He Wahī Paʻakai: A Package of Salt

adding flavor and texture to your world through story


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Skin Stories

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I recently read that we are our stories. That’s all we really are: Stories.

So, these are pieces of mine, small pieces that I’ve selected to share because of an idea I came across earlier today: stories can heal and stories can injure; it all depends on how we tell them.[1]

And I am ready to heal.

So heal I will through small, skin stories.

If I lay myself bare I can only imagine the stories my skin would tell, each mark, each scar, each stretch a story of its own. I can imagine the tales that would be assumed: interpretations and misinterpretations of a life lived in some place, at some time, with some one, or some two, or some more.

Even as a lover of words—someone who grips them at night, holding them in the dark, finding the right spaces to fit them in to, the most titillating order to organize them in to, the perfect positions to drag them in to—there is something thrilling about the absence of words, the exposing of skin, the revealing of truths, the arousal of the purely sensual, before the intellectual (even if just for a moment). One exhilarating moment.

There’s something exciting and terrifying about being read in such a way: exposed, wordless, no room for intervention, for explaining, for correcting (not initially, at least).

I was read. And it was painful. But I’d probably allow it to happen again just to see my stories briefly through someone else’s eyes, to feel them in someone else’s breath against my cheek, to smell them in someone else’s sweat.

I once had a love who read me. He clawed at my heart until it bled words that he could understand, until lines pumped from my veins, and pushed out through my skin. Like a martyr, I smeared them with my fingertips, stretching them over every curve of my body so that he could decipher them easily.

I tried not to flinch as he read them, his eyes moving painstakingly over the canvas of my skin, searching for meaning. He fixated on the corner of my mouth at first, using his finger to part my lips, hoping to inspire sound. When I did not utter an audible word, however, he proceeded to trace letters, slowly, up my arms, down my legs, across my chest, at my thighs. Pausing. Pulsing.

But, as he touched each word, he wiped them away, memorizing what he thought was worth knowing and banishing the rest, sending them back into me. Keeping the insecurities. Ignoring the strength.

And I let him.

Three years later, I believed that his stories—the ones he had created about me—were my own. It took me a long time to realize that what he told himself about me, and what he told me about me, reflected him more than it did the person I initially let him see: lying bare, exposing skin.

I was lost.

In the telling of this story, however, I do not blame him. At least, I don’t in this latest rendition. Earlier versions crafted in my head were created in anger, born from heartbreak. They were raw, mean, and purposeful for me.

Tonight, though, I choose to tell a story that heals rather than injures.

I realize now that I fell victim to likability[2], opting to be what I thought could be liked. I knew no other way than to please, to mold and adjust. So, I tried to change my skin, making it smaller, hunching my shoulders, watching my face sink, as I disappeared into him. That’s the story I thought I read on his body, what I thought he wanted, what I thought could keep him from reading some one else, or some two, or some more naked bodies.

In the end, though, “pleasing” did not work. Who could like me when I wasn’t me? Who could love the vanishing?

As much I do not blame him, I also do not condone dishonesty, cheating, or conscious deceit. And that’s not just residual hurt speaking. It’s truth. My truth. My story. One of my skin stories, inked into the back of my neck: a center, a circle, a point of return and departure.

My skin has so much to tell now.

My ears tell stories: freckled with mixed-raced marriages, legacies of struggle, tiny spots marking the contamination of the noble, or the civilization of the savage, however you prefer to read them.

My hips tell stories: narrow and barren, nothing like my mother, her mother, or her mother before her, spaces that shamefully have not expanded for the next generation, or spaces that someday might, however you prefer to read them.

My legs tell stories: a lifetime spent dancing, shattered knees, and muscled thighs, calves that did not always fit into denim jeans, or calves that still try to assimilate, however you prefer to read them.

And my back, my naked back tells stories: a indention from a childhood illness, stretch marks from the weight I used to carry, and a long, tattoo down my spine: my journey to or from home, or both, wherever you believe that home may be: in space, in time, in some one, some two, or some more.

