It seems almost unspeakably ungrateful now, but I spent most of my high school years wishing I didn’t live on an island — and not just any island, but one of the Hawaiian islands, among the world’s most remote and yet most visited archipelagos. I lived on Oahu, by far the most densely populated in the chain, yet still small enough to circumnavigate by car in four hours: No matter where you were, the sea was within a 30-minute drive. Living in Hawaii meant being surrounded by blue — blue to your left and blue to your right, blue beneath and blue above.
And yet that expansiveness often felt imprisoning. People who grow up on most islands are taught from an early age that we must go out to greet the world, because the world won’t come to us (there are exceptions, of course). For some people, such lessons are threatening, and their island’s physical isolation becomes not suffocating, but protective — the world held at bay by the realities of geography. For others, that knowledge makes island life oppressive, the ocean an impassable chasm between the life you have and the life you dream of. Islands, separated as they are from other people and other species, are both places of great singularities — of flora, fauna, customs and culture — and deeply provincial: places divorced from the concerns and diversity of the rest of the world. In ecological terms, such inwardness can be glorious. In intellectual ones, less so.
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But when I got to college, in a valley surrounded by mountains in western New England, I found myself disoriented. I came to realize that it wasn’t just the fact of the weather, or the food — it was the lack of ocean, the lack of an escape route. The ocean, I realized, wasn’t an impediment after all; it was a promise — of all that I didn’t know and hadn’t seen, of all the people I might someday meet, of all the things that awaited me when I finally left. It was also a reminder — of our isolation and, therefore, our fragility, the folly of our civilization, of how it, and we, could all be swept away by wind or rain or wave or, in the case of Hawaii, lava. People who live on islands are humble in ways we don’t even fully comprehend; we are so vulnerable, so helpless, trying to root ourselves in our patch of land. Island dwellers are, at least subconsciously, Houdinis — we’re always thinking about where we might go when disaster finally strikes, while understanding that sometimes the only place is the water around us.
After college, I moved to another island, and although Manhattan bears few superficial similarities to Hawaii, there are kinships, too: Both places think highly of themselves; both have proven themselves outliers in the community of islands, luring people year-round to their cramped spaces, their unforgiving borders. Both represent many people’s dreams; both are hard to leave. Both demand a heightened awareness of the potential perils that surround one.
Over the years, I have grown less discomfited by landlocked destinations — I have even begun to seek them out. But home will always be a place where I know that there will be water all around me, where the shoreline, and the possibility of another life, is never far. Here, in New York City, the water is gray, but it’s there — water above, water below. Water to the left, water to the right. A million voyages, ready to be taken.