In response to hearing my travel plans, I have been asked one question more than the sum of all others. None asked it as often as my mother. It was not the going that worried her. It was the going alone. With little defense against her daughter’s resolve, she repeatedly questioned why I needed to go alone. To be fair, the repetition was expected since I never gave her a solid answer. I gave vague responses, which served only to reiterate my conviction. Afraid that engaging in the debate would be an acknowledgment that the choice was anyone’s but my own, I avoided the discussion.
In time and in the face of my unrelenting wish, she came to accept it. In the leeway that her acceptance gave me, I began to come up with an answer. I started by sending her Sarah Hepola’s article titled ‘Every Woman Should Travel Alone.’ Her construction of luxury appealed to me. Fresh white linen and luxury had previously been synonymous to me but Hepola linked it to freedom in the following line;
‘I wore clothes till they were filthy and lived on baked beans and peanut butter, but the luxury of that time is unimaginable to me now, because I woke up every morning with no one’s agenda but my own.’
In her words I discovered a repetition of what I already felt. On the page, I found something I could pin down as a description of what I needed. Of what I wanted.
I imagine that a single expression of solitude would be selling its qualities short. Like so many, I have rarely been on my own for any extended period of time. I have spent solitary hours overplaying songs till I heard the rhythm distort and change to no one else’s ear but my own. And I have driven across my country and smiled to myself as the first scent of salt reached me. And I have written black letters over white walls and paper for longer than I have done just about anything else. But I cannot help feel that I have only felt the ripples of its worth. I have never dived into it, always drawing comfort from the knowledge that company has been on the other side of the door, on the opposite end of the journey. Perhaps its full value is only felt when those comforts are stripped away, when you open the door in search of something more and the only place to find it, is within your own self. The joys of company are well known to me. Cherished by me. But it would be wrong to consider the benefits of solitude less, or not worth of pursuit at all, simply because those of its inverse are so rich. The virtues of solitude deserve their own exploration.
Its blessings have been celebrated in some of the most beautiful pieces of writing. It is with this support that I finally enter the debate. Drawing from the sentiments of others, I hope to provide an answer my dear mom deserves. There is no stronger place to begin than with Derek Walcott’s Love after Love:
‘The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome.’
In ‘Every Woman Should Travel Alone‘ Hepola draws from Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild‘ where a mother explains to her daughter that she ‘never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life…I always did what someone else wanted me to do. I’ve always been someone else’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me.’ Later in his poem, Walcott encourages the listener to move away from this sacrificial state when he urges her to:
‘give back your heart to itself
to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.‘
Oriah Mountain Dreamer asks in ‘the Invitation‘ whether ‘you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.’ She holds that question and it’s answer in the highest regard. In that admiration, she honors the constant self. With this question she recognizes the significance of an identity without external markers to anchor against.
The pursuit of a truth which manifests itself when separated from the familiar is discovered by Elizabeth Gilberts in her ‘Physics of the Quest.‘ The Quest is characterized by whether ‘you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting, which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments, and set out on a truth-seeking journey, either externally or internally and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue, and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher, and if you are prepared, most of all, to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you’.
In these words I find an echo of my choice. I find it too in Chris McCandless‘s refusal to temper his spirit. Similarities between Gilberts’s ‘Physics of the Quest‘ and McCandless’s ideals, lie in their encouragement to release the familiar. McCandless sets himself apart from those who ‘…live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day, to have a new and different sun.’
Some suggest that if we so wish, we are never truly alone. That our ties with those we care for stretch across the distance between us, allowing us to feel their presence even in isolation. This kind of presence is no more clear than when Samuel Rogers speaks of a man that is, ‘never less alone than when alone. Those that he loved so long and sees no more. Loved and still loves, – not dead, but gone before, – He gathers around him.’
E.E.Cummings speaks of an ever present connection in his declaration of love:
‘i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart ) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear, and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)‘
He treats this indivisibility as a hidden treasure in the third verse:
‘here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life, which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart’
Einstein knew the secret. But in his opinion the indivisibility Cummings spoke of was true of the relationship between all people and all places:
‘A human being is a part of a whole, called by us, universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison of us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.’
In these extracts I find two recurring themes. The first being a return or discovery of self. The second, a catalyst for the first, is the letting go of the familiar. If we allow it, the exclusion of the things that are known to us creates a possibility, which at its least, allows for the visibility of the unfamiliar and at best opens the possibility of all people rather than only those few we have found connection with. The possibility of all places rather than merely home.
In the wake of my mom’s first question, when her acceptance had stilled some of her worry, came a second one. It was only asked once:
‘When you arrive on the other side, on your own, will your heart not be in your throat?‘ she asked.
The truth is that I didn’t have to wait that long. The very thought of it gave me the feeling she described. But, to come full circle, let Hepola answer for me:
‘the far more terrifying fate, as I saw it, was that I would fail to become the person I wanted to be.’