Lessons from years spent journeying without a clear destination
I felt so adrift. So lost. I could barely string sentences together, let alone thoughts. But I did know one thing. I had to get out of town. Fast.
My mother had died a few weeks earlier. Amid the relief that she was no longer burdened by the disease that had ravaged her body was something else. A profound sense of loneliness. You see, I was alone. The term orphan tends to be associated with children. But I felt orphaned at 51.
I had to get out of town. It almost didn’t matter where, as long as there were mountains. Somehow mountains felt comforting. They reminded me of childhood years spent in Switzerland. So I decided to move out west, to British Columbia. I had no real connections there. I kind of knew a couple of people in BC, and had some good friends down the coast in the US. That was it. I sold or gave away half of my possessions, and shipped the rest out west. To start my new life.
My loved ones thought I was nuts. They understood my decision in one sense – they knew I was devastated. But not in another.
“Why are you going somewhere you know no one?” they asked.
I had no answer that eased their concerns. I just had my instinct that this was the right thing to do.
This wasn’t the first time I’d pressed the fear buttons in my loved ones. I’d been moving home, city and country for much of my adult life, so they knew this was my MO. This one worried them more, though, fast on the heels of my mum’s death. They were worried that I was isolating myself at a time when I needed comfort. I couldn’t fault their logic, but it was still something I had to do.
My new life — phase one
I arrived in Vancouver, and moved into an apartment in the most exquisite location. Across the road from the ocean, and right next to Stanley Park. The latter is a 400-hectare, natural West Coast rainforest, surrounded by ocean. It was such a relief to be there. I spent much of my time walking beside the ocean, and in the park. The wet sand and forest grounded me. And I REALLY needed to get grounded. I’d spent the previous seven years on high alert. Caregiving for my ailing mother. Working full-time to keep us afloat. Dealing with my father’s death. Dealing with a volatile family member. Dealing with my dog’s death (he’d been my anchor for many years). Dealing with my mum’s death. It had been a lot. And it left me reeling.
The water and trees helped me in other ways, too. They helped me start living some important spiritual concepts I’d long understood. It’s one thing understanding a concept. And quite another living it. Being in the moment had always made sense to me. I could see how much easier it would make life. But I’d never managed to stay in the moment for any length of time. And this despite a daily meditation practice.
As I sat and watched the waves come and go, I noticed how every wave was different. Yet the same. Different in their force, their colour, their direction. The same in their essence. Water. No matter what was going on to and around the waves, water remained water. If you touched it, you got wet. I saw that water was what it was, and changed from moment to moment. What did this mean to me? It meant that I, too, was what I was. A human. And that everything about me changed from moment to moment. So, the present me wasn’t inevitably the past me. Nor was the future me inevitably the present me.
Spending time in Stanley Park with old-growth trees made me more aware of myself, and my energy. The majestic beauties that surrounded me, some over 600 years old, gave far more than they took. They shared their lives with everything and everyone within their range. They cleaned the air around them, and provided oxygen. They cooled the temperature. The most positive energy emanated from them. As I stood with them, they accepted me as one of them. I could feel their wonderful energy washing over me. And wanted to send them the same in return. I found I couldn’t do this right away. My energy had to vibrate at the right frequency for them to receive it. When, at last, I succeeded in sharing my energy with them, I was overjoyed. I thought I’d “cracked it”. I hadn’t. There were days when I had nothing to offer the beautiful trees. So I pushed aside my ego, and did what I felt drawn to do. Deeper meditation, and allowing myself to clear out my grief as it arose. This worked. And from then on, I shared my more youthful energy with the old-growth trees to give them a boost.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d taken myself off on my own to heal. To heal from the years of loss, and being on high alert. My cortisol had got stuck in the ‘on’ position from it all, making it hard for me to sleep for any length of time. I had to take the time to decompress. But had no idea what that looked like, or how long it would take.
After a year in BC, I started to notice that something was afoot. It felt as though another new beginning was coming my way. Which made no sense at all, given the recent start of my new life. I put this feeling down to another phase of grieving, and thought no more of it. Until I started to notice something else. That I kept on running into European holiday-makers everywhere I went. We’d always have a good conversation. Somehow, our chat turned to what we each liked about different countries we’d visited or lived in. One day, a German couple asked me a question I couldn’t answer.
“You seem to like much more about Europe. Why are you living here?”
A month or so later, I found myself sitting in front of a travel agent, who asked me another question.
“So where would you like to go, and when?”
This time, an answer came right out.
“I’d like a one-way ticket to London. And I’ve no idea when.”
“What do you mean you don’t know when?”, he replied, with a confused look on his face.
“Well, let’s say three months from now. That’ll give me enough time to sell all my stuff.”
“OK”, he replied, still looking confused.
I hadn’t planned to go to a travel agent. I found myself there one day. I’d been walking down a street, and caught a red sign out of the corner of my eye. I carried on walking. 30 seconds later, I turned around, walked back to the red sign, and walked in the door beneath it. It was a travel agency. So I just went with the flow.
Three months later, I had sold or given away almost everything I owned. I was 53, and heading off on another adventure. This time with only four cartons and two suitcases in tow.
My new life — phase two
I arrived in the UK knowing two things. That it was great to back amongst friends I hadn’t seen in a while. And that I didn’t want to live there.
The UK was a stopover so I could catch up with people, and get organized. I needed to update my British ID so I could wander freely around continental Europe. I also need wheels to facilitate the wandering. I had no firm plan, other than to start by meeting up with a friend who was travelling in Germany, and go from there. After five months in the UK, I headed off one sunny winter’s morning across the Channel.
