December 29, 2011

A fantasy dispelled

MY CHRISTMAS PRESENT has brought me back to my senses. Like many amateur sailors, I have dreamed for most of my life about living on a desert island — an uninhabited tropical atoll in the South Pacific, with softly rustling palm trees fringing a white powder beach lapped by warm turquoise wavelets.
My present was a book called An lsland to Oneself, written by Tom Neale, a New Zealander who stopped dreaming a dream he'd had for 30 years, and finally acted it out.  I had heard of Tom, of course. His name comes up frequently on the cruising grapevine, but I had never read his book.

In 1952, when he was 50, Tom settled on tiny Anchorage Island, in the remote Suvarov Atoll of the northern Cook Islands. It was absolutely the island of his dreams. His book describes how he caught fish and crayfish with little effort. Coconuts grew in profusion. He established a garden where vegetables flourished so well that he got three crops a year.

Once in a blue moon a small yacht would call, and he'd spend a couple of days showing off his island and the improvements he had made.  It must have looked and sounded idyllic to his visitors.
 But no matter how much he loved his island and his way of life, you get the feeling that something was missing from his little paradise, or, rather, that something was incomplete.  It wasn't that he didn't know the physical risks he was taking.  He accepted them quite philosophically, and in fact he nearly died from a back injury.  By some miracle, two American men sailed into the lagoon on a yacht and found him immobilized in bed, unable to move, even to sit up to eat or drink. He had been there four days. They fed him, massaged him, and nursed him back to health.

He was finally driven off his island when a group of pearl fishers moved in and spoiled his solitude.  He went back later, though, and spent most of his senior years there until he was forced to make a final move because of cancer.

What comes across very forcibly is that this idea of living on an uninhabited island is fantasy, nothing more. It's true that some people will be able to live out a fantasy far longer than others, but in the end, it seems to me, human beings need change. Even paradise becomes boring if you have  no contrast, nothing to which to compare it.  Tom Neale actually experienced the pipe dream that so many of us fantasized about for so many years.  But in the end his book has done me the favor of  demonstrating that, as a long-term experience,  this desert island business is simply impractical. It will bother me no more.  A visit would be wonderful. Two weeks, even two months, knowing that there would be a change at the end of that time, but certainly not a lifetime.

I have sat under the rustling palms on a gorgeous deserted beach on a tropical island called Fernando de Noronha, but my time there was limited because I was on my way to greater adventures.  Now, in place of a fantasy, I have concrete memories of that limited episode. Those memories are enough to keep me warm in the cold wet winter of the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to Tom Neale,  I no longer need the Tom Neale dream.

Today's Thought
There is a need to find and sing our own song, to stretch our limbs and shake them in a dance so wild that nothing can roost there, that stirs the yearning for solitary voyage.
— Barbara Lazear Ascher, Playing after Dark

Two homeless men helped a limping nun across the street.
"What happened to your leg?" asked one.
"I twisted my ankle in the bath," said the nun.
After she'd gone, one man asked:  "What's a bath, then?"
"Don't ask me," said the other. "I'm not a Catholic."

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EP said...

Thanks for the insight, John. We dreamers need to bring this into our conscious minds every so often.

Somewhere deep down we must already know this; our fear of never achieving our dream is surpassed by our greater fear of achieving it, for then what? It seems like the fullest lives are led by those who go, but keep dreaming new dreams.

Kevin H said...

Well said John and EP. I visited Suwarrow and have the greatest respect for Tom in living out his dream. What struck me most there is the littleness of the place and the realisation that it could soon become a prison. On your own yacht you can leave any time, but to be stuck there when the "Curse of the Intellect" starts demanding more stimulation than fish and coconuts provides would quickly turn the dream into the proverbial nightmare.

John Vigor said...

Kevin, thanks for that perceptive insight. You expressed a feeling I couldn't put into words.
And as EP points out, we sometimes have a fear of achieving our dreams -- for what then?
As Robert Louis Stevenson so wisely said: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive."

John V.