in between islands TRANS+FORM

IN BETWEEN ISLANDS: Same same but different

Just one breath at a time.

The sea at our backyard changes tides, and in this warm and dry season with summer just about to officially start, waiting for the tide to change requires infinite patience.

When the sea is calm like today, the waves barely registering movement, I have to squint to see the patterns of shadows and light giving each wave shape. A couple of small outriggers with single paddlers glide into view. Another island sleeps in the distance, like an old neighbor, a constant and quiet companion, far enough to simply be a presence yet not too far to be forgotten.

In between islands, I return to the same bench in front of the same view, in the same house.

The last time I was here, I was invited to a birthday party just down the road, at the home of a retired couple who are old family friends. He was turning 75, retired from his work of inspecting and certifying nuclear plants around the globe. About as many people as the birthday boy’s years were present at the party, and there was a six-person band playing fifties and sixties covers, a decadent buffet and free-flowing drinks served by starchy shirted waiters from a caterer. It should have been a great evening.

After the meal, sipping the shiraz, I had a panic attack. Surrounded by happy people dancing and laughing, my mind was gripped in a fear so large and formless that it started to choke me, and I struggled to breathe. I got up and walked the long bridge over the water to the cabana sitting over waves. It was dark and no one was there. I stood looking at the dark sea and fumbled for air.

I can’t tell you the story. There are stories that even I cannot put in words, yet. The stories live in tiny cramped boxes inside. Sometimes, they leak into dreams like the one I had weeks ago, a vivid sequence of running through an endless corridor, chased by silent marionettes. Most of the time, I’ve shut them out and focused only on two things: get work done and manage the running of a house and an existence of some sort. Eat, sleep, laundry, groceries, cook, clean, repeat.

And occasionally, although the episodes had become more frequent, the only safe space I perceived I had to remain myself would be between the pages of a book. I locked myself in my house and didn’t want to go outside. Once, I was cooking for a dinner with friends, and had to go to the market for ingredients. I spent two hours that morning trying to convince myself it was safe to go outside. I can’t tell you much, only that the sea of fear that washed over my thinking had made of life an exile from all that I had truly enjoyed.

Natago beach, meaning hidden, in the central philippines
There are no roads to this beach.

They say travel changes you, and although it’s become a cliché, like those t-shirts from Chatuchak Market in Thailand that say SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT, the phrase feels true.

During morning meditation today, I worked hard to stay mindful. Thoughts and sensations came and went. In the comfortable silence and space behind closed eyes, the sounds of birds that periodically chirp into consciousness and to my right something slices through the water, appears in the soundscape, then disappears.  I am being present to every breath.

That seems clichéd, too.

It is a judgmental thought that has jumped into my mind. A voice inside me says the changes I feel within from interisland crossings and the meditation I practice to ground my day might be things I would dismiss as stale and threadbare statements in another state of mind, in what seems like a very long time ago. As I become aware of the judgmental thoughts, I flick them aside and return to breathing.

A month ago, I would never have even noticed that I was sabotaging my own thoughts with negativity.

Recently, I’ve become brave again. Spontaneously, I decided to cross Bantayan to Negros Island on a route I hadn’t planned, to places I’d not been and did not research. Outrigger ferry to Cadiz. Three long distance buses, which seemed to be just there when I disembarked from one and looked for another headed in the direction I wanted to go. Knowing no one in the long journey, alone in wide open spaces, and yet I felt calm, even cheerful at times, laughing with my seatmate on bus number one who lovingly cradled a woven bag holding his prize rooster, which intermittently interrupted passenger’s naps with his loud and cocky crowing.

Six islands, unfamiliar roads, names of places I can hardly remember if I don’t write them down dutifully in the journal I’ve nicknamed Freedom. And yet, on the road there was no fear.

Hintagaynon Island in the Central Visayas.

I wonder about neural plasticity, the ability of our brains to rewire and change. The research says that prolonged stress can alter brain morphology: chronic abuse, fear and anxiety, for instance, has found to correlate with a shrinking of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that regulates the formation of memory. People who experience chronic fear and anxiety like soldiers in conflict often experience a drop in the ability to remember facts like names of people. Weeks ago in Kalibo, I had to look at the screen capture of my hostel three times before I could remember it to tell the tricycle driver where I needed to go from the airport.

I want my brain back.

There are a few things I want. I want to remember the names of streets in strange towns where I meet kind people whose names I never want to forget.  I want my hippocampus to heal from its state of deprivation because the blood in my brain has spent itself entertaining the fight or flight response in the amygdala, for years.

I want to remain brave. I want the road I have never known to stretch before me to an unfamiliar horizon, and I want to embrace the ambiguity of journey, with delight.

Chris Guillebeau, who traveled to go to every country in the world and accomplished his pursuit before he was 35, writes in his book:

Breaking your programming requires a single moment of strength.

Chris Guillibeau in The Happiness of Pursuit

There may be untold stories in which someone else is holding the marionette strings, in which someone else’s contempt for others becomes a daily game of one-upmanship. In the morning light, these thoughts attempt to crowd as they try to crush and jostle for attention.

Anchored to breathing, I am aware of the thoughts as external, separate, no longer mine.

What is mine is this breath, the sensation of the ground holding me up, and the quiet brush of water on sand.


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