He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

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Chanting with Waves

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Pololū, Kohala, Hawaiʻi

For PASI 301

I once met a man who chanted with waves.

Words s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d, vowels e-l-o-o-n-g-a-t-e-d, chanted s-l-o-o-o-o-w-l-y.

He was not in control of the timing, nor of time itself. The waves were. Thus, his breaths mimicked the rhythm of the ocean, which on that day, were smooth, slow, and steady.

He had not always been this way, of course. In fact, history had stripped his tongue of the taste of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the language his ancestors spoke, making the chant feel foreign in his mouth. He struggled with the words, rolled them around, chewing on them, all the while frustrated at what should have been his since birth, but wasn’t.

When I spoke to him years later, he recalled being led to the shoreline. His teacher pointed to a stone. “Here,” he was told, “stand here.” Nervously, he did as his teacher instructed, steadying his bare feet on the hard, black surface beneath him, eyes fixed on the ocean.

He would rather have eaten stones. But here, he was made to swallow the sea.

Now chant.

Each line had to follow a wave, a single wave, as it moved toward the shore. He was told that he could not complete a line until the water hit the sand. Thus, the once small and simple chant was drawn out, slowed down, made to match the tempo of the waves, the tune of the sea, the flow of his Pacific. There was no rushing the process for there could be no rushing when it came to remembering who and what he was.

It was hard at first, as hard as the stubborn stone he stood upon. But slowly, s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y, memorization and recitation gave way to internalization, to feeling the chant, to knowing it, and tapping into an ancestral rhythm that was always there, yes, there, just beneath the surface.

He had learned to chant with the ocean.

His story always comes back to me, much like the incessant waves that beat upon the shore and return, time and time again, no matter how many times they are sent away. It washes over me. Unlike him, however, I grew up chanting the chants of my ancestors, grew up dancing their dances too. I never knew the discomfort he felt, never experienced how the ancestral could feel foreign in the mouth and in the body.

And yet, he had seemed to capture something I’ve been trying my entire life to grasp: the ocean.

As one of my intellectual ancestors, Epeli Hauʻofa, once said, the ocean is “the inescapable fact of our lives” (p. 405). She is always there, always present, always impacting: hitting us when we need to be hit, soothing us when we need to be soothed, and rocking us gently when we need both compassion and reality.

And while many of us “lack the conscious awareness” of the ocean, she never turns away from us or hides away, irritated at our ignorance (p. 405). Rather, she waits because “The potentials [of the sea] are enormous, exciting—as they have always been” (p. 405).

When he said he chanted with waves, that’s when I learned, truly learned, what Epeli had been saying all along: The ocean is in us. Our words, our chants, and our actions are not meant to merely mimic the waves or to follow the sea. They are meant to remind us of the ocean that exists within, of our own fluidity, or as my intellectual hero, Teresia Teaiwa, once said, of the salt water we cry and sweat. Yes, the ocean is in us. Thus, to tap into that fluid and always expanding nature within is to chant, dance, write, stomp, rage, cry, and sing with the waves, never against them (never against ourselves).

Yesterday his story returned to me once again as I said goodbye to a group of students who I have shared the last twelve weeks with. I will not say that I “taught” them. Rather, I will honor the fact that we taught each other, and that we learned and grew together. As we moved around the classroom, listening to each student share their personal reflections, stories, and highlights from the term, I felt like that man, standing on the shoreline, chanting with the waves.

You see these students had become my waves, my ocean.

Over the past 3 months, I’ve watched them rise like the tide to fill spaces that had once been left empty in their own lives, and then to tread in their wholeness, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes passionately. I watched them emerge—struggling at times, as we all do—but emerge nonetheless. Yesterday, they spoke of voice, of passion, of confidence, of pride, of responsibility, of ancestral wisdom, of dreams, of hope, of love. “Love,” one of them said, “is a political act!”

What more could I have asked for?

They had embraced love as a social force, a force for change. They had hopes for freedom, not just politically, and not just for themselves. They knew that if they stared too intently at the stones they stood upon as individuals that they would miss the pull, the draw, and the tune of the ocean. So, they embraced it. They embraced it as part of themselves.

It was liberating.

For it was not just the Pacific that had been liberated, but it was the ocean within them that had been freed. 

Freed to flow.

And it did flow: smoothly, s-l-o-w-l-y, steadily. They created waves and they became waves, beating against my heart, soothing and rocking my soul. They made me want to move and chant with them. They shared their dreams and hopes for our Pacific, and in time, I settled into their rhythm, and their dreams and hopes became my own, for them, for all of us.

As I left the classroom, I carried hope, like the man who chanted with waves, an internal, beautiful, and radical hope for the future. And although I cannot see or predict that future, I know we will create it together: me, my waves, and our Oceania.

References:

Hauʻofa, E. (1998). The ocean in us. The Contemporary Pacific, 10(2), 391-410.

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Living Creatively

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Following my inspiration (in orange shoes).

My partner lives his life creatively.

Before I continue, I suppose I should clarify. I’m not just saying that he is a creative person. I think we are all creative and that we each have the capacity to express that creativity in our own ways. What I mean is that he lives his life creatively. Whereas my creativity is often bound and shackled to my fears and doubts, his was never restricted, never tied down, never given to him with conditions in the first place.

It’s one of the things I admire most about him. But, if I’m being honest, it’s also a bit irritating. I’m almost certain, though (emphasis on almost) that my irritation is born out of a smidgen of envy. (Yes, I’ll admit it: envy. Shame!)

