My way out

Girl reading (detail) by Peter Ilsted, public domain via The Athenaeum

“One cliché attached to bookish people is that they are lonely, but for me books were my way out of being lonely. If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength.”Matt Haig

One of the hardest things about losing Jeff is that, until he came along, I had lived pretty much my whole life feeling lonely. I had a lot of friends over the years, male and female, some of whom were very close. And I had supportive family members and two parents I could count on to be there whenever I needed them. But it was Jeff who rescued me from that sense of isolation that I often feel even in a crowd.

Haig’s quote struck a chord deep within me. I have often felt as if I was on a totally different wavelength than everyone else, and since Jeff’s death, that feeling of estrangement has only grown harder and more cruel. It’s not that Jeff was perpetually on the same wavelength as I was; we were different in many ways. Still, we were alike enough that we felt an intimate understanding of each other. With Jeff, I knew that there was at least one person to whom I mattered a great deal, who would always be there for me.

Two harsh facts now set me apart from the friends of our generation who were our peers over the years: having a disabled adult son, and becoming the first (and so far, only one) of all those friends and acquaintances to be widowed. Besides this, unlike many of my friends who dote on their daughters or grandchildren and stay in almost constant contact with them, I rarely see my grandsons, and seldom hear from them or get photos or videos of them, despite how easy it has become to share such things digitally.

Yet even before my life circumstances isolated me, I often felt that inner loneliness. Then as now, books were and are indeed a way through (if not out of) that sad place. Printed pages can never take the place of being with people face to face. But when connecting with others who have reached out to humanity through their writing, I realize that most if not all of what I face is a fairly universal part of the mixed bag of being human.

Reading the experiences and emotions of others gives perspective, and makes it possible to survive the pain of feeling forgotten or disregarded. It’s different from movies or television because with a book, it’s always one-on-one. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, a writer is talking directly to a reader, sharing from the depths of the heart that can’t be accessed in casual conversation. Because reading is active, not passive, it’s impossible to feel like a bystander; one is part of the process, completing the transaction begun by the writer.

It’s like movies and television are a cocktail party, but books are the heart-to-heart talk with a friend at the kitchen table or by the fireside, lingering over a cup of tea or coffee. Never much of a party person, I prefer the friendly chat.

You may be one of those lucky people who are surrounded by loving friends and family who maintain an active, meaningful presence in your life. If so, be grateful! In your gratitude, try to remain sensitive to the needs and feelings of others who lack that blessing.

If you are one who does feel alone and forgotten, you have lots of company– an irony, isn’t it? According to many recent news stories based on peer-reviewed research, loneliness is becoming an epidemic in this switched-on, tuned-out world. And even if you do not experience it now, chances are you will become acquainted with loneliness at some point in the future, if you are blessed to live long enough to out-live those who are near and dear.

For that reason among many others, I heartily recommend that you stay friendly with books and reading, no matter which format best suits you. It’s one of the best and most lasting gifts you can give yourself.

38 Comments

  1. Julia, I understand perfectly what you are saying. I have felt lonely most of my life. I am a reader too and that has helped immensely! As I age though I find I have given up trying to be connected to others if they don’t seem to want it. I pray for you as you feel lonely. Having never had a close family maybe it is easier for me. I love you dear southern sister!💓🌞💓

    • Cherie, thanks so much for understanding – maybe that is why we feel so connected to each other, even though we’ve never met. I haven’t yet aged out of wanting to connect to others, but I’ve always had a strong aversion to lopsided relationships, and thus I agree with you that it’s best to avoid those who don’t want to be around us. Having had a close family is a mixed blessing. It provides a strong foundation but it does make the loneliness harder in some ways, because of how much we miss those who have passed from this life. Also, we are used to having regular interaction people with people we care about, so we expect this of a friend or family member, and when they drift from us we may question whether a formerly close person was someone we really never knew, all along. Still, I think the risks in being close to others are outweighed by the benefits. Thanks for being here!

