Loneliness and the Really Tiny Gang

Around 4:30, a tiredness came over me so intense I felt like I might fall asleep sitting up. Everything in me wanted to go take a nap. But at my age, napping that late in the day is a surefire recipe for a shitty night’s sleep, and I decided — reluctantly — to put my sneakers on for a walk instead.

I had my first crocus sighting of the year at a client’s house earlier in the day. Yellow, three tiny flowers clustered together against the mid-March chill, but no doubt in full bloom despite the temperature. The sun grows stronger each day, and the coming of spring means I’ve run or walked more days than not over the last weekend.

Walking turned out to be a good call. It almost always does. By the time I reached town — about a half mile from home — I remembered that walking is when I think most clearly. It literally wakes my body and mind back up after too many hours of sitting.

At the corner of Routes 9 and 116, I pushed the “walk” button and waited for the light to turn. I crossed over onto the Amherst College campus, taking in the blue sky, thinking about the recent admissions scandal. A young woman of color walked past; our eyes met briefly and we smiled hello. I wondered how many times she has encountered someone asking her how she got in to such an elite school. I noticed how attuned my thinking is to these inequities so embedded in our institutions. And I walked.

Campus was surprisingly quiet for a Monday afternoon. As I wound my way between multi-million dollar buildings, I remembered the Ph.D. student I dated very briefly when I was a Starbucks barista the summer of 1997. He lived in those little staff apartments, the ones near the bike path. He died last year of cancer; it was in the local news since he had stayed at Amherst College as a member of the African-American Studies faculty. I recalled the conversations we had well over 20 years ago about race, about religion, about music. And how I was so reluctant to go beyond the banter.

As I walked back up towards town, peeking into the windows of a brightly lit dining hall, I suddenly remembered being 16 and taking a Spanish class in a nearby building. I was a junior in high school. It wasn’t until the next fall that I began to implode completely; by the fall of 1991 when I was 17 and a freshman at Scripps College — where I lasted a year — I was in the throes of bulimia and an isolation exacerbated from feeling like a fish out of water on a manicured Southern California campus where my suitemates were more interested in drinking and guys than in school.

So much circles back to this time in my life.

Though as I walked today, what I really touched into was loneliness. It dawned on me that I was deeply lonely for so much of my life. I would go do the things — school, social gatherings even — but then retreat into some soothing, destructive habit in secret, one where I could be fully with myself, the self I abandoned every time I raised my hand in class, smiled, interacted with another human being. I didn’t know how to be myself in the world. I only knew how to feel like myself alone. I would binge and purge and then smoke and write. Later, after I “recovered” from the eating disorder, I would just smoke. I remained a closet smoker on and off for a very long time.

This lonely self, she lives in me still. Sometimes I have to stop and actually look around my life to make sure I’m really here, the impulse to vanish so wired in me.

It occurred to me on my walk that the idea of needing to figure something out is also a form of not being all the way here, or perhaps it’s a way of trying to make sure I’m doing enough. Whatever it is, it’s rooted in absence, in lack. I asked myself, my jacket sleeves pulled down over my hands for warmth, what if there is nothing to figure out? What if this is it, this is my life, and I am just taking a walk? What if there’s no big question to answer or problem to solve? Nothing to hide from and nothing to seek?

Dude, right?

Sometimes I fall under then false impression that everyone else is working on something important. It’s a form of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) I think. Anytime “everyone else” becomes part of a thought, it’s a good sign to call bullshit. Everyone else is also living their lives, remembering their past selves, recovering from painful shit or avoiding recovery, wondering if “this is it.”

Yes, this is it.

That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. Aren’t you glad you kept reading? Ha.

I can plague myself with the past and over-identify with that teenager. I can plague myself with the present and the messages that I should be more. Or I can crouch down to look at the crocus, swing my arms at my sides, and remember all of it without getting swallowed by my thoughts.

I stopped at Hastings, the stationary store in town, to pick up a birthday card for my sister, who turns 51 on Thursday. It’s super cute, with a picture of two little penguins holding waffle cones and balloons. The card says, “We’re more than friends. We’re like a really tiny gang.”

And I realize that is how it has always been for me. I have been my own really tiny gang. And little by little over the years, I’ve met up with some incredible people who are also really tiny gangs unto themselves. We might still be alone in some ways, but alone is not the same as isolated. Alone is not the same as hiding. Alone is not the same as lonely.

And as I wrote in a group not long ago, lonely isn’t an emergency.

I’m glad I went for that walk today. It woke me up in more ways than one. When I got home, I did some work and then made dinner for myself, Aviva, and Aviva’s friend who’s spending the night. My beautiful daughter reminded me that I am not a teenage girl; I told her she is absolutely right. And you know what, I’m really glad. I’m glad I grew up to be this person, who gets to be her mom, who gets to be a writer, who gets to be with other amazing tiny-gang types.

I had no idea when I sat down to write what would happen. I procrastinated a little. I ate ice cream and checked Facebook and thought oh shit, what if I can’t come up with anything, or what if it's no good? After all this time blogging, the blinking cursor can still stop me in my tracks.

I’m offering the Mini Memoirs group again this April. It has been about a year. Each time, I’ve written alongside everyone else, and I intend to do that again this round. What age, what moment, will I return to? I might not know until we begin.