Monday, August 8, 2011


Well... So much for blogging regularly, huh? Sorry to disappoint, but I'll be sure to get in a few more posts before I leave, and post some pictures once I'm home. For the moment, I would like to share a couple slam poems that I've written since arriving at Kalani, one of which I shared at an open mic night a few weeks ago. They are best when read aloud.

The Heartbeat

Palm trees slice green daggers through the sunshine, crossing swords with my line of sight as I gaze sky-wards in my search for inspiration, search for words, search to describe this sensation, this deep appreciation blocking any cogitation, leading me to deviation: thank you kindly for your patience as you wait for a statement on love, life, or the state of this nation.  But my thoughts at the moment insist on new direction, direct my eyes once again towards the sky pierced by those rippling green knives swaying in time to the beat of the isle. Quiet. Listen for a while: the same heartbeat that moves the trees to dance resonates in the earth beneath your feet, its rhythm flowing through these plants, hypnotic power to entrance, enthrall, enhance your state of mind, rewind and roll with chance.  Hear the drumbeat?  That is the soul of Hawaii, its pulse complete, it draws the wind across the trees, pounds deep in the earth since its birth from the sea, its rhythm flowing from you to me.

Untitled, or Walking Meditation

Let me take you on a walking meditation: Let me take you on a walking meditation-- no time to wander or suffer impatience, just focus on the task at hand, stand, put one foot in front of the other; come let us journey together; let your feet carry your body through your mind, and you will find that it is a playground, yes your mind is a playground: swing from the monkey bars of your imagination, skip through the hopscotch of your own creation, and don't worry 'bout the bully in the corner because you can erase him.  This is your playground, and you get to decide what surrounds your thoughts, what goes down and not.  When you play tag with yourself you choose if you win or lose; you climb the rope ladder you can jump to the top. And when the bell rings to send you back to class, well, that's the world calling, urging you to hop off the see-saw and hurry, fast.  But linger a moment longer, be the bad kid for a change and don't answer right away; take your time on the slide, and only when you're damn well ready, go back inside.


Friday, July 8, 2011

Into Hawaii: The Adventure Begins

"I am the last man standing," he said, the old cliche ringing with new truth on his lips.  His eyes, though clouded, bore into mine with the intensity that comes with age, enlightenment, and maybe a touch of desperation.  I found it difficult to break contact with those orbs of determination, and did so only rarely during our three-hour conversation.  Though when I say conversation, I mean mostly that he talked, and I listened.  "They took everything around Kawa Bay, but not here," he continued.  "Kawa Bay is not for sale."

Uncle Abel, with his accented, sometimes Pidgin English and blood ties to the Hawaiian royal family, is a relic of a Hawaii that few mainlanders know, understand, or care about.  Along with Uncle Moses ('uncle' here marking respect and seniority) and a rolling cast of family members and friends, he makes his home at Kawa Bay, a 500 acre tract of crown land-- family land.  It encompasses sacred surfing spots, no less than eight valuable fresh water sources, and carefully cultivated native plants.  Here, the Uncles live legally as 'native tenants,' or illegally as squatters, depending on whom you ask; an objective inquiry, however, would determine their claim to the land to be legitimate, though contested.  Here, they fly the Hawaiian Kingdom flag and live off the land like their ancestors for centuries before.

Before I continue, I would like to make a request: In the spirit of anthropology, please withhold judgement.  The Uncles and their family may to some seem crazy, anti-American, threatening or foolish, and you are free to view them through this lens, but if you can step outside these judgements, perhaps you will see the lonely beauty of Kawa Bay and its inhabitants' determined struggle for autonomy.  Am I biased.  Maybe you are wondering this.  I am touched by the Hawaiian people's losses and the indifference with which history has treated them, as I am touched by the stories of dispossessed people throughout the world.  However, I will present, as always, a truthful representation of what I have seen and learned.  My descriptions may at times be colored by my opinions, but my presentation of quotes and events will always be factual.  My intention is to narrate, not analyze.

Somewhere between miles 58 and 59 on the Hawaii Belt Road, wooden signs sprang up curbside blaring hand-painted messages like "Native Tenant Rights Not For Sale" and "Honk to Support Hawaiian Sovereignty."  Yes, here was the enclave of Hawaiian sovereignty activity that I was seeking.  The Uncles, surely, could tell me more about this movement, so touching in its seeming futility.  When I met Uncle Abel, he clasped my hand in his and did not let go.  I explained that I am a student of anthropology, and I expressed my desire to hear his stories and talk with him about Hawaiian sovereignty.  He looked at me sharply and said that first, he wanted to know, "Who are you?"  He asked if my parents are living and if I have any siblings, and then he asked if I believe in God.  I blundered through a response, hoping it would be the right answer, that it would allow me to pass through the sphinx-guarded gates of his memories.