  2. Loneliness has reached epidemic proportions, especially in the younger generations, despite the technology that promises instant connection. They feel left out and without support. One of my favourite quotes is by Kurt Vonnegut: “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” We live in a time of transition and unrest. What better way respond than to look into books, poetry, music. For in these places, we recognize kindred spirits. Another wonderful and insightful post.
    https://www.cbsnews.com/news/many-americans-are-lonely-and-gen-z-most-of-all-study-finds/

    • I love that quote from Vonnegut! Thanks for the link to that story. Isn’t it sad to think of a young person being lonely? One of the stereotypes of elderly people is the trait of loneliness, but as this story points out, the young are not immune. And what’s even more sad is that they don’t yet have the consolation of happy memories. Maybe those of us who are “a certain age” should be more proactive about being friendly with younger people. We may get a lot of eye rolling but some may appreciate it.

      • I laughed out loud when you reminded me of eye rolling. As a young person, I was a master of that technique. But I remember every kind word from an older person who took the time to speak with me. I enjoy our discussions – energizes my day.

        • Thank you! I feel the same. I too have many fond memories of conversations I had with older people when I was a young teenager, or for that matter, really all through my life. Jeff had a gift for connecting with older adults so that was something the two of us shared.

  3. Sheila

    Julia, to truly enjoy a good book is such a treat! I love to read, especially when it’s so captivating that I don’t want it to end. Reading because of loneliness though has a sharp edge to it. I’ve read your post several times and can only imagine the deep hurt that has taken you back to a loneliness that must seem even more intense now, after Jeff’s love! May you remain hopeful, my friend. ♥️🙏🏻 Our grandson, Hewitt, will fly home from Okinawa on Wednesday for a 3 week visit. He’s been there for 10 months so we’re just so excited about his visit. 🇺🇸 I’ll send an email with some family photos. Thinking of you🥰

    • Sheila, how wonderful that he will be back for a visit! I hope you are able to enjoy every single minute. I’ll look forward to the photos. Thanks so much for being here! As they used to say on the Beverly Hillbillies, let’s us go “set a spell” in those rockers on the July Verandah. I’ll bring the iced tea! ❤

  4. Mary Ellen Davis

    I’m with you Julia. A heart to heart conversation beats a cocktail party any day. I’m still out here. Still encouraged by your thought provoking blog. Blessings to you!

    • Thank you, Mary Ellen. It’s always a joy to hear from you and to know you are “still out there.” ❤

  5. Harry Sims

    A writing this morning on the seemingly growing plague of loneliness which threatens to engulf us and since I read it for the first time about an hour ago my heart has been searching for something meaningful to say which may be helpful to all of us.

    For the last nearly 33 years I have been attending Sunday church and more are less intimately engaged in knowing more and more about spiritual pursuit in my life.
    Every Sunday we declare that we are surrounded by “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” so my growing question and belief would be is this only in the church building or is it everywhere?

    There is a spiritual realm and it is everywhere.

    For me it includes my wife whether she is physically present or not.
    For me it includes Daisy Mae my faithful Malti-Poo who is always at my side or lying at my feet or taking a nap with me.
    It includes all who have gone before me, all who are with me now and all who will come along.

    So am I ever lonely?

    Come on attitude.

    Come on belief system.

    Harry S.

    • Harry, I have always loved that passage about the “great cloud of witnesses.” Our minister in Hawaii used to call it “the heavenly grandstands” where he believed there were people cheering us on. And I agree with you, it’s not just in the church building, it’s everywhere. Thank you for sharing these helpful thoughts with us! No matter how much we may know or believe these things, it’s always good to be reminded.

  6. MarshaLee Champagne

    I understand that feeling only too well … and books have been my friends since I learned to read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings

    • Thank you, MarshaLee, for joining the conversation. It’s always a comfort to find that others understand. I think the book lovers of the world are a large extended family that crosses all borders and boundaries.

