Two years and a thousand lifetimes ago today I was getting on the plane to Scotland.
I was 44 years old and had never traveled outside North America, let alone traveled for longer than a weekend fully on my own.
I had no idea then that the world would implode and that I wouldn’t get to return.
Hell. I had no idea about any of it. But then, we never do.
What I do know is that this trip changed me. Altered my insides. Rearranged my pieces and put me back together differently.
What I do know is that I will never be the same.
I learned some things along the way, and today, in honor of the anniversary of the trip that rearranged my soul, I thought I would share some wisdom.
1. You can’t outrun your demons by crossing an ocean.
Wherever you go, there you are. The same loneliness, the same empty hungry, the way you get lost inside the chasm of your own mind, all of this will be waiting for you. Quite likely you will judge yourself for feeling it. You will tell yourself that traveling, especially solo traveling, is meant to be empowering. Others will tell you that you are brave. You will alternate between believing them and not believing them and both will be true. There is deep work to be found when you meet yourself in a new place, without habits and fallbacks and the distractions of the life you know. You’ll learn to see your reflection differently. You’ll grapple with your demons in a whole new way. And perhaps, somewhere along the way—if you stay steady—the war you’ve been fighting will turn into a dance of integration, if only for a few moments. And you will know the taste of freedom.
2. You must eternally be braver than you want to be.
Sometimes, in order for an experience to change things, we must act as if things have already been changed. As if WE have already been changed. To show up as the person we want and know ourselves to be and not the one we have been mistaking ourselves for. This requires a wild level of bravery, of suspending disbelief, of refusing to fall into doing things a certain way because this is how they have always been done. When you leave the confines of your life reinvention is possible, but only if you claim it with relentless tenacity. So claim it bravely, wild lover, as if it has always been yours.
3. Always sit at the bar (and let the bartender choose your whiskey).
Resist the urge to escape to your phone. Don’t tuck yourself away at the back corner table with your nose in a book. Choose the seat next to the friendly-looking soul on the bus. Be brave enough to start the conversation on your red-eye flight. Just one question is enough to open up worlds of connection. All we know about what we like and want comes from having tried something that was once a mystery. Let yourself be open to every last unknown love affair by not always being the one to decide what you try next. Ask your server for advice on where to go after lunch. Have a conversation with the old man at the corner store and listen to his suggestions on the most beautiful spot in the area. Don’t be so convinced you know what you need, and get out of your way for long enough to discover what is waiting for you.
4. Get on the god damn train.
No seriously. All your plans and itineraries and goals are great, but sometimes logic just needs to fuck off and have itself one hell of an adventure. Even if it’s a four-hour train ride and it’s just for one night and you’ll have to come back again the very next day. If there is the potential for magic to be waiting at the station at the other end, get on the train. Sometimes you need to be kissed and romanced by a human you’ll never see again. Sometimes you need to walk for miles just to touch the walls of a castle that is set to tip itself into a churning sea. Sometimes you need to throw away all the plans you had made in order to find the one that was meant for you all along. Buy the ticket. Get on the train. Cast your vote for adventure. See what happens next.
5. Fuck sensibility, you can sleep on the bus.
Of course, you need sleep and nourishment and slowness and sustainability, but life-changing experiences are rarely built on a foundation of safe and sensible choices. There is a whole lot of time for sensiblity. Sometimes what you need more than all wise choices in the world is the good sense to know when to leave good sense behind in favor of grabbing hold of and claiming every last moment you can. So stay awake all night talking to someone you’ve only just met. Chase experiences through uncharted paths. Kiss an almost stranger against a streetlight in the middle of a rainstorm. Do the opposite of what your regular life self would do. Remember, this is not regular life. You, dearest sojourner, can always sleep on the bus.
6. What is for you won’t go by you.
Over and over again, in their lilting voices, the Scots whispered to me “Whit’s Fur Ye’ll No Go By Ye” as if perhaps they knew that absorbing this truth was the whole reason I came. What is for me will not go by me. What is mine to have is mine to have, to claim and taste and know. More importantly: If something is not truly mine, not truly for me, I am free to leave. To let go. To move on. And what is more, it is only in the leaving that what is meant for me will find its way to me. It turns out, there is no way not to be changed by this.
7. Just pack your black leggings and most badass boots. Forget the rest.
I packed two suitcases of clothing and supplies for every situation. Lugged an entire wardrobe across the ocean. I was weighted down my by own belief that I needed a hell of a lot to get by, to be safe, to stay me. And then what happened? I lived in my leggings, leather jacket, and my favorite boots for almost three weeks. Sometimes, the things we think we need —the way we insist on clinging to the habitual and customary accouterments of the life we’re working to escape—is what weighs us down holding us to a version of ourself we no longer are truly invested in being. Often, it’s by dialing it all down to the core that we open ourselves to the unfettered adventure that has been waiting for us all along.
8. Stop when you see beauty, no matter how many places you need to be.
Double back when you have to. The extra time is worth it so you don’t miss something good. Listen for the spaces and people that whisper your own true name back to you with an undeniable and ancient pulse, keep them close and closer still. Climb fences, ignore barriers, traipse up hills and across fields. Get your feet wet and let the wind tangle your hair and redden your cheeks. Walk until you lose yourself and then walk until you find yourself and then walk some more until you forgot why you left and remember where you were going. Plant your feet in the earth and stretch as tall as you can. Chase light and wind and castles and rainbows and adventure and romance and discomfort. Give your body over to whatever feels like pleasure to you. Resist the urge to name or contain it. Do not resist the urge to meet and be met by it fully. Learn to recognize the unmistakable sensation of your own belonging. Never, ever stop seeking your home.
9. Rentry is a bitch
Reentry. It’s a challenging thing. The self so transformed as to be unrecognizable and the life that has held itself in not so suspended animation. To have lived inside the deep and holy presence of such belonging. To have embraced the fear and discomfort and loneliness. To have trusted the self and her wanting and her knowing with such totality. To have seen and tasted and touched and known. There is a reason returning travelers seek out others who have gone away. There is something inside an experience like this, even one so comparatively brief, that longs not for a place to tell all the stories, but for the spaces where the stories do not have to be told because they have been lived and known. The challenge of coming back from an experience fundamentally changed, when everything else has stayed exactly the same lies in not letting life consume the lessons of living. To hold your experiences as holy and to refuse to relinquish the knowing of what it is to be so fully alive. To return to a life that no longer fits the whole of you is to return to a life that is no longer truly yours. Who knows, maybe it never was. If this is true, perhaps this is is all an invitation to build something new.
10. The story you tell will never come close to the story you lived.
The words we have can say so much and so little and in the end no matter how good the writer or how complete the attempt to transcribe the whole of an experience, what makes it onto the page is only the smallest part of what was lived. The rest floats off and up and away through the breath and nestles against the skin and inscribes itself onto the bones. To know the whole of a story you must put down the pen and the page and all of your futile attempts to capture and admit you cannot, ever. Not really. But also know well that you must try. And that means finding a way to invite your reader into the story that will never know what it is to be fully held inside of words on a page. You’ve got to find a way to gift them your breath and the tenor and tremble of your heart. Not what you did and saw and knew, but what you lived; touched and tasted and held in hands and brought home to your body and named a million kinds of holy. That’s the only chance, you see, they may ever really know what it is to be born again inside of a story you could never fully write.