By Marieke Slovin Lewis / Honolulu
It’s a miracle that the Post Office knows where to find my husband Richard and me these days. In mid-December, we moved from Prescott, Ariz. to Seattle, Wash. This move came a year and a half after we returned to Arizona after living overseas in Belgium and France for the past five years.
So needless to say, my stamina for packing and making big life transitions was not high to begin with this time. I made it a month in Seattle before the gray and rain and stress of living in my mother-in-law’s basement sent my mental health reserves plummeting to dangerously low levels.
My husband and I talked about possible solutions, including driving or flying down to Tucson to get some desert sun, or visiting relatives in Los Angeles. Then we remembered that many airlines offer nonstop flights to Honolulu from Seattle, and my aunt and uncle live in Honolulu. When we were making pro and con lists to help us decide whether to stay in Europe or return to the U.S., the ability to visit family was one of the benefits of returning.
I sent tentative messages to my aunt and uncle on Jan. 17, exactly a month after arriving in Washington, to see if they were around and wouldn’t mind a visit from their niece. When they responded with enthusiasm, I started looking at flights. A friend had told me she had found great prices on the Hopper App and Priceline, but I was only finding flights between $500-600.
What was the price of joy? How much was I willing to pay for sunshine? If there were a black market for the sun in the Pacific Northwest, someone could make a lot of money. I was so desperate for a prison break from the Seattle winter, I might have been willing to pay even more than the costly flights I was finding.
Being a person who struggles with depression and anxiety, I place a very high value on my mental health and well-being. I have made enormous changes in my life in pursuit of what I refer to as “self-sustainability.” And yet, even after having studied this realm in my academic, personal, and professional lives, as well as in the music I write with people from their stories, I still find myself feeling guilty for making choices for my mental health.
If I had to choose one important lesson from my own research and experience, as well as from the ongoing pandemic, it’s that self-care is not selfish. It’s the idea that we each put our own oxygen mask on first before helping other people. The healthier we are as individuals, the more able we are to help other people, those in our inner circle and beyond. When I am able to fill my cup, I am more grounded, more patient, and more kind to people in general.
And so, with a desire to embrace this idea and model what I preach about self-care, I booked a 10-day trip to Honolulu. I would leave on Saturday, Jan. 21. I would stay with my aunt at her home in the Mānoa neighborhood and visit my uncle and his new wife at their apartment downtown. In between social visits, I would spend time doing the things I needed to refill my well of well-being. Namely, I would spend as much time near the sun and sea as possible. I would also go for long walks and eat good food, fresh from the ocean.
I did a fair job, dedicating myself to my own well-being while also balancing time with family. I love the way you can feel like a new person on holiday, as if all of your cares and worries have disappeared into the vacation cosmos. Life is carefree. You are a better version of you.
Like so much of the heavier stuff in life, however, gravity can draw it back into my sphere of existence. Depression and anxiety came creeping back in five days, drawing the door open in a slow, creaking fashion, craning the necks of their dark, unwelcome faces around the door frame to peer in at me.
Those weighty emotions had been following an ongoing saga during a challenging life transition that involved me, my husband, and his aging parents. Their reappearance was not surprising. It was perhaps naïve to think I could go anywhere in the world without at least one of two of my inner demons catching a ride in one of my carry-on suitcases.
Truth be told, my husband and I were struggling well before I left for Hawaii. We had decided in November to move from our home in Prescott in the sunny Central Arizona desert to take up temporary residence in his mom’s basement in Edmonds, a town just north of Seattle in the gray and rainy state of Washington. This was a decision made more by my husband in order to help care for his aging parents and begin a dream job he had recently been offered as library director at a large university.
I had mixed feelings about the move. On the one hand, I was bursting with pride for my husband. On the other, I knew from experience that I had a hard time living in regions with weather that tended toward gray and rainy for much of the year.
My husband told me he recognized this was not an ideal choice for me and he would understand if I was not up for it. I love my husband, and I turned my world upside down when I met him many years ago because I believed so strongly in our connection. I don’t think anyone ever tells you how challenging marriage can be, but I believe it is worth the struggle. In the end, I chose to go with him.
