Longreads Needs Your Help

During our Winter Member Drive, we are hoping to raise $50,000 in funding for new journalism and storytelling.

If you support our mission, please contribute today: Make a contribution

Your support means more top‑notch journalism and storytelling.

Make a contribution

On Solitude (and Isolation and Loneliness [and Brackets])

Sarah Fay reflects on four years spent in solitude (and isolation [and loneliness]), viewing it through the lens of punctuation.

Sarah Fay | Longreads | March 2020 | 18 minutes (5,122 words)

 

The change came less as a chrysalis moment, an instant of emergence and blossoming, than after weeks of distress. My apartment at the time was in the rear of the building, away from the street. Even by studio standards, it was tiny — the kitchen too close to the bed, the bed practically touching the bookshelf and the desk. It had a slight view of the Chicago skyline but mainly looked onto a brick wall. My immediate neighbors kept to themselves. They were presences, a series of doors opening and closing. I’d lived contentedly in that remove. It suited me. Then it didn’t. 

Naturally, I blamed my apartment — the claustrophobic lack of square footage, the oppressive brick wall. The moment I walked in the door, I felt a crushing weight on my chest, followed by a pit in my stomach. My environment had to be the cause.

In his essay on solitude, the 16th-century essayist Michel de Montaigne disagrees: “Our disease lies in the mind, which cannot escape from itself.” Finding contentment in solitude requires self-reliance. (Ralph Waldo Emerson would later agree, though he remained very much engaged in public life.) Montaigne advises us to keep a “back shop,” a private room within the self, where others can’t enter. Plaster and wood have nothing to do with it. We must have “a mind pliable in itself, that will be company.” My inner back shop had somehow transformed from a place of solitude to one of isolation and loneliness.

The ideal of solitude is strength. It’s a skill to be mastered: the ability to be alone without feeling lonely. 

It’s decidedly male and often nationalistic, a symbol of American independence. It’s Thoreau, who writes in Walden that he never felt lonesome “or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude,” except once, for an hour, when he “doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life.” Of course, he may have found “the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant” because his “solitary” cabin was on land owned by Emerson, his very close neighbor. Thoreau often went to the Emersons for dinner, entertained friends at his cabin, and received meals from his mother. (That said, his Walden Pond experiment was less about living alone than living simply in nature.)

It’s righteous. It’s Benjamin Rush, the physician and founding father, who once called solitude “a mechanical means of promoting virtue.”

It’s a source of wisdom. It’s the Buddha on the path to enlightenment, Jesus and Moses in the desert, Muhammad on the mountain. It’s Thomas Merton abandoning the vacuous debaucheries of New York for the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. As he writes in Thoughts in Solitude, “When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority.” For Merton, “interior solitude” is essential. 

Looking back, that time I spent in solitude is bracketed; that’s how it’s punctuated for me now.

Four years. That’s how long I spent in what can only be called solitude. Or can it? What constitutes a solitary life? I wasn’t a recluse. True, I fit the secondary meaning of the word: a person removed from society. But the primary definition is one who retreats for religious reasons, and I didn’t follow a faith. Besides, recluse has an air of eccentricity about it. It’s J.D. Salinger, No. 1 on Time’s “Top 10 Most Reclusive Celebrities” list, forsaking publishing and granting just two interviews, one of which was to a teenage girl; and Howard Hughes, No. 2 on the list, who holed himself up in the Beverly Hills Hotel and let his finger and toenails grow as much as an inch in length (though in all fairness, he suffered from onychomycosis, which made his nails painful to clip). I wasn’t a hermit, which has an even stronger religious connotation than recluse does. 

It might best be called urban solitude. I resided among people, passing them on the street, but never engaged. Not once did I dine out or go to the movies or to a museum. I held a job — 12 hours a week, 30 weeks of the year, I taught English at a university. I worked out at a gym. I visited my mother. But that was pretty much it. I saw no friends and rarely talked on the phone, even breaking off a friendship with someone who lived in another city and wanted to speak once a week to stay connected, because that much contact was unaccountably burdensome to me.

