Julia Thomas is a freelance journalist writing about community, environment, human rights, and gender and pondering their intersections. Raised near Seattle in the US, Julia has always gravitated toward the written word and pursued stories by way of conversation. She spent the last year on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship exploring grassroots media and reporting across Nepal, India, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Ecuador, after studying history as an undergraduate at Scripps College. Her work has appeared in Newslaundry, Nepali Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Marie Claire Magazine, and Vela Magazine, among others.
The Uncanny Islands of Being
If home is transitionary, how does one gather the fragments that collect over time? And how do these shards of land merge with other ‘islands’ in our mind–the ones we inhabit in the digital world? Are we nomads stuck within the margins of our physical and digital worlds? In this beautifully ruminative essay, Julia examines the question of how we move between the different worlds we inhabit and how this ‘island hopping’ translates into our identity.
You can drive south from the airport and eventually take a bridge, or you can board a light rail with glass windows to downtown Seattle and walk onto a boat. Whatever route you take, the Washington State ferry docks in the city’s harbour every hour for Bainbridge Island–home.
I check the schedule and sprint with bobbing baggage uphill to the terminal. Often alone, scrambled by the solitude of reflection in-air, with messy hair and a body tossed from the whirl of time zones, I am relieved by the commute ahead, a prolonged buffer zone between arrival and island. Once on shore, I walk down the ferry ramp over the green carpet–my hand tracing the thin rope that demarcates the walkway, my eyes glancing at the signs above telling snippets of island history.
But the commute does not end. The island acts as a canvas for my first major phase of life and somehow, I cannot stop coming back to it. I return to it because of family and the roots that whisper a breath of ease underground and fall back, to familiar feet above earth. I am critical of it because I see the homogeneity in staying comfortable–I notice the inwardness and the physical distance that makes the island more isolated, less attuned to the wider disparities present across the bridge or a ferry away. I long for it, dream about the wet asphalt and the ease of navigating roads that I know through the repetitive acts of growing up. I hold it in my fingers and at an arm’s length, because the coming and going is not a question, but a way forward.
Though I spent most of my childhood on an island in the northwestern corner of the United States, it took a starker departure to make me fully realise the implications of living on one. As a kid I had imagined the sandy elbow of beach across the estuary by our house as a desirable island–a real island–and destination off the mainland. In the summers, my neighbours and I would build wooden bridges to cross or swim over to that water-separated bank blanketed by dried seaweed. Far away, Seattle–the half-familiar city, morphed into a faint cloud arching out of the hazy blue. Distance, twice removed.
Islands may be joints detached from continents, but they are more numerous than their locations on maps. With infinite potential shapes, they become individual units of social lives and the fabrics of relationships just as abundant. Within one island–within any place–ongoing stories form interconnected, quiet webs that will always remain partially obscured. An insular, separate sphere, a bubble, carries with it the otherness of islands. Within our minds we have islands as well, spread out like a veiny blueprint. Making the world smaller by finding fragments at which to wonder. Our tiniest living units betray a lot about larger movements. As adrienne maree brown writes, “there is evidence that many possibilities exist for how we manifest inside our potential…everything we think of as solid and singular is actually fluid and multitudes.”
Islandology, according to Marc Shell, is this ongoing human practice of creating smaller geographies within earth–land, sea and the web. If islands did not already exist, he argues, “it would be necessary for human beings to invent them.” We are all nomads, even if we are not physically moving, drifting around roads or walking without a map in unfamiliar countries. The component of movement is the pulse of nomadism.
I have begun to see islands, quietly, on my phone, audibly and in action, everywhere. In my childhood home, seashells collected by my grandmother used to sit on the ledge between the window and our kitchen. She told me you could hear the ocean if you listened, ear into shell’s center, voices churning in time.
Before July last year, I had not been away from the land of my childhood in Puget Sound for more than five months at a time. But the hunger to explore places outside of comfortable boundaries had long guided my aspirations, through lists and accumulations of possible paths away from the rock that never moved. I have fewer expectations of trajectories and more ideas now, disruptions of those old established hopes, and fewer assumptions about where I am going.
