How (not) to be Alone

“An empty day, though clear and bright,

Is just as dark as any night” – Anne Frank.

Like many middle-aged men, I suddenly find myself alone. It was not always that way. My friends were my wife’s friends. Before we were married, her classmates were also my friends. Then we had children. I found that parenthood was a kind of boot camp but one where messiness and disorder were largely accepted.

Because our family on the U.S. side is small and fragmented, I really wanted to establish traditions with my kids. Every year we went to a family-friendly water park named, “The Watering Hole” and that last year, before everything stopped, we went to Hershey Park. There was that plush goat, the really cute one, that my daughter wanted. She chose another. But we agreed that she could get the plush goat next year.

Next year never happened.

I moved out into an apartment the day the State of Maryland shut down. It was the end of March 2021. I’ve come to learn that divorce is traumatic for everyone. No matter how I tried to address the issue with my kids, nothing hit me harder than when my daughter said, “I never thought it would end like this.”

We can go on and on about why people should stay married or why they should not. Both would be sound arguments, just as the argument that “we all suffer” is sound. But what is missed is the unique individual pain we feel in how each of us suffer. It’s not the judgment we spontaneously and automatically hurl toward others but our understanding of their story, their complexity, that matters. Judgment often harbors loneliness and exception.

My parents stayed married until I kicked my own father out of the house. I was 17. I think he wanted me to kick him out. That was a hellish childhood. I wish they separated so much earlier. It’s not a question of divorce or staying married; it’s how we deal with the pain each decision brings.

I went from being the dad in a community with reasonable wealth, two kids, and our own house, to the penniless single guy.

It got worse. Of course, I checked out the dating app world and learned that I picked up with “girls” where I left off. I was looking for college age. The shock hit me that I was not a dad but closer to a granddad. In retrospect, such may be funny, but I was horrified and overwhelmed with regret.

I was with just one woman my whole life, and we did not love each other. Now, I recognize that all the things a person experiences as a teenager transitioning to more mature adulthood are gone for me. No dates, proms, heartthrobs, weddings, first kids, and no traditions. Yes, no traditions. There would be no more Watering Hole or Hershey Park, no watching dance recitals or the excuse of watching YouTube videos with girl dancers in them. There would be no other women in my life.

No, I was not yet dead, but my life died. I no longer had a single purpose besides being a child-support generator, which I could barely afford. When we guys hit mid-life, we can often feel alone and useless.

I found myself alone amid a raging pandemic. The pandemic did not frighten me, but my new life certainly did.

My children and ex-wife were doing okay. We agreed after much reflection that the kids would go to school in South Korea with mom. They have family there, and my kids were worried that they’d never get to see their grandmother. That urgency became more apparent when their grandfather passed away. He never had a chance to hold his grandson or his granddaughter. We did not want this to happen again.

On June 12, I kissed both of them goodbye. I remember hugging them quickly. I could not speak because I was starting to cry. I did not want them to see me crying. Yes, indeed, I rarely cried in front of them, but masculinity aside, I did not want to make the experience a negative one for them.

June 12 turned out to be significant because it was Anne Frank’s birthday. I stumbled across this fact just a week after out of sheer happenstance. I am a cultural theorist and literary scholar by trade that focuses on women writers.

I lost my kids to Korea, but I gained Anne Frank. I gained her loneliness and solitude. If anyone understood being lonely while crammed into a small annex, it was Ms. Frank.

Her adolescent to teenage-girlishness appealed to me. I missed out a lot on high school life, and so did she. No, I did not die of typhus in my diarrhea after watching my sister and mother die, but knowing her tragedy and triumph over mortality before she even knew it was eerie and disturbing.

For 20 years, I advocated for female (girls and women) writers. I was hit with another regret. How I wished I would have done my dissertation on Anne Frank.

I think her isolation, her conflict with her parents, and her coming of age sexually would appeal to a lot of men who are faced with isolation and loneliness. We often just want guys to hang out with guy experiences, but Anne Frank became very appealing to me. She was so much of what I am not: Jewish (but very liberal), female, teenage, and a better writer.

I shared her loneliness and the love she had for herself. I also shared and still share her interest in sexuality, something we have demonized in our society, where the mere mention of it by a fourteen-year-old in 1944 should become a criminal event. In not allowing teenagers to read the true diary, we isolated Anne Frank even more and risked creating only a caricature of her that fits our moral whims of the moment. Such has nothing to do with who she was, but her loneliness has everything to do with our suppression of others and our loneliness. If we like the true Anne Frank, then we feel alone because few read the true Anne Frank.

