At this time of year when everyone is supposed to mingle in one big velvet-clad crowd clinking glasses filled with André champagne, it could sound odd and even non-conformist to say you just want to be alone.
In days not that distant, such declarations did sound odd and non-conformist to many people. But a recent Washington Post story shed some bright light into the closet one might call the New Alone. According to Census Bureau data included in the story, 107 million (or 45 percent) of Americans 18 and older in 2014 were unmarried. A total of 63 percent of those people had never been married. Perhaps more intriguing is the fact that 34 million households, accounting for 28 percent of all 2014 U.S. households, were headed by someone living alone. In 1970, only 17 percent of American households were headed by a lone dweller.
I do not believe anyone should be startled by these numbers, given the fact that we now are becoming accustomed to being alone at young ages, starting with kids coming home from school to houses absent any food preparing or entertaining parents to university students choosing to live without any roommates, annoying or convivial.
But what is different about the New Alone is the large and growing number of people, no matter their relationship status, who are doing all sorts of things by themselves. Things that, far from being ascetic retreats at cloistered monasteries, often involve being around many other people while not formally accompanied by other people. Things like vacations, dining in upscale restaurants, drinking in bars, or going to movies, plays, or sporting events. Things that would have marked one in many circles as bizarre or just pitiful if done alone not all that long ago.
Of course, for someone like me, a never married person who has spent most of her adult life living alone, the growing respectability of the New Alone is a most welcome occurrence. It’s rather nice to go to a bar without sticky floors and not be pushed toward the tables near the kitchen. Or hearing hushed comments indicating one might be there for a working mission other than the enjoyment of fine Canadian whisky.
The joys of solo meandering
For those who have not yet embraced the New Alone, married, partnered or not, I am delighted to act as a self-appointed Alone Ambassador and provide just a few examples of the joys of solo meandering.
Let’s start with bars. Oh, why not, it’s the holidays. Anyway, I cannot tell you how many free cocktails I’ve received from bartenders who were happy for the focused conversation and the better tips many of them have told me are distributed by people out by themselves. I’ve met lots of people while out alone, none of whom I have dated, people who have become good friends and/or business contacts. Once, while at a Washington, D.C., place popular with celebrities, my tab (including a very expensive dinner) was covered by one of those celebrities who was trying to have a night to himself but needed me to engage him in conversation so as to deflect two women who were most desperate to engage him in conversation. I don’t know if this might have happened if I had been out with a group of friends or on a date.
Then there are vacations. On one particular trip, I could not run fast enough from a couple engaged in a fierce fight (in an otherwise hushed room at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts full of other quietly fleeing patrons) as to why the man felt the need to visit so many museums and spend so much time looking at so many paintings. I wanted to tell them they should try solo vacations, or at least solo breaks. But as the woman was aiming her handbag at her husband in a manner that suggested a full blast, I scurried away. Two men caught me on my way out and asked if I could believe what we just witnessed and was I really traveling by myself (guess my French sounds more American than I think). We fell into talking. At lunch the next day, they said they would fix me up with someone, if only Montréal contained even one eligible straight man.
Then there’s really being by yourself
Of course, not every solo outing must result in interactions with others. The solitary walks in the woods made famous by Thoreau remain some of the cheapest therapy available. Sometimes seeing a Star Wars film by yourself is just what you (or you and your partner, or you and your kids) require to stay on the good side of The Force.
So go ahead and enjoy this season. When you’re done clinking glasses with the crowd, try sneaking off by yourself for a bit and give the New Alone a whirl.
You just might be astounded by what you discover.
Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”
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