I have always loved solitude – time alone to think, to read, to dream, to drink in the sensual pleasures of the natural world. As a child growing up with four siblings in a crowded household, I found solitude hard to come by. I went through an early period when I would lose myself in fantasy play with my imaginary playmates in the only place I was allowed to close others out: the bathroom. But it wasn’t a very satisfactory solution, because someone who needed to use our only bathroom would soon be banging on the door. The summer I was five, having completed kindergarten and achieving the independence that comes with going to school, I asked my mother, who liked to sleep in on these school-free mornings, if I could “go out to play before breakfast.” With her permission, I began to get up early, get myself dressed, and slip out to play when my father left for work at 6:15. When I think of those pleasure-filled early mornings outdoors, I remember them as still and quiet, with almost no one else out and about. My association of solitude with the sights, sounds and smells of the outdoors was reinforced when I was ten and my family moved from our urban apartment to a single-family house that bordered a woodland where I spent many solitary hours.
Despite my love of solitude, I entered adulthood with little experience of indoor solitude. I went from sharing a bedroom with my two sisters at home, to living with roommates in college, to sharing an apartment with the man I married during my senior year. My first experience of living alone came when my husband was deployed to Vietnam by the U.S. Navy. Unlike the other Navy wives of our acquaintance, I did not move back east to live with my parents and await his return, but instead stayed on at my job and in our apartment in southern California. For the first few days after seeing him off, I was miserably lonely; but I soon realized that I enjoyed living alone. By the time he returned many months later, I had difficulty adjusting to sharing our small apartment.
It would be years before I lived alone again. But I did manage to carve out some space for myself in the homes we moved to after my husband completed his military service. When we lived in a two-bedroom townhouse, I turned a walk-in closet into a sewing room that was my domain. When we built a three-bedroom house, one of those bedrooms did double duty as a guest room and as my study, a room that became increasingly important to me when, at age 26, I began graduate school. After three years of graduate school, I separated from my husband and found an apartment near my graduate program. I had begun what would turn into a lifetime of living alone.
Even as I reveled in the experience of setting up my own apartment, I assumed that this period of living alone would be temporary, that I would soon be coupled again. Like those around me, I believed that living alone permanently would be a lonely, empty existence. As I progressed through my thirties, however, I began to question this assumption and to work out for myself what it meant for me to be alone. During the summer after I moved to Maine and took up my first full-time college teaching position, I celebrated my new found affluence by buying a small tent and setting out on a solo camping trip along the Maine coast. I began the trip with the attitude that vacationing alone was an inferior substitute to traveling with a partner, although better than not going at all. But as I sat one day in my campsite on the most beautiful part of the Maine coast, bemoaning the fact that I had no one to share all this beauty with, I suddenly realized that my experiences of this natural beauty would be much less intense if I were focusing part of my attention on interacting with another human being. By the time I returned home, I was a committed convert to solo traveling. (A decade later, about to embark on a 6-week solo trip to Alaska, I had a nightmare that a friend wanted to travel with me.) Once I recognized that I enjoyed the natural world more when I was alone than when I was with others, the next step was to see the parallel in my indoor living experiences. That breakthrough came when I realized that all my fantasies of living with a romantic partner assumed that he would move into my home and my life, bringing no baggage (literal or figurative) with him.
Learning to see living alone as a desirable state was accelerated by my introduction during this period of my life to the work of May Sarton, particularly her celebrations of solitude in Journal of a Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1973) and The House By the Sea (W.W. Norton, 1977). The changes in my attitude crystallized while reading Sarton’s novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (W.W. Norton, 1974). Hilary Stevens, the protagonist of the novel, is an elderly writer who is visited by two interviewers who are writing a retrospective of her work for a literary magazine. Late in the novel, Mrs. Stevens says to the interviewers, “There is a difference between solitude and loneliness…. Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” (pp. 182-3) When I read those words, my eyes popped open. Yes! My love of being alone and need for solitude was not about a paucity of relationships with other people; it was about the richness of experience that I found only in solitude.
But even as I came to value my solitary life, I realized that the rest of the world didn’t share that positive valuation. I was forced to confront others’ assumptions when I went off to one of my favorite Maine state parks for a blissful summer weekend of solo camping. When the park ranger staffing the gate asked me how many were in my camping party and I replied “One,” she cooed sympathetically, “Ooh, couldn’t you get anyone to come with you?” I also found such attitudes closer to home and was chagrined to discover that my sister-in-law (whom I had always considered one of the more simpatico members of my family) assumed that I was searching for a life partner. As a teacher, I came to view such incidents as “teachable moments.” I also tried to preempt them by openly embracing my singleness in my daily life, becoming (as I jokingly called myself) a “militantly happy single woman.”
Given the importance of the natural world in my experiences of solitude, it is not surprising that when I took the plunge into single home ownership in my forties, I chose a little house in the woods at the end of a rural dirt road. During the 25 years that I have owned this house, I have enhanced the natural beauty of the setting and the connections between indoors and outdoors by creating a garden and adding decks and a screened porch. The most recent changes I’ve made to my house include the creation of a spacious study for solitary thinking, writing and reading in my retirement.
But even as I have made my house a haven for the solitary life I love, I am beginning to consider the dilemma of how to balance my love of solitude with the increasing need for help as I age. Many of the single women I know dream of sharing housing with women friends in their old age. But this is not my dream; I value living alone too much. The physical demands of my solitary house in the woods make it unlikely that I will be able to stay here until I die. But when the time comes to move, I think a better fit for me will be a place where I can live alone in a community – for example, depending on the amount of help I need, a co-housing community or an independent living or assisted living apartment in a senior community. Wherever I live, I hope to continue savoring the joys of solitude.
Jean Potuchek is a recently retired professor of sociology and women’s studies. She has lived alone for almost forty years and owns a house in the place that she considers the great love affair of her life, rural Maine. Twenty years ago, she did a research project on the lives of single women which involved in-depth interviews with about thirty such women. Part of the motivation for this project was to find out if her own experience of being alone was unusual or typical. She currently writes two blogs, Stepping Into the Future: A Retirement Journal (https://stepintofuture.wordpress.com/) and Jean’s Garden (https://jeansgarden.wordpress.com/).
This is part of the Who but You? living alone series. Check out the other posts! They are published every Tuesday (this is the last Monday posting).
Join the Who but You? project: e-mail your story, prose, poetry, art and/or photos about living alone to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration. All ages, all countries/cities, all solo living situations – from temporary & despised, to permanent & treasured – would be appreciated. In addition to your story/art, please include:
- a brief Bio with an associated profile photo (this may be an actual photo of you, or a more anonymous photo of something you believe represents you as a person)
- 1–4 photos additional photos with photo credits
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For more information: https://whobutyouproject.wordpress.com/who-but-you-series/.
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In living alone, in being alone, we’re united,