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Solitude and sadness

st joseph walking path

One recent weekday afternoon, I found myself in a completely quiet house. Clara was spending the day with my mother-in-law, Jon was with clients, and all the boys were finishing up their last week of school. The weather was perfect: 75 degrees, sunny, and clear. I’d planned to go to the gym, but the outdoors was calling, so instead I tossed on my sneakers, piped Cyndi Lauper into my earbuds, and hit the pavement for a brisk walk with an occasional burst of half-hearted running.

The town was surprisingly empty for such a beautiful day, but it was an expectant emptiness, somehow: midday, mid-week, right before tourist season would kick into high gear, it was as though my town was taking a big, deep breath before the onslaught of kids and vacationers hit the streets and beaches, and I felt myself taking a big, expectant breath, too, waiting for the quiet to fill up.

As an extrovert with five kids I spend a lot of time around other people. My day to day life, my social activities, my travel, my work, all typically center around large groups of people. And that’s mostly a wonderful thing: I like people; I like the energy I get from being around them. There’s a reason I feel at home on a crowded dance floor or speaking to a full room.

But as lovely as it can be to be surrounded by people, I also need time to myself…I just don’t take it very often. My “alone time” tends to be spent in purposeful, productive ways: working out, for example, or taking a shower, or grocery shopping, or writing. When you’re so used to filling your time and your thoughts with other people and activity, the hush of slow solitude can be unnerving.

So at first I avoided the quiet, keeping up a quick, calorie-burning clip with peppy 80s music bouncing in my ears. But when I got down to the beach and saw how empty it was, how blue the water and sky, I did something that, for some crazy reason, I rarely do: I stripped off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants legs, put Cyndi on pause, walked along the water’s edge until I came to a secluded spot, sat down on a ledge of sand, and then just…stayed there.

And standing there on the beach, with no music or conversation or activity to distract me – just the pounding of the waves, the beauty of the water, the feeling of the sand under my feet – I felt a sudden burst of melancholy.

st joseph beach

Most people who know me would call me a pretty happy, upbeat person. And they’d be right. I’m rarely down, rarely angry, and very often joking or laughing. (I’ve been told I’m a lot funnier in real life than I am here on my blog, which is probably a fair assessment.)

But ever since I can remember, there’s been another side of me, a quiet, secret place, that tends toward feeling blue.

I find myself (mostly successfully) resisting that blue-ness, because positive thoughts give me energy, and I like to laugh, and I like to make other people laugh and enjoy themselves, and also buzzkill, man. And honestly, when I surround myself with the busy-ness and the voices and the work that fills my days, it’s easy to be too distracted to sit with those feelings long.

But I often feel those blues at the beach. The stretch of Lake Michigan coastline near my home will always remind me of my dad, who took me there often as a kid, and with whom I walked up and down the pier and shoreline countless times, and who never seemed happier or more at peace than he did standing on the water’s edge at sunset.

I miss the old me, too, the childhood Meagan who ran up and down the shoreline with Zinca on her nose, so innocently sure in the love of her mom, the protection of her daddy, and the rightness of the world. Wouldn’t it be nice, sometimes, to have those selves back?

Well, that day, the missing and the melancholy hit me hard. And there in the sand, all moody and heart-heavy, my initial urge was to crank the upbeat tunes back up, brush the sand off my feet, and walk in the other direction, toward conversation and people and aerobic activity and the distractions of home and family.

But for some reason, I stayed put. I don’t know how long I looked out at the water – Twenty minutes? A half hour? In any case, I didn’t move until I became aware of the sun beating down and remembered that, as I am prone to doing, I’d forgotten to put sunscreen on the back of my neck. (Yeah, ow.) And it was a slower, mellower, bluer me that walked home than the me who’d bounced out the front door earlier that day.

But you know what? Even though I’d gone from peppy to much more party-poopy in an hour’s time, I also felt like I’d gotten a little more in touch with myself – the Me that doesn’t generally come out around other people – too.

st joseph bridge

The world is a distracting place. Those of us with children (and jobs, and hobbies, and spouses, and friends, and Facebook) know that they can keep us so busy we never really get around to getting quiet with ourselves. And all that busy can be a blessing for those of us who are easily bored (hand raised) or who would rather keep things upbeat (hand raised again.)

But quiet time to sit alone and think about things that are hard to think about, and time to miss the people we’ve lost, and miss the old versions of ourselves that have been lost to the past, and sometimes, miss nothing at all…or at least, nothing we can quite put our finger on…is so important, too.

Let’s all carve out more time for the quiet of solitude, the kind that takes us away from the crowds, the smart phones, and the people needing us, and forces us to focus inward. It’s not always comfortable, the getting quiet with yourself, but it’s the only way to understand exactly who you are.