Now there’s a word that scared the daylights out of me.
The thought of being alone stirred up a restlessness inside of me that soon heightened to nothing short of anxiety. Being secluded or separated from other people caused me to feel trepidation, which I managed to hide well for a very long time.
I grew up the youngest of three sisters in a relatively small family. No aunts or uncles on my mother’s side since she was an only child. My father was the youngest of his family and most of my cousins from his side were old enough to have been my parents. So my fate was always to be the youngest in a family of older folks.
Even my own sisters were considerably older than I was. When I was a youngster interested in playing ‘house’ with my dolls and tootling around on a tricycle, they were teenagers interested in boys, music, and their friends.
Honestly, I experienced a lonely childhood being the youngest. My sisters were beyond the age of playing with me or even having the arguments and little spats that most siblings experience. In essence, it felt like I was an only child. By the time I was six, my oldest sister got married and by age nine, my next sister joined the ranks of wedded folks.
I can still feel how loneliness washed over me time and time again even though I lived in a loving home with two parents and my maternal elderly grandparents until they passed away when I was nine. And I can distinctly remember the scary feeling of finding myself…well… by myself.
Embedded in my memories are incidences when I jumped off the school bus after a day spent learning, skipped home, and couldn’t find my mother, who was either in the basement doing the laundry or somewhere where she wasn’t in clear sight when I walked through the kitchen door. Near panic seized me and I would run frantically through the house shouting for my mom only feeling at ease again when I heard her familiar voice calling back.
Didn’t like it. I avoided it as often as I could. And that mode of operation continued through my teen years and even into adulthood. Oh, I would sequester myself into my bedroom reading, listening to music, or daydreaming alone just like any normal teen girl but I still felt assured when someone else, either mom or dad, was at home with me.
Because I didn’t want to be totally alone. Privacy was one thing but isolation was the scary monster lurking around any solitude.
Feeling off balance from that loneness was one of the hardest obstacles I encountered when I graduated from college (never had to be alone then as there were always friends and a roommate nearby), secured a teaching job in a town a couple of hours away from my family, and moved into an apartment alone.
I hated it. I dreaded coming home from a long day of teaching middle schoolers to an empty and lonely apartment with absolutely no one there. No family. No roommate. No pets. Nothing. Just me and the solitude of an attic apartment on a quiet street in a town where I didn’t know a soul.
Just so I had someone to converse and spend time with, I became fast friends with my neighboring landlady whose husband worked night shifts. She was kind and didn’t seem to mind when I showed up at her door so I didn’t have to endure an evening by myself.
My phone bill (in those days long before cell phones) was high with long distance calls to my parents, my boyfriend (who lived quite a distance away from me), friends, anyone to talk to so I wouldn’t feel so alone. One lonely evening everyone I telephoned wasn’t home. Since there were no answering machines, the sound of the ringing phone in my ear just droned on and on while no one answered. It felt like I was the only human being on planet earth. Again that scary feeling of isolation reared its head overwhelming me. I literally cried myself to sleep many nights hating the seclusion and separation I felt, totally forlorn.
Being by myself seemed like the worst solitary confinement on earth. I came to the realization that my idea of never marrying was ridiculous. I was not equipped to live life alone without a loving spouse to share it with. So I was ecstatic when my boyfriend proposed to me. Married, I wouldn’t be alone.
Fast forward several years. Three children growing up in our household in the suburbs meant lots of activities and a noisy household filled with people. And even though my husband traveled overnight in his position as a sales rep, I wasn’t completely alone since children, friends, and neighbors were always around, and I kept busy all the time so I wouldn’t actually have much ‘by myself time.’
Recently I found an old journal from a ladies’ retreat I attended one weekend many years ago with my church. I recall how lovely and fun it was socializing and studying God’s Word with the sweet gals there, but one of our scheduled activities was to go off and find a quiet spot in the idyllic setting – a retreat center in the woods of the Pacific Northwest – and spend time alone.
