Recently a series of memories have become threaded together in my mind, like worry beads on a string that I find myself turning over and over.
The first memory is from thirty years ago. Our family was on a summer holiday somewhere in the Mediterranean. We were staying in an apartment. I remember lying on the thin twin bed in the bedroom I was sharing with my brother and sobbing.
All I could say over and over was, “I don’t have any friends.”
This wasn’t really true. I was maybe fourteen—the age my son is now—and had some lovely friends; but I also felt immensely guarded in front of them—in front of everybody—as if the real me was shielded by a carapace and that the jig would be up if I ever let it down. I imagine this to be a fairly universal experience of adolescence.
My Mum had tried comforting me, “You DO have friends!” to no avail.
Then my Dad came in, and he took a different tack. I cried and he sat on the bed next to me. I tried to explain. “I just don’t feel like anybody really knows me. I feel so lonely.”
“You and I are very similar,” he observed, and he caught my attention. I suppressed my sobs to try to listen to what he was saying.
“Do you think I have a lot of friends?” he asked.
Yes …” I said hesitantly.
It was certainly the case that my Dad appeared to me to be enmeshed in a large and close-knit social network. If I picture my Dad in his element, I imagine him sitting at the center of a crowded dinner table, his chin leaning on his hands interlocked together, a wry smile playing on his lips. My parents were friends with lots of couples and I remember observing that, with many of them, it seemed that the initial connection was through my Dad; they were people he knew from his psychotherapy training, or other people he knew through his work.
As a result, what he said next startled me.
“No,” he said, “I don’t.” “And I never have,” he added. “Because I don’t need them.”
I frowned, feeling that this talk was not headed in the direction I had anticipated.
“And I think you’re the same,” he said. “People like you and me, we don’t need other people, we’re loners.”
I frowned again, trying to take in what he was saying.
“I mean, I have Mum,” he added, “but I don’t really have any close friends.”
I reflected to myself then and also later that I didn’t quite understand where he was positioning my mother in this equation.
“But,” I hesitated, “but that’s not what I want. I want friends.”
He nodded, as if he understood, “yes, but people like you and me, we’re special, we’re thinkers, and people are never going to understand us, so we’ll never really have any friends.”
I’ve reflected long and hard and talked many times in therapy about whether my Dad meant what he was saying here and what effect he meant it to have.
I did not react positively. “If that’s true,” I yelled, “then I don’t want to be like you. That’s not what I want.”
He kind of shrugged as if to say you get what you get and you don’t get upset. I started sobbing harder than ever and he left the room.
I was reminded of this exchange by a recent conversation with a friend. I was expressing some version of this same feeling, a kind of cosmic loneliness. Now it manifested as a yearning not for friends, per se, but for some deep sense of connection, a sense of seeing someone and feeling seen in return, a kind of connection that, my Dad’s comments to the contrary notwithstanding, I had always thought was a kind of intimacy I wanted and was capable of but that increasingly seemed to recede from view the more I tried to reach for it.
I confessed to my friend that I felt this gnawing envy of people—like him—who seemed to feel in their bones a kind of sureness about the person they had chosen to make a life with. He agreed that he was very fortunate in this respect—though, of course, it’s not only good fortune, it’s also inhabiting an attitude that I’ve always struggled to muster.
I started talking then, about the many other sources of joy and fulfillment in my life—most of all, the unfolding, intricate relationships I have with my children, these creatures whom I know both more and less intimately every day as their worlds become ever wider. I was talking about those rewards and more, but also how the whole was pervaded by a sense of something missing.
Then my friend observed, quite cheerfully, “Well, maybe this is just your lot in life.”
“My lot in life?” I repeated, a little taken aback.
“Yeah, I mean, maybe you’re just not a person who is ever going find happiness in a conventional monogamous relationship and you have to look elsewhere in your life for other sources of joy and fulfillment,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Hmmm.” I thought about this. “I mean, that makes sense but ….”
I paused and laughed. “There’s just something about that phrase, ‘your lot in life.’ It makes me think, I dunno … governess … spinster … nun …
For the next few days, I would murmur to myself, “it’s just my lot in life,” and crack up. It so vividly summoned a very particular style—both behaviorally and sartorially—of renunciation. I would probably need a plain, high-necked black or possibly dark grey worsted dress, I thought to myself. Possibly a twill. Something that wouldn’t show the dirt. And my hair scraped back in a severe bun. I pictured Miss Hardbroom from The Worst Witch television series (based on the books by Jill Murphy), which I’ve been watching with the younger. I could fancy myself as a strict witchy headmistress resigned to my lot in life of keeping all the young witches in line.
A movie I watched by myself with great pleasure the other week, “The Little Hours,” slyly draws out what I started to think of as the comedy of closure … that is, the comedy of being closed in, closed down, and making do with your “lot in life.”
The movie’s plot is based loosely on the first and second stories from day three of Boccaccio’s Decameron. The main characters are three nuns—Sisters Alessandra, Ginevra, and Fernanda. While Ginevra and Fernanda are relatively content with their vocation, Alessandra, who has joined the convent at the insistence of her wealthy father, pines for a worldly life. In one scene, Alessandra’s father, Ilario (Paul Reiser), comes to visit Alessandra (Alison Brie) at the convent and tries to comfort her.
ILARIO: I know how eager you are to be married, my baby. I know, but maybe it’s … maybe that’s not your calling. How’s your embroidery going? You still doing that?
ILARIO: Good, ‘cause you’re so good, and maybe that’s your calling, you know. Some people, it’s marriage and family and the warmth of a home, and maybe for you it’s … it’s the detailed embroidery. You know, keep … please. Keep your chin up.
and maybe for you it’s … it’s the detailed embroidery. Dads, eh? They always know just how to comfort a daughter.
