• #9 - Stephanie Danler

    Stephanie Danler


    March, 17, 2020

    Kauai, Hawaii

    Everything you’ve heard about Hanalei Bay on the north shore of Kauai is true. On clear nights, moonlight floats on the bay, and a persistent, balmy breeze of plumeria blossoms makes the foliage quiver. The greens are unreal, a spectrum of shades that indicate fertility and wealth. The nearest traffic light is twenty miles away from this town. It is also one of the—if not, the—wettest places on earth. It rains, off and on, most days here. Today we’re in a storm, with flash flood warnings, that's estimated to last the next three days.

      Is this true, I’m asking locals. Three full days of rain?

      Everyone says not to look at my weather app. Instead they look at the sky and say, Who knows? As I drive into town for fruit and supplies for our condo, traffic is backed up. I ask the girl running the register at the market what’s going on. She tells me that the bridge is underwater. The one connecting Hanalei to the rest of the island. That’s why none of the businesses are open, because the employees can’t get into town. Not a single restaurant in Hanalei is serving food.

      And these cars, she said, meaning the traffic, they might as well park. They’ll have to wait until the river goes down.

      How long is that? I ask. I’m doing apocalypse arithmetic in my head: How many diapers do we have? How much food in our tiny fridge?

      Could be hours, she says. Could be days. The elementary school will open up as a shelter for people who get stranded. I note that it seems unsafe, a bunch of tourists in a crowded shelter space, given the current global pandemic. She shrugs and rings up my papayas. I ask her if her market can receive deliveries while the bridge is out. She shakes her head. But if you live around here, you keep pretty stocked up on supplies. We’re used to it.

      We left for this vacation right before the world burned down. We left before anyone I knew had canceled a trip, though a few people were considering it. Before the words “social distancing,” “self-quarantine,” and “flattening the curve” were printed in every major news outlet. We left after consulting our doctors: my primary care physician, my midwife, and my son’s pediatrician, all three of whom said to wipe down the plane with disinfectant and enjoy my trip. It’s our last trip as a family of three. Last trip before my book comes out and I was supposed to tour for a month. Last trip before I give birth to a daughter. The pregnancy was a surprise. I didn’t feel ready. But I thought one last trip would make me ready. Or more ready.

      Mostly I’ve been dreaming about death. I’ve done some work recently with Jan Birchfield, a psychoanalyst and spiritual teacher who works out of Taos, New Mexico. It’s shaken me up. She introduced the idea that we are living in what the Hindus call the Kali Yuga, an era of a destruction. It will be followed by the Satya Yuga, a time of truth, but none of us will be alive to see that transition. This makes sense to me. We have two default reactions to this time: fear or denial. We are scared of dying. That’s natural. The most important thing, Jan says, is not to judge the fear, but to hold it in a cradle of compassion. There is a third way to react to all this destruction: acceptance. This doesn’t mean we don’t act, but it does invite—what she calls—a softening toward death. This seems impossible to me. A virus, she writes, is one of the quickest and most subtle changes to consciousness.

      I want to soften toward death.

      As I write, there’s lightning over the bay, and I’m waiting for the river to recede and for the bridge to be passable, and I’m waiting for Delta to call me back. I’ve been calling for three days to see if we can get an earlier flight home. I can’t get through. Every single day of this trip a friend has texted me a copy-and-pasted text message from another friend who has a friend/partner/friend-of-the-partner who is in touch with the CDC/WHO/Top Airline Officials/Pentagon and swears that they are going to close the airports. People reach out, every single day, and advise me to come home. A surprising number have advised me to stay as long as possible. Los Angeles seems to be falling apart. My loved ones, my peers, we are all so scared. Everyone on social media was born knowing what to do in a pandemic. I, myself, do not know what to do. As the tenor of the news changed, as the gravity of this situation deepened, I found I couldn’t sleep. Had I put my family at risk, others at risk, are we thoughtless and reckless people, will we be trapped here, are we safer in dense, germ-ridden Los Angeles, pacing our eight hundred square foot house with a toddler, or are we safer on this island, cooking all our own food, isolated in nature, where my son, Julian, collects pieces of coral in a bucket? Underneath all of that, the one question, the only one any human can be thinking right now: Are we safe?

      No. We are not safe.

      When Julian was born there was a break in me, so forceful I cried every day for months. I had never been so vulnerable to someone in my life and the feeling was horrible. My love for him left me no defenses. He made me helpless. He took my ideas of control, freedom, strength, and destroyed them. Fifteen months later, I am still walking a line between being mute with fear and mute with awe. There will be so much to remember from this time. My unborn daughter starting to kick strongly. Gripping my phone for updates at all hours of the day. Even on pristine beaches where I didn’t have service, I couldn’t let it go. Torturing myself and my husband by theorizing, projecting, making and unmaking decisions, moving my son into bed with us though I know it means no one sleeps. The sunrises, the colors, the sound of a deluge, exotic and threatening. Will this look, in retrospect, like a mistake, or luck? Mostly though, there is Julian, who just learned to walk, stomping through the sand toward the ocean, gasping and laughing, his hands flapping high next to his head, like some demented, unafraid bird.

    Sending love,


    Stephanie Danler is a novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter. She is the author of Sweetbitter and Stray. She is based in Los Angeles and currently at work on a novel.

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