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Single bells, single bells: PC ponders whether we should celebrate singledom more

December 7, 2014

Single bells

China celebrates a Singles Day. It started at various universities in Nanjing during the 1990s, the annual date decided on being 11 November (the eleventh month) – four ‘one’ digits, needless to say. At first only young men marked it, but now women, too; and its initial spirit of commiseration and desperation to couple up has become more balanced with positive and affirmative events – including shopping, of course (this is China, after all). For breakfast, singles eat four youtiao (deep-fried dough sticks) representing the four one digits in ‘11.11’ and one baozi (steamed stuffed bun) representing the full point in the middle.

Singles Days have been tried in the UK too, usually on or close to Valentine’s Day: 13 February, say. The fourth of the BBC TV series The Apprentice followed the largely hapless would-be business partners for Sir Alan Suger designing and pitching a range of greetings cards for the occasion, to a mixed reception from commercial card retailers such as Clintons.

In Japan, a company called Cera Travel has started up to market solo weddings. The two-day package includes dress fittings, bouquet selection, bridal hair and make-up and – extremely questionably, IMHO, if your aim is to flaunt your self-reliance and self-sufficiency – a stand-in man for a photo shoot (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/japan-company-launches-solo-weddings-single-women-1472189).

Maybe the trend is spreading. This year, The Huffington Post reported that an English woman, Grace Gelder, had married herself quite happily as the consummation of six years of singledom – and cited two similar cases, a woman in North Dakota and a Taiwanese self-bride (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/10/06/woman-marries-herself-grace-gelder_n_5937586.html). In the USA, the UK and Australasia, some now have break-up parties – the cricketer Shane Warne, for instance, on his headlined split from fiancée Liz Hurley this year.

Probably within most cultures of the world there are self-contradictory attitudes to singledom. On Chinese Singles Day, while on the one hand it’s a date of celebration, there are also blind date events and it’s regarded as a perfect time to marry and throw off the ‘burden’/’stigma’ of solo living. Japanese commerce may sponsor self-marriage, but the same country also now bemoans the phenomenon of ‘parasite singles’: all because in 2012, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 48.9% of single Japanese between the ages of 20 and 34 were still living with their parents – an estimated 13.4 million. A figure still rising.

In many regions of the globe, the singledom trend is clear to see. In the UK, for instance, more and more women choose to live alone: 4.1 million in 2012; many of these are younger than one might assume (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10444376/Why-more-and-more-young-women-are-choosing-to-live-alone.html). There are few statistical breakdowns of this status (unmarrieds; women with a partner living elsewhere; widows; and single mothers, for instance); but we know from the Office for National Statistics that single people occupy some 29% of all UK households, a figure that’s rising.

The growth of this change and social-commercial reinvention almost persuades me that it’s the celebration of marriage and coupledom that’s odd – or going to seem more so, before too long. Why celebrate that we ‘have’ or ‘belong to’ one other person? Do personal commitment to, and love for, one individual need to be marked in any other way than privately? Now that a religious sense of obligation to try to procreate, and the need to have private promises somehow endorsed by Church and/or state, are dwindling in societies like ours, shouldn’t moving in together – or other mutual arrangements – be enough?

Some episodes on the latest UK series of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! – have also got me thinking. On the TV show, hardened politician-turned-jungle-softie Edwina Currie came to verbal blows first with ex-Playboy mansion TV reality show ‘personality’ Kendra Wilkinson then with TV/radio presenter and model Melanie Sykes. Their debate revolved around living and surviving as a single woman, making her own choices. Edwina argued fiercely for collaboration and interdependency, meaning especially with men; the other two stressed the need for women to be self-sufficient and independent, again meaning especially of men.

Surely each side was right: coupledom, where it exists, shouldn’t be about ownership of another and dependency but about giving and sharing while maintaining a sense of integrity and self. The words of the poet Khalil Gibran from On Marriage are often criticised as a choice of wedding ceremony reading, I don’t know why. They seem to me to express this balance perfectly:

‘Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. […]

‘And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.’

Given these seismic social shifts, wouldn’t it be great if in western culture we began to give festive recognition to more, and other, life landmarks, initiations and transitions than marriage, including celebrations that promote a sense of beauty, creativity, giftedness, wisdom/experience and individuality in the single self?

The onset of menstruation, for instance. In Southern Indian regions, girls are given feasts, money and gifts and adorned in new clothes. Japanese families traditionally commemorate a daughter’s first period by eating red rice and beans. Aboriginal Australians ritually bathe and apply beautiful body paint to young women at the onset of menstruation. In North America, Apache Indians hold five-day ceremonies attended by hundreds of people who dance and chant to honour the young woman. During these ceremonies, the girl ascends to almost divine status, embodying the Apache goddess, Changing Woman. The young woman lays her hands on the other participants, bestowing curative energy to her tribe. The ritual culminates with the exchange of gifts inaugurating her relationship with her godmother, who will help guide her into adulthood. Importantly for me, this isn’t just – or even mostly – about women becoming fertile and able to bear children. Many of these societies view menstruation itself as beneficial and powerful, and the blood actually sacred, some feeling that it has healing powers, or that it connects women to the earth, the moon and the cycles of nature. Some Native American cultures believe that menstruation naturally cleanses women, so that they do not need to detoxify in ritual sweat lodges as men do.

In many cultures, the menopause is revered and celebrated as a time of the onset of great wisdom that can be given and shared. So it was good to see that, unusually in ‘our’ western culture, in September 2012 a North American movement organised Hot Flash Mobs, spontaneous mass dance events undertaken by menopausal women in New York, LA, San Francisco, Arkansas and the UK to mark National Menopause Awareness Month (http://www.menopausegoddessblog.com/2012/08/26/celebrate-the-dance-of-menopause/#sthash.wkrtmjP6.dpuf).

But if more of us are single, we need a stronger sense of belonging and of social contribution, so we should celebrate communal events and landmarks, too. I live in a cohousing project, which I’ve posted about elsewhere (https://boywoman.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/can-single-childless-older-women-live-better-in-all-female-communities-asks-pc/). When someone new joins this wonderful living organism, with its combination of private and public spaces occupied by some 70+ of us, they’re given a warm, welcoming meal to celebrate their arrival; and – if they would like it – a farewell meal or celebration that is just as caring, to mark the next stage of our lives somewhere else.

Ultimately we’re all alone, and yet no [wo]man is an island. My ideal, and the way of the future, is surely a combination of personal and truly social, communal celebrations.

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