The Howling Wind

I walked home alone on Halloween night last year. I walked two blocks wearing a long skirt from high school and jewelry from my mother, dressed as a hippie. It wasn’t much of a costume, my friends had laughed, it was pretty much accurate on a day to day basis as well. I didn’t have far to walk, it wasn’t too late, but my friend had asked if I wanted a ride, anyway. What was I to say, except: This is a safe neighborhood, where we live. I will be fine. It’s only a few blocks. I like when the wind blows my skirt around my legs and tangles my hair. I like being out alone, at night. It’s fine.

I paused at the intersection at the top of the hill where four stop signs blaze red on each corner.  I watched an SUV came barreling down the road, straight toward me. I stepped back onto the grass. I wasn’t sure they would stop, then they did. They turned right and pulled over in front of the fence of the house on the corner, cater-corner from me. How I heard my voice in my head, then. “I’ll be fine.” Two men came out, slamming the doors behind them. “It’s fine, it’s not far.” I saw they were carrying sodas and bags full of fast food. I held still, the wind blew past me. “This is a safe neighborhood.” I watched them go in through the gate, with not even a glance in my direction. I continued home, pausing outside the backdoor. I stared up at the scattered stars that peeked through the clouds, and waited until my heart slowed, trying to pick out a constellation overhead. I could not find a single one I recognized. I slid open the door, came inside, and locked the door behind me.

Continue reading “The Howling Wind”

Just Keep Swimming

My daughter took a quick breath, a sound like she was gasping, afraid. Then she plunged off the side of the pool and into the water, sinking straight to the bottom. Beside me I heard my mother gasp and hold her breath until she saw her granddaughter’s face come swimming back up out of the turquoise water, breaking the ripples with a determined splash, her pink goggles half filled with water, her mouth open like a fish, breathing in another quick breath before pushing off the edge of the pool and swimming straight into my mother’s arms.

Jillian can swim, now. But for the five years previous, she wasn’t even close.

Before this month, she has always objected to getting any water on her face with loud screams and cries of disapproval. I remember taking Jillian to a swimming class at the YMCA when she was a little over six months old. At that class, I made friends with a mother of a little girl who was close to Jill’s age. We talked and got to know each other as we led our children through the games and maneuvers designed to get them comfortable in the water. It was obvious that Jillian was more cautious of the two girls, clinging to me when it was time to do a back float, grasping my arms with desperation when I would try a small toss in the air. Beside me, my new friend threw her daughter high up in the air and they both laughed when she caught her with a splash, over and over again. I watched, and secretly wondered if I was doing something wrong.

And here’s the thing, the fear that threatens to keep all mothers up at night: maybe I had been doing something wrong all along. Maybe I should have started sooner. Maybe I did too much or too little or did not give her enough warning. Maybe I should have taken her swimming in this pool or that one instead, or in the ocean more often. Maybe I was too gentle or too rough, too consoling or not enough. Maybe. Maybe it was my fault that my daughter took five years to stop screaming when water would come anywhere close to her eyes, her precious cheeks, her upturned nose.

And maybe it’s simply that now is the right time, for her, and before now, it wasn’t.

I’m finally beginning to understand, and to let go of something that has been wound tight around my heart since the first time I noticed Jillian was different than the other kids we knew. She clung tighter, demanded more attention. She struggled with too much activity; was more sensitive to bumps and bruises. We once went to a bike riding play date and she was the only one on a tricycle, and she melted down when I tried to get her to go farther or faster. The other moms gently suggested getting her a different ride, or maybe try this idea or that one. Instead I took Jillian home, put her in front of the tv, went into my bedroom and cried. Eventually, I bought her a gliding bike on Craigslist, and a friend gave us a princess bike with training wheels. She rides both of those now and then, but she’d rather dance. She’d rather draw, or read a book. She’d rather just be… Jillian.

So this is what I’m learning to understand, and it is the most important lesson I’ve ever had to learn: I have to stop looking at other children and simply see my daughter for who she is: a playful, curious, loving, thoughtful, imaginative child. She holds tight, she holds back, she watches, she considers. And when she’s ready, she leaps, and she’s brilliant.

Recently, I was walking Jillian home from school and she was tired, walking slowly, while I impatiently surged forward, pulling her little body along behind me, until I stopped, and looked back at her, and saw her, my sleepy little Kindergartner, and I understood. I saw our entire relationship distilled into that one moment: me, pulling her forward, onward, challenging her to do more, grow, learn, push past her fears. And Jillian, holding back, looking at the flowers. I saw how much we learn and gain from each other, this beautifully challenging dynamic which includes the times when she rushes ahead, more ready for some changes than I am. And then I gathered my daughter up into my arms and carried her the rest of the way home.

And now I have my answer. Maybe the only thing wrong, is that when I looked around at the other children and parents and saw something different, I worried about that difference, instead of embracing it.

Mochi and pumpkin pie

Is sorrow transmissible by air? Can it float across the boundaries of property and walls, settling like a fine dust in my home? It would explain the weight I have felt all morning, moving slowly from laundry to washing dishes. Yesterday, I kept walking to the front door, thinking that someone was knocking, but the sound, like the sorrow, came from next door. It was the sound of car doors slamming, family and friends arriving and leaving as they prepared for the funeral, knocking on the door of a home with one less occupant. Eventually, I sprinkled salt across our entryway, the grains whispering a prayer as they fall, asking for a boundary between our life and the death of the old woman who had lived next door to our home for the past three decades.

