By a certain age — let’s say it’s my age — a person has usually made his peace with solitude. After a lifetime spent often, if not mostly by oneself, solitary types have reason to feel they’re immune to loneliness.
Oh, we might feel a twinge now and then. But by that certain age, we’d certainly have found simple and reliable remedies to quell the pangs:
A walk to the grocery store provides an easy (and practical) simulacrum of social interaction. You share the space with your fellow shoppers. Your exchange with the person behind the deli counter has some of the trappings of an actual conversation. You may even see a face you recognize from some past gym or former job, giving you further reassurance that you have a place in the world, that you exist in the awareness of other people, and that this is a context to which you belong.
You might have assembled a library of movies on DVD, a surprising number of which offer the pop-cultural equivalent of comfort food. Surrounding yourself in their familiar sounds and images is like re-visiting a memory, but one in which every detail is available to scrutinize and savor.
You may even keep a stash of remedies on hand that are so hardcore, you hide them safely in a cabinet, out of sight; something so particular and disturbing it would merit several sessions of discussion with your shrink to understand its origins and purpose … say a collection of vintage Christmas catalogs from your childhood. This is much more comforting than a visit to your actual childhood. After all, it was that very childhood which drove you to spin fantasies of a perfect holiday season from late August until well into January.
And then there’s the comfort that comes from the constant companionship of one who seems to need you as much as you do him (and who never hesitates to let you know how important you are).
All of those remedies are so constant, so readily available that you reach for them without thinking. In that accessibility, those peculiar remedies become invisible; and you forget how much you need them, imagining instead that a lifetime of solitude has made you immune to loneliness.
In fact, I’m beginning to realize that the real purpose of those remedies is to build a kind of instant context around oneself, placing the builder at the center of a little universe in which everything refers back to him, granting him purpose and meaning and definition. Without access to those quick fixes, a boy is left to face the fact that he may have little or no definition or meaning; no purpose or importance.
I believe in my heart that it becomes ever more important as we grow older to challenge the assumptions we’ve built about the world and our place in it, particularly since those assumptions become more solidified the older we get and the longer they go unchallenged. But it’s hardly pleasant to give up even a fabricated sense of security, to experience that sense of fragility that comes when loneliness creeps through the cracks in your armor and settles in your heart, all cold and damp, reminding you of just how poorly defined you are in a world from which you could vanish without a trace. Indeed, believing you should challenge your regular behavior and actually doing it are two very different things.
When I experienced big changes in my personal circumstances — leaving the city I’d lived in for the last 25 years, losing my beloved companion of the last 10 — friends commended my courage. I had very little to say in the matter of my dog’s death. And it seemed funny to describe as “brave” the decision to pull up stakes and move to another city, even another country. It still does, but for a different reason: “courage” presumes that you realize what you’re getting yourself into and decide to do it anyway.
What I’ve discovered since is that, in a new city, there’s none of that comfort of the familiar. Novelty is, after all, a function of “new.” The faces around town are new. The cold cuts at the deli counter are different. And being from The States (as the locals refer to the place I’ve taken for granted over most of my life) brings with it a certain stigma; not just the political one, but it marks my otherness as being of a more profound variety.
I’m also living with someone for the first time in almost 25 years. Sharing a home with someone else — even someone you’ve decided to allow into the more intimate parts of your soul and body — makes escaping into the usual sanctuary of movies and mail order catalogs nearly impossible. And conjuring the memory of your dog is cold comfort when what you want to feel is the familiar warmth of his body against yours as he pushes closer for his own reassurance.
In short, a new city, a new life means — by definition — the absence of routine and the comfort it used to offer. It means rubbing raw the ends of those nerves you’d wrapped so carefully with soothing sameness over the decades, reassuring yourself that life doesn’t mean uncertainty and that you have a good deal of control over the events of your days and years. It means recognizing that you have no intrinsic value, no ready-made place in the world. In the most uncomfortable (and even terrifying) ways, it means engaging with life on its own terms rather than yours.
With the clock ticking and the number of years ahead waning noticeably, that might seem like the only reasonable course of action. It may prove to be something glorious and wonderful; a middle-age breakthrough that brings with it new perspectives for the years ahead. But, at the outset, it just makes you want to cry.
In all likelihood, we just shape that potential breakthrough into new forms of old habits: we wear new paths into the streets of a new home, find new places to call our own. And, in my case, the comforts of strange and solitary preoccupations will grow into the comforts old married folks find in the sanctuary of their partners. Indeed, trading a private viewing of a favorite movie for one with my husband certainly sounds like a trade up; in fact, it sounds like the very thing I might have dreamed up in one of my private fantasies. But that’s just me.
Balancing personal growth with personal comfort seems to be a delicate game … and more challenging than we might have figured. But no one ever promised that growth would be easy. Here’s hoping we all have the courage to meet the challenge.