I heard them before I saw them. A small group of kids on the playground, laughing, shouting, jostling as they let off steam in the afternoon chill.
As I walked past the schoolyard, a solitary figure on the swings caught my eye. The boy scuffed at the gravel with his shoes and the swing barely moved.
Slowing my stride, I took in the scene and I wondered at the social dynamics at work. Was the boy on the lower rungs of the grade school popularity ladder? Had he been deemed to have “cooties” by the others? Or was he just grabbing a quiet spot – overwhelmed by the sheer volume a small amount of kids can make during a brief recess?
When I was his age, I could relate to both scenarios.
Because we moved frequently due to my dad’s career, I was always the new kid. The daunting task of finding a spot at the lunch table and navigating new social networks and established hierarchies meant loneliness was a constant companion until we settled in Spokane when I was a teen. I didn’t even have the built-in companionship of siblings because my brothers and sister were much older, and all out of the house by the time I was 12.
That upbringing created a resiliency that has served me well in adulthood. I learned how to adapt, how to forge new connections and how to turn strangers into friends. I also learned self-sufficiency and how to be content with my own company.
There’s a profound difference between being alone and being lonely. Alone is a state of being, while loneliness describes a pain, a sadness, a feeling that something is missing.
I learned to love being alone and have developed a profound need for solitude. That’s something that’s proven hard to come by when married to an extrovert and raising four sons.
As my writing career grew, solitude became even more imperative. I’ve become adept at creating it, whether by renting an office or borrowing a friend’s house.
The writing I do from my friends’ home while they travel south for the winter is different than the writing I do at my desk in the family room at home.
I hammer out columns and news stories at home while family members come and go, the landline rings, the doorbell peals, the cats clamor to be fed. But in my friend’s empty, silent house, books are born, short stories submitted and my craving for solitude is satiated.
My weekly walks are another way of creating quiet for my mind and soul. I was contemplating this when two days later; I again encountered the solitary child.
It was the same time, same place and same scene. A group of kids shouting, laughing and tossing a basketball back and forth. The boy alone on a swing.
And I wondered if instead of listless and lonely, he was enjoying a moment of respite from the noise and crush of elementary school. As he toed at the gravel, perhaps the slight movement of the swing soothed him and allowed him time to think – to dream. Maybe this child, like me, wasn’t lonesome, he was simply alone and relishing it.
This time I paused at the fence and lifted my hand to wave. Just in case he did feel isolated and invisible, I wanted him to know I’d seen him. I’d noticed his existence.
I waited mid-wave until he looked up and saw me. He slowly lifted his hand in acknowledgment, a small smile tilting at the corners of his mouth.
Then I continued my walk while he sat in the gently swaying swing. Two solitary souls – alone, but maybe not lonely.
Contact Cindy Hval at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” You can listen to her podcast “Life, Love and Raising Sons” at SpokaneTalksOnline.com. Her previous columns are available online at http://www.spokesman.com/staff/cindy-hval/ Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.