Ideas Garden 🌱 Here, some of my favorite seedlings from this essay … phrases and ideas to tinker with, nurture a bit more 🌱
… How what we build for constrains what we can imagine (social scripts; social infrastructure)
… “Existential jetlag:” The state induced by significant, sudden change
… Forms of heartbreak we don’t have shared language for
… The Mature Adult in America (who / what is it?)
… The curse of “social script limbo”
… Overshooting our trajectory toward freedom
… Self in relation to commons: Freedom to abdicate parts of self, freedom to experience other parts of self
… Solitude as a solve for loneliness
… Helping each other feel the edges of where we long for more
I’ve lived with seven men since my early 20s. None of those living arrangements have been romantic, or sexual, which isn’t especially surprising to me. I love dating men, and I love living with men; but it’s a simple fact that romancing someone and sharing daily life with someone are two different modes of love, modes that humans have mostly attempted to mash together into one relational container, to mixed results. So far, an appealing “both, please!” option hasn’t presented himself yet.
I have deeply loved these men. Whether builders, scientists, poets or political consultants, they’ve each shared a wonderful blend of steadfastness and whimsy. But I think what I love most of all about sharing a space with men is male intimacy. I rarely get to experience men’s unguarded selves, even from my close male friends, most of whom now live hundreds of miles away. Male intimacy feels precious and rare, and that makes it interesting. It feels like a gift every time it’s shared. When you share space, this kind of intimacy is not even shared consciously most of the time, and that also makes it fun. It’s fun to witness people as their real, unvarnished, idiosyncratic selves, being simultaneously predictable and regularly surprising. It’s fun to build a model of someone over time, through the repeated modulations of their regular life, punctuated by vertiginous moments of rawness and profundity. Living with men, I get to learn them in a way that society otherwise does not give me real permission to know them, or them to be known. I like to think this has been a two-way street — that I have been seen by my male housemates in a way I haven’t been seen by other men in my life, even lovers; and that these men in turn have benefitted from seeing and being seen by me, as well.
It’s thrilling to be witnessed by people different from yourself — even if it can also be mortifying. Being observable as your unremarkable, daily self introduces a sort of excited state of wanting both more attention and less, and one way to resolve that is to practice witnessing someone else for a while, inhabiting their space, giving attention to their way of being, and before you know it, your world has expanded.
All of this is a way to say: I’m moving tomorrow. I will be moving out of my house that I have shared with three, then four, then two people, and two dogs. I’m glad for it, and I’m sad, and I don’t really want to go.
Life deals out countless forms of heartbreak, many of them ones we don’t socially have space or a name for. Here’s one: It doesn’t require a romantic split to feel heartbroken over leaving a living arrangement you love.
I’m a cis hetero woman in my mid-30s. I live with friends. I don’t have a partner; I don’t have children; I don’t own a home. My life is incredibly full, and most days, I’m deeply happy.
To some, this sounds ordinary, maybe even enviable. To more, admitting to one or two of these “don’t haves” in your later 30s triggers surprise — to be without all them, and happy about it, signals as a little pitiful, a little concerning; at best, a sign of deferred maturity. I notice these reactions from time to time, as will others whose life has similar ingredients — how quickly, when you say you’re going to move out of a house of friends to live alone, friends and acquaintances will chirp “Oh, fun! It’s time,” like they’ve been holding out the bar of adulthood for you for too long and their arms have gotten tired. How at dinner, a friend’s partner may lean over to you, unprompted, declaring, “I cannot take you seriously until you have your own place.”
American society has undergone seismic shifts in the last century, but despite them all, our dominant social script for what it looks like to be a Mature Adult in America remains strong. The signifiers are solid, the trajectory more or less assumed: In early adulthood, we live alone (if we can afford it), or maybe with friends (how fun! Extra perk, save money). Over time, those of us who lived alone couple up into domestic romantic partnership, and those of us who lived in groups do the same, or — as we grow our income and develop our own aesthetic taste and living standards and lose some of our social energy — we seek out our own place. This is understood as a temporary step, until we meet our comrades in romantic partnership. And there we stay, unless or until we and our partner decide two people is not enough people, and then we get more, in the form of kids. (Or, we split, re-entering narrative limbo until we safely recombine again.)
