I snapped the photo above just before I finished my solo travel in Italy.
Sole mio: My own sunshine.
How apropos. That’s what this journey has been about: finding my own sunshine, finding myself.
I’m not sure that we human beings can get much right if we don’t know who we truly are. Time alone, away from our normal lives, gives us the space to temporarily push aside the roles we play as appendages to others (spouse, parent, daughter, son, friend, co-worker). It gives us an opportunity to peel back the layers and rediscover ourselves.
Can you remember that individual within you? Your most authentic self?
I didn’t realize how much I had lost track of my true self. Maybe the quest to remember is why I felt compelled to travel alone to southern Italy. Maybe the deeper, more real me needed to find a way out.
It has taken space and distance for that to happen. In stepping away from my life and getting reacquainted with my true self, I now see things I wish I had seen much sooner: being a little too dependent for my own good… hiding parts of myself to avoid being criticized… selling myself short by not holding some important personal boundaries… the things I want and don’t want for myself. We live close up with our lives and that makes it difficult to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Stepping back gives us a different view.
And now, here in the countryside of Puglia, in Italy’s heel, this is a very different view. I’ve pulled myself away from Matera, the stone comeback city that is, ironically, the place where I have spent the last few days coming back to myself. Now, ninety minutes south, in the midst of gnarly olive groves, I’m at a small restaurant where the view all around is couples. One pair alongside another, steeped in the candle lit romance of a beautiful place on the kind of chilly autumn night that makes you want to get cozy. Unless you’re alone… which I am.
I came here thinking (hoping) it might be a night of communal dining, a group of strangers sitting at one long table chit-chatting over a slow, delicious dinner. When I arrived, it was a different scene, one that Cupid himself could have designed. Lots of tables and lots of pairs. And me.
Nights like this give me a new awareness of how deeply steeped in coupledom our society is. It gives me a greater appreciation for those who go it alone every day. I’m thankful when the waiter places a serving of vegetable pie in front of me. Food gives me something to do, a place to put my eyes. I savor every bite, taking my time even though this won’t be a quick meal. It’s a tasting menu of many courses.
A few nights ago, I probably would have rushed through it, wanting to finish quickly without imposing my lone-self in romance-land, with its lingering looks, knowing smiles, and delicate kisses between courses. But I’m learning to be okay with them being them and me being me. Just me. Plus I’ve brought my trusty dinner companions: a book, paper and a pen. They’re not romantic, but they are intimate, especially the paper where my thoughts and feelings and realizations land. Tonight I’m writing about being content with my own company. Being intimate with myself is something I haven’t practiced much until this trip. Be okay with who you are and where you are, literally and figuratively, I tell myself, and the pen follows my thoughts.
Eventually, when the meal is done, I take my full belly and walk across the expanse of grass and up the stairs to my room in the beautiful old masseria, a farm estate that’s been turned into a charming inn. I hear a couple laugh in the distance. Everything about this night makes me miss my husband and sons, the feelings that come with special time together in a special place, but it’s not highly charged emotion like it was at the start of this trip. It’s steadier. It’s observing the feeling and, at the same time, understanding the reason I feel this way, the importance of this time alone. It’s less reactive. I like that.
With the kind of tired that comes from a busy day, a big meal, and a lot of figuring myself out, I fall into bed, and out of habit, stay on one side as I have every other night even though it’s just me. I look across at the empty other side, the pillow without an indentation, and I think about being half of a couple. And one-fourth of a family. That’s how I have seen myself: one part of a whole. But that’s changing. Laying alone in the quiet with nothing to distract me, I want to be whole on my own accord. It seems to me that the best couples are not two halves who come together and connect in a desperate hope for completion, but two wholes, or at least as close as we humans can get. I suppose it’s the same for the grown members of families, too. I mull over these big thoughts for a few more minutes before I turn off the bedside lamp and slowly drift toward sleep, wondering what else I’ll discover on this journey.
