How To Enjoy Being Alone In Public
I was lingering in the doorway of the yoga studio on Sixth Ave the other day, slowly putting on my socks and sneakers, when I overheard a man, probably about 30, tell his friend the details of an upcoming trip he was taking. He was going on a two-week tour of New Zealand from north to south in order to take advantage of unused vacation days that he’d accumulated over the year. He had planned the trip on his own and was planning to execute it as such. His girlfriend, apparently, couldn’t get time off. What I thought, as I listened, was that herein lies the boundless power of finding joy in doing things alone.
Doing things alone as a woman comes with its own, often frustrating nuances that sometimes make a solo trip across the world uniquely difficult. But society has made the simple act of spending time alone in public unnecessarily taboo. Maybe that’s because modern media has made a trope out of the “independent woman.” Maybe that’s because spending time alone is mistakenly equated with being overly independent, as it’s also mistakenly equated with sadness and loneliness. Nonetheless, being alone in public is a thing that I have, for most of my life, tried to avoid for various reasons. And until recently, it was not something I was particularly good at.
For a long time, my only point of reference for how to spend time alone was the “lonely-but-loving-it” archetypal woman who tends to be cast as the stubborn, vaguely self-important counterpart to the “flirty but financially irresponsible” lead. This woman is in staunch defense of being alone. She sees it as a means to getting ahead in her career, as a way to spend more time doing pilates or focusing on her hobbies, as an excuse to eat Chinese takeout straight from the carton and drink wine from the bottle in her apartment, free of judgment. But as soon as mothers or sisters or friends ask if she’s seeing anyone or when she’s going to settle down (generally enduring expectations for all women), her carefully crafted air of confidence wavers.
I am not in defense of spending time alone. Simply, I don’t think it’s a stance that needs defending. We all, at one or another time, find ourselves alone. Whether or not we can enjoy this time ultimately hinges on our willingness to challenge pervasive misconceptions of aloneness. What I am finding is that this doesn’t require some grand act, or some unachievable amount of self-love, or a plane ticket to the other side of the world. It’s the simple, often silent practice of dressing up for yourself, taking yourself out, treating yourself to wine and oysters, and finding comfort in your own company.
There are certain articles of clothing I reserve for evenings when I’m taking myself out: The bright orange cardigan I bought at a thrift store; the purple crewneck passed down to me by my grandfather; green and white checkered pants I found at a flea market in LA. On these evenings, the ones in which I am heading out alone, I always spend extra time blow drying my hair. I dust my eyelids with gold or purple eyeshadow and I always wear lipgloss. Occasionally, I’ll wear the boots that are too uncomfortable to walk in, knowing I won’t have to match anyone else’s pace or arrive at any certain time.
Dressing up for myself is one in a series of ways I have taught myself to enjoy being alone in public. Where spending time alone requires a certain confidence, wearing an outfit that is bold and flirty and fancy has the power to create this sense that I have otherwise felt difficult to feign. Enjoying spending time alone, however, springs as much from this sense of self-confidence as it does from the consolation that you could spend your whole life waiting for other people to get on board.
On nights when I am taking myself out, I almost always go somewhere new. Usually, this is someplace picked from a long list of restaurants or bars or museums or corners of the world I have long been wanting to visit but haven’t. And I always carry with me a book I’ve been neglecting and a journal which I haven’t written in for weeks. Because spending time alone does not have to just be an alternative to sitting in your apartment, in the dark, eating ice cream out of the pint and watching Notting Hill for the sixth time. It’s an opportunity to do exactly what you want to, to find time for the things you’ve been putting off for other, more socially virtuous activities.
I have found a lot of newness in spending time alone. I have tried new restaurants and eaten new foods and met new people and listened to the stories of their interesting lives. I have talked to myself, at times out loud, and I have learned new things about myself in these one-sided conversations. I have read books at bar counters that have elucidated some truth I would have otherwise never known. And I have found the delicately defined line between feeling lonely and spending time alone. I have walked it gingerly, like toeing the razor-thin edge of a tightrope, and I have quietly and proudly crossed it, basking in its vast and varied terrain, all while wearing ballet flats and a jacket I thrifted somewhere in Brooklyn.
Sara Keene is a writer and publicist living on the Lower East Side. She came to New York in fall by way Charlottesville, graduating from the University of Virginia with a Bachelors in political science and English literature. Originally from outside of Boston, her writing centers around the changing of seasons, growing up, and holding out hope we never have to.