Among the books my 9-year-old piles around him—on hardwood floors, in his bed, further cushioning our living-room chairs—a stack within a stack emerges, a small canon of texts I want him to hide like scriptures in the corners of his storehouse heart.
Near the head of this class, Each Kindness from the ever-luminous Jacqueline Woodson. Unspooling a common tale with uncommon tenderness, she writes of Maya, the new girl in school, ill-fitting and thus quickly forsaken; and of a classmate always on the cusp of extending grace, always forfeiting her conviction.
The story ends with Maya’s family skipping town, her classmate pondering what’s left behind. Tossing stones into a nearby pond, she watches “the way the water rippled out and away. Out and away.”
“Like each kindness—done and not done,” Woodson writes.
About two years ago, in this space, I wrote of collecting loneliness. The intervening months, nearly 24 of them, supplied numberless chances to gather more mint-condition melancholy. If the time inspired its own book, I might call it Each Loneliness.
Abiding circumstances parted our company, sending us all indoors for good reason. But other absences deepened, even in moments of presence. Isolation comes in a circle of friends when your family’s story sounds unrecognizable, every attempt to relate widening the rift.
Loneliness lingers, so I sort homemade remedies.
An emptying begins as you sit back and watch a friend ascend the ladder of popular writers; your witness evokes a pattern, made from all the same shapes, of every friend who forgot you at that rung. Your social media of choice appears ready to implode, and you fear fading from collective memory altogether.
Nightly walks cut and curve through neighborhoods where lamplight beckons from windows, stoking a “longing … for the people I pass, and the homes I’ll never be invited into—or, perhaps more accurately, for the lives I’ll never live,” as Kristen Radtke writes in her gorgeous book Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness.
Loneliness lingers, so I sort homemade remedies. Reading novels clears even more room in my heart, a fondness for the lives created by Lydia Millet and Sequoia Nagamatsu. But every book is bound, and my fingers find the spine again.
A weeknight wake reaches the end of television; not the sign-off test patterns of old, but a no-man’s land where talk shows and reruns surrender to loud, poorly-disguised commercials for nothing in particular. Switching over to YouTube, I refresh the same five minutes; as The National play “Don’t Swallow the Cap” again, I pray Matt Berninger’s every baritone invocation insulates my soul.
I swear I won’t write about heaven, but it keeps happening.
Writing sets the clock back on loneliness, each sentence imagining its audience. But every thousand words ends with space and silence and a wish for carrier pigeons. Some nights I lay me down to sleep, vainly trying to fold myself up into the company I take everywhere.
I swear I won’t write about heaven, but it keeps happening. I fear the power of my own descriptions, either to disappoint me or dilute the magic. Whatever forever is, I know everything now tainted will return to its former glory. No more scuff marks or scar tissue.
Clouds don’t call off the day, but yield the strangest, most enchanting shapes even redeemed eyes can behold. Rain remains, but never soaks to the bone or floods the fields. Only cleanses, only baptizes, only dances upon delighted tongues.
And every song plays in its perfect tempo and tuning—save, of course, Thelonious Monk records which graciously continue to discover colors between the keys.
Here, each loneliness dissipates into pure presence. We will know beyond doubt that “our other belongings and unbelongings are wrapped up in a Great Belonging,” as my friend Charlotte Donlon writes.
Yes, we will bend toward the holy phosphorescent, God’s light overwhelming every craving and carved-out space. But also an eternal sense of every consolation the night promises. The stars not erased, but brought close; darkness a surrounding, never a hollowing.
Each loneliness—filled and unfilled—sends waves across our lives, out and away; there, ripples reverse course and all is returned.
And we will feel the knitting together of every soul, our common blood and beat more real than real. Once we gave each other inches till we felt the span of miles; in the Great Then, shoulders eternally brush other shoulders. Each loneliness—filled and unfilled—sends waves across our lives, out and away; there, ripples reverse course and all is returned.
“I want us to use loneliness—yours, and mine—to find our way back to each other. I want us to play songs for each other on the radio,” Radtke writes.
We never stop playing our radios into the next life. But someone will always be around to hear the transmission—and sing along with our favorite songs. The poem we long to recite to anyone forever finds its ear. Someone finishes our sentences with a look of perfect knowing. No hope or desire fading into empty space, absorbed instead by presence.
This hope extends to the men praying on the stoop of the halfway house in my neighborhood; the brief silences between each heavenward phrase bearing their fears that life will never be more whole than this. This promised nearness reaches for the kid wearing a downcast gaze outside the adult store a few blocks over, waiting for someone older than him to return.
Presence prepares for the mother who feels a distance between herself and the altar—as big as Sunday morning, as alive as the child she spends her worries and unanswered prayers on. And it exists even for the writer who looks for the period to this sentence and something beyond, a moment in which each loneliness disappears into the substance it always wanted.