|A stream near Kripalu, in the Berkshires.|
E. B. White, the essayist, wrote about “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” suggesting that spending time alone is important, regardless of whether one has chosen or has been obliged to accept such solitude. According to White, loneliness and privacy are two distinctly different experiences, each to be savored.
In April I wrote about being lonely, and how I was able to find solace in the outdoors. I also posed a question — left it hanging there for the universe to answer: Where did my feelings of loneliness come from? This question, simple yet profound, was one I imagined I would grapple with for months –maybe years, so I was startled when the answer came so suddenly.
After the aforementioned article was published, I heard from a lot of people who had been through, or were currently experiencing, the same things I wrote about. We all agreed that loneliness is a mental or emotional state, something personal — not easily attributed to outside circumstances and situations. Loneliness can be a choice, and in my case I didn’t know I had chosen it.
Recently I traveled to the Berkshires, to a spiritual center, for a yoga and meditation retreat. The program schedule demanded most of my time, but I had an hour or two each afternoon to walk the grounds and explore. I found myself gravitating to the nature trails, and to a certain hilltop where, hidden from the rest of the property by a crescent of flowering shrubs, I could look out over the valley and the lake below. Each day I would go there, by myself — sometimes to read, or to write, or just to stretch out and nap in the sun. Occasionally the loneliness question would cross my mind, but most of the time it just hovered at the periphery of my thoughts, never really asserting itself.
Whenever I attend a workshop or retreat, a good deal of my time — initially — is spent explaining to people, sometimes repeatedly, the correct pronunciation of my name. It is especially problematic when I am asked to wear a name tag, as it is the spelling of my name that generally causes the confusion. One evening during my last retreat, I found myself clenching my fists under the dinner table, smiling politely as my desire to escape grew stronger. Rattling off, yet again, the story behind my name, all I could think about was that solitary spot by the rose garden where I could be alone and at peace.
Excusing myself not long afterwards, I headed straight for my hilltop. Just knowing that I would soon be in one of my favorite situations — alone, in nature — calmed me down. And then suddenly it occurred to me. It was as if a ray of the setting sun had suddenly broken through the trees and beamed right into my forehead: that loneliness I had been carrying around with me for years . . . I had chosen it! Memories, images, fragments of conversation that had been bouncing around together inside my head suddenly fell together in a clear picture. Finally, it all made sense.
I have always struggled with the tension between contentedly being the person I am, and coping with a world which tells us that we should strive to be someone other than ourselves. Since I was a kid I’ve been aware that I am “different” — not just because of my unusual name, but because I’ve never fit comfortably into the mainstream. I admit that the mainstream never really appealed to me in the first place, but somewhere along the line I started believing that I would never measure up to other people’s expectations, and rather than go on happily being who I was in the face of possible rejection, I found it easier to keep to myself, where those judging voices, imagined as they might have been, were quieter, if not silent.
But keeping to oneself can be lonely, and during the past year — despite a close and loving family, a modest social life, and a teaching and writing career — that loneliness just kept growing stronger. Nature was my only solace, and even that was beginning to wear thin. I think we get what we need when we need it, but first — in most cases — something’s got to give. In my case, what had to give was fear — fear of judgment, fear of rejection, fear of pain.
Reaching my spot on the hilltop, I sat down on a bench among hundreds of blooming flowers, and looked down across the valley to the lake. My mind was reeling. “So it was my own misconception of the world, the voices that existed only in my head . . .” I said to myself, “That was what made me feel so miserable?” At first it was hard to accept that my loneliness had been self-imposed. But then understood that if I had created my own problems, then I too would be responsible for making them go away. I only had to find the courage to move forward, to change the way I viewed the world and the people around me. Was that possible? Sitting on that bench, watching the reflection of the setting sun on the surface of the lake, I realized that the change had already begun.
I wish I could say that everything is different now. It’s not that easy. But something has changed, that’s for sure. That chorus of negative judgment is quieting. I’m walking with lighter steps these days.
And just in time, because it’s my favorite time of year. Everything is green, green, green — the trees, the fields, the marshes along the rivers. The sun is warm, the rains are strong, even the winds feel as if they have a purpose. As spring eases into summer there is a pervading sense of promise, of renewal. Flowers bloom in bursts of vibrant color and baby birds peck out of their protective shells. Mother Nature begins to bear her gifts.
These days I am attracted to the lush places — Webster Sanctuary with its verdant pastures, the vividly colored salt marshes, the rolling hills and valleys of the Berkshires. I feel as if I’ve stepped into a new cycle of life. I feel hopeful, renewed, full of promise. The loneliness is abating.
by Kezia Bacon, Special to the Mariner
Kezia Bacon’s articles are provided by the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.