Life Lessons

Joyeux Noël

A few weeks ago I wrote about my experiences being alone during the holidays. Since then, I’ve fielded a barrage of questions: Are you really spending the holidays alone-alone? In Paris? Alone? Are you okay? I want to reiterate that: (1) Yes, I really am spending the holidays alone-alone in Paris; and (2) I’m just fine with that.

Now, I’d be lying if I said being alone never makes me sad. Of course it can be hard walking around a city like Paris with its twinkling lights, its enchanting window displays, its street vendors selling crêpes and vin chaud, all the while watching happy families bedecked in holiday cheer, but the fact is people can experience sadness whether they’re alone or surrounded by familiars. And honestly, once those glimmers of sadness pass, for the most part, I find I’m looking forward to it.

Letters to Père Noël

In the last few weeks I’ve also realized that I’m not alone in being alone; there are countless people who are spending this holiday season alone, some who have stumbled upon this blog. So I thought I’d offer some concrete advice because if there’s one thing in this world I know how to do well it’s move through this world solo. 

The first crucial step is to make a decision right now about how you’ll spend this time and then do it. I’m not talking about magical thinking, aka: if you visualize it it will happen. That’s too touchy-feely for me. No, I’m talking about having an actual plan. A plan will make the time feel less overwhelming and will help distract you from the sadness.

It’s understandable that you might sorry for yourself — we live in a world that assumes a person who is alone on the holidays is a tragic figure — but it’s best to try and not drown in those feelings. If you need to have a good cry, cry (I’ve been there; I was there just this morning) and then use your plan to help you get out of it. 

Instead of wallowing in our state of solitude, I’m going to encourage us to indulge in it, to see being alone during the holidays as a good thing whether we chose it or not. One of the first things we all need to learn is that being alone at any time of year is not a sign of failure. It is not a character flaw, in spite of the fact that many in the world view it that way. Yes, there are plenty of people who are alone who are unhappy, but there are also plenty of people who aren’t alone who are unhappy as well. So let’s just reject the premise that being alone is inherently catastrophic and get on with our lives as soloists.

Window Display at BHV Department Store

To help us get started with our plan, let’s think of the things we won’t be doing. We won’t be stuck in a room with partners we’ve grown to loathe; overly-critical parents; or with our racist Uncle Balthazar, listening to him drunkenly rave about how “Trump is gonna build that wall,” while we silently stare at the clock and eat soggy creamed onions and overcooked green beans. And we also won’t be sleeping on an air-mattress or on the fold-out sofa in the living room (because that’s where the soloist gets to sleep) or bombarded with questions like: “Why are you still single? Tick tock, tick tock!” (because of course the most interesting thing about a soloist is figuring out the solution to help them no longer be solo).

Here’s what I know: It is wonderful when we have people to spend the holidays with, especially people we love, but for me (and for many of you) this isn’t always an option. People are alone for a wide-range of reasons. These reasons don’t make you a lesser person.

Maybe you’re alone because you recently had a relationship end in a painful way. Awesome! You don’t have to spend your hard-earned money (let alone your hard-earned time) with that asshole or that asshole’s family. Maybe your kids went off to college and are spending the holidays skiing with their college friends. Wonderful! You won’t get stuck with a semester’s worth of unwashed socks and underwear. Maybe you’re alone because your loved ones live halfway around the world and getting to them is too challenging. Fantastic! You won’t get trapped during a blizzard in an airport full of screaming children and grumpy holiday travelers. Maybe you’re alone because you’re on sabbatical in Paris. Dude. It’s Paris. Do I really need to explain that to you?

Or maybe you’re alone simply because the circumstances in your life mean that this is a year that you’re alone for any number of reasons. In fact, there doesn’t have to be a reason (or if there is a reason, you don’t have to share it). Maybe the only thing that needs to be said is that you’re alone. Full stop.

Regardless of the why, which is irrelevant at this moment, I imagine some feelings of anxiety are creeping in for some of you. What to do?

First, repeat after me: You are under no obligation to accept any invitation you get just because you are alone. This is especially true of the “pity invitation” you might get from someone only after they find out you’re alone (or the “potty invitation,” as my friend A, who will also be spending the holidays alone, called it the other day, though I think he was on his second beer of the evening when he said it). Go if you want to go, if you think you’ll have a good time, but if you imagine yourself standing in the corner in a room full of strangers, dreaming about watching Hallmark movies in the bathtub, I fully support your decision to stay home. I have done just that and never regretted it once. I am more worthy than anyone’s potty. We soloists don’t need to prove anything to anyone.

