Over the course of my research on innovative ways of living, one of the people I set my sights on interviewing was Karen Hester. I knew that she was one of those people called a “burning soul,” who was so passionate about living in a real, caring, committed community that she was one of the motivating forces in creating such a community. Together with several other single friends and some families, she did the years of work involved in making the Temescal Creek cohousing community happen.
I was especially interested in cohousing because, as I discussed in more detail previously, it seems to offer opportunites for both community (socializing, friendship, spending time with other people) and solitude and privacy (time alone). In cohousing, each person or household has a place of their own, and in addition, there is a common house where the community gathers for meals several times a week and sometimes for meetings and celebrations and other events.
I was so delighted that Karen agreed to meet with me during the National Cohousing Conference that was held in Oakland in 2012 – also the location of Temescal Creek and several other cohousing communities. It was no small thing to fit me in. She had conference commitments from morning to night, serving on panels and helping with the organization of events such as the tours of the cohousing neighborhoods.
My first impression of Karen was that she was intensely sociable. She had shared a house with other women in college, and then again in graduate school. At Temescal Creek, she had a place of her own, but one of the draws of cohousing is that you can walk out your front door and see other people. Or you could continue to the common house and hang out there. I got the impression that Karen often took advantage of those opportunities.
Karen does not have children of her own but loves getting what she calls her “kid fix.” Intergenerational cohousing communities (as most of them are) are great for that, too.
Her friendship circles extend beyond the people in her cohousing neighborhood. She often sees friends over the weekends, and more than a few of those friendships date back twenty or thirty years.
Oh, and one more thing – she’s an events coordinator.
Yet Karen also values her solitude. Sometimes, when her social schedule gets particularly intense, she craves some time on her own. She can get that easily simply by staying in for the evening. There are lots of opportunities for socializing in cohousing communities, but you can dip in and out of them as you wish.
Even though Karen had just told me how much she savors her solitude, I was stunned at the story she told me next. Every winter, when the event organizing business slows down, she heads off to another country. Alone. For five or six weeks.
She has gone to places such as South Africa and Brazil and Peru. She told me about these trips during our interview, but even better for the purposes of sharing with single-at-heart readers, she also wrote an essay about it for KQED radio. I’ll share some of my favorite parts next, but you can also read the entire essay here if you are interested.
Karen begins her essay by acknowledging the concerns people feel when they think about traveling on their own, especially for a long time:
Would I be safe? Would I get lonely, especially at dinnertime? But I think the unspoken fear is much deeper — will I be OK spending that much time with myself, in my own skin, with no work or constant companion to distract and comfort me when I feel sad, uneasy or just plain bored?
Her own experiences, though, felt more adventurous than scary. I especially appreciated her reflections on how she, as a single woman with no kids, was viewed by people in the countries she visited:
A woman traveling alone, especially one of a certain age, is sure to elicit sympathetic and curious responses from fellow travelers and locals. Invariably I am asked if I am married and have kids. When I say no and explain that is exactly the reason I can visit their country and spend money in their restaurant or guest house the reaction sometimes is wide-eyed wonder and even an occasional, “Oh I wish I could do that.” For most women in the countries I am visiting, traveling alone is never a financial option, unless they are going to take care of a sick or dying relative.
But for some women, especially the more adventurous, I have decided I am modeling what a woman traveling alone can look like.
And what does she look like? A woman who is “clearly and blissfully alone.”
[Want to know more about Karen Hester? Check out her website here.]
Walking barefoot image available from Shutterstock.