Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: A meditation on Parisian loneliness
I’m studying abroad in Paris this semester, something I’ve dreamed of doing forever. And I’ve been here for a few weeks already — time is flying!
I feel really lonely; I miss home and Ann Arbor and school and familiarity. And that’s not something I expected. Going abroad, in my mind, didn’t include any of the difficult stuff. I think I have this image of myself as a self-sufficient person, a lifelong New Yorker whom friends describe as charismatic and surprisingly outgoing, a boy who only needs a backpack filled with a book, journal and maybe a bottle of water to be good to go.
But since I’ve arrived, I’ve begun to learn how to appreciate my most intimate friendships, even as the friends themselves are thousands of miles away.
I often walk around this beautiful place wondering why I’m here, what image of myself I’m trying to cultivate and for whom. Why I’ve intentionally surrounded myself with people I don’t know, in a new place, where people speak a language that I have to think quite hard about before saying anything of substance. I’ve thought a lot about how people here read me, about the personality I have. Quiet and unassuming, I’d imagine. I’ve never been called these things before. I become, then, a stranger even to myself.
Both on internal and intersocial levels, I become intra-alienated. How I regard my circumstances is skewed by my present nostalgia for home, and, in trying to speak to people here, I am read in a specifically alienating way, as well.
I really want to be with my best friends in the places I know best. I’m a senior, so time in Ann Arbor, a place where it feels as if I’ve lived about seven individual lives filled with friendships and follies and discoveries and observant strolls through the crannies of my mind, is coming to an end. I check my Snapchat on Saturdays to get a glimpse of the tailgates I’ve experienced for the past three years.
And when I get caught up in all that I’m missing out on, in all that’s not here, I very quickly sink into myself, such that everything here, all of the beauty and excitement of being here, the budding friendships with other students here — all of it dissipates, becomes an afterthought. None of it holds weight anymore. I feel confused by this sudden change in emotion and outlook and I ask myself: If only I were home, why do I do this, why do I stray from the familiar just for the sake of it? Why do I do this, when staying home would be so much easier?
With these thoughts going through me, I neglect to explore the city, instead staying in my apartment and FaceTiming friends from home. Which makes me feel guilty, as if I’m doing this wrong, as if I’m not taking advantage of being here, as I should be. Shame gets mixed into the equation, as well. I immediately begin to feel starkly, existentially terrible, in a way that isn’t sustainable. My loneliness here is something I need to figure out.
Before coming here, I didn’t think about the impact a place can have on how I feel within myself. How the ability to identify with a certain place — like I do with Ann Arbor or with New York City, where I grew up — allows me to feel enlivened, and how not being able to identify with a place, as I have felt here, can make me feel stultified and, at worst, unhinged.
Being lonely and grappling with all this newness have specific effects on my psyche. My past experiences become dim and distant while my present sorrow becomes everything I know. All that I love feels so far away, and all that I do not have here, all the absence I feel without my best friends and my family, takes over.
Stepping back and arriving in a place where I can consider and comment upon these instances of bad feeling, through self-reflection and conversation with loved ones, I’ve learned a couple important lessons. First, there’s not one right way to do this, to be here. I’m not here to see the sights of Paris necessarily. I’m here to live, to exist in a new place. Whatever that means for me — staying indoors, walking all day, feeling lousy, feeling fantastic — whatever life brings.
Because this is still life, even though I’m away. And living is complex, regardless of where one is. New baggage will always form, regrets will take shape, grass will always appear greener somewhere else.
And through those conversations with others, I remember the love I have in my life, both with other people and with other places. My dad, with whom email has always been the predominant form of communication, articulated this lesson particularly beautifully:
“What and who are physically present is different/maybe less than all that is only psychically present. But whatever is present (coupled with what is only available in your mind, via memory and anticipation — we've been with you and we will soon again be with you — all of us — is what you have — that combination of psychically and materially present stuff (people and things). It's what you have, that combination. It's what I have too — that combination. I have you here (the imagined Isaiah, reading this; the imagined Isaiah with whom I am currently in psychic connection by writing this) and the Isaiah I eagerly anticipate seeing soon; and all the recollections of 21 years of beloved Isaiah.”
We all feel loneliness. And maybe one way of measuring the strength of friendships is by testing that psychic connection, by measuring how well you can feel somebody with you even if they are thousands of miles away. Which, in turn, warms my heart. Because of how strongly I feel so many of my friends and family are here with me right now.
In that sense, by spending time away, my friendships are increasing in strength and clarity. I ought not to think of the absence of my friends and family as that, as an absence. But, instead, I ought to think of all those people as being here, to think of their presence, to reflect on all that we have shared and, crucially, to think of all the moments —psychic and material — to come.
Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.