Recently, I have needed to pause a little, to pare things down. In part that is the archetypal energy of the fall: after the abundance of the harvest comes the shedding of what we don’t need. But more so, I am realizing that although I have been in a long transition for the past ten years, I have never given myself the time to just be in transition, without goals or expectations, or internal pressure to prove my productivity and worth. And so I find myself right now in a process that is intense and sometimes scary, to simply allow myself be in that space of waiting and uncertainty, to deliberately make room for it: I say no, I turn off my phone, I ignore all of the things I have promised to other people, and I simply listen and watch, reflect and wait. I honour a commitment to myself.
But sometimes, when I take this time in the periphery of other people’s productive lives, I feel a dark cloud of loneliness descending over me. Sometimes it creeps in slowly; sometimes it descends rapidly and takes me fully by surprise. My internal weather system is tumultuous and unpredictable in these moments.
I have been thinking of something I read a while ago about emotions. How one emotion often triggers another, and how as we map them, we can see that our entire world-view can shift when we are in the midst of a particular feeling: “that when we’re sad, for example, it’s hard to remember that the world itself hasn’t become a sad place, even though that’s exactly what it feels like.”
I have been mapping the clouds of emotion in myself, and I am learning that sometimes when I choose to be alone – particularly when I choose to be alone among other people – dark feelings begin to creep in through the associations my brain and heart and body have with that experience. I can feel everything around me turning to shadow, and if I restrain the urge to numb or fix it, I have to pass through that shadow to get to where my true self waits.
And I feel myself separate into two parts in those moments, one that is overcome with intense loneliness and disconnection, and the other part that is aware that I am in the middle of a storm, and that I need to hold on tight until it passes.
A dark cloud descended on me the other day. Several hours intentionally alone in the woods, a disconnecting communication with a friend, my mind and heart holding on to another interaction that I couldn’t seem to unravel, and the darkness started to fall. And as it crept upon me – and I was aware of it creeping – I could feel a cloud of disconnection and mistrust threatening to spread. The darkness infected me; it reframed everything; it distorted my thoughts and my perceptions of the human connections in my life.
The watcher part of myself, which I have worked hard to nurture over the years, tried to keep the cloud at bay, to keep space around myself where it couldn’t get in, to know with my rational mind that I couldn’t trust what I was feeling.
Several hours later, as the internal storm continued to rage, I found myself at home reading aloud a book to my younger son, a novel in the fantasy tradition where good and evil are in battle. I read of a young boy – not yet aware of his supernatural powers – who is left alone in a small mountain cabin, waiting for a friend to return with a magical item that will help ward off the Dark that is all around them in that place. He is warned that the spot he is waiting in is a stronghold of the Dark, and that he will need to fight off that evil until help comes.
And the attack, when it happens, takes no physical form. It takes the form of thoughts, cast into his mind, that threaten to turn him against those he loves. Thoughts that are suspicious, cynical, mistrusting, guided by fear. And in his mind he fights back, holding on to his reason and the truth he knows of love.
It felt strikingly familiar.
Disconnection, in that moment, was like a spell that had been cast upon me, like a test that had been waiting for me on my journey. And all I could to do was stand fast and ward it off.
A couple of hours later, I had succeeded in pushing the darkness aside. Or perhaps the storm had just taken its course, and I had weathered it. I was in peace. I hadn’t said anything hurtful to anyone, or even to myself. My internal relationships were intact. I had come back to myself and come back to trust.
When it’s over, I can hardly remember what the storm felt like.
I remind myself that the shadow moments are an integral part of my life. If I choose calm presence and steady rhythms, loneliness is one of the specters that comes to haunt. The shadows are a consequence of the choices that I have made; an occupational hazard of moving parts of my life outside of the mainstream structures that I grew up expecting to mold myself to. They are the side-effect of a web of relationships that are not geographically bound. They are my grief at not living in a village with all those I love.
They are my payment for swimming in Georgian Bay on a Friday in September, for last-minute camping with friends mid-week in October, for all the rainy mornings spent curled up on the couch reading with my kids instead of rushing to be somewhere else.
They are the shadow side of the freedom I have carved out to choose what to do with my own time; the shadow side of following internal rather than external rhythms and motivations. They are the shadow that emerges when I clear away busyness and aspiration and look at what is underneath, when I ask “what do I – what do we – really need in this moment?”
They are also the residue of having judged myself so long through accomplishment, through doing instead of being. Judged my life through the cultural belief in scarcity that so quickly bring me –bring all of us – to ask “what is missing?” instead of “what can I celebrate?”
And they are a reminder of what I once learned from Joanna Macy: “Everybody’s lonely.” Whatever form it takes, however we learn to handle it, whether it’s in solitude or in a crowd, loneliness will come. And we need to remember that loneliness isn’t real. It’s an illusion, a shadow, a spell.