Window Display — Printemps Haussmann

Now I know there are people who are saying, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. There are people in the world who have it worse than you.” This is undoubtedly true, but I will also respond with, “Piss off.” Being lonely is a real thing. Love may not be as basic a need as food, shelter, water, or safety, but it is a genuine need. The greatest source of human happiness comes from our relationships with others, and the struggles that a person can feel when facing life alone are real. Yes, helping those less fortunate can make us appreciate our own lives, but that shouldn’t be the sole reason we do it.

Volunteering is a great option, but rather than volunteering during the holidays (when places are overrun with people spreading goodwill) I would encourage you to spend time researching a place you might want to volunteer the other 364 days of the year. In the end, volunteer to help others because it is simply a wonderful thing to do, not because you think it will prove a point to naysayers or magically erase your feelings of loneliness.

The truth is, there is no magical solution. Spending the holidays alone can be challenging, even for an expert like me. Please realize it’s taken me years of being alone to get to this place. If it helps, you have my permission to ignore the holidays entirely. This isn’t always easy, as banks, restaurants, and shops are often closed, but from one perspective, a holiday is just another day — a made-up human construction with made-up human connotations — that doesn’t have to mean anything. 

Window Display — Printemps Haussmann

That said, I think a better thing (and a more fun thing) to do is reclaim the day. Here’s my 4-step plan:

Step One: Decorate. I personally love a Christmas tree and can stare at the lights for hours. Of course this year I don’t have any decorations with me and don’t really feel like buying a bunch of ornaments that I’ll just toss in a few weeks. So I got creative and made a tree out of an empty wine bottle and a cheap garland I found at a department store. It makes me happy. Improvise when you have to, a handsaw is an excellent investment to trim unwanted branches, and don’t be afraid to ask strangers for help hauling a 6-foot tree up the stairs.

Step Two: Buy your own damn presents. Ever have to grin through opening a bunch of gifts that you know will eventually make their way to the Goodwill? Well this year Santa Claus knows exactly what you want, and he doesn’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice. Think of the money you’re saving not flying across the country, preparing a meal for 25 people, or buying presents for a partner/children/extended family, and then buy yourself something special. Now is not the time to be practical. Bonus points if it sparkles or is made from Italian leather. Wrap your gifts and put them under/beside/on top of whatever creative decorations you came up with in Step One.

Window Display — Galeries Lafayette

Step Three: Eat. Today you’re not allowed to count calories (remember that those people stuck with racist Uncle Balthazar are going to binge eat a 3,500 calorie beige-colored meal, so you can pretty much eat whatever you want). If you like mashed potatoes, make them with butter and heavy cream. If you like Oreos, eat the whole package. If you like ice cream, get a spoon and dig in. Milk Duds and popcorn? Go for it. Get thee to the store and buy whatever you want. You aren’t required to take a polite portion of Aunt Petunia’s ambrosia salad or to force yourself to eat dried-up turkey when you’re not that big a fan in the first place. You’re an adult, and you can eat whatever you want to eat.

This year, because I’m in Paris, I had fun exploring my neighborhood market — selecting chocolate and champagne and cheese and salted caramels and caviar and blinis and an assortment of whipped fish that I think I’m supposed to spread on blinis.

Step Four: Relax. This is your day. You aren’t getting stressed out having to host a party. You aren’t going to have to sit at a table avoiding talking about politics. You aren’t going to argue with your significant other about money/family/children/how much tinsel to put on the tree. You aren’t going to have to answer all of those questions about why you’re still single/childless/living in a rental apartment/underemployed. You won’t have to respond to those sympathetic comments about why your marriage fell apart.

The only mess you’ll have to clean up today will be your own.

You can do whatever you want. Go to a movie. Go for a run. Read an entire book in one sitting (I highly recommend: Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis). Read a pile of trashy magazines. Take a nap. Paint your toenails purple. Dance in your kitchen to bad 80s pop music. Open another bottle of champagne. Take a two-hour bubble bath. Binge watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer because it is, like, the best TV show ever.

Noël dans les étoiles

Bonus Step Five: If, in the end, you’re still feeling lonely, reach out to someone you know. I guarantee that there is someone out there who is willing to talk to you. I even once had a two-hour phone conversation with a bored radio DJ (that led to a date, just one date, but that is another story). And if you can’t think of anyone to contact, message me or leave a comment below. I promise that I’ll respond, champagne in hand.

So whether you’re with the people you love or with your fabulous self, Happy Chanukah/Kwanzaa/Christmas/Solstice/Festivus-for-the-rest-of-us, dear Wanderers! 

