Eight Days in Paradise. By Bernadette Murphy.
The air temperature on the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia is 84 degrees right at this very moment. There’s a slight breeze blowing. The water, not a 30-second stroll from where I sit overlooking it, is 80 degrees, the most sparkling, crystalline turquoise I have ever seen, visibility measured in the tens of meters. I watch paddlers glide by in outrigger canoes. The occasional sailboat crosses the lagoon. Palm trees ripple in the wind. A flying fish breaks the placid surface. The day is nearly silent. A coconut bobs on the water.
Be. Here. Now.
I look at my feet – where am I on this planet? – and repeat those three mantra-like words. Because if I don’t, I will ruin the eight days I have left here in paradise, thinking about, wishing for, waiting for what has not yet, and may not ever, come to pass.
I have been living here for nearly three months, on sabbatical from my university teaching job. I’m here to write a book, to SCUBA dive and snorkel endangered coral reefs, get the closest approximation of a suntan I’m ever likely to experience, swim in the picturesque Cook’s Bay, visit sparsely populated atolls, wear a pareo around my hips and a flower in my hair, drink mango juice and eat papayas from the tree outside my bedroom. I have enjoyed my time here to the very core of the experience. It’s the first time in nearly 30 years I’ve been away from the pressures of daily life like this. I’m relishing everything I do.
Yet I want to go home.
And I want to hit myself upside the head for even having that desire.
When I return to my one-room above-a-garage studio apartment in Los Angeles next week, I will be go back to regular working hours, resume paying rent and commuting through traffic, have to schedule a dental appointment for what I fear is a needed crown, be required to deal with the sticky details of a nearly finished divorce and the sale of what had been our family home, issues I’ve avoided by my absence. Who wants to go back to that?
So why then am I counting down the days until I climb aboard a jumbo airliner and fly across the Pacific Ocean? I’m leaving, on a jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again.
What’s next? That seems to be the question I’ve been asking my entire life, unable, unwilling to stay with what is, expecting whatever’s next to be better somehow than what’s happening now. The grass is always greener. Except that it isn’t. And I’m old enough to know better.
I remember being pregnant with my daughter, our third child (now 19) and the antsy-ness I felt at the end of the pregnancy. Can’t we just get this over with already? Can’t we move on to what’s next: to meeting this child and starting a relationship with her? There are times now when I wish I could go back there, to the impatient, tetchy woman I had been and sit with her, experience fully the last time she’d ever feel a child move within her. Or the last time she’d nurse a child. Or the last time the family she’d created would all live together under the same roof. But she can’t.
I can’t. I wished every one of those moments away, looking for what was next, and they are gone forever.
So why do I want to leave so badly now?
Part of the problem is a man.
I made a terrible error a little over a month ago. In doing research for the book I’m writing and looking into personality types, I happened upon a dating website whose concept of personality typology appealed in a vague way. In the year and a half I’ve been single, I’ve set up countless online dating profiles only to pull them down the moment emails started coming in. I couldn’t respond to a single one; they simply freaked me out too much. So, I figured, I could explore this online dating world from the distance of some 4,000 miles and then nothing much would be at stake. I could flirt like crazy – or more accurately, start to develop some flirting muscle after 25 year’s atrophy– and not have to meet anyone! It was the perfect training-wheels situation.
Except that I met someone. Only we haven’t met.
He suggested we become “pen pals” since I’d be out of the country for the next six weeks. I said yes. We’ve been writing and texting and emailing, sending photos, talking via the smartphone app Viber, exploring every form of long-distance communication possible. There’s something about the anonymity of the Internet that allows for a deeper intimacy to develop. But is it a false intimacy? Is this sense of connection real or only digitally enhanced? If he wasn’t so far away, perhaps I would not have been so forthcoming. If I wasn’t so out of my element, maybe I would not have wanted connection so much?
But here I am, having this exchange and enjoying the daylights out of myself. Our discussions are wide-ranging and interesting. He’s smart and charming and funny. And I want to meet him, which will require ending my paradise hiatus and the wholesale destruction of this innocent just-getting-to-know-you phase. And, who knows? In so doing, I may blow this whole fantasy of deep relationship potential right out of the water.
How mad I will be at myself if I return home to find out this vacation romance isn’t much of anything and that I squandered my last few days in paradise thinking about something that was only a flimsy form of cotton candy, an illusion! And yet, from this perspective, 4,000 miles away, it’s all so alluring. So tempting. So reach-out-and-touch-it real.
Be. Here. Now.
I know the truth: if it wasn’t for this romantic appeal, I would have found something else, some other “next” to draw me away from what’s here and now. I have always been a hopeless optimist, so sure that whatever’s coming is going to be better than what’s happening now. But it isn’t. Not always. Sometimes it’s mind-blowingly wonderful. Other times, tragic. But either way, things change. What was great at first becomes less great over time. What was skull-crushingly painful eventually heals. Nothing holds still. There will never be a day in my life in which every detail lines up in perfect harmony and then I can capture that scene and press it in a book for posterity. Or freeze it under amber. Life doesn’t work that way.
Besides, thinking about home is another way to distract myself from the pain of being awake. Being fully present, even in paradise, is not always pleasant or easy. The three months I’ve been away from my daily life have given me time to put things into perspective, to come to see who I am as a human in this world rather than the wife and mother I’ve been for the past 26 years. I have cried a lagoon worth of tears over the end of my marriage and how I should have known better, intervened sooner, been smarter, sexier, somehow changed the course of events. I have also missed my three grown children in a way that hurts when I breathe and that will be, I must remind myself, the new normal. I have struggled and failed to write the draft of this book I was so cocky I would nail when I got on that plane 90 days ago heading to the South Pacific, the very one I’m waiting to whisk me back home.
Be. Here. Now.
I have few plans for the next eight days. Some writing. An afternoon swim. A walk or two. Everything seems to be winding down and that’s the hardest time for me. I’m good at the planning stage, the “kids: let’s put on a show!” stage. I’m not so good at the seeing it through part. But that’s what I’m hoping to do now. To feel the water as it’s on my skin, smell the fruity air near the pineapple plantation, enjoy the warmth of the breeze and try not to wish I were somewhere else. Because we all know the truth: the moment I get home, I’ll start wishing I was back here again.
So I keep reminding myself of today’s reality. The air temperature on the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia is 84 degrees right at this very moment. There’s a slight breeze blowing. The water is 80 degrees…
Be. Here. Now.
Bernadette Murphy is currently writing “Look, Lean, Roll,”a book about women, motorcycles and risk taking, Bernadette Murphy has published three books of narrative nonfiction (including the bestselling “Zen and the Art of Knitting”) and teaches creative writing at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program.
Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, among others. She’s the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen’s leading a weekend retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing for all levels. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops. Next up is Seattle and London July 6.