I. A flicker of movement in midair as I passed. Another one, frantic. In the corner between two retaining walls hung a mess of a black widow’s web. A whiptail lizard had caught upside down. She was just a baby, maybe two inches long, her tail a bright blue.* The web flashed in and out of shadow as she struggled to break free.
I found a juniper twig in the parking lot’s landscaping, tore into the web, and lifted the lizard to the top of the wall at my waist. The web hadn’t come away cleanly, though, and the lizard’s tail dragged a sticky weight of dead leaves and candy wrappers. Her movement hindered, she was easy pickings for the first predator to come along.
I poked at the mess with the twig, trying to pry it away. I ended up dragging the lizard on her belly instead. She struggled, twisting wildly, and the next stab pinned her tail. Whiptails can shed their tails without harm, but without pain? I didn’t know.
“So much for that good deed,” I thought. Warm impulse turned to cold calculation as I weighed harms and outcomes. The realization that I could maim an animal with an incautious poke of a twig—that rattled me. I forget, maybe, that my actions have weight and heft. That they can mean agony, life or death to a living thing.
A second twig let me pin the web just past the tip of the lizard’s tail and use the other to pry the mess free. Success. She slithered to safety behind the retaining wall and turned to look at me over the top. Her eyes followed me as I got into my car and drove away.
The communities I live in practically glow with fellowship and goodwill. My own cheering section is good-sized, and I am part of many others, ready to give a boost when needed. But those communities are largely virtual—Facebook, blogging. The telephone at the most embodied.
At work I am mostly alone. At home I am nearly always so. Illness keeps me in. Work and groceries are the lion’s share of my adventures outside the home.
Years ago, I thought the loneliness might kill me, but then social media saved the day. It returned to me the awareness of connection—this web of words and images that flickers, backlit, across our retinas, where 0’s and 1’s coalesce into meaning. The virtual world links minds and spirits across continents; it negates oceans. It is that powerful.
But weight, heft—those are easy to forget, or at least to put on a back burner. The impact of choices on real bodies becomes a matter of faith rather than observation.
Every so often faith turns solid. Your choices become reality for some hapless being. Things never turn out quite the way you’d envisioned from the distance of your mind.
(* A curious fact: All New Mexico whiptail lizards are female.)
II. I hadn’t seen Laura for years. She’d always been a favorite, with her rich mezzo bubbling with laughter from a generous heart. She showed up at work and came around the desk where I sat amid dusty file boxes to give me a hug.
As I reached up and she reached down, my shoulder bumped her chin. She laughed, and we tried again. Bump. The third time was no better. A whole cornucopia of laughter rippled out. She patted my shoulder and moved away.
An awkward, gangly-teen moment. But a dear one.
When you live alone, you get used to things being smooth. You have time to sand the rough edges off written words, to buff them to a shine. You forget how clumsy you can be when encounter is unscripted. In a gently polished, virtual world, you can forget that imperfection is the norm, that bridging it creates strong connections, that clumsiness can teach forgiveness, trust, perspective. Bumped chins, awkward hugs. Collisions among the well-meaning. They matter.
III. When Chase Utley slid into second, he meant to break up a double play. The Dodgers were down two games to one in the Division Series. A loss would end their hopes of a championship.
So Utley slid to prevent the out—hard, late, and high. Feet first he crashed into the Mets’ shortstop, who had turned away to receive the ball. Ruben Tejada, defenseless, went flying. When he came down he lay on his stomach for a few minutes, fighting the pain of a broken femur.
The cameras showed angle after angle: the late slide, the collision, Tejada flipping in midair.
I know this from the radio and highlight clips, from the magic of the Internet. I’ve only attended two actual innings of a baseball game in the last few years. Those innings of live action, though—they startled me. I had forgotten how very physical the game can be—how hard the catcher’s head snaps back on a foul tip to the mask; the rifle-kick impact on shoulders when bat meets ball.
A broadcast looks so much like the real thing, you might be forgiven for thinking it is. A slide looks smooth on video. In slow motion on a highlight reel, it can even look choreographed: slide, twist, reach. Baserunner and defender, both part of a dance.
Live, you are aware of 200 pounds of muscle and sinew scraping across dirt to collide with another 200-pound body. You see the awkwardness and improvisation, the mess that resolves into a play.
A sport is by definition physical. Injuries happen. “It was one of those awkward plays,” said Utley. But fans discuss it as if it were theoretical—the difference between a “good hard slide” and a dirty one. As if a broken leg is just an idea. From a distance, it might as well be.
An idea. The physical—the irreducible, particular pain of a man’s broken femur—flattened out, the jagged edges buffed away, until it fades into an idea.
Normally, I think we assume that ideas outstrip the physical, that mind is superior to body. Ideas carry us beyond physical limits to a higher, more universal plane.
We should know. Modern life runs on ideas. Algorithms and datasets, 0’s and 1’s—they keep us entertained, employed, and connected. Afloat in words and images, we are mostly far removed from the physical processes that make them possible. We may see news stories about the poisons of rare earth mines, the hardships of factory labor, the lives lost to carcinogenic chemicals—all the things that bring our 0’s and 1’s to market. But we do not see the impact of our choices on the bodies that bear the brunt of them. We are just too far away. We may care; we may even alter our choices accordingly or turn into advocates. But it is hard to keep outrage boiling on the front burner, as we would if we saw those bodies in person. It’s as if their suffering is just an idea.
