Though I don’t know that many people realize it, living alone is an art.
People need attention and affection in order to thrive, so thriving while living alone and single is asking a lot, at least for anyone who’d prefer a partnered existence. But if you can’t thrive, at least survive in style.
My take on living alone is uniquely my own, as a crafter, reader, homebody, self-employed writer and documentary nerd — someone with a unique set of interests, beliefs and needs you may not share. And speaking as a fairly introverted person, I definitely think introverts have a harder time of staying socialized, as I know my instincts are generally not to bother other people with my needs, but to make my own fun as best I can. This is how I try to manage my life and needs. What I do may not work for you:
Whoever said an intelligent person is never bored, or anything along the lines of dismissing boredom as the curse of the lazy, the stupid and the lame, can kiss my ass. Or at least own up to a place of privilege involving relatively short spans of being single, an extroverted nature, supportive family close by, or at the very least a good job involving pleasant company — none of which are readily available to all.
For the rest of us, especially those who face geologic periods of time spent alone at home wrestling with isolation and depression (clinical or just plain vanilla), boredom is a rather demonic occasional visitor. As a working college student/self-employed introvert most of whose friends are not only married but are also insanely busy students, I am sad to say that I am doing well to take a meal with someone else once or twice a month. Spending time with someone I care about once a week is common, thrice is lovely and twice is the average, I’d say.
So how do you live alone as happily and well as you can? Or at least, how do I?
Avoid television. A time-eating, life-sucking device in the wrong hands. Unless you can dole out to yourself only shows you mindfully enjoy, cancel your cable. I did. I actively enjoy some shows and do not hate television — in fact, I adore good television. But I found myself watching Wife Swap with numbed, bored disgust a few times too often, and knew I was wasting hours of my life.
Don’t waste your life.
Consider alternative housing arrangements. Living alone isn’t the only option for people living alone. There are “intentional communities” of all kinds, from basic housemate arrangements to jointly owned collective houses to my 60-year-old mom asking her two best friends to move in with her. My mom is trying to start a collective house for women nearing retirement age, as well as a cohousing arrangement with a shared garden.
My mom is not a hippie; she is a Catholic Republican. She is just exploring creative solutions to her needs.
And I’ve always thought about living communally. I just don’t accept that living alone/having a housemate are the only options. Is there a creative solution available to you? Can you think outside the box?
Avoid convenience food, tobacco and alcohol. Good god is that ever easier said than done. Even though it sucks to cook for yourself, convenience foods — frozen, canned, wrapped and packaged — are expensive and rarely good for me. Plus cooking can be an expressive art form in itself, not to mention a rewarding skill to cultivate, as well as a pleasant way to fill up what might otherwise be an empty evening.
Tobacco and alcohol are ready substitutes for everything missing in your life. Beware replacing missing chunks of life with addiction.
Keep to a schedule. With no one else in the house, I feel like I have greater freedom to sleep in, lay around, do nothing. While this is also hard to combat, keep your mind aware of it and try not to waste life in being slow and dull. Look, I know just the presence of another person is energizing. But we’ll just have to fake it, at least for now. Having a regular schedule of a time to wake, work out, eat, etc. helps keep time from getting away from you.
Schedule regular time with others. I freely admit to being a rigid person (good god but I must look like a weirdo in this blog sometimes — the price of honesty, really), and so I like scheduling regular activities. They’re a great way to get out and be a social animal for a bit — communicate, listen, laugh. Be human. I do or have done lunch with my college friends, church with a friend, brunch after church, knit night, aerobics classes…
Finding a regularly scheduled activity you LIKE gives you a meaningful, reliable and regular connection to the rest of the world, and a guarantee of regular interaction, shared laughter, talk and other things that are very good for human animals.
Consider church. Really. I know I am spoiled in that my city holds one of the few churches a sane person should not be ashamed to attend, but in other cities I liked services at my local MCC, the group of gay-friendly, progressive, feminist churches.
As a non-Christian agnostic former atheist, I find the biggest benefit of church is having yet another avenue of community — friendly faces to see, groups to join, etc.
The #2 reason for me is having my psyche tuned up, in the way that only a good church can do, one that reminds you (in a message worthwhile no matter your beliefs) to forgive others, forgive yourself, be kind, tell the truth, be in the present moment, enjoy life, help people who need help, share… All that good stuff. I find I frankly forget if not reminded fairly often. Anything that maintains mental health is good for singles, who tend as a group to neglect themselves.
Your spirit is like a bicycle: if you never see to its workings, eventually you’ll break down, or at least enjoy a far less pleasant ride.
Exercise. Bleah. Self-explanatory. Hard to do, but the benefits — socialization, better sleep, better able to handle stress, blah blah blah — make it even more valuable for people who have to deal with the stress of handling most every crisis alone.
