Loneliness yet hope
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Searching for the Sunrise in the Sahara on New Year’s Day

“The tone of the new year is set not by how you end the previous year, but how you spend the first day of the year.”

My friend said this to justify our wanting to go to bed before midnight on New Year’s eve. It was our last night camping in the Sahara in Southeast Algeria and a part of me didn’t want to miss the ongoing festivities. Someone had connected their phone to the speakers in one of the trucks and Pharrel’s Happy blared out. Later we switched to the music of our Tuareg guides. As the music played, more of our motley group, American and Tuareg alike, got up to dance in their stocking feet on the colorful rugs around the fire.

I had yet to manage to crawl out of my warm sleeping bag into the freezing air to catch a sunrise, however, and I thought that would be a great way to greet the new year. It was also my last chance to see it in the desert since we were heading back to civilization the next day. So I made my decision to leave the celebration early.

A couple friends and I decided that at eleven, it was midnight somewhere and we counted down – “10! 9! 8! 7! . . .” – and toasted to making it around the sun yet another turn. As always, I felt optimistic for the coming year as if this was the year that everything was going to come together.

When my alarm rang at 6 a.m. it was still pitch black. I lay ensconced in my black sleeping bag, covered by a fuzzy blanket, only my nose and a small bit of face exposed, like an island with a volcano at the center. The freezing cold air outside my cocoon grazed my bare skin and I wondered why I cared so much about seeing the orb of sun peeking over the horizon. But my friend’s words about the tone of the year rang in my ears. After about fifteen minutes I willed myself to crawl out like a butterfly from its chrysalis. I scrambled to put on my many layers, hat and gloves before the cold could take me over.

Leaving the tent finally, I could see the sky had begun to lighten. I needed to hurry or I’d miss it. My tent sat below a rocky hill and I thought perhaps from the top of it, I could get the best view. So I started climbing. Initially, it was mostly sand that had washed up along the side like a snow drift and later, sand patches that had been left amidst the rock like tide pools, but then it was just rock and I scrambled up to what I thought was the top. Once there, I turned my face to the horizon. I discovered, however, that I had failed to consider that between me and where I expected to see the sun was a towering rock wall, not climbable without gear and definitely not before sunrise.

As the sky continued to brighten and stars gave way to dusty grey, I decided to trek along to see if I could find a break in the cliff face. I knew I would miss the peeking of the sun over the horizon, but if I could just find the sun at all, that was what mattered at this point. As I trudged through the sand with the slowness of walking on a beach, I could only see sand stretch ahead of me, a couple football fields wide, to eternity. On both sides stretched majestic cliff faces, sand washed up their sides like some apocalyptic version of an abandoned city that could no longer keep nature from taking over.

I walked and walked. Each time I thought I was coming to a possible break in the cliffs, it turned out to be just a jag in the rocks and the cliffs continued. I stood in that immensity and turned 360 degrees. I could see no one else and suddenly I felt my smallness in the universe in a way I never have. I was an ant on this earth who could get lost here and never be found. I wondered if a giant foot might descend and squash me. I knew at this point that I simply needed to turn around and walk the straight path to the pocket surrounded by rocks where we had camped. And yet, I also knew that if I kept walking straight, I would simply disappear into the ether. It wasn’t a troubling feeling. I’ve often thought about how knowing that my part in the history of the universe, even of mankind, is so minute as to be trivial doesn’t seem to change how I feel about what is happening to me or others in this moment. Knowing my life is a blip on the radar doesn’t keep me from feeling pain, or joy for that matter. And it doesn’t keep me from wishing that we humans could stop inflicting so much pain on each other or on ourselves. It does, however, put me in awe that I am here at all and deepen my sense that I have an extremely limited idea of what is really at work in the universe.

The sky was now fully light, and full of grey, menacing clouds. Anywhere else I would have suspected rain. Even if I found a place to spot the horizon, I probably couldn’t have seen the sun’s orb peeking out. I trekked back from where I came and spotted a friend, a black dot on the red sand in the distance, walking out from our hidden camping area. When I reached him, we chatted about my failed attempt to see the sunrise. I wondered what this meant for my setting the tone for the year.

Eventually, I walked to a nearby rock and sat waiting to see if I could spot the sun coming over the cliffs. I ate a granola bar and prayed, closing my eyes and feeling the wind caress my cheeks. My lips chapped from five days of dryness and wind and cold. I prayed to follow God’s voice that day and in the coming year. But mostly I gave thanks for this amazing trip with a new group of friends. My body reverberated in recognition of how lucky I am that I get to have these types of experiences.

