Alone Together

Spending senior week waking up at five a.m. was not exactly what I had in mind when I imagined the fun, carefree days that would be the culmination of my senior spring. Staying out until five—that was possible. Waking up at five was simply tragic.

Yet here I am at 5:09 a.m., writing my last article for The Crimson. Lest you worry that I’ve woken up just to write these words, let me soothe your fears: I’m awake to DJ an Eric Dolphy “Orgy” on Harvard’s radio station, WHRB. An Orgy is WHRB’s signature programming, when the station throws conventional shows like “Afternoon Concert” and “Jazz Spectrum” out the door and instead plays all of the works of composers like Mozart, or devotes several hours to “Songs My Boyfriend and I Have Argued About.” The idea is creativity and above all else length, and, being the strangely committed senior that I am, I decided that there could be nothing better than 34 hours of jazz great Eric Dolphy.

Although the sounds of his bass clarinet are certainly moving right now, it’s hard to imagine a more torturous idea than waking up with the birds to sit in an empty studio, staring into the dark common area through the glass while announcing track names to the perhaps four dedicated listeners and five elderly gentleman who have decided to tune in. These estimations could even be high—it is entirely possible that I am speaking to no one right now.

Crazy as it sounds, there’s something comforting in this. It is perhaps a testament to four years at Harvard that I enjoy sitting in empty studios early in the morning listening to nothing but the sound of my own voice, but I like to think that there’s something more to this masochistic urge to wander the streets of Cambridge at ungodly hours, carrying bags full of records I will play for an unknown and unresponsive audience. As I listen to the hollow sounds of people clapping at John Coltrane concerts on the LPs I’m spinning, I know it should be depressing that this is the closest thing I’ve got to social activity right now, but I really just can’t get too worked up about it.

I’ve thought long and hard (this is the second day of my Orgy, after all), and I’ve decided that what I find so appealing in these shows is their very isolation: there is something in the requisite three hours alone that I find amazingly satisfying. Don’t get me wrong—I love my friends and, more broadly, human contact in more tangible forms than microphones and radio waves. Yet this forced loneliness offers some much-appreciated calm in the midst of the tumult of senior week social events and tearful roommate goodbye sessions.

This isn’t just some paean to my antisocial tendencies, but rather a testament to something that I think one rarely gets at Harvard: a second to breathe, alone, out of the spotlight of the relentlessly demanding student body. We live in crowded dorm rooms, we eat in communal dining halls, we participate in extracurricular activities to an almost unfathomable degree, and, when we’re not doing all that, we’re in sections with other people arguing about Durkheim or extracting DNA from strawberries. There is a strange pressure on top of all of this to “be social”—to go to the right parties, join the right clubs, make the right friends. At Harvard, we are aggressively social and we are never alone.

This point was driven home to me during my sophomore year at Harvard, when a boy broke up with me by giving me a book of Jonathan Franzen essays called “How to be Alone.” Leaving aside the stereotypically Harvard gesture of giving a girl a book to let her down gently, there was something deeply offensive at the time about the assumption that I would be so devastated about our break-up that I would need to learn how to be alone. Yet despite the irrelevance of essays on dying fathers and big tobacco, the thought of time away from other people did seem a bit terrifying. My initial revulsion to the idea slowly gave rise to the belief that being alone was synonymous with failure.

I rushed to join activities, to date new people, to gather friends around me like life rafts to protect me against the incoming tide of loneliness. I worried about hours spent alone and phones that rang infrequently, and I became convinced of my own inability to be social and loved as one, and then another, and then another, budding relationship would fail. I watched my roommates succumb to depression as their fundamental ideas of themselves were shattered by the social demands placed on them at Harvard. Although we all enjoyed our classes, the one lesson we avowedly did not want to learn was precisely that which my sophomore year fling tried to offer me, a lesson in how to be alone.

It was almost without knowing it that I fled to the one extracurricular activity I could find that could sanction my desire to be alone with the worry-free stamp of institutional approval. I had to spend two hours every morning alone listening to records; it was my job. While I realize it isn’t the bravest thing to hide under the banner of required aloneness, there is still something to be said for required solitude, for time away from Facebook and final clubs, alone in a basement, listening to screeching saxophones and melancholy chords. So here I sit, playing jazz and talking to no one (no one I can see anyway). And while it may not be the exactly what Jonathan Franzen was thinking of, I can safely say that I now know how to be alone.

Kimberly E. Gittleson ’08 is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House. She was a Crimson associate magazine chair in 2007.