When I get letters, I usually save them until I am alone or in a perfect moment to absorb the words as if that person and I were having an intimate conversation over coffee. The post office is about an hour walk from my house, twenty minutes on a paved road and 40 on the bumpy dusty one to my village. At the intersection of the two is a lodge where I often stop after trips from the post office for a beer, pizza and letter reading.
While devouring a letter from a good friend and a small vegetarian pizza, the author of the letter asked, “Are you lonely? I would be lonely.” I looked around the restaurant, it was only me and the server. Yes, I thought. I am very lonely.
Loneliness is a main part of the Peace Corps process, almost as universal as training and medical exams. All volunteers experience it and have to find a way to deal with a deeper loneliness that most have ever felt.
The first three months of service, which I am currently experiencing, are the hardest. Still new to the village, most of the relationships are acquaintances and it’s hard to indentify true friends. I smile and greet people through their harmless stares, but I am still an attraction and foreign.
In Lesotho, the first three months, or Phase II as we call it, is also deemed as lockdown, meaning we can’t travel anywhere over night or make trips out of district. My closest neighbor is about two hours a way and I get to see her fairly often for day-trips to Maseru, but most of my friends are spread throughout the country and it won’t be until the end March till I see them again. I can’t run down the hill to Katie or Caitlin’s house when I need to laugh with someone nor can Lauren and James sit on my porch to enjoy zimbas and Fanta over venting.
My connection to home is also fading. Although I have some incredible friends and family who have gone out of their way to remind me that I am loved, I feel so disconnected to their everyday lives. I miss watching TV with my mom after work. I miss coffee dates with Melissa. I miss the casual lunch or beer with old friends. The lack of those small moments hurt the most.
With all of this alone time, my thoughts wander into the back of my memory bank, uncovering moments and feelings I would never recall in everyday American life. Things that I never really got over or situations that were so painful it was best to bury them are now forcing me to replay them in my head. I go over broken friendships and relationships, sometimes twice, and wonder why I screwed up so much instead of accepting that those things are a part of life and allowing loneliness to sting sharper.
Loneliness is something we are taught to fear, an emotion we want to avoid if we can. Here, though, I can’t out run it. It hits me and brings out my burliest of insecurities. An unreturned message sends me into a panic that I have one less friend. A less than cheery from hello from bo-‘m’e worries me that I am not doing enough to integrate. All while, my mind is spinning memories and coming to a very scaring conclusion: I am alone.
But this concept doesn’t have to be so daunting; loneliness can become solitude.
I don’t need to fear my time alone. Instead, I can use it to focus on me and addressing some issues that I must in order to be the person I want to be. This can be an opportunity.
Next month, I plan to seize the last stint of Phase II and really focus on what is here and not what I am missing. I will also use that time to address this loneliness and what it is that I am really afraid of.
It won’t be easy, but nothing about being here is. That is exactly why I came.