The day after Mrs. Hashimoto died, I was delivering bananas I had harvested from my parents’ yard to all the neighbors. I visited their home last, meeting her daughter, Rosemary, as she was coming back from checking the mail. Before I could ask how things were going, she told me her mom had died last night, and she laughed. She told me the story filled with a sort of giddy relief after a year of caregiving, of waiting for the cancer to take her mother’s last breath. “How like my mom,” she told me, “to die in the evening, right after suppertime. So thoughtful.” When the hearse arrived, it was dark, so no one could she her being wheeled out, and the almost-full moon was rising behind the house, beautiful.

After I heard the news, I went home and made a double batch of banana bread muffins with Jillian. The half I had planned to deliver to Mrs. Hashimoto, I instead put in the freezer to save for her funeral. As we mixed the batter, I thought of all the times she had brought treats for us, before she was bedridden. A bag of mountain apples when they were in season. Baby lettuce in tiny pots which I could never keep alive long enough to harvest. She brought advice for keeping our yard alive, gentle admonishment to pay more attention to the weeds and watering. She made mochi for the New Year, and for Girls’ Day brought over crispy rice crackers in a cellophane wrapper that looked like a girl in kimono. She made her grandson deliver a bag of those crackers this year; even though she could not get out of bed, she wanted to make sure Jillian had some treats to mark the day. Unbeknownst to me, Jill took two of the crackers which were decorated with girls in pink kimonos and stored them in her music box, her place for her most precious things.

Over the past five years we’ve lived in this house, I’ve tried to bring over a few things in return, like liliko’i bars made with the fruits from the neighbor’s yard on the other side of us. I would pick the gardenia which grew on their side of our house and bring them over, especially after I found out Rosemary had been watering our plants to help keep them alive the past few years. In March, I brought over a pumpkin pie that I had baked out of season on a whim, and I made it again when Rosemary told me she had scolded her mother for eating nothing but slices of my pie for a whole day. And I brought over banana bread muffins, which Rosemary would freeze and bring out one at a time, placing in a plastic bag beside her mother’s bed for her to eat when she woke up hungry at the unpredictable hours of one who spends all day in bed.

At first, when I brought over treats during the year Mrs. Hashimoto was in hospice care, she would come to the door herself, aided by a walker and with an oxygen tank trailing behind her. Later, I would only hear her voice as she shouted at her husband, a man sometimes so folded in half by age it seems as if he’s looking on the ground for something he had dropped, years ago. Near the end, I would quietly leave our gift hanging from the handle of the screen door.

Her funeral was held today at St. John Vianney, a Catholic Church in Kailua. I felt out of place as my Methodist upbringing had a different set of call and responses, and included no kneeling or holy water. The words to the hymns were printed in the program without music, and the music I did hear was unfamiliar and uplifting. The service was centered on celebrating her ascent to heaven, all while her coffin stood in mute testimony to her body’s final rest.

One of the ministers at the church had been a neighbor of the Hashimotos when he was a young boy. He told a story of how Mrs. Hashimoto looked after him as a child, admonishing him when he got into trouble when his parents weren’t looking. “Love our neighbors as ourselves,” he reminded us. Later in the service, I watched as he placed his hand tenderly on her casket as he walked past, just for a moment.

There was piles of food to eat after the mass. Rosemary apologized for the sushi being store-bought, and not as good as when her mother had made it. She told me she had been talked out of ordering chicken feet, which had been her mother’s favorite, but her siblings had thought it would go to waste. I looked around the lanai and everyone’s plate was piled high with food, and there was still more left over. No one went home hungry, which is exactly what Jitsuko Hashimoto have wanted.

On a Threshold

The sound of Jillian’s little voice yelling “Mommy!” with unabashed joy from across the grassy lawn of her preschool. The sight of her running as fast as she can, straight toward me. Seeing her friends grab and hug her first, hearing her tell me their names and stories. The wet feeling of tears on my shoulder when my arrival would coincide with a skinned elbow, an unkind word, or a misplaced shoe. Hands full of leaves and sticks that were special and had names and stories and were forgotten in minutes after arriving home. Crouching down to catch her, and the moment I could wrap my arms around her, surrounded by her love as much as she was wrapped in mine. Even the sweaty smell of her hair.

I’m not ready for things to change. I have tried to remember and enjoy each smile and kiss, hold tight to each lovely moment, the feel of her arms around my neck, holding me together, but it’s already blurring, slipping away until I only have these pieces left. I’m not ready, but she is. Something had already started to shift at pickup time in the last few months of preschool. She started running away from me more, playing tag or hiding in a corner. Practicing at being independent, going to get her water bottle without me asking, insisting more and more, “I can do it myself!”

Tomorrow she begins Kindergarten at the same school my older brother and I once attended. It sits tucked under the watchful gaze of Olomana, classrooms connected by open-air hallways lined with concrete floors and corrugated walls on the windward side. At the transition night last week, I discovered that the mural I helped paint in fifth grade is still hanging in the library. We have met the vice-principal twice now, and she is also named Jill. Out on the front lawn rest the same five rocks of 30 years ago, enduring children’s antics with the gruff facade of grandfathers, with an indulgent smile when a small hand presses against warm and cracked faces.

I want to promise myself to remember everything about her first day tomorrow, and yet I can barely remember Jillian’s first day of preschool, despite making the same promises then. I insisted on signing her up for preschool once she dropped her afternoon nap at two and half years old. It made for long days home alone, especially with Foster working late hours. At least, that was what I told most people. The decision was based on was more than that. I had been crumbling since she was born, overwhelmed with anxiety and torn between competing needs: Jillian’s, Foster’s, friends, family, and my business. There wasn’t enough time to pay attention to everything, much less take care of my own needs, even more so without the daily break of an afternoon naptime. So I pulled out a checkbook and signed Jillian over to strangers for four hours a day. Putting her in preschool gave me time to heal, and also gave me joy in watching her grow on her own, especially in the areas where we had struggled with alone: learning to run fast, swing high on the swing, and fearlessly peddle a tricycle around the track.  She also learned to love making art, spending her afternoons watching other children as they drew butterflies and castles, then copying their shapes and making them her own.

