I’m standing on top of a Swiss Alp, snow crunching under my feet, and a cloud surrounding me on every side.
I can’t see the sun. I can’t see the lodge that I just left behind. And I can just barely make out the wooden pole that marks the path ahead of me.
I am utterly alone, on top of the world, surrounded by misty whiteness.
But still I’m not lonely.
I do wish, just a little, that someone was there to take a photo of me emerging from the mist. Or to share a bowl of soup at the end of the journey. Or to remind me in a month about how I felt at the top of that mountain: “remember that time when we were in a cloud just outside the highest train station in Europe?”
But none of those wishes pain me.
Not like six weeks ago, in early June. When I launched my book. When all my hard work, all those interviews, all those long days sitting in a coffee shop, finally paid off and I held my work in my hands. And I thought “Oh my god, I have to celebrate!” But after a quick Prosecco toast with the local ladies, I wandered off alone to the pub, feeling my aloneness like a vice-grip on my stomach. Feeling, quite frankly, sick.
And then I went to Italy.
Usually travel is an escape for me. When I left Denver, I was horribly lonely. So lonely some days that I wished wholeheartedly for some sort of apocalyptic event to wipe me out.
But then I left Denver and the US behind. I went to Scotland and walked the Water of Leith walkway. I went to Belgium and fell in love with the locals. I went to Germany and hiked the Black Forest. I came to Switzerland and had a beautiful, romantic fling that began on a mountaintop in a lightning storm.
And I felt less and less lonely, more and more happy, confident, and brave.
So you’ll understand my surprise when I left for Italy in early June, prepared for adventure, and found that my loneliness followed me all the way to my sunshiny, food-laden getaway.
(Holy shit, six years.)
Six years since I’ve been in love.
I am not supposed to admit that that bothers me.
To tell you that sometimes the solo life is incredibly lonely, mostly now that I’m standing still, trying to carve out a life in one place. But also, surprisingly and heartbreakingly, while I was in Italy.
I’m not supposed to care.
Instead, I’m supposed to relax, to “buck up, champ,” to be less picky, to be more picky, to tackle love like a project, to stop looking because it’ll find me when I stop tackling love like a project, to not be so serious, to not be so intense, to not be so intimidating, to not be such a pushover, to have higher standards, to stop having such high standards, to put myself out there, to ask the universe, to wait patiently, to be available, to not be so available (we all know they love the chase), to make myself prettier, to be more natural, to try hard, to not try so hard, girl.
(Our culture’s loop-de-loop advice, which so often contradicts every other piece of advice, is pretty damn exhausting.)
Because, somehow, being single makes it okay for people to—in a well-meaning, advice-giving kind of way—tell you what they think is wrong with you. And constantly hearing everyone’s expert opinion on why it is that you are not lovable enough is pretty damn frustrating. Especially when your own expert opinion after six years of singleness is that all of that advice is total bullshit.
What isn’t bullshit is this: that it’s okay, that it’s human, to be lonely. Even horribly lonely. Even lonely to the point of exhaustion. Even lonely to the point where you run away to Italy to try and escape the fact of your own aloneness and, to your dismay, find that movement and adventure and wonderful food aren’t always a cure or even a big enough distraction.
Love—in all its forms—is, in the end, what life is about. And so, of course, when we find ourselves in the midst of what Zoe Heller calls the “drip, drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude,” the pain runs deep.
I wrote these first thoughts when I returned from Italy in June. And, as so many things do in life, the intensity of those feelings has faded. The sun has come out. The cheerful visitors are here in force, with their contagious excitement about this magical place where I live. And I have, very deliberately, shifted my focus.
It would seem that loneliness is like the tide. It comes in; it goes out. It ebbs; it flows. It may constantly tug at my ankles, but it isn’t always a flood.
And there is no quick fix. All I can do is let it wash around me, remind myself that it’s okay to feel lonely. It’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to struggle. It’s even okay to feel like you’re going insane, like you’re losing it.
But it’s also okay to focus on joy, to practice gratitude, and to simply enjoy the now without worrying about how lonely I felt six weeks ago or being afraid of how lonely I might feel tomorrow.
Because today, the sun is shining. And tonight my best friend arrives for a visit. And two days ago, I kissed a man with one of the best smiles I’ve ever seen. He’s gone now, another traveler stolen away, but has left a feeling of comfort in his wake.
Because, really, isn’t loneliness about fear? The fear of being unlovable, not good enough?
And sometimes all it takes to remind us that we are good enough, lovable enough, smart enough, capable enough is a visit from our best friend or a kiss from a dimpled stranger or simply our own small, strong, loving voice telling us that we are loved.
And in case you can’t hear any of those voices yourself, in case you feel that tide swelling around your own ankles, threatening to pull you in, let me be the one to say it to you today:
You are loved.
And maybe your loneliness is just a reflection of how much you value connection, people, love.
Which isn’t such a bad thing, after all.