After all the dreaming I come home again

Pacific

David and I have been in Maui for two months. Some days it seems longer. I keep laughing and thinking of Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective”: Time is a flat circle. That’s how this feels.

Our move in late February coincided with what was then considered to be the first U.S. death from COVID-19, in the Seattle area. For a short time, the city became the epicenter of the country’s outbreak. Our first week or two here, I noticed folks subtly, understandably, shying away from me when I told them where I had moved from, so I stopped mentioning Seattle altogether.

Sean and Penny
Having fun at Polipoli before the state issued its shelter-in-place order.

Those first couple weeks were otherwise glorious, a reminder of why we had disassembled our lives in Washington and moved them to the island. Suddenly we were on porches sharing meals and funny stories with beautiful friends, hiking with them and their dogs, dancing together, planning overnight trips in the crater (Haleakalā). I was preparing for a job interview at a local mental healthcare organization. Then Mayor Victorino instated a shelter-in-place order through the end of April and we’ve been at home ever since, and likely will be through May. In many ways, this has been a less stressful transition for us than others because of our ability to work remotely, and we are grateful for that.

My days are amorphous now, which suits me. Some are easier than others. Most mornings I get outside and exercise, because otherwise I spend the afternoon vibrating with angsty, unspent energy. Last week I was taking a walk by the coast when I ran into a kind couple my age. We got to talking (at a distance). The woman asked how I was doing with everything. I assumed she was as concerned as I am and shared how surreal it is to be on Maui—this tropical paradise that can, depending on your circumstances, lull you into thinking nothing’s really wrong in the world—while my family and friends are on the mainland.

She nodded, then explained that she and her partner are staying sane by not watching the news, because they know COVID-19 isn’t really real, just a tactic of the 1% to get us all vaccinated.

Don’t, I told myself.

It was hot and I was sweating and tired, not in the mood to discuss beliefs. But I have heard this theory from others on Maui and each time am reminded of what a privilege it can be to live on an island, to be healthy and well. Standing with that couple, we turned to face the Pacific, palm trees swaying, the trade winds blowing. I imagined what they might think of COVID-19 were they living in a cramped New York City apartment with their extended family, their elderly aunt, their grandfather, their out-of-work mother.

Before I could say anything else, their little dog trotted up to sniff me. They sweetly pointed out a whale in the distance, then wished me well and walked off, the man pulling out a flute to play a song. Frustration had reared its head for a moment, then was gently washed away.

Kai Huki

The truth is, I sometimes pull Maui over me like a warm blanket, too. I turn off my phone and sit in the yard watching wild hens and chicks scratch around in the dirt, waves chopping the ocean in the distance. I may not believe in conspiracy theories, but I have my own methods of dissociation and denial, my own ways of making meaning out of awful, unknowable forces and fates.

This pandemic has left me with a lot of time for observation, in general. Here are a few other things I’ve noticed in the past couple months:

I am changing.

There are many assumptions I’ve made about myself over the years, and one of the biggest is that I am an introvert, hard stop. But you know that saying, before you assume you’re depressed, make sure you’re not just surrounded by assholes? I’d add, before you assume you’re an across-the-board introvert, make sure you’re not just in a really draining environment. In Seattle, I was so exhausted by the emotional and logistical demands of school and city life, I rarely wanted to make plans. But since moving to Maui, I have found myself increasingly longing for communion. Rather than cozily sinking into this time at home, I have struggled with it. I miss seeing friends, miss meeting strangers who might become friends, I miss hugging them, I miss dancing with them, I miss sharing meals with them, I miss their presence.

Winter stuffAnother change I’ve noticed is my happiness at being back in a warm, sunny climate. This might sound odd, but anyone who knows me knows I love the cold, I love the dark. I have spent nearly every year since I turned 18 living in frigid climates, including one winter I paid to work in northern Iceland. I am an introvert who loves cold-ass weather, y’all! This assumption about myself is one of the only things that made me nervous about moving to Maui. I cried when I boxed up my winter gear, as if I was burying the deepest, truest thing about me. I kept asking David, “Surely I’ll need down jacket at some point, right?”

And so I have a down jacket hanging in our closet. But being here, in this tropical environment, has brought out a childlike joy I haven’t experienced since I lived at the North Carolina coast. Living up north, in Vermont, Maine, Minnesota, and even Washington, felt in some ways like a reaction to my beautiful but swampy upbringing in Florida. In the heat, there are no boundaries—everything melts, everything melds into everything else. The cold is contained and containing, and for a long time I needed that.

Reilly and Flora winter
A rare snowstorm in North Carolina, ten years ago.

