Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Year Later

The date sort of crept up on me. It seems odd, but it's true, that I left Palau, the Land of Coconuts, one year ago.

Gosh I've thought a lot about that place in the last year. I can barely comprehend that I've been away from it for as long as I was there.

During this year away from the tropics, and the mole rats, and the isolation, and the church kids, my emotions and feelings on Palau and the experiences I had there have evolved so rapidly and dramatically. There are moments when I am jerked awake at night in a sweat after dreaming that I'm still there. In those moments, I lay in bed, breathing heavily, and remind myself that the pain and stress I experienced in the equatorial Pacific is long gone.

But then I have experiences, too, that draw my mind back to the simplicity of life. The beauty. The wonderful people. And in those moments, I miss it. And I almost wish I could have it back.

When I left Palau one year ago and I wrote this, I was so overwhelmed with so many emotions that I really didn't know what to think about it all. I know I have a tendency to exaggerate and to speak in hyperbole, but I want you to understand that I mean this very seriously when I say that looking back to that time now I can see very clearly that I was traumatized. I was a walking zombie in so many ways. I had run out of tears. I felt like I had run out of support.

This wasn't true. I hadn't run out of support. But I was hurting so much inside from a year of very painful personal experiences that I think I was blinded to that fact.

It must be an evolutionary error that we tend to feel the most alone during the times when we need to not feel the most alone. I say it's an error because it's never true for any of us that there is no one out there who cares or wants to be the shoulder to cry on. And yet, the irony is that so often in our darkest moments there is insufficient light for us to recognize that reality.

Nonetheless, I returned from Palau feeling more broken and scared than I can ever remember feeling. The fast-paced life of the "big" city felt slightly overwhelming. And I immediately began working in a job that felt more than slightly overwhelming.

I was thinking recently about an experience I had a month or two after I returned from Palau. I was stressed and tired and having a really hard month socially. A coworker and mentor stepped into my office, shut the door, sat down, and asked, "how are you?"

I told him I was fine. Like we always tell everyone.

He paused and then said more intently, "No. I mean it. How are you?"

How was I? I didn't know how to answer that. And yet somehow I did answer it. Faced with someone who seemed to care and who may have just caught me at the right time, I broke down and started telling him exactly how I was.

I spilled my soul. Something I never really do in a professional setting.

It may not seem very true because I post the contents of my life on this blog every single day, but I'm actually a pretty private person. A lot of the more personal things I've discussed on Stranger have been a challenging attempt to overcome what I see as a serious flaw in this area.

So sitting in my office that day, talking the way I did, was a breakthrough experience for me. And when I finished my diatribe, this coworker and friend stared at me for a moment. I waited for him to impart some wisdom. But no wisdom was imparted. Instead, he stood up, reached for a stack of files on my desk, and said, "so I'm going to go ahead and take care of this for you. You should go home and get some rest."

And then he left.

It was almost comical. But I so appreciated the concern. And looking back over the last year, I can identify a few moments like that one where I was really honest about how I was. And I can see, through those moments, the path I've taken.

If Palau was a year of being torn down, then this last year, I suppose, was a year of getting built back up. It's been a difficult process. But one that feels more productive and encouraging than the one I went through just before it. Just about anything would feel more productive and encouraging than the process I went through in Palau.

The great thing about hitting rock bottom is that you no longer have to anticipate hitting rock bottom. In that way, acknowledging that something feels like "rock bottom" can actually turn into relief if we just let that revelation look like a boundary.

For me, returning from Palau was the beginning of a healing. And I've watched myself evolve drastically in the last year.

No. "Watch" isn't the right word. It's too passive.

The evolution of soul was not something that simply happened. It's been something I've made happen through a lot of really really difficult steps. And I can't help but give due credit to Palau for pushing me to face fears and consider inadequacies that are easier to hide under the distractions of a faster-paced life. Because it was that opportunity that Palau gave me that broke me down and put me in a position where I could experience that evolution of soul in the last year. An evolution of soul that I desperately needed, whether I previously knew this or not.

There's something so contemplative about the quiet equatorial Pacific. I used to refer to it as the "dark tropics." It sounds wrong if you haven't really been there. Because isn't the point of equatorial living to enjoy never-ending summer and constant sunshine? But being on the equator in the Pacific, the perpetual six o'clock sunset and thousands of miles of deep blue ocean in every direction from the one-square-mile island on which I lived made Palau a much darker and quieter place than any I've known.

That isolation combined with the constant sounds of waves, fruit bats, and rapidly growing jungle turns Palau into a thinkbox. One where you are forced to face your fears and acknowledge your inadequacies because there's nothing else to get in the way and serve as a distraction. It's a place where you have to actively strive to find a way to keep relaxation from turning into loneliness. One where perspective goes to battle with attitude.

And it's funny. My memories and feelings of Palau seem to continually evolve along with my soul. And that evolution has turned those memories of Palau into something like a dream.

