When I was very young, I lived at my grandparents’ house — because my father was always working and my mother was still busy growing up. My grandparents had a bright blue house (which they swore was “Barbie blue”) that sat on a very large hill, next to a busy road — one that precluded outdoor playtime. Because you couldn’t go outside without getting hit by a car, we didn’t have many neighbors. To our left, we had an old German couple that became an old German widow when her husband died of a heart attack. And on our right was a family that wasn’t home as much after the daughter got boobs, the son got friends and the parents got a divorce — but probably not because of boobs or preteen popularity. Even when they were home and the lights were on, the house always seemed empty, and the café down the street hadn’t been open for years. No one wanted to drink coffee in the middle of nowhere.
Because there weren’t a lot of other kids (or people) around, I had to learn what it was like to be alone from a very early age. In place of friends, I had books: the adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson, the moral quandaries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the unsolvable mysteries of Agatha Christie, whose Hercule Poirot became my guide through a labyrinthine world. I figured out how to manage my loneliness, draw a map of it with my fingers, segment it into hours and measure it by books. Welcome to your childhood, welcome to the human condition. In fifth grade, we had a contest to see who could read the most books that year, and I read almost four times as many as anyone else did. I was crowned King of Loneliness, and I got a ribbon for it.
I was labeled as “the kid who read a lot,” which didn’t earn me a lot of friends and was likely code for “latent homosexual.” In seventh grade, Tommy Dusold told a girl in science class that I was the biggest loser in school, and it was hard to argue with. (My pejorative nickname is, unfortunately, unrepeatable in print.) Like Rory Gilmore at the lunch table, I was always huddled over a thick, old-looking book on the bus with my CD player — both hoping no one would notice me and praying anyone would. However, being a wallflower had its perks, because when you’re the resident school awkward loner kid, you know who your friends are. It’s not like being popular, where friendship just comes to you and everyone wants to be seen with you. To be friends with Josie Grossie, you had to really mean it.
Although it’s a candy-coated thing of a film, Sixteen Candles had something great to say on the subject. When Sam confesses to her father about her romantic problems, her father remarks that things have always come easily to her older sister, and that means she doesn’t always take the time to appreciate things. But because life isn’t as easy for Sam, Sam’s going to have to fight for it and struggle to be loved. When you have to fight for the things that you want, you’re less likely to take them for granted. Having my first real friend was like that, like having a magic creature come into your life. I felt like that kid from Frosty Returns, except that Frosty doesn’t die in the end. You’re aware of what a Festivus miracle the simple act of friendship is.
Eventually, lonely kids grow up into lonely adults, which sounds terrible (especially if you’re Sylvia Plath), but loneliness has a way of shaping your heart and making you who you are. You’re the person who cares so much about people that they’re willing to drive their friends a little crazy and the person who obsessively worries about their family and checks in on them, even when you know they’re probably fine. You just want to be sure. You’re the person who moons over their first kiss and writes about it endlessly in their journal, who learns to pine, yearn and strive for more — because you know what it is to lack.
Some of my favorite words on the subject are from Janet Fitch’s Oprah-endorsed White Oleander (which I know loses me snob points — whatever, it’s a good book). Fitch wrote:
Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let [anyone] stand in your way.
Fitch’s words remind me of 16th century philosopher Montaigne’s advice on the consolations of struggle: “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” When you’re accustomed to loneliness, you become in tune with the rhythms of yourself and your own mind — because you always have to answer yourself at the end of the day, to be alone with your thoughts. You’ll also know how important self-love and reliance is, to love yourself before you love someone else, but I think the universality of loneliness teaches us what that love is. To be lonely is to be human, to feel pain, to be forced to know yourself — and the universality of it binds us. Love is embracing that universality and surrendering to it. It’s looking out at a lonely universe and knowing it’s fabric makes you who you are. As Neil DeGrasse once said,
Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically…It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”
We are all looking for something and searching for that in ourselves, and the longer you reflect on your solitude, the more you realize you are never alone. We are made of stars.