I know the stories. And today I smile keeping them on the surface, opting to show scars, to celebrate marks, to find beauty in the way my skin has stretched, because the most important lesson I’ve learned in the reading is that I do not need to adopt someone else’s story—some one, or some two, or some more stories—based loosely on me while reflecting more of them.

I can, and should, reject likability, teaching others to do the same, wearing my stories because they are all that I am, owning them, choosing them, everyday, for how they continue to cure and heal my wounds, and for how they can offer a bit of medicine to the next reader.

 

[1] These ideas come from Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: A native narrative.
[2] Rejecting likability is an idea inspired by Chimamanda Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto.


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A Gift of Dreams: For the Senior Class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina 2017

The following speech was delivered as a commencement address for the graduating class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina on May 26, 2017.

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The senior class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina New Century Public Charter School 2017

She had come seeking facts, things she could memorize, things she could forget when the test was over. She didn’t want to hear about heart and she certainly didn’t want to listen to her own.

“It takes a lot of effort to care about something you cannot change,” she said, looking at her own hand holding her favorite purple pen, ready to take notes on anything worth writing.

That day her paper remained blank.

I teach a class entitled Introduction to Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu. In our attempt to move beyond “mundane fact,” as Samoan novelist and scholar Albert Wendt encourages, I push my students to not only examine the Pacific, but to explore their place in it [1]. I always hope that students will not only come to see themselves in the land, but to see the land in them, to not only seem themselves in the ocean, but to see the ocean in them, to not only see themselves in the sky, but to know the elements of the sky that exist in them.

Some call me a dreamer for having such high expectations. “It’s just a college class,” they say. But I’ve never viewed my role as “teacher” in the traditional sense. Rather, I believe I am there to inspire a deep engagement, a diving into the depths of our existence as Hawaiians, as Pacific Islanders, as indigenous people, so that we can, as Māori poet Hone Tuwhare once said, “Dream good dreams again.” [2] With dreaming comes the ability to heal: to heal past wounds inflicted upon us, inflicted upon the ancestors we carry, and inflicted upon the ancestors we are becoming.

Last semester, my class examined some of the most pressing issues in the Pacific, everything from climate change, rising sea levels, and dispossession; to military training, and bombing; to genocide in West Papua. Some of my students were introduced to these issues for the first time, completely disturbed at the not-so-“pacific,” or peaceful, nature of our ocean, a region that is sold to the rest of the world as a place of peace, a region that is advertised and exploited as a paradise.

Some of the students knew about these issues, but not the severity of them. Some were moved to act, enraged, sharing information on their social media outlets, making signs and taking pictures to increase awareness. And some, like my fact-seeker with her purple pen, did not want to care. It was horrible, she agreed. All of the injustice in the Pacific was terrible. However, to care so much about something she could not change was a waste of time, a waste of energy.

“What can I really do to change anything,” she asked.

I tried to answer by telling her my own story, about how I choose to do something, anything really, rather than do nothing at all. I choose to fight even if and when I may lose. “Doing nothing,” I said, “is not an option for me.” I quoted George Helm, my hero and a true aloha ʻāina who once said, “Call me radical for I refuse to remain idle.”

I told her that even speaking the names of places and peoples often forgotten, places and peoples often deemed too small or too insignificant for genuine care, was a conscious choice, a radical choice. I raised the names of West Papua, of Tuvalu, of Kiribati, of Bikini, of Mauna Kea and of Pōhakuloa. I spoke them, hoping to make them real for her, for all of us. “We need not see a place, or touch it physically,” I said, “to be impacted, to feel, to have our hearts shaken.”

Near the end of the semester, she wrote a final reflection about how injustice in the Pacific is indeed something to learn about, to talk about, to share. However, she maintained that since she could do nothing about any of these issues, that it was wrong of me to fill students with hope, or with what she saw as the unrealistic dream that they could inspire any real change.

With a heavy heart, I wondered: What happened that she had lost her ability to dream good dreams, to have hope, to be radical, to fight even if and when she may lose just because it’s the right thing to do?

I wanted her to dream with me, and call me radical, for I still hope that she one day will.

