By framing ourselves as complete, we are able to frame alone time as positive rather than negative.
My most recent ex had two roommates while we were dating. Though this was very different from my own situation, I enjoyed seeing them during weekends when I stayed at that house. I looked forward to when they came home from work and shared how their days were. I was comforted by the way they pitched in to run the household, charmed by the meals they took turns preparing and the tangle of still-warm video game cords they left on the carpet.
“How many roommates do you have?” his mom asked me once.
“Just me,” I said. “I live alone.”
“Do you mind it?” she asked.
I’ve always been intrigued by the way our society conflates “alone” with “lonely;” assumes sadness to accompany solitude. “No,” I said, “I love it. There are a lot of perks.” Such as? “Well, I can adjust things to my liking. If I want to read a book, I can make sure it’s quiet. If I want to crank up the oldies and clean like a maniac, I can do that too. And I can make a mess without worrying that anyone will see it.” I can do all the weird, idiosyncratic shit that I don’t want anyone else—not even your son—to see, I wanted to say.
“What if you don’t want to be alone?”
“Then I have people over or I go out.” I half-winked at her. “I can do that, too.”
Maybe that scene should have felt more uncomfortable: me explaining to my boyfriend’s mother that in most cases, I am enough. But I’ve been defending my “party of one” default setting since childhood, when people started to catch on that no other siblings were in the works for me. I learned to smile and shake my head at the pitiful looks, the soft plying of “But don’t you wish you had a brother or sister?” I had two supportive parents, a growing number of friendships, and a room full of books and toys to indulge every corner of my imagination. Siblings? You can’t miss something that you never had.
It was this only child status that, despite pressures and confusion from others, helped me cultivate a strong sense of autonomy. Because my room, my things, and my routine belonged to me exclusively, I viewed relationships and social engagements as conscious choices rather than as obligations or making the most of forced proximity. In high school, I never gravitated toward one clique in particular. I had friends all over the school who otherwise would have never connected, and my relationships were always formed deliberately. I would have rather spent time by myself than with someone I didn’t feel a bond with.
Last year, I met a woman named June. She came into my life while I was living in an urban area for the first time, in an environment that I found permanently overstimulating and exhausting. I felt unable to make any lasting friends because the population was so transient, and June was the calm at the eye of that storm. She was a glamorous woman about 20 years my senior who had modeled in her younger days, as evidenced by the collection of photos on her end table. She looked like a young Diana Ross. I was captivated by her regal posture and timeless elegance, her appreciation for life’s simple pleasures.
She was the one who, at a time when I felt strangely unsettled, forced me to slow down and remember myself. Time seemed to stand still in her apartment. Even though it was the exact same layout as mine and in the same building, visiting June was like entering a hotel room where everything was clean as glass. When the D.C. blizzard had us homebound for days, she sliced up fresh golden beets and avocados for dinner. We watched movies on her pristine white sofa, under blankets and the flicker of lavender candles.
She was unafraid to go out in the world (though this city was new to her, too) and explore, to meet people and try new things. Men fell in love with her on the train. She accepted their offers to go out, never one to turn down a new experience, but if it ended up not being a good match she was back at our complex with a stack of DVDs or heading out to the next yoga class. I’d catch her at the park next door running; we’d run together. “Never burn daylight,” she told me. “You are your own best company.”
June taught me that time is only a waste if you waste it. That you have the power to take the plunge and try something new or, alternatively, to step back to focus on your needs. She brought me bath fizzies from her hometown down south. “You have a whirlpool tub. Use it,” she urged. Spending time with June was like meeting an older version of myself, equipped with the kind of stability and inner peace I’d been hoping to bottle for years.
I’m not saying that we who value our alone time never get lonely. “Loneliness is the human condition,” Ingrid says in my favorite book, White Oleander, “cultivate it.” Amy Schreibman Walter explored this concept last month in her piece “The Pleasure of Taking Myself to the Movies Alone.” “I might feel lonely before I go, but at the movies, I’m in a happy place, a place where I am giving myself what I need,” she wrote. “What feels important is that I am participating in something I want to do regardless of if anyone is free at that moment to join me.” Meaning that by framing ourselves as complete, we are able to frame alone time—whether it’s a requisite post-breakup transition or a deliberate choice to unplug and unwind for a weekend—as positive rather than negative. As full, rather than empty.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.