Forever is a long time

Occasionally I indulge my inner masochist and google things like ‘how to live alone’ to see what nuggets of wisdom the internets will throw up.

Today I was reading WikiHow’s entry on How to Live Alone Happily. I would link to it but I don’t want to encourage WikiHow. Does anyone read or rely on WikiHow? It baffles me. Many of the instructions verge on the inane. I’m going to write one on how to fill a bottle with water [Step 1: remove bottle lid; Step 2: hold open end of bottle under tap; Step 3: turn on tap; Step 4: turn off tap when bottle is full; Step 5: replace cap on bottle.]

In this article their ‘steps’ are not unhelpful. I’ve been known to advocate a few of them myself, such as being prepared for getting sick, and applying self discipline. But from the get go, it’s clear WikiHow thinks that if you find yourself living alone, it’s not a good situation. You should fight against it. Step 1 is “engage with the world”. Fight the forces of aloneness! God forbid you actually learn to enjoy being on your own, spending time with yourself, enjoying peace, quiet and solitude.

But don’t worry, finding yourself living alone is not really the WORST that could happen. Step 7 cheerily consoles you with the thought that the worst thing won’t actually happen:

7. Know it’s not forever

Because apparently, there is nothing worse than being alone forever.

Personally, I can think of a lot of things that are worse. Being married to someone you don’t like, for example. Or getting to 85 and realising that you’ve spent the last 50 years of your life thinking it’s not forever so you put off living until Mr/Ms Right arrived.





Five myths about living alone, debunked

Every week some new article pops up in my feed reader extolling the virtues of single living. In case you aren’t already aware, according to the authors the two chief benefits of living alone are being able to walk around your apartment naked, and being able to do exactly what you want. 

To my nose, these articles reek of desperation. They’re frequently written by 30 year olds who find themselves on their own after a relationship breakup.  The key message is generally along the lines of enjoying oneself in a hedonistic way while the intermission lasts, because soon enough Mr/Ms Right will be along and it’ll be dinner parties (fully clothed, one hopes) then weddings then babies. In other words, Real Life will resume again soon enough, so enjoy this break in much the same way as you’d enjoy a week in the islands during winter. 

They basic premise is that single life is only ever a temporary state. Nothing articulates the overwhelming prejudice in favour of married living quite like this assumption.  

I’d like to offer a corrective to the following commonly cited “benefits” of the single life.

1. You can walk around the house naked
If walking around your house naked is something that you really, really want to do, then do it. Living alone isn’t a pre-requisite. And even if you live alone, you may still have neighbours who object as vigorously as your flatmates would. 

2. You can do what you want
By all means, you can have pizza for dinner every night and leave your dirty laundry on the floor. But in the end, you still have to do the laundry and take out the rubbish, because if you don’t, no one else will. 

3. You don’t have to put up with other people’s annoying habits. 
However, you have to put up with your own, and these will prove to be more unavoidable and even more difficult to change than other people’s. 

4. You don’t have to discuss your decisions with anyone else. 
You also don’t have anyone to discuss your decisions with. It’s all up to you. You are responsible, and only you. See point 2 again.  

5. Your single life is temporary, a hiatus between relationships.
It may be. Or it may not be. But if you continue to treat it as such you may find you have spent a large chunk of your life living in a hiatus. At some point you may need to accept that you are not between relationships, you are in fact single. And then you have to decide if you’re going to spend your life chasing something you don’t have, or embracing what you do have. 

I suspect that most of these ideas about single life are just another case of the grass being greener. My point is not that the grass is greener or less green on the single side of the fence. It’s just different grass. 

How should I present myself to the world?

When you’re insecure about your appearance, trying to make yourself look better is a fraught endeavour.

(Kate Bolick, Spinster)

I spend a lot of time thinking about clothes. You’d never guess this to look at me. I don’t exude chic or fashion sense – I dress like someone trying not to be looked at.

