Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Heaven and Hell

Heaven + Hell
are estranged sisters
eyeing each other
across uncrossable distances.

Each gathers her allies
   mutters darkly about the other.
   Envy might glint, sometimes, in their eyes.

Heaven plants her roots, sends up fronds
   sweet green shoots
   and harvests ripe.

Hell skims lightly over the world
   undoes bindings.

Heaven seals
    with honey and wax.

Hell dissolves,
    molecules sigh into their component parts.

Heaven keeps a tidy yard,
   bakes fresh bread,

Hell, she walks out the gate,
   leaves salty footprints (no backward glance)
   in her wake.
   She forgets.

(From a classroom prompt based on X. J. Kennedy's fantastic poem, "Nothing in Heaven Functions as it Ought." I had the kids brainstorm connotations and denotations of heaven and hell, and compare them to the Hawaiian concept of the afterworld, Keaopo, which is non binary, non-human, and plural. There's one on every island.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015


   The hollows and rough edges on elm trees
   the startled up-look of a deer
   the shallow whisper of the creek
Come with me and see!
   200 tones of green
   from emerald to scum
whitegreen underside of oak-leaf
greenblack shine of dogwood
slick green rocks
softgreen moss
   Come with me
   lift the stones suddenly
     if the crawdads
   will startle us
   prod the soft rotten log
come with me and
   whisper secret names into the hollows
   half-glimpse fairies
   half-hear gnomes
Come and follow the narrow path
Swing a stick-sword
   swoop away the spiderwebs
or else they'll snag our mouths
and eyes
tiny spiders jeweling us
Come and hear the complete quiet
   the hush of high-up branches in the air
   the careful step of our own small feet over the earth
Come and greet the forest of my twilit child-time.

(I challenged my students to write invitations based on Leaves of Grass (Thanks Kenneth Koch!) and I wrote one too. What's the point of having a neglected blog if not to post poems?)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Makauwahi: Eyes on the Smoke of History at Kaua'i's Cave

Five and a half million years ago, Ha'upu mountain was the molten heart of a new caldera. Kipukai was  another erupting core.  When the oceanic plate shifted, and the hotspot venting lava with it, Waialeale became the active volcano, and Ha'upu began to succumb to the wind and waves. Two million years later, as the volcanic activity settled down, pu'u-- or small cinder cones-- erupted from the volcanic plain all around.

Enormous sand dunes piled up on the south shore of Kaua'i, in the wet shadow of Ha'upu-- no longer a living volcano.  The years layered the soft round sand, and the rain leached the minerals out.
The dunes lithified into limestone. Ribbons of minerals twined under the sand: olivine and silicates. Cathedrals beneath the hard packed mineral protected hollows full of ancient ocean sand.

Ice ages came and went-- the polar ice caps grew and froze the earth's water. Water leaching through the limestone formed intricate stalactites under lithified sand dunes. Sea levels dropped: ten thousand years passed-- the ice caps melted. The sea levels rose and waves plowed through lava tubes under the limestone. Fresh water from the water table mixed with the salt water in underground caverns.

The water shot through lua-- holes-- in the roof of an enormous lithified cathedral below the dunes. The churching water smoothed the roof of the cave-- and finally the roof collapsed, and a brackish lake remained.

Animals and plants were washed into the salty water and preserved.  Seeds were pickled. Layers of silt captured generations of accidental flora and fauna migrations from wind and waves.

About a thousand ago, people arrived. Suddenly ipu (bottle gourds), kukui (candlenut), wauke (mulberry), niu (coconut), mai'a (banana), noni, uala (sweet potato)-- important polynesian plants appear preserved in the layers inside the brackish cave.

At the same time, staggering waves of extinction-- shocking absences-- change the layers. The endemic palm with its tasty-to-rats fruit-- the enormous land ducks and moa--other giant flightless birds disappear. Snails disappear. The moment humans come on the scene, we send out shockwaves of ecological destruction.