I can still recall how unsettled that made me feel. This is what I wrote in that journal dated September 24, 1996 – exactly 20 years ago this week:
We talked about waiting for the Lord, quiet time, and solitude. The retreat center here is perfect for this. But solitude and quietness are scary to me. I’ve realized I tend to fill up my time with chatter and being with others. I would really like to change that. I desire quietness sometimes because of all the noise and hustle and bustle of our household but I also fear the silence. Sometimes I feel like I’m on sensory overload between the kids, the TV, the noise of traffic, etc., and I’m angry when someone interrupts what little bit of silence we get by turning on the TV or stereo. Right now, I enjoy the quietness I have in the mornings after my husband’s gone to work and the kids have gone off to school. But still a part of me doesn’t want to be alone in solitude. I’ve feared that all my life. I do realize though that I’m not alone. The Lord is always with me if only I choose to be with Him.
Apparently, what I wrote then I soon forgot because after that retreat I continued to fill up my time so I wouldn’t be by myself. Classroom volunteering and parent teacher organizations at my children’s schools, sports boosters, church activities galore, leading Bible studies, social engagements, lunches with friends, and even 13 years spent filling up my ‘spare time’ with a part-time position in a ministry I had a real passion for. I wasn’t happy unless my calendar spaces were full of things to keep me from spending time alone.
I think that’s why the empty nest hit me like a ton of bricks, knocking me off center, and honestly, freaking me out. Our home, which had been a busy beehive of activity for so long, sat silent when our last child graduated from college and moved out of state to begin his career. My last living parent, my beloved Dad, passed away the year before that. My husband was still working long hours even though he wasn’t traveling any more. But suddenly, I was alone. Really alone. A lot.
That’s when I turned to this blog and pouring my heart and soul into writing posts for it. Still filling up those moments of solitude by reaching out to you, my readers, via this online highway of connectedness.
Circumstances have changed significantly lately. My home is no longer a picture of quiet solitude. For the last 18 months, our daughter and granddaughter have found sanctuary from a heartbreaking situation by living with Papa and me. Our home is filled with busyness, laughter, and noise again with our sweet little one. My quiet time is sparse because while her Mama resumes doing what she is so very good at, her hospital nursing career, Little One is under Nana’s care.
Other life changes once again derailed our train of well-made plans when my husband was unwillingly forced into semi-retirement at age 61 this year, but he is happy and contented working part-time in a position where he just fulfills his job duties at work and then comes home and can forget about it. The weighed down boulder of responsibilities he once had has been lifted and he no longer brings his job and its problems home with him. Peace of mind is priceless, it’s true.
I haven’t had much alone time for over a year and a half, and I’ve shocked myself by actually missing some solitude. But even in the midst of all these changes and the return of a busy household, I do get snippets of time when Daughter and Little One are away and Papa, working various hours in a more random schedule, is also gone and I am alone.
I can do whatever I feel like doing or not. I can sit on the front porch swing uninterrupted and read. I can clean out a closet and reminisce over the things I find there. Or I can just curl up on the family room couch, enjoy the silence, and do nothing. And here’s the shocking revelation – I like it.
I’ve come to appreciate those moments of solitude, something I never thought would happen. Finally, in my quiet alone time, I realize that I’m not feeling lonely, or isolated, or fearful. It’s a surprise to me. And a welcome one at that.
I truly do have the best company and always have. His presence wraps around me like the warm, fuzzy fleece throw that is draped over our easy chair. He has promised to never leave me, never forsake me, and never leave me feeling alone. The issues and problems of life still continue but He helps me face them and persevere through them.
I like the way devotional author Erin Keeley Marshall once wrote of Him, “Next time loneliness hits, imagine yourself resting in the shelter of his palm, and realize being alone is an impossibility since his hand never lets you go.”
Who is He? My Savior, my Redeemer, my Jesus. And I believe I’m finally accepting and yes, embracing the lesson about solitude He’s tried to teach me for all of these years.
“Isolation is aloneness that feels forced upon you, like a punishment. Solitude is aloneness you choose and embrace. I think great things can come out of solitude, out of going to a place where all is quiet except the beating of your heart.” -Jeanne Marie Laskas