It’s evening by the time I get home but you wouldn’t know it from the slow declension of the summer sun; seven o’clock and she’s still dripping away, transmuting into darkness. I’ve spent the day exploring Göteborg (or Gothenburg) the first of my two Swedish cities. I’ve traveled to Göteborg, on the Western coast of Sweden, from Frederikshavn, a small city on the Northeastern tip of Denmark.
My arrival in Sweden is a mixture of sunlight and mist.
I leave Denmark in the grey wolfish fog that obscures those definitive demarcations from one hour to another, causing them to fuse and reform into one endless precipitate of time to come. I’m traveling by ship, my favorite mode of transport, and while I start the journey basking in the smell of salt, eventually I retreat to the bowels of the boat, huddled in my own little corner. I never feel safer than in the ribs of a ship. When I resurface from the belly of the whale the harbor is glowing. A parade formed by the long shadows of dinosaurs, still cranes and hooks from Göteborg’s former epoch as a shipbuilding city, offer me their salutations: Welcome to Sweden.
Göteborg is a sweet city. Old train stations, winding canals, island forts, a synagogue (of course, food carts, a lovely theatre and opera house, it feels like one of those small cities I’ve begun to discover more and more: urban nooks and crannies, gems dwarfed by the renown of their older siblings but perhaps all the more precious for it. Göteborg reminds me of the university towns I’ve spent the latter half of my adult life living in.
One of the major attractions of Göteborg is the Liseberg Amusement Park. At the heart of Liseberg lies the dreaded drop: AtmosFear. A drop tower is one of those rides that looks like a giant disco-stick (or obelisk if we want to be fancy about it) to the sky that a bunch of insane people get cranked to the top of and then dropped down from while trying not to pee their pants. AtmosFear is the largest drop in Europe, dropping riders from a height of 90m or 300ft. Clearly, this was something I needed to do.
I’d planned to go with my host but at last minute found myself holding a single ticket and only an hour or so of daylight left to go to the park. I’ve done a lot of things by myself but going to an amusement park alone? That just felt so counterintuitive to my whole image of the place. I’d grown up going to these kinds of parks with my dad: from Dorney Park to Hershey to Busch Gardens to Six Flags, these were our stomping grounds. There are photos from almost every year of my childhood at these places; photographic tree rings that show my maturation through the years. My dad indoctrinated me into the coaster cult when I was young and I have never looked back since. I adore amusement park rides—roller coasters, drops, anything that shakes you around like a child trying to figure out what’s inside their Christmas presents. But, even when these spins and loops started to make him go a little green in the face, my dad was still there, watching and smiling, someone to look to and wave at as I went round and round. That was always the thing. No matter how high up I went, or how fast they spun me around, I could always spot him in a crowd, all sunglasses and a toothy grin, happy to see me so happy. Even when I was on the ride alone I was never alone.
So I hesitated: stay in or make a mad dash to get to the park?
I arrived at the glowing gates of Liseberg and took a winding myriad of stairs and escalators into the hollow boarding area at the base of the tower. Then I did what all empires have done since the dawn of time: I rose and I fell.
Retrospectively, and I say retrospectively because at the time it felt like an eon, there’s a brief moment, when you reach the pinnacle of the tower and you simply sit, legs dangling out over the abyss below, all of Göteborg a carpet just below the reach of your feet. Just as you’ve acclimated to being so high, just as you come to enjoy this suspended survey post, you fall. And fall. And fall. And fall. It was so sudden that, much like the Edward Munch painting, I could only open my mouth to scream but no sound emerged. We fell for so long I had to time to think to myself “Surely we’re not still going?” And then the harnesses released, us a flock of slightly frazzled and dazed beasts, back into the wilds of the park. Shaking from the adrenaline of the ride, I wandered along the glowing boulevards of this strange fabrication of a city, coated in the fluorescent warmth of my childhood summers.
If you ever want to be simultaneously charmed by the magic of the world whilst being reminded that you are the last single person on earth, I highly recommend going to an amusement during a summer evening by yourself.
I’m single. This is nothing new, I’ve been single the vast majority of my life, something that has proved an inexplicable object of fascination for family, friends, and strangers alike. And for most of my life, my God did I hate it. There is no surer way to experience social pariahism than to be a single woman. For across the annals of history, from Bushwick to Babylon, there ain’t nothing that threatens the established paradigms of society more than a single gal (and if that’s not a reflection on the fragility of a male dominated social structure I don’t know what is.)
