Saturday, January 4, 2014

Empty nesting : traveling alone

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I can do to turn things around in the funk I've been in lately. 

Here's a short list of things that seem to work for me:

  1. Consistent running
  2. Planning travel
  3. Immersing myself in my latest obsession (whatever that is)
  4. Cleaning out my (literal) basement and closets
  5. Cleaning out my (figurative) basement and closets by catching up on communication and other things I've let lapse.

Lately I find my mind keeps getting snagged by #2, planning travel. I absolutely love daydreaming about travel, investigating foreign cities from a distance, picturing myself not just visiting there, but actually living there. Somehow this is what travel seems to turn into for me. I want to imagine living there, and spend my time there doing the things I would do if I lived there.

In my daydreams and plans I picture myself on a commuter train, or in a small pub somewhere listening to music, people watching and writing in a journal. I picture going on hikes, finding a nice place to sit back and think or walking through the aisles of a grocery store. And yeah, I also do touristy things once I get there, but it's not what pulls me in to a new place when I'm sitting in my bed at home, staring out at the snow in my yard, imagining a new place to discover.

Traveling alone or as a single mother to a growing child has never fazed me much. It's always felt as natural to me as walking around my own town by myself, and I feel like my mind has always worked perfectly well in that way. Maybe also after 18+ years of single parenting, I don't automatically think of wonderful times and the creation of memories in terms of turning to another person to share them. 

Ky has a lot of jumbled little kid memories of the different places we've lived and traveled around the world (Ky's memories are of 'the place where the toothpaste tasted like soap' and 'that place where you told me not to pet the dogs' -- if I ask if Ky remembers our beach house in Moorea, I might get: "Is that where I dropped pineapple and the ants ate it for days?") -- and I love this, love that those memories are of those day to day experiences that are important to a kid. 

Had I put any forethought at all into becoming a mother, I might have pictured this as the ideal life for us. At 21
 I had almost never pondered the question of whether or not I wanted children or marriage. Those were questions for someone older than me, perhaps someone closer in age to my parents. Someone who had gotten all the adventures, crazy times, horrible mistakes and good stories out of their system. When you were ready to have children, I might have thought (had I put any thought into it at all), you were also ready to wither on the vine, relive your best days and finest hours only while drinking one too many glasses of wine at a dinner party thrown by equally has-been friends, and morph into the pudgy, friendly, boring-yet-responsible template of the parents you remember having when you were small. And that wasn't me, not 21 year old me.

I grew up in a huge family, inner city, blue collar, no money. We went camping for vacation, none of us had ever flown in a commercial airplane and we were only vaguely aware that a larger world outside our neighborhood existed. My fantasies about this larger world came from the only source of "global" information a kid could get about it back in the 70's - National Geographic. And the larger world, according to National Geographic, was apparently contained within tiny, colorful villages in Africa, where everyone was constantly topless, and dancing, and puncturing their skin and stretching their necks with beautiful beadwork and metal rings. And my god, the advent of seeing pictures of Jane Goodall actually LIVING there, not only making herself at home in this exotic place but forging an entire profession out of sitting under trees watching animals and contemplating life... this was everything that I could possibly imagine wanting for myself. 

I could not imagine that there was any life for me that didn't include a fate similar to Jane Goodall's. Being discovered by some crusty, foreign museum director. Having my earnest potential shine through. Through unclear, hazy mechanisms being transported to a continent that very literally could not be more different than my 2 bedroom apartment housing a family of 9 in an ethnic neighborhood of an overpopulated city. Being paid (or not, I didn't care) to sit under trees, wash my hair in a stream, be observant, think, ponder, put ideas together, write, watch, listen, walk barefoot, quietly soak in the word and let my observations mix, meld and reform what I had thought I'd known the week before. I could not think of any future that did not include that.

Fast forward to finding myself 21 and pregnant. How could I already be in the stage of my life that required me to be past all of those adventures, past all of the war stories of excitement, fear, struggle, triumph... without ever having tasted that life? To me this fate was unimaginable. 

I pretty much couldn't live like "old people" without living first like myself. And a baby was very definitely on the way. Therefore, I supposed, I must live the life I anticipated, expected, fully ran towards - but AS a mother. 
In the end Ky and I did live some form of that life. Now that I'm 40 and officially "old people", I can flip back through my mental photo album of Ky and I on the deck of our tiny house in Moorea, cooking in our campsite on the Osa Peninsula, shivering in our townhome in Aberystwyth. I can flip through images of myself studying on trains and planes and in pubs, a sleeping Ky on my lap, getting my degrees and always volunteering for any and all data and sample collection that involved leaving the country. 

Traveling around the world as a single mother came naturally to me, and the infrequent times Ky's dad had summer visitation time and I had some solo time, traveling alone actually felt exponentially easier, safer, and freer. When Ky and I would arrive someplace new, my thoughts were mainly about Ky's safety and comfort. My main vulnerability was my child. When I had the luxury of traveling alone, the realization that I could focus on my own experience felt like an unexpected windfall. I almost didn't know what to do with that much freedom (almost!)

When Ky became a teenager and Ky's dad (now married with several younger children) was more able to spend weeks at a time parenting, I suddenly found myself with the regular freedom to travel solo. At last! Perhaps 16 or more years had gone by since my days of sleeping on the beach with friends in Mexico and I knew I couldn't go back to those days and relive them as a 30-something year old adult. It wouldn't work. But I still felt as if I were being pulled by something inside of me toward the places I'd always imagined traveling alone. 

Before I got pregnant I dreamed almost solely of living like Jane Goodall in East Africa. After Ky was born I couldn't pull that image up too clearly in my mind because it was... I don't know, too personal? to me as an individual. I had to put it away. So while I vowed to not let being a young mother keep me from my dreams, in the end we seemed to travel and live pretty much everywhere but there. 

And when I found myself in 2012 having hit rock bottom emotionally and stagnating in my career, and Ky's dad with an entire summer of visitation, something inside of me dissolved and I felt that same strong pull inside of me. East Africa. I had to go. It wasn't even a question of if I should go, but just that I was being pulled halfway there already and just had to work out the rest of the details. So I went, and so I stayed for 3 months, and so I had every adventure and then some that I ever imagined and so a new branch of my life grew. And so 2012 became one of the strongest years of my life. 

And you probably couldn't have told me that I had any more to learn about traveling alone before I left, but I think I learned about 1000x more than I even knew was missing.

So after all of that roundabout reminiscence, I find myself feeling down and looking at the list of things that seem to lift me when I get to this point in my life.   
  1. Consistent running
  2. Planning travel
  3. Immersing myself in my latest obsession (whatever that is)
  4. Cleaning out my (literal) basement and closets
  5. Cleaning out my (figurative) basement and closets by catching up on communication and other things I've let lapse.
And I feel so pulled to travel again. I feel that same magnet pull that I've always felt, and with Ky in college, I can't help but realize my "young empty nesting" is probably going to take me back to the roads and work and friendships I made in East Africa. 

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