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Lions Roar : November 2019
last I heard, a new boyfriend. I know she is a midwife, like my mother, and a dancer. Occasionally, I run into Naomi’s stepfather in the organic produce section of our grocery store. Each time, I remember the peeling edge of a Dolly Parton poster, smell the burning aroma of a white tablecloth, and taste the sticky sweetness of green-apple Jolly Ranchers. Overwhelmed by memories, I mumble a quick hello and move on. I am not angry, as far as I can tell, but I have no desire to linger. For me, the crunch of hard green candy, the wail of fire truck sirens, and Dolly’s twang will always be the sound of loneliness. RACHEL NEUMANN is a Bay Area–based writer and editor. Her books include I Am Home: Portraits of Immigrant Teenagers. Lonely Hearts In accepting loneliness, says NATALIE GOLDBERG, we learn to reach out—not from fear and the desire to escape, but from an honest ache to connect. LONELINESS HAS FOLLOWED ME all my life. Down long public school corridors lined with lockers, I heard its echo. My mouth dry—I had no words—my arms hung at my sides, my heart dropped to my ankles. The feeling of isolation over- whelmed me. I couldn’t share it with anyone. At home with my distracted mother, my angry father, and even with my adored grandparents, whom I knew would die some day, the sensation would strike. I felt helpless. Everywhere I encoun- tered it—in the single scrawny tree by the curb, in the tomato that never ripened from green to red on the window ledge, in the slump of my sister’s back as she bent over with blue chalk to draw on the sidewalk after the next-door-neighbor girl refused to play. But no one ever dared mention the dreaded word loneliness or utter its experience. Did only I feel it? That’s what loneliness is—believing that you are alone in the whole world. In my Jew- ish culture we survived by staying together, but my isolation was always a deep pain that seemed to stalk like a hungry dog, wanting recognition. It took a painful divorce in my early thir- ties—when, after work, I entered my empty apartment each evening forlorn and downcast—to make me realize I could no longer ignore it. One morning after I’d had a hard, sleepless night, a coworker asked, “What did you do last night?” I began to enumerate: I watered the spider plant. I washed one fork, one spoon, one cup and dried them. I took a long bath and then cut my toenails. I stared out the window for a half-hour at car lights going by. She might have thought I was crazy, but it was then that I began to see how loneliness had texture and weight. I became curious. This was the beginning of my relationship with it. Over many years, these are the essential things I’ve learned: 1. Loneliness is a natural state of being like happiness or sad- ness. It is nothing to be ashamed of. When it arises, don’t fight it. Allow it to be. 2. Loneliness always has a bite. You never get used to it. Like taking an ice cold shower upon waking, it never gets com- fortable. But even though it always has a sudden sharp sting, we can learn to stand up in it anyway. The pain of it has a wake up quality. 3. Anyone who goes deeply, who takes their life seriously, experiences loneliness. A painter, a cook, a religious per- son, a social activist, a scientist, a mother, an athlete, a writer—you name it. In order to become who they are, to cut out their own unique path, everyone who follows their own way must encounter loneliness. 4. To taste loneliness is to be animate. It opens the heart, makes us long to share and appreciate intimacy. To accept loneliness teaches us to reach out from a true ground of being, not from fear and the desire to escape, but from an honest ache to connect. Now I know to keep that dark dog of loneliness near. If I go too long without her, I’ve wandered too far from a sting that keeps me alert. Even at a party where I am enjoying myself, in the center of food and friends and laughter, I look over my left shoulder. Is she around? She’s curled on the corner of the couch. She keeps sight of me. I’m glad. Are we friends? I doubt it. That would be too cozy. A dog in its deepest nature is a wild spirit. She growls, ears back, her hackles up. I like her like that. I walk a hungry edge. Like failure and disappointment, lone- liness is something all human beings live with. It lets us know we are alive. We might as well bring the feared, unruly being in from the cold and bear its pant and bark. NATALIE GOLDBERG has been a serious Zen practitioner since 1974. She’s the author of Writing Down the Bones and Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home. LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2019 44