I have always been excessively self conscious, worried about fitting in but more importantly, about not making a fool of myself. I’m not attractive in any conventional sense (or any unconventional sense either, I’m just forgettably plain), and making an effort to look better calls to mind silk purses and sow’s ears. Instead, I strive to not call attention to myself so I cannot be accused of – what? Being delusional? Having tickets on myself? Thinking that making an effort is going to make me beautiful when it is laughably obvious this is impossible? Having ideas above my station? Any and all.

Blending into the wallpaper seems the safest strategy.

But even blending takes work. I observe others intently, which may well cause them to think I am a stalker (not helped by my aloner status, naturally). The difference between stalking and intense observation, in my mind at least, is that I am not treating my ‘subjects’ as prey. I am studying them, to learn from them. It’s science.

How do confident people move? What makes that woman pretty and that one beautiful? How come that man looks arrogant and stand-offish while that other man looks approachable, even though they are dressed nearly identically?  Why does what she is wearing seem so inappropriate for work? How is it that those two are wearing almost the same outfit yet one looks pulled together and the other looks thrown together? What is it that makes that woman look so hard and cold?

People watching is endlessly fascinating because these and similar questions present themselves in a never-ending stream. I rarely arrive at definitive answers. Some things I have developed strong opinions on (cleavage at work, for example: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, no-one should have to confront a woman’s breasts in the workplace). Other things like leggings in public I am still developing opinionated opinions on.

But in the end, all this is really about how I present myself to the world: how to achieve some degree of congruity between the inside and the outside. I feel a disconnect, yet I wonder if my clothes are in fact speaking truthfully and the disconnect is not between how I see myself and how I present myself but between how I want to see myself and how I present myself.

My clothes give the lie to my aspirational self image. They stubbornly say “this is who I really am” when I’m trying to pretend otherwise.

This is an act of sabotage. If I dressed the part, would it not be easier to act the part and slowly become the part? There’s something in the adage, “fake it til you make it”. At times we all fake being confident when we’re not feeling it, and that’s usually not a bad thing. If I dressed as a confident, approachable, friendly, professional woman, would I start to act like one and eventually become one? I don’t know, but surely it’s better to do that than dress as if going to work were a burden, something I am forced to do against my will and where I advertise my resentment and lack of interest by turning up wearing clothes that scream “I don’t give a rats”.

Rather than thinking of dressing with care as faking it,  perhaps I could consider it acting and practising: a true dress rehearsal.

A reunion of sorts

This weekend I went to a 50th wedding anniversary of friends I’ve known my whole life. 

The couple celebrating 50 years own the beach house next to ours. I no longer own ours but for the past 50 years we’ve shared summer holidays. In the early days it was my siblings and I, and their children and nieces and nephews. Their family situation was unusual (brother and sister married a sister and brother so everyone was doubly related) and the whole lot would spend summer there. We kids looked forward to our annual reunions. 

A strong factor is my decision to attend the 50th was because of this long-ago connection with the wider family. And all but one of the “kids” were there so it was a good opportunity to see where we all had got to in life. 

Last time I’d seen most of them was about 15 years ago. At that time the first question out of their mouths to me was “are you married?” This time that question didn’t even come up. Clearly I’ve reached the point where this is no longer an expectation — I’m recognised as a confirmed spinster. This was both interesting and something of a relief. 

Having that out of the way meant we could talk about other things. What was so interesting to me was how little our personalities had changed. The kids I had felt closest to as a child I still felt connected to as an adult. The ones I hadn’t felt so close to I could now see why that had been so. 

This slightly recoloured my memories of those holidays, but in a good way. Things I remember feeling when around some of the kids no longer felt like failings of mine. Instead, I could see more clearly through adult eyes that some of those feelings of not belonging, not being ‘cool’, were because that’s the kind of person B is, those are the ways she treats people even now, and she is like that because that’s how her mother is. 

It seems very late in life for me to be realising things so obvious as this about other people. But it has made me doubly glad I made the trip because getting a chance to let go of childhood pain and reconfirm happy childhood memories is always worth doing.