pray, then being pursued by the crowds, or coming back down the mountain to instant noisy, quarrelsome, festive community. One of my favorite words in Spanish is muchedumbre, crowd. It’s a word that comes up a lot in the Spanish-language Bible: “the crowds,” usually in reference to the scrum that surrounded Jesus. It’s so onomatopoeic.
Strategic solitude, for me, is the human need to be alone, with dignity, often in nature, listening to God or just finding out how we feel and what we like and need apart from the emotional fields of others. But then: returning to community so we don’t get too deep into our own heads, and forget that we actually belong, that we need one another, that that mutual needing is not an embarrassment but how we were created by design–a herd species.
Sorry this post is so…self-referential and solipsistic, even as so much is going on in the world. (pray and weep for Lahaina and Maui! As the world burns…and pray for our political landscape. It’s just SO MUCH ALL THE TIME). But it’s been such an odd, wonderful summer, so different from my normal lovely hectic life for the last 30 years, that I needed to swim to the surface of it with you and look around.
And maybe you need the encouragement, too, to take some strategic solitude–both to hear your own heart, and to appreciate your people again when you’re back with them. Or maybe you need the reminder, if you’ve been alone a lot, that it’s OK to need people, or to need even more people than the ones you already have, because you find yourself a little lonely or a little maniacal, and your brain, as Anne Lamott says, has become a bad neighborhood you shouldn’t go into alone at night.
Now let’s get down to brass tacks. What’s for dinner? Whether you are feasting for one or with a muchedumbre, here’s a recipe that will make a LOT of yummy, healthy food for whoever is at the dinner table for not much effort or cost.
Summer Brown Rice Salad Recipe
2 cups short grain brown rice (or your favorite rice, nothing too sticky)
Water for cooking rice
Brick of feta or vegan feta
The best cherry tomatoes you can find
Red, yellow or orange bell peppers
½ cup pitted kalamata olives or oil-cured olives, or better yet BOTH kinds
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup good thick balsamic vinegar
¼ cup good soy sauce (I like San-J organic tamari)
Anything else you want to add from the fridge! Cooked chicken, salami, other odds and ends of cheese, other fresh or roasted veg, torn spinach leaves, etc.--but nothing too wet
Cook rice and let cool. Add olive oil, balsamic, and soy sauce and toss (I know. It sounds weird. It’s not–it’s really umami and good.) Taste it and add more of one or all of the above condiments, to taste. Chop the tomatoes, peppers and onion and add. Fine-chop the oil cured olives (if you’re using them…they are really worth seeking out in a gourmet grocery store) and leave the kalamata olives whole and add them, along with the feta and the “anything else” you want to use up.
This salad is hearty and a crowd-pleaser at potlucks, can sit in the sun for a while and only gets better, and lasts for days.
What I’m reading right now:
Kate Cohen and I went to college together where we were both Comp Lit majors. Now she writes columns for the Washington Post, and has a new book about coming out as an atheist, brilliantly titled We of Little Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (and Maybe You Should Too). It’s smart, sweet, funny, sensible and entirely good. We’re gonna interview each other next week for our alumni magazine.
And my guilty pleasure this week is a cozy murder mystery about a sassy woman pastor and an equally charming vice-principal in a small NH town, Death at Fair Havens, by my friend Maren Tirabassi and her daughter Maria. Everything Maren (who is primarily a poet and preacher) writes is stunning; this is an entirely new genre for her and it’s SO good!
Love you! Now go outside and put your face in the sun!