Soloing: In Defense of Solitude

The Soloist

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.”– Albert Einstein

Admittedly, I never planned to live alone for large swaths of my adult life — but for the past twenty years I have done just that — with the exception of one six month respite when I roomed with a friend in Los Angeles thinking I would take over the lease on her apartment, only to find she changed her mind.  I’ve lived in studio apartments in Seattle (Ballard & Capitol Hill) and Los Angeles (grad student housing at USC) and in apartments in West Hollywood, as well as Tempe, AZ.  I currently rent a house — a first for me — in a smallish suburb of Phoenix.  I’ve had several boyfriends along the way, but none that became permanent (though I haven’t crossed a committed relationship off of my list of things I plan to experience this lifetime).  My animals have been a more or less permanent fixture in my life as a soloist, but otherwise, I’ve been footloose and fancy-free (or so I’m told).  Of course that is total bullsh*t, but people have always projected that sort of thing onto me, simply because I didn’t choose to live the stereotypical, staid, “normal” sort of life that 99% of my high school classmates chose. Instead, I had adventures.  I traveled.  I got an education.  I was the first member of my family to get a graduate degree. And, to a large extent, my circle of friends became my family.

What got me thinking about this was New York University Professor, Eric Klinenberg’s, new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, which I heard profiled this week on NPR.  After years of feeling like (and, often, getting treated like) a freaky loser over my solo status, I hear that, in fact, today 50% of all adults in the United States live alone.  Let me repeat that.  50% of all adults in the U.S. now live alone. There are 31 million people just like me. We represent the “norm” rather than the sub-culture.  We are 28% of the population in the U.S.  An even higher percentage of households are “soloists” in the cities.  Cities allow you to live alone, while still maintaining a large, vibrant social network.

We live by ourselves, but we are not lonely.  

This is certainly my experience, and the experience reported by many of my single friends.  My mother has been living on her own for the most part for the past thirty-five years.  Now she lives in a small house on the same piece of property as my younger brother, but for most of my adult life she lived in the house I grew up in with nothing but a half a dozen cats for company.  And although part of her was lonely from time to time, I also think she enjoyed her solitude.  I know I do.

“It’s the interdependence of people who live in cities that makes their independence possible. So you can live alone in a city and not be alone.” – Professor Eric Klinenberg

As an introvert, I need that down time.  I need to sit in a quiet house with a cat on my lap and a cup of tea nearby.  I want to read and write — and I need solitude in order to do that. Most of my work as a writing teacher happens in solitude.  I grade at home.  I plan my lessons and shape the assigned work for my classes from the desk in my home office.  I teach (typically two to three days per week) on campus, but much of my work is crafted in solitude.  I work on editing and review projects at home as well. In addition, everything in my creative life comes from that time alone.  I often write lines of poetry while I ride the bus, but all the rest of the writing I do, I do at home.  I know some writers like to sit in noisy coffee houses and visit their muse, but I cannot find the source of my inspiration out in the world.  The clang and bang of society overwhelms, rather than inspires. I am altogether too sensitive to sound and light to make much use of that time. Don’t get me wrong.  I love seeing people and talking to them about life and ideas and, well, whatever comes up.  I love my students — their bright minds so full of clamor and passion, but I get used up quickly when I venture out into the world. When that happens, I must head home to a place where I can meditate, write, ruminate, and refresh myself.

If I was an extrovert, I wouldn’t need so much time to myself.  But, I grew up in a family of introverts (both of my brothers and my mother are introverted).  The normal landscape of my childhood was to see all of us retreating to our respective corners, books in hand.  We discussed ideas over dinner, and then took bike rides by ourselves.  What I loved about my childhood was that open space it allowed me.  I grew up under a dome of sky, with fields of Walla Walla sweet onions and alfalfa surrounding our house.  I had good friends and a whole pile of pets, but my life was roomy and open.  It allowed me the interior life that I think is missing for so many people these days.

No, I don’t want to always live alone.  I would love to find an equally introverted, nerdy, book-loving, pet-friendly smarty pants to join me in this silent little burg I call home.  However, like Klinenberg says in his book, I believe living with the wrong person is infinitely worse than living alone.

If you are interested, a longer interview with Dr. Klinenberg about his book, Going Solo is linked here.

© 2012  Shavawn M. Berry  All rights reserved

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