Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dear Men and Women at That Party

Dear Men At That Party,
You are laughing-- a baritone staccato-- outside on the porch. The beer bottles have begun toppling over the ledge into the grass below, to be discovered the next morning in the dew like eastereggs. The cadence of your storytelling rises and falls, and you jostle and jockey for center stage-- interrupting and verbally shoving others out of the way. To us inside the meaning is lost, but the ruckus remains. One of you begins slamming something again and again-- the door? The sound is nearly drowned in the answering laughter. It sounds loud out there. Competitive. I've only met one of you before; the rest of you are strangers. I meet all of you eventually tonight, except one of you-- the guy who passes out on the couch. One of you, one of the two single guys, apologizes to me for using foul language in front of my kids. I wave away his apology-- I tell him my kids are so hung up on "stupid" and "shut up" being the very worst words in the world that they miss most of the rest. He continues to curse. 
You all come inside occasionally to fish fresh beer out of the coolers. You all come inside eventually when the smell of coconut rice and cilantro chicken wafts out of the screen windows. You end the night with a rowdy poker game.

Dear Women At That Party,
You are in the kitchen, drinking water and juice. You are more or less strangers to each other, so your conversation skims politely across the surface details of your lives- how long have you lived here? Is this your first time here? How do you two know each other? As you chat, you butterfly the chicken, complaining about the smell to your pregnant sensibilities. You squeeze lime juice and chop garlic and cilantro into a marinade. You improvise opening a can of coconut milk without a can opener. A husband comes in-- you've only just been married this year-- and you say, "oh honey, do you have your knife or something that could help with this can? The flow is too slow?" He snatches it out of your hands and scoffs, "what the hell is this? Look, you should have just asked me to begin with." You giggle, without taking your eyes from his face. He holds the can in one hand, takes an enormous serrated bread knife from the drawer, points it at the lid, and slams it down. The women around the countertop startle. I attempt a joke-- "I hope he's not a guitar player?" You, the wife, beam at me, "oh yes! He is! He loves to play--" he cuts you off. "Can that be -- enough-- from the peanut gallery? That's just not really helping--" and slams the knife down again. "Oh, honey that's fine--" "no!" He hands you the can and the milk pours out easily. You beam at him and thank him. He shouts on his way out. "See I wasn't so wasted as you thought! hah! Next time just f$$$ing ask me to do it first."
After he leaves the conversation has lost the easy forward motion it had. You, the women, carry on chopping without much more chat. You make the rice and the salad and the chicken, and lay out stacks of plates. The men come in when it smells appetizing and they eat. They are complimentary about the food. All of the women refuse to take credit.

One man loads a plate up for the guy who is about to pass out-- still outside on the porch. The coconut milk wife says, "Oh, that's nice. He's a good man." You, his pregnant wife, say, "hah, I made him that way. He used to be a wild child. Well, so was I. But now I just have to tell him-- honey, you've had enough. And he's done drinking." You are pleased with your good work. When your husband sits down by you to eat his food, you call him, "good boy."
You, coconut milk, look me right in the face and say, "do they do that?  Do they get better?"

And here is the moment that has hooked me-- sunk a spur into my brain enough to force me to write.

I shake my head at you-- "No." 
Pregnant wife tuts.
I persist. "They become more themselves. Their real selves shine through." That's what all people do-- we become less and more tolerant, less and more hopeful.

So men and women at the party... I need to tell you some things.

Dear men: the women are inside making the food and cleaning up while you are outside drinking and playing horseshoes. The women are not drinking. They are being the grownups. They are making the food because they realize that if they don't, nobody will. They are not drinking because they realize that SOMEBODY has to have their wits about them. The women are not doing this because it is fun for them, or because they are innately good at it-- two of you men are in the food business!-- they are doing it because you are not, and somebody has to, and because they are trying to be nice.

You men probably think of yourselves as nice guys. Letting other people tend to your needs is not nice.  If you see a group of women doing all of the work for you, you are not being nice, you are being an infant. 

Men, step up. Engage in your own self-care. Notice if you are exploiting other people's kindness. Especially notice if you are exploiting the willingness of women to be nice. There are times when people-- women and men-- DO want to cook, or clean. Don't assume that right now is one of those times; check in. Don't wait to be asked, don't wait to be told what to do. See what needs to be done and then do it. Bring everyone at the party together. Half of the party doing all the work is not a fun party. That is the men having a party with women staff.

Dear men at that party. Your wives and fianc├ęs are still hopeful about you. They are being nice to you and serving you because they still like you, and this is their way of showing that they care about you and want you to be happy. It may take a long time-- even years-- for that goodwill to wear down but eventually-- she will hear that condescension in your tone and realize that you were never grateful for her work-- you felt entitled to it. You never valued her the way she prioritized you.