A few weeks later, I returned to Waimea and found myself sitting at a lunch table with a group of students, the senior class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina: bold and brave dreamers. We spoke briefly about their lives and goals, their reflections on education, their motivations. We even spoke about Pōhakuloa, the bombs that we could hear and feel that week, the bombs that shook our earth, and shook us with it. I saw pain in their faces, pain linked to caring. They did not need to be instructed on seeing the ʻāina in them or seeing themselves in the ʻāina, in their surroundings, in their universe.

They felt it.
They knew it.
They lived it.

And while it may sound odd to find comfort in witnessing their distress, their anguish, their heartfelt concern for land and nation, I left that lunch hopeful.

Yes, it does indeed take a lot of effort to care about something you may not be able to change: to stop sea levels from rising, to prevent destruction and desecration, to end genocide. But these haumāna were willing to care anyway: to care for the potential, for the possibility, for the chance of hulihia.

When I eventually returned to my job and my students on Oʻahu, I carried these haumāna with me. They are our dreamers for tomorrow, the ones brave enough to consider a better future, even if and when the world tries to kill their hope, the ones who know, unconsciously, that as Hawaiian epistemologist Manu Meyer once said, “conflict is the midwife of consciousness.” Conflict, in other words, provides the space and the time for us to grow, to learn, to rise.

One day my older sister, Keomailani Case, explained this to me using the land as her guide, her teacher. We need only look at our environment to see this in action, she said. “Change and challenge prompt evolution.” Plants and animals adapt to survive. Thus, like our rooted and winged relatives, we too can evolve and thrive when faced with obstacles, with anything that threatens our existence. These students seemed to know this innately, ancestrally, at the naʻau.

Unlike my university student who has been so jaded by the world, so impacted that she would rather be numbed by pain then live through it, these haumāna recognized the beauty in caring. With each fall comes the ability to rise; with each stumble, the ability to reexamine your path; with each step back, the potential to learn from the past, to harness the power of all of the kūpuna before you, and carry them into the present once more. Caring, amidst all of the challenges, makes this possible. It is only when we lose hope that we will begin to perish. The ultimate bomb of colonialism, as one of my favorite scholars Ngugi Wa Thiongʻo once explained, is when a people begin to lose faith in their capacities, their power, their unique customs and ways of articulating the world, and ultimately, in themselves. [3]

These seniors, as well as all of the haumāna at Kanu o ka ʻĀina, are the medicine for that pain, the recovery, the healing, the source of new light. They have not lost faith and hope. When I left them after our lunch, I thought about the fearless ones they resemble, the bold and brave ancestors whose hopes still make our hearts beat, our passions take shape, our minds imagine better futures. They are the descendants of the courageous, those brave enough to care and to act upon that concern even when the world tried to kill them: mind, body, spirit.

Kāula, or prophets, were one such people. They lived with the knowledge that their words, their visions, and their dreams, could result in change, in upheaval, in reversal, and sometimes, even in death. They gave voice to their visions without the fear of consequence, living with a certainty that many of us hide, or worse, that many of us try to get rid of. They lived knowing that “inā make, make nō; inā he ola, ola nō.” [4] If the were to die, they would indeed die; but if life was their fate, they would indeed live. They were divinely guided, telling of the future. Sometimes their words spoke of blessings, of victory, of triumphs. At other times, they spoke of doom, of unavoidable chaos and change. And on some occasions, they spoke of an indefinite time, their words being given endless life and relevance, still penetrating our existence today.

One such prophet was a man named Kapihe. In an era referred to as “Kanīʻaukani”—or the “Sounding of Coconut Ribs,” a time named for when the great chief Kamehameha I returned to the island of his birth after living on Oʻahu, a time when his kāhili moved and sang in the wind—Kapihe uttered what has arguably become one of the most famous wānana, or prophecies, for our people today:

E iho ana ʻo luna
E piʻi ana ʻo lalo
E hui ana nā moku
E kū ana ka paia

What is above shall come down
What is below shall rise up
The islands will unite
The walls will stand

Despite being criticized, and at one time even being called a “kanaka wahaheʻe,”[5] or a man with a slippery and slimy mouth like an octopus, a man of lies and deceit, he stood before Kamehameha I and declared these words, words that we still chant today, words that tell of the ultimate reversal:

What is up shall come down.
What is below shall rise.

