An Antidote For Loneliness

What ‘The Marsh Girl’ can teach us about survival

Loneliness is real. It happens to us all. Author Marilynne Robinson believes loneliness is a constant. We are born into loneliness. She says,

“Loneliness is the default mode of human existence.”

Marilynne Robinson

To be lonely is to be human, but often this understanding unfolds over time.  Suddenly, we realise we are alone. The insight may come as we reflect on our interior life. As author and psychologist Dr. Kelly Flanagan says,

“Loneliness is as much a part of life as hunger and sunsets and funerals. It is simply what happens when we grow up and realise we have a universe inside of us to which no other person has access, and that every other person contains an unknowable universe as well.” 

It might be that we grasp our loneliness through the realisation that no one will see the world the way we do, that our perception of reality is unique but also isolating.

As author Ann Voskamp says,

“You are utterly alone looking through your eyes into the world — and sometimes there is existential terror in this. No one will feel exactly what you feel, when you feel it, how you feel it — the feelings that run through your being are forever yours alone.”

Loneliness is not a problem. It is a condition that remains largely hidden until something triggers our feelings of loneliness. These events are timely reminders that we never shed our loneliness. It is a constant.

There is a myriad of reasons for feeling lonely. These include

  • when we are estranged from family or friends
  • when we fail to meet other people’s expectations
  • when we experience a significant change in our life
  • when we are exposed for being dishonest and unreliable
  • when we are prevented from participating in activities we enjoy
  • when our knowledge and experience is no longer needed
  • when our long-held dreams implode

Catherine Danielle Clark prefers to be called Kya, but the locals of Barcley Cove refer to her as ‘The Marsh Girl.’ She is the central character in Delia Owens acclaimed novel, ‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’ a reference to the more remote areas of the lush marshes of the North Carolina coast.

Kya lives loneliness. Every heartbeat is a pulsating reminder. Loneliness inhabits her thoughts and infuses her memories. There is no escaping its presence.

Kya’s loneliness is multi-layered. There is no single cause. Her experience of life produces moments when she cannot avoid feeling lonely. Here are seven examples:

(1) Trauma – The loneliness of being a witness to domestic violence at a young age

When Kya’s father was drunk his behaviour deteriorated. His actions were often excessive and unpredictable. It was not unusual for him to be violent and aggressive, particularly toward his wife.

(2)  Abandonment – The loneliness of watching your mother walk away, never to return

Kya’s parents had five children, four daughters and a son. Kya was the youngest.

Kya’s mother expended much energy in keeping the family together. Money was often in short supply, so it was a challenge to keep food on the table.

Her husband provided minimal support, often criticising her endeavours and undermining any initiatives she took. His abusive behaviour eroded her will to stay. The weariness and mental exhaustion provided the catalyst for her to leave.

“Kya’s most poignant memories were unknown dates of family members disappearing down the lane.”

(3) Deprivation – The loneliness of having to fend for yourself

Kya lived with her father for a season. He showed some kindness toward her, teaching her to fish and taking her out in the boat. She tried to manage the shack as best she could – ‘making his bed, picking up, sweeping up, and washing the dishes most of the time.’ When necessary, she would keep out of his way. They had little to say to one another.

One day, her father disappeared. She never saw him again. As a seven-year-old Kya was handed the responsibility for her survival.

(4) Neglect – The loneliness of being denied a formal education

Kya went to school for one day. She wanted to learn what came after twenty-nine. The other children shunned her, laughed at her, and gossiped among themselves. She was an oddity, a curiosity, an outsider. She did not belong.

Kya spent weeks outsmarting the truant officers until they lost interest.

(5) Slander – The loneliness of being the target of hurtful and derogatory comments

Everyone had a theory about ‘The Marsh Girl.’ Many stories were told of her strange ways. Ignorance is often the breeding ground for wild imaginings. And there was fear. Young people would often bike out to the isolated rough-cut shack and dare one another to bang on the door.

Kya seldom visited the village. When she did so, her presence commanded attention – her hair, her clothes, her hygiene. Parents shielded their children for fear they might be ‘contaminated.’

(6) Isolation – The loneliness of not having regular social contact

Kya would go weeks without seeing anyone. If she saw another boat on the marsh, she would hide. She was an observer of a life beyond her reach.

She felt the pain of not having anyone to share her joys, her discoveries, her daily rituals.

“The lonely became larger than she could hold. She wished for someone’s voice, presence, touch…”

(7) Betrayal – The loneliness of having a friend break a promise

Kya’s greatest fear was betrayal. She felt her vulnerability. The common narrative of her life was broken trust. She had been let down badly.

Tate Walker had been a friend of the family. He had watched Kya growing up. He shared her passion for the marsh. He reached out to her. They exchanged feathers. He took an interest in her collections. He taught her to read. Then he went away to college, to study, promising to return. He did not.

Kya was crushed. She could not understand why. Was she somehow the reason why everyone left?

‘Why, Tate, why?’ She mumbled into the sheets. ‘You were supposed to be different. To stay. You said you loved me, but there is no such thing. There is no one on Earth you can count on.’ From somewhere very deep, she made herself a promise never to trust or love anyone again.

Kya’s survival was dependent on several factors.

Firstly, a small group of individuals who made a positive contribution to her life.

Although Kya was physically isolated from the community and had limited social interaction, there were a small group of people looking out for her.

1. Ma

Notwithstanding her decision to remove herself from an abusive relationship, leaving her youngest daughter to manage as best she could, Kya’s mother passed on to her a love of the natural world and the artistic ability to capture the beauty and intricacy of all she observed.

2. Tate

Despite failing to honour a commitment, Tate was a genuine friend, although Kya was blind to this for some time. He shared her passions and valued her collections of feathers, bones, nests, and shells.

He saw the potential in her artistic abilities and sent some of her paintings and descriptions to a publisher. Consequently, her work was accepted, her first book being The Sea Shells of the Eastern Seaboard. It became a regular source of income, allowing her to live more comfortably.

3. Jumpin’

He was an old, coloured man who owned a gas and supply store on a wharf near the marsh. He supplied fuel for Kya’s boat and bought her bags of mussels to help with her finances. He showed a fatherly concern for Kya and was always looking out for her.

4. Mabel

Mabel was Jumpin’ wife. She collected clothes, toiletries, and shoes for Kya from members of their church. Her kind nature gave her opportunities to speak to Kya, providing timely help and advice. 

Secondly, the marsh was not only Kya’s home, but also her place of refuge. Whenever she felt threatened, she retreated to the marsh. Whenever she felt burdened or confused, she found solace in the marsh. Whenever she felt lonely or despondent, she called out to the dwellers of the marsh, her gulls.  

Crying and screeching, the birds swirled and dived, hovered near her face, and landed as she tossed grits to them. Finally, they quieted and stood about preening, and she sat on the sand, her legs folded to the side. One large gull settled onto the sand near Kya.

‘It’s my birthday,’ she told the bird.

The marsh instructed Kya. She became familiar with its rhythms. Her hours of observation revealed mysteries hidden from many eyes. She felt a connection, an intimacy, an acceptance. She felt a freedom to be herself.

“The marsh did not confine her, it defined her.”

This was her antidote for loneliness:

– a small group of caring people and,

– a much-maligned habitat, the marsh: a world that inspired hope and shaped her identity

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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