“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
I stood in the kitchen of my best friend’s new apartment in Chicago as our parents sat in her living room eating the shrimp tacos she had prepared for dinner. A friend of our parents stood across the counter from me as I told him of the road trip I would be leaving on in the morning. Just me, Susan the Volkswagen Jetta, and the open road. “If you’re in South Dakota in the middle of the Badlands and want to turn around, just remember… Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
I wasn’t having many fearful thoughts because my emotions were overwhelmed with excitement and the little expectations I had set for myself when thinking about the cities I would be exploring and the people I would be visiting along the way, most I hadn’t seen in two years, ten years, five months. I was craving adventure and some alone time and this was how I would get that.
My first year living in New York City was a wave of experiences, emotions, and self-exploration. My notion of what it meant for me, personally, to be an actor changed drastically and I no longer wanted to act just to say that I had been in something recently. To prove to others that I was capable of pursuing this career path successfully. All I wanted now was to experience life and human interaction and see places and meet new people and feel full and revitalized. Going out and auditioning for projects that I ultimately viewed purely as resume builders felt stupid and a waste of energy because this pattern of auditioning just to “get out there” led me to feeling a bit dead inside and I didn’t care enough about the work I was doing. Life itself was simply more interesting to me than any of these projects could ever be. It was the work I was doing in my acting class that helped me realize this. Blacking out during a scene in class because your emotional life is so full is truly a magical feeling and I wanted more. I wanted more Life. To feel fully alive. I feared I wouldn’t get that if I stayed in New York for the summer.
The most alive I had felt during that first year in New York was when a friend I had met in college, my ex-boyfriend’s roommate, was tragically shot and killed in Chicago while trying to get his stolen cell phone back. I felt more alone than I ever had because I didn’t know my ex-boyfriend or his friends anymore. I hadn’t known them for two and a half years. I didn’t know who to talk to. I felt guilty about feeling so devastatingly upset by the news because it had been so long since I’d seen him and felt self-conscious about how terrible things had been left with my ex-boyfriend that reaching out was difficult and I felt so misunderstood. He lost a close friend. Kevin was an amazing friend. He truly loved life and was always comforting when my ex and I were fighting or had just broken up. He would never know what his friendship had meant to me during the time I had known him.
This feeling led me to make the defiant decision that I absolutely had to go on this road trip. Rather, I had to go on this road trip by myself. Visit the people I hadn’t seen in years by myself.
“That’s so cool,” people would say about the trip. That comment weirdly disquieted me because people didn’t understand why it was that I personally wanted to take a trip like this. I didn’t think it was something “cool” that I was doing. My purpose was very personal and meaningful and not something that I could have done with anyone else. I couldn’t have had the special interactions I had with people if someone else had been there with me. I wouldn’t have been able to connect with those people and places in the same ways if I hadn’t been alone. Doing this alone was essential to my self-gratification. I would see people that I hadn’t seen in a very long time and make every second of those interactions count.
When I left Harlem for Chicago I was single AF (That’s “Single As Fuck” for those unfamiliar with that acronym). Sure, there were a couple guys, well one really, that I wanted to get to know better, but leaving for two months meant nothing could happen at that time. So I left knowing that he could meet someone, or I could meet someone, although I knew my chances were slim because I wouldn’t be in one stable place. There was this one night in Chicago at a dance party called Porn and Chicken where a human dressed as a chicken poured alcohol directly into my mouth upon entering the club and porn was playing on the TV screens and sparks were flying off of a woman’s vagina as she danced on the bar. I’m sure it was super romantic but I don’t really remember.
Anyway. Single. No commitments. Only the open road ahead of me. I was pumped. I could go into vast detail about my experiences in all eleven cities that I explored on my road trip but I’ll save that for my memoir that you’re all going to read in ten years after I threaten to unfriend you on Facebook if you don’t. For now, I’ll get to the point of this essay and only highlight the significant moments.
I was able to celebrate a family member’s birthday in the St. Louis suburbs. My Great-Uncle told me I reminded him a lot of my mother and grandmother, his sister. I saw the tradition of a Native fire burning ceremony by the river in Wichita. I was introduced to a new improv community in Denver and hiked to the top of a mountain the next day. I learned that high altitude gets you drunk quicker and that you don’t actually forget how to breathe while hiking a mountain, it’s just the altitude. I got high on legal weed for the first time. I met the two beautiful children of my childhood best friend’s older sister. I celebrated an old friend’s birthday because we both happened to be in the same city on the same night. I was told stories that reiterated the fact that my dad thinks he’s hilarious and heard stories about what it was really like when he was transferred to Paris for work when I was 2 years old. I met BART, the Bay Area’s public transit system. I drank a beer called Denogginizer, which I thought was funny, and ate Dumplings filled with soup in San Francisco’s Chinatown with another old friend. I sat on top of a hill in Berkeley and ate the best cinnabon I’ve ever had while looking out at the entire Bay Area (the Golden Gate Bridge was beautifully hidden by clouds at the bridge’s halfway mark, making it look like the cars had to drive through a little part of Heaven).
I drove the Pacific Coast Highway alone with very limited cell service. I ate lunch next to one of The Beach Boy’s producers at a bar in Big Sur, and learned that “the short one” is still making music down by the beach in Big Sur. I peed behind a giant rock along the Pacific Coast Highway while looking out at the most beautiful beach I had ever seen. I learned that it’s important to tell people that you would like to stay with them more than a couple days before you would like to stay with them in case they are in Europe or something. A new friend took me in last minute and let me crash on his couch in LA, warmly welcoming me with open arms. I saw family in LA that I hadn’t seen in ten years and discovered what it feels like to have kids not remember who you are (hint: it kind of makes you feel like a creep for knowing so much about someone who does not know who you are). I heard news of one family member in California that I would have loved to talk to but is not doing so well with Alzheimer’s, and her husband has brain cancer. I finally learned how to surf and also how to clear your sinuses by wiping out enough times in salt water. I experienced my first ghost town in Clarkdale, AZ then star gazed in the backyard of my AirBnB host’s house. I hiked the Grand Canyon alone, met a man hiking with two kids from Japan who offered to take my picture so I didn’t have to resort to selfies, then hiked back up past them as I was foaming at the mouth like a rabid beast because I didn’t have any water.
