I recently had a conversation with a very dear friend in which I found myself discussing something I didn’t think I would ever really talk about with anyone. Thankfully, she didn’t think I was unusual in my appreciation for the art of being alone and quiet. Sounds strange, I know. What sparked this conversation was the end of a very long day at the end of a very stressful week. I seem to be having lots of those lately. You know how it is. You notice something a little “off” in yourself and, in a need to prove to yourself that you aren’t weird, you drop hints into a conversation to sound out others’ possible reactions. What I found was encouragement and an “I thought I was the only one” reaction.
I’m sure that everyone who goes into any profession at some point in a long career stops to question the sanity of actually having not only chosen the profession in the first place but also having continued to do it once maximum stress levels have been reached and boundaries pushed. With coming up on twenty-seven years of teaching under my belt, I have found myself doing that relatively frequently over the last couple of years. I can remember not very many years ago I had so much energy and excitement about my job that I got excited coming up with new, creative ways to present material to my students. Now, I am at work by 6:45 or so and am there until around 4:00 each day. But, I’m not getting as much accomplished as I did when I rushed in right at 7:25 on a wing and a prayer. Why is that? I hit the ground running just as hard every single day yet at day’s end have a list equally as long as the one I came in to in the morning. It seems I spend my day cleaning off my desk.
This friend and I were discussing our confusion concerning a proper attitude about our current stress level. There is no end in sight, actually. There is no fix, quick or otherwise. Looking back at myself over the past few years I realized that I am spending more and more time sitting in absolute quiet and letting time slip by . . . and loving every minute of it. I treasure it, actually. I once came home from work in the afternoons and the first thing I did was turn on the television for either noise or company. Now? There are nights John and I don’t turn it on at all. Often when he comes home from work, if he didn’t see my car in the garage and me in my chair he probably wouldn’t even know I was home. There were days last summer that I sat down with a book and a cup of coffee in the mornings and suddenly realized that the day had slipped away and I had accomplished nothing on my “to do” list for the day. And I didn’t feel guilty!! For the first time in my life, I was spending copious amounts of time doing absolutely nothing and there wasn’t even a hint of a voice in my head generously murmuring how guilty I should feel at having wasted so much time. Want to know what the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about retirement is? Quiet. Absolute, ear-roaring, listen-to-the-house-creak quiet. It settles me and helps me to separate work from home. I don’t bring home as much work anymore. I know that could possibly be interpreted as a contributing factor to the amount of work I have to do at school, but you know what? It hasn’t. I know. I don’t understand it, either. I haven’t figured out how to do that trick to alleviate guilt associated with undone ironing and floors, yet. I’m sure John would just as soon I not work on that little problem.
Anyway…I digress. Back to the conversation with my friend. In our conversation over how our lives seem to be more full than we can handle, I mentioned to her that once someone had described me as being pretty much a loner; someone who doesn’t form close, personal relationships with either friends or family. This description continued by characterizing me as someone who suffered from a lack of a social life due to this inability to gather for myself a close network of friends with whom I would drift in and out of each other’s lives on a daily basis. What I wanted my friend to tell me was whether she thought that was an accurate description of me: do I, whether intentionally or not, distance myself from others? I have actually thought about this description of myself frequently over the past few years. It has bothered me to the point that I actually sit and think about it for extended periods of time, agonizingly dissecting every relationship in my life. My friend actually seemed a bit surprised when I asked her. She said she hoped there wasn’t anything wrong with enjoying time alone (or with just a spouse) when she does the same herself.
I never have been one of those people who spends Saturdays out with friends shopping and talking. Don’t get me wrong. When I do spend time that way, I have a blast! It just doesn’t seem to be essential to my happiness to do this on a regular basis. I don’t like talking on the phone. I don’t spend my evenings calling various friends to discuss our day. I do that with John. No matter what I tell him or how much I whine about my day, he just listens: no harm, no foul. I have several friends that I can think of off the top of my head that I believe I could call at any time, for any help I may need, with any problem, and be confident in the fact that they will drop what they are doing to help me. Even if the only help I need is a sympathetic ear. I admit that I do not have a large, extensive circle of close friends. I make a distinction between acquaintances and intimate friends. Acquaintances are those people whom I encounter either frequently or even on a daily basis but with whom I do not discuss personal topics. With these people I share stories of my students, of my daughter, or my frustration with the problem of the day. I have lots of those kinds of people in my life. Those whom I think of as friends are those people with whom I have a shared history. We know each other’s stories already. They know the bad, embarrassing stories as well as the funny ones or those of my child’s accomplishments. These few know about all the embarrassing things I’ve done (have often been there to witness it themselves) and do not judge me for them. They know about my numerous bad decisions over the course of my career / marriage / life and are willing to tell me that I was wrong, to tell me it wasn’t really my fault, or to simply look at me as if they are amazed that I even thought I was right in the first place. I trust these people to be brutal. I do have some very dear friends that I think about often but who do not know these details about me. But, the ones that do are what I think of as intimate friends. Between those two categories lies one that incorporates a few of the characteristics of both. I'm not even sure what to call that one.
When I stop to consider these women (and a couple of men), it is easy to see how each came into my life when I needed them and, often similarly, drifted out again just as quietly until the next time I seemed to need them. One came into my life in elementary school and she and I still worry about one another, are critical of each other when it is called for, are sympathetic to each other’s heartaches and worries. Our friendship has grown over the years into one that I treasure and don’t have to work at. She isn’t offended if we don’t communicate frequently. We see each other when we can and selfishly guard those moments. A half hour visit often turns into an afternoon. Our friendship has known its highs as well as its lows and survived the course. If she needs me I will go; if I call her she will come. One friend I met in college and she helped drag me out of the depths of homesickness. Since then her life has taken her very far away and we don’t talk as we once did. Social media helps to keep us in each other’s lives now. Two others have become part of my life and very dear to me through work. Their youngest children are close in age to Erin and they have listened to my countless stories of the frustrations of being a parent. Knowing they had experienced the same problems kept me from being hesitant about asking for advice. One of those I make “dates” with during the summer and we’ll meet for lunch and have long, wonderful visits. I’m sure waitresses hate to see us coming as we are notorious about hogging a table well past the lunch rush. The other is the friend with whom this whole thought process began.
This last friend has listened to me whine and complain about everything from my feet hurting because I felt the need to wear my “big girl” shoes to work to the days when depression so overwhelms me that I can’t seem to breathe. I know that her life for the past couple of years has been a series of setbacks set off by occasional miracles. I think I have learned my biggest lessons in how to be gracious and grateful from her over the past two years. She has days – weeks – that I know would cripple a lesser soul, yet she continues to push herself to be everything she has always been to everyone she has always been it for. In the quiet of a late-night break room she listened to me tell her how someone had once described me and how that description continues to haunt me. With two very short sentences, which are so personal that I will not share them here, she made me feel that while some of that description is surely true, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those parts are not positive. As a matter of fact, she is the same in many aspects.
So, you know what? While I may spend my days, and many long nights, sitting listening to the quiet, reading a book, or even waiting for the sun to rise, I will no longer wonder if that means there is something missing in me. Instead, I choose to believe that while I may not have a bulging social calendar, I am not a worse person for it. I spend my life with my closest friend and he thinks I’m okay the way I am. In today’s world of constant, instant communication and noise everywhere, what's wrong with that anyway?