You see, when I have a grand idea, or at least something that I think is grand, I’ll hold on to it, I’ll think about it, then I’ll think longer and harder, and then I’ll consider it from every possible angle. (And then I might even create new angles to view it from if I feel it needs further exploration.) After all my thinking and all my hard considering, however, I often end up convincing myself that the idea was never quite that “grand” to begin with.

Then I let it go.

And it certainly does go…as far from me as it can. That is, of course, if I did not first think it to death, sending it to a grave for inspirations.

All I am left with, after so much mental exertion, is the memory of long hours thinking but not really doing or creating anything. It’s exhausting: exhaustion with no product.

It’s wasted energy, like running on a treadmill that although good for the body, gets you nowhere.

My partner is different. When he gets a random spark of inspiration, he jumps at it. There is no drawn-out consideration process involved. There is no self-doubt, no internal voice telling him that his ideas are “dumb,” or “impractical,” or “impossible.” (That would be my voice, of course.) Rather, in that moment, he simply follows the inspiration before it is given any chance to escape him, whether that “spark” is revealing an image to be drawn in his sketchbook, or whether it is telling him to build an elaborate castle for our axolotl tank (Don’t know what an axolotl is? Think of a salamander, but one with big gills that lives underwater and slurps up worms like spaghetti.) I have seen him do both, by the way: jump up to sketch and perfect his drawing techniques and then jump up to build a castle, that despite leaving our house a complete mess for a few weeks, did actually turn out to be quite “grand.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I am wrapped up in first trying to consider whether my ideas are even worth following—and then trying to determine whether my ideas are important enough to society—he sees all ideas for their potential. No, I’m not saying that he follows through with all of them. Some get left on the wayside eventually (and thankfully, I might add).

I guess the point is that he tries. On a weekly basis, I’ll hear him suddenly and randomly say something like, “I know…” or “Actually….” Without finishing the phrase he leaves whatever he is doing to go and chase the inspiration before it leaves him, or before the inspiration gets so bored with his drawn-out contemplation that it looks for someone else, someone who is willing to not only move with it but to move with it when it’s at its brightest. (I’d be the first person, of course, the inspiration buzz-kill!)

I often get caught up thinking that my ideas need to mean something or that they have to have some huge social, cultural, political, or even environmental value outside of my head. Unfortunately, when I can’t determine that exact value, or when I cannot see how my creativity may be of use to society, I dismiss it. I dismiss whatever inspiration hit me as being frivolous. Basically, if it cannot “save the world,” then it’s useless, right?!

Of course, I’m being dramatic…but only a little.

When I think about it, though, whoever said that my ideas have to save anyone or anything?

No one.

That’s not to say that my partner’s ideas are not important or not valuable or not meaningful to society. When inspiration hits, it fills him with joy and he follows it to maintain that joy. No, the creative process is not always a bliss-filled experience for him. Sometimes sketches are thrown out, sometimes paintings are smeared, sometimes things break, sometimes some of my things become the casualties of his creativity (but that’s another story), and sometimes he faces hurdles and he crashes. But, he always gets back up. Why? Because he is not under some assumption that his work needs to save anyone or anything as long as it brings him happiness.

Is that selfish?

No.

Again, who ever said that inspiration comes with conditions or expectations? Who ever said that inspiration had to be about more than self-contentment? 

No one.

And honestly, even while I can still feel the irritation (climbing up my spine and into my strained neck) when I think back to the time our living room was covered with tiny, white bits of polystyrene during his prolonged castle-building-from-recycled-materials phase, I cannot deny that it brought me joy. Joy and irritation, yes. But joy nonetheless.

You see his creative living inspires me.

And at the end of the day, I suppose that’s what the world needs more of: more inspiration, more creativity, more joy for the sake of joy. We have enough to worry about and to be fearful of, enough to make us shout, to make us rage, to make us want to hide under the covers and not face another day.

So why not live creatively and follow passion when we can?

On occasion, and perhaps without him realizing it, he helps me to get over myself, to move out of my own way, and to say, “You know what, I’m going to follow this; I’m going to go with it, and I don’t care if it doesn’t have any huge purpose or meaning right now, or ever!!”

“I’m going to be in the joy of the moment.”

This blog, for example, hit me while reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I devoured page after page, feeling as if she was instructing me (just me) on how to be more creative. And then I peered over the edge of my book and saw my partner lying on the carpet, pencil in hand, eraser shavings scattered across the floor (taking the place of the polystyrene bits that once used to reside there). He lay on his stomach drawing a detailed dragon, completely satisfied that he had finally “figured out” the snout after many attempts to get it “just right”. And I realized, in that late night moment, as I looked at the fire-breathing creature take shape before him, that I didn’t need a book about creativity because I had a model lying on my living room floor, a messy, spontaneous, and yes sometimes-frustrating model of how to live life creatively.

He was right there. My inspiration. All along. 

So this blog may not have meaning in the grander scheme of things: it may not bring justice to anyone, it may not raise awareness for any particular issue, and it may not speak to, speak back, or speak against anything really. In the end, it’s about inspiration and about releasing the need to have it mean anything in particular to begin with as long as it brings me joy, which this has. It’s made me smile in the way that writing often makes me smile when it just feels good and flows.

Besides, who ever said that joy was not reason enough to do something?

No one.

Plus, at the end of the day, we never know what our random musings may come to mean to someone else. And perhaps that’s the reason the inspiration hit us in the first place: so that we could bring it, whatever “it” ends up being—whether a blog, or a photo, or a drawing, or yes, even a castle or a dragon—to the world.