I grew up going to daycare on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. My daycare provider, Vicki, had five children of her own (four of whom were boys), cared for her brother-in-law’s five kids (four of whom were girls), on top of caring for my brother and me. There was always someone to play with.
I come from a big extended family. Christmases were packed to the brim at Grandma’s house with my mom’s 13 other siblings and their families. Did I mention my grandma would turn her thermostat up to 80 degrees? My cousins and I would spend half the night just trying to find a place to sit and eat dinner — often outside on the front stoop, on a December evening north of Green Bay, at a temperature one could only call “refreshing” after escaping the sweaty, sticky crowds.
I’ve had the same best friend since I was 6. Sarah grew up down the street from me and in middle school and high school, we spent practically every waking moment together. I’m not sure there was a day in summer where I wouldn’t walk down the hill to her house, where ensuing events included everything from laying on rafts in the pool to giving ourselves a strict Sims 4 intervention.
I grew up surrounded by people. As I hit adulthood, I experienced waves of isolation (as many of us do) that ranged from shockingly painful to quiet acceptance. The good news: every bout of isolation was temporary. It was also necessary.
Isolation Part I: Freshman Year
No one tells you that college is extremely challenging and lonely. You hear about how much fun it is, many say the best years of their life, so you enter with a bar set pretty high.
I refused to apply to UW-Madison for my freshman year (much to the chagrin of my mom but bless her for patiently letting me figure things out the hard way). I already grew up in Madison and Verona, I wanted something different. I wanted a chance to be someone different. Other than one good friend, I knew no one going into UW-Milwaukee.
My loneliness was palpable. I had great roommates, but they all had their own friends or connections at school, or were from the Milwaukee area and went home on the weekends. I remember feeling baffled by how my best friends at UW-Madison and UW-La Crosse found so many parties. I spent a lot of time alone.
Reading through my journal from this time, I wrote things like
“This is my 2nd day alone (2nd night as well). All my roomies have left for the weekend”
“What a long strange trip it’s been. I started out this semester knowing no one but Mike, never having lived [sic] on my own, and certainly not for weeks (well, no more than 2) at a time. I felt loneliness, I fought illness, I combatted classes and made it somewhat on time.”
More than 10 years later, I can see the shock that came from moving to an alien place at the tender age of 18. I had been surrounded by many of the same people for 18 years and was suddenly in the dark.
Thankfully, I was still able to go home on weekends and by my second semester, I met people and made more friends. Transferring to Madison the following year made all the difference; it would be six years until I would see isolation again.
Isolation Part II: Denver
The most telling, foreboding, and wise thing I read just months before moving to Denver was from “East of Eden” by Steinbeck. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along the lines of “A change of scenery changes nothing at all.”
I read that line and was spooked. After all, wasn’t I about to move to Colorado, a state I had never even been to, where I knew absolutely no one because it was going to drastically improve my life? I was convinced I would finally meet “the one” in Denver. I knew I’d find love in Colorado.
The short version of moving to Denver is heartbreak, awful teaching experience, quitting teaching, shame, penniless, more heartbreak, loneliness, and isolation.
I had zero consistent, true friends in Denver to hang out with for about the first eight months (then-boyfriends don’t count, and they were short-lived romances anyways). I spent so much time in my studio apartment, alone. On my birthday (November 9th, the day after the 2016 election), I brought a book to the birthday dinner I planned because I wasn’t sure the people I invited would come (they did, and I was never more thankful).
I was broke. You can’t do a lot of things with others when you’re broke, not when you’re trying to get to know them. I wrote this in my journal in April 2017, just over a month away from getting a lifesaving job offer:
“I have so many things in the air right now, waiting to see what will come down to me and what will float away.
I have, after my rent check is deposited, $100 to my name.
I need. Need. These things to come through…
What the fuck am I gonna do.
What the fuck will I do if [these freelancing jobs] don’t work?
It just can’t not happen.
God this year has been rough. Un.believably. Rough. Jasper and I broke up, I mean I need some Wins here. Enough of the Ls.
I’m strangely not as stressed, partly because I’m getting paid tomorrow and partly because of tax refund $ hopefully coming soon. But my. God.
$100. Single. Jobless, practically. Please, please let things come together soon.”
Oh, I got one of those freelancing jobs, but then was let go from the cafe I was working about a week later.
Another great journal entry from this time:
“Is the truth near? What is the truth? That life sucks a lot of the time? That things don’t go as planned?
Why do Mom and Jenny think I have good things coming my way? I have zero control over things right now. Great Grandma Katherine and I moved here [Colorado] for a better life. How is this better?
