08/25/2013 02:53 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2013

The Sweetness of Solitude

She gave me my first C grade in high school, and I was pretty demoralized.

Standing slightly over five feet tall with a reddish pixie cut and a lean runner's frame, Ms. Creasy earned her mileage. I remember her eyes in a permanent squint -- I always suspected due to the scrutiny with which she graded our papers. Arms crossed, she stood at the front of the classroom with a posture of expectation. Ms. Creasy wanted us to communicate efficiently and artfully, and always, with self-reliance.

But, let me explain. Lynette Creasy was my junior year Honors English professor at Brentwood School, a co-educational college-preparatory school in Los Angeles. Ms. Creasy, as she was referred to, recently passed away, and upon her passing, students and colleagues alike celebrated both her mythical teaching skills and irreplaceable spirit. She was a beacon, and she will be missed.

Ms. Creasy grunted a lot. These were the manifestations of daily epiphanies and guffaws. She always carried thick binders of notes with her -- perhaps alliteration in The Scarlet Letter, the role of family in The Grapes of Wrath, or maybe destiny and hope in The Great Gatsby. These were classic literary devices she grunted over - the words and symbols that gave literature its existential meaning.

Every junior in Ms. Creasy's class had to complete the notorious Billy Budd project, a presentation of grueling endurance. The class was separated into groups of five or six students and assigned a very open-ended question relating to Herman Melville's Billy Budd. The questions were philosophically unanswerable - meant to stretch a student's interpretation of the text. The purpose of the project was to connect the narrative dots, to re-interpret the story's meaning, and the presentation was meant to give purpose to the student's understanding of the text. Years would pass until I understood the real purpose of the Billy Budd project, and I suspect I will still be thinking about it for years to come.

It dawns on me now; in this very project I learned how to use words to make sense of the world. To use music, art, and math -- anything really - to clarify the things that keep me awake at night.

There is a moment I replay in my mind -- a moment when I was in Japan, riding the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. The train passed Mt. Fuji and I remember reading Nicole Krauss' novel, The History of Love. At that very moment, there was a passage that jumped out at me: "The thought of time outside our experience is intolerable."

I remember feeling a great sense of relief. Krauss had formulated words so simply; she articulated my own very thoughts. I had been struggling with the idea of death -- the finitude -- it made me anxious. Yet, the sudden comfort of these words seemed to explain an important part of my personal quandary: the thought of time outside my own experience seems unbearable. Her words offered an explanation, if only partially, to my discomfort. And this was the purpose of Billy Budd -- to try and answer a question, even if it seems unresolvable -- to interpret, analyze, and argue, and then just maybe some word, some painting, or some song would get it and make the connection.

Finally, in order to pass Ms. Creasy's final exam, students had to memorize the following passage by Ralph Waldo Emersion:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

I repeat this phrase to myself often. It doesn't matter what other people say or do, only I am responsible for the course of my own happiness. Self-reliance is a quiet enduring part of independence. And in my twenties I feel the freedom of this self-actualization. It's learning how to cook to feed myself. It's watching the news to form an opinion. I'm developing an enduring philosophy for life, and enjoying the sweetness of solitude. Thank you, Ms. Creasy.