[Editor’s note: I composed this a few weeks ago after a conversation with a friend* and struggled to tie the three parts together in a pleasing manner. After several revisions, I’m still not entirely satisfied, but what fun is reading if you don’t have to think to draw out the themes? Read it, think about it, and if you believe you have figured it out, email me.]
The rain began to fall in buckets yet I stayed on the bench as people rushed for cover beneath the carousel roof. She waved as her horse glided past. My clothes were soaked and a chill sank in, but it did not matter. I was so damn happy just watching her go around and around. I can’t explain why. She looked so nice in her blue coat and with a smile on her face. God, if only you had been there.**
The first time I remember experiencing loneliness was the summer before
third grade. We had moved from a comfortable house near a park in Dearborn to a new colonial-style home in Ann Arbor. The neighborhood was still under development, and a dirt road led to single acre lots surrounded by forest. It was, as far as I was concerned, the middle of nowhere.***
But neither Ann Arbor, nor the remoteness of the house brought about my despair. Instead, I had convinced myself that leaving my friends in Dearborn was somehow my fault, and as punishment, friendship would forever escape me.
I overreacted, but grief was the only way my young and naive mind could cope with the overwhelming feeling of uncertainty that begets loneliness. I did not understand then, but that year was the first time I felt the world was a cruel and unfair place.
John Steinbeck believed that love for others came only through understanding. If you listen to and appreciate the feelings and motives of another, many of the justifications for hate, envy, and murder would cease to exist. This theme is prevalent in his fiction, particularly East of Eden, and is the reason we endear ourselves to fictional characters. We love characters whose thoughts and actions we sympathize with (e.g., Adam Trask), whereas we despise those we either do not understand or with whom we share shameful traits (e.g., Cathy Ames).****
I am not covering new ground, but it amuses me how such a basic concept can be overlooked by the majority of the human race. I suppose it is our individualist nature, the need to satisfy the self first, that blinds us to the similarities present between us all. So in a perverse way one of the most powerful emotions, that which is associated with loneliness, happens to be a universally shared feeling.
Who of us has not experienced the loneliness felt when a heart is broken for the first time and love becomes a stupid emotion that you fear and hate, yet desperately reach for. When a loved one passes away and you are inconsolable in your grief and incapable of receiving the empathy of others. And even the moment when, in the face of death, you realize how alone you truly are.
He had escaped death twice. Both instances occurred among the white-tipped peaks of the Sierra-Nevada range. Two years ago he found a solid hold that saved him from sliding off a cliff. Last year, he approached the edge of a 75-degree slope. It was mid-morning and the sun had chased away the chill of night. The warm rays softened the snow blanketing the slope he looked upon. He began to descend while his climbing partner rested on a nearby rock. Twenty feet later he slipped. In the first few seconds the ice axe was torn from his hands. Within five seconds he was careening down the side of a mountain where, 2,000 feet below, the snow gave way to a field of boulders.
He knew that life was rapidly drawing to a close, but there was no moment of
rapture, nothing flashed before his eyes. He turned onto his stomach and began
punching and kicking the snow in an attempt to slow down. His mind had never
been so singularly focused as it continued to repeat, “Fuck. Fuck. I have to stop myself.”
Everything but his heart slowed when his fists sank deep into a thick patch of snow. Then he came to a stop. If not for a small but dense snow pack untouched by the morning sun, the last moments of his life would have been brutal and terrifying, and they would have been experienced alone.
A near-death experience changes your perspective in profound ways. When he
returned home, the world moved in slow motion. The demands and condescending remarks from his boss were tuned out. There was little pleasure to be found in trivial arguments. He looked for humor in everything. The wilderness had ceased to exist as a place to regain one’s innocence as Christopher McCandless tried to do, and was now nature in its purest form, a beautiful, but treacherous and unforgiving world. But more than ever, he felt alone, unable to relate with friends whose lives had not skipped a beat.
I waited as Robert scanned and bagged my groceries. Behind me a young girl shuffled her feet. Infancy lingered in her pudgy cheeks and in the curiosity that glimmered in her eyes. She looked up and pointed to the headphones I was wearing. I removed the buds from my ears and asked if she wanted to listen. She looked at me hesitantly, but with great interest, and turned toward her mother who nodded in approval.
“Te gusta la musica?”
The mother gently reminded her daughter to say “gracias,” and as the girl
handed the headphones back she said, “Thank you mister.” I said, “De nada.”
In an instant a smile broke upon her face and she turned to her mother,
“Mama, he knows espanol!” I flashed a quick smile, took up my bags, and left
Her smile reflected an untainted happiness only a child knows. That smile showed me a glimpse of a world free of disappointment, fear, loneliness, and death; a world in which a stranger can draw comfort from the purity of an anonymous child. In that fleeting moment, I was back in Dearborn.
*You are probably thinking: what kind of depressing conversations do you have with your friends?
**This is a quote only in that I wrote it. 1,000 cocktails to you if you know what I am referencing.
***A fact I soon began to embrace as my explorations through the woods developed into daring adventures to search for frogs, scale barbed-wire fences, and wander through a field littered with ancient televisions and rusting cars. It has all been flattened by a subdivision named Walnut Ridge that boasts unoriginal and identical houses that start in the 500s.
****Adam and Cathy represent extremes of good and evil.