I do feel like it could be, but I can’t believe how rough this year has been. Never have I underestimated something so much in my life, than thinking Denver would fix all my problems. I said “it will be a little tough” in the most flighty and nonchalant voice, more so because that’s what you’re supposed to say. Not because I really believed it.
Shelter. Home in 2 weeks. Family. Friends. Food. Whole Foods gift card. Laptop. Wine. Coffee. Winter coat. Shower. Running 5 miles.”
(I always forced myself to write things I was grateful for after venting in my journal).
But this time of isolation truly wasn’t all bad. I would take my book and journal and go to the parks (thankfully the weather was incredible). I’d apply to jobs at the library. I’d read in my apartment. I’d run or bike on the trails. I’d draw some of the houses in my neighborhood. I’d explore. As rough as Denver was, it was where I also started realizing that there was beauty in being on your own. Being alone didn’t automatically have to mean being lonely.
And one thing to add: if I did not have my friends and family (especially my mom) during this time, I don’t know what I would have done. I talked to them all on the phone every day. It absolutely kept the loneliness at bay.
Isolation Part III: Cody, Wyoming
Here we are in the present day. The short version, I was ready for a change from my Fort Collins agency job, I knew I was going to quit, so I left around the time my lease was up and moved in with my boyfriend who got a job up here (Cody is also his hometown).
This isn’t Part I or II. I was no novice to isolation. I fully thought this would be an extremely isolating time, living in a city where:
- The population is 9,500
- The next biggest city is almost 2 hours away
- The population surges in summer (Yellowstone tourism) and dies out in the winter
- Election-wise, it’s very red — very different from this bleeding heart liberal’s ethics
I took trips to Yellowstone with Levi, my boyfriend. I took trips there by myself. I read a ton. I did the same things I did in Denver. I actually did meet some friends and got a job at a museum where I met even more people. And when you live with someone you love and get along with, things become even less isolating.
When coronavirus hit and social distancing seemed to become a word in everyone’s vocabulary overnight, I realized I didn’t feel all that different. After all, I’m living in a town where restaurants might close for two weeks to take a vacation in the off season, and since no business seems to have a website, you only find out when you get there. I’m living in a town where there’s one good coffee shop open on Sundays, and when your boyfriend was hoping to go there for some understandable alone time but you wanted to go too, you stay home and make your own joe.
Plus, I work remotely as it is. My main form of hanging out with people not just recently, but for the past 10 months has been phone calls and FaceTimes. I can’t go to Yellowstone in the winter, unless I want to drive four hours north and then pay for lodging.
By comparison, this is life for many Wyomingites. People travel up to Montana to go to Costco, so they’re going to spend a lot of money at once as to not make that trek again anytime soon. Levi and I drove to the end of this road called the South Fork recently, and he told me about people living out there who have commercial-sized freezers and fridges. They’re an hour and a half from the nearest grocery store so they’ve no choice but to stock up.
My point with all of this is that isolation is its own branch of human connection. So many of us (the best of us, I would argue) have dealt with the essential truth that happiness is something that we have to create for ourselves. External factors only go so far.
Isolation is not a new feeling, even if these times are new. Those living in the US who are undocumented have to take caution during ICE raids and can’t leave their house without fear or risk of being taken from their families. Wars happen around the world and children and their parents are forced to stay inside. A person living in Wyoming can’t just “go to the store,” and now, all of us (hopefully) can relate. A single woman living in Denver has no money and no friends, so she makes her own fun where she can.
Isolation is hard. It is also temporary. It is also beautiful, because it’s something that is bringing us together, as collective struggles tend to do. It pushes us to look within and if we can come out as better humans, then it was a good thing. Let me rephrase: it was a tough time that we made into a good thing.
One last journal entry from 5/2/17 in Denver, just before driving up for a life-changing job interview in Fort Collins where I eventually jumpstarted my writing career, met some incredible friends, and began dating the love of my life:
“Remember this moment. This is the moment just after nearly deciding to give up, to move back to Madison, to live comfortably.
This is the moment that your heart is racing because you’re gonna grit your teeth and keep going forward.
When things get tough, we have/I have a tendency to want to quit. I will not do that this time. Ease does not create progress, hardship does.
I will not look back at these times and remember the giving up, because i refuse to do it. I will do everything in my power to make writing a career I love and am successful in.
I will keep my heart open to love.
I will keep climbing.
I will keep trying to make friends.
I will not quit.
I will keep going.”