Being alone for me was a defense mechanism, a means by which to avoid the conflict and anxiety of being bullied. Mama and I shared a three-room apartment, with a living room, bedroom, and a kitchen. For Mama, the living room was her sanctuary, bedroom, and bar, a place where she drank alone and often. That left only the bedroom for me, and I learned to cower in there, free from the eyes and mouths of other people who seem hell-bent on hurting my feelings.
As much as I loved learning and craved the companionship of others, I learned that staying after school and participating in after-school activities like clubs and sports meant additional hours of being teased and taunted for my looks or lack thereof. The only place where I was safe from the humiliations attended upon me was in my bedroom, a book in my hands and the world far away from me.
I became a teenage recluse, an adolescent hermit, descending into a world that only I participated in, all to protect my fragile sanity and sense of worth. I maintained this identity all the way through my adulthood, and today, I find myself doing the very same thing now that I am retired. Douglas gets upset with me when he comes home from work and discovers that I have been hiding inside all day, when I could have visited the gym to exercise with other wonderful people or went to the senior center for companionship and friendship. But, he doesn’t understand that it is hard to break the habits of over five decades.
Being alone has become so much a part of who I am that I cannot even fathom another way of living. Keeping my distance from other human beings is just a part of my DNA. Of course, I love being with Douglas, and I thank God for our marriage and friendship, but, you see, I know that Douglas loves me and accepts me as I am, but will other people do the same thing? How do you start to learn to make friends when you have spent so much of your life keeping people at a distance because you are convinced that they will only hurt your feelings and talk about you to others, laughing behind your back while seemingly glad to know you to your face?
Yet, as I woke up this morning and finished my morning prayer and Bible reading, I felt such a sense of loneliness and a deep desire to sit across from another woman or a group of women and listen to their issues and have them listen to mine. I wished for someone to laugh with and share stories of the past and dreams for the future, sort of an older version of Sex and the City, but talking more about our aches and pain than our sex life.
The other night, as I watched the commercial with Blythe Danner and other older women walking and hiking together, smiling and laughing together, as they shared the outdoors and presumably their diagnoses of bone density issues, I felt as though I was missing something that other women take for granted: a sense of belonging in a group where people care about you and cannot wait to see you. I just thought how lovely it would be to have a set of women friends (too old to be called girls) who come when you need them and you go when they need you, meaning that you are never alone and without help and love.
But, then, if that is what I feel, then why am I still hiding from the world, still staying in my house alone every day unless I have to go to the store or the doctor or to church? Why do I insist on going to lunch alone or watching the soap operas, when I could be going to places where I have the opportunity to make friends of women in my age group or younger? Why am I still afraid to leave my house and take a chance on getting to know other people, beyond as a minister and teacher of Sunday School?
Because the old fears and shames of the past still haunt my soul, that’s why! I worry that women who have had it all across the years, folks who have never been ridiculed and bullied because of their looks or their poverty or their decisions, will find me unacceptable as a friend. When they know that I have been married five times or am the survivor of violence, will they decide that I am better as a topic of discussion rather than as part of their discussion group?
You know, it’s funny in a way, because I am not really a fearful person, as many of you know from reading my blogs of traveling alone in Europe and taking on the responsibility for four children at age 21. I can get up in from of thousands of people and preach or teach God”s words. I have great faith in God and in Jesus Christ our Lord to protect me and keep me and help me be successful at whatever I do, and, yet, when it comes to stepping out of my comfort zone and inviting someone to be my friend and to have lunch with me, I am a literal mess of apprehension and fear of rejection. It is a skill that children need to learn while they are young!
But that stops today! A moment ago, I invited someone to join me for dinner in the next week, a woman at church who is so funny and seems to be the exact opposite of me. She and I talked about getting together and having a meal, but I have put it off, not wanting to lose the quasi-friendship of two people who see each other at church and have a quick word and laugh together. Also, I asked Douglas to start to invite members of his Sunday School class to dinner and I will do the same, so that we can get to know other people in the church. Douglas will cook, so that we don’t lose our new-found friendships.
Lastly, I am interviewing tomorrow to volunteer to teach reading and basic math and Bible at a local ministry that caters to the homeless and victims of domestic violence. It will help me get out of the house and allow me to fulfill the calling on my life to teach, inspire, encourage, and give hope to the least of my brothers and sisters. It will mean learning to be in the world and not just of the world.
I am excited to be starting a new chapter, for I realize that it is not too late to change how I live my life. In about eight weeks, Douglas and I will embark on a two-month stay in Portugal and another month traveling in other parts of Europe, and I want to make friends along the way that I can communicate with over the internet and have cross-country visits.
Douglas is the outgoing member of this twosome and I marvel at how he meets people and becomes life-long friends, like with the men he met in Portugal last year. While I remained alone in the apartment we rented, Douglas went down at night to the little neighborhood pub and sang songs and talked with the men, even though he cannot speak one word of Portuguese. Also, we plan to visit someone in Holland, near Amsterdam, whom he met nearly forty years ago when he hitchhiked through Europe! He has stayed in touch with that family, and it is their children who were his age at that time that we will visit while in Europe. Amazing!
Douglas is teaching me to not meet strangers, but to see everyone as a potential friend. He reminds me that I have a way of seeing people’s humanity and making them feel special, so I must be willing to get past my comfort zone and allow people to know me, too. I am going to do as he asked of me and start going to the senior center this week as well, at least that is the plan right now.
I am determined not to hide in my house anymore, but to get out in the world and laugh, love, and let go, so that I can feel a sense of belonging with the rest of humanity. As long as I worked, I had a reason to leave home, although, at the end of the day, I came right home and did not leave again. I know it will be hard to do and uncomfortable at times, but I trust in my Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter to be with me, giving me a discerning heart to know who will appreciate my attempts at friendship and whom I might want to avoid.
I am not going to worry that someone will not want to be friends because I am black or short or overweight or an American or in an interracial marriage, or whatever the fears tell me to think. Instead, I am going to be me, lovingly smiling at others, hoping that they can feel God’s love from me and are willing to share their love for Him with me. I will let you know how that goes!