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8 thoughts on “Joyeux Noël

  1. I haven’t read all of this yet but feel the need to comment RIGHT NOW that you will probably be sleeping on either a pull-out couch or an air mattress @ my place, lol!! and you’re not really alone for the holidays, you’ll soon be w/us (yay!), just alone on the key dates.

    1. Ha! I know that! But it’s not like you’re having ten people visit and I get stuck with the pull-out because I’m the solo. I get the pull-out because there aren’t any other options. Unless I sleep on your balcony 🙂

      We’ll be together near the holidays, that sound right?

      It’s funny, though, because I was telling a woman at the pub I go to that I’m I’ll be alone on Christmas but then visiting you for a few days between Christmas & New Year’s but that when I roll back into Paris alone on NYE I’ll probably just go to bed because WHO CARES about doing something on NYE? I felt so old. (Maybe I’ll get a second wind and head out to repeat our New Year’s in Paris 2000, but it’s doubtful!)

      I should also add that one of the worst weeks of my life (as a soloist) was a week I spent totally alone between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I had friends over on Christmas Day (after spending Christmas Eve alone) and then literally didn’t talk to a single person I knew until I saw a friend briefly on NYE (everyone was out of town or just busy with their families). It was horrible.

  2. I like the term “soloist.” Feeling a little nostalgic now for my soloist days! And oh, how I remember the incredible relief that came with the realization that it didn’t matter if I did or didn’t have THE BEST TIME EVER on New Year’s Eve. The first time I went to bed early on New Year’s Eve (alone in a small town in Morocco where no one celebrated), I thought I would be sad, but it was actually delicious!

    Merry Christmas, my friend. I’m sure we’ll be in touch again before the start of 2018!

    1. Hillis uses the terms “live-aloners” in her book, to combat the notion that the person who is alone is an “extra,” someone that even well-intentioned friends and family members simply don’t know what to do about. She reminds the reader that others are not obligated to include you in their life, and I agree but also think that should apply both ways!

      I like the idea of being a soloist in one’s own life (I can’t imagine that I came up with the term, but it seems to work for what I was writing). For me it makes a life alone into something positive, even empowering. Isn’t it amazing how great things are once you push aside the expectation that anything has to happen on any given day? (To paraphrase your comment in my last post, when you say, “Fuck society and all its expectations!”) I’m so glad you suggested that book (though I did decide to read Hillis’s first, before the one you suggested — I can’t believe I’ve never read her before).

      I’m sure we’ll be in touch before 2018 — and I KNOW we’ll be seeing each other soon in Venice. Happy Christmas! xo

  3. I will be spending the holiday alone. I accomplished my goal of getting up early and going to the supermarket to get enough food that I won’t be wanting. I have steak and brussels for tomorrow night, along with a really expensive bottle of wine that my boss gave me and a choice of chocolate eclairs or apple blossom pastry for dessert.

    I bought myself a new bag, and am planning to go see an early movie while everyone else is opening presents. I am excited at the prospect of either not leaving my sofa, or maybe leaving my sofa and going to make pottery. Having also Tuesday off, I could just do nothing until then. But then again…

    But this is one of the first years, in along time, that I don’t feel alone, even though I am alone.

    1. This sounds like an outstanding day! I popped out early this morning for a quiet walk and decided to stop by the Monoprix to get an extra bottle of champagne…just in case. I like the idea of having a plan but leaving myself open to doing whatever I want. There’s something luxurious in doing very little on a day where there’s often a lot of chaos. (In fact today I’ve done just that — already watched one movie and am torn between a nap or a second walk….)

      I will be around tomorrow, of course, if you need/want a chat. Happy Holidays to my fellow soloist — I’m glad you’re not feeling alone this year 🙂

  4. This is beautiful, TJ.

    I know you’re going to be having a wonderful Christmas on your own in Paris, though I’m rather sad that you won’t be here to make huevos rancheros for us. (You will be next year, I hope!) Maybe we can talk via Skype on Christmas–or shortly thereafter when Brad and I will be in Mexico. We miss you so much!

    1. Oh, thank you! I’m finding lots of hidden corners to explore in Paris.

      I miss you guys, too! Let’s definitely try and talk in the next few days — I’ll be in Switzerland for a couple of days, but we can always talk on WhatsApp (not sure I’m bringing my laptop with me). Have fun in Mexico!

      Having Christmas brunch with the two of you (and any other stragglers who might find their way to the table) is one of my favorite ways to spend the day. Hopefully next year we’ll do just that from our new duplex (or, alternatively, I’ll be living in your basement with my mothball-infused clothing and we’ll have brunch at my dining-room table 🙂 )

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