Making solitude of spring

Opinion by Maddie Kim
April 27, 2017, 12:03 a.m.

After spending my first two quarters at Stanford relatively busily, taking classes that didn’t end until the evening and spending my dinner hours completing homework before rushing off to rehearsals or meetings, I wanted spring to feel leisurely — I wanted to spend time reading and writing and slowing down.

And while I realize it might not line up with the dominant view of what one should be doing in college, I pursued this leisure and slowness anyway: I signed up for two poetry classes and one English class, I quit my residential academic program to which I had previously devoted 10 hours each week, I bought a couple of books I had been meaning to read, and I was excited to see what sense of fulfillment this newfound time would bring.

This space of independence, while definitely liberating and intellectually stimulating, has also given rise to moments of extreme loneliness.

Twice a week after a morning class, I climb four steep flights of stairs to the roof of McMurtry, feeling on the edge of a remote Stanford, and eat an apple and a bagel alone, reading or looking out onto the Rodin Sculpture Garden or the milling families far below.

When I return to my room in the afternoon, the hallways are empty and still, as all my dormmates have gone to SLE lecture or section, and I often spend time alone in my large, airy triple with the windows open and nobody passing by. Going to and from classes, sitting in large lecture halls and eating in different dining halls fill me with a sensation of being with everyone and no one at once.

I’ve often heard this kind of loneliness described as a bubble thickened by the presence of others, but to me, it seems more like an invasion of sorts, like swimming for the first time, visceral sensations isolating in their unfamiliarity.

In Donald Hall’s “Between Solitude and Loneliness” in The New Yorker, Hall writes about a lifetime of yearning for and loving solitude, and the pain of crossing over from solitude to loneliness. For Hall, it’s a division that seems largely related to the social and relational context in which that solitude resides: After divorcing his first wife, and after the death of his second wife, Jane Kenyon, Hall describes periods of solitude’s transformation into loneliness, without comfort, without that sensation of the soul’s companionship that solitude carries. Perhaps the advent of spring, with its seemingly perpetual sunshine and newborn blooms, turns activities like walking to class or eating alone more isolating.

This quarter, reputed to be lax and lovely, has also hosted some of the most solitary periods. This, on some level, has surprised me, because I have always expected beautiful weather to reflect its warmth in my personal life. I’ve also noticed that this sensation of singularity is born when I am most impervious to the outside world, though when it becomes loneliness, its state is exacerbated by its contrast with the lightheartedness and inviting beauty of spring.

I’ve talked a lot in the past few weeks with people who have noticed the time I’ve spent alone and reached out to me about it, and I’ve found that this numbly painful sense of isolation is more common than I had initially thought.

Amidst the buzz of housing season, pre-assignment and roommate formations, when I felt particularly lonely after realizing I didn’t really know who I could room with next year, many older friends told me that they’ve felt that same place of unknowing and distance. I’ve heard stories about friends who have (or have considered) taking a quarter off because of this confluence of disconnection and constant communication that our academic lives require of us.

This common sense of singularity has been both comforting and disheartening, but also instructive and enlightening. And while this loneliness is certainly universal, I feel like a version exists that is Stanford-specific: the image of a relaxed, sunlit California, this Pacific Coast Dream of our collective cultural subconscious. Or maybe, at the end of the day, this solitude is all still the same.

I’m trying to figure out how to turn loneliness back into solitude, and to give solitude its due (not constant) time, to feel it when it is most comforting. The advice of my peers and their willingness to listen has slowly aided me in figuring out a system of emotional navigation, although I’m not yet sure of which steps are most fruitful or antidotal. It has involved identifying connections, however minute, and savoring them, recognizing the opportunities I have to read and reflect and listen to the reflections of others.

I’m reaching for a spring both solitary and connective, to transform loneliness back into the solitude I have loved and always will.


Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’

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