For the first few months of morning drop-offs, we would sit together on the child-sized bench beside the two-year-old classroom, and watch the other children play. She would sit in my lap, or sit beside me and grip my arm, but she would not get up and join them, not until I left, and even then, often not without a lot of prompting. Some days, after enough sitting and cuddling, I could say goodbye with a few more hugs and kisses, extended declarations of love, and promises that I would be back at noon to pick her up. Other days I would have to hand her off to a teacher when the bell rang for circle time, prying her away like an opihi from the rocks, casting her into this new place of surging emotions and paintbrushes, big girl potties and other children. And I would drive home wondering if I had made the wrong decision, if I was a terrible and selfish mother. I would wonder even as I knew there was no other way to regain my mental health, even as her teacher would reassure me that Jillian was adjusting well, even as everyone reminded me that she was a happy and well-adjusted child.

Jillian eventually grew to enjoy school, began looking forward to it, even more so when she moved up a class and found herself a best friend, or rather, when they found each other. When he left for Kindergarten, she made a new friend, then a few more. Drop-offs became easier and easier, until these past few months they’ve mostly been a quick kiss on the cheek and vague waving motion as she ran off to go play. But on one day in the last week of preschool, she pulled me close to whisper in my ear, “I don’t want you to go.” Her hands gripped tighter around my mine before they released, and then off she went, skipping away, the moment’s hesitation already forgotten.

Her teacher, Ms. Liz, has been strong, shining thread through these past few years. I have often relied on Liz’s calm, measured voice to give me the words I needed to comfort Jillian, or to push her to grow. It has been her at her feet that Jillian has begun to learn a sense of her place in the world, a world separate from mommy and daddy, a world not always fair or kind, but one that can be made better by Jedi warriors and superheroes, princesses and kings, and even young children, by the grace of kindness, by the force of those that would stand up against injustice to make things better for all.

Tomorrow, I will place her in the hands of a new teacher, surrounded by different children. A few will already know how to read and some will come from families who couldn’t afford preschool; there will be military families who have only arrived recently and some families who can trace their roots to this place back many generations. Tomorrow, I will take photos and kiss her goodbye, and then I will come home. And at 2:00 pm tomorrow afternoon, I will return to pick her up from her new school, and I will listen for her voice calling out for me. And then we will walk home together, as she holds my hand and heart in her own.



An island encircled by an ocean which embraces the world

My home does not belong to me. It first belonged to the ocean, sleeping deep in the fathoms before it was woken by the movement of tectonic plates and the lovemaking of Wakea and Papahanaumoku. Up rose the land, bubbling forth over the eons, layer upon layer of lava rising up from the center of the earth, pulled forth by the strength of Maui’s fishhook, until someone in his canoe looked back, and the line snapped.

This land became a shore where coral grew and fish and octopus found shelter after being swept a great distance by ocean currents. Rising above the watery embrace of the sea, this land was discovered by wayward seeds and windswept birds carrying snails and bugs; they landed and never left. The first people were born of Papahanaumoku; younger siblings of Haloa, the kalo; all rooted and green, their bones growing like the ribs of leaves, sprouting forth from this land; children of this place, kama’aina. The Marquesan people sailed to join them, became them; guided by stars and ocean currents, birds and cloud formations, accompanied by the ancestors they left behind and the ones their children would become. Pele arrived from Kahiki, and was greated by these people as she dug great craters in all of the islands, continuing south until she arrived on Kilauea and found fire still simmering beneath the earth and laid claim to it, creating new land all her own.

This is a place found and created by those voyaging toward a destination, by all the small things lost and drifting and landing ashore, and by the hands of Gods and Goddesses. And I would like to know how long they all stayed before they called this place home. When did they knew they were of this place, those plants and animals, these people and deities, from here and not there?

And how did I come to be here with them, arriving as a child, emerging from of the womb of a plane into the heavy darkness of morning? And for what purpose?



I was borne here long ago by ancestors sailing across a different ocean, the cold Atlantic currents bringing them from places far north: Norway, Sweden, Germany, Scotland. A roll call of pale skin and cold winters, they came from cities on the sea to a new land: America. A place full of possibilities and indigenous people being relocated to make room for their dreams.

The only uniting history of white people is one of leaving, then claiming the land upon arrival with guns and farmhouses which grow into cities and armies. And so my people left again, and again, moving further west, until I drifted here on the currents of luck and dreams: Tourist advertisements which reached Minnesota in the middle of a winter piled high with snow, my mother saving money and sending off for a Sears ukulele and a dream of a tropical paradise; my father’s acceptance to the Coast Guard Academy, when he had never seen the ocean; their chance meeting in a Honolulu bar. All these events leading to my brother and I being born, but back in the continental United States. Staying put for only a few years until we all returned again; I grew up in Maunawili, then our family left again. Our story is of slingshotting back and forth, pulled in two directions by competing demands of the “American dream” and a deep love of these islands.

Now we have returned again to Kailua, leaving my brother behind. My only child was born on this land, tumbling forth into mountain air after nine months spent dancing hula in my womb. She asks me if I am Hawaiian since that is the language I am learning to speak, she asks if she is Hawaiian since she was born in Hawaii. I try tell her about her ancestors, show their journey on a map of the world, all those scattered points of origin, the names so foreign to her. When we meet new people, they ask us where are we from, our blonde hair giving away our outsider status.  So I ask, how long before a relation of mine can honestly answer that they are from here? Or will they leave before then, a restless bloodline, flying and sailing and running forever away, forever onward, forever disconnected and always from a land somewhere else?



