Hosts and Guests


Sunday was my last full day in Brussels. I was sitting at Matt's computer doing my email when he walked in to say good morning. We began discussing what we'd do on my last day, and I felt compelled to ask him if I'd been an OK guest.

He frowned for a moment, then nodded. "You've been an OK guest," he said, emphasizing the "OK" while looking away. Then he looked right at me. "You're not the easiest person to live with."

I frowned and nodded myself. I already knew this. At this point in my life I generally find other people hard to live with, and I figure it must work both ways. I'm very habituated to living alone, to managing my money, my space, my stuff and my time as I see fit. I first did it when I was 23, after my mission (which involved as little privacy as possible--you're allowed to use the bathroom on your own, but the rest of your time is supposed to be spent in the presence of an assigned partner, so you have fewer opportunities to break the rules). The parents of one of my friends in Tucson had a studio apartment they offered to rent me, and it seemed like a good place to live while I finished my bachelor's degree. I was surprised at how much I liked living alone. Yes, I was often lonely, but there are many, many worse things in life than loneliness, and one of them is sharing a kitchen with someone who never does the dishes, either properly or at all.

While thinking about these matters, I asked Matt if he had ever lived alone. He said he'd had his own room in the dorms in college, but we agreed that's not really living alone. Among my friends and family are what seem to me a remarkable number of people who have reached the age of 35 never having lived alone, or having lived alone in a small apartment for a year or two after college, before they move in with a significant other.

Whereas out of my 42 years on this planet, I've lived alone for 16 of them, and over eight of those years were spent not merely in an apartment but a house, so I had a yard to myself as well.

When Elizabeth Bennet (the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, for anyone unfortunate enough not to recognize that name) and her aunt visit the ladies at Pemberly one afternoon, it becomes clear to Caroline Bingley that Darcy admires Elizabeth. Jealous and upset, Miss Bingley makes a nasty comment about Elizabeth's appearance. Having failed to goad Darcy into declaring Elizabeth unattractively coarse and changed beyond recognition, Miss Bingley then complains that Elizabeth's nose lacks character while her complexion lacks brilliancy, adding, "in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency without fashion which is intolerable." I am sure there is considerable self-sufficiency in my air; I hope it is not entirely intolerable, but no doubt it's part of what makes me hard to live with. At least I can comfort myself with the fact that these days it's not unfashionable to be rather self-sufficient.

I like other people; I like them quite a lot. I think I'm capable of great loyalty and I try to be a generous and compassionate friend. But I also really like solitude, and I really like being in control of my time, my money, my space and my stuff. This is one reason I have often said that were I ever to marry, I would find it ideal to live next door to my husband, or perhaps share a big house with separate households in different wings or on different floors. That way we'd see each other easily enough but we wouldn't have to ask each other where the scissors are because we'd each have our own pair, in our own office. I know that seems like a mundane example of how it's inconvenient to share space with another human being, but the thing about living with someone is that it IS mundane--it's what you do every single day: accommodate the most quotidienne needs and demands of another human being.

When you're a host or a guest you do the same thing, but for a few days or weeks, instead of a few years or decades.

You could not ask for more generous or accommodating hosts than Matt and Leo. They feed me better than I feed myself. They go out of their way to amuse me. They take me places. They spend time with me and also leave me time to myself. They have a lovely home and make me very comfortable in it.

I try to be a reasonable guest: I try to minimize my requests; I try not to spend too much time in the bathroom (though it does take a long time to wash my hair); I try to do what I can for myself without being intrusive or demanding--for instance, I'll make tea for myself, because I can do that with a minimum of fuss, but I haven't insisted that anyone show me how to work the espresso machine. I am happy to let my hosts go off to the gym and leave me at home to blog (though I should really be doing some preparation for teaching--in less than 48 hours, I'll be back in the classroom).

But the fact still remains that I know darn good and well that however happy I am to have someone come visit me, I am also glad when s/he leaves and I get my space and my routine back. And I know Matt and Leo feel the same way about me--and I don't just come for a weekend, either; because it's so expensive to fly from the states and because Matt is one of my dearest friends, I always come for a week or two. And I know it's because Matt loves me that he lets me be his guest for so long, even though I'm hard to live with.

Which really does make me lucky, lucky, lucky.

Read about the rest of my trip in Someplace High in Paris, Il Neige, I Went: Europe, and Happy Thanksgiving. Get the details on coming home in Welcome Home.


I have often wished I could stand to live alone, but my experiences with it made me so lonely and depressed that I made some unwise liaisons with women to escape it. Even when I was divorced after seven years of hard time, and I thought it would be so nice to have my own time to read, write, and do what I wanted, I found it so depressing that I was remarried within less than a year, which has fortunately worked out extremely well this time. Holly, sometimes I feel wimpy compared to you . . .

I don't know that it's a question of wimpiness--maybe just temperament. I've often wished I could stand to live with people. But I really only do well with it in small doses.

Holly, it's not that unusual, either. The last I heard, author Robert Parker still lived in one house, his wife in another; they seem to have sustained a loving marriage for many, many years that way.

I have a friend whose marriage has worked better than it might because although her husband mostly lives with her in her house, he goes off a couple of times a week to his house, and she's very happy to have the solitude.

I think ... it depends. I first lived without another person in the house at the age of 40. I'm fine with my own company; it's other circumstances that make it difficult.
(I don't count the cat, which is rather rude of me, especially since I'd be really unhappy without him.)

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on November 27, 2005 11:59 PM.

Il neige was the previous entry in this blog.

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