The Merry Recluse

A single woman chooses a life of solitude in the Land of We.

Published July 27, 1998 7:07PM (EDT)

Nine forty-five p.m. I am standing in my kitchen preparing my very favorite
meal, a zesty blend of wheat flakes, Muslix and raisins that comforts me
deeply. It is a Thursday, which means that "ER" is on in 15 minutes, and it
is mid-May -- sweeps month -- which means that I am filled with
anticipation: yes, a new episode. I feel serene. I am wearing torn
leggings, a T-shirt, a bathrobe. The dog is in the living room, curled
contentedly (and wordlessly) on the sofa; the phone machine is blinking
with several messages, which I've dutifully screened and have no intention
of answering until tomorrow. And a thought comes to me, a simple statement
of fact that arrives in a fully formed sentence. I hear the words: I am
the Merry Recluse.

This, I must say, is a magical, transformative moment; it represents a
kaleidoscopic shift of sorts, the kind of sudden internal restructuring
that occurs when an established set of facts about the self seems to spontaneously
shift, presenting itself in a new order, a surprising new
light. An old thought becomes a new thought; a prior definition takes on a
twist, a new edge, a new meaning.

Listen to it again: I am the Merry Recluse. Doesn't that sound
chipper and grand? Had you asked me to sum up my sense of place in the
world a day before -- an hour before, 10 minutes before -- I would have
offered something very different: I am a single woman, I might have
said. Age 38, a bit of a loner. My voice might have had an
apologetic edge, as though I were acknowledging the sad and spinsterish
associations behind such words, and I might have shrugged a bit sheepishly,
as if to say: Ooops, sorry, this is all an accident; I was supposed to
be married by now. But in that instant, poised above my bowl of
Wheaties, the psychic kaleidoscope turned a notch, the apology blurred,
something new shifted into view, something that looked very much (dare I
even say it?) like happiness.

Happy and alone, you say? Reclusive and merry? How oxymoronic!
Pas possible! Alas, the concept is lost on so many. A friend,
recently divorced but involved with someone new, asked me a question over
dinner not long ago: "So," she said, her expression concerned, "how does it
feel not to be in a relationship?" I tried to ignore her tone, which was
vaguely pitying, and pretended to be kidding when I answered by pointing at
the dog: "But I am in a relationship," I said. "I have her." She
laughed, a rather halfhearted and dismissive laugh, then resumed the line
of questioning: Wasn't I lonely? she wanted to know. Didn't I find it hard
to be responsible for all the household details -- the cooking, the
shopping, the errands and bills? Didn't I worry about the future, about
growing old alone, about whether or not I'll find someone?

I sat there and mused for a moment. The questions are difficult to respond
to, not because the answers are complex (which they are) but because we
live in a culture that puts such a high premium on romantic intimacy, that
uses partnership as a measure of mental health and social normalcy. Answer
affirmatively (yes, I get lonely; yes, solitude can be very stressful and
worrisome), and you sound sorrowful, the slightly pathetic outsider; answer
negatively (nope, I'm quite content, thank you very much) and you sound
hermetic, incapable of following the accepted path to human happiness,
pathologically disengaged somehow. In fact, 25 percent of the adult
population lives alone today -- that's almost double the number that lived
alone 35 years ago -- and although plenty of us may end up on our own for
unhappy reasons (divorce, fear, geography, any number of quirks of fate and
timing and circumstance), it seems both simplistic and erroneous to assume
that solitude is an inherently sorry state, something you wouldn't
choose if you had a better option.

I said as much to my friend. "Sure there are downsides," I said, "but I
really like being alone." I ticked off a little list: the freedom to
set my own hours, make my own rules, indulge my own tastes; the relief at
not having to interact or negotiate or compromise with another human unless
I choose to; the little burst of accomplishment I periodically feel at
being the architect of my own space, physical and psychic. "It's a choice,"
I said, "a style I'm comfortable with."

She listened, nodded soberly; I could tell she didn't believe a word.

