Isolation vs. Solitude
A meditation brought on by mushrooms and a veteran Navy diver
I recently found myself isolating at an empty apartment in the south end of Burlington. The isolation was both for practical purposes and for that deep, almost-spiritual need I get to be shrouded in silence. In a way, I guess those reasons could be one and the same: after some time, I cease to function like a human being without being given the chance to pray at the altar of solitude.
COVID has also further driven home my desire to hole up in my own mind, and revel in the rich world that exists in there. I need it more now than ever, even after discovering my writing from college, where many of my personal essays revolved around being alone, almost to a point of fixation.
There are many things that bring me back to thinking about isolation and solitude, and why I consider them separate but entangled entities. Isolation sometimes isn’t what I want to do, but what I need. Solitude is the election to spend time with myself and enjoy it. I usually enjoy both in equal parts, to the point where they became the same thing. Though, when COVID made isolation the norm instead of an occasional bout of meeting my needs? I think that’s when a distinction developed for me. I often would seek isolation in order to partake in the joys of solitude. However, when the isolation was forced, then the solitude was no longer peaceful: it became a threat, no longer in my control.
It’s only been recently that I began to pick at the tight knots that COVID tied in my mental shoelaces. Part of that was the discovery of mushrooms, which I’ve taken twice now, in small doses. Both experiences opened up parts of my brain I had either forgotten about willfully or through the ignorance of maturity. The willful lapses in memory brought me to some dark places of reckoning, but most of the experiences were filled with the delighted childlike play I had abandoned in favor of “being an adult.”
I now recognize the danger in making a stranger of your inner child.
It’s from this place of childlike play that I return to the story of the empty apartment in Burlington’s south end with more levity than I had previously recounted it in my journal:
I had been staying there because a roommate tested positive for COVID, and I responded to an instinctive desire to get to a place where I could continue to exist with my internal equilibrium intact. My friend graciously offered me their empty apartment while they were away on a cruise.
After the third or fourth day of waking up to the sun poking through the shades into the clean, warm bedroom, padding to the blissfully empty kitchen to make coffee to the sound of a podcast, I started fantasizing about an evening walk. I’d been writing almost nonstop in my friend’s tiny office and preparing to enter graduate school, my mind full of old stories, personal statements, and the logistics of shuffling my life around yet again to achieve personal goals.
The walk happened on the coldest day of the week, after a light snowfall left melted remnants on the sidewalks. This froze into black ice over the course of the afternoon, turning the pathways into a slip and slide. I wanted to get towards the sunset on the lake, but was bamboozled by the way the streets all seemed to veer away from the mountains on the lakefront. I usually would approach the lake from the northern or central part of the city. Combined with the skin of ice over most of the sidewalks, it felt like a herculean task to get to the lake in time to watch the sun create an aerial watercolor.
Resigned, I decided to enter the abandoned confines of the Barge Canal reserve off of Pine Street. I saw footsteps in the snow that looked fresh around the half-hearted fence that only blocked people from driving into the nature reserve. It amused me in a detached way that city officials thought a fence with no connecting pieces on a completely open piece of land was going to deter anyone from getting onto it. It was like having a door without a wall around it.
Tom clearly felt the same about it. The footsteps, I found, belonged to him. As I walked through snow-covered meadow grass, in line with the fresh footsteps, I came across a military-issued tent with an expertly crafted wooden structure around it. At first glance, while I walked by the opening, it seemed empty. But when I turned around, I saw a man sitting on a sealed five-gallon bucket, balancing Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma on his knee, and rolling a joint.
What struck me was that he wasn’t rolling it with his fingers, but with a device that flattened the paper out between two rollers and give the joint a tight wrap. The older man, completely gray with a thick mustache and wrapped in several woolen sweaters, called out.
“Hey there! My name is Tom.”
I feigned surprise and told him I would leave him be. He waved a hefty, callused hand at me. His tight fleece cap pressed hard against the tops of his ears, turning his earlobes red.
“Oh no need, no need. Do you smoke weed?”
He held up the small joint and a lighter.
“Not when it’s this cold,” I lied, “I have asthma.”
Even though I was unsure if he saw me as a woman, especially with how deep my voice was now and the lack of shaving I’d done in my makeshift bachelor pad, I caved to the knee-jerk reaction of never taking drugs from men.
“Good on ya, good on ya. Smoke inside,” he said while putting the joint between his lips and lighting it.
He inhaled and immediately began to cough. It came from deep in his chest; wet and threatening. It didn’t seem to bother him, though. He kept talking to me. This wasn’t the first time a stranger had opened up to me, especially one who didn’t have the occasion to talk to people. We were uniquely in the same boat that evening.
I learned that Tom was a Navy vet; he’d been a diver in their service for several years. With his barrel chest and muscled limbs, I could see him in a wet suit, his oxygen tank on his knees while he sat on the edge of a motor boat.
