While I read Rebecca Traister’s feature on recent memoirs by young, single American women (it’s one everything from the wonderful Carlene Bauer’s Not That Kind of Girl to the upcoming Bitch Is the New Black), I gradually became aware of the fact that I was not alone in the room. There was a persistent, monotone buzzing sound – the kind that signaled the arrival of a Moscow mosquito, one of those things with a “True Blood”-esque appetite. I got up and plugged in my little Raid anti-mosquito heater unit thingie, and kept reading. The monotone buzzing sound persisted. In true slapstick comedy fashion, I had to admit that the buzzing was actually confined to the insides of my head. In other words, I was annoyed, dear reader.
I wasn’t annoyed with Traister’s article itself. I think her observations are all very valid. She opens by talking about an essay by Sloane Crosley, in which Crosley takes a solo trip to Lisbon after randomly pointing to it on a map. It’s supposed to be fun – but it isn’t. Cue major life lesson.
It’s not that I don’t relate – I am privileged enough to do just that. But when Traister talks about how “the possibilities of success, wealth, happiness, true love, close girl-friendship and super-awesome spontaneous trips to Lisbon carry their own oppressive weight, the awareness that none of us can possibly live as cheerily and as gaily as we might fantasize about doing,” all I can think is “Anyone who doesn’t realize that past a certain age I honestly WANT TO SMACK.”
A little over a year ago, I took a trip to Britain. My then-boyfriend’s family generously allowed me to stay with them in London for a few days, and then I went up by myself to Edinburgh (just in time to catch the initial swine flu panic!), then traveled to Liverpool, also by myself, and then went down to visit a friend in Devon. It was a great trip, especially the Devon part – and the going back up to London to see my then-boyfriend part.
But I also felt the loneliness creep up – in Edinburgh, in Liverpool. I read my morning paper and drank my coffee. I bought postcards I used as bookmarks. I shined my boots before going to sleep at night. I was, for those few days, genuinely alone.
Why should anyone be surprised? Why is this even a revelation? Bear in mind, I’m not saying this to diminish Crosley’s writing itself – I just enjoy it for different reasons, I guess. I like the confessional style, not so much for its social underpinnings, but for the stories it tells. The moments it gives shape to. What it memorializes. What it discards.
I don’t need a book written by a young, single, American woman to shock me with some seminal truth about femininity – it shocks me first and foremost with its humanity. And I”m not saying that because I believe that all is dandy in American publishing and we can discard all of this gender stuff altogether (hell, I thrive on the gender stuff, being “fiercely feminine” in the finest tradition of random Tom Robbins phrases that stick to the insides of your brain for years). But neither do I pick up these books because I want my own lifestyle to be validated – or else explained to me. I’m too old for that now, that horse durn left the barn. I pick up these books when they happen to be damn good books.
And maybe I just don’t see anything brave in the actual, literal admission that life is kinda ordinary. I mean, even my life, fairly extraordinary in the right light and from all sorts of angles, is kinda ordinary, I realize as much. I enjoy reading about ordinary lives, if the stories are told well – but not because I want to secretly pat myself on the back for using the freedom bestowed upon me to, like, make mistakes, and spill coffee on my dresses. And I’m not even saying this as one of those stereotypical “liberated American women” everyone loves to prattle on about. Hell, plenty of people will tell you that I’m anything but. From the sort of men I favour and down to the crap I put up with on a daily basis. *shrug* Whatever, you know? A week in my life can still makes for a good story to tell in bars, but only because I take the trouble to tell it right. It’s important to care about the telling, I think.
I also realized this: Maybe, even as a young, single, educated woman with hair nicely-dyed-for-a-reasonable-price, I still just don’t believe in “expecting” happiness. Happiness is angelic. It comes and goes of its own accord.
6 thoughts on “Agency Shmagency, or why I really couldn’t care less about “the new single womanhood””
I think that the loneliness is a shock and a surprise for many Americans because we are a culture that actively promotes the myth that happiness can be obtained, if you pursue it enough. Americans, generally speaking, do not see happiness as something angelic, magical, sluchaino. They see happiness as something ACHIEVABLE. And if you’re not happy all the time, you’re doing something wrong. You have not achieved.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with your last two sentences, as beautiful as they are.
I think happiness is like a cat. Sometimes it arrives of its own accord, sometimes it comes when its called.
I was raised in a weird trans-cultural way – but I definitely grew up with the same expectations. Becoming more casual about life (even about such aspects of it as depression) was probably my biggest achievement in my twenties so far. But I get irritated with the way that this process is considered revolutionary – probably because it’s such a class thing, imho. She went to Lisbon and discovered that a trip like that could still suck – Oh! My! God! And once again, I’m not saying this to knock Crosley’s writing. I just don’t want to scrutinize it in this particular fashion.
I think comparing happiness to a cat is absolutely genius. It reminds me of a night in Liverpool, when I was having dinner by myself in a vegan cafe (not a vegan, but the place came highly recommended), reading a book by candlelight, listening to the rain outside. I remember how happy I was in that moment – and I also remember thinking that I was not supposed to be happy. It was an unusual situation for me, and because of personal history, I don’t take kindly to unusual situations – or being alone. But I had let my fears rest, and I was serene, and quietly grateful. It was wicked. It was an indulgence.
Maybe the other problem I have with holding this stuff up as revolutionary has to do with health, and mental health in particular. When I travel by myself, I have to actively fight to feel safe and happy, and I’m certain that it has to do with the violence in my past. I don’t want a medal – fears come and go, sometimes you wrestle with them, sometimes they wrestle with you – I just feel silly talking about it in a “new single womanhood” kind of way. It feels hollow to me, and exclusionary.
I have eaten in that very same cafe, it is lovely, especially the cakes.
I agree with your dislike of the article. Trying to define why, I think it’s because being a single woman shouldn’t be a “Ooh look” type of thing. It needs to be an accepted fact that some women are single and it’s not a henious personal deficiency and articles like this don’t help.
I don’t know…I liked this article. I don’t think it was out to shock or revolutionize and I found it relatable in ways which actually surprised me. There’s value in putting ordinary experience into words, especially if it comes out nicely. Maybe it’s also because I’m on another trip by myself – trying to create a mini-life in days so I can enjoy that life for the rest of time I’m abroad.
Ah, I’ve been missing out on a lot of the fiercely Antonovesque writing! Hope you’re doing well.
Not directly addressing the reviewed article (which I haven’t read), and bracketing gender for now, I do agree that there is a particularly odd cultural conditioning in contemporary America (and very likely elsewhere) when it comes to evaluating solitude. And I guess related and similar is the conditioning of that which is termed happiness.
In any case, here’s to the banality of life…