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The other night I wanted to lie around all evening wearing my comfiest t-shirt and a face mask while watching a slow-paced indie drama. So I did. There was no-one to look pretty for, no-one to suggest a more exciting way to spend a Saturday, no-one to even dissent on the movie choice. For some, this is a rare treat. For extroverts, it’s nightmare fuel. For me, it’s the norm, because I live alone, and any time I’m not at work is time I get to devote utterly to myself.
Women who live alone are usually depicted in one of two ways: brittle career women who live in sterile, metallic apartments; or dowdy, pitiable creatures who aspired to homemaking, but never found anyone who wanted to make a home with them. Either way, their solitude is a measure of what’s missing in their lives. Being alone is not a choice: it’s a circumstance you must avoid, a punishment for doing womanhood incorrectly. That there could be joy, freedom, or even choice associated with being alone is a story we rarely see, because weddings make for fancier happy endings.
The emptiness of my home is part and parcel of why it’s become my happy place. I spend my days teaching, and most of my evenings caregiving. More than 50 of my waking hours in any given week are devoted to meeting the needs of others, so stepping over the threshold into a place where the air is not punctuated by requests is the most delicious part of my day. That’s not to say I don’t love what I do, but the old adage is true: one cannot pour from an empty cup. Closing the front door behind me gives me permission to put the rest of the world on the back burner.
I still have a second shift. My own meals need to be cooked, the various surfaces scrubbed, dusted, and vacuumed, the laundry done. But I can do them my way, on my timetable, and if they don’t get done, there are no plaintive accusations that a favorite sweater is unavailable, that I made chicken instead of spaghetti. There’s a delicious sovereignty to declaring myself queen of every photo on the wall, the only one whose taste matters when a new couch must be bought. The throw pillows don’t match and the bookshelves are jumbled, but they’re my imperfections, and therefore delightful.
As with all things, there are pros and cons to being alone. There’s no-one to eat the last cookie or hide the remote, but there’s also no-one to help manage the everyday stresses. Give up chores for a weekend and I have no clean work pants for Monday. Take a day off in the middle of the week and I’m struggling to pay the cable bill. If I need to vent about a hard day, I better hope the birds on the balcony are in a chatty mood, or else I have to wait until the workday ends on the West Coast, when my best friend might have a few minutes to listen to me rant, rave, and cry on the other end of the phone. Slip on managing anything for even a moment, and all the plates I’m balancing come crashing down.
I still exist
There’s a certain level of introspection that comes from living alone. I’ve learned about the ins and outs of my own mind over the past 18 months, keeping a mental checklist of my moods and asking myself the necessary questions when I swing into a low point: when was the last time I drank some water? Had a healthy snack? Do I need a nap? Is it the 20th of the month? Should I open that meditation app and practice my breathing? And the list of solutions, the coping skills I’ve mastered over the years: dinner with Mom and Dad. Borrow their dog and go for a walk. Watch a sad movie. Set an alarm and snooze for half an hour.
The first few months of living alone were a low point for me. My apartment was a generic beige box with thick walls, and I spent all my free time decorating the space with art and music in an attempt to make it feel like mine. With no-one around to perceive my presence, I went through periods of feeling disconnected, feelings that I battled by belting out songs by Queen and Wicked lyrics to prove that I still existed when nobody else was around.
Because I choose it
An experience doesn’t have to be delightful to be a net positive. I’ve heard friends say they don’t know how they’d live their lives without the support of their partners. That will never be me. I’ve learned how to be my own greatest champion, and to be alone without being lonely. For all the things I’ve discarded from my Catholic upbringing, I’ve retained the idea that some things are sacred. Certain times and places should be given over to a higher power, even if that higher power is my own sense of self-preservation. It’s no less holy for being so.
I don’t know if there’s a partner in my future, or even so much as a pet. Some days I long for the company, others I relish the silence. But if I do share my life with someone, they’ll know they’re there because I chose them, not because I was desperate for another place setting at the table. It’s freeing to know that I can be happy either way.
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