Men, be nice. 

Dear women at that party,
You cannot NICE people into appreciating you. You may think you are showing them how you would like to be treated. You may think, I really appreciate it when someone makes me food, therefore I am going to make food for my man, and he will be grateful. For some people, the nicer you are to them, the more forgiving and gentle and accommodating, the more they feel entitled to your niceness. They feel they are owed your kindness. They feel they are owed your work.

Women at that party, stop teaching your men that they can play while others work for them. Stop teaching them that if they don't take care of their needs, somebody else will. 

Do not hold out hope that someday he will wake up and realize that all of those washed dishes, all of those homemade meals, all of those tidied counters were actually acts of your generosity. He will not. Unless you tell him. Tell him: I'm making you this meal even though I am tired and it is complicated and I've never tried this recipe before because I love you and I want you to feel good. 

 Men, I am disappointed that my daughters saw you and asked me why the men were acting like little boys. Women, I am disappointed that my daughters saw you doing all of the work without any appreciation. We know better than this. We believe that women can be brain surgeons and principals and bus drivers and men and be stay at home dads and home ec teachers and ballet dancers. We know that masculinity and femininity are different from gender. We accept there can be all kinds of men and all kinds of women, and that we can redefine what is "womanly" or "manly" by doing. I am a woman and I wrestle rabid bears, therefore wrestling rabid bears is womanly. I am a man and I paint my poodles' toenails, therefore poodle pedis are manly. 

Men and women at that party, and at many many other parties I've been to, cross those lines. Don't just accept that women should hang out together in the kitchen and men should hang out together on the porch. Hang out together in front of the fire-- share the work, share the fun.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A little heart break

My heart is a little broken today. I know it's the right thing to do-- to let go, but it still hurts. A part of me still wonders if I should say, wait! Stop! It's worth saving! I'll do better! I'll change-- I won't let things that are important to me disintegrate anymore-- I'll make time, I'll try harder. I'll make beautiful things. 

But no-- I won't. I need to let it go.

What's all this about? My wheel. My kiln.

My pottery wheel deserves a new home, a better life. Someone who will take care of it the way it deserves. Who even knows how to use it properly. Maybe I'll be a better person at some point, and then I'll be prepared to bring another pottery wheel into my life, and this time make none of the mistakes I've made with this one. But-- not soon. When I'm ready. I'll know, next time, before jumping in.

When I was sixteen, my parents gave me a birthday card with our traditional birthday breakfast in bed. The note said, "a set of wheel for your 16th birthday." I was puzzled. I didn't have a license and I didn't have any burning desire to drive or get a car-- and the key was just a regular house key. The biggest clue was of course the grammar error. Not likely with my English nerd parents. A p.s. on the card said, check the basement. 

We all ran downstairs, and sure enough, the basement craft room was locked. My parents waggled eyebrows at the shiny new key in my card. I opened the door with it-- and there, resplendent in a coat of fresh sky-blue paint, and with a calico pillow my mom had sewn (and, I later realized when I went to replace it, super-glued and nail gunned in place) was an enormous pottery wheel. A four inch tall round of concrete like a millstone rotated heavily on a steel axis, a half-moon of splash guard fronted the elegantly spinning central wheel. A little companion sat beside it-- a little kiln.

I loved my wheel. I sat with it and wrestled with clay and made tiny pots and wobbly bowls. I attempted to seduce romantic conquests with it (Ghost left an impression). It was the eye of my storming life. 

It was a terrible time. My mom's health disintegrated. She died a little after my next birthday. All of us-- my dad, my sisters-- poured our grief into creative projects. I journaled and did theater and threw pots, my sisters played music and drew and threw themselves into all of their projects and sports and teams and friendships with manic urgency. There was lots of sad Bach. My dad built gardens and trellises and traveled the world and hammered us all into a family band that ground out an album every year for years. CREATE the pain away! 

I went away to college, and occasionally would come home to throw a pot or two, but the enormous thing, at least 500 pounds, stayed denting the linoleum in my dad's basement. Then I spent a couple of years in Japan, my wedding, and graduate school in California-- it became more and more clear that I really had moved out. I was venturing into my own adult life, and I was losing the right to indefinitely store things at my dad's house. My dad somehow loaded the wheel into a rented trailer and drove it out to us in Berkeley just in time for us to jam it onto a barge to Hawaii. 

It stayed under a blanket in a garage for a year, under a tarp in the garden for another year, crossed to Kauai on another barge, and sat in place of honor next to the washing machine in our car port. By this point it was feeling like my albatross. Impossibly heavy-- unmovable, fragile and accusing. I should be taking care of it, using it every day, mastering the skills necessary to really use it well. It hulked in the corner of my vision, looking sad and neglected, and housing unspeakable critters: fat cane spiders and skinks and anolls and geckos and centipedes. Stuff piled on top of it. The pillow moulded. The paint peeled off. Rust threatened the edges. 

