Last week I found myself alone in San Francisco, one of my favorite places in the world, at a huge mental health conference. I had not planned to be alone; each year a colleague and I travel together to a high caliber conference in a desirable location. We enjoy the opportunity to learn from leading experts, and to be reminded of what we already know. We splurge a little on meals, and sometimes have a chance for some sight seeing. After several years of this routine, we are good traveling partners.
But this year, the day before we were to leave for the trip, my colleague’s elderly Mother passed away. He of course would not be able to go to the conference. I was very sorry not be able to attend his Mother’s funeral, but I knew he would never expect me to cancel this trip, so I went on alone.
I was not concerned about getting myself where I needed to be; I am usually the navigator on our trips anyway. But to tell the truth, I had been avoiding San Francisco for the last eighteen months. You see for most of the previous eight years I had had two of my children living in the Bay Area. My daughter was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, while my son had moved to the city to work after graduate school. Prior to their living there I had never been to San Francisco, but it quickly came to feel like a home away from home when I visited there several times a year. I was able to explore the city with my children, and feel a part of their young adult lives. San Francisco for me was synonymous with Good Times. Now they have each married and moved to other parts of the country.
I had no associations of the city without those good memories. I just knew that if I went to the city I would feel so bereft not getting off the Bart to meet my son in the Mission, or riding the yellow line out to Rock Ridge to spend the evening with my daughter. I was glad I would have my colleague there to help me make some new memories to mix in with the old. But through no one’s fault the plans changed. I went alone to see how I fared under my own changed family circumstances.
The knowledge of my own situation, along with attending classes all day which focused on helping others to know themselves better, seemed to make me hyper aware of human connections. After a hard day of traveling, I arrived at the Hilton Hotel in the Tenderloin, and was shown to my room on the 31st floor, with windows facing out on the city, Gazing out at the view, thinking of the thousands of individuals roaming below me, I did not feel the sadness I had expected. But I did feel a new respect for those who must routinely make their way alone in the world.
Later I went to the hotel restaurant where all tables were booked. So I ate my dinner at the bar, reading Winston Churchill’s World War II memoirs on my IPAD. Don’t say I don’t know how to entertain myself. I don’t routinely sit at bars alone, so I didn’t know the etiquette. If I spoke to someone, would they think me an old eccentric woman? No one met my eye, so I didn’t find out.
The next day at the conference I sat in a couple of huge ballrooms, listening to speakers, and later in a densely filled meeting room where we were as tightly packed as the most econo – econo- airline seating. From my viewpoint most people were traveling in groups, not alone. It seems generally to be human nature to speak to those you already know, but it is even more so at a mental health conference. I suppose we spend so much time listening empathically to others at work that when we come to a conference it is every man for himself.
Each evening I went to an early dinner as I did not want find myself lost in the Tenderloin after dark. After dinner I, along with Winston Churchill, would return to my room to watch the city lights twinkling outside my window. The solitude in my room was enjoyable. I would reflect on how many human interactions I had had that day, usually less than five. I noticed that if anyone struck up a conversation with me in the elevator that I would have to stop myself from, well, babbling, as if I had spent the last six months alone in the desert. I pondered the plight of people who have lost those with whom they have felt connected, or who do not feel at home in the world. I resolved not to be so self centered, to make more small moments to connect even fleetingly with others.
And so I carried on. I mingled with the shopping throngs at Macy’s and the Gap. I rode the Bart to the Embarcadero to try to take pictures. But since I had shopped so long, the sun was low in the sky, and I gave up.
But I had one trick up my sleeve. In the recent past, thanks to Facebook, I had been able to connect with but not to see my cousin Mark who lives in San Francisco. I had hoped all along I would have a chance to see him and his partner Dave. Because my colleague’s Mother was ill, I delayed until the last minute to Facebook Mark and let him know I would be in the city. I tried not to get my hopes up; they could be busy or out of town. But happily they were available, and picked me up at my hotel the day before I left.
These patient, patient, men carried my purse so I could take all the pictures I wanted to before we went to brunch. Now, Mark is younger than I am, and I am sure as a child I paid him virtually no attention. I hadn’t seen him since his Mother’s funeral years ago. Dave I do not believe I had ever met. But let me tell you I have known them all my life! Over brunch we shared stories about our careers, our homes, our health. I felt I had just seen them last Tuesday, and I wish I had.
I left them to walk back to the hotel a while later, filled with warmth and happiness. I hadn’t realized how lonely I had become in just a few days. As busy people streamed past me in the streets and I proceeded to get lost and wind up in China Town I felt so grateful that Mark and Dave had so generously shared their time with me. Now in this big city surrounded by strangers I did not feel so invisible.
Now I am back at home. I intended to write this post earlier in the week, emphasizing the importance of love and connection in our lives. As we all know, tragic events intervened. The horrific news from Connecticut convinces me even more that no small kindness is ever wasted. Tiny, tender plantings of caring and acceptance can bring a tremendous harvest in the hearts of those who receive them. From someone traveling alone, to a middle aged man who becomes an orphan, to those struggling to find a place in the world, to those who suffer unspeakable loss, sometimes all we have to give is our compassion. Have you planted yours today?