The Light Man


Muschu Island, Papua New Guinea – September 1995

It’s okay to wander off on your own here. The pandemonium of the mainland is nonexistent. So I do. Down the beach, away from Maya and Phil, who are lost in word communion. A tree branch hangs out over the water, as welcoming as the crook of a protective arm. I shimmy up its length, curl up on my side, and peer into the rising tide. A soft breeze blows. The branch sways so gently. I surrender to its comforting embrace. Cradle of daydreams.


It’s not how long someone is in your life, but how profoundly their light illuminates. Out of the maelstrom of color and sound, the mass of tribes at the Goroka Show, Phil materialized. Camera in hand. He drifted towards us, his steps as ethereal as a phantom’s. Maya and I laughed when he asked if we were part of the group of expat high school students. Maya was twenty-one, and I was twenty-six. Both of us would turn one year older in PNG, in just a couple of days. If all went well. He threw his head back and laughed. There is no place like PNG.

Where are you from?


Me, too. Which part?


I gasped. No way! I grew up in Auburn, but my family lives in Midland. I spent as much time as possible there when I was growing up.

I don’t believe you.

The Tridge, the Boulevard Lounge, Dow Gardens. My first job was at the Sweet Onion.

Woah. I’ve never met anyone from Midland outside of Midland.

Me, neither.

Phil was a biologist who was conducting research on elephantiasis in a village in the Sepik region.

I giggled at yet another synchronicity. We’re going to the Upper Sepik after this, after we drive back to Madang.

You drove that highway? Are you insane? He scribbled his phone number on a piece of paper. You’re staying at Ralf’s in Wewak, right? Ask Ralf to call me when you get there and I’ll come into town. And be careful driving back to Madang! He shook his head and vanished into the crowd again.


The island chief and his wife bring us a dinner of fish and sweet potatoes. Phil chats with the chief in Pidgin for a few moments and then the couple disappears into the jungle again. The village is on the other side of the island. Malaria has struck. A woman is dying. She is taking fansidar, a nasty drug. Chloroquine rarely works anymore. The disease has mutated. Phil’s had malaria twice. I walk to the edge of the veranda and look towards the wall of green. A hush has fallen. The empty space before the final gasp.

After sunset, we hang a mosquito net over a corner of the veranda and settle ourselves in. Bathe in the glow of a single lantern. Phil steps into his room, and reappears with his guitar and a joint. The joint is passed around, sucked into oblivion. Phil strums the guitar, plays a few chords. The darkness gathers around the mosquito net. In the distance, over the sea, a single point of radiance.

Phil speaks. A night fisherman. They believe in UFOs here. They say it’s the Light Man. I believe in werewolves and vampires. He launches into a tale about his travels in the Carpathian Mountains of Poland. A village where he was the only foreigner. Everyone watched him with feral eyes.

I really want to visit Poland. I still have family in those very mountains.

He bows his head. Of course.

Random chords become rhythm. He plays a song that I know. One from my parents’ generation.

I love Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Do you know Helplessly Hoping?

Yes. Sing it with me, Julie.

I stiffen. I’ve never sung in front of people. My voice is terrible. I shake my head.

C’mon. Sing with me.

A long exhalation. My fragile little self dissipates. No one is going to hurt me here. Words pour out. Immaculate. My heart breaks free and soars. He enters the harmony. Our voices intertwine, transmit deep into the shadows. I venture into dangerous lands, but cower at the thought of exposing my spirit to anyone. It’s only love. It won’t kill me to open up to it.

The last chords of the song resonate into the night. Phil’s eyes blaze. You are one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met.


9-23-95 (from my journal, written sometime during that evening)
This is my paradise. I’m surrounded by palms, stars, and sand. I am restless in my peace. I am empty in my joy. And right now, I’m the freest I have ever been. Yet I’m stifled. This island is the perfect ending. I look like a grungy dork and I feel beautiful. I am tired and I feel alive. My ass is kicked and I’m victorious. Gentle storm in my soul. Rocky sand between my toes. Phil is the universe at this semi-microcosmic level. He is a gift to us. Saying yes, wonderful girls, I hear you.

Remnants of storm. My dreams are swept away with the waves. A savage itch on my backside. A quick look reveals a dense constellation of mosquito bites across both buttocks. I parade this masterpiece in front of Maya and Phil. Their eyes widen.

Phil reaches into his backpack and hands me a tiny bottle of Chloroquine. You must have slept too close to the net. They will bite through it. If you feel a fever at night, take these immediately and get to a doctor.

Okay, I say. But I know I won’t get sick. Never before have I felt so clean. Oh, but the itch.

We consume a breakfast of rolls and Nescafe. I grip the coffee cup to keep from scratching. Maya and Phil enter into conversation. I’m not ready for words. I’ve got to go.

