As I sit on the terrace listening to frog song, a glass of wine within reach, gazing through rustling palm fronds to a naked flagpole barely discernible above Fort Christiansvaern, and beyond to the expanse of darkness where the horizon is indefinable from the night sky, I think about loneliness. And all its permutations.
I am alone here but not lonely, and I wonder why. Is it because the flickering buoys delineating the narrow channel through the reef into harbour offer a sense of safety, of coming home, and all that entails?
There are so many variations on ‘alone’ and I wonder sometimes if we muddle ‘solitude’ and ‘lonely’. I was alone ten days ago when my daughter married in a civil service in London. For various reasons I could not share her day, one which will be repeated in full pomp and ceremony next year on the other side of the world, and when we will be together as a family. But my husband and son were with her, and I revelled in sharing a few moments on the phone as she was taxied to the registry office. Relaxed but excited she was also cognisant of her mother’s wobbly voice across the Atlantic, and assured me I would be missed. Strangely, after our chat, I did not feel lonely but just delighted by her happiness. Text messages and photos skimmed across the ocean and the next day we dissected the event over the ether.
There are so many ways of being lonely. Divorce and death make us lonely, longing for the companionship that once was shared. But the reality is marriage can also be lonely. Sitting across a shared space with little to fill the space. I believe I would rather be alone, and possibly lonely, than sharing space with someone and feeling lonely.
Then I wonder, as I watch the shimmering ripples coming from mast lights dancing across the harbour, does being alone sometimes, whether enforced or chosen, really contribute to a greater appreciation of those we love? The axiom ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ must have come from somewhere. In a long marriage I have spent many days and weeks alone and yet have rarely felt lonely. I had children to divert me but that can be a lonely time; when the responsibility for their wellbeing and the consistency required for effective parenting weighs heavy at the end of each day. One of the reasons I have such admiration for those bringing up children, truly alone. I at least knew my husband would return from wherever he was in the world to wherever we were currently living, and that he always supported me.
I wonder is it because I was brought up an only child that I can enjoy solitude? Has that contributed to my ability to float between tribes, never truly belonging to any, and yet happy to merge with many? My friendships have never been defined by any one group of people but rather by a melange of characters dipping in and out of my life.
And yet, just sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to truly belong, to live in one spot for a lifetime. To know, and be known by, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker; to be able to walk down the street and know each passer by rather than knowing the people who sell their wares to you will only be familiar for short periods of time; rather than being the new woman on the block every few years.
But that, being known by all and sundry, I think could also be lonely. How many of those people I wonder really know you now, are not just basing their knowledge on routines and assumptions formed from childhood. Could that familiarity, over the years, become confining and no longer comforting.
Is that I wonder why the divorce rate for women over fifty is the highest it has ever been. Women wanting to break free from a mould, maybe set over the years with their tacit agreement but who, as children leave home, look across the coffee table to a partner and feel both alone and lonely.
The bats are swooping, kamikaze-style, through the palm trees and occasionally one flits across the terrace, cutting off the corner of his flight. Laughter is rippling over the bay and as I sip my wine I think of my daughter, now married. I realise my greatest wish is for her to be with her husband and never be lonely.