The thought of being alone during the holidays might seem a bit tragic. I imagine for many it conveys an image of a woeful individual binge eating Ferrero Rocher and binge drinking flat champagne (while binge watching a fuzzy VHS copy of It’s a Wonderful Life). So it’s not surprising that people back home have started asking if I’m worried that I’ll be lonely this holiday season.
I don’t know. Yes. No. Maybe?
A lot of people go to great lengths to avoid loneliness. Some stay in toxic relationships and live half-lived lives just so they don’t have to face the world alone. I’ve been there. But let’s not confuse being alone with being lonely; they aren’t the same thing. Some of the loneliest people I know are rarely alone. And even people I know who are in healthy relationships and who have wide webs of friends and family have told me they sometimes feel lonely. Loneliness seems like a universal human emotion, especially in this age where it’s easier than ever to stay connected but at the same time easier than ever to feel disconnected from authentic intimacy. We all feel isolated sometimes.
At the same time, I think it’s more complicated than saying, “You’re better off alone than staying in a miserable relationship.” I hate it when people say that. I’ve felt the sting of loneliness from being alone so deep that I would have done anything just to have another warm body in the room. When you’re alone as often as I am — and for as many years as I’ve been — the difference between loneliness and being alone isn’t always easy to define or understand.
But if there’s one thing I am starting to understand it’s that loneliness, especially the kind of loneliness that comes from being alone, isn’t something we need to be so afraid of. Maybe if we learn to face loneliness head on, rather than running away from it (which — surprise, surprise — never works), we can learn to better appreciate our place in the world. Maybe enduring loneliness and accepting it, even welcoming it, can actually be a good thing.
The worst loneliness I’ve felt hasn’t been while living alone here in Paris. No, it’s been while living in a place more familiar, at home in my ordinary life in the Bay Area. Of course, I have a network of friends and acquaintances, some who are in situations similar to mine, and so I’m often not alone those years when I stay in California for the holidays rather than flying out to be with my family. A friend and I have spent several New Year’s Eves together, just the two of us hanging out at my apartment and watching bad movies while sipping wine and eating junk food. I’ve hosted multiple orphans’ Thanksgiving dinners and started my own tradition of Christmas brunch with huevos rancheros and New Mexican sparkling wine, as a nod to my childhood growing up in the Land of Enchantment. There’s usually someone around to join me, another stray elf, and we spend the day celebrating our post-modern family.
Even so, more than once I have found myself alone on the holidays. However my deepest feelings of loneliness don’t typically come in the big moments of life — Thanksgiving, Christmas, or my birthday, for example — perhaps because I’ve experienced these things before and don’t find it difficult to detach myself from their importance or, even better, find ways to enjoy them solo. I’ve realized I don’t have to do anything in particular on a holiday, just because cultural norms dictate it must be so; I don’t have to do anything at all. Sometimes I’ve even skipped holiday events because the thought of going to a party alone, balancing a plastic plate of crudités and cold cuts on my lap and making small talk with couples, always couples, sounds more alienating than soaking in my bathtub with a glass of bubbles and a movie on my laptop. In fact, when I think about holiday traffic and drunk drivers and cheese cubes stuck on toothpicks, the thought of soaking in my bathtub with a glass of bubbles and a movie on my laptop sounds pretty damn awesome. I appreciate the invites, I really do, but sometimes a girl’s gotta say “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Last year, when my Christmas plans feel through on December 23rd, I found myself unexpectedly alone. Rather than scramble for a last-minute invitation to spend the day with someone else’s family I stocked up on my favorite things — macaroni and cheese and champagne and an assortment of chocolate, cheese, olives, sausages, and crackers — and after a long morning run, I spent the day snacking and lounging around, reading and watching movies. I didn’t feel lonely. It felt like any other day home alone with more wine and better food.