In other words, there is always the possibility of change, even when you think you are helpless, even when you think your people are doomed, even when you think that your efforts and energies are wasted on dreams. His words teach us to dream anyway.

When I attended Kanu o ka ʻĀina, we chanted Kapihe’s words to close each and every school day, reminding ourselves that we were, and will never be, powerless. As long as we remember that our kūpuna stand with us, at our sides; as long as we continue to use their words and their wisdom to give expression to our lives; and as long as we forward with hope, and act, always, from a place of aloha, then we will never be hopeless.

When we look at the genealogy of Kapihe’s prophecy, and track its journey through time, we see that his words were not always interpreted positively. Some found his declaration offensive, predicting the eventual fall of Kamehameha. In later generations, some saw it as a prophecy that foretold the fall of our gods, our people, our ways of life. Some saw it as an affirmation of occupation. Some believed that it accurately predicted the coming of foreigners, foreign governments, foreign powers, and of spiritual and psychological colonization. Some even believed that these things were pono.

Generations later, however, we use it as a chant of promise, one that predicts yet another reversal, a restoration of justice, a resurgence of pride, a revitalization of spirit, a return to ea, to true sovereignty—mind, body, and soul. We have the power to make that choice, to use his words for good, to interpret them to speak to our existence, our struggles, our dreams and hopes today. We make the choice to chant in anticipation of better, to work towards better, to ensure that the world our children and grandchildren walk in will be one in which they can continue to be indigenous, one in which they can continue to carry us in their hopes, one in which they can dream good dreams again, for their families, for their people, for their nation, and for the world.

This school was the result of a dream, of a vision, of a refusal to believe in less, a refusal to settle for less, an ultimate refusal to believe that the energy expended advocating for something others didn’t believe in—whether language revitalization, cultural and spiritual awakening, or soul centering—was not worth it. The education of these students was made possible because someone, one of the most influential dreamers and mana wahine I know, was radical enough, was motivated enough, was driven enough to imagine change, to picture it, and then to work tirelessly for it. She was and is proof that the effort is always worth it, that believing in change, even when we are taught that it is impossible, is the first step towards breaking through those structures of power and domination that seek to keep us down. It is the first step towards reversal: towards the rise, towards the restoration of ea.

Today, I chant the words of that famous prophet, Kapihe, the man once called slippery and slimy because he dared to be bold and brave, because he dared to dream something different. I chant his words because they remind me that I can be like the kāula, or the prophets and soothsayers of the past. I may not be able to predict the future. I may not be divinely guided. I am directionally challenged and sometimes lack common sense. But, I maintain, despite every single challenge, despite every single injustice, that change is always, always possible, that caring is always, always necessary, and that dreaming of a better future even if and when history has taught us not to, is my kuleana; it is my responsibility. It is what it means to be indigenous: to exist continually, to survive, to persist and to insist on place, on purpose, on the life of our storied lands, seas, and skies.

I look at these haumāna, these students who have grown up with the words of their ancestors, with the prophecies of their kūpuna, who’ve chanted their hopes, who have recited their dreams, who have closed their days with calls for change, and I am awakened through them. They have known no other time. They have never known a time when it was not okay to be Hawaiian, to dance, sing, chant, write, speak and even shout in defense and in praise of who they were, who they are, and who they will be. And I can think of no better people to be our future dreamers, to envision and work towards a better world.

So, to the papa ʻumikūmālua, this year’s senior class of Kanu o ka ʻĀina, to you I give the gift of dreaming. I dream of a life of purpose for you, one in which you walk with us, hands turned to the earth, hands feeling the land, hands connected to Papa; one in which you sing with us, eyes cast on the sea, eyes scanning the horizon for the space that connects us to our past, to the voyaging ancestors who brought us here from Kahiki, the strong and wise navigators and sailors whose names and legacies we still celebrate; one in which you hope with us, hearts lifted to the sky, never losing your connection to the realm of Wākea, never letting the world convince you that to care is to waste your energy. I hope you never lose your concern, or that knowing of what it means to be a kanu o ka ʻāina, a native of this land: connected, caring, dreaming.

