Out on an autumn walk, under a splintered-sun sky, I took the familiar route down the old railway line. Bracketed by trees with their jaded eyes and golden lace, I found the trove of oddities which always make these walks memorable, no matter how many times I take their routes, which are the veins of the city.
A tree whose current seasonal hue spreads a wash of deep crimson light, like a lava lamp.
Another tree with a twisted-skin torso, even down to the muscular striations and fleshy creases.
Pale light sifting through talon branches, edging around their fine lines; it was as graphite stencilled on a watercolour base (or the imitations I would draw as a child, of the Ladybird copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles – thick cartridge paper holds watercolour pencils well, whether it’s a clouded blur of teal for the uneasy sky, or a fine nib pressed point-down to crosshatch in teal sedge grass. The moon was always a gloaming of yellow, edged about in such a way that it was less of an orb, than a wraith of a thing.)
Conkers with the glossy coats of a Bengal cat.
A small child whose large brown eyes and gap-tooth grin were my own, a long time ago.
There, and back again. It’s a long haul-walk down the line, but it’s the scenic route to the local supermarket. I could take the pavement alongside the road, and hack off at least half an hour… but you know the story already.
Arriving home with sore feet and a slightly hunched back, knotted shoulder blades, I found a yoghurt pot had split and spilt its vanilla goop over everything else. Mopping up, I chucked the bag out. It was frayed down to paperclips and staples, anyway.
All the minutiae of my world. Rain usually plays a part in making the day that bit longer, what with slopping through silty mud and drying off after; I could take the bus, as my Ma is constantly telling me, but this would chew a good £45+ out of my budget for a monthly card, when I’m already haemorrhaging money. Glancing around this eyrie heart the other day, I realized I have been here for just over a year – and haven’t even unpacked the DVDs, the NES, certain books. An overhaul is needed, and some downsizing. I can fit into the small spaces of the world, so long as there is light enough in the room to see by. It’s about economising and prioritizing. As ever, the things that matter the most to me are internal, rather than external.
Don’t get me wrong – being single is fucking hard work sometimes. Fitting literary ambitions and research around the clatter of the house I currently rent in, bills, shopping, work-shifts bracketed by blue shadows, my head does spin. But I’ve got it fairly easy in comparison to some; and I’d rather handle these things alone, if only to prove to myself that I can.
I’ve been alone for much of my life, out of necessity and choice. Having travelled with the folks around Europe while Dad was in the RAF, I knew – in that trickling-awareness way of kids – that making friends wasn’t always a safe bet. There was every chance we’d be off again soon, so best not to get too attached. When we did finally settle in Sussex, I learned to keep my head down in school when some kids called names, refused to hold hands in case I was contagious; universal eczema had left my skin in scarlet croquet patterns. But early school reports also testify that I was “a chatterbox” with the close friends I did make (“daydreamer” crops up a lot too, especially around Maths lessons.) I only have to mention gremlins to a certain friend, to spark off a nostalgia-fest that involved playground games and scrappy exercise book maps.
Middle school, I was the butterfly between groups. I found it easier to stay on the fringes, even while secretly wondering how it would be to live in these nucleus-worlds. They flicked ash at each other and excelled in sports, formed bands, broke windows and smoked. Some lads liked to ping my bra-strap, when Ma eventually persuaded me to wear one (Sod’s law that the girl who hated being a girl, got the chest she couldn’t hide under baggy shirts.) One told his friends, with the low-loud tone and hyena eyes of an orator, that I was “only good for a grope.”
I shrugged it all off and affected a brassy tone, while quietly aching inside for all the embarrassment and awkwardness. Not so much because of the sniggers, but because anything sexual caused me to feel this way. Boyfriends – anything based around sex in general – was more of a low-key acknowledgement of feelings in my paperback diaries, rather than anything so overt as some peers managed. When the girls put on lipstick and adjusted their skirts in the changing rooms, I watched in silence and wondered – for myself, for them.
Nowadays, I still wonder, and with more admiration than I felt back then. There has been a lot to learn about feminism, especially in the past couple of years; even now, reading certain things on Twitter, I catch myself – “Why wasn’t that obvious to me before? Why haven’t I realized that how I was feeling / what I was thinking, might be wrong?”
