What makes people who live alone happy and healthy? Nina Tamminen, a researcher from Finland, had come to the United States to learn more about that, and on Dec. 4, she was interviewing me. I’ve studied single people for decades, and from the moment I started my first job, I’ve lived alone my entire life.
We chatted over lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I chose it to show off the beauty and serenity of Santa Barbara, Calif. We made a plan to meet again in a few days; maybe I would include among our stops the tiny nearby town of Summerland, where I live.
That second meeting never happened. By then, Southern California was ablaze with wildfires, I was stuffing as many of my worldly belongings as I could fit into my car, and Tamminen took an early flight back to Helsinki.
I know the story I am supposed to tell as a single person living through a natural disaster. This should be my moment of reckoning, when I realize that it is just too scary to be by myself. I should be pining for a partner who will make sure I wake up when disaster draws near. I should be so hungry for the security of other humans that I would go to a shelter and sleep on cot rather than stay in a room by myself. With a fire headed my way, I should be especially susceptible to the story so often told to terrify single people — that I will die alone. Only in this version, it will be even worse — I will burn to death alone.
Well, it was my moment of reckoning. Once again, I realized that I didn’t need a spouse to wake me — no one could have slept through the evacuation warning that blared over my cellphone when the fires approached my neighborhood. I was hungry for human contact — and I got it in the evenings over dinner with friends, after spending the earlier parts of the day on my own.
When I got that alert to “EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY,” a knot of terror grew in my gut, but I knew what to do. I had made a list of last-minute items to pack, and I just followed my directions. As I opened my garage door to leave, I could see the neighbor behind me doing the same.
Power was going out throughout the county. I drove 10 miles through the smoke-saturated, pitch-black roads to my friend Karen’s house. She lives by herself and had called earlier to say that I was welcome to come to her place any time of the day or night and to stay as long as I wanted. When I got to her home at 3 a.m., she showed me to the guest room by flashlight and offered me every comfort — her kindness, most of all. Neither of us slept much. We had our laptops out checking the most up-to-date wildfire reports. The local news station was broadcasting continuously.
There would be no second evening at Karen’s. As night fell, the fire was getting ominously close to her home, too. We did a quick search for a motel that had two rooms free and joined the growing masses of evacuees as we headed another seven miles away.
By the morning, we had both come to the same conclusion: We were not going to stay another night in a motel, with all our stuff visible inside our cars. The next stop was a place with enough space for the things we had brought with us.
From then on, fire dictated my life, and its unpredictable path wasn’t making it easy to plan. It did, though, make national and international news. Family members, colleagues and friends from every part of my life called or sent texts or emails. They offered well-wishes, plane tickets, money and meals.
They also offered shelter. “The spare bedroom has a Sleep Number bed,” said one single woman. “It’s just me and my cat in a two-bedroom bungalow with a working Internet,” said another. “There’s nothing easier than having a solitude addict in the guest room,” added a third. The latter two were people I had never met in person.
It was complicated, I told them. I couldn’t just hop on a plane, because what would I do with the things in my car?
Really, though, it was the person who called me the solitude addict who nailed it. In a time of turmoil, what I wanted more than anything else was a place that was totally my own. I set up a workspace in my suite and re-created the reassuring routines of my everyday life. Writing my blog posts, book reviews and articles was the best antidote to the haunting awareness that my home could burn to the ground at any moment. Residents for miles in all directions were cautioned to stay inside with the windows and doors shut, but I couldn’t bear that. I went out for a walk every day.
My friend Nancy invited me to dinner with her family one night; she made the soul-soothing spaghetti dinner that was a staple of my childhood. Another night, I met fellow evacuees Rebecca and her husband at a restaurant we had all been wanting to try; I savored my mussels in a red curry coconut sauce.
It almost seemed festive, if I could ignore the fact that what would soon become the biggest fire in California history was barreling through the southern part of the state, with smoke clogging the air, ash raining down and people walking around with face masks, as if they were actors in an apocalyptic thriller.
I learned later, much to my astonishment, about two couples who ignored that high-decibel order to EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY. One woman, who lives just a few blocks from me, said that her husband is from Australia, where wildfires are commonplace, and he was not about to start panicking. She had wished he would at least pack up a few things. The dynamic was similar for the other couple: She wanted to bolt; he wasn’t quite ready. I felt grateful that I got to make my own decision and didn’t have to argue or persuade anyone else to leave with me.
In the middle of an afternoon, after nine nights away, the evacuation order for my neighborhood was lifted and I headed home. My house was smoky and dirty from the ash; it looked a little empty and sad. But it was in one glorious piece, and finally, I was home.
I wished Nina were still in town, so we could continue our conversation on the social science of single life. But now I have reaffirmed my answer to her question of what makes solo dwellers happy and healthy. What makes me happy is living in a town that is warm and beautiful, even if not as reliably serene as I had believed just a few weeks ago. It is having a home of my own and a life of my own, with all the autonomy and solitude that comes with them. Happiness is work that I pursue with a passion – and that, just barely, affords me the life I love. It is the embrace of my family and friends.
There are some things that no fire can destroy.