People — scientists, psychologists, journalists, bloggers — often distinguish between solitude and isolation. The binary is simplistic: solitude good, isolation bad. Isolation is a punishment, thrust upon us and never entered into by choice. The word connotes solitary confinement and incarceration — two tactics rooted in oppression. The common remark that someone with a peaceful mind will enjoy isolation as monkish solitude whereas someone with a troubled mind will suffer solitude as imprisonment woefully misses the point that a monk typically isn’t in a 48-square-foot cell and is free to leave at any time. 

I was free to leave but never went far. Not a single vacation or journey. Not even a quick road trip just to get out of the city. In fact, I rarely went outside a five-mile radius. Same bed. Same breakfast, lunch, and dinner table. Same desk. Same walls.

By definition, solitude and isolation are more nuanced than the good-bad binary makes them out to be. Solitude isn’t all purity and fortitude. It’s merely “the quality or state of being alone or remote from society” and can be “a lonely place.” And isolation isn’t necessarily punitive. The verb “to isolate” denotes the voluntary act of separating from others. It’s benign, even positive: “occurring alone or once.” 

The fears of solitude and isolation have been pathologized. People who suffer from autophobia, the fear of solitude, and eremophobia, the fear of isolation, don’t just go to great lengths not to be alone (overprogramming themselves or their children, a kind of busyness by proxy that only people with the luxury of time and money have the option to do); when alone, they’re choked by a sense of impending doom and danger. The autophobe dreads seclusion to the point of hyperventilation; the eremophobe fears isolation to the point of nausea, sweating, dizziness, even fainting. 

In trying to assuage their anxiety, autophobes and eremophobes face an existential problem: Solitude and isolation aren’t just physical conditions; they’re mental states. (The social neuroscientist John Cacioppo called this “perceived social isolation.”) One need only think one is alone or ignored or unloved to feel enclosed, walled in, bracketed off to the point of anguish. 

The cause of these phobias is unknown although Rush, the same physician founding father who extolled the virtues of solitude and first identified the fear of solitude as “solo phobia,” believed it struck those who thought not enough or too much, letting their guilty minds wreak havoc: “This distemper is peculiar to persons of vacant minds, and guilty consciences. Such people cannot bear to be alone, especially if the horror of sickness is added to the pain of attempting to think, or to the terror of thinking.” (Like many of the founding fathers, Rush is a complicated figure, fighting for humanitarian causes while holding racist and sexist beliefs.) 

Neither affliction has a cure. Treatment might involve cognitive behavioral therapy, where the autophobe confronts the irrationality of fearing solitude. Or exposure therapy, where the eremophobe is quarantined for minutes or hours (though this seems to harken back to ice baths and straight jackets). Or medication, the occasional benzodiazepine or daily beta-blocker. Or talk therapy, the efficacy of which is unknown. Or meditation, relaxation, and breathing exercises, America’s 21st-century prescription for so many ailments.

Autophobia has been gaining attention as a “women’s problem.” A recent article in a women’s magazine told readers that the fear of being alone might be a sign that a woman is just afraid she’s “not good enough to attract someone” or worried she’ll get hurt along the way. The editors of said magazine must not know that this doesn’t classify as phobic thinking, and an article like that does little more than tell women they’re pathologically insecure.

Clearly, I suffered from neither autophobia or eremophobia, nor did I experience an agoraphobic aversion to going out. I had a reasonable dislike of crowded places: music festivals; parades; my nearby farmer’s market, where people gathered to buy $6 pints of organic blueberries and artisan pizzas and participate in drum circles. True, I avoided stores to what some might call an unhealthy degree, ordering everything I could online, including my groceries. Still, I existed in the world; I just happened to spend most of that existence cloistered in a tiny room alone.

Not once in those four years was I lonely. Like the solitude-good, isolation-bad calculation, a similar binary is applied to solitude and loneliness, except loneliness isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous. In the U.S., it’s referred to as an epidemic, said to affect teenagers and the elderly most acutely. It’s a bigger health threat than smoking, contributing to heart disease and increasing the risk of arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, and suicide attempts. Loneliness affects how we work, making us less likely to succeed and take pleasure in what we do.

But etymologically speaking, loneliness isn’t threatening. The primary definition is “being without company.” Only the tertiary and quaternary definitions emotionalize it as “sad from being alone” and “producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation.” 

