“There you are!” exclaimed the lady behind the counter in the takeaway shop close to my house. An enthusiastic greeting not typically encountered when placing my chicken-burger-and-small-chips-please order, and my bewildered expression must have conveyed my confusion. “You used to run past here every day and then I stopped seeing you. I was worried,” she clarified. I walked home feeling buoyed up.
A few weeks later, a security guard at our small local shopping centre: “Hey! Long time no see!” A creature of (rigid) habit, for years I had arrived at this centre at exactly 07:55 on a Saturday morning to attempt to beat my 10-minute weekly grocery shopping record before All the People arrived. Over the past year, I have mindfully stepped out of the rigidity of these routines, unaware that my absence would be noticed.
I have disadvantaged myself in many ways, living this routinised life. But these encounters made me aware of how routine can create a structure, a pattern in which we move through our lives that make us visible on the well-trodden pathways we literally and figuratively walk. It brought to mind the “If a tree falls in a forest…” philosophical thought experiment about the (im)possibility of unperceived existence. As a single person who lives alone, this notion of being witnessed has been floating through my mind for some time and comes into sharp focus on days like today – a milestone, a birthday, a marker of life, of being-in-the-world.
Today, most especially, I know that I am held in the minds of others. But during the day-to-day of living, whose consciousness am I held in? I am seamlessly, virtually connected and well-loved. Content in my introversion, in my quiet house with my book and my cats, I seldom feel lonely. But I am alone. And when I venture out into the world, spend time with friends who are partnered, who are parents, I have to confront this aloneness and the sadness it evokes. I am a solitary extra, standing on the outside and observing, witnessing with wonder the richness of lives that are so connected in the weaves of families, however constituted and defined. And, when the evening is over, I return alone to my little home, two feline faces greeting me at the window.
What and where is home in the world for solitary people? How are our lives continuously witnessed by others, if not by others-at-home? We start off in families, in childhood homes, in collectives of some kind. Many move through adulthood into families who become home: families weaving lives together, creating a narrative of shared memory, bits of you held in the minds and memories of others. However tenuous all connections and relationships might be, the (her)story of them cannot be erased. Sustained witnessing is what marriage and family allow, a kind of permanence to stories that build up a person’s life narrative. For those, like me, who remain unmarried and childless, physically distant from my family of origin, that narrative must be pieced together from moments of interaction, stepping into and out of the homes and stories of friends-with-families, of other solitary beings who are living their own solo stories.
Married-with-children is our society’s tried and trusted way of having our lives witnessed. The nuclear family – however conventionally or unconventionally constituted – is a one plus one-or-more unit. Notwithstanding the emotional risks of entering into such relationships, there is, in all the heartwarming and heartbreaking moments of shared lives, this one given: that you, or at least the absence of you, will be noticed. We have yet to find ways in our current society, I think, of creating a witnessed solo life, a collective narrative of being known that feels acceptable outside of this family unit frame of reference. There is a sense, in my experience at least, that existence that is not seen, heard, felt, known by a consistent other is somehow less-than. In his book Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg suggests that, “on those rare occasions when there is a public debate about the rise of living alone, commentators tend to present it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and a diminished public life…In fact, the reality of this great social experiment in living alone is far more interesting — and far less isolating — than these conversations would have us believe”.
Part of this, I think, is a reverence for the family/pairing and a reviling of life-alone. Being on the outside of that conventional narrative is experienced as a loss of some kind, perhaps due to the absence of collectively legitimised alternatives. When I turned 40, I started telling friends and family that I am officially embracing the spinster-with-cats lifestyle. I vacillate between pride and pain on this. In the Middle Ages, spinster was a compliment, an acknowledgement of women who spun for a living and were financially self-sufficient. In our darker ages, it has far less complimentary undertones, based on “the modern attitude which casts voluntary aloneness as a toxic trifecta of sad, mad, and bad” (Sara Maitland, in How to be Alone). It is not lost on me that, despite writing several posts on mental health issues which come with a fair amount of stigma, this post has carried the most shame for me.
The alternative, on the other end of the continuum, is a Sex and the City narrative which, although sexier, is merely an amusing impossibility for this recluse-bordering-on-hermit. Where are all the storied possibilities in between, I wonder: narratives that allow us to be witnessed in validated ways, that give us freedom to embrace an alone-existence and not take on, instead, the messages that this is a defect of some kind, a less-than existence, and a necessarily lonely one. As Maitland argues, “If you tell people enough times that they are unhappy, incomplete, possibly insane and definitely selfish there is bound to come a grey morning when they wake up with the beginning of a nasty cold and wonder if they are lonely rather than simply ‘alone'”.
This solitary life is one that I have, to some extent, chosen for myself. I revel in having space and time open up around me on my own. There are many times I go out into the world wishing I could not be seen. But the risk of living this life alone is that without creating, with intention, possibilities for being witnessed, there is the sense sometimes of being that tree in the forest, falling down unheard.