In the coming days, I explore the narrow streets of nearby Ostuni, the white city on the hill that overlooks the glimmering blue sea in the distance. Then I shift gears and head back to the countryside to walk the grounds of ancient olive orchards where I stand under the shadow of twisted trees that are thousands of years old. Some look like Jurassic creatures and require stone supports, but still they bare black ovals that will be pressed into extra virgin oil. Under their branches, I find encouragement. Age can surprise you, I think. It’s never too late
Later, I walk the bouldered shore of the Adriatic coast, staying in the town of Monopoli, whose name makes smile and think of times gathered around the table with my kids, buying and selling fictional properties. Reminders of those I love are everywhere, but I’m not finished here yet. I know that. So I follow my inner voice and figure out how to get to nearby Polignano a Mare, a coastal town that sits atop a rocky cliff and overlooks the rough sea below, but offers gentle harbor above. I’m not sure why, but I have felt drawn to this place and my instinct is right. Her charms more than make up for the time and hassle of getting here.
I feel the end of my trip pushing in and treat myself to one last gelato (chocolate fondant and Ferraro Roche) and try my first granita (passion fruit). And I stroll, wandering and wondering what’s around the next corner of these streets lined in white washed buildings that make me think of Greece. Along the way I notice again and again doors that are closed on the bottom and open on the top, barn door style but prettier. An old man peers out of one, watching the world go by and we smile at one another in a language that has no barriers. This trip is a crossing of paths and then carrying on by myself. This life is the same I suppose.
Each place, each experience has something to teach me and because I am alone and undistracted, the lessons are clear. Good things happen when you follow your deepest voice, I realize. And so do mistakes. I make a few of those, too, because, even in the midst of magic, life isn’t perfect. But having gone it alone during this time, I know I’ll be okay. This journey has helped me to see that… and much more.
As I board my final flight and head home, I’m different. I can feel it as certainly as I can feel every breath I take. I’m more sure of myself, not just because I did this trip alone, but because going alone has brought me back to who I really am. As I rejoin my ordinary life, I want to hold on to the way I feel. All of it. So I make a promise to no longer hide parts of myself in hopes of avoiding someone’s judgement, to make firm decisions and listen to my own voice as I consider the voices of those around me, to decide for myself what’s right and good, and to see myself and my loved ones as connected, but separate wholes. I will trust myself and my God. And hopefully, I’ll become whole myself, or at least I’ll get a little closer to it.
Of course, the trick is maintaining this here at home, where it’s the same old dynamics and routines. How can we do this work of staying in touch with ourselves without going all the way to Italy? And while staying in touch with our people, which is sometimes all-consuming.
I’m convinced it starts with time alone… really alone. Disconnected from the phone. (Do. Not. Answer.) Unplugged from our lives. Even for a day. And even better overnight and in a place that’s not familiar, a place that pushes you outside of your comfort zone (but is safe). This time should not at all resemble your normal day.
Take the day off work. Drop the kids at school. Choose a nearby town where you’ve never been. Make few or no plans. Just go and leave room to figure it out. Explore. Slow down and notice what’s around you… and your reaction to it. What do you like? (Not what your kids or spouse would like, but YOU.) What don’t you like? Take God along. But remember to treat Him life a real travel companion and nurture your relationship. Acknowledge His presence. Regularly. Make your own decisions rather than figuring you should do something, or doing it simply because you always have. Loosen up. Get free. Choose for yourself. Do it your own way.
And then, when you’re driving home, ask yourself important questions:
How does this feel?
What’s it like spending time with me?
Who am I without my people? This one might take a while. We don’t practice self-discovery often so unwrapping ourselves isn’t easy. We become conditioned to think a certain way, to react as an appendage of another. But be patient and be persistent. As you make decisions, even small ones, you’ll get back in touch with yourself. As you practice being an individual and choosing for yourself, layers will likely begin to lift, revealing who you are apart from your people. Then go deeper. Ask yourself: What brings me joy? What’s working in my life? What isn’t? How can I change it?
The more you do, the more you realize you can do. These are building blocks. Start stacking and keep on stacking until you get where you want to be.
So where will that be? Where will time going solo take you? The answer is yours to discover in a journey that is yours alone. I can only tell you it took me to beautiful places that I now know were not the destination at all. They were only the beginning of the real journey.
Happy travels, Underdogs! I hope you’ll let me know how it goes….