Walking back into camp, some people were taking down their tents, others were having breakfast. I trotted over to the breakfast table, low to the ground, surrounded by colorful, woven blankets for us to sit on – our dining room. Still standing, I grabbed a hard-boiled egg and scarfed it down. I didn’t have time for coffee or bread yet as I needed to pack up or I’d be behind. I hated being the last one ready and making people wait for me, but I hadn’t wanted to miss the eggs while they were still warm.

While I peeled and ate it, my friend said to another trip mate “I was privy to your religion talk last night from my tent.”

“Yeah. The guides were telling us about their creation story.”

A jolt ran through my body. I was the one here who cared about religion and spirituality. “I can’t believe I missed that.” I said before taking another bite. I wondered what the guides had told them.

Knowing I missed both the sunrise and a conversation I would have loved to have been a part of added another layer of feeling that I had made the wrong decision to go to bed early the night before.

As I scurried to my tent to pack up, the dull ache of disappointment filled my chest. Despite my rush, my fear of being the last one materialized. When I finally finished, I looked to my right and the entire group had walked off in pairs and groups of three. I knew that they were just doing our usual morning routine of walking to some site – an ancient painting on a cliff face or a view – while our guides finished packing up the cooking gear and loaded up the trucks.

I suspected that no one realized I was being left behind because they had each left in small groups, mindful only of the conversation they were having in that moment and meandering without hurry.

I rushed over to grab some coffee and bread before I ran to catch up, but the guides were already in the process of packing it up. They offered to heat some water for me, but I didn’t want to hold them up. The sense of frustration of not getting my hot cup of coffee on this cold, windy, cloudy, already failure of a morning slammed me in my chest. I’d missed the sun, breakfast, and everyone had left without me. The sense of smallness I felt walking alone in the desert that morning devolved into feeling incredibly lonely.

I knew this feeling would pass. It had been a great trip and I’d made wonderful new friends, but in the immensity of the desert space, these friends mere streaks of black in the distance, this sense of isolation that I’ve felt much of my life came to the surface. As I followed the equivalent of a couple city blocks behind everyone else, surrounded by nothing but stone and sand, I let myself cry with abandon into the void. The tears were satisfying in a strange way, like a release of the pain of an old wound. I gave into them freely since no one was around the hear me. And yet another part of me hated that feeling of unwanted aloneness. I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. I also could not shake the words of my friend about how this was setting the tone for my year. This was not the tone I’d hoped to set.

Through my tears, I saw a couple stop and turn, watching me. Waiting for me. The spigot in my eyes slowly closed, shoulders lifted. Someone had noticed me missing after all. I waved.

“Thanks for waiting for me.” I told them as I approached, still wiping away the remaining traces of salt water, hoping they might not notice, but also hoping they would.

“We weren’t sure if you wanted to be alone.”

“Not really actually. I was feeling a little abandoned so I appreciate you waiting.”

“I was hoping that maybe you had set a new year’s resolution not to worry about holding people up and that’s what you were doing.” My friend smiled as she said it.

“Sadly. No. I was as worried as ever.” I appreciated her sentiment. Maybe that’s what I should have been focused on instead of all my disappointment about the morning and missing the previous evening’s conversation.

And then we walked on together.

Rock formations in the Sahara in Algeria

The rest of the day was filled with imposing rock formations that had been given names like “Cathedral” and a rock in the form of the torso of a man pointing up the air, which our Taureg guide told us was the man saying “there is only one God”;

Ancient art in the Sahara desert

ancient paintings on cliff walls of giraffe, elephants, and fish, signs that this land had been very different once; a sand storm that blinded us and stopped our vehicle in its tracks such that it reminded me of being stuck in a blizzard in Minnesota; and finally, the return to town where a feast of a whole roasted goat awaited us. I demonstrated my bad assness by eating the goat’s eye. After restraining my gag reflex, I discovered it wasn’t too bad.

As I closed my eyes to sleep that night, I thought about what kind of tone had been set for my year. What was the meaning of this day for which I’d had such high expectations. It was not the day I had hoped for and yet, in a way, it was exactly what I imagine and hope my year will be like. No doubt there will be disappointments, from events I miss out on because I am hoping for something even better to that something better not manifesting. But there will also be new adventures and new friends. And probably more reassurance that I’m not as alone as I often believe I am. More important than the day, was the entire trip, that had been as fun and magical as I’d hoped.

