Everybody hurts, sometimes. REM
A BITING, bitter Brisbane wind is howling outside and I am inside, howling too. I’d love to say I have a case of the winter blues, but if only it were that easy. I am back home after a hectic six months of travel and I am struggling to earth myself, drop anchor. When you are out in the world, living the frenetic life of a travel writer, hunting and gathering the stories of others, it’s all too convenient to forget your own story. And that story is loneliness.
One in four Australians now live alone and despite having greater electronic connectivity than ever before, we are less connected. A recent article in the Guardian online, penned by Penelope Blackmore, examines the latest casualty of our disconnected world. In the United States, Uber has just launched a new service in which you can now request that you are not disturbed during your ride by the driver speaking with you. That’s right, cordial chit chat has just flown out the window.
In her piece, Blackmore argues that we can outsource almost every “irritation” in our lives, but we can’t outsource loneliness.
“Studies have shown that regular interactions with weak ties, or acquaintances, can drastically improve your mental health and feelings of connectedness,” she writes.
“So while we might think there’s no point waiting around at our local coffee shop when you can pre-order your flat white on an app, studies prove us wrong.
“Baristas, cashiers, yoga teachers – these are all people that might recognise you, and people that are worth talking to, even if it’s just a quick nod of the head.”
Baristas, cashiers, yoga teachers…her words resonate with me on this particular day, when the black dog of loneliness (or is that 10 cats for a single woman?) is nipping at my heels, poking and prodding at me with thoughts that I’m worthless, unlovable, all alone in the world. I’ve had a long, dark night of the soul that seems to affect writers who care about their words, and the world. Some days you wonder if you’re making any difference, on others, you doubt your basic ability to write. And then you panic. Because without your words, what are you? I have awoken on this particular morning in this precise frame of mind. So I force myself to return to my yoga studio that I’ve been neglecting for the past 18 months. Due in part to travel and part to laziness. I walk into the studio, tell the yoga teacher that “something” told me I needed to come back, and then burst into tears. “I need to release today, so please ignore me” I say. She understands, and tells me to simply resort to child’s pose at any point during the class. I make it through the class, noting how badly my balance is off, and leave in tears.
Around the corner, I pause at the second hand book store run by Lifeline volunteers. I say hello to the elderly gentleman behind the counter, and he greets me with a hearty hello back. I linger around the travel biographies section, my favourite genre, and see if any juicy new old books have arrived. On this chilly, crappy day, I want to escape into the arms of another writer, live vicariously through their travels, while I collapse on the couch. I should be writing words myself, but I’ll tell myself that this is research. Even better, the biographies are half priced and with their wizened, yellow pages, they smell so good. Of wild adventures, love, loss and ultimately triumph.
The next destination in my world which has shrunk considerably for now is the local coffee shop. Simon, the owner, sees more of me during winter, when I can finally bask in the winter sunshine after a long, hot summer. I am wearing sunglasses to hide my red eyes. I ask for a hot chocolate but then realise the Eftpos machine is out of order and I don’t have any cash on my person. Simon senses I need this hot chocolate, and simply says “no worries, fix me up next time.” I sit in the sun and fat, salty tears are streaming down my face. Anyone noticing me on this wild and windy day will think my eyes are running from the weather. I clutch my hot chocolate and nudge the karma fairy in Simon’s direction. If only he knew how much this cuppa means today.
Back home on this day, like the wind which is making my windows and bones rattle, I can’t stop howling. I try, but it doesn’t work. So I acquiesce to the sadness. Sometimes life’s answers are held in the pauses between the next breath. The next big adventure. Sometimes they aren’t. I have no answers today. I have friends scattered around the world, and in my hometown of Brisbane, yet I yearn to belong. I crave the next great love affair of my life. On a marvellous night, I want a moon dance. I search for a constant community with which I can connect, not merely dip in and out sporadically.
People think the life of a travel writer is one of pure glamour. And for 10, maybe 20 per cent of the time, this is true. But for the rest, it’s bloody, hard work. One of constant pitching stories and rejections. God, the rejections. Readers will stalk you from around the world to tell you that your story sucks. You spend an enormous amount of time chasing unpaid invoices, juggling Peter to pay Paul, wondering why it is so hard for publishers to pay you what is rightly yours. And for writers such as myself, it can be a lonely life on your own, out on the road. But you keep going, driven by a love of the written word, and the desire to understand the world. I know what a great privilege I have been afforded.
Blackmore sums up loneliness in her excellent article.
“Instead of plugging in your AirPods and listening to a podcast on how to better connect with your loved ones, or how to market your startup, or how to be as productive as humanly possible, try something new,” she says.
“Make small talk, make eye contact. Perhaps give a non-creepy smile to someone that looks like they need it.
“Walk to the train station without distraction, taking in the smells and sounds of your town. And for goodness sake, have a chat to your Uber driver. You never know, you might even enjoy it.”
Even the Pope has weighed into the conversation this week, during his Pentecostal Mass, saying “the more we use social media, the less social we are becoming.” The New York Post has quoted his warning that the temptation to cling to “our little group, to the things and people we like,” saying it’s only a “small step from a nest to a sect, even within the church.”
Two days later, the external and internal howling has finally relented and I return to my yoga studio. A woman I’d noticed the other day smiles at me when she sees me again. My teacher and I discuss my physical and mental release. I drop into the coffee shop and tell Simon I’m here to repay my debt. And I want to pay it forward, buying a coffee for the next person who needs one. His supreme act of kindness has reminded me to be kind, to myself, and others. I’m sipping my hot chocolate when a woman interrupts me. “Excuse me, but thank you, they just told me you paid for my coffee,” she says.
