Going Solo: Spending My 38th Birthday Alone in Albuquerque

This Sunday, I’ll be turning 38. And I’ll be spending it in a city I’ve never visited: Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’ll be traveling by myself, and that’s exactly what I want for this birthday. It’s the first birthday where I won’t be getting a call or card from my grandmother, who passed away in January (though her card likely would have already arrived). It’s a birthday where the blaring biological clock warnings feel like they are all going off in my head at once. So I decided to escape to somewhere warm where I hope to recharge and replenish myself and find a way to make peace with this new age that feels scary for many reasons.

“Is your boyfriend going with you?” several people have asked when I told them of my plans. He’s not. When a couple that we were having dinner with the other night asked, I said, “I invited you,” to my boyfriend, only partly joking. “No you didn’t,” he protested. “You just said, ‘This is what I’m doing on my birthday.’” Looking back, I realized he was right. I booked my flight in early September, inspired in part by discovering relatively cheap tickets, and in part by reading Karen Karbo’s amazing biography How Georgia Became O’Keeffe. I decided I’d explore Albuquerque and spend a few days in Santa Fe visiting the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

As much as my new home in Red Bank, New Jersey is far more peaceful than my old one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there are many days when I sit and stare at my computer and wonder what exactly I’m doing with my life. Those are the days when all I see are the mistakes I’ve made, rather than my accomplishments and the possibilities ahead. Those dark times are precisely when I start firing up travel websites and searching for a way to escape my doubts and fears, or at least, geographically shift them.

Travel offers me hope that there is something new and different waiting for me. I don’t necessarily think the next place I visit will be better than the one I’ve come from or call home, but it’s the the shift, the change in perspective that I crave. It’s also the solitude — after six months, I’m still adjusting to living with my boyfriend. I love him, and I like living with him, but there are still times when all I want is to be alone, to think or walk or write or cry, or all of the above.

At the same time, one of the joys of travel for me is that even when you think you’re alone, you’re not. People find you, and vice versa. After I booked my trip, I recalled that there’s a sex toy store in Albuquerque, and was thrilled when they asked me to teach an erotic writing workshop. At the wedding of my childhood best friend’s sister, I met their cousin, who lives in Albuquerque and is going to show me around. I discovered that I can spend the night in the Albuquerque Aquarium with strangers, animal and human alike.

Traveling, especially by myself, is a way for me to temporarily upend my life in order to see and appreciate it more clearly. There’s magic in the act of stepping on a plane and then stepping off somewhere utterly new a few hours later. That first glimpse of the new is what feeds me, what keeps me constantly on the lookout for where I most want to visit next (hi, Iceland).

Perhaps I lied earlier when I said that you can never truly get away from yourself. While it’s true that “wherever you go, there you are,” as Jon Kabat-Zinn states, it’s also false because travel can change who you are — at least, I’m counting on it to do so. In Zen and the Art of Solo Travel, Janice Waugh writes, “As I travel solo, managing all the logistics on my own, not losing my passport, starting conversations with complete strangers, becoming my own judge for what is good and bad, what I like and don’t like… I get to know myself better. And, what’s more, I integrate this knowledge, this feeling of strength, into my sense of self.”

Indeed. There is something about planning a trip, navigating its twists and turns, that builds fortitude. Whereas at home I eat the same breakfast, drink the same amount of coffee and take my ten vitamins every morning, when I’m traveling each day’s rhythms vary.

To be clear, I don’t hate my life or those daily routines, but I do long to shake them up whenever I can, especially when I start to feel like they bind me rather than free me to make the most of my days. Part of me knows I don’t need a birthday or a trip in order to shake up my life and clear away those self-doubting, regretful cobwebs from my mind. But the part of me that booked this trip welcomes the extra nudge a birthday provides, an opportunity to be utterly self-indulgent, if only for one day, to walk for miles if I care to or do nothing at all. Will I come home a different, more enlightened, happier person? I hope so, but even if I don’t, I’m grateful for the opportunity to try.

Virtual  inspiration from Georgia O’Keefe on Artsy.net.

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