Whoever You Are, No Matter How Lonely

This entry was posted on May 30, 2012 by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg.

Wild Geese

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.

About Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the Poet Laureate of Kansas, and the author of 14 books, including a forthcoming novel, The Divorce Girl; The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community & Coming Home to the Body (Ice Cube Books); and four collections of poetry. Founder of Transformative Language Arts – a master's program in social and personal transformation through the written, spoken and sung word at Goddard College (Goddard College); where she teaches, Mirriam-Goldberg also leads writing workshops widely. With singer Kelley Hunt, she co-writes songs, offers collaborative performances, and leads writing and singing Brave Voice retreats (www.BraveVoice.com); and she blogs regularly at her website (www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.wordpress.com)

3 responses to “Whoever You Are, No Matter How Lonely”

  1. Avatar Gail says:

    What an exquisite evocation of that feeling I have felt too. Lonely in the middle of groups, crowds, even among kind people who think they know me but don’t. That feeling of solitude, about which so much has been written, now tells me what a strong individual I am and how distinct and separate my self is. At the same time that feeling has increased my emotional vision to discern and treasure real friends, including those who happen to be family too.

  2. Avatar Charlotte says:

    So eloquently articulated and arriving at my inbox when it seems I need it most. Loneliness seems to be associated with divorce on every level; before, during and after. I, in doing everything that I could to spare my children pain from what I felt was my failure to “save my marriage”, find myself 1000 miles away from the people who love me and a culture that embraces everyone surrounded by ex-laws that have never expressed true emotions. My eldest daughter is graduating from HS this weekend and because of illness and other obstacles, no one will be able to attend. LONELY has been attacking me daily. thankful for my yogi.

  3. Avatar Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg says:

    Charlotte and Gail, thank you so much for these moving responses. I love what you say about discernment, Gail, and congrats on your daughter’s graduation although I can feel the loneliness you talk about here for yourself and her. Wishing all of us peace and ways through.

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