Be like the prophets, the “poʻe makaʻu ʻole,” or the fearless ones. Hope; be radical. Dream; be bold. Chant, sing, and dance to tell the world of your existence. Fill your pages, write your stories across the land, draw and paint your dreams across the sky, send your voices out across the ocean. Use the tools you have to inspire revolution.

Kapihe taught us that change is always possible and that there is always the potential for reversal . Therefore, take up the task to maintain hope. Carry kuleana across your back; shoulder the burden and the privilege with us. Learn, grow, and evolve with time. And never forget the kahua, or the foundation, you stand upon, here, at Kanu o ka ʻĀina.

When that which is above starts to come down, be there to witness and encourage our transformation.

E piʻi nō kākou!! Let us experience the rise together.

 

Footnotes

[1] (Wendt, 1976, p. 71)

[2] (Wendt, 1976, p. 74)

[3] (Thiong’o, 1986, p. 3)

[4] (Lionanohokuahiwi, 1916, p. 2)

[5] (Laʻanui, 1838, p. 83)

References

Laʻanui, G. (1838, 14 March). He manao hoakaka wale no keia no ko’u hanau ana, a me ko’u kamalii ana, a me ko’u hookanaka ana, a me ka ike ana i kekahi mau mea oloko o ke aupuni o Kamehameha, Ke Kumu Hawaii, pp. 81-84.

Lionanohokuahiwi, Z. P. K. (1916, 9 June). Haina o na ninau a ka anela o Mekiko, Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, p. 2.

Thiong’o, N. w. (1986). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Wendt, A. (1976). Towards a new Oceania. Seaweeds and Constructions, 7, 71-85.


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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.


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Write, Write, and Right On!

“There lies your hope. Hope to rage and write. To rage and dance and stomp-shake the ground… laugh and rage and write, write, keep on writing, don’t stop till you get there.”

Epeli Hauʻofa, “Write You Bastard”

My niece, ʻĀkōlea, sign-waving for Mauna Kea and bringing me along with her.

My niece, ʻĀkōlea, sign-waving for Mauna Kea and bringing me along with her.

My skin can’t comprehend the cold. It’s bitterly cold, painfully cold. At times, my skin freezes, dries, even seems to stop breathing. I’m caught still. So I search for sources of warmth, anything to bring relief to my skin born out of warmer soil.

Today, I retreat to my desk and watch my fingers dance across the keyboard. I feel a small heat begin to spread slowly: from my fingertips, to my palms, to my wrists, arms, chest. It touches my heart. I rage and write, write, and right on, dancing, and shaking the ground. I find warmth in rage, not an angry rage, but a poetic one: an ardor, a fervor, a passion, a raging poetic passion.

“Poetry…is not what we simply recognize as the formal ‘poem,’” says Robin Kelley in Freedom Dreams, “but a revolt: a scream in the night, an emancipation of language and old ways of thinking” (9). I write for freedom, the freedom to dream and hope for a better future, even if I don’t know what that future will be. Perhaps that is radical: “What makes hope radical,” Jonathan Lear reminds us, “is that it is directed toward a future of goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is” (103).

So I write because I have to, because “In the poetics of struggle and lived experience, in the utterances of ordinary folk, in the cultural products of social movements, in the reflections of activists, we discover the many different cognitive maps of the future, of a world not yet born” (Kelly 9-10). I imagine and dream of that world, the one that my children and grandchildren will one day live in, and I choose to picture a world better than this one.

Today, I choose to imagine a mountain free of telescopes. The chair of the TMT International Observatory Board, Henry Yang, recently announced that construction will commence this Wednesday on Mauna Kea. Like a chill and like the polar blast that’s settled into Aotearoa, his words sting. But I do not let them stop me from dreaming because I refuse to fight and stand against something without knowing what I am fighting and standing for.

So I rage and write, write, and right on for the future that I’ve pictured, imagined, and dreamt of: a future where my descendants will not have to fight against the desecration of their sacred sites. This includes every “site,” from their land, to their ocean, to their very bodies, minds, and hearts. I may be called radical; I may even be called naïve. But my body burns, heated with rage, and as I write, I can no longer feel the cold. I am warmed by movement, by social movements of hope, justice, freedom, and true aloha!

