The Art of Being Completely Alone

Society thinks it’s time I partner up. I think it’s time to retreat into the woods.

Emily J. Smith
Aug 20, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo by Jonathan Pendleton on Unsplash

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The woman taking my temperature is young, not yet 30. Her skin is tight and glowing in a way I only recognize now that mine is dragging and a little dull, her eyes eager to smile, her whole face nearly smiling already. She wears a crisp white shirt under a teal cardigan. The accents in her gold necklace are the same teal; so are her glossy nails. Staring down at my hands, I notice the coffee stain on the arm of my sweatshirt, a rip in its cotton cuff.

As she inspects my ear, I explain that I’m going away for two months, and though I know it’s probably only a cold, I wanted to get it checked out before I left, just in case it was serious. She asks, sweetly curious and excited for me, a complete stranger, where I’m going, and I tell her a small town in Vermont. She asks if the trip is for work, and I say no, I work from home; I just want to get away. She asks if I know anyone up there, if I’m visiting family or friends. Again I say no, my voice now shaky. I see confusion hit her face, a flash of concern. Alone? she asks. I nod. She smiles, this time not because she wants to, but because she has nothing else to say.

It’s really not the weirdest thing in the world, taking a break from New York, trading my small apartment and subway traumas for a farmhouse with mountain views at less than half the rent. But for a single, 36-year-old woman, leaving the city to be completely alone for months seems distinctly strange to people. My aloneness, at an age when people expect me to be settling down, when — according to popular studies and nagging mothers everywhere — these next few years may be my last chance to have kids, makes people uncomfortable. They expect me to assure them that I don’t want children or don’t believe in marriage, to give them permission not to worry for me. And while I wish I were one of those women who could flaunt her disinterest in these typical paths, I’m not. I’d love to find love; I always assumed I’d have kids. It’s just not happening. What I’m realizing now is that the question isn’t whether I want those things. Sure, sounds nice. The bigger question for me is: at what cost?

While a woman’s late-thirties mark the beginning of the end of her fertility, they also seem to mark the beginning of some next level self-discovery. As my other childless female friends and I enter the pressure cooker that is this age, many of us are starting to examine our lives more honestly than ever. When you assume life will float a certain way — the way movies and books and nearly all stories end for women — and then it doesn’t, you’re forced to ask yourself which direction you really want to go. Forcing myself to consider this has been unendingly difficult and possibly the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It was through this line of questioning that, after many years of misguided, albeit ambitious attempts to “have it all,” I allowed myself to take writing seriously. So, while on most fronts I find myself deviating from the path I’d always imagined, in some sense, I did find love.

But it gets complicated when this renewed self-discovery hits right when you think you should be creating and caring for a new human entirely — when it may be your last chance to have what everyone else seems to want. Sitting alone in my apartment, for example, which I’ve recently allowed myself to accept is my absolute favorite thing to do, I’m plagued by the worry that my future self will look back on my new, reclusive writerly self with venom for not dating more before it was too late. The parental chorus that says there is nothing more powerful than having children rings in my ears, even the dumb saying that you are not complete without your “other half” haunts me daily. Yet after decades of chasing love, I have never felt more complete than I do now, alone.

When I explain that I like being alone, people call me lucky, like I am a different species, and I can’t help but laugh. Of course I’d prefer to be in a loving relationship with someone who adores me and makes me laugh (and also leaves me be for large swaths of time). But when I consider interrupting my writing with a Tinder date because I basically have to meet the love of my life tomorrow if I want to have children, choosing whether to go out and fall in love is not really the decision I’m weighing. I’m weighing the decision to interrupt whatever it is I’m happily doing alone for the more likely alternatives — spending time and money taming my frizzy curls because men continue to suggest I straighten them, monitoring what I eat more than I’d like because thinness has wedged itself so thoroughly into my consciousness that it’s hard to feel attractive otherwise, pretending to laugh at mediocre jokes and fill gaps with too many questions, pulling men out of their emotional shells, work that’s become reflexive but drains me to my core — alternatives I’ve wasted far too much time on already.

Even now, especially now, there are too many ways I’d rather spend my time. And yet this question of kids still haunts me. These days, I ask myself if I want kids as often as I contemplate another snack, which is to say constantly. In my most honest moments, my hunch is that I don’t want children. My hunch is that any desire I might have is mostly a superficial concern about how out of place I’ll feel without them. The same way I feel out of place without a partner. The same way I feel out of place when my hair is wild, natural, and just how I like it. The same way I feel out of place for not wanting to go outside when it’s sunny because the only ground I want to explore is the ugly terrain of my mind and I’d prefer to do that from the comfort of my couch.

To friends and family, I say I’m escaping to Vermont to write, a self-made “writer’s retreat.” And it’s true, I do plan on writing, but I write all the time in Brooklyn. Opting to be completely alone for two months is something else. I want to not feel wrong doing the things that, for me, feel right. I want to exist in a space where partnership is not an option, so I can learn who I am without considering who I should be for someone else. I want to spend the day blissfully, stupidly lost in my writing without lying awake all night wondering if I should have put myself out there instead. I want to look in the mirror and feel good, not because I spent time and money primping myself in someone else’s image, but because I’ve done nothing at all and I’m allowed to like it. I want to let myself experience the uninterrupted joy that comes when I’m alone, so I can trust it later on when so many voices are telling me it’s not enough. I want to understand what it is I actually want when no one is around to tell me what’s missing.

Emily J. Smith

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Great Escape
Great Escape
Great Escape

About this Magazine

Great Escape

Humans are wired for escape. Sometimes, the desire is wrought by circumstance—being locked up, living in an unsafe place—but more often we're running from the mundane: our everyday lives, our devices and the news, the confines of our homes and of our minds. The August issue of our monthly magazine explores why— and how— we run away.

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