History doesn’t exactly suggest that proximity would make a difference. We have many ways of creating distance when others’ suffering is inconvenient. “Slut. She had it coming.” “The inferior races don’t really feel pain.” “Dirty Jew.” “Taker. Welfare queen.” So maybe I’m overvaluing the power of physical presence to connect us and spark compassion. But I do think that bodies have a weight and heft that most of us would honor in person.
IV. We’d known the loss was coming for years. In the previous months the knowledge had gone from chronic to acute. The phone call at 6:00 on a December morning wasn’t a shock. Confirmation, maybe.
Kathy had come into our family when I was 11 by way of puns and music—the sure path to my big brother’s heart. She noticed my first mascara, my first heels, and oohed and aahed until I glowed. “In-law” had long since fallen out of our vocabulary. She was a sister. A laughing, vibrant being.
She painted my kitchen. She took care of me for an entire summer when I fell ill. When I asked what I could do for her that last year, she said, “Laugh at my morbid jokes. Just let me be that honest.”
Still, I’d mostly lived across the country from her since I’d grown up. We were close, but not communicative. We’d talk every few months on the phone, see each other for a day or two at Christmas. My day-to-day life wasn’t altered by her death.
My logical mind found the loss easy to accept. Easy to grasp, but not to mourn. Facts don’t always encompass whole truth. They don’t show you impact, the gaping holes where love used to be, the web that won’t tear away cleanly because of the memories caught in it.
I worried that in aloneness I had grown cold-hearted—not for my own sake, but for Kathy’s. She deserved the honor of full-hearted lament, for life lost. For connection severed.
It was only later, back in Colorado, seeing her harps set aside to be taken away, that the thin ice of logic gave way, plunging me into the waters of mourning.
Logic, reason, the problem-solving mind—they cannot do justice to mystery. The great mystery especially, that the spirits we love are wedded to bodies, invisible to visible, immaterial to material. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—and in between, nerves sparking, blood flowing with life; a voice sounding the musica humana, singing the body electric.
We are all kin in this mystery. We are all connected. When what has been joined is torn asunder, we mourn. Our turn will come: to break the circle? Or to take our place in it? No matter what our faith, we don’t really know. In this, too, we are alike.
What can we do that is more important than to honor the connections between us?
V. A flock of blue-gray gnatcatchers has descended on the desert olive trees. Tiny birds dart among the branches looking for the tiny green caterpillars growing fat on the leaves.
They are never still. Watching them is like watching minnows flicker through shallow water. They call to one another constantly—popping sounds like bubbles bursting.
I’m watering containers on the patio, but the gnatcatchers don’t mind. They’ve never paid much attention to me. Still, one quick move would test their limits and send them flying.
Small birds in their flocks are gregarious. Never quiet; never still. Nervous when they end up alone. I actually enjoy being alone, but there are limits, and chronic illness has tested them. For a while—for years—the long evenings and weekends of forced solitude ate at me. I wasn’t sure I would survive them, or even whether I should. A life alone, which makes no impact on others—how does that matter?
The interwebs reminded me that it does. A garden blog gave me a voice and a community of friends. (They know all about the gnatcatchers in my olives, poor loves; they have heard the stories for years.) The homes for words and images we create are perches in the ether where others can alight.
Facebook is another gregarious flock—many flocks, really, with different species of friends from childhood up. (It’s surprising which ones turn out to be of a feather.) A recent appeal for encouragement brought them all hovering lovingly around me.
I’ve learned to love the quiet and serenity of my desert hermitage. But connection, community, and belonging are all still necessary. In the virtual world, words and images, goodwill, love—they flock around like creatures of the air. I love living in the ether with them. Illness can give you a fraught relationship with the body that ties you down. To fly free of its gravity… I love that. But then, I always have.
I am learning, though, the value of bodies. The dense earth and water of them, the weight. The matter. I am aware of them in new ways. I can’t do much serious gardening these days, but every time I do prune a branch, I sense the impact on bodies: the trees’ growth, the shaded plants at their feet, the mantises and caterpillars, katydids and crawling ants, the birds that come for food and shelter. The lives in the garden root me in the physical world of life and death. They remind me that my actions have heft, that they need to be circumspect. They remind me of the lives I shape just by living in a body. You need bodies to do that—to remind you.
I am standing arm’s length from a low branch when a gnatcatcher alights. It is so close that I can see its eye shining in sunlight—not liquid black, as I’d expected, but amber, with a tiny black pupil fixed in it like onyx. We watch each other for a minute, both of us, I suspect, aware of what I could do; both, apparently, aware of what I won’t.
Then its earth-and-water body calls, and this creature of the air flies away to feed.
Stacy Moore arrived in New Mexico by way of Vermont, upstate New York, Paris, Florida, and Colorado. She has lived alone for most of her adult life and considers independence to be almost a religion (though she is open to converting). She has been a secretary, a music history professor, and a radio announcer; she is a cloud watcher and a gardener. She writes (slowly) at The Stories of Trees.
This is part of the Who but You? project, a contribution-based series with an initial focus on people who live alone. The project is gradually expanding to also include stories of single humans (i.e., not married, not living with a romantic partner) in a variety of home life situations. Who but you knows how to be in this world?
~Join~ the Who but You? project:
e-mail your story, prose, poetry, art and/or photos about singlehood and/or living alone to email@example.com for consideration. All ages, all countries/cities, all singlehood living situations – from co-housing to living alone, single parenthood to childfree.
If you’re new to writing and unsure how to tell your story, I would be happy to guide you through the process.
In gratitude for taking the time to read this,