I feel like I’m on this solitary lifelong path.
No matter who weaves in and out of your life,
regardless of the quality of those deep friendships and familyships,
I’m the only common denominator at this point who’s been with me the whole time.
And there’s this sense of trying to make sense of that ultimate solitude.
It’s not a negative or even a positive.
It’s just a fact.
– Feist (via Lili)
My sister and I were both lying on the carpet of the living room. It was a Wednesday night, and we were waiting for our parents to come downstairs to go to the church prayer meeting. As I stared up at the ceiling, I wondered what it would be like to walk on the flat surface. The room reoriented in my mind and I considered its new dimensions. Without the carpet and furniture, the ceiling was really just a square floor – except for the smoke detector in the corner. If I were walking across the room, I’d have to step over that – oh, and bend my head to avoid the window seat and watch out for the branches of the plant and the shades of the two lamps.
I completed my imaginary stroll and turned to look at my sister.
“Tina, what are you thinking?” I asked.
“What were you thinking just a moment ago?”
“Nothing? Really?” I sat up. “Well, what do you think it would be like to walk on the ceiling?”
“I don’t know? Why does that matter?”
I frowned. Perplexed, I lay back down and stared at the ceiling. I did another mental walk across the square floor. Then, I looked back at Tina. Her eyes were closed.
Just then, I realized I had had an experience – a life-changing one, at that – that my sister could neither access, share, nor understand.
All of a sudden, I discovered my sanctity as an individual.
Here I was, living life as the sole spectator of a one-time performance. An entire orchestra of thoughts, ideas, colors, sounds, smells, tastes, sights performing a symphony just for me – a universe that existed and circulated and overlapped and melded within my being. Only within my being. What a wonderful privilege to have such exclusive access to life!
I smiled at the thought of all the magical experiences and ideas that I alone could witness.
Then, I looked back at Tina.
And yet – how lonely.
I wished my sister could see what I visualized, that she could share my mental experiences and participate in my imaginary adventures.
But then, I realized that within her physical presence there existed another universe – one to which I did not have access. I felt suddenly envious. I wondered about the trove of gems and treasures in her experience that would never manifest in mine.
And then a thought – perhaps dreams are the medium in which universes can overlap and merge. If two people dream of the same world, perhaps they can step outside of their individual universes into a shared imagination.
I am an introvert.
Few people realize that I am not naturally social. For the first twenty years of my life, I refused to participate in class; I could not look people in the eye; I trembled and whispered when I had to speak in public.
I was the epitome of “ten awkwards” fused with “insecure loser.”
I was the girl who stood in the corner of the bar and glowered at everyone else with a don’t-you-dare-approach-me stare. I was the girl who lectured people on stealing food from the dining halls. I was the girl who didn’t know how to dance, the girl who needed multiple lessons in front of the mirror with patient hands to guide awkward hips. I was the girl who did not know how to wear makeup or nail polish, the girl who did not have facebook or texting.
But then two years ago, my universe collapsed.
In the absence of fear, I started to live life with nothing to lose.
I no longer feared people. I no longer dreaded judgment, criticism, scrutiny. I shrugged off reputation.
Social interactions remained cumbersome – I am still not a fan of “hanging out” with groups of people, and in these settings, I remain the awkward presence in the corner (often misinterpreted as aloofness and unfriendliness).
But at the same time, I am driven by an obsessive curiosity about the universes of others.
I gravitate toward life stories – often accompanied by a cup of coffee or African tea, a Panera bread bowl, samosas, shaved ice, mangoes, noodles, cocktails, Red Mango, steak, bubble tea, tapas, Andy’s Frozen Custard.
I am what one might call a “serial-dater sans intente romantique.”
Pho at Argyle – The actor throws away his last little pink pill and decides to return to medical school.
Sushi at Ra – The bouncer’s exquisite taste in art rivals his knack for breaking noses.
Gelato in Nairobi – The athlete still stretches every morning in adamant denial of his career’s end.
Jamba Juice – The college playboy details careless escapades but cannot erase the memory of the first face.
Parisian breakfast – The child overflows with love, warmth, and cups of hot chocolate that she never received.
Salade Nicoise – The filmmaker rejects social life even as his art transforms him into a celebrity.
Noodles & Co – The musical prodigy hides behind the smoke of cigarettes and luxury cars.
Shisha in Dubai – The Burberry model celebrates a career that cannot brighten the darkness of his childhood.
Steak sandwiches – The 60-year-old politician confesses his continued search for love six years after the death of his high school sweetheart.
And there are so many others – people who have expanded my universe simply by allowing me to dip below the surface of their lives.
I love traveling alone.
The solitude invites and facilitates countless chance encounters and rare conversations. I find that flights and layovers, in particular, are especially conducive to accessing incredible life stories.
At Charles de Gaulles airport, an elderly woman gushes to me about her two-year-old grandson in Dubai whom she is afraid might no longer remember her. Then on the flight to Addis Ababa, a young Cantonese professor shares his nostalgia for the comforts of home after experiences of racism in Paris. My four hour layover in Dubai brings me back to the Burj Khalifa for fresh orange juice and muesli with an old friend. Then, an eight-hour layover in Beijing nearly jeopardizes my flight to Hong Kong after a crazy night of flashing lights and pounding beats.
I have certainly enjoyed and benefited from the liberties of individual travel. Traveling solo has exposed me to a wide array of universes – a diverse and growing collection of cultures, people, sights, smells, tastes. Traveling has enriched and expanded my universe.
However, in the midst of all the layovers, transfers, delays, cancellations, security checks, baggage claims – in Addis Ababa, Hangzhou, Dubai, Beijing, etcetc – I’ve started to feel something rather unexpected:
A sense of displacement.
At the end of the day, no matter where I go, where I stay, or where I work, the reality remains.
I am still living out of a suitcase.
Or rather, multiple suitcases.
No matter where I travel, I do not belong anywhere.
I have been so caught up in the twists and turns of the journey that I have lost sight of the destination. I have gotten to know so many people that I realize I know nobody at all. I have traveled to so many places that I realize I do not belong anywhere.
Serial dating and perpetual traveling share one thing in common: An absence of roots.
All of a sudden, I find myself lost – familiar and well-versed in many types of people and places and cultures in the world – but completely and utterly lost.
At some point, all journeys come to an end.
At some point, I will sit down and share more than just a meal with someone else.
At some point, I will fly into an airport and know that I have returned home.
Perhaps it is here that I can finally realize that this is what I have been looking for.
Perhaps it is now that I can finally acknowledge that this is what I want.
Perhaps it is you that can finally be the one I have been waiting for.
Only time can tell.
But in the meantime, the self-proclaimed independent woman would like you to know that she has learned that life was not meant to be a solitary journey.
Yes, there are portions of the path that are designed to be walked alone, but there are also many climbs and spectacular views one is supposed to share and experience with others.
Join me. Take me by surprise. Let me be a part of your life.
Take my photo, but then hand me the camera.
And let me capture you and make you a part of mine.