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    Alone in a Crowd

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    In one of the many parts of my life, I am fortunate enough to speak to various groups across the country and now via Zoom. The topic is less about music and more about what I have learned from a life in music. When I turned 50, I began to develop a career as a motivational speaker in earnest. I even went to school for it. That “school” was a 6-month private coaching with an amazing speaker and author, Juanell Teague. Together, we tore my life apart and put it back together in ways that would be meaningful on speaker stages. I joined the National Speakers Association and, of course, got new head shots. One of the biggest lessons I learned was when someone asks, “What do you speak about?” never say, “Oh, I can speak about any number of things.” Or worse, “Anything you want.” You have to have a “specialty.”

    Through my coaching, we landed on the theme “Liberating Change.” The thrust was how I have used big life upheavals and disappointments and turned them into opportunities and successes. And there have been many of those speed bumps and barriers along the way.

    Recently I was asked to give a keynote speech to a corporation during their mental health and wellness series. They were very aware of my work with the LGBTQ+ and AIDS communities for 35 years. I was eager to hear what they wanted me to speak about. Loneliness. I paused a nano-second and then jumped at the opportunity!

    First of all, I am hardly expert on loneliness from book learning, but I have plenty of life experience. They say spending 10,000 hours on a topic makes you an expert. That’s 13 months. Well, I’m 71; that’s 858 months. I’m definitely an expert.

    Before I launch into the topic of loneliness, stop reading and close your eyes. Think of a time when you have been lonely. Hold that thought; we’ll get back to it. You can open them now.

    Now it’s my turn. I closed my eyes and typed “loneliness” in the search bar of my brain. My first “alone in a crowd” started early when I was put up on the piano bench to perform for any and everybody who ventured near our house. The message was that my place was apart. Little Tim found his happy place on that tiny stage. He liked it. He really liked it.

    I’ll get back to some of my early memories of loneliness, but top of mind is my most recent first-hand experience. Two weeks ago, I took a little tumble. I’m fine; it required a trip to the emergency room that lasted for 6 hours from 11 pm to 5 am. This was a lesson in loneliness. First of all, as you know, they don’t allow anyone in with you. You are separated from others seeking help by a lovely, very thin curtain as if that would block out any noise or conversations. The medical staff visits occasionally. It’s a slow process, waiting to get tests done, then waiting for the test results, etc. It’s the middle of the night and the medical staff is stretched. You are quite literally alone with your thoughts and your wounds. Sure, you have your phone, but there are no bars and no reception in the emergency room, and who are you going to call at 3 am anyway?

    The experience brought to mind the age-old description of “being alone in a crowd.” That’s kind of the crux of the whole topic, huh?

    I am surrounded by lots and lots of people all the time. Alone in a crowd and standing on the piano bench podium. When off the podium, my loneliness is most often brought about by my own choices to isolate, just stay home, and sometimes even throw a big old pity party for myself while I’m at it. Were you one of those middle school students for whom walking into the lunchroom alone was absolute torture? I was. It still persists today. You say, no way. Not you. I say, way.

    It has been my joy to work with 250+ people for years. I work with people across the entire spectrum from introvert to extrovert and back. We all have both sides of that equation in our own profile, of course. But one of those is akin to using your preferred hand. It’s just more comfortable. Being an introvert or extrovert is not about being loud or quiet—it is about where you derive your energy … do you get it from being in a crowd, or alone? Are you energized when you are around groups of people or are you energized from being by yourself?

    In the workshops I do for choral directors across the country, I do a lot of work with Myers Briggs. It is an excellent tool. It is simple and direct enough to be able to help in the choir setting. The first dichotomy is extrovert vs. introvert. Choir directors may automatically seem to be extroverts. That is not always the case. I like to take them back to the beginning of their education for a clue. In all music schools, there are things called practice rooms. They are meant for … practice. There are students who walk in the practice room, put their music on the piano or stand, and they practice. Introverts. There are others who walk into the practice room, put their music on the piano or stand, and then look out the door to see if there is anyone out there, hanging around, to practice with. Extroverts. The first group are often pianists or other instrumentalists. The second are often singers or conductors!