  7. Chris

    Hi Julia,
    I’m late to the party today, but wanted to say hello! Well, by waiting to post until so many others have done so, I had a chance to concentrate on the responses. It’s interesting; a lot of talk about isolation and feelings of loneliness. I do understand. As you said, it’s part of the human makeup. However, I suppose I was blessed to be an extrovert, with an inquisitive mind. As such, I like to be connected, and engaged with the world around me. My wife calls me the “social butterfly”. Who, me? 😊 Even so, this type personality can have its drawbacks, especially when reciprocity in a relationship is not there.
    I like your understanding of books. For me, books are for entertainment these days; so, mostly fiction. Yes, it’s intimate, a one on one encounter with the characters. I tend to be drawn in and “live the moment” with the characters. That just means to me that it’s a great book. Anyway, great post!
    Hope your 4th was enjoyable, and you saw some fireworks! Have a good week!

    • Hi Chris, you’re not late at all. Nobody watches a clock here. 🙂 I am happy you are enjoying fiction. That’s one thing I was finally able to convince Jeff to do. He used to read only nonfiction but at my urging, he and Matt began reading fiction together and I know he quite enjoyed it. I think he liked the Harry Potter series as much as Matt did! If you haven’t read the Harry Potter books, I highly recommend them even for adults. I’m enjoying the series although I’m not completely through the the final books yet. A good author can really draw the reader into the story so that it’s like being there. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Ann

    I long for you to have a closer relationship with your grandchildren! And with Drew.

    • Thank you Ann. I feel the same way. I try to leave it all in God’s hands and do what I can to connect in the meantime. Thanks for caring.

  9. Alan Malizia

    Well said, Julia. Another value in reading books are those already complete. A relationship has already been established. And should a need for reference surface. The answer to questions or simply a need to visit the subject of that relationship is right at one’s finger tips.
    -Alan

    • Alan, I agree! Some of the most enjoyable reading I’ve done has been re-visiting favorite or memorable books I have already read.

  10. Good subject, Julia. Books take us out of the discomfort of our world long enough to bear it a little longer. I don’t know where I would be without books. I never had the close or kind family nor husbands that had my back and welfare at heart, so books became the family I didn’t have and helped me learn how to parent my children differently. I have no grandchildren so what is left has to be enough. I can augment that with my online family and my lovely books of every genre. Just when you think it’s going to ease up, life sends down that little hammer to your heart again. We shall survive with a good book in hand and the Grace of God.

    • Amen to that, M! There is no telling how many people in this world and throughout history have survived on those two blessings alone, good books and the Grace of God. The former being a sign of the latter! 🙂 Remember, even someone as gifted and prominent as Thomas Jefferson said “I cannot live without books” and in fact his personal library was the beginning of the University of Virginia’s library. Yes, I sometimes feel as if I’m living in some crazy reverse Whack-A-Mole game where I’m the only mole and I get pounded no matter which hole I pop my head out of. But having a good book waiting for me at the end of a long, tough day is a wonderful consolation. Thanks for being here my friend. I just know that one day we will meet face to face, maybe even in this life as well as the next.

  11. Judy from Pennsylvania

    I find your writing for today to be a very touching reminder of the loneliness that many of us feel in varying degrees. Yesterday I visited two women who are in their 80s, widowed and living in their own apartments in a continuing care retirement community. Both are well cared for and are surrounded by others who live in dozens of nearby apartments. Yet they both told me how truly lonely they feel. These sweet ladies spoke at length of their wonderful lifetime memories with their husbands, growing children and friends. Now their mobility is very impaired by pain, arthritis and balance problems. Children and grandchildren are either caught up in the crazy busyness of living (and perhaps self-absorption?) or live far away. Former life threads that contributed to a feeling of closeness with others are no longer part of their days and weeks. There are few activities that replace the former ways that made them feel needed and connected. They cannot even see their neighbors walking down the hallways because their only view is of treetops outside their elevated windows. Loneliness is a daily struggle for them.

    I’m at an advanced age myself but my husband is still alive and we keep each other happily occupied with taking care of our home and one another. But friendships of former years have been lost or dimmed by death or our/their moving away. Our children are busy, stressed and occupied with the details of their own lives. We have connections and light friendships with people in our church and neighborhood. But the kinds of close connections and involvements that were so much a part of our earlier years are not there anymore. We feel a sense of loneliness creeping into our lives. And we know that the day will come when we no longer have one another.

