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On Finding Oneself Living Alone
When Greta Garbo said, “I vant to be alone!” she probably meant it but, because she was a glamorous movie star and a fascinating woman, no one believed it was possible for her to live without an equally glamorous companion. Photographers constantly tried to capture her on rare outings about New York City where she lived a quiet life. Howard Hughes was turned into quite an eccentric character by the press not only due to his strange obsessive habits but because he preferred living alone. As a child, I remember my maiden Aunt Helen, who was considered to be a pitiful figure living alone in Tryon, North Carolina with her horses for most of her life. We never invited her for holidays as my parents thought she might “put a damper” on things. She lived out her life; seemingly happy to me, in a state none from the family had ever visited or were even quite sure where it was located. It has been interesting for me to find out what it is like to live alone and discover I enjoy myself most of the time.
The mornings here in Connecticut are quiet and I can hear the boiler starting and stopping, the rustle of the dogs in their beds and the wind that sometimes plays the chimes outside my window. My house is empty of another human inhabitant and has been for nearly ten years with the exception of visits from various children and friends. There is no constant companion in my large California King bed except for “Rosie”, an eight pound, long haired Dachshund, who sleeps rather soundly by my side always moving closer when I neglectfully move away. It is I who decides when to eat, where to go, when to sleep, and what to do on vacations and weekends. Some might think I live a lonely life. Others may know what pleasures can come from learning the art of aloneness.
There is a new group developing among the singles set; perhaps this group has always been there and it was just that I was not aware of it. This is the “happily single” group. Not the “waiting for the perfect person type”, or the “I hate being in a relationship as there are too many compromises” type, but the honest to God type of person who really likes living alone. Impossible, you might think, dysfunctional, another might say, but I have experienced this life and have got to say it is just about as wonderful as wonderful can get. I am not writing to persuade all of those happy souls who are married to suddenly split apart and attempt this, giving up what may have been many years of contented harmony. I understand there are those out there who enjoy the company of a spouse or a boyfriend, a partner or a friend, and I am not saying I do not. I am saying that a strange phenomenon occurs in a small group of people who have “lived a long time alone” in the words of poet, Galway Kinnel. We wake up one day and find the dream of finding the perfect “other” no longer exists in our early morning newsreel. It becomes a thing we lovingly place in the top drawer with some handkerchiefs we keep as memories of husbands or lovers. We wake up and realize we have constructed a life for ourselves on our own, and we enjoy this life and have found deep happiness within it. The dream appears from time to time when we meet someone who attracts us, we take it out and examine it, we refuse to completely reject it as we are human, but eventually, when it is replaced in the drawer we go on to our lives welcoming back the serenity.
If one lives alone there are many choices one has the liberty of making; what one eats for breakfast, lunch or dinner, if, in fact, one chooses to eat any of these appointed meals at all. Consider, for example, the sublime wonder of eating lunch at nine AM and perhaps dinner at four in the afternoon. The pleasure of listening to one’s own hunger clock and responding to its alarm is a fascinating exercise. I never really understood that dinner is not necessary to me at all until recently. I prefer to eat in the morning and forget the rest of the day. I remember vividly when I was first married my hard working husband arriving home to ask what was for dinner and realizing I had completely forgotten to buy food. I didn’t have the urge to eat at that time and was not used to anticipating the needs of another. The regimen of children and family life necessitates a schedule for the family. Schedules are actually a good way to live life. Knowing where one must be and what one must do at a certain time is refreshing and soothing to us as we know what we are going to do.
The very fact of losing a schedule throws many people into a panic.
This is the first in a series of steps a person goes through who is starting down the “alone” highway. We find ourselves without a schedule, as there is no one to set the schedule with. We have all experienced a schedule at some point in our lives and most of us still have one. Going to work requires a schedule. A family requires a schedule. Living alone requires only that you fulfill your work requirements in terms of time but once you are home, you are on your own. At first, it’s pretty scary. You come home, walk in the door, and there’s no one there to greet you with the exception of those lucky pet owners. You walk into your bedroom and unload your pockets onto a table, and then ponder the remains of your evening, which spreads out in front of you like a smooth white sheet. Should you go out, you wonder, or should you have a bath, a glass of wine, and there’s that good new book on the bedside table. What’s there to eat? Amy’s frozen enchilada, I hope, or maybe an English muffin dripping with butter and bacon. Yogurt and fruit? Maybe the perfect salad with arugula, cranberries and asiago cheese, thinly sliced. Endless choices when one is able to make them.