For years and years and years I loathed myself for it. I felt like the long lost member of some traveling freakshow, out of place because I wasn’t reaching the same standard relationship checkpoints as everyone else running the race. I remember being fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, etc. and thinking to myself what is wrong with me? What do I lack? What is it about me that no one wants?
Everyday involved a ritual dissection of all my imperfections, everything about myself that made me an impossible choice. So many years at war, coming home from yet another day of battle to have no one but myself to contend with made me feel like I was dissipating. I also called it being a teenager. Why did I hate being alone so much then? Why was I so afraid to just be with myself? I used to think that in order to be lovable you had to be loved but loved in a very specific way: by an external force that, unlike your family, was under no obligation to love you. And, for far too long, I bought and sold myself the myth that while I was respected and liked that I was an inherently unlovable thing. That there were people in this world who are made to be loved and others that aren’t, and that I was a firm member of the latter category.
And like most self-fulfilling prophecies, I found proof of this belief everywhere I looked. I found it not only in my aloneness but reflected back at me in that image of the many, many powerful women I admire. For across countries, colors, and experiences, all these great women of myth and history seemed to share one common trait: they were all single ladies.
All the great titans were alone ad infinitum or had marriage after marriage that broke apart—an attempt to rally against their inevitable singularity. These great, glorious grand dames of my life, no romantic relationship could survive their heat. Can you be an icon and have a partner? Are we red planets? Bursting with flames? Are we suns? Sure we’re necessary for life and growth and warmth and creativity and plenty of planets are attracted to us but if you get too close we’ll burn you to a crisp.
My mother gave me a copy of Wendy Wasserstein’s play The Heidi Chronicles when I was seventeen. I saw a production of it four years later in my final year of college. And what gut punched me so much is how this forty-year-old play was still right about women. In the play, there is a sort of will they won’t they between the two characters of Heidi and Scoop. They meet in their twenties, sleep together, and then remain friends for the ensuing decades. And it seems pretty clear to everyone externally and internally involved with the play that they belong together. And yet they’re not. There’s a moment, at Scoop’s wedding, which of course Heidi is at, and which is not to Heidi, where they confront the reason why they’re not together.
SCOOP: No, you don’t. But I can explain. Let’s say we married and I asked you to devote the, say, next ten years of your life to me. To making me a home and a family and a life so secure that I could with some confidence go out into the world each day and attempt to get an “A”. You’d say “No.” You’d say, “Why can’t we be partners? Why can’t we both go out into the world and get an “A?” And you’d be absolutely valid and correct.
HEIDI: But Lisa….
SCOOP: “Do I love her,” as your nice friend asked me? She’s the best that I can do. Is she an “A+” like you? No. But I don’t want to come home to an “A+”. “A-” maybe, but not an “A+.”
This is the conversation that keeps me up at night.
I’m an A+. Perhaps, that seems obnoxious, or arrogant but I don’t buy into any of the narratives of selfhood that use humility as a guise for perpetuating oppressive low self-esteem. I hold myself in the highest regards. I am, if I do say so myself, pretty fucking awesome.
This is not a confidence that came easily to me but one I had to claw and fight for across many years of my life. It has taken more bad choices than I care to count or remember to come to the ultimate conclusion that I am good enough exactly as I am. But am I too good? Is the price for the secret Sea Witch’s contract for self-confidence, that in order to love myself fully there can’t ever be anyone who matches it? Is the price for a life of independence, of self-love, of being an ‘A+’ to be alone?
I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But I think there’s a more important question underneath: So what if it is?
In Kate Bolick’s book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, she examines the burden of this societal inheritance every woman is born into:
“You are born, you grow up, you become a wife. But what if it wasn’t this way? What if a girl grew up like a boy, with marriage an abstract, someday thought, a thing to think about when she became an adult, a thing she could do, or not do, depending? What would that look and feel like?”
There are more spelling binding quests to be occupied by. As women we’re taught that our greatest fear in this world should be to end up alone. That, above all other things, is the demarcation of a failed life (just for women, this connotation does not hold for men.) So we bend and twist and cut away at all the best parts of ourselves, sacrificing whatever we must just to prevent this fate. We will do anything to avoid being alone. But loneliness is not innate to being alone.
