MAXWELL:  Finding happiness in the solo life

4/21/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


On Monday night, I ate supper at 12:49 a.m. As I ate, I began to write this column on my laptop while watching a movie on HBO. I made a pot of coffee about 1:15, poured a cup and went outside. My senses were alive. The air was unseasonably cool, a few stars shone in the western sky and the heavy odor of smoke from distant wildfires engulfed everything.

Back inside, I poured more coffee and wrote until 3:30. Tired, I lay on the couch and fell asleep. I awoke at 5 and went for a walk. Returning at 6, I microwaved the old coffee, read the St. Petersburg Times and the New York Times, listened to National Public Radio, showered, dressed and arrived at work in time for my daily 9:30 editorial board meeting.

I did all of these things without disturbing anyone else. What I have described is a vignette from the life of one of America’s 25-million adults who live alone. I did not know that we were so numerous until I read Living Solo, photographer Adrienne Salinger’s beautiful book chronicling this “unique” way of life.

“Possibly,” Salinger writes, “this is the first generation in which living alone is presumed to be a legitimate choice rather than a declaration of defeat; unprecedented numbers of people now choose to keep their own homes, to decorate them, and to entertain in them without overt societal pressure to adapt to specific notions of family living. . . . Until recently, living “alone’ was considered an aberration, a transient state within which individuals were identified by the culture as submissively awaiting mates in order to participate in society.”

I have lived alone since 1988, when my marriage ended in divorce. During the first three months, I was lost _ suspended somewhere without substantive form, incomplete without my longtime mate. As Salinger suggests, I was cut off from the “blissful union in which major purchases and life decisions (are) compromises of taste and desire.”

Because my house was in the woods, more than 25 miles from Gainesville, I quickly adapted to living solo by reading and writing, walking the vast woodlands, growing vegetables and flowers, maintaining my 3-acre lawn, caring for Fancy Pants, my Appaloosa, feeding the wild birds and learning to recognize them, and keeping my old Chevy pickup running.

At the end of the first year of being alone, I could not imagine living with someone else again, of relinquishing the solitude that had forced me to feel comfortable with myself. Like Salinger, I am not talking about being “single,” about giving up romantic and sexual relations. I am talking about celebrating my living space, about being alone in my book- and newspaper-strewn house whenever I wish _ for as long as I wish.

Salinger, who has lived alone for years, captures the uncompromising essence of the solo life in both picture and word: “Without other people to help govern the events of daily living or judge the “normalcy’ of particular habits, a certain eccentricity is allowed to emerge. Eccentricity can be a good thing. It can make us unique, creative, unusual, mysterious, and sometimes idiosyncratic.”

Who are these 25-million who live alone in the United States? “We have nothing in common,” Salinger writes. “We have everything in common. We live in big cities and small towns. We eat over the sink and in bed _ sometimes at a table. We find things where we left them. We always know where the good scissors are. We own the remote control. We are the people who sometimes celebrate holidays alone. . . . We are sometimes lonely. We are often successful and driven. We are sometimes poor and trapped. We have good friends. We have lovers. We are old. We are gay and straight. We are divorced, widowed, single, living on opposite coasts from our partners.”

Indeed, for many individuals in a “couple,” living alone suggests decadence and unnaturalness. I cannot count the times that people are shocked that I am not married. How often do acquaintances tell me to bring my wife when I come to dinner? When I say that I live alone, the tortured silence on the line confirms why I live solo. How often do people try to “set” me up (and I hate that)? How often am I called “weird” because I do things my way?

“It takes an enormous amount of courage to live alone,” Salinger said. “You have no escape from looking at yourself.”

More than most people, my favorite poet, May Sarton, who lived solo most of her life, understood the courage that Salinger speaks of: “The value of solitude _ one of its values _ is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within. . . .”

Others who live solo understand perfectly.