Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Being Alone

Valentine’s Day is coming up; and for those of you who have no sweetie to celebrate with, here’s a column I wrote in April of 2006 for the National Association of Baby Boomer Women:

Being Alone

While leading a Defying Gravity workshop last month, I asked the women in the group to share a few of their fears. Lynn, a 50-something divorcée, didn’t hesitate. “I’m afraid to grow old without a companion,” she said.

The irony is that if Lynn remains single, she’ll soon have plenty of company. As we baby boomer women age, more and more of us will find ourselves alone. Some of us will never marry. Others will divorce. Statistically speaking, the majority of wives will end up widows.

If all this sounds depressing, keep in mind that being single isn’t the same as being alone, and being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. Some of the loneliest people on the planet are married.

Listen to my friend Ann, a New Yorker who divorced five years ago. (That's Ann in the photo above visiting the Wolong Panda Reserve in China.) When asked if she envies her married friends, she says, “Not really. Many of them are as unhappy and isolated as I was. Yes, I’d prefer to have a partner, but I needed to be on my own to become myself. I like who I am so much better now.”

Going solo, in other words, has its rewards. I experienced that firsthand this past summer while spending a month by myself in the 1000 Islands in Upstate New York. When I made the decision to retreat there, I knew I needed some quiet to recharge after a year filled with book talks. But I was also curious to discover what would emerge from the stillness.

I ended up feeling much as I imagine the Iroquois natives felt who lived in that region of the country hundreds of years ago. Reverent of nature. A part of the breath of the earth. Tiny and huge at the same time. Each day I rose with the sun, walked down the forty-nine steps between my cottage and the adjoining boathouse, canoed around the island, and took a swim in the St. Lawrence—a ritual that invigorated my body and cleared my mind.

For two of the four weeks, I didn’t set eyes on another soul. With no way to the mainland except by a boat I didn’t know how to drive, and no means of discarding trash except by recycling, I had to draw on my ingenuity. (I learned how to make a wonderful garbage soup!) Traveling around the country giving speeches had left little time and energy for starting a new book, but in the solitude of those days, I began to write again. As the weeks went by, my awareness of my strengths and acceptance of my failings grew deeper. That’s what emerged from the stillness.

I realize that many of you don’t have the luxury of taking a month out of your lives to be by yourselves, nor would you necessarily want to. I also understand that not everyone has a spouse who would agree to such a lengthy separation. And because I know my husband is standing in the wings even when he’s not with me, I can’t say I’m ever truly alone. At least not now.

Maybe you don’t have a partner. Maybe you don’t get along with your parents and siblings. Like Lynn and Ann, perhaps you want some kindred spirits to walk through life with—loved ones who feel like family even if they don’t share your DNA. (Who wouldn’t want that?)

But as a character in Wendy Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic says, “No matter how lonely you get…the trick is not to get frightened. There’s nothing wrong with being alone.”


  1. This is a beautiful (and true) post. We eventually will all be alone and that's why we need to learn to treasure that most important person -- ourselves. Also married, I need time alone, too. I crave it. And, I need time with girlfriends. My husband understands...
    Casey Dawes

  2. Thanks, Casey. I just went to your website. What wonderful work you're doing!