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is like a hand-written letter.
The loneliest I’ve ever been was the six weeks I spent in Oxford taking a tutorial as an exchange student. I’ve probably felt lonelier subsequently; but that summer in Oxford was where I learned what loneliness was, learned what I was like in total solitude.
I wasn’t actually living alone. I was living in Jericho with two other American students who never talked to me and an exchange student named Maria from Madrid. Maria and I could have had a really deep friendship, I think, but conversations tended to bottom out as they got interesting because of the language barrier (she knew a decent amount of English, but I didn’t know any Spanish.) In Oxford it would rain all day and Maria would sit out on the front step of our flat, chain smoking and muttering, “horrible, horrible, horrible,” rolling her “r”s.
I normally spent all day reading while it rained. I had a paper due on a different book every week, so there was plenty to work on. I listened endlessly to Gregory Alan Isakov’s album The Weatherman. I’m not sure whether it was a feature of Oxford generally or just the summer I was there, but every afternoon around 5 the sun would come out for an hour or two. I’d go out into the dripping countryside and walk—one day I happened suddenly upon Port Meadow in the golden light, full of people picnicking among mild-eyed cows and horses like some sort of surreal pastoral paradise.
The Weatherman is a good album, but you can’t listen to it for ever. Eventually the silence—this was before podcasts were widely available to fill every moment of space—started to drip in like the rain, filling my consciousness. I got very quiet on the inside. I got a little bit depressed, certainly, but there was also something good about it. The silence felt like a presence.
Everything that happened, like that walk in Port Meadow or looking at the barges in the Thames (or the “Isis”) or having tea in little shops, was extremely vivid, and is vivid still. Gathering a party of halfhearted friends on the 4th of July to set off probably-illicit fireworks (the only British response was our neighbor closing their sliding door). Waiting for the bus. Getting an ill-advised short hair cut. Crying at church. Banana bread and yogurt. One time a group of people popped champagne at a restaurant across the street and the cork rolled all the way over to me. I picked it up and ran it over to them; I didn’t know if they’d want it, still don’t know what they were celebrating.
When I was living in Jericho I started to understand why in Beauty and the Beast all the furniture comes to life. When you have been alone for a long time and you don’t have anyone to talk to, you start talking to yourself, and your books, and the furniture around your house—if not out loud, at least in your head.
There was a little combination washer/dryer under the kitchen counter that boiled clean clothes instead of drying them. I bought one string of battery-powered lights to cheer up my room. The washer/dryer, the lights, the cake bakery down the street, were all my friends. I named my bike Bucephalus and nicknamed it Buce. We went around town together to be glared at by the English for being too loud and not understanding how the roads worked. I developed a connection that bordered on a spiritual one with Port Meadow. When I didn’t have any people to be my friends, things were my friends—I think because everybody has to love something.
Even when they’re not at their loneliest, many people anthropomorphize roombas. As early as 2016 it was clear that people were treating the little autonomous robots more like pets than like dishwashers, preferring to have them fixed rather than replaced because they had developed an attachment to them. Many people, like my roommate and I, have named their roombas—ours is named Hei Hei because he is dumb. We knew we’d anthropomorphize Hei Hei, but we still laugh when we find ourselves saying “Hei Hei no!” when he eats a cord across the room.
A little autonomous robot just does feel like a companion—there’s no denying it. If you’re home alone and you’re cleaning, but the robot is also cleaning, you feel less resentful, and maybe even a little motivated by the robot’s endless rushing around until it gets itself stuck in a trailing curtain.
Now, even more than when I was in Oxford, one need never feel alone. We have FaceTime, and podcasts, and parasocial relationships, and YouTube. I indulge in all those things within reason, but in a way, a YouTuber feels less real than a roomba. The YouTuber can talk to you, but doesn’t care about you. The roomba can’t do either, but somehow its honesty on that point is reassuring. A YouTuber can close a video by saying “see you guys later” when they’ve never seen me in their life, and never will. FaceTime makes your friends and family feel a little like YouTubers. There’s a constant element of self-presentation, and nothing you can touch. Playing a podcast in the background while I load the dishwasher can feel a little like talking to my roommate, but when the podcast ends, no relationship has moved forward.
Not so with a handwritten letter. I’ve written many letters over the years, and received them—sometimes from people halfway across the world, sometimes from people within driving distance or even across town. I have letters from my best friend postmarked from her time studying abroad in France; I have notes from my grandparents enclosing interesting newspaper or magazine articles; I have letters that carried little bits of much-needed advice or now-spent much-needed money. I have a friend I hardly talk to anymore who occasionally sends a beautifully-watercolored hello message that makes me feel like our friendship is enduring down the years.
A letter feels real in a way that FaceTime never does to me. Sure, FaceTime shows you what a person’s face looks like. The phone can duplicate their voice. But when you get a letter, they actually touched the thing that you are touching now. It had to travel the distance that you actually are from each other—somehow validating when space feels increasingly like a construct. Whatever that person’s thoughts were at that moment, they’re crystallized onto a page, with spelling mistakes and crossed-out lines, a seed packet they found or a photo they took.
Sometimes I hang up the phone with someone and sigh, because it’s just made me miss them more, or worse, has frustrated me by its incompleteness. But letters almost always mean something—they come carrying some sense of the real person’s presence, something that you can touch and keep, something that can accompany you in lonely days like a roomba or a string of lights. When I read letters, it’s like those moments in the Oxford days—I’m very quiet, but I’m much less alone.
Roombas and handwritten letters remind us that the human need for love isn’t intellectual. Our concrete affection goes to the things we can hold in our hands and the things that are there when we’re cleaning the kitchen. In a perfect world, those would be people, but sometimes they are robot vacuums and handwritten letters.
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Yesterday: it was Easter Monday; thus you are getting your regular Monday Substack today. We’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming after this. (I had delusions of grandeur about doing it anyway, but didn’t realize I’d be driving for nine hours in a seven-person car with seven people and a dog. Happy Easter).
In honor of: Taylor Swift walking across NYC, here’s a picture from my own walk across NYC:
Come back in two weeks: for a patron-only newsletter on how The Most Popular Fair on Earth is like the Anglo-Saxon poem Deor’s Lament.