The path of aloneness: we can manage

I’m walking again. Not as far or as easily as before, but I’m able to cover a few miles.

This time last week I was in Derbyshire with my husband. He was spending the day fishing. I was going to try a new walk, somewhere I’d never been before: the Cromford Canal. There isn’t much left of this waterway, first built in 1794, but there’s a towpath running for 5 miles from Cromford to Ambergate. Much of the trip is through a nature reserve. It’s fairly quiet (though close to a main road) but a pretty and straightforward route, also quite level which is what I need right now because of my back, so I set off in the drizzle with the intention and goal of walking the full stretch.

It was a Monday morning, and in contrast with Sunday’s cheerful crowds milling about, family groups chatting, eating ice-DSC07418cream and enjoying the sunshine, today it was virtually deserted except for the occasional determined dog-walker. The drizzle alternated with proper rain and occasional glimmers of sunshine. The greenery at the water’s edge was lush. There were ducks and coots on the water,  and lots of birds in the trees above. Very pleasant.
Less than two miles along the path, I met a man coming from the opposite direction. His dog scampered about while he paused to chat. He wanted to warn me that up ahead a large oak tree had come down and was blocking the path .

“You might want to turn back, it’s up to you, but I had a real problem getting over it and you may not want to go any further…”

I thanked him and continued, pondering what I was going to find. I pictured a large trunk straddling the path, and tried to imagine how I would clamber over it – my new knee is doing well, but my back isn’t, and I was never a climber at the best of times. So I did ponder whether I should turn back. It was raining off and on, my back was aching, and I wasn’t even halfway to my destination. But I’d come all this way, and I was in no hurry, and I do like to walk a new path. So I decided to keep going.

After about five or ten minutes, I came upon about 30 people, again walking in the opposite direction. The path was narrow so I stepped back to let them pass. I think they were a “walking for health” group. The leader and first two walkers stopped to tell me about the fallen oak tree.

“Don’t worry too much,” they told me, “we’ve moved some of the branches so you should be able to get through.”

Slowly the group filed past me on the narrow towpath, avoiding the nettles and brambles on the edges. In addition to dozens of “good mornings”, quite a few more of the group wanted to be sure I knew about the tree. Finally they were all gone, and I continued. I was somewhat encouraged by their words that the tree wasn’t going to be too difficult an obstacle.

Finally, there it was. Unlike what I had pictured, there was no big trunk to climb over. The previous group of walkers had improved the situation as they’d said, and it was quite easy to get through the branches.

DSC07412Much ado about not much at all, as you can see here. I was glad I hadn’t listened to the well-meaning warnings of the first walker. Imagine if I’d turned back. I’d have missed the rest of the day’s adventures, just because I couldn’t bring myself to face the unseen obstacle ahead. The happy ending is that I managed to complete the five miles, despite what became quite heavy rain, found a lovely pub in Ambergate where I enjoyed my lunch and then took a train back to where I started.

I’m relating this rather this non-dramatic tale because of one of the events at the recent retreat that I led. One evening we had a meeting with the widows. It wasn’t to talk about their husbands or their past lives, but the path they are on now and how to continue.

To lose a life partner is to lose so very much. There is companionship and emotions, but also very real practical implications. How do you cook for one when you’ve cooked for two for twenty, thirty, forty years? Do you even bother? Or what if they were the one who did the cooking? No matter how you answer those questions, the fact is that you will now be eating alone.

Alone. Loneness. Loneliness. It is heartbreaking. There are so many people in this world who are lonely, and the person who has lost their partner suffers a particular loneliness.

It can be hard to see the way forward. Now remember the first walker I met on the canal path. He was kind and well-meaning, and the reality was that an obstacle lay in my path; nevertheless, his words were discouraging. “Don’t go on…”

Maybe these are the words we hear in the darkness  of our own loneliness, our own inner voice, or maybe it’s well-meaning comments from others that cause us to feel this way. There’s a fear of the future. How will we manage that path? How will we continue to the end of our journey without our accustomed companion? If only we didn’t have that sense of unknowing, of how we will manage our future, it might be easier, but life does throw up obstacles.

And in those darker moments we wonder, should we even go on trying, when we feel so empty, so bereft, so heartbroken?

Yes!  Carry on! You’ll be surprised who you will meet on the way. Maybe someone will shift the branches that obstruct the path, just in time. Maybe it won’t be so hard after all. Maybe you’ll even make some new friends enroute.

I have to admire the ladies in the small group that I facilitated. They talked and shared their own experiences good and bad, and then different individuals seemed to light up a little as they started to get ideas for some solutions for their own situations. Of course, those solutions would not be as good as the real thing – the return of their loved one. That is an outcome that can never happen. But the path ahead was being made brighter, as good as it could be. I guess we were like the “walking for health” group. Through meeting even briefly, through companionship, through sharing from the heart, the future looked just a bit more manageable.

Sometimes that’s what we need the most. A bit of hope. That we won’t always feel so bad. That we will learn to manage the path we are on now.

Here’s a big virtual hug for all those who are dearly missing someone who was integral to their life – a partner, a parent, a best friend, a child.  There are lots of us on these difficult paths. Step by step, we’ll manage.





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