Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” John Lennon
IT was her handbag which captured my attention. A beautiful travel tale of tapestry which whispered of a faraway land. I commented on her bag and she glanced at me from under inky black eyes. Her accent was baklava sweet, dripping in Middle Eastern exoticism, of sultry deserts and sticky desserts, piquant shisha pipes and ancient mosques wailing the Muslim call to prayer. “I am from Iran,” she said, smiling, “do you know Iran?” I have never walked in her homeland, but I know her region. Yet another destination. Like loneliness. Since publishing my blog on loneliness last week I have made an effort to walk my talk and try to connect more with my fellow humans, on a day-to-day level. I have been showered with so much love about my blog post, I couldn’t ignore the deluge. And what a torrent it was. I have been overwhelmed by phone calls, messages, emails and comments from friends and strangers from around the world. So today, I thought I’d share some of those responses, to remind you, that we are not alone.
One of my most deliciously surprising messages came in the form of an email, from the Netherlands.
“I stumbled upon your blog, “Only the lonely” and it touched me.
It feels vulnerable, and showing vulnerability is also strength,” the male reader said.
“Although from a slightly different angle, I can relate with your story.
I flew back from Brisbane(!) 2 month ago to the Netherlands after seven months of traveling alone.
“Yes, travelling you meet all kinds of awesome people down the road, but – also yes – it’s easy to miss the deeper connections.
Moreover, I felt a kind of alienated coming home.
“In my case, because I have had so many new and weird experiences to the extent, I have difficulty connecting to “normal” people.”
One of dear friends, who lives in the UK, sent me a message from the midst of their freezing summer.
“Your blog brought a tear to me…people don’t understand loneliness. I can howl for England on my down days,” she wrote.
It seems I made quite a few people cry (sorry), but I’m told in the nicest way.
Closer to home, a friend messaged me with the words “You made me cry with that post this morning. Beautifully written, and a good reminder to us all to be kind to each other,” she said.
Another wrote: “I cried and then smiled as I read your beautiful words and realised how terribly I am disconnected as well.”
And yet another wrote: “Oh, just having a teary in to my coffee. All those lonely days out in the regions coming back to haunt me through your always stunning words.”
Believe me when I say I never expected my two-day cry-fest, which ended in me penning a blog to try and write my way out of it, punch my way out of that painful paper bag, would have such an impact.
Another friend commented “I think we need more honesty to counteract all the bullshit because life is hard and shitty sometimes. By sharing your truth, you give other people permission to be honest…community is how humans have evolved and survived. It’s crazy (and arrogant) to think we don’t need it anymore.”
And this from another “I stopped walking to work months ago now, from the car park 20 mins away….. I have just felt worse and worse and retreated into my shell – over the last few weeks I have slowly started again! It has been great to see the happy Irishman I have gotten to know, and his wife – we always smile and chat quickly, today was in the morning and afternoon! It is always the small things that make us connected.”
Connections. Every person spoke about connections. And so many, many people admitted to being lonely. The issue is so big, that in the UK, they’ve even appointed the first ever Minister for Loneliness. And it got me thinking, is loneliness a First World problem? To some extent, yes, as we tend to have less community or “tribe” than those in Third World countries, but it would be too simplistic to suggest that those in developing nations don’t also struggle with loneliness. When I think back to my travels of the past two years, I think of the Ubuntu women in Kenya, who were ostracised by their communities and husbands, after they gave birth to disabled children; and the survivors of sex trafficking in Nepal, whose parents sold them into the sex trade so that their families could survive. On the other hand, I think about Bhutan, a place I travelled last year to see if it really was, as it claimed, the happiest place on the planet. In my interview with Gross National Happiness Director Sonam Tsoki Tenzin, she spoke about “authentic happiness”, a collective for the whole country and its people.
“I don’t feel sorry for people in the west because you are better educated and have a better lifestyle. But maybe you haven’t used it in the best of your interests,” she says.
“You’ve made it very easy to get things done, but have forgotten to get along with people.”
Back home in Australia, the World Kindness Movement shared my blog, which sparked another stream of conversations among strangers I had never met. I don’t have the answer to loneliness, but I believe it lays somewhere in remembering to be compassionate to yourself and others. Say hello to the exotic woman with the pretty handbag; wave if someone gives you a break in traffic; apologise if you are wrong. It costs nothing to be kind, but the impact you may have on just one person, could make all the difference to their day. Let’s keep this conversation going. In the words of John Lennon, imagine…
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.