Loneliness, like any difficult emotion, gets its power from the conviction that you’re the only one feeling it. As a defense, we reassure ourselves that others feel it, too. We join loneliness meetup groups, hold speed-friending events, even form people haters clubs. Thousands of us like the books cited on the loneliness quotes page on Goodreads. A quote from Jodi Picoult’s bestseller My Sister’s Keeper received 11,000 likes: “Let me tell you this: if you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.” The loner, the lonely one, isn’t to blame; it’s other people. 

During my solitude (or isolation [or loneliness]), it might be assumed that sex played no part in my life, but I had two monthlong relationships. It’s hard to call them relationships given their brevity and the way they played out. Both men lived in other cities, so I didn’t see them more than a handful of times. Both had been in my life years earlier, mainly as friends. Both were solitaries too. One lived on a remote farm in Michigan, the other in Portland, Oregon. Both went about their lives much the way I went about mine, albeit in larger spaces. (Both owned houses. No brick walls blocking their views.) Most of our interactions happened by text, which gives a false sense of intimacy. Frequent texting, with its vibrating interruptions into what might be an otherwise dull day, makes us feel wanted and attractive. But solitaries, I realized too late, don’t do well together. There was a prickliness to us. A certain distance had to be maintained. Both relationships ended fiercely and fast as if each of us had reached our saturation points of closeness and had to retreat or risk losing the edges — those brackets — that protected us. Neither were, to my knowledge, lonely either. 

What about other media? Television? Radio? Do these media release us from solitude, rescue us from isolation, save us from loneliness?

On the internet, one of the most quoted lines about loneliness is wrongly attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” The quotation appears on Pinterest and Tumblr, in articles and epigraphs. It’s cited on a blog claiming to be an analysis of the novel. It has 7,000 likes on Goodreads.

Although the quotation isn’t from Gatsby, this is: “I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others — young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.” Nick admits this after he has attended the three parties that structure the first three chapters of the novel: the dinner at Tom and Daisy’s affluent home, the soiree at Myrtle’s Manhattan apartment, and the flapper bash at Gatsby’s mansion. No one, it seems, can cure Nick’s loneliness. But someone does, albeit momentarily. In the coupé on his birthday, he thinks of his age and his future: “Thirty — the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.” Then Jordan puts her head on his shoulder and “the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand.” Perhaps this actual quotation from the novel isn’t cited on social media or in blogs because it doesn’t fit our narrative that loneliness is inescapable and absolute.

In the past, Gatsby has been a companion to me. I taught the novel to undergraduates at least once a year, rereading it along with my students, nearly all of whom were assigned it in high school and forced to discuss the symbolism of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock ad nauseam. Most students came away from the novel with a completely different take on it. As one student wrote in her evaluation, “It was like I’d never read it before. It’s really good.” 

During my solitude (or isolation [or loneliness]), I listened to six unabridged audio editions, some several times. Of the six, the one that tends to come up first in a Google search is the glitzy Hollywood version narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal. The five other editions range in quality. Anthony Heald’s New York accent is distracting; Nick is from “the Middle West” and, if anything, should sound Minnesotan. Frank Muller’s narration is oddly sinister. (This may be because he also narrates, quite brilliantly, The Silence of the Lambs, and the memory of his performance still echoes whenever I hear his voice.) William Hope’s version is so blithe and Humphrey Bower’s so choppy as to make them unlistenable. The very best version features Alexander Scourby, the only narrator whose reading — with his hesitations and ability to draw out certain words — communicates Nick’s unreliability, an easily overlooked but crucial dimension to the novel. (If you’ve just raised an eyebrow, note that lying and seducing and ghosting women are, in fact, indicators of unreliability.)

Did these audiobooks count as companionship? Given that research has shown that reading narratives can decrease feelings of loneliness and audiobooks have similar benefits to reading, it might be safe to say yes. Other studies have examined how hearing loss increases feelings of loneliness, so the sound of another’s voice in your ears — the gift of Toni Morrison reading Beloved or Gabriel Woolf reading The Brothers Karamozov — must do something for us.

What about other media? Television? Radio? Do these media release us from solitude, rescue us from isolation, save us from loneliness? According to researchers, watching a favorite show staves it off, but a Netflix binge is a sign of it. Watching one episode functions as “social surrogacy” but sitting on the couch for 10 hours to consume an entire season is a red flag. Radio, according to surveys conducted by media strategists and the BBC, can be “a lifeline.” 

