Island of Madness

“A woman carries her inner life–lugs it around or holds it in like fumes that both poison and bless her–while nourishing another’s inner life, many others actually, while never revealing too much madness, or, possibly, never revealing where she stores it: her island of lost mind. Every woman has one. And every woman grins when the question is asked, “what three items would you bring to a desert island?” Because every woman’s been, by this time, half living there.” 

This passage is from a book called Too Much and Not the Mood, by Durga Chew-Bose. I read it first on a Chicago bus on my way to work when I worked at the marketing agency sewing canvas bags. This is from the first essay in the book, which is altogether captivating. This passage grabbed me enough to make me stop reading and pull out my phone right away on the bus to copy it down into my notes app, and then copy and paste and send it swiftly to Jessie, who responded with something like, “YES.”

The island of lost mind. I’ve taken recently to streamlining it to “island of madness,” which is the same but different. I must have misremembered the phrase at some point and let the misremembered version stick. Or I let the “never revealing too much madness” seep in. At any rate, I understood exactly what the author meant. You’ll find me there, on my island of lost mind, of madness, at least half the time. I’m there right now, hormonal me, giant full moon above and menstruating and not afraid to tell you that, here today, because why not since we are all here together talking about my secret island — not so secret anymore or probably ever. It’s always strange when, every four weeks, I have to write an essay on a Sunday night that is right in the midst of a huge hormonal upswing, something vastly out of my control, that is so arresting for my whole body as well as my mind and soul that it sends me packing, riding a dinghy out to the island, relieved once I’ve gotten there where it’s warm and I can stretch out for a bit in the quiet and not be asked any questions except for the ones that lap at the shore like waves without my being able to stop them. Every four weeks I spend my whole Sunday feeling like I have nothing to write about, because I don’t, and then I show up to write and I write something that feels to me like it is so deliciously mad that I have to just impulsively send it out into the ocean like a message in a bottle. I am so delighted in those moments to be so utterly alone on the island in myself. Delighted and bewildered — fully aware that the dinghy won’t come back to pick me up again until the captain brings it back. Good thing I brought snacks: corn flakes.

I think I probably reveal my madness — but I think it is true that I keep it in a remote part of me. The island. I send postcards, but I never invite anyone to join me there, not even Isaiah, though sometimes it seems like he swoops over in a low-flying plane, perhaps to investigate or maybe even to scoop me up. My inner life is mine. I own it. It is precious to me, warm heat at the center, sometimes heavy and sore. On my island, I curl up in my inner life, let it unfold around me. I slip my arms into it, a coat, and walk around. I dance, I twirl, I kick around the sand. I swim for hours, remembering. It beats quicker and harder than my heart. It’s a tremulous and terrible thing, often kept sort of locked up for safe keeping, kept at the center of the crystal castle where God is also, hard to get to, remote. Except when I’m on the island, which is remote too, so all is well. All of me, remote at once. Hard to get to. Far away. Apt to jump up and down or snap or shout or close my eyes and breathe deep.

Hello! Hello from my island! The weather is sometimes stormy and sometimes clear, and I am fine with either since I have fantastic shelters I have built, full of quilts, piles and piles of them, the ones I make in my mind.

How’s the weather where you are?

I’ve been sewing all day, nautical signal flags. I’m tired — exhausted — and I wish I had another whole weekend in which to sleep, mostly, and read and think and spend a while longer on my island. The dinghy is coming back for me, I know it. That’s what Mondays are all about, the long dinghy ride back to wherever. You don’t get to stay on your island when you have to do such pedestrian tasks as going to work or talking to people who expect you to act normal. Sometimes I manage to talk to people while I’m on my island, which I’m sure is stranger for them than for me. For me, it feels like playing telephone, the kind with a tin can pressed to my ear and someone far away on the other end, sort of fantastically garbled. For them, it must feel like talking to someone either very distracted or very boring. I am sure I am both when I am on my island of madness. It’s awkward when I’m on my island and also in public, but I try to handle it gracefully. I keep quiet and watchful, try not to make any waves like the ones I stand in. I make it work, I come back slow, summon the dinghy, sail home without a fuss. Or stubbornly dig my heels into the sand, tie myself to a tree. I can’t really plan ahead or expect what I will do, it all unfolds so smoothly, gut-forward, propelling the fan-boat through the everglades toward the island or back home again.

I can do what I have to do. I can set my inner life aside for a while — lug it around and hold it in, and goodness knows let it bless me. I can leave it on the island, safe, till I come back again, get lost in the jungle, talk on the telephone with my sister and try to tell her what I know, make something to eat, slip on my inner life, silk lining slipping across my skin. Pure silk, dyed with indigo and madder root, painted with root systems and petals.

Hello from my island of madness! This via airmail, carried to you by a bird with much plumage. I’ve done so many things here, thought so many thoughts that I may never tell you about, or maybe I will. I’m productive on my island, and I dream the sorts of dreams that take years to unfold, I worry the sorts of worries that have flaky layers like a croissant, I imagine what I would wear to x, y, z and then wear it a while on the island, feeling so very beautiful. I carry every sort of writing utensil and coloring marker in my bag while I tromp and dance, stopping to mark something down for later. I shout to and at Isaiah in his low-flying plane, shaking my fists and then doing funny dances, singing songs that he might like. I catapult up a piece of toast with jam for him to eat if he wants. He catches it in his fist out the window. I throw a fit, I weep a while, I take long showers where I stand perfectly still. I work, hard. I close my eyes. I smile.

Hello from my island of madness. Thank you for reading what I write. I write a lot on the island, it’s where I keep most of my thoughts, the real ones anyway. Hello. Hello. Do you see me waving my arms!? That tiny speck, it’s me! Hello! I’ll be back soon, don’t worry too much.

Here’s to all the half-crazy women. I know how to live on the island, and by now I have learned, too, how to come back.

{P.S. If you’d like to order a set of hand-made-by-me nautical signal flags like the ones so masterfully spoken of in this essay by Merrit Tierce, and like I wrote about before and have been talking about nonstop pretty much ever since, send me an email ASAP at to ensure pre-Christmas delivery. I’m making them as fast as I can because I want folks to be able to own them and use them and love them like I love them. Signal flags to say how it is from your island to someone else’s, two ships in the night. Trying to say what we mean with what little we have, some flags, our storm-tossed bodies, our hands. When you email me, I’ll send you back a long list of fantastic phrases like “All well,” or “I will carry a light,” or “Weather is good,” or “The whole body is affected,” and you can choose what phrase-set of flags you’d like to wave. Only $20-$30 per set. I’ll be making them after Christmas as well, so no hurry if you’d like some flags for yourself. No better way to communicate how it is on the island today, how far away it feels from everything else, how much you want to say with so few ways to say it. It’s all connected, ourselves and our strange journeys within our own selves and our strange journeys to and away from each other.  Email me and I’ll come back from my island and I can make you some flags and we can talk all about it. “I am dazzled by your searchlight!”}

Leave a Reply