In the days of the early space explorations, I imagined the possibility of an astronaut being cut free from the mother ship (duh) by in improbable space particle zinging through the steel tether. I know we have seen this in some movie (probably in Kubrick’s 2001): the jet pack fails to ignite and you see the astronaut floating off.
You might have a few hours before the carbon dioxide filter fails to operate, a few hours of drifting off. That’s seriously alone, entirely disconnected. I’ll leave you there, with your memory of things you have done, people you have known and loved, all of it on the beautiful earth below, while you drift off in space, the brilliance of the stars around you.
Since my wife died twenty-seven months ago, I have had to think carefully about being alone—although I would hardly call my first year of thinking careful. My neighbor’s wife also died a few weeks ago. She was 42. I like Matt, so he has been on my mind. Knowing what he’s going through, I should go over to talk to him, but so far I haven’t.
Both of us know there is quite a difference between being alone and being lonely. We had very strong marriages, which in an odd way, prepares the surviving spouse for the single life, protects him or her from loneliness. But he or she is very much alone, not to the same degree as my imagined astronaut, but alone, the empty house, the empty bed, the solo meals. After a while, you almost get used to it. Some people even say they like it.
I generally enjoyed reading my students’ essays yesterday-the English 2000 students were writing about the significant changes there have or are experiencing in their lives; the Life Writing students were writing about being vulnerable in their lives and writing. I was a little disappointed by some of the Engl 2000 students’ essays—many were a bit flat, one or two not very well written. This shouldn’t surprise me because I don’t grade them, have minimum word counts, or require reviews and rewrites. I just have them write—kind of as I am doing here. Mostly, I just give them the opportunity to write and be read.
There were some good English 2000 essays, however. I saw only two Life Writing essays, both of them striking. I'm going to comment here on one—it was long, as if the student couldn’t stop writing until she had worked out through her writing this problem of being alone. She is twenty-two and has never had a boyfriend. She focused in her essay on dealing with that. Her essay gripped me and it will anyone else who reads it—it was a serious meditation on the link between being vulnerable and being alone. Like Matt and me, this student is not lonely; she has a loving family and a plethora of good friends. Nevertheless, she wants a relationship, which puts her in the alone category. Remarkable about her essay was both her insight and her willingness to come out there with her desire and self-questioning. Most of us prefer to pose in the we’re-all-right-by-ourselves-don’t-need-anyone-else category. I’ve done my share of posing there, too, although I know without a doubt that I’m hard-wired for love.
I think that for many reasons, most of us are looking for a life-partner, but for perhaps more reasons, the search too frequently leads to heartbreak and after a while, people begin to pull in on themselves. It takes courage to stay out there—that was the point of Brene Brown’s TED talk and my student’s essay. Courage to stay out there. In writing, in love, both of which may be a symbol for everything else.