DEPENDING on how you view life, it is either a massive coincidence, or pure fate, that Julia Baker now lives in a street called Olympus, in Brisbane. For it has taken this 45-year-old a Herculean effort to get to this point. And if you wish to stretch the Greek mythology a little further, if you’d never met Julia before this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking she may look a little like Medusa, not because this softie would turn you to stone, but because of her love of snakes. In the Snakes and Ladders game of life, of one slither forward and two back, Julia is emerging triumphantly, as Brisbane’s very own Snake Sheila.
But it’s been quite the journey. Born in Australia to a German father and English mother, Julia spent her formative years in Europe, vacillating between England and Germany where at the age of 10 she moved with her family, learned the language and went to school until she dropped out at 16 to do a baker’s apprenticeship.
“I wanted to become an actress, but it wasn’t really a job back then,” Julia says, not knowing that one day, that dream would come true as well.
“The baking apprenticeship was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life, lifting 50kg of flour and 2am starts.
“I still can’t believe I’d get up in the freezing cold and blizzards, but my dad never let me give up and I also completed a confectionary apprenticeship.”
But Julia’s birthplace beckoned and lured her towards an incredible life journey that would be peppered with both the bleak and beautiful.
“Everyone is besotted with Australia overseas, it is this mysterious country that has no neighbours. I used to dream about Australia all the time and wonder what it would be like if I lived there,” she says.
“I came over here with $2000 in my pocket but because I had such good qualifications I walked into the Hilton Sydney and got a job in a day.” Julia climbed her way up through the chef ranks, working for a number of big name hotel chains. She met husband and gave birth to two girls, before moving to Brisbane 15 years ago. And in the Snakes and Ladders game of life, her marriage broke down, sending her into a downward spiral of depression.
“I’d never really thought about what I wanted. You get married at a young age and you are never really allowed to dream. You do everything everyone else wants you to do,” she says.
“But you reach an age where you think ‘I’ve done everything everyone wanted me to do and it’s still a disaster’. I could see this pattern of pleasing everyone. I was attracting the wrong kind of people into my life. I looked at my two girls and didn’t think I was a good role model.
“When I split up from my husband I went through six months of depression. I thought I was a loser.” But Julia stumbled across a couple of self-help books and, while not academically minded, something resonated. And she began to dream.
About 10 years ago, dreaming and visualising her future, she went to Australia Zoo, saw a massive boa constrictor, and “fell in love with snakes”.
“I was watching all the people in the queue and they were carrying on like the snake was some kind of monster,” Julia says.
“I kinda felt that it was like me and they couldn’t see that underneath it had a really good heart. When they put it around my neck I almost cried.
“I thought ‘sod you, I’ll show you’. It just set me off and every time I’d go and see snakes I’d be drooling and I decided to get a pet snake.”
Julia now has not one but three pet snakes, two pet blue-tongued lizards and a frilly dragon. And then she met someone with a snake catching licence and decided to follow her passion, undertaking a snake-catching course and getting her own licence.
“I started to get call outs and before I knew it, I became the preferred catcher for the Brisbane City Council,” she says.
“I don’t claim to be the best. I have a massive passion for them and what makes me different is I really enjoy people and recognise that they have a fear. I understand them and I try to educate them.
“In the past five years I’ve had a real taste for feeling alive. (Julia also rides motor bikes, acts in plays, performs puppet shows and is a motivational speaker).”
Then, three years ago, with her life almost perfect, she sat down and wrote a list of her ideal man. Two weeks later, a Scotsman called John walked into her life.
“John is just perfect. He embraces me for being chaotic and worships every little bit about me,” she says.
“I can be me and I don’t have to apologise. On our second date I said to myself ‘he needs to be alright with snakes’ and I flung a snake around his neck while I went to answer a phone call.”
John is not only alright with snakes, he now also has his snake catcher licence.
Julia’s next big dream is to become an international speaker, and her Snakes and Ladders game continues on its upward trajectory. Brisbane-based documentary makers FlickChicks have just signed with a major international broadcaster for a 10-part series on the Snake Sheila, with filming slated to begin this August, just in time for snake season Down Under.
“My big vision is the TV show and the underlying message you can be in your 40s and get some passions in your life,” she says.
“I will not fit into what society wants me to do again.”
For more information on any element of Julia’s work, please contact her on 0400 140 800. To find out more about the Snake Sheila series, visit FlickChicks at http://www.flickchicks.com.au