The guilt got to me. I finally took a class. It was marvelous. For a few months I was throwing pots, little one or two pound babies. I found it such a soothing practice-- physical and mental and aesthetic. I repainted the tram and reupholstered the seat.  But it was too much wheel for me: the heavy stone charging around and around, capable of shaving toes off. But also capable of flinging shapeless clay inexorably into form.

A baby, a move, a full time job-- the wheel has been sitting, mostly out in the elements, for three years. My optimistic purple spray paint job of five years ago has faded, and the sky blue from my 16th birthday has chipped off showing a layer of red paint underneath. The splash is pitted and pocked, and plants have grown through the motor. Looking at it made me sad and anxious. I wanted to take better care of it, but I just COULDN'T. Not within the restraints of my real life.

This week I got an email from a potter friend of a potter friend. I told him to come get it and take it away, for free. Just take it and take better care of it than I could. Fix it up, give it a new lease on life. Use it. 

Today he came and got the kiln-- he's coming back to get the wheel tomorrow with several strong friends. I went out to make sure it was accessible. I moved the rusting bikes off it, uprooted and disentangle the tropical vines growing around and through it. They were attempting to pull the steel and stone back into the ground. 

I just feel so bad. 

I know it's right to let it go. But it represents such promise, such potential that I never realized. It is a gift from my parents-- both of them, alive and together--to a young optimistic limitless version of myself. It represents that hopeful moment in time-- before death and destruction changed all of us down to the atomic level. It holds the potential of future creation-- I could throw pots with my kids on that thing, I could really master it. But it's too late-- I need to give it away before my procrastination makes it into garbage. 

Obviously part of the hurt of giving this poor wrecked wheel away is the terrible symbolism of the thing. The phrase, "the way you do one thing is the way you do every thing," haunts me. So many things and people and treasures in my life carry amazing potential-- how many things and gifts and years and friendships do I neglect until they die? How selfish am I being to keep beautiful things to myself while they rot? Isn't it better to give them away while they still have value? This lesson plays out often in Hawaii-- everything is so dank and damp that absolutely everything molds. Books, clothes, papers, art-- it's a wonderful exercise in cultivating a zen-like relationship to physical possessions. This lovely thing may be mine for a moment, but it will be destroyed, and very soon. There is no point in saving clothes-- better pass things on, keep them in use while there's life in them. Pass it on.

With the wheel I comfort myself that while yes, the object is important, the memory and the symbolism are more important. Yes, my mom herself gave me that wheel: she chose it and fixed it and kept it as a big delightful secret for me-- but it's not the wheel itself that matters-- it's her creativity and generosity and sense if fun. And even if I give this wheel away, if I ever do pottery again in the future, it will be because of her, her hands on mine. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Na Kupuna, The Holy Spirit, and Ahimsa

Today us the kind of day that shortens my life by five years; that parches my skin and carves the jagged lines around my eyebrows and mouth deeper into a scowl; that makes me want to escape or run or fight. Or write.

So right or wrong, I need to write it out.

Yesterday I read the Ramayana to my students. I have a short graphic novel version, and the kids got all swept up the the grand drama of princes, princesses, gods, goddesses, demons, gurus, bears, and monkeys. They imagined how they would retell the epic Hawaiian myths in their own styles and sketched Hawaiian gods and goddesses in sarongs and swim shorts, with Disney princess faces as they listened.

And today I loaded them up into two school vans and took everybody-- all of the secondary teachers and students-- up to the Hindu temple and monastery in Wailua. I was impressed-- every kid followed my instructions to bring their permission slips and wear modest pants or skirts. I quizzed them in the van-- Rama and Sita, Jambavan and Hanuman, Vishnu and Ravana. Karma, dharma, enlightenment non-violence, duality and balance... I don't know much myself, and I just wanted to give them enough information that they'd have lots of questions. 

We met our guide named Isana at the lush entrance-- the kids were curious about her bintu and impressed with her sheer sky-blue sari. She was gentle and soft-spoken and told us about the history of the place, about the founder's vision that started their work, about their internationally renouned Hinduism Today publication. My students were very quiet and respectful in spite of the unfamiliar terms and the difficult concepts.

She showed us onto the grounds-- an improbable waterfall crashing into a pool over a lava tube three hundred feet deep-- orchids, ferns, flowers, bromeliads, ornately decorated paving stones. When we rounded the corner we saw the brilliant gold-plated domes and ornate pillars of the granite temple that will someday house the crystal lingam that represents the ineffable form of Lord Shiva. 

