And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?
Since I have started sharing more of my solo traveling, many friends have asked me how I came to venture out on my own, and have said I am courageous for doing so. I feel a bit like an imposter when I hear that, because as much as I love my solo adventures, I still am afraid sometimes. I have just learned to move forward anyway, to reach out to others and get outside of my own head. I thought I would share the backstory of my solo adventures, which began when I was getting divorced. I learned during that time that sometimes solo is all that we have. And it is enough.
I faced big fears every day during that dark time, fears of losing everything–my girls, my home, even my career. My friends told me that everything would be ok but it took sheer grit and determination for me to believe it in my bones, and even then some nights I would wake up in a cold sweat with the hand of fear choking me around my throat. Fear was my constant companion. I knew the statistics. Kids from divorced parents fair far worse in life than those that come from happily married parents. They end up dropping out of school, on drugs, pregnant in high school.
Then there was the sheer tension of getting everything done in a day. Packing lunches for school, helping with homework, driving them to their sports’ practices, and reading them stories at bedtime where I often fell asleep myself. It took everything I had in me to keep my head above water while I kept their heads above water. I learned that if I occupied myself with the busy-ness of the day, it left me so exhausted each night that I had no energy left to feel much of anything. I just had to survive, and that was enough.
The plan we worked out put my girls with me every day, and they would spend every other weekend and certain school vacations with their dad. During those weeklong vacations, the gaping emptiness that filled the house was like a choking dust. I would replay over and over in my mind the image of them crying as I dropped them off at their dad’s house, when they would say they wanted to stay with me and I would say I wish that they could, but this was how it had to be. I would not cry when I dropped them off, but as soon as I backed out of the driveway, I would sob the whole way home.
The time alone was spent negotiating the pain of the gaping hole in my heart, and I felt like I was drowning in it. I worried constantly that something bad would happen to my girls while they were away. I was their fiercest protector, what if something happened and I wasn’t there? I would get groceries, idly pushing the grocery cart through the aisles feeling lost. I wanted to tell everyone I met how hard I was struggling just to breathe, and then I would feel instantly ashamed and I wanted no one to know how weak I felt, how awful this mess was that was overtaking me! I felt like I had hurt my girls even while I tried so very hard to save them. And I was still hurting them. I couldn’t stop hurting them as long as the ripples of the divorce continued to pass through their childhood. Hollowness pushed up against my ribs and tightened in my throat. I would swallow down the sadness with too much chocolate or a little whiskey. Sometimes with friends, sometimes with dates, and sometimes with Netflix. And I could not swallow it down. And it felt like it would swallow me. Whole.
Then one day I was online and found a yoga and surf retreat in Mexico that corresponded with the dates that the girls would spend spring break week with their dad. The retreat was held at a little villa just north of Puerto Vallarta. In an impulsive moment of clarity, I signed up before I even finished reading the description. Yoga in the morning. Surfing in the afternoon. Yoga at sunset. Massages available, chef on staff to prepare local organic meals, beach access to nearby towns. Sunshine. Why on earth NOT?
I had no idea what I was getting myself into but I felt compelled to go. And the fear of traveling alone was far outweighed by the fear of spending a week alone at home worrying about my kids. I was excited to be heading to the retreat, and I was just as excited to be leaving home. As much as motherhood had been the center of my life, the focus of my adulthood, and in the days of the divorce my only concern-I could no longer ignore the voice from deep inside that said, “You are more. Can you remember?” I needed to remember who I was. Me. Without my family. When I felt like I was losing everything else, it felt crazy to tell myself to loosen the grip just a bit on my motherhood identity. But I let it go anyway.
The morning I flew out, I threw a few things in my backpack, tied on my yoga mat and straw cowboy hat, and drove to the airport. I was nervous and excited and I couldn’t tell which one I felt more. As it turned out, my flight was delayed, and by the time I got through customs at the airport in Mexico, the driver that was supposed to be waiting for me was nowhere to be seen. There was no wifi in the airport and my phone was offline. I hadn’t printed out the address or itinerary for the retreat, and yet while I wandered slowly around the airport I didn’t panic, I knew that eventually I would make it to where I was headed. Someone, somewhere knew I was coming and at some point we would find each other.
Luckily, I found wifi at a kiosk just outside of the airport, and I was able to email the organizer to let him know I was there. About a half hour later, a man with a white placard with “Melonny” written on it stood in the doorway by the time share sellers. My driver had arrived.
We drove along dusty streets out of Puerto Vallarta and into a rural area. I saw several pickups with kids loaded in the back and I smiled–I used to do the same when I was a kid. After a couple of wrong turns, we ended up at a big house on a quiet dead end street.
