“Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness–an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.” – Brené Brown
Every day during the week when I pick-up my children from their respective childcare providers and/or schools, we have a routine of debriefing our days together. “Good” or “bad” or any one-word summary is unacceptable.
Sometimes I have to provide sentence starters to spur conversation, but most of the time my children want to start with their social activities. No matter how many times I try to steer the conversation back to what they learned in class (I can’t help it, it’s the teacher in me!), the backbone of their days is unequivocally their social lives.
They usually share about who they played with, who didn’t play with them, and the details of what they did with their friends on the playground. “We went hunting for gems,” or “We pretended to be unicorn-cats,” or how they didn’t want to play handball but their best friend didn’t want to play dinosaurs.
We talk about peer pressure and also about reaching consensus. I tell them about crab mentality, and how we humans also have a tendency to pull each other down to the detriment of all. Sometimes the kids will come home and report that they dealt with the “crabs” today.
At first glance you might think this is the banal chatter of children–innocuous and insignificant in the grand scheme of the daily hum of our lives, especially in a world where more important things are constantly shoving their way into our priorities.
But play time is extremely significant in the development of a child. What does life matter if we do not know what to do with ourselves, how to live with others, the joys of being curious, and how to share knowledge? I can see why the playground is the most important part of their day.
The playground is where children learn how to form human relationships. It is where they are exploring their own preferences and interests, and it is also where they learn to be alone.
I like to run during my lunch time, and my route takes me past my kids’ school just in time to sometimes spot my oldest on the playground. Six weeks ago I was doing my usual run when I happened to see him sitting alone on the field. My first reaction was to leap over the fence and scoop him up into my arms and be his best friend forever so he never has to be alone.
I didn’t actually do that though.
I kept going, knowing that my job was to let him figure it out. I ran back to work with a heavy heart, and I thought about him for the rest of the day. Was he sad? Did he find someone to play with? Does he do that every day? Is there something wrong with him? Do I have to talk to someone? Have I failed him as a parent?
I can’t stand when my kids tell me stories about how they had nobody to play with, or the stories of kids being mean to them, or seeing them alone or in any kind of pain–physical or mental. It hurts me. As parents, our first inclination is to want to take the pain away from our children. We want to fix them with our TLC, wrap them up with our easy solutions and turn them loose into the world as images of our perfect expectations.
It doesn’t work that way, of course.
I know I have to be a witness –not always a fixer– to the natural growing pains of them figuring out interpersonal skills. No matter how many kisses on the forehead, no matter how many pep talks about their value independent of others, no matter how many analogies I use involving crabs– I know that ultimately I have to let my kids understand how to be alone. I can not sit next to them for everything.
They need to learn what to do with their solitude.
Most importantly, my children have to learn how to not fear being alone. They even have to learn to calibrate when it is time to invoke solitude.
I want them to know that being alone is not necessarily bad.
My own experience in youth involved many awkward, terrible, and stressful trials and tribulations of learning what to do with myself around other people. It also involved learning how to live with myself.
I started junior high school not knowing anyone. The kids from my elementary school went to a different junior high, and I was left to my own devices at a new campus trying to figure out where to sit and who to talk to–not an easy feat as an introverted shy girl. I found a place under a tree where I would eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich during lunch time and read a book, hoping desperately that nobody would notice me. Sitting by yourself was social suicide at that age.
Eventually there was a group of geeky girls who had braces and heavy backpacks like I did. My solitude must have made them uncomfortable because they kept asking me to join them, even when I turned them down a few times. I couldn’t hide with my book anymore; I eventually agreed. I am still friends with some of those girls to this day.
The thing is, I had friends in my classes. I wasn’t a total social outcast. There was Melissa, the girl with the wispy bangs and the powder compact always in her back pocket. She lived near me and asked if I wanted to walk to school with her. At first I liked the idea. I knew that if I walked with her, we would get closer. I would have a friend in my pocket, and everyone wants a friend in their pocket. There was something alluring about Melissa too. She appeared to take care of herself; there never seemed to be any adults around in her life. Maybe I too could wear shirts that showed my midriff and have my bra straps slipping down my shoulders like she did (totally cool in the 90s!). Melissa seemed to have reached womanhood when I still felt like a child.