About 400 years ago, an enormous tsunami picked up boulders and huge chunks of coral reef forty feet above the sea level and smashed inland. The retreating wave hurled volcanic rocks and scoured the landscape. The megawave mashed back and forth between sea and land. There had been a human settlement between the water and the cave: it was atomized. The human terror that day remains in fragments of beaten tapa, in polished wana tools and hooks.

By the 18th century, the human settlement was rebuilt and called Mahaulepu. Or Māhāʻulepū. The people carved petroglyphs into the half-buried ocean stones-- the images surface now during the summer when the sands wash away. The people bent iron nails from shipwrecks into fish hooks. More people came, and brought goats and more iron. More extinctions ripple through the record.

It was clear that people never lived in the weird swampy cave. Their detritus washed in and accumulated accidentally.

But  even though the place was never for habitation, it was important to the people. A holy man named Keahikuni had a platform inside. People would crawl through the narrow entrance to the cave and wade through the water and bring him offerings. Keahikuni built ritual fires and read the smoke that swirled in the unusual trade-winds and cave eddies. He used highly polished basalt "mirrors"-- slabs of black volcanic rock painstakingly smoothed to a shine. Water could be carefully pooled on the surface, and the mysteriously distorted reflections read as a portal to the other world. His work there gave the place its name: Maka Uwahi-- Eyes on smoke.

Keahikuni's bones were denuded and secreted into the high cave walls, with many other ali'i. And in the center of the cave, an unusual limestone formation gave the who area its name: a 20 foot tall stone like a lingam-- he maha ule pu-- the foreskin of the flaccid penis-- or the head of the squid penis.

Today, grants and volunteers sustain the ongoing archeological research. An extensive garden of seeds recovered from the dig is guarded by sleepy baby boomer tortoises (whose gentle grazing mimics the work of the extinct moa that co-evolved with the threatened plants) and a mala (garden) of polynesian canoe plants and lo'i of cultivated taro reflects the work of a thousand years of Hawaiian cultivation. Archeologists and paleo-ecologists and Hawaiian cultural practitioners and storytellers and volunteers and activists work together to protect the endangered species and the bones, and the archeological and ecological research.

Today when I ducked my head and walked crouching into the cool cave, and saw the textured walls and the carved blow holes and the incandescent cat-eye algae shifting in the light-- it felt like magic. But better than magic: it's a time machine. Makauwahi is a place that allows you to peer 10,000 years back in time, layer by layer of sandstone, wave by wave of human influence. It's a small place, but it tells an enormous story.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

When in doubt... BUTTER MOCHI

Butter Mochi
recipe image
Submitted By: Lea
Photo By: RoseFalles
Prep Time: 15 Minutes
Cook Time: 1 Hour
Ready In: 3 Hours 15 Minutes
Servings: 24
"Butter and coconut milk flavor this sweet, baked, Japanese treat."
3 1/2 cups sweet rice flour (mochiko)
2 1/2 cups white sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
5 eggs
1 teaspoon coconut extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups milk
1 (14 ounce) can coconut milk
1/2 cup melted butter
1.Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease a 9x13 inch baking dish. Whisk the rice flour, sugar, and baking powder together in a mixing bowl.
2.Beat the eggs, coconut extract, and vanilla extract in a mixing bowl until the eggs are smooth. Whisk in the milk, coconut milk, and melted butter until incorporated. Stir in the flour mixture a little at a time until no lumps remain; scrape into the prepared baking dish, and smooth the top.
3.Bake in the preheated oven until the mochi is golden brown, about 1 hour. Cool to room temperature before cutting into 24 pieces to serve.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 2014 Allrecipes.comPrinted from Allrecipes.com 7/30/2014

AND ANOTHER THING-- wait, I mean, moving on.

So a long time ago, when I first moved to Kaua'i, I took my tiny adorable little 18 month old baby to the library. The automatic doors slid open, we smelled a blast of air conditioning and book mustiness, and my baby gasped, "YAY, BOOKS!"
The librarian, David, stage-hissed, "If she can't be quiet, she's going to have to leave."
I was so offended. I didn't want to ever go back.

