ON CONNECTION

The Gift of Space Without Isolation

My Journey of Finding Peace with Having More Space

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash.

Zoom fatigue. Languishing. Pandemic burnout. Work-from-home-while-parenting-overwhelm. The list goes on and on.

There is no shortage of articles and opinions written about how the months of quarantine have left us all feeling. And now, as many of us move back into the world, there’s a whole new slew of observations coming up. Just today a friend of mine mentioned that it seems to her people forgot how to interact with each other while they were isolated for so long. Indeed there are reports that road rage is higher, huge numbers of people are experiencing cave syndrome — a fear of going back into society, and even NPR is discussing how our social muscles have atrophied, resulting in high numbers of people experiencing social anxiety about things they considered a normal part of life pre-quarantine.

In most months before the vaccine, there were a number of mental health professionals discussing the connections between isolation and depression. In my very logical brain, that led to the following rationale: if isolation makes us depressed, we should be less isolated as quickly as possible to avoid depression. Turns out it hasn’t often helped, which led me to think about my role in the world, how I’m showing up, who I’m communing with, and what might be different than my pre-COVID days.

And to the bigger question of “How, if at all, is my situation and response similar to other creatives, writers even?”

Until October of 2019, I would have told anyone who asked that I was an extreme extrovert. At various times, my life was full of people and networking and social events and dating and family gatherings and masterminds and conferences and concerts and on and on and on. There were many periods in my life where if I didn’t have plans, I was the one who would make them. I thrived on being in the energy of other people. In fact, until late 2018, I had basically done almost nothing alone in my life. And then my dad died. From mid-October through the end of the year, I spent hours sitting on my porch, alone.

I didn’t want to be around anyone except my daughter, Emma, and a few close friends — though most of them not very often.

I just preferred to be alone. The few social events I did attend left me confused, sad, overwhelmed, and almost always looking for an early exit. In January of 2020, I attended a bucket-list conference at a bucket-list location. I spent the majority of that conference intimately connecting with a very small handful of people, primarily the one person I had traveled with. I never went to an all-conference happy hour or hung out after events to get to know people. There could be no disagreement that something in me had shifted.

I had also joined an online incubator/mastermind of sorts and found that I desperately looked forward to our Monday afternoon calls — where about ten of us would weigh in on our weeks and progress and share our goals. I was also setting up a lot of phone dates and networking calls with people I met online who had shared interests in business and social justice.

My time was filling up more and more with those types of engagements and less and less with in-person ones.

And then, of course, quarantine. Within a couple of weeks, my entire scope of relationships had changed. People I already had virtual relationships with continued to be a huge part of my life, a very small group of people I had in-person relationships with stayed close, and everyone else just drifted off. I chalked this up to needing some clarity on my people and leaned into it as much as possible. Until once again, something shifted that I could have never predicted.

By November, I was desperately lonely — in the core of my soul. I missed community and connection and feeling seen. I felt like I was slipping into oblivion and there was no one to observe it, let alone stop it. A few of those close in-person friendships had gone through as much trauma as I had and we fumbled to support each other while also navigating our own lives. And as my business crumbled and I embarked on an exhausting and unfruitful job search for an in-house position, I felt increasingly more disconnected from the world of social entrepreneurs I had found comfort in only months prior.

In January, I left home and started traveling full-time. I spent January and February in New York and though I know tons of people there, everyone was still in strict quarantine, so I spent almost every day completely alone. I spent March and April in Tennessee and the first half of May in North Carolina. There were many, many days where I didn’t speak to another soul. And as time wore on, I oscillated between feeling freedom in the quiet and lack of accountability to anyone but me that I had created and deep, intense loneliness.

Throughout this entire time, there were two things that brought me extreme joy via the connection.

The first was the various online writing workshops I took and the second was a weekly (or more often) phone call I had with a couple of close friends who read everything I wrote. I didn’t want to talk about my hopes and dreams or the trauma I was living through or how much I missed my daughter, who was in her first year of college. I just wanted to write and read what I wrote to people. It made me feel alive.

Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash

Writing is often thought of as a very solitary act.

Combatting this is why everyone from Blue Stoop, in Philly, to Substack host community write-ins. There’s an idea that coming together with other writers, to write at the same time, will help writers feel and be less solitary. I suspect it’s similar to the overall ideas surrounding coworking — you don’t have to work with the people around you, but working with people around you will help you work better. And that’s probably true.

Personally, that still misses the mark for me. What made me feel connected during those months of traveling, was sharing my work — whether it was with strangers in a workshop or close friends. I needed to feel seen. I also found that I could write my deepest, truest feelings, and when I shared them in the form of a poem or lyrical essay, or creative nonfiction, it was so much less scary than calling someone and saying, “I’m not sure I can survive this.”

What all of this has taught me is that isolation rears its ugly head in many ways and our job, as creatives and as humans, is to figure out what it is telling us about our lives.

When I look back now at all those years of excessively full social and professional calendars, I can see clearly that I was constantly searching for something or someone that would fix the parts of my life I didn’t like — and by extension, fix me. Staying busy kept me from spending time with myself and really thinking about who I was and who I wanted to be and where I was going.

When I took those months to grieve for the loss of my dad, I saw that I didn’t want anyone or any event to try to cover that grief up. Part of me felt like if I stopped grieving I was really saying goodbye and my connection to him would be lost forever — much the same way I didn’t unpack my suitcase for weeks after returning home from his passing because I didn’t want to admit the trip was over.

There was no space for me in that previous life full of All. The. Things. What I learned (and am still learning) over the past year was how to find space without isolation, a phrase I picked up from reading an essay by Cameron Esposito.

Instead of looking for things to do and people to be with that would cover up who I was or what I was going through, I am finding space for who I am by fostering communities that allow me to be seen.

And that is my wish for each of you — that you may reenter the world (whatever that looks like for you) in a way that blends community without oblivion and space without isolation.

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