Even In Paradise
Updated: May 23
I'll never forget the day my best friend returned to L.A. from her vacation to Maui. She was practically gushing. She talked about the black sand beaches and the rainforest and the pineapple. She told stories about the locals and tried to speak pidgin. (She did a terrible job). She told me all about the ocean, her favorite place on Earth. She said she wanted to move there. It was her third visit and she had seen enough of the island to know that that was where she wanted to be. I remember thinking to myself... you can't just go live on an island. Who does that?
She is the spontaneous one. The fun one. She is go with the flow, easy breezy, no worries. I am none of those things. I am the overthinker. The responsible one. The one that hates change. I need a spreadsheet and a plan in order to accomplish anything. Still, she was trying to convince me to go with her. In my imagination, island life didn't seem like real life. I pictured thatched roof huts, bare feet and spear fishing your dinner. In my mind I saw nothing but sunsets, long afternoon naps and sarongs. I couldn't fathom what type of job I would have or how I would earn a living. I wondered where my groceries would come from and where we would sleep. It was too foreign for me to comprehend.
So we planned a trip. She wanted to sell me on the idea of relocating. When we arrived and made our way to the hotel, she was grinning. Isn't it amazing? The area was much more industrial than what I had pictured and, to my surprise, more like real life than I expected. There were grocery stores and apartment buildings and movie theaters. There were restaurants and gas stations and laundromats. There were retail shops. There were banks. There was Costco. There were streetlights and office buildings and a hospital. There were people walking their dogs. There was normal, every day life among the palm trees and ocean views.
I definitely understood the draw but still wasn't convinced that moving there was the grown up thing to do. After our vacation, I was still on the fence. I was afraid that quitting my job and running off would be irresponsible. She decided she was going with or without me. And then she left. I sat in my quiet apartment and took a good look around. I realized that there was nothing really keeping me there. I had no ties I couldn't break. No mortgage payment. No kids in school. No business to run. I could technically go wherever I wanted. Plus, it occurred to me that just because I was from The Valley didn't mean I had to stay there forever. My brother, the free spirited artist, said go. Imagine how much you will grow from this experience. You can always come back. So I booked a one way ticket and took off.
I couldn't believe what I was doing. I was nervous and excited all at the same time. I couldn't wait to start my new adventure. From the moment I got off that plane I was enamored. The smell of mango and plumeria in the air. The gentle breeze. The view of the West Maui mountains as you drive that long stretch of highway along the ocean. The whales splashing in the water. End to end rainbows in the sky. The picture perfect sunsets. The slow pace. But most of all the aloha you feel from the people. I've always described Maui as magical. I realize that makes me sound like a hippie and I'm okay with that. There is something about being there that just feels like home.
After almost a year, my best friend decided to move on and I decided to stay. Ten years later, just as I was getting married, the crashing economy forced my husband and I to leave the island. We were fortunate enough to move to another island and made Oahu our new home. We chose a community whose name means Place of Joy. Although my heart will forever be on Maui, it was still Hawaii. Oahu turned out to be a beautiful place to begin our new life together and to start a family. We lived in a gated complex. We were surrounded by man-made lagoons. We lived on a golf course near high end resorts. The shops were just a golf cart ride away. It rarely rained. It was safe. Everyone waved as we passed each other on the road. On the surface, it was picture perfect.
But what most people don't realize is that living in Hawaii is not all sunshine and rainbows. It's still real life. You have to get up every day and go to work. You have to clean your house and pay your bills and wash your car. You have to pack school lunches. You have to go to the dentist. You have to adult just like you would anywhere else. And it's possible to have a bad day. You can catch a cold. You can get a flat tire. You can break up with your boyfriend. You can get fired. You can sit on a stunning beach with your toes in the sand, talking yourself through an anxiety attack. You can drink too much. You can run late for an appointment. You can have no idea how you're going to make your rent. You can feel all alone. You can be depressed. You can lose people you love. You can grieve.
The postcards don't show you everything. Oahu's hellacious traffic is second to L.A. for being the worst. What you might not see on vacation is the poverty and the homelessness. If they're lucky, tourists may not experience the racism, the theft and the meth epidemic. Visitors probably don't know about the outrageous cost of living. So many people struggle to make ends meet, working two and three jobs, sleeping on the streets, collecting unemployment, WIC and other government assistance. The current median home price in Honolulu is over $900K. Try to wrap your head around that for a minute.
Friends on the mainland love to tease that I have no room to complain. That my life must be perfect. I am so lucky. It must be nice, they say. Rough life, as they roll their eyes. I have no sympathy for you. Most of these comments are made in good fun. They are mostly joking about the weather or the epic scenery. But what they don't realize is how invalidating these remarks can be. It can make me feel like I am not allowed to have any negative feelings or experiences. That because the temperature is consistently 80 degrees, the only possible emotion to be felt is happiness. That because I live by the ocean, nothing bad can happen to me. It can be isolating. And if we want to play the compare and despair game, it would appear that I would win based on my tan lines. Don't get me wrong. I love the fact that I am able to take a walk outside almost any day of the year. I would despise living where it snows. There is nowhere else I would rather be than where I am. But let's be real. Shit still happens here.
An acquaintance said to me recently, about her client who was diagnosed with depression, that it didn't make sense. This person drove a Tesla for fuck sake. He dressed in nice clothes. He was successful and made a great deal of money. How could he possibly be depressed? I took a deep breath and bit my tongue. What I wanted to say - what I should have said - was that it doesn't work that way. Happiness does not come from anything outside of us. It is created by our thoughts. Not by money or cars. It doesn't come from marriages or vacations or the size of our house. It isn't created by stuff or other people. And it certainly isn't generated by where we live. It's something we get to choose. It's created by what we think about who we are and the experiences we are having. But most of us were never taught about emotions. We keep chasing after happiness, hoping it finds us someday.
When my husband died by suicide, the entire community was in shock. You could almost feel it in the air. He was fighting a battle he didn't share with anyone. He was keeping it to himself. He wasn't diagnosed with a mental illness. It was a complete surprise to all of us. Most of what people saw of him was on social media. Family vacations. Funny political memes. Company awards ceremonies. The comments and questions came pouring in on Facebook. People were in utter disbelief. They couldn't imagine how this could have happened. But he had it all. Here was this successful man with a beautiful wife, an adorable son, living in Hawaii. He drove a nice car and received accolades every year for being the top producer in his field. And he ended his life. It was unimaginable.
We can all be fighting battles, regardless of what our lives look like on the outside. We may be posting beautiful pictures on Instagram while being desperately unhappy in our real lives. Most of us are comparing ourselves to everyone else. We beat ourselves up. We expect too much. We are judging each other. It isn't serving us. What would feel more like love is a lot more grace. For ourselves and for each other.
When I lost my husband I gained a new perspective. The things I used to fixate on just don't really matter now. The perfectionism and the people pleasing? No thank you. I don't need anything to be perfect anymore. I just need my son and I to be safe. I care about taking care of our mental health and doing what makes us feel good. I don't criticize other people the way I used to. I have much more compassion now. I would like to assume that we are all just doing the best we can. You never know what someone is fighting on the inside. Maybe we can put down our assumptions of other people's lives based on what they have or whether or not they got out of bed that day. Let's just love each other and love ourselves through all of it. Everyone struggles sometimes. Even in paradise.