Recently, I noticed an unusual pain in my chest, just at the top of my breast tissue. Worried it might have something to do with cancer, I found myself obsessively pressing on the tender spot throughout the day, trying to probe the boundaries of my pain. Where did I hurt? How much? Why? A conversation with my doctor — and, later, a previously scheduled mammogram — proved I had nothing to worry about. But I kept pressing, trying to figure it out, until the day my skin yellowed like an old bruise, and I suddenly realized that it was a bruise. A week or two before, I remembered, I’d banged into a door jamb while carrying a roasting pan at chest-level. My sore spot had nothing to do with cancer. It was just my body’s way of keeping track of an old wound.
In her debut book, The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, each of Charlotte Donlon’s short, incisive chapters feels like a gentle push on an old bruise. Where does loneliness hurt? How much? Why? As she works her way around the edges of her own loneliness, Donlon maps a surprisingly familiar pain. Frequent moves. Lost friendships. Debilitating mental illness. The moments after sex. Whether we’ve experienced these exact same circumstances or not, Donlon’s keen observation skills, her calm reflective voice, and her extraordinary willingness to be vulnerable invite us to discover that even in our isolation, we share a common bond.
Donlon reports that for most of her life she has experienced what she calls, after theologian Tom Varney, “core loneliness.” But for most of her life, evidently, she has also possessed a powerful ability to intuit the emotions of others. Even as a child, Donlon observed her lonely mother: “Watching her around other adults, I thought it always seemed like she was holding back, like she was careful to be who they expected her to be.” When I read that sentence, I felt as if Donlon was my own child, watching me. Throughout The Great Belonging, Donlon applies this same eye for detail to herself, her daughter, and others. With each observation, the reader, too, feels seen and named.
It is not just in noticing and naming loneliness that Donlon excels. She is also gifted at reflecting on loneliness: sitting with it, thinking about it, allowing it to impact her reading, her gazing, her praying; and, in turn, allowing her reading and gazing and praying to shape her loneliness. Donlon finds food for her loneliness-thoughts in the most unexpected places: the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, a choral performance, the stained glass windows at her Episcopal church, the novels she reads. Throughout the book, she reflects on each of these with calm and measured thoughtfulness. The Great Belonging is not a self-help book, or a quick-fix book, or a ten-steps-to-a-happier-you book. It is a book whose author is on a meditative journey, and she has quietly invited us to come along.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this book is Donlon’s willingness to welcome us into the far reaches of her own mind. Donlon has bipolar disorder; she has experienced addling manias and debilitating depressions. In The Great Belonging, Donlon relays these vacillations without hyperbole and without shame. What struck me most about these particular chapters is that, while they are vital to the book, The Great Belonging does not become, by their inclusion, a book about mental illness. Most books that include this level of openness about mental illness are primarily about mental illness; they are written for the mentally ill and those that love them, or they are memoirs written to shock or educate the general public. The Great Belonging is none of these. It is a book about loneliness whose author happens to be quite open about her own mental illness. In treating her condition this way, Donlon gives us all a great gift: a vision of a world in which mental illnesses can be openly discussed, but do not have to totally define the people who live with them.
When I had a bruise that I did not remember was a bruise, I could not stop pressing on it until I knew what it was. Only when I understood it could I let it alone and let it heal. The reader comes to the end of The Great Belonging with the same sigh of recognition. Ah, yes, we say. So that’s what this ache is. Loneliness.
In one of my favorite stories in the book, Donlon recounts her first night at home with her newborn daughter. In the middle of the night, overwhelmed and exhausted by the baby’s endless nursing, Donlon picked up the phone to call her mother. The words of calm, soothing advice on the other end of the line got her through the night — but in the morning, the advice-giver called back and confessed that she was not Donlon’s mother at all. A midnight misdial had connected Donlon with a stranger. A stranger who helped the best she could.
In The Great Belonging, Charlotte Donlon herself becomes the soothing voice on the other end of the line. Especially in these strange days of 2020, we are all a little bit lonely, a little bit frantic, a little bit in need of a stranger-turned-mother’s voice in the middle of the night. The Great Belonging is that voice. This is what loneliness is, Donlon says to us in The Great Belonging. This is where it hurts, and why. Here is how to let it heal.