Lifestyle for One

My apartment smells of sautéed onions and fresh-minced garlic.

I love the smell. Not everyone would, but I do.

I also tend to fill my space with the fragrance of curries and peppers, or on the other end of the olfactory flavor wheel, hot oats and cinnamon. I cook these things liberally, gleefully glazing my meals with my preferred flavors throughout the day.

Sometimes my preparing/eating routine falls roughly into line with what might be considered standard dining habits, but very often they’re more in lockstep with the work I’m doing, or the book I’m reading. I’ll take a break from editing my podcast to start boiling potatoes. I’ll step away from an engrossing novel to do the preliminary washing and slicing and seasoning required for the dish I’ll be making in a few hours, when I’m hungry.

The smells associated with my meals align with my preferences, and so does the method of consumption.

I typically read a book, or listen to a podcast, or watch something on Netflix while eating. I consume while I consume, and in both cases, as intentionally as possible — I have a lot of pop-culture catching up to do.

I love that my meals are ‘boring,’ rather than social. I love that I have the opportunity to pace my day based on what I want to accomplish. I love that my space, my apartment, is custom-fitted for me and the work I do and the lifestyle I live, rather than for guests I might someday have, or someone else’s ideas of what a space should look like and contain.

It sounds horribly anti-social, I know. But that’s kind of a loaded term, isn’t it? Anti-social?

It implies that social is what we should aspire to be, while quite often ‘social’ gets in the way of what we really want to accomplish.

Why not ‘pro-self’? Individual-focused? Me-shaped?

There are immense benefits to having a good group of friends. People you can reach out to when you want a conversation and a beer. People you can discuss heady topics with when you’re feeling intellectually stopped-up. Folks who help you track time and make memories, sometimes by just being there.

But there are aspects of one’s development that can actually be stunted by an over-focus on socializing. Not being able to be alone — and to not just survive, but thrive, as an individual — seems like a limiting trait.

We’re all on a spectrum with this, of course, but it’s difficult to know where you actually belong until you’ve pushed your boundaries in both directions. Felt around for extremes so that you can more easily guide yourself to a healthy balance point.

Part of the inherent challenge in a lifestyle of travel, for me, has been putting myself out there, into the world, at the mercy of others, nothing fully within my control. It’s a social extreme, and one I’m glad I’ve experienced, and am glad I will continue to experience.

I’ve become good at it.

That said, I don’t know that I’m ever so tired as I am after an extended trip, during which I have little privacy and am incentivized by the situation to seek out new conversations and relationships to get the most out of my surroundings. Again, this is a super-valuable experience, and there are immense benefits to such an undertaking; but the loss of me-time, internal-time, mind-time, can be suffocating.

When I try to explain why I prefer to have a great deal of time alone, I often say that when I’m around people all day, every day, I feel like I can’t catch my breath…but with my thoughts. It’s like I’m mentally huffing and puffing, grasping and trying to hold onto the ideas and feelings and assessments I know are there, but which I can only seem to glimpse. It’s like I can never quite manage to take the deep, satiating mind-breath I crave.

There’s an immense liberty in living alone, in eating alone, in going to movies alone or having a coffee alone.

It’s also quite a privilege: in many places around the world and for many people in those places, it’s simply not a viable economic option to have one’s own space, one’s own kitchen, one’s own time to sit with a coffee and a book.

I treasure that I’m able to do this.

I also worry.

I worry that I’ll push too far to one extreme or the other. That I’ll injure existing relationships or miss out on potential new ones by cloistering myself too enthusiastically. I worry that at some point my me-shaped life will fail to sync with the world outside, and the mental adapters I’ve always used to bridge the gap will no longer allow me to transmit and traverse between them.

I worry that I’ll love it too much. That this focus will put other things, potentially valuable things, out of focus, to the point that I can no longer remember why I even considered them important.

I worry that I’ll unintentionally limit myself while trying to expand my internal horizons.

After years of bending on absolutely everything, choosing when and where and what you eat can be a revelation.

A lifestyle for one means having that feeling, but for everything.

Building a life that’s you-shaped can feel like putting on clothes that fit, after years of walking around wearing a sleeping bag.

But it’s important to maintain malleability, and to keep experimenting: with yourself, your life, and with others.

Life can be a balancing act — perhaps especially when it’s seemingly ideal.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

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