My husband was understandably overwhelmed by everything going on: the responsibility of caring for his 85-year-old mother and guiding her through increasingly difficult choices; getting ready to start a complex new job; completing the sale on our Arizona house; and finding a house we could afford (and that we both liked) in the greater Seattle area. With his overwhelm, it was up to me to take care of my health and well-being.
I was overwhelmed and heartbroken at leaving our home in the desert. Each time we traveled north to Washington, we seemed to become enmeshed in the energy of so many relatives that our own relationship suffered.
In my mind, I was fast becoming what our expat friends in Europe referred to as a “trailer wife,” following my husband as he pursued one dream after another, each of which would propel his own professional career forward while mine lay stagnant and dormant.
I packed up all of our belongings and cleaned the house. I researched Zillow to find places we might live. We arrived in Edmonds just ahead of a winter snow and ice storm. In-between the snow, rain, and holidays, we managed to find a home we loved and make an offer. Our offer accepted, we marked a calendar and began crossing off the days. I spent hours walking my dog all over Edmonds and wondering what I was doing with my life while my husband went off to navigate his new job.
Our relationship was feeling the pressure of the transition and everything that came with it, but for me the most urgent priority was finding the sun. I felt some guilt and also enormous relief, stepping off the plane and feeling the humid air of tropical Hawaii envelope me in its misty embrace.
My first day in Honolulu, I borrowed my uncle’s car and drove down to a local beach my cousins had recommended on our last visit. It’s a relatively quiet spot, and you have your pick of palm trees to sit beneath. I went for a short swim and then sat with my towel wrapped around me, my feet digging into the hot sand on the surface of the beach. Each time my feet cooled off, I moved them to a new spot.
As my feet warmed, I turned my face to the sky. Catching the sun on my cheeks, I felt like I was coming up from a deep underwater dive. I had just reached the surface and I was gasping for breath. It felt like I couldn’t quite get enough oxygen to turn down the urgency flashing warning signal on the desperation dial for my soul. Slowly, the warmth of the sun and sand, the soothing breeze from the water, and the song of the sea lulled me into a more peaceful state.
Suffice it to say that there were a couple of incidents—one involving the house my husband and I are in the process of buying and another involving a visit to the vet for our dog, who experienced a small seizure and whose own well-being has topped the charts as the most urgent matter affecting my mental health.
You can leave your life behind to an extent just by boarding a plane and setting foot some hours later in an entirely different place. But life follows you wherever you go.
The pandemic follows as well. Here in Honolulu, social distancing signs are ever-present and people are mostly wearing masks, both when frequenting indoor and outdoor settings. While much of my life feels up in the air and my soul ungrounded, I can take comfort in knowing I have arrived in a place where people seem to care about their own and the well-being of those around them.
There are still signs, many well-worn, with reminders to socially distance. “Please Kokua,” they say. Kokua means "help" in Hawaiian. I looked down at my feet as I sat outside of one restaurant opened by a Japanese family after they were forcibly shipped to an internment camp during WWII. "Spread Aloha, not germs," it read.
I have noticed that the pandemic still seems present and not past in Hawaii. People continue to wear masks, much more than on the mainland or even by the people around me at the airport. Rather than feeling strange for using a wipe to clean my seat and tray on the plane, I feel like I am being respectful of other people each time I pay attention to pandemic social etiquette.
Thanks for masking up, Hawaii! May the mask be a metaphor for self-care and sustainability, in addition to your glorious saltwater and sun.
I wrote the above while still in Hawaii. Somewhere between the kokua and aloha, my overtaxed system succumbed to Covid. Three days after arriving back in Washington–on the same day that my husband and I received the keys to our new house–I tested positive. A parting gift maybe, but from whom?
Marieke Slovin Lewis is a writer, musician, singer-songwriter, yoga teacher, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Education and writes music from people's life stories, using a method called Story-to-Song that she developed with a fellow doctoral student. She was recognized as a finalist for the 2021 Amateo Award for arts participation projects in Europe for her project, "On the Move: Poems and Songs of Migration," for which she wrote songs with refugees and asylum seekers in Brussels, Belgium about their migration experiences. Marieke is a wandering soul and has lived all over the world. She is currently living with her husband, two cats, and a big white husky in Seattle, Washington.