What comes is not to be avoided
what goes is not to be followed.
-- Master Daibai
(freedom is hard to love)
It is Saturday morning in Manhattan. I wake up today in my wallpapered room tucked over my neighbors' courtyard gardens. The spring foliage is transparent in the sun, birds chirp from the comfort of branches; all else is silent. After living alone for twenty years I'm still filled with arias of praise for the blessings of my sweet solitude.
But I haven't always felt this way.
We complex creatures have a baffling talent for entertaining two opposite desires at the same time. Even while I was intoxicated by the idea of merging with an imagined beloved, I got a renegade thrill from contemplating living independently, freely choosing pleasures to include and intrusions to exclude in order to allow my life to sing. "Owning myself" had the allure of an exotic perfume.
As a child I would lie in bed at night listening to my parents' sleep-burdened breathing and dare myself to creep downstairs, sneak out the locked front door and sample the thrill of simply standing under the stars by myself. The anarchy of such freedom was spiritual ambrosia to a girl who rankled under the restrictions of childhood. But I wasn't yet brave enough to risk it.
On our property, hidden from the view of the main house, was an old pony shed -- alas, without a pony -- with a slanted, scratchy roof onto which I would climb on summer afternoons. By escaping to my miniature sanctuary I was expressing a need for independence -- difficult to experience in the buzz of family life -- while at the same time feeling reassured that my parents were within calling distance. I continued my ambivalence about solitude though college; though I envied girls with private rooms, I was relieved by having the company of roommates.
Then, after graduation, just as I was about to launch into the world on my own, I fell in love with and married Lucien.
Although for many years I embraced bonded companionship enthusiastically, always there was that lingering desire to live by myself. After our marriage ended and during my second relationship, with Burt, I once playfully floated the idea to him of our living next door to each other. I was charmed by the prospect of a personal space to which I could retreat at will in unaccompanied splendor. When he laughed off my fantasy I didn't persist, there being no precedent for such a maverick arrangement. Nevertheless, I continued to be fascinated by the lifestyles of the single women I met. Carla, a costume designer, lived by herself in the Hollywood Hills in a cottage decorated with Moroccan tiles that she had gathered on one of her adventures abroad. She traveled alone but she rarely ended up that way, often meeting people who invited her into their homes or, upon occasion, into their beds. And, though Burt and I lamented Carla's unwillingness to settle into a traditional relationship, I was aware that she seemed to have thrived on her choices.
As time went on and our relationship deteriorated, we were forced to realize that having no relationship might be better than having an unworkable one and I took comfort in the prospect of exploring another way of living. On Saturdays, while Burt was sailing, I looked around for a studio apartment that I imagined decorating capriciously, a hideaway like a secret garden to which there is only one key. I even began to collect things: dessert dishes with strawberries painted on them, a fluffy comforter; objects I bought and simply left in the stores to be retrieved only in my solo future.
But when the break actually came and we were separated not only formally but by an entire continent, the freedom that I had happily envisioned turned sinister and ambushed me at night. I dreamed that I was in a damp prison cell when suddenly the doors swung open and I was free. After walking confidently through an icy, barren landscape, I stopped, turned and resolutely walked right back into prison.
Freedom is hard to love, I discovered.
Bereft of the security of my relationship and without another one waiting in the wings, I felt like an astronaut whose umbilical tie to the spaceship had been severed and was doomed to drift alone through an endless universe. I was tethered to no one -- and perhaps never again would be.
Not long after our breakup I arrived in London for a television performance, and the city cooperated soggily with my baleful mood. One dank afternoon I was in a taxi on my way to an appointment and I decided to get out and walk. I intended to say to the driver, "You can let me out here, I'm early." But instead I blurted out, "You can let me out here, I'm lonely!" I was woefully in need of direction, preferably in the form of a role model, someone who had climbed the mountain of aloneness and was perched there comfortably. Could such a person exist? Could anyone endure, with equanimity, what I was suffering through?
I called my publicist and told her a lie, that I was going to write an article for an American magazine on women who lived alone successfully. Did she know anyone? Surprisingly, she did.
A week later I sat across from Pam in a cozy English tearoom sipping Darjeeling and munching on scones smeared with clotted cream. She seemed puzzled by some of my, as the English say, "queries." Yes, she regarded living alone as a splendid way of life; she needed lots of solitude in order to write her novel.
"Do you eat dinner alone?" I queried.
"Oh, no, not usually. Since I'm by myself writing all day, it's rather nice, isn't it, to have a meal with a friend."
I was alert to her jaunty practicality.
"Do you travel by yourself?" (To test my courage I'd been planning extended trips alone to places where no English was spoken.)
"I have done that, and it's OK, but I find it's actually more fun to travel with friends."
Pam was divorced and had no man in her life, but it didn't concern her a bit. "Is she for real?" I wondered.
"Don't you miss living with a man?" I asked.
"Oh heavens, no!" she laughed. "It's so deeply ingrained in me to wait on them that I tend to slip into servitude. Besides," she added merrily, "I've lived so many years without a man it's hard to even imagine doing it again."
"What about...intimacy?" I offered wistfully.
"Oh, that's perhaps too personal to go into, except to say that it is, of course, important," she leaned forward, "very important."
Before I could pursue this interesting news, Pam looked at me closely and said, "You're rather up against it aren't you."
My cover was blown. I admitted everything: my single status, my unpreparedness, my anxiety, my misery. She was sympathetic but frankly bemused that I regarded the autonomy as a deficit.
Pam became my first mentor and her view of living alone was liberating: Although I would love to have the pleasure of a companion, if he didn't come along there just might be another way to find fulfillment.
I wanted to kiss her!
Future mentors would show me how to live alone not just comfortably but joyously. Still, I could not even approach that heady state until I confronted loneliness, the most fearsome dragon of all. Not the garden variety that we all encounter from time to time, but that desolate, hopeless "I'm alone forever" one.
Copyright © 2003 by Barbara Feldon