Exchanges like this wouldn't bug me if they weren't so common. I often walk
my dog in the morning with a friend named Wendy who's been in a
relationship for the last 19 years and whose social calendar is packed so
tight it makes me dizzy: a constant stream of parties and potluck suppers,
movie and theater outings, vacations and visitors from out of town. Every
Friday she asks me what I'm doing over the weekend and every Friday I
demur: "Oh, not much," or, "The usual: just hanging." The truth is, I
rarely make weekend plans, at least not social ones. My recipe for bliss on
a Friday night consists of a New York Times crossword puzzle and a new
episode of "Homicide"; Saturdays and Sundays are oriented around walks in
the woods with the dog, human companion in tow some of the time but not
always. This doesn't mean I'm a misanthrope: I have a small,
carefully cultivated social life -- a handful of treasured friends; a
beloved sister; people whose presence and support mean the world to me --
but Wendy can't quite make the distinction between a quiet life and an
empty one, and she finds my style unsettling. A look of veiled discomfort
comes over her face when I hem and haw about the weekend, as though she
envisions 48 hours of disconnection and sadness, so sometimes I make stuff
up to placate her: I tell her there are dinner plans, movies scheduled, a
shopping trip with a girlfriend, and she always responds with a little
heave of maternal relief, which I find mildly patronizing. "Oh, how
nice for you!"

Me, I walk along and feel quietly defensive, a recluse in the Land of We.

That's quite the loaded word, "we."

- - - - - - - - - -

Not long ago, in the locker room of my gym, I eavesdropped as a woman held
forth about her upcoming wedding. We're thinking about a honeymoon in
Hawaii, she said. We're registering at Bloomingdale's. We're buying a new
car. We're doing A, B and C. We, we, we. I stood there, and I
thought about how infrequently I use plural pronouns to describe the events
of my life, and I felt a familiar stab of inadequacy, questions about
priorities and social worth scratching at the subconscious. On the broad
spectrum of solitude, I lean toward the extreme end: I work alone, as well
as live alone, so I can pass an entire day without uttering so much as a
hello to another human being. Sometimes a day's conversation consists of
only five words, uttered at the local Starbucks: "Large coffee with milk,
please." I also work out alone, and I grocery shop alone and I cook and eat
and watch TV alone, and if you don't count the dog (I do; many don't), I
sleep alone at night and wake up alone every morning. Much of the time I
don't question this state of affairs -- it just is -- but I listened
to this woman in the gym, and I spun out a vivid fantasy about her life
(the best friend at the next StairMaster, the colleagues at the office, the
fiancé at home, the 200 friends and family members at the wedding
reception, the children two or three years hence), and I felt like an
alien, a member of some mutant species getting dressed in the locker room
before crawling back to her dark, solitary cave.

Why don't I want that? That's what comes up. Why do I find the fantasy --
husband, family, kids -- exhausting instead of alluring? Is there
something wrong with me? Do I have a life?

In fact, that woman at the gym, poised as she is at the matrimonial brink,
is not necessarily headed for a more "normal" life than the one I lead. For
the first time, there are as many single-person households in the United States as
there are married couples with children -- 25 percent of the population in
each camp -- but moments like that I understand that cultural standards and
expectations haven't quite caught up with the numbers. Census figures be
damned: If you choose to be alone, you're destined to spend a certain amount
of time wondering why.

I suppose the why, at least for me, is internal, temperamental, as deeply
personal as sexuality. Like most women, I grew up expecting to marry someday, expecting to have a family, expecting to want babies. And like some
women (and men), I've found that the years have passed and passed and
passed and those things simply haven't happened, as though some deeper
yearning simply failed to kick in. Lots of life decisions are made that
way: Choices are revealed by default, answers arrived at far more passively
than we might expect. I look up today and realize, with some surprise, that
I've spent the bulk of my adult life alone -- 15 of the last 18 years. For
much of that time -- indeed, until my merry little epiphany in the kitchen
-- I've tended to see my solitary status as a transient state, a product of
circumstance instead of a matter of style. In fact, I suspect I've lived
this way for a reason, that the degree of solitude I've chosen feeds me in
some way, that the fit -- me with me -- is right.

