I’m writing this from the London Heathrow Airport, where I’m drinking my second cup of coffee during a five-hour layover. Placed strategically above the bustling stream of passengers, there’s a giant screen playing an advertisement over and over again featuring Jennifer Lawrence: Dressed in a white fairytale glamour gown, she’s leaping headfirst into a sky-rise turquoise pool above a city horizon. Unabashedly, she bites into a bright red apple that matches her lipstick. Then she’s floating on the water, stretching languidly in the sun with diamonds entwined around her neck. She’s the embodiment of a new perfume called Joy by Dior.
Buying into the possibility of joy is not that easy for most of us. When you’re in survival mode and trying to find your way beyond a bad situation — death, debt, a marriage ending — joy feels like something that will only last a little while before being yanked away again by unforeseen circumstances, a commercial for a life you’d love but only watch cautiously from a distance.
My own ability to believe in the possibility of joy is a little rough around the edges. After I left my ex-husband, he hooked up with a former close friend of mine, and, unbeknownst to me, moved out of our house, leaving it unsold and un-rented for months while we jointly split the mortgage, a huge expense I had to pay on top of my D.C. rent that drained my savings. Even though I got away from him, he made it so I paid for my freedom for a few years afterward. I wondered if I’d ever be able to forget my bad history with him and breathe the fresh air of a new life.
Now that the house is sold, my finances are more under control and I’m surrounded by things that make me happy — art, culture, a family of friends, a dynamic city full of different dating relationships and eye-opening experiences. I’m much more at peace than I once was. But sometimes I’m still resentful about the long-term challenges that linger after my divorce, like paying off debt I never would have had if he had just been more amenable about our ending everything.
This summer, my need to travel was overwhelming. During the past year I had taken a couple of trips, but only to visit family or to places I’d already seen: a quick flight home to Atlanta to see my mom and sisters and their kids, an overnight train to Philadelphia to cover an event. At work, several members of my team had left their positions for other opportunities within a few weeks of each other, and I was helping to cover their jobs, keeping things afloat. I ate lunch all too often at my desk, missed my workouts, and most nights ended up collapsing on my couch, too tired to do anything else.
My Instagram feed was filled with my friends’ vacation photos from around the world. I felt genuinely happy for them, but sorry for myself. I was too broke to travel anywhere exciting, let alone to another country. My goal was knocking out debt, so I did boring but productive things like researching recipes to make at home to prevent me from going out to eat too much, checking out books from the library rather than buying them, pursuing freelance and balancing my budget every Sunday.
An awakening of gratitude
I often take pictures of the sunrise from my bed, so I can remind myself how beautiful the earth is, in a different way every day. One morning, looking outside my window, I took this photo and wrote this:
And in that moment, I felt my perspective shifting from one of self-pity to a soul-deep gratitude. I realized the only way I’d keep moving forward was to be patient and let things happen the way they were supposed to. I needed to remind myself that a new sun was always rising, that better things were on the way.
In late August, a colleague stuck his head in my office and asked me if I wanted to go to South Africa to help with some strategic communications for a conference there. I didn’t think it would actually happen at first — I hadn’t yet traveled internationally with my current job, and there were some administrative hurdles to get through, other important projects I needed to complete. But suddenly, I was making arrangements to fly to Johannesburg. To feed my personal travel need, following the work part of the trip, I decided to head to Cape Town for some adventure on my own.
Stars aligning, ships sailing
After the opportunity to travel to South Africa presented itself, everything started falling into place, in uncanny ways. For example, whales are my favorite animal, and I’ve seen orcas, grey whales, and humpbacks in Cape Breton, San Francisco and Tofino. Outside Cape Town is a small town called Hermanus, known for some of the world’s best whale-watching. And September, when I would be there, is prime whale-watching season. I couldn’t believe my luck and booked a tour with a company which donates part of its ticket sales to conservation efforts.
The night before I left for my trip, I discovered my D.C. Uber driver was also an official chauffeur for the Embassy of South Africa. He was thrilled for me and shared all sorts of tips and ideas. The universe seemed to be saying, “See, not only are you going to South Africa, but we’re going to reaffirm that it’s happening, and that you were meant to go, right up until the day you leave.”
Another fortuitous circumstance: my flight to South Africa included a seven-hour layover in London, where a dear friend I hadn’t seen in years and her husband lived as expats. We had messaged back and forth about my visiting her forever. With this trip, we would be able to meet for coffee in London and catch up on our lives! I had missed seeing her and was so grateful this worked out.
One of my biggest concerns was saving enough money for my vacation to Cape Town, while making sure I continued making progress toward paying off my debt. Thankfully, South Africa is a fairly affordable international travel destination if you’re spending American dollars there, especially during the rainier, off-season months like September. I realized that if I kept recording my expenses and balancing my budget carefully, as I’d been doing all summer, I’d be fine and could go ahead and take advantage of things like a meal at one of Cape Town’s finest restaurants, a comfortable hotel in the downtown area where I could walk around safely. On top of all this, just before I left D.C., a freelance client I had worked with almost a year ago emailed me out of the blue to say she was interested in hiring me again, ensuring I’d have some extra money coming in after I got back. It was such a relief to know I’d be able to pull off my trip financially!
Taking good things as they come …
Once I got to Cape Town, I had an incredible time. It’s impossible to share all the great moments, but here are a few: The mountains and ocean were side by side, creating one of of the most vivid landscapes I’ve ever seen. The occasional rain that rolled in with the gray clouds shifting in and out of the bright sun just made it all that more beautiful and dramatic. I loved the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden full of beautiful flowers, birds and giant, rustling trees. As some of you know, I appreciate dining out solo when traveling alone, and treated myself to dinner at Constantia’s renowned Greenhouse Restaurant. My meal was hands down one of the most unforgettable culinary experiences I’ve ever had, and featured local wines carefully paired with exquisite food that was close to perfection. Learning about Africa’s art scene and its tumultuous history at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa fed my museum addiction. All in all, I took full advantage of Cape Town and created one of the most restorative, inspiring travel experiences I’ve had in forever.
Now when I look back at my trip, I like to think I was getting a glimpse of my future. I’m drawn to the ocean more than any other landscape. When I opened my eyes at the Cape of Good Hope and took in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans on either side, with the powerful winds whipping around me, some part of me started experiencing a strange certainty that I’d be back in South Africa one day, on my honeymoon of all things. Me, the lady who has been so cynical and even a little terrified about ever falling in love again.
Watching southern right whales with their babies, surfacing and resurfacing through emerald green waters in a misty bay, I thought about how much I love my family, how happy I am for all my friends and loved ones experiencing motherhood and other new beginnings. I felt this deep sense of peace about how the joyful changes in our lives are endlessly happening all around us, and taking time to really see them, even as an observer, was a powerful experience.
When I looked down at a special travel bag I bought for my trip, which held a laptop, clean clothes and other items for long, overnight international flights, I started wondering if by finding it and purchasing it, I was unknowingly setting the stage for a lifetime of regular travel around the world as a writer.
Bringing ourselves back to joy is a journey, not a permanent zipcode where we get to live all the time. There is only one way to get there, and that’s through a daily mindset of gratitude, curiosity about what’s happening around us, and the understanding that we are always transient, not locked into one place. Noticing and accepting the experience itself — not what’s missing — is how our hearts find what they’re looking for.