I got my own apartment when I was 24. It was the first place that was all my own.
She was an old unit on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue, charmed with white crown molding and a chestnut floor. I loved the claw foot bathtub, the heavy white kitchen cabinets. Outside the windows were dozens of old oak trees, with birds so loud they could wake me on summer mornings.
I could walk everywhere I needed — I could marvel at the mansions along Summit Avenue or stumble home from the Irish pubs at 2 a.m. I fell in love with the look of snow on Grand Avenue, and I would stand outside when it fell, soaking in the slowness.
I had lived with roommates my entire life, so being alone made me feel vulnerable. But that was the thing about my little apartment: I was never lonely. The hurt was the healing kind. Being alone in my new apartment felt just right.
I was single when I moved in and entering an awkward life stage. My friends were busy getting married and promoted. Some were buying homes and expensive cocktails and puppies and vacations. As for me, my career had taken an unexpected pivot and I was earning hardly any money. My new apartment rented for just $600 a month. I was grateful for that.
It was a mere 400 square feet, nearly the size of a walk-in fridge. When I opened the front door, I had to walk just six steps before crawling into bed for a good cry (I did a lot of crying when I lived alone). Yes, I was searching for that inner rose quartz (a fancy way of saying “life purpose”). I wanted companionship but dated bad men. I wanted to write but couldn’t find a subject. I desperately craved a reason for being.
Setting the mood for myself
As I learned to live in that tiny matchbox apartment, I also learned to live with my tiny matchbox self.
I learned to love certain things about the new place. I liked sitting alone on my gold-color couch, drinking wine and writing on my laptop. I liked listening to TV news while I cooked in my kitchen or (let’s be honest) mowed down Punch Pizza in bed with a red blend. On Sunday mornings, I loved watching steam rise from my coffee mug, the one that read: “Damn, I’m good.” The little apartment slowed me down and let me observe the world — and myself.
I created a new routine for myself. I fell in love with the hardware store down the street, walking through on a bad day and smelling its insides — the fertilizer, the tires. On Christmas, the store’s entrance was bedecked with opaque string lights. I bought a few strands and wound them around my bed frame so I could sleep in the glow.
That inspired me to further “set the mood” for myself. A living room corner became a place for certain things: a tree in a Mason jar, my address book, a vintage glass lamp, many books. I took to thrifting, filling the place with shabby-chic flair.
I never ate dinner at the kitchen table. Instead I ate dinner in bed and didn’t care, making my own rules as I went. I never made my bed. I liked coming home, knowing the mess would be my mess.
I wanted to know what it felt like to be naked in open space. One day I tried sleeping without pajamas for the first time, but I didn’t much like it. Another time I drank an entire glass of wine while standing naked in front of the mirror, staring at myself for the mere delight that I could.
That tiny apartment taught me the fundamentals of being alone. With my own sanctuary, I was free to explore my deepest pleasures, desires and dislikes. It taught me to create a hospitable environment for myself, where I could cultivate hobbies and find joy in doing nothing at all.
After three years of living alone, I started to love myself a little more — and I’ll always wonder whether that could’ve happened if hadn’t lived on my own. Living solo taught me to take control of my circumstances and live with them. It taught me to take responsibility for my own happiness.
Living with loneliness
Turns out, I’m not the only woman transformed by a tiny apartment. A close friend of mine lived alone for the first time after calling off her engagement. She moved to a studio on the outskirts of Uptown in south Minneapolis, near a bodega where we liked to buy grape Swishers. I visited often and watched the place become hers. Slowly, all the things she loved came out of boxes. The biggest shift came with her first home decor purchase: a bright red sign for the kitchen that read “Eat.”
When she moved out two years later, we stood together on the lawn with all her things. She looked up to her window on the third floor. “I went through a lot here,” she said.
The dark, dusty corners of that little apartment would always be with her.
Another friend spent much of her 20s traveling and living abroad. Coming home was hard. When she got her own apartment, right in the heart of Loring Park, it took a while to hang photos, to find a sense of normalcy.
Then one day all the photos were framed and displayed. She put out her crochet dish towels and curtains. She even created a green succulent garden out of ashtrays, seashells and teacups — all nurtured and growing limbs in her tiny kitchen. Life was moving forward. Bit by bit, the little apartment was working its magic.
Another friend moved from Burnsville to a downtown Minneapolis skyrise after ending an eight-year relationship. At first, she felt uncomfortable with being alone. But the busy neighborhood helped. She soon fell in love with sunsets over the Basilica of St. Mary and brunches at Eggy’s. Covering her walls with local art, she saw how that little apartment could be used to express herself, turning loneliness into self-love.
In Marjorie Hillis’ 1936 book “Live Alone and Like It: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman,” she perfectly sums up the power of living alone. “When you start to live alone, defiance is not a bad quality to have handy,” she wrote. “There will be moments when you’ll need it, especially if you’ve been somebody’s petted darling in the past. But you will soon find that independence, more truthfully than virtue, is its own reward. It gives you a grand feeling. Standing on your own feet is extraordinarily exhilarating, and being able to do very well (when it’s necessary) without your friends, relatives and beaux, not mention your enemies, makes you feel surprisingly benign towards all of them.”
A big thanks to my little Grand Avenue apartment — she was the healing kind.
Brittany Chaffee is an author living happily in St. Paul. Her second book, “Borderline” (coming May 2019), is available for pre-order. Find her on Twitter: @BrittanyChaffee.