The title of this post may be familiar to many of you as a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” in which she writes, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely/ the world offers itself to your imagination.” I’ve been thinking of these lines, particularly the first one because of what it says about loneliness. Sometimes, when I’m traveling for work especially, I find myself feeling just a little lonely. Calling my 16-year-old son at home, I discover he’s a little lonely too. While it might seem like the obvious solution for me to go home to him and quell both our lonelinesses, I know it isn’t the right thing at the moment, and waiting a day until my time here is done is fine.
All of this has been thinking about how, in this culture and in so many of our lives, we are finely trained to jump through any hoop to avoid loneliness, and if we land there, to quickly swim out, no matter the cost. Even more than boredom, loneliness is something most of have been experts at avoiding because it kind of hurts. Just a little or very much.
I think about the biggest lonelinesses I’ve experienced in my life, mostly during my 16th year when I lived alone in a suburban house with my father after my parents’ horrendous divorce, and I was cut off from most of my family. None of the neighbors talked to us or to each other. I think of when I first moved to my own apartment after college, in the middle of Kansas City, where I was so lonely sleeping on blankets on the floor because I didn’t yet have much furniture. I think of other moments of loneliness: at holiday events surrounded by family, at a relative’s wedding, in an office in the middle of the day for no real reason.
Loneliness is like that: it can strike us anywhere, anytime although it is particularly prone to show up at the moments when we feel especially apart from others, from any sense of community, place, friendship, love.
But loneliness is also not without its odd loveliness. The times I was lonely were the times I noticed even more of the details of the world. Garrison Keillor told a story I heard on A Prairie Home Companion years ago about how someone, feeling very sad and alone, noticed for the first time the exquisite embroidery on a pillowcase. Loneliness can give us that vision.
It was only in feeling lonely as a teenager and as a young woman that I came to know more about who I was, what strength and resiliency I was capable of, and what kind of connection with community I need most to thrive. Because I grew up lonely in the suburbs, as an adult, I cultivated a life festooned in community. Because I lived alone in the city, I came to understand how much I needed to live close to trees and fields to come home to myself.
This is not to say that there aren’t people suffering tremendously from loneliness all the time and even many who do die of extreme isolation. We’re made with Velcro hearts. We need one another in one way or another (save the occasional genuine hermit who probably bonds with the plants and animals, spirits and thoughts around him).
At the same time, in whatever lonelinesses we traverse, the world offers itself to our imaginations. In those moments, no matter who we are, we can sometimes hear best the beating of our own hearts, the pulse of the world around, within and beyond ourselves.