Embracing Aloneness

One of the fallouts of having an incredibly nurturing childhood was that I developed a fairly unrealistic sense of what I could expect from other people. I had parents who happily let me go on great adventures, even as a young child, but before I left, my dad would always pull me close and whisper in my ear: “If you want to come home…if you need to come home…just say the word, and I’ll come get you.” The fact was, having the sense that I could always come home, meant that I felt an unrestrained freedom to explore. And before reality came knocking, I had this pie-in-the-sky view that no matter where I was, I was not alone—my dad would find me and come get me, if only I said the word.

The thing is, “saying the word” can get fairly complicated. At 26 years old I found myself hiking through a boulder field in Wyoming, with rocks the size of cabins and cavernous cracks between them. I was scared and unsure of my footing and had several heart-stopping, blood-rushing, face-flushing stumbles. It seemed from my vantage, in the midst of the field that the boulders would never end. And though I was out there with other people, we were all struggling through the same terrain, and I couldn’t very well call on them to help me. And I wanted at that point, more than any other time in my life, to call my dad and have him come and get me. But that, of course, wasn’t an option. I had no phone (and no reception for that matter) and there were no homing pigeons in sight. And so I was left with a belated, but nonetheless heartbreaking, realization that as much as my dad meant what he said, there was no way he, or anyone else, could follow through on such a promise.

The raw aloneness terrified me. Especially so because it opened me up to the reality that I wasn’t just alone in the boulder field—that aloneness was a fundamental part of the human condition. Always. As Brain Doyle says in his exquisite essay, Joyas Volardores: “So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart.”

To be comfortable, even grateful, to be alone in the “house of my heart” is gift that I’m tapping into now, at age 29, for the first time in my life. As a child and young adult, with my fantasy in tact, I was sated by the belief that others would make me feel whole. When that fantasy was interrupted, first in the physical world and then in my own emotional world, I was initially shattered.

The last few years of my life have given me an education in aloneness, and it no longer feels terrifying. I am now able to answer the question Oriah Mountain Dreamer asks in her poem “The Invitation, “I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments,” in the affirmative. 

Being content alone however does not preclude a desire for partnership. I want partnership. Absolutely. But I know that the reality of dwelling in my heart and mind alone is steadfast whether I am coupled or single. And while the fantasy of another human being having the capacity to make me feel whole is still alluring, I can at least recognize it as a fantasy.

The question that keeps knocking around inside me now is: how wide do I want to open that window into my heart? And thus far, the answer is wide, wide open. Perhaps too wide, too fast. That I don’t know. But I do know that I haven’t come up with a reason to fasten the window the tight (or even to close it just a hair) besides fear, and while compelling, fear doesn’t seem like a good enough reason in the end.

We can never fully know or be known by another person, but I’d wager that the capacity to open windows wide and move in so close that the lines of separation feel blurred is as equally profound a gift as “liking the company you keep in the empty moments.” Maybe especially so, when you’re moving towards that other heart from a foundation of your own wholeness.