Kendall Vanderslice: It's lonely to eat alone

Bigstock/Kasia Bialasiewicz

Has the idolization of the nuclear family stifled our imagination about how to live in Christian community? What might it look like to sleep, eat and organize our days around the communion built at the Eucharist table?

Strudel, my energetic beagle, howled loudly at the knock on the door.

“I’m just on my way to the grocery store and wanted to drop by with this,” a friend said casually, handing me a book I needed for class the next day. He mentioned that his wife was at home prepping the grill, so he was in a bit of a hurry. “What are you up to this evening?”

I mumbled something about snuggling with my pup and reading, then we hugged goodbye. As I shut the door, I stifled my desire to run after him and ask to join his family dinner.

My actual evening plans consisted of eating chips and salsa while sitting alone on the couch, too exhausted by the weight of loneliness to cook or read. But to keep from burdening others or intruding on their family time, I hid those feelings and turned back to my measly meal.

I’ve convinced myself that loneliness is the inevitable companion of the single adult. Afraid of being labeled “too desperate” or “too clingy,” I almost never mention this to friends. When I do, they inevitably and eagerly suggest that I get a roommate. But I’ve found that the transience of living with other single folks can be even more depleting than living alone. The firsthand seat to others’ budding romances and impending marriages can be the most isolating place of all.

I long for a type of deep commitment that I have difficulty envisioning in any context other than marriage -- a commitment from and to another that requires the adjustment of comforts and expectations in order to share a life, from the give-and-take of mundane moments to the burden and joy of major decisions.

In my loneliest moments, I implore God for a partner, but in return, God challenges me to consider what other forms of community might be in store by turning my ear to the loneliness of others.

My married friends sometimes say they too feel isolated. They exchange harsh words in vulnerable moments or feel disconnected from relationship despite their clinging children.

“But you still have someone to eat dinner with, to run out and pick up veggies for you to grill,” I think. “You hear the bustle of other bodies when you wake up in the morning, ushering you out of bed and into a new day.”

I could brush these thoughts off with the quick quip that “the grass is always greener,” but it doesn’t help. Instead, I wonder whether the ache I feel might come from an anemic understanding of how to live as family in Christ. I wonder whether the idolization of the nuclear family has stifled our imagination of how to live in community.

What might it look like to sleep, eat and organize our days around the communion built at the Eucharist table? How might I, as a single woman, be uniquely positioned to address the needs of my married friends, even as they and their children address mine? Rather than hindering the formation of community, might our differing lifestyles and stages be mutually life-giving?

My friend Taylor Schultz recognized a parallel loneliness in his own city of Denver, Colorado -- in particular, through the disparity of upper and lower classes. He heard people enrolled in his job-training program lament the increasing cost of rent. He watched them drop out of school in order to increase their hours at low-wage jobs, so desperate to pay the bills that they could not invest in the programs that might lift them out of poverty.

Similarly, he saw the sprawling houses of suburbia. He knew that many had rooms with beds sitting empty night after night and kitchen tables with places left unset. He wondered whether young families, retired couples and single people divided by economic lines could help each other.

Taylor founded Open Up, a nonprofit that matches low-income neighbors in need of affordable housing with homeowners who have extra space. They live and eat together, and in turn, both parties thrive. It’s the kingdom of God, the family of Christ, at work.

Taylor’s work has inspired me to reimagine what my own future might hold. Sometimes I talk with a former roommate and her husband about purchasing a duplex. They birth children; I adopt dogs; we all eat and clean and take care of our households together. Should I one day get married or have children of my own, I envision a home with rooms always open to long-term guests, a table always set with an extra spot or two or three.

While I didn’t chase down my friend the night he knocked on the door, I did eventually share the agony of cooking for one. We sat together on the beach, soaking in the final days of summer -- my friend, his wife and a few of our classmates -- sharing our dreams and concerns about the coming academic year.

It turns out I wasn’t alone: my friends said they also struggled with cooking, given their busy schedules of work and school or the difficulty of sharing a cramped kitchen with roommates.

The solution? A weekly food share. Each family cooks one night a week, enough for all of our friends. We have a standing invitation to eat together, but we package dinner to go for the introverts among us or those who work late.

Now, whether I join friends around the table or snuggle my pup and eat on my sofa, every bite reminds me of the sisters and brothers who help lift the weight of my loneliness.