Though they’re not too pleasant to reflect on, there are times in every person’s life when he or she feels overwhelmingly alone. Such feelings often arise as the result of loss: loss of possessions, loss of health, or loss of loved ones can all evoke such feelings of becoming unstuck from the world. Like the minutes after breaking a bone, moments of profound aloneness stick, just as the very best moments do.
I’m about to leave Deerfield and miss so many people I’ve grown up with, so I can’t stop myself from feeling this way sometimes, focusing on what I’ll soon live without.
I had one such moment, a painful swell of solitude, that I’ve always had trouble moving past. It was August of 2010, during one of my very first school days of the fall, and I was already restless in English class. Having noticed an enormous National Geographic world map plastered onto the wall of my teacher Mr. Berger-White’s classroom, I found it difficult to pay attention to the lecture that was taking place.
“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes,” Thoreau said, and as the continents seemed to drift further apart, I feared Thoreau was right.
The map hung directly across from me, far out of my reach, and it was taunting me. I wanted to jump up from my desk, climb up the bookcase, and use my fingers to measure the distances between Chicago and the far-off places with people I loved. “Minneapolis!” I’d declare from my shelf-turned-podium, classmates eyeing the space between my outstretched thumb and forefinger. Baltimore might require two hands. “This is how far away I am from where I should be.” Jerusalem would require my full arm span. “Look!” I’d proclaim with hands spread wide out to connect the West to the Middle East. Maybe such a display would help everyone understand how lost I felt.
Instead, I just sat at my desk and continued to miss the places where I wanted to be and the people who were so far away.
During the fourth quarter of my junior year of high school, I studied abroad in Israel as part of the Alexander Muss program and met some of the greatest people I’ve ever known. The sixty of us came from all over; Maryland, Minnesota, Florida, Washington, Missouri, Pennsylvania were all among my friends’ home states. We lived on a campus in Hod Hasharon, a small town twenty minutes out of Tel Aviv (random fact: a couple in Hod Hasharon made headlines in May after naming their daughter ‘Like,’ after the infamous button on Facebook. Pretty questionable, yes, but all people deserve their fifteen minutes.)
Though I’ve never been a morning person, I would jump out of bed at the crack of dawn in anticipation of whatever was planned for the day. We climbed mountains, kayaked in the Jordan River, and celebrated Yom Haatzmaut (Israel’s day of independence) on the beach, among many other things. I’ll always remember when, upon seeing the campus’ questionable-looking dinner, my friends and I decided to start barbecuing steaks on cheap little grills we bought at the local deli. Those steaks seemed to taste so good, like our work added some sort of its own flavor. I never want to forget any of it because I’ve never had a better time, ever. I look at the pictures every day.
Leaving each other was devastating. We sobbed all the way from the airport to our doorsteps, and a few days afterward for good measure. Saying goodbye to my friends, knowing I could count the number of times I’d see them again on my fingers, was the most difficult thing I ever had to do. “What did this all mean,” I wondered as I trudged through the concourse towards my terminal, attracting looks as I cried by myself in the middle of a damn airport, “now that I won’t see these people anymore?”
It can be hard to say goodbye. It can even be hard to say hello if you think about how eventually you’re going to have to say goodbye. It’s a depressing thought, but a real one. There was a reunion for my Israel trip in September, and though that might have seemed like it was exactly what I needed, I’d actually contemplated not going. My reasoning was that though I would see my long-lost friends for a couple days, all the steps of missing them would be initiated again from the beginning once that weekend rolled by. I couldn’t think of a worse way to torture myself.
Kids my age have maintained long distance relationships while living very far away; Aimee and Golan, a couple from my Israel trip, stayed together all through this year, though they lived in Boston and Florida respectively. Friendships can be continued with texting, Skype, and all the many ways that people stay connected today. It’s hard to do, but definitely possible.
But other times things don’t work out that way. The people and experiences of the past can only become further in the past. It’s a depressing thought, but a real one. As high school graduates, my peers and I face this same dilemma as we begin to leave home and travel off to all corners of the country. We won’t see the familiar faces- the ones that have surrounded us for as long as we can remember- anywhere near as often. We’ll be in a new place with new people, and it will be hard to keep in touch. Even some of the strongest friendships we've maintained—bestest-buddies-since-kindergarten included-- will eventually become weak.
But thinking like that, living like that, seems wrong. So of course I ended up going to the reunion… how could I not go? Life is too short to altogether avoid pain, especially if that pain is only a side effect of something really great. That kind of pain, to me, is the good pain. But it’s also the hardest pain to deal with because sometimes a part of you never wants to heal. You want people to leave their marks on you forever. In a way, I’ve never felt more real than I did crying by myself in the middle of the airport. I’d cry like that all the time if I could. How could I not go?
I need to believe that we do not leave our experiences and friendships behind, but instead bring them with us wherever we go. That thinking was the only reason I got by post-Israel, and it’s the only way I’m going to get past my transition to college.
I’m reminded of a bit from the late and great comedian Mitch Hedberg’s routine where he says, “I don't own a cell phone or a pager. I just hang around everyone I know, all the time. If someone wants to get a hold of me, they just say 'Mitch,' and I say 'what?' and turn my head slightly.” It’s one of my favorite jokes. The mental image of everybody in your life swarming around you is a chaotic one; despite the ridiculousness of the joke, it helps me realize that even being within driving distance of everyone I want to see wouldn’t be all that great.
There would be downsides to having everyone you love near you at all times. You’d never have time to miss anybody and to wonder if they miss you too. The tiny shimmers in the calendar when you’d look forward to seeing them would dull. What would there be to look forward to? You might even get sick of some people if you never get a break to think about why you love them so much. Every day would be perfect, but also broken in monotony.
I know that something is gratifying about missing people. There’s a kind of newness when you see someone for the first time in a long time. How much more precious do those minutes seem than the rest? Time seems to fly by, and it does. You might even feel like you’ve never left each other, and in a sense you haven’t, or at least you shouldn’t have. What has been will always be. I need to believe that.
So as I sat in my desk during English, I had to come to peace with the map. After all, it would be hanging across the room all year long. I missed everybody. I solemnly acknowledged the spaces between cities, spaces that would widen and close.
And in that same moment, so too did I anticipate the most amazing thing that was to come: I had many more spaces that would soon come into being, a network doubling in size and then doubling again as I traveled from place to place, experience to another incredible experience. Some of my favorite people in the world didn't even exist to me yet, but they're all out there waiting. The realization was more than comforting; it was exhilirating.
These spaces had to exist for everybody; they are safe havens and perfect memories and escapes during rough days, the kind that are difficult in ways you can’t even explain. My spaces would float me through the hard times to come, reminding me of the very special people who are waiting for me all around the country, the world even.
I didn’t need to make a spectacle of myself in the middle of class, frantically demonstrating how my mind was elsewhere, because my classmates must have been floating then too, and always. Everyone needs places to go. I know I have plenty.