The garden of our house on the Island is full of trees. All day and night, we listen to them: shimmering, scratching, flapping, and rattling. High in the branches, tiny yellow birds trill, parrots scream, and doves warble deep into the night. In the afternoons, dragonflies and monarch butterflies sail over the treetops, disappearing and reappearing like actors in a play.

            In the darker, lower parts of the garden, where I hardly venture for fear of mosquitos, monsteras as large as children spring from the earth. This is where the mango trees grow, leafy and fruitless for most of the year. In their shade stands a tree I have never seen before: delicate as a silver candelabra, with round green fruits like miniature limes. I step forward and squeeze one—gently at first, then, seeing how easily it gives, harder—till it bursts open. I lick my fingers gingerly, tasting something bitter and bright.


            In the mornings, I walk into the sea. Although it is summer, I am surprised by how warm it is, like stepping into a bath. In California, even on the hottest days, the cold of the ocean clamps down on you like an electric shock. It reminds you, harshly and joyously, that you are alive. Here, the water is sinuous and silky—so clear, I imagine drinking it. Close to shore, translucent fish swim around my ankles, brushing my feet as though they recognize me. When I dive in, the ocean envelops me.

            I swim past the shore break to where the waves billow and build, catching me up and setting me back down. I spend many mornings like this, floating and diving, frolicking like a seal. But my bliss is tinged with caution. I stay alert, mindful of changes in the light and tide. Careful to stay just close enough to shore and far enough away from the shore break. I monitor the size of the waves and their nearness, how fast they are growing and whether my feet are within reach of the rocks jutting from the sandy floor. I wonder when my luck will run out, when the water will turn cold and the sky shroud over, when an unexpected wave will rear up and slam me into the reef.


            I grew up in a sprawling Southern California suburb. My relationship to the earth was largely confined to the greenbelt behind our neighborhood, a half-mile strip of grass bisected by a winding sidewalk, framed by twin rows of eucalyptus trees. Everything else was stucco and concrete: the planned neighborhoods, the shopping centers, the libraries and schools. There were a few parks that we went to sometimes, but I hated grass, imagining it to be full of hidden urine and feces.

            As a child, I was prone to strange rashes and allergies, and always seemed to be catching colds. “It’s because you didn’t wear a jacket outside,” my mother and father would say when I started to sniffle. When we went on walks through the greenbelt at night, they’d cry, “Don’t touch that! It’s dirty.” Hao zhang-ah! So dirty! This was the refrain in my head whenever I went out.

            On the Island, there is barely a distinction between “inside” and “outside.” Mold devours carpets and clothes. Dressers reek of mildew. Neon geckos scurry across walls, and cockroaches the size of small hummingbirds clatter against the windows and floors. On our first day, I find what looks like a knobbly dark brown stick behind the toilet and wonder if someone has dropped a decorative branch. It is a nine-inch centipede. For weeks afterward, I tiptoe through the house like a character in a horror movie, petrified by the insufficiency of the walls around me.


            My fear of the natural world is largely unfounded. I have never been bitten by a centipede or caught in a hurricane. I have been pushed down by the waves before, while swimming too near the shore break, but I have never been hurt badly. In reality, the greatest threats to my body have always come from within.

            In the bathroom at the age of fourteen, I look down at my underwear and see blood. It is as though the sight of it triggers the pain—hot metal bands of increasing pressure and tightness clamping down from belly button to groin, searing my insides until I vomit. I learned about menstrual cramps in fifth grade at the Mother-Daughter Tea, but no one else I know has them this badly. Every month without fail, pain seizes me for a day or two and wrings me out like a rag. I am in its servitude, skipping school and later work to lie in bed and let it pummel me until it is through.

            Perhaps it is this feeling of general unwellness that nurtures my fear of the outdoors. I am frail, easily wounded, the reasoning goes. Therefore, I must insulate myself from anything that might challenge me physically—anything that could disturb whatever hard-won equilibrium my body manages to achieve. If I stay inside, at least I won’t catch a cold. At least I won’t get exhausted from too much walking. At least I won’t fall down and scrape my knees.