Entering the compound was easy; no gate or guard barred our passage as we turned into the driveway, a gravel, pockmarked track just off the main road.  In passing by that tangle of pro-sovereignty slogans-- inanimate sentries-- we crossed into Hawaii.  Hawaii, pronounced Havai'i, free of U.S. law, independent, self-governed.  Sure, with a population ranging from two to ten, with only one permanent structure and a few tarp shelters, but possessed of powerful symbolic implications.

"God is everywhere," Abel answered his own question, took charge of our conversation, and did not ask me about myself again for the remainder of my visit.  Still holding my hand, he led me to his cooking tarp (I presumed), from which there emanated a strong odor of burning firewood and brush, motioned for me to sit, and stirred something on the stove.  He sat, too, and as my friend (my partner in this adventure into Hawaii) and I listened, he began to tell stories, sometimes following a certain vein, sometimes at random pulling on threads of memory and showing us glimpses of the fabric of his life.  This storytelling, known as 'Talk Story,' is highly valued in Hawaiian culture.  Until the arrival of missionaries on the islands in 1820, the Hawaiian language was only spoken, the foundation of a rich oral tradition.  Stories, like the culture they sprang from, were living and breathing entities, meant to be experienced, lived.

My eyes occasionally wandered, repeatedly coming to rest on Abel's red shirt baring the words "It's a Liger!" and a drawing of a lion-tiger beneath.  The item, jarringly out of place, reminded me that I had left America in many ways, but not all.  He showed me a photo of his wife and two older children on the nearby beach.  His wife died of breast cancer at the age of 33, leaving behind their ten-month-old daughter.  Abel's children now live in exile in Canada; were they to return, they would be placed into foster care, as conditions of living at the compound are considered unfit by federal agencies.  Apparently, Kawa Bay and the Uncles are free only of certain U.S. laws.

His sister arrived early in the afternoon and told us of Abel's 62 arrests.  She herself currently faces trial for an incident with the neighbors (rival owners of Kawa Bay?).  The majority of these cases, I inferred, spring from clashes with the town and county over land use, land rights, and the attempts of the outside world to take possession of Kawa Bay.  A certain Edmund Olson it seems also claims ownership, and the county is currently involved in negotiations to purchase this land from the Olson Trust.  The desire to develop is sharply reminiscent of the desire to colonize, the need to buy strangely similar to the drive to conquer.

Towards the end of my visit, Abel disclosed that he spent 18 years (from 1966-1984) in prison, convicted of manslaughter.  Outwardly hiding my surprise (and dismay?), I asked myself if this changed anything.  I decided that it is necessary to record this information, 18 years being a significant portion of his 69 years of life, but that it does not devalue the rest of his story.  The circumstances were not explained to me, and I did not clarify.

"When I was in school," Uncle Abel recounted, "they were teaching us about this guy, the one who chopped down the cherry tree... Abe Lincoln?"
"George Washington?"
"Yeah, that one... and I raised my hand, and I said, "excuse me, but what does that have to do with me? What about my people's leaders?" I got in trouble for that."  He laughed.  I wondered if those were his exact words or if, like all great storytellers, he was embellishing.  The sentiment, however, is the same: why were Hawaiian children in the forties and fifties (when Hawaii was still a territory, not a state) taught only American history, never Hawaiian?  Why was their language banned?  In "A Call For Hawaiian Sovereignty," Michael Dudley and Keoni Agard suggest that decades of such education, using material to which native Hawaiians cannot relate, are responsible for low scores and high drop-out rates today.*

He changed topics suddenly: "One day, the voice told me to walk along the beach.  As I walked through my lands, it told me that I must grow food here-- taro and coconuts and bananas and papayas and pineapples-- all the foods of this land, and provide for my people."  His hands hovered over a bowl of greens and pork as he blessed it ("Oh Lord, our Father, please bless this food, Amen."), and I wondered to whom exactly this voice belonged.  The issue of land rights is one that plagues many groups mired in the aftermath of colonialism, and has yet to be resolved here in Hawaii.**  Uncle Abel's sister offered a simple and effective analogy for the situation.  "This land," she said in a commanding voice that drowned out her brother's, "is like a stolen car.  If you buy a stolen car, it is still stolen.  And if the police come and tell you that you have a stolen car, you give it back, and then you can take the thieves to court, but you don't keep it."  In Hawaii, however, the police tend to side with the (relatively) new owners, not the victims.  Non Hawaiian residents, here, are like the buyers of a stolen car; they are not responsible for the situation, having mostly bought land on the islands in the last half-century, but still they must help find a solution and treat native Hawaiians with understanding.  They could take the culprits to court, but what if those responsible lived a century ago?

