I’ve been pondering this question lately, prompted by a number of posts about single life on the Advantages of Age group.
I was particularly struck by the post on Bella DePaulo’s book, Singled Out – How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatised and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. Also, the topic was already on my mind because last year I started writing a memoir. It’s about a life lived alone, almost entirely without a family or a partner.
Growing up, my father lived on the other side of the world and my lovely mother (5ft-nothing, bright and resourceful) was often absent, by virtue of being severely mentally ill. Running wild at 10 years old, I was sent to boarding school. When I was 15, my mother began an unprecedented 22 years in care. But that’s another story.
At boarding school, friends’ parents generously invited me to spend the school holidays with them. When I left school after my ‘A’ Levels, I spent the summer living with my gang in a Ladbroke Grove squat, then took myself off to a new life at Goldsmiths’ College on the 36 bus.
I did manage a couple of relationships at university – weirdly opting for guys who turned out to have mental health problems. I had a number of short relationships throughout my 20s and early 30s. I had my heart broken twice (usual pattern was to fall head over heels for someone who didn’t feel the same way about me and grieve over the break-up for years after). Then, apart from what a friend memorably called my long term ‘non-relationship’, I just called it a day.
My father died when I was 24, my mum when I was 37. I don’t have any siblings. I don’t have children of my own, and I’ve never lived with a partner. I’m rarely in touch with my cousins. I guess in family terms, I’m about as alone as they come.
One good consequence of going to boarding school is that I made a handful of friends for life. I’ve known my best friend since I was 12 – and I’m fortunate to have other close friends (from that era and later) who feel like family.
I’ve never really missed having a family of my own, but I’ve always felt the need to connect. I started out as a journalist – I loved interviewing people and telling their stories. I moved into documentary film-making – always focusing on those who are usually ignored. In 2000, at the age of 38, I toured the Southern States of America with an advance to write a book about the death penalty. At 39, I did an MSc in Criminology & Criminal Justice at Oxford University. I stayed in Oxford and worked in Restorative Justice until 2005. Then, after failing to get work when I returned to London, I opened a shop selling Spanish arts, crafts and eventually tiles, which I distributed worldwide. In 2018, I closed the business, rented out my house and came to live in Spain, where I’ve owned an old ‘cortijo’ (cottage) since 1997.
Where others have had structure, I guess I’ve had freedom.
I did feel lonely while I was running the business. Working alone and living alone was a double-whammy, especially with the pressures of the company. I made friends through it but was often too tired to socialise.
Life as an older single woman in rural Spain can be a bit challenging too. The majority of English-speakers are retired couples – ‘Barbara and Brian’, ‘Martin and Jane’, ‘Judith and Bob’. You rarely hear a woman’s name spoken on its own. If you do, she’ll be a divorcee or a widow – I don’t know any older woman here without children and grandchildren. Spanish society is even more family-focused. And to the Moroccans, you are not even a woman unless you’re a mother!
I’ve never felt overt prejudice, indeed I have friends and acquaintances in each of these groups – I just get left out of things. With some honourable exceptions, it does seem that couples socialise exclusively with other couples, plus the occasional single man or woman who was married once.
You could get very lonely – and I certainly hated the feeling of being left out, to the extent of being relieved when the first lockdown started, so I couldn’t be. But I’ve never felt that not having a family (or job) means I have less value as a human being. And, as single people form a surprisingly large proportion of most Western societies, it’s surely time for us to be taken seriously, and for the discrimination to stop!
So, in the absence of a family, what does give my life meaning?
Firstly, connecting with diverse groups. I’ve always made friends with all sorts of people. I’ve travelled on my own since I was in my 30s and I cherish the connections I’ve been able to make with people all over the world. It works on a small scale, too. Recently, my day was completely rescued when I managed a friendly chat in Spanish with the local chemist followed by another with my Moroccan neighbours on the way home. Recently, in the absence of workmates, I’ve been connecting online. I take part in online ‘Cave Days’ – joining other freelancers (mostly in the USA) to work together on Zoom. And luckily, I do have some good friends locally – mainly older single guys, younger single women (English, German and Spanish) and the abovementioned honourable couples with whom I share mutual interests. Phew!
Secondly, music. I’ve always been passionate about roots reggae. During the first lockdown I made a Spotify reggae compilation for my UK friends. It went down well, so I developed it into an on-going series of youtube ‘world reggae’ compilations – the Lubrin Dub Club. I love researching new music to put on the playlists, and dream of finding a way to take this further.
Thirdly, nature. I go on fantastic walks, often by myself. A few weeks ago, I noticed a little path behind the mountain spring where I get my water and decided to follow it. It led to two beautiful fields with almond and olive trees, behind which were more fields and mountains. I made my way up through the fields, to see if there was another path into the mountains. After wading through the last field of freshly ploughed earth, I was rewarded with a tiny track leading up between two hills. I followed it until it was nothing more than the suggestion of itself, before it picked up again, leading down to the main track and a fantastic view of the sea. I have to admit I’ve rarely felt happier; in the warm February sun, miles from anywhere with just a few little wheatears flying around, wondering who the last person to walk there had been, lost in my thoughts. It was the best meditation.
These three things make my heart sing. But also important are the projects:
I’ve just finished developing and teaching an online Creative Writing course which was a success. It’s morphed into a fabulous little writers’ group, and now I’m back to my own writing – a blog, a memoir and shorter pieces – stories, and essays like this one. Memoir-writing has had unforeseen results: I’ve reconnected with old friends, one of whom introduced me to the Advantages of Age Group! Ironically, I’ve also found a Chinese ‘step’ family in the UK. My father’s life-partner was Chinese and writing about them has led me to her nieces and nephews who I knew as a child. It’s been exciting!
Using NotesinSpanish.com and language ‘intercambios’ with Spanish friends, I’m hoping to reach a level where I can interact more meaningfully with the Spanish population.
House & Garden Projects
I aim at a job a day. I like the way that small actions can lead to big results.
Volunteering and Helping Others
Before lockdown, I was teaching basic Spanish to Moroccan women in the village. I may be befriending an asylum seeker in London for a daily phone chat soon, and perhaps volunteering in Spain again when my Spanish is good enough.
Last but not least, there are always surprises to look forward to.
Reconnecting with my Chinese ‘step’ family was one surprise. Here are two more:
In 2016, I won a holiday to Jamaica!
And in 2019, a guy came to stay as a Workaway volunteer. After an uncertain start, we got on really well and it was lovely to have someone to bring in the wood, set the fire, get on with the DIY and share the food I made in return. I enjoyed the company, and missed him when he had to go. I don’t think we would have made a successful couple, but never say never!
A friend recently introduced me to a new concept, the ‘Security of Insecurity’. She said you can never relax when things are ‘perfect’ because you can be sure they won’t stay that way. When your life is more fluid, you know that anything can happen. Perhaps you’re more prepared for change. Surprises (and they do seem more plentiful of late) can be great, and they certainly keep me interested in life.
REQUEST FOR INTERVIEWEES: My memoir explores not just my own life, but those of other ‘family light’ women. I want to see whether there are common themes, and look into the future – what are our options for retirement/old age? I’m interested in co-communities (intentional communities) – my personal quest could be to find one outside London, in a diverse community with a good reggae dub club on the doorstep! Please message me if you’re willing to be interviewed, or have other information to offer. Thank you!