Isle of Eigg, September 2016
'Don't try to figure out what the world needs. Figure out what makes you come alive, then go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.' (Howard Thurman)
In May 2015 I informed my close people of my intention to retire. I wrote: 'There’s no plan... The sense of freedom and possibility is vast. My intention is to travel, slowly, to some places that interest me, but really my intentions are less about DOING new things and more about exploring new ways of BEING…
Right now I am starting to feel more seen, more accepted and loved for my whole self than I’ve ever felt before. This is no coincidence; it’s part of the process of learning to allow myself to open to feeling: pain, love and joy.'
I left London on 1 September 2015. I cycled anti-clockwise around Europe, from France to Spain and Portugal, through the Mediterranean region via Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and southern Italy as far as Greece (flying to Israel for a month from Athens, then volunteering for two months in Lesbos) and Turkey, up via Bulgaria, Romania (where I spent two months), Hungary and Slovakia as far as Poland, then back across Germany and Belgium to the UK. I spent the summer in England, Wales and Scotland, celebrating my 40th birthday and being mortified by 'Brexit'.
Though the winter months presented some challenges, overall the year was a triumph. Here's a tiny taste:
JOY and gratitude
In September as I rolled off the first of several overnight ferries at St Malo I felt all choked up. This is my absolutely favourite thing, I thought, and from today I get to do it FOREVER - if I want.
One evening in October I zoomed through Barcelona on the back of Pol (a new activist friend)'s Vespa feeling a particular kind of euphoria from the speed, vibrant city and queer solidarity.
In November Marseille's Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée brought another lump to my throat as I felt a profound fascination with the history and human geography of the region as well as delight in the architecture, setting and concept of the museum.
In Sardinia I allowed myself to do nothing at all for several unplanned days at a basic beach campsite where I was the only camper, apart from sunbathing and dipping in the crystal clear sea.
Though I have to be more restrained than in the past, food remains a major source of joy. It's hard to choose favourites, but for some reason the distinctive soups of Slovakia and Poland are what have sprung first to my mind, followed by Sicilian pistachio cream-filled croissants and Israeli sabich.
Though a major challenge for the first 3-4 months (see FEAR), stealth camping has become one of my most regular sources of euphoria. In fact, it's hard to convey the extent of my relief and gratitude that I've nailed it. I have come to love falling asleep and - especially - waking up in yet another stunning, peaceful landscape feeling safe in the knowledge that noone in the world knows I am there. What's more, free camping is what makes my freedom sustainable.
LOVE and connectedness
In recent years I have become – like many before – obsessively interested in the apparently paradoxical human tension between wanting to feel connected and known, and wanting to feel separate and free. Some people say you can’t have both; that 'you can’t have your cake and eat it'. Certainly a lot of people compromise one for the other to the point of chronic unhappiness. I'm finding that I CAN have both. That’s why I called my blog havingmycake.net
'I'm not gonna live my life on one side of an ampersand' (Amanda Palmer song lyric)
'The only way to have a friend is to be one.' (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
My only significant reservation about leaving the UK was whether my relationships would withstand the change. Most have not only survived but deepened through good communication about the change and/or high quality time together. Several of my peeps have had an exceptionally difficult year; I've been greatly touched when they've kept in contact, and haven't taken my physical absence as unavailability. Over a dozen people have already travelled to meet me; others have hosted and nourished me.
On New Year's Day in Tel Aviv the rejection and sadness I was feeling about an abortive romantic relationship eased considerably when Meg-John (effectively acting as a representative of all those who had NOT just rejected me!) was available to Skype. There were occasions when I was similarly available for them and for other peeps.
I've received extraordinary kindness from strangers and new friends. For example:
- In several countries but particularly Greece I was given free fruit almost daily.
- In Corsica at a rustic restaurant I learned a lesson when some inebriated hunters I felt prickly towards shared their lunch with me and were delightful.
- In southern Italy I camped next to a seaside town's five-a-side football pitch, cooking my supper by floodlight as the evening's league action unfolded. In contrast to my usual secret camping spots, that night I went to sleep knowing the caretaker, his wife and half the town knew I was there.
Ben's decision to take his first foreign holiday since becoming a parent with his sister touched me deeply, as did his uninhibited enjoyment of ten days bird-watching in the Danube Delta ('this is PARADISE!'). This is now one of the most important relationships in my life.
My summer in the UK was one to cherish for the second year in a row. 30 of my closest people including my family celebrated my 40th with me in the Chilterns in the exact low-key way I asked for (including two who flew in, one unexpectedly).
Notwithstanding the Brexit horror I love this beautiful country and its dry-humoured people.
So far this year I've taken 35 of the '40 walks with 40 friends' I'm in the process of blogging about, though I’m very behind with writing them up.
I am so, so grateful to everyone who has encouraged, supported, followed, hosted and nourished me this year.
'As Ram Dass has pointed out, we are human beings, not human doings. Being is very hard for some of us, and we may need to rehearse silence more than we need to practice speech.' (Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Connection)
While not necessarily being particularly mindful about it, I have discovered a great enjoyment of sleep (easily ten hours a night when camping), in the basic rhythms and routines of life, and in simply being quiet and doing nothing in particular. When camping, I sleep when my eyes droop and wake naturally. On the rare occasions I’m woken by my alarm it feels like some kind of torture. It’s rare for me to ‘get going’ before mid morning. Occasionally in cities I still feel I ought to achieve more, but mostly I feel no sense of this whatever.
