I remember the first holiday when I had nowhere to go.
I was twenty-two years old. I had just graduated from college, and in a few weeks I was moving to London. It was Christmastime. It would have been the last Christmas in my childhood home, as the plan was to sell the house sometime the next year. Would have been, because my dad and his girlfriend decided to go on a romantic getaway for Christmas instead. I made plans to spend Christmas with my boyfriend and his family. But then we broke up like a week beforehand.
And I had nowhere to go.
I read an essay in the New York Times last week that hit me hard in the gut. Life: An Unspooling, it was called. The writer, Rachel Louise Snyder, was writing about loneliness:
“I imagine myself alone in ways other people are not…. People who know where they’ll go on holidays and with whom and for how long. People with plans. With extended family they complain about, but then spend the most important days of the year with.”
I imagine myself alone in ways other people are not. There’s the rub, isn’t it? We have these ideas in our minds, maybe even expectations, about how things are, about how things should be, about the way other people live their lives. We feel the rawness of the intersection of how we imagine other people live and how our own lives fall short of this ideal. And all of these mental gymnastics make the loneliness ache that much more acutely.
And then there’s that feeling of free fall. Because there are most important days of the year, however arbitrary they may be, and to have nowhere to go for them–to lack that comfortable sense of belonging–it is hard. And knowing there are many people who also lack that certainty about those important days doesn’t lessen the loneliness of it.
Those of us who know this reality have to create anchors in other ways. And there is no instruction manual on how to accomplish this.
I read this essay in the Times, and then I got in my car and drove to the movies to see Mr. Holmes with one of my close friends.
Oh, Mr. Holmes. The movie is a meditation on loneliness. Every character is lonely in his or her own way, alienated in his or her own way, and the loneliness we see is profound. Alienation between father and son, between mother and child, between two best friends, between husband and wife, between oneself and one’s aging and failing body. People who fail to understand one another, who let each other down in terrible ways. Who feel like they do not belong.
Oh, this movie. I love it, I hate it, thinking about it now makes me want to cry, the ending is sublime. I want to find my own field somewhere and a bunch of big white rocks (even as I was watching, I thought to myself, where in the world does one obtain rocks like those). I want to remember the people who are not here anymore. The people whose absence still speaks. The people who, in their own ways, have taught me about loneliness, all unknowing.
This last Christmas I did my best to let go. It was actually a very good Christmas. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with two of my favorite people, and I looked through the year’s photobook for the first time, and I spent time with Nala, and I ate well, and I Skyped with my sister.
Tree Day, however, I spent alone.
Tree Day, for me, is perhaps of an equivalent importance to Christmas Day itself. It is the first Saturday of December. It is the day I go pick out a tree and bring it home and string up the lights and decorate it. It tends to smoosh out into two days and sometimes even more.
For last Tree Day, I thought about asking around and trying to find someone who would go with me, someone who would help me carry the tree in from the car, someone who would decorate with me and perhaps even listen to the occasional memory ignited by one of the many old ornaments in my collection. I thought about it, and it was an exhausting thought, and so I just went by myself and hoped for the best, and then a neighbor I didn’t know helped me carry the tree into the apartment, and everything worked out.
I was happy because my anchor held. I could do it on my own. I could let go, and I wasn’t deeply unhappy about it. I was just a tiny bit unhappy. And I was still able to create the beauty I wished to see.
But I was also sad. Because I knew–because I know–that I will always want that. I will always want people I belong to and who belong to me. I will always want one or more people who will of course spend Tree Day with me because it is one of my Most Important Days. I will always want a place to be.
It’s okay. It’s okay that I will always want this and I won’t always get it. But it is also sad.
I want you to know the only reason I can publish this piece is that I’m not feeling particularly lonely right now.
Also, the holidays are still a safe distance away. I won’t start to feel a hollow pit of dread until at least October.
I hope you won’t feel sorry for me. I hope, instead, that you will experience some kind of resonance, reading this. That you will think of your own way of being lonely, whatever that looks like, and that perhaps its edge will be slightly dulled hearing about one of my ways. That you will gain a greater appreciation for the place you have to be, or that you will find courage in not having that place, in knowing that the not having is workable and that it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.
That perhaps we can continue to understand each other better, you and I.
I spend a lot of time feeling deep gratitude towards the people who give me less obvious places to go.
I don’t know if these people know what they’re giving me. Every invitation, whether accepted or not, I gather them up and they become part of that all-important anchor. They help me remember my place in the world.
I did not have to spend Mother’s Day alone. I did not have to spend Christmas alone. I did not have to spend Thanksgiving alone. There is no price that can be put on things like this.
That Christmas, back when I was twenty-two, it had a happy ending. One of my best friends from college invited me into her home. Her entire family welcomed me and included me in all the festivities. To this day, I think about the generosity and warmth they showed me, and I tear up, and it changes how I see the world.
They didn’t have to offer me a place to go. But they did.
It meant everything to me. It still does.