Sometimes to find peace, you have to get left behind.
One summer during college, I worked at a large performing and fine arts camp as an assistant art instructor. When camp was over, and all the students were gone, there was still two weeks time before I needed to return to college. One of the campers told me the cafeteria was hiring servers for one more week – to feed all the administrative staff and incoming faculty. The pay was good – better than what I earned as an instructor, and I would have my own room and board, too. I jumped at the chance to get a little more income, and to have somewhere to be for another week. After that, I would visit with a friend in Toronto, and stay with my cousin in Rochester for a few days before school resumed.
When I took the cafeteria job, I imagined the camp as it was: full of students, instructors, and staff, all in general-issue blue oxfords and corduroy pants. I expected to still hear the music playing in the woods, smell the solvents from the print shop, and feel the rush of the crowds when Yo-Yo Ma came to play. It was exhilarating – when we weren’t working at top speed or participating in the cultural events, someone was always planning a trip to town or the sand dunes. Just like my first year of college, I was surrounded by friends and acquaintances at all times, and had become comfortable sharing my private space, even my sleep time, with others.
The first morning I realized just how different this would be. I rose at 4:30 to be ready for the breakfast shift. In the dark, the quiet was even more extreme. I locked my dorm room with the key on my lanyard and walked down a silent hallway lit intermittently with green lights. I passed the rooms of my friends, now traveling back to Chicago and Madison, their names peeled off the doors.
I walked silently along the lake to the cafeteria, in that early morning light that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. The cafeteria was the only place that seemed awake – the bright yellow of incandescent lights and formica tables glowed in the blue coldness. The cooks, local women who worked here year-round, welcomed me into the warmth, handing me a hairnet and apron and directing me to the food line. I stood at attention before steaming trays of water, readying my smile and serving arm.
The faculty trickled in, couples in blue with brown sweaters, chatting about that new movie “Forrest Gump,” or debating the merits of Shostacovitch. I smiled as I dished out their oatmeal and eggs. To most of them I was invisible, just a pair of hands attached to a spoon. Some smiled at me or said, “hello.” I replied, but the steaming table between us made the interactions distant and more for procedure’s sake than genuine contact. At the end of my shift, I washed my hands and said goodbye to the cooks, who were by now intent on their preparations for lunch.
This became my routine for breakfast and dinner – I got this awkward schedule because I was the new kid, most of the girls and one boy who worked the line had either breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner – so they had a big part of the day on their own. For me, I had about 5 hours midday to do as I pleased, and then again after dinner – but I soon discovered that I was happy to go to bed early.
I spent most of my free time alone – there were a few other folks like me, but they lived somewhere else, and were their own little clique. I wrote in my journal constantly – I don’t remember what I wrote, but at the time it felt cathartic. I had complicated camp relationships to process, friendships and a romantic entanglement that left me confused. I focused so much on how others felt about me, that I rarely gave myself space to just be. Sitting on the top bunk writing it all down, I became my own best friend, listening to myself for as long as it took.
Surprisingly, with just a little space to think, the writing flowed, and I was able to move on. In just a few days, I had become comfortable with listening to the world around me, and speaking only in my mind. Though the nights were more difficult – each sound in the hallway magnified by the comparable silence – I was getting used to that, as well.
Let me explain how alone I was: This was 1991, and there were no cell phones. I didn’t own a computer, and I don’t remember even seeing one on campus. To make a phone call, you had to walk down to the basement, a huge white linoleum expanse that felt both clinical and spooky, to a wall-mounted rotary phone. I had a calling card to make long distance calls, but was running low on minutes, and wanted to save the calls for important ones while I was traveling. I think the basement had a television, but as I said it was creepy there – so who was going to watch it?
I had a book to read, a journal to write in, and a cassette player to play tapes – which I was reluctant to play, breaking the quiet like a glass shattering. It rained a lot that week, and I found myself happy to stay sitting on the top bunk, looking out at the murky greyness, and enjoying the pattering of rain on the trees and pine needles below.
I write this on a similarly grey day on an island in Lake Champlain, when I have chosen to stay behind, as my husband hikes with our friend Rachel, and my parents visit sites with their friends. I had to explain to all of them why I wanted to be alone, companionship is the norm now. I heard one car after another drive off, and quiet descended. I write upstairs in the bedroom under the eaves, a cozy hidey-hole far away from everything. The rain is again a comfort, and I am assured peace for several hours.
But this time I have a cell phone, and this computer is connected to Wi-Fi. It is a great effort to not “plug-in” and call a friend, or watch a video, or check my e-mail. I will buckle eventually, and let the outside world back in. But for now I am alone on an island (literally), and enjoying the silence as I did back then.