It's odd to me that I ever lived there. That it really was my life. That I wrote to you from the coconut trees and the beaches. That I ever had to temper the anxiety attacks in the grocery stores. That I felt guilt for not appreciating the full moon above the bay as I looked out over it on those many dark nights on my quiet balcony. That I cried for those church kids who struggled with bumpy roads I'll never have to traverse. That I stared into the sunset, night after night, from a floating dock, sometimes laughing. Other times with a lump in my throat.

It's a dream. All of it. Sometimes a nightmare. But usually just a dream. And I'm glad I had it. Because that dream is and will forever be a part of who I am. It's altered my DNA. It turns my head when I see beauty and reminds me to care about it. It gives me courage to stand strong when I feel weak. And it will always have my back when I start to forget who I am.

No one ever really knows whether a major life decision is truly the best thing they could have done, the worst thing they could have done, or something in between. And it's sort of a waste of energy to wonder. What's happened has happened. What's done is done. And all that's left are the pieces. The memories. The lessons learned. The scars. So whether the decision was the best, the worst, or somewhere in between, that collection of stuff is at our disposal. And we get to choose how to use it now. And that's pretty wonderful.

Because why shouldn't it be?

Ungil tutau, sir Palau. Mesulang.

~It Just Gets Stranger


  1. I have followed your blog for quite a long time now. You've made me laugh so many times and contemplate things that would otherwise never cross my mind. This post though...this post is the one I probably needed the most. Thank you for this.

  2. Eli first of all we missed you at the McCann family reunion and for the record we didn't even have to sing when the Tates go marching on. 2nd thanks for sharing this. On the surface it seems that saying I'm just fine is an easy answer with no consequences but there are consequences for not being honest with ourselves and others. The biggest one I think is the feeling of being alone and isolated and that no one truly understands you. I find myself telling people I'm fine or great all the time when inside I'm hurting and really could have used that opportunity to poor my heart out to someone even if the response is why don't you get some rest. The peace that comes from actually sharing life experiences good and bad really helps to lift the weight off of ones shoulders. I love reading your blog and like others have said I've laughed and cried with you and have enjoyed reading about your life experiences.
    Thanks for helping me find and recognize my flaws as well as giving us all the revelation that we are not alone in our inadequacies.

    1. Shelby, I love you. That's all. XOXOxoxo. Cathie

    2. Yes Shelby, we love you! Lets go to the movies like we keep saying! And remember when you're feeling down..."You could have had 5 kids under the age of 5 when you were only 22!" Hahahaha! Those were some of my favorite memories!

    3. Love you too Krisanda and aunt Cathie... and Krisanda I'm game for a movie whenever you are... and I thank my lucky stars every day that I did not drop out of high school my last year and have 5 kids under the age of 22... What was G-Mac thinking

  3. Thank you, Eli, for writing so honestly and perceptively. Your writing reminds me, even on bad days, that we're all in this together.

  4. I had a similar 'character-building' emotional roller-coaster experience when I was 18 and spent a year as a student living in Malaysia. Some 20+ years later I am now (as in tomorrow!) returning to where I lived with a local Muslim family, out in the rice fields. Those experiences will remain with you for life Eli, and while the underlying emotions won't fade, you will learn to be proud of who it has made you into and will call on that inner strength you didn't even know existed. I am ready for a well of emotions, both good and bad, to resurface tomorrow. In NZ the Maori's have a phrase: Kia Kaha... which means Stay Strong.

  5. Eli, you are truly amazing!

  6. This:

    "It must be an evolutionary error that we tend to feel the most alone during the times when we need to not feel the most alone. I say it's an error because it's never true for any of us that there is no one out there who cares or wants to be the shoulder to cry on. And yet, the irony is that so often in our darkest moments there is insufficient light for us to recognize that reality."

    Thank you for this beautiful piece of writing.

  7. A year already? This time last year I was home bound post a traumatic event. Reading your blog is/was good food for me. Although our experiences are vastly different, I think the healing process comes similarly. I was told by a wise friend and counselor that the first year after an life altering event is the toughest but most defining. Eli, a lot rests behind you, but a lot is yet to come. Surround yourself with positive people and keep on setting personal goals. And please keep blogging, the Stranger community needs you. At least I do.

  8. It's funny how time changes our perspective. I'm glad you can look back on your year in Palau with something other than revulsion. Because so much good came out of that time, even if it WAS the hardest thing you've ever done.

  9. As the kids are saying these days "All the feels"!

    Love you Eli

  10. Don't kid yourself. You're never far away from Leotrix! =)

  11. Yaaaaawn. Keep to the jokes my friend.

    1. Speaking of yawning--keep your boring comments to yerself. Constructive feedback is ok sometimes but telling someone (even someone who writes a blog and arguably is putting themselves out there) that their personal thoughts and emotions and experiences are boring is just insensitive. If you're bored, go read Dear Abby.

    2. trolls be trollin'