The idea of home has always been mysterious to me. What is it? A place? A feeling? Where the heart is? Is it the place you were born, or the place you became alive? -- because in my case, they're thousands of miles apart. So it hounds me.
I moved to Hawai`i on November 4, 2002. Like many things in my life, especially big decisions, I did it on a whim. Like most Americans, my knowingness of Hawai`i was limited to pineapples (an introduced species), the Brady Bunch and the curse of the tiki, and that Mele Kalikimaka song played ad nauseum at Christmastime.
I was vaguely aware that there was an ethnic group of people known as "Hawaiians," though in my erroneous mind they looked more Japanese than Polynesian. I had a (now embarrassing) image of grass skirts, huts on the beach, and probably some fauna that should never actually find its way to the most remote archipelago in the world. When my plane landed and I disembarked my Delta flight into the sea-sprayed night straight onto the tarmac of Keāhole Airport, I was embraced by that balmy air in such an indescribable way that, to this day, I am left with a residual warmth hovering somewhere above my solar plexus any time I think about it.
I learned some Hawaiian words very quickly. Haole: that was me. Pau hana meant hanging out with friends after my shift (when we were pau work). Kama`aina was a magic ticket, by way of my newly issued Hawaiian driver's license, to a discounted admission at various tourist destinations. When I first traveled abroad and told people that I lived in Hawai`i, I quickly learned that I had to distinguish the difference between being a Hawaiian and simply living in Hawai`i.
Oh, the lessons in the beginning were vast. But today, I have something more simple. Today I have a story.
A few days into being in Hawai`i, I panicked. I had less than a thousand dollars, I was staying at a hostel, there was no job awaiting me, and no further income to boot. Because Hawai`i is thousands of miles from any continental chunk of land, I opted not to pay the exorbitant fee to ship my crappy old car from the mainland (which was pretty much dead, anyway). There was no real bus at that time in Kona. In my chaotic, demoralized state, I decided I would fly back to Chicago, get a real job, pay off my credit card debt, and GROW UP (which, in my mind, meant "settling down" in the natal lands of suburban Chicago). Plus, I was in the middle of nowhere-slash-the-ocean. I borrowed my friend's cell phone (still a novelty at the time) to book the first flight out of that place, at the same time wildly ripping through my belongings to try to find the one thing I had been destined to lose: my wallet. And with it, my credit card, my passport, my social security card, my money: in short, anything that identified me as me, and would give me liberty to leave.
My plan had blown a gasket and I sunk even more deeply into confusion. It had really seemed like the right decision! Later that night, at the encouragement of my new friends, I accompanied a horde of haoles from the hostel to Magic Sands beach (also known as La`alia Bay). Idyllically picturesque in the summer, in the winter, the storms and swells swallowed the beach's perfect white sand to reveal its lava rock foundation. That night, some of us ventured into the still warm water, under the still fat moon, letting the growing winter waves push us back to shore. There's so much more that I know about the ocean now that I'm so glad I didn't know then -- like how wana (urchins) love rocky beaches, or how turning your back to a swell can mean a ride in the spin cycle. I felt so breathtakingly alive that I needed a moment to myself, climbing to the top of the life guard tower, weeping in gratitude under that gracious moon, the waves singing what would become my favorite lullaby. And I knew then: I couldn't leave. Not now. Not this place. Not if it made me feel this way.
The next day, I received a call on Matt's phone from a pastor. He had my wallet. Could I meet him at the sea wall on Ali`i Drive so that he could return it (with everything still inside, by the way)? Stunned, I retrieved my wallet. I was free to go. But I didn't go.
They say Hawai`i is like this: clear in whether she wants you or not. I am not Hawaiian, but I have been changed forever by Hawai`i, and I am only one person. In this sense, there are many of me. But there is only one of her.
N.B. These beach photos are not of Magic Sands.
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