With my recent return from a solo journey north—to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—I’ve been contemplating the nature of solitude. Specifically, of being a woman alone. And of traveling as a woman alone. I’ve been traveling alone for much of my adult life—crossing the country and crossing the ocean. I still recall how the first time I drove from Cincinnati, where I then lived with my then husband, to Cleveland, where my sister, still my sister, then lived, I felt a shiver of anxiety. Gee, what if the car broke down? What if I got lost? What if I stopped at a rest area and out from behind some dark shadow popped a bully man?
By now, with decades of solo travels behind me (and, I hope, ahead of me), all of those things have happened. I’m still here. In one piece. Generally unharmed if a tad eccentric (I’m in that decade of life now where eccentricity is not only allowed but welcomed, hurrah!). I’ve also gotten over eating an expensive dinner in a posh restaurant—alone. I find I actually get better service from admiring female waitresses, a kind of cheer gleaming in their eyes (you go, girl!). I’ve enjoyed a fine cigar in a cigar lounge alone, traditionally male territory. I've pitched a tent in the backwoods and sat by my own campfire. I’ve learned to ask for help when I really need it, and I am not afraid of asking for directions, although I find I rarely need to do so. Acquiring a BlackBerry with GPS navigation system installed has opened both horizons in invitation to me. I call it my Gypsy, and her polite but friendly tone directs me where to turn, when I am nearing congestion, what restaurants and lodgings are nearby. Nice. One of my last complaints about solo journeys, trying to read a map spread across the steering wheel while maneuvering traffic, was now resolved.
This may sound like no big deal to you… but it was actually a very big moment for me. I repeat: a big moment. I used my GPS Gypsy on my journey to Washington D.C. last spring, although not a solo trip (traveling with my daughter aka Blondie), and it was like the final puzzle piece falling into place in a long process of recovery from my last relationship. Like, wow. Some invisible chain fell from my ankle. I could travel anywhere, fearlessly, and never get lost again. I can travel alone in complete comfort.
As it turns out, not so. Gypsy’s voice gets quiet when you cross into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There are such wilderness places, such high altitudes and remote corners of the world, where Gypsy becomes baffled and will actually tell me, even as I am happily driving down an asphalt road, that I must turn back! turn back! you are traveling where there is no road! We won’t even speak of what happens when I turn onto some dusty dirt trail. Poor Gypsy starts to stutter and weep.
So now I am weaned of GPS, too. I’m a free and unfettered woman on the road. Nice. The world is my oyster and my pearl.
At ease and relishing my solitude, I soon discovered, however, that the coupling world around me was not so much at ease with it at all. I seem to set off all kinds of bells of alarm and induce all sorts of anxiety attacks as I pass by. If nothing else, our coupling world seems to have no clue what to do with me. I would find myself standing in the entrance of a restaurant awaiting seating—for one—only to find the maître d' peering past my one shoulder, then the other, see no one, and still ask in a insistent if slightly uneasy and hopeful voice: “Two?”
Everything in our (American) society is set up in pairs. Every expectation is that a normal, healthy person will not be so shameless as to disrupt this order of things: the world comes in twos. Yet not long ago, I heard a report on National Public Radio in my car, driving along on my own, that the United States has now officially crossed over into a majority of “singletons.” We are at some 52 percent unmarrieds. Well, cool, I say. Why not. The times, they are a’changing, and it is undeniable that many women of previous generations married primarily because there was no other choice but to do so. We were weaned on dreams of being mommies and housewives, and when we began to attend institutions of higher education, it was more about becoming better and more interesting partners to our future mates than it was about becoming financially independent. We were raised to be dependent. We no longer are.
I say it with measurable pride: today, I bring home a much heftier slab of bacon than all but one of my previous partners in romantic crime. The one, suffering ill health, is today financially dependent on his new wife. So there you are. Money, let’s face it, is the biggest chain to keep a person down, tied to another, limiting choices. Money is power, and money is freedom.
Which is not to say I haven’t loved, and ever so profoundly, along the way, tied by heart strings that were stronger than any dollar sign. Indeed, one of my happiest times in adult life was when I was side-by-side with a man who was a fresh immigrant to this country and literally had nothing more than the shirt on his back. He was dirt poor, so was I, and we were outrageously in love, and the sunshine was bright and glorious in my ever blue skies.
