Summer, I Think I Heard Someone Calling You

canstockphoto6646539People scatter across the lawn, some sitting at tables under canopies, others wandering from group to group, all of us just a little older and fatter than the last time we were together. Conversations are echoes of conversations we’ve had before at some wedding or funeral or anniversary party. Children are now gangly teenagers, one of whom has graduated high school. That woman’s braying laugh, an unappetizer at every occasion, carries across to where I sit. I have four more of these large scale occasions this summer.

I find a chair near my family and hunker down for the duration. Since going vegan, I am unable to stuff down my rising anxiety with fluffy whip cream salads or bars loaded with two kinds of chocolate and butter that leaves grease stains on napkins. There’s beer at this party and I remember fondly the early days when I could wander about similar functions in a fuzzy, friendly haze. But I am driving and I love the people who are my passengers. And there would be no end to the drinking once I started.

Several days this week, I bathed with strangers in my underwear, or as normals like to call it, swimming at the public pool. I do it so that my daughter is not me, that she has a chance at living a normal life. I see hints of me in her and it feels like fear and pride all at once. She meets her friends there and I hang about at the shaded edges of the pool, not completely ready to let go. The heat leaves me breathing shallow and unwilling to move.

canstockphoto6872297The pool reminds me of growing up, the breastless days of trying desperately not to smack into people while swimming. It becomes a whole different experience when you need glasses. I swim over to a group of friends, bobbing there stupidly, once I realize that I didn’t know any of them. My actual friends fill out swimsuits in ways that always have one boy or another splashing them in a mating ritual. As the late-blooming sidekick, I get splashed as well and sometimes imagine it was intended for me.

The spinach in the garden went to seed this year while I wasn’t looking. The heat is starting to hit its stride and I hear the whispers of autumn in my ear. Just die already. July is too soon for those feelings. I know I must dig back in, water things, weed, try to look like a gardener who hasn’t gone to seed.

Soccer season has finally ended, except for the insistence that we have an end-of-season picnic. The last game was delayed, because our team’s home field was littered with fireworks and garbage. The other team refused to use the field. We spread out and groomed the field, picking up old sparklers and bits of glass. They played because a forfeit would mean they’d lose the #1 ranking in the league. We watch them unfold their players’ bench. Our kids squat on the ground, pretending to listen to the coach’s urgent whispers. You can hear a collective sigh from the parents. It’s going to be a long hour.

In the summer, I am rarely alone. It’s a dangerous time for me. My hostility and inner turmoil grow exponentially with each degree Fahrenheit. Eventually, I turn an accusatory eye towards myself. Why can’t I just relax? Why can’t I just agree? Why can’t I be okay wherever I’m at? I am, in so many ways, my mother’s daughter, my grandmother’s granddaughter. But I’m a lightweight version.

My social anxiety is not the rising tension of just being there. My anxiety is that at some point I’m not going to want to try. That someone will attempt to hug me and I will shriek at them “get the f*** off me!”. I will be listening to someone’s tale about their cabin or their kid’s college plans and just simply walk away because I am bored. Social conventions, like manners, are needed. There’s too many of us not to be polite or show an interest in one another. I am not special. I do not get a pass because I find it all tedious. I just wish it wouldn’t get harder, but it has. I am sometimes afraid of myself.

After the twentieth well-meaning hug from one of my husband’s cousins, the I know you don’t like hugs but I’m going to hug you anyway ritual is starting to wear on me. I joke wryly, trying to push down my revulsion at the cocktail of perfumes now clinging to me. “You people never learn”. Jovial laughs all around. My husband said there will be an asterisk by my name in the family history.

canstockphoto25034608I am getting weirder as each year passes. I would not know this except for the expressions on other people’s faces. For each step I take away from them, I step closer to my wild self. But my wild self is not a willing, kind creature. It’s a little bit mad. I know that I live in a world not well-suited for my version of quiet madness. Long periods of solitude marked by one-on-one conversation, connections that feel grounded in truth. I do not want to be fixed or transformed or cured. I just want to exist, like a surprising, unkempt garden you stumble upon. And when you come, we will talk, until you know it’s time to leave.

Take a hint, summer.

In Defense of Solitude: The 30/70 Rule

I come from a long line of people afflicted with social anxiety disorders. I heard the phrase “I’m not a people person” so many times growing up that I thought I was genetically destined to feel alienated and antisocial for the rest of my life. I believed the family lore and suffered stomachache-inducing anxiety in social situations. I spent a lot of my 20s in an alcoholic haze in order to cope with interactions with human beings. Sorry human beings. It was me, not you.

Pandas spent most of their lives alone, because they need enough territory to support their large appetites.
Conveniently, my study is right next to the kitchen. Mine, all mine!

Once I sobered up, I compensated for my sense of alienation and insecurity by working hard to establish my imagined superiority in a group. I mentioned being in the military (I’m tougher than you), my college degree (I’m smarter than you) and used sarcasm as a weapon (I’m wittier than you). I was a jerk and not surprisingly, not a people magnet. I ended up just as I feared I would, standing next to the keg, the punchbowl, the creepy dude or the exit.  Each time, I vowed to never go to another party or event where there was more than one other person. The stress was too much. But my “survival” skills were completely untenable for a happy life.

The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön advises: Lean into the sharp edges. If I’m not good at something, if I have a weakness, if I’m uncomfortable or insecure about something, I work to change it or rework it in my head until I have a better perspective. I practice, I read books, I turn a critical eye inward and really examine my thinking and motivation. It’s hard to separate who you have been told you were, from who you really are. Those early labels stick and sometimes it’s only experiencing complete misery that makes you challenge them.

I’ve come to realize that the need for solitude or being uncomfortable socializing for long periods of time, isn’t about a deficiency or disorder. It’s all a matter of degree. Some people are simply energized by being around other people and don’t particularly enjoy being alone. Others, like me, enjoy socializing for a limited amount of time as long as a requisite for solitude has been met. It isn’t about being a “people person”, it’s about understanding what your psyche needs. People often talk about “loners”, usually in interviews after horrible crimes. There’s being alone and there’s being lonely and isolated.

I need to be alone about 70% of the time and have set my life up in a way that I can meet that need. It can’t happen every day. I have a job, a family and responsibilities. Some days are 50/50. On some days when events conspire against my need for solitude, I find myself a bit desperate, shrieking “I just need 5 minutes to myself!” Apparently shrieking is antisocial behavior because everyone magically disappears.

True silence is the rest of the mind, and it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.

William Penn

True solitude without distraction is energizing for me. I can come from a calmer, more grounded place and then socializing doesn’t cause me as much anxiety. I feel more comfortable and am able to discover amazing things about other people. They are tense or nervous or anxious, too. I find that my “objective” in social interactions is to do my part to make someone else comfortable, to connect and listen. I’ve discovered that just about everyone feels “different” or alienated. It’s like an after-school special, except it has taken me long beyond my teens to figure this out. I’m a slow learner.

Fortunately, once I’ve conquered one anxiety, another one bellies up to the bar. That’s part of the joy of living – knowing that you have an untapped well of neuroses to keep things fresh.