I haven't traveled alone for almost eight years.
This morning, it was hard for to me believe I was once a seasoned business traveler, with all the right suitcases and systems. That was me rushing through airports and train stations like I lived there, I know it was, but that woman feels like a stranger to me now.
As my husband deposited me at a local train stop for the commuter rail into Boston, where I would catch the connection to New York, my stomach brimmed with butterflies. Feigning a confidence I didn't feel, I stood on the platform with one hip jutted out, looking bored, while I waited for the train. Inside I was a roiling mess.
When I stepped off the commuter rail and into Boston's South Station, I looked around helplessly. This isn't going to work, I thought. I didn't know any of the systems - can I bring two huge bags on the train? Where do I get my electronic ticket? I couldn't find my train's platform, the bags were heavy, cumbersome, and made me feel like a walking target.
A man noticed my pained expression and helped me with my bags, gave me the inside scoop on the Acela - sit in the Quiet Car, board early to put your bags on the big shelves by the door, sit near the window so you have a plug for your laptop. I could barely look him in the face. I felt like an idiot.
As the train pulled out of the station, my stomach lurched with nervous energy. I was convinced I was on the wrong train, that I would end up in Washington D.C or Chicago. I sat and awfulized for a full ten minutes, working myself into a nervous sweat. How on earth did I do this for so many years, I pondered.
Oh yeah. I drank.
So what do you do now that you don't drink, I thought.
Oh yeah. I pray.
As the train clacked along the tracks, I closed my eyes, folded my hands, and prayed. I didn't pray to a specific God found in any popular religion. I prayed to the energies that flow through us all, kind of like a Divine Spirit, if I have to give it a name. I prayed to get up and away from myself. I prayed to find solace outside my mind.
Help me find enthusiasm for this amazing day, this incredible trip. Help me get out of my fears, my insecurities. Help me be present in the beauty of new experiences. Please, please help me be grateful.
I took some deep breaths, and I waited. Little by little my muscles relaxed, my jaw unclenched. I looked out the window at the passing countryside, marveling at the open space.
I slipped on my ear buds and listened to a guided meditation on my iPod. The gently rocking train, the sunlight splashing through the window and the soothing tones of the meditation lulled me into a state of pure bliss.
When I stepped off the train at Penn Station in NYC, it felt like the entire world was on fast forward. People rushed by, yelling into cell phones, trotting off to their next thing. I stood still and took it all in. I waited for the pulse of fear that I didn't know the systems here, couldn't even find the exit to the street. It didn't come.
I walked, buoyed along by the crowds. Snatches of conversations floated my way: you want this big wedding, but where are ya going to get all this money? and from someone else: I don't care what you think you said, that's not what I heard. This is all your fault. Like something from a movie cliche, an old man wearing a sandwich board bumped my elbow, ranting about the end of days.
Eventually the crowd tumbled out onto the sidewalk, and I hefted my bag onto my shoulder and simply walked. After a couple of blocks I found an available taxi and rattled off the address to the hotel. I didn't feign a bored, disinterested expression to mask fear. I peered openly out at the world rushing by. I felt vibrant and alive.
The hotel is a quirky building, full of steep staircases, burnished wood and doors tucked into every available nook. I dropped my bags in my room and stood there for a moment, debating. Before, when traveling on business, I tucked into my hotel room with room service and a few drinks from the mini-bar. That was how I used to keep the fear of the unfamiliar at bay. I hid.
I put on some comfortable shoes, threw my purse over my shoulder, walked out the front door and turned left. Just to see what I would see. I walked and walked, covering almost sixteen blocks down 5th Avenue. I shopped a little, but mostly I absorbed all the unfamiliar like a sponge. I marveled at all the people - I wanted to stop and ask them who they are, where they are from, what they are doing here. I slipped seamlessly into the sea of humanity and just watched.
Now I'm back in my hotel room, tired but content. Fresh coffee sits next to me; its aroma surrounds me like a blanket. The sun is setting slowly outside my window, but I don't feel fear. I realize I didn't need to be afraid of traveling alone, because I wasn't alone once the whole day.
What I feel tonight is gratitude. I'm grateful to be out of my head, at least for now. I'm grateful to be sober and free - free from fear, and not because I'm hiding from it in a drink. Free from fear because I spent the afternoon just being.