My home first belonged to the ocean, and even now returns, proud mountains succumbing slowly to the steady wash of rain. So, too, I will someday leave, swept from the Ko’olau mountains back across the sea, my bones turned to ashes, drifting on currents and wind. Maybe some speck of me, carried the belly of a fish, will find some long forgotten place that only my soul remembers, landing in the net of a distant blood relation. Will I at last find peace, or will my soul stir once more, and begin the journey again: inspiring a new generation to set forth, to seek again this distant shore?

Last night I dreamt I was returning
and my heart called out to you
To please accept me as you’ll find me
Me ke aloha ku’u home o Kahalu’u




I had headed to the beach for a walk, a swim, to soak in sunshine. I had imagined I would find perfect sand and curling waves, a white and turquoise color palette, something to photograph and enjoy. Maybe some sea shells to put in a glass jar on the coffee table. I came looking for solitude, gratitude, and inspiration, and instead I found a broken hairbrush and a pen cap. Then a mustard lid, plastic straws, rubber slippers. A mylar balloon. All around, from the shoreline to the high tide line, an array of broken plastic, scattered in all sizes and colors; the remains from a war of convenience waged against the earth.

It was not what I had envisioned, and I wanted to turn around, leave, find a different beach. Walk past this mess until I couldn’t see it anymore. I wanted to cry, or scream, but I went back to the car for a cloth grocery bag. I filled it with trash, then I found a plastic tray, the kind used for washing dishes in a commercial kitchen. I shoved handfuls of the mess onto it, using it as sieve, smaller pieces of plastic falling through the holes with the sand. I loaded some more broken pieces into my shirt, and then my hands were full but there’s still more, always. How much is enough?

Then a toothbrush, and another, just like the one I had thrown in the trash yesterday morning, then purchased new from the store. Had I canceled out some debt by picking these up? Or is this not even a dent in what I owe? I asked for help from a teenage boy to carry an aluminum freezer door up to the trash cans. He looked at me strangely, who am I to be asking him to do anything? He agreed, but first threw a golf ball into the ocean, just because.

Further down the beach was giant styrofoam wheel, equivalent to the compressed actions of a year’s worth of styrofoam take-out containers. I rolled it up the beach, up the path, left it at the top. The pile grew. Back down to the shore, there was a mass of tangled fishing line, snapped loose, tangled up with bits of wood and seeds. I picked it up, shoved it in my pocket, while out in the ocean, miles and miles of this invisible filament still floats and wraps and strangles the creatures of the sea.

I saw a mother playing with her infant son in the sand by the water, and I thought of my own daughter at preschool. What is in her future: every beach this full of trash? Will there be any beaches left? How do I explain how it got this way? What is my excuse for doing so little in the face of so much?

Surfers and families and walkers and shell collectors passed me by without a hello. I don’t know how they all simply walked through the trash. Then a lady walked by as I wondered, and sighed, then asked, Why they don’t rake the beach? I didn’t respond. She set up a beach chair and sunbathed while I returned to digging and sifting and carrying; her eyes closed to the destruction of the beach around her. She was soaking in the sun, confident that it is all someone else’s responsibility.

I want to be a good example. I try to take on some degree of responsibility of caring for the places I love. I pick up trash and I certainly don’t litter. I recycle. I write stories. How much is enough? I have been taught since I was young that world is in danger, that we must protect the environment.  But global temperatures and sea levels keep rising, and there is plastic in the stomach of the ‘iwa birds, bits they saw floating and looked like fish; fish that are themselves eating microplastics as the plastic pieces disintegrate, smaller and smaller, filling the full water column, requiring a microscope to see. I am complicit. I have not devoted my life to the earth, I throw away plastic, and I buy new things — but what is one life up against 7 billion? I acknowledge the weight of all that humanity as I watch as a tiny percentage of our shared debris wash ashore.

At last, I let myself sink down into the sand and trash. I could do no more, carry no more. My back ached, I wanted to scream and cry and I had become genuinely concerned I might try to punch the next person who walks by, so I stopped. I told myself enjoy the beauty, to remind myself of why I care so fiercely. To not give in to the cascade of anger and sadness. I should have swum in the ocean to wash myself clean of all of it. Instead, I sat. I watched the surfers. I squinted my eyes until I could see a shimmer of paradise, breathed the salt air; at least there is this much, here, for now.

A scurry of movement caught my attention — a small crab. I chased it, but it was quickly lost in the chaos of bits of plastic. I tried picking away the pieces, hoping to find it again, but one of the pieces I pulled was only the tip of a larger chunk lying buried under the sand. It seems like a metaphor, but when I looked around, it didn’t look like I’d been there at all.

I took a deep breath in, let it out. Then another. I began to feel comforted by the ocean, the vastness of the sky. These things will remain, despite our best efforts at destruction. The earth is enormously adaptable, and will survive. The question remains, to be answered within this decade: will we? Do we have the ability to continue to exist, or will the ocean swallow us, plastics and all?

In a month, it’s possible most of this trash will have washed back out to sea, or someone else will come to clean it up. I could return then, visit that dream of perfect sand and curling waves. Or I could commit my whole life to making a change, buy everything only in bulk, start a farm in my backyard. Go vegan, sell my car, move to Washington DC and lobby the government for stricter regulations. Instead I came home, turned on my computer powered by the sunshine, and I began to write.

It is so little, these handfuls of words, but it is all I know how to do. That, and keep some trash bags in my car for next time.

