Friday, August 18, 2017

How I found gratitude on my own

Looking through my old photos to find the herring I wrote about in my last post, brought a lot of memories to the surface. Every picture triggered a story I wanted to share with you. Remembering the fun times I had was enough, but sometimes these stories had a point to make too.

This simple photo of a coffee was one of these.

The morning after the first time I got high, I went to a cafe near Amsterdam Centraal. I had made the classic rookie mistake of taking too much at the start and ending up super stoned, but in my defence, I waited nearly 2 hrs after eating my space cake with zero effect. They recommend waiting 30 minutes, so you can't question my patience.

My high was as fun as I'd hoped it would be, at least what I remember of it, but I was alone, and I'll admit, felt a bit like a loser for it... Thankfully being stoned makes that easier to deal with.

The night before, wandering Haarlemmerstraat, trying to work up the nerve to go into a coffeeshop and buy a brownie, was the first time that I really felt like I was missing out on some unique experiences by travelling solo. Sure, I'd wanted company before then - by that time I'd been abroad a little over a month - and I missed the friends and family I'd left behind, but I really relished the challenge of backpacking alone too. No compromises, no quarrels, total freedom.

What also comes with that is no assistance or support. There's no one to brainstorm ideas of what to do next, or to sound off feelings about where you want to go and how. There's no corroboration or collaboration to validate that the choices made are the right ones. I find it so much easier to be calm when I'm with calm people, because I reflect their mood, and in turn they absorb my zen. Without that, I internalise, mull, and stew over the smallest details, which leads to anxiety and indecision. I can freeze on the spot in the middle of a crowded street, not sure whether to turn left or right, and terrified about the consequences of either, completely aware that the decision I have to make is not at all as apocalyptic as it feels.

When I'm by myself, there's no shared laughter when things get a bit ridiculous. And I realised, as I entered a dim smokey coffeeshop on my own and pointed at a herbal cupcake for one, that I really wanted a friend or two at that very moment, to giggle about how silly the whole situation was. (My journal later reads in shaky handwriting, "There are actual Jamaicans in here!")

Still, there's something to be said for letting the situation dictate the proceedings. Just as you cannot walk through an ocean, the environment does have a fair bit of control over the journey you take. When push comes to shove, you just have to work with what you've got. Go build a boat. Go enjoy the water and swim. What you shouldn't do is stand on the beach and get frustrated. There's no doubt some things are more fun to do with company, but if you simply don't have something you want, instead of moping about it, or willing it to appear by constantly wanting it more, it's far better (and in the long run, actually easier) to accept things for what they are, pick yourself up, and keep plodding on.

I have since surprised myself by learning that I can be extremely easygoing on the road. (I still make plans, and I'm slightly more neurotic about those plans when I'm by myself than when I'm with friends, but I also like to follow my nose and not have to consult anyone about making sudden detours.) I have also proven myself that I can make friends out of strangers - not just random people to share space with and help me disappear into crowds, but really good friends; souls who I probably wouldn't have met if I hadn't dared to venture outside without a social condom to protect me.

So that's the "never say no" and "live life to the max" and "go single girl solo travel power" part of this post. But I've kind of always been into that. What is it about getting away that has such a hold on me? And when am I going to get to the point of that coffee photo?

Mostly, I think what I always savour by travelling alone is the mental relief that physical distance and solitude gives me from the pressure of expectations I feel when I'm home. Doesn't really matter how much of that stress is real, imagined or projected, because I suffer it all in the same way. And until I learn to let go and find space from it internally and figuratively, finding literal space helps a great deal. I have a slight hang up about whether this is a cowardly form of escape... But deep down, I firmly and truly believe it is a healthy thing to do - to separate, detox from distractions and routines, refocus, and pay attention to the immediate surrounds and the present moment.

Going to that cafe the morning after the night before, took some time. I'm slow first thing, especially when I have to make choices and plans by myself. I was further hampered by what was either a pot hangover, extreme sleep deprivation, or both. But I finally made it out to that cafe, which I remember searching for specifically, for reasons I can't recall; perhaps good reviews on TripAdvisor. Cosmic irony stepped in to ensure that the cafe was severely understaffed, so on top of all of my own self-imposed delays, I waited a really long time for my coffee.

What struck me was that I really wasn't fussed by the wait. I empathised with the barista who apologised to me for the inconvenience while she rushed about like a headless chicken - I noticed this because normally I'd only be thinking about myself, and feeling critical and judgmental.

Not that morning. Instead I sat quietly at the scrubbed wooden table, my journal untouched, and stared mesmerised at the warm amber hue of the sunlight as it slanted across the tabletop, like transparent gold. It occurred to me how beautiful mid-morning sunshine is, and how I never noticed it before the way I seemed to be noticing it now.

I briefly wondered if I was still high, because I was really transfixed by that sight. Then I realised it didn't matter. I felt really happy. I'd had an amazing night, one of those first-in-a-lifetime type of experiences. I hadn't waited for anyone to give me permission to do it, or to babysit me through it. It was a night I would always remember - me, the straight laced, straight A's, rule follower, spacing out in the lobby of a Dutch youth hostel. Then, because of how light and liberated and joyous I felt, I would always remember that following morning too.

I almost couldn't believe it. Look at where I was! I was in the Netherlands! A whole world away from home where I'd been sheltered for 20 years. All the doomsday warnings I've been given about being a female backpacking around Europe alone were proven to be wrong, because I was totally, utterly, blissfully okay. I had coffee (eventually), sunshine, and myself. And it hit me - that's all I needed. Suddenly the many years of exams and grades and good behaviour I'd spent so much time and energy stressing about seemed not only pointless and petty, but stupid and wasteful. Where had I been all this time? Had I even been living all these years?

My time was running out in Amsterdam, and this was the point when I usually began to make lists of things to see and do, and weigh up the things I could tick off against the things I would miss, followed by estimations of how great my traveller's remorse might be. Exhausting, right? That's just how my brain operates. But instead of running through all the sights and activities offered by that great city in my mind, my thoughts wandered back home, to Sydney and university and jobs and family and so on, and what I would do with myself when my holiday was over. The thought of it made me feel queasy, and distracted. Suddenly, I really couldn't be arsed worrying. It wasn't relevant to what I was doing right then and there. I deserved my break. I would worry about my career in the all-too-near future. The present moment had no room for worry. Neither my family nor my college education had a place in that cafe with me. To continue the metaphor: I was not going to force myself to walk through the ocean to reach an impossible horizon. I wanted no boat. I wanted to swim in the water and feel the waves against my skin and soak my hair and laugh, just floating and bobbing about, and enjoying the sea.

It occurred to me that this was gratitude. I was, for the first time ever, 100% genuinely grateful: for all I had, for all I was, for all I'd done, for all I'd been given and was a part of. I was grateful for the waitress for running around to give me coffee. I was grateful for the sun for shining when it could have rained. I was grateful for my holiday for giving me time to linger over that morning. I was grateful for the edibles I'd had the night before which brought me to a state of heavenly relaxation. I was grateful for myself for being there, and having this beautiful moment all to myself. I didn't know gratitude was something you could discover, but there I was, discovering it - and according to recent blogs and articles espousing the latest mental health crazes, gratitude is "so in" right now. However I was a few years ahead of the fad, and I'm proud of it.

Gratitude is no joke, people. It is the real deal and if you discover it, I hope you experience the same joy and cathartic calm I did. If you haven't yet, be patient and it will come. For me, all it took was a cup of coffee, and a bit of sunshine.

Have a great weekend everyone. I'm thinking of you and wishing you peace. Love Bernie x

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