My co-worker, the social studies teacher, asked if we could offer an oli, since the site of the temple was the site of the heiau poliahu -- a sacred place along the revered Wailua river. Our guides said yes. We gathered into two tight lines and faced the temple site, women on the left, men on the right. The Hawaiian language teacher blew his conch shell. It sounded a plaintive note - as long as a sigh, and clipped with a  tremolo. It sounded four times. Then the students chanted-- two chants about this place, about Waialeale and Wailua. And after a long tense pause, with all of us waiting for a sense of release, either from a natural sign or from spoken permission to move, the kumu began to speak. He used ornate and elevated Hawaiian and addressed with great sadness his ancestors. He spoke to the people who are invisible in this place, whose sacred stones are obscured by the new vision of these others. The land is lost to us, the stories are invisible, the people are gone, their prayers and chants are silenced. The birthing stones are empty, the bell stones are silent, the paths to the heiau are overgrown. Some people began to cry. The sadness was a scent in the air-- cloying, cold, lost. 

When he finished and released the group, the kids were shaken. Suddenly the gleaming columns seemed like vicious impositions-- the temple gaudily defaming a lost grave. He left without saying a word to me or to our guides. 

Isana, who doesn't understand Hawaiian, thanked us for the chants, and asked an older girl what the kumu had said. She lied: said he praised the beauty of the place and talked about the sacredness of the site. I arched my eyebrow at her as I eavesdropped on her conversation. I asked her, later, why she had lied. She explained that it would be rude and hurtful to explain to someone who has generously offered us her time and shown us into her sacred place about the extent of the hurt and betrayal that we feel seeing the continued erasure of our culture. 

The group, students and teachers, was fractured, shaken. The students suddenly felt that they had to choose between continuing with this English social studies class field trip, and respecting their Hawaiian teacher and honoring themselves as Hawaiians. A large group of students and the science teacher left. I felt powerless and tried to smile through it. What can I do? I can't call them back, demand they stay, insist they finish the field trip. They went and waited in the van for the next two hours.

We carried on, down to the temple itself. We admired an enormous statue of Shiva, dancing with his drum in one hand and fire in the other. One student was excited to call me over and say, "look I found Hanuman!" Sure enough, our favorite monkey from the Ramayana was there, two tons of carved granite, prone and waiting for his pedestal. I retold the story of Hanuman building the bridge to Sri Lanka to rescue Sita with magically floating stones inscribed with the name of Rama, and we recalled that he had brought the entire Himalayas back for the sake of an herb to save Rama's brother Lakshman. I bellowed at the students to imagine him growing to enormous size, and imagine his peskiness as he irritated the sun so much he was knocked to earth and concussed enough to forget his own divinity. 

The students banged on blocks of granite with rough iron hand-tools, sent sharp stone chips stabbing into everyone's eyes, and noticed the well-endowed and erect elephant monsters at the front of the Temple. Our guide began explaining the stories that were inscribed on the temple walls. I called the straggling students to come over, but a few wouldn't come. Instead they stood with the math teacher a ways off. Our guide moved around the corner and I waved them over, but my fellow teacher gestured that no-- she had them and did the universal sign for, naw, you guys go on ahead, we're staying here.  And we lost another quarter of our group. Momentarily, the only remaining teacher besides myself, the long-suffering and open minded social studies teacher explained that they were the kids who felt that going near the temple was not okay because they are Christian. Not every Christian kid left-- one of the most religious kids loved spotting the tiny carvings of the menehune-like earth dwellers and the fantastical creatures. But a large group of Christian kids and the math teacher felt they couldn't stay. So they went and waitedin the vans.

Like medieval churches, the temple building itself tells the scriptural stories of Shiva and illustrates the important tenets of Hindu belief. Isana explained that Hinduism requires the scripture, the temple, and the guru. Together they are strongest, but even separately, each can pass on the religious traditions. 

We admired the dramatic carvings. Great many-headed cobras represent the open chakras of the enlightened person, and the bow being fired and the arrow being broken represent the sending out and fulfillment of Karma. Jackfruit, mango, DNA, atoms, planets, hookupa, mokihana lei, olena, cacao fruit and all of the fruits and plants of Hawaii decorated the columns. Great lengths of chain carved from a single slab of stone slumped on the ground. Enormous cold lions held rolling balls in their teeth-- the remaining students were impressed and boldly put their hands in the lions' irresistible mouths to push the cool granite spheres back and forth. My classical-mythology-loving middle schoolers were excited to discover thar Shiva carries a triton ("ugh, I am SO obsessed with Poseidon!"-- actual kid quote), and I prodded at their knowledge when Isana explained that the Ganges river emerges from Shiva's head. How important do you all think that river would be to the religion, seeing as IT COMES OUT OF GOD'S HEAD? One astute kid pointed out that the Wailua river is so sacred since it emerges from Waialeale, the most sacred place on the island. I love it when they are little smarties. 

