One hundred days of solitude

A summer lacking in substantial activity is not a summer wasted or devoid of meaning.

By Ken Jung

I wouldn’t be reclining in the smooth white sand, listening to the waves breaking softly near my feet as the red Tuscan sun reclined in turn in the horizon. Nor would I be breathing in the scent of Shanghai’s thousand street vendors, aimlessly yet somehow purposefully led through the crisscrossed paths of the bright and ancient city. I wouldn’t even be interning for some research agency, running experiments on lab rats or typing away at lines of code that would surely one day lead to the cure for cancer. No; thanks to no reason in particular, I was about to spend the summer after high school graduation—122 days, a third of a year—marooned in the comfort of my own home with little prospect of social interaction.

So it was that, weeks before graduation, I had already compiled that obligatory and ultimate insurance of purpose in anticipation of the stifling doldrums to come: a reading list. Essentially, it was a list of novels I had put off reading for the last two years, luxuries foregone in favor of all the things that “mattered” in a college application. Thus, the moment I started to become bored by the sudden nothingness of summer—which was very soon—I found myself reading the first sentence of the first book in my reading list: “Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.”

I once lived in a time in which the silent passing of the day had to be vindicated by the deafening thunder of achievement. For the summer, that time was gone. My brother once grumbled about having to practice piano: “You do everything either for fun or because you have to.” I later realized that I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. While shadowboxing at the community center on 14th Street, throwing punches at a phantom opponent who neither tired nor spoke, my sneakers squeaked against the tiled floor, slippery with my sweat, and I remembered what I had read: “The secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude.” Among the many odd things I did every day, I suppose I had been spending my time productively. But this was only due to the fact that my pact with solitude was anything but honorable, and that time had become my misfortune. No matter how busy I tried to keep myself, I was everywhere surrounded by the solitude of others, and the solitude was an underwhelming agony.

In time, the number of days until O-Week began to dwindle to nothingness. By September, I was caught in the sudden anxiety of a day and a place which would be no longer so distant, and, predictably enough, I found myself wondering where the days went. There was the day when I had turned eighteen, and I woke up feeling no differently than the day before. There was the day when bombs killed 46 people in Iraq, and that same day a girl twerked in front of somebody’s crotch and got famous for it. There was another day when I was laid off from my job at the pretzel shop in the mall for the simple reason that I was never needed in the first place. And there was also the day when I read the last words of the last book of the reading list that I had made months before: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”

Whenever people ask me about my summer, I don’t know what to say. How do I say that it was the longest, most unreal summer of my life—that it almost drove me crazy and challenged everything I took for granted? Nevertheless, I believe that it is precisely for these reasons that my summer was far from meaningless. I’m glad to have had the chance to lose myself so that I may find myself again; I’m glad to have known what it’s like to live with solitude as my companion. I am further grateful to the likes of Messrs. Marquez, Faulkner, Hemingway, and all the rest who shared in my solitude, along with my family who made my summer much less solitary than it might have been.

My summer after high school, which passed by slowly, monotonously, and uneventfully by the day, has proven to me, in retrospect, to be full of meaning. I am reminded of the words somebody whose name I can’t pronounce once said: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Ken Jung is a first-year in the College.