Distancing, Socially

May 01, 2020

Each contact with a human being is so rare, so precious, one should preserve it.” Anis Nin

I remember my first friend. He understood me and made me laugh. And he was completely imaginary. 

In my early memories I am always alone in nature, making crowns of long spears of emerald grass and yellow daisies, building castles of tiny twigs, hunting toads. 

When I’d be invited to another child’s home to “play,” it was always a shock. Like visiting a foreign world. Brothers bursting in or little sisters crying, other children showing up unannounced, neighbors popping in and out of slamming doors. A mom would bring us glasses of cold milk. There was a level of chaos, normalcy and noise that I never could quite adjust to. 

my childhood home. come on in and meet the ghosts!

I was an only child and lived in a cavernous, old, drafty house. It didn’t take a stretch of the imagination to believe my house was haunted, and it was. The first time I saw a ghost she walked beside my bed, singing my name softly. I remember wanting her to come back, but she ever did. 

As I grew older, I was drawn to wide open, hushed spaces in the world. Places where you might imagine ghosts roaming. Places where I could spend an entire day exploring outdoors and never cross paths with a single human. 

It’s no wonder I’ve ended up living on a remote island. The first time I gazed out towards the dark frozen rivers of lava that poured towards the sapphire sea, I was in love. I was home.

The Big Island of Hawaii, where black meets blue.

Home, I don’t like to leave it often. I prefer to spend long, lazy days with my husband and son or drive off alone to the beach with a book and a hammock. But I had been looking forward to my trip to speak at conferences in Bali for months. I left on my birthday. I remember the sunrise that morning. Gold gleamed the horizon shortly after take off. I pressed my forehead to the airplane window and peered down at the Hawaiian Islands, blanketed in woolly clouds. They seemed to wake from their ocean bed slumber as the light reached them. But soon they disappeared, the sun brightened to a blinding white and I pulled down the plastic shade. My birthday slipped away along with another day and almost another by the time I reached Indonesia. 

When I finally arrived at the hotel it was nearly 1 AM. To my surprise, my Serbian friends, both named Vladimir, were waiting there to greet me. I was bleary eyed and sweaty, but also so happy to see them. I had only met them the year before, on my birthday, at the same conference in Bangkok. But on the last night of that conference, we had become friends. And for that, I have a cake to thank. 

That year, being in Bangkok and having a hotel room to myself, I had planned to celebrate my birthday in the best way I knew how, alone. I had fantasized of a bubble bath, room service and splurging to watch a romcom. But my fantasy was tested when I entered my room to find that a birthday cake had been delivered.  

That damn cake presented me with an existential introvert dilemma: do I eat the entire cake in my bubble bath, or, do I “share” the cake, like, with… people. The second option was both discomforting and, I knew, the correct choice. 

I reluctantly carried the birthday cake into the elevator and pushed the button for “pool/lounge.” I knew that was the most likely place to find other conference participants. I put on an uneasy smile and as I entered plopped the cake down onto the first table I saw. For a moment I thought of leaving the cake and booking it back to my room, but that particular table happened to include both Vladimir’s. I suspected, since they were the directors of the conference, that they were to blame for sending the cake to my room, although to this day it remains a mystery. Still, it somehow seemed perfect to share the cake with them. I sat down. 

One birthday cake and too many bottles of red wine later, Vladimir M. and I closed the pool/lounge around 2 AM. I was set to depart home the next day, and I did so with a hangover and a happy heart. I hadn’t had that much fun celebrating my birthday with “strangers,” well, ever. 

There are certain people who come into your life at precisely the right moment, but you don’t realize how important they are until long after the moment has passed.

On the day it became clear that I needed to try to secure a flight back to Hawaii from Bali as soon as possible, due to the increasing Coronavirus travel restrictions, Vladimir I. offered to come with me. I had planned to face the challenging task on my own, but it was hard to resist sharing the load with a friend. I remember thinking how that’s the test of a real friendship, offering to do really crappy stuff together.  Still, with a friend or not, my efforts were a total fail. It was clear I was not getting home anytime soon. I contemplated returning back to the airbnb I had checked out of hours early, until Vladimir I. invited me to stay with him and Vladimir M. and another conference friend, who happened to also be named Laura. They had a fourth bedroom and it was mine if I wanted it.  My inner goddess of solitude shook her head no, but out of my mouth came a joyful, “Yeah, OK, thank you.” We shared a beer before leaving the airport and for the first time that day, I smiled. And so began an unlikely union of 2 Vladimir’s from Serbia and 2 Laura’s from America, all sharing a “quarantine home” together in the isolated ricefields of Ubud, Bali. 

a beer with a true friend at the airport after a stressful day attempting to get back home.

from the back: Laura S., Vladimir M., Me, Vladimir I. #quaranteambali

That was March 18, “Day One.” As I’m writing this it is “Day 47.” The other Laura managed to get a flight home to Florida a few weeks ago. My flights continued to be canceled or more recently, non existent. So lately it has been just me and the Vladimir’s. It’s hard to imagine last year we were strangers. But the people who are most special to you are like that, they suddenly enter your life like they’ve been there all along.  

Most days here pass by unacknowledged, slowly and remarkably quiet. I literally spend hours watching the rice grow. My view is a sea of green. It’s like my childhood paradise made real. There are frogs and enormous dragon flies and we’ve been anticipating eggs hatching from a bird’s nest in our kitchen.

"me & my Vlad's"

I miss my home and my family, but I’ve never felt “stuck.” It feels more like this temporary home has been waiting for me to arrive for a long time. I know that there is a purpose and meaning for being here. The Vladimir’s (who I now refer to simply as “my Vlad’s”) and Laura surprised me one night with a birthday cake. They had remembered that I lost my birthday to timezones on my departure day. We shared the cake and I couldn’t help but think of the Bangkok hotel room cake the year before – how I had almost eaten the cake by myself…how I had almost distanced myself, socially, as I’ve always done…and how this beautiful moment, celebrating life with some of the best friends I’ve ever had, almost never happened.