I laughed, cried, and shared stories with a cousin in Santa Fe. I heard stories about my family that I wished I had been alive to see and experience. I heard stories of Native American life experiences and saw these stories retold through art. I learned that Native culture views art as life in an “essential understanding to any culture” and that they “make pieces of life to see, touch, and feel. Shall we call it art? I hope not. It may lose its soul. Its life. Its people,” and I finally felt reassured that maybe my preferred approach to my own art is just fine. I learned the difference between a Pueblo and a Reservation. I visited an old Trading Post that had been bought by a mother and her daughter, both extremely diverse and talented artists, and gaped at the Emmy Award that the mom had won for costume design.
I booked an AirBnB in Austin to sleep on someone’s hammock in their backyard. I tried pitching a tent in said backyard with the other AirBnB guest from Bombay, who was staying on their couch, and together we failed. I swam in Barton Springs alone, only after slowly gaining the courage to dive into the cold water. I saw a dear friend in New Orleans and was introduced to her parents and former college campus, gaining a deeper understanding of who she is as a person. I canoed on a gorgeous Louisiana Bayou at sunset. A friend took me to Pensacola’s white, nearly empty beach and we saw baby jellyfish. I drove through the Delta Blues and stopped in Memphis, wandering into a Blues bar alone and sitting at the bar as the bartender took care of me by refilling my Coke before I could even ask. I was able to really listen and take in the atmosphere of the Blues, with only my self and the music to keep me company. Finally, I made it back to Chicago in time to celebrate a high school friend’s birthday and eat good pizza before flying back to New York.
Driving alone between all of these places, I was able to reflect and process how each experience made me feel. What these interactions with all of these people had meant to me. I cried alone in my car. I laughed. I sang badly to good music. Not once did I call a friend. Not once did I feel like I needed someone to talk to during a 7-10 hour drive. I was entirely content being among my own stillness and aloneness. I felt completely open and free of expectations and willing to accept every moment that this journey brought upon me. It was the most beautiful summer I had ever experienced.
I returned to New York 26 days after leaving on my road trip and 52 days after I had landed in Chicago. A few things were very different from when I had left. During my last two days at home in Chicago I was hit with loaded news of things that had changed significantly among my little New York circle. When I arrived in New York, I was anticipating how these changes would affect me and my relationships with my friends. What I found was something so ironic in relation to driving around the country by myself for 23 days.
Being alone and feeling lonely are two very different things. I was alone during the majority of my road trip but what little expectations I had set for the experience had left me comfortable in my aloneness as I understood that this was the situation I had put myself in. I am also the kind of person who enjoys spending time alone to think and simply just be.
When that aloneness abruptly transformed into loneliness, I was caught off guard and didn’t know how to react. My mind wouldn’t sit still. It felt like a lot had changed in the two months I had been gone. I knew that life in New York was not going to just stop and wait for me to return, but I was disappointed in how certain things changed the way that they had. I wasn’t prepared and didn’t quite know how to handle it. In New Orleans I thought about how I was visiting so many wonderful places and yet all of these people’s lives would continue on in their normalcy as soon as I left. That sounded so boring to me, the mundane. And yet, that was what I wanted New York to be when I returned.
I had expected to see a lot of changes in the people I’d visited on my road trip because it had been so long since I’d last seen them, but it had only been less than two months of being away from New York. I needed to find a new job. My acting class hadn’t started back up yet so I had a small group of people to rely on when I just wanted to hang out and that felt lonely. New York City in itself can be a lonely place when everyone is out and about but I hadn’t felt that way about the city until then.
I sat on my rooftop in Harlem (which is an oddity in itself because Harlem is all about the stoop life) and took some time with my thoughts. And then I cried. I cried for this built-up feeling of loneliness that I had kept hidden. I cried because all I wanted to do was surround myself with people back home that I knew cared about me.
“Life Shrinks or Expands in Proportion to One’s Courage.”
Within those tears shed on that rooftop, I came to the conclusion that loneliness in itself can be an artistic experience meant to lead to a firmer understanding of certain feelings and events. Loneliness is scary and yet to embrace and accept it is ultimately fulfilling. I grew very content and excited about the idea that every individual lives such a unique life that will never be fully realized by anyone else. Your experiences, the people you meet, the places you see, all become a part of who you are and no one is there throughout all of that to fully understand it with you. This is where the beauty of our individualism materializes. The beauty found deep within ourselves may not even be entirely apparent to us, but no one else gets the opportunity to live it. I love a good human interaction but your parents, best friends, or significant others will never be fully able to know all that happens within you, nor you them, which is why our individualism is so amazing and yet terrifying. Individualism is the one constant — we will always have our Selves — and everything else is just a variable prone to changing on us when our backs are turned. Suddenly being Single As Fuck (SAF for those only familiar with the acronym) felt comfortable again. The beauty of this world lies in the fact that no two stories will ever be the same. Our personal stories are sacred to our individual and that is a humbling thing about this life and our moments of loneliness.
I cherish that thought. I take pride in that thought.
I am Me and I am the only one who will ever know what that feels like.