The Island of Women
“I could dive straight down now, even if I still couldn’t go that far. If I took several shallow dives, then I could risk a deeper one.”
-Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women
I’ve been to the island of women several times. Once I went for a writers’ retreat led by Natalie Goldberg where we mindfully walked through moss and sat in a Japanese teahouse—its own island within a rock garden. That was the weekend before I moved in with a man. I’d bought a new journal for the retreat and wrote—for the first time—my fears about moving in together. Another time I went to the island with a gal pal whose friend had a midcentury house. It was the Fourth of July, but I don’t remember the fireworks. I remember admiring the clean lines of the sprawling, creaking house with my friend. I remember looking at seascape paintings and wanting to get lost in all that was seafaring and free.
Last month I went again. A friend was hosting “crone fest,” a two-day showcase of female singer- songwriters to celebrate her 30th birthday. I went for her—she alone would have been enough. But when I looked at the lineup I saw three other performers I knew. Then I remembered that my co-worker is also from the island. I invited her to join me at the showcase at the coffeehouse for a day of ladies.
On the boat over I saw one of the singer-songwriters I knew seated between her guitar and her boyfriend. Arriving at the island’s town, I saw another woman I’d met on a cruise in Mexico. I’d forgotten she lived on the island, too. So I invited her to join my co-worker and me for lunch. Just as we sat down, the waitress hugged my co-worker while they began speaking rapidly in Spanish. They’d worked together years ago on the island. After lunch I wandered off on my own to a basement antique store. I ran my hand along boucle jackets and second-hand cashmere sweaters. Who was the woman who gave these away? Who is the woman who will take them?
I went back to the coffeehouse. It was quieter now than when we’d popped in in the morning, and I finally had time to visit with the friend I’d seen on the boat. She introduced me to her partner. I’d met him before, but it had been a busier space with a louder crowd. I could tell their relationship had deepened because when I said something that made her cross her arms over her chest in an X and affirm “That’s so real,” her partner looked at her with pure love. This is a women’s place, and he a visitor to her island.
I’ve been going to the island of women my whole life. Women’s writing groups. Yoga and sound bath retreats. Sleepovers and road trips. A “No Boys Allowed” party I hosted at 17 where a friend recited “Phenomenal Women” to 20 teen girls from different cliques. It has always been natural for me to float to the island of women. It has always been natural to trust them more than men—to think that this trust is somehow better, or deeper. But is it?
I will go to another island of women next week. Plantation Island is one of the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji. It is less than one square mile. A dot in the Pacific. That’s also what they said about Howland Island when Amelia Earhart chose it to refuel on her 1937 around-the-world flight. She missed it. Or so they say… maybe she made it there, or somewhere, and was hiding out. Maybe she needed a little peace from the press and her famous publisher husband, and maybe even her women friends. My trip is a women’s retreat hosted by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love.” Its motto: "Celebrating that we don't have to be good girls to be good people." Um, I guess so? Each day offers workshops led by ladies with descriptors like “the period coach” and “a cross between Bette Midler and Mary Poppins.” Topics include uncovering how your leadership, happiness and self-mastery are directly linked to your ovaries, uterus, cervix and vagina (why not?); running injury free (yes, please!); face reading, chakra cleansing, sacred sounds, discovering the transformational power of color, and making peace with your past. I’ll take one of everything!
I’m also very aware that any time you put only ladies together, things can get a little… intense. And when you put over 200 of them together on a one mile island, well, I may need to make friends with a Fijian busboy. I love travelling with women. But I usually describe these trips as “powerful.” My travels that have been the most fun have always included men. So as good as I am with the ladies and as much as I love girls’ nights, boys and girls really do need each other.
Go to your island when you need to. Dance in the jungles with your women. Write poetry on the rocks. Get your feet in the sand and wade out to sea. Look for your man on the mainland, if you like. And when you return to him, if you return to him, know that even then you are still an island. Because—and I don’t mean this to be depressing—aren't we always sort of alone? We are when we’re looking for a partner. We are when we're in a relationship wondering if he's the one. We are even when the siren call of romance pulls us from sea to shore. Because for romance or women friends, we will always, always have to come up for air.
I recently read “the Island of Women,” a novel about the women divers (haenyeo) of South Korea’s Jeju Island. When I started reading it I thought “Oh good. A book about the ladies. The power of women friendships. The strength we have in plunging into the deep, without the need for a man.” And this wonderful book is that. But it also watches female friendships drift apart, sink, and resurface. And it tells of men who love their women enough to be their romance and their friend. Men who let you float away, dive deep, and come back to your shore.
“You’re learning where you are in space. You need always to be aware of where you are in relation to the boat, the shore… You’re learning about tides, currents, and surges, and about the influence of the moon on the sea and on your body. It’s most important that you always be mindful of where you are in that moment when your lungs begin to crave breath.”
-Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women
We are always learning where we are. We stay on the mainland for a while, see how it feels. We go to our island. We stay until we need to dive. And then we dive until we know we can’t be underwater forever. We dive until it’s time to breathe.