Howard Axelrod is the author of The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude. His most recent book is The Stars in Our Pockets: Getting Lost and Sometimes Found in the Digital Age.
A few mornings ago, around the corner from my apartment, I passed a house with colourful signs adorning the three front windows. The childish handwriting was both exuberant and heartbreaking: We. Miss. You.
The sentiment didn’t seem childish at all. It’s a strange loneliness so many of us around the world are sharing now, a kind of undertow beneath the anxieties about health, money and food; missing not just friends and family but everyone: the familiar faces at our favourite haunts, the strangers at restaurants and cafés, the full human background of our lives.
My own circumstances during the nearly two years I lived in solitude couldn’t have been more different. I retreated to the Vermont woods by choice. No pandemic raged. But those signs reminded me of how I stumbled upon an unexpected balm for my loneliness.
At night, lying by the wood stove, I started to see the pictures in my mind. The flagstone walk outside my boyhood home, the sidewalk buckled by the roots of the holm oak, the green shutters of the Zandittens’ house, the thorny hedge in front of the Longs’ – until I realized I was following my walk to elementary school as a boy.
This probably started my first winter in the woods, when 10 feet of snow would eventually fall, and the unmaintained lane out to the dirt road became impassable. I was living in a ramshackle house in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where I’d moved at 25, a couple of years after a traumatic accident blinded me in my right eye. My hope was the solitude would erode me down to some bedrock self, a bedrock that couldn’t be changed in an instant, not by trauma or anything else.
I had no television, no computer. Sometimes weeks would pass without seeing or hearing another human being. Perhaps the pictures started coming as entertainment, or just as company. In any case, as soon as I recognized the walk to school, I challenged myself to remember every house along the way. And one house led to the next, then the next.
But the real pleasure, and likely the reason the pictures had come in the first place, was that associations started coming, too. My brother’s blue 10-speed decorated with red, white, and blue bunting for a block party; the tar patch on the curb that served as first base in neighbourhood baseball games; the rush into my best friend Paul’s house after I’d hit a comebacker straight into his face, sunlight flashing off his white bathroom sink and the warm scent of his house, so different than my own.
Perhaps these memory rides should have struck me as cheating on my solitude, escaping as I was from that house deep in the woods to warm memories of friends and neighbours. But I kept doing it night after night, sometimes revisiting that walk to school, as though tuning in to a familiar TV show, new associations coming like new episodes; sometimes picturing my cabin at summer camp, remembering each boy, bunk bed by bunk bed; sometimes returning to my grade school classrooms, remembering classmates desk by desk.
What stayed with me afterward, as I lodged a few more logs in the woodstove and went up to bed, was a surprising feeling of well-being, of tenderness not just for my close friends but for everyone, even for people I hadn’t thought of in years. I was grateful for all of them, all of my old neighbours, bunkmates and classmates, every single one of them.
And that gratitude returned me to a profound and comforting part of myself – a part of my humanity, even in solitude, that would always exist in connection to other people.
Without having tried to pack it before moving to the woods, I was sitting on a deep reserve of social provisions. As long as I let my mind go quiet, one picture would lead to another, like the frames of a film strip, and my own personal movie would start to run.
Of course, now, in my apartment outside Chicago, I can just cue up a movie on Netflix. And I’ve been doing some of that. But to feel connected to the increasingly distant and fragmenting parts of my life, and all the people in them, I’ve been tapping into my social provisions. I’ve even started going through actual old photos, organizing them, while feeling my inner life becoming more organized, too.
That truth coming from the inside helps with the truth coming from the outside. I can almost feel signs appearing on my eyelids: We miss. You too.
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