An interesting question, leading to many proposals by various sovereignty groups, but not one that I received any answers to on this adventure.  In short, some groups advocate for tribe status per the Native American model, others demand complete independence from the U.S., and yet others seek financial retribution.  Native Hawaiians have a stronger claim than any other Native American group, having been an internationally recognized monarchy before annexation in 1898.  A formal apology, issued by President Clinton in 1993*** further strengthened this claim.  Hawaii's history is extremely complex, and I am working on condensing my notes on it into a manageable portion.  Until then, suffice it to say that sovereignty groups who cite the illegal overthrow of their monarchy by the U.S. are not delusional.  They are also not united.  Hawaii is graced with over 25 of these groups, some political, others social, each with a different vision for a 'sovereign Hawaii'.

The Uncles, despite their frequent legal involvement, seem somewhat removed from any larger movement.  Uncle Moses, with whom I could speak only briefly, told me about his life, spoke about energies, and showed us some objects of spiritual importance, given him by various shamans and kept in a circle of gourds.  He did not speak of sovereignty, but at one point he spoke of his children, fully grown now.  "My son recently asked me why I don't get a real house," he rasped through the stoma in his throat, and I leaned in close to catch his words.  "And I told him it's because I like living here.  I have food and water and shelter; that's all I need."  Uncle Abel's most recent court case found him fighting the town's spraying of pesticides, which were running into his land and water sources.  He read from the transcript of his final statement, "this isn't about Uncle Abel yelling and screaming, this is about the spraying.  The spraying that is poisoning the owls and the turtles in my land."  He showed us images of these environmental consequences.

The Uncles are not political per se.  The mostly wanted to speak about the land, the uses of a Noni tree, life, not a movement.  Nonetheless, their cause is the cause of the Hawaiian people.  Their very existence, their right by birth to independence and self-rule has been repeatedly challenged.  They have been forced to enter the world of Western law and politics to defend their position, stubbornly resisting the rule of this foreign government that has been placed over their land like a shroud.  And so they write slogans, they defend their freedom in courts of law that do not see their side of the argument and that they maybe do not fully understand.  With determination they refuse to yield.  Their struggle may be individual-- they want to live on Kawa Bay, their people are secondary--, yet in the essence of their stand can be found the claim of all native Hawaiians for independence.

*In the state of Hawaii, schools with the highest percentage of native Hawaiians test lowest.
**A concise history of Hawaiian sovereignty is in the works.
***Public Law 103-150, signed by Clinton on the 100th anniversary of the first overthrow of the Hawaiian government in 1893.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


"It's like church for some people here," was the phrase I heard several times to describe Kalani's "Ecstatic Dance."  Every Sunday morning at 10:30, locals ("punatiks") and Kalani community members alike convene at the arts center, an airy space with wood floors and a domed, stadium-style roof, usually used for yoga classes.  Transformed by trance and other instrumental music pumping through the sound system, the room becomes a place of dance... a place of worship for some.  Much like devoted church-goers, dedicated attendees of the Ecstatic Dance, or Sun-Dance as it is sometimes known, will never miss it.  Many come dressed in their island finery, somewhat akin to music festival wear (in other words, whatever seems like a good idea in the moment); tie dye, bright colors, and crop tops run rampant.  In a community where individual spirituality overwhelmingly wins out over organized religion, these Sunday mornings are the closest approximation you'll see to conventional prayer.  The rules? No talking. Only dancing. If you want to have a conversation, you have to take it outside.

After about a half hour of dancing, there is an opening circle in which someone (probably a well-established community member) offers a few words of inspiration, and everyone says their name.  At closing, another circle is formed, and those who are so inclined may speak a few words of appreciation (usually quite a few are so inclined).  Like everything else, participation in the circles in entirely voluntary.  And for the nearly two hours in between?  We dance, of course!  And this is about as far from your typical high school gym dances as you can get.  There is no judgement in this space, and often very little interaction between dancers.  Each participant is involved in the music, their individual expression through dance, and for some the spirituality of the experience.  How to describe the dancing?  Quite possibly impossible, but try to imagine every crazy and absurd dance move you've ever considered attempting but abstained out of embarrassment or fear of judgement.  Now add to that any experience you may have had at a music festival or drunken dance party.  Now take away all of the illicit substances, add in a great deal of grace, acceptance, and the beauty of total freedom, and you will have a vague conception of Sunday mornings at Kalani.

Those who are tired, or who aren't moved to dance may choose to sit against the wall or at a meditation corner at the back of the room, stocked with various icons, incense, and cushions.  Some people sway, some run around the room, some newcomers, unsure of what they have just gotten themselves into, leave.  Me? I've never been to church, but the Ecstatic Dance is undeniably a special place of self-expression, worship for some, and the shared joy of dancing. And that is something I can certainly relate to.

