Not many people know this because there are those loved ones who think I shouldn’t share such personal information with the cyber world. But since I think those loved ones are my only readers anyway, I don’t see why not. So here’s the big secret: For exactly half the month while handy hubby works, I am alone out here. Half the month I go a week or more sometimes without seeing another human being in the flesh, or without hearing an actual voice not garbled by static. I’ve complained in this blog about the ever-growing list of challenges to my recently adopted rural life, so it seems strange that until now I wouldn’t write about the very biggest one of them all: Solitude.
I know very few people have experienced anything like it. Consider, before you believe you can relate, just because you feel alone in your head or at your desk, or maybe you imagine you are not really registering the dozens if not hundreds of personal human interactions you are having each day, but this is something entirely new for me. I was always one to appreciate solitude, but I see now it was because I didn’t have that much of it. Imagine for a second, a married woman totally alone half the month, no children, only virtual colleagues, very few neighbors, no real schedule, no real boss, no employees. Almost complete flexibility. Almost no responsibilities. Almost total freedom. A long time pursuit of mine achieved prematurely par hazard. It sounds so easy but nothing and no one could have prepared me for the toughest part of it. It’s unbearably lonely sometimes. Not only are there very few people, there are only a handful who would ever choose to be in such isolation, literally or figuratively, even if given every opportunity.
If I have one physical human interaction in a week it’s because I found some excuse to go to town or to visit the neighbors. The internet is my only lifeline to civilization. My truest connection at the moment is to nature, and I think we are really starting to understand each other. Maybe I am facing my fears, because since childhood my worst dreams always centered around losing virtual connection – the perpetual busy signal, or for hours a line where I can’t get through for some unknown reason, or I can’t remember or find the phone number, or the number’s been disconnected, the buttons won’t push, there’s no dial tone, or oh my god, the line’s been cut! Nowadays the dreams are more often a screen that won’t respond or storms that take out the satellite.
If you’ve traveled seriously you know what I’m talking about, at least to some degree. You have to get used to some degree of loneliness as a traveler. It’s not as challenging today as it once was, now that it’s so much easier to stay connected. What I most remember about my stay with a French family in 1984 is the loneliness. I was a hyper-self-conscious 15-year old with little means of communicating on an isolated family farm for the first time. I cried so much the family was probably shocked I stayed. I came home a different person, a better person, a stronger person I instinctively felt.
In the Peace Corps something similar happened. Along with the regular symptoms of occasional purposelessness, emptiness, lethargy, there bloomed something more. But in the thick of it, it was bitterly lonely and that’s all I could feel. It wasn’t friendships, or a lack of them, it was a lack of deeper connections.
The inner and outer journeys share the common instinct of exploration, that’s what drives the explorers among us to pursue them. They also share the common features of surplus time and adequate means and ample courage. Just like those lonely days as an exchange student and PCV, they set a precedent of self-reliance, they open new worlds, they teach humility. Without these travails I wouldn’t be who or where I am today – someone with excessive time, enough means, and compounding courage in order to thoughtfully observe loneliness, no doubt the fear of which helps induce us to adapt to many of the laws and various unpleasantnesses of civilization.
We love to brag about the outward journeys, sometimes keeping track on a map with little pins, different colors for the places we’ve been and those we still plan to visit. The green pins on Paris and London and Prague for “Been There”; the red pins on Moscow and Istanbul and Buenos Aires for “Going Soon.” But where do we keep track of the inward journeys? From whom do we gain bragging rights for the trips through Pain, Failure, Rejection, Loneliness? Where are the pins to stick on future stops at Loss, Disease, Humiliation? I guess we don’t celebrate those because we don’t want to go there so much. But then again, maybe if we had less fear of life’s travails then we might find both our travels and our connections would become far more meaningful.
Some are so disturbed by what they find on those journeys inside or out that they instinctively retreat and only go back if absolutely forced by circumstance. How do you comfort these poor cowards of love and life? I can only offer this advice: If you embrace solitude and heed nature’s voice now, you’re sure to avoid pricey therapy later. Otherwise, prepare to live the rest of your days among those sad civilized individuals in perpetual fear of the wild side.