            On the Island, early on, we go snorkeling in shallow water. I do not know how shallow the water is until I am in it. Halfway through the reef, I realize I am floating only three feet above rocks crammed with sharp black-spined urchins. Suddenly, all I can see are urchin spines, sinking deep into my skin and tearing it open, ribbons of blood spiraling out of me, turning the clear water pink. My limbs go rigid with fear. I gasp for breath, fighting the urge to stand and regain my bearings—an irrational impulse that would certainly result in harm to both the urchins and my feet. Instead, with every fiber of mental fortitude I possess, I will my arms and legs to stay slack. RELAX! I scream inwardly, trying to ignore the spines reaching toward me from every nook and cranny. Somehow, miraculously, my body complies. This happens a dozen more times before I finally accept that I am in no danger as long as I keep calm. With my body at ease, I float effortlessly over the rocks, never touching the urchins. I breathe through my tube without difficulty. I see colors I never imagined before.

            That day is like peeling off a layer of myself and discovering my true skin underneath. The skin feels new and familiar at the same time. It is vulnerable to the elements, yes—but it is also resilient. Since childhood, I have lived as though the point of having a body were to protect it from harm. Now I wonder whether it is equally reasonable to think of the body as a medium for experiencing wonder. I learn to walk barefoot on the sharp lava rock, to swim farther and stay out longer. 

            On the shores of a coral-strewn beach, I sit down in a tidepool where I find a cowrie the size of my palm. It is as glossy as a mirror, dark brown and cream-speckled. I place it on my hand, where the creature emerges at once and begins to turn about slimily, searching for a foothold. It is muscular and surprisingly agile, like holding raw, unmediated life.

          From beneath my wonder comes a thrum of panic. Is it possible to be allergic to cowries? What if it is secreting acid onto my skin this very moment, trying to eat me? Still, I make no move to put the cowrie down.  It seems to be transmitting things into my skin with every undulation, inscriptions deeper and more resonant than language can hold. I begin to lose track of whether I am holding the cowrie or it is holding me. Even if it eats me a little, I think, I’ll be okay. The cowrie tickles my hand as it turns again, and I am in thrall, utterly present to where I am and what is happening to me.


         The summer after my freshman year of college, my white blood cells become deranged and begin attacking my hair follicles. Every few months, a nickel-to-quarter-sized bald spot forms on my scalp, staring blindly back at me from the mirror like a milky eyeball. Eventually the spot grows back in, only to reappear elsewhere: a mortifying cyclical manifestation of self-enmity. Four years later, my digestive system malfunctions. Suddenly, I am perpetually bloated, vacillating weekly between constipation and diarrhea. Inside my abdomen, a water balloon shares domicile with a bag of rocks, each expanding to fill the space when the other is away. No matter what I eat or what remedies I try, I feel nauseous and exhausted.

            There are better days and worse ones. On better days, the sickness is merely an ever-present discomfort, a quiet but insistent physical sensation of wrongness I can mostly ignore. I can write, go to meetings, have dinner with friends, even exercise or go hiking. The bad days happen as often as twice a week—more, in the weeks before, during, and after my period. On those days, I cope by splitting myself into composite parts as best I can, silencing my body with painkillers, sleep, or lying very still, while distracting my mind with the Internet and TV. I do not know what parts of my body are “me” and which are not, whether my mind is separable from my organs and glands and cells and whether “I” am my body’s enemy or it is mine. I wish I could cut myself open and examine my insides, but I even if I could, I would not know how to read them.

            Since I cannot transplant my mind into a healthy body, I put it into a spaceship instead, launching it out to a world of my own creation, one free of embodiment entirely.

            In this world, I float all day down rivers of images and words, some inane, others interesting and beautiful or at the very least entertaining. Mindlessness is key: any attempts I make to do “real” thinking or reading seem to draw every bodily ailment to the fore. So I distract myself by debating pseudo-academics online, ones whose malformed ideas I can easily dismantle. I do “research” to find the best skincare regimen, the current whereabouts of child celebrities, the resort where my rich ex-coworker is vacationing. I gorge myself on other people’s stories. In this world, my inner world, I am lithe, alert, amused, and in control.