I could now understand that being lonely and being in solitude are different. When I cycle, I am in solitude. I am one with nature and the environment around me. I feel very alive in the moment. Anne Frank could not have the experience of simply walking outside. And she reminds us:

“The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature, and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity.” (Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl. The Definitive Edition)

I don’t feel isolated on a bike and actually feel that I, as a living organism, have become part of nature, of what I experience. I still feel a loss when I think of Anne because she could never experience such a thing being locked up and then carted off to a camp, but my getting a tattoo of her on my arm, and then riding out in nature is the best way I know how to give her that experience posthumously.

I assume, like her, I have had very limited experience with romantic relationships. In fact, in some ways, she has more than I have. Maybe that is the tragedy that we share. We can value people, as Anne and I do, but that does not mean we have meaningful relationships with others. We are just all so disconnected to what matters, and such has little to do with a job, a position, or the house on the bay.

Similar to Anne, my personal tragedy, though nothing that measures Anne’s struggles, pulled me out of my set demographic group. I am supposed to be married and at least have kids in high school. I am supposed to be happy in a relationship with a woman my age, and I need a body that looks like a man of my age’s body. I am supposed to have a respected profession, retirement savings, at least a small yacht, a vacation home, and a grey Lexis with the Ford Expedition (a Suburban will do). But I have none of those things. I do have a cute dog though.

Anne was not able to be a young adult, a teenager nor have the teenage experiences that are so often taken for granted. She never got to marry or have any of the things I had or wished I had, and that is why she is appealing to me as this iconic historic figure.

Anne’s poem, in the beginning, may seem counter to what I have written here, but I think she is making a distinction between beauty or what we see as beautiful and the emptiness that I, and I am sure many of you have also felt.

Maybe we all are just bugs on a wall. That seems the likely reality, and people never handle truth or reality well. We create truths in place of the truth, but we strive for connection and security. Without it, we feel empty. I think this is what I also share with Anne Frank and that is a capacity to really care about others, what some would call being neurotic. The better term is highly sensitive or even emotionally intelligent. But these are not valued in U.S. culture and this is the disease in humanity. There will always be Putins, Trumps, Swifts, and Oprahs. There will always be Obamas, Bushes, and Hilarys.

We as a collective value money and only what is attached to money. All of those above may be “good” or “bad” depending on our measures of morality, but morality is always used, and I mean always, as a justification to enact suffering, even unimaginable suffering on others. Sadly, there will be more camps, as this fourteen-year-old reflects on the human condition:

“There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!” Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, Definitive Edition.

Maybe the historical insanity we all experience is our need to want two contrary things at a moment: to be together but alone. If we kill everyone and destroy everything, then we will be alone. The day will be sunny but darkest of all. Then we will seek others and build up community only to do the same thing again. The cure is recognizing our destructive natures and desires and finding a less harmful outlet, like mastering a violent video game, fighting in an MMA event, or looking at kids in triangle bikinis. Those who seek a pure society seek the death camps that come with such an angelic vision. Purity is death. Death is life. Beauty is fleeting.

“Excuse me, what do you do?” is common in the DC metro area because what you do is what is important, not who you are. After all, you were alias Ford Pinto who poisoned an Iranian double spy with two kids, but that is not really who you are now, is it?  But such goes directly against our social needs, or need to be with each other because each of us is talented in different ways. We need someone good at making money, but we also need others who are good at expressing love, etc. Do we need others that kill and maim? Should not our prehensile thumbs and larger frontal lobes push us to adapt because we can do better?

But, what can I do about that? I only drive school buses. I may not be able to change my isolation as easily as many of us suggest because there is much I cannot tell you, but I can focus on those around me and try to make their world a little bit happier or at least strive to be there when they expect me to be there. And that seems to be much of the battle: to be there when one needs you to be there. Forget about political affiliations or what religion someone is, or if they are a guy, girl, or non-binary. These are only labels later used as markers for a gas chamber.

I can buy you a sandwich or kill you. I can take you to the Watering Hole or a concentration camp. It’s a choice. No matter if you work for the CIA, the KGB, or at Walmart, you do the things you do because someone told you to. If they give a reason, it will be their moralizing of one. That’s it. Someone told you or influenced you.

Instead of flipping one-off, why not give them a coffee? No words, just actions. Yes, be kind. After all, how much does our anger and rudeness, our selfishness cost us?  It’s okay to want to be mean or inappropriate. We all feel that way. We all have darker natures. I have mine, as you have yours, but we need to find more harmless ways to use that darker nature, and that is something our society often fails at as well. It is not a matter of good and evil being apart. They are never apart; rather, it is acknowledging that both exist in a person at every moment, to see it as it is, and to choose what helps others, being there for them. Few of us would be lonely then.