There was a game my parents used to play at dinner parties in the farm house down the road called, “Sardines.” The game was similar to hide and seek, but in Sardines, one person hid while the rest of the party spread through the house searching for her. Discovering the hidden person, you would join her, slidding quietly under the bed, or slipping into the closet, or bending under the stairwell until the others joined you, and the space was full of warm, heavily breathing bodies. You hid there listening to the one remaining dinner guest walking quickly down the darkened hallways, frantically opening doors and calling out, “Hello? Anyone?”
The farm house had long hallways, steep staircases, and a cellar filled with boxes of fox hunting trophies. I was filled with excited panic as I ran along the hallways, bumping into staggering adults who groped their way through the darkness. I’d spent many afternoons at the farm house, playing tennis and eating Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos from the dog shaped cookie jar, and knew most of the hiding spots. Still, I tore up the steps not wanting to be the loser, not wanting to be the last one left alone.
Growing up in a family of extroverted game players, it was weird when I wanted to be alone. Like the loser in Sardines – alone — I hiked the green hills behind our house. Only unlike Sardines, I wasn’t looking for anyone. I climbed rocks and trees and watched the hang-gliders float down the mountain like butterflies.
“Don’t you want to invite someone over?” Mom would ask. My sister never liked being alone and followed me on my explorations, asking questions and singing. I’d try to sneak away without her noticing. At home again, I wanted to read or write the stories that filled up my head, and I was sure there was something wrong with me.
During “Mountain Classroom,” a semester spent on the road in high school, I did a “solo” in the mountains of Arizona. For 24 hours, my classmates and I were each left alone in the woods without any music, books, food, or contact with our peers. I tucked my paperback and journal deep into the recesses of my sleeping bag. My classmates had been dreading this part of our trip and devised secret plans to find one another in the woods. I sat back and let them plan, I wasn’t worried. Dropped off by the teachers, I happily explored the rocks and unfamiliar desert plants of Arizona. After setting up my tarp, I lay down in my sleeping bag and pulled out my smuggled book and journal. I’d gone camping since I was a child and was familiar with the bundled feeling of a sleeping bag, the brightness of the stars. I was relieved to get a break from the close confines of the van, the absence of privacy, the bickering between Kate and George, and the flirting between Nicole and Mark. Ignoring the bird whistle signals throughout the night, I slept soundly, quiet and content. Packing my tarp the next morning, I looked wistfully at my space in the desert as I returned to civilization.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau spent two years alone in the woods; simplifying his life, stripping down to the essentials. He spent his days writing, thinking, and experiencing his natural surroundings. He said of being alone,
“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
Even though I loved my solitude, and had grown to accept it, I worried that my introverted tendencies were building walls around me. I worried that I’d be alone forever. I worried that I might never meet my future husband and that I might never have my future children. I worried that I lacked something, an ability to need others, and that this meant I wouldn’t be needed in return. I got two cats and envisioned myself growing old alone.
When I met my husband, I realized I didn’t want to be alone any longer. After 27 years, I had room in my life for others. But now, married for almost ten years and the mother of two children, I fear I’ll never be alone again. I check email with a child on my lap. I cook dinner with a boy on the ladder next to me, making “salt and pepper make-up” (water, flour, salt and pepper) in a mixing bowl. I shower with my two year old, shampooing with one hand. I carry a boy on each hip to bed, where we read, cuddle, get more “choco” (chocolate milk), and when I tuck them in for the third time, I’m weary of others. Collapsing onto the couch with a magazine or a book, I read someone else’s story. I am alone at last for as long as I can stay awake.
Someone else’s story reminds me of my own. Alone with my children, I banish them to their playroom, so I can write. I let them play computer games for too long, so I can write. I buy them new DVD’s, so I can write. Will asks for a snack while I struggle for the right word, and Miles pulls on my arm as I type. Alone in motherhood; in the hours of laundry and cleaning and cooking and telling everybody else what to do, I am connected to the rest of the world when I write. With Play-Doh spread across the table, Will cutting and Miles eating, I write about trying to relax. As they eat dinner at the kitchen counter, I write about the McDonald’s commercials, and my struggle to keep our family healthy. While the boys take a bath, splashing water across our new tile floor, I write about my definition of home. After I read them books, I sneak out of their room, and if I’m not too tired, I write about giving birth to readers.
My youngest started pre-school this fall, and for the first time in years, I am alone again. Dropping the boys off at school, I hurry home and glance at the clock. Three hours to myself. Doing my best to ignore the unmade beds, the dirty dishes in the sink, the toy-strewn living room, and empty refrigerator, I sit at my laptop. I return to the stories in my head. As my mind empties of the Thomas the Tank Engine theme song, my stories come flooding back to me. I’m a girl again, focused on the contents in my head, blind to the world around me. I drink my second cup of coffee slowly, tasting it this time. The cooler fall air scatters the finger paintings Will and Miles left to dry on the table this morning. This moment, this quiet is fleeting, and I cherish every second. Playing Solitaire is not a game for me. This is my Walden Pond.