Isle of the Blessed

July 7, 2021 / Karen Xie

Where the greatest of souls, virtuous three times on either side of death,  resist the urge to die again.

I uncovered a diary entry the other day. Pressed between middle school woes, yellowing canvas, and burning crushes, this lavender ink read —

“I wish I was more outgoing. I wish I knew what to say and when to say it. And then, I wish I would just say it.” — August, 2012

I laughed a bit when I read this, as we all do when confronted with our most frivolous of demons. But then we stop laughing. For they are the sharpened ones that etch lifetimes into our souls. Careful what you wish for, Karen.

First, there was Life.

We are all born with a name on our lips. Salty sound imitates letter shapes, and we sing of power, kindness, bravery, and fear. The cord is snipped — doctor plays Apotros, and Fate as a triad weave the final chord.

I was born red and colic-ridden, with a permanent wail in place of song. On nostalgic summer evenings, my mother likes to draw up her brows and regale us with the Herculean tales of my impossibly tearful infancy.

“Some nights, Baba would drive for hours, your carrier in the back seat, until you were finally hushed by radio static. That’s why he has insomnia now.”

Sorry, Baba.

“Some nights, we’d just put you on the rumbling laundry machine and pray for a miracle.”

On my 20th birthday, we sat at the dinner table and listened as she repainted these stories, washing the room golden with the motherly sentiment that accompanies impending change.

“You would cry if others tried to talk to you, even look at you. You’d scream at daycare doorsteps, in dance class corners, begging us not to leave. Then, you’d cry until we returned.”

She surveyed me with a wistful sigh, as if seeing a different person altogether. I just grinned toothily. “And look at me now, Mama.” I thought of a year prior, when I had sauntered into dance class, jabbering about my day’s nothingness to anyone nearby, and a friend looked at me and said, “Karen, you’re an extrovert, aren’t you?”

Look at me now. An extrovert! Welcome to my Elysium, Mama. Let me tell you how I made it.

Next, the Hero’s Journey.

The seventh grade gymnasium reeks of Axe and anxiety (as do all heroes at the prelude of their quest.) My volleyball team took over one fall afternoon, warming up while Van Morrison tinted the windows with island escape. I set the ball to myself and fancied I was that Brown-Eyed Girl — bold enough to be seen, remembered, and immortalized.

That same afternoon, a teammate pulled back her eyes in imitation of me, forgetting I stood right next to her.

A couple of gasps upon realization. “OMG, sorry Karen…you know I love you!”

A tilt of the head. “What?”

I pretended like I didn’t see. Like my entire body hadn’t seared red-hot, like I hadn’t just been airily mocked by someone I was supposed to trust. Middle school hierarchy is but a mirage, yet I played my part dutifully. Later that day, I scratched lavender lament into that diary, stood in my kitchen, and screamed. The mirage shattered to smoke, and in the distance, Charon’s ferry — arriving to usher my past across the River Styx.

Do you remember when we used to sing? No, Van Morrison, I used to cry. But not anymore.

Then, there was Death.

Well, parts of me died. I took a chisel to my shell over the course of many moons and help rolled in, sure as spring tides.

I found Chirons, Athenas to my Telemachus — those who were loud as a matter of principle and valued love, friendship, identity over the chimerical status quo. They listened as I found written word’s power, wrote my first concertos, and paved amphitheaters for their stories and sounds. In time, my silence cracked open like a bad habit and washed out to sea. Then, I dove into stormy waters to chase it all away.

I jet off to camps and callings around the world, alone, but always returned a few friends richer and a couple inches braver. I fully saturated the spaces and courts I once tiptoed around — and that girl who’d committed the base offense in that Axe-soaked gymnasium? She would call me team captain in two years’ time.

But reinvention comes at a cost. Myths have it that Charon requires all passengers to deliver a golden drachma, placed under-tongue. So I slipped this coin where fear once hid, and it tasted of adrenaline — acidic, impulsive, exhilarating. I could say anything, anytime.

But what I gained in voice, I sacrificed in unconditional kindness, trademarked caution — the flipside of the coin, pieces lost in the changing of tides. I now spoke without thought, lashed out for little reason. My words gained an edge and cut unintentionally. Sorry, Baba. Sorry, Mama. But what could they do? I had things to say, and for once, I needed people to listen.

Every reinvention marks the death of an old self, old skin. And in this death, I was a hero.

All aboard.

Finally, there is Paradise.

Here’s the thing — when that dance friend cast me into paradise with the mere word “extrovert,” finally crossing off that godforsaken diary wish, I felt no satisfaction.

Sitting in Elysium, where first-time heroes are free from toil, I could’ve donned a flowered crown, buried my diary in the sand, and prepared for eternal happiness. But on the way, we’d passed the Isle of the Blessed — a brilliant white flash, home to heroes who forgo easy paradise and choose to be reborn. Myths have it that should they do it right thrice, they achieve ultimate paradise.

Maybe if I’d read further, I’d have realized one death wouldn’t be enough. I was searching for something much more hopeless than happiness — fulfillment. In the calm winds of Elysium, I crave metallic adrenaline again.

Do you remember when we used to sing?

Trade my crown for a coin; I want back in.

But what is Paradise?

Three lives later, and I’ve done it — rewritten concertos into symphonies, conquered demons, frivolous and grave. Welcome to the Isle of the Blessed.

Here I sit, among the brilliance I once passed with terrible yearning, and suddenly, my soul itches from disuse. Maybe if I’d read further, I’d have realized no amount of deaths would ever be enough.

We are all reborn with a name on our lips, and mine looks like Sisyphus.

When I turned 20, I saw the decade as an uphill climb. Roll my flaws into a boulder, and I’ll push towards whatever illusion glimmers above. I’ll shove introversion to the peak and think, “This is it. This is the one.” But gravity is simple science: the boulder thunders back down, and only as I stand at the top do I realize I’ll never be enough to keep it there.

I’m writing this in a room in England — another destination I’ve jetset to alone, another snipped chord to weave into triumph — and just last night, scolded myself over an awkward conversation with new roommates. Forget that ice-breaking takes time, that being here is a miracle, in and of itself — tomorrow, get the boulder to stay.

The heroes on the isle are restless — can't you feel it? It’s simple science: those who make it here are the ones who will never be satisfied with it in the end. Me, Sisyphus, the blessed, and the damned — we’re all the same. What is Paradise but Purgatory for the insatiable?

Here I sit, among sands white as virtue, caged by yet another mirage, and I watch as that boulder comes rolling to a stop.

I won’t do it. I won’t.

The ghost of a melody floats by — Do you remember when…?

Well, maybe one more time. ■

by: Karen Xie

layout: Chiara Boye

photographer: Kim Pagtama

stylists: Katherine Huang & Vivian Yu

hmua: Michelle Adebisi

models: Rodrigo Colunga & Daniel Lopez

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