"Oh, you're living alone again," a friend commented recently when she learned that my roommate had moved to a new locale. Some years ago I had formulated a good answer to that question, and I found myself drawing on it to respond to my friend. "No," I replied, pausing to be sure I had her full attention. "I'm not living alone, I'm living with myself." She looked at me quizzically, then smiled. Without further explanation, she got the message.
Her comment brought to mind the other time I had "lived alone." Granted it was only for six months, but it was during that time that I learned the difference between living alone and living with one's self - and it's not just a matter of semantics.
I had moved to the city by myself to accept a new job. My abode was a room in an old ivy-covered, four-story rooming house, one of the last to survive the condo conversions that had been sweeping the city of Boston.
Somehow I knew on my first night alone in my large single room in the weathered brownstone that I was setting the stage for the coming days and weeks. I knew that there was an art to living with myself, just as there was an art to living with a friend or family.
I would become the guest in my own quarters: the one who walked through the door in the evening to be greeted by a made bed or an unmade bed, dishes in the sink or dishes washed and put away. The choice was mine.
On my way home after work the first afternoon, I couldn't resist buying a small bouquet from a street vendor. As I walked along, clutching my bouquet and enjoying the lingering warmth of the early fall sun, I felt energized and purposeful. My sudden immersion into temporary independence gave me a feeling of euphoria that surprised me. I viewed the mums in my hand as a celebratory token of my courage at taking this huge step into a new-old city - not by myself, but with myself.
I put the key into the lock of the brownstone's front door, and let myself into the entryway that opened to the foyer with its fireplace and chairs. Even the climb up four flights of stairs couldn't dampen my spirits. After I slipped off my coat, I placed the mums in a jar I found in the scantily furnished cupboard and set them on the table. They added a cheeriness to my otherwise dreary surroundings, and I was glad I bought them.
After dinner I washed the dishes in warm soapy water and wiped carefully around the sink, gestures indicating the standard of cleanliness I was to maintain. Then I settled into the worn wing chair to relax and read the newspaper before tackling the chore of arranging my possessions in their new environment. I soon discovered that my new style of living called for a retrofitting of homemaking habits to accommodate a work schedule.
Today, as I resume living with myself in a rural setting after the departure of my roommate, I'm finding that with more space around me - two living rooms, large hallways both upstairs and down, and two more-than-ample bedrooms, I need to constantly curb the tendency to spread out.
"Oh, I'll sort through the mail later on," I think as I toss it in an unruly pile on the hall table. "The dishes can wait in the sink until I have enough time to make it really worthwhile to wash them." The arguments are legion and not always subtle. I am having to learn the discipline of living with myself all over again.
In my present home, if I don't pick up after myself I can always enter a room that's pristine - the guestroom. I enjoy opening the door and looking at two neatly made beds, an uncovered expanse of carpeting, large dresser with its bouquet of silk flowers, Cape Cod desk, and easy chair.
Ah, but what's that on the second dresser? Oh, yes, a few recently purchased gifts, neatly tucked under a towel, a hint at how household sprawl gets started.
I quickly close the bedroom door, vowing, as I do, that I'll not place another item on that dresser top - until Christmas is over, that is. Thereafter the guestroom will remain uninhabited by transient collections, however justified. It will be a shining example of my revived resolve.
But, with no one around to be accountable to, I was appalled at the ease with which I lapsed into actions that denoted a low regard for myself. The same principles that applied when my roommate was here needed to be invoked, I thought.
Even as I write these words, I remember that I am worthy of an ordered environment and capable of maintaining one. I'm on my way to proving that I have not forgotten the lesson I learned while a city dweller living with myself for six months.
By the time the New Year rolls around, my refreshed concept will be firmed up and in good working order. I'll only have to resolve to keep it that way.
I owe it to myself to do just that.