Solace in isolation
April 17, 2020
(JNS)—A frightening coincidence is upon us. As we are about to recite the plagues that preceded our ancestors’ freedom from Egyptian slavery, we endure the terrible plague that now enslaves us in anxiety and fear, tragically claiming tens of thousands of lives and decimating communities worldwide. It has imposed solitude even upon the most gregarious among us, forcing us to substitute electronic satisfaction for hugs and handshakes.To be sure, the Internet provides ample opportunities for connection, as I have learned from family members and friends who Zoom through online community sites into realms beyond my imagination. As I glimpse, only occasionally with interest, the endless stream of email communication from within my own Jewish community, my instinct for quiet privacy deepens. Coronavirus isolation, except for the daily pleasure of a nine-mile bike ride (now through empty streets), and anticipation of garden planting and snipping has not disrupted my deeply embedded daily patterns of quiet solitude. Indeed, it has reinforced them.
Where, I am occasionally asked, is this preference for isolation rooted? Surely, it began in my boyhood. For whatever reason, perhaps attributable to the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s, my parents seemed happily to have settled for only one child. Inside our apartment, I was the one and only, except for goldfish, then tropical fish and my favorites, turtles. I was fascinated by their retreat inside their shells, as I would do inside my own shell of only-ness, unaccompanied by loneliness. To be sure, rewarding and enduring friendships were forged in our apartment building, as in school, summer camp and beyond. But I knew that solitude was my safe retreat—and best of all, it was always available.
An accidental discovery during my freshman year at Oberlin College in Ohio reinforced my solitary past and redirected its future. For our required term paper, first-year students were granted freedom of choice and access (otherwise restricted) to the library stacks. As an avid Civil War buff, stimulated by Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy, I entered the silent portal and wound my way up flights of stairs past aisles of bookshelves until I reached the Civil War section.
Delighted to discover Gen. George McClellan’s memoir, I found a vacant desk in a corner and began turning its pages. To my surprise, many margins, annotated in a scrawled and fading script, were sharply critical of McClellan’s military hesitancy. Turning back to the inside cover, I found the inscribed signature of Jacob D. Cox, who had served under McClellan at the beginning of the war. History, I realized, was not carved in stone. It was a debate among participants and between past and present, inviting interpretation and disagreement. And its mysteries could be revealed in solitude, whether in libraries, books or archives.
Six decades of reading and writing provided my self-monitored opportunities for solitude, freedom and creativity. My home “study” (“office” seemed far too bureaucratic) became my sanctuary, my den of creativity. Solitude, after all, does not equal loneliness; for a writer, it is necessary for inspiration.
Over time, my collection of antiquities from Israel became stimuli for research and writing. On the wall above my computer are 19th-century lithographs from the Holy Land. My unrivaled favorite is by David Roberts, the Scottish painter whose artistry captured—some have said Orientalized—biblical holy sites. His depiction of the magnificent Machpelah enclosure in Hebron, burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people, is riveting.
In my nearby display cases are Canaanite fertility figures and juglets, Bar Kokhba and King Herod coins, intricately engraved silver tzedakah boxes, copper hanukiot and an ivory yad for Torah reading. Competing for attention (not surprisingly) are dozens of stone turtles, including one that served as a second century BCE oil lamp discovered by my son in an antiquities shop in the Old City of Jerusalem. They are, I long ago realized, tangible symbols of my penchant for solitude, within my own shell.
Solitude, after all, does not equal loneliness; for a writer, it is necessary for inspiration.
Since my retirement from teaching a decade ago, without lectures to prepare or papers to grade, the quiet has been my enclosure for thinking and writing. No accompanying background music or telephone rings are permitted. Only the hourly chimes of two antique clocks punctuate the silence. My daytime companions, ever since I was a graduate student, have been cats—a procession of furry felines with their own genetic preference for solitude. Good weather always prompts an afternoon bike ride and, in all seasons except winter, hours of planting perennials and dead-heading in my garden. They are, predictably, solitary activities.
I cannot prove that my adult life as a scholar and writer is solely attributable to my solitary childhood. I have talented and accomplished friends who grew up with siblings. But for me, the linkage is indisputable. I became who I am because from an early age, I was left alone, free to choose my own interior journey. I cannot relive my life down a different path, nor would I choose to do so. To be sure, there are many—friends and family members among them—for whom “only” implies lonely (often for good reason). But for me, seclusion has provided the opportunity for contemplation and intellectual creativity.
So, amid swirling waves of coronavirus anxiety and fear, I find safe refuge in my study. I may have paid a high price over many years for isolation, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It is who I am, and likely to remain, for as long as I live—and, inevitably, forever after.
Passover, the night that is different from all other nights for its testimony to the power of memory, reveals the fascinating irony that our freedom is inexorably linked to its rules and prohibitions.
Chag Passover Sameach!
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.