Illustration by Alexa Strabuk.
Fog merges with orange street glare into an impenetrable medicinal shade outside the bedroom window, framed by curtain shadows. Unblocked and eastward facing, the light rolls in con gusto in the morning. When I arrive, my host Marina sits me down in the sala and walks me through the details–the cocina, hot water, the balcony, and the space on the refrigerator shelf. On a tourist map, she marks the house in fine pink pen, parallel to a church on calle madrid. The neighbourhoods of the city are drawn in even circles, colour-coded.
I drop my suitcase in the room before heading hastily off to work, and come back in the evening, realising I can finally unpack my bags–spread clothes held in the belly of my travel partner–greeting zippers and rolls of fabrics forgotten. Halfway into recalling some of the beloveds–the shortened blue fern kurta from Nepal, singed from the bottom by a festival candle, a collared blouse with loud flower prints from South Africa and a single converse sneaker–I stop: What is the point of unravelling, nailing permanence to a place when I know my soon-to-move trajectory outside of this room and La Floresta and Quito? Laying out every item was a habit in the beginning of the year, an accumulation of bouncing spheres, but I’ve stopped trying to situate each bone in its proper tendon, the muscle grip of home. The rectangular cubes holding what I carry with me lie strewn on the floor.
In 20 days, I will shift again. As a recent university graduate, I am on a yearlong fellowship, pursuing a project on community media and local journalism. A stipulation of the fellowship is full immersion and agreement of no physical return to the United States during the year. Visits with family, friends, loved ones and familiars all have limits. No more than two weeks with people you know.
My childhood home had a rectangular table that sat at the centre of everything, close to two glass doors. If you tried tracing the varying grains of wood, you could somehow feel the ridges and the scars it carried-spilled liquids and strayed crayons. The stories of everything that happened at the table, now a part of its existence. Around dinner time, my sister and I would set brown paper napkins into once-folded rectangles under the forks, draw on printer paper and turn pages of homework. We took our paths to the table, from work or school or behind closed doors. We were safe, comfortable, unquestioning in the consistency of those ebbs and flows.
Some years ago, when my sister and I became old enough to more independently decide when we came to the table, the solid rectangle disappeared, and a circular centre took its place. My parents were in the process of renovating our house, which included some quiet replacement of household objects with new shapes. Cleaner, smaller, and more striking than functionally usable. There are a few scars on the new table–veins of carelessness or wayward fingernails–but you can see them. I cannot remember the last time all four of us sat in an inescapable presence around it. Still we continue to return without the habitual space of reunion, convening only to carry onwards.
I used to have this recurring dream, over the period of some months, about being back in my family’s kitchen. The journey home or reasons for leaving wherever I was are not important. What I remember is exchanges with people whose faces I don’t remember but who possess voices that stir memory, a familiarity that becomes so detached when one travels.
In one iteration of the dream, I am in public unavoidably, in the wide parking lot of the island’s grocery store, trying to walk, head down, identity hidden. But they see me, always do.
“What are you doing here?” they ask, the questions blunter in my imagination.
“What are you going to do with this?”
Another time, it is the kitchen. The counter tops feel so close, draped fabric of a long skirt swept into smoothed levels. Anchored. Just as I am beginning to calm, my consciousness detaches and reminds me.
You cannot be here.
You are not allowed.
And here I am, violating it all, rules that shape the entire skeleton of one year of life. The mother of all the fellowship’s rules is to not return to your country of birth or extensively visited nations. I cannot return to what I know, wherever that is.
Do I know where that is?
In Nepal, I begin to feel comfortable existing within the movement of my body and less inclined to participate in far away walks that fulfilled a nagging nostalgia for a shared past. I stay in a house with a rooftop where long conversations sprout and grow every night. Early morning, I walk to my Nepali tutor Geeta’s house, two hours of conversation over tea, new words written on a white board and loose paper accompanied by staccato laughter. Then, up three flights of stairs to the weekly grind above Patan Dhoka, a sneaky momo dash with my colleagues at Nepali Times. My Twitter feed is filled with Nepali journalists’ posts and news.