In Solitude

5:30am on Valentine’s day, 5,000 feet above sea level on the slopes of Haleakala. We are visiting the island of Maui, named after the demi-god who pulled the islands from the sea and lassoed the sun, and we are staying as guests in the 90-year-old summer estate of a prominent missionary family.  I am awake this early to watch the sunrise, leaving both my husband and child asleep in bed. Pulling on sweatpants over long johns, wool socks over cotton ones, zipping a fleece over a two layers of long sleeves, all of these cold-weather clothes smell dusty, only worn once year. I am getting ready by the light of the flashlight on my phone, but the battery is dying, so I turn it off and finish dressing, then I try feeling my way from our room into the kitchen. There is complete darkness in the hallway; even in daytime it’s a dim cave decorated with family photos of strangers. I hit my toe on the stairs and I swallow a curse as I concede complete unfamiliarity with this place and I turn my phone’s light on again.

Around the corner and through the dining room, I find the kitchen and flip the light switch. I fill up a thermos with hot tea, my stomach with a piece of toast, and then look for a flashlight. Instead of such modern convenience, I find empty kerosene lanterns and candlesticks, but no candle and no fuel. At last I discover a candle partially melted in a handmade ceramic lantern, a half jar sort of thing with a small handle at the top. I borrow it from the shelf, then head for the front hall, again switching to my phone’s flashlight, battery icon glowing red and smaller. On my way out, I pocket a box of matches from the fireplace mantle, sling my camera over my shoulder, and then open the front door into the darkness and close it quietly behind me. I feel clumsy and itchy under my layers of clothes, and struggle to pull on my shoes without dropping all the things I’m carrying in my hands and pockets. I feel a growing uneasiness about my place here and apprehension about my reasons for going into the woods under the starlight. But still I go, my own words driving me to obey the simple impulse to get up from the warm and comfortable and to head into the unexpected.

Down the steps, I find my way across the the dew-dampened lawn to the twin totem poles guarding a grassy path up through the eucalyptus forest. I don’t know old they are, how they came to be here, or even from whence they came, but the totem poles seem to be resigned to watching over a foreign land. The house behind me contains many more such Native American souvenirs from an un-named tribe, and only a few, scattered references to Hawaii. Almost everything is imported, including all of us sun-burnt guests. This estate would feel at home in New England, including the rose bushes climbing the walls and the old books written by white men stacked upon the shelves, all of it except for the lauhala mats in the bathrooms, absorbing the water that drips from naked bodies.

I turn off my phone, zip it into a pocket, trading it for matches, and stand holding them, looking up at the stars until I find Orion chasing the Seven Sisters. I bend down to light the candle, balancing the lantern upon a rock; after a few strikes, the match catches, and soon the candle wick flares and burns in return. I stand up, again pocketing the matchbox, and I am conscious of the eyes carved into that ancient wood, waiting for me to say something. I want to offer atonement for their exile, or at least a good reason for my presence, but all I have is something pulling me from my chest up, up into the darkness, and so I follow, ducking my head as I pass between, thinking only of the words hanging framed on the wall by the staircase:

“What I have always longed for, was the privilege of living forever away up on one of the mountains in Sandwich Islands over-looking the sea…” -Mark Twain

Forever away, that is a dream that brought so many of us from far way to here, and after we have arrived, and stayed, we reach the point that “away” becomes “here.” A getaway in paradise, opened to us because of the privilege of who we know and what we can spend to get there, now become a home, sharing uncomfortable quarters with history. I have tried to learn of the history of this place, to try become separate from that history, only to find myself repeating the same story over and again as a visitor, a tourist, lost and not knowing the way, not knowing the words to speak and ask for entrance into a unknown forest.

I blunder upward in my silence, and find that the candle lights my way as well as any flashlight, and also offers a slight warmth to my chilled fingers. I hear a small branch snap to my right side; to my left, something shuffles through the leaves deep in the forest. There are deer and wild boar up here, and who knows what else is loose and roaming. I walk until I reach a fence, the property line for the estate, and follow it until it ends in a corner. I try to walk around, but there is a large woodpile blocking my way, so instead I find a spot sit down to write by the light of the candle and wait for sunrise.

I open my thermos and smell my peach tea, but it’s too hot to drink, so I leave it open and steaming in the cool air, aware that this scent, like so much else, is foreign and manufactured. This fence was erected, the trees around me planted and crowding out what was here before, and everything I carry with me, all the woven fleece I wear, shipped and flown in from far away. After awhile, I check the time on my phone, then look up at the sky to realize most of the stars have already faded, and it is bright enough now to maneuver my way around the wood pile to an open area overlooking a small valley.

One star still shines, or rather, a planet: I assume it is Venus, cradled in the branches of a distant rise, suspended and beckoning upwards, up the slopes of Haleakala, up to the peak of a sacred mountain filled with telescopes and hordes of tourists staring into the sunrise, all following the same call heavenward. I hear it too, and go as far as I can, which is only about thirty feet, before coming across a few thin wires stretched between two fences; barely visible, I had almost walked straight into them. Down on the side of the valley I see a farmhouse emerging from the dim light, and I back up until I no longer feel I am trespassing on their land, although the truth is that I have felt a bit like an intruder since the plane landed two days ago. I realize the candlelight, which had shined so glaringly an hour ago, is now being swallowed by the dawn. I place the lantern down on the grass, turn on my camera and kneel to take a few pictures of the tiny flame, then blow it out and turn my lens toward the forest.

