not alone at being alone

prairie pano
I often feel alone. And not just when I’m writing, which is usually, and which must rank as one of the most isolating occupations devised by humankind, right up there with oil-rig roustabout and Byzantine hermit. I can feel alone even when surrounded by people I love, and I’m blessed to have a lot of those. I can be having the bestest time with the wonderfulest friends and family — I can be gabbing, and laughing, and thanking the Lord for all the gifts in my life, fully in the moment and profoundly joyful — and all the while, deep down, a little hidden piece of me feels an awkward disconnect. Feels adrift, insecure, unsure, invalid. Alone.

As a former introvert turned “ambivert,” whatever the heck that means, maybe this is my natural state. Maybe I’m always beating back a sense of isolation. But who isn’t? Who doesn’t feel alone? And wouldn’t it be weird if we didn’t?  Look at us, steering through life in bodies as self-contained and alienating as cars with tinted windows, unable to see behind the windshield and fretting that no one can see us, either. How easy it is to grumble with resentment — nobody understands me! nobody knows me! nobody cares! — and fire off middle fingers into the darkness.

As a person of faith, I believe I came from a Somewhere without boundaries and misunderstandings, where I’m known and know and loved and love with clarity, transparency and ecstatic peace. I believe that I’ll return to that Somewhere someday, and I believe that when I do, I’ll reunite with a fine horde of loved ones who unfortunately arrived well in advance. I also believe I’ll shed any nagging pang of solitude or separation — from them, from God, from creation at large.

You know that pang, whether you believe in a creator or not: It’s that ache you feel when you encounter the sublime. It’s the rift that hurts — the impassable gap that we all yearn to cross and become one, at last, with beauty. We want to crawl inside it. We want to know it, merge with it, be with it, whether it’s a breathtaking vista, a swell of Beethoven or an immortal beloved.

This is the strange pull of our lives, longing for a union we can’t quite achieve. We brush tantalizingly close. We make love and babies, love our babies into adults, say goodbye and squat in our emptied nests. We bury spouses and sisters and parents and friends.

The truth of being human plays out like a lie. We’re called to push ourselves outward, to share ourselves wholly, to embrace without judgement, to know and be known, to love and be loved, to do all of that perfectly, fearlessly, generously, completely, divinely, repeatedly — all while knowing we’re bound to fail. Fail we do. What choice do we have? The game is rigged, right? But then we turn right around and do it again, beating back loneliness the only way possible: by tempting its onset. In an effort to assuage it, we risk more.

Fun paradox.

So here I am, squirreled away in my attic on the last day of 2015, busily isolating myself at my chosen profession, counting my multitudinous blessings and the bounty of love in my wee world. I have so many causes for gratitude, so many beautiful reasons not to feel alone. The fact that I do anyway doesn’t mean I’m wrong; it just means I’m human. Happy New Year from across the abyss.

the things my father taught me

Frustrated beyond belief by a headache at work a couple weeks back, I pushed away from my desk and bellowed: MADONNA SANTA GIUSEPP’!!! Which doesn’t happen all that often. At least not at work. Not that loudly, anyway. And not within earshot of colleagues, who jointly turned in their seats to see who had issued the vociferous Mediterranean appeal to the Holy Mother and Saint Joseph.

My father issued this same noisy petition quite a lot during my childhood, and it’s ALMOST the only bit of Neapolitan I ever learned. ALMOST. I also know how to say “Shut up and start eating” AND “You are a tough, dry turd that someone had a hard time voiding,” although I’m happy to report that I have never uttered either in the Times Union newsroom. (And for the record, my father never uttered either to me.)

My dad was Eye-Talian. That’s how bigots of yore pronounced the word in polite company, or at any rate when they wanted to express distrust or disgust without resorting to “guinea” or “wop.” Eye. Talian. Always with a beat between the syllables. As a kid I found this odd, since no one I knew called the country of origin Eye-Taly, and I also found it odd that my American-born Daddy would take any heat from anyone for being, I dunno, FOREIGN. Yes, he was eccentric. And huuuuuugely expressive and impassioned and never exactly quiet. But alien? Not to me.