    The lives of the two ladies I visited feel like harbingers of our own future. The challenge for us is to try to find ways to stay connected with others in a meaningful, personal way.

    Julia, thank you so much for yet another perceptive and helpful writing. Plus I looked up Matt Haig and will visit the library to see some of his books. By the way, many years ago I did a sculpture of an author arising from a book. Maybe I can take a photo and send it to you.

    • Judy, thank you so much for this thoughtful comment. It is helpful to reflect on the universal nature of what we are experiencing now. Matt’s driver, who is like a brother to him, is from Nepal. He is mystified at the way so many American families are distant from each other. In his culture families stay closely knit and the adult children care for their parents. In fact, his parents now live with him and his wife and children. I’m not sure whether most of us who grew up in America would want it that way, but there definitely are advantages. My lovely next door neighbors are from the Philippines and they too have three generations living in their (very large) home. They are warm and friendly people and having them all next door really takes the edge off the loneliness for me. When it snowed last winter I went out to shovel the walkways and found them all clear — my doorbell camera later showed the grandchildren and their parents busily shoveling my walkway as soon as it stopped snowing. These children are learning life’s most important lessons, I think.

      I so identified with what you said about your visit with the ladies, and how it felt like a sign of things to come. Thank you for sharing that with all of us. When we moved to northern California, my first friends at church were three beautiful widows whom I came to love dearly. All have passed on now (one died before we moved away) and I have often reflected on how similar my life now is to what their lives were like. They were of three different racial/ethnic backgrounds but shared much in common, and I felt close to them despite our age differences. All three were widowed at a relatively young age and lived many years alone. One of them was still deeply grieving her husband and, while other people might have found that excessive, I always felt her sorrow was quite a natural reaction to the death of a much-loved spouse. Of course I had no idea that a similar fate awaited me, but so often lately I have recalled her years of sadness after losing her husband. These women were far more active than the women you visited. They lived on their own and got out quite a bit until right before they died, but still I often thought about how very difficult it must have been for them, with their grown children busy, or thousands of miles away.

      I also identified with the feeling of friendships fading with age and time, as death, illness, or the distractions of a busy life put them beyond our reach. It’s something I never expected would happen; I had always imagined that friends would draw closer as they faced the “slings and arrows” of getting older. My “other Mama” has coped fairly well with being recently widowed. For many years now she has stayed in touch with all of our neighbors from the 1960’s and 1970’s, because she is a wonderful correspondent and promptly answers any letter she gets, as well as taking the time to write to others at least once a year. From watching her I have been inspired to keep up and increase the writing of letters and cards to friends. I am sure she must feel isolated and lonely, living far from friends and most of her family, but she has made friends in her current neighborhood and is a good model for me of how I hope to be if I live to be her age.

      Thanks so much for being here, Judy. I would dearly love to see your sculpture if you are able to send a photo of it. It sounds like a marvelous concept!

      I’ll close this long response with a lovely quote from Matt Haig that I found on his website, which features his Twitter feed. One of his readers had tweeted that she was severely depressed and often felt suicidal (Haig’s recent book Reasons to Stay Alive, was about depression). He responded to her sad message with this wonderful exhortation, which I will try to reproduce exactly as he wrote it:

      “Stay alive for other people. The people you’ll meet. The people you will become.
      You are more than a bad month. You are a future of multifarious possibility. You are another self at a point in future time, looking back in gratitude that this lost and former you held on.
      Stay.”

      • Judy from Pennsylvania

        Your current next door neighbors sound like a precious blessing and I’m so glad that you have them in your life. I’ve always found Filipinos to be a warm, happy and friendly people, and your neighbors certainly have taken you and Matt under their wing. They may turn into some of your next lifelong friends! Your blog and your replies to me and others are precious to me. I don’t always comment but I do read the entries. I’ll soon send you some email photos of the sculpture I made.

        • Judy, I got the email photo and it’s amazing! WOW! I am going to sit down and answer it tomorrow, I hope. Meanwhile, I am awed by your talents. And what an original idea too. I had fun reading the various author’s names. Thanks so much for sending it my way. I am so happy you are here, and I’m honored that you enjoy the posts enough to keep coming back.

