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ALONE

My immediate reaction to the word alone is visceral. It is a deep ache that comes from feeling invisible. Unseen. Unimportant. Not mattering.

The story it conjures is one of abandonment. Not of being physically abandoned mind you, just feeling abandoned by my parents.

I am the sixth of ten children, seven girls, and three boys in that order.

I know what you’re thinking. How could I possibly feel alone living with eleven other people? I didn’t have my own bedroom until I was sixteen, and even then I was kicked out of the house only months later, so I had very little time to enjoy it. Unless you count all the times I would crack my window open and smoke a cigarette from my bed. I loved that it made me feel as grown up as my older sisters.

I started smoking in fourth grade. My apologies to my children who might be shocked and saddened to learn about me. I’ve always told them I didn’t start until around eighth grade because it felt too awful for me to admit the truth.

I was eight years old, but my parents never acknowledged this disgusting habit of mine until I was sixteen and smoking cigarettes from my bedroom window and only then because by that point I didn’t care enough to hide the evidence.

I would grind out the butts on the window casing and leave them there for anyone to see until the sill was full and I was nauseous from the stench. I’d already been smoking for many years by that point and often drinking by then too, but neither of these facts warranted a blip on their radar. I was a ghost ship, and unless I torpedoed someone or something else, I remained invisible.

To be fair they were dealing with not one but two teenage pregnancies by that time and a host of other challenges having ten kids will bring, so looking back on it now I can’t say that I was ever surprised.

Most times to capture the attention of my mother I had to capture her. I would feign being sick in the bathroom and then quickly shut the door behind her, locking us both in until she heard me out. But even that tactic turned into a competition for attention when other siblings inevitably began banging on the door.

When Helen Reddy sang, “I am invincible! I am Woman!” I substituted “invisible” and made it my anthem.

I could pretty much do anything without fear of having my parents find out, still the steadfast Catholic soldier in me, for the most part, kept me on the straight and narrow.

For feeling alone as I did on the inside, on the outside, my physical body felt like a depraved animal seeking shelter from a storm. I longed so desperately to be left alone.

Whatever bedroom I happened to be sharing with however many other sisters, I always claimed the closet as my territory.

Thinking about this now has me marveling at the way they all, for the most part, respected that about me and for the most part did leave me alone. Though I do remember sleeping in the bathtub once after being kicked out of the closet by a sister who wanted our whole room to herself, closet included.

Closets were my only means of escape when I couldn’t be alone in the woods. They were the only place I could find refuge from the chaos that was my family. I spent as much time as I could inside them, sitting Indian style and reading by the light of the bare bulb hanging overhead or else talking to myself with a rapt audience of unconscious stuffed animals to keep me company.

But being alone in the woods was my preference. It was the one place I felt seen and welcomed. It felt sacred. More sacred than any church I’d been forced to enter. There, Mother Nature became my surrogate mother. Alone in the woods, I felt like I finally belonged.

As often as I could, I would pack a pb&j into a brown bag and picnic – a party of one – inside an enormous hollow tree in the woods behind our house, temporarily filling its empty space while it returned the favor.

Alone in the woods, I shed my skin.

“To be alone for any length of time is to shed an outer skin. The body is inhabited in a different way when we are alone than when we are with others. Alone, we live in our bodies as questions rather than a statement.” – David Whyte Consolations

The pain of shedding so much of my skin as a child is still felt now. To say I am highly sensitive is putting it mildly.

In situations beyond my control, situations where I am seen, and worse yet, heard, my skin goes an embarrassing bright red, flush as if recently burned and I appear raw.

And in many ways I guess I still am.

This is my story. It’s one I’ve been telling myself for a very long time. It’s a story I accepted at face value. I judged this book by its cover, Poor Me.

Poor me. The story of an invisible girl who didn’t matter.

But when I crack open the tight spine of it and beginning reading it with fresh eyes, a very different story emerges.

Be Who You Are. A profile in courage.

I am that person precisely because I’ve spent so much time alone.