Well. That’s a story for another time, I guess.
I have yet to embrace my sexuality as a woman and as an individual, but there have been small victories. I can stand to be alone in the room with a man, even strike up a conversation; I’ve evolved with the influences of a five-year relationship, and can give my opinions and lay access to feelings (after a bit of a headstart.) Twitter and Facebook have been particularly beneficial for creating the necessary “buffer zone”, allowing me to speak and to slip away from all company when things get overcrowded. It’s this element of online sociability that I find most appealing while out on walks: pointing out to friends across the world what I see in the world around me, breaking past the white blur in my head to describe purple skeins of bonfire smoke, the leaping orange flames; the charred tang in the throat. Then there is the option (without wishing to cause offence) of going offline, of retreating back into myself.
The line sometimes offered by (well-meaning) friends and family, is that it’d be a “bit of a waste” for me to remain single. But then, they’re not living this life. They weren’t there to see me break down before a night out with J, when the dress I was wearing revealed (to my mind) too much of this changing, healthier body.
(He did the right thing, as ever – comforted the child within, as well as the clogged-nose woman without.)
“The pressure to settle can be very real, even if it is not communicated explicitly… From our earliest days, we learn that our worth is tied up in our ability to find a mate; that marriage marks the passage into mature adulthood and is our most important adult relationship; and that we are not complete until we find our other half.” (Juliana Breines, Psychology Today.) If my personality and achievements in writing aren’t enough to engage the attention of a man, then he’s not likely to prioritize these things in a deeper relationship.
Anorexia held me back for a decade or so. In and out of hospital, isolating myself in Ma’s house to carry out the symptomatic behaviours (such tight coils) of the beast, there wasn’t time or any inclination to see friends. Dating was out of the question. I was terrified of men, though you wouldn’t know it, for the way I hunted the streets with a lowered gaze and dagger chin, close-cropped hair. People just thought I was angry, which I suppose is also true. The anger, the bitterness, manifests itself now on bad days, when it feels like my spine will never loosen up, and every remark is a shot over the bows or a verbal grope. But I know, through therapy and interactions on and offline, that these are just residual reactions. The perpetrators are out of my life, and it’d be wrong for me to paint their faces elsewhere.
Since literature makes up a large part of who I am, balancing on a knife-point of self-worth, it’s not something I can turn off for a relationship. Luckily, J understood, as a writer and fellow daydreamer. We both needed space; we gave each other time, the freedom to hear our own thoughts. He’d bugger off to the pub; I’d go for walks. We worked around each other, because it was this, or going our separate ways. In the end, I chose to do so because that latent ambitious streak rose up, reaching out across the world, causing me to learn more about it and myself – not altogether pleasant, but necessary. I still harbour guilt, but the outcome would’ve been worse had I lied to us both, and stayed.
I’m not a Sistah doing it for herself, much less a Holly Golightly (though, rereading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I do find it easy to laugh at myself through her words.) Whoever I do have a relationship with, their company has proved engaging enough to convince me to give up time spent alone. I’m fine with sitting in a pub garden, nursing a pint of cider under tree shadows; with wandering over the local countryside, Mogwai and Sigur Ros plugged into my ears, ticking over thoughts on art and writing. Additional input is grand, but not something needed on tap. Individuals complement each other; no validation necessary.
As my friend Vittoria put it, “If I want a picture of the Eiffel Tower, I’ll get on a Eurostar and take one by myself. If I want to be congratulated, I’ll tell people about my work, or tell them a joke… I own my house. I have sex. I meet men, sometimes it works, sometimes not. I don’t look too far ahead. And I certainly I don’t settle.
I validate myself through how happy I feel, not how happy a man makes me feel. I validate myself through my work, my wit, my friends, my quality of life, my experiences and my health. I feel no need to spend my evenings swiping left or right, forcing myself to “see him again because maybe it’ll be better this time” or simply being with someone for the sake of being with them. I love my space, I love my own company, I can survive on my own.”
