Trying on life alone

Le Duc was called away for a few days last week on family matter, and I was alone.

My first thought was, Good. I can attack areas of the apartment that a grown man still doesn't notice are grungy, like the mat of dirt that forms where sliding doors meet. I can whistle out of tune and eat dinner when I feel like it—which may be buttered popcorn with a glass of white wine, not as disgusting as it sounds.

Aside from the popcorn, it was no fun.

I learned that should I have years of life alone ahead of me, I will have to find a commune, or at very least, co-housing. Others are not inclined this way; they're wired—or have built the muscle—for solo living.

What I noticed: I resisted calling my children or friends, who would surely extend a lifeline. I know they are there if it's unbearable; the widows who read this are saying, You want to see unbearable? Try years.

I allotted the hours to French homework, the chores that get short shrift, an attention-deficeit Netfilx binge. Alone, I could bail from a so-so movie after ten or fifteen minutes.  I divested a half-dozen pieces of clothing without asking for an opinion, repaired a broken flashlight by myself.

But it felt more illuminating to just be, to absorb the days' shifts of light and the whirr of the apartment when it's empty. I awoke in the night and spent the better part of an hour thinking of my mother's women friends, whom I miss keenly.

I thought, too, of Patti Smith, writing in "M Train" of her late husband, fourteen years after his death: "Just come home, you've been gone too long. I will wash your shirts."

Patti Smith and Fred "Sonic" Smith; retrieved from PurpleClover

I'm in New York now; Patti and their children will perform a concert tonight and tomorrow in his honour. Though I may hear snatches from Central Park, I won't be on the grass; my days of standing for hours are over. But I remember Fred "Sonic" Smith vividly; I saw him many times in my student days, performing with the MC5 in frat house basements or dusty small halls, taciturn, handsome, roiling with talent.

Instead, I shall spend the evening with Le Duc, in an elevated state of appreciation. I can imagine Patti saying, I'd do that too.

When I had days to myself in the past, I was immersed in work, that incomparable energy sponge, and barely noticed how I felt. When he and the children left for a weekend, I worked so intensely I could tell it was evening only because the phone stopped ringing.

Solitude is a calling in early and mid-life, but as we age, it often arrives as an unbidden necessity. The adjustment is trickier and tinged with grief; there's less sense that you chose it.

I have not lived alone for over 31 years. Then, that life was neatly contained by a small house filled with Art Deco and family castoffs; a friend said it looked like the set of "Mommy Dearest" dropped into a dollhouse. When I had company for a weekend, I'd be exhausted; by Sunday brunch, the fizzy mood of Friday evening would devolve into a yearning for peace.

Now, with life less dictated by external demands, solitude seems like a Rubik's Cube, a puzzle to be turned until it falls into place. I know it's possible, but wonder if I could ever reach that satisfying resolution.


I grew up the eldest of 5 children so always longed for solitude and a place of my own. I never married and have always lived alone aside from one 18 month stretch when a friend moved into the spare room as she waited for her condo to be completed. It was hard on both of us, especially as the condo was not completed on time! I love having company - but only for dinner or a night or two, I think it's just the way that I'm wired.
Now there are times that I do feel a bit lonely - but to me that is different than living alone. People can be lonely in the midst of a crowd. I think it is important to reach out when you feel this way and having been retired for the past year has taught me that I do need to find other reasons to get out the door each day. I have gone back to church, have volunteered (and plan to do more), I am also joining a couple of social groups that I've been meaning to join for years and I've found lots of low, or no cost, things to do in town - and I make the effort to get out and attend these things. I find that even just chatting with people while standing in line is becoming easier and more natural. But if people are alone and feeling a bit lost or lonely then you really do have to make the effort - new people or experiences aren't just going to come to us.
And if living alone isn't what you want then I urge women to consider a "Golden Girls" situation. It seems its becoming more and more popular as a choice and it is something that a few friends and I are considering for the future. I would definitely need my own space (at least a bedroom & bathroom) within this option but everyone is different. Just a few things to consider.
Jane said…
Margie: I think being the eldest of five would contribute to a wish for solitude.

Duchesse: It sounds like you found a good life partner, and you realize it.

