You can close your eyes…

She looks so relaxed, on the first day of her island holiday. Gently swinging in the hammock, a mug of chai tea cradled in her hands; those eyes are tired, though. She looks outward to the ocean.

It is glassy today, clear as air to look into. If she were out there wading in the shallows she would see fish, lazily cruising in the warm edges of the reef. On the horizon, a solitary white rimmed island marks the separation between water and sky. She saw a whale breach out there earlier this morning. The sum of all these things, warm air, calm seas, chai tea. It is all in stark contrast to her inner world.

She tries to let it all go, all the daily pressure of normal life. All the past. All the words unsaid and things undone. Lists unchecked.  It is hard to relax, and it should be simple. It is hard to carve out time where she can be nothing but herself. But she has, it is here; now, for the next hour or so. She sips on her chai, letting the cinnamon and spices swirl into her senses. The flavours of calm.

She’s not sure if she wants to spend time with herself after all.

Where is she, anyway? Losing herself has happened gradually. Task by task, caring for others. Loving others is a sacrificial pursuit, for women everywhere. Loving them with all she has is a habit of obligation and a daily choice. She didn’t know the cost of it when she signed up, but she knows now. Yet she would have paid anything to have this, have them. This life. And when the fabric of her wears thin and tears into the unwritten contract -of motherhood, of marriage- with hard words, she feels the failure. Sharp. So mean. She never really intends it for them. The words are really for herself. She sighs over it, swinging back and forth in that hammock. She is tired of turning herself inside out to examine it all.

So she walks through all of life in this body; this middle aged vessel of experiences, faded dreams and old philosophies, the mother-wife shell. The girl she also is; so shrouded now, by her roles and responsibilities. She has survived all the things. Her world is secure and her love is strong. Her family are happy. She thinks these thoughts like a mantra of protection. They have made together exactly the life she hoped for, the one she yearned for all those years ago, wishing into her teacups for a family of her own.

Her eyes close and she lets her head sink back against the woven hammock.

There is a woman here on the island, travelling alone. Her husband died three years ago, and since then, she has retraced the steps of all the travels they did together. She watches this woman in the restaurant, alone in her grief at her table for one. She wonders if there will be release when she has completed her solitary itinerary. She wonders if the goodbyes and the remembering are helpful. She wonders if she could be so brave. Life, on her own again. It makes her shiver in the tropical heat. No.

She thinks about her little family, out on the glassy ocean, casting handlines into the water in the hope of bringing home fish. She tries to imagine the joy and horror as they reel in slippery living creatures. It is the first time her children have been fishing. They are having much-yearned-for quality time with their daddy and she is struck by a sudden pang of… what is that? Jealousy?  He’s been so busy lately. He is a great Dad. She chose him for them and that thought makes her feel proud satisfaction. She did that. A gift for their future selves and developing psyches. It was a good choice. She’d choose him all over again, she knows it.

The girl she is, takes a big deep breath and sighs it out into the warm air. She is okay. No crises to avert this afternoon. A small smile contracts her cheeks upward, crinkling the skin by her eyes. So fortunate to be here, this day, in this way, in this place. She aligns her girl and woman selves and blows across her warm tea. Seriously, she thinks. The best way to relax is to stop thinking altogether. She reaches for her headphones and scrolls through until an old favourite fills her consciousness. Yes. You Can Close Your Eyes by James Taylor. Her empty tea cup now nestles in the sand. She drifts out of her messy mind on a tide of chilled harmonies.

She is the picture of relaxation, that woman on the hammock. Eyes closed, headphones on. The late afternoon quiet, deep upon her. Slowly, the tide creeps up the sand and the day sighs to a close. She muses softly about all of her sisters-in-arms, shouldering big burdens and costly contracts of love.

the sun is slowly sinking down
and the moon is slowly rising
so this old world might still be spinning round
and I still love you.
So close your eyes
you can close your eyes, it’s alright
I don’t know no love songs
and I can’t sing the blues, anymore
but I can sing this song
and you can sing this song
when I’m gone

Post Script
James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. It was the soundtrack for my holiday week; for me it is the song of parent to a child, or an adult to themselves. I love it so much.  Have you heard these two singing together before? Happy sigh…

Malo

Three years ago, our family went on holiday to this very Pacific Island. It was a very different time. I was so sick back then, and full of trepidation that we would have a medical emergency while I was away. I remember how it took weeks of agonising effort to pack and how the things we brought with us included a box of medical supplies and equipment. I remember waking each morning into the humid air and swallowing down my medications, hoping I could cope with the day ahead. In the context of how ill I was, Tonga was very kind to me last time. But this time, my simple ease of being throws our last experience into stark contrast. I am amazed at how different I am.

