Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Soul in Solo Travel

Lest my Tuesday's blog be interpreted as the ranting of a depressed, suicidal, or desperately lonely woman, let me be clear: there is an enormous upside to solitude. I have made more mind-bending discoveries, gained more soulful insights, and received more life-transforming revelations on solo journeys than I thought possible – until I traveled alone.

During the summer before my senior year at Williams College, I spent the month of August in Europe with a backpack, a first-class Eurail ticket, and a fistful of addresses of a few friends I was planning to visit. I figured out ways to ask for food at shops and vendors in countries where I didn’t speak the native language. I taught myself how to read not only 24-hour train schedules and foreign subway maps, but also the facial expressions of those who spoke not a word of English. I drank lavender tea for the first time on the Normandy coast. I developed a serious addiction to shortbread cookies coated with milk chocolate. And I became addicted to the intoxicating, energizing effects of coffee – on the road alone.

A month later, when I saw Velazquez’ depiction of Christ Crucified in Madrid's Prado Museum, my faith became sight. There He hung on the cross alone. There I stood in the gallery alone. He understood solitude. At the other end of the art spectrum, I was enchanted by the playful, colorful, whimsical painting of MirĂ² in a museum in Barcelona three years ago. Although I wandered around the Miro foundation alone, I laughed out loud. I sat and stared. I wrote frantically and wildly in my journal. In March of 2000, I sprinted up three flights of stairs to the uppermost deck of the Seabourn Legend a little after 4 in the morning in order to be the first one to see the sunrise as our cruise ship pulled into the harbor of Rio de Janeiro. Sure there were tour groups that were shuffling along behind tour guides that were droning on in Barcelona and Madrid’s museums. Sure there were a handful of other passengers on deck watching the sun cast its quilt of many colors onto the South Atlantic Ocean that Rio morning. But ultimately, profoundly, and willfully, I was alone. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

At the church of the Holy Cross in Florence in October of 2001, I experienced firsthand that no matter how lonely I may feel at a particular moment, in fact, I am never truly alone. I entered the cloister that afternoon sick of the solitude, overwhelmed with longing for the company of someone I knew and loved. As I sat there, writing in my journal, crying, feeling sorry for myself, I began to hear what I could only describe as the still, small voice of God whispering quietly into the ears of my sorrowful soul. Gradually my loneliness faded and was replaced with the unmistakable presence of Someone Else. I knew that I knew that I knew that I was no longer alone because He was with me. He would accompany me to restaurants and museums and shops that I would love. The prayer of a pastoral friend of mine a few days before my trip had been answered; Ian had asked that I would know firsthand what it was to be alone with The Alone. While I cannot fully explain what happened to me there in that ancient square, I will say this: the remainder of my first foray into Italy evolved into the best solo trip I have ever taken.

In the midst of the busyness of motherhood, marriage, friendships, and everything else that makes demands on my time and my energy, I draw upon and delight in the solitude that I have learned to carry with me. On line at the supermarket, I enter my own cathedral of praise and give thanks for the bounty that I am able to take home and prepare for my family. At the airport last week as I waited an extra three hours for my flight, I reminisced about the three dear friends I had just spent two days with, brainstormed about what I hope to accomplish with the children this year in our one room schoolhouse, and basked in the joy of those hours alone. Sitting in one overpriced coffee shop or another every Saturday morning, nursing one overpriced, highly sweetened coffee drink or another, filling the pages of my journal with words, filling the wellspring of my heart with thoughts of joy, and filling my mind with the words of well-chosen poems, psalms, and other thought-provoking writings, I always wonder why people don’t choose solitude more often.

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