On Solitude

 

The day after the funeral, Ms. Kathy, my stepmother, gave Marnie my dad’s shoebox of photos. She said he always intended for her to have them; she had just been holding on to them for a little bit longer, but they were hers. On the car ride home, I quickly sifted through the photos and found one of him and me at my oldest brother’s high school graduation. We’re doing our best to capture that selfie magic fifteen years before that was a word and there was no way to see if a re-take was in order. Looking at the photo, I remembered having come to the graduation with him, running up the auditorium steps to say hello to my mom and sisters, before running back to my dad. “Hey! Let’s take our picture!” he said.

When I got back to Guatemala, I wedged the photo in my bathroom mirror. It seemed like an insane decision at the time because when I sit up on my bed, the picture is right in my line of vision and the sight of it used to send me into a gale of tears. But it stayed up. When I get back to the States, I’m probably going to blow it up and get it framed even though my smile is bigger than my borderline emaciated adolescent face and the creamy crack had my hair resembling an actual crackhead’s because I was too afraid back then to face the reality that relaxers didn’t love my coils and I’d be better off natural.

I stare at the photo and marvel at the striking resemblance my present bears to that segment of my past. My head looks the same because even though my hair is much longer and thicker, this mountain climate has no love for my curls, so I can never break free from the protective style and channel my inner Diana Ross. Nah, I am forever serving Ms. Celie realness and I don’t even care anymore because there is no one to check for. Then, I stretched my last pair of contacts as long I could and when they tore, I put on my glasses and officially welcomed 2001 back into my life. At least I have better frames now.

The most important similarity is that I didn’t have any friends back then and I ain’t hardly got none now. I had already put that connection together before I stumbled upon the photo; my mind had already been gliding towards that thought for a while now and it made me angry. Once in college, a friend told me that he could vividly imagine how I had been in high school. When he started tossing out words like “social butterfly” and “popular,” I almost started wheezing from the force of the guffaws surging out of my chest. No ma’am and no sir.

I was the epitome of social awkwardness. In junior high, days and weeks would pass by with no peer interactions. If not for teachers, I would have been thought a mute, if people had even spent any fraction of their thought life on me, which I doubt they did, as invisible as I was. At home, it wasn’t too much different. By my fourteenth birthday, I had fully retreated into the imaginings in my head.

I created whole worlds in there. I had about four different scenarios that I was always developing like a TV series. Of course, I was always the star of these sitcoms, but not the I that currently existed, the I that I longed to be, four different iterations of that. It was like having imaginary friends, but on that next level of crazy. Bathrooms were my sanctuaries because they allowed me to act out the fantasies that I could only be a spectator to if they resided solely in my head. I also liked to perform my favorite songs and pretend that I was on stage giving a concert or starring in the music video (I was so annoyed when Britney Spears released her video to “Lucky” because it was so inferior to my concept. Why didn’t she just ask me for my advice? Ridiculous.)

In college, I still gravitated to bathrooms, but more out of comfort and less out of necessity. Away at school, I found an outlet for my thoughts and creativity. I had friends and they were just as quirky, thoughtful, and intense as I was. One day, I was in my friends’ bathroom, singing the theme song to I Love Lucy. In high school, a TV-biopic on Lucy and Desi had aired and I discovered that the instrumental theme song actually had lyrics. I sought out the words and quickly memorized them. That day in the bathroom, in the middle of my song, I heard a yelp from the other side of the door. I flung open the door and my friend did a sideways skateboard leap in front of the door and made my solo a duet, “—How we love making up again! Lucy kisses like no one can…”

I thrived in the Boston/Cambridge area for four years of college and three years of law school. Then I moved to Guatemala and somebody clipped my social butterfly wings. The outgoing lady who had started to inhabit this body has retreated into my inner most being and the traces of her have been siphoned away like frost vanishing from the windshield when the defrost is on. When it first happened, I panicked. I was so scared. No, this couldn’t be happening to me again. That social recluse look is so dated. I’m past that point in my life and I can’t be bothered with this regression. I started pointing blame and my index finger began its journey of judgment aimed at me.

I wasn’t trying hard enough, not learning Spanish fast enough, not going out enough. Fix this, Andre. Ok, I tried and didn’t fix anything. I just felt lonelier, so I retreated even further into my cocoon. It’s not my fault; it’s Guatemala’s fault. Yes, this is the problem. People here are so basic it doesn’t even make any sense. The level of superficiality that permeates every single relationship and experience makes me want to scream and shout, “What is the matter with you people? Don’t you know that there is more to life than this shallow existence! Stop skimming the surface like a grasshopper; go deep and try to touch the bottom for once in your life!”