I could have had lunch with her, but something didn’t feel right. Besides, my mom vetoed the idea of me walking to school, and then I got switched into honors classes. That was basically the end of my budding friendship with Melissa.
I did a little bit of snooping online and recently found her. She looks older than my mother and appears to have had a rough life, including addiction and early pregnancies. On some level I knew she was going at a faster speed than the dorky 7th grader that I was, even back then when I couldn’t articulate it as a young girl.
There were others too that I was casually friends with in those precarious days of junior high, when I was trying to figure out where I belonged and what to do with my awkward self. I think about how my life could have gone in any direction depending on which friendships I nurtured. If I had made different decisions about who to hang out with at lunch. Who I could have or would have walked home with, or if I hadn’t had the guts to sit alone under that tree until I figured out where the right place would be for me.
I try to remember that wisdom as an adult, but of course it is difficult.
We don’t know what to do with our solitude–we assume it is a sign of weakness and sadness. We want to fix it. We want to run away from it.
Instead, we should be leaning into it. Our solitude is like an empty room that opens up to us– a refuge from the chaos in which we easily get lost in. It is a place to rest. Gather our thoughts. Strategize. Figure out our next steps.
I re-encountered issues with solitude when I became a widow in 2016. After nearly 10 years of being with my late husband, I had grown used to having somebody with me. I was living with my best friend. We worked together. We parented together. We carpooled together. We went grocery shopping together and cooked dinner together. I was never alone.
And then he unexpectedly died, and I never felt more abandoned in my life. It was a tremendous shock to my system.
At night, when the kids were in bed and my house became quiet, I could feel the empty space squeezing my fragile existence out of the room. The empty chairs. Empty bed. No Netflix playing. No husband standing over the juicer, listening to self-help audios or his favorite 80’s songs as he juiced vegetables and fruits, and me yelling from the bedroom to “turn that shit down” while I tried to sleep.
It was extraordinarily difficult to reconcile.
At work I felt a deep loneliness at lunch time, sitting by myself in my classroom when I would have been sitting with him. All of our habits and routines felt scrambled. I didn’t know what to do with myself–how to be present with my solitude.
It was worse than 12-year-old me who ate alone under the tree, because teenage Teresa had never become codependent with a partner. She never knew what it was like to have to compromise on everything. To share a bed. To swap cars depending on carpool schedules. She didn’t know what it was like to have somebody to sit next to at events, who would give me his jacket when I was cold, or to go to the movies with me and the way he would frequently tell me how beautiful he thought I was.
One of the first thoughts I had after being told that my husband was dead was—I’m single now?
Isn’t that a selfish thought? My husband was dead in the hospital room and my mind wandered to my marital status. I literally ran through what I tried to remember from our wedding vows. ‘Til death do us part. The contract was fulfilled. I was a free agent.
Terrifying and mind-blowing when you are not expecting it.
Being alone = sad (in our society).
At first, it felt like a horror story I couldn’t wrap my mind around. I had escaped being a sad single woman with a doting husband and three kids, but now like in a game my piece was plucked off the board and placed back on the start square.
I wore my wedding ring for a few months after his death until I could no longer take the identity crisis anymore. People still called me Mrs. Shimogawa, and in some ways I still felt like I had a husband still lurking somewhere in the universe. But I was most definitely single.
Society perpetuates this myth that we need another person to feel complete. I certainly felt terrible anxiety about being single–this time as a single mother.
We plan to be with other people. We don’t plan to be alone.
I lived alone before I met my late husband. I had traveled alone. I saw a Depeche Mode concert in Rome alone. I did my grocery shopping alone every single week. Being alone wasn’t a new concept to me.
But there I was, grappling with how to be alone again.
There are many anxieties that I think a widow feels, and being alone is certainly one of them. Every person has a different experience, but solitude is inescapable when you experience going to bed one night with your partner, and then waking up the next day without them.
