The Yearbook Office
Writings on staying alive

My husband is gone. Properly, he is away, at a gaming convention. I’m a “gaming widow” this long weekend, and I feel that second word like it’s literal truth.

This is not because I’m feeling left out, or too often alone; neither of those apply. It’s not because I dislike solitude. I claim to be the kind of person who enjoys her own company, and this is true, but there are limits. Mine embarrass me, because the simple truth is that I am pitifully adrift when he is gone for more than about eight hours.

I am desperately lonely, and tonight I indulge it. Melodramatic? Absolutely. I have shamelessly abandoned my modest and sober regime of temporarily clean and minimal eating, which only means that I will have to carry it on longer, later. I know this, but I also want a fourth glass of that excellent Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. So I pour it, and light real candles and lie on the floor and turn up the music that still makes me feel like a passionately sorrowful fifteen-year-old, and I let it sweep through me, and most of the time all of this ends in tears.

This is not what I would call a healthy or a useful reaction. My thirty-one-year-old self has a severely edited capacity for self-inflicted emotional turmoil.

Right around the time I first fell in love – 19, on my birthday – all of the intensity and ambiguity that pretty much defined me in my own mind boiled over into panic attacks and unstoppable waking dreams of my beloved’s demise. Before, I had thought it unbearable, but in that delicious, Romantic, existentially agonizing sort of way. After, it really was unbearable. I learned – not quickly enough -- to contain that wildness; I learned that I need to contain it, because letting it have its head now is like reopening barely healed wounds, and past a certain point, I can’t stop the bleeding. So I mostly avoid it, and I’ve learned a neat trick to contain it when it does escape: my husband will be home at 11 pm. The burden will be shared again. I will be able to breathe without it crushing me.

The familiar challenge of partnership among the folks I run with is integrating who you are with who your loved one is. My challenge is remembering that I am also separate. I can breathe on my own.

How did this happen? From what quarter comes this constant threat of becoming lost and overwhelmed on my own? I don’t actually know, though I could speculate. (Lo these many years of journaling, how I have speculated!) It’s something to do, perhaps, with early marriage, a tendency to form very few but very close relationships, that unfortunate anxiety disorder, and a major disconnect between the interesting things I think and the stumbling, prosaic things they turn into when I open my mouth. Plus there’s my lifelong training in negative politeness: smile and nod, neutrally agree, don’t interrupt.

Trying to understand the why, though, has never produced a single useful result. It was my 30th birthday present to myself to figure this out. My 31st was understanding that those raw emotions aren’t going anywhere. I can’t just stop having them. But possibly they do not need to dictate my life.

You know what helps? Distraction. This was a logical deduction. Love itself – the kind of love you weave together with your own being, and into which combined vessel you pour an incredible amount of hard work and sacrifice and spare time – is a distraction. It fills the emptiness that is the burden of human consciousness, and it does that rather too well. History, literature, and Facebook are all full of examples of people cut adrift when a great love relationship ends. I am lost when mine is only held at a distance overnight.

Questions of scale aside, ‘distraction’ is maybe a flippant way to name the process of filling my human emptiness. I could also say it’s the meaning of life.

Cleaning my closet isn’t as cosmic as creating love, but it too creates meaning and usefulness. So does work. I work extra hours when I’m living alone, and I lose track of time, solving taxonomic puzzles and wrangling coherent project outlines from multiple tangled sources. I volunteer similar talents to my local library. I compose photographs and take long walks and dance hard and plan future travels and create photobooks of journeys undertaken. I accept spontaneous plans with friends that I might not otherwise make time for.

Last spring when my husband was gone, a friend invited me to help her buy chickens. Despite being from Portland, I had no idea how that worked: do you buy them by the dozen, like roses? That same weekend, a friend I thought I already knew saw through my pasted smile. I told her some painful secrets about my pathetic lack of an independent self, and she told me her story, which is very different from mine, but also very much the same.

Slowly, this is adding up to more than a list of band-aids. Feeling is beginning to follow behavior. In the same way that I face a difficult meeting more confidently when I put up my hair and wear a badass skirt, I find more genuine enjoyment and anticipation in my solitude when I dry my tears and engage with the world instead. I’m discovering it’s something to look forward to. Who knew?

But no matter how beautiful the day, the afternoon always dims, and I realize it will not bring him home tonight. The evening stretches before me; opportunity and stumbling block, both. This slowly-building knowledge of my solitary self is a set of survival tools and a warm blanket in the wilderness, but the night is cold even so, and full of things I fear. Principally, I fear the loss of my hard-won “distractions”. Who am I, alone in the dark, when I cannot be present with my lover, or make something, or fix something, or find a way to be useful?

When I face these questions squarely, I am not indulging my loneliness. I’m allowing its sharp, clear, thin little light to shine on both action and thought, and show me who I am becoming. It’s a relief to realize I mostly like that person. She’s not entirely what I expected. She might even be good, or trying to be. Still, she spends a lot of time lonely and sad, and fighting it. Sometimes she loses, and that’s where the melodrama swoons back onto the stage.

The poem that haunts me is Mary Oliver's "I Go Down to the Shore”, in which she talks about taking her misery to the ocean, looking for answers. The sea – this is the point of the poem – doesn’t care. Not in a mean way; it just can’t. It has "work to do.”

This is the kind of attitude I want to access. It can hardly be my default mode, because caring deeply is something a human cannot – should not – stop doing. But when everything overwhelms me, I want to reach that space where I can flip my dial to zen, just long enough to get some perspective. Just to keep on keeping on, not desperately, but serenely. Happily enough.

All I’m asking, in real terms, is an untormented week alone in my own home. A solitary evening with a novel and a glass of wine that doesn't feel empty because I will end it in bed with no one but my cat. An ease with the loneliness of life that, I am learning, leaves me in excellent company after all.