Sometimes, you can’t know you’ve been lonely until you are loved.
The heart is a thrifty housewife. In her hand a scrap of fellowship becomes a meal. Her grit keeps the spirit in life with the bones of a smile and the salt of occasional kindness. When her own house is bare, she gathers beauty from the fields for bread. When winter comes, she brews a little hope from sunlight and sets it in the soul’s hand like wine. She may not even know her strength is gone until another heart enters her home and sets a feast, a real feast, before her. And when that happens, she may be too stunned, and starving, to eat it.
At least at first.
I am used to doing life alone. Don’t mistake me, I have my precious family. I have priceless friends, scattered though they are throughout the country. In swift, bright bursts of time, I have known fellowship and I am grateful for every bit of generous love I have ever received. But for most of my adult and daily life, I have hammered out my local days, grappled with writing, worshipped, and hoped toward a certain set of ideals, alone. I have known rejection, yes, but for the most part the loneliness has simply been that of striving after a life that doesn’t set me in the usual places for friendship. What I want and reach for with my minutes and hours takes me down an unfrequented road. My loneliness is my own doing and I get that. I chose it. I am used to explaining my life and not necessarily being understood. My dad, wise, beloved man that he is, once asked me if I knew that a certain idealistic decision would set me in a place of loneliness and could I live with that? I said yes, absolutely, yes. Because I’m with Rich Mullins. “It’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free.”
The danger of that freedom is that it can become a forgetting. When you choose loneliness and try to love it you can forget that community, or worse, communion is possible. You can forget even to reach for it. I just looked up the word communion: “the sharing or exchange of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.” I have just never known quite how to find communion where I live. I’m an introvert, I travel a lot, I hold extreme ideals – all good reasons why communion is hard to create. Life is, also, just lonely at times. I hate to feel weak, so I have met that lack with an uplifted chin. “I’m fine. I’ll read another book. I’ll take another walk.” I’ve done this for years. And though I have survived, a certain chill crept into my being. I found that I hoped less for friendship. I found that I began to suspect that who I was was just too much, to odd, for understanding. My heart spun life from scraps. And as the voices of others faded from my life, I found that my own voice rose to an uncomfortable pitch in my head.
Ever notice that the voice in your head isn’t generally an encouraging one?
When I stepped in the doors of Hutchmoot a few days back, my inner voice, left for long months to its own devices, was especially loud. I’ve been part of the Rabbit Room community for several years and have always met a genuine love that set me in life whenever I came to Hutchmoot. But the last year has been particularly lonely. I made yet another decision that was right, but goodness, it was hard. And though I knew that I would find acceptance at Hutchmoot, I entered in a defensive, quiet stance. I didn’t expect special attention. As I walked in the door, my mind kept up its Eeyore-like narrative. Don’t expect too much. Just do what you can. Make it through. And then my inner voice was interrupted.
And my self-conscious stance was broken by warm arms around me and hands that pulled me in the doors. Within minutes, I found myself talking so quickly that the Eeyore in my head wasn’t fast enough to to break in. At every corner I turned on my way in, a face I knew from the year before met me and there was such brightness looking out at me from each set of eyes I felt almost dazzled. “How are you?” the questions always began. And when I gave the usual polite little answer, I found that the questioner waited. Stayed. “How are you truly?” I found myself telling the truth.
For the next three days I ate every meal with a person who asked me the kinds of questions that created “an exchange on the mental or spiritual level.” I listened to music. I told a kindly audience why children’s books are vital even for adults. I admitted, oh arduous task, the doubt I carry as a writer. The fear that I will never create what I see in my head and never find others to understand my ache. But those stark statements, knives aimed at my heart, were dulled by the answering admissions of everyone around me. I remembered that I was not alone. I savored favorite sentences in old books with friends, met new friends and learned the art of fellowship anew. I took part in the “artmoot” – over a hundred adults smearing vivid oil pastels, coloring really, on small square tiles intended for a great surprise.
On Saturday night, as I sat on my hotel bed with my latest used-book buys on the bed and the music of the evening still fresh in my mind, I finally knew how close I had come to death. My heart stared in awe at the feast set on her table. She had forgotten that such richness existed, that life, and life to the full was possible. For the first time in months, I knew that communion was real, a thing not only to be encountered once in a blue moon with another soul like an outpost in a desert, but a feast, a tangible feast with many people and loud laughter. And though my weakened heart ached with the wakening, though pain is part of coming to life when your heart has been close to death, I rejoiced. I lifted my chin. But this time, it wasn’t to grit out another year of loneliness on my return home.
This time, it was to hope. To choose. The Hutchmoot community is a gift I cannot describe, but it began because a handful of people chose to believe that communion is possible. In opening their own hearts, in making the space to meet, in bringing friends and strangers from afar to gather round the bonfire of story, the crackling warmth of song, they made the feast their own hearts craved. They reminded me that I am not meant to be alone. That God himself is a fellowship, a ceaseless circle of loving in which one Person calls to another. In his image, we are made to love, to know, to speak the life into each other that we cannot speak to ourselves. In the voices of my friends, I heard the voice of God.
Home now, I remember this. Alone, I ache, of course, for the presence of those who are now scattered back to their own outposts in the earth. But I will not turn again to silence. I will not allow the fearful voice of my own heart to dictate a solitude God never intended. I realize now how much of my turn to loneliness was fear. My heart stayed in her own little house because she was afraid another would not have her. Now, I will send her abroad. I will pack her a basket of kindness and send her in search of another heart, roaming the fields in search of a last crumb of love. I would rather she ache with desire than turn to the starvation of silence again. I will send her out until she comes home with another and they sit down together to feast.
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.