I did watch single episodes at a time, mostly Nordic noir — Forbrydelsen and Borgen and Bron/Broen — but didn’t listen to the radio. Instead, I read — a lot. 

My reading selections during those years of solitude (or isolation [or loneliness]) were ironic. For instance, I read all of Patricia Highsmith’s work. Highsmith was also a solitary who spent most of her life in Switzerland among cats. (She, however, was a rabid misanthrope and an alcoholic.) In her stories and novels, she favors degenerate, predatory protagonists who cheat and steal and lie and murder and whom we, perhaps uncomfortably, end up rooting for. I reread Strangers on a Train so many times I lost count. It’s fitting that I would immerse myself in a book about a seemingly fleeting human interaction so potent that one character has the power to influence the other to commit murder. My walls, after all, were up.

Brackets emit a feeling of enclosure. Which is how I now see those four remote years: walled off, the self alone with the self, inside the self.

And social media? Many point to it as the cause of America’s collective loneliness. MIT researcher Sherry Turkle, one of the preeminent theorists of social media’s effects on our relationships, insists that social networking, and technology in general, has made us “connected, but alone.” We text when we should meet, comment and tweet when we should talk. Her research is primarily ethnographic. She observes and interviews, as she puts it in her TED Talk, “hundreds and hundreds of people,” including her daughter and her daughter’s friends, and reaches widespread conclusions based on those interactions; she conducts no scientific studies of her own. Social media, she says, denies us the capacity to find solace in ourselves and makes us lonelier: “Because by being in constant connection, we lose the capacity to feel content in our own company. If you don’t learn how to be alone, you’ll only know how to be lonely.” In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, she writes, “People are lonely. The network is seductive.” For Turkle, social media is a contradiction: “We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us less lonely. But we are at risk because it is actually the reverse: If we are unable to be alone, we will be more lonely.”

Yet many studies are cited without giving us the whole picture; others contradict Turkle’s view. Doctors, psychologists,and journalists often mention a study that found that only negative experiences on social media contribute to loneliness. Another reported social media can contribute to feelings of isolation but couldn’t state definitively which came first: isolation or social media. On the 2018 Cigna U.S. Loneliness scale, people who consistently used social media scored 43.5% whereas people who never used it scored 41.7%. It was a draw. In a Pew Research Center report from late 2018, in which roughly 700 teenagers were surveyed, eight in 10 teens (81%) reported that social media enhances their friendships and two thirds (68%) said they felt more supported by their friends in times of crisis because of it.

Social media made me neither connected nor alone. My followers on Twitter were in the double digits. I had hundreds and hundreds of friends on Facebook whom I didn’t know, even by name. I didn’t have an Instagram account. (How many artistic and abstract photos of my brick walls could I post?) Still, when I did go on social media, solitude didn’t make me immune to its effects. Facebook disheartened me and Twitter overwhelmed me, just as they sometimes do to other people. 

In combating loneliness, Turkle and the Cigna study agree that social media is less a factor than the quality of our interactions and merely having people in our lives does little; one in four Americans feel misunderstood, two in five don’t think their relationships are meaningful, and only half report having meaningful interactions on a daily basis. 

Maybe there’s another cause of loneliness. Edward Hoagland considered what he called “the crab-claw pinch of loneliness” on nature’s terms. As we’ve deepened our connection to technology, we’ve lost touch with the environment: 

We run marathons, visit animal shelters, tend rooftop honey hives, shop organically, and view cooking shows, among other compensations for the withering of nature out of doors — the lawning of America. Nonetheless, we text as we hike, less aware than we were of birdsong, false dawn, forest ponds.

The effect, Hoagland writes, is nature’s “swan song.” Loneliness is “a natural alarm-bell system” warning us to stop our abuse and neglect of the environment. If we don’t, we risk losing the one thing that can cure our lonesomeness.

Each day during my solitude (or isolation [or loneliness]), I went for a walk. My route through the park was relatively secluded. In the winter, it was downright desolate. It was always the same: under the bridge, north along the lagoon, past the driving range, to the harbor, and back. I don’t recall communing with nature; I barely saw the red-winged blackbirds and the monarch butterflies and didn’t notice until much later that an entire row of trees had died as a result of a beetle infestation. Just the route comes to mind, the repetition and orderliness of following the same path. There and back. There and back. 

