I was onboard a train running through the English countryside one recent afternoon when a conversation with a stranger changed my life. She reminded me that self-compassion could only be fruitful if you are kind to yourself with wisdom. The wisdom to know who you are and what you stand for, in addition to honoring yourself and what you care about daily. She also reminded me that vulnerability plays a significant part in the human spectrum of wellness.
When I sat across from her, the first thing I noticed was her fingernails. They were filed into sharp points and lacquered with red glitter. My nails were long but unpainted, and I wondered whether or not our nails communicated something out into the world unknowingly. I removed my hands from the table and folded them onto my lap. I don’t know why.
I was heading back to York after visiting with an old friend and her new family in Sheffield. Her partner and I had a good chat about traveling, homelessness, and how to ask for one’s needs to be met, and I felt strangely qualified to engage in this discussion, because I’ve been traveling for a while, and have, in the past, been homeless. While we spoke, my friend bounced their baby on her lap, and each time the baby laughed, my heart squeezed. I don’t know anything about being a mother yet. Though, I think that’s alright.
Except then, after lunch, when my friend brought me to the train station and told me about another friend of ours who just met someone, I had the most strange reaction. My throat closed up, and I let out a small yelp. It was an excruciating moment where I felt vulnerable and exposed. I also felt incredibly left out.
But left out of what, exactly?
My life took a strange turn a few years ago when, following my father’s death, I moved back to the States after several years abroad. It was not a decision I made lightly. However, looking back, I recognize that it was a necessary one. Up until that point in my life, I hadn’t given much thought to whether or not I was living my values. I was much too busy trying to keep up.
Back then, on the surface of things, my life looked pretty and put together and stable. I was a research fellow in a well-loved international city, had many wonderful, supportive friends, and was traveling loads. However, at the same time, I felt incredibly distant from myself.
It took a little while for the impact of my father’s death to settle in. And when it did, I was scared. His death was all the evidence I needed to know that everything does and doesn’t matter at once. That all we have is the present moment and even that's changing from one breath to the next. At the same time, his passing revealed to me that even decay has its purpose; has beauty.
I suppose it was the false sense of control I had over my life which unnerved me. It's organization felt indulgent, a bit frivolous, and not my own. It’s taken me the whole of two years to see that the trouble I was having was because I was trying to fit my life into the mold of someone else’s. Looking around me, my peers were doing well professionally, were buying houses, and making families, and I felt like I was stuck on the outside looking in. I was unwilling to accept with the fierce compassion and love necessary that it is wholly possible and okay that all of our adult suits look different. I wanted to belong.
Somehow, I thought leaving Amsterdam would get me closer to belonging to something. I didn't know yet that all of my striving and grasping for solutions, for connection, was what was driving my feelings of separation from the outside world.
Except then, there was darkness.
The sudden cessation of physical, professional, and social identity which resulted from repatriating derailed my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual health. Which, I admit, left me open to some precarious situations, like being homeless, jobless, alone, and broke. And at the very distant borders of identity where self-possession and personal responsibility collide, I even considered taking my life.
My soul was hungry for the answers. Answers to big, weighty existential questions about what qualifies a happy, prosperous, adult female life. But this wisdom wouldn’t be accessible right away and I knew that introspection would only get me so far. This was a path that would require time and patience and likely a whole lot of stumbling around while I worked out what’s right — for me — and what isn’t. My values needed exploring, and also, I had my grief to work through and a new life to build. Whether I liked it or not, I was growing.
On the train that day, my worries about not being a mother or a career woman or someone’s wife isolated me from my experience which, when I have the right sense to quiet the noise of comparing myself to others, I know is my truth. Because there is no one way to live this life.
When the trolly selling snacks and beverages came down the aisle of the train car, the woman with the painted nails bought two small bottles of wine. She handed one to me and asked me my name. I had a feeling she was about to tell me something.
And she did.
Without prompt, she told me her story. Her’s was a story of loss and survival and the painful journey of self-love. But it wasn’t just a familiar story. It was a profoundly human story that socked me in the gut with empathy and compassion not only for her but myself. Her story was my story. It may someday be yours.
When the train called at York Station, she stood up and gathered her things. But before she walked out, she turned to me and said, “Only, I wish I gave myself more time to heal.”
Her words stayed with me for days.
In the time since I left Amsterdam, I hit rock bottom and back again, while on a search and rescue mission for myself.
I lived in California, Massachusetts, New York, Canada, North Carolina, and now I’m back Europe.
I was homeless and then housed.
I was jobless, and then I was a dishwasher, a baker, a housekeeper and an assistant. I was a hostess and a waitress. Later I became a writer and a teacher. I was scared, and I was strong the entire time.
I was also brave, and courageous, as much as I was weak, and reckless too. I lost friends. But then, I made more.
I cried alone and in public on subways and sidewalks, in shopping centers, and while out on runs. Sometimes I’d scream.
I was alone, and then I was loved, and I loved in return.
However, I was anxious.
But I am also abundant.
I am free.
Talking with that woman helped me see that the path is only long and confusing when we don’t know where we are going. But if we could trust and allow the mystery, our lives can be nothing but beautiful, just as they were meant to be.
However first, we must let go.
And I mean really let go.
Going back to the question of what I was seeking to belong to, the answer now seems so simple — I needed to learn how to belong to myself.
Every one of us will make emotionally driven decisions which steer our lives into murky waters. It's how we navigate them which determines our character, I think. Because light comes and goes, but darkness is a precious part of our stories into presence.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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