The Question of Longing
February 11, 2022
The leafless treetops wave side to side, a gentle foretaste of the high winds predicted for 2:00 or 3:00. No sparrows or starlings visit the feeders, which I filled an hour ago. Snow from recent weeks is knee-high, and the coming rain can’t hope to melt it away.
The wind will be a welcome guest. Inside the house, our old windows with sash cords will rattle, a reassuring voice to be prized over efficiency. I’m not in the house, though, but looking at it from my backyard hut. It’s a prefab shed, in fact. In the summer of 2020 family and friends helped me hammer, saw, wire and sand the interior, creating a shelter for work. So it has faithfully been.
I’m alone here, but seldom lonely. The space heater’s sigh, the weather’s endless improvisations and the train horn now groaning in the distance are felt presences, companions, especially when efforts—finding words in my head, searching for sentences from others to supply what I lack—fail and all that remains is the essential human enterprise: Being.
Then the walls surrounding me are no longer a shed or hut or lodge, but a hermitage, where a soul either sits still or flees the invitation to self-reckoning. For over 30 years I’ve managed to keep stationary for a while most days, but my mind is often on the run. What should I make for dinner? Don’t forget the cat litter. Our opulent world is ruthless.
This morning my mind was noisy about wife Kathy’s and my upcoming trip to El Salvador. I hate flying with a perfect hatred. (Hope they allow my flask of Johnnie Walker on board.) And for the love of God, remember the passport and vaccine card.
Anybody who practices contemplative prayer knows of such turbulence. Never assume that behind the placid face of a person sitting cross-legged is a feathery mind resting on a cloud of interior calm. As one minute of quiet abiding unfolds into the next, distracting anxieties over travel are no big deal. They pass. But somewhere around 9:00 a.m., I felt hollow behind my breastbone. Truth, I’ve learned over the decades, resides in the body as well as the brain.
So I’m writing you, friend, to ask if what I knew in my chest—near where laughter, tears and fury come from—is your truth as well as mine. Is there a space within you that is forever empty? It covets a lodger or wardrobe or pallet on the floor, someone or something to cushion your voice as you call into it. But nobody can enter this room. No object may occupy it.
Wherever you go, a vacancy haunts you. It’s the persistent sense of incompleteness. It’s a love poem written for you with the last couplet missing. It’s a blissful dream you can’t recall. And in what is now late afternoon, it’s the tallest maple in view, lithe branches at the top motionless. The wind has failed its promised arrival. The winter wood won’t sway.
Longing is what I’m asking you about. Its bedfellow is loneliness. The latter hardly requires explanation. I said earlier that I’m seldom lonely here. It would be hard to imagine loving my wife and our children, grandchildren, family and friends more than I already do, but the present solitude is glorious. No visitors are required. My attitude would be different, of course, if Kathy’s kiss didn’t await me later on.
This day is glad. Birds have finally arrived by the dozens, adding to my embarrassment of company. So why does the silence awaken in me an awareness of something missing, an absence that no draft of air or glass of wine can fill? Why, as I watch the red-winged blackbirds and the sparrows get along, does that hollow in my chest offer a one-word plea: More.
My days are extravagance upon extravagance: A surplus of lovely people; agreeable shelter and possessions; so much food that I have to decide what not to eat; a vacation in Central America in the offing. What else could a 60-year-old man want?
The temptation to speculate is strong, but that would render my question insincere. I ask again, “Is there a space within you that is forever empty?” Are you like me?
Does your silence, wealthy though it may be with starlings and bare branches, hold out its hand as if to say, “More, please.”
Are you filled with longing, friend? And is this what it means to be human?