Living alone seems to have been my inevitable hand. At age 9 or 10 --and it's not hard to remember -- my parents began to leave me by myself if they went out at night. "We did that with you earlier than with your brother or sister," my mother announced. The goal was to make me more independent. I was a shy kid, but having me, just me, me and the house to myself, seemed like some unspecified reward. She heard no protest.
Once away from home, the years in college and the Army, even for awhile in New York, I was happy to share living spaces. By 30, it seemed time to pack away my role as somebody's roommate. I found a bright studio apartment on the ground floor front of a Manhattan brownstone, my first home that felt like mine. I made it look like me, and it remained my address for 12 years. I left only to upgrade to somewhat larger space. (Rent protection in New York discourages hasty moving.)
Living single has been my story over all the subsequent years, likely more than what my mother had in mind earlier.
Though maybe an oversimplification, I find the world divisible between the marrying kind and the single-living kind. If you are among the former, you probably met your match at age 19 or you might end an affair to find a new someone at your door before the week ends. If you're among the latter, you might try and fail at a number of romances and be blind to the town's best candidate standing two feet away. Uncle Morris, a smart man even past 100, would look at an unmarried nephew and say, "I don't understand why some girl hasn't caught.him." That may have been puzzling to Morris, but not to me. The nephew, then into his 30's, chose to be single, and was. (And is.)
The challenge comes if you're somewhere between the partnered and the single-living kind. In writing a book about people living alone, I met some who had tottered between the two sides:
....A woman active in her 70's was married for thirty years, then said that too much interaction over a long while exhausted her, and from that perspective alone, being married was difficult. She lives single in San Francisco today, volunteering in a hospital and even competitively swimming.
...A gay man who was partnered for 16 years said he hooked up with a man who was the marrying kind, and as long as his lover was alive, he was married to him. Afterward, however, he realized that "wanting to live alone is who I was all along." And now he does.
...A man married for six years described himself as the initiator, his wife as the receptor. In time they both felt resentments rising up and, even with counseling, chose to end the marriage amicably.
Single people like them, who make a conscious decision to live alone, are growing in surprising numbers. What once may have sounded undesirable or even pitiable is now commonplace and not exceptional -- and not just in big cities. A close friend of mine lives alone in a town of just 3,000 people in East Texas.
Part of the trick to make the single lifestyle work, it seems, is not to depend on fulfillment coming from someone else, to set out individually to do gardening, volunteering, practicing yoga, attending lectures or musical events (inexpensively or even free), joining church or neighborhood groups, enrolling in adult education courses. Another part is attending a movie or concert or going to dinner alone, to put on a nice outfit and show up single at a party, even if most others arrive in pairs. Maybe also to travel alone, as I have done often.
Am I proselytizing for living alone? My idea is more to look at people who do live alone, see how they make it satisfying while not denying that there can certainly be the occasional urge to be partnered. One man I met says that being alone sometimes means being what he didn't want to be.
As for me, the best I can do is strive to live a good, happy life single, and know that the road will be at times bumpy, there will be moments when it would be great to have someone to cuddle with. I don't shut out what one man said: "Yes, i feel sad sometimes, and that's OK. I wish I felt it less often, and that's OK too."
Stanley Ely wrote about living single in his book, "Living Alone Creatively: How Twelve People Do It" and his new book, "Life Up Close: A Memoir," out in paperback and ebook.