When I was little, every child had certain classics in their first library. I grew up in Denmark, and one of the must-have’s was called, Palle alene i verden — which means: Palle alone in the world. The book was written in 1949 so it was already a bit antiquated in the 70’s. Nevertheless, every Danish child (and adult) knows it by heart — even my kids who weren’t even born in that country or in that century.
It’s about a little boy, Palle who wakes up one morning. He goes downstairs to find that mom and dad are nowhere to be found. To his delight he can eat anything he wants and then takes a walk around town, all by himself. He goes to the bakery, which is also deserted, and again he eats treats to his heart’s content. He makes a few more snacking stops and then he goes to catch the tram but since there is no driver, he drives it himself to the airport. I seem to remember that he bongs his head on the way because he hits something because he doesn’t really know how to run a tram.
At the airport he finds a plane and since the world is completely empty, aside from Palle, he enters the cockpit and ascends into space. Higher and higher up to the moon and stars, until he somehow crashes and wakes up in his bed. It was all a (bad?) dream. He is not alone in the world after all.
This story has been read and re-read by so many generations of Danish children. My now 18-year-old daughter who was raised in the States, remembers the book vividly and in fact, the name of the main character, has become an adjective. If you want to express a sense of loneliness and disconnection to a fellow Dane, you can simply say, I feel really “Palle” — and it’s understood immediately. You are in a situation where you may be free to do whatever you want but there is something missing. Someone is missing.
My daughter goes to school in Denmark now and my son is part-time with his dad which means that much of the time, I am pretty Palle here in the United States. Don’t get me wrong. I have beautiful relationships both intimate, romantic (one!) and meaningful. But I have no family consistently available here.
It’s taken me a long time to truly acknowledge the loneliness inherent in the immigrant experience. 20 years to be exact. But there it is. A small permanent pit in my stomach that can never really be filled. Because what is missing is having morning tea (Assam) with my sister. Stopping by my brother’s house to see his new baby boy or looking forward to Sunday dinner with my mom and step-dad. I desperately miss being part of a family where love and belonging is not something I have to earn. It’s a given. Something I can take for granted. I can’t lose it and I will never be shunned.
When I first moved to the United States in 1998, I felt wildly free. I got cats, yay! My mom was always terribly allergic so that was never an option when I lived there. I got my ears double pierced, yay! Tattooed, yay! My house became a spiritual hub for the Waldorf Community and I was able to stay home with my kids — really not possible in Danish society.
Also, I quit drinking shortly after I started meditating in 1989 which really didn’t go over that well with Danish society. At least back then, evening socializing always centered around drinking and to quit drinking for no apparent reason (meditation wasn’t a valid reason) just seemed pretty strange to most. So coming to the States, I was free to, just like Palle, eat, or not drink as the case may be, exactly what I wanted. But at the end of the day, being away from my tribe has come at a price.
Always feeling a bit Palle.
I am not writing this out of self-pity. The personal lessons I have learned from living away from home, speaking another language, teaching even in another language have stretched me far beyond what I would have predicted for myself. But after two decades of trying to make a home in the United States, I have a bigger heart than ever for immigrants who leave family behind. I do feel, viscerally, the greater plan at work in that I have ended up teaching at Saint Paul College. A place that welcomes and trains many first and second generation immigrants. My heart knows so deeply what only raw experience can teach: that in every human being is a need to belong. To feel welcome and worthy. To be seen and to feel important and cherished. That even though the American dream is one of becoming free, it can also be a bad (?) dream of utter loneliness and disconnection.
Of always feeling a little bit Palle.