But I realized something. This was MY library. I could walk there. There wasn't another one-- I had to get over it.

So I trained my kids to be terrified of the librarian, to be SILENT in the library, to gather as many books as we could and get OUT OUT OUT GO GO GO under his unflinching sniper eyes. And now... DAVID the MEAN LIBRARIAN.... he likes me. We are allies in a moldy, sandy, short-attention span, book-hating world. My kids are perfect library patrons for him. He gives me book recommendations. He will help me, with that hyper-vigilance, find obscure texts. I brought my 7-12th grade students there every three weeks last school year, and he gave me piles of resources and scurried around helping my students find what they need. We are united in our bibliophilia.

So, there's some lesson there. For me. Which I still haven't learned. But which I can sense hovering on the edge of my vision. I suspect the specter of that lesson won't go away until I've learned it. Like a poltergeist. I have to figure out the puzzle before it will go back to hell where it belongs. Or, FINE, until it's been integrated into my adult interactions.

How do I move on from galling interactions? It's so easy to get miserable or demoralized. But this community is too small. I can't write my generous coworker off because she holds bizarre opinions. I can't afford to end relationships with that family because the auntie said, "You're okay for a haole." I've had parents call me and scream at me, threaten me-- and I still have to work with them the next day, and see them at the beach, and get their help for field trips. I can't walk away or wall myself in with a phalanx of people who are just like me, who won't offend me.

I guess... I just show up. I try and be more nalu-- more wavelike, skimming the surface, going with the flow. Try and cultivate that Hawaiian-style mind-- not completely derailed by cognitive dissonance. Try and hear the dissonance as harmony.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Kaua'i is Completely (Gorgeous) CRAZY

I left Hawaii.
Not forever-- just for two months. Just the day school got out-- all my book shelves pushed into one corner of my classroom, all the partitions folded and desks stacked and supplies boxed up. I got on an airplane-- actually three-- and left Hawaii behind.
I just got back Sunday.
I learned a lot. Some of what I learned I should probably write about. But not today.

Today, I went back to work. And the day sort of embodied everything that is sacred and amazing, and everything that is enraging and crushing about this rock in the middle of the pacific.

I left the house at 4:30 am. I drove my truck through the dark-- down the mountain, along the coast. Just knowing the black ocean was right there, invisible and inky on the side of the road, lapping at rocks in the dark-- gave me chills. The ocean is big and powerful-- a force to be acknowledged and respected. Good morning unseen ocean.

By 5:30 I made it to the beach. Many of the other teachers were already there, standing in their pareos. I hugged and kissed them all-- E Aloha kaua, e na hoakumu! Pehea ke kau wela? Pehea kou wa ho'omaha? Hello to us, friend teachers! How is the summer? How is your rest time?

The vice principal gathered us for a pule, and we all spread out across the dark beach, shed whatever we had left of our clothes onto the sand, and waded into the black smooth water.

It was buttery-black. The Pacific was warm, even as the chilly morning breeze played across the surface-- licking up little waves. I dove under and came up gasping a little. I floated on my back-- easily buoyant, tasting salt on my face.

I lay there, on the water, gently moved, looking at the blue-grey predawn sky, and the jagged mountain cliffs. I imagined all of the exhaustion and residual stress from last year lapping away. I felt lifted. Finally I put my feet down, mentally left the past behind, and headed toward the beach, careful not the look back. That's kapukai, or hi'uwai-- a ritual bathing to start a new time.

We headed to Limahuli-- an extension of the National Tropical Botanic Gardens. We were greeted by the staff, standing in a line in front of a web of stone walls, sluices, terraces and taro-- and a graceful thatched hale, in front of the jagged and dramatic green cliffs. We sang an oli to come up into the gardens:

Kunihi ka mauna i ka la’i e,
O Wai-ale-ale a i Wai-lua,
Huki a’e la i ka lani
Ka papa au-wai o ka Wai-kini;
Alai ia a’e la e Nou-nou,
Nalo ka Ipu-ha’a,
Ka laula mauka o Kapa’a, e!
Mai pa’a i ka leo!
He ole ka hea mai, e!

