I wonder, sometimes, if our children ever will appreciate how lucky they are to grow up in an age when it’s easier than ever to find your tribe. As a young girl, it was almost impossible for me to indulge my passion for all things geeky. Comic-Con was in its infancy and still on the fringe, so if I wanted to talk about Star Wars, or dress up as Mighty Mouse or Spiderman or Batman, I most certainly could have, but I knew it meant I’d be bullied into the next galaxy or fictional universe. There were few kids who shared my interests and fewer still who were willing to join me in crossing the then-solid lines of gender norms.
To make matters worse, I grew up in a Brooklyn, N.Y. neighborhood in the midst of a massive flight to the suburbs. It seemed anytime I made a connection with someone, they were gone by the next school year. Most of my closest friends moved away by the time I was 8. My classmate who shared my love of literature and writing disappeared around fifth grade. Another who could discuss with me endlessly the finer points of the previous night’s The Dukes of Hazzard episode never made it to junior high.
What this meant was that I spent an inordinate amount of time alone during those early years of adolescence. It came up in conversation recently with a friend whose parents moved him to a new neighborhood and school at that same precious age—that time when you’re forming your identity both with and against a larger circle of friends. We agreed we both suffered, albeit in different ways. My understanding of myself was very much as an outsider, if not an outcast. I went to the mall by myself. I walked down to the point of Breezy Point, N.Y. alone on stunning summer days more times than I care to admit. I also rode my bike solo through Marine Park, mostly on Sunday afternoons, when there was likely to be less traffic on the city streets.
Sometimes I felt I was living in a John Hughes film, and I wondered when or whether I’d eventually fit in somewhere. I held out hope that maybe the Jake Ryan to my Samantha Baker, (à la Sixteen Candles), would pull up in his red Porsche and not only give me that look, but that he would actually see me. Almost 30 years later, that’s one fantasy of mine that has yet to be fulfilled.
What happened, instead, wasn’t planned or expected. I still blossomed—though I was a predictably late bloomer—and I became very much myself, but not in any sort of traditional way. Forced solitude is not something I’d recommend, even though it’s incomparable for building character. On all those days when I longed for meaningful companionship, I found I had no choice but to feel into the emptiness. I brought a radio or cassette player with me everywhere and listened to the moodiest possible music I could find. Sometimes I even allowed myself to cry. That is when I began to find solace in my surroundings. I noticed the gulls skimming the Atlantic shoreline. I admired the dignity and determination of elderly women as they passed by in their headscarves pushing shopping carts with unbalanced wheels. I developed an appreciation of sunsets. I learned to embrace the quiet of New York City streets late on a Sunday—the only time during the week when such silence was even imaginable. At an unusually early age, I discovered how to appreciate the essence of a place beneath its everyday sights and sounds.
There was no way I could have known then that for all I thought I had lost, I was gaining in a far greater sense: I was cultivating my strong emotions, developing sharp powers of observation, but mostly, building deep empathy. Every one of those things was preparing me for a future I could not see.
Even though my life now is rich and full with many dear friends and loved ones, I continue to take my walks alone. I’ll get on my bike late in the day just about every Sunday. As I’m riding through the streets of my suburban town, I hear the occasional clink of dishes through an open window. The smell of dryer sheets permeates the air. I see more birds and deer than people. Sometimes I’ll bring along my moody music, sometimes not. And when I do, that’s generally my only companion.
None of it makes me sad or wistful, as it once did. In fact, I relish those hours of pure presence. Because even in my solitude, never, ever do I feel alone.