Isana took us through a grove with painted panels of Guru Deva's vision (and seeing a yellow mini bulldozer in stylized classical Indian painting style made me a deeply happy woman), through a clearing encircled by the lineage of the gurus in seated statue forms, and back up to have a Q and A with one of the young monks. 

What was left of our group sat in a pavilion and asked this lovely clear-eyed young man some probing questions. My students, sweet little darlings that they are, asked personal question after personal question to this poor devotee who is trying to leave his worldly life behind: Not in a cruel way, but simply trying to understand how and why somebody so young and handsome could lose his family, his name, his whole life to sleep in a concrete shack and own nothing. He was patient with their innocent curiousity, and beamed at them with his calm meditative eyes and in his lengths of rough white robes. 

A few minutes before the last puja of the day, we were invited to go and see inside of the temple that is actively in use for worship. A few students stayed behind, but I took a large group of them and followed our guide to the temple. We took off our shoes, stepped over the threshold, and sat cross-legged on the floor, again girls on the left, boys on the right. 

The insense smell was strong but pleasant, not overwhelming. Folded bamboo leaf streamers shifted in the breeze, each one marked with a bintu of natural red and white color. Soft music came from speakers hidden on the ceiling. An enormous black Ganesh sat before us, marked with the distinctive bintu of this Shiva cult. Many small brass Shivas stood in difficult poses around the room. Isana passed out pieces of white paper and said if we wanted to we could write prayers that would be burned later by the Swamis. 

I considered, and then wrote one. Yes. Let me know how to fix this. The day was so fractured-- such strong feelings-- hurt, loss, regret. Anger, fear, distrust. Resentment, pain, disappointment. How could we knit ourselves back together after careening off in such different directions?

I signed it, stood up, and rang the bell in front of Ganesh, stately in black and draped in bright garlands. Then I put my little prayer, anxiously folded over and over, into a basket in front of the dancing Shiva painting and the glowing crystal lingam. Some students did the same, some awkwardly smiling or grimacing. I was proud of them for trying something new and strange.

I think it is good to feel like an idiot. It is good to look up at something so enormous, like a world religion ten thousand years old, and realize that you know less than nothing. It is good to scoop up a handful of ocean and look at the few drops in your palm and say-- this is all I know. And the ocean is still out there. 

I had parents, teachers, administrators and students questions why I would want to take my students to the Hindu monastery. And I said things like-- it relates to our study of origin myths and ancient astronomy! It relates to our reading of myths and the Ramayana! It relates to our study of ancient Hawaiian sacred sites and religion! All of those things are true. But the real reason-- the real value in going to this place and other places like it-- is to make us realize how little we know. There is a whole world out there-- so complex, so multifaceted, so storied-- that what we talk about in school or what you see on TV or what you learn at home-- it's just a few drops from the ocean. I WANT my students to experience the vertigo of looking into the unknown. I WANT them to feel disoriented and lost when they are presented with people and ideas so different from them that they realize that there are DIFFERENT WAYS OF SEEING THE WORLD. And not half-baked, incomplete world views, but ancient, important, complex, difficult, influential worldviews. There are differences so profound in the way we experience reality, we should be deeply humbled. 

The public hours came to an end at twelve and those of us remaining hugged and thanked and said Namaste to our gracious hosts and took pictures and left. Most of the group was already out waiting in the school vans-- stewing in Hawaiian and/or Christian righteous indignation. 

As we made our way down the mountain, the math teacher tried to explain to me why the Christian students felt they weren't able to stay. I'm not sure I can paraphrase, but it was something of a mix between a. The fear that exposure to non-Christian ideas will damage their Christian faith and b. The fear that exposure to non-Christian but real spiritual forces will damage them spiritually. As one student put it later, she felt "that place was creepy." Their other big fear, according to my coworker, was that I would be angry at them for being rude. 

I answered, "Well, I AM angry at them, and it WAS rude. But that doesn't mean that they didn't do the right thing for them. Sometimes your religion makes you do things that will be rude and hurtful to other people. Accept that, and don't be surprised when people are offended. Yes, it offends me. But, that doesn't mean they should stop doing what they believe is right."  It's a difficult idea for anybody, especially teenagers, who want good things to only bring forth goodness and bad things to only bring forth nice obvious badness. 

She explained that she believes that every religion is trying to find the one true god, and some just get a little... Messed up. Or confused. Along the way. And that she went into "the Hindu, or Buddhist, or whatever" monastery, with a prayer in her heart, for God to help her do her job, which He gave her. And that if it was up to her, she never would have gone. But that being rude to people won't bring them to Christ.

Sometimes it seems like there are too many difficult conversations happening at once. And the only solution is to eat. Drinking probably wouldn't have hurt either.