    I learned much more about this when I moved to Switzerland as an opera singer. It sounds like a dream for an extrovert. Not so. While in school, you have a voice teacher, a language coach, a vocal coach, an opera director, and students are learning the opera together in opera class. Once you land on the job, none of those people are there. It’s just you. It means hours of study, practice, preparation—all on your own. Countless hours alone. When I got there, I looked out the practice room door for others who might want to hang out. No one was there. It is imperative to learn the skill of the introvert and learn to find energy there. As my Mother taught me to say, being an opera singer “was not my very favorite thing.” And that was after working for 16 years and four degrees to get there. In the end, it wasn’t for me.

    I had another dramatic period of loneliness coming my way. When I moved home, after my second extended time in Europe, my life changed completely. I came out. I was 35. I left wife, kids, church, and family. I lost everything. I was lonely and empty. I learned there was no one there but me. Alone in a room at a Motel 6. Cut off from the life and people I had known. I learned that the words so many had used before—that I had sung so often in church—were no longer soothing or encouraging.

    I had hurt before, but I had always been surrounded by people and lots of advice on what I should hang on to. This was my first time to be on empty. No one to even get me to the next station. Nope, just me, a vibrating bed, a pay-as-you-go television, and a few quarters. And yet, alone in that room, I slept well. For the first time, the heavy millstone of living a lie had been lifted from my shoulders.

    I knew very few gay people. I was as alone as I had ever been in my life. And then, the universe allowed me to start “waving my arms at the gays.” From the very first day, that included AIDS and HIV. Landing in the middle of the fight provided me with the equivalent of a master’s degree in loneliness. I saw it first hand in the young men who became sick, were thrown out of their families and their churches, and left to deal with their death sentences alone. There is no loneliness like that. In the early days, everyone was filled with fear. We thought isolation was the key. And yet, the disease itself required massive amounts of help for those affected—physical and emotional. 

    Let’s fast forward from that pandemic to our second pandemic. Loneliness and isolation have reached new levels. During the AIDS pandemic, in spite of the fear, we were able to hold, touch, and love in person. Not so with COVID. We were forced to go through it alone—at least as far as physical presence was concerned. We are just now coming out of the COVID cocoon as we move from Zoom back to our in-person lives. Only time will tell what the psychological impact will be from two years of lack of touch.

    There is one more huge challenge headed my way. In about 50 days, I’ll retire after working non-stop for 57 years. I started work as a dishwasher at 14. I’ve been conducting LGBTQ+ choruses for 35 of those 57 years. I am moving to Portland, Oregon. I know a few people there. I have no job to do, no position, no choir, no crowd. I’ll have a piano bench, but no audience. Just me. Well, and my dog Tater Tot, of course. I already know one of the things I am going to have to fight against—all those things listed above. Isolating. Staying in my comfort zone rather than walking into the lunchroom alone. But knowing this is 1/2 the battle. I’m excited about this new challenge. I’m going to work on being alone without being lonely. My close friends and family are taking side bets on what Tim will be running in Portland in short order. Dog rescue is at the top of the list. A nonprofit helping homeless or youth or homeless youth. Beer taster.

    In the beginning, I asked you to close your eyes and think about your own experience with loneliness. We all need to ignore that little voice that says, “Just stay home.” Guess what? People out there want to know you. They want you to join them in what they are doing. They want to be your friend. I am preaching to myself here. I think we have to come to the conclusion that sometimes, loneliness is a choice. Certainly, being alone is.

    In this next phase, I may be alone for a bit, but I will not be lonely. I’m taking a part of you all with me. And, the San Francisco Bay Times has asked me to keep writing! I am so grateful. So, you’ll be hearing stories from the Northwest every month! Stay tuned.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    Published on May 19, 2022