Caren McLane has a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Community Health Education from BYU. She met her husband, Todd, her freshman year while at BYU. They are the parents of 5 children and live on a 4 acre “hobby farm” with chickens, cows, and dogs. She volunteers at the library and hospice and has blogged since 2014. Caren has served in a variety of callings in the Church and is currently serving as the JustServe coordinator in her Montana Ward.
Our college-aged daughter has been home for just a spell before she headed back out. With a sporadic and flexible work schedule, she took the opportunity to go skiing for the day. The other kids were in school, dad had work, I don’t ski, all her friends have moved away… it was just a day on her own. It turned out that while she had a pleasant enough time, she returned home a bit early. “It got a little lonely.”
Alone in a Crowd
As a young mom, I remember packing up the van, loading in the kids, and prepping with snacks and rain gear for all kinds of sporting events. But we’re down to our last two kids in school and there are only a handful of times they have meets here in town each season. When I go watch my son pole vault, all the families are kind of squished together in their chairs near the pit, so it feels like we’re all there together. There is the same squished feeling when I’ve watched cross country at the river.
However, last season we were at a park half an hour from home with the race wide open, the course strewn across the acreage. Families weren’t all huddled near the finish line because in this scenario it was easy to move about the park and catch your child from different angles. And, in this scenario, it was easy to feel alone. Most moms and dads had either each other or several kids with them. Some parents had fellow mom friends from school or the team. I felt exposed in the wide-open fields, noticeably on my own. Which was fine. But unsettling. I wondered who I knew, who I would feel comfortable enough with, who wouldn’t mind me tagging along. I found one friend with her daughter, but she left to follow her son. I didn’t feel comfortable following her; surely, she would’ve indicated if she had wanted that. I felt excused and isolated in the middle of a crowded park.
It was a late summer evening last year. A weekend night. A time when others would have each other. I’m used to my kids and husband flitting around on weeknights with their activities and meetings, but this felt different. I imagined families gathered, friends over, people I knew celebrating the lingering summer light. And almost always, that’s us. We love having friends with us, eating together on the back deck under our twinkly lights, a dreamy and familiar scene. And if not friends, at least I almost always have Todd to be with. On this night I was just puttering in the yard and even though I knew the night was arranged, a late work meeting, kids off with their friends, I anticipated their arrival, hoping it would be sooner than expected. As the light began to fade, I remember noticing how alone in the world I felt. We have a bit of land around our property, a couple of pastures, large gardens; I felt both cocooned within my fence and swallowed up in the expansiveness of it all: lonely and decidedly longing for company.
These experiences turn out to be so fleeting. We can take ourselves home off the ski hill. The race eventually ends, and everyone goes back to their houses. At some point the family members return and we’re reunited.
Except when we can’t, or they don’t. When it’s more of an everyday reality.
Extending Ourselves as a Companion
The night in the garden turned my thoughts to my single friends. I contemplated what it might feel like to always be the one to turn on the outside lights as dusk approached, to entertain myself day after day, to cook for one, to wonder what everyone else is doing, to want to be invited but to not feel fun enough to be the host, to hear the sounds of the road and neighboring yards but only quiet within my head. I wondered if they were used to it to the point, it had become no big deal.
And yet I know there’s nothing wrong with being alone. Most of the world might be. But it’s only been very recently that I’ve started experiencing it firsthand. I always lived with my growing up family, then roommates, then a husband, and shortly thereafter we started bringing kids in. It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve spent many of my days and weeks all on my own, many times 12 or 13 hours a day. Which really is fine. I learn and can’t fathom being bored. I love puttering and having my days to myself. But every now and then I feel it more poignantly, not just the aloneness, but the loneliness. While the more I’m alone, the more normal it feels, and at the same time, the more I long for association. “I realize, for the first time, how very lonely I’ve been in the arena. How comforting the presence of another human being can be” (Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games).
These tiny experiences have stayed with me over the past several months, I believe, in an attempt to remind me to not take my people and joys for granted. They continue to inspire me to reach out beyond myself and the contrived plans I make for my days to notice those on their own. While I’m only vaguely aware of how many of my friends live, I find myself wanting to make more of an effort to both honor their independence and to join with them. I feel myself awakening to the idea that many around us, even those in the center of the arena, might feel as I have on occasion. I’ve come to a new understanding of what that might be like and how simply extending myself as a companion can soothe and aid a lonely heart.
Being Heard and Remembered
As I’ve talked with and listened to dozens of friends over the years, I realize we all want the same things: to be noticed and acknowledged, heard, and seen, remembered and included. As I consider what I’d like others to do to help ward off my own loneliness, I recognize the anecdote to my aloneness. We all play a part in creating connection.
Friends are telling me they want to be invited to do things. Lunch, a walk, a gathering, a performance, a celebration, to get smoothies. They want to feel connected. I have friends who love to text or do Marco Polos. We’ve had various text groups where we present a topic or a podcast and all weigh in, sharing our thoughts and opinions across the miles. My older women friends love in-person visits and phone calls. I know that might feel daunting for women of a more recent generation, but there is nothing quite like sharing a couch and an hour’s conversation; our older friends have a way of helping us slow down to reassess what really matters.
I’ve noticed, though, that while most of us have kind hearts and good intentions, we always think there will be time after this busy season. We see it as a bad week, a full sports season, a demanding semester, a crazy time of life with kids and work and activities. I get it. I’ve lived and felt it all. I love the kind of person who responds with a specific date when we say, “We really should get together soon.” I’m impressed when people make friendship and relationships a priority, when they look past the calendar on their phones and notice a need or a person to be nurtured in a small way.