I may have been outdoors, but I was still inside myself. Blocked off. Looking back, that time I spent in solitude is bracketed; that’s how it’s punctuated for me now. 

* * *

I discovered the power of brackets [ ] 10 years ago in the basement of a community center in Brooklyn teaching English as a second language. Most of my students had low incomes. Many were undocumented. These men and women sat in uncomfortable, beat-up school desks determined to learn English — such a difficult language to acquire with its changeling grammar rules and high-maintenance punctuation marks. They did so for three hours, three evenings a week while juggling multiple jobs and taking care of families. I’ve never had students so unabashedly grateful to me for teaching them. My birthday was met with a massive white-icinged cake and blue balloons. 

One night in class, I double-checked the answer to a grammar question. I turned to my copy of Warriner’s English Grammar and Punctuation. The book fell open to the page on brackets. 

Brackets signify a double enclosure in a text. They’re commonly used in citations but can also indicate parenthetical thoughts. Thoughts inside thoughts: (I am solitary [or am I isolated?].) They illustrate the way the mind works (most minds [or perhaps only my mind]) with its reservations and clarifications and contradictions. One thought can be a statement, another a question. One can communicate certainty, another doubt. Though some grammarians say that brackets include unnecessary information, this is far from true: Brackets represent our internal lives, our deepest secrets.

Rarely do we use brackets this way. Most grammarians would opt for commas or dashes, yet brackets occupy the primary position on two keys on the qwerty keyboard while parentheses (which we use more often) are relegated to secondary positions on the 9 and the 0 keys. Perhaps we don’t communicate through brackets to avoid experiencing the depths of ourselves. Commas are but speedbumps of separation, dashes are practically invitations to enter, and parentheses ask us to step over and inside. Brackets, on the other hand, are walls. 

The origins of brackets — once referred to as crotchets, crooks, or hooks — are a mystery. A distant cousin of the chevron <>, brackets are said to have been invented in the 14th century. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, brackets don’t appear in print until 1676 when the English Dictionary defined them as “marks of parentheses.” They show up in Samuel Richardson’s 1747 epistolary novel Clarissa (a tome I’ve actually read) and in Laurence Sterne’s 1759 novel Tristram Shandy (a tome I haven’t) to express material omitted not by the editor or the author, as would later become common practice, but by the characters. Brackets would eventually be used most often by editors to make comments and corrections on a text.

Like marks of parentheses, brackets are broken pieces of what once was whole. When the Elizabethan scholar and rhetorician Angel Day created parentheses, he conceived of them as a circle divided in two: 

 Given this, we might envision brackets as a broken square: 

Brackets emit a feeling of enclosure. Which is how I now see those four remote years: walled off, the self alone with the self, inside the self.

Although the emergence from solitude (or isolation [or loneliness]), wasn’t a chrysalis moment, a particular morning stands out in my memory as marking the before and after. One day in late January, I woke to the sound of the wind whistling through the unsealed gaps in my windows. I pulled up the shades to find them covered in frost. I couldn’t see outside, couldn’t even glimpse the neighboring brick wall. The weather app showed a “feels-like” temperature of negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit. A Google search revealed that a public-health advisory had been issued, warning people to stay inside. Schools and businesses were closed.

Normally, this would have been just another day in the apartment. I ate breakfast, wrote for a while, and graded papers. I’d just finished washing my spoon and cereal bowl when my skin started to itch. I scratched my forearms, inciting the itch. Soon my skin was red and puffy. I put Cortaid on it, and the itching went away a bit. 

Back at my desk, sitting at the computer, the shades drawn to keep out the cold, my apartment felt oppressively small. The walls didn’t close in so much as I became more aware of their closeness than ever before. I tugged at my turtleneck. My mouth went dry. It felt like I couldn’t swallow. My only thought was, Out.

None of my neighbors were in the hallway. No one joined me in the elevator. The lobby, too, was vacant. 

I stood at the glass-door entrance of my building, which wasn’t covered in frost, and peered out at what might have been a portrait of extinction. No cars passed on the street, no pedestrians on the sidewalk. Whereas once being cut off wouldn’t have fazed me, a wave of solitude (and isolation [and loneliness]) crashed over me. I saw in my reflection a woman very much alone, ready to reach out.

