Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Solitary Traveler

by Zinta Aistars

If you have to leave home to see home again clearly, then perhaps you have to distance yourself, just a little, from creating distance to understand the journey. I am back home again. The journey is a week behind me. And as I move about the house, cleaning, ordering, cooking a dinner for one of liver and onions and mashed potatoes covered in a sour cream gravy, sorting mail, leafing through books, planning the day ahead … I realize a contentment I haven’t known in some time. I don’t do happiness anymore. I’ve lost the knack. Or, perhaps I just have a few more journeys to complete before I regain it. Yet contentment, now and then, I can manage.

My mind still travels. The trip to Washington D.C. might as well be a long time ago. Blondie, my then travel companion, is already on another journey, this very moment pedaling fiercely along Cape Cod toward Provincetown on a fundraiser for multiple sclerosis, in an act of caring and respect for a close friend who has been so diagnosed. So like her. I wait for the next call to update me on her progress, while my own mind cycles over the previous adventure. Normally, I keep an almost religious travel log. This time, nothing. Nothing but an occasional tweet on Twitter, a status update on Facebook—ah, the short bites and truncated images of modern social media! The rest I absorb and store inside myself, unspoken.

Maybe that’s why: my mind still lingers, my mind’s eye still wanders those previous scenes, my spirit winds around the sensory fulfillment of that recent journey. I won’t bother to count how many times I have been to Washington D.C. Many times. I think perhaps the first was with Blondie’s father, my just anointed husband at the time, late 70s. We stayed with friends in the city, about as high in the building of apartments as any building in that squat city reaches. I remember the balcony, lined with boxed plants. I remember that the couple living there, also newly anointed in marriage, brought us to Voice of America, the radio station broadcast rooms that sent scrambled radio waves across borders that were meant to hold out truth, voices from freedom—and then, we believed here we understood something of freedom.

Walking along the city streets of Washington D.C. this many decades later, I came across that building: Voice of America. At least twice, my own voice was carried from that broadcast station across the ocean to Latvia, in an interview about my poetry, and from an authors’ reading. So many times in D.C., I came across many such streets, buildings, parks, museums, memorials, where I had already been, stood, contemplated, left some mark or none at all. I had returned with other travel companions over the years, each adding their own life sense to the journey. Every trip was different.

It occurred to me, this trip, how that flavored an experience: with whom we travel. If on every trip I take—and I travel often—I return home with some new revelation about myself, right alongside any other souvenir I might bring back, or any revelation about my travel companion, this time it is a sharp awareness of this fact. This trip, for the first time here, I came to realize … I prefer now to travel alone.

Yikes. Did I write that aloud? I did. Blondie knows how I adore her. My daughter is a wonderful traveler, has crisscrossed this country and Europe, inheriting that wanderlust gene from me, passed along in my family generation to generation. We have this strain of the nomad in us. The wandering gypsy. Indeed, for the first time using a GPS feature on my BlackBerry to bring us from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Washington D.C., to Tabard Inn on N Street with admirable precision, I named that mechanical woman’s voice on my little bit of technology—Gypsy. Gypsy told us every turn. Warned us of congestion ahead. Counted the miles behind us as well as those ahead. Resisted sounding impatient when we made a wrong turn or decided on an exit she did not recommend. “Recalculating route,” she said in her even voice, and then politely admonished, “Take the next legal U-turn.”

I’m thrilled to take Gypsy along again on future journeys. She knows her stuff, although gets a little flustered when the turns come too fast on city blocks. And I do plan to take future mother-daughter trips, still holding hope I might get my son to agree to a trip someday, too. And there’s a shorter trip coming up soon with Mom and Dad (I don’t want my father, now in his mid 80s, driving outside of town anymore, reflexes slowing with the years). And, yes, sure, there are the occasional pangs of missing previous travel companions who brought their own smoky flavors to a trip.

But it was that first rainy morning in D.C. Blondie and I woke early, had a delicious breakfast downstairs in Tabard Inn—the only place I ever stay now when I am in that city—and set out for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where she was attending a conference for work, on disaster preparedness. I suppose I had given up on preparing for disaster myself. What more could life throw at me that it hasn’t already? I walked with her to 11th Street, embraced her goodbye and good wishes for her day, shone with pride at my daughter now such an accomplished young woman in her sharply tailored business suit and briefcase in hand, waved and went on by myself.

That early, the streets were still relatively quiet, even if a work day. The sky was heavy and sagging with rolling gray clouds. I swung an umbrella in jaunty dare from one hand, just purchased this morning, using it as a walking cane. I’m ready. Then it struck me, no, caressed me, that sweetness of realization. I was content. On my journey alone, alone for the day, I was content to not have to worry about the needs and wants of another. The itinerary of another. The comfort of another. Let’s face it—I do that exceedingly well. I lose myself in all that concern for the travel companion.

Now, I walk free. While there are certainly advantages and disadvantages, undeniable pleasures, to traveling together, I had faced down some demons on my solitary journey two years ago, driving on my own from Michigan to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The moments of loneliness wafted over me, and passed. The motel room beds were empty and allowed me to spread my wings in comfort. I ate when I wished and where I wanted. Food tasted better when I had no conversation to distract me. My senses came alive. I was distracted by nothing but my own rambling thoughts and keen observations. It was just me and the world around me, and we made friends. I was not alone at all. Solitude on the road was sweet.

Moving around bunches of chattering tourists near the White House, I walked through the city, letting impulse carry me. Gypsy was quiet in my pocket. I had no need for direction. I stopped when I wanted, I walked on when I wished.

Don’t get me wrong. There are undeniably times when a Bed & Breakfast bed feels warmer when it is rocked by two. There are assuredly times when dinner conversation is worth more than the food. There are sunrises and sunsets that are more lush with color when shared. I know this. I have known this. I have enjoyed it. Perhaps I will again. But I am discovering a new kind of travel, another type of journey, and it is one done in solitude. Being a woman in midlife, a mother, a sometime wife and lover, my biological as well as learned tendency is to worry more about others than myself. To worry about no one now but myself—fills me with a delicious selfishness, a self awareness, that is healing and good. It’s my turn.

On this trip, too, spanning nearly a week, spending many, many fine hours with my adored daughter, even meeting a long-lost aunt who took a train from Philadelphia one of my days in D.C. just to meet me and spend the day with me, I would cherish times spent with these precious others. I would feel blessed by these hours, this company. Yet I knew that blessing that much more keenly … for my hours spent alone. For my spirit renewed in solitude, not loneliness. I finally felt comfortable with the world, the unknown, around me. I did not require a shoulder to lean on. I did not need an echo to affirm my experience. And when Blondie emerged from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce end of the work day, filled to brimming with stories of all that she learned, the fascinating people she had met, the challenges she had embraced, I was ready to listen. I had stories to tell, too.

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