Even when grounded, with no water bodies nearby, I am hopping islands in my mind. Remnants of digital intimacy and online matching require swiping, constant communication, nomadic searches. The constant bells of notifications demand a near constant awareness. Count the tabs on any device and seconds would be wasted, but the number itself would skip and hover, hard to pin down. Quiet accumulation happens under fingers, pressing with intention.
“Subscribe me to this list.”
“I am not a robot.”
The islands of Chrome, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. The smaller ones, perhaps less frequently visited, send out their alerts intermittently, rising out of the water only on occasion. Cellular phones, smart even though not sentient, blink even when other realms are dark.
I scroll. Hit one island, process it deeply, and move to another. Humans keep each other afloat these days either by direct presence or matter-of-life collusion. How do we balance this awareness with comfort, mobility with community? What is the alternative to islands?
Islands populate my imagination in pieces of home, as centers of removed romance, ignorance, resilience, vulnerability. Over time, these definitions will transform and dissipate and become meaningless, applicable over and over and all at the same time. I am working on imagining more clarity in pathways from islands, the connections to larger systems, communities, and groupings of people. No story, no traveler, moves on its own. I notice growth, documented change, in the continuation of communities that exist even after their physical presence has disappeared. Islands, our most intimate constellations of experience, contain many worlds and repositories of selves.
My first romance grew out of a daily chat time on Gmail and sustained itself on consistent communication–the unedited safety of digital islands. We knew each other as kids in the same seventh grade P.E. class, and his friends occasionally came to chat with my friends after lunch at school, so inevitably, we linked online and struck up conversations from behind our screens. I liked talking for hours, huddled under blankets, screens lights low, and fingers typing quietly late at night. I liked knowing that without fail, come 9 or 10 p.m., he would be online. I liked exhausting questions about the most minuscule details of the other’s life, initially guarded by typed words and later audibly over the phone. We were two teenagers from the same island, building a bubble for honest sharing and a digital safe space for articulating thoughts, pouring our own into some hybrid mash up of the other’s experience. Our physical time together was limited, so our relationship was primarily contained to a blinking chat room. Easier to stay in it than to reject its walls, and so we did, until the circular nature of our talks, still nightly on the phone, no longer suited the selves we had grown into. And so, the bubble broke itself. We had jointly changed the security settings to erase our conversations after they happened, so that the hours we had logged on the same window existed without documentation, somewhere off wandering to be found again, or not.
In my dream, I am unnerved by sudden transitions. When I shudder awake, it takes me a minute. I don’t quite know how to separate myself or know if it’s even possible. Lie down, think carefully, walk backwards. In order to assure myself that I did not go home without knowing it, I complete the stops, roll through images until I can breathe again. Unsettling still, albeit comforting, that land can pick itself up so quietly to wander in our dreams.
The departures are occasional, and I seek them out less frequently than I anticipated. Movement can re-appropriate energy to grow muscles for swimming the hard lengths between spaces that collide, rather than merge as a compatible, natural mix. It is a reminder to adapt and acknowledge, to shake roots, to relearn. Small patterns, adrienne maree brown writes, avoid useless predation, spread lessons, and proliferate change.
I’m not sure how anyone can fully inhabit the islands of self and community that we are expected to hold. Most of the time, I feel like I am constantly moving or en route.
A ‘Hello’ from Joyce, Zimbabwean historian of music, with whom I spoke at her house, ate mangoes with her grandson, looked at old jazz album covers and instruments from the 1940s. Another ‘How are you’ from a fellow traveller from Holland–geologist on the move, numbers exchanged on a boat. A group I travelled with in the Galapagos also chimes in with surface level hellos. The WhatsApp groups I am part of include a ‘post-elections reporting’ group for my work and a social issues discussion chat in Zimbabwe which recently changed its name from #GODISINT to #RIGGINGDOESN’TPAY with a toothy smiling emoji. My long-time running buddy, a fellow islander, sends voice notes from Indonesia–‘thinking about you’. Parents share photos of the dog sleeping in the sun.
