Some of my mates know the full story of the last two years of my life, and some of them know little bits. For my own methods of healing and life-sense-making I have always intended to write about it more, and this is just a little bit of that. It’s a very honest reflection on certain parts of my time away, my singleness, my life. It was told as a story during the last Tenx9 Melbourne storytelling night, which was on the theme Bitter, and you’re invited to read if you like and to be kind in your reading.
Years back, my mate Caryn and I began talking about a place where we would live out our retirement years in bliss. We called this place the house of sorrows. There we said we would forsake all personal hygiene and definitely bras, maybe get some cats and maybe go a little mad and maybe throw full cans of food at passers’ by.
We loved this idea, finding it an hilarious way to deal with the fact that as young Christian women we had found ourselves continuously “left on the shelf”, which by the way can happen to young Christian women from around 22 onwards.
At that stage I hadn’t yet had a boyfriend, and I wouldn’t have one for many years yet. Even now, at 39, I have been for whatever reason -save for an accumulated 6 or 7 months of my life -only single. I promise all my stories won’t be about this.
A little while ago I was ordained. This was a very exciting and emotional occasion for me; I felt it was the beginning of something quite important, and deep down I felt that perhaps I would be a slightly better version of myself now. I was going to live the life I had been aiming for.
I was ordained to a congregation near Ballarat and moved out to Buninyong, a small and lovely town about an hour and a half’s drive from here. Looking back now I can see that I was a little naïve. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I did think honestly that I would love the work I was finally getting out there to do so much that my new life in the country would also be something I could love.
And parts of it were.
But, within a few months of being there, I became quite depressed.
I felt alone in a way that I had never experienced before, despite now having a small but growing dog.
I mentioned before that I’ve had and continue to have some experience being alone. While being single has sometimes been something I have found challenging, and while loneliness is something I have found wounding here and there, generally by this time in my life I had made my peace with being single, and in fact found much about it to celebrate.
But in the country, I met an aloneness that I hadn’t known before. I was away from my friends and couldn’t rely on the knowledge that they were close at hand if and when I needed them. I was away from the familiar sights and sounds of home, surrounded by strangers. I was working in a role that was very singular and significantly isolating. And I would go home to the big manse I lived in, and look out at a very dark and broad sky and feel myself a small and insignificant dot in a vast universe. I was once again and always, quite alone.
I became in response slightly bitter towards the congregation for not more fulfilling my hopes for them. I became bitter towards ministry colleagues who were just *loving* their first placements.
I wasn’t consistently miserable, but I realised there was a problem when I realised I had come to be quite, quite angry -quite bitter- towards people who were coupled.
“They don’t understand” I would think “because at least they have someone with them”
“At least” I told myself about married ministers “they have someone to talk to about their day, someone to watch tv with”
My inner turmoil began to at times take on a ‘no one understands my particular pain because I am the most alone person in the world’ tone. I was making the dread assumption that lives that looked different to mine in certain ways were in fact better than mine.
I was living in my very own house of sorrows.
Now. I want to say that all the times that I have been single and found it hard, I have never really subscribed to the worldview that says married or partnered is better, even if I know that that is what I want.
I have subscribed to the ‘no two lives are the same, and all lives have some super cool and some super shitty parts’ worldview. So now to find myself moving sort of beyond jealousy into resentment towards people whose lives might be every bit as difficult as my (still quite privileged) one, made me want to check myself. I did not want to be that person.
So, I sorted out seeing my psych again over skype. I talked to my friends a little about what I was going through and made time to listen to them about their various experiences too. I reminded myself that everyone had problems, even the ones who had someone around to bear witness to every small, gross and glorious moment of their lives.
I tried to get on with my job and with doing the best I could. It was a long hard year and the end of it was particularly full on- Christmas is not known to be a particularly restful time of year for those in church ministry.
But I had booked myself a months’ leave across January, and headed to Ireland where I had a wonderful, relaxing, far away time. I looked at strange coasts and met unknown people and explored and wandered and had no pressing issues to deal with and it was wonderful.
It was a rejuvenating experience and I came home committed to making the following year better than the one that had proceeded it. I made a plan. I would do my work as cheerfully and boldly as I could. I would find new ways to connect the church community I was a part of to the community beyond itself, including public events and days of learning and fellowship at the church and beyond. I would join a community choir or something, and make some local friends. I would even go do some lawn bowls at the Buninyong bowls club, and I would continue to trek back to Melbourne monthly for some nurturing time with my friends.
2020 I decided, was my year.
Obviously that didn’t end up being how things panned out. After planning my church year in quite a bit of detail and finding the one woman in Ballarat to go on a date with (no real spark), after making enquiries about choirs and bowls clubs I instead watched the world go insane, leading to the move to a delivery of a worship service via email, and then of course lockdown.
2020 proved to be a wildly difficult time for so many of us. And it was difficult for me too, as lucky as I am overall. But, oddly enough, when all the world it seemed was shutting itself in its home and wondering what would happen, I began to thrive. I loved the need to pivot and be creative in our collective worship. I loved finding ways to help my mates in Melb and beyond have group chats about things that weren’t covid. I loved, that after a year living out of Melbourne it now seemed so easy to book in video calls with friend after friend after friend, meaning ironically when we were forbidden from seeing each other, I had more contact with them than ever before. I had been in training for this sort of isolation for a year, and actually now that it was here, I really dug it. I took my dog on big long walks. I appreciated the yellowing of the trees, and the bite in the air in Winter time. I stared at the sky for long swathes of time, I chatted to people and sent them gifts and read on my couch. I grew closer markedly to many of my friends. I had regular video breakfast with my mum and finally was able to make the transition to my natural hair colour. My house was not one of sorrow but a place of comfort; of reading and cooking and dancing and laughing and safety.
My aloneness was now in some way everyone’s aloneness, and my life didn’t seem so much like a little insignificant dot in the vast universe anymore.
Now, I’d love to say that my resilience from the preceding year led me to continue on stronger than ever, that I led my congregation from strength to strength when we began meeting physically again, that I grew to love my life there and even made friends nearby.
Instead, despite my practice, despite how much I grew to love my surroundings, despite the love I discovered for my congregation, and actually despite, heart-breakingly, making friends with some younger people on the periphery of my church; after a lagging and exhausting and in some ways debilitating second part of the year, I made the very difficult decision to leave. I found a new placement, back in Melbourne. And I came home, not without some turmoil and much ongoing grief.
This is not a story of overcoming bitterness and never knowing it again. This is not a story of finding the power to cope with my isolation in a surprising place, but it is in small ways both of those stories. I am still tempted to be bitter and perhaps jealous of lives that look a bit shinier than mine, even now that I’m back in my beloved Melbourne. But my two very different lives have reminded me what I already knew: all of our lives are complicated, all our decisions lead us into paths unknown, and some of these paths will lead us into the wilderness while some will lead us home, and sometimes those two things are indistinguishable.