Last night, I did something unusual – and you know what? It felt wonderful. I pulled up a stool at my local bar, fished out a book from my bag and ordered a large glass of red wine. As I watched the claret slosh and swirl into my glass, an eyebrow arched, slowly and cautiously, as it poured. “Are you waiting for anyone else?” the barman asked. “No,” I replied. “It’s just me tonight.” Saying these four words out loud felt like an affirmation of sorts. An audible reminder of something I’d forgotten or, maybe, unconsciously feared. It’s just me. And yet, perched on my stool, in amongst the crowds and the chatter, I didn’t feel lonely at all. I was alone, yes – but I was content in being so.
Like many other women out there, I handpick my scenes of solitude carefully. So carefully, in fact, that the self-imposed boundaries have recently made me question my own free will. I enjoy my 11am coffees at my local cafe every Sunday, flicking a New Yorker as I slurp, but that’s pretty much where the solo narrative abruptly ends. I may crave aloneness at regular intervals, but I rarely choose it for myself – and that’s an important distinction. Solitude is both a physical and existential state that is forced upon me. A chance occurrence, if you will. Standing awkwardly in a cinema foyer as my husband picks up our tickets, or an opportunistic cocktail marking the time I wait for a friend.
It was with this in mind that I decided to shake things up last night, although I’m ashamed to say that there was a slight pause when I pushed open the door. I wondered what others would think, spotting a 33-year-old woman reading a book in a bar on a Wednesday night. Is she waiting? Stood-up, perhaps? Or, worse still – friendless and alone?
It isn’t easy for women to inhabit their solitude without evoking fear, surprise or pity, especially at my age. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has, at one time or another, craved alone time, but felt that this instinct should be repressed or denied.
Over the years, I absorbed assumptions and judgements through my pores, like osmosis, until they became indistinguishable with my own thoughts and fears.
We associate aloneness with enforced confinement, as opposed to a free choice that can actually improve one’s self-esteem and encourage personal development. Intersecting this, we tend to hone in on female aloneness like it’s some kind of tragic defeat. The stigma is there – it’s always there. But how often do we talk about it?
We associate aloneness with enforced confinement, as opposed to a free choice that can actually improve one’s self-esteem and encourage personal development
As Olivia Laing writes in her book, The Lonely City, your thirties can feel like an age when “female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned”, carrying with it “a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure”. When Laing moved to New York in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. And yet, instead of allowing it to confine her, she decided to embrace all the discombobulating question marks it can raise.
There’s a palpable difference between feeling lonely and being alone. “You can be solitary and be blissfully happy about it, and you can feel intensely lonely in a marriage or with groups of friends,” Laing tells me. “It doesn’t actually have anything to do with the physical contact you’re having. It’s about intimacy. I don’t think they necessarily correlate that much at all.”
As I venture further into my thirties, I’m becoming more resolute in my desire to challenge the things that scare me – and embrace them. Carving out solitary time for myself, outdoors. Marking the space that surrounds me and claiming it for myself.
I was inspired, reading Laing’s tribute to Greta Garbo in her book, “striding around the city in men’s shoes and a man’s trench coat, taking no shit from anyone, out solely for herself”. I don’t understand why we don’t celebrate these images of women alone – the fearless ones – and I wonder why many of us still perceive female aloneness as some kind of strange, mythical apparition. Like the poet Emily Dickinson – a haunting recluse in white and still referred to in self-sacrificing terms as “The Myth”.
There is nothing mythical about a woman’s desire for her own company, alone. And there is no shame in claiming it and retaining your social life in the process. Siphoning off even a small amount of alone time on a regular basis – to read a book, go to a movie, explore an exhibition, eat a meal – is such a simple act and yet it can radically open your eyes. So, why not stake your place?
As 2017 begins, I’m doing just that. Striding outdoors, like Garbo before me, to see what I can find.