There’s a passage in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Villette (1853)—a novel that I read when I was about the same age I had that conversation with my Dad—that perfectly captures the soul-crushing effort of striving to be satisfied with your lot in life in a world that feels like it is closing in. Here is Lucy Snowe, Villette’s narrator:
Those who live in retirement, whose lives have fallen amid the seclusion of schools or of other walled-in and guarded dwellings, are liable to be suddenly and for a long while dropped out of the memory of their friends, the denizens of a freer world. Unaccountably, perhaps, and close upon some space of unusually frequent intercourse—some congeries of rather exciting little circumstances, whose natural sequel would rather seem to be the quickening than the suspension of communication—there falls a stilly pause, a wordless silence, a long blank of oblivion. Unbroken always is this blank; alike entire and unexplained. The letter, the message once frequent, are cut off; the visit, formerly periodical, ceases to occur; the book, paper, or other token that indicated remembrance, comes no more.
Always there are excellent reasons for these lapses, if the hermit but knew them. Though he is stagnant in his cell, his connections without are whirling in the very vortex of life. That void interval which passes for him so slowly that the very clocks seem at a stand, and the wingless hours plod by in the likeness of tired tramps prone to rest at milestones—that same interval, perhaps, teems with events, and pants with hurry for his friends.
The hermit—if he be a sensible hermit—will swallow his own thoughts, and lock up his own emotions during these weeks of inward winter. He will know that Destiny designed him to imitate, on occasion, the dormouse, and he will be conformable: make a tidy ball of himself, creep into a hole of life’s wall, and submit decently to the drift which blows in and soon blocks him up, preserving him in ice for the season.
Let him say, “It is quite right: it ought to be so, since so it is.” And, perhaps, one day his snow-sepulchre will open, spring’s softness will return, the sun and south-wind will reach him; the budding of hedges, and carolling of birds, and singing of liberated streams, will call him to kindly resurrection. Perhaps this may be the case, perhaps not: the frost may get into his heart and never thaw more; when spring comes, a crow or a pie may pick out of the wall only his dormouse-bones. Well, even in that case, all will be right: it is to be supposed he knew from the first he was mortal, and must one day go the way of all flesh, “As well soon as syne.”
Following that eventful evening at the theatre, came for me seven weeks as bare as seven sheets of blank paper: no word was written on one of them; not a visit, not a token.
About the middle of that time I entertained fancies that something had happened to my friends at La Terrasse. The mid-blank is always a beclouded point for the solitary: his nerves ache with the strain of long expectancy; the doubts hitherto repelled gather now to a mass and—strong in accumulation—roll back upon him with a force which savours of vindictiveness. Night, too, becomes an unkindly time, and sleep and his nature cannot agree: strange starts and struggles harass his couch: the sinister band of bad dreams, with horror of calamity, and sick dread of entire desertion at their head, join the league against him. Poor wretch! He does his best to bear up, but he is a poor, pallid, wasting wretch, despite that best.
Towards the last of these long seven weeks I admitted, what through the other six I had jealously excluded—the conviction that these blanks were inevitable: the result of circumstances, the fiat of fate, a part of my life’s lot and—above all—a matter about whose origin no question must ever be asked, for whose painful sequence no murmur ever uttered. Of course I did not blame myself for suffering: I thank God I had a truer sense of justice than to fall into any imbecile extravagance of self-accusation; and as to blaming others for silence, in my reason I well knew them blameless, and in my heart acknowledged them so: but it was a rough and heavy road to travel, and I longed for better days.
I tried different expedients to sustain and fill existence: I commenced an elaborate piece of lace-work, I studied German pretty hard, I undertook a course of regular reading of the driest and thickest books in the library; in all my efforts I was as orthodox as I knew how to be. Was there error somewhere? Very likely. I only know the result was as if I had gnawed a file to satisfy hunger, or drank brine to quench thirst.
My therapist’s office is on the fifth floor of a high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard. You get a good view of the smoke curling up from the fires up there. The other day I barely made it on time because of the fires’ impact on traffic.
When the Lyft driver had picked me up in Burbank, I’d asked how the traffic was.
“Oh, it’s terrible,” he said.
“Right, because the 405’s closed because of the fire?” I said.
“Oh no, it’s not closed,” he said.
“It’s not?” I was surprised, having been following traffic updates all morning.
“No,” he said.
“Oh, it must have just re-opened then, at least that’s good!” I said, assuming he must have more up-to-date information than I did.
So we took the 5 to the 405 until we had to get off at the 101 interchange, because the twenty-five mile section of the 405 between the 101 and Sunset Boulevard was closed because of the fires.
“Huh, you were right!” he exclaimed. “But it was open last night!” he protested. “What was that you said about a fire?”
“The fire started early this morning,” I explained wearily. “The freeway’s been closed for the last couple of hours.” I didn’t bother stifling a sigh.
For the next hour and a half we crawled along in a line of cars that snaked its way through every inch, it seemed, of Bel Air, the roads so winding you could see nothing ahead, the air growing thicker as we neared the site of the fire.
I was irritated with the Lyft driver for dismissing my information but, more than that, I was angry with myself. I knew the 405 was closed. But I wanted to believe he knew better. So I suspended disbelief and assented to the possibility that my information was wrong. Deep down, though, I think I knew I was right. I knew the 405 would be closed but I didn’t want to argue with him about it, so I just let it play out. As we sat at a standstill in the middle of Bel Air and he cursed under his breath, I wished that I had tried harder to make him understand that things would turn out this way, that I had seen it coming. Maybe we still would have been sitting here stuck, unable to see the road ahead; but our nerves wouldn’t have ached with the strain of long expectancy. I took out my knitting and tried to keep my chin up.