I remember the connections we made in college. Making time for weekend nights with just the girls, hanging out in our dorm room talking and doing projects. Meeting for lunch or to study in the library. Road trips. Late night study trips to the malt shop. We made each other and our friendships a priority even in one of the busiest phases of our lives. And now, more than 30 years later, we are still close and would do anything for each other.
I think of the girls in my class at church who invited me to go hot tubbing on Sunday nights. I know they had their own friends; they were a bit older; they didn’t have to. But all these years later, I still remember their kindness at an awkward and self-conscious time of life.
Evolving Ministering Assignments to Lifelong Connection
I have so many memories of receiving an assignment to partner up with an unknown woman and go visit several strangers each month. I’ve had that opportunity ever since I was 18, and not once was it completely natural and comfortable. But with time it became so. To the point that these women have become some of my very dearest friends. My partners and I just did it, we went out and made the effort. And as a result, we felt buoyed up and befriended more than anyone we visited.
Like most, I’ve had lonely days where I hoped someone would call. Rarely does that ever happen, and I’ve learned not to expect it. Instead, I’ve called several friends until I finally find one who will go out to lunch or on a walk with me. I’ve done that with weekends too, wanting to socialize but knowing I’ll probably need to instigate something. I’ve reached out to more than a dozen couples or families many times before I start finding people who can come. Sometimes I’ll ask if a friend would mind if I dropped by to catch up. (I’d be curled up on my bed with red puffy eyes if I waited for someone to call every time I felt like socializing or not being alone). We must take the initiative. And yet I know many of you do. I just try not to keep score or worry about who does the inviting. I just love it when we find time to meet up; it’s always worth the effort.
I so appreciate the women in my life who make the effort to show up. No matter how busy they are, these are the ones I can count on. There is nothing more vulnerable for me than to plan a gathering. I always, always hesitate before sending a group text to invite people to do something. It is completely nerve-wracking even though I do it all the time. Because it’s scary and feels like a personal rejection when people decline or fail to come. I love knowing that there are some who will always be there if they can make it work at all, even for part of the time. I love these friends so very much; they help ward off the feeling of being alone in it.
Even at my age and stage of life, I still feel kind of shy when facing a gathering, a baby shower, a women’s conference, a wedding reception, a dinner party, or ward activity. And I think there are others who feel the same way. It can be unsettling and awkward to put on a brave face, and sometimes we even second-guess why we came.
- Who will we talk to or sit with?
- How will get our bearings?
- What if we’re rejected?
- Everyone else looks like they belong.
I still anticipate all those nervous feelings, and it really is still hard for me to take the first step over the threshold. But I must believe people are friendly and kind, that there will always be someone I can sit or stand with.
Names Are Important
I try to move around and visit with a variety of friends. I’ve noticed the people I enjoy being around are the ones who ask questions and who are genuinely interested in others. When we assume everyone is interesting and has a story we can learn from, we’re less likely to worry about ourselves and we become genuinely curious and engaged.
We all like the sound of our name, to be acknowledged. I remember seeing a new friend I’d only met once at a graduation party and yelling across the grass using her name; she was so surprised and told me how much that meant to her. I have another friend who uses our names whenever she’s speaking to us, just casually interjected in conversation, but it makes me feel closer to her, more personal. I know ward members who are intentional about learning the names of the members of the congregation, especially the youth, such a simple but thoughtful gesture helping them feel known.
It’s sweet when I’ve been out of town and a family member will tell me that someone from church asked about me. I’ve gotten a few texts over the years with friends inquiring about where I was, that they missed me. It really is super nice to be even noticed.
I love getting love notes so much. But they are very, very infrequent these days, who does that? But there’s nothing better in the mail than a card just saying hi, thinking about you. I’ve been very surprised when women have told me about the love notes they keep and re-read. So tender. I wish we did that more for each other. I have one old lady friend who is so, so cute. She sends me flowery; grandma cards every now and then written in her shaky handwriting, I love you. No name or anything else, it’s hard to write even that much, but I keep them. There’s nothing like the feeling of love that her kind cards convey.
Birthdays aren’t quite the same as we get older. Because who remembers them except your mom and your spouse? Sometimes not even the kids are that great at remembering. I remember taking a gift with me to a lady I work with, just some lotion and fresh eggs and something else little and a card. She was such a gracious and appreciative recipient, so sweet. But she totally surprised me, “This is probably the only gift I’ll get.” Her son would wash her car for her, but this would be the only other present. I was shocked. And loved that we had the kind of relationship where we exchanged gifts on our birthdays. This tiny instance has encouraged me to remember my girlfriends and to acknowledge what’s happening in their lives.
Speaking of which, I love it when people have paid attention to what we’ve talked about or have noticed what my life is like so they’re able to give thoughtful gifts or encouragement. Some girlfriends are spot-on when they find things for our house or the perfect book or just the right words. I know many of us shy away from buying gifts or sending cards because we’re afraid we’ll fall short or fail at it. But any effort is appreciated, and we can all help others feel known as we intentionally listen and notice.
Looking Outside of Ourselves
I guess that’s just it. Being a good friend and helping others feel less alone is just looking outside of ourselves and considering what might be going on for others. Think about the various situations people are in and what would uplift them in normal, natural, kind of ways. No one wants to be a project, and we don’t ever want to be anything but genuine. So beyond noticing, it takes doing to help build connection. I love the women who follow up on a conversation we had with questions about a family member’s health or who ask me to join them for lunch or who text me out of the blue with pictures that made them think of me or who tell me something they like about me or my family or our home.
None of this takes much effort. But we’re all capable of bridging the gulf between feeling lonely and feeling known as we just put a little thought into what another’s experience might be feeling like and follow through on promptings that show we care.