In addition, for the first time since childhood I've become a daily reader again, thanks to ample free time and my new Kindle. Norman Davies' extraordinary 1400-page 'EUROPE' has been one of the most important reads of my life. Both Emily and Meg-John published books this year, and Harriet Lerner's 'The Dance of Connection' had a big impact on how I'm approaching my family relationships. Lately I've developed a joyful - if not very mindful - habit of reading my Kindle while cycling!
Laura generously gave me access to her audiobook library, with the result that I've also consumed lots of fiction while pedalling along, including Huxley's Brave New World, Tartt's The Birdcage and the whole of Larsson's Dragon Tattoo trilogy.
FEAR and anxiety
Having experienced very little physical fear during my life to date, the first quarter of this past year involved lots of fear, which I wrote about several times (see here). I spent most afternoons anxious about finding somewhere I'd feel safe enough to sleep. It took til well into the winter before I started to relax.
There have inevitably been a few days I've felt utterly terrified on the road. In Portugal one lorry driver drove so close to me I screamed so hard in terror and rage I actually wet myself. In Romania, one day I screamed so much I lost my voice.
One uniquely fearsome experience stands out: in Romania Laura and I saw a brown bear at the beginning of a five-hour hike in the Carpathian mountains. I've rarely felt so out of my depth; the feeling of relief on getting back to our hotel was quite something.
Fears about money come and go. So far, in spite of my inherited frugality, aiming to live on roughly £20/day, and eating a lot of lentils, I haven't quite managed to live only on the small profit from renting out my house (after paying my mortgage, tax and other unexpected costs). Mostly I manage to soothe this anxiety by taking a long-term view and remembering I hope to spend all of 2018 in South America.
SADNESS and grief
A small number of my relationships seem to have stumbled, about which I am profoundly sad. This summer I have tried to (re)initiate communication about how to sustain them, with mixed results.
Saddest of all, Zoe planned a trip back to the UK with her new baby without liaising about timings, with the result that they departed London just a week or so before I got back. Though it hurts like hell she no longer sees me as part of her family I've decided it's OK that I probably will see her this way for the rest of my life.
It has been said that I used to seem angry quite a lot of the time, often apparently with myself. Looking back I think ‘angry’ was the label my original and chosen families applied to avoid seeing other emotions. Now that I’m starting to recognise feelings like grief, sadness, fear, loneliness and frustration I very rarely feel angry.
(thank you Ben for this image)
Notwithstanding, after volunteering for two months in Lesbos, I cried tears of rage at the injustice of being able to board a safe, cheap ferry across the narrow strait to Turkey, while refugees teemed in the opposite direction, most nights, in treacherous rubber boats, for thousands of dollars each. Similar feelings hit me when I passed easily through the West Bank wall into Bethlehem on a day trip from Jerusalem.
That said, in the refugee camp I noticed a clash between my own values: my compassion sometimes wavered in the face of guys blatantly lying in order to try to get 'more than their share' of sadly scarce resources such as shoes and coats, and people dropping copious amounts of litter around the camp. Some of the volunteers drove me to distraction.
INTENTIONS FOR YEAR TWO
In the coming year I intend to ride via Scandinavia, Germany and France back down to the south of Spain for the winter, partly to keep warm but mainly to start learning Spanish with a vengeance. In April 2017 I hope to fly to Vancouver where we want to organise the first ever solo polyamory conference, before riding down the west coast of the US. I expect to fly to Buenos Aires circa September to spend some time with Jen and to further my Spanish. In March 2018 I hope to begin riding down the west side of South America, from Colombia to Argentina, which will take at least a year. Who knows where life will lead me after that, but I'd love to visit Georgia and Japan especially, and I can't imagine I'll ever tire of Europe, especially the Mediterranean…
I'll continue punctuating my solo travels with the companionship of friends. What's worked particularly well so far is people joining me for low-key adventures where my budget is not a source of awkwardness/disparity: camping, walking, biking etc. Blowing a day's (or a week's!) budget on one meal, not so much!
As well as working hard to become fluent in Spanish I'd also like to learn how to wolf whistle with one hand! My environmental intention is to use flannels more (and therefore fewer non-biodegradable baby wipes)!
Having weekly therapy from 2010-2015 helped massively with ‘becoming more the author of my own story’ and ‘growing into the spaces in myself’. A couple of years ago I asked my therapist where the next level of insight into self might come from. Her answer: some kind of daily practice. Having now made significant progress in the art of mindlessly being, in the coming year I hope to establish a couple of regular, personal practices. Some kind of mindful sitting/noticing and/or stretching, and various ideas to encourage my sexuality to continue emerging (reading, writing, 'practicing').
On the fairly rare and usually fleeting occasions I have sexual or indeed any physical contact, I realise how much I lack for this with my current lifestyle. It's considerably easier to meet people on my wavelength in some countries than others, which may be a factor in future route planning!
My recent check-in with my therapist confirmed two things: 1. I still have a tendency to 'give myself away' in relationships. Applying what I've learned reading Harriet Lerner helps with this. 2. In order to 'follow my nose' (gut/intuition), I need to keep 'polishing it'. My intended mindful daily practices will help with this.
Though I'm a LOT 'lighter' these days and I smile a lot, I'd still like to LAUGH more. To this end I intend to seek out witty autobiographies as audiobooks, and/or to get into downloading funny stuff from Radio 4.
I would welcome comments on this review, so long as they're constructive/kind.