When Maiden Ladies Live it Up: Lessons from Zelda Kaplan

In an interview recently, I was asked what my driving passion is in my life now.

For years, my answer to that question was always the same. I want to write. I am a writer.

What I’m evaluating now is the idea that I want to live my life to the fullest. What is the point of being untethered in any way if you don’t use that freedom to get to know yourself, to give of yourself in all the ways you were meant to?

This is fundamentally why I’m writing a book about being contented as a single person. The goal is not to disparage relationships or companionship, which I believe are their own gifts, when you find the right one. It’s to celebrate the moment you find yourself in, single or not. Celebrating yourself is not, nor should ever be considered, disparaging someone else’s life choices or predicaments. Being happily single is not a critique of people who are not.

I thought of this in February when I read the New York Times obituary for Zelda Kaplan, who sounds like she was a riot. A couple of things stood out for me in her obituary. She was married twice times, but it was after divorce that she seemed to steer her life in a more vivid direction:

It was not until she and Mr. Kaplan divorced in the late 1960s that Ms. Kaplan moved to New York, finding work as a ballroom dance instructor and as a framer in an art gallery. At parties she would demonstrate the fox trot and other dance standards. “To me the dancing that young people do in the clubs is exercise,” Ms. Kaplan said.

Living largely off her inheritance from the sale of the family horse farm and the proceeds from investments, she developed a passion for indigenous cultures and began traveling to countries like Mali, Ghana and Ethiopia in search of the woodcarvings and fabrics from which she made her designs. She made many trips on behalf of the World Culture Society, an organization she founded and financed.

On her foreign jaunts she would hire a driver to take her from village to village to speak to tribes about the perils of female genital cutting and to lobby for a woman’s right of inheritance. Like her tireless partying, her humanitarian efforts attested in part to an appetite for novelty and adventure.

“I’m a curious person,” she once said. “I want to keep learning until it’s over. And when it’s over, it’s over.”

That about sums it up. I believe we do ourselves a disservice complaining and whining about the single life when it’s completely possible for you to find more useful, joyous ways to spend your time. She lived to be 95, after all — that’s a ton of living to fit into a maiden lady’s life.

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