  12. Carol Hoyos

    Dear Julia,
    How inexplicable the timing of what has seemed a estrangement from your son and his family. I’ve assumed as much, reading between the lines of your posts, while hoping it weren’t so.
    My family experienced much the same distancing at a similar life altering stage. Again inexplicable.
    I’m sad for your situation and pray that one day, God willingly, it will be resolved. 🙏🏻 c

    • Carol, thanks for understanding just how devastating this timing was. I could be mistaken, but I think it is mostly of his wife’s doing, possibly from a fear of being “stuck” with Matt, with me, or both. After Mama died, my contact with them pretty well ceased as I had no excuse to visit Atlanta without an invitation. I would have found deep consolation from being with my grandsons at least a few times, but it was not to be. Several months later, when Matt and I were planning to move to Atlanta, my son seemed fine with it but his wife was, shall we say, quite hostile over it, so I abruptly changed my plans. I have not seen or spoken with her since. I myself have wondered how anyone could behave with such cruelty– for me there is no other word for it– but I also realize there is much more to the overall picture than what I am able to see, and I try not to judge too harshly. Also, in hindsight, I realize it was good that we did NOT move to Atlanta, for many reasons too numerous to detail here. God works in mysterious ways.

      Both my sons, of course, were grieving the loss of their father as I was mired in my own grief and had little to give in the way of support for them. How complicated these things are! And as you say, inexplicable. I know that I myself am continually in need of mercy and grace, so I try (often with only limited success) to take that attitude toward others whom I feel have wronged me. Thank you for praying with me that resolution will come, through divine grace. I so appreciate your presence here, and your sympathy. It means more than I can say.

  13. Mike B.

    Have you ever played Bunco? Last Friday our church senior group “the sonshiners” had a bunco night. We did not make it but hope to next time.They had 38 persons come out. I like the Vonnegut reference and he has always been a favorite from the time I started reading him in college.specially like “God bless you Mr. Rosewater.”
    The though of you having little contact with the grands saddens me. If i had a magic want I would wave it. Perhaps the Consumer cellular Grand pad might help. LOL. My Dil in New York has her mom on face time on her phone 24/7. She is an only child and she has always had a special relationship with her mom. This might be too much of a good thing. We rarely Skypre or do DUO with them. Rachel is also a book person and I think you would like her. Her book club- they meet bi-weekly is now reading?? R has extreme OCD and does not like surprises.
    They already did “Behold the Dreamers? and I though that a good read. I guess the world is full of sadness and when we can catch a little sparkle of joy we might as well grab it. When I read what some grands go through in blended families and having to schedule an occasional meeting with a not so friendly ex- DIL it also saddens me. I suppose I hope in kids growing older and getting to visit who they want =whenever they want. The other grands are very critical of my son and DIL in their child raising tactics. This also saddens me. But I still don’t know how to play Bunco.

    • Mike, I found the Bunco comment. I’ve been out of town for the past week, so I’m just now catching up on the comments. I keep hearing more and more about people playing Bunco. I wonder what the secret is? Perhaps it’s a game that one can play while engaging in friendly conversation. I love Mah Jongg but I used to get disgusted with how hard core some players were, as if there was a lot of money at stake or something. I think games should be fun and I get turned off when people get too competitive with them. Perhaps Bunco does not lend itself to cutthroat tactics. If so, I want to learn it! 🙂

  14. Mike B.

    I don’t know if you saw the post where I talked about Bunco? I hope to make the next gathering., of the Son shiners, senior ministry group at Hickory flat United Methodist. We did go on one of their field trips to the CDC in downtown Atlanta and that was fascinating, especially the exhibit about the killer flu of 1918. Everyone wore mask in public as they though somehow the disease was transmitted by ” bad air,” which you might get from someone sitting by you on the bus. How far we have come in medical knowledge and how far we have tot go.
    I think I mentioned my DIL’ mom in Ohio. She seems to have a difficult time with us spending any time with our NY grandkids. Our DIL is an only child and has had a close relationship with her mom- to say the least. She is on her phone on,” facetime” like 24/7. I guess you take what you can get. I h ope to get a little more time with them as they grow older. They were supposed to alternate holidays- mainly Xmas -every year. They came to Atlanta last year and her mom was “miffed ,” she was not invited- which she was. Well that is my little tiff. I hope she does not read this.
    But I still don’t know how to play Bunco?