One of my first jobs was delivering mail in a rural town nearby. I look back on it fondly for the freedom it offered for I was now getting paid primarily to be left alone.

After my kids were born, I left the corporate world and worked from home – alone – instead. I painted tiny figurines that sold in specialty shops all over the country, and I was able to make a pretty good living from it.

I did this for sixteen years while simultaneously homeschooling my two children, and for all those years I relished the freedom it offered us and the solitude it offered me.

While painting alone in my office in the wee hours of the morning, I would listen to books on tape and dream about what to do with my life once the kids were grown and gone.

But with the passing years, I came to prefer my sweet confinement and was reluctant to step outside my bubble.

When I eventually did, most often, I’d still be alone. I would go away for the weekend to hike in the Quabbin Reservoir and sleep in the cheapest motel I would find. Candles helped mask the sour stench of the well-worn carpets, and it was there that I began making lists of what my life should look like in five years and then ten and so on.

When a weekend away wasn’t enough I rented the tiny cottage in Cape Cod that our family of four vacationed at, sitting solitary on the beach day after day relishing every moment of the peace and quiet it afforded me.

To be alone is “…..to live something that feels like a choice again.” -David Whyte Consolations

When I read those nine words, something deep inside me clicked.

I didn’t have many if any choices on what to do with my days back then. The kids ruled my life, rightly so. But the few times I stepped away from that life – however briefly – did feel like something of a choice. It felt like freedom. Pure, sweet freedom from that other life to one where I slowly began to recognize myself again.

Then in 2005 – the season of making your wildest dreams come true, courtesy of Oprah – I summoned the courage to do just that. I didn’t win the sweepstakes mind you, but I accepted the invitation. It turned out to be the push I needed to finally make my own lifelong wildest dream come true. I was going to Africa. Alone.

My kids were twelve and ten at the time, and I knew there’d be no better time for me to travel unless I was okay with waiting until they were adults. I was not okay with waiting. All my life I had an irrational fear of being too late to that party. I always knew I would go – someday, but I feared if I waited too long, there would be nothing left to see. The animals I so dearly loved would have all vanished, and I would be left with a gaping hole where my heart should be.

So I did it. With the help and support from my husband who took time off from work to take care of the kids while I was away, I traveled alone to South Africa to volunteer on a reserve where my job would be to monitor their lion population.

All those hours spent alone dreaming about my future were about to pay off. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t afraid.

I wrote this poem late one night while sitting around the fire with the other volunteers and gazing up at the Milky Way for the first time.

To Live Like A Lion

Eat when your belly is empty
and sleep when you feel the need.

Your family will be there to protect you
though at times you may need to lead.

Be strong, be confident, be sure.
Let your lover make you roar.

To live should be that easy.
So why do we always want more?

Years later I would deepen my already strong connection to silence by attending a ten-day silent meditation retreat, then another five-day one soon after that.

Throughout all the years of my life, every moment spent alone has made me stronger by letting me know who I am, and ironically, by letting me know that I am never really alone and never have been.

And knowing this changes my story.

The early stories I told myself of not being seen or heard or valued don’t ring true anymore. They were stories of pain and suffering, stories I identified with and let identify me. But no matter how busy my parents were and are with their own lives, their own problems, their own forgotten dreams, in the sacred space of my aloneness I always knew I was loved. Loved by the animals and the earth, the water and the wind, and yes by my parents, too.

For that, I am profoundly grateful. For that is a story I can relish.

 

NEXT WEEK: AMBITION

About Amy

I am many things to many people. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend. I am a worshiper of nature on a journey inward, rewriting my story one word at a time.

2 Replies

  1. Donna

    Oh, my gosh. This EXACT issue: feeling invisible – has resurfaced in my life recently and I realized it goes back to my childhood. You were not the only one who felt that way. ????

    1. Thank you, Donna. It’s true, no matter how much time has passed when those feelings are triggered again for any reason, it yanks you right back and forces you to confront those same feelings again which is not an easy thing to do. Hopefully, it at least leaves you with a better understanding of it which can still be of great value. Love you!

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