As I traveled through Sweden I may have been alone but I was never lonely. In Göteborg I wandered into a random shop and not only stayed until closing time but came back the next morning to have Fika with the Swedish/Jamaican couple that ran the store. In Stockholm I stayed with the friend of a friend and we made breakfast and tea, arranged her paintings, visited Stockholm’s oldest sex shop, played on an actual playground, spent the whole night surrounded by new friends for us both as we danced our hearts out to Bad Romance, and seriously debated the merits of going skinny dipping in a nearby lake at the crack of dawn.
And even when I wasn’t with any person in particular, I carried my tribe with me. In Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki I found myself intrigued and delighted by the work of Yayoi Kusama, a feminist powerhouse artist of both the pop art and abstract expressionist movements. In the Stockholm Modern Art Museum I combed through the rooms of her work—the exhibit a curated biography—and happened upon a series of letters she wrote to another female artist very early on her career. She wrote a letter to this woman she admired, seeking her advice and encouragement. The woman wrote her back. What followed was a correspondence and a friendship that would go on for years. In an interview with The Guardian Kusama credits the generosity of this woman’s words with giving her the courage to leave Japan, her home, her family, everything she knew and to go to New York, as a foreign female painter, and to pursue her dreams. The woman who reached out, whose own works so inspired Kusama? None other than the great Georgia O’Keeffe herself.
I love being alone. I think I always did. You see, it wasn’t being by myself that caused me all those hours of heartache and tears—it was how I knew the world regarded me for being alone, for reveling in my solitude. I cherish my solitude because I cherish myself. I cherish myself so deeply and so firmly that I won’t give myself up for the sake of company. I’m one of my favorite people. But the people I do choose, the ones I choose because I want them, because they enrich my already shimmering life, they are immense.
I love people. I love my friends, the glorious strangers I have met along the way, and those encounters I have yet to have. All through this current epoch of singledom my life has been enriched with more precious friendships than all the gold under the Lonely Mountain. Maybe I don’t have a partner but I do have a tribe that stretches from here to Kathmandu, a tribe of the best, most inventive, adventurous, and bold men and women and non gender conforming people a gal could ever wish for. And maybe that’s what’s taken me all these years to figure out about The Heidi Chronicles—-it was never about Heidi and Scoop, it was about the life Heidi went on living anyway, it was about her friendships and the way the shaped and transformed, all these individuals coming together to form this narrative. Much like the city of Stockholm itself.
Stockholmare (people from Stockholm) are the people of the archipelago—a city comprised of fourteen tiny islands and communities, masses of land and individuals combining together to form this beautiful city of water and white. While the journey was mine alone, every step of my trip here was shared. In seeking out the world on my own I found myself. And enshrined in that discovery was the catalogue of people that have graced the book of my life. In being alone, in loving myself so comfortably, I rediscovered all the love that had been around me always.
Every year around Christmas time my mother and I make our annual pilgrimage to New York. We go to one of our favorite museums, comb Bryant Park, smile up at the tree, fantasize at the Tiffany display windows, and a light a candle in St. Patrick’s. This year, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t there to do any of that with her. At first, my mother understood my absence to mean that she wouldn’t be making the trip at all. After all, it was something we did together, it would be far too painful to be by herself without anyone to share it with. After many conversations and encouragement, I finally convinced her that this year, this first Christmas apart, there was no greater present I could give her then to convince her to make our trip for the both of us by herself. And she did. It was scary and a little bit sad, but it was also joyful and empowering. The trip wasn’t about me not being there because I was. I occupy a great many of the gorgeous vellum food stained pages of my mother’s book, just as she occupies a great many in mine. Because of that, of those shared sheets etched in the ink of lives, wherever she goes, wherever I go, together or apart, we’ve no cause to ever be lonely.
The one, the only, the singular is a powerful thing—we’re the only people that have to spend our whole lives with ourselves. So having a vested interested in actually liking the person you are is pretty crucial. We have to be happy with being alone. Because only if we’re happy alone can we ever begin to be happy with other people. Whether you choose to have a partner or three or embrace the life of a girl bachelor, you have to choose yourself first and foremost, you have to choose yourself.
Celebrate the glory of being alone. Do things alone. Go to museums and plays and restaurants alone. Go to the familiar and the unfamiliar; travel across the world or down your block. Embrace the absolute necessity of being alone. You are the founder of your own tribe and on this walk that is your one life, you are the only pioneer who has got to take every step.
Sweden is: red ochre from copper mills, vodka wars, fried herring and reindeer steak, waterways that smell like watermelon, taking ferries the way you take a bus, twisting bridges, eating bananas on forts, infinite nets, drop towers, and Viking ships. Sweden is Kate Bolick’s question: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?