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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Observations

apples and oranges and cultural values.

I’ve been seeing this photo spread around a lot lately:

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RAAAAAAWRRR! THE MEDIA! MEDIA BAD! KYLIE BAD! MALALA GOOD!

The Kardashian women take a lot of flack from people who call themselves feminists or politically engaged. These folks claim it says a lot about the shallowness of culture that 18 year olds having extravagant parties is considered newsworthy.

But when adults get their panties in a bind about how ridiculous Kylie Jenner’s celebrity is, when they get disgusted by the level of consumerism and consumption she demonstrates and bemoan the sexualization and vapidity of youth– they’re missing the point. After all, they’re still making her news.

I’m making her news, too, right now. Just by talking about her.

I mean, I agree with the assessment that she is a poor role model. Most teenagers are. But she’s still a kid, and kids don’t need to be told they’re attention whores or worse, actual whores, as Kylie has been. They need people to set positive examples for them. Positive examples, by the way, do not take one kid and compare her to another and say, “Why can’t you be more like her?”

I know she’s 18, which is legally an adult. I know she grew up in the spotlight and has Kris Jenner Momager as a mother and knows adult skills, like how to take a meeting and manipulate press and sit in makeup chairs.

But for Pete’s sake, her brain is literally still undeveloped. Pretty much all teenagers are narcissistic, self-absorbed, and envious. It’s a social response to developmental insecurity. So in the meantime, how about we just let her be? Stop dissecting her cries for attention, and stop demeaning her insecure fans. If we did that– stopped obsessing about the media obsessing about Kyle Jenner– not only would that cut the amount of time people spent talking about her by a lot, but it would also be a way to acknowledge that she’s just a kid, and no kid needs that much negative attention.

And by the way– Malala is just a kid, too. An extraordinarily intelligent, brave, and compassionate one, but not at all comparable to Kylie Jenner, except in that they are both 18 year old female humans. They are completely different people, raised in dramatically different settings, and with entirely different sets of concerns. “Enlightened” media consumers like to hold them side by side to make a point about what character traits our culture values, but the secret value they themselves are perpetrating is that it’s good to compare women to one another.

Juxtaposing their pictures reduces the complex people to images, essentializing them as symbols of values without any regard for the nuance that is their humanity. It also pits them against one another–which, wait, we’ve been doing to women for centuries. It’s true that compassion is a more useful value than consumerism. But it isn’t as though these young ladies are reducible to either one, or that these values are diametric opposites. Female-female comparisons and competition have always been an easy way for a patriarchal society to ensure that no female actually gets the respect she deserves.

Media outlets giving air to particular types of events and celebrities does perpetuate certain values. But we have to remember to think for ourselves, too. Let’s stop putting women in unwinnable competitions against each other, and let’s stop reducing them to what they represent. People are not symbols. They are people: hella messy, hella fragile.

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