It’s a foggy morning in the countryside of China. I am on board a sleepy train from Hangzhou to Beijing. There is no internet, no working cell signal; and here, like most places I’ve been in the last two weeks, no one speaks English.
It’s quiet now. Although we’re traveling along at 300km/hour, there is an acute sense that the world is standing still. I am aware again of a sensation that has come to dominate so much of the past year: I am alone.
That’s not an entirely comfortable feeling. Long days with little companionship take a toll on you. So many parts of the world can be an assault on the senses: sights, sounds, tastes, and textures that defy convention. And young women have long been told that the world is a place we should fear, and the world has not always tried to dispel that notion.
But today, in relative safety in my first-class car to Beijing, I am thinking of what the French call dépaysement. Of the feeling that comes from not being in one’s own country. Of the heightened awareness of one’s own emotions when you’re in a place you don’t recognize.
As we pass through Suzhou, I pull out Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet and in unbroken silence I begin to read.
But your solitude will be a hold and a home for you even amid very unfamiliar conditions and from there you will find all your ways.
When you are traveling alone, knowing yourself is not a luxury but a necessity. When you have nothing but time and your own thoughts to keep you company, not knowing what you’ll find in your heart can be betrayal far deeper than what the world can inflict. I’ve found that unfamiliar places in the world outside help you see for yourself the parts of you that are waiting to be known.
I look out the window at the beauty of the countryside. The gift of time alone is a qualitative researcher’s dream - you have uninterrupted space to live. To think. To experience the world. And while the days are long and the workday spans twelve time zones, there are spaces you can carve out to see and do things that most people have never been able to experience.
To find pieces of yourself scattered in the streets of unexpected places.
A quiet alleyway in Seville, the sound of a single Spanish guitar floating on the breezeless air, the city asleep in siesta and you, alone in the universe.
A makeshift basketball court in Noida on a muggy Delhi night, walking with family that you haven’t seen in a decade, the tension melting away effortlessly to the sound of laughter and the taste of ice cream.
Slipping out quietly just before daybreak in Seattle, pulling on your running shoes, and watching the sunrise shed light on the corners of your heart as it illuminates the trail in front of you.
The world is indeed a beautiful place, and I realize maybe not in any moment more than this one that we should all be so lucky as to see it.
What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love.
An old woman walks by my seat. She is looking at me with the curious eyes that one comes to expect when you are constantly defying the expectations of what people think you should be. We meet eyes for a minute and she doesn’t break her gaze, and in them I see something that I can’t quite place.
And suddenly in my mind flashes a story I’ve never told him. A door opening. Conversations stopping in mid-sentence. My heart catching for a split second as our eyes meet. And in that moment, feeling somewhere deep inside that he is somebody that I wanted to know.
I’m not sure I’ve ever said those words out loud, or owned up to the emotions that put them there. I realize now that it’s not because how I felt was any less true, but rather because I could not find in myself the courage to be loved. In her eyes I see how sad it is that these things go unsaid: longing and hope and words that came just a little too late.
But the moment is gone. She has walked away, and I have left one more hello without voice.
Do not look outward and expect from outside replies to questions that only your innermost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.
That line hits me like a lead pellet in the gut. I read and reread it. For my whole life, I have had an extremely high internal locus of control and a strong penchant for meaningful work. After all, I’ve got the kind of job that sends me to far-flung corners of the world to decide what products need to look like to change the delivery of medicine. This is the kind of life that I wanted, the things I wanted to learn, the world I wanted to see.
There is an uncomfortable silence in my soul when I ask that question. For so long, I have defined success by measures that the world has created for me.
I look again out the window. The Chinese countryside is zipping by with impressive speed. I can see mountains through the haze. A small wave of panic washes over me, and for a minute I want to be anywhere but on this train. I want to be on a long Beltline run, or in San Francisco biking the Wharf, or on the couch with Sawra watching Atlanta twinkle in early twilight.
But I am here, alone, on a train from Hangzhou to Beijing, doing the slow work of discovering who I am and maybe also who I can become.
I let out a long, slow breath. There is a reason that we are here, in this moment, living this life. There is a fragment of the world for me to see here. And maybe more importantly, a piece of myself that I didn’t know existed, waiting to be discovered if I just give space to the silence.
You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.