Walking out of Phuket International Airport—a full 24 hours after entering Stockholm Arlanda—I am still not in a hurry. For the next seven days, like it or not, I will be living at a hotel in Patong: a bustling resort town off the southwest coast of Thailand. Making the most of it, I stretch across my king-size bed and bask in the AC. Reading, writing, and lounging by the pool, I blur through a week of semi-quarantine like it’s a long layover.
At last on Koh Lipe, my one-time island home, I move with unexpected urgency from the boat to the beach. I’m excited, yet hesitant, to see so many old friends. Most, after two long years, seem hardened by the unexpected, tragic, and unavoidable. Yet many appear to have softened at their edges through the acceptance of the same.
“We are flowers,” Joel Latner wrote in The Gestalt Therapy Book (1973). “Within each of us is the seed of our potential. As we grow, we grow in accord with our possibilities. (In our case, the different possibilities of being human.) If the conditions are good, if there is adequate sunlight, warmth, and nourishment, we will bloom with the beauty of which we are capable.”
I doubt many places on Earth have gone completely untouched during this pandemic. And I don’t expect the Kingdom of Thailand to be any different. But I’d like to believe that, in this place, I can still be me—that when I don’t get lucky, I can still make do.
In an episode of Apple TV’s hit show “Ted Lasso,” the title character (played by Jason Sudeikis) is giving a speech to his demoralized players after a streak of losses. “Now it may not work out how you think it will, or how you hope it does,” he tells them, “but believe me, it will all work out—exactly as it’s supposed to. Our job is to have zero expectations and just let go.”
From my tiny bungalow, nestled in the jungle, I can walk to the beach in 30 seconds. The spiders the geckos don’t eat catch some of the mosquitos. So, for now, they can stay. But the roaches (the ones I’ve seen) have all been evicted with a well-aimed shoe. There’s no hot water or air-conditioning. And my fan, while I sleep, just sort of blows the balmy air around the room. At the moment, my whole life is ambient: the perpetual accumulation of whatever is right here, right now.
Later in the season, I might get some work. But for the time being, there’s little to no demand for freelance divemasters. So, I fill my days in paradise as best as I can: I do yoga every morning, then cool off in the sea. I eat too well and drink lots of coffee. I read and write and make art from trash. The routine I stumble into is actually better than I’d hoped for, less than I wanted, and more than I need. Everything in my little life brings me joy.
“If you have the awareness that the whole drama of your life is the result of what you believe, and what you believe is not real, then you can begin to change it,” Don Miguel Ruiz wrote in The Four Agreements.
Tonight, a sudden downpour turns the sloping road running past my home into a river. Below my balcony, I can hear a torrent of water rushing past. Then the lightening splits the darkness, and I can see. My neighbor—an aspiring Master Diver from Austria in his sixties—yells something over to me but it gets lost in the rain.
“What’s that, Günther!?”
“My dear! Now zis is really some-sing!”
It sure is, Günther.
We are eight nautical miles offshore, and 25 meters down (over 80 feet), when the visibility goes to shit and the current starts trying to drag us out into the open ocean. The other guide, my boss, takes the first panicked diver to the surface alone. Leaving me with seven anxious customers that, at this point, I’m simply trying not to lose. All our expectations about how this dive was going to go suddenly mean nothing. Which I’m no more thrilled about than anyone else. But this is our new reality. And our only choice now is to make do.
I have been here before. Not in Bangkok. And obviously not at this cafe (which happens to have the best scones I have ever tasted). But I have been here—staring off into space with an open paperback in my lap, scanning my present life for traces of the one I was imagining. Did the past three months happen as I’m remembering them? Did the past two years??
“Misfortune has a way of choosing some unprecedented means or other of impressing its power on those who might be said to have forgotten it,” Seneca wrote. The more clearly we can see some potential future—the harder we squint at it, trying to make it real—the more destabilized we become when that vision turns to vapor.
Emotionally, I have been in few worse situations. But what is unbearable, I’ve found, is relative to who we are when the worst happens. Unfortunately, before I knew that the worst was happening, I had already run out of ways to prevent it. (The list of “things I can control” is a painfully short one.)
So now, here—on the other side of what my bones have told me, since we met, was impossible—I must simply accept. When my heart is breaking—when it feels like Nature herself has turned against me—I know there’s still one thing I can do (the last item on the list): I can still be me.