Belonging to Aloneness

Jane BurnsUncategorized


Twenty years ago, (when I was still married), my husband bought me a painting. It is a portrait of a lone woman standing by a wall and looking out to sea. She is a figure cast in shadow, and we can only see her back. Her mood is no clearer than the ocean that stretches out before her—it may be placid or roiling, contented or angry. We don’t know that.

I was given this painting the year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I used to look at the subject of the painting and think perhaps she had some insight, some strength she could give me. I used to stare at her back and wait for her to turn around and say something profound and reassuring.

The painting remains with me, and the woman continues to be a source of strength. I like to imagine her pausing at that wall to catch a deep breath of sea air, having just strode across the shoreline with a basket on her arm, a woman on a mission, a woman living a life full of purpose.

Recently, whenever I look at her, it seems I am looking at myself, that I have just driven up to the beach, that I have just stepped out of my car, that I am about to call across the sand to her, as if I were returning to her after a long, long time. Returning after a lifetime of searching outside myself for strength and purpose, meaning and support, love and completion.

When I turned 63 last month, I decided to dedicate this new year-around-the-sun to the task of finally meeting the woman I have always imagined I could be: independent, self-sustaining, adventurous, fearless, and happy. This pledge and promise have left me with a delirious anticipation. I feel like an old and precious dream is being awakened. A dream I forgot I was even dreaming.

There is a lovely poem by David Whyte, entitled House of Belonging which contains the following lines:

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.

This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

I used to think this was a poem about living in a lovely house. Well, in a way, it still is. Now, though, I think it is more about a different way of being, about Divine presence and the ongoing awareness of it, about living from the inside-out.   And yes, there is no house like that.

We hear about the preeminent importance of self-love. Without self-love, it is said, we cannot be fulfilled, we cannot actualize, we cannot love or be truly happy. We nod. We pay lip-service to this wisdom, and then continue to look outside ourselves for approval, devotion, attention, support, company, encouragement, self-worth and understanding. We look for others to be perfect in their love for us: perfectly available, helpful, present and fulfilling. To mirror our magnificence back to us.

Human love is never perfect. It is only as perfect as the one who gives it. Yet, we expect and rely upon and place our survival and happiness in the hands of this imperfection. This fun-house mirror that is certain to disappoint and frustrate and wound. And when it fails us, we are annihilated. Again and again and again.

This year, I am trying a different approach.  This year, I am aiming higher—committing to Divine love, embracing self-containment, and belonging fully to my aloneness.

I am learning to rely upon trust, rather than control; faith, rather than hope; devotion, rather than accomplishment. I am learning how to live in the stream of synchronicity, the extraordinary world of everyday miracles, the eye of God. I am learning what enduring happiness is.  I am learning to dare to expect it.

Okay, tall order.  Duly noted.  But if I can only touch the surface of this formless, vibrant dream, I’ll be happy.  If I know more at year’s end than I know now, that’s enough.  I mean, what else am I doing with my “one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, The Summer Day) I’m 63, for heaven’s sake, and have waited a long time for this exact moment. This moment when the most fragrant, autumnal breeze has just floated in my window.

So, let it begin.