The hump one has to get over is the idea that one should be with someone else, that it is somehow an embarrassment to be without a partner. My mother used to say she would never go to a movie alone as someone might recognize her and spread the word that poor Olive Watson was out at a movie by herself. Before I was divorced I used to practice being divorced by traveling alone and eating in restaurants. This was a good exercise because one realizes very quickly how interested other people are in those who eat alone. You never have to worry about finding someone to talk to if you want to talk. Many times while at dinner strangers stopped to speak with me usually asking me what I was reading. (I always brought a book finding it a wonderful time to read) I would notice these couples continuing to watch me as if I were a scientific experiment right in front of their eyes. I have noticed in my own experiments that men are usually not given as much notice as women. Eating alone in a public place seems to be catching on. I see quite a few of us nowadays out for dinner, dressed up, drinking a martini or sipping a glass of wine. The interesting thing to me is the interest of others seems to stem from a curious type of envy rather than a form of condemnation.
Psychiatrists say the most common disorders of our time are narcissism and borderline personality; the difference being the narcissist had the attention of the mother for a brief time and lost it while the borderline had no attention from the mother. Both these disorders reflect on the inability of people to sustain themselves as they need to constantly connect with others in life in order to feel safe. Due to their early childhood experience many people will never feel really safe in a relationship and always need reassurance from someone else they will not be abandoned. The underlying fear is they will end out alone and the experience of being alone is terrifying. A lack of a “constant mother” has affected society deeply today and it is the struggle to connect throughout our lives that often prevents us from living a satisfied life. Identifying and understanding this struggle is the first step towards a happy life alone. Many people will not attempt to understand this fear or even recognize it in their life but simply cling to relationships as if they were a life force. If you have the opportunity to live alone, you have the chance to overcome the need for attachment. It is an understanding that will forever steady your course in life.
My friend, Charles, has lived alone for most of his life. He is in his late sixties now and has a comfortable life in terms of being able to support himself and having a good circle of friends. When I first became single I asked Charles if he was ever lonely as the thought of spending even a night by myself filled me with apprehension. Charles told me that he planned something to do every day with a friend whether it was for lunch or dinner. I found this good advice during my initial period of living alone. If I met a friend for lunch from work then I wasn’t so eager to go out during the evening. I often think of Charles’s life when I think of those who live happily alone as he has mastered the art of it. Not only does he have a “date” each day with a friend or an associate, but he plans trips far in advance and goes places where he knows people so once he is there he can also make social arrangements. Charles is easy to be around, gentle, a good listener, and clearly a happy person.
Who does adapt the positive attitude towards single hood? I wondered that as well. In my analyses of those I know that are happily single what I found was a common element: a desire to achieve happiness alone. A desire to overcome the abandonment fear and find a place inside them where a comfort came from living alone. This desire is not good or bad; it is simply the shared desire among the group of long time single people. It’s like deciding to quit smoking; you set a day and go through the withdrawal and, after an undetermined amount of time, you find you no longer think of a cigarette. It’s more tiring in a way and then becomes less tiring than living with someone else. In the beginning it’s more tiring as you have the schedule to set, and the time to fill and then the schedule becomes less important as you listen to the call of your own desires.
For example: the pleasure and the absurdity of “dog play” for half an hour is deeply satisfying. One gets down on the floor with a dog and then grunts or barks like the animal barks. It is important to look the animal directly in the eye while doing this. The next step, once one has engaged the dog, is to place ones forearms on the floor and pretend to pounce at the dog. The dog usually gets very excited at this point and the barking becomes more intense. If you are waiting for a point to this activity, wait no more. There is no point other than to entertain the dog as well as yourself.
Arranging one’s rooms in any fashion is also a satisfying activity, which is difficult to do with a partner. I have a room in my house that used to be a closet, which I have turned into a music room. I am completely without musical talent, but one night I was surfing the web unattended and came upon a site where a group of musical instruments from all over the world were for sale for $ 105.00. There were 6 instruments; two drums, a didgeridoo, a long skinny horn, a sitar and a small harp. I couldn’t help but order them all. When they arrived about a week later I was ecstatic with my new activity. The music room has now provided an alternative to dog play. I find I can make all the instruments sound in some way and actually have composed some interesting pieces. They all have the same particular sound of sheep baying, which is heavenly to me.