Widowhood was a feeling that I had been exiled to the faraway land of loneliness from which I would never return. Like most people, I had gotten too comfortable in life and neglected to consider any other narrative for myself. I guess you could say it was a bit of an existential crisis. Who was I, if not a wife and a mother?
I had to spend over a year trying to remember who I used to be before I became a wife and mother. We often forget who we were independent from our relationships.
The interesting thing is if you can deconstruct the end of a relationship–no matter how it ended–you eventually admit to yourself that it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. Maybe you can be honest and say there were times you even felt alone back then–despite having a person there.
There are pros and cons to everything, and that includes being alone.
Yet we demonize the option of solitude.
Most of us are terrible at intentionally creating solitude in our lives. We are constantly surrounded by other people–our partners, children, colleagues, friends, family, etc.
We become resentful and stressed when we haven’t had time alone, but we can’t figure out the source of our anxiety. It’s like we are suffocating to death and have no clue who is holding the pillow over our faces. We don’t know what sucked the air out of the room. We just get angry and frustrated and absorb toxicity that gnaws away at our insides, but rarely do we seek the solution.
What I understood about my solitude was similar to what I felt as the junior high student sitting alone under the tree: I had to learn to sit with it. There would be no running away.
It was okay to feel uncomfortable with being alone, especially with others watching, but it was important to be able to persevere through those difficult feelings.
It was imperative for me to not allow my solitude to morph into loneliness.
Solitude is not necessarily loneliness.
Lonely= lacking friends.
Solitude = being alone.
We become irrational when we are lonely. Desperate. We make bad choices. We get careless with our thoughts and decision-making. We jump into the wrong relationships.
But solitude is an opportunity to be present. It allows you to pause. Process and think, being careful about the next right move.
My immediate reaction to being single again was to feel like I needed to hurry up and fill that void. Find someone else. But where to start? I definitely didn’t want to settle for just anything.
The beauty of where I am at this point in my life is that I am at an age with enough experience to realize that the void has to be filled differently than with just another relationship.
The void that I felt was something deeper than the absence of someone in my life. It had been around even before my marriage.
The void was my inability to be with myself. To sit with my solitude. To be enough for myself.
It was me reaching for external sources of validation. It was me not knowing who I was outside of a relationship, or independent of a relationship, or aside from anything other than what was already inside of me.
This void tortured me for a solid year after my husband’s death. Perhaps the void inside of us never goes away. We probably just learn how to live with it. But I like to think that it starts with re-learning who you are.
I addressed my feelings by asking myself questions.
What can I do as a single woman that I was (for whatever reason) not able to do in my marriage? What do I want to do right now? What am I curious about? What interests me? What excites me?
What feels like enchantment?
At first you will think it is a betrayal to your previous life, but in fact it is really just your consolation prize. Just you trying to keep living as best as you can.
You have to let go of the picture etched into your mind about what your life should have been.
That chapter has ended.
You must loosen your grip on those past expectations and let them go like balloons slipping out of your fingers. Watch those expectations float away. You don’t owe them anything. Find new ones. Rinse and repeat this process until you die.
Once you have reconciled the harsh reality of those expectations never materializing, then you implement the things you answered from those questions–the things in life that you now can do but never would have been able to in your previous life.
You don’t rush into anything.
You take time to sit with your solitude.
Think about everything.
There is no right or wrong. You can sit under a tree and read a book by yourself. You can marry someone tomorrow. You can be single forever. It doesn’t matter.
The only thing that matters is that you are not afraid to be alone.
Apparently the Dalai Lama said that it is important to spend time alone every day. It is in that quiet space that you remember who you are. It is a way of centering oneself, a connection back to your authentic self away from the noise of the rest of the world.
In that space, you remember who you always were.
Is it scary? Yes.
Do you have a lot of unanswered questions? Yes.
Does it always feel good? No.
But you do it anyway, because you get one shot at living a fulfilling and adventurous life that is true to who you are.
You can have that life.
It doesn’t require anyone’s participation other than your own.
Tom Petty said it even better than I can:
“You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free”