This is my love letter to all of the tiny apartments that have saved our lives.
I moved into my first apartment alone when I was twenty-four.
She was 400-square feet, nearly the size of a walk-in fridge, and when I opened her battered front door, I had six steps to crawl into my bed and cry (I did a lot of random crying when I lived alone, sue me). She was old, charmed with white crown molding and held me up with her well-loved chestnut wood floor. She housed a clawfoot bathtub I loved and white, heavy kitchen cabinets. The windows were pushed up against dozens of old oak trees and the birds were so loud some summer mornings, they woke me from my deepest of slumbers.
I had lived with a roommate my entire life, so being alone made me feel vulnerable like an open wound. But that’s just the thing about my little apartment. I was never lonely. The hurting was the healing kind. My apartment and my aloneness held each other just right.
When I moved in, I was single. I was entering a period in my life where I didn’t really know what to do with it (the singleness and my life). My career had recently taken a desperate pivot and I was barely making any money, searching for that inner rose quartz glow in my heart (a pretty way to refer to “life purpose”). My friends were getting married and promoted. Some were buying their first homes and spending money on expensive cocktails and puppies and wedding bands and vacations. I was in no hurry. I couldn’t spend too much money and didn’t feel too overwhelmed by saving it. I could barely take care of myself and didn’t need a dog. My general existence had a dull feeling. I couldn’t see ahead of my life very far. I wanted companionship but dated bad men. I wanted to write but couldn’t find a subject I was passionate enough about. I desperately craved a reason for being; as I learned how to live inside my tiny, matchbox apartment, I also learned how to live inside my tiny, matchbox self.
One thing I noticed initially about living alone was that I began to love certain things about my apartment first. A corner in the living area became a place for my collection of tiny and vintage things: a tree with snow in a mason jar, my address book, a blue glass lamp with no shade and tulle tied around its shade wires, and many books. Because of this, I fell in love with thrifting and filling my space with shabby chic flair. I started to congregate things for the first time in my life. Things that were all mine; things I could pack in boxes and pass along to my children someday. I found comfort in sitting on my old, gold couch, drinking wine, and writing on my laptop. I loved the sound of the local news while I cooked in my kitchen or (let’s be realistic) mowing down Punch pizza in bed with a blended red. I loved Sunday mornings and watching steam from my coffee mug that read. “Damn, I’m good.” The little apartment slowed me down and carefully let me observe the world.
I created a routine in my home. I never ate dinner on the tiny table in my kitchen, painted pill yellow with tiny pink flowers on its corners. I ate dinner in bed and didn’t care; making my own rules as I went. I never made my bed and made peace with being disorganized in certain places. I fell in deep love with the hardware store down the street, walking through it on a bad day and smelling its insides: something between fertilizer and tires. On Christmas, they would deck their entrance with spruce trees and opaque, multicolor string lights and I bought those lights and decked them around my bed frame so I could sleep in the same glow.
I started to make time to “set the mood” for myself. I realized I was an advocate for good lighting and a clean home. It was also then that I realized I was my mother. I hated jackets hanging on chairs when I had guests and found peace in ensuring the sink didn’t have any dishes before crawling into bed. I fell in love with coming home and knowing the mess in the apartment was my mess. I tested out being naked in open space. I tried sleeping naked for the first time (didn’t much like it). On one occasion, I drank an entire glass of wine naked in front of the mirror, staring at myself, for the mere delight that I could.
By making it my own, my little apartment became a part of me. I was proud of what I made it, and began examining myself along the way. I learned I loved to host a little wine night with my girlfriends as equally as I loved my private time. I discovered I was sometimes messy and disgusting (hello tiny corners in bathrooms and basically any closet). I learned that I loved any pleasure in the mundane: the morning news while I got ready for work, a quick piece of toast for breakfast on the run, collecting cookbooks from the sixties, and the frosted baby blue paint on the walls. I was basic and simple, appreciated the nostalgia within the things I kept, and found such life in learning about what I truly loved and enjoyed about myself.
The apartment taught me the fundamentals of being alone. And there is something so goddamn beautiful about that. The apartment taught me how to take control of my circumstances and live with them, in the midst of all my loneliness and fear. I learned how to create a hospitable environment, cultivate hobbies that kept me inside, and find joy in doing nothing. It taught me how to create my own sanctuary and learn my deepest pleasures, desires, and dislikes. It taught me how to say “no” and become brave within my aloneness and (gasp!) cancel plans. I became to love myself more, a practice I will always wonder could have taken a back seat if my little apartment had been someone else’s – and I hadn’t lived alone at all. Most of all, it became apparent that I should never, never let myself feel that anybody ought to find anything for me, especially happiness. I owed it to myself to find that, myself and the loyal walls of my little apartment.
This ‘little apartment battle cry’ makes the call for many women in my life. A close friend of mine lived alone for the first time after ending her engagement and relationship. I visited her tiny apartment many days and nights, and I watched it slowly become her own as she healed. Everything she loved came slowly out of cardboard boxes and reached for the walls of her new home. When she bought the first thing for her kitchen, a bright red sign that said “EAT”, I felt the change shift. She was moving on, learning how to love herself again and make a space her own, surrounding herself with her favorite things. When she moved out two years later, we stood on her lawn with all of her things and she looked up at her window on the third floor, “I went through a lot here,” she told me. And the dark, dusty corners of her now empty little apartment would always be, somehow, within her.
Another friend of mine spent a large chunk of her twenties traveling and living in other countries. When she came home, back to the snow and routine, it was hard. When she got her solo apartment, it took her a long while to hang photos and find closeness in loving it as a home and finding a normalcy and sense of peace within herself. We change so much when we leave a place, and coming back festers so much shift deep down within the core of our being. One day, when I visited her, all of her photos were framed and hung, including her crochet dish towels and curtains. More importantly, she had created a green succulent garden out of ashtrays, seashells, and teacups – all nurtured and growing limbs in her kitchen nook. Small signs that life was moving forward. Even if just a bit, the little apartment was working its magic.
In Marjorie Hillis’ 1936 book Live Alone and Like It: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman, she so perfectly sums up the amplitude and power of living alone. She writes: “When you start to live alone, defiance is not a bad quality to have handy. 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.”
Thank you little apartments, you are the healing kind.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her 80-year-old cat, Butch. Read more about her latest book, Borderline, and go hug your mother.