I’m going to tell you a story about being alone. Not necessarily lonely, but alone. There’s a difference which we’ll work out as we go. The story starts in a washroom beside a washer and a drier when an 11 year old boy came to the conclusion that he would never have someone to be with. As I recall I was in there helping my mom with the laundry (or possibly looking for a toy as one wall was a sort of storage catch-all). I do not remember how our conversation became centered on my future but I do recall crying. I cried a lot. Somehow my 11 year old brain had come to the certain fact that I would end up old and without a partner. I remember my mom trying to reassure me that whatever I might be going through, whatever doubts I had, that there was much life in front of me and that I would have plenty of time to find someone special. I suppose such fear and uncertainty is a part of growing up. We all have a bit of heartbreak and fear of the future.
After 47 orbits around our sun I find myself alone in my life. But not lonely. I remember at some point around 15 years ago coming across someone making a distinction between being alone and being lonely and it stuck with me. This person pointed out that it it’s quite possible to be surrounded by people and to feel lonely or isolated. It’s also possible to be alone, with plenty of space between one’s self and other humans and not feel lonely. The key is a sense of connection to life in a general sort of way. At the time it made sense and yet I had a sense of being in both places, of being both lonely and alone. I was in Memphis living at the deCleyre Co-op, a housing cooperative I’d help set-up a sort of communal activist house. During my five years there I lived with approximately 45 different people of varied backgrounds, ranging from 7 to 14 at any given moment. Many of them students but not all. The common theme was a desire to change the world, a desire to have a positive impact in our city. Another common theme was I was always the oldest person there. When we set up the house I was around 29 and I moved out when I was 34. Actually, there were two others a little older than me, co-founders that both moved out within the first six months.
Those were some interesting years. The co-op was like living in a beehive. There was a perpetual buzzzing of activity and the people I shared life with were in a constant state of growth and flux. I was too. We ran a pirate radio station and set-up community gardens. We hosted conferences and traveled to conferences. In the time I was there we hosted something like 250 travelers ranging from puppeteers to punk rock bands to pastors taking a caravan of food to Cuba and many others. We published a little community newspaper. We replaced a roof. We had a small house fire in our attic when a squirrel chewed threw old wiring (luckily not the portion of the roof we’d already replaced!). We had a fire on a porch when a cigarette butt ended up in between the cushions of a couch. It was a lively place.
By the time I moved into deCleyre I was in the middle of my third “serious” relationship. I’d had a one year relationship my last year of high school into my first year of college. Not all that serious but she was my first girlfriend so I’ll file it under serious. Then a four year relationship that involved a 2 year marriage. This third relationship lasted almost five years and was the best of the three. I’d had some practice by that point. She was younger than I and had not had much practice but we did pretty well together. For awhile. It was a strange ending in that it was very rational. We both knew it was time to end it and we both did pretty well with it. We remained friends though we’ve not spoken in some time. I look fondly on those years partly because of her, partly because of many things I was a part of.
But there was a divide, perhaps it was the age difference. I seemed to always be about 8 years older than the average age of my housemates. It showed in that I was the one who tended to have steady employment and was the one mostly likely to be handling administrative duties. I was the only one with a college degree. While I was still active, still growing, I was past the hyper-development and flux that people go through in their late teens and early twenties. I think this was a part of feeling set apart from my fellow housemates and activists. At one point a couple of them nicknamed me the “bearded dictator” which was pretty funny given we mostly considered ourselves anarchists. But from the perspective I was too serious, always pushing others to take things more seriously. Always asking for their share of the mortgage payment or most likely to be raising a ruckus about chores not being done.
Something else that happened during my life in Memphis was making a decision that I would not have children. I think I was 23 or so and to my young eyes humans were overpopulating and over using the world’s resources. I didn’t see a very happy future for humanity or the planet, why bring a child into that world. But it was another way in which I seemed to set myself apart from most of the folks I knew especially family. They were all following along with the steady stream of middle class, suburban America. It would also prove to be a factor in the ending of at least one relationship.
I left Memphis in 2004 and have been in Missouri ever since. I wasn’t planning on staying but we had some land left to us by my grandparents and when the economy seemed to be blowing up in 2008 it seemed like staying put was a good idea. With a bit of help from my brother-in-law I built a tiny house and settled into a quiet life of gardening and freelance web design. I was sure the economy was going to spiral into something akin to the Great Depression. I’d not had a romantic relationship of any seriousness in eight years when I moved into the cabin. To be honest, I wasn’t looking. That’s the thing about being alone but not lonely. I’d gotten to be pretty good at being by myself. I was content. I felt a deep connection to the life going on all around me. At some point along the way I think I’d decided that humans were more trouble than they were worth. A selfish species unable or unwilling to share the planet. I was happy to spend my days with chickens, a dog and cat, a goose and a deer. Oh, and frogs. Frogs are adorable.
I was 44 years old and not all that concerned with finding a partner. I’d created the kind of life that was pretty far outside the norm. So, it was a strange and unexpected thing to find myself in a new relationship with a woman in the spring of 2013. Not just a woman but a woman with seven kids. Seven. Kids. But it seemed to work. She was coming out of a lifetime of Christian fundamentalism and a dysfunctional marriage. Did I mention she had seven kids? See, though I’d made a decision not to have any children I actually thought I’d be a decent father. And I’d lived with 45 different housemates in Memphis. And 245 travelers. I could do this. And I did. For two years and six months. I think she would even agree that I was attentive and pretty good at parenting. And then it ended. I think if you were to ask friends or family they’d tell you the end was largely due to the English fellow she’d met via a book review on Amazon. It’s a bit simplistic but it probably started with that. The larger reason is a bit bigger and not the point of this post. Suffice it to say that someone stuck in fundamentalism from the age of 18 is also someone who will change a great deal when she is free of it.
At nearly 47 years I find myself alone again in my cabin having just spent two and a half years in a serious relationship with a woman and her seven kids. I’m stubborn and thought we should make a go of it. Relationships don’t come easy and ours was pretty good or so I thought. She disagreed and in November I moved out at her request. The onset of winter is a difficult time to move back into a quiet cabin. There would be no gardening or growing of things. No chickens. The woods were slumbering. I no longer had my dog who I’d put to sleep 8 months prior as she was 15 years old and blind and in daily pain. Luckily I had my cat. The winter of 2015–16 was the loneliest time of my life. I wasn’t just alone, I was lonely. At some point in the middle of it I remembered that day I cried with my mom in the washroom.
But as I write I look out my cabin window and see tiny silver droplets on the redbud leaves. The rain has been coming down for two days and the forest has returned to life. There are hummingbirds buzzing by me as I tend a new garden. I have a new puppy that never gets enough walks. Every day I am visited by geese with their goslings. I see them now, coming up the path in search of the bearded guy that will give them corn. It’s nice to have company.