How loneliness made Valerie Monroe feel a little less alone.
I had spent the summer Saturday by myself, meandering through a part of the city I was still, after 30 years here, unfamiliar with, and it had yielded up a banquet of pleasure. A small, old, redbrick church, and next to it, protected by a black wrought-iron fence, a pristine lawn dotted with pale, deep-set gravestones, tilting one way and another in the dappled late-afternoon sunlight. A hidden lane, bright green moss sprouting thickly between its cobblestones, leading down toward the riverbank and a series of playful bronze sculptures of baby animals tumbling in the grass.
Around suppertime I realized that I wasn't far from one of my favorite restaurants. I rarely go there, because it's expensive and always packed, but I thought I might be able to sit at the bar and have a dozen of their tasty oysters and a glass of wine. After all the meandering, I was very hungry. I
could see from the street that there was one seat left at the bar, already crowded with people who seemed to have recently napped and showered and spent some time figuring out what to wear and who now looked especially fine and happy to see one another. I was feeling a little bit like Pigpen, in my dusty sandals and shift. But I wanted those oysters. (And that glass of Chablis.) So I went in, navigated the crowd, excuse me'd over to the empty seat, and sat down, a bit self-consciously. I was a middle-aged woman alone at a bar among strangers. Where were my friends? Didn't I have any? My own personal bugaboo settled over me like a soggy towel, seriously dampening my pleasure: Was this experience my first step on the path that leads inexorably to rubber-soled flats, loose, tentlike garments, and an obsessive interest in public television?
I sighed aloud. If that was my future, I might as well enjoy myself getting there. I asked the bartender to recommend a wine. He offered me a taste of something delicious. The first dozen oysters were so astoundingly good, I had to have a second. As I was savoring them—deeply savoring them—I became aware of the couple sitting next to me. He was chattering animatedly while she, half-listening, watched my every slurp and sip. Finally, she interrupted him: "I have to have what she's having," she said, pointing at my plate.
I was completely happy. Why had I felt a need to judge or label myself? (Middle-aged woman eating and drinking alone, no friends, crazy lady.) I've been running away from being alone all my life, even though I often enjoy it. I've avoided it because Loneliness, Being Alone's ugly stepsister, is uncomfortable, sometimes painful. It's the pain that sociologist Robert S. Weiss, PhD, describes as "separation distress without an object": You're longing for connection but don't know with what or whom. Which—in me, anyway—leads to a kind of emotional chaos. Not long after my date with the oysters, I began to wonder what would happen if I could tolerate that distress without reaching out to anchor myself with a phone call or an e-mail, a book, the television, a plate of shellfish. If I could just be with the loneliness without trying to fix it. To do that, I'd have to let go of the judgments I'd attached to being alone—that it's a problem, a punishment for not being good enough in some way.
One night alone in my apartment, I felt restless and sad. The water on the river outside my window was unusually dark, opal-black, smooth as glass. A barge sat parked just a little upriver; a string of twinkling white lights hung festively along its deck. It was too early to go to sleep—I wasn't tired anyway—but too late to go out. I didn't feel like reading. I thought about making a phone call; didn't really feel like that, either. I missed my husband. I missed my son. I even missed my mother. What to do with myself? I was staring out my window at that beautiful barge with nothing to do, no one to speak to. Just a person, staring out the window. Can you understand what I mean when I say that as I allowed the feeling of loneliness to arise in me I felt a heartbreaking compassion, recognizing that every person everywhere throughout history has been subject to the very same loneliness I was feeling in that moment? I started to weep, with sadness and awe and grief and joy. I felt connected to the world in a new, different way, admiring the capability of the heart to hold all those feelings at once. Such strong feelings! And of course because it was my heart, too, how full I felt, and complete.
This profound loneliness was, in fact, exactly the opposite of what I'd always been afraid of. I had, I realized, once again meandered into a place that I was, after many years, still unfamiliar with. And once again, it had yielded up a banquet of pleasure, unexpected and glorious.