Modest Mouse’s album, The Moon and Antarctica, was already five years old when I first heard it—as a file shared over AOL Instant Messenger. When I downloaded the file inside my dorm room at the beginning of sophomore year of college, I didn’t know it would become the soundtrack to some of the most delicious and productive solitude of my life.
A fun fact about that year’s housing situation: I had three roommates, and each was still dating their high school boyfriend. (We don’t keep in touch, but I hear they’ve all married their their prom dates now. Yay.) Every weekend, each girl left to visit her boyfriend, and I got a four-person suite—with private bathroom—all to myself.
On Fridays, when my roommates left, the headphones came off. I could listen to music through speakers and do… whatever I wanted.
I wanted to listen to music.
The album I kept on repeat was named for two barren landscapes. An apt title: the lyrics and sometimes bizarre orchestration of The Moon and Antarctica seem to be a letter from a person in isolation back to civilization. Song titles include “The Cold Part” and “Alone Down There.”
While some tracks play like a campfire sing-a-long (“Wild Packs of Family Dogs”), others borrow guitar riffs from acid rock, accompanied by heavily philosophical lyrics.
“Gravity Rides Everything” presents a childlike awe of mortality:
Like fruit drops, flesh it sags
Everything will fall right into place
When we die, some sink and some lay
But at least I won’t see you float away
Another mystical vision of death is presented in “Life Like Weeds”:
And in the places you go, you’ll see the place where you’re from
And in the faces you meet, you’ll see the place where you’ll die
And on the day that you die, you’ll see the people you’d met
And in the faces you see, you’ll see just who you’ve been
To this day, the song that drives me to quiet, solitary contemplation is “Lives.” It begins, “Everyone’s afraid of their own lives. If you could be anything you’d want to be, you’d be disappointed, am I right?” Yeah, if you need me I’ll be in my room. ALONE.
The time alone was revolutionary for me. I’d grown up in a large family, sharing a bedroom with a sister until my eighteenth birthday. From there, I went to a dormitory, where freshmen get herded from classroom to packed dining hall to cramped residence hall, with nary a minute of quiet time.
Don’t get me wrong—at university I developed new friendships and deepened others. But I also discovered who I am and what I like, what I want to work on and what conditions help me work. In my empty dorm room, I began to assign myself (and actually complete) short stories. Spending lots of weekend time in solitude, I also learned things about myself I hadn’t known, and formed habits that I imagine will last my lifetime.
I learned that I need—not just enjoy, but require—long walks alone. At least three miles in one direction, say, to a beautiful lakeside café in Milwaukee. (Now I walk like this through paths along the Jersey Shore.)
I learned that I sometimes need to walk through an art museum, or even see a movie in a theater, alone.
I also craved novels. I was a Journalism major and double minor in History and Philosophy. I read. A lot. But not always fiction, and I needed fiction, so when the homework was done, I found novels. This was the year I read Joyce Carol Oates for the first time, a really formative experience for me as a reader and writer.
I’d forgotten about this year of my life and how significant it was, until things came full-circle this summer. I saw Modest Mouse in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and I wasn’t in a dorm room, alone. I was surrounded by a crowd in a public place, but more specifically, I went with my brother and my boyfriend. These are two people with whom I share a lot—we even share a creative project I’m proud of, a podcast called GameNight media. It felt so right to have these people at my side, as these offbeat yet beautiful songs rolled over us.
My memories of Modest Mouse are tied to discovering and carving out my creative process, but they’re also tied to place. I left the East Coast when I was eighteen, to discover myself. I returned seven years later, discovering even more.