That force, a reach more powerful than the one that had pulled me into myself, propelled me out. It wasn’t pleasant. I became increasingly distressed. My whole default mode was ruptured. I felt exposed, my brick walls and frosted windows demolished. My life was no longer bracketed in the same way. 

Brackets represent our internal lives, our deepest secrets.

One could argue that brackets, like human beings, are fundamentally relational. They communicate to the reader when someone else’s words have been altered. In quotations, they signal when only part of a sentence is being quoted but presented as if it’s a stand-alone clause. A capital letter is substituted in place of the lowercase one, taking Things weren’t great, but he was no longer lonely and changing it to [H]e was no longer lonely. It says these are someone else’s words that I’m using for my own purpose. They are boundaries inserted to connect two voices, causing the meaning to change. Brackets also clarify the context: He isn’t always like this [lonely]. Like people, they can be passive-aggressive, even a little catty, as in the case of sic, which points to an error in the original text: He says he’s never lonly [sic]. Not my error; that’s someone else’s.

Eventually, I settled into new patterns. A reasonable part of my day was spent in the company of others — family, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers. And I didn’t just notice people; I took note of them: the cashier at the grocery store, the person behind me in line, my Uber driver, the couple at a nearby table. Each day, upon returning to my building, I rode the elevator and stood in silence with my neighbors. Most of them stared down at their phones. When we reached my floor, I’d wish them a good evening, smile, and try to make eye contact with at least one person. Some responded with surprise, others like I’d startled them. One guy furrowed his brow with annoyance, almost offense, as if I’d invaded his personal space (or solitude [or isolation (or loneliness [as if I’d trespassed his brackets])]). Some made eye contact and wished me the same. Others responded with a mechanical “You too” without glancing up from their phones. 

At first, their responses mattered, but I soon realized they weren’t the point. The key to connection was not to be needy of connection with others. We have to give freely of ourselves, act as social philanthropists who donate anonymously expecting no plaques or appreciation in return. (Turkle and others have pointed to this as the reason why social media doesn’t make us feel connected. Each tweet, post, or friend request is made with the expectation of a response: a retweet, a repost, a like, an accepted request.) 

In this, I go against Turkle and the Cigna study. It didn’t take meaningful interactions to curb my loneliness. Noticing other people was enough. My “have a good evening” and “have a good one” communications were enough. What even constitutes a “meaningful interaction”? What degree of intimacy does it require? What emotions do we need to experience before, during, and after for it to qualify? Holding people to such high standards (or any standards) seems to invite loneliness.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t feel lonely, I did. Returning to my apartment filled me with dread, especially in the winter when I was met by late-afternoon darkness. Loneliness seemed to wait by the door to welcome me home. But the feeling — and loneliness is a feeling, not a fact — passed. 

Would we feel lonely if we’d never heard of loneliness? Ten years ago, I spent a month in Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain, trying to learn Spanish. It didn’t go well. It was winter. Normally a tourist haven, the town was desolate. The white-sand beaches were viewed, not enjoyed. I liked parts of my stay, particularly the people. Those native to the area, many of them Basque, were forthright and no-nonsense. 

One day, in the sterile classroom of the language school that catered to tourist-students like me, my tutor, who had dark hair and placid blue eyes, told me that she once had a nervous breakdown. Since then, she’d lived alone and didn’t socialize. Every day after work, she sat on one of the breakwalls along the Bay of Biscay and stared out at the water. Depending on the weather, she might stay for hours. Doing so, she said, had cured her. When I asked if she ever got lonely, she said no. In Spanish, there isn’t an exact translation for our concept of loneliness.  In Basque country, or at least for her, “solo” (on your own), “solitario” (solitary), and “aislado” (isolated) don’t quite mean the same thing.

Of course, loneliness is in our vernacular, as are solitude and isolation. At any point, we might find ourselves inside them, bracketed off from others and the world. And then, just as easily, not.

* * *

Sarah Fay’s writing appears in many publications, including The New York TimesThe AtlanticTime Magazine, The New RepublicThe Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, The MillionsMcSweeney’s, The Believer, and The Paris Review. Follow her paeans to punctuation on Twitter: @punctuationguru.

* * *

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact-checker: Matt Hudson Giles
Copy-editor: Jacob Z. Gross