“Alone Together” the public service announcement crows on my TV. Various celebrities remind me to stay home, to maintain physical distance, to clear the way for essential workers and front-line health care personnel who are risking their health for the common good.
I grasp the seriousness of the pandemic and admire the people who are showing up while the rest of us shelter in place. My struggle against isolation — my cabin fever, my growing desire to climb the walls of my three-room abode — doesn’t compare to working in a COVID ward or even to bagging groceries at Whole Foods.
Still, I am alone alone. I’m 63 and single. And I live by myself, as I have for the past 20 years.
When I read vignettes about life in the pandemic or listen to the voices of the coupled on the radio, I feel invisible, voiceless, mute. The conversation of life today seems to revolve around those who’ve won the relationship derby. But I came in out of the money — didn’t win, place or show.
My struggle is not heroic. And I have lots of company: according to the U.S. Census almost 36 million American adults (28% of all households) live alone. Yet, people in my situation seem to be remarkably absent from the media’s coverage of this experience.
[T]his is a dry run for the natural winnowing of life, a kind of dress rehearsal for my golden years.
Perhaps singletons are not newsworthy; we were living alone before the pandemic and if we dodge COVID-19, most of us will live alone afterwards. But living solo, without touch, without contact, without sharing physical space with another human being, ever, is a whole new level — it’s a master class in solitude. Pre-pandemic, I had more of a balance; teaching classes at GrubStreet writing center and at my local library provided enough social contact. Back at my Medford Square apartment, I was content to enjoy my quiet time and hunker down with a good book or a few hours of Netflix.
Now my days collapse one into another. Sunday morphs into Tuesday and on into Friday, the dividing lines vanish like invisible ink.
Sometimes, when I slow down enough to feel whatever is bubbling up from within, I’m struck dumb like the guy in one of those 1970s era commercials for Skin Bracer aftershave (though Thanks, I needed that, is not what comes to mind). That ice-cold slap is a body-level realization that I will (eventually) die alone, and that this is a dry run for the natural winnowing of life, a kind of dress rehearsal for my golden years.
A sense of my own mortality — along with the knowledge that each of us has a term limit — is not a revelation for me. But the pandemic has made me feel it on a different level, since in lockdown there is literally nowhere to go. It reminds me of the Buddhist expression I first heard in my 30s, when I spent a year focusing on my navel at a yoga ashram: “Wherever you go, there you are.”
On the news, I watch the protests against the shelter in place orders in Columbus, Lansing and Austin. I’m not about to join them, to place re-opening the economy over human life. Still, I chafe against the restrictions. I do my own cost/benefit analysis to calculate the psychological toll of isolation versus the benefit of protecting my physical health.
I do my own cost/benefit analysis to calculate the psychological toll of isolation versus the benefit of protecting my physical health.
About a week before the lockdown I had a date with a younger man whom I have not seen since. My next opportunity for physical affection may not arrive until sometime in 2021, a timeline to be determined by fate, luck or desperation.
Twice a week, I teach a writing class on Zoom. For those three hours, I am juiced, jazzed, filled with the excitement of sharing other people’s stories. I tell my students, who are writing their memoirs, that they must find a theme or thread that will run through their book — something to keep their prospective readers interested. Over the course of the next several weeks, I see their gears turning and one student says, "My book is really about forgiveness" while another realizes he is the main character, not a bystander in his life story. When they make those connections, I feel this is what I am meant to do. Then I go back to silence and emptiness, the reality of my life today.
Sometimes, late at night, I lie on my couch and dream about life after the pandemic.
Those waking dreams are vague, amorphous and hopeful. Going to a café, embracing a friend, jetting back to Cleveland to visit my 91-year-old mother who is locked down in an assisted living home.
They feel like fantasies, possible only in the time before all this. If they come again, I won’t take them for granted.
- Singlehood And Self-Isolation
- COVID-19 Won't Let Us Forget Our Maddening, Precious Mortality