Sometimes Life Really Is Kitties and Rainbows

I knew traveling solo would have an expiration date. Knew there’d come a moment when the glamor of this trip would be overshadowed by the uncomfortable reality of vagabondery.

But knowing a season will eventually come to an end is no reason to not embark in the first place. So I left all familiarity and set out. Just me and the open road.

Turns out, my expiration date was seven months, five days, 31 cities, and 38 different beds after the trip began. Approximately.

The expiration started when I was making my way back down Highway 1 a few weekends ago. I stopped in the in a valley to explore a black sand beach with Pacific waves crashing and driftwood scattered. Felt the sun cut through the sharp breezes coming in.

As I walked, barefoot back to my car, a pair of beach-goers smiled at me. A retired couple, leather-skinned and Hawaiian-shirted. Noticing my license plate, they commented, voices raised over the waves, “From Missouri, hey? You’ve come a long way.”

Exchanging small talk has been a skill set I’ve honed to an art form, and I gladly engaged. I take conversation where I can get it these days.

A few pleasantries in, the husband nonsequitured, “So, how come you’re alone?” His wife batted him on the arm, feigning embarrassment, but she cocked her head, curious.

The conversation skipped a beat. “Oh, because I want to be.” My voice came out as a chirp, a bit higher, tinny through the smile I had plastered on my face.

How come you’re alone?

The question echoed after I got back in my car and wound around another bend. A question sounding an awful lot like “What’s wrong with you?”

“Why am I alone?! None of your damn business, that’s why! And wipe that smug smile off your face, mister!” I muttered to my empty car, revising my too-polite answer.

I’d said I wanted to be alone. Was that accurate? Did I want to be traveling alone down Highway 1? What had left me giddy and overwhelmed when I started my trip now seemed lackluster this time around. I kept having the unwanted but persistent hunch that these sweeping views of the California coastline, these quirky towns, and opportunities for adventure would’ve been so much richer if I’d had a friend with me.

How come you’re alone?

“Good question. I’ve been asking myself the same thing.”

I chose this lifestyle. I decided to go on this adventure in pursuit of what makes me feel most alive. But also, this whole thing has been a search for belonging. I know the long stretches of solitude have been an integral part of finding belonging.

So it’s not being alone making me feel lonely. Loneliness is a function of not feeling known, and I’d just spent three weeks jumping from one hostel to another AirBnB, coexisting with strangers in the cheapest accommodations I could scrounge up. Trying to remain present with hostile hosts and awkward hostel dwellers.

After those three weeks, and a few days after the conversation with Hawaiian-Shirt Couple, I arrived with my diminished bravery to the small coastal town I’d be housesitting in for 18 days. In a home tucked in the woods, completely by myself. What would’ve felt like an introvert’s dream come true now felt like solitary confinement.

I contemplated just driving right through the town and turning east. Making a beeline back to my familiar Midwest. But I didn’t. I found the house and brought my suitcases in. My host drove away, entrusting her beloved kitty, Miss Fitty to me. 

I laid in bed that night, and reread the email my friend Kamina had sent the day before. In response to my bleak descriptions of my lonely existence, she had this to say:

“You know what? I’m only a little bit sad that you’re tiring of travelling alone, and mostly glad.  What I mean is, I really feel for you in your current isolation, and it’s unfortunate that you have several more weeks to get through – but how sweet to have sucked everything you can out of the experience of solo travel, and to have a new season coming just when you’ve exhausted this one.”

I supposed she was right. I tried to trust the ironic timing of things. But the next day brought kind of wet coldness that seeps into your bones, mirroring and amplifying my mood. So much for The Sunshine State. I spent the day trying to chase the gloomy mood away, staying close to the space heater and making feeble attempts to be productive.

After dinner, I sat down to my nightly ritual of Netflix and water coloring. Glancing out the window, I happened to see the indigo color of the sky through the trees. While it was still drizzling, the droplets came down as golden beads.

Sunshine and rain. My favorite weather combination. I dropped my paintbrush, threw on my raincoat, and hopped in the car. At a break in the trees, I glimpsed what I’d been hoping for. A big double rainbow, bridging over half of the sky. More vibrant than I’d ever seen.

The road led down to the ocean and the sky was a gallery of glory. Billowing cumulonimbus clouds still releasing precipitation to the north, clear skies revealing a sunset over the ocean. And all of nature had that bright, saturated hue that comes right after the rain.

With the fervor of a storm chaser, I drove, trying to glimpse the best views of ocean and rainbow, sunset and storm. I found a park, and sat on top of a picnic table, trying to soak in as much as I could. I laughed out loud as my reality hit me.

My life quite literally is kitties and rainbows right now.

This paradox of storm and sunshine mirrored my life. I remembered what I’ll probably need to be reminded of for the rest of my life. All of this is part of it! The bad day, the tears, the coming to the end of myself. This is what I signed up for when I decided to live a vibrant life! This too is part of being fully alive! I don’t want to shy away from the hard parts. I want to receive it all.

So, how come I’m alone?

