On the morning of Christmas Eve, I woke up alone in Paris. Well, I wasn’t really alone since there was a grey tabby cat lying beside me, kneading my arm, and in the room across the hallway, there was a sleeping mother and her little boy, Charlie, whose flat I was staying in. I could also hear the shower running in the apartment next to us, and down on the street below were the typical sounds of a city waking up, including the honking horns of restless commuters, which sound the same wherever you go. Anyway, the point being is I wasn’t alone but I was, in fact, lonely; which is only a matter of perspective I suppose.
I arrived in Paris three weeks earlier, and I was planning on spending several weeks more. Years before, when I used to live in Europe, Paris was my go-to place to be alone. It didn't matter what time of year it was. I could walk around the city for hours and hours on end and never tire of the place.
However, this year, things were different. It was the first time I was in Europe since moving back to the U.S. two years ago. I should have been excited. Except, I wasn't. Because instead I was consumed with a heady, inconsolable sadness. A heaviness which couldn’t be put into words.
A short train ride away in Amsterdam were friends who wanted to spend the holidays with me. Just as many people have wanted to in years before. However, each holiday season, I choose to retreat into myself, preferring to use the time to reflect and set intentions for the new year. I've been doing it this way for 13 years. It was habit by now. An unintentionally negative practice that was creating distance in my relationships, while closing down the windows of my animal heart.
Just off of Quai Voltaire, on the left bank, there is a beautiful, contorted, ever adaptable, Willow Tree. When I think about what makes a person feel safe, I often think about the qualities of trees: steady and enduring. One afternoon I went for a walk to see it.
As I stood overlooking the Seine, I turned a single yellow leaf over and over again between my fingertips. I thought about the law of impermanence and how life is unfathomably precious and fleeting. But then I thought that even the color yellow is sad in Paris, and this wasn’t a moment of inspiration. It was a moment of awakening.
As I walked home, I thought about how our thoughts precede our actions, and I could sense that I was being split into two. One part of me was being pulled back toward the past and into old stories of loss and heartache, while the other part was racing toward some future outcome I thought needed. All the while, I was focused on the areas of my life that seemed to be lacking: professional status, a partner, and the experience of being a mother. It was an incredibly lonely feeling.
That’s when I realized I hadn’t set an intention for this trip. Instead, I showed up expecting life to go a certain way, not taking into account all of the changes that came before.
In two years time, I’ve moved countries (and back again), switched jobs, and started writing a book. And not so long before that, I lost my father unexpectedly, in addition to seeing some long-held friendships come to an end. That’s a lot of change in a short amount of time.
Six months before this trip, I entered into a period of self-study, which resulted in my first manuscript. After which, I suppose I thought life would just come together for me in an instant. How arrogant! Especially since the distance between my expectations and my reality were about as far as the earth is from the sun.
Overlooking the Seine that day, I also wasn’t living in the present moment. I could hardly feel it’s sharpness on my skin or its energy on my eyelids. I wasn’t able to listen, really listen, to even the most faraway sounds. It was then that I realized that the balance of life tips out of our favor when trust is seduced by will. When we try to control things, and when our hearts inflate with fear.
The next morning, I walked Charlie to school. As we sauntered along, I could hear the sound of sparrows singing. He heard them too, pointing to a tree. We walked over, closed our eyes, and listened. It was a pristine moment of truth and beauty.
Lying beside the cat, I thought about my future life. I had the intuitive sense that at the rate I was going, people might stop asking to see me for Christmas, and I would eventually wind up alone. Suddenly I felt a window on my heart open. I wanted to turn toward love, instead of away from it. I set my intention.
Reaching for my mobile phone, I texted my friends to tell them I wanted to go Amsterdam. And within the hour, my train ticket was booked.
Before I left, I went for a run to view the Eiffel Tower. On the outer perimeter of Parc Champs du Mars, along Place Joffre, there are several rose bushes. When I arrived earlier in the month, they hadn’t yet bloomed. But as I ran that last morning, I could see that their red petals were unfolding. The colors were sharp, and I was awake enough to notice.
The intention underlying the decision to go back to Amsterdam was twofold: love and liberation. My heart’s true aspiration was to be with my friends. It wasn't to be alone. As I made my plans that morning, I had the feeling that my life was about to change once more.
What if we were to accept the distinct possibility that things are, in fact, moving along precisely as they should. Just like the rose, our lives are gently unfolding. All we have to do is show up. I think these great transitional moments are the hardest to contend with because they are so painful. But the heaviest page is the most important one to turn.
Jocelyn M. Ulevicus is a writer, educator, and seeker — seeker of truth and beauty. Her work explores themes of trauma, heartache, loss, and family violence, reminding us to ask ourselves, who are we afraid of? You can follow her on IG: @beautystills or drop her an email to share a secret or two: email@example.com
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