Alone in the City of Dreaming Spires

I spent Thanksgiving in Wisconsin with my cousins, which is what I do every year. Vince couldn’t come because he is not allowed to leave Minnesota.

After eating way too much food, I made the mistake of checking Facebook right before I turned out the light. There were a couple posts from Vince. He sounded so lonely.

I couldn’t fall asleep. I laid there thinking about the time I learned to be alone. I think this is one of the most important skills we have to master in life.

I had moved to Oxford, England four months before my birthday. I rented a house with a three-legged cat named McCartney and housemate who went home to Scotland every weekend. I had a great job. I had joined a posh gym. I had made some acquaintances through work and Alanon meetings.

Red Door

This was before Skype or Facebook or What’sApp. My family and friends used email to communicate with me, but there was no internet at the house.

I don’t normally even care about my birthday. I hadn’t told my housemate or acquaintances it was my birthday because I didn’t want to seem like I was fishing for a fuss.

I walked into town to see a movie. February in England is dreary and drizzly. Well, most months are. In comparison to November, the sun was setting later (almost 5pm!) but the sky really only went from murky black to dark grey and back to murk again.

I got some popcorn and found a seat. Someone behind me said, “Pssst!” Hurrah! It was a friendly woman from my Alanon meeting named Rebecca. I wouldn’t spend my birthday alone after all! But she just said, “Nice to see you,” and that was that. I thought, unreasonably, “Why couldn’t she have invited me to sit with her and her friend?” I felt really put out.

The movie was Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic. There’s a scene where Johnny is drying out and his family confronts a drug dealer with shot guns. The theater exploded in laughter. “Typical Americans!” I could hear around me.

I had picked a bad time to move to England. George W. Bush was using their air bases to transport terrorists and political prisoners in black helicopters, and most Brits were not happy about it. Most people were nice enough—if reserved—but I had been confronted by several very angry people who took me to task for everything my country had ever done wrong.

It really hit me that I was not only lonely but alone. I was on an island with 64 million people and I didn’t know a single one of them beyond asking the time of day. It was piercing.

I went home and had a few beers while I stared out the front window like some tragic heroine in a period movie. People strode past with their hands deep in their pockets and their heads down. I wallowed in self-pity. But somehow I knew I would get through it, that I wasn’t going to die of loneliness, that everything would change eventually—if not the next day then next week or next month. Everything did change. I’ve had a lot of great adventures on my own and with other people.

Now we can feel like we’re never alone by floating along on endless social media streams of cutsie platitudes and cat videos and political rants and “breaking news.”

Did Vince know that nothing stays the same forever? I finally fell into a worried, fragmented sleep. I dreamed that Vince fell into a river and was swept away into a big pipe. I ran along the river bank until I came to an opening in the top of the pipe. I could see his face underwater, looking up at me. The iron bars over the opening were wide enough for my hand to slip through so I could touch him, but too narrow for me to pull him through. Ugh. I woke up crying. I don’t need a psychiatrist to analyze that dream.

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