Last week I went on the first vacation I’ve had since my son was born almost 13 years ago. (I don’t count the family trip to Disney two years ago as a “vacation;” that was more of an “event!”) My fella Floyd took me to his home state of Louisiana for five days, to do some sightseeing in New Orleans and visit his big, beautiful extended family.
To get to New Orleans from the Lafayette airport, we had to drive over the Atchafalaya Basin (yes, I CAN pronounce it!), which is the largest wetland in the United States. As we embarked upon the almost 20 miles of bridge through swamp and cypress trees, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and asked, “Do you know what is the loneliest bayou?” A brief pause, then both of us exclaimed in unison silliness: “Bayou Self!!!!”
I’m not in the habit of traveling with other people. In thirteen years of being a parent, I can count on two hands the number of overnight trips I’ve taken with my kids, and still have a few fingers left over. In nine years of marriage, we had one week of honeymoon, one week of a beach vacation with friends, and one long weekend in Pennsylvania Dutch country. I went to a three-day conference on church stewardship in the middle of Kansas, and a three day direct sales conference in Las Vegas in July, pregnant. After my divorce, I took a long weekend to Washington, D.C. That is a woeful lack of time off.
Before I got engaged in 2000, I booked a two-week solo trip in Ireland which remains the gold standard of vacations to which all others will be compared. Two weeks of glorious solitude, away from my stressful advertising job, with a week of taking public transportation to hand-picked sights well off the beaten tourist path: the tiny town of Bunratty, the even tinier town of Kilfenora, the Poulnabrone dolmen, the seaside music town of Dingle, the Aran Islands, and a week of intense horseback riding in Adare. It was all about me and my interests.
When people I met along the way learned I was recently engaged, they were surprised I was making this trip all by myself, which should have told me something. But I couldn’t imagine having a traveling companion during those hours walking the countryside, or waiting for the sun to set so I could get just the right lighting for a photo of a rock wall. Being alone was, and still is, my comfort zone, and the way this introvert typically recharges.
Still, when I got married, I had fantasies of us vacationing together, and vacationing with our children, just like I did when I was a kid. I grew up with a family that travelled to see grandparents, and I loved family vacations. When married life didn’t deliver, I assumed it was because he didn’t like to travel. But after a few years on my own with only one long weekend out of town, I’ve had to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
The visit to Louisiana was not my first trip with my sweetheart. We planned a weekend trip to the mountains last fall, to see if we could handle a whole weekend of uninterrupted togetherness without getting sick of each other. I was nervous for days leading up to it, but we had a fantastic time, and found a new level of intimacy (the kind that develops when you learn more about each other’s bathroom habits and you let him watch you curl your hair and apply makeup). So when Floyd told me he wanted to take me to Louisiana (and promised no surprise “questions” or “jewelry” associated with said questions) I was excited and ready for a real vacation.
Or so I thought.
The Big Easy was not quite so easy for me. Uncomfortable emotions hit like unexpected tidal waves. When a client had a quick graphic design correction that turned into more than an hour’s worth of work, I was worried he’d be angry at me for wasting our precious vacation time. When we didn’t have a plan for our day, I felt anxious we wouldn’t make the most of our limited time there. When I was tired after a full day of walking and could barely keep my eyes open at 10 pm while my heart wanted to be out enjoying the night scene, I felt guilty. I felt sad we didn’t get to take a carriage tour of the French Quarter. And when I met his family at the end of the week, I was worried they wouldn’t like me, and PMS didn’t help. To top it all off, I felt shame for all the craziness going on between my ears.
I feel a bit crazy just admitting all of that now, and I’m seriously debating whether I’ll ever let this post see the light of day, except I know there’s probably someone else out there who might also have a touch of social anxiety, and maybe, just maybe, my sharing will give you courage to step outside of your comfort zone.
Because here is what happened, in spite of my dis-ease:
My fella didn’t get mad at me for working on vacation.
Although we didn’t even scratch the surface of what we could do in New Orleans, I saw Bourbon Street and ate a beignet at Cafe du Monde, I rode the streetcar and walked through the garden district and sat on the limb of a beautiful live oak and drank my first Bloody Mary (with breakfast!) and ate crawfish and slept really hard every night and woke up refreshed every morning.
I didn’t bother to curl my hair, I wore only lip gloss, and I got stuck in the mud 4-wheeling on his brother’s farm. I learned I love roasted oysters and that kumquats are to be eaten with the skin on. I felt truly welcomed by all his brothers and sisters and in-laws at a big cookout at the Hollier home (yes, I can pronounce that, too!). I listened to his father reminisce about his mother, and I felt the loving presence of her spirit in the house Floyd grew up in, and in the souls of all the people who made him into the man I now get to hug and kiss and hold hands with.
If I had taken a five day vacation by myself, I’m sure I’d have had a relaxing time. I would have captured many wonderful photos and seen plenty of sights, and I wouldn’t have been plagued by the insecurities of traveling with another person after so many years of flying solo or not at all.
But now that I’m back at home, what I realize is this: for much of my life, I’ve been living in a self-imposed loneliness that has become my comfort zone. Solitude may have been a source of creativity and rejuvenation, and it certainly served a useful purpose in temporarily protecting me from the pain of rejection, not just in recent years, but going way back into childhood. Being alone has been an integral part of my identity for 40 years. But maybe I’m ready to let it go in favor of connecting more intimately with the people closest to me, instead of trying to escape from them.
While driving through the swamp, we could catch a glimpse now and then of a shack on stilts, where some Cajuns still live off the “land.” Floyd told me if you go wandering in there and don’t belong, there’s a good chance you won’t come back out. Those folks are serious about keeping to themselves and being left alone.
I don’t want that to be a metaphor for my heart. I don’t want to be the loneliest bayou anymore. I want my heart to be a big Louisiana-style outdoor kitchen, with more than enough seats for everyone and all their cousins, with kumquat trees and live oaks filled with tree-climbing youngsters, and three generations grilling together.
Ça c’est bon! And, merci beaucoup, Mister John Floyd. For weeks I’ve been thinking the reason I haven’t been able to write is because I haven’t had enough “alone” time. Turns out, all I needed was a good vacation, and you delivered!