You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
MARY OLIVER, "Wild Geese"
I rode up in the elevator, back to the seventh floor. The ride I’d taken every day for the past five days. The familiar lobby and the girl at the front desk — the only one who spoke a little English — and the shiny marble floors and the open windows always letting in the sounds of motorbikes and loudspeakers and music and street cooking.
It was past ten PM and my lipstick was fading. The elevator doors shut in front of me and as they did, I slumped against the wall. Immediately, tears came.
Not the kind of tears that are quiet and easily brushed away. No, these tears came in the form of uncontrollable sobs, ugly crying you don’t want anyone to see, the kind of tears that force you to crumble beneath their weight.
The doors opened at the seventh floor and I quickly fumbled with my key to let myself into my room, the lonely room I’d been inhabiting since my arrival in Hanoi. I threw my keys to the desk, beside the wilting-but-gorgeous display of flowers sent by my family, and flung myself onto the bed.
I sobbed for a long time that night. Bawled, really. It was not pretty.
(And yet, who says crying has to be pretty?)
I let myself feel it all that night. All my stuffed down emotions from the past three months, from all of 2016. So much had happened before I ended up in that hotel room in Hanoi at the end of March.
I cried for my family and friends at home, who I already missed. I cried for the good job I quit. I cried for the end of my relationship. I cried for my Providence apartment, my first home away from my parents’ house. I cried for my dog. I cried for being in the dirty, loud, abrasive city of Hanoi. I cried for how alone I felt. I cried for the new teaching job I no longer wanted. I cried for all the time and money I’d spent getting certified for that job. I cried at the thought of going back home. I cried at the thought of staying. I cried for feeling like I'd failed. I cried for a lack of direction and support and clarity. I cried and cried and cried.
When I had no tears left, I checked my email. My therapist had gotten in touch, and we had a last-minute Skype call — me late at night in Vietnam, she early in the morning in the US. (She’s flexible/amazing like that.) I sobbed some more and she worked her usual magic and after 45 minutes, I could breathe again.
I hung up the phone and said out loud, “Oh. Here I am.”
It was nearing midnight and I made a decision.
I would go to sleep. I wouldn’t try to solve this right then. I would take really good care of myself, and put myself to bed. Like a child who’s overtired. Sleep — sweet sleep — and then I’d regroup. It felt like my only sane option, all I could do.
In the morning I woke up with puffy eyes and a sore heart.
And yet, something felt different. Clearer. Like my eyes were really open. Like my heart was really open.
Before even getting out of bed that morning, I reached for my journal. I’d filled up almost every page since getting to Hanoi — writing furiously was the only way through it.
I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes.
I imagined if I had a daughter. If she was me. If I could take a step outside my body for a moment, and see myself from another’s perspective. I took a deep breath again, and stepped into that mother energy, the fierce kind that will do anything to protect her children. To love them, unconditionally.
And I wrote. I wrote myself a letter. As if I was my own mother. What would I say? What advice would I give? What would I remind her? What would I want to hear?
Twenty minutes later, I finally came up for air. I’d scribbled three pages straight. I looked down at my writing and felt this strange peace settle over me, as if I’d been channeling some other energy and was back in my own body again.
So that was that, then. I wouldn’t be staying.
The fierce mother within told me that it was okay to change my mind. That it didn’t matter what other people would think. That it wasn't failing. That I was allowed to make my own decisions. That I needed to first and foremost take care of myself. That the rest would fall into place. That that was the best thing I could do in this situation. That there was no right or wrong.
Here it was. My chance to put into practice everything I’d been working on for the past 28 years.
I felt like I was undoing the past year of work I’d undertaken to get to this point, and yet it suddenly became clear what I needed to do.
Suddenly it became clear that I could be completely, irrevocably, undeniably myself.
I booked a trip through a local travel agency to Sapa, the mountain town on the Chinese border that I’d been dreaming of ever since I thought about coming to Vietnam. Going would mean that I’d be returning the day after my new job was to start — so if I went, I’d definitely be revoking my contract.
I went anyway.
I connected with four other American women who were also traveling solo, and we had the most amazing trip together. We climbed up and down muddy mountains and slept in a crowded attic on mats and talked to women in local tribes and ate lots of pho.
I felt invincible. I felt happy. I felt clear and supported and I felt like I wanted this, this nomadic life. For a bit anyway.
I had no idea what my plan would be. But I decided to continue tuning into that fierce mama energy and protect my desires and take exquisite care of myself. I didn’t know if I’d travel for a couple weeks or a couple months or the whole year I’d originally planned to be away. I didn’t know when I’d go home to the US.
I returned to Hanoi and revoked my contract with profuse apologies — and some guilt — and checked out of the hotel. I took my massive luggage to a nearby hostel where my newfound friends were staying and was greeted by people my age and a fun atmosphere and free beer between 4 and 5 PM. I swear I felt like a new woman, like I was in a different city.
From there I went on to the islands of Ha Long Bay and the caves of Phong Nha and the beaches of Hoi An. I booked a one-way plane ticket to Bangkok and explored Kanchanaburi and Chiang Mai and Pai before taking a two-day-long boat ride into Laos and Cambodia. Three months later, I’d become a backpacker expert and couldn’t imagine having stayed in Hanoi.
Looking back on that night in my Vietnamese hotel room, I think about how it all could have gone so differently. I could have given into fear. I could have stayed small. I could have “sucked it up.” I could have chosen (again) to feel stuck in a place I didn’t want to be. I could have given up my power. I could have been less of myself in order to fit into someone else’s idea of myself.
Thank goodness I didn’t.
I chose to be myself. I chose to honor my feelings. I chose to take care of myself. I chose to fiercely protect my desires. I chose to be brave, despite my fear.
It’s been over five months now since that night in the Hanoi hotel room. I went on to travel solo through six countries and am now settled in Sydney, where I’m gaining some solid ground and exploring a new part of the world. I still don’t know what my plan is. I’m not tied to anything and I’m open to possibilities.
There’s a certain freedom in having no obligations.
Of course, someday I think I'd like to have obligations. I think I'd like to have some stability and ties. But not yet. Not yet.
Right now, I'm busy being myself.
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