I’m listening to Untamed by Glennon Doyle and early in the book she talks about meeting Abby Wambach, now her wife. At the time, Abby explains that she’s living in Portland, OR, but will probably move, and Glennon—who lives in Florida—blurts out, “Oh, people like us can’t live in Portland. We’re Portland on the inside. We need sunshine on the outside.” She feels embarrassed by this statement, but I understood.

I’m Seattle on the inside; right now, I need sunshine on the outside.

I am regressing.

In the past month, I have seen myself (and others) regress—to old behaviors, old habits, to our most childlike sense of selves. When I feel stressed and overwhelmed, a very young part of me cries out, I want to go home! I want the comfort of my family, my dogs, our little town and all my bike rides through it.

Biking Oriental

The other week, I was daydreaming with David about eventually moving back to North Carolina, how I’d love to live at the coast again. Would you ever be into that? I asked.

This was 100% a setup, because I know well and good that he is not a fan of the coast’s dogged heat and endless flat terrain. But sometimes I am an ungrateful quarantine monster who needs an excuse to get angry. I needed a reason to release some energy. I not only missed my home, but needed something, someone to push up against. When David casually said, “Yeah, that’s not ideally where I’d want to live in North Carolina, but if you were passionate about it, I could give it a try,” all my ego heard was DEFEAT THIS VILLAIN and low-key accused him of not wanting me to be happy.

Oof.

Be gentle with yourself (and others), friends. If ever there was a time for the more shadowy aspects of your personality to float to the surface, it’s now. I see this in the stories of people having physical altercations over toilet paper, in the hoarding, in the bullying way some of us tell others what to do and how to operate in this new world. We are being called to sit with these darker parts of ourselves which cannot be erased but can, perhaps, exert less control over our lives once acknowledged.

I am lucky that David and I know when the other is triggered and are skilled at making space for whatever is being worked through. (Sometimes a gentle “hey, I’m feeling pretty cranky this morning, I need some space” goes a long way.) Not everyone has that safe container though, and some old habits are more damaging and don’t pass as quickly. Loved ones have shared stories with me about their “bad” behavior during this time, and all I can say is, please have compassion for little you. We are in a pressure cooker.

As Araya Baker, a therapist and activist, suggests in these 15 affirmations for hope amidst COVID-19, relapsing into maladaptive coping mechanisms is OK, as long as you consult your own accountability plan and/or buddy. If you need more than self-compassion right now, enlist the help of a trusted other.

I am trying to be present.

Duck's CottageLast week, I bought a coffee mug from one of my favorite shops in my favorite place on earth—Duck’s Cottage in the Outer Banks. We are currently staying at a friend’s house on Maui, with most of our belongings packed away. Mornings and coffee are such a sacred combination to me, I wanted my own mug and I wanted it to remind me of a place I love. I also wanted to support a beloved small business.

“Let’s get you a mug of your own, too!” I suggested to David. “Is there somewhere you love? A thing or place that would bring you comfort to be reminded of each morning?” I had a few ideas, all things and places thousands of miles from where we are now.

He paused for a long time, then said, “Maybe Hawaii. A Maui mug?”

Hm, I thought. I don’t think he gets it.

… did I?

See, I have been dreaming all my life. I am always dreaming of different paths, different places, different ways our lives might unfold—one foot fully in the present, the other floating off into the future. When I am in one place, I am already dreaming up life in another. Though I try to live life to the fullest wherever I am, a part of me is always picturing what could come next. This is why I love meeting strangers, why I love travel; I want to know what it’s like to be everyone, live everywhere, do everything.

Olympic Peninsula

This privileged existence, the ability to dream and then do, has enriched my life. But it often veers into escapism, blinding me to what I really have: this moment, in this place we upended our lives to live. While I am busy building other realities, I am missing out on fully existing inside this one, once “the dream the dreamers dreamed,” to quote James Baldwin. It’s here, now.

So as much as I miss home, and as uncomfortable and painful and triggering as isolation can be, as growth can be, as much as it makes my Piscean personality want to escape into imagined worlds, I am committing to being present in this one.

This is less a commitment to Hawaii—that’s easy—and more a commitment to being in my body, in my feelings, wherever I am, without running away. I literally can’t, after all. I’m on an island, during a pandemic.

Lucky me. Staying is the lesson I’ve avoided learning all my life.

“Just where you are,” as Pema Chödrön once instructed, “that’s the place to start.”

An end in myself

The other morning I was at the chiropractor paying for my adjustment when the doctor asked the next patient, a woman seated in his small lobby, how she was doing.

“Fine,” she said, shrugging. “Just waiting until I can not be here for a while.”

I understood.

