It was time for a driveabout, so I threw some clothes in the car and headed southeast toward the flatlands.
U.S. 421 took me past Siler City, Sanford, Lillington, Dunn and other spots on the map before switching to the two-lane N.C. 242. In a few short hours I was sitting on a pier above the crystal clear waters of White Lake.
The day was moderately warm for November and I lingered a while before going down the road for lunch at Melvin’s Diner in Elizabethtown. Yes, I would drive a hundred and fifty miles for one of Melvin’s cheeseburgers. Well, for two.
I spent the night in Whiteville and had breakfast at Penn’s Grill, a brightly-lit diner with a few eclectic choices, before heading to Lake Waccamaw, where I intended to spend the day hiking its lakeshore trail to the Waccamaw River. After only an hour, though, scattered rain sent me back to my car.
Fortunately, I had a book. I always have a book.
The next morning, early, I headed west toward Fair Bluff, where I thought I’d pause for a few minutes. The sun shined low over my shoulder as I passed former forestland, cleared a century ago to grow cotton.
I’d gone to Fair Bluff the previous year to explore its vaunted tourist attraction, a sturdy boardwalk that follows the Lumber River through swampland for more than a mile. Unfortunately, Hurricane Florence had demolished significant parts of the boardwalk, so I didn’t get far. Florence’s floodwaters had also left Fair Bluff’s short one-block downtown in ruins.
But the shattered segments had been repaired. I zipped up my jacket and walked the entire length of the raised, leaf-covered boardwalk, listening to distant crows and nearby songbirds. I startled a river otter, which wanted nothing to do with me and dove away.
At the end of the boardwalk, a path continued into the swamp. With the sun still hanging low, I walked through a brown and russet landscape of tall pine, water-logged cypress and ferns. I was overcome by pops of yellow, gold, rust and red leaves and the black water of the river reflecting blue from the sky. The path seemed to end and I sat by the river, at peace with the world.
I hadn’t expected this part of the trip to be its highlight.
Eventually it was time to go home, so I took the blue highways through Rowland, Laurinburg, Star. When the radio offered nothing I wanted, I just drove and thought, about big things and nothing.
There can be moments of loneliness during trips like this, but having been single most of my adult life, I’ve learned how to be alone. It’s a skill. It can be rewarding, too, affording the time and freedom to pursue interests that otherwise might be out of reach.
But solitude isn’t easy for everyone. A friend who calls herself an introvert tells me that she still needs company. “It’s as if I get full of words, and there’s a faucet on my back to let them out, but I can’t reach it. I need someone else to open it for me.”
Some say that our society is in a crisis of loneliness, expressed in growing rates of depression and suicide. It’s a crisis that’s exacerbated by pressures of all sorts, including angry, divisive politics and a lack of confidence about the future. I feel those pains. Emotional isolation can be excruciating. And it can be worse during the holidays, when some look around and see everyone else surrounded by family and friends and they feel like they’re the only ones who are alone.
I’ve been there.
But I know that it doesn’t last; things change.
I look at past situations and wonder — how did I get from there to here?
I can’t always retrace the steps; they were incremental. But they added up.
If you’re reading this and dreading the season, when everybody but you seems to be happy and connected, I want you to know: things change. They just do.
Of course, you can take action to speed things along. You can put yourself where people are, even if it’s just in a bookstore or a movie theater. You can reach out to the people you know, even if just to briefly say hello. You can volunteer.
Andy Hagler, the executive director of the Mental Health Association of Forsyth County, told me recently, “Volunteering is a great way to focus outside of ourselves and can help people feel more connected, feel like they are contributing, helping others and thus warding off feelings of depression, loneliness, isolation.”
So you can call Holly Beck at 336-721-3411 and say, “I’m interested in delivering meals on wheels. How do I get started?” You can call Laurie Coker at the Green Tree Peer Center, 336-577-3743, and say, “What’s going on?”
Or you can look up one of these: https://greatnonprofits.org/city/winston-salem/NC
And you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and say, “I need help.”
You may feel all alone, but you’re not. Things change. I promise.