So these are my words, my poetic ragings. I will write, sing, shout, and dance them, taking my fingers from the keyboard and putting them to the sky, the sea, and the soil, as I choreograph a better future, my feet dancing, stomp-shaking the ground.

Whatever happens, continue to rage. Continue to write, write, and right on.

E kūpaʻa mau ma hope o ka pono.

Works Cited

Hauʻofa, Epeli. “Write You Bastard.” Wasafiri. 12:25 (2008): 67. Print.

Kelley, Robin. Freedom Dreams. Boston: Beacon Press Books, 2002. Print.

Lear, Jonathan. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.


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The Light

Photo 2015-04-24 11 16 35 AM

My uncle and his family. Photo taken by the Puhi/Haʻo ʻohana.

“The light bulb came on,” he said.

 This is for my uncle.

I grew up around strong men, men who stood for something. They were the type of men whose hands were calloused, whose skin was darkened by the sun, who wore dirt like it was a part of them, their hats always rimmed in sweat stains. They were rough men who could inspire fear. But, oh their voices could soothe when I needed them to and their hands could hold my own when I wasn’t strong enough to stand. They taught me of strength.

I followed them in my youth: large rubber boots digging into rain-drenched forest floors. Silently stepping where they would step, I’d watch them not knowing if my feet would ever plant as deeply as theirs did or if my hands would ever be as steady. They were giants in stature with hearts to match. They’d give everything, even when receiving nothing in return. They taught me of sacrifice.

Yesterday, I spoke to one of these men: my uncle. Through the small screen of my phone, I saw him standing on the side of the road, a Hawaiian flag draped around him, tied securely on his right shoulder. His dark eyes seemed to look straight across oceans; his brow wore its usual wrinkle. He held a sign reading: “Stand for our Mauna!” Stand for our mountain.

He’s always stood for something and now years later, he stands for something still. No longer a child, I watch him and all of the other men who I grew up around. Like the ʻaʻaliʻi, they bend, but never break in the wind. They teach me of resilience.

Like a true uncle, he took a break from his sign waving, the sound of car horns filling the background, and asked me how I was, living so far away from home. Amazed at the wonders of modern technology that allowed me to be “there” without actually being there, he wanted to know what I’d be having for dinner, his voice full with the same humor that comforted my childhood, his feet still rooted in the ground.

“The light bulb came on,” he then said confidently. He had gathered with countless others, holding signs, showing their support and standing for Mauna Kea. He was dedicated. “We have to do it now,” he said, “or we’ll lose everything.” “I’m doing this for the kamaliʻi.” For the children.

I thought about his grandchildren, my little cousins, who I had talked to just before, their bright smiles giving me a spark of hope. And I realized that they’d follow him, their feet planted, their hands turned toward the ground, ready to tend and heal it. He’d lead them just as he and my own father led their children: by embodying those values that our kūpuna lived by.

I grew up around men who did not have to preach about aloha ʻāina because they knew of no other way to be: hands always soiled, feet always treading lightly, even while carrying the weight of generations. And I realized, as I looked at him wearing his Hawaiian flag and waving at cars as they passed by sounding their support, that his “light” had always been on and it had always shined brightly, guiding us, teaching us, illuminating our paths. However, he spoke as if he had just become a part of the movement. “The light bulb came on,” he said, as if he had not been a part of fighting, standing, and striving for the betterment of our people and our land all along.

But to me, he’s always stood for something, even when perhaps he didn’t realize it, and even when perhaps he didn’t receive any acknowledgement. Part of my childhood was spent watching him, my father, and countless other uncles stand for the life of our forests, for our livelihood, for our future. It often took them away from us; it sometimes brought hurt and anger. But it brought hope in equal measure. They taught me of responsibility. And they teach me still.