I took us to Shivalik-- the Indian buffet down the road. We all came in and the social studies teacher had us all stand up and hold hands. She prayed in Hawaiian, in the name of Jesus Christ, to bless the hands that made the food, and bless it to our nourishment. She looked miserable-- she was hurt and offended by everyone's behavior-- and we raised our spicy drumsticks in mutual recognition. The kids guzzled mango lassi and tried bright red Tandoori chicken and spicy peas and potato curry and buttery naan and cardamom rice pudding. They were exemplary-- no knocked glasses or whiny complaints, and every kid contributed their fifteen dollars without any complaints. 

I was proud of them-- it was a brutal day. They tried new things. It hurt. They-- we all had to think about new and difficult things. I'm worn to the bone. 

I don't know what the salve is, or even the lesson to take away from it all.

Tomorrow I'm going to have all of the students just sit and write and write and write about their experiences and thoughts today. I'm going to just put three words on the board: Hindu, Hawaiian, yourself. I'll see what comes out. Hopefully we can use all this for growth, for momentum, rather than for ossification and division. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Just got back from a four day jaunt to Oahu. We stayed in Waikiki, went to museums and ate out-- it was a fun mini vacation from our rural island. I liked pushing through the crowds of people, admiring the daring high-fashion haircuts, and eating authentic Japanese food. 

But I was bothered by something unexpected. 

I heard English in all accents, and a UN roster of other languages: Tagalog, Chinese, Korean, Russian, and French. I heard more Japanese than I have since living in Japan. But I didn't hear a single word of Hawaiian. No mahalo or aloha or e komo mai-- not even the token, tourist-board approved warm fuzzy version of Hawaiian that gets used as a tool to bring a non-threatening layer of native authenticity to maitais and cheap plumeria leis.

Once I noticed it, the lack bothered me more and more. All the little chances people missed to use the few words of olelo that have crept in to common usage jumped out at me. At the bishop museum, we heard recorded Hawaiian voices chanting and earnestly testifying of the great Polynesian way finders, but we were told, welcome! at the gate.

 I know that sometimes Hawaiian and Hawaiian creole English, aka pidgin, are used as a kind of acknowledgement of recognized ethnic sameness. In other words, hey, you look like me, let's speak our shared language together. The world all around may be speaking English or Japanese-- but us? We different, we got our own thing, we don't have to translate or codeswitch for anybody. And that's good, it's a great use of language to mark in and out groups. That's cool.

But Hawaiian is a language teetering on the brink of extinction. And part of the cause is that people don't feel they HAVE to speak it. It's uncomfortable trying to say new and difficult words as a tourist or a new-comer to the islands-- if I can get away of saying Thank You instead of Mahalo without being rude, then that's absolutely what I'll do. Of course if I went to France, it would be horribly arrogant to assume that I can get away with saying Thank you instead of Merci. So even if it's uncomfortable and I feel silly at first I will ask politely for Un Cafe Sil Vous Plait and say Merci even if my attempt is ridiculous and earns me an eye roll. But there is no analogous shame for not trying to speak Hawaiian in Hawaii. If I moved to France, I would never be able to get away with only speaking English. In order to function in the society, I would have to learn the language. In the early days of the Hawaiian Kingdom, that was the case here as well. All of the missionaries, their children, the traders, sailers and foreign workers all learned Hawaiian. Sanford Dole, the baddy who illegally imprisoned the queen and established himself as the Big Boss of his oligarchical republic of Hawaii, spoke fluent Hawaiian while he dismantled the Hawaiian kingdom. 

So is it just lazy entitled snobbery or fear that keeps people now from learning Hawaiian now? Maybe partially, but I think cultural sensitivity is another thing keeping Olelo Hawaii from taking centre stage in Hawaii. People without Hawaiian blood feel they don't have the right to speak it.  I was raised to beware of cultural appropriation. Dressing as a different ethnicity for Halloween? Not okay. Pretending to do a hula hula with a coconuts bra? Tacky and mortifying. Using a thick rolling accent to ask for a burrrrrrrito con carrrrrrrrne? Affected and precious.

 I avoid those kinds of culturally appropriative things because I don't want to be another white insensitive jerk. I'm going to watch the powwow or Bon dance respectfully from the sideline. I'm not going to dance hula or join in an oli until I've been invited. I'm not going to wear a bintu or a sari or a Maori tattoo unless they are given to me intentionally from someone who has the right to give them to me. It doesn't belong to me, so I can admire from a distance, but not touch.  That is the same feeling that kept me from learning Hawaiian until now. When I started working at this school, I HAD to learn Hawaiian in order to participate in staff meetings and parent teacher conferences. Before that, I felt I didn't have the right to the language, that it wasn't my sandbox to come muck around in. I didn't want to project my western "noble savage" hopes and dreams onto a language that I can't claim in my heritage.

