He’s Gone: Essay
Evolution of a Loner
Nature’s perfect food.
If you’re anything like me, as soon as you close the cover of a novel, you’re dying to know what’s true or not true in the book. It’s a question that I – even as the author – can find tricky to answer. For me, the story usually includes bits of actual events, a heavy dash of imagination, and a large dollop of feelings I’ve experienced in the past. All of this goes into the mental blender, and then the subconscious pushes the puree button. In HE’S GONE, though, there’s one scene that’s clearly and completely right out of my own life. It happens in the very beginning of the book, when Dani gleefully realizes that she might be home alone. Dani’s joy on that page is my joy. Oreos on a paper towel for breakfast? Bliss. Tucking back into the covers to read as long as you want? Paradise. And how about Chinese food eaten out of the container all by yourself in the kitchen? Or late nights of Netflix and Girl TV that your partner doesn’t even know you watch? Sigh.
A loner is born…
Love it. When my sweet husband says he’s going away to visit his family, I start planning my Beef Week (he’s a vegetarian) and my reading list. I’m as excited as a kid on a Snow Day, as delighted and scheming as when you’ve got birthday money in your wallet. I also need time to myself on a daily basis, and I’ve been lucky to find a profession that sanctions that. But I’ve got a complicated relationship with alone. That’s my confession. I love being alone until I stop loving it. Until I start talking to myself, and even the dog gets tired of Girl TV and dropped bits of chow mien and retreats to his bed with a sigh. Until I find myself chatting way too long to the grocery checker, long enough that the guy behind me who just wants to hurry up and buy his bouquet of apology-flowers starts to get impatient. Even more than that, though, I love it until my happiness at being on my own is misunderstood by others, viewed as a social failing of some sort, or until it makes my beloved feel beside the point.
The book that changed my life
I blame (or thank) a little nature and a little nurture for my introverted leanings, because I was the same way even as a child. I began a life-long practice of both adoring and devouring books in the first grade, right after Mrs. Foley read us RAMONA THE PEST, and that’s when the need to be alone really started. Aside from those memorable weeks of sitting still and riveted amongst my squirmy classmates, and aside from the same feeling of being utterly captured when my mother read me CHARLOTTE’S WEB, reading was, of course, a beautiful, solitary activity. And reading became habitual. No, more than habitual – it became a basic necessity, one of the daily essentials required to sustain life, along with food and water.
The awkward phase begins. Me and my sis (who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent.)
Temperamentally, too, I was a reflective child, an awkward kid, an observer (a writer) and books were a place to be understood and to find rest. They were also a place to hide. We moved a lot, every two years or so. Being the new kid in class required a splashy confidence that I lacked, and those ever-changing schools just gave more evidence to the theory that I didn’t fit in. Our home wasn’t always a happy one, either (whose is?), and going to my room to read was a retreat. It was a double-walled fortress – first, the book itself, the flight into another time and place, and then my very own room, with its shut door. It must have been about then that I made this great discovery: being alone meant no external pressure, no expectations, no not meeting expectations. It meant no tension, and no anxiety. It was a relief.
A must for any high school loner: bad poetry. Published in the Lake Washington High School literary magazine, Musette
It also was – is – hard for others to understand. Those of us who like our time alone are a bit of a mystery to those who don’t. They’re not sure what to do with us, or how to understand us. Actually, we make people nervous. They think we need help of some kind. They give us lots of names, many of which are ungenerous or at least significantly off the mark. First, there are the labels tinged with suspicion: “loner,” “recluse,” “outsider,” and “outcast” – I’d hide my valuables from any of them. You must be hiding something or plotting to overthrow the government, right, because who likes to be alone? And then there are the descriptions that imply alone equals lonely – words like “solitary” or “private” or “isolated”, which bring to mind images of heated-up frozen dinners and long stares out of windows dripping rain. There are the expressions that try to put a positive spin on things, too, but which still have overtones of the weird and masturbatory: “Liking your own company,” or able to “entertain oneself,” suggesting at the least that one is home alone dancing in front of mirrors. Thankfully, there are other terms that don’t feel so pale or sad or shockingly incapable. These portrayals swing to the other side, imparting upon us a can-do spirit that seems cheery and downright powerful, capable of solo world travel and hacking through forests with machetes. We are independent. We are autonomous. We are self-sufficient.
