As a person who has studied single people for several decades, and lived single my entire life, I am starting to get inquiries from reporters who want to write about the experience of being single in the time of COVID-19. A few have been amazing. They already know not to pity all people who are single and living alone when social distancing is mandated; they understand that some of us love our solitude and are faring much better than the stereotypes predict.
Others, though, are sure that we are all curled up into a ball of loneliness and despair. They ask me what advice I have to offer those poor single people for coping with their sad lot.
I don’t dismiss their concerns entirely. There really are single people living alone who are finding the lockdown very difficult. Disproportionately, they are probably the people who are reluctantly single, not those such as the “single at heart” who embrace single life.
Next time I get one of those inquiries, I will have a new recommendation for them. It is a book I am only halfway through, but do not want to wait any longer to discuss. It has so much to offer, especially to those of us who value the solitary components of our single lives, that I will be writing a series of blog posts about it.
At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life is a book about the people that author Fenton Johnson calls “solitaries” – those “who are choosing to live alone or who deliberately carve out periods of solitude from otherwise conventionally coupled lives.”
“It is possible to be a solitary within a couple,” Johnson allows, but not a conventional one.
Peruse shelves filled with classic works of literature, Johnson suggests, and you will see that “a remarkable number will have been written by people who lived alone for most of their lives or who had no semblance of a conventional coupled relationship.” Among the most influential artists, too, are some notable solitaries.
Johnson celebrates many of those marquee names in his book, with chapters devoted to people such as Henry David Thoreau, Paul Cezanne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Rod McKuen, and Nina Simone. But he thinks that every person who is a solitary, whether famous or unknown, is also an artist – “an artist of his or her life, with little or no help from conventional rites and forms and mythologies, making it up as we go.”
None of the solitaries Johnson studied were whining about their status. He found that they were “understanding their solitude not as tragedy or bad luck or loneliness but as an integral and necessary aspect of who they were.”
Johnson knows that the dramatic increase in people living alone, in many places all around the globe, has many pundits and even some scholars clutching their pearls. He is not among them. He sees the growth of solitaries as “not the crumbling of the cornerstone of society, but the potential for more diverse and loving relationships to one another and to our planet.”
The Relationships at the Center of All Beauty Are Not Romantic Ones, But Friendships
You won’t find terms like “against amatonormativity” in this book on solitude. But Fenton Johnson knows what it means to challenge the exalted place of romantic relationships in our conventional understandings of who matters most.
About friendship, Johnson says that “we must teach ourselves to value and attend to friends, not as way-stations between lovers or diversions from the real business of pairing up and marriage, but as relationships of first consequence in their own right.”
I’ve often said that whereas married people have The One, single people have “the ones.” Johnson does not think that solitaries are all single, but his sentiment about them is similar to mine: “Perhaps that is what defines my solitaries – a reluctance to sacrifice openness to all for openness to one.”
What Solitaries Have to Offer
Solitaries do not fetishize romantic relationships, as so many of the ordinary people around them to. They think about love and about relationships in more open-minded and expansive ways. That’s one thing they have to offer.
They have a bigger, broader perspective in other ways, too. “In solitude,” Johnson believes, “the world, and not another individual, becomes the focus of one’s ardent and respectful heart.” That observation reminded me of something Stephanie Rosenbloom said in her book, Alone Time, mostly about traveling alone: “When you’re not sitting across from someone, you are sitting across from the world.”
One stereotype of single people (including those who are and are not solitaries) is that they are selfish. In fact, though, single people are in many important ways more giving of their time, money, and caring than people who are married. Johnson sees solitaries as particularly generous people, especially emotionally. For example, “In their work, my solitaries reveal their most intimate selves.”
Johnson also regards solitaries “as role models for the cultivation of an inner life; as role models for leading the fruitful, engaged life of a solitary.” That’s why he says they are “at the center of beauty” and that’s the relevance of the title of his book.
Solitaries are often “outliers, outsiders, outcasts.” Johnson thinks that can be an advantage: “those who have the most profound experience of solitude may have the most to teach.”
[In my next post in this series, I’ll talk about Johnson’s affirming definitions of spinsters and bachelors and his epic take-down of a biographer who dared to suggest that Walt Whitman had a “partial” life because he stayed single his entire life. Here it is.]