Feeling Lonely Side by Side

One of my favorite bits about loneliness is in the Monty Python comedy musical, “Spamalot.”  King Arthur and his loyal — and very non-royal — sidekick Patsy are lost in a dark forest.  All of his other knights have fled and Arthur feels very bereft.  He launches into one of the show’s funniest tunes, “I’m All Alone,” in which he laments his solitary state, totally oblivious to his loyal friend’s presence.

“You know it seems quite clear to me, because I’m working class,” sings Patsy, “I’m just the horse’s ass.”  The song ends with a large chorus singing, “He’s all alone..except for us.”

I was happy that WordPress’s daily writing prompt was to write about loneliness.  It is something that I feel more often than I would like, even though on the surface I have no excuse to be lonely.  I have a devoted husband and children, a mom and siblings who love me, great friends, interests. Through blogging I’ve made wonderful connections with people who inspire me every day.

Yet sometimes I feel like the guy with the white sport coat and the pink carnation, all alone at the dance.

At times in my life I have felt legitimately lonely…post-breakups in my teen and young adult years when loneliness is felt more keenly; weekends after my first marriage ended when the kids were not with me; the time I babysat on New Year’s Eve for a colicky infant.  Also the time when I decided to postpone my entry into college and all my friends had gone…I soon felt like I had been left behind at a bus stop.

But more often, loneliness comes when I make myself too busy and preoccupied to engage with the world.  This is incredibly easy to do, even if you are surrounded by those you love.  Just think about your bills, your commitments, your next work project, the dust balls under your bed, the last petty slight someone doled out to you, your kid’s struggles at school or on the ball field, the sad state of American politics.  Dwell on them for a while.  Let them stew around in your brain. Immerse yourself in your computer screen and smart phone as an escape. Pretty soon you just zone out and your mind is too distracted and numb to think about people.  Until the numbness narcotic wears off and you’re left with yourself, feeling painfully solitary.

I feel the loneliest when I haven’t been a good friend to people who are legitimately lonely.  Plenty of them are out there.  They are housebound stroke victims, newly-divorced people, folks who lack social skills and probably have undiagnosed Asperger’s.  They are shy people who make you row the boat for the whole conversation.  Sometimes you need to reach out to them even when you are busy and need to be alone.

The truth is that being engaged, and keeping loneliness away, takes work.  It means being able to read people, to tune into what they might be feeling, to read between the lines of what they say, to remember their birthdays and troubles and things that are important to them. It means picking up the phone when you see the caller ID of a friend who has been going through a hard time, even when you have no mental energy to deal with her problems.  It means putting aside the petty distractions of everyday living and the temptations of the Web and making a commitment to focus on human beings.

Yes, we all feel abjectly lonely from time to time.  But many times we don’t have to be. As King Arthur also sang:  “We can be lonely side by side; it’s the perfect way to hide.”

It’s Halloween, and it sure gets lonely here

People like us — who live along a country road with no sidewalks or streetlights — on Halloween are like whaling widows from the 1700s, who keep the candle burning in the window night after night, waiting for their husbands who years ago were lost at sea.

Despite the fact that we live on Elm Street – an iconic name in horror movies — Halloween is a dud. No parent wants their child trick-or-treating on a winding road with no lights and plenty of blind turns; the type of road that Freddie Krueger would have relished.

Still, year after year we carve the pumpkins, buy bags of Reese’s peanut butter cups that end up in the freezer, and put on the lights, hoping that we will enjoy a classic Halloween, haunted by princesses, jedis, ninjas and ghouls. This year, as we gaze out the window at the chrysanthemums and corn stalks smothered by an early snow, does not look promising.

We can usually count on the three small children from the next house visiting early in the evening, before their parents drive them off to more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. And our son and his friends will load up on our candy before they too decamp for happier Halloween hunting grounds — where the homes are close together and a pillowcase can be filled in the time it takes to watch two episodes of Sponge Bob.

A few years ago was a banner year. We had a total of 12 trick-or-treaters: the three children from next door, then John and his pals. The doorbell did not ring for at least an hour, then lo! A half dozen teens appeared on our doorstep, all dressed as slashers. It was our friends’ son and his friends, They made pleasant conversation and helped themselves to some candy before getting down to business: inquiring politely if they could use our bathroom.

I guess we could just keep the lights off and not open up for Halloween. But I am still haunted by the memories of the Oldhams, the one household in my childhood neighborhood that did not open up. Their house and front path was spattered with burst eggs, which they’d hose off every Nov. 1. And old Eddie, may he rest in peace, would complain bitterly to my parents about “those G-D kids” and how “it’s a terrible world out there.”

Halloween is the only time I miss my former home in Pennsylvania, in a new development where everyone had small children. Back then I would make at least 80 candy bags and they would be gone within an hour. Neighborhood children would visit, and as they grew older they brought posses from other neighborhoods. We also had a spread for the adults accompanying the little ones: pumpkin bread, cheese and crackers and (most importantly) cider spiked with Laird’s Applejack. One of the dads, a school principal who always dressed in drag for Halloween, would down two glasses while the kids loaded up on candy; then took one for the road. Each year our home became more and more of a draw; I wonder why? 😉

But this year on Elm Street, where on any other day we’d savor the peace and the privacy, Halloween will be a lonely time. Still, we go through the motions and hope for the best.

Tonight we’ll carve the pumpkin like we always do. Tomorrow night we’ll find a used but still substantial candle and place it inside; then set the illuminated pumpkin on a rock by our driveway…in plain view of anyone who passes by. We’ll put on all the lights in front of the house, to make it look welcoming. And we’ll wait.