They answered us with an oli of their own. Then both groups lined up and kissed each other's cheeks, inhaling sharply with each kiss-- he honi-- the exchange of breath.

Then Dr. Kawika Winter, the Director of the gardens, took us on a tour up the paths, through the grounds. In beautiful and grammatically rich Hawaiian, he introduced us to the complicated issues with biodiversity, unique endemic ecosystems, coevolution, and cultivation of extremely endangered plant species in this valley, the most biodiverse place in Kaua'i, and also the highest concentration of endangered flora and fauna. We saw rare ferns famous for their use in sacred leis, trees and shrubs unfamiliar to us except as words in songs, beautiful flowers curved to fit the beaks of indigenous birds, with names that carry multiple meanings.

Kawika left us to gather plants for our lei piko-- an enormously thick and ornate lei that will symbolize our unity and goals for the year. Each plant braided carefully into the lei has multiple meanings and uses. Kukui leaves are accordianed to symbolize light of knowledge, curving koa leaves are folded in to symbolize the strength of the warrior. Ohia lehua, lau'ae, palapalai, maile, mokihana, a'ali'i... and many others I don't know, but each with specific meanings and purposes.

We spread out across the garden and carefully picked plants for our lei. The sun came out-- the sky was clear bright blue down to the flat side ocean. The cliffs were green and black. Hibiscus and hao flowers were jewel-bright in the sunlight. I breathed deep.

Once we had the plants we needed, we returned to the hale. We spread woven mats out on the rock floor, and sorted the plants into piles. Two teachers wove the thick base-- and all of us made little boutonniere-sized bouquets. I like the lacy ferns with the sickle-shaped koa, and a splash of cheerful yellow from the ilima. We got to chat-- mostly all in Hawaiian-- only an occasional English word or urgent sentence bursting through. I coordinated with my fellow teachers-- how can we get the high schoolers onto that archeology project? How do we motivate the younger students? How do we get our older students to lead? Everything was seeming positive for starting the new school year.

I was chatting with one teacher about ways to teach poetry and early literature. We planned a Greek myths art project together, talked about the human genome project-- and then she said, "Oh! Have you heard about the hollow earth theory?"

Me: "No...? What is that?"

She went on to tell me how nobody's ever actually BEEN to the north or south poles, and how that's because there are giant military bases there, protected the giant holes that go down into the earth. "Because the earth is hollow."

"But--" I protested lightly, suddenly feeling very lost and alone, "people go to the North and South poles all the time. That guy Jarod from Farsyde Tattoo-- HE'S been there!"

She gave me a skeptical look. "Well, my husband saw this documentary-- they're hiding it from us, just like they hide everything else, as we know..."

I grew more alarmed. I had to get the conversation back on the ground: "It is the mass of the earth-- that super dense core-- that even gives us our gravity. If we didn't have that, the earth wouldn't spin, we wouldn't have seasons, the atmosphere, everything would fly off into space!"

She looked at me pityingly. "You know gravity is just a theory, don't you?"

I gritted and soldiered on brightly. "Isn't it funny how there are two ways to use that word? Like, 'I have a theory about how LOST is going to end!' or 'germ theory predicts the spread of disease!'"

She scoffed, "Yeah, exactly! THAT'S a theory..."

I blinked a lot. "Well, that's the funny thing. A Scientific theory means that lots and lots and lots of evidence has been amassed to form an idea that-- yes, with new information we will continue to adjust-- but that we can pretty much rely on to be true! I mean, like, yes, gravity IS a theory. But a scientific theory. Just about any situation in your life, gravity will work just exactly as the theory predicts. It's only when you get to the subatomic level that it doesn't behave the way the theory predicted. So then we update the theory. It doesn't mean that... we don't understand how it works, or that it's not a really good idea."

"Right," she said, "But it's still just a theory."

Dear readers, can you hear the sound of my heart turning to ice and breaking into a million pieces?

"Oh!" She said, "have you heard of the nephilim?"

