It wasn’t all bubbles and buttons, though. Lily and I had our share of conflict. I suppose it’s natural, when any couple spends every single moment together, waking and sleeping, never being apart for longer than a bathroom break – especially with the added stresses of traveling. Yet it must be mentioned that our greatest attraction – each others’ strength – was also the source of our greatest conflict.

We were two people of great personal power, each of us accustomed to being the one who draws attention from new acquaintances. And despite Lily’s impressive accomplishments, every time I mentioned “world bike tour” and the eyebrows raised up, my shadow fell across her. Even worse was the subsequent assumption that she was just “tagging along.”

It was an issue of personal power, of emotional momentum, of energy flow between human beings. For travelers, far from home and on their own, facing extraordinary challenges without the support and security of family and friends to fall back on, this is extremely important. For Lily, and for me – for those who will not give up – it is a matter of survival.

My momentum, in this respect, has gone up and down like a lonely leaf on the wind, ever since I left home.

Sometimes I am flying high; my energy is bolstered by every salute from a stranger, every kind gesture to a rugged traveler. Every tasty meal is a buoyant breeze and every night’s sleep is a refreshing zephyr. I can glide for a long time on these little kudos and simple joys.
But this energy is spent, often at alarming rates, when the going gets rough. And when the energy’s gone, everything suffers. Life just sucks. Every little challenge gains extra drama, and perspective leans into the mire. It affects your mind – decisions are made from fear and willpower is weak. It affects your body – pedaling up hills becomes a nightmare and food no longer heals the aching soul. And it affects your spirit – it’s all about the spirit. Emotions are sharp, wreaking havoc on your physiology; genuine enthusiasm might be down there, somewhere, but it’s too deep to summon; and giving up becomes a release, like suicide fever. This is why I have learned to treat myself gently – “to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves”; and to factor this reserve of energy into my immediate goals. This is why “nothing to lose” is not as simple as it sounds.

So I understood how frustrating this must have been for her, and tried – probably not hard enough – to tip back the scales, by not saying “world bike tour” at all, and instead beating them to the question by saying “I’m just tagging along with her.” I wracked my brain for things I could do or not do, say or not say, that would help the situation, infuse her with energy, and restore her confidence.
I learned to be extremely careful when teaching Lily about fixing bikes, for instance. And though I have much more experience bike touring, this was a difference that became unmentionable – she is a very experienced traveller, after all. When the French language came into play, this issue escalated into real arguments. Lily grew up in Vanuatu, speaking French in school – she’s fluent for sure. There wasn’t much to argue about – she certainly has better French than me. But trying to bounce questions off of her was a trial, and whenever some tidbit of schoolbook grammar would come back to me and I’d suggest what I thought I knew, it was too much. French is something she just plainknew better – I think she needed to have that, considering all the other energy gravitating towards me.
I was accused of arrogance; I was left wondering what I had said wrong; I felt unfairly judged. Sometimes my suggestions or ideas were met with resolute contempt. We cycled in gray silences and got sick of the same frustrating feelings.
Even still, I felt as though I were opening up, becoming more and more comfortable, more myself, the longer we spent together. This felt like the freedom of closeness, my most prized virtue in any relationship. Yet Lily seemed to be getting more defensive with every kilometer closer to Paris.
I really empathized with her, and I, ostensibly being the one with endless energies and all the momentum, tried to give her some – indeed, I would have given it all. But for the most part, as I released my own power, it simply disappeared like so much chaff; and at some point – too late – I realized I wasn’t flying so high anymore.
Once, on a particularly dark day, I had a frightening vision – Is this my future? Am I always destined to open up and expose my true self, only to be rejected or intimidating? Or worse, to have my power taken from me? Would I ever have a lasting relationship again? I was haunted by the advice Dan had given me, years ago: “Stop messing around with these women that only want to take, take, take.” But I have a soul that just wants to give….

This wasn’t exactly the miasma of brooding frustrations it sounds like. Lily saw, Lily knew, just as I did, and she tried constantly to compromise and rise above. It wasn’t all take take take, by any means. There was still love, and joy, and fun. There were buttons, and bubbles. We wanted to be together. And the good part, the important part, is that we didn’t let it grow in the dark corners of the heart. We talked about it, every time something came up; sometimes with a selfish desperation, but always with mature honesty and the enduring reverence we felt for each other.

It really came to a head, once. Ironically, it was at a public library – for both of us, a favorite place in any town. We were in good spirits; on the way there I actually had a chance to say the classic French-class phrase, “Ou est la bibliotheque?” which tickled the tourist in me. I pleasantly sorted out how to use the library mediatheque for internet, gratuis, and we sat down to arrange our accommodation in Paris. One second, everything was great, then some pompous comment was made without thinking, and in the next instant, everything turned sad. Suddenly the library, my beloved public library, made me sick; I had to get up and leave. The day no longer seemed so full of Spring; I refilled our water bottles and sat outside, staring at the gray concrete and watching in despair as the happy high school kids frolicked in the sun.

When Lily emerged, some other thoughtless, bitter comment was made, and I was stricken by a wave of illness clenching my chest, tears welling in my eyes. I suggested we just ride – to burn off some of this emotion with pure endorphins. She jumped on her bike and zoomed off in a huff. I caught up eventually, and we cycled through this sticky emotional blockage in heavy silence, brows furrowed. But then we came to a particularly long hill, and about halfway up, Lily suddenly drove into the ditch and dumped her bike in the grass, proclaiming “I can handle this, and I can handle hills, but I am NOT going to handle them both at the same time!” I followed her onto the side of the road and we lay in the grass.
Everything came out, no holds barred: feelings, accusations, unrevealed questions, illogical worries, and brutal, selfish truths. We talked and argued and worked for so long that we had to move up the hill just to stay in the sun. We were both so angry and fed up with feeling sad, we said some really potent things; things that definitely could’ve ended it all, right there in that French ditch… but in the end, we gained an understanding we hadn’t reached before; we were able to peel past the withered outer petals into a fresh heart of this flower we both cherished so much. Soon we were embracing, and it was printemps once again in France; the wildflowers bloomed and we were true lovers, kissing smiles on the roadside, getting honked at by passing motorists and not giving a damn.
* * *
Conflict is one of the necessary elements for growth. The caterpillar doesn’t change into a butterfly without a little friction. And personal power, momentum, energy – whatever you want to call it – its capacity is determined, at least in part, by the challenges faced. Even as we suffer pain, we are becoming stronger.

2 Comments on Conflict on the road to growth

  1. Some really, REALLY, great writing you are doing. Thank you so much for sharing.
    Endeavor to perservere.

    best of luck on your journeys

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