So holidays alone don’t typically leave me feeling lonely. When I do feel the most lonely is on an ordinary Sunday afternoon in the Bay Area, one of those days when I have nothing planned yet want something to do and, more important, someone with whom to do it. I’ll scroll through my contacts. Who can I call? Who might be free? I’ll send a series of texts, but nobody’s available, and it’s rare that someone follows up on the promise of “another time.” Almost everyone has families, children, or partners who they spend their ordinary Sunday afternoons with. I’m their go-to person for a fabulous girls’ night out. But a random, weekend barbecue or uneventful at-home Saturday night movie marathon? I’m simply not on their radar. The loneliness magnifies when I’m home by myself, seeing pictures on social media of friends doing nothing special, just hanging out with their children or partners. It’s not about the absence of invitations. The absence of a familial core, something that doesn’t require an invitation, is what leads to the loneliness.
Okay. I have to be honest. I’ve been a bit more lonely than usual here in Paris these past few weeks as the days get shorter, colder, and wetter. Festive decorations are going up in store windows, and while I’m a fan of pretty lights and window displays, it’s hard not to think about being solo during a time that constantly reminds you ’tis the season to spend time with friends and family. It’s hard to not feel lonely when I walk on these cobblestoned streets and everyone I pass is with someone and I’m only with me.
But the shade of loneliness I feel in Paris hasn’t been that consuming maybe because I don’t have higher expectations that something else should be happening. I already know I’ll be spending the days and nights alone, so there’s not as much space for disappointment. I might feel disappointed on that ordinary Sunday afternoon in the Bay Area because after two decades of living there I’d think I’d have a familial core in place. The disappointment — the loneliness — comes not from being alone but from not having any alternatives.
However, maybe there’s something more to it than that, something I’m slowly learning in Paris. Living in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language fluently and don’t really know anyone makes the loneliness unavoidable sometimes; it doesn’t matter if it’s the holidays or an ordinary Sunday afternoon. But I’ve started to accept this loneliness, to willingly take it in before it hits me. That way, it loses its power. Instead it becomes the kind of loneliness that I want to embrace. I want to explore its darkest corners and see where it takes me. Maybe the fact that I know it’s up to me to confront the loneliness head on makes it less of a burden and more of a challenge. And if there’s one thing you should know about it it’s that I love a good challenge.
The other night I was walking home after getting a pint at the pub I frequent. As I approached Rue de Rivoli, I noticed a group of journalists and an empty, lit stage. There were barriers in place and security guards guiding pedestrians through the maze. It was obvious that someone famous was about to arrive. Curious, I joined a gaggle of gawkers who were standing across the street from the stage. After a few minutes, a car pulled up, and a woman got out. The journalists took some photos, and then the woman gave a speech. I couldn’t understand her every word, but from the fragments I did understand it was clear that she was talking about the holiday season and the excitement of families and children. I decided she must be a department store owner, and just as I was thinking this, as she was finishing her speech, there was a blast from behind me followed by a woman’s laughter. I turned to the new woman. She was pulling fake snow from her sweater, from her carefully-curled hair. From the festively-lit BHV-Marais department store a flurry of fake snow was floating toward the crowd.
“Il neige?” the woman said to me, still laughing, still pulling snow from her clothes. I laughed with her and took a piece of the foamy snow between my fingers.
“Oui. Il neige,” I said.
The snow continued falling and then another blast came. An explosion of red and gold confetti flew out at us, mingling with the snow. The woman’s eyes widened. In that moment, standing on a crowded corner in Paris, exchanging a smile with a stranger, I felt inspired. The holidays were here. Red and gold confetti continued drifting down, landing on the sidewalk, on the seat of a silver vespa, in the folds of my leather jacket.
“C’est fini?” I said to the woman.
She laughed again and nodded at me. “C’est fini.“
We smiled again at each other. “Au revoir,” I said to the woman. “Joyeux Noël!“
“Joyeux Noël!” She said to me.
As I continued my walk home, my feet scuffing through short stacks of red and gold, I seized a few pieces of the confetti and tucked them into my jacket pocket. Just in case I need them again some day.