Aaaand, at that point, I gave up all home for humanity.

Another kumu, then two, joined in. Ooh, Ancient aliens! Angel feathers falling from the sky! aggressive reptilians! Hawaiian time traveling chiefs arriving in Atlantis! And all of it proof that God is good and the Bible is literally true! It would be hysterical if it wasn't so terrifying.

One teacher said, "I just don't feel comfortable teaching facts. Like, you say, Polynesians only came to Hawaii 1,000 years ago. But I would never say that. If the students believe that Hawaiians have been here forever, they should be able to make up their own mind."

I think at this point I began to envision bashing my own head with a rock.

I lamely carried on. "But...you can present the evidence. You can say, this is how carbon dating works, and the carbon dating from analyzing this layer of organic material says this. What conclusions can we draw?"

"But even saying this is how carbon--- thingy-- works, that's saying that it's true, and I'm just not comfortable telling my students that." She shrugged.

Panic rising.

These are teachers. These are, technically, "highly qualified by the state of Hawaii" teachers. We all have college degrees. We all have teaching certificates. We've all passed PRAXIS tests in our subject area and in general knowledge. How is it that teachers-- TEACHERS-- can be so credulous and gullible?

I tried again. Mostly for myself. Was there any way to smooth out the edges of this horrifying conversation?  "I think Hawaii is really unique is that people here can hold two contradicting ideas without having to really choose one or the other. Like people can dance hula to Pele and Hi'iaka, and worship Jesus at church on Sunday. And like my students can read Genesis and the Kumulipo and The Origin of Species all together, and not really feel the need to fight over which one is RIGHT. "

She made an interesting point: "One problem is the word 'mo'olelo'-- it means 'story' AND 'history.' So I can't say, oh this is history, but this is folklore..."

Huh. It was lunch time.

"Wow," she said, "I really feel like I've grown some new brain cells talking with you!"

I felt like I had five new deep worry trenches carved between my eyebrows.

The day carried on-- lauhala mats on the floor of the hale, the colorful and meaningful thick lei, the transcendently beautiful place, ocean horizons, sheer verdant cliffs, warm breezes over green leaves, beautiful stories of the place we were in:

Two rocks, a brother and a sister, wanted a place to settle down-- the sister chose the ocean and the brother wanted to sit on top of the mountain, but rolling uphill was challenging, so the god Kane helped him up in exchange for reporting back to him on everything he could see from up there...

And another story about a child who helped a stuck menehune, who in return helped him throw a firebrand past the chief's canoe from the top of the mountain Makana -- lifted it up with a magic wind. Other firebrand throwers were jealous and killed the child. When the chief came to find his body, the menehune and his family placed it in a cave, and stood in front of the entrance, and allowed themselves to be turned to stones to guard it forever...

But I couldn't shake the sense of helplessness. How can I convince my students to check their sources, to use critical thinking, to use logic... if I'm the only person in their life who is telling them it's important?

On the way home, I stopped and jumped in a river to try and wash my dark mood away. It was beautiful-- white sands with purple shell shards, whispy ironwood trees, bright water-- but I was still kaumaha-- heavy and sad.

I drove back and passed hundreds of city council signs. Barca 4 Mayor caught my eye. I groaned. Apparently red bull thinks the pro surfer, pro fighter, and "anti-gmo activist" needs my vote. I must be turning into an old English teacher or something because "4"?

Tiny little Kauai is, bizarrely, a politically volatile climate. Everyone has intensely emotional political opinions. They curse our the mayor, call wrath down upon hated council members, and deify others. The attention span is 120 characters long. Information is passed around in an echo chamber of hearsay and fear-- untarnished by facts. Fueled by conspiracy theory and fear.

There is so much fantastic information out there in the world-- there is so much KNOWLEDGE. Of course we don't know everything yet, but we know SO MUCH! More than one person could ever hope to master in a lifetime. The anti-facts, anti-information, fear and emotion based climate of suspicion and intellectual laziness... it's just depressing.

So that's my reintroduction to Kauai.
Totally crazy-making.