What irks is not the pain of aloneness, but the perpetuation of the myth that being alone needs fixing and the only remedy is a romantic relationship.
In the Boston Sheraton lobby, Kay, my married friend who has listened to my dating woes, reports back from a conversation with a much-admired single writer who admitted a boyfriend was “too time consuming.”
“Loneliness is time consuming,” I think aloud.
“You should write about that.”
I press a button to light up my phone, revealing nothing but the time.
“Who are you waiting to hear from?”
“No one. I just look at my phone when I say things that make me nervous.”
A year later, I resist checking my phone as I write this.
It is exhausting, the constant effort to explain, accept, justify, or end my aloneness, which is only sometimes accompanied by loneliness. It can be hard to tell the difference without the reference point of a mate that is the privilege of those not alone.
By the 10,000-hour rule, I should be an expert on aloneness. For a decade I have lived alone, traveled alone, moved alone, grieved alone, and even fell in love alone. So when articles about newly single women discovering aloneness (and indeed, lucky for them, they just did) fill my newsfeed, I am irked. What irks is not the pain of aloneness, but the perpetuation of the myth that being alone needs fixing and the only remedy is a romantic relationship.
As Billy Joel said, “They all shared a drink called loneliness, but it was better than drinking alone.”
The implication, fueled by epithets like “spinster,” “loner,” “picky,” and “bitchy,” is the self, especially the female-self, is incomplete without another.
Articles, TV, and fairytales sell us the false logic that aloneness is the virus that causes loneliness. Even spiritual quests for inner-peace are posited as a cure to aloneness: Master the lessons of solitude to be rewarded with a soulmate (or at least a placeholder until the next round).
And if you loved and married young, would you never find spiritual evolution?
My happily married peers, all with good intentions, often advise me as though I am a student choosing a college. They ask what I want (someone awesome), tell me I am unrealistic, then they remind me of all the hard work relationships require, as if being in a relationship with my imperfect self and my imperfect friends is not hard work.
Simultaneously, they envy my alone time—to write, to read, to think—as if my life is a constant vacation without bills, laundry, or loneliness. When they are alone for a weekend, after a relationship dies, or after the nest is empty, they bemoan the challenges of solitude and, perhaps, the loneliness that was always there. I do not begrudge them; it is hard.
Truth be told, I am lucky: I am not in an unfulfilling, abusive, or boring relationship.
When we insist that love comes along when you really need it, are we belittling the pain and joy of those who do not have romantic love? Are we perpetuating the myth that aloneness is a defect and the alone are less worthy? Why do we elevate relationships as a culmination of self-actualization and a reward to be earned?
And this is where I run head-on into shame of longing for companionship, as if to want this is an admission of my inability to manifest it.
When love does not show up as a Facebook profile update, as a ring on a finger, or as a plus-one on a wedding RSVP, we often fail to acknowledge its importance.
When my friend Emma put her cat, Leo, to sleep, I took her out for pizza to get her out of the apartment where she and Leo lived alone. After, she asked me to help pick up Leo’s toys, a task she could not bear to do herself. I was grateful for a tangible way to help.
Loneliness is a kind of grief, a longing for what is absent: human interaction. Grief is a loss of someone specific; loneliness is abstract, a need to feel necessary and visible.
Just before my mother died, she said my sister’s engagement gave her peace. When she passed, there was no one designated to take care of me. To fly across the country to sit with me in my dead mother’s living room was more than I knew how to ask of anyone. As a single, independent woman, I let friends believe I was OK.
In the love myth, this is the point where my soulmate should step into my life. He didn’t. Instead, I had my carpooling co-worker who rode with me and my grief without demanding I cheer up and gifted me an afternoon at a spa. I had students who greeted me with cards and hugs and didn’t snicker when I cried. They had not yet learned to look away when grief enters a room.
Waiting for our pizza, Emma asked how long it took me to get over my father dying when I was 10. Emma knows grief is not like baking a cake. A poet and therapist, she confronts challenges methodologically and with curiosity. She did not want an answer as much as to open a door to something our culture does not permit: discussing how we live with grief.
Likewise, we don’t discuss that possibility that romantic love, which we are taught to believe everyone finds, sometimes does not show up, even when needed.
I took her home and picked up Leo’s toys. I listened to the stories of Leo. If we had not been there drinking wine and sorting toys, if I had not gone country line dancing in my quest to dance as much as possible (and maybe meet my someone), we would not have put down our wine to learn the Tush Push via YouTube. We would not have watched Ellen belly dance. We would not have laughed and forgot the wine and toys. We would not have searched YouTube for yogic chanting, and I could not have left Emma with the chants of Krishna Das to hold her through the evening.
Can I clear my mind of this myth that aloneness makes one inferior? Is my work with my students, my tending of native plants to heal our ecosystem, or my prayers for those in need any less meaningful because I come home to a spouseless and childless apartment?
I will not lie: I hope in the deepest crevices of my being to fall mutually in love one day. Yet, perhaps that is not the end game for me.
In a book of essays and stories, Steve Almond inscribed, “Your only job is to LOVE HARD.” No object needed. Just love.
Last Christmas I chose stay home to celebrate with my faith community. My sister’s family’s traditions are not mine. This choice to honor my idea of Christmas opened the door for joy. This is what I found: The most Christmas-filled holiday since I lost my mother. I grieved for my mother, my father, and the spouse and children I may never have. I was lonely in moments, but I was not alone.
And I loved.
Lisa Cheby is a poet and librarian, earned an MFA from Antioch University and has a forthcoming chapbook, Love Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from Dancing Girl Press. Her poems and reviews have appeared in various journals including The Rumpus, Eclipse, The Mom Egg, The Citron Review, and Tidal Basin Review and in the anthologies Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Book and The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss. For more information visit her website: http://lisacheby.wordpress.com/