As I type on my work computer, I suddenly realise I am alone. Not just alone in my house during the pandemic lockdown. But alone in my building with my next-door neighbours in the semi-detached house gone to Bethany Beach, Delaware, for the duration. And even alone in my virtual world where all the other team members have already left for the weekend. “How much more alone could I be?” I think.
Of course, there are all kinds of alone. Some are sad. Some terrifying. Some calming. Some not even really alone.
When I was growing up the youngest of five children in a very raucous household, I spent time trying to find places to be alone — climbing trees, sitting in the garage, bicycling through the neighbourhood. I finally found that the best way to have alone time was to sit in my room. I shared my room with Daddy’s tools, some of Mother’s books, the ironing board and the clothes dryer. I never had to worry someone would interrupt me when I sat in my unairconditioned room with the dryer on during the day. In August. In Texas.
I spent many hours there “telling myself stories” as I framed it. Imagining that I was fearless, strong, resourceful and a terrific singer. And I always got the guy. I’d try to imagine crossing the prairie alone as a pioneer or in a rocket circling the Earth. That always left me in awe.
The sound of a driving rain brings my mind back to my isolation at home. There is no one walking in the alley outside my window. There is no one in the house across the alley.
But I was unhappily alone at school, where I had no friends. People didn’t talk to me unless forced by circumstances and the teacher. And then they would run screaming that they needed to wash their hands because I had given them cooties. (Good training for you today, dear classmates.)
When I was older, I found glorious alone time again, driving across Texas late at night, pulling over to look at the million stars. Trying again to imagine being up there looking down. Only it turned into terrifying alone time when a flasher began to stalk me one late night on the empty Texas highways.
Still, I had gotten a taste for alone. When some years later I decided to try Quaker meeting at the Friends Meeting of Washington, I accidentally showed up an hour early. I sat alone in the meeting room looking at the plain pale green walls for nearly an hour before others came in, finding seats far away from me so as not to disturb my meditation. I was new at it and didn’t understand, really, and was beginning to feel I should leave when an older woman sat right next to me without a word and I felt her calmness wrap around me. I never felt alone at meeting again.
Alone in the middle of a courtroom
Another good alone was in the middle of a courtroom. I was at the lectern facing a panel of judges for the first time. I stood alone and confident. As far as I was concerned, I was the Centre of the world — until the judges started asking questions. And then some of the thrill was gone!
Even someone like me who can savour alone time has times that are darker because of being alone. The night of my husband’s death at home, the hours after my last friends and in-laws had left were some of my darkest and loneliest, and I keenly felt the pain side of alone.
Still later, after having seen the twin towers fall on television, driving to downtown with my sister, then a Washington Post reporter, and seeing the plume rise up from the Pentagon from my office window, I felt somewhat heartened by the others standing with me those few days. Until a few nights later, when my house trembled from the engines of low-flying planes crossing the D.C. sky for hours in the dark. Leaving me trembling in bed, wondering if it were the end of time.
But, fortunately, it does not stay dark forever.
A few years later, I walked away from my young son and his two friends and another adult, and savoured a moment alone in Old Town Square in Prague. Just a few minutes, but a foretaste of travelling by myself in the future. I could taste it.
And then I got to experience it, driving across the United States with a bald eagle swooping my car. Standing in the middle of a field of corn, gazing at the giant surreal power wind mills. I was undaunted by a flat tyre.
I flew to Kenya and spent time with Friends and then with my son until it was time for me to go to Western Kenya alone. I landed at the small airport with no cash and no cell phone minutes, because I was to be met by a student from the Friends seminary where I was to give lectures. No one greeted me. I waited an hour. Two hours. Four hours.
I had arrived at 11 and it was now 3 and in Western Kenya at 6pm when the sun sets there is no help to be found. I began to panic after hours of telling myself I would be picked up any minute. I went to the cab stand to talk to a cab driver. She heard my story and agreed if no one came by 5 she would give me the 30-minute ride to the seminary — with the understanding she would be well paid there. I walked back to the terminal, glad that I had made a plan that would probably work. I looked up and there was a young man with the school uniform on.
The sound of a driving rain brings my mind back to my isolation at home. There is no one walking in the alley outside my window. There is no one in the house across the alley. I miss my sister, my friends, my postcard writing parties. My son — most of all.
I feel sad and frustrated.
But alone is not the end. Things are beginning to open up and I could seek company elsewhere.
Then I think of the young doctor I have been making scrub booties and masks for, and how she said, “I am so tired” last week. Me being alone, even for many more days, to take a small part of her burden is a good alone. Perhaps the best there is.
— J.E. McNeil is a lawyer and columnist