Homeownership, romantic coupling, children…the single-family house, filled with a single family, is still the default sign of “normal” adulthood, and with it, assumed maturity and success. Most other arrangements, even if joyous for those in them, are looked at as a compromise, a dalliance, or a necessity — an admission that something, somewhere along the line, didn’t quite work out right.
This script is remarkably socially durable. I haven’t felt direct oppression from it, like many others have. But I have felt, my whole adulthood, the itchy, persistent loneliness of not especially caring about this particular playbook, and an awareness of the economic perks and social ease I’m missing out on by not pursuing it.
I’m far from alone — by the numbers, Millennials are getting married later, having children later, buying homes later or not at all. But we haven’t yet been able to enduringly, meaningfully complicate this social narrative for what living differently might look like. The alternative choices we collectively make, the variegated stories we tell each other, still feel like they are working very hard upstream.
A version of this script is happening for me, now. My house is converting to a single family home, and for the first time in my adult life I find myself not only unsure where I should live next, I’m attempting to do so without the presence of friends or friendly future housemate referrals to make those choices with. It’s an odd, displaced moment, feeling a real excitement for stepping over this threshold, just me and myself — recognizing that I didn’t exactly choose this situation, but I am participating in it.
And, also: I didn’t anticipate how deeply this move would feel like an abdication of something important. At parties, I haven’t been able to answer questions about it without my voice quivering. I’m going to live alone, and I’m sad about it, for a lot of reasons, and we don’t have simple social shorthand for any of them. I want to see more models for what thoughtful adulthood can look like. I want to try to name them, even just for myself — these little tendrils of socially-hidden experience.
Last week, I made myself a gift registry to share with family and friends. I wanted to celebrate this life transition on its own merits — and also, I don’t own any pans. I put practical, affordable household items on it. I also added a maplewood bedframe and a fancy tea kettle. Because this is my life, and I’ll be living alone, and maybe I don’t have housemates or a partner to help build a home with me, and maybe that opens space for my loved ones and community to come in, collectively, instead.
A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having, writes Alan Moore. I feel this way about couches. A couch that is not prepared for four or more bodies all wedged or flopped onto it together, giggling and trying to balance food and drink and talking over each other and trying to win laughs or the argument or the remote…well, is no couch at all. My new apartment will have room for one of these couches, so finding one up to the challenge has become my primary obsession. I’m moving into an apartment complex — my first apartment in 12 years, and my first-ever apartment alone.
Unlike rented houses, rented apartments — especially here in East Austin — are likely to come new-ish, and new-ish means studiously wiped of character. There are no quirks in these buildings. Nothing that makes no sense, nothing placed there out of love or a moment of misguided inspiration, for future tenets to laugh at and balance beer bottles on. In one of my old houses, an upstairs sunroom sprouted a spiral staircase, that led to a skylight, that opened onto a DIY roof deck, that teetered over the city. I loved it. I moved into that sunroom and shivered through winters and sweat through summers and threw concerts on the tiny deck overhead, listening to friends’ music floating away across the rooftops while constantly worrying my ceiling would cave in.
Modern apartment buildings, too, lift us away from the world. But unlike music across rooftops, their verticalness mostly serves to confine. An apartment building atomizes its residents; converting a collective of people into units, each one ensconced safely away, behind precise lines and sharp corners, cushioned from unpredictable people and untamable earth. Modern life seeks to atomize us across every vector, and here I find myself wondering how I will find ways to live in an apartment in a way that feels organic: weird, serendipitous, enmeshed with others, with a sense of time and history. I’m wondering what it means to construct meaningful relational rhythms in a world that is increasingly architected to prevent them.
Here is the furniture I’ve got to bring into the new space: a chair, a desk chair, a floor lamp, 2 table lamps, 6 shelves in assorted styles.
