Sayings about being single always sound chirpy—or have a chirpy illustration—which I don’t like. But perhaps chirpiness is an effective defense against an idea, and a state, that even now arouses suspicion, fear and resentment. Because no matter how we pretty it up, being single, especially for women (usually so knit into the fabric of a culture) is a base for subversion of all kinds—personal, sexual and political.
It may be that in an earlier era, one less obsessed with categorizing, being single seemed a more acceptable way for a woman to live alone. After all, many women, as well as men, will experience periods of being alone, sometimes extended, either by choice, death or divorce. But what I find interesting is the case of those of us who chose to be single.
This is in contrast to a way of being unmarried, but not single, that was called in nineteenth-century Boston a “Boston marriage”—two women sharing a household, often for years, without much speculation about what was going on. Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather come immediately to mind.
The term “single blessedness” was coined in the same place and at the same time. I think it has a great deal of merit. So what is this blessing?
I call it the freedom to go my own way without considering another person’s preferences, moods, needs or demands. When I’m caught up in that chorus—which grows louder as I grow older and potential partners begin to be disabled, physically or mentally—it’s hard to hear the still small voice of my own preferences, moods, needs or demands. Just too much racket, much of which I’ve long since been trained to listen to, offering help, solace and so forth.
So is my choice selfish? Of course. There are many kin and family who also have a right to make demands of me, but not 24/7. But my self is precious, and it needs and deserves nourishing as the center of my life, not an outcropping.
I am always open to surprises, the unexpected meeting, the unplanned adventure—which may be the greatest advantage of this state. It’s a three-sided condition, one side always open to change, but a stable and enduring structure, none the less.
I think with gratitude of the single women I know: the middle-aged friend who has built a successful life for herself in the difficult world of theatre, combining close friends, varied interests, and a raft of work that keeps her afloat;
or a young relative who made her way alone during two hard decades in Hollywood, starting with whatever film roles she could get, as well as commercial work, and is now acting in two made-for TV series, her talent finally recognized as well as her prettiness;
or the acquaintance who, somewhat mysteriously, became the mother of twins, whom she is raising alone, with great brio;
or the heroines of some of my favorite novels, who unfortunately did end up married, like Jane Eyre and Dorothea Brooks;
or the laughing girl, helmet askew, on a bike who passed me the other day, on to another ride on the hard dirt trails in these mountains;
or my three granddaughters, emerging into adulthood with the capacity—and the will—to make lives and careers on their own.Of course all this is changed by money, or rather the lack of it.
But money alone won’t buy anyone comfort in her own skin. You may be able to pick up the check at a fine restaurant, but are you comfortable eating there alone, without iPhone or book?
It’s amazing how freeing it is to be alone—and invisible.
To a great extent, women artists have often done best when they remained single. The women of the Surrealist movement, only beginning now to be recognized, while their male peers—Dalí, Buñuel, Lorca—have been known and respected for decades, add names to the list of the blessedly single: the Spanish Surrealist painter, Maruja Mallo, whose first exhibit opens next month at a Tribeca gallery in New York; the Argentine-born Surrealist artist Leonor Fini with an opening at the Museum of Sex (I didn’t know there was one) also next month in New York, and the recent publication by the Feminist Press of the short stories of the American writer and painter Leonora Carrington, whose strange scene of a baptism with birds and masks has been on my dining room wall for years. Heidi Sopinka’s first novel, “The Dictionary of Animal Languages,” based on Carrington’s life, was published last year.Salvador Dalí, the beloved hero of the Surrealists, once called Carrington “Half angel, half shellfish.” We can smile at that now, forgetting that this was the kind of belittlement that kept these artists from their audiences—and from being able to support themselves.
As my youngest granddaughter prepares to leave for her first year of college in Paris, I’ve given her as a talisman the handsome, dark green 1949 first edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s “Le Deuxieme Sex,” in French, which this young woman reads and speaks proficiently.
The first sentence of this cornerstone of twentieth-century feminism is (to paraphrase) “On n’est pas nait feminine, on le devient.”
Or—maybe not, in the conventional definition of “feminine,” if one can manage to stay single.
The saddest sights, for me, are the vibrant, middle-aged women enslaved to the physical and mental deterioration of their husbands, older men whom these wives might once have imagined had the funds, the connections, and the prestige to open a wider world.
And maybe they did. But the price for sharing male privilege is often in the end, enslavement.
But what about love—that’s always the question. Love is everywhere, whether we are married, partnered or single—love of the world around us, of nature, of close friends, of family, and especially of our work. The deep well of love is refilled regularly from the overflowing source of our energy, whether we call it God, karma or good food.
And that is single blessedness.