I’ve been thinking about aloneness and loneliness lately. In the physical, big-picture sense, nobody is truly alone in a world of 7 billion people, though solo off-trail backpacking high above the tree line in the Sierra Nevada puts one pretty darn close. So more often than not, it’s the lack of emotional connectivity that produces feelings of loneliness much more so than the aloneness of being physically isolated from other people.
I bring this up because as I write this I am:
-Sitting in a mud hut in Africa about 542,891 miles (I rounded up) from everyone I ever knew prior to last month.
-In a country with over 10 million people, in a community with neighbors living so close they know when I’m awake before I do.
-Embroiled in a heightened emotional state which causes me to, a bit self-loathingly, feel a sharp pang of homesickness while reading a cheesy chick-lit novel.
-With 18 other trainees who are sharing this bumpy emotional ride with me and with whom I’ve bonded instantly.
-On the eve of my 25th birthday, reading aforementioned chick lit in bed and wishing I had a big tub of double chocolate ice cream to mop up the sweat dripping down my back.
Forever alone. (Heh)
I’ve realized that the times when I feel the most emotionally disconnected from both people and place are when I’m biking, commuting between my homestay and class. Although there’s no shortage of people along the paths and roads, it is during this time that I feel most acutely and painfully how far I am from home. The unblinking stares and open laughing as I ride or walk past are a constant reflection that I am Different with a capital D. The occasional jeer or slur reminds me that sometimes different isn’t welcome.
And it is when confronted with the enormity of my differentness that I begin to feel my aloneness. To contrast the raw uneasiness of my present with the comfortable, conformist safety of my past. To miss milkshakes, fitted sheets, and refrigeration (forget the wheel – the ability to store perishable foods for longer than a day and to make any beverage magically cold is the pinnacle of human innovation).
But when I arrive back at my homestay, I’m surprised to feel that my spirits are already beginning to lift. 2-year-old Maisy waddles up to me and wraps her tiny arms around my legs, looking up with a tentative smile and dirt all over her face. My bamayo glances over from where she is chopping tomatoes and greets me in Bemba. I respond in kind, feeling some small but not insignificant amount of validation in the routine exchange. The point is precisely that it is routine — little by little, I am shaving away at those differences that set me apart in this new country.
And even when I feel lonely at times, I know that I’m never alone in either the physical or emotional sense. I’m grateful for the wonderful friends and family back home who send emails and write comments here (hint, hint), the wacky RAP’ers in my cohort here, and these little rascals.