Breaking with the known

Staggering around Rome over the holidays, trying to find any cognitive through line, and then maybe a stable emotion or two in the aftermath of a 24-hour travel day, I blurted out to no one in particular, “what the hell am I doing here??”

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Four months earlier I’d made a decision to spend Christmas in Rome by myself.  It was going to be the first one I didn’t spend with my 12-year old son, and the first one with just me.  I had spent a week there 15 years ago and couldn’t forget the smell of musty chocolate and cobblestones.   A friend told me about a great place to stay in Trastevere, a neighborhood on the “other” side of the river, and in spite of my bank account having serious reservations, a solo pilgrimage to Rome seduced me.

“Seduce” is an interesting choice of words.  It means “to lead astray.”  That feels about right.  Because in those first few days, I felt duped by my own wanderlust.  My first night, after attempting to pry my eyelids open for a few hours, I wandered through the city’s tight streets and found a small pizzeria to celebrate the start of this adventure.  It was perfect in 100 ways—the food was amazing, the banter among the waiters was like off-Broadway theatre, I felt intrepid and alive.  But it was also a perfect snapshot of what would be so challenging for me the next 10 days.

I’m a social creature.  While time alone is essential, engaging with others brings me great joy and wonder.  That night, and for the rest of the trip, I exchanged only a handful of words with the people around me.  Surrounded by humanity on every street corner, in every museum, restaurant and church pew, I became the quiet observer.

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Or that’s how I perceived it in my better moments.  It often just felt like isolation.  As I ventured off every day in search of food, culture, and experience, instead of feeling the magic I’d expected to feel–the magic that glimmered in my friends’ eyes as I told them I was headed to Rome for the holidays—I just felt 6,000 miles from home and awash in tears in the middle of the night.

But this feeling of exquisite aloneness in the global mecca that is Rome is just what my soul needed most. It opened the door onto a world of unexplored feelings about my own insignificance, one of my greatest fears.  Truth be told, I have worked tirelessly to disprove my insignificance.  I do meaningful work, I try to be a good person and a good mother, I have a community of friends I relate to and connect with.

Lying alone in bed listening to the endless traffic of Lungotevere Raffaello Sanzio, I saw how much energy it took from me to sustain my significance.  And yet, in the great scheme of things, across the eons of time and layers of civilizations I discovered in the remnants of Rome, we are insignificant.  Truly and profoundly.  And?  So?

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Owning my insignificance, letting go of that relentless drive to sustain it, tensions in parts of me I’d never met started to unwind.   My breath lengthened.  I heard more of the dialogue in my heart.  My presence, sitting on a park bench, walking through a busy piazza, filling up the tub, or reading alone at a corner table, was quieter, far more textured and so much more alive.

And then, somewhere in the middle of the trip, I started to feel a great ocean of energy that seemed to flow through everything.  Life energy weaving its way through the sea of human beings all around me, across the Ponte Sisto, around the 2,000 year-old columns still holding up the Forum of Augustus, within my tears on Christmas Eve.

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All this time I’ve spent trying to wrestle significance from life, this pervasive energy was mostly invisible to me.  Now it seemed to carry me along like a river and held me intact for the rest of the trip.  There were still ‘lows’ to be had.  It wasn’t all bliss, by any means.  But in a culture obsessed with personal significance and the simulation of connection, I felt totally insignificant and, at the same time, more authentically connected to the world around me than ever before.  This, I knew, could sustain me.

I got back home a week ago.  Everyone asks about my trip.  I explain that it was amazing and also emotionally rugged.  In telling my story, I find more to unpack about what it all meant.  With increasing clarity, I see just how impossible it would have been for me to dissolve the way I did in the context of my routine, my ‘normal.’   I had to shake off all the comforts of the known and experience life without so many handrails, without the usual certainties, to see a new reality.

So if you feel something drawing you to do something that appears slightly out of range, pay attention, be seduced.  It’s a sign your soul wants to grow—to challenge old assumptions, to turn some self-concept on its head, and to break through to a new reality, one that is more expansive and filled with possibility.

So here’s to new and expanded views in 2014.  I think we’re going to need them.

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Lisa Fitzhugh