Sunbeam smiles in reply. Then go, Julie.

As I approach the beach, I hear, Hey! I turn around. Phil has aimed his camera my way. Stick your butt in the sea. The salt water will help the itch. I burst into laughter and dash away,  across the storm-swollen sand and into the waves.


**Not long after our departure, Phil sent us a long, poetic letter written in his ornate script. Dispatches from his hut in the jungle. From Papua New Guinea to Guam. We each received a personalized mixtape of music and spoken word. Hidden messages to be deciphered within. He had a lot of time on his hands between drawing blood and scrutinizing scrota. In the days before email and social media, such thoughtfulness was more common, but even so, I was deeply touched. He had made the effort to uncover my essence. Maya kept the letter.

We all moved back to America a few months later. Different cities and new lives. I spoke to Phil a couple of times on the phone. He was overjoyed with his new life in San Francisco. He was a big fan of the internet. I had just bought my first computer. Do you know that you even can look people up? He told me. Find people you’ve lost touch with. The last time I heard from him, in the form of a letter, he announced that he was getting married. I smiled to myself as I read it. May you be happy forever, my friend. As with all of my male friends who get married, I sent him a note of congratulations and then let him go. People have a tendency to drift away when they enter a relationship and very few spouses have the ability to comprehend platonic friendships with the opposite sex.

Every once in a while, I search for him online. Just to see how he’s doing. He has an original last name, so it shouldn’t be difficult. He has not turned up. It is an ominous absence. I’ve been able to track down almost everyone I’ve searched for. The ones I haven’t been able to find, I later learn that they’ve passed on.

Wherever you are, Light Man, may you shine forever.

54 thoughts on “The Light Man

  1. Lovely piece Julie – I can completely believe in the Light Man, he is out there somewhere. This struck a chord too – I am covered in bites – the less lethal Spanish variety. I can sit down ok though 🙂

  2. There are ‘meant to be’ moments!!! They form a part of who we are. My professor/mentor once told me, that is takes only one conversation to change the course of your journey. Glad to see you are on Instagram!!!

    • ‘Meant to be’ moments, messages from somewhere. These special people materialize out of the masses and give hope. Speaking of Instagram and masses, I’m pleased to discover that there is depth amid the sea of selfies.

      • I agree!!! A few weeks ago I googled the question: how many selfies are taken per day!!! The answer that came was: 93 million worldwide!! I have a selfie stick – still haven’t figured out how to use it! It would help if I took it out of the packaging! 😀😀😀

  3. Really nice one. There are so many beautiful souls we meet and then can’t find again but, in a way, to me, there’s a positive in that, a reminder there are genuine and good ones all around out there, a counterweight to my cynicism.

  4. I’ve found some of my Phils, not others. Until now, I did not imagine calamity, but now I wonder. As always, you’ve taken us back to a time and place with you, where some things sound so familiar and others are enjoyed vicariously. I always enjoy the way you weave your story and this time, the CSN track also transported me – albeit to a place MUCH less interesting than PNG!!

    • Some people just aren’t into the internet, so it’s not necessarily a sign of doom if you can’t find them. Especially with women, who sometimes change their names if they get married….I did. Are you in contact with your Phils? I communicate regularly with a couple of mine, but I haven’t reached out to others. I kind of like to leave it up to fate.

      • My approach is identical! Yes, I communicate with a few and it’s great. Others absolutely should stay hidden and unavailable! A few …? … the mystery is good.

  5. I don’t understand spouses – or partners – who don’t endorse their partner maintaining friendships with the opposite friends. All too often I’ve seen this happening – or, worse, I’ve seen friends disappear from our company because of new girlfriends, or boyfriends. I don’t understand how is it possible for people to have so little faith in those they love.

    Moaning aside, thanks for this treat. Today I read two beautiful piece: one, heartbreaking, was The Falling Man on Esquire. The other, ethereal and dreamy, was yours. Thank you.

    • I don’t understand it, either. I’m not like that – one of my best friends is my husband’s ex-girlfriend and he has female friends. He is totally okay with me having male friends, too. Sometimes it’s an insecure partner, but other times it’s the friend’s own choice – they get totally consumed by the relationship. This has happened so many times with friends, I’ve lost count. Then if they break up, they suddenly remember you.

      Anyway…thanks, Fabrizio, for the kind compliments.

  6. I’m assuming you escaped getting malaria. Amazing how kindred souls come into our lives and then disappear. I hope Phil is still out there, perhaps just avoiding social media and the like. Perhaps searching for elephantiasis and his name together may help.

    • Nope, no malaria. 😀 Unless Phil completely changed, I’m sure he’d be on social media. He was the one who got me started on the internet, way back in the early days. I’ve already thought of that word combination (and others) for a search, and absolutely nothing came back.

