The author’s dog, Beau. Photo by Marion Winik.
The author’s dog, Beau. Photo by Marion Winik.

At Thanksgiving dinner, as we went around the table saying what we were grateful for, my daughter Jane gave thanks for leaving home, for the excitement of starting a new part of her life on her own. For a second, I thought about being hurt by this, but she assured us that she meant it in the nicest way, going on to thank everyone at the table who had helped her get to this point. 

Once I thought about it, I realized I too should give thanks for her departure.

She’s not the only one who’s started a new life on her own. After years of fervently and noisily dreading this passage and cooking up absurd schemes to foil it by moving to a waterfront condo, I have discovered that I had absolutely no idea what it would be like. Everything I imagined was wrong. (The waterfront condo fantasy has been a recurrent theme for me in the face of scary changes, as in the flirtation with Havre de Grace that followed my divorce. Someday, I swear, I will move to a waterfront condo and we’ll see if it really does solve anything.)

Since the essential thing about living alone is that no one sees or knows what you’re doing, I hope I’m not wrecking it by writing about it. Some of it feels a bit ineffable, but maybe I can eff it if I try.

Here’s the movie montage of my first four months on my own. Me, coming out of the bathroom with my pants half-pulled-up, shamelessly belting out the theme from Love Story. Me, eating the leftover half of a patty melt, a dill pickle and potato chips for breakfast. Me, spending an entire day in pajamas without saying a word to anyone. Me, pouring a big glass of wine at two in the afternoon. Me, reading three books in one day. Me, twirling the dog around the living room in a pas de deux to the “Nutcracker Suite.”

The first time I had houseguests, I was shocked by my reaction to their arrival. I have always been a Mrs. Ramsay, the bustling hostess from Virginia Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse,” a more-the-merrier, stay-here-with-us type of person, pots on the stove, towels in the closet, compulsively nurturing everyone in sight. Suddenly I’ve turned into the Unabomber, holed up in my cabin reading and writing and forgetting to get a haircut or trim my toenails, peering angrily between Venetian blinds at those who dare to disturb my solitude. 

Some people who live alone leave the TV on all the time. I turned the thing on once, for the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and that was plenty. For me, Google Home provides the soundtrack. I listen to much, much more music now that I live alone. Okay, Google. Play French bistro music. Play flamenco guitar. Play “White Bird,” by It’s a Beautiful Day. Play Chumbawamba. Every morning I tell it to play “Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell, and then let it wander off through my adolescence until it inevitably finds its way to Bread.

When I miss my children, rather than pestering them with a phone call, I just request their music. Play “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest. Play “I Need My Girl,” by The National. With Vince, I can actually get a song by Vince. Play “Foolish Lover,” by Me Nd Adam. Play “Backseat,” by E-Dubble.

I also like to call out the names of musicians and songs I encounter in the books I’m reading, which is how we got down the path to “Love Story” and the Nutcracker, also to Nana Mouskouri and Billy Strayhorn and some crazy Turkish pop. I am reminded of the recent Roz Chast cover of the New Yorker: a lady serving Thanksgiving dinner to her iPhone, her laptop, her GPS, her Google Home and a couple of robots.

For me, those robots at the table would be replaced by the cat and the dog. The cat and the dog are part of all my daily rituals. We have things we do in the morning and things we do at night, and we all sit on the couch in our assigned spots during the hours between. They eat kibble at 7 am and 3 pm; I eat whatever whenever. My freezer is full of Trader Joe’s mahi mahi burgers, recently determined to be the world’s most versatile food. I never thought I would bake bread or make homemade pickles or yogurt just for myself, but it turns out I do. I make a fresh pot of coffee every two or three days. Yeah, I know, that’s disgusting. I don’t care. I don’t use deodorant either.

At 9:30 pm, I carry the dog upstairs and come back for the cat. The plan is to read in bed for a while, but often I find I’m exhausted and can’t wait to go to sleep.  The longer I live alone, the more I remember my dreams, and they seem to have gotten more interesting. There are contests and cruises and sex shows, all kinds of elaborate premises, and visits from people I miss. Last night on the cruise my daughter Jane appeared and put two pairs of aviator sunglasses in my bag at the shipboard CVS. In another scene, my mother sank into a deck chair, smiling and shaking her head — she’d had a really marvelous talk with Jane, she said, but now she was worn out. A few days before, I saw my dear late husband, Tony. He had dyed marzipan-colored stripes into his hair and was practicing elaborate diving routines at the beach club. As usual, he looked about 27, as he was when we met, but thin and unwell, because my subconscious can only breathe so much life into people who have been dead so long.

Every time I leave the house, I feel a bit balky and unwilling; when I come home, I sigh with relief. Thank God that’s over. Escaping, at last, the male gaze, the female gaze, the student gaze, the colleague gaze, all the complex requirements and tensions of interacting with other people. I never realized how much emotional energy it takes to be around other human beings, even people you love, each of them buzzing with thoughts and desires and opinions and judgments and creating by their very presence the need to uphold social conventions which turn out to be unnecessary when one is alone. 

The luxury of solitude has never been apparent to me. I don’t think I could even have imagined it. But now? Call before you come by.

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

11 replies on “The Luxury of Solitude”

  1. I have always enjoyed solitude — loved it, in fact. (Of course I also love hanging out with people!) But it’s always been interesting meeting people who can’t abide solitude, who would go bonkers if they lived alone, or even had to spend a few hours alone.

  2. “For a second, I thought about being hurt by this…” This made me laugh out loud. Lovely piece, def feels like the beginning of its own series or another book.

  3. Wonderful symmetry to your conversation. I found myself at times agreeing, defending myself, and, alas, applauding your whole natural ability to expose the quiet underbelly of a person’s desire to live with independence. Thanks

  4. Replace the dog and the cat add Disney and birds, – it is freakishly accurate, left with a mild case of feeling watched and a stressed bladder, sadly cheeks. But what topped that is the validation I am not the weirdest person or to be accurate, woman, in the world kind of creeping fear…that doesn’t stand a chance! As you got closer to the end….that thick and crusty of it….!
    Like absolute Kelvin
    It is Absolute truth.
    God, you are good!

  5. Marion – Jessica is right. This is much like me. I LOVE solitude, I crave it, I need it, and I live it. It is heaven. I love the part about the dog and cat and how each of us has our routine, spots to sit, roles to play – and I am surprised about how much fun it is to talk to a cat, and also to talk like a cat to a cat. I am glad you have found the beauty of solitude. When I lived with my husband, who knew nothing about boundaries and solitude, I used to get up at 2 in the morning so I could have four or five hours of solitude. I read the paper, did genealogy research, listened to the coyotes in the canyon. Again — heaven. This is a wonderful piece of writing. Thank you.

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