That’s it. All purchased from outlet stores or the internet, and all of them >3 years old.
Fairly or not, our domestic spaces can reflect how we care not just for ourselves but for the others we bring in. Right now, looking at my small pile of cheap, generic goods, I don’t see myself, the places I’ve lived in, or the friends I’ve loved and lived with along the way — and I don’t see evidence that I care for others (again: no pans).
The truth is, I don’t quite know what Sort of Person I am, materially. One byproduct of living with others for one’s whole adult life is the freedom to abdicate having a personal aesthetic in service of the existing commons. Group living means it’s always someone else’s house, other peoples’ furniture, a hodgepodge of lives and lived experiences to which we are offered the opportunity to fit in, and the invitation to add on. Collective life is mostly a matter of getting creative with constraints. Mismatched cocktail glasses means it’s time for a dinner party; old instruments get repurposed for band rehearsal; modular furniture and a surplus of sticky notes, well — the workshop writes itself. Living with others also means living with others’ stuff, and over time you learn to be responsive and generative with both.
I’ve lived in some remarkable houses, most of them characters in their own right. The house I’m in today could double as an art gallery — canvases of clouds and seascapes splash across the walls, nautical charts point the way upstairs. One of my housemates is an artist-engineer, and his functional-modular woodworking hangs from the ceilings and lights our stairwell. Our home is filled with beautiful things I can’t make or imagine on my own, and I love it for that — together, our collective gifts hang in balance.
When you live with others, it can become hard to know exactly where you end and others begin. Each new combination of residents gives rise to its own aesthetics of space and unique spirit; it’s rarely up to any individual to set the terms of behavior, but everyone notices the shift when any one resident leaves. There’s a messy, magic art to living together, especially when hierarchies are not clear: conflict becomes unavoidable, a facility with communication and relationship management becomes a top skill. But so does creativity: you each find yourself doing things you’d never imagined, meeting and befriending people from other worlds; and slowly, together, this becomes the Sort of Group you are. Not every combination is good, or even viable, of course — group living only works when everyone involved takes a bare minimum interest in each other’s life and wellbeing. But as long as you know there’s a reasonable chance of meaningful chat over a bowl of granola, you’re on the way.
In one house, our group hosted small living room concerts and named our Christmas tree; the next iteration built tent forts during a hurricane and a garden in the sunshine, hosted dinner salons and group expeditions to play in rivers; in another house, we led bystander trainings and hosted pop-up craft shows, letting activists, artists, makers, and thinkers use our space as a staging ground. When people choose to live together, the home expands from private experience into a co-created world and a site of encounter, for those inside and those coming in. With every iteration I’ve lived in, my hope has been the same: That each person who visits will feel taken care of, at ease, inspired; that their aperture, too, might be widened by the threshold of our door.
The reverse is also true. When we leave a place, we lose a part of ourselves — a part that got to be known and expressed in relationship with these particular others. We lose 24/7 passports to their worlds. We lose the chance to make serendipitous magic together, with shared stuff. To me, my small pile of boxes in the kitchen represents not just a departure — it’s signaling just how little of myself I’m bringing with me.
Coming from a lifetime of full houses, shared experience as much as shared stuff, I wonder: How much of me is inextricably tied up with (is created from!) the spark of all of you? How much of me will go quiet, without others around to coax these parts out of me? What will I now have to tell with my space and my stuff, where before I could just show?
This week, I reached out to some artistic friends, asking them to help me imagine and create things I can use in my space. I issued open invites to culinary friends, asking them to teach me how to cook their favorite dinner and bring their favorite pot; or the recipe for their favorite cocktail, with a new glass or two. I want to see how, in bringing friends and their art and craft into my space, a life in domestic solitude can still live in creative response to others.
In recent years I’ve learned how to be intentional about solitude. This helps me ward off loneliness. It’s ironic that one can solve for the other, but it’s true: Loneliness is an unintentional disconnect, solitude happens by choice.
Being alone opens all your senses up to your environment. Both your lungs and your feelings just sort of … get bigger. Being Alone is an opportunity to breathe in the luxury and thrill of your own undivided attention. Solitude offers the chance to have an encounter with yourself.
