I am not alone. Close to 36 million Americans are like me. I’m like over 4 million Canadians. An even greater number of people in the European Union are also like me. Like 28% of households in the U.S. and Canada and 34% of households in the EU, my household consists of myself and no one else, apart from my dog. Next year, in 2020, I will celebrate thirty years of living by myself. I will not frame my life within the misleading confines of “living alone,” because I’m not alone even when I’m by myself. My twenty-year conversation with a good friend in the UK picks up afresh several times a week and has come to include her husband. My sister and I talk several times a week on the phone. I have many close and good friends where I live and friends and family members spread across the country and in Europe. I don’t lack for contact. Throughout the school year, I spend so much time with people, in meetings, classes, dinner parties in my home or in the homes of friends, restaurants, or on the road that I struggle to confine my social life to only one or two nights a week. The remaining days of the week are MINE.
Living by myself is, by now, the only way of living I’m intimately familiar with. Why I live as I do involves so many factors – demographic, economic, professional, psychological, to name a few – that it is almost pointless to dwell on the subject. My life is what it is. Not only that, I’m content with my lot. I feel lucky, privileged even. While most of my friends are in couples, quite a few of the friends and acquaintances around me are other women and men in their fifties, sixties, and seventies who live alone. Some are long divorced like me; others are widowed. We live as we do because we can afford to do so, although this mode of living does not come cheaply. No one shares my expenses. I carry a mortgage and pay utilities and services on my own. Emotionally, I haven’t been burdened by my libido for a long time now (I’m 64, at the time of this writing). When I read articles in the press about “Keeping the Passion Alive,” or, “senior sex,” I shrug. Mazel tov, knock yourself out, go for it. Me? I feel free.
Some might judge me to be selfish. It’s true that I have very little intimate accountability in my life. I do what I want, travel where I want, and rarely have to wait for others or accommodate their wishes. To blunt the narcissistic edge of my existence, I have built into my life some ties that bind. I care for and lavish affection on my dog, Billie Holliday. I have a niece and a nephew in NYC, plus two young goddaughters in Britain, all of whom I adore and engage with. They may not know it yet (they’re all between the ages of 8 and 13), but my affection for them is unconditional. Having been on the receiving end of conditional love for most of my childhood, I know what I’m giving them. More locally, I devote much energy to my friends. Still, without question, I am autonomous in a way that my coupled friends are not. Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m a lot less lonely than most of my women friends who are married. I am certainly more self-sufficient than many of my male friends around my age. Few of the marriages I have a window into make me envious.
Cooking for myself at home has never felt like a chore, so I almost never get take-out and never buy frozen dinners. Compared to many people I know, I keep the amount of processed foods I eat to a minimum – dried pasta, canned tomatoes, and basic food products found in a jar or a can. More often than not, I follow a recipe rather than make up a meal out of my head, although I find it easy to invent pasta dishes. I make no claims to creativity or artistry. But the more experience I gained over the years by cooking for myself, the better I cooked and the better able I was to scale up for friends who came to dinner.
I’ve never thought of myself as someone who easily joins in rituals, whether religious, ceremonial, or communal. Having grown up in a 200-year old silent Quaker meeting in New Jersey, I didn’t understand the point of ritual until I was in my fifties. I realized only as an adult that sitting in silence for 60 minutes every First Day was a kind of ritual, but the insight did not diminish the conceit that ritual has played a very small role in my life. Now, after all these years of living by myself, I understand that how I prepare and eat food in private constitutes a ritual. I start preparing dinner at the same time of day – 5:30 or so – while listening to music. When I’m ready to eat, around, say, 6:30, I sit at my counter with one of the literary reviews I subscribe to propped up on the bookstand in front of me and read while I eat. If, for some unusual circumstance, several days pass without cooking dinner for myself and eating it while reading, I start to feel depressed, as if I am not in control of my life and life is, instead, pushing me around. I didn’t strive to make dinner the emotional core of my day. It has just turned out that way.
Too many food writers characterize eating communally as a sign of healthy eating and a healthy family. Without a doubt, meals at a dining table with fellow diners can serve to keep the lines of communication open among a family or a group of co-residents. But in the same way that people idealize (rationalize) their intimate relationships, so, too, do people idealize the family dinner table. Family meals at a dinner table are as likely to be sites of conflict as of comity. Bee Wilson (@KitchenBee) is one food writer who understands how treacherous a playing field the family meal can be. What and how we eat are important, whether we do it in the company of others or by ourselves. The stress most writers place on communal eating works at cross-purposes with the demographic reality that many of us do not regularly eat with other people. Being told that eating alone is anti-social doesn’t contribute to the campaign to get people to eat better and more wisely. Its effect is to make people feel like they’re losers if they do.
Preparing good food for yourself alone is a way of taking charge of your life. It is a way of imbuing it with meaning particular to your circumstances. It takes time to develop rituals, cooking skills, and a way of life that is as satisfying as it is healthy. I plan to explore here the benefits and the challenges of eating and traveling by myself. I’m unfurling this banner of a blog yet again after a long period of dormancy.