But my thinking has changed. I didn't feel appropriative or colonial when I learned Japanese in Japan or Dutch in Holland. If Hawaiian is a living language, it has to be sturdy enough to handle attempts at misappropriation. Misuse or sentimentality can't break the language. So what if earnest old white ladies learn Hawaiian because they love the idea of a culture of Aloha, or because they want the spiritual connection to the land to which they imagine the ancient Hawaiians had proprietary rights. So what if I learn Hawaiian so I can sit through staff meetings or my kid learns Hawaiian so she can learn her times tables.

If Hawaiian is going to survive, we all have to scrabble at every opportunity to use it. If that means feeling a little silly and saying Mahalo to the cashier at Costco, fine. If that means memorizing the words to your favorite Keola Beamer songs, fine. If that means speaking Hawaiian to tourists and visitors and newcomers, even if they don't understand, fine. Hawaiian should be a language that we hear in Hawaii. I shouldn't be able to go to Oahu for five days and four nights and never hear a word. So if that means that it's going to be me saying those words, fine. Hiki no. E walaau Ana au. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ola No ka Olelo Hawaii?

When I challenged my students to write an essay convincing me that the Hawaiian language is in fact a living language, they said they would if I wrote one in Hawaiian. So here it is.

Note: I've chosen to leave out most diacritical marks, except where their absence causes marked confusion, to avoid inconsistency, as recommended by the University of Hawaii Hawaiian Language Style Guide. Basically, if you can't include them all, don't include any of them.

I ka hoomaka ia na halawai makua o Punana Leo, olelo pu makou na makua a me na keiki a me na kumu i ka nuukia o ke kula: E ola i ka Olelo Hawaii. O kela ka pahu hopu o na kula Olelo Hawaii a pau: a hooulu na olelo, a hooikaika na mea Hawaii. Aka, hiki makou e hooulu keia olelo? Hiki oia ke hoi i ka ola? Ai ole, ua hala ka olelo Hawaii i ka wa kahiko?

E pana ana keia mau ninau me he mau ninau eiae. He kumu wau: oia ka'u ano. Ka'u mau ninau: he aha he olelo ke ola nei? Hiki he olelo make ke ho'i mai i ka ola? I na ho'i mai ana, pehea hiki ia kakou ke ike kela hopena?

Ma ke kula nui, ao ia na mea "linguistics" pili i na manao, "olelo ola." No ka honua a pau, aia kokoke i 8,000 olelo ola ana ( Aka, he aha he olelo ke ola nei? I na ola he olelo, aia he mau kanaka manaleo. Olelo lakou i ka olelo no ka wa pepe. Oia no ho'i, i na ola ana he olelo, hiki oia ke loli. Hiki oia e hoohana na huaolelo hou, a hiki oia ke walaau no na mea kahiko a me ka mea hou.

I na make he olelo, aohe manaleo, a aole hiki ke olelo ke loli. I na aia he mea ai ole he manao hou, aole hiki ke kamailio no oia ma kela olelo. Nunui na ole make ana ( I na aole nui na kanaka e walaau ana, aole hooulu i ka olelo.

Kekahi mau olelo i make, aka hoi i ka ola. Ka olelo Hebrew ma Israel, ka olelo Gealic ma Ireland a Scotland, ka olelo Welsh ma Wales ( Ke ao nei na keiki ma'o ko lakou olelo ma ke kula. Ke kakau nei lakou na puke, na Soap Operas, na nightly news i kona mau olelo. Ke ola no ko lakou olelo hou. I na hele na kanako hou i kela wahi, pono lakou e ao no i ka olelo no kela lahui. Hooulu ana i na olelo ma'o.

Aka, e ola ana ka Olelo Hawaii? Ae paha, aole paha. Kekahi kakahiaka, lohe ia he makuahine kokoke o Punana Leo, ua nei ia kona keika ma Olelo Hawaii. Ue ke keika, aka minoaka wau. Ola no ka olelo! I na hiki ke hoiki na manao a pau-- na manao oluolu a me na manao huhu, ola ka olelo. Aka, he aha ke olelo lohe ma ke kula Kawaikini? I loko na papa, lohe no ka olelo Hawaii, a ka i waho? Ma ka pa paani, ai oile ma ka lua, ma ka lanai? Lohe au i ka Olelo Pelekania wale no. Nou nou na kamalii aole hiki lakou a hapai kona mau manao hou ma keia olelo Hawaii-- he olelo kahiko? I na oia, make ka olelo Hawaii.

I na hoi mai ana ka Olelo hawaii i keia honua ola ana, pono na kamalii e puliki mai i kona mau olelo makuahine, a hoao e olelo oia i na manawa a me ka wahi a pau. I na hiki lakou ke hana pela, ola paha i ka olelo Hawaii.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Privilege! Or, ew, haoles.