Contemplating, my favorite past-time, just after college
We are shy, people think. But I’m not shy. I don’t have social anxiety. I don’t feel particularly nervous or reluctant about get-togethers or gatherings or group events. I can rather shamefully love to be the life of the party. I have myself a great old time at any and all of these occasions, thrilled with good conversation and tiny plates filled with elegant food. Even in high school, I was an active member of school clubs, and I was stage-center in our plays. Later in my life, of course, there were dinners and celebrations and speeches and conferences, and I’ve mightily enjoyed nearly every one. But there was always (and is always) that particular and great moment upon coming home, the one where you put on your robe and shut that blessed door, where it’s just you again, and what you feel most is, “Ahh.”
The never-lonely years of tots and high-waisted pants
The biggest and most damaging misconception, though, is that a need for “alone-time” (Another terrible expression. Very preschool-y) means a lack of need for people. A disdain for people, even. But we’ve muddled our facts. You can love dinner without hating dessert. Time spent with all of my beloveds is the most cherished thing in my life. But I desire a deep connection to the people around me. I crave the meaningful interactions that come over the long haul, rather than hit-and-run party chatter. That old introvert cliché, the woman who lives alone with her numerous cats, well, she’s probably not an introvert at all, or is at least not merely an introvert. I, for one, am a dog person. A one-dog woman. I like a walk in the park with someone I care about; I like playful humor, and loving bonds. I treasure my relationships.
Retreat to the nearest hiding place
Which provides the complication in this continuing, impossible recipe of too much of this, too little of that: How do you merge your need to be alone with your need to be apart? No, wait, worse and more thorny than even that. How does your partner manage your need to be alone with his need to be with you? Every couple has to find that just-right of closeness and distance, and, like Dani, every person must come to terms with their dependence versus their independence, their fears of alone and not-alone that can make us stay too long in bad places just for the company in the dark. But what about the less monumental issues? What about the daily negotiations that can get prickly for us introverts, even us introverts in (or in my case, finally in) happy partnerships? We can be hard to understand even by those who understand us best.
Where’d she go NOW?
Distance sits close to withholding. Privacy sits close to detachment. Self reliance can send the message that you’d just as soon not have someone around. I’ve been told on more than one occasion by more than one partner that I don’t make a person feel needed, and we all want to feel needed sometimes. The fact that I am not lonely when I’m alone can wrongly convey that I’m happier that way. It’s not personal, but it can feel personal. Temperament is rather unbudging, and those who love us are required to have an abundance of inner resources and the kind of solid ego that allows them to step back without stepping away.
Finding balance with Beloved
But, too, there’s the part you play in this conflict. (Damn it. I hate that!) Where they complain about you wanting to be alone, which makes you, ahem, want to be alone. Where the compulsion to be by yourself is not temperament at all, but just your old childhood urge to flee, to be free, to turn the intensity down. To turn the anxieties and requirements and demands off. To get away from anger, or the ways you’re disappointing others. It’s about the reprieve from negotiation, because when you’re with only you, you get your way all the time. Too much feeling can flip the introvert’s switch. Retreat feels critical; there’s a four-alarm fire, and you must get out. Retreat, oftentimes, is a cop-out. Let’s fess up: The need to be alone is part temperament, part coping mechanism. As a temperament issue, your partner probably just has to deal with it. As your preferred method of conflict management, though, you probably do.
Time to myself has been vital to me since I was a child, as I’ve said. But it was after I had children of my own that I realized something important about why this need of mine existed at all. The yearning to be alone, I found, did not extend to them, at least not in any but the most regular sort of way, the way every mother with small children feels, when their father goes off to the gym and you hate him for it. Sure, I occasionally envied his lengthy, just-him-and-only-him commute or those business lunches in an actual restaurant, but I never truly desired retreat from my kids. The thing was, I was always myself with my children. And when you’re alone, that’s the very best and most significant thing: All you have to be is yourself. I understood that this was what I most valued in my solitude, and what I longed for and did not always successfully find in my other relationships.
In HE’S GONE, Dani also struggles with this – with her own right to be simply herself. She struggles with using her voice and fighting on her own behalf. I often wonder if those of us who love to be alone are the ones who know this struggle best. Yes, you may be hard-wired for quiet, but, too, it hasn’t always been easy to find peace. You want to sink into the silence and calm that is a lack of struggle. You are, perhaps, a battered, badgered self, that only wants the sweet relief of your own forgiving company.
I, like Dani, am a work in progress on this issue. You might be one, as well. If you are, if you are a loner or an introvert or if you “like your own company,” I wish you the sweet relief you seek. I wish you your own strong voice, and the soft, understanding voices of others. I wish you the freedom to be whoever the hell you are. And I wish you the just-right blend of reaching over in the morning in bed and finding your beloved beside you, or else, reaching over and finding the wide empty space that means Oreos for breakfast.