“My name is Chris,” I reply.
“I’m Aleisha,” she says, beaming as she skips off into the winter sunshine.
And all of a sudden, I’m smiling too.
IT had been a terrific trip. I’d trekked for seven, blistering and beautiful hours through Queensland’s gorgeous Carnarvon Gorge, stayed up late partaking in star gazing tours one night, watching for yellow-bellied gliders the next. Heck, I’d even cuddled an echidna (and if you think that’s a little tricky, you are right). Hold it like you’re about to eat a hamburger, my host advised. Which was fine, except a hamburger doesn’t feel like you are holding 1000 sewing needles, nor does it wiggle in your hands.
On my last morning, I expressed reservations about flying in a helicopter as I am not a fan of small aircraft. Give me an A380 and four Rolls Royce engines any day. Preferably Business Class, while we’re at it. But the life of a travel writer is nothing if not many and varied, and I not only survived my helicopter ride over a neighbouring gorge, which involved some spectacular banking so we could see the valley below, but enjoyed it. As my gay boys back in Brisbane would say, focus on the cockpit and everything will be fine…
Like most things in life, it’s not the things you fear, but the things you don’t even consider, that will surprise you. Later that same day, I was on a Fokker 100 out of Rockhampton airport, bound for Brisbane, on a clear-sky night. In 45 minutes I would be touching down in Brisbane at the end of several months of back-to-back trips. My own, glorious bed, beckoned. And then, suddenly, the aircraft plummeted. Not slightly, but by 5000 feet I was later told by the cabin crew. And then it pitched upwards, only to drop again, and again.
My fellow passengers grasped for sick bags, I clutched at the arm of the young bloke next to me, at the same time apologising profusely for being all handsy. We were caught in a storm that wouldn’t release us, and for the next 10 minutes we continued to lurch around the sky. There was a five-minute reprieve, and then it continued again. So bad was this out-of-the-blue storm, we had to abort landing…and go back up into the storm for another 30 minutes before we finally landed.
I was once a good flyer, until all of a sudden I wasn’t. I blame years as a news reporter as the reason behind this. You experience and write about everything, including airline disasters, and eventually some of it sticks. I’ve tried everything over the years, meditation, wiggling my toes (apparently this interrupts the fear pathway to the brain), drinking (plenty of it), prescription drugs, and a combination of prescription drugs AND drinking which has resulted in me hitting the slightest bump and declaring “we’re all going to die.” But one of the best remedies, I have found, when encountering turbulence, is to have a great playlist on hand on your device. Treat this turbulence like a carnival ride, hold on, and go with the flow. And so, I give you, my Perfect Playlist for Turbulent Flying.
1.Stay The Night, by James Blunt
This is potentially the perfect take-off song, particularly with its opening lyrics. “It’s 72 degrees, Zero chance of rain, It’s been a perfect day, We’re all spinning on our heels, So far away from real.” Not only is this such a sunny song, you’ll be so distracted by trying to convert 72 degrees Fahrenheit into Celsius you won’t even realise the wheels have left the tarmac.
2.Daniel, by Elton John
A soothing song for when you are flying into the night and have said goodbye to a loved one. “Daniel is travelling tonight on a plane, I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain.” Who cares if you are only headed to the Sunshine Coast and not Spain, and you’ll be back later tonight? It’s the thought that counts. Except, of course, if you have just broken up with a bloke called Daniel. Then you should be listening to Elton’s I’m Still Standing. Stuff you, Daniel.
3.Uptown Girl, by Billy Joel
Yes, you’ve been living in your white bread world, and now you’re in the ultimate uptown, 40,000 feet above the ground. Enjoy it at least as long as Billy’s marriage to Christie Brinkley, particularly if you are living the rock-star lifestyle and have been upgraded (see my previous note about Business Class).
4.Working My Way Back To You, by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
So, the plane is starting to lurch around but hey, Frankie Valli reminds you that you are working your way back. To You. To Who? Who cares? Just don’t confuse Frankie Valli (who is still alive) with Buddy Holly (who died in a plane crash). You should never, ever play Buddy Holly on a flight.
5.Holy Grail, by Hunters and Collectors
Look, if you are going to go down in some fiery plane crash, let it be to good old Aussie pub band like Hunters, and seriously, what could be more fitting for your final descent than a song about the Holy Grail? And the chorus, should you hit turbulence, is rather fitting. “I’ve been high, and I’ve been low, But I’ve got nowhere else to go, There’s nowhere else to go.” Except down. You are going down. By hey how great were the 80s?
6.Human, by The Killers
“And sometimes I get nervous, When I see an open door, Close your eyes, Clear your heart”. No matter how nervous you get, don’t open the plane door. Just don’t.
7.All The Lovers, by Kylie Minogue
This song is a bit of a final montage to all those you have loved…and may never see again.
8.F**k You, By Lily Allen
Another song that pays homage to your past, but this is for those you hope to never see again.
9.If Tomorrow Never Comes, by Ronan Keating
Speaks for itself. (Note to my sister: make sure those travel editors pay those outstanding invoices in my in-tray)
10.Against The Wind, by The Tributes
Because, ultimately, no matter how turbulent and terrifying, you will survive this flight. Against the wind.
Note to readers: The Global Goddess takes hundreds of flights each year, and hasn’t dropped dead yet (nor been arrested for groping hot, young blokes or staring at the cockpit of pilots). Happy Flying!