I’ve been in remission now for two years. I’m stronger, fitter and have more stamina. Last trip, I managed some floating in the ocean. This trip, I’ve kayaked and snorkeled and swum and throroughly enjoyed everything the island has to offer. I was struck last time by the similarity of this place to my childhood home in Papua New Guinea. And last time, it was a kind of catharsis for me, being here. I had time to reflect on my childhood memories and say goodbye to that place in my mind I had never truly left. This time, it is a tangible physical remembrance and a positive one. Cruising over brilliant coral reefs, to the slow shushing of snorkelled air, takes me back to happy holidays in Madang and the Duke of York Islands. Scooping green coconut jelly from the shell for breakfast. So many strong memory cues. I feel peaceful and alive, rested and immensely grateful.

I hope the contrast between sick and well, will always strike me. I hope I will always feel this grateful for the gift of wellness. It is a beautiful thing to walk through the world without the weight of all that. Freedom. Yet I am perplexed by the necessary cost of wellness and ‘freedom’. They are not actually free at all, we pay in busy-ness, responsibility and pace. We lose the time to think, write, create. I haven’t blogged in so long and I’ve missed it keenly. Here, on a tropical island with no daily tasks to complete, no punishing schedules, no animals to care for and none of the usual husband/ kids/ homestay student demands it is easy to think I just need to change the way I do things at home.

But how?

None of the things that need doing are outsource-able. No one else will magically do them. I know, feeling rested as I am, I will put my shoulder into things when I get home. There will be a honeymoon period of almost enjoying all the motherly-housewifely tasks. I will be grateful for my own home again, eager to cook my family fresh New Zealand produce. Keen to drive my own car and be independent. Happy to get the laundry all tickety-boo. Maybe the answer is in micro-breaks. I’ll make a conscious effort to get out of the house and catch up with friends. Go alone somewhere for a morning just to write. Take a book to the top of the mountain with the dog. Start yoga.

But most importantly, I am going to begin planning the next holiday. Somewhere different next time. Somewhere it will take us a long time to save for, but that will create amazing memories. Travelling is a gift to the soul and a chance to breathe and get perspective. It pulls us all back together and we play cards again, minds cut loose from the relentless pull of social media. I need to prioritise travel more in our family budget. All of us are so relaxed. As I write, my hubster is swinging in the hammock, my kids are reading books; he on his tummy, idly circling his feet in the air, she, twirling her hair meditatively, small piece after piece. Their skin is nut brown, the dark circles gone from their previously pale faces. It makes me sublimely happy.

Speaking of reading, I read an extraordinary book in the first few days here that had me quite consumed. It’s a novel by a first time author, Gabriel Talent, about a girl growing up in Mendocino with a mentally unstable survivalist for a father. Harrowing and hard going, the writing is however, breathtaking. I found myself pausing frequently to marvel at his facility for description, more like poetry in parts than prose. I wouldn’t recommend it as a relaxing read, but it is stunning in it’s style and expression. ‘My Absolute Darling’ if you are like your fiction gripping, disturbing and even temporarily soul destroying….

Now I am reading W.Somerset Maugham’s ‘South Sea Stories’. He is also a king of description, although more sparse and understated. I love that he is describing the Pacific I love, but from many generations ago. Fascinating. Here is his description of the ocean, the very same that twinkles just beyond my fale doors.

“The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man. Sometimes it is grey like the English Channel off Beachy Head, with a heavy swell. And sometimes it is rough, capped with white crests and boisterous. It is not so often that it is calm and blue. Then, indeed, the blue is arrogant.

The sun shines fiercely from and unclouded sky. The trade winds get into your blood and you are filled with an impatience of the unknown. You forget your vanished youth, with it’s memories, cruel and sweet, in a restless intolerable desire for life.

But there are days also when the Pacific is like a lake. The sea is flat and shining. The flying fish, a gleam of shadow on the brightness of a mirror, make little fountains of sparkling drops when they dip. There are fleecy clouds on the horizon, and at sunset they take on strange shapes so that it is impossible not to believe that you see a range of lofty mountains. “

I love Maugham’s observations of the changing moods of the Pacific. Each day here is so different. Today we are overcast and the ocean is grey on grey, rippled by a warm breeze and gently lapping on the shore. The palm fronds are swaying gently and the wildlife mostly quiet, indolent in the heat and waiting for the cool of evening. I am about to get up and make myself a chai tea. I will take it down to the beach and blow the steam across the rim and over the horizon. Exhale, inhale.

Malo.