I wasn’t drawn to spend more than a week in Germany. The language barrier was a real issue for me, despite having university-level German. I couldn’t communicate with ease, and that wasn’t what I wanted at the time. That piece of understanding ruled out a lot of places I’d been interested in exploring. Spain, Portugal, and Italy, for starters. It also ruled in two countries. France and Switzerland.
My years spent in Switzerland as a child had left me pretty fluent in French. I knew I’d be able to understand and be understood in either country. I was drawn to France, in particular. This was odd as I knew no one there. When I left Germany, a destination had come to mind. Lyon, the second biggest city in France. This, too, was odd because I didn’t want to live in a big city. But I went with my instinct.
I loved Lyon. It was beautiful to look at, and welcoming. It had a very strong sense of itself, which I found compelling. I sub-letted an apartment in La Croix-Rousse area of town. This sweet neighbourhood atop one of Lyon’s two hills was wonderful. My apartment was in the eaves of an old building from Lyon’s silk-making heyday. It was a space where the silk was manufactured, and the silk-workers also lived. All the ceilings were high enough to accommodate the Jacquard looms… except for my attic space. There, the low beams threatened my six-foot tall frame, often getting the better of my head.
Lyon helped me get a clearer sense of who I was. I guess that’s why this city with such a strong sense of itself had called me. Living my life in French contributed to my self-understanding. When I talked with the locals, the person they saw standing before them wasn’t the one I saw. On hearing my slight accent, the conversation always turned to where I was from, and what I was doing there. When I told them my story, their responses always contained the same word. Courageous. Standing before them was a courageous 54 year-old woman.
After nine happy months in Lyon, I moved on. I’d reconnected with my childhood friend in Switzerland, and wanted to live closer to her. So I moved to Gex, a small French town near Geneva. The scenery there was so beautiful. Gex was nestled in the foothills of the Jura mountains, and opposite the French Alps. And Mont Blanc. This snow-capped peak rose with such majesty across Lake Geneva. Especially when made pink by the rising sun.
Yet it was the Jura mountains that had a special place in my heart. They were lower, and full of rolling green hills, lakes and rivers. As a child, I’d spent many happy times in the Jura, hiking, and picnicking by lakes. My childhood bedroom window also looked out on them. They were the last sight I saw before sleeping, and the first upon waking.
Gex and I were not a match made in heaven. I left there after a couple of months, and moved in with my friend in Nyon, Switzerland. Nyon had been a lovely town when I lived there before, but had now grown. It was also full of ex-pats. In the couple of months I spent there, I heard French spoken only a handful of times. English — and ex-pats — had taken over. Without a work permit, I couldn’t stay for more than a few months in Switzerland, so I knew I’d have to move on. Again.
Switzerland gave me another piece of my puzzle. Because I’d loved living there as a child, I’d always thought of returning, and settling there. But, just as the child was gone, so was that Switzerland. The past is the past. The present is the present. And this present didn’t marry up with that past.
My love of the Jura drove me to seek my next location within its terrain. I opened Google Maps, and randomly picked a town. Salins-les-Bains. When I looked at photos of it, I was hooked. It seemed perfect. A few days later, I visited it on a snowy day with my friend’s son. As we descended towards the town, we rounded a bend, and our jaws dropped open. It was in the most exquisite setting. And I had found my next stop.
Salins-les-Bains had been an important town for hundreds and hundreds of years. You could see this in the buildings. It was a key religious centre, located as it was on the pilgrim route between Rome and the UK. And it had salt. Salt was so valuable back then, it was called white gold. The salt also had healing powers. Salins became a spa town, frequented by people from all over France taking cures. It was still a spa town, but an economically-depressed one. Much of its once-glorious architecture was falling into disrepair.
This small town was good to me. Its healing powers went beyond the spa. The landscape was so beautiful, it filled me with joy every time I set foot outside. I spent much time walking, hiking, and taking photos. The air smelled sweet, and was full of more butterflies than I’ve ever seen before. Everywhere I looked was bursting with beauty. The people were friendly, the food was delicious, and the cost of living was inexpensive. I started thinking that I’d found my home.
Then, one morning shortly after my 55th birthday, everything changed. I’d woken up to a new world. A world in which I finally understood who I was, and why I’d been the way I’d been. My life finally made sense to me.
And I knew who I was in the world without my mother by my side.
You see, this had been the purpose of my journey. Figuring out who I was in a world without my mum. We’d been extraordinarily close my whole life, but not in a mother/daughter way. We’d been the closest of friends. Life partners, in a sense. We spoke to each other more than we spoke to anyone else. We shared a sense of nonsense that no one else understood. We had a lot of fun together, and a lot of tears. When she died, I was adrift, stuck in a small boat in the middle of an ocean, surrounded by fog. Until I wasn’t any more.
My destination was never a place. It was knowing who I was, and loving myself unconditionally. That’s why I didn’t have a destination in mind when I set out on my adventure. How could I see a destination that I didn’t know existed?
Once I understood this, my self-imposed isolation ended. I started to miss my loved ones, and wanted to be around them once more. And, given where the largest concentration of them lived, that meant another move. Back to Canada. Back to Toronto, the city I’d fled from when my mum died.
My new life — phase three
I arrived back in Toronto at the end of last year, almost four years after I left. I knew immediately I’d made the right decision. It felt right, and I loved having so many of my friends around me. I settled into a new neighbourhood, and reconnected with the city in a new way.
Old city, new outlook. Old city, new life.
Much has happened since my return. My new life — phase four is on the horizon. This phase is the ‘happily ever after’ one.
But that’s a story for another day.