All right, I know at this point you are thinking I am somewhat insane, but consider for a moment what you might do if left to your own devices. A friend of mine called the other day with a simple question. Was I having any fun in life? It was embarrassing to admit the extent of the fun I was having so I toned down my response. What would your life be like if you had a lot of time to yourself and no one to account to for it? This is happening today to a group of people who find they are living alone when they never thought they would. Most of the people I know who live alone have found somewhat eccentric things they like to do which would probably be more difficult with someone else in the house. My friend, Dick, reads legal briefs from cases a hundred years old and piles these cases in stacks all over his living room. One has to leap a sort of sideways hopscotch to find a place to sit. Another friend, Ed, has become addicted to TIVO as he can see his ball games over and over. Bill, on the other hand, hates the television and spends much of his free time recording his own voice on a small recorder and pretending to be a newscaster for events that have never happened. Bill is quite inventive!
Living alone may be catching on, as there are a lot of widowed, divorced and never married at all people out there today. The latest census shows there are more single households than ever before. Many of us will find ourselves alone in our lifetime whether by choice or by happenstance. I suggest taking another look at this group of people; perhaps they are enjoying life more that you might think!
“Do the right thing…”
People often say this in life and recently I have been noticing that “the right thing” is not always what everyone else thinks. Sometimes there is the right thing for you and there is the right thing the rest of the world wants you to do. I usually think I should do the right thing for the world and then I am miserable when I do it. It sometimes involves going to an event I really don’t want to go to or having a conversation with someone who is really not a supportive friend. Sometimes it means saying you will do something you really don’t want to do.
I think in today’s world it is almost more Buddhist not to do the right thing in terms of the world, to not always turn the other cheek, to not always say what you are supposed to say, and to basically live a genuine life where you do no harm to others and you do no harm to yourself.
I am pretty good at pretending I like someone whom I really do not feel comfortable with and I am also pretty good at being polite which are useful skills in life. I don’t plan on forgetting these skills but I do plan on taking care of myself more often.
Why am I writing this? I am writing this because recently I have been called upon to attend events which would be painful for me to attend for reasons which I won’t go into here. I thought a lot about whether or not I had to go to these events. Most of my friends told me to just “act like a lady” and”say hello to everyone” and then I could leave. I thought about how that would make me feel and it wasn’t good. I wondered who it would be good for. Would it make all the other guests happy to see me playing a role and acting as if it didn’t matter to me? Would it make me a better person for subjecting myself to pain when I could easily avoid it? Would I win an academy award just like Sandra Bullock only to find betrayal days later?
My answer is no today and will probably stay that way. The sun is out in California and the garden is rich in scent and flavor. Rosie and I will go for a walk and remember what it was like when she could hunt rabbits in the back 40.
Though I always try to avoid it, on almost all holidays I feel lonely for some moments. I berate myself for not having family around me, I looks enviously at the other families gathered together and imagine how much fun they are having, I reflect on my past and remind myself why I have chosen to live as I do. All in all, by the end of the day I think I am about at the same place as most other human beings.
This week there was an article in the Times, an editorial actually, written by a man who was asking the question whether Sandra Bullock should be more upset by her husband’s infidelity or more excited about winning the Oscar? I found this piece ridiculous as there was nothing about it that made sense. Sandra Bullock deserved the Oscar and didn’t obviously deserve what Jesse did to her. To combine both events in an attempt to evaluate what was more meaningful in life was absurd. The author would never have asked the same question about a male public figure.
What interested me, however, were the quotes in the article from various surveys on happiness and what was meaningful in the long run to people in life. It seems that what we all know is basically true. People receive satisfaction in life from relationships that function in a loving way more that satisfaction achieved from accomplishment and accumulating wealth. This is what I have been writing about in previous blogs and I keep returning to this idea. It seems easier to have good relationships as one ages as it no longer matters if you win or lose in arguments. You can choose to overlook what someone says that may have hurt you by saying to yourself the other person meant no harm. If you basically believe your friends mean to send you love and not pain you have a happier life. If you are clearly aware of what others are available for in life then you work from an open place and not expectations.
I used to script my life so far forward I always missed what was going on in the present. Now I try to look out the window and see what’s happening in the garden almost on an hourly basis. something always changes. The trick is to look at the details of the red flower, the rhythm of the water in the fountain, the curl of yesterdays leaf on the pebble path, the cry of the seagull to his girl, the feel of the cold and damp glass on my nose makes it all seem real and very important.
just enjoy the flower and the possibility of an empty table.