Yesterday morning I left Jeju Island, South Korea, my home for the last two years.
I sat in a vinyl airport seat with a notebook on my lap. The mountain rose to my back, unseen, and the ocean spread at my front, unseen. I sat wrapped in the love that I was leaving, in the textures of friendships that existed, whole, for this morning only. The moment formed a full, solid presence, time and place and feeling given a substance as breathable as the edged mist above volcanic rock. That moment and place was my life. I was leaving that life.
My airplane would soon lift off from the island’s cracked shell and move on into the unnamed world. The thought filled me with a sick dead, but I knew that I would not leave this island behind. I carried Jeju in the tips of my fingers, in the swell of hair that still remembered rising up through Jeju’s waves. In the touch of hugs now gone in substance but still pressed into my skin. In the sun that stained my face. In the feeling of love, branching vine-like beneath my skin, beating in time with my pulse.
On the tarmac I looked one last time at the sky-a high, spread sky, mindlessly elegant in its soft striations of light. I stood on the edge of the boarding ramp, on the cusp of unclaimed air, and looked into that sky, and slowly pulled it into my lungs. The air tasted warm. I rolled it slowly through my lungs. I could taste colors waiting within…bright blue of water on white sand, extravagant greens, the warm yellow of beaches. All touched through with the hot crack of asphalt, the tangible synthesis of motion and emotion, love and leaving, home and exploration.
I held the air in my lungs until it stung, until the colors had twined into my body along each edge of oxygen. Until the land and my body were without barriers. Then my lungs poured out again, the warmed air pursing past my sunburned lips and into the smoothness of island,, sky, clouds, and sea. I remembered the deep intimacy of being a part of a place, without barriers, linked by each breath. The overwhelming peace of being inseparable from the universe.
I had come to Jeju as a half-formed idea. I was leaving as a living body, real and rich. I had come following the distant sunrise; I left with the closeness of air knit into my lungs.
I looked down as the plane rose, and I suddenly saw. Saw the perfect smallness of the coastline, every dimple a mainstay of my life on the island- Gwatchi beach, the bay of Haenyeo school, the curls of the coastal road. I saw the smooth, smooth sea. Saw the strength of Halla Mountain, the starkness of Sanbangsan, the quiet distance of Biyangdo Island. I saw the condensed intricacy of the island as though it were an organism, each space as vital to the whole as the inner workings of a cell. Apartment blocks and harbors like a textbook diagram of a eukaryote: all coils and complexes, impossibly small in the eyes of the universe but vital to its own self.
It was all connected, I saw- that organism of an island, that sea, the galaxies above, the cells of my skin that grasped my pen. The oxygen, eased from trees and plankton, running through my veins. And I realized that I can never truly be alone. I carry an edge of the universe within my body, and it carries me. It carries us all, every touch and breath of the people I love so completely but will no longer see – Luke. Joely. Jordan. Eric. Ashley. Natalie. Julia. We exist beneath the same stars. We breath the same atmosphere. We wake and sleep with the same pulse of the same earth, the same sun, the same tides. We are vital to each other; we share a universe. We are linked by the touch of our feet on the earth. By glorious physicality.
Jeju can never leave me. It pulses through my memory. It shapes my present, which shapes all future presents. I could never truly leave a place that has transformed and grown me so completely. Jeju is present in my cells. It is present in the world my eyes see. It is present in the thoughts my mind spins. It is present in the people my heart holds.
And that is what I carry with me: space, life, love, spun down into the consolidation of thought and substance that I name “me.” A changed self: the most intimate gift.
I cried as the island shrank beneath the wing of the plane. They were not tears of pain, though I have cried those, and I will do so again. They were tears of love.
And that can never leave.
Carrying Jeju on my next adventure: Prague