How many hours have slid by as I peered out of a window, strange lands passing along beside me? Of those times, how many have I disembarked from a train, bus, plane, shouldering my pack, unsure of where I was going next, where I would sleep?
Enough to almost fully know that fluttering panic won’t help. Enough to often suppress the urge. Enough to observe what comes and go along with it, nearly sans distress. A shaky stillness came to me unconsciously, over time.
This isn’t my natural state: it took plenty of those trains, buses, and planes to reach a place where—had you told me this before, I would have laughed at you, askance—I don’t think too hard and instead calmly move along. I simultaneously shut down strong emotion and skittering races of thought, and become translucent as moments and vision pass through me, leaving traces of emotion and memory behind, for later. It’s a transient state, but I have it in me now.
So maybe traveling as I have done taught me mindfulness, a skill I can sometimes – sometimes! – draw upon. This was inadvertent. My teenage self scoffed at shutting down what I consider the strongest, most valuable element of myself: my thoughts, my mind. But what degree of intellectualism can pull you out of a bus going the wrong way? Or up through a canopy of trees in a national park, miles from where you intended to be? Or into a room with a bed, when you’re currently hiking into a town with no place to stay? The thoughts don’t help. Only moving along does anything.
I’ve become the opposite of what’s expected. Anxiety is for home; acceptance is for traveling. I’m trying to draw the ability to sit back and observe off the road and into my routine, more specifically, my pattern of news-reading and political activism which was a carbonated beverage that has now been particularly shaken. I downloaded a meditation app and as Tamara Levitt evenly spoke I realized I have felt these sensations – just not so much on my own couch.
Lass dir Alles geschehn: Schönheit und Schrecken.
Man muss nur gehn: Kein Gefühl ist das fernste.
Let everything happen to you: Beauty and terror
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
The first time I embarked on an utterly solo journey, I fidgeted hard on the plane, trying to breathe calmly. It turned out okay, even though those couple weeks spanning five countries included plenty of getting lost and last minute assurances of a place to stay. And then I returned to this situation and returned and returned. It lingers in my head when I am not there. I suppose a path has been worn and while not quite the way of least resistance – it’s there.
Sure, I don’t glide through all of it. Wandering the streets of Berlin felt very different from those of Bujumbura – while both have played host to relatively recent genocide, one is closer to what I have grown up knowing and one is home to a language I can speak, and commonly speaks my language back at me. When I am in a stranger space, where anchors of reference are harder to set, I do feel grabs of a spinning fright. But now there is more in me; I have stretched. It’s smoother each time.
The calm does not stem from repeated assurances that everything will be alright. Indeed, throwing myself around and sticking feelers out of my lucky, privileged shell, to see though I cannot know, tells me the opposite. There are horrors, and they are common, and my little slice of the world and the position I hold is not an indicative slice. But there is a depth and complexity into which we can sink, and know we’ll never quite understand, but we’re wrapped in the sight of a wide horizon. Known but unknowable in full. I accept.
I now sense and sideways-understand what changed in me. Maybe I cultivated the mindfulness that has been repeatedly proposed to me, gradually, on accident. A habit of losing control and an assent to the mixedupness of it all pushed me where I hadn’t intended to go. Now I walk a bit more lightly, sometimes. It’s just something I see.