I ended up being the only single woman at the retreat. There was another woman who came alone but she was married, there was a pair of friends from New York City who came without their boyfriends, and two other women in their 70s who were friends from their yoga class in New Hampshire (one of them went surfing for the first time on her 75th birthday later that week).
After dropping my bag off in my room, I wandered out to the common living area where everyone was drinking margaritas and talking. I looked around, took a deep breath of warm flowery air, and I realized that I was completely free to do whatever I wanted. I had shed my responsibilities, and (OH WOW!!) it felt good! I didn’t have to think about what my girls needed. I didn’t have to think about the lawn that needed mowing at home or the emails that needed attention at work. I only had to think about what I wanted and I suddenly realized that I was worthy of that. I was deserving. I was enough.
The sadness and loneliness dissipated with each day I spent under the hot Mexican sunshine. Yoga is an old friend and I loved practicing next to the ocean. I felt my body healing as I transformed from compressed and shielding myself to trusting my body to open myself wide to new experiences. I saw tears mixed with sweat drip onto my mat as I found home in my breath and poses as the pain began to seep out of my body. Pain that I had held tightly because I had no place else to put it. I felt gratitude for my body that had been so strong and patient while I fought a good fight, while I constantly took care of my family, and that allowed me to breathe when I felt powerless to do anything else.
A few times during the sunset yoga practices I would feel the collision of releasing the pain and opening to the joy and I got dizzy with emotion. I would stop and glide into child’s pose, my forehead to my mat and my arms stretched out overhead in a forward bow, while I let hot tears burn my eyes and form a puddle on my mat against my face. It was an ugly cry, a vulnerable cry, one that left my face puffy and my nose running. It was a release and a welcome. I would survive. I was losing so much and I was gaining so much. I felt the emptiness pour out of me, like I was wringing out the darkness from deep inside, and I would be filled back up with gratitude. Sometimes others there cried, too, their own burdens lifted by their practice by the sea.
That week I inadvertently had a couples massage with a man I had never met (a misunderstanding with the women who came to give the massages–something we all giggled about after we explained to each other with my small bit of Spanish and their small bit of English). I read some Steinbeck in a hammock under swaying palm trees with strong margaritas in a sweaty plastic cup, and I played a pick up game of soccer in the middle of a dusty street with a few young local kids when I walked into nearby Punta Mita one hot afternoon. I also managed to crash into an underwater pile of rocks while surfing, and dislocate my ankle. I heard stories from several others there as to the reasons why they had come to the retreat and what they needed. One woman needed a break from her marriage, one woman had just broken up with her boyfriend, one woman had just lost her best friend. We all brought our wounds, and shared our scars. For a few days, we had a tribe as motley as The Breakfast Club, and we were friends.
When I finally left at the end of the week (after a night of too many parting tequila shots with the others), I came away feeling lighter, younger, and happier. I remembered deep inside how much I had missed traveling. Oh, how I missed it! I remembered how I love to explore, I love to wander and let my feet walk as far as they will to allow me to take in as much as I can.
It is a gift that we find ourselves here at all, and it is a gift to get to touch the fabric of all that has come before us. I love to meet people, I love to hear people’s stories of struggles and triumphs. I love to laugh with them, and sometimes cry with them. I love to hear about the paths people take, the mistakes they make. I love to learn of the many ways we all defend and comfort ourselves, the ways in which we love, live, and face tragedy. I feel connected to the people I meet and to the places I see, and for better or for worse, those connections become part of my own story.
I returned from that solo trip–and now from every solo trip– having made at least one decision to change my life in some big or small way. Traveling gives me time to pause and reflect on my life, to see it from the outside in, and the courage to realize that I alone have the privilege and responsibility to direct my one sacred life. Traveling reminds me that there is no time to let fear paralyze us.
And so my longing to travel was reignited, and the adventurous side that my friends say they admire was reborn of my own tragedy. I realized that sometimes we fear what we love, and still move into it. We can hold fear and breathe through it. As our breath leaves, so does the fear. It is true in yoga, and it is true in life.
I don’t usually feel fear now when I travel. I feel giddy planning a trip, and I am so excited the night before that I can hardly sleep. I always pack at the last minute (and pack light) as a first transition from my life at home to my life on the road. I run through the list in my head. Kids. House. Dogs. I check off my responsibilities. Everything is taken care of by people I trust. I am free to leave. Free to indulge my inner nomad. And then I go.
Inevitably, I meet people when I travel. When I am solo, people are always curious about me. We all crave connection, even if just in passing. We are social and tribal animals. Then let us nurture relationships. When we lose them, partly or entirely, let us sow seeds for new ones. We are worthy. We are enough. We deserve to be connected. As strangers, and then as friends. We don’t need to be afraid. And even if we are, we just need to keep going.