Okinawa Diaries: Isolation

The following are excerpts from my journal, with very minor edits (mostly for brevity), from my time on the tropical Japanese island of Okinawa.

I had planned to spend the summer of 2020 with cousins in Myanmar, but due to Covid-19 border closures, we had to get out of the country in a week. There was one flight left for me and it wound it up in Okinawa, so there I washed up in the middle of March, with two clunky suitcases and zero friends.

I spent the next three months of the tourist visa counting how many weeks had passed since my last in-person conversation. I video called friends and family far too rarely. After a while I started to feel like a ghost, able to walk around and catch busses at will, even eat and drink, but not speak, listen, and be understood and seen.

It was an intense experience, and hopefully once in a lifetime. I am grateful to have gone through it.

This has been a rough year for everyone, especially the elderly and those at high risk, who have had to impose stricter quarantine measures than the rest of us. I share this personal chapter of my life partly in their honor. May we love and look out for the invisible among us until they are visible, and no one has to live as a ghost.

May 13

I feel oddly hungry here on this island, not physically (almost at all, actually), but…humanly. There is a sensation of self-digesting. As the inner world is where I spend at least 90% of my waking hours, yes, I truly am feeding off of myself. 

In past years without a strong social group, the need for connection was always real, but I just brushed it aside like one would do with a snack craving in the middle of a busy workday and went about my merry way. That house of cards is so strained right now. As a former homeschooler who went to a small college, I know what it is to be alone, and I learned to relish it all these years. But now that the world has gone quiet, it does feel like being sentenced to solitude. 

I have the gall to say that even though I just ate in several restaurants this week, since there had been no new coronavirus cases in the past week and I was hitting my limit of self-imposed distancing. Turns out going to the places that people go and seeing them in passing does not cut it, at all. Without connection, even the change of scenery is starting to feel meaningless.

An elderly woman tried to talk to me at the bus stop the other day after I tried to use hand gestures to tell her I liked her floral cloth face mask. She kept going on, adorably, as older folks tend to do when I try to engage them in a language I don’t speak. She later just randomly up and handed me the exact change for the bus fare when it was time for me to get off.  Sweet grandma. Love those kind of people. They always put a huge smile on my face. It would have been nice to be able to chat with her, but all I can say is hello, yes, and thank you. I don’ t even know goodbye. There hasn’t been any reason to learn the language because the only people I speak to are usually checkout clerks.

This place is just so quiet. I heard two planes fly close overhead earlier this evening and it was a refreshing and comforting sound – life is out there! City noises! You can still come and go to many different places with noises of their own! Gosh, how I would love to hear some really awful traffic right now. People yelling would be nice.

May 17

The other day I watched the UK video “The Blessing” being sung by individual musicians from churches across the UK. It came at just the right time. I was so at the end of my rope, having been isolated for so long, and my faith has of course been struggling mightily. When I watched it, it was as if these people were sending a message to ME. These earnest brothers and sisters from the UK reached out and pulled me back into the boat. I went from sad sack all alone to experiencing a primal, ancient, global, robustly orthodox ritual – receiving divine blessing corporately. 

It was a touching and powerful experience, and I was crying pretty good even though my emotional damper pedal was still on. The idea that “he is for you” was almost a new way of thinking for me somehow; it was disarming and overwhelming, and through the crying I had to run a quick Biblical memory scan to see if this was even theologically accurate. Being sung to with such a Spirit-filled message gave me a second wind in this “long walk home”, as Springsteen sang. That sums up the human experience pretty well – we are all taking the long walk home.

May 30

The world is full of unimaginable pain and trauma, which I have not experienced. I have no right to this. Other people deserve help and support; my life has been so privileged that the little pain that has entered it is meaningless, worthless, merits no grief or healing. It does not have a right to exist and be named. Because it is small, it must not be.

It is either trauma or nothing at all. Tiredness, fear, stress, sadness, loneliness – they don’t matter. Everyone else has them and everyone else deals with them alone…right?

Wanting a shoulder to cry on in the tough times will make me weak and unable to deal with things on my own. If I ask for help, I will magically unlearn all my coping skills for when I’m alone…okay, that sounds like it’s probably wrong. A cruel lie tells me it’s better to be hurting and strong (alone) than hurting and weak (relying on someone else). When I do have people to listen and support and comfort, it is super helpful. But they’re not here right now. So I lean in to the only way I know to deal with life – fighting back the stress and emotions and telling myself to be strong, until it takes me down. 

I am so lonely. 

I’ve read the stats on loneliness being worse for your health than cigarettes. I know it’s not natural. It may be killing me, but I don’t know where to start. I don’t have a lot of options. I’m a rolling stone. I don’t know anyone in the places I’m about to go, and I don’t know anyone here. My friends have lives. And I’m stuck in mine. How I wish I could get out of it for a little while. Being a digital nomad sounds like a dream come true, and I’m beyond grateful for the chance to travel, but the constant isolation turns the dream into a nightmare. 

I’ve always been an introvert, but this is just torture. This is not sustainable. I need to find community in the next place. After so much social distancing, I’m not even used to people sitting too close to me in restaurants. Japan loves its quiet, and I’ve gotten used to it even though it’s no obsession of mine. Life is what I crave, but I’m going to have to re-learn how to be around people without bolting.

I feel like a child with Ricketts because they never go out in the sun. I need to thaw out to people again, to get the clumsy numbness out of the inside where it has settled like the icy cold in winter soil. If ever I needed saving, perhaps it is now. No man is an island – but I’ve been living like one for a long time, and it’s starting to show. 

The above entries were written at the midpoint of the 90 day period, as I faced down the second half of the journey. Fast forward to the present, 4 months later, I’ve been living in Korea in houses with other people. Life is good – it always is, no matter what, – and so am I, thank God.

Published by gracexaris

Explorer, thinker, writer, teacher, woman.

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