True, he’d grown up in Manhattan’s Little Italy, and yes, his first language was Neapolitan, but he passionately loved his country of birth and came to embody its dream. He worked hard, went to college, attended grad school, became a music critic, wrote books, studied etymology and linguistics, translated “The Divine Comedy” (though I suppose that’s about as Eye-Talian as literature gets) and befriended the likes of Eugene Ormandy. He was a good citizen! He voted in every election! He ate yogurt! He had a crush on Mary Tyler Moore!

He also tore his calf rushing to rescue a neighbor from a fire, and years later, he rescued a little girl from drowning. He once talked two men out of a knife fight on the subway (“brothers! brothers!”), once talked a mugger out of stealing his watch (“My late mother gave me that! Are you sure you want to take it? Won’t you feel terrible afterward?”) and, during World War II, got into an argument with a fascist barber while the man held a straight-edge to his neck. That’s the sort of Eye-Talian he was. One who saved lives, opposed violence — he gave up boxing after his buddy went punch drunk — and hated Mussolini.

Daddy died 23 years ago, but the gifts he gave me still endure: love of music, love of language, love of peace. I got those from him. Those, and the reflexive Southern-Italian blurt-outs invoking the Holy Family, which, okay, are just a tad blasphemous, especially when Jesus gets tossed into the mix (MADONNA SANTA GIUSEPP’ GESU!!).

If only I’d learned a little more of my father’s native tongue. Madonn’, I wish I had.

in my america

We’ve been hearing over and over about a Certain Presidential Candidate’s plan to block People of a Certain Faith from entering the country, and we’re all tired of it. If not all of us, most of us, and not necessarily along party lines, either; this doesn’t have much to do any longer with Republican vs. Democrat. This is the Real America vs. the Fake America. And only the Fake America would reject an entire category of people based on their religion.

In the Real America, which I and all those other fed-up people I know actually live in, Muslims get married and have kids that play in Little League. They’re employed at businesses that value them, even cherish them, for their decency, warmth and attention to detail. They teach, advise, struggle, laugh, dream, help patients, slog to work, schlep their children, pray for peace. They do everything we do. They’re everything we are. They’re US. The U.S. This place. Our place. Your land, my land, theirs.

This is what Americans do: Live with each other. Talk to each other. Walk out the door every day into a sea of faces splashed with the colors of every nation, every tradition, every faith. Send our kids to schools filled with a chattering chorus of languages. Remember that our own ancestors once tumbled on these shores with hope and fear, practicing traditions and speaking tongues that classed them as foreign and strange.

This is the Real America. Not the Fake America occupied by billionaire demagogues far removed from the everyday mash of average people leading average lives, pressing up against each other’s differences and realizing we’re not so different. The Real America accepts those differences, deals with them, maybe even loves them — at least the idea of them. The Real America knows that those very differences distinguish us as a nation.

In my America, each of us is judged by our own actions, not lumped and discarded as a group for our beliefs. In my America, love of country means a love of its ideals. It means not hating a large mass of citizens, aspiring citizens and visitors for the color of their skin, the language of their parents or the name they call God in prayer. It means accepting that hundreds of millions of people live in this country, and not all of them look or talk or dress or worship like me. It means not merely freedom of religion, or freedom of speech, but the freedom to picture a better life and citizenry and government and world. We’re dreamers, after all. We drank that Kool-Aid long ago. We’ve never envisioned ourselves as a country that rejects the huddled masses. Or any masses, huddled or not. statue-of-liberty-clipart

Individual bigotry will remain, just as individual minds and hearts will bend toward evil, radicalization, violence. But this America, my America, the real one, the ideal one that lifts flags and hearts: It stays true to the dream. That sounds corny. It is corny. Really corny. I’m really corny. But how else can I be, expressing my love for this colorful, hopeful, noisy goulash of a nation, its airy ideals and beautiful spectrum of people? Despite all of its problems, all of its history, all of the failures in realizing those ideals, I believe in them. It’s a faith we share as Americans — and it has nothing to do with religion.