And it doesn't end there!  Sunday afternoons, many of the Sundancers and more locals head a mile down the road to Kehena Beach (black sand and clothing optional) for the weekly drum circle.  They walk, drive, or (mom and dad close your eyes), hitch-hike to get there.  When I went, there were about twenty drummers, plus various other musicians, and another hundred people lounging on the narrow strip of beach, backed by forty foot cliffs that some, in bursts of insanity or adventure, climb by way of the hanging banyan roots and vines.  The waves are unlike any I have seen before, breaking directly at the shore line, which makes for very difficult entry and exit.  When the tide comes in, it covers the bottom half of the beach, soaking those unfortunate beach-goers who choose to sit closer to the water.  The drum circle lasts late into the afternoon, and sitting in the lengthening shadows, engulfed by the rhythms of earth and sea, forms the perfect complement to the morning's ecstatic dancing.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Edge of the World

This is truly the edge of the world, I thought, as I rattled further and further into the Hawaiian rainforest on one of the free "Hele-On" buses.  As dusk fell, the arc of greenery overhead thickened into a natural ceiling and slowly deepened in color. I strained my eyes to keep watch out the window, certain that the driver, despite several polite reminders, would forget to let me off at Kalani's gate, or that we would drive off the edge of the world, whichever came first.  As we alternately flew and bumped over the narrow island road, struck by low-hanging branches, I savored the sensation of being entirely off the grid.

This is truly the edge of the world.  The final frontier.  I don't care what modern science will tell you; drive a little further west and you are sure to meet a harrowing end, the voice of a 16th century peasant shouting I told you so! ringing in your ears as you tumble from the precipice.  Weather here does not follow normal laws or patterns; since entering this part of the island, I have experienced the most mercurial weather imaginable.  After a half hour of heavy rain and angry winds, the sky will suddenly clear and the sun will burn brightly, quickly drying up the sponge-like earth. An hour later the sky will again darken to gray and a determined drizzle will engulf your immediate surroundings.  Your friend a mile away may, however, still be enjoying a beautiful sunny day.

My adventure began before I even arrived in Hawaii.  After arriving in L.A., I found my way to the airport Starbucks after a desperate search for food.  Unaware that Continental no longer served even pretzels or peanuts, I was ravenous, and promptly wolfed down a bowl of oatmeal and a tall mocha.  When I rose to leave, the young woman at the table next to mine looked at me intently.

Excuse me, she said with a vaguely European accent (and yes, European is the best description I can offer), I was going to say this to you earlier, but you seemed so involved with what you were doing that I didn't want to interrupt.  Well, you seem like a really lovely person... who cares a lot about other people... and I just wanted to tell you that... you should always be yourself.  Don't let anyone ever tell you that you should change, because you're perfect the way you are, you really are.

I thanked her, and sincerely, since her words were kind, even if the situation was rather bizarre.  I exited the Starbucks, but this encounter has somehow become linked to my summer in my mind.  It was my welcome to L.A., and it also marked the beginning of my adventures.  As you venture to the west coast and then beyond, to Hawaii, people as well as places, tend to fall further of the grid.  Not just weather, but behavior too, strays farther from our East Coast ideas of normalcy.  But isn't that the point?  Isn't that what has always drawn explorers further west and dangerously close to the edge of the world?  A search for different, an escape from convention, and, of course, treasure beyond compare.  The gold may be long gone, but these islands have not lost their magic.

This is truly the edge of the world, I thought, and the thought made me smile.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Imminent Departure

So, I caved. I wasn't planning on it, but here I am.  Blogging.  On the eve of a new adventure, I find myself once again choosing fonts, backgrounds, and titles.  Well, it sure beats mass emails.

What exactly am I doing in Hawaii, other than being in Hawaii, that is?  I am volunteering at Kalani Oceanside Retreat for two months.  I will be working in the kitchen, and in my copious (no sarcasm) amounts of free time, I will be practicing yoga, learning hula, and hopefully doing a bit of research on the Hawaiian sovereignty movement (if you're perplexed, don't worry, there will be more to come on that one).

What is this Kalani place? To quote directly from the website, "Kalani is an educational nonprofit organization that celebrates Hawaii, nature, culture and wellness..." It is part alternative vacation spot, part organic farm, part resident community, part yoga retreat, part "ecocultural learning" center, and 100% wonderful.  Located in a remote part of the Big Island, Kalani will be my home for the summer.

I'm off to Hilo at 6am on Sunday.  Once there, I will be blogging sporadically.  Expect a few photos from my beautiful new camera, more on the Hawaiian independence movement, a meditation on existence or two, and a bit (or more) about life on the Big Island.

That's it for now!