Because this is my story. And it’s a good one.

Connection In the Midst of Political Insanity

This trip has surprised me.

I guess a little bit of me was assuming that I would feel isolated. I mean, traveling alone, being on the move, and stopping in cities where I know very few people sounds like a recipe for loneliness right?

While there have been long stretches of alone time, this adventure around America has so clearly been about connection.

There’s been many people who’ve struck up conversations with me. Like the fruit stand guy at Pike’s Place in Seattle. A weathered face and slate grey eyes lighting up as he asked if I want to try a pear. He shared about his motorcycle trip he took from Florida up to Washington back in his day as he nonchalantly slips me slices from cameo apples and persimmons.

pouring-coffeeI’ve surprised myself with my growing boldness at interacting with strangers as well. Like the time I went to a restaurant that had been recommended to me, and after ordering a drink at the bar, I couldn’t find a place to sit. There was an empty seat next to three friendly looking guys, so before I could talk myself out of it, I asked if I could join. They ended up being three cousins from Ethiopia. I had a lovely evening, hearing about their family dynamics and laughing at the stories of shenanigans.

And don’t get me started on the overwhelming hospitality I’ve received in the places I’ve stayed. Time and again, I’ve shown up to different homes of people hosting me, unsure of what I’d find. Most of the people I’ve stayed with were complete strangers, or connections through a few degrees of separation. Without fail, these people have opened up their homes, invited me to their dinner table for a feast, and delighted in showing me their town.

These strangers-turned-friends have been a diverse bunch. Differing backgrounds and world views, various ethnicities and perspectives, and people who’ve had vastly different experiences than this sheltered girl from Iowa have come alongside me and made me feel at home.

I am not sure what I was expecting, but I think maybe this is what I was hoping for. It is so good for me to put myself in places where I am out of my element and surrounded by people who are different than me. It is an opportunity to confront my hidden assumptions and see the similar humanity in everyone.

the-adventure-beginsIt has been uncomfortable and stretching at times, but so beautiful. What is so fascinating is to see the contrast between my experience and what’s happening in American politics right now. Juxtaposed against this connection and unity I’m experiencing is this daily news about hate-charged rhetoric, increasing evidence of dividing lines, and a candidate who spews out horrifying statements like it’s his job. So much of this election season has left me waffling between bewilderment, embarrassment, and dismay.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. It makes sense that people are suspicious of what is different than them. That fear can be a powerful driving force, manifesting as anger and extremism. When this is insulated in an environment where only people you encounter look the same, think the same, vote the same way, this fear can go undetected. The other becomes a caricature of assumptions and stereotypes to fear, make fun of, and defend against.

I get it. Fear of that which is different can be so subtle and so deeply ingrained into our humanity. It’s a natural defense mechanism and I am not immune to it. The problem is when you think the only people who are people are the people who look and act like you. But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew. (If you just got that last sentence, you are a child of the nineties…If it made you laugh, then we are kindred spirits.)

“Grace dies when it becomes ‘us versus them.’” — Philip Yancy

While there is a gravitational pull towards that mentality, I’m finding that it doesn’t have to have the last say. In the moments where I choose curiosity over fear, I discover so much about myself and others. In encounters where I’ve released assumptions, I find myself surprised by compassion. Exercising the muscle of empathy and choosing to believe that everyone is doing the best they can has only brought more life and freedom into my world.

 This reminded me of a video I saw a few months back. In response to the controversy of the millions of refugees that were entering Europe, Amnesty International conducted a simple experiment, based on psychologist Arthur Aron’s findings that 4 minutes of looking into someone’s eyes is one of the most powerful ways to break down barriers. What would happen if these strangers, Syrian refugees and Europeans, sat across from each other in the historically divided city of Berlin and really tried to see the other person?

screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-11-29-16-amscreen-shot-2016-10-29-at-11-29-49-amscreen-shot-2016-10-29-at-11-31-08-amNervous laughter and eyes darting away in discomfort dissipate in the first minute. Walls come down and simple human connection is formed. The conversation is stilted with language barriers, but that doesn’t diminish the profound bond that forms. If you haven’t seen it, please watch it right now. (Fair warning, I cry every time I watch it.)

This beautiful video belies our human need to be seen. We are built for connection. When we isolate ourselves into places of familiarity, we lose our ability to see. Being in the presence of “the other” humanizes them. Assumptions and judgment fall away as the familiar humanity in their face become evident.

I don’t claim to have any or all of the answers. This is not a how-to blog, where I claim a 5 step process to eradicating all of the dividing lines that riddle our nation. I’m not proposing that we all hold hands and gaze at each other with 5 minutes of uninterrupted eye contact on the other side of the voting booth next week.

portraitaamanrainbowwomanportraitelderlywomanportraitmuslimwomanportraitelderlymangirl hands to heartBut I am making a case for why we should seek to put ourselves around people that are different than us. I am asking us to practice choosing curiosity over fear. I’m asking for us to endeavor to really see the people around us.

**All photos in this post are from unsplash.com