Considered in that light, the "why" -- why spend so much time alone? --
becomes a more interesting question: why not? I've always been drawn
to solitude, felt a kind of luxurious relief in its self-generated pace and
rhythms. I eat breakfast pretty much 'round the clock -- muffins in the
morning, scones for lunch, cereal at night -- which may be odd but is also
oddly satisfying, if only because the choice is my own. I am master of my
own clutter, king of the television remote, author of every detail, large
and quirky: The passenger seat of my car, uninhabited by humans most of the
time, will always be a disaster area, a repository of cassette tapes and
empty coffee cups and errant dog toys; my alarm clock will always blast
National Public Radio at precisely 6:02; my ashtrays (smoking permitted
here constantly) will always be blessedly full and stinky. Solitude is a
breeding ground for idiosyncrasy, and I relish that about it, the way it
liberates whim.

Of course, living alone can make you psycho, too. I often feel deranged in
the supermarket, hunting down grazable foodstuffs that don't come in
family-size packages, wishing I could buy grapes in bags of 10 so that the
other 80 don't rot in the refrigerator, wondering if the check-out clerk
has noticed my apparent obsession with wheat flakes. The lack of backup can
overwhelm the solitary dweller, especially when you're confronted with
life's more fearsome tasks (decoding assembly instructions, killing
spiders); the lack of distraction, which alters your core relationship to
physical space, can make you think you're nuts. The other night, I caught
myself talking to a spoon, which had twice fallen off the counter and
clattered onto the tile. "Hey!" I said. "Stop doing that!" And then I stood
there and shook my head, aware of that tiny persistent question, the
low-level mosquito whine inside: Is this normal? Is it?

For me, the most pressing challenge involves negotiating the line between
solitude and isolation, which can be very thin indeed. Social skills are
like muscles, subject to atrophy, and I find I have to be as careful about
maintaining human contact as I am about maintaining physical health: Drop
below a certain level of contact with other humans, and the simplest social
activities -- meeting someone for coffee, going out to dinner -- begin to
seem monumental and scary and exhausting, the interpersonal equivalent of
trying to swim to France. Solitude is often most comforting, most
sustaining, when it's enjoyed in relation to other humans; fail to strike
the right balance and life gets a little surreal: You start dreaming about
TV characters as though they were real people; houseflies start to feel
companionable; minor occasions that others find perfectly ordinary (the
arrival of a house guest, an event requiring anything dressier than
sweat pants) start to feel bizarre and unfathomable.

And yet I'd be hard pressed to leave this little world, singular and self-constructed as it is. I have lived in the Land of We; at times, I have
pounded on the door for admission, frantic with worry and need. When the
friend at dinner asked me how it felt not to be in a relationship, I
remembered all too clearly what it was like to feel despair at the state,
to regard my own company as scary and inferior. When I see that look of
discomfort come over my friend Wendy as I talk about my unplanned weekends,
I remember how horrifying I once found the concept of unstructured time,
how much difficulty I've had simply sitting still, giving my own emotions
room to surface. And when I hear people pepper their speech with the word
"we," like that woman in the gym, I remember a lot of painful years spent
struggling to define myself in relation to other people, as though my own
existence didn't count unless it was attached to someone else's.

That night in my kitchen, fixing my Kellogg's feast, reveling in the order
and quiet of my own home, felt like a gift, a victory of sorts, an
awareness that some of those struggles have receded further into the past.
I am shy by nature, a person who's always found something burdensome about
human interaction and who probably always will, at least to some degree.
Accordingly, I have always felt a deep relief in solitude, but I've not
always been able to bask in it, to sit alone in a room without
getting edgy, to feel that comfort and solace and validation are available
outside the paradigm of a romance, to believe that my own resources -- my
own company, my own choices -- can power me through the dark corridors of
solitude and into the brightness.

I took my cereal bowl into the living room, settled down in front of the
TV and thought, so merrily: I'm home.

By Caroline Knapp

Caroline Knapp is the author of "Drinking: A Love Story." Her most recent book is "Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs."

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