The need to sometimes be alone in the world

Fife Coastal Path
On the Fife Coastal Path. Photo © Duncan Blair

During my recent overlong travel day, I had quite a few moments when I thought how WONDERFUL it was going to be when I finally got into my flat and got reacquainted with my own bed and, perhaps, a pizza or other convenience comfort food. But with my ultimate travel goals on the brain, my longings for home automatically led to wondering what I’d do with those feelings on a much longer trip. One where a very long delay in an airport (or three) may not end in my own flat. Or my own room. Or even in accommodation, let alone a private space.

As travel delays go, my day in Helsinki airport wasn’t really all that bad. It was simple to put myself in a bubble most of the time, and there were plenty of comfortable places to sit and get lost in a podcast without disruption. But it’s not always like that, and even in that fairly good situation, I still wanted out. Most of it was just being tired, but that kind of fatigue makes you susceptible to feeling, physically, like crap. And also to emotions. The kinds of emotions you don’t really want to have a chat with in public.

Quietly getting through the day in full view of a strange public for hours on end seems to get me thinking about my life’s big issues. Past present and future, they’re all fair game. I can’t just shut it all off while I read a trash magazine or something. It’s one of the cruel tricks my brain plays on itself. I am bad at relaxing and I’m bad at being quiet between my ears. This has a way of building up, and it’s harder to manage when I have nowhere to be my bizarre, alone self. (YOU KNOW you have a bizarre, alone self too, so, don’t pretend I’m talking nonsense.)

When I have an end of the day or a destination in sight, I can usually keep this stuff in check with the promise of isolation on its way. But what about when I don’t have a definitive end? What about when I’m on a multi-month trip and may not even know where my next bed is because I’m being adventurous and not always planning that far in advance? What happens when I need to cry or nurse myself to health or just simply be AWAY FROM ALL OTHER HUMANS?

It’s hard enough to do the inner-self-maintenance required to be an outwardly positive or even just pleasant person without worrying about privacy. Sometimes the weight of certain kinds of loneliness, nostalgia, or your own particular madness is such that you need a place to implode without the world watching and wondering and occasionally trying to help. Because there’s no help for having to let yourself be a mess sometimes. You just have to purge that shit by letting it run through you.

So how do you make space for that when your home is on your back? How do you store it up without letting it ruin you? I mean, in my experience airport bathrooms can be good for this stuff in a pinch, but you can only feel so much better about life in a tiny cubicle with a hard, incomplete seat.

I think the simplest answer, as a wise fish once said, is just keep swimming. Easier said than done, particularly in the over-dry air of the most public of public spaces. But it’s the only option, really. The good thing is, at least I’ve found, the more experience you have with the swimming on, the better you get at being a courteous citizen of the sea and doing it without stirring up the shit around you in the water.

Pool in a hole in a giant rock
It may not look like much, but in my lifetime, this pool will be hard to beat.

Speaking of swimming, there is a somewhat positive flip-side to this. Needing to be alone isn’t always about purging the bad stuff, it can be about processing the really, really good stuff. I spent a blissful 15 minutes swimming in the dark in a pool cut into a giant rock looking at the stars in the spectacular African sky after one of the best days of my life in Zimbabwe. It was almost too much happiness to handle at once, and I managed to snag this tiny window of time away from everyone else on the trip to let the circuits in my brain calm down while I floated between the universe and a land that was so fantastic it may as well have been another world. (Why no one else wanted to go swimming at that point is beyond my comprehension. And I probably could have had longer than 15 minutes, but dinner was on and I was also a little worried about being alone in a place where it’s not rare for hungry cheetahs to roam around at night. (TIA, MF!) Sometimes life edits itself to perfection.)

Anyway, when I’m really struggling with a GET ME OUT OF HERE WHY ARE THERE SO MANY PEOPLE AND WHY WON’T THEY GO AWAY HOLY CRAP HOW ON EARTH AM I MEANT TO JUST KEEP FUCKING SWIMMING situation, I’m hoping that I’m at least building up some karma for one of these alone-time bonuses. Actual swimming or not. It’s nice to have an image to work with, and it makes the bad stuff worth enduring now and then.

So I’m figuring the challenge of having no fixed destination is probably all about adaptation. Ten years ago, 10 hours in an airport probably would have made me a lot crankier, but now I put myself on autopilot and just kinda let it wash over me. That definitely makes it easier to handle. Perhaps learning to give zero fucks is the real answer to this problem, and sometimes you just gotta be a wreck for all to see if there’s nowhere to hide it and no ideal pool to go nightswimming in.

But thinking about it certainly makes me value the fact that I do currently have a place to come home to, even if there’s no pizza waiting.

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