She leaned toward the microphone, looked out at the nearly one hundred new students seated before her, and in an introduction to Pacific Studies, she said, in her poetic way—a way that only she could—
“I eat, breathe, sleep, and shit the Pacific.”
She wasn’t lying.
I never knew a woman with a greater dedication, a greater love, a greater sense of belonging to our sea of islands. Teresia Teaiwa was a force, pulling; she was a song, inspiring; she was a fire, igniting passions and responsibilities.
She pushed and pulled me into tides, sang to my soul, and fed my flame. She feeds it still.
I think of her often, especially when I stand before my own students. She taught me how to stand:
To stand for something.
To stand for someone.
To stand in the wisdom of our ancestors.
To stand in song and story.
To stand in strength and hope, no matter how radical that hope may be.
To stand because to do so is to maintain our space and place in this world.
To stand and ground my feet into sands and soils, waters and wetlands, forests and fires, not for me, but for all of us.
A few months ago, one of my students asked, “Don’t you ever get overwhelmed?” There is so much pain in the Pacific, she had learned—from people being killed and lands being bombed, to islands being swallowed by the sea, to oceans and waterways being polluted and homes being devastated, to minds and hearts being separated from their lands, their histories, their futures.
“Of course I do,” I answered honestly. My mind cannot even begin to grasp the vastness of our region let alone the diversity of our languages and cultures, the breadth and depth of our stories, seas, sounds, and skies, and the legacies of our pain. “Sometimes it’s unbearable,” I told her.
However, I try to remind myself, as Albert Wendt once said of Oceania, “…only the imagination in free flight can hope—if not to contain her—to grasp some of her shape, plumage, and pain. I will not pretend to know her in all her manifestations. No one—not even our gods—ever did; no one does…whenever we think we have captured her she has already assumed new guises—the love affair is endless” (p. 71). My love affair with Oceania is, and will always be, endless. I love it through pain and I love it out of pain.
That’s what Teresia meant when she spoke to her students. She loved every part of our moana, every part that she could grasp and attempt to understand, every part that she could mold with her own hands, every part that she could speak and sing into existence, every part that she could stand for. And although the Pacific shifts and changes in every instant, her dedication to our sea of islands never wavered. We will never know everything there is to know about our ocean for as soon as we think we have mastered it a new wave enters, sweeping upon our shores, washing the sands that we dug our feet into just moments before, making our footsteps obsolete. But that’s the point; it’s what keeps us captivated. It’s what moves us body and soul. We are here to be part of the change and to inspire transformation in the process.
Stagnation in a realm characterized by water is impossible, and like our waters, we cannot be stagnated: made to stand still, made to cower and give-up, made to hide when it all just seems like too much to handle. Instead, we “eat, breathe, sleep, and shit the Pacific.” We taste it, we touch it, we dream it into life. We look at the beautiful and the profoundly ugly. We address the hardships. We smell the stink of our histories, uncovering the hidden, kicking up dust, and scrubbing grime. We pray. We dance. And we cry. We cry a lot. We orient ourselves to the ocean that unites us, the ocean in us, the ocean that is and will always be our pathway to each other. We find our mana there.
And everyday, when I feel overwhelmed by it all, I think of our dear Teresia, the fierce and fiery canoe, and I ask myself, “What would she do?”
She would stand, smile, and yes, even shit the Pacific when it requires such cleansing (and flushing).
Wendt, A. (1976). Towards a New Oceania. Seaweeds and Constructions, 7, 71-85.