For some, being single is the blank stage between acts, with low light and the hollowness of echoes; for others, that same wide open space signifies freedom of thought and movement. Chances are that these feelings won’t be static, since life tends to shift like the colours of a bubble, and what “single” once meant to a person can alter with circumstances, experiences, and age. What’s most telling is that, for all our previous community-based organising, single households are on the rise. Economic development and social welfare, gender equality and the rise of tech-based social networking: these and other factors have contributed to the increasingly self-aware state of individuality, with many young people seeing their single status as not only a mark of independence from the need for attachment, but as a “mark of distinction and success. They use it as a way to invest time in their personal and professional growth.”
However, not everyone who is single got there out of choice; circumstances dictate the outcome. Another friend, Jo, gave me her own perspective as someone averse to being single, but with the experience to make her wise in erring on the side of caution when it comes to relationships:
“The needs of a small, vulnerable child who has already suffered rejection of the worst kind in his life has to come first… It makes me sad that those who have started relationships with me knowing I was headed towards taking on his care, subsequently couldn’t handle the thought of the responsibility. It makes me feel melancholy that, me, being me, who has never found romantic liaisons the easiest of courses to navigate, has to face the harsh reality that any future relationships will be more tricky to come by… I cannot have men flitting in and out of my life. Even if little one never had any contact with them, my emotions run too high, I invest too fully and too wholeheartedly not to fall hard when (for it has always been when) they don’t work out.
Part of me vows never to have another relationship. My heart can’t take the disappointment when it goes wrong and depression is hell enough on your own without a child depending on you, wondering why you are crying. For rejection causes me depression and I wish I could change that, but it seems I can’t.”
Jo’s self-awareness and commitment to the needs of her son, mean that he is protected from the disruption and emotional fallout that a relationship-breakdown can create. On the other hand, it’s this same self-awareness that creates something of a risk-aversion mentality that I hope – with great respect for Jo’s vibrant personality – wouldn’t discourage her from entering into a relationship. As she herself acknowledges, “The other part of me knows how desperately unhappy I am without a partner, and I live in hope I can meet someone right one day.”
Worth considering, though, are Jo’s achievements as a single-parent writer. Her time-management is a delicate weave of responsibilities and fulfilment in creative output.
“It can be tricky as I’m on my own. I also work, and although this is technically part-time, teaching means I clock up 6-7hrs a day and a few at the weekend, so in all can be 30hrs a week… Writing does take the last place behind everything else, including housework and all those other everyday things but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get done. It’s what I do instead of watching TV or going to the pub. My boss told me not long a go he was starting up his blog as he was inspired by me as I spent my evenings doing something productive, chasing my dream and pursuing something I enjoy rather than wasting that time. This is not to say I don’t ever have evenings where I just veg out, of course I do, but in the main I use my ‘me time’ to be productive.”
This improves on the argument Suzanne Moore set out in response to Tracy Emin’s decision to choose art over parenting: rather than living between two camps, with the belief that children are “incompatible with the creative process or a substitute for it”, women should look for the grey area between. “Parenthood is not simply sacrifice. Art is not simply selfishness. Female creativity exists between these imaginary states.”
As for me – independence, taking care of my health, writing, and the freedom to come and go as I please, are grey areas enough, for now at least. Selfish? I don’t think so. It just means that I’m learning who I am, where I fit into the world, and how to get to know and help the people who matter.
And where mental health is concerned – it feels as though these last steps are best taken alone.
“Being single is an opportunity to build strong friendships, devote yourself to activities and causes that you’re passionate about, and develop a sense of self-worth and identity that is not attached to a romantic partner’s love and approval. These experiences will serve you well if and when you find yourself in a relationship: if you feel satisfied in your life independent of your partner, you may be less likely to have the unrealistic expectation that your partner can and should meet all your needs.” – Juliana Breines.
For now, I’ll stick with my own sense of stability – colleagues who are the equivalent of big brothers and sisters, friends I can get in touch with by picking up the phone, meeting in the city under the lamplight. Any relationship that goes beyond appearances and even similar interests, to form a bond that is heard in silence as well as words, is something to consider when it arrives – not to wait around for.