No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; –John Donne
John Donne wrote this poem in the 1624, as a part of his collection of prayers, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Perhaps he intended to ease the loneliness of isolation of man by insisting that despite no matter how different or separate we appear to be, we are all interconnected. While, this is a lovely sentiment, it stands in direct opposition to the philosophy that has ruled my life.
In many ways, I am quintessentially American and thoroughly modern. Above all else, I value my independence, my privacy, my solitude. As it stands, I have been able to navigate my life fairly unobstructed–until about two months ago. Two months ago, I moved from the capital city of Spain to the capital city of a small Spanish Island in the Mediterranean.
At the time, it was the end of summer season, which meant that tourists still abounded filling the streets with a welcome and familiar sight: strangers. However, that all come to a screeching halt on Halloween. The season ended. The tourists dissipated and the streets emptied. And I began to notice something strange. While walking to the supermarket, I passed a group of teenagers and the oddest thing happened.
I heard my name.
“Hello, Candance!” Someone called out in a thick Spanish accent that caused them to sound as though they were about to hock up some spit. It was the same mispronunciation that I heard everyday in the classroom. “Hello” pronounced with a Spanish jota instead of an English h. It was always followed up with a failed attempt at my name; which often meant adding an extra letter.
It was unthinkable, unimaginable, unconscionable to even consider. I felt as though I was in some type of movie set in one of those small towns in the middle of nowhere where everyone knows each other. I could not believe it. One of my students had recognized me. Panicking inside, I smiled and waved back as I replied hello back. All the while, I was thinking, “Oh no. This will not do.”
I am well aware that for most this would not necessarily be anxiety producing. What could possibly be the issue with someone recognizing you or being familiar with you? The issue is that the familiarity was one-sided.
Despite the relatively small size of the island, the roughly 29,000 for the capital city and 92,000 for the entire island, the school that I teach in is quite large. I see each class generally once every month. Which means that the students are far more familiar with me than I am with them.
Aside for a little handful of students, I don’t know anyone’s name. And considering my schedule, it is unlikely that I will ever will learn them. This creates an uncomfortable dynamic for me–being a familiar face in a sea full of virtual strangers. Being, in effect, an island.
What’s more, as a turban wearing, bright blue coat donning American Black girl on a small Spanish island, I am hardly inconspicuous. Everyday, the probability that I will navigate the streets in total anonymity grows smaller and smaller.
Life on an island also means that I will have no choice but to become intimately familiar with people whom I’d otherwise prefer to avoid. On my first day of work, as I was being introduced to all of my fellow teachers I met that guy. You know the one. The one who always says something rather odd or uncomfortable and you never quite know how to respond.
Over the weeks, he has informed me about a fatal auto accident in my home state, the tragic death of his mother and a sundry of other banal or uncomfortable dealings in his life. But when he introduced himself to me, the first thing he mentioned was that he had seen me the day before while I was on a date. He began to describe my companion in great detail and made mention where we were and what he and I had been doing.
As a rule, I am generally uncomfortable with people knowing things about me that I did not personally relay. It also disturbed me that he thought it appropriate to impart this conversation within minutes of meeting me. Clearly, boundaries were not something that this individual understood at all. Again, I thought, “Oh no. This will do. This definitely will not do.”
“…if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
It is not lost on me that John Donne, also lived on a island; albeit a much larger comparatively more densely populated one–even four hundred years ago. And I wonder if that influenced his perspective. Maybe, his lack of privacy and anonymity led him to write something that was far more confessional than philosophical. Maybe professing that “no man is an island” was more of a lamentation than a meditation on man’s unity and interconnectedness.
What I’ve learned from my limited time here is to appreciate who I am and what I am. I don’t begrudge my introversion and its opposition to life on this island. Instead, I’ve learned to embrace community by smiling at strangers and waving to young kids whose names I’ll never know. I’ve also learned take refuge in nature when I want to be recognized.
While there is little I can do about that guy and others like him, I do have two options. Give him fewer things to talk about, or ignore him. The reality is, in a few years, after I move on, I will be forgotten as a new target of interest emerges. Despite what Donne claims, after a few years, my memory will most likely be washed away. And yes, the bells will continue to ring, but not for me.
Thank goodness for that.