“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.” – Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
At this time last year, as lilac-tinged rhododendron’s floated cloud-like overhead and ribbons of golden chains draped from the laburnum trees like riches from the gods, we were gifted the keys to our new home, Kithnarra.
It was a heady time, yet we could not actually move right in to our new abode tucked away in its veritable Eden. For the kids were still attending school in Seattle, and would be for another month. So a few times each week Damon and I would load our van full of possessions, race out to the new house during his lunch hour, unload stuff into the garage, until we could wander happily around our forested 5-acres for fifteen or twenty minutes before returning to our rental house in Seattle for the night.
After perhaps two weeks of this hectic moving and hauling 24-7 (for we were still boxing up stuff in the rental house each evening) my left knee began to ache severely and swell. My back throbbed from lifting heavy boxes into and out of the van. All of us were suddenly sleeping on air mattresses, as our usual beds were moved over to the new house, and these inflatable slip-n-slides seemed to twist round our wooden floors all while leaking slowly throughout the night, so that each morning I awoke stiff, warped, marooned in my own misery.
One Friday morning Damon informed me he had to stay in Seattle to work all day. I decided to load the car and go alone. As I drove north in such sustained, unusual silence, it dawned on me that our King-sized mattresses were now residing at Kithnarra, and that if I merely unloaded the car and then stayed overnight, I could perhaps get a good night’s sleep for the first time in weeks. This novel idea tantalized me like no other – a night all to myself! No kids, no noise, no damned wooden floors!
As I sped along the freeway I realized the plan was actually doable, too. Since it was Friday the kids could simply come home and eat pizza with Damon for the night – no need for the car to be rushed right back. I could stop at the store, buy a bottle of wine, perhaps some roasted chicken and potato chips, then simply unload the van and go to sleep in my new house for the first time – ALL BY MYSELF!
The concept made me almost giddy. I tried to recall the last time I had slept somewhere alone. Unbelievably, I could not recall one instance of true 24-hour aloneness in my past twenty-two years! I had spent the night in a hospital alone, but then, is one ever alone in a hospital?
As I wound down the curving drive into the mass of trees which surrounded Kithnarra, I became certain my mind must be muddled. Surely I had been alone overnight at least once in the past twenty- two years? Yet I couldn’t recall any specific time that I had been, and the longer I lifted boxes and belongings out of the van, the more certain I became that indeed I hadn’t been alone more than mere hours for over two decades. I’d always had kids, a spouse, a sister, a mother, a friend…someone along with me wherever I went for more than that.
As I dished drumsticks onto a paper plate, then uncorked the wine, a celebratory mood descended. I felt deliriously happy. Imagine – there was no TV, no internet, no electricity, no neighbors, no nothing! Just my king-sized mattress, my pillows, a good book, some wine. And silence. Amazing!
Even though my knee was so stiff I could barely walk and my back ached, I hobbled up the inside stairs clutching a lit candle and a smile. I set myself up on the bed and just stared out the windows at all the trees. Green leaves clouded my view. I could see not one neighbor, and even my sister had yet to move in next door. It was just me and the chipmunks racing hysterically back and forth across the tree limbs. I sipped my wine and felt perfectly content. I watched the wind wrestle the woods for long stretches in between reading passages from my book. I lit a few more candles set upon the window sill, swallowed some Ibuprofen, sipped a bit more wine, and before it had been dark for long I was out.
The next thing I knew consciously was that someone was shouting my name repeatedly. “Kristine!” the terrified voice yelled. “Kristine Kirk!”
As I struggled to wake and sit upright in the bed, I realized that the voice surely belonged to one of my daughters. “There’s a burglar in the house. Run!” the panicked voice cried in the dark.
I rose to my feet. I could see nothing in the pitch-black, but I knew instantly my knee would not allow me to run anywhere, even if there were indeed burglars in the house. I hobbled blindly towards the bedroom door, my arms outstretched, grasping the dark, crying, “Katriel? Juliet?”
From downstairs two sobbing voices responded. “Mom, hurry, run! There’s a strange car outside. The barn window is broken. There might be a burglar in the house.”
I had no idea why my twins were here at Kithnarra at all, nor what a burglar would possibly steal – there was nothing inside yet except mattresses. Still, I had to reach my girls. I stumbled blindly down the stairs, moaning with each bend of the knee. “Where are you?” I called anxiously. “What’s going on?”
Once on level ground I made my way towards the weeping sounds. Sure enough there were my twins, huddled in the front hall. They hugged me while talking in tandem, hysterical bursts:
-We came over here to find our pajamas.
-We were spending the night with Holland at her new house.
