Observations, Self, Writing

on the single life.

Yesterday, I was sitting alone at a bar waiting for someone and wound up finishing the book I’d brought with me. The bar was in downtown Brooklyn, right off the train, large and bright and full of empty tables, but I preferred to sit at the counter where I could, despite being absorbed in reading, be around people. I’ve always liked that– being around people doing their own things, while doing my own thing. When I finished the book, which I did fast and greedily, I immediately texted my roommate.

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“Have you ever gotten that feeling after reading a really good book?” I continued. “Like: full, warm, maybe a little sad, and at the same time really open and clear?” It’s been such a long time since a book made me feel that way– probably years since I read a book I could both escape into and learn from.

The book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is a memoir about author Kate Bolick’s love life, interlaced with anecdotes and biographical snippets of five woman writers from history who remained single– or maintained a “single spirit” while married– whom she positions as her “awakeners” to the possibility of an adult life sans marriage: Maeve Brennan, Edna St Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, Neith Boyce, and Charlotte Perkins

It’s meandering, full of poetic musings about the pleasures of singledom and fears about rejecting convention, woven (occasionally clumsily) with biographical anecdotes about her court of authors, who chatter on in her head like derelict guardian angels. Bolick writes about walking and living alone in the city, eating greasy fast food in her bed, cobbling together freelance jobs that barely pay rent, going on boozy dates, chatting with a widow who drinks tea on her stoop: she paints a picture of life in New York City that reminds me of my own.
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Bolick’s desire to be single, which outlasts a rotating cast of boyfriends, seems to be inextricably connected with her desire for the financial independence and emotional detachment she feels is required to be a “real writer.” She enjoys her wide swath of “weak ties” afforded by city life and delights in reflecting on her world from the vantage point of an unattached person: that is, a person who doesn’t define herself by her relational roles. She seems to believe that she notices more as a single person than married women might: that she can observe and appreciate more of the color of city life by the lack of a relational commitment weighing on her mind. Her desire is urged on by the awakeners, whose marriages didn’t last even when happy, and who found living alone while being sexually and socially extroverted most conducive to their productivity. Still, she feels pulled towards marriage by abstract notions of conventionality and the real comfort of having a stable partner.

The book is less about her decision not to marry than it is a scrapbook of reflections of what it means to carve out a life on one’s own, which is increasingly the question I ask myself the longer I stay single: how to live independently and confidently while also in community, how to find meaningful work that pays, how to balance professional success with alignment to one’s values, how to be a feminist and enjoy going on dates, how to be an extrovert while also listening to one’s need for solitude. It provides no easy answers to these questions. But a book that asks them, and while giving me glimpses of the lives of fascinating literary women to boot, is a gem to me.

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Spirituality, Writing

the best book i’ve read this fall…

…is The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong. Well, er, I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s too good not to share rightnow.

Ostensibly a spiritual memoir, it’s also a harrowing account of the British mental health system in the 1960’s, an ode to the life-leading power of literature, and a powerful rumination on eating disorders. Armstrong joined a convent at age 17 and left just before the Church modernized, immersing herself in the Church at its worst, most traditional form. It’s impossible to know whether Armstrong would find herself drawn to the Church now that it’s taken a more progressive face. But her experience of it– likely shocking to those of us unfamiliar with Catholic history– as austerely, oppressively anti-human and anti-secular, forever colored her views on God.

Armstrong left the order because, in her words, she could not pray. She had never experienced consolation; she could not find God. There were little other spiritual paths available to her after such a totalizing experience of alienation, and she turned to scholarship to occupy her fragmented inner life. While reading English at St. Anne’s college and then Oxford as a graduate student, Armstrong came to understand she had never really believed in God. She describes her newfound secularism in gentle, matter-of-fact language: her slide from faith seems inevitable and almost reassuring, as though she had finally been released from its punishingly nonsensical grip. But a new reality quickly replaced it: her undiagnosed epilepsy, descriptions of which glide in and out of snippets of literary analysis and records of relational woes, cased frightening hallucinations and lapses in consciousness that made her feel as though she was living as a shadow.

I’m currently at the part where it seems her life might take an upswing: Armstrong is able to recognize herself and her ghost world in the poem “Ash Wednesday” by T. S. Eliot.

“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again”

That image of turning again, even against oneself, forms the spiral staircase Armstrong envisions herself climbing toward wholeness. I keep comparing my own journey through and away from and back to faith to hers, and I can’t wait to see where her next step brings us both.

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