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Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

On being alone

This was a two-funeral week, following a one-funeral week. So I’m long on reflection.

The first  this week was neighbor Jerry, the second cousin John.

Jerry had 17 years on John, but their lives had some common aspects. Both men loved being in the physical world. John was an athlete who operated on playing fields and golf courses. Jerry was an up-north guy who fished and hunted and spent endless hours working in his yard and gardens. Both had served in the armed forces. And both left behind the beautiful women they’d met and married when those women were still girls, really. Jerry and Ellen had been married 67 years, John and LeAnn 47.

I imagine when you’ve lived with someone that long, you grow entwined. You are like vines that bend and twist to fit around each other, nearly fused in places. When you take one vine away, the other still retains its shape.

There’s not much I know, but I do know there are no words to help. We say we are so sorry for your loss, we hold you in our thoughts and prayers, you are loved, I’m here if you need anything, let me do this for you, here’s a pot of soup I made: please eat it even if you think you’ll never eat again.

Mainly, we put our arms around each other and feel some sorrow together.

I also know something about being alone. It’s not the kind of thing you like to boast about. Most of us don’t seek that kind of knowledge. It’s foisted on us, one way or another.

If I could try to share anything about being alone, I might write something like this.

Dear Ellen and LeAnn,

I can’t imagine what it must be like for you, facing life suddenly alone, missing the person whose breathing and heartbeat set the rhythm of your own. But I have been alone a lot, and I want to reassure you that there are gifts in it we don’t learn about much until we enter aloneness.

It’s hard and scary sometimes, but you go through the loneliness and you find you can survive it. Then being alone helps you grow in surprising ways.

Being alone lets you listen to your own thoughts without having to edit them for anyone else. So you get to know yourself. You’ll be surprised, shocked, horrified, amused, impressed, and eventually you’ll get used to it. You’ll learn which parts are good and important and which parts to tolerate or put aside. Some of your old growing places might stop sending out shoots, but new or dormant ones start and blossom.

Being alone makes you figure out what you want to do with your time when no one else has the right to make demands of it, when no one else has expectations of you. You can paint all day if you want. You can wear sweatsuits to bed in the winter. You can eat popcorn for dinner, though I wouldn’t advise keeping that as a regular habit. You can become a mentor or a missionary, a metal worker, or a mad reader of romance novels. Or you can expand the roles of mother and grandmother, sister and friend.

Being alone allows you to see and hear things we aren’t really encouraged to talk about. Your minister, LeAnn, said you wouldn’t hear John’s voice again in this life. But I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about that. Death doesn’t end our relationships with people we love or put them on hold until we join in the hereafter. Those relationships go on and keep growing and changing. The spirit of your husbands will be with you, and that will be a comfort. Their words will come to you when you need them. Sometimes they will be familiar words, other times surprising ones.

Being alone gives you the gift of connecting with people you’d never have thought much about connecting with before. Each chance encounter becomes important. It might be the only one you have that day, so you pay attention and make it count. The grocery clerk, the AAA man who comes to jumpstart your car (did I tell you AAA is a single woman’s best friend?); every meeting opens you to awareness of the person before you, human and divine at the same time, and the chance to share your light with them and they with you.

Being alone forces you to face your fears and walk with them to get to the other side. You learn that most fears (intruders; extreme poverty; the dire changes wrought by liberal or conservative politicians; strangers of any stripe;  and greatest of all, loneliness) are mainly children of your imagination. You invite them into bed with you until they are warm and lose their power. Eventually, they fall asleep, and then you do, too.

Being alone teaches you to pray in ways you may not have prayed before. Even if you’re not religious, you enter into a constant conversation not only with the divine but with yourself, the world around you, those who’ve gone before. And if you’re lucky, most of those prayers become prayers of thanks for this life. It isn’t nearly long enough. But what a gift it is while we have it!

Love,

Christine

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