Regular exercise gives you a place to spend time being social and staying healthy, and having a workout friend (or just people who know you at the gym or on your running route) is yet another avenue of healthy, nourishing interaction. It also fights insomnia, which is itself a lonely business.
Have a form of creative expression that is meaningful and fun to do. This is a biggie. I am a firm believer in that creativity is a a sacred and meaningful activity that everyone should have the time, encouragement and materials to cultivate deeply and integrate into their lives.
You don’t have to be a professional artist. I consider writing, singing and blogging to be legitimate and profoundly satisfying creative activities in my own life. I also make jewelry, felt and knit, and take profound pleasure from the act of my work — choosing yarn, choosing a project, spending careful hours applying a difficult and complex skill to raw materials and ending up with something I am proud and happy to have made.
Whether you design homes, sew, build birdhouses, dance, sing or flip around on a pommel horse, try to find something yours to do, and explore it deeply and visit it often. Call what you do “art” and take it seriously.
Have specific activities at home that you legitimately enjoy and look forward to. Another biggie. Be happy at home. Have some activity there that beckons you.
At the end of an evening, when schoolwork permits, I spend a few hours watching a movie and knitting. It kind of gets old, but not really, as I enjoy watching Doctor Who and my nature documentaries and all my nerdy shit. Give me a little knitting, a cup of tea, a plate of apples and cheese and my velvet blanket, and you have one happy little nerd.
You can find me around Jen Manor reading, knitting, blogging, gardening, cooking and watching movies and documentaries. I also listen to books on tape, preferring nonfiction and interviews, and knit in the evenings as I listen. (BTW there’s all kinds of cool things on the internet that you can watch or listen to from your home computer, from Feynman lectures to the latest TED talk to your favorite knitting podcast.)
Keep your home environment pleasant and clean. You’re going to be spending a lot of time there. Make it a place you like being in.
Have a pet. In the unlikely event you have not yet joined the pet club, if you feel ready, join. You will be surprised at the love you will feel for the animal you bring into your home, and the companionship and love it will provide.
Ask for help when you need it. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this one really hard. It’s almost like keeping out of other people’s business is hardwired into my brain, to the point that I don’t always know when to just pick up the phone, call one of the several people who love me, and ask for what I need.
A cheering up. A bag of catfood I’m too sick to drive out to buy. A casserole to feed me as I recover from whatever illness has felled me.
It’s a modern thing, an American thing, a ruthless and evil thing. You try not to do it and so will I.
Stay in touch. Keep friends and family up to date with your life, even when you don’t see them daily. Call, email, blog. Do something. Work to cultivate your end of the connection. (I freely admit that this is advice I am handing out because I know I need so badly to take it myself.)
Look out for the “me disease.” This happens when you reach a place of stress and isolation so awful that it shifts your perceptions so that it becomes difficult to see other people’s lives through their experiences. You can only see things through the lens of your own suffering. People who have suffered deeply or lived alone for a long time will know what I am talking about.
For example, a friend told me that she and her husband were thinking about selling their house and getting a smaller one. I immediately responded that I knew exactly what it was like to feel trapped in one’s house, overwhelmed by all the work, and desperate for some kind of change, help, something.
She replied that that wasn’t the case at all. It was MY case, but not hers. Her problem was too close to my own crazy places, which made me lose touch with my ability to listen to the problems of others and see them through their eyes.
You’ll know you have this sickening and self-centered disease when you forget to ask after people who are sick and otherwise stop thinking about the people you love and what is going on in their lives.
An awful condition. Look out for it, and fight it by asking people how they are, and listening to what they say. Re-learn to see others.
Sing hallelujah and persevere. I would like to hereby state for the record that living alone is sometimes dreadful, lonely, isolating, boring, hateful and spiritually and emotionally deadening. You will sleep until 10 a.m. You will wander your own house like a ghost. You will find yourself eating crackers for dinner at 8 p.m. while you read an email from a friend about the beautiful hike, dinner and evening walk she and her husband just had. People will commonly not realize how expensive, difficult, lonely and isolating your life can be.
You will have hard times. You will wrestle your own bad nature and be far closer to yourself than many people will ever be. You will become expert at entertaining yourself. You will know yourself well, and face all your own worst habits. You will have nowhere to hide.
If you suffer from depression, whew, may the fates bless you. You may find yourself in a corrosive and dangerous environment requiring vigilance and effort, where cynicism, bitterness and isolation will conspire with shocking strength to habituate you to loneliness, inadequacy, passivity and despair.
When the bad nights come, and they will, you can capitulate or fight. There are tests that other people will withstand that you will never know. There are tests that you will withstand that other people will never know. What to do on a lonely night when meaning and joy drip away is your test.
You can endure, and look to the lesson afterwards. Or — and here’s the art part — you can fight your way out. When you can find the strength to do that, I think you can probably handle almost anything else the normal course of a human life can throw at you.
The only real currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with each other when we’re being uncool.
— Lester Bangs in Almost Famous