“The things I saw,” he exclaimed, instead with his book and a bag of weed on his knees, “My god!”
I didn’t know at the time whether or not I wanted to hear what those “things” were. I imagine they left enough of an impression on him, because, since leaving the Navy, he’d been on the road for twenty years “like Jack Keroac.” I mentioned that that was quite a long time.
“Indeed. I’ve seen things as a thru-hiker. I’ve seen faeries and all sorts of creatures. Even Sasquatch. I’ve seen Big Foot, I sure have.”
He was silent for a second, smoking. Then he smiled.
“They only appear to the pure of soul,” he told me proudly.
We lapsed into appreciable silence watching the sun turn the sky into peach sherbet. I would get my aerial watercolors after all.
“You know, Ivan,” he said, “Men come out here in their thirties and stuff. They smoke and drink and leave all their things out here. Trash.”
“That’s awful. This is a nature reserve.”
“Men, these days, they don’t know how to respect nature. They shit on the ground here. Me?”
He patted the bucket he was sitting on.
“I poop in my bucket and cart it out. I don’t shit on the ground like that.”
I told him that I was glad to hear it. I meant it. We talked for a little bit about the desecration of nature and how we needed to care for it in order for it to heal. At that, Tom’s expression clouded over.
“These days, there’s crime everywhere. Everywhere. What we need,” he pointed at the sky and stood up to pace with his joint, “is a whole separate state for the lower class. There’s just no way for all the classes and upbringings to live together.”
He went on to tell me how this would solve the policing problem, how it’d solve issues with housing. I didn’t say anything. I definitely wasn’t going to ask how he thought this would all help. Later, I thought about the layers of racist and sexist commentary that lay simmering under his overtly classist assertion. He made no secret of espousing one “ism” in an attempt to hide the others from our conversation. I wondered then (and now) if he’d mentioned this “solution” to others before, honing his delivery.
“My case manager. She says I would have an apartment four months ago. Guess what? It’s fucking winter now.”
His breath came out in puffs and he kept coughing. His chest crackled and popped like Rice Krispies.
“What the different state thing won’t solve, though, is the disrespect and lack of skill in the younger generations. Me? I was born in 1952. I learned how to respect my elders. How to cook…”
He looked at me without really seeing. I was just a vessel to take his words and reflect them back to him. An oral mirror.
“The women, these social workers and what-not, they don’t even know how to cook.”
It clicked for me then as birds whooshed over the frozen canal, silhouetted against the sunset, that he did actually think I was a man. He was confiding in me. I was equal parts triumphant and disgusted as he continued talking about the failures of the younger generations. But I stuck my hands further into my jacket pockets to pull it further away from my chest, in hopes the curves there remained hidden. The things men think it’s okay to say to other men, like some secret club.
It was gross. It was enlightening.
I told him, in as low a voice as I could manage to keep up the ruse, that I knew how to cook “even as a dude.” This excited him. He inhaled the joint and coughed again.
“Yes! It’s a skill; it’s been lost. They’ve all been lost. Let me tell you, these idiots, I had blood in my chicken the other day. Blood!”
Who “these idiots” were was lost on me. Probably women. He kept coughing, which thankfully allowed me to ask about his chest instead.
“This weed. I got it from some kids on the street - probably laced with pesticides. When I get my own place,” his eyes glazed over, “I’m going to grow my own with one of those prisms.”
He went on to talk about his 37 year-old son; I don’t know where the connection was. Maybe his son grew weed. He was riding a road of conversation on a motorcycle and I had finally lost him, panting far behind on my bicycle.
“You must be getting cold,” he said suddenly.
The sun was almost entirely gone behind the mountains. They’d turned purple in the fifteen minutes that had elapsed since I arrived in front of his tent. I made an offhanded excuse as manly as I could - something, something girlfriend - and he smiled.
“Don’t be a stranger, Ivan.”
I told him I didn’t plan to be, though I felt the need to re-wrap myself in the solitude of the evening ahead crept back up my legs, propelling me swiftly out of the Barge Canal region towards the empty apartment that awaited me. I was going to cook for myself a peanut curry. At first I thought about buying chicken for it, but Tom’s commentary about blood and chicken threw me off it.
That night, the quiet of the apartment was eerie. It pressed on my ears and tried to tell me that Tom was outside the window, watching me, that he guessed I was lying. Sometimes, the fears I had while being seen as a woman come back; I don’t think they’ll ever leave. Too many times I’ve been followed, touched, and hissed at against my will.
Speaking of hissing, I wished my friend had left her cat around. Instead of letting the thought get ahead of me and pulling me deeper into my own anxieties, I turned on some music and sung to myself as the curry bubbled away on the stove. It was that night that I decided to prematurely end my isolation, but stick to my solitude.
I went home the next day but hid in my room. Tom had managed to finish separating isolation from solitude again for me. Even if he was a Boomer who wanted to enact a Parable of the Sower dystopian future, at least I could be grateful to him for that.