I knew it had happened when I chose to spend my evening with a good book instead of being with someone. I knew then that aloneness was no longer just something thrust upon me, but something I had embraced, it was a part of my existence, edged by moods that fluctuated wildly because no one was around to temper them.
Living alone is no longer considered peculiar; in fact, it has become a rite of passage; a measure of grown-upness for today’s young women, a steely challenge for newly divorced or aging women whose perspective comes from a close-range view of human differences and foibles. They no longer test the limits of tolerance by discovering that, once again, a spouse or flat-mate has let the bath overflow.
They have, in short, become “set in their ways” - a phrase which I grew up hearing used to describe bachelor uncles and maiden aunts, but which also suits many of our modern one-bedroom apartment dwellers with short tempers and Oriental rugs.
I no longer live alone, although I’ve done so two different times. But, in between, I have lived with a gregarious physicist who had difficulty keeping to his side of the refrigerator; with a family of two writers and three dogs whose living room was so filled with files that it took me a year to discover they had a coffee table, and - for a few months - with five other people living in a two-bedroom apartment.
Most of these arrangements eventuated purely because of financial necessity at the time. But they all had something much more beneficial to me that just monetary advantages; there’s something about the often frustrating experience of sharing my life with others that keeps me limber. Granted, it’s not always orderly, and we don’t always have something I like for dinner, but I’m learning a tolerance I had lost in my time alone. And when I am by myself, it’s a joy to rediscover the sweetness of solitude that was blunted when it was my constant companion. I prize privacy even more now because it has its own definite borders.
Of course, we cannot always choose the conditions under which we live our unpredictable lives. A death, divorce or breakup may suddenly thrust us out on our own, and we may be forced to live alone whether we like it or not. Of course, there are those women who, as a result of many constraints, not only financial, but also health-wise and lack of community networking, find themselves living alone. They may be any age; young, older and elderly. That’s when loneliness and aloneness can become a little blurred, if you are not aware of the subtle differences.
Living alone can be a pleasurable experience, especially if your daytime hours are organised, even within a loose structure of “to do’s”. Hobbies are always of great importance, but when arthritis or any other complaint hinders movement, other ways and means of enjoying living alone come into play. Music, which is a great companion, and books, particularly talking books, CDs or DVD tapes and the radio keep people abreast of current affairs and what is going on in the world, as well as the nearby community. Inviting neighbours in for a cup of coffee regularly, maintains human contact and conversation. Accepting invitations to join other women in groups allows for an expansion of ideas and thoughts. Computer studies and courses from nearby Neighbor-hood Houses creates new outlets of creativity and meeting new people. Finding little coffee shops where we can sit either alone or with a stranger (especially if the coffee shop is very popular and very crowded); striking up a conversation or sitting reading the daily newspaper; brings us close to people without breaking into their spaces.
However it is not just the circumstances that create an addiction to aloneness, but the way we approach them. Friendships, volunteer service - and just plain self-control - are all ways to avoid that comfortable trap that living alone sometimes becomes. And, as I have learned, for those of us to whom aloneness has become an island, there are bridges and ferries to take us back again to being part of a family or a community or a neighbor-hood.
And that means we have choices. When we are contented in being alone then we have the right to enjoy that solitude. We don’t have to justify these choices, for it is quite easy for us to slip back into our small groups of friends or acquaintances, having gained something from our “time out”.
© 2007 Leonie Stevens, Australia - original submitted to RoseMary's NoteBook for inclusion in the NoteBook newsletter.)
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