One evening when we were in Lisbon (which in itself sounds so very romantic and amazing to me) I decided to stay in the apartment by myself and take a bath while the others went out for dinner. It was a wise decision, one of the few times when I opted to have some time alone. Outside, the night was just beginning to unfold: fragments of voices and laughter rose from the narrow cobblestoned alleys and streets, lights blinked on, scooters sped by, heavy doors creaked open or slammed snugly shut. But I didn’t feel that I was missing anything. My solitude encircled me in a gentle way, like an old friend. Hello again.
What I hadn’t remembered about travel is that no matter how lightly we pack, we haul around an awful lot of baggage. All my ghosts accompanied me, all my guilt and fears and sadnesses weighed me down, and even in the midst of delightful distractions, troubling memories abruptly appeared and rolled over me. My mother’s birthday came and went, and Mother’s Day, and I was surprised to realize how raw and unhealed I still was about her dying and all the other sorrows connected to it. I felt fragile, and this fragility was exacerbated by general exhaustion, the lack of a single comfortable base, and the emotional pressure of trying to reconnect with my daughter in such a limited time.
I’m not complaining. It is a great privilege to be able to travel abroad as we do, and it would be obnoxious not to recognize that with gratitude. I’m just saying that sometimes the reality of this trip was not as I had hoped, although sometimes it was wonderful, and I’ll write about those moments too. But for now, I was in an apartment in Lisbon all by myself, reflecting. An important rule for travel: take some time to be alone. It doesn’t matter what you do with this time out or what your state of mind, it’s just essential to recalibrate and not relate. It had been a hot day but the hot bath was soothing. I sank into it with an audible sigh. I leaned back and looked up at the high white ceiling. It was a 19th century building, recently renovated, with a steep stairway, various levels, and very few right angles. It’s funny how we notice things more when no one is around, how aloneness seems to alter our environment.
Hello again. And who have you become? These days I am free of ambition and need only grant myself a pardon for this and view it as a state of enlightenment rather than a deficiency. I am retired from teaching and I don’t miss it. I am a writer, but barely, and I make occasional forays into the world of the functioning but I am not relevant anymore. I am a woman with glasses and circles under my eyes and the beginnings of an old crone neck and chin. I have no power. I try to be nice. I understand that I am mortal, formerly a remote and abstract fact, now something I am aware of right down to my osteopenic bones.
I look at my daughter sometimes and think how little she really knows me and the tragic and complex history of my family, but then I feel pleased to have transcended and not shifted it to her. She comes from such an indulged, secure, and happy place. There are so many stories she doesn’t know (and doesn’t want to know), and so many memories of people that will disappear with me. But despite my ongoing efforts to transcribe, preserve, and tell, this vanishing is the way of the world.
I’ve had trouble concentrating on long novels or challenging reading material lately, but I’ve been gleaning in bits and pieces, some from a book called Consolations by David Whyte. It is filled with wise and eloquent thoughts. Here are a few that I copied into my journal:
The great measure of human maturation is the increasing understanding that we move through life in the blink of an eye; that we are not long with the privilege of having eyes to see, ears to hear, a voice with which to speak and arms to put round a loved one; that we are simply passing through.
The courageous life is the life that is equal to this unceasing tidal and seasonal becoming: and strangely beneath all, stillness being the only proper physical preparation for joining the breathing autonomic exchange of existence.
Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable that is coming to you? And how will you endure it through the years? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light and then just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?
It’s how I feel. I am only now just beginning to understand (some) things, almost too late, in a few matters already too late, but struggling to shape a meaningful life worthy of this beautiful and astonishing world through which I have been given the gift of passage.
After my bath, I wrapped myself in a big towel, walked into the front room, gazed toward the window, and saw a woman in a strapless white gown watching me. She looked as if she were going to a ball, but there was something pale about her, like a dream or apparition, and something familiar. In a moment I realized the woman was me in my gown of white bath towel. Reflecting.