I was around 15-years-old when The Pretenders hit "Middle of the Road" was getting heavy airplay. It wasn't a favorite of mine — lacking the crunch of punk or the synthetic swirls of new wave, the song itself seemed kind of middle-of-the-road to me. To a teenager, a woman singing about "standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me" was cryptic, but not in a fun, Seven and the Ragged Tiger kind of way. What plans? I'm just trying to survive high school here! As it turns out, I should have paid closer attention.
Plans were something I definitely did not have when I was young. It may be that growing up poor reduced my ability to think "big" or long-range; also, being the first person in my family to go to a four-year college and get a degree was seen as an end in itself in some ways. It was supposed to make things better simply by virtue of completion, so planning beyond that made no sense. But just because I didn't have a game plan to take over the world after graduation didn't mean I was free of assumptions about adulthood. Obviously I would have friends. A family of some sort. A regular job and something like a regular life. I would have the kind of details you'd write about in a holiday letter, comings and goings to note and dote on. That's what just naturally happens to everyone, right? It sure seemed that way to me, based on every other person I knew. The path may be circuitous or rocky, and of course there would be losses along the way, but everyone I knew found a degree of completeness in someone else, whether intimate partnership or several strong groups with shared interests. You live long enough, it's bound to happen. Or not, as the case may be. I'm standing in the middle of life and grateful to be here, but I'm doing so very much alone, and that's scary.
Occasionally you'll read about someone being lonely who is quick to make the distinction that they're not alone — they may have close friends and family, may even be married, but there's a core sense of the void that makes it hard to be nourished by those connections. I relate to this issue as well, but the primary cause of my loneliness is how literally alone I am. No close friends, no immediate family, and extended family I rarely if ever see. Despite how bleak that may sound, there's a lot about it that I love.
Two years ago I rented a room from a family member in a neighboring county, and after that, rented another from someone I used to work with. Both situations were ultimately OK, but it was clear that I was merely being tolerated in exchange for pay and that the space, while available to me, was not mine. Constantly adapting to the comings and goings of others is tiring (for them as well as me, I know), and I was thrilled to finally move into a tiny studio of my own and begin to hear what my own thoughts sounded like again.
But I wish there was more potential for connection here.
I live in a small city where I worked for years in low-paying customer service jobs, so a lot of people recognize me but are not sure from where. We recently had a vigil downtown in the wake of the Orlando shootings; I'm gay myself, and went to add some words to a banner we wrote on with Sharpie pens. I saw a lot of people I recognized, but only one who saw me said hello. When the organizers pressed us to form a circle and hold hands I found myself resisting with a heavy heart and lump in my throat. It was a symbolic gesture, but one that hurt because I know that I exist outside the circle. After watching countless people run into friends and hug and chat, the evidence was all around me. (I did step forward and link arms, though — you really don't want to piss off a member of the Raging Grannies).
What I know now, with the gift of hindsight and countless failed attempts to fix this, is that it's definitely not something that just happens. To anyone. Making and keeping connections. You have to work at it over a lifetime, and in some cases spend a lot of money doing so. Flying out to the reunion, or the wedding, or the funeral. Making time in a schedule for phone calls and gatherings and the combination of joy, pain, and mundanity that comes from being a person among others. I honestly don't know if I have this capacity any more, or if it's too late to develop it.
In the Wild Flag song "Future Crimes," Carrie Brownstein sings the lines, "Pardon my life this time, 'cause I am so hard-wired to be alone." The first time I heard this it was like taking a blow to the solar plexus. Can it be that simple? Well, no, and she has bandmates and costars with whom to refine such ideas, but it was still thrilling to see a concept I think of as shameful not just sung but shouted aloud. Feeling that sense of identification would seem to point toward hope, since it confirms that I'm not emotionally cut off or shut down — but hope is an unmapped terrain, and may well be unpopulated.
All I know is that giving up is not an option. I continue to seek out connections, while at the same time working to appreciate everything I do have (shout-outs to food, shelter, and relatively good health). If the things I'd like to offer to people aren't being picked up, I turn them into plant food. I started late in the season, with plastic pots and toadstool-filled soil from the Dollar Tree, and after a heat wave that should have nuked everything, went outside the other morning and found a tiny nasturtium, stunted but gorgeous yellow with a bright red interior, had bloomed. That has to count for something.
Chrissie Hynde aptly turns up on the classic rock station sometimes. I think of who I was when I listened to that song the first time — so full of assumptions — and I think about who I turned out to be. And it really does feel like being in the middle of the road; life whipping past on both sides, not quite touching me. Maybe the future depends on my picking a lane.
Heather Seggel is a freelance writer who is between hairstyles. She would ideally be combing it into a pompadour with Brilliantine while young lovers phone in dedications of "Crystal Blue Persuasion" on the windowsill radio, but somehow it never comes together. Her work pops up in Bitch magazine, Lambda Literary Review, the Progressive Populist and other venues, and she's still not completely over the demise of The Toast.