The trees are silhouettes now against the sky, color beginning to return with a pastel hue, but this spot is not picturesque in the way I had imagined when I had planned my excursion the day before. Nothing that I value here can be captured with my camera. It is special in the way that I feel, and so I put the lens cap back on, wishing I hadn’t brought it at all. I think of the framed photographs hanging in the front room of the house I am visiting, beautiful scenes of snowy mountains and indigenous people, taken and brought here as decoration. People and places reduced to subjects to be captured and mounted, like the sheep’s head above the fireplace. For all my self-conscious concern, there is little left in this valley that is native, not many who had arrived before the written word but the sunlight and the land itself, patient above and enduring below.

A donkey brays, its voice echoing up from the barn below and shattering the air, then sighs back into quiet. The first birds are awake now, one more voice joining at a time, growing together until I am surrounded by song. I turn to the direction I think the sun will rise, and try to memorize the whisper of leaves as a soft wind builds. I open my thermos again and the tea is still so hot it burns my tongue, but I breathe in the steam, warming my nose and cheeks. I find it hard to simply be still and watch, especially when I feel so awake and new, aware of my toes and fingers in the way you only feel in the cold.

The sky brighter still, it is past 7:02am, the official time of sunrise, so I walk back along the fence line, back over the woodpile and around the corner. I stand at the top of the wide path and I can easily see the house at the bottom. I am disappointed; it felt like I had traveled much further in the darkness, but it was only my own fear that made it feel like a journey instead of the short stroll that it was. I follow an animal trail worn in the undergrowth down the other side of the valley, examining hoof prints in the red dirt until I am cut short: the path continues only through a low tunnel under a thorn filled bush. I back up, find another way around, then continue downwards on my own, crashing and large and noisy, until I find a fallen tree in a small clearing. The sky to the east is already blue, fading to pink only at the far edge. I stop to sit on the wide trunk, and I write again, and try making a few sketches, trying to understand this beauty and the disconnect I’m feeling. I try to be still, and quiet, and give up after a minute, stand and return back up the path to the main trail.

My arrival causes a commotion on the other edge of the forest, followed by a steady yelping. Is it an animal calling out in warning or in pain? I freeze, feeling vulnerable in the open air, then see the white tails of two pairs of deer running away in opposite directions. I relax, and at the edge of my vision I see the topmost branches of the trees begin to glow. The sun is truly rising now, having taken this long to make it up over the lip of Haleakala and arrive in this place. It spills golden down the trees, and I turn around to see it is rising up directly below where I had seen Venus, further south than I had been expecting. It is already too bright to look at directly for more than a second, so I turn away to instead watch it caress each branch and leaf with warmth, bringing shadow and vivid color back to a muted world. The sun rises further still, reaching down the mountain slope until I feel the warmth of morning upon my back and see my own shadow stretch across the ground, tall as any tree. My discomfort melts away, and I feel the universal reverence at the arrival of a newday.

I walk the short distance back down the slope, smiling, and this time, as I pass between the totem poles, I offer the one thing I have gained: gratitude. Maybe I did not deserve this, maybe this beauty was not intended for me, but I am thankful to have been a witness.

I return to the house, leave my camera and outer layers in our bedroom, then enter a noisy kitchen filled with children eating pancakes, my tea finally cool enough to drink.


On the edge of rising

The first step was getting out of bed, to rise into darkness with sand in my throat. I could feel an illness approaching and the weather report said rain would also arrive soon, both converging to keep me inside and under covers for the rest of the day. I had only a small window of calm — the last hours of nighttime and the first few of the day — which was why I had set the alarm last night, with this plan. So I got up, got dressed, and went outside into the fading starlight. My husband followed; more accustomed to the early morning hours than me, he rose without hesitation to help me in my morning journey. I went back inside to make some tea, and again considered the temptation to return to the embrace of blankets and sleep instead of the ocean. But I was already dressed and the stand-up paddleboard was tied to my car, so I went, kissing him goodbye on my way out the door.

I drove down empty roads, taking pleasure in being awake before traffic, and relaxed into the rhythm of being alone and on my own schedule. I arrived at the beach park and was unsettled to see a few other cars already parked in the stalls. I was a woman, alone in a dimly lit parking lot. I was a woman, awake and aware and strong. I was a woman who was going to be out on the ocean to witness the sunrise. So I parked, unloaded the board, and carried the ponderous bulk down to the beach with arms that were increasingly insistent about their desire for rest, but I did not listen until I was at the water’s edge. I went back to my car to exchange a sweatshirt for a sunshirt, my slippers for barefeet, and locked my phone inside.

Yes, I was going to watch the sunrise without a phone, a camera, or a friend. I would have no documentation other than the one I could commit to memory. Which was, really, the whole point: to devote the next few hours to the experience, without distraction. To be alone with the ocean and the sun and myself.

The sky was already beginning to lighten; how quickly the stars flee before the sun’s arrival. It was calm with no east swell due to Kona winds blowing on the leeward side of the island, blocked by the Ko’olau mountain range. Living in Hawaii gives you familiarity with these terms, “leeward” and “windward,” as if we are all sailors on these islands, traveling together. However, living here does not guarantee awareness of the names for the winds beyond “trades” and “Kona.” All the intimate knowledge of the Hawaiian people, a people who lived and died by those winds until they became familiar enough to name, as if a child, and all I can tell you is that ka Makani was not present that day except on a sign in front of new apartment buildings. The rest of the winds may howl, and they whisper in my ear, and they cry at my window, but I do not know how to greet them, or what gifts and dangers they may bring.

It was with the knowledge of how little I know that I stumbled getting out onto the water due to my poor timing of the small waves that arrived on shore, and the presence of unfamiliar dance partners made from ten feet of foam and a long plastic paddle. The only ones who saw me were a man walking his dog, and the birds beginning to awaken in the trees. A few yards further out and I was able to stand, paddle, and begin to find my footing and rhythm. Twist and reach, pull, lift and return. There was enough light to see past the surface of the water and into the clear depths below, rocks with coral somehow surviving the onslaught of sunscreened visitors. I aimed to go around the northern edge of Popoi’a, that flat island, past Alala point to view the sun rise with the Mokulua islands.

