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. So I rose, got ready, and went outside into the fading starlight, kissing my husband 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.