  7. What an incredible read ~ the magic of travel, of finding soulmates along its roads and then, as you mention at the beginning of this great piece ~ you softly settle into the “Cradle of daydreams.” What a deep and meaningful experience you had in PNG, and a friendship that will last forever.

  8. I loved this piece, Julie– in particular the moment when Phil asked you to sing. How we sometimes all of a sudden find ourselves in these moments where we are awkwardly but brilliantly illuminated. But it also has this element of choice to it. We have to push off the shore and let the stream carry us along. Your writing has a way of capturing these universal experiences that we each know and experience along the fringes of our normalcy. We’re all Light Men at times I think– echoes of the most humbling and beautiful and delightfully human moments we’ve ever experienced.


    • Hi Michael. It seems like some people morph into Light Men/Women when it’s the right time. I would like to think I’ve been that way for someone, but it’s not something that can be forced. Thank you, as always, for shining a different light on the words.

  9. Such a tender story , dear Julie . I see you there , right there in tree branch arms . ( you are such a beautiful writer and spirit ) . Naturally , I love the Michigan connection , your journal entry and exchanges of hidden messages are touchingly romantic and felt in my own heart . I have been missing being here on WordPress , missing your site so wondrous ….love , megxxx

  10. Enjoyed reading, the pictures were amazing. I still cannot believe about the place. The pictures are so similar of that “Kerala”, a place in India which is my native too. Still confused. The house looks the same. The old construction the garden. the roof. Still with confusion I want to ask is it Muschu Island, Papua New Guinea – September 1995

  11. There are days when these kinds of memories pop up unbidden, as you so aptly write in this post. “Whatever happened to so-and-so,” I think. Part of the magic of the initial relationship is in not knowing anymore afterwards. Welcome to the craziness of Instagram. It’s nice to have another kindred spirit there.

    • After traveling and moving around for so many years, I’ve met so many people. Many of them have completely slipped to the back of my mind. Before the internet, we had no choice but to wonder whatever happened. Now you can “find” almost anyone online. But it’s difficult to reach out. Do they remember? Will they welcome it? What purpose will it serve? I’ve only done so a couple of times, but I’m glad I did. Instagram…I really wasn’t sure, but it’s a relief to find people of depth, such as yourself, there.

  12. A magnificent post Julie. Those of us who are fortunate meet one Light man in our lives.
    Some even more fortunate have traveled to the Sepik river. 🙂 (I used to dream of that in the late sixties).
    You have spanned the globe (different time-space areas than mine). Not many people I know have had such a curiosity. I don’t know what other travelers seek. I think I mentioned once that I realized only very recently that for me it was Beauty. Not sure I’ve found it. 🙂 But it seems to me you have found… something close to whatever you were looking for? 🙂
    (Do you know know what it is/was?)
    A bientôt mon amie.
    (I’ve read some of your other New Guinea posts, too)

    • Chèr Brian – Different time-space, same realm. We travel together. Curiosity is a great gift, but sometimes a curse, especially when you realize that there are very, very few people to share it with. I’ve become comfortable with the existential loneliness that this realization brings. It is how this journey must be. What do other travelers seek? This is something I’ve wondered recently. It seems, these days, that so many are desperate to be seen, to be special. So little true introspection going on, so little curiosity.

      Yes. I’ve found what I was looking for, all over this mysterious, magnificent planet: myself. That which you seek is so often already within. Just like your Beauty, Brian. 🌟

      • Absolument Julie. We are alone, with brief moments of “touching” other souls. 🙂 “To be seen” is a very accurate definition of today’s selfie-stick travelers. And I had this feeling that you were looking for yourself. Glad you found yourself, many people lose themselves in the quest. 🙂 And the Beauty thing, you know where I realized that: standing on the pont de l’archevéché, near Notre-Dame, looking at the “glauques” waters of the Seine, I suddenly understood that I had been looking for beauty all over the world, when I had it right there, at my feet, in the murky waters of the Seine. 😉 I had myself a silent laugh. Be good mon amie.

  13. Poignant post. Beautiful to share time and be in the present moment. It is after all, all we really have.

    I too like to nonetheless find past loves and lives and moments, and reconnect.


    • Hi Peta – The present seems to be the most comfortable, yet most difficult, place to hang out. One of those places you have to work to find, but once you do, you never want to leave.

      • Oh very well said indeed!

        For some reason easier to do while traveling, which I think might be one of the very reasons travel is so appealing.


  14. I am touched, Julie, by your words with which you speak about those very special moments. I think that sometimes it is better not to see the special people anymore so that they remain so in our memories! Years ago I read Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones, and your pictures cleary reflect the place. Thank you very much and all the best. Martina

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