-TeeTee picked us up and drove us here.
-But then we saw the strange car. And the barn door is open!
– And that little triangle window is broken!
“Where is TeeTee now?” I asked, so confused.
-She’s gone to get the police.
-There’s no phone signal down here.
-She left us here to rescue you.
Just as I was putting pieces of this strange puzzle together, I saw tiny, yellow lights moving within the woods just outside the living room windows. The girls screamed in unison as I hugged them both ferociously. We stood huddled in the pitch dark, watching as the tiny yellow lights flashed nearer and nearer. Soon we could hear movement along the back deck. Then the patio door slid open and in popped my son Eli, his face lit from underneath by a flashlight.
The fright of this all was incredible! It was so intense as to render us frozen, yet suddenly the air popped from us like a burst balloon, and relief filled the air.
“Hello Mama!” Eli cried cheerfully, lumbering towards me in the dark. “Did we wake you up? I’m here with my friends, just showing them around. I texted you that we were coming out. Did you get my message? I said we wouldn’t wake you up, that we’d just walk around outside, so you could sleep.”
Eli’s friends rushed in, too, and soon I had composed myself enough to light some candles on the downstairs counter. The high school gang eventually turned off their flashlights, and after everyone’s breathing had resumed to a more normal pace we all began to smile and laugh. Eli dished out the remaining chicken to his friends there in the dark house and in fits and bursts we recounted the strange, stressful events of the evening. How the twins had gotten a ride up to my sister’s new house without my knowledge. How Lorraine had told them to run over to Kithnarra to see if they could find some pajamas to sleep in. How the twins had had no idea whose car was parked in our driveway, but had seen the barn door left open and the broken window. How Eli and his friends, meanwhile, were wandering unawares through the woods with their flashlights, howling and hooting for fun.
And me? I was sleeping soundly upstairs, with no idea these wild children of mine were creeping all round Kithnarra, literally circling me even as I reveled in my ‘aloneness’.
Eventually my sister showed up, too. She never had been able to get a phone signal so police were never called. No harm no foul, we all laughed, now calmed. All’s well that ends well.
Except that on my one night alone in twenty-two years, I was never alone. I was, in fact, wide awake at 1am, entertaining the masses.
Does aloneness even matter? Historically women were never deemed fit enough to go anywhere alone, except perhaps the kitchen. My situation is nothing new. Yet surely I have lost something by never, ever being out in the world alone. As Carl Jung hypothesized:
“A group experience takes place on a lower level of consciousness than the experience of an individual. This is due to the fact that, when many people gather together to share one common emotion, the total psyche emerging from the group is below the level of the individual psyche. If it is a very large group, the collective psyche will be more like the psyche of an animal, which is the reason why the ethical attitude of large organizations is always doubtful. The psychology of a large crowd inevitably sinks to the level of mob psychology. If, therefore, I have a so-called collective experience as a member of a group, it takes place on a lower level of consciousness than if I had the experience by myself alone. “ – CG Jung, The Archtypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9i)
Could it be true that I have been operating on merely the ‘animal psyche level’ this whole time? For twenty-three years? Mon Dieu! No wonder I’m tired, hungry, unmotivated to rise from my resting place in the sun.
I can’t argue with his assessment, though. It seems plausible to me. I mean – YOU spend twenty-three years un-alone, surrounded by children constantly, then tell me how ‘low-level’ you feel. (I think it might be pretty low!)
So this year I am determined to branch out somewhere, solo. How, when, where, why… I do not know. But I am operating on a high enough plane to realize that when you are constantly surrounded by people, you are less than self-reliant. I certainly am. I have no idea how to change a flat tire; fix the computer if the internet is down; drain the dishwasher when it backs up and floods the kitchen. Nor do I ever want to do those things! But it does seem that I’ve found myself at the mid-point of my possible years stuck in an overcrowded rut, so to speak, and if I’m to be perfectly honest, I’m no longer sure what I am capable of doing on my own, other than hiding out in the bathtub and drinking wine.
And so I contemplate a drive clear across the country, alone. And as I debate the realism of this quest, I wonder…can I, Kristine Kirk, actually be alone? Overnight? In my car? Out of state? For days and weeks, maybe even months, knowingly turn away from everyone I know and rely on?
Is it even prudent to try?
Obviously it’d be far safer to curl up in bed with a snack or two, a glass of wine, and dream the years away.
But not today, no not today!
For when I wake
I will rise
And take to the road
Like a leaf blown free of its rooted branch
Skyward into the wind
Dancing towards the sun
Crimsoned with age
Spiraling, solo, back towards earth.