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  • Writer's picturemaggiehsmith07

Minister of Loneliness

Recently, I flew to Boston. It was a gray day so I didn’t bother to lift the window shade until the plane was touching down. When I opened the shade, I felt like Dorothy touching back down in Kansas – black, white, gray flashed past the window. The white, gray and, in some cases, black snow. The steely gray of the ocean churning and the drab concrete runway under

cloudy skies.

As an introvert who recharges her batteries by time in her home, I initially thought, “Well. This staying at home stuff isn’t so bad.” But now, almost a year in, things feel drab. Shades of black, white and gray.

Earlier this week, Japan announced that they have hired a minister of loneliness. Minister of Loneliness. It sounds like it’s someone who’s stepped from the pages of a Harry Potter book. In reality, It’s an attempt to reduce loneliness and social isolation among its residents as the country deals with rising suicide rates. In October, more people died from suicide than had died from COVID-19 in Japan in all of 2020. According to the Japanese Policy Agency, there were 2,153 suicide deaths that month and 1,765 total virus deaths up to the end of October 2020.

A few weeks back, Andrea and I learn that an acquaintance died due to suicide. Maybe the Japanese are onto something?

Am I lonely? I don’t know. Maybe. Yes. During a recent visit to Massachusetts a friend questioned a recent blog posted where I said that Andrea and I would not move back to the northeast.

“Really, Maggie?! How many friends do you have there?”

“Well...I..” I falter.

“Exactly!” She makes her point.

What are friends for but to remind you that you moved approximately 650 miles away and have no friends where you moved to?

This is not how I envisioned this move. I’m skilled at moving. At meeting people. At connecting. At making friends. But you have to leave your house to do that.

I’m venturing out to attend a yoga class tomorrow morning. I don’t think I’ll walk away from one yoga class having set up a lunch date but at this point in the pandemic, I am thinking, “Well. If I die because I went to a yoga class, namaste.” Sure. I’ve had the vaccine. But others haven’t and I’m aware of that each time I leave the house. I’m also aware that it was mental health that really fucked people in Japan up - not physical health, not COVID. It’s a delicate balance.

Friday morning, I dragged myself out of bed early to exercise over zoom with friends back in Massachusetts. I realized I’d RSVP’d to a virtual coffee for later that morning with the Virginia chapter of the International Coaching Federation . I consider not going because it’s one move Zoom call to tack onto a day already filled with Zoom calls. In the end, I go and meet some like minded women, one of whom lives nearby. Later that same day, we make plans to meet for lunch in a week. I wonder if she too has been in her home the better part of a year?

When announcing the new role, the Prime Minister said of/to the Minister of Loneliness, “Women are suffering from isolation more (than men are), and the number of suicides is on a rising trend. I hope you will identify problems and promote policy measures comprehensively."

Like what? I wonder. The United Kingdom was the first country to appoint a loneliness minister - and that was in 2018, pre-pandemic.

The UK made this move after a 2017 report found that more than nine million people in the UK said they often or always felt lonely. There have been three loneliness ministers in three years. I imagine this is because no one person has the answer and now it doesn’t seem socially responsible to say, “Oh fuck it. Wear a mask, wash your hands and hope for the best but go on ahead! Get out there. Meet for lunch!”

Would I have agreed to meet for lunch pre-pandemic? Pre-move? I don’t know. I think it’s all changed me. Reshaped me. I imagine that’s true for everyone - at least I hope so because if you didn’t learn or grow from this experience, what was the fucking point of it all?

I tried to stay nimble that year - learn new skills. And I did - coaching, bringing mindfulness into work places. I took a 9-week training course to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Skills I thought would help me help others. And I suppose they have - I hope they have. Somehow, I always wind up learning more about myself on these adventures.

One night this past week, I took a long drive to visit the 4 children I’m appointed to. They call the foster mom “mom” and I want to take the foster mom by the hand, lead her out of earshot of the kids, look into her eyes and ask, “Tell me how you let go.” She isn’t new to this - when I met her husband at the courthouse back in the fall, he tells me they have fostered 20 children.

I drive away from the children with a feeling I can’t quite identity. I’d planned on calling my mom during the long drive home. Instead, I sit in the silence, driving under the light of the full moon, the tender “mom” echoing. A lump forms in my throat. I briefly engage a fantasy where I move at least two of the kids in. I’m not good at letting go.

So here I am, emerging from the move, the pandemic, these experiences and reassessing. I’m like Dorothy, cautiously emerging from the storm that blew her to Oz. I know, that like Dorothy, I too have carried answers the entire time.

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