What You Really Learn When You Travel By Yourself

Nick Swift
Nick Swift

You know that feeling you get when you sense something big and wonderful in the making? And you don’t know what it is other than it’s just really good? It’s like blind anticipation. And then epiphany gently taps your shoulder and says “I’m already here, I have been the whole time”.

I’ve read several articles recently written by women in my age group about how they learned to be alone. I love these articles. I am always looking to gain some insight into how being alone became their favored status. I started out that way. I was dying to be alone. Like a child dreams of becoming a famous dancer, I always wanted to become that woman who knows and loves and takes care of herself so well, all on her own.

When I first separated from my husband I felt like I was walking into the unknown. But it was the good unknown, a delicious surprise. It was like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning. We either find something that we weren’t expecting but we really like or we find out that whomever gave us the gift doesn’t really know us as well as we thought.

I spent those first few months alone traveling around Spain and Italy. And I’ll never forget the time when I introduced myself to someone and stumbled over my introduction, “and this is my husband–“. Who was I without my him after all? I felt so liberated then, so totally independent, with just a small lump of remorse which I tucked quickly away. I felt so whole, which made me realize I’d felt incomplete for a long time. Isn’t this the opposite of what we are raised to believe? Isn’t one of our main goals in life to find that “other half”, the one who “completes” us? And here I was feeling that all by myself. I was empowered. But in hindsight I saw novelty hiding its familiar face in the shadows of that bright sunny time.

I discovered this amazing new person inside. It was like I had met this cool girl who liked all the same things as me. She was funny and smart and resourceful and so capable. I wanted so much to be like her. She was my new best friend. We traveled lots of places and spent ALL our time together. Sometimes she pissed me off though, especially when she said things like, “I don’t think you can do that”, or “You’re not good enough.” But I shut that part of her down most times and ignored those comments because when I cried she was always there, sometimes comforting me and sharing my misery. At other times she was kicking my ass back into daylight. She was often hard on me, pushing me to do more, to be stronger, to get better at everything that at times I felt totally inadequate.

But she took care of me, in ways I didn’t always understand. She tested my strength and perseverance regularly. She sent me walking the 800 km long Camino de Santiago twice in one year and blistered my feet pretty badly. Right after she pushed me up a mountain in Nepal in the hated cold and snow for three weeks, bruised and blistered and heart broken. And immediately after that she threw me into Calcutta of all places to meditate for 10 days in complete “noble” silence. I didn’t feel noble. I felt like she cheated me out of a holiday. I mean really, I could have been anywhere in the world!

But I showed her. I drank and smoked and lied about it. I told her it was all in good fun and easily controlled. But as she stared at me, my ass in a puddle of shame and misery, I knew she didn’t believe me. Thankfully I was right. She pulled me up and dried me off before I got worse. For that alone she was the love of my life.

And then something changed over a bit of time. She became not enough for me anymore. I wanted more. I grew tired of just her company even though she tried so hard to keep my attention and interest with hobbies and goals and holidays. And why did she? Whenever some man came into the picture for a short stay I ignored her almost completely. She became that book I put down halfway through, that movie stopped shy of its end, that song I no longer cared to listen to.

Every once in a while I’d look over and see her sitting there patiently, waiting for me to come back to her and I’d feel a little tug in my chest that felt a bit like remorse. Every time a new man captured my interest I felt a bit like I’d cheated the two of us out of honest love. Love that took some hard fucking work to grow. Love that I could so easily trade in for a soft bed and a warm body.

I’m trying to find my way back now to appreciating her. I want to become the person worthy of her love, that makes her proud every day. This is not simply about being myself and being honest with myself. This is about creating my best self, every single day. If the world takes all our power and all our possessions and we are left with nothing, we still always have a choice to either fall apart or be something great.

I am learning to trust the choices I make and to be grateful for the life I create every day. The one that graces me with quiet solitude at the end of my day. Sometimes this feels like peace and other days it is a 4×4 prison cell of my own creation. But in this life I can leave my bed unmade and clothes all over the floor when I just don’t have it in me to sort things. Or I can close the toothpaste, hang my wet towels, and clean up all the little messes I make in my kitchen and my heart with compassion for myself and trust in my decisions instead of self-blame and regret.

I am learning to build my own fires and make my own nest. I am fixing what is broken, whether it be my kitchen faucet or my heart. I am finally telling fear to fuck off thank you very much and jumping on that bike and riding with absolute certainty that I will get lost. I am finding my way around the world with the compass of intuition–a compass I actually know how to use.

I am learning to sit quietly and comfortably in my own beautiful and aging skin. I cannot learn to do this through food, alcohol, new clothes or another person. And I can’t rely passively on time to serve me either. I must roll up my sleeves, slap on the elbow grease and continue to work well beyond what looks like a breakthrough but is simply a learning plateau in disguise. Falling back into the comfortable chairs of denial, avoidance and external validation would be so easy otherwise.

Sometimes that work means abstaining from behaviors that seem to relieve my loneliness and insecurity like sex and gossip and commodified friendships but are really only symbols of an empty life. I am making a rich, messy and beautiful life for myself, through the plights of regular epiphanies that wake me in the middle of the night, crawl into my shower, and rent the calm spaces of my mind. And I welcome them even if I don’t like what they show me. Ultimately, they show me how to be my own best self because there is no other way to live that doesn’t have me banging my head against the wall. They show me how to become that woman I always wanted to be. They show me how to be alone.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We must be our own before we can be another’s.” These are words I believed in for a long time without properly reading them. Now I see. Loving another is not a reward for knowing ourselves. Belonging to ourselves is the real pay-off and the latter is just a bonus. TC mark

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