When we lived in the same building during our first year at Oberlin, a friend and I developed an odd, only semi-spoken rule. We would purposefully leave at different times for a mutual destination. I remember more than once noticing her backpack ahead and deliberately slowing my pace to allow her solitude. It wasn’t that we didn’t enjoy each other’s conversation; we just shared the pleasure of walking alone.
It follows that when I picture Oberlin, I don’t think of my dorm room or a favorite study haunt or even the best parties I’ve been to — I see Tappan Square. Most of the pieces of my life, and the lives of other students, faculty, staff, and residents, seem to be arrayed around this stretch of lawn and trees that we walk, usually to get to somewhere else. A walk through or around Tappan lets one see many different pieces of Oberlin life being lived: people lingering outside storefronts, people striding briskly toward their unknown destinations, people zooming by on bikes and in cars, people playing catch or listening to music or lying in a hammock or just sitting and talking. Walking by with my earbuds in, I’m soaking in that world while also living in my own narrative — my own space between point A and point B.
This past weekend, the Cat in the Cream hosted a bring-your-own headphones event called “Silent Disco.” While I couldn’t make it, the event got me thinking a lot about my relationship with the community — how sometimes I feel most tender toward others with that layer of separation brought on by a private soundtrack.
A self-proclaimed introvert, I treasure the world given to me by my music. It’s emboldening and enlightening to pass through somewhere looking around confidently, moving confidently, confident in your alone-ness. On days when my Google Calendar is filled with colorfully-labeled blocks from morning till night, giving me no time to block out for myself, small increments of passage become sacred. I soundtrack my walks with middle-school pop and shameless oldies, with the most self-indulgent ballads and chaotic riffs. I think Oberlin became my home when such alone-ness became readily habitable to me, even desirable, and putting on headphones and going for a walk has always made it so.
Sometimes, after ascertaining with a quick glance over each of my shoulders that no one else is close, I’ll even break out into a full dance, à la someone in a music video. The perfect song for the moment is rocking along in my ears and I’m out in the air and I have the energy to move, no room for the moment to do anything else. This feeling is rare and awesome.
The more I think about it, the more I think there’s something bizarrely revealing about locomotion. Some of my best conversations with those closest to me, and those I was just getting to know, have come out of long walks. Without having to look at each other, we are more free to be honest. Our only physical focus is forward.
I think our conversations with ourselves are the same. Walking a hard day out of my system can be more cathartic than venting about it to a friend. Likewise, listening to “The Best” by Tina Turner has sometimes made me feel more in love than any heart-to-heart, “Moonshiner” by Bob Dylan more tired than any aimless drunken night, and “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn more tied to a community than any party — to name a few of my summer anthems.
Walking along with only my Spotify playlist, my backpack, and my thoughts makes me kinder to myself than any blocked out time to sit in my room and watch Netflix. I’m untouchable and un-naggable, even by the unforgiving productivity standards of my own brain. I am listening and participating and moving actively through my home. I’m also beholden to no one. There’s nothing else for it, nothing else to do but get to where I’m going — I really can’t stay. When that’s the only time in the day that you have to yourself, why not make it a ritual, a secret, and the best part?