Between a husband and later kids, I haven't really been alone for 30 years! But oh, on those rare weekends solo, I look forward to sleeping late and letting the dishes pile up!
materfamilias said…
So interesting, I love my husband, love the time I spend with him, but I scan the calendar ahead looking for days (sometimes a whole week!) when he'll be away and I'll have the place to myself. The eldest in a large family, then mom of four, having the house to myself has always been one of my favourite things. Now, though, I admit that sometimes I worry now that I shouldn't be squandering any of our together time as the calendar doesn't offer that in infinity. . . .But I know I'm a better person when we're together if I get a few days to myself every once in a while....
Melissa said…
Life on your own due to the death of someone you love deeply must be completely to different to life on your own that was never spent with a beloved. In the former, you would have an ongoing aching loss. In the latter, there was never anyone to miss and you would just be continuing a life lived solo.
It is always pleasant to have a short time to oneself knowing that is only temporary, but if that comes as a permanent time without the man I adore then it would be unbearable.
I have always had cats in my life that I loved dearly. This year we said farewell to the last one, we won't be getting any more for a long time, and I find a deep ache of loss that just won't quite go away. Life continues but it is just that much diminished. I know that I would find a way through to create a life that was satisfying and content if I had to live as a widow (and I would become a mad cat lady), but I know that I would always ache to hear his voice, and feel his arms around me.
Julie said…
This is a topic I've thought about. Besides the pain of missing my husband of many years, I know I could be on my own for the hard and laborious things. I was a single mother for a few years and did it. It's the little things that might break me. Mindless chatters, comments about whatever is happening. Having no one that is on the same wavelength to communicate with. It would be lonely.
Beautifully said.
Currently solitude during the day is proving to be a major challenge for me - I've just finished my career of 40 years while my husband has begun a new role at the university, which he is loving. My close friends are scattered, hundreds or thousands of miles away and our children are busy with their own lives. I volunteer, but that is not satisfying all of my interpersonal needs. Life doesn't get easier as we grow older! xxx
Mardel said…
For many years during my marriage I longed for alone time, but I didn't long for life-time alone time. After my husband died, the aloneness was more than I wanted. Of course we had also had a house full of caregivers for years, there had been no privacy, and then instantaneous emptiness.

I'm still negotiating this new life. I recently bought a house, my house, and although a part of me would prefer to share my life, I also see that I need to negotiate this alone time to rediscover things about myself that were put on hold for a while, that were part of a duo not a solo. I don't think I can negotiate another successful relationship without first negotiating life by myself. It is odd because I did not feel that way when I was younger. But I am older now, and either wiser or more foolish; I'm not always sure which.
I've lived basically alone (in human terms) for quite a few years. Almost never without a cat. I had hoped that a relationship that lasted more than a decade could eventually become (transatlantic) cohabitation, but to oversimplify, Mr Wrong chickened out. I was mightily brassed off, if not to say furious, but don't contemplate ever living with a "significant other" again. The challenge is not to fall into a bubble.

When my 20-year-old black cat Renzo died of kidney failure aka old age in cats, I was devastated; I had never lived with another sentient being for so long. I do have a couple of houseplants older than Renzo was.

One positive effect of your wonderful post was to make me clean out the gunk on a sliding window. Their design seems faulty. And of course, there is the top of doors, and of tall bookcases...
Beth said…
Next time, call me! I've thought a lot about this too. The hope is that by thinking it through, I'd be better prepared, but I know that living alone after all these years as a very close couple would be extremely challenging. It's a good reason for investing energy in real time, face-to-face relationships in addition to all of our internet connections.
Tiffany said…
So very interesting. I have recently separated from my husband and moved into an apartment alone (he refused to move out, so he's at the family home with the 20 and 17-year-olds). I miss my children terribly, but I am just LOVING the quiet and the solitude and the sheer selfishness with which I can organise my days. I do work one full-time job and another part-time, so I don't have a lot of spare time for getting lonely.
Duchesse said…
Margie: The "Golden Girls" scenario is an appealing one but we should also remember it's storytelling. I know one groups like that that; some of the women felt drained by the others, who had issues with adult children or ex-partners. But I am very drawn to the Swedish model of co-generational co-housing where I would have my own studio apt. and share common dining and "hangout" space. Oh and one of my closest friends was also the eldest of five and bliss for her is her own bathroom.

materfamilias: You are sensitive to your needs and appreciative of both states; that's a good place to be in.

Melissa Hubbard: In my experience a person mourns the loss of a beloved partner even if he or she has a new relationship. And we have never tried to replace our cat, whom we lost 7 years ago- though we have looked.

Julie: Single mother is astonishingly hard, though at least there is life in the house. At one time in my life, when I was newly divorced, a friend "gave" me her boarder, saying, "You need to hear another voice than the one in your head". She was right and that year was much easier because of Holly, a cheerful young student.

Mardel: So well said. Transitions are something the current culture seems to think should happen almost immediately. A friend who was widowed a year ago was deeply upset when several friends tried to introduce him to women just after his wife died. He said he needed time to mourn, but also time to figure out, in his words, "where to pivot".

lagatta: I am sure your friends have said, better to find out about his inconstancy than to embark on a costly time-splitting arrangement and then discover it. But still disappointing. As for cats: so much more devoted than non cat people think.

Beth: That's why I unplug each summer and push myself to do 'real life' things all year- and yes I will call!

Tiffany: The solitude after a separation one chooses (or accepts as for the best) can feel blissful. When a former husband and I separated, I felt such a lifting of stress and tension. In that moment, solitude was balm.

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