I had a repetitive song from the radio stuck in my head so I chanted “Auhea wale ‘oe e Kahinihini’ula” in full, then began the chants I remember only pieces from, “E o ana Kaua’i” and “Nana a’e au a’o Ahiki.” I chose to do this because the words that floated from my mouth to accompany me were directly related to what I was experiencing, closer to this place than anything else I know. “Kau’ahe’ahe i ke ‘ili o ke kai / flying across the skin of the ocean.” “Alahula ke kai, ua meha ‘o Nounou/the clear path across the sea, at peace and alone at Nounou.” Then I discovered that “E Kuini” matched the cadence of my stroke, and although the melody had swum away from me, I continued with the words of praise in increasingly humorous notes, a quiet voice across the water, welcoming the arcing fire of the heavens with a smile.

As I approached Popoi’a, the ocean went from flat to slowly rolling under my feet. I became quiet in order to listen to the waves, and to focus on the currents. I found the large, even swell which was wrapping around from the north, and a separate set of waves which were reflecting from the island and from the shore as the larger swell returned in precise angles. As I rounded the backside of the island, staying far from the very real danger of being found between the incoming waves and the shallow rocks, I continued scanning the patterns, mesmerized by the changing angles. A slight wind rose, ushering in the sun, and adding another pattern to the surface of the ocean. There was the sensation of pink in the air, nothing definite yet, but a hue arriving that had not been present before.

Then it began, with a horizontal slit across the clouds, a puka, the ho’opuka, the eruption of light. I turned my board toward the radiant sight and sat down, legs crossed, paddle across my lap. The crimson glow billowed higher and higher, and then the sun began to rise from the sea. Smoldering neon red on the horizon, it grew into a round hole from which light and warmth spilled forth from the deep reaches of space, and something unlocked inside of me to welcome it in. I let it burn through me, and tears began dripping from my eyes, emotions transmuted into salt water returning home to the ocean. I only cried for a brief space of time, for although there was no one else out there to see, I had long since learned to hold back, to dry up, to calm down, even when I was on fire inside.

Through all this, my board had stayed rooted, steered directly toward the sunrise, gently held straight and true. I had been held in a cradle, a child of the ocean, and now it was time to return to land. I reluctantly stood up and turned the board around. I kept sneaking glances behind me, as the light was bleached of color, ascending through the wavelengths from red to orange, from yellow to the blinding white of day. Ahead of me, Konahuanui stretched and awoke: the largest mountain peak in the Ko’olau range become a golden king, an ali’i surveying the lands below. Mahinui ridge undulated along the shore, glowing and confident, warming the homes she held in her arms.

I found I was increasingly eager to get ashore, for my hungry stomach and aching arms and the cough in my throat were all quite insistent that I eat, rest, and drink hot tea. After an embarrassingly awkward argument with my board about where it should rest — my board favored the ground, and I preferred it to be on top of my car — I eventually won. Then I discovered the true challenge of my day was not a physical one, but returning back to society. I wandered through Kalapawai to get a breakfast sandwich and spotted a friend I hadn’t seen for awhile. She was juggling her two kids and she asked me normal questions, like how things were going and how Jill was liking preschool and I’m not entirely sure I answered in complete sentences, for my heart was still experiencing something profound and it was hard to return to the routine, the regular, the simple needs and responses that fill most of our days.

Before I moved to Hawaii, I was warned that living here would make the exceptional scenery and experiences seem common and mundane. And yes, most of my life is spent simply living life, one that looks similar to the one I would live anywhere that has running water, electricity, and a mostly lawful population. Like anywhere, it is the adventures that happen outside of that framework which shake me free of the everyday. Those adventures require obeying the impulse to get up out of the warm and comfortable. To step away from the computer and the to-do lists and to go outside: alone, awake, and open to whatever is out there, waiting, on the edge of rising.

Wayfinder Wong Joining Hokule’a For Brazil Trip

Published in Windward Oahu Voice, a Midweek publication, for the week of December 16, 2015

Ask someone close to him to describe Kaleomanuiwa Wong, and you’ll hear words like ‘olu‘olu and ha‘aha‘a (kind, pleasant, and humble).

There would also comparisons to PWO (master) navigator, Bruce Blankenfeld, and for good reason: Bruce has mentored Wong since he was a Kaiser High Student (as was Bruce), and in mid-December, Wong will fly to Cape Town, South Africa to join him as a navigator for the Hokule‘a on a journey to Brazil across more than 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean.

Wong navigated the famed voyaging canoe from Aotearoa (New Zealand) to Australia, where he was welcomed with hula and ceremony by his wife, Maya Saffery, and members of her her Halau Mohala Ilima. Last summer, Wong was the captain of the Hikianalia, and despite the availability of GPS on board, he helped guide the double hulled canoe using traditional navigation on a roundtrip journey from Oahu to Papahanauamokuakea – the marine national monument and location of many sites sacred to Hawaiians.

For Wong, the Hokule’a and Hikianalia represent a restoration of Native Hawaiian cultural practices, language, and pride. His life’s work on land has had a similar mission of restoration, with years of conservation experience in the Wai‘anae mountains as an O‘ahu Army Natural Resource Program Coordinator. Since then, he has focused on the Kailua community and can be found working in and around Kawainui marsh alongside local residents and students, restoring the fishponds and planting the terraced hillside below Ulupo with taro and sweet potato.

