This year, I learned how to be lonely. Not how to be alone—how to sit with myself and myself only—but to feel like there is only myself to sit with.
When I was a kid, still living in my grandparents' home in Pakistan, my mother would often pause in the middle of a conversation to find my hand had slipped from hers and I had wandered away on my own, in search of a quiet place to be alone. She would find me crouched in the corner of the garage, tracing my name in the dirt with the toe of my sandal. Or lying on the roof, cool cement against my back, learning the Gujrat sky. I've always cultivated space and time for my mind to run interrupted. But this year, a long way from that little Pakistani girl on the roof, I learned that relishing aloneness and being uncomfortable in loneliness, fearful of it even, are distinct.
This year was not about aloneness. It was not about the feeling that has me puttering around my apartment, tending to my space with an introvert's care, wiping the crumbs from the counter and the dust from the sill. This year was about the way aloneness becomes cutting. When we become helpless in our lonely and succumb to it, letting the dust collect, letting the crumbs gather, letting me believe that all the love I have left to give will grow stale in me, never to actualize. I felt this both in rooms full of people and rooms in which only I sat, scrolling through old photographs, finding reasons to lament for months that were never as soft as they now seemed.
My early 20s have been colored, so far, with a dizzying back-and-forth. I was in love and then it dissolved. I knew I deserved to be loved in return, a clean and uncomplicated exchange, and then I felt like I was doing something wrong. I knew this was not it, that no one had pulled the curtains closed just yet, that I was loved in a multitude of ways by family both chosen and real, whose generous care I would continue to teach myself to feel worthy of. And yet, as Haruki Murakami writes in "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," "every now and then I would feel a violent stab of loneliness. The very water I drink, the very air I breathe, would feel like long, sharp needles. I could hear the roots of loneliness creeping through me when the world was hushed at four o'clock in the morning." I was comfortable in solitude and then I was afraid.
I'm not idealistic enough about the new year to hope that this will subside with the flip of a calendar page. It may be that 2019 will also be marred by loneliness, making some days a little bit shadowy. I'm also not idealistic enough about being in love to think that a partner is an antidote for this purely individual ache—this is not about being single. It's about a great many things, but in part it is about the discomfort we feel, many of us women in our 20s, when we are suffocated by a culture that commodifies love. That pushes it down our throats and makes us gluttonous for it, rather than patient. That makes the lives we lead, abundant with love in its infinite other forms, in the way of friends' laughter and family's hands, seem perpetually lacking a piece. Not having a single person to call our own too often feels like waiting for something better, rather than becoming better as ourselves, for ourselves.
There is no formula for mending from this. I have no secrets or tips. I only have the times I have picked myself from the sofa, a feeling like walking through water, and gone to make myself dinner, with fresh vegetables and Etta James. I only have the fact that I am becoming the woman my younger self would admire. I only have the moments like the one when I am lonely and reading a poem by Louise Glück that has me rummaging for a pen to write it down: "They know at some point you stop being children, and at that point / you become strangers. It seems unbearably lonely." I think, in your 20s, you learn that it is. I think, this year, I learned that it is.