In the photo, he grins up from the base of a human pyramid. He occupies the exact same spot I did in my last pyramid, which was, oddly enough, just a few weeks ago. Bug’s blonde surfer hair sticks to his flushed face as he balances another boy on his back. Eight kids, two counselors, and a big field of green.
His first day of camp, and Bug had already found his place in the pack.
He’s been gone nearly a week and won’t be back for another month. I’ve mailed three letters already and expect none in return. He complained last year that I sent too many words and not enough things. Sorry, Charlie. I might slip a few Magic the Gathering cards or a comic book into the envelope, but mostly he’s going to get boring notes from Mom: stories about Noodle ripping up the garbage, or how the Zumba instructor taught a new routine to his favorite Fallout Boy song. A 10-year-old still needs regular broadcasts from headquarters, even if he doesn’t know it.
As for me? Last year, the long separation hurt. Even filling the evenings with free concerts and trivia nights, a prickly smog descended. My mood soured, my patience frayed, and I seethed through every interaction. It took me nearly a week to understand the source. Sure, Bug was having a phenomenal experience. Sure, I was riding high on free time and feeling the open air on my skin. Even so, without him, I wobbled. Whether or not he’d chosen the role, my boy served as the base of my pyramid. His absence left a gap and suddenly I was in free fall.
I wonder if I’ll topple again this time around.
I doubt it.
The intervening year has offered up a few uncomfortable but necessary trials. You might call them “learning opportunities” One of them has to with the danger of letting someone else form the footing of your life.
I fancy myself independent and capable, and this self-sufficiency can manifest as distance. Aloofness, even. Yeah, I’m the big friendly extrovert, but holding people close takes a different set of skills than simple connection. One friend recently told me that I don’t seem to care one way or the other how our friendship goes. It both chilled me and felt oddly… accurate?
In any event, this self-contained streak sits uncomfortably alongside the urge to mesh and twine and peel open and graft with another human. It’s as if these fundamental parts of me are opposing poles of neighboring magnets. Push push push, never settling into coherence. While flinging myself towards someone – usually a partner, because Love! – I’m also hurtling back and away, towards me, towards all the other captivating aspects of my own little life.
Several months ago, My Mister and I broke up. This one, four years in. Our relationship had formed at the fraught end of another failed romance, and that one at the fraught end of the one prior, and that one at the mid-point of a divorce… You get the idea. Sixteen years I’ve spent in a series of committed relationships, barely a lungful of air in between.
Now here comes Single.
No more partnership woven into my days. No more nightly conversations, touchpoints, and inside jokes. No more knowing and being known in that really rich way that only happens with an intimate partner. No more punk rock boxing and sensational sex and ideas pinging around and children growing up together. No more best friend.
Shouldn’t all this absence add up to emptiness?
At first, maybe. But not for long.
Because as a single working gal in 2017 America, I have the extraordinary privilege to experiment. Instead of replacing My Mister with Number Next, what if I just sit quietly inside my own loneliness? What if I navigate grownup problems without the help of a partner? Deal with homeowners insurance when the ceiling floods? Manage work and family after an injury? Puzzle through career setbacks?
What if I seek to draw in closer the many connections in my life? Cultivate friendships and take risks?
What if I trust that all the small habits of well-being will eventually lead to a kind of peace with being single?
Without My Mister, it wasn’t clear what would hold my center. As a parent, it would have been so easy to stick Bug in his place. Or my job, or fitness, or activism, or art. But it turns out that I didn’t need replace him. Another person or passion isn’t necessary to ground and orient me.
Instead, I just moved back into place. Soon enough, bits of this and that started filling the spaces. All the seeds and husks, and the juicy bits too. Something is taking root here, and it is indeed twining and meshing and peeling and grafting open with forces both under and around me. I can feed all those important parts of my life – son, work, home, community – from this rooted position. I have become both footing and core.
Loss and change create gaps. We shift, we fill in. The transition to this month without my son doesn’t upend me. His absence seems natural, like growing up. And it gives us both a chance to claim our rightful place at the center of our distinct lives.
Image: Mioke, untitled, 2009