I thought shifting the blame would make me feel better because I had flipped the social pariah narrative on its head. I wasn’t repeating my past. I was not the loser girl who couldn’t make friends so she had to create them. No, my isolation was my choice. I was choosing to be alone because the alternative was worse. There is power here.

But, re-contextualizing didn’t bring me any peace. In fact, it made things worse. Now, resentment was keeping company with my loneliness. What’s wrong with people? Why can’t people be aware, witty, and passionate? Why are people so lame? Ugh, I’m so over this life. No, playing the blame game wasn’t doing me any favors. Every time someone speaks to me, I’m consumed with thoughts of his or her shortcomings. The other day, I was talking to someone and sharing with how a recent experience had really frustrated me and hurt my feelings and the person replied with a well-meaning, but pithy comment that sent my blood pressure through the roof. I felt like Hades from Hercules when he stretched out his arms and fire races out of every socket. I was so annoyed and wanted to tell the person like I tell my students when they raise their hands to answer a question they haven’t fully processed, “Close your mouth, open your brain, think, and then answer.”

That rage was so potent that I had to spend a moment contemplating what had sent me over the edge, especially considering the fact that it was obvious to me that the person was trying really hard to comfort me. When I got to the bottom of my aggression, I found a wealth of hurt. The offensive comment belied how little the owner of the comment had understood about the issue, and by extension, me. I feel like such a foreign concept here in Guatemala. Despite effort, people don’t see me and I really want to be seen.

But, I wasn’t seen in my adolescence either, which is why I hid in my books and my dreams. The difference is, back then, I didn’t find fault in others. I was aware that I didn’t connect with that many people and even though I longed for friends, I didn’t resent others for not being able to be that for me. I simply grew inside of myself the company that I needed and I lived there. When, by some stroke of fortune I managed to connect with someone like when my dad (it was usually my dad) would talk to me about one of my books, or take me to the movies and let me choose, or scare the be-jeezus out of me when he joined one of my private dance sessions, I was delighted –if also initially frightened – and reveled in the moment before immediately returning to the home I had made in my head.

I always remembered those years as deeply lonely and something to be ashamed of. I was a misfit and I could not figure out how to fit in (over Christmas, I kept looping the Misfit song from Rudolph on the Christmas playlist and my little sister was so curious as to how and why that song was ministering to me so). Now, that I have two degrees from a fancy school, I think I’m too special to be the misfit. Isn’t this what I worked for? The right to always be included and validated? No, I won’t be the misfit anymore. I’ll make everyone else feel inferior before I cloak myself with that kind of failure again.

My problem is that I see solitude as a punishment. A friend of a friend was telling me that the only effective punishment for her extroverted daughter is to give her a time-out in her room. That would have been my reality as well had my parents ventured beyond the mantra of “spare the rod, hate the child.” If I’m alone for periods of time, I feel like tragedy has befallen me and I look to find the error of my ways, so I can quickly rectify the situation, and move on. Imagine the hell I have been in for the past year in Guatemala. I’m exactly four months from the end and I am still harboring a quiet hope that I’m going to be paroled out before I serve my full term.

Recently, I was having dinner with someone whom I had sent Henry Nouwen’s article on solitude and community. That article has been speaking to my heart for weeks now and I was really excited to discuss it. My dinner companion, at one point, made a comment about how solitude has always been something she has valued and works really hard to make it a priority in her life no matter what. Her words flabbergasted me because I was confused as to why anyone would choose to be alone and yet, simultaneously intrigued, because I sensed the truth of her words.

I need solitude. I asked for solitude. My last year of law school, I prayed and asked God to give me space from my hectic life. I was an extremely mediocre student in college and law school because I wasn’t disciplined enough to find the solitude I needed to produce quality work. And when I started having ideas about possibly writing a book, I knew I needed to change my environment because where I was, I was way too over-stimulated to ever produce something of worth.

I’ve been reading East of Eden and I was so struck by his assertion that valuable contributions to society can only be birthed in the “lonely mind of a man.” He’s right. I know that now and I knew that then, hence my presence in Guatemala. I know I need to develop a life of solitude and that is one of the reasons I am here, but I have been fighting some serious demons of insecurity that have prevented me from appreciating the work that is being done in me. In these last four months, my desire for myself is to come to peace with solitude, so that when I am back home, among kindred souls, I will still value my ability to go within and create even when the world around me is one that I no longer want to escape.

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