Looking back though, I wonder why I was so obsessed with seeing the sunrise rather than remaining in the moment of the dance party. Why did I keep walking and walking that morning even when it became obvious it wasn’t going to happen? I can only guess that it was because after having sacrificed the night before I wanted it to be for something. Something about the idea of that sunrise held hope for me that I was going to start things differently this year. And yet, as another friend has pointed out, what is the big deal about New Year’s day? Why don’t I approach each day as the day that sets the tone for the rest of my life?

She’s right. I’ve always had this sense of hope on New Year’s day that somehow this was the year everything was going to change. And something about my friend’s words about setting the tone spoke to that hope; as if I could do something to make this the perfect year. I suppose it’s not so different from my thinking I can earn or deserve love if I just work hard enough to be a perfect person. So I strove to start that day right as if the rest of my year depended on it. Instead maybe I just needed to accept that I’m more of a sunset girl and enjoy the party the night before.

Interestingly though, perhaps my deepest fear of being alone in the world came to the fore that day for a reason. On the drive that day, we passed a rock formed in the shape of a table piled high with small red, orange, and brown flat rocks. Our guide explained that we were on an ancient trade route and people that passed would select a rock, place it on the pile and make a wish. “So pick your rock carefully. Make sure it speaks to you.”

I picked the rock out that jumped at me. A red, flat rock the size of a quarter. I laid it on the immense pile, the sign that I’m one of thousands that have passed this way, and wished to feel loved and cared for.

That has been my deepest desire and perhaps what I hoped finding the sunrise was going to solve for me. I was looking for my silver bullet solution. Except the answer was not in the sunrise, but in the friends who stopped and waited for me after I trailed behind.

My college friend who had invited me on the trip observed that I’ve always had an introverted tendency to spend time alone. I never thought about myself this way, but I realized she was right. On this trip I tended to be a little later to breakfast than the others. While they would eat and then pack up, I did my exercises and packed before eating. I was afraid that if I didn’t, I’d take too long and cause everyone to wait for me. My reverse order, however, meant I often missed the others eating breakfast even though I could then lounge as I waited for them to pack. In the evenings, I was later to join the group in our “dining room” as, after setting up my tent, I meditated. I abandoned our new year’s eve party so I could walk alone in the morning to see the sunrise. I wanted to be with the group, but it was no wonder people might have assumed my lagging behind that New Year’s morning was simply a desire to be alone or even, overcoming my fear of being a burden with my delay.

A friend has pointed out that my tendency to go off alone can serve to draw attention to myself. Sure enough, when I’d arrive late to dinner, everyone would ask where I’d been and be happy to see me. There’s something I like about being perceived as the aloof person with the spiritual side who doesn’t always need to be a part of everything. Or at least this is how I fantasize I’m being perceived. But it has its downside because I only want to be alone when I want to be alone and then I want people to want me. Maybe my leaving the party to focus on the sunrise was a hope for attention that backfired.

It’s an old place for me that started early in life: the sense that I’m an outsider and so putting myself there, even when it may not be true, then waiting to be invited in. In other words, I hoped to avoid the rejection that could occur if I assumed I was wanted and joined right in. Except at 47, it’s difficult to know when I’m truly just wanting to be alone, or when I’m still subconsciously playing out this scenario.

The only thing I can conclude for certain is my behavior is driven by a myriad of subconscious behaviors and there probably isn’t just one. I hate ending a blog post without a clearer lesson learned. And yet, just from one morning’s experience I’ve seen deeper inside myself. I need those moments alone, but maybe I need to become better at letting others know how much I need them and become aware when I’m alone for a purpose versus just isolating. Or maybe I need to do as my friend thought I had done, to stop worrying so much about being a burden on others and do my thing. Either way, I take heart from discovering that I was wrong that no one had missed me.

Just in the few weeks since this event, I’ve become more aware of and grateful for the many friends who regularly invite me to join them in activities, even after many, many declinations. And I’m making more of an effort to say yes rather than isolate myself with the myriad of excuses that fill my head as to why I can’t participate. If my New Year’s day could bring me so much of a greater awareness of myself, perhaps it set the right tone after all.

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1 Comment

  1. Judson Richardson says:

    ❤️❤️❤️

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