But I suspect good solitude, the lifegiving kind, is only really possible when it emerges from the context of presence. Isolation and loneliness is a critical problem for Americans of all ages, exacerbated by the pandemic. But Covid-19 cut both ways: What was missing, for many who lived together, was the option to be alone; what was absent, for those who lived alone, was the option to return to each other.
Solitude is like winter: The best thing about it is that it has a timestamp. To intentionally seek out solitude, we also sign up for the promise of homecoming — the warmth of familiar, friendly context, people who generally know where you are, and how you are, without needing to expend much effort. One of the most underrated benefits of living together is the simple wellness check — “Is she alive, and generally of sound mind, heart, body?” — that people who live together perform on each other daily. It’s a continuous tune-up, socially underrated but spiritually essential.
There isn’t exactly a name or space for this quality in our social script, either. One story of modern history is the story of people fleeing and shedding tedious or harmful relationships in increasingly more intimate layers. The freedom to do this is essential, as a baseline requirement for human wellbeing. But it’s as if in our launch toward individuation, we overshot. The narratives that powered our flight are still flinging us forward, and we can’t figure out how to get back to each other again.
Modern life encourages us to atomize ourselves away from interdependence, toward feelings of self-reliance, toward the ability to buy or outsource or hire for anything we need, reassured that it will arrive at our door within 24 hours. All of this should feel like magic, and yet somehow it does not. The mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and social toll of abstracting domestic life away from collectives — whether genetic, geographic, cultural, or chosen — are not just well documented across studies and articles and op-eds; they are manifestly abundant in our daily lives. We seem to be doing life backward: We live alone and expend effort to gather together, as if that’s the healthy baseline; instead of starting with togetherness as the foundation, and striking out for aloneness when we need it.
So it is curious, just how eager people have been to hear that I’m going to be living alone. They’re right, in some obvious ways, of course. I’m ready for more agency, not less, over who and what gets my energy and attention. I’m eager to discover new growth edges, find new spaces of agency, and to fashion myself in a new light, from a new context. Living with each other is exhausting and messy. It’s tiring to passively leak energy and attention toward others, to do things you don’t care about but know others will. To have to hear the same stories, deal with the same bullshit, over and over again. I wonder whether part of our compulsive drive to be alone, in part, is a drive to finally just rest, socially unbothered, on our own terms.
And yet. In the years I’ve lived in this house, I’ve become a member of three extended families. I’ve inherited parents and uncles and cousins and nieces and siblings and dogs, childhood neighbors and college best friends. Their frequent trafficking through my front door has formed a pattern of care and intimacy, built up from repeated, semi-spontaneous encounters. This, too, is a gift: Belonging formed out of loving, inconvenient interruption.
Why would starting from individual aloneness ever be the goal for a flourishing society? Is putting ourselves in a position where the most fundamental aspects of a good life — connection and presence and care and attention — must be purposefully initiated by each of us, individually, truly what will give us the most rest, the most psychological safety?
It seems much simpler to carve solitude out of presence than to build presence out of absence. The truth is this: I will always want to live life in the presence of others. I will always want to come home, to open the metaphorical door, and walk in to a pileup of too many people on the metaphorical couch. I will want this, even when I’m buried at the bottom of the couch pile, annoyed at everyone, last nerve frayed, rolling my eyes, grumbling to be left alone.
Some people approach big changes like ripping off a bandaid. For me, transitions feel more like flying across the inky-black ocean at night. I’ve come to love these liminal weeks of anticipation and planning — hovering above the deep, feeling thoroughly present to myself and temporarily alienated from most everything and everyone else. Taking my time with transitions is a love borne of necessity. Significant transition induces existential jetlag. And like skipping timezones, change can feel much more navigable when we take a moment to let our hearts and minds catch up to our bodies.
I’m heartbroken about moving. I have been, at odd and embarrassing times, a bewildering number of times. This house and these housemates have been my anchor since moving to Austin. It has framed everything else about this place for me: my entry into the city, my ongoing check-in on self and home and community and belonging; at times more than the sum of its parts, at times less; often, both.