More important than the physical labor, however, his job is to bring the Kailua community back to the land. Over the past six months, he’s worked with more than 500 students and volunteers, sharing with them the mo’olelo (history and stories) of the area, and weaving them in with lessons from modern biology, botany, geology and hydrology.

Encouraging all ages to participate, Wong reminds us all of our ability to reconnect with the land, with the place where all Kailua’s food was once cultivated. It’s a huge responsibility in an era where more than 90% of our food is shipped in, and when nearly all species in the marsh are considered invasive.

One can understand why he sometimes admits to a preference to being on the ocean, rather than speaking in front of large groups.

While we wish him well on his upcoming journey, we will be thankful when returns home to continue nourishing and enriching our Kailua community.

Follow the Hokule‘a’s Worldwide Voyage online at


Photos from interview at Ulupo (top row) and ceremony (bottom row) welcoming Wong and the crew of Hikianalia to Kailua Beach on October 30.

A Small Death

“I have some sad news. Salice died last night.”

Salice was our fish, a guppy Jill won at the fun fair at a local elementary school last November. She couldn’t decide at the time whether to name her prize “Sally” or “Alice,” so the name “Salice” was born. And Salice had been sitting on the kitchen counter for the past nine months, wiggling with anticipation at meal time, dancing patterns in the water to get our attention every morning.

Foster and I weren’t sure how Jill would react to the news, and we weren’t sure what we would say to comfort and explain the small death. It’s a funny thing, being agnostic. It means to not know, which also feels like the summary of how it feels to be a parent — that overpowering sense of never being really sure if you’re doing the right thing. But in this sense, it meant not knowing whether there is a heaven or life after death or a god or a goddess or a hundred deities or the answer to a hundred other questions that religion typically dictates. Yes, I’m fully aware that this is an awful lot of introspection about a pet fish, but there she was, dead, and there we were, not knowing what to do about it.

I had decided to scoop out her little body from the tank before Jill had woken up, and I wrapped it in one of ti leaves that I keep prepped and cleaned in the freezer for cooking. I sometimes use them for steaming fish. It seemed appropriate.

“I want to see her!”

It wasn’t the reaction I had expected. I untied the ti leaf, and Jill looked with an idle curiosity.

“How did you know she was dead?”

“She wasn’t moving,” I replied. “She was lying on the stones at the bottom of her tank.” The answer seemed to satisfy her. But it also felt strange, how detached we’ve managed to stay for so long from these questions, so intrinsic to life:  How do you know death? What does it look like? Our meat all comes pre-packaged from the store. The family friends who have passed away during the past four years did so behind closed doors, and I did not bring Jill to the funerals. This is modern life — the messy work of death is hidden, wrapped, whispered, and distant, until it visits your own doorstep, and you’re wholly unprepared.

Carefully re-wrapping and picking up the ti-leaf bundle, we headed outside as family into the rain, running quickly across the yard to the sparse shelter provided by the tree in the backyard. There, amongst the stones, grew two ti plants, and we crouched over a bare patch of dirt near them. Jill wanted to dig, and we let her, in the mud and heavy air, until we noticed that a swarm of mosquitos had also taken shelter and were searching hungrily for our veins. I slapped one that was on my knee, and looked at the lace of the delicate body, flattened in a small drop of my own blood. Life and death. Blood and dirt.

Foster finished the digging, and we let Jill put Salice into the ground, cover it with dirt. We hurried her, slapping and scratching, eager to return to the comforts of our house: ceiling fans overhead, screens on the windows, a stovetop for making breakfast, and a dozen eggs packaged and refrigerated and shipped across the ocean to end up in our stomachs, the chickens that laid them carefully hidden, wrapped, whispered, and distant.

We turned to walk inside, but Jill did not want to follow. She ran instead to her swing, and sat slouched and leaning against the chain. We called to her from the doorway but she remained.  I went back out to pick her up, thankful that she is still small enough to fit into my embrace and wrap her arms around my neck.

“I can’t stop staring at the ti plants,” she whispered in my ear, looking over my shoulder as we walked away. “Where we buried her.”

We went inside and I brought her into the kitchen, and tried to place her gently down onto her chair in the kitchen, but she held tightly onto me.

“I’m sad that Salice died, mommy.”

“It’s normal to feel sad when a pet dies. But we will always remember her in our hearts.”

I felt Jill’s arms tighten more around my neck, her face burrowing into the hollow space between us. I held her until her muscles softened, then she let go. Standing on her chair, Jill looked at the now-empty tank, the unplugged air filter leaving silence on the counter. 

Jill’s face brightened at the sight, and she asked, “But we can get a new fish, right? I will call her Sally, because I really like the name Sally.”

And so we moved on to breakfast and plans for the future, with no more mention of her first pet who now lies wrapped safely under the soil.

We visited Bishop Museum that afternoon with her friend, Max, and his mom. We talked of his plans to visit Disney World and we looked at dinosaurs and stared the stars. Then, at the invasive species exhibit, in a 30 gallon aquarium, swam Salice’s relatives, dozens of guppies. I wondered if she would notice, if I should say something, or if I should hurry her along to the next set of drawers and words. I chose to do nothing. Her friend, Max, came over and sat on a stool next to her, idly opening drawers under the table that held the aquarium. 

“Max, did you know my fish died last night?”

“Oh,” Max responded, in a universal need to show that you have heard but have no idea how what to say. 

“Tell her you’re sorry about her fish,” his mother prompted. 

“I’m sorry about your fish, Jillian.”

“It’s okay,” she replied, “because I will always have her in my heart.”

 We drove home, and Foster had already cleaned out the tank and stored it in the closet. And Jill started asking about next time, getting a baby sister instead.

(In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, she’s our one and only, and we are going to keep it that way.)

(We will probably get another fish though.)