Wednesday, April 30, 2014

you can come sit next to me.

There's a campaign on Instagram to post a picture today that says "you can sit with us" as a way to counteract the kind of girl-on-girl bullying that pervades the movie "Mean Girls" which celebrates its tenth anniversary today. One of the reasons I've been away from the blog so long is that I've been working through something that's been too painful to write about - but too close to the surface to avoid, so every other post I started to write felt hollow and deceitful. Now that I'm feeling safely on the other side of things I figure today is as good a day as any to share a little bit about what's been holding me back. The truth is, these past few years - since moving to this town when Jason got the job back in 2009 - have been the loneliest of my life.

In high school and college, I was lucky to be surrounded by people who were creative, talented, funny, clever, and interesting - and I felt happy to have a fairly wide circle of friends as well as several close ones. I never really felt like I was part of one particular group (no "Mean Girls" clique for me!), but was fortunate to have friends from orchestra or English class or who worked with me as an RA (RLA, for those of you Lawrentians reading!) or just happened to live next door and love Gilmore Girls as much as I did. When I moved to Colorado after student teaching, I was incredibly lucky again to land a job at a school where pretty much the entire secondary staff was friends with each other - any other teachers reading this know how rare it can be to have a faculty lunchroom where people hang out and talk about anything and everything other than work and actually enjoy each other's company, but that's how it was there. So, up until I was about 28 years old, finding kindred spirits and someone to sit with at lunch (literally and figuratively) wasn't a chore - they just seemed to land in my lap, and I thought that was just how it worked.

And then we moved here - to a small(ish) town where everyone's family lives nearby and where everyone went to college at the university down the street and so everyone already has their circle of friends and therefore everyone is nice and cordial but no one calls you to go out after work (only slight exaggeration on all those everyones, sadly). It's not that, when I was teaching, anyone was overtly unfriendly, really - but making friends suddenly became really hard in a way that was unfamiliar to me. So I spent a lot of time with Jason - which is good for a marriage, but also hard on a marriage. And then I quit my job, and those friendly-but-distant acquaintances faded into the background once we didn't see each other at work anymore, and all of a sudden the floor fell out from under me.

As I've written about here before, I really struggled after Lorelei was born - in part because I felt so incredibly isolated. I felt grateful for an open-format parenting group I found in town (other groups I discovered on sent me polite messages saying "sorry, we're not accepting new members at this time") and their open arms and doors to whomever showed up to their open-to-the-public playgroups at local parks, coffee shops, and bookstores. Over time, my postpartum struggles lessened. But I still felt so deeply lonely - that my "friendships" with other moms in the parenting group never got much past the acquaintance level. I remember once overhearing a mom talking about how grateful she was to have "best mom friends" whom she could call at a moment's notice if she had an emergency and who would be there to take her kids and help in a second. And I was desperately sad that I just didn't have that feeling.

The loneliness deepened during my pregnancy with Phoebe and I tried to get more involved with the parenting group and felt, for a variety of reasons, increasingly aware of my role on the periphery of what was becoming a very tight-knit circle of women instead of the large, loosely-organized group it had been before. I remember filling out a form from my doula about who I could count on for support in the days and weeks after I gave birth, and I wrote angry "I don't knows" over whole parts of it because the thought of having to grovel for assistance - as opposed to having those "best mom friends" who were eager to bust down my door to coo over my new sweet baby and jump in to help - felt so heavy on my heart. I also was becoming acutely aware that so much of myself seemed to be slipping away - that the friendships I did have, since they were centered around our common "roles" as mothers, didn't nourish the parts of me that were most in need of it: my passion for learning, my love for books, my talents as an organizer and teacher, my "other life" as a musician and writer and creator of things.

So, I cried. A lot. And I didn't know how to talk about it with anyone, especially since I didn't really have anyone to talk about it with. And when you're an extrovert married to an introvert, it's hard to explain that feeling of isolation and loneliness in a way that your solitary-by-choice partner will understand it. And since the end of my pregnancy and beginning of my postpartum period with Phoebe also happened to be a time when my mom was just starting to undergo treatment for cancer, what should have been a time of tremendous joy and anticipation felt very empty and heavy and joyless instead.

Slowly, since the beginning of this year and largely as part of my pledge to live in a more intentional way during 2014, I started to find some clarity again. While I wasn't forging friendships within the intense environment of college dorm life or the equally-intense community of teachers at a small, very challenging school (where, in both cases, our proximity and shared daily trials necessarily made our friendships that much deeper), I was slowly meeting people who were creative, talented, funny, clever, and interesting - and people who seemed to recognize those qualities in me, too, that had felt dormant for a long time. I found kindred spirits in the world's greatest book club. I met someone who is the embodiment of kindness and warmth in a way that makes me inspired to be like her. And I've been trying, one phone call and text message at a time, to invite people to "sit with me for lunch" - ask them over for a playdate or out to coffee, stop by to see them at work, send them an invite to a silly party - because maybe, just maybe, all of them have been feeling just as lonely as I have.

It's hard to sit alone at lunch when you're 16. It's also really hard when you're 30. And probably when you're 60 and your kids move out and you're lonely in a new way. And then again when you're 90 and the cool people at the senior center don't make room for you at the table because they already have enough friends. It's just hard, period.  So I don't know about the "us" part - but for any of you who are feeling that pang of being lonely, you can absolutely come sit next to me. Better yet: move over, because I'm coming to sit next to you.