I'm feeling a bit isolated and lonely today. No reason, really. I have fantastic friends, a lovely community, plenty to do. I'm sitting in a neighborhood coffee shop that I'm so in love with I will go happily broke here. But when they say that being a grad student is isolating and lonely, they actually do mean it. They mean that feeling isolated is part of the bargain; it's intrinsic. You cannot escape it with friends or community or plenty to do. You cannot escape it in a coffee shop where they know you well enough to suggest you might need training in their coffee pots so you can fix them when they break. You cannot escape it because you have signed up for it and that's the way things will be sometimes. Just like sometimes they will be bright and rewarding or miserably punishing. Sometimes you will be lonely. I am lonely today.
A few weeks ago I saw a bit of the Pippi Longstocking movie on television. Not the recent, shiny one. I mean the badly-dubbed one from the 1970s with the completely infectious song. I watched it constantly as a child, and I loved it. I loved Pippi in the way that Pippi's sidekick Annika did. She made me slightly nervous, but I was a little in love with the idea that the strongest girl would necessarily be stronger than the strongest man, that an independent child really does know what's best for her, that there was no such thing as a bad hair day. I often wanted her to just sit still, but Pippi was an early lesson in accepting all the aspects of a character you love, even if you wouldn't have chosen those particular characteristics. I would have liked it if Pippi read books. She didn't. But she did have a monkey, so oh, well.
I decided, after getting to see a bit of the movie, that I should re-read the book. What fun! Pippi and Annika and Tommy, going to school and riding her horse and causing trouble! A reminder of the possibilities of being a girl and being untempered by reality! So I purchased a copy of the book and read it in the bath one night. And it was, of course, wonderful. I often resist re-experiencing loved things from my childhood because I fear that my adult perceptions will wipe out my memories of it as a child, steam-rolling over little wispy bits of the past. I don't think that I lost my little girl feelings of attachment to Pippi, but in this re-reading, I discovered something new: the sad Pippi Longstocking. It broke my heart a little.
As a child, I never identified with Pippi. I thought she was fantastic, but she wasn't me. As an adult, the differences aren't so obvious any more. I'm suddenly aware of Pippi's frantic happiness in the face of terrible grief and isolation. She's not undone by it, but the loss of her parents and her inability to really fit in cause her real pain. She talks to her lost mother. She sits and examines the things left behind by her beloved father. She tries desperately to fit in at a tea party and cries when she doesn't. I cried, too.
I didn't doubt her confident promise to her dead mother that she'd always come out on top. I don't doubt her genuine joy in finding a tin can in the bushes. I still believe in the girl who walks the tight rope at the circus and draws on the school house floor. I loved being reminded of how much every day has to offer if you have the courage to take it as it is. Pippi still made me very happy.
But now I know, and couldn't help but see, how much joy and confidence and happiness in the margins comes with real sacrifices. I know that if you are extremely good at delighting in time alone, it means you have to practice being alone a good deal and sometimes that's hard. I know that Pippi is happy because she makes herself happy, but that doesn't mean she doesn't know sadness at the very same time. Sometimes happiness sits on a foundation that includes isolation. I know that Pippi quite well.