The Woods and I, and Her
“Impossible, I realize, to enter another’s solitude. If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known.”
— Paul Auster
Growing up, I often pondered about happiness and the value of life, which for me still remains intimately connected to aesthetic pleasure. These questions were always on my mind as an intellectual obsession of sorts. To avoid a long and arduous story about my philosophical wanderings, I’ll simply say this: I concluded that the experience of happiness is a profoundly personal one that cannot be adequately communicated between individuals. That is not to say I thought happiness was only possible while alone, but rather that I thought happiness was most meaningfulwhen experienced by oneself. By meaningful happiness, I mean the kind of feeling you get when, during a perfect autumn day, you walk through a forest of brilliant yellows and oranges and reds, wondering if these truly are earthly colors. I mean the feeling you get from reading a line of verse that resonates so deeply with meaning and sound that you are forced to stop and repeat the line over and over. I mean happiness of the deepest, most profound sort. This meaningful happiness that I speak of is elusive and hard to describe in a single word, but once experienced it cannot be mistaken for any other kind of happiness.All of these thoughts were, of course, built around my predisposition towards an almost solipsistic independence, which itself correlated with my apparent inability to feel satisfied with what apparently gave others happiness. My theory endured until one summer night.It was the end of my junior year in high school, a year fraught with academic anxiety about standardized tests, looming college applications, and grade maintenance. I had been invited to a backyard bonfire party where friends would spend the night celebrating the arrival of summer. I didn’t plan on going, preferring instead to spend the night alone, perhaps taking a walk through the woods, maybe staying home and playing my sax; I needed time alone to clear my head of all the anxiety-producing clutter that had accumulated over the year.
The day before the party, a classmate asked if I was going. We had studied together occasionally but certainly weren’t close enough to be considered friends. I gave her my usual response: “I can’t make it, I’m doing something else that night.” To my surprise she asked me what I was doing instead. Caught off guard by her sincerity, I responded honestly, “I plan to go for a walk or something, you know, something quiet. I’m not in the mood for a party.” And even more to my surprise, she asked if she could join me. “I’m not a party person either,” she said.
Caitlin suggested that we walk around Lake Waban at Wellesley College. Tucked into the edge of campus, the lake had evaded me despite my extensive knowledge of the town trails. I found myself in a situation where I was a follower, relying on Caitlin to lead the path. “I come here often,” she said, “it’s especially pretty right before the sun sets.” I could not escape a feeling of skepticism which conditioned my expectations and provoked certain questions. Why does she want to walk with me? How could she understand what I consider beautiful? Nature walks were for me very personal, a time to reflect and contemplate in isolation, away from the distracting noise of cars and people, a time to witness nature’s beauty. But of course, I never mentioned any of this to her. I didn’t want her to think I had something against her, or to misinterpret me further and think I had something against people in general. I was caught in an uneasy position, too worried about offending her and too uncertain to express my honest self.
And so we met on an early summer evening, each of us about to embark on a walk with a near stranger. The air felt cozy, somewhere in between the heavy humidity of late summer and the sharp dryness of autumn. The moderate temperature and slight chill of the breeze vivified my senses. It was about an hour to sunset. I heard nothing except the crickets and their evening songs. She was waiting for me, sitting on a bench looking out at the lake. I noticed how comfortable she looked, hands folded neatly in her lap and eyes focused on some distant point. She was wearing a white sundress embellished with red flowers, matched with a brown braided belt and flip flops.
She looked very pretty.
“Ready?” she asked.
The initial awkwardness I usually felt with a stranger dissolved as soon as we started talking. Walking through a marshy patch across a flat wooden bridge, she said, “See that pond over there? It’s called Painter’s Pond because a paint company used to dump waste into it. But I’m glad that’s over. This place is too beautiful.” Then the trail wound through dense woods of maples and oaks, the remains of broken stone foundations, and the homes of squirrels and deer. The more we talked, the more I appreciated her company. “I used to live in Southborough when I was little. Our backyard faced the woods and I had this favorite rock I would climb. It was so nice there. Part of me still misses those woods.” We talked about school, summer plans, friends, and other minor things, but the conversation kept coming back to our immediate surroundings: the leaves, the water, the sky. It occurred to me that I didn’t find her presence distracting at all. In fact, I felt completely at home with myself, with her, and the woods. Gradually we talked less and less, too immersed in the quiet sounds of nature as day gives way to night. At this point I was aware of the undeniable reality that we were sharing this moment together, and not just on some superficial level.
It felt liberating, but I didn’t immediately understand why. Further reflection after the fact compelled me to see my previous preference for solitude in a very different light. My old attitude involved only the awareness of myself, an awareness I now realize to be relatively single-dimensional that did not need me to hear or acknowledge another pair of footsteps alongside mine. This was precisely what I felt for the first time as she walked beside me – the intimacy of solitude without its burden of loneliness.
At the end of the trail an elegantly stonewalled terrace overlooked the entire lake. Together we sat down on top of the wall, legs dangling above the water. “Isn’t this amazing?” she said, gazing up at the warm colors casted by the setting sun, a dazzling array of pinks, reds, purples, and blues. No other words were spoken. For the first time it felt as though someone else was witnessing beauty in a way that resonated with me. Her presence was something tangible that made the world around me appear more vivid. Ironically, she was the very “distraction” that I had always dreaded because I couldn’t help but marvel at her more than the sunset, but, contrary to the suspicions of my old attitude, she did not dilute the aesthetic experience. She unabashedly returned my glances, her dark brown hair and eyes reflecting the rich colors of the sky.
But I do not intend for this to be a story about love or what I consider to be true love. Nor do I intend that this be a story about how I met the most beautiful girl in the world. This is a story about how a romantic connection brought me to realize that profound feelings, when mutually appreciated, are more vivid, more memorable, and more meaningful.
The whole evening had been building up to this moment, a realization of such clarity that it left no room for skepticism. The feeling was more than just intellectual though. As I sat there looking out over a most perfect landscape, I felt invigorated with a feeling of deep aesthetic appreciation. Here I learned that the meaning of beauty gains a new dimension when mutually understood and freed from the limiting window of subjectivity. The moment felt sacred. Thus my lifelong assumptions about the truest happiness being exclusively personal fell apart. We spent the rest of summer together making memories gazing at the stars, eating ice cream, swimming in the ocean, activities that would’ve been mundane and easily forgotten had I done them alone. Months later, we sometimes walked the same path around the lake, recalling that night like it was yesterday.
Nowadays, being away from her at college, I look for other people to share moments of beauty with – something proving to be incredibly difficult, again because I am constantly looking for something else, something beyond ordinary expectations. Perhaps I am falling into the confines of an attitude similar to the one I overcame as I increasingly find myself wishing that I could share it with her and part of me wanting to share it only with her. But then again, perhaps her ability to relate to me is singular. Perhaps this, this irreplaceability of one’s company, is what love is. She is, after all, the girl who showed me that happiness is most meaningful when shared.