March 31, 2020
Koh Mook, Thailand—it sure feels like the last safe place on Earth. For weeks my friends and I dare only to whisper of our island’s possible immunity—not from the virus itself but from the fear it’s causing.
But as the pandemic hysteria creeps closer, those of us left here—the blissfully unaffected and carefree—have all decided to go. Back to Norway, France, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, and elsewhere, most have left the island, ferried off to Phuket or Koh Lanta to wait for their flights home.
I decide to catch one more sunset before I force myself awake, before I accept the challenges of the real world and move on, too. This last one isn’t especially colorful: just a perfect orange sphere drifting down through the sea-haze. It’s like watching the ball drop on Time Square, but it sure ain’t New Year’s Eve.
Tomorrow there will be no literal turning of the calendar, nor metaphorical turn of the tide. But I know this moment marks the beginning of something big—here at the edge of the world, on my last day in paradise.
Without taking our eyes off the horizon, my friend Marta holds out a bag of banana chips so I can take some. With our beach chairs set side-by-side in the sand it feels exactly like passing the popcorn during a movie.
This reminds me of something I once heard but can’t recall where. A wry smile spreads across my face as I turn slightly in her direction. “Front row seats to the end of the world,” I say.
For a long while it’s been much like something out of a Jack Kerouac novel: “Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running—that’s the way to live.”
Now, waiting alone for my flight from Trang to Bangkok, staring down at my unworn sneakers, surrounded by anxious, masked strangers, the contrast is disorienting.
The past seven months flicker across my mind like a runaway slide show. I can’t be completely sure the events I’m seeing happened at all. How could a single pair of eyes have seen such beauty and such adversity in only a matter of months?
My tan skin and blonde hair won’t let me forget that something is different now. (But what?) These physical changes only tell me I’ve been living at the beach and working on the sea.
I look inside and find a familiar calm confidence, one that typically follows new experiences. There’s a welcome twinge of humility, as well. The result of unexpected yet perpetual wonders and worries. It is these feelings, not my appearance, that tell me I’ve changed.
Leaving was not my first choice—but it’s definitely the smartest. The impending enforcement of a vague yet limitless “emergency decree” by Thailand’s prime minister worries me. International flights leaving the Kingdom are disappearing faster than I can refresh my browser. Departing so suddenly feels a lot like running away—but I think I should go, while I still have the option to.
I blink and I’m on the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island for 14 days of self-quarantine. The chill is surprising, the gloom and light rain are not. I have only dreamy memories of the past two days: wandering all night zombie-like around the vast Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok; trees full of cherry blossoms everywhere as we touch down in Tokyo; ten hours of half-sleep, bad movies and worse food before I finally reach SeaTac International.
I step out onto the jetway and take my first breath of Washington air—all at once, every cell in my body knows I’m home.
I feel a bit strange sitting here, huddled in front of a space heater, looking out my window and up at the towering fir trees. (What happened to the coconuts?) I guess my brain hasn’t fully accepted that what I thought was going happen isn’t going to happen.
There will be no flash of jet black hair as you step from the ferry to the pier, no week of low voices, charged emotions, and vibrant sunsets. I won’t be crisscrossing the Gulf of Thailand on a sailboat, nor visiting any tattoo shops or book stores in Bangkok. And I guess Hawaii will just have to wait as well.
Of course I’m disappointed, but don’t worry about buying me balloons or a cake—because there will be no pity party. And you can stop the music, too, I’ve heard this somber tune before.
“If you’re really listening, if you’re awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly,” Andrew Harvey wrote in The Return of the Mother. “In fact, your heart is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold evermore wonders.”
Emotional pain, heartbreak, and discontent are just stories we tell ourselves when things don’t turn out as we’d hoped. We become attached to specific outcomes and feel cheated when we don’t get what we want.
Attempting to control anything outside ourselves is a waste of precious energy. These fruitless ambitions to alter the universe restrain us, enslave us, and nothing more. “Freedom is the only worthy goal in life,” Epictetus wrote. “It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”
The world changes rapidly and unceasingly—right now more than ever. It’s only natural to feel afraid, anxious, uncertain, or angry. Freedom, however, allows us to accept these emotions without attaching an action to them. “In sorrow the free man feels himself free to weep, in pain to scream, in anger to kill, in tedium to get drunk, and in laziness to idle,” Alan Watts wrote in The Meaning of Happiness. “It is precisely this feeling of freedom which absolves him from the necessity of doing these things.”
Freedom is not about knowing what will happen, it is about choosing how to react when the unexpected or unpleasant does. If anything, the past few months have shown us just how terrible we are at predicting the future. (My astrologist didn’t say anything about having to wipe my ass with a coffee filter.)
Our current problems only feel insurmountable, and the future apocalyptic, because they are not in line with our expectations. Making predictions or having a plan only gives us the illusion of safety and control—not the real thing.
Essentially, there is no alternative reality to hope or strive for. The past cannot be changed, the present can only be observed, and the future will be known as soon as it arrives.
Accepting the inescapable nature of any given situation is the easiest way to overcome it—the surest way forward. “The impediment to action advances action,” Marcus Aurelius once penned in his journal. “What stands in the way becomes the way.”
My dream of an island refuge was eventually shattered when the turmoil of the world arrived on the shores of Koh Mook. Swinging in my hammock, unsure of what to do or how to feel, I asked myself, Well, are you free or aren’t you? Do you have control of yourself or don’t you?
I have nothing to prove and very little to regret. Freedom is what led me to Thailand in the first place; and control over my actions and emotions allowed me to come through the experience intact.
So I left the Kingdom. And as the overloaded ferry lumbered away from the pier, there was no need to turn around, no need for last looks. Some places have a way of telling you, “I know you’ll be back.” Maybe not physically, but I will return to that moment, again and again. Because the last safe place on Earth isn’t really a place at all—it’s a state of mind.