That’s the point. The point is: been there, done that, more than a few times, enjoyed much of it, learned from traveling every path and side ditch, and now I have arrived at a time in my life when I desire nothing more than going it alone. Alone makes me happy. That does not mean I don’t cherish my family and friends. I do. Even more now than I did when partnered. I have more time and space to cherish these others.
Yet why is it that at every turn now I seem to encounter someone or something that assumes my solitude must be cured? As if it were a kind of disease or affliction or, oh my, shortcoming? Surely I suffer?
Calling home to check on my critters when I had brought in my bags to a cabin in the woods up north, my mother's voice trembled over the phone line. She knew where and how I was, yet couldn’t seem to help herself, asking yet again: “You are alone in the woods? All alone? In the woods?” I could almost feel the shiver of the phone in my hand with her horror. “All alone, Mama. In the woods. I’m fine.”
I shook my head, smiled, and set to preparing myself a fine dinner in my little log cabin kitchen. One of my last, quite recent, transformations was to fully realize that I can cook a fine meal for one. I used to cook fine meals for two. Or for my children. Does one really cook gourmet for self alone? I’d been one of those eating-over-the-sink types for quite some time. Yet, gradually, without giving it much thought, I one day realized I was cooking terrific meals… for myself to dine alone, and relishing every moment that I could eat with my fingers if I wanted to, slurp my soup or suck up the last long noodle with gratifying slurpiness, and concentrate fully on the tastes and textures of my meal without distraction of conversation or the need to play hostess. I pour a glass of vintage wine, cut into that prime cut of steak, dip my asparagus in its Hollandaise sauce, and enjoy every last bite.
At some point, I even realized I had begun to crave my solitude. Yes, crave. As one craves the closeness of a lover. I’d start to get cranky if I had gone too long without. I would feel out of balance, off center, out of kilter, like I was tipping to one side and needed to find my way again. Solitude is a good thing. A necessary thing. A space in which we can dip into silence and finally hear our own voice. The noise and bustle quiets, and at first it is a small voice, a whisper in the distance, a tinny little song. With time, it becomes a voice calling out in the woods and meeting its own echo, a glorious opera of one.
Women especially, I think, need to learn to embrace their oneness. We are raised, still and ever, to think of others. And to think of others first, as if to remember our own existence is somehow shameful and selfish. Not a bad thing to care for our many relationships, but too often, we do so at expense of ourselves. We lose ourselves in nurturing our families, our friends, even our colleagues. A woman’s strength is in our ability to know compassion, to be able to see through the eyes of others and so take on great causes and fight to make this a better world, finely attuned as we are to the vibrations of others. We are wise and we have great hearts and we move mountains, every day. Good. As it should be.
But now and then…. we need to remember who we are. We need to go deep into the woods, alone, and listen carefully for our own echo. We need to cook a meal for our own tastes, sit down, eat uninterrupted, and lick the plate. We need to navigate our own paths, and now and then, we need to get lost so that we can find ourselves again. We need to face up to the bully man who jumps out from the shadows, because he will. We need to know we can stand our ground.
We need to know, every one of us, that it is okay to be one of us, one at a time. One of the most important relationships we will ever have is the one we have with ourselves.
We need to know what we like, what we enjoy, when no one else is looking or whispering in our ear which way to go and how to choose.
And we all need to leave people alone about being alone. Matchmakers, bite your tongue. Yours is not the only way. I do believe there is someone, even many someones, for everyone (although there are too many that are blind to their own best mates even as they stand beside them). Everyone should experience love in its deepest hues, an intimacy of two intertwined. It is a challenge that makes us better people in the long run. It is a joy like no other.
Even better appreciated when contemplated in moments of sweet solitude. I am blessed with so many heartwarming memories of past loves, and now, of wonderful friendships awaiting me when I come back out of my time alone. But at this time in my life, I am enjoying a relationship of one. A new memory unfolding of a life fully lived. And I am loving my discovery of the best friend I've ever had: me.