In these last days, our life together has taken on a sweetness. One housemate bought me an interior design book, then read it herself and got inspired. Together, we reimagined what our living room (now, theirs) could look like in the future. We’ve spent hours going to furniture outlets and thrift stores, looking at rug patterns, trying different paintings on the walls.
I don’t have my own place yet, but here we are, once again — right as I leave, foot out the door — co-creating one together.
I wrote this essay several weeks ago. In the days since, I’ve had friends show up to help re-situate my life here, in all kinds of ways.
Neighbors moved my stuff, toasted with bubbles, helped watch out for big deliveries while I was on the road…
Friends texted when they were in the area (“dropping by in 20!”), ignoring my protestations that my place was covered in boxes, and we sat on the bare floor and ate Cheetos and talked religion & cultural upbringing, watched sketch comedies…
A close friend came to town, walked into my small, dim apartment, and said, “Ok, I know you — how will we bring in opulence and light, how will we increase expansiveness and hospitality?” (One of those surprise lines that friends sometimes pull out, just to reveal how well they see us…)
A ceramicist friend made me a kitchen set of mugs and bowls on her basement wheel; an entrepreneurial friend sent me handwoven silk carpets for my floors, with process videos of his mentor weaving them the same way he’d learned as a child; a tailor friend is, right this moment, handcrafting a quilt for my bedroom, covering it with talismens that represent me / my past lives (and asking other friends to weigh in…)
And last week, a dear friend and former longtime housemate-turned-life-collaborator stayed for the weekend and helped me rearrange my furniture — physical, psychological, existential! — into a space that suddenly started to look like it was mine, like it had been created from love and context, and at least a few attempts at modular/hacking glory.
Living alone requires us to live with real intention and vulnerability, and when necessary, to use our words. This is the soft spot I’ve learned in these last weeks: To allow myself to admit, “Right now, in this season, I am not just alone but really lonely.” To say this to others, trusting that real ones will hear it without dismissal or silver-linings. And, in saying it, learning that others, too, are really lonely. That sometimes the best thing we can do for each other is simply to talk about our lonelinesses, and help each other feel the edges of where we long for more.
For the last twenty years, we’ve heard about the tyranny of choice — the paralysis that comes with the perception of near-infinite, abundant options. In our social script, that’s often come with a thinly-concealed generational condemnation: that Millennials can’t settle down, we chase experience highs, we’re obsessed with fear of better options. Maybe this is true, and probably it was especially true in our 20s. But through many conversations with others, I’m learning just how many of us are feeling the poignant, grownup side of this. For the lucky ones of us who have tasted beautiful romantic partnership, and a lifegiving place, and a brilliant creative community, and the enduring satisfaction of a right-sized job, and the warmth of being chosen by others — we have also experienced how temporal each of these things can be, and how unbundled many of them are with each other. We’re feeling the loss of each of them, and loneliness that comes with it, and the social undertow that insists we must rebundle some in one particular way, and subsume the others. We have learned to open up the range for which aspects of human life and relationship get priority — for where, what, and whom to orient our lives around. But we’re lacking social scripts to help us meaningfully navigate and prioritize from this newly expanded decision set. Loneliness, now, plays in a thousand places.
But so does belonging. For each of us in this particular slice of life, we are sharing the experience of living into unanswerable questions. With that, we have an opportunity to gather more anecdotes and models for making choices: around love, belonging, community, neighborliness, civic engagement, social wellbeing, global flourishing.
Our appetite for togetherness doesn’t just play in the realms of romantic partner, family unit, or friend. Our models for relationships and life shouldn’t, either. The Mature Adult today wants belonging at all reaches of creativity, and all depths of the soul. Even when we can’t always find it. Even if it’s not always right here, with us, in our space, all the time.
Special thanks to the friends who read, discussed, and sharpened the thinking in this essay, including Bryan, Hayley, Isabela, Leigh & Tom.