Vacationing alone can be as lovely as it is depressing. I love being able to go where I want to go without outside input; I hate experiencing joyful moments without someone to share in that joy with me. I’ve come to believe that the open space between myself and a destination is best navigated via car, and preferably alone. I don’t know if I would say I like that the drive is best done alone, but I know that it offers me a chance to do some of my most vital soul work.
At some point along the way, it doesn’t matter how good the podcast is, or how carefully I’ve curated my Spotify “vacation vibes” playlist: I’m just a woman with too much on my mind, trapped and alone in a metal box. I do some of my best self-examination when I’m road tripping, because I don’t have the luxury of escaping myself. Whatever I’ve been running from tends to speed up, set cruise control at 75, and join me for the ride. I could rope other people into the journey, but I would risk the part where I learn to love myself.
Right now, I’m curled up by a fire at my Airbnb in Santa Fe, New Mexico after a full day of exploring, with plans to go to different areas of town tomorrow. I arrived yesterday after about 10 hours on the road. Shortly after I woke up this morning, I had an upsetting text exchange that sent me into an anger and shame hole that I’ve not yet escaped. I felt a knot form in my stomach over breakfast.
I spent the day marking things off of my Santa Fe list: the Santa Fe Plaza, the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The weather is perfect; I live for a dry cold that only requires a good boot and a thick sweater. I loved walking through the plaza, because there are moments when it feels like the Old City in Jerusalem, and even just for a block or two my knot of shame loosened into only a loop of nostalgia. I walked through museums with my phone tucked into my purse, and I found peace rather than restlessness in the quiet moments when art was the only thing asking for my attention.
Over the past few months, I have felt the puzzling mix of loneliness and joy. After a move, starting a new job, and learning how to exist in new communities, I have been graced with a deeply set feeling of joy. I love my work, I love my cadence of life, I love the confidence muscle that I am building with each new day. I’ve known loneliness from as far back as I remember. As a kid, I would pretend to be a teacher. I would teach lessons, and then gather up “papers” from my students, commenting on their work. This is the earliest memory I have of trying to create a world where I wasn’t alone. I see my new loneliness like I see myself in the mirror when I clean up real good: I certainly recognize her, but she looks better than I could have expected. The oldest parts of me—my eyes and hair, the definitive features that haven’t changed since my first baby photos—are still there, but I’ve added some wrinkles around the eyes, and worry lines have formed after years of trying to create a world where I’m not alone.
At lunch, the waiter stormed up to my table, though most of the tables around me were vacant. When I asked questions, he cut me off with perfectly good answers to questions I hadn’t asked. I asked again, waiting to see if he’d catch on to my cat-and-mouse game of simply trying to learn more about the menu. He came back to take my drink order, asking if I’d like to go ahead and put in my food order. “I’m not in a rush; I’ll keep looking.” Halfway through my carne adovada, without eye contact he asked me how I was doing. With his back to me, he set down my check.
If I had been with someone, I imagine my drink order and food order would have been understandably distanced, because he would have seen that I was chatting and enjoying my time with a friend. If I had been with someone, I wonder if my questions about food and requests for more time would have been less frustrating for him, because he would see that I was lost in the presence of a person I care about. I wanted to tell him that, even alone, I was enjoying being in the presence of someone I care about. I wanted to tell him that I felt comfortable sitting there, alone, taking in the smell of fresh tortillas, because I am good company.
I expected to enjoy walking around the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. I did not expect to quietly cry in her pews. I lowered my body in a genuflection, but I didn't quickly rise. I stayed down there, because that was the holy space where I could say something to God. Alongside the shuttering of cameras, I let the reflections from my drive mingle with the anger sent to me in texts, and I added a few eye rolls over lunch for good measure. I haphazardly placed it all before God, with no introductory “Heavenly Father,” no use of prayer books, and absolutely no requests that God make me an instrument of peace. Instead, just a prayer to offer all of me. I, alone, before God. My head, my heart, the knot in my stomach. My loneliness gave me the courage to speak to God out of the desperation that filters my self-preservation. If I’m going to be alone in a crowded room, I might as well let God and honesty be my chosen companions.
After exploring, I came back to my Airbnb to put on pajamas and relax for a few hours. I laid down to rest, but I couldn’t sleep. My hair lay underneath my nose on the pillow, smelling of incense and corn tortillas, a reminder of a knot I set on the altar.