    • Mike, I somehow missed the post about Bunco. I’ll have to look for it. I know so many people who seem crazy about the game but I have never played it even once. Lots of women have gotten together to play it in every neighborhood or church group I can remember. It must be really fun. See my comments on the other post re: family. I know of situations where the woman’s mother is not the cause, but there is always some other excuse. In any case, manipulative people always seem to get what they want, and some patterns, while not universal, are definitely common. I’d better not say more than that.

  15. Mike B.

    We have only spent one holiday with them, and so get to see them once a year or so. I thought living here in Atlanta we might see them more.

    • Mike, I wish your comment did not sound so painfully familiar. Of course you know my situation but I have so many adult friends who have experienced the same distance or absence of their adult children. I’m sure the circumstances are slightly different in each case, but I do think there are some general trends that are causing this type of situation to be the norm rather than the exception. I will say that the problem seems far worse in middle class white culture, as my friends from other cultures or racial groups (particularly immigrants) do not seem to experience it as much. My wonderful neighbors next door, from the Philippines, have three generations living all together in their home, as do others of my acquaintance. I’m sure that takes an extra measure of patience on the part of everyone involved but they seem to enjoy close and affectionate family ties. It makes me happy to know that not all families are separated. I hope you will eventually be able to see your family more often.

  16. Mike B.

    Our home church in Seattle is about half Phillipino and we have made some wonderful friends there. Of course they have their issues,Political unrest, prohibitions on divorce and abortion-etc. Have you gotten to try any pancit? Lumpia or Michado stew?
    And did you ever try the Pink Lemonade sherbet at Brewsters? Only in the summer months.

    • Mike, one of Jeff’s senior fellow dentists way back in 1990 was from the Philippines, and his wife taught the other wives how to cook pancit, though I never followed up on her instructions except to use only fresh garlic and fresh ginger in all my cooking thereafter. We have a dear friend from church in Hawaii who is also from there and used to fix pancit for all the church potlucks. It seemed to me that she provided about half the food that was served at those meals (it was not like the south where the table is always overfilled– in Hawaii we frequently ran out of food and if not for Espy we might have done even worse). Never had the pink lemonade sherbet– we don’t have many Brewsters locations nearby– but it sounds wonderful and I’ll plan to try it.

  17. Mike B.

    On our trip last year to NYC we saw a number of folks in parks playing Mah Jong al Fresco. Is it difficult to learn? My other DIL enjoys Skiobo – a game I have not mastered to this point.

    • Mah Jongg is quite complex and I’ve played it with groups that follow various sets of rules– New York rules, military Officer’s Wives Club rules (the most complex, not surprisingly) and Chinese rules. It’s almost essential to get in with a group who knows the game well, and pair up with a teacher for the first few rounds until you catch on. You almost have to see it played to catch onto it. Having said that, one of the great things about Mah Jongg is that a beginner who masters the fundamentals of the game can play on an essentially equal basis with other players, simply by sticking with the easiest hands until one learns any of the dozens of possibilities. It’s unlike any game I have ever played and I like it better than any other, provided people don’t get too competitive and snarky about it. I guess the closest comparison of it would be bridge, in terms of strategic complexity, but in Mah Jongg there are no partners; each plays as an individual. I haven’t tried online or computer Mah Jongg games but it might be a good way to become familiar with the hands and the basics of how it is played. But the computer version does not appeal to me because much of the appeal of the game lies in the social aspects plus the physical fun of manipulating the tiles and hearing that singular sound of them clicking together when building the wall or playing. I remember walking down the Hang Ah alley in Chinatown (San Francisco) and hearing that sound coming from the high-up windows of rooms where men would be gambling on the game. I knew it was not anywhere I would ever be allowed or want to go but I still liked the sound of the game being played. It’s one of those things that would make sense only to those who have played it.

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