In the mountains, some five hours driving from Quito, I receive a Facebook message from a familiar name–Elias. “I know we have almost literally never spoken, but are you in Imbabura?” We went to middle and secondary school together and he saw a photo I posted during an unexpected trip to a community radio director’s home for a workshop, for cafecitos, for cards and cooking and walks from the town plaza. We are exploring the same country differently, save the identical name that follows our ‘originally from’ sections on Facebook. Over Messenger, we agree to meet in the coming months that I’m here, should he visit the capital city, or I go to the village of Peguche where he is teaching for two years. Once, we lived on the same island, and now, we are here, strangers in contact for some time.
Both of us found ourselves in Ecuador because of the choices and privileges that allowed us to move here. Our paths collide in the festival season during the month of Inti Raymi, celebration of the sun god, June. Early evening, we choose a corner store for our meeting place and walk to his host family’s house, toward the glowing city Otavalo in the valley downhill. In Spanish we talk with his host’s parents and fill in the gaps in each other’s vocabulary, buy beer, and dance in public square circles until 2 a.m. We learn words in the local indigenous language Kichwa, catch buses, and meet new people for evening chats in plazas. We did not know each other well in our hometown nor had we seen each other in the years since. But we collide, and this new space of memory encompassing Ecuador blows over the relevance of a vaguely shared island.
Mid-flight, two hours in, Lusaka to Dubai.
Solid sheet of clouds, blue edge, untouchable, no Earth. One forehead moulded by practice to the surface of the airplane window, shoulders to the wall and elbows into seat rests. Many miles below the plane approaches the line drawn by hemispheres from summer into winter. For the past couple of years, I have cherished these long limbos between places and felt most like myself in air–comfortable in timeless suspension. Alone and going somewhere. But the very act of decisive wandering is a privilege. I am leaving one island, and entering another, and the transitions are a site of repackaging, a silent carriage. All routes can somehow lead to another island.
I arrive in Seattle, awakened only on landing from somewhere else–Los Angeles. The plane bounces, speeds, slows, and begins its rumble to portal. Upon landing this feels like any other arrival into an unknown navigation. The runway is enveloped in blue, not-yet-dark summer light. This moment bloomed in my mind while I was away, at low moments or at the highest, home going often a simultaneous creative fantasy and a point of dread. Now, I play out the motions with my backpack, suitcase, and accumulated extra cros-body bag. The speckled brown floor of baggage claim, orange signs with directions, escalator, escalator, road.
“Rush for the 10:40 boat!! Can’t wait to see you,” my father acclaims. I oblige and feel less emotional than quieted by observation, noting what has changed as I go through the commute and what aligns with my memories.
The ferry terminal is under construction, the usual waiting area blocked off and commuters funnelled onto one side of the building. I find an open chair and sit, twenty minutes to spare until the next boat. I prepare myself for the inevitable encounters with people I know, but most faces I see don’t register. Later when I look back at the skyline moving away from the city, it seems more full with new buildings and varied colours of great wheel and lights than I remember. Seattle is growing in terms of residents, tall buildings, construction cranes per capita, and prices. It is a different, changing city, but it is also not fair to say that I am from this city when I grew up experiencing it in episodes.
My parents moved recently and are settling into a new space and I nearly forget about this until they miss the usual turn when we drive home from the ferry. In the new place, late night, we sit down at the circular table–same one–and talk. I notice the new arrangement of furniture from the old house. Every room surprises me on its own, but it is the kitchen first and particularly the refrigerator. Behind the central counter, it is wide and shallow, shining stainless gray. It appears to be larger than life, some character in and of itself. This landmark replacement of an appliance to hold the essentials shocks me almost viscerally.
Good night, we say. We each walk a few steps and arrive in our spaces, my sister and I to a room where we will watch the ceiling and talk until sleepy silence naturally replaces our words. All of us have arrived here, this inlet of time, shaped from the start as an interim.