Maui 3

We have two and a half months left in Seattle, part of which I’m spending at home in North Carolina. When David and I decided this past summer to move to Maui, we came up with lists of places we had to go in Washington, islands we had to visit, hikes we had to take before moving. We didn’t want to take our remaining time in this beautiful state for granted. But little of it has been accomplished. As our move date creeps closer, our desire to explore has lessened, weighing on us.

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“There are no people up there, right?”

In Seattle, if you want to find real solitude in nature, you have to wake up at 3 a.m., drive two hours outside the city, then hastily scramble to the top of some mountain before the majority of other hikers awaken and find you there. We used to love to do this. We love getting up really, really early and venturing out in the dark. But an activity we once found novel, we now hold in contempt. We don’t want to wake up before the sun to find solace in nature—we want to be able to walk out our back door and find it. I suppose this sounds bratty, but I think access to wilderness, to quiet, to calm, is a basic human right. Here, unless you have money, transportation, and time, it’s almost an impossibility.

Normally I love exploring any place in which I find myself. I never understand folks who claim boredom. No town is too small or too remote or too seemingly plain for me; I’ve always been down to scout out some obscure trail or backroad or landmark. I used to do this for a living. But I’ve lost my adventure mojo recently, and so has he.

Instead, we’ve been hibernating, enjoying the remaining weeks in our cozy apartment, digging into shows like “His Dark Materials,” and reading. I’m on a break from graduate school as I apply to transfer to the University of Hawaii, and this time off has freed me up to read whatever I want. Whatever I want! So of course I moved quickly from heavy stuff like trauma and transference to books on marriage, monogamy, and children. First up was Motherhood by Sheila Heti.

As a 30-something woman from the South who is in a healthy, happy relationship, the question …kidsis always in the back of my mind, like a ghost. Sometimes I use the daily events of my life to try and answer it. A day spent with one of my best friends and her kids: yes. Hearing shrieking children in my building morning, noon, and night: you know? Maybe not. To quote Heti:

Sometimes I’m convinced that a child will add depth to all things—just bring a background of depth and meaning to whatever it is I do. I also think I might have brain cancer. There’s something I can feel in my brain, like a finger pressing down.

I understand that parenthood is more complex than any of these wonderful, impossible moments. I can’t know it until I know it—and I know there will be something to mourn no matter which path we choose. The older I get, though, the more my ambivalence grows. Often I tell people that I don’t think this is a world I want to leave to any child. And there are so many motherless kids; why not take care of them?

This is all true. David and I often talk about fostering or adopting later in life. We are deeply concerned about climate change. And we both want to be involved with children in some way, whether as a coach, mentor, or therapist. Before we decided to move, I was interviewing for an internship at a play therapy center for children on the peninsula and was so excitedI am particularly passionate about working with “difficult” kids and adolescents—those who are often cast as the black sheep of their family.

And yet. The truth at the heart of all these truths is I value my freedom more than I value the experience of becoming a mother. I love being able to get up and go with little planning, use my money for travel, have quiet nights at home, write endlessly, selfishly, ask questions, explore all kinds of paths and dream up all kinds of futures, like—what if we lived in Maui? What if I trained as an analyst in Zurich? Or applied for a grant to travel to Antarctica? Or worked with sled dogs in Alaska? What if we spent a season in Japan or South America or built a house in the Great Smoky Mountains? 

As Heti writes, “A life is just a proposition you ask it by living it, Could a life be lived like this too?”

Iceland I.jpg

This is not to say that parents can’t do all these things too—but the doing is more complicated. And this is not to dismiss the choice of women I know who have become, or are becoming, mothers. I have always felt that if you have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude about something, it’s best to leave it to those who wish to take it, to really grab hold of it. I bow down before mothers. I just don’t know if I’m cut out to be one.

On a flight a couple days ago I watched a mom hold her chubby-cheeked baby up to the window during landing so he could see the sky and the earth and the setting sun, and I felt my heart twist up, oof, like, am I really never going to have that? But then the feeling passed, and like most days I thought that the greatest gift I unknowingly gave myself was making it to my 30s without marrying or having children. I am not who I was 10 years ago. I want different things. Do I even believe in marriage? I think so. But it’s kind of a creepy proposition (for hetero couples, at least), isn’t it, if you squint real hard—the whole let’s-get-this-virgin-in-something-white-and-stick-a-ring-on-her-finger thing? And do I believe in monogamy? Do I truly feel that life is best lived in a dyad, that all of my loving and longing should only be shared with one person… ’til I’m dead?

I don’t know. These are not questions women are supposed to—and in some cultures are forbidden to—ask. In general, nothing is more ghastly or offensive than a woman who doesn’t want what she has been told to want, or worse, who believes, as Heti describes, that she is “an end in herself.”

Of childfree women, she writes:

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What sort of trouble, indeed?