            Except that I am never really there. Hunger, pain, the need to go to the bathroom—all kinds of bodily pangs keep pulling me back to the real world. When I awake from my drugged semi-sleep, I am still sick and despondent, still trapped in the body that continually betrays me, despite my lifetime of efforts to protect it.


            On the Island, in the thick of a heat-swollen afternoon, strong winds begin to blow. Within minutes, the sky has cracked open and a heavy rain is pouring down. A complex concoction of smells begins billowing in through the windows: wet soil, salt mist blown uphill from the sea, the sweet scent of rain-battered plumeria. Rain clatters on palm leaves, shakes the breadfruit and rattles the berry-laden branches of the octopus tree. It spills down the sides of the house and into the garden from a thousand little streams, darkening the mango leaves and glazing the limes.

            It ends as abruptly as it began. The winds have pushed the rain clouds further up the mountain. From deep within the dripping garden, the chorus of doves, finches, and honeycreepers fades back in, louder and more layered than before. And now the sun slips down until it hangs just over the horizon, orange as an overripe mango, and the house is aglow, filled to the brim with lush pink light. Light sluices down the walls, pooling on ceilings and floors, shifts imperceptibly from watermelon to ochre to purple.

            Without realizing it, I’ve put down my phone and walked out to the balcony overlooking the ocean. I’m back in my body—smelling, listening, attuned to the sensation of rain-cooled air on my skin—but for a moment, the pain recedes. It is as though a dial inside of me has turned, and I’ve caught the sound of another frequency.

            I decide to try an experiment. The next time I feel sick enough to want to escape my body, I drive to the beach instead. I walk into the waves and let them catch me up until I’m swimming, and there, it happens again. I am more aware of my body than ever before, absorbed in the press of the water hugging my chest, gathering up my hair, pushing back against my hands and feet—but sickness feels far away, like a distant whale song. What I feel the most is the joy and pleasure of being in a body. Seawater reaches into my ears and trickles onto my tongue, stinging my eyes when I surface to breathe, and I am weightless, bobbing up and down in the swells, my vision flooded with blues, golds, and greens.

            I know the relief is temporary, and that when I come up out of the water, all of my ailments and dysfunctions will come with me. In a few hours or days or weeks, they will sweep over my body again, enveloping me in misery, over and over, perhaps for the rest of my life. But in this moment, I am in love with being an embodied creature. I love it gratefully.


            Many months later, when we’ve left the Island, I wake one morning to the sudden vivid memory of swimming. It is like being plunged into a lucid dream: I feel the slap of waves against my calves as I wade into the ocean, the cool of the water enveloping me. I wade until the water is at my waist, then my chest. A wave approaches and I dive into its seamless green belly. I open my eyes as it crashes behind me, heaving sand into the water like a burst of smoke. It is whale season, and as we swim, when we are quiet, we can hear their soft, high squeals. They sound like wind chimes pealing in slow motion, or truck horns from very far away. I rise to the surface and take a deep breath, preparing to dive again, but emerge into consciousness instead. I’m back in my bedroom in a landlocked city. But the Island still pulses beneath my skin like sand beneath water.

            The fraughtness of embodiment is always with me, a shadow that clings to me wherever I go. But there is a valve inside of me now that opens up in the presence of anything beautiful and living: snow on the mountains through the windshield of my car, the muddy creek running through the park, green leaves on the tangerines at the grocery store.

            It is winter, just after sunset, and the park by our apartment is blanketed with thick white snow. In the distance, just behind a row of bare trees, a cluster of clouds glows like hot coals against a cerulean sky. The Rockies are awash in snow and purple light. Standing in the park beneath these colors, I feel the part of me that is usually quiet and asleep wake once more to the presence of the Earth: that tremendous sentience, larger than comprehension itself, which I am a part of, which is a part of me. And love for this world, even this fraught body, blooms and bursts over me. The valve swings open and I’m there again—not the Island, exactly, but the place to which it brought me. It is the place of communion with all that is continual, ubiquitous, and pervasive, and always just beyond my reckoning: the Island, these mountains, this snow, these trees.