I hung up the phone wishing that I had told him how I felt, that it is because of him and the many other strong men in my life that I even know how to stand, firmly rooted, grounded in the wisdom of those who came before me. Men like him and my father taught me about aloha ʻāina before I even knew that it was a concept to learn. I wished I had thanked him. But I pictured him standing there, on the side of the road, our Hawaiian flag draped around him, with that same familiar smile that he always greets me with, and I knew that he’d be content just knowing that I will always stand with him, our hands turned toward the ground.


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For West Papua: A March with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Benny Wenda

The following piece was written to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (being celebrated in America today) and to raise awareness for West Papua. It was also written as a reflection on the work organized and performed by Oceania Interrupted, a collective of Māori and Pacific women raising awareness for issues affecting our Pacific region. Benny Wenda is an independence leader for West Papua, currently living in exile in the United Kingdom. This creative piece is an imagined dialogue between Martin Luther King, Benny Wenda, and myself.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

“Who will be the voice?” Benny asks. “Who will be the voice?”

I hear Martin’s words, singing: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

This matters. West Papua matters!

So, I take one step forward, my hands bound, my mouth covered in their flag, my body adorned in nothing but a black lavalava. My skin, mourning. But I find the breeze, kiss the rain, and bathe in spots of sun. 

Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. There is voice in these actions. Voice in these movements. Our pace is that of sacrifice, of suffering, of struggle. It is slow. But it moves forward, one step at a time.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Martin once told us that “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” 

Every step forward is another step towards justice.

Benny’s eyes water for his people: “Our people cry the last fifty years” but “Because we are ‘primitive’, nobody listens.”

I want to cry. I want to cry for them. But I will not dress the flag that binds my mouth in tears. I will only wear it with strength. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.

I stand in a line of women, Oceanic women, interrupted. Interrupting spaces, thoughts, actions. Giving space for West Papua: space to learn, space to see, space to feel.

I can feel the woman ahead of me, the one behind, our breaths in synch. Marching.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Martin once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

We stand for West Papua!

Fifteen years. Fifteen years is the amount of time a person in West Papua can be imprisoned for raising their flag. We wear it voluntarily.

At home, I can raise my Hawaiian flag everyday; I can wear it on my chest. I can speak of sovereignty, speak of indigenous rights. I am privileged.

So, I take another step forward. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. 

Every step forward, no matter how small, is another step towards justice.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Benny’s hope is like the wind pushing at my back: “I promise, one day West Papua Free! One day I will invite you to meet my tribe, when West Papua is free!”

I think of what his eyes have witnessed: the killings, the rapes, the torture, the imprisonment of his people and I am amazed at his resilience.

He limps forward, his leg injured in the bombing of his village. Every step, painful. Every step, suffering. Every step a sacrifice.

Martin’s words remind us in windy whispers, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Every step forward, even if crawling, is another step towards justice.

Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. There is voice in these actions. Voice in these movements.

Benny asks again, “Who will be the voice?”

I will. We will.

We cannot be silent. Silence and absence can be mistaken as consent. I do not consent to what is happening in West Papua. Therefore, I will not be silent. I will not be absent.

I will march. We will march, giving voice to those who cannot speak, to those who cannot fight.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Benny reminds us that we are not separate: “On the outside, we seem a different colour, but inside of your blood, what colour is that? It’s red.”

Therefore, to fight for our Pacific family is to fight for ourselves.

We all bleed red.

“Who will be the voice?” he asks again, then answers his own question, saying, “You are the voice of the tribal peoples around the world.”

Yes we are, Benny. Yes, we are. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.

Every step, no matter how small, no matter how difficult, no matter how scary, is another step towards justice.

Walk with me.

https://www.facebook.com/OceaniaInterrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

All photos are by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted and were originally posted here. The photos come from a series of acts performed in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. The first was at the Indonesian Embassy and the second was at the Positively Pasifika Festival held at Waitangi Park. The performances, using visual and performative art, were aimed at raising awareness for West Papua. They were entitled “Capital Interruption: Free West Papua.”

For more information on Oceania Interrupted, visit their page here.

All quotes by Benny Wenda are from here.

For more information on Benny Wenda, read his biography here.

For inspirational quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr., you can find them here.

And finally, for more information on West Papua, go to the Free West Papua Campaign page here.