I was alone in my studio on a Saturday night. Nothing much was going on and I didn’t want to be the awkward third person in the dorm room I shared with Laurie. It was my second year at Western College for Women, recently re-named Western College in an attempt to recover financially and become progressive.
Western was a co-ed college in the same town as Miami University in pastoral Oxford, Ohio, a quaint university area amidst woods and farmlands and covered bridges. Situated near the Indiana and Kentucky borders, the Ohio River flowed to the south. Industries and agriculture, coal mining and bluegrass were the backdrop of the area. The Mason Dixon line over to the east in Pennsylvania, heralded a place that once marked the joyful ring of freedom. But the hint of being double-crossed loomed everywhere. Were you friend or foe? Would you be sent away as an outcast or were you part of the included groups, the elite, the accepted?
When you entered the Appalachians, a time warp unfolded. I often felt like someone dropped off from a spaceship, or a passenger waiting at a lonely bus stop. In Kentucky, women wore beehive hairdos, and drove creaky, heavy Ford Galaxies with rusty fenders. Juxtaposed to the mountain people were the pedigreed, blueblood farms where high-priced horses brought in big money. All was a far cry from the northern culture of Cleveland with its newly elected African-American mayor, Carl B. Stokes. Education was considered a luxury, inter-racial couples unheard of, and at that time, long-haired kids were considered Communists-“hippie commie pinkos,” people to be hated and feared. Long hair was associated with Charles Mansion types, illicit drugs, and wild sex.
The dense woods still contained obvious indentations, dugout caverns from the Underground Railroad. Now the woods were covered with flora and fauna, truly exotic and lush in spring, summer, and fall. Houses were built with secret closets and tunnels to hide slaves. Winter days were the coldest, shadowy ghosts. An uncertain beauty combined with fear seemed to follow me around like a sad memory. At that time I didn’t know about being a “sensitive” or the effects of childhood trauma.
My sophomore digs were in the motel style “New Dorm,” first floor lodging with pets allowed. I went everywhere with my little foxy dog, Reno, a tan miniature Shepherd mix. As much as I tried to be social and outgoing, I spent most of my time retreating into study and painting. Secretly I wanted to be more like my tiny roommate with her big brown eyes. Laurie was a dancer who seemed sophisticated and self-contained, always slender and trim with an exacting schedule. Later on, I learned about the diet pills.
I held my own, venturing way out into the woods beyond what might have been considered safe. I would drift among the various groups, favoring an eclectic group of intellectuals and artists. I adored the international women. They were elegant, wise, had a keen sense of humor, employed superior social skills; the international girls were really “women” to me… some Kenyans, Somalians, a few from Bangladesh, Thailand, and a few from England…and the nicest girl named Leila, from Greece. I envied her apartment style room on the third floor. I was on and off with my high school boyfriend, suffered an occasional crush, but mostly nothing was happening in the love arena. I poured myself into painting and journaling.
That night, my roommate Laurie’s boyfriend was coming into town which meant I had to make myself scarce. I was into studying psychologist, William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. I toted my usual Zen meditation book. So far, I’d avoided all the required classes like math and science. My tools to make it in the world were not strong. My only jobs so far were babysitting and factory work. Nobody was overseeing my progress. I lived in a limbo-like world. A few teachers served to inspire me, and because of them I tried hard.
Truly convinced that it was I who would have a religious experience in my studio in the catacombs of the fine arts building, I settled into my usual reading habit. The studio was a hobbit hole in an old brick building that contained music chambers, offices, large art rooms, a basement sculpture set up with concrete floors. The arts building was my antidote for loneliness that night. I yoga-breathed mantras about non attachment and read in my chair fighting back existential tears of bewilderment about life. Paint tubes sat untouched. Silence gathered in every gloomy corner. I couldn’t relax. I wrote in my ever-present journal.
Suddenly the back door opened and a guy peered into the room. He looked like a college kid, average height and build, a white guy. He looked startled at finding a girl alone reading. The arts building at a small college was not exactly the happenin’ place to be on a Saturday night. Maybe he was a rapist. I just stared and said nothing, silently looking for a quick weapon (a paint can?), should I need one. He quickly shut the door. I heard him walk away. Gone was any sense of concentrating on religious events or secret connection to the ancient lore of the ascended masters. I trembled as I ventured into the silent hallway of the empty building, locked the studio door, fled down the stairs and out into the night. I crossed the stone bridges and trotted the pristine lawns until I reached my dorm. Where was everybody? Thank goodness Laurie and her boyfriend stayed out that night.
Coming up: More on William James and his protégé, Mary Whiton Calkins.
Journal prompt: Write about your loneliest times. Use descriptions and senses. What was it that got you through? Do you feel relieved that you survived loneliness or do you still deal with the theme? How did writing, art, music, poetry etc., help?
Copyright © 2014, Confessions of an Irreverent Mystic by Susan E. Rowland, all rights reserved. Ok to share but all work and photography belongs to author.
Above: Sue with Reno in the Ohio woods