When I moved to Missouri two years ago to start my job as an English instructor, I was, for the first time, alone. I remember opening the door to my bare studio apartment and thinking it was a field left fallow through the planting season, as I had never seen a room so vast and empty.
When you grow up on a farm, the middle of five children, you are never alone. When you live in the dorms at a small, liberal arts college in southeastern Ohio, you are never alone. When you go to graduate school for creative writing and surround yourself with other poor graduate students who memorize villanelles, you are never alone. But when you drop a box of paperbacks in the middle of the field of your new home, the Missouri River that’s within walking distance isn’t so much a border between you and Kansas, but a waterway that trails by like a crooked, unsupportive spine.
This is how I came to believe in being alone. It wasn’t just that I had to, I wanted to. I chose to. Up until that point I had been comfortably doused with friends and family. Every time I turned around there was someone with a warm smile and a shoulder squeeze, which is a wonderful thing, but I needed a challenge, and I found it in St. Joseph, Missouri, where every face, every voice, was different, and I had to turn inside myself for answers, not ask the person next to me I have known for years.
We often view being alone as a bad thing, perhaps because we humans tend to be herd animals. We are social creatures, jabbering with the clerk at the shoe store or the nurse taking our blood pressure. We are told to car pool, to wed, to procreate. We hear “two heads are better than one.” In school, we are made to do group work. In our careers, we call it “collaboration,” but it’s the same thing.
Let me point out I agree. Sometimes two heads are better than one, but I believe in being alone because now I know how to do things I didn’t know before, or didn’t think I could, like carry a 32-inch flat screen up two flights of stairs. I know how to stop my refrigerator from making that weird humming sound. I know how to go somewhere alone, like a restaurant or a matinée, and introduce myself to people who look harmless and interesting.
Learning to believe in being alone is not easy. Many nights I wrapped myself in a blanket, lay on the seedless plane of my apartment listening to Neil Young and wished I were in Ohio, but this is part of it. As Robert Hass says in his beautiful poem “Meditation at Lagunitas,” “Longing, we say, because desire is full/ of endless distances.”
This is true, and with something to desire, we are never completely alone, but maybe alone enough.