Sunday, February 12, 2012

What Does it Mean to be Alone?

To relieve, they might tell you, the bleak depths of mid-February, the Hallmark card company chose to manufacture a holiday. This sadistic ritual is designed to make all but the newly-besotted want to retreat under the bedcovers and forget about it. 

Men in relationships navigate it the best they can and envy those who aren't paired up and who can go out to sports bars and ramp up for March madness, beer in hand. Women, even cerebral, sensible types, feel slighted when the event is mismanaged or ignored altogether. A friend of mine whose teenaged son told her a few years ago that his new girlfriend had said she thought V-Day was silly and she didn't need him to get her anything, grabbed him by the shoulders, looked him in the eyes and said, "She's lying. Let's go to the store. Now."  Anyone who thinks being a man is easy in this age knows not of what she speaks.

Females who are, God forbid, unpaired, feel the full brunt of our couple-oriented culture.  Mercifully, I am a couple of decades past the remorseless June wedding seasons of the early post-college years.  Of course I was a smug married at 23 and no doubt made more than a few thoughtless comments to my-then single friends, who later made good marriages. Divorced at forty, I've got proof on this count that karma really is a bitch. 

I really do think the whole thing is silly.  Until I read articles like the one in yesterday's Washington Post. It's titled, "Some people never find the love of their lives. And live to tell about it." and so billed as a thoughtful take on the whole romantic myth.  But it ends up being a sad story about a woman who, despite her many qualities, hasn't found love and is in her fifties.  Reading it put me in a foul temper that lasted until cocktail hour, when a bunch of friends came over for wine and spirited discussion before we all went off to a school fundraiser.

Not finding love, as far as mainstream American culture goes, means not being married, or living alone.  For my own part, I have found living alone is much less lonely than living in an unhappy union.  In Eric Klinenberg's book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, the sociologist looks at what 31 million real adult Americans are doing: living alone because they can afford it and they want to. They are not, by and large, recluses or misfits but people who have good jobs and are engaged in their communities, with wide circles of friends.

Last month, Dominique Browning wrote a piece (click here to read) about her independent existence. She noted that women don't worry much about living solo and in fact enjoy its freedom: "Single women love not having to get permission to spend our own money on a 10th pair of black boots or a painting or a wood stove."  I'll cop to loving that.  Once, not long after my divorce was final, I heard a smartly-dressed young woman, sporting a large diamond, in a store looking at a dress she clearly wanted. "Oh, I can't," she sighed to her friend. "I'd get in trouble."  I was thrilled at the sudden thought that my money was now mine alone to save or squander.

The subtitle of Browning's article was "Why Men Can't Live Alone," which no doubt garnered the Times many readers but also sent her plenty of criticism.  Although I know many men, including my former husband, who could simply not stand to be without continuous company, I've had the pleasure of knowing a number who are happily building their own independent lives. I happen to be dating one of them.

We live nearly 1,500 miles apart.  Every day we talk or text or write to one another, and in the past four months we've seen one another every few weeks.  It's fun because we carve out time from both of our admittedly crazy schedules and find time to just be together.  So it's not what traditionally-married people would call "real." So far, though, we've been through me being sick, forgetting where we parked the car, and a pretty significant disagreement.  All okay.  A month ago I went to work for a few days at my firm's San Francisco office, and he dropped me off in the mornings and called to see when I was wrapping up work in the evening. I'd walk out of the office building and he'd be there. We'd go back to his loft, where he poured us a glass of wine and we talked of our respective days, then went out for dinner.  He spent a weekend at my house recently, and we did pretty much what I always do: sleep in, walk the dog, go to my favorite market, cook a good dinner, and read.  It was a couple of days of deep, quiet contentment for both of us.

That alone made me very, very happy.  We both are veterans of long marriages, his much longer than mine, so we know how to do this.  And yet I wonder if I could do it every day.  Of course I live with the kids at least half the time, and we work it out.  And SF man is, like me, a person who likes order and is very tidy. No wet towels to pick up with him, no beer cans lying about that I must put in the bin with gritted teeth.  We are kind to one another and content in conversation and comfortable silence.

We'll see where it goes, but we've talked about it and neither of us is in a hurry to head back to marriage or even cohabitation.  We're still getting to know each, and are both happy that each has an independent life. 

This evening I sit in my house where I've chosen and placed the furniture and hung the the pictures myself, where I damn well wanted them. The dinner I hankered for earlier in the day to is simmering.  Tonight the television stays off  and I will get back into the novel I was reading this afternoon, before I took an impromptu nap. I'll enjoy the next twelve hours before the dog must be walked and work beckons and the children land home with all that demands.  And just because, I've just sent SF man an Amazon order of my favorite memoir, and he says there is something coming to my house via FedEx.  Not that we believe in manufactured holidays.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, touching post. Isn't it sad when some people impose their definitions of what is 'real' on others? Love and true intimacy are highly complex ideas (and ideals) to be boxed in such concrete definitions.