I’ve never thought of myself as a racist—I believe in equality and diversity and I see the beauty of all ethnicities... I speak lots of languages, I’ve been to lots of countries, eat all kinds of cuisines, read storybooks from all cultures—sheesh, I’ve even got a fancy degree that says “anthropology” on it, someplace.  I don’t harbor a secret aversion to any group of people, I don’t tell racist jokes, and I call people out on it if they do. I’m an all-around PC gal.

But living in Hawaii, I get to confront the truth about my past racist behavior. It’s uncomfortable. So I thought I’d share. Because discomfort loves disclosure. (Somebody should embroider that on something. Maybe a hospital gown with an open back.)

The thing with my life in Hawaii is that, over here, for the first time in my life as an American in America, I’m not a member of the majority ethnicity (which here is mixed!) or the majority culture (Local!) and I don’t speak the standard dialect of English (Pidgin!)—at least not very well. So, I kind of stick out wherever I go.

I don’t think about it most of the time—after all, I don’t have to look at my blond hair awkwardly standing out in the crowd, or hear my grating East Coast American accent cutting through the ambient pidgin chatter. I don’t SEE myself sticking out…  until sometimes I realize that people are treating me a little weird. And I realize, with an embarrassed shock, that they are treating me the way I would treat somebody I felt was really different from me.

I’m not saying I’m persecuted or oppressed, humiliated or tortured—nothing so dramatic.  It’s just that, over here, I’m the Other.

And it’s painful and humbling to realize that, for the rest of my life, living on the mainland of the USA, I was not the Other. I was just myself. Just normal. Blank. Unlabled. Just an ordinary person. In Utah or Maryland or California I was not marked by race or language difference, because I had the invisible privilege of belonging to the racial, cultural, and linguistic group that holds the distinction of being the majority. And, to my great mortification, I realize that the annoying little things that people do to me to highlight my otherness over here, are totally things that I would have done to people that seemed like "Others" on the mainland.

I had better illustrate.

Last year, at school, I was at a meeting, with parents, teachers and students all together. It was towards the beginning of the school year, and I didn’t really know anyone besides the kids in my classes, although I was beginning to get to know my fellow teachers, exchanging jokes and polite afterschool banter with some, and trying to thaw the new-hire ice a little. I was standing towards the back of the tent, and noted that there were only two white people in the room: me and another teacher who I didn’t know very well. I let my imagination flare and I realized that if the picture was inverted, and that if I was standing in a room with 60 white people and two Hawaiians, I would assume that the two Hawaiians were... on the same page. I would assume they were friends, or at least allies, and that they had some kind of common allegiance to each other because—well, they’re both Hawaiian!

My skin pricked realizing how stupid that assumption would be—here I was, one of two white people in the room, and the people I felt closest with, most akin to, were not the people who matched my Nordic skin color, but those who shared my awkward sense of humor and sardonic view of life.

So a late lesson for me, PAINFULLY obvious to spell out: Don’t assume that people with matching skin tones have anything BESIDES PIGMENT in common.

Another one. I have a favorite place to get poke—cubes of raw marinated fishy goodness for you uninitiated—and it’s about a 70 minute drive from my house. So, I don’t get out there too often. But if I’m anywhere near by, I stop in and stock up (Mmm, the one with the wasabi and the furikake and the sriracha on top, rrrrrrrr). One little problem. I CANNOT GET ANYONE AT THE POKE COUNTER TO TALK TO ME.

At first I wait politely at the counter for a minute to catch someone’s eye. When the aunties back there look over at me, their eyes slide right past. Somebody else walks up to the counter, and snap, there’s an aunty with a scoop and a half-pound tub. “Can I help you?” I look back and forth between the new customer and the Deli Aunty, incredulous. But still patient. I wait till they’re done, take a breath to say, “Can I get a---“ but the counter is deserted again. Am I having a 6th Sense day? Am I invisible? The heck? After two more iterations and it’s starting to get unfunny and I finally say, “Hi?! Excuse me? Yeah, can I get some poke?” And then someone wanders over like, “Hey, why is this haole lady being so bossy." And I get the,  “this is raw fish, are you SURE?” line.  Sheesh Ameesh. But who cares, it’s just poke, it’s just kind of funny, it’s just a little annoying.

So the last couple of times I went to this great place, I had students with me because we were on our way out to work in the taro patch. Because, Hawaiian immersion school. Taro patch. That’s how we roll. That’s how we pound poi. Anyway, I go in and I tell my students, “hey, watch this. I’m invisible at the poke counter. “ I go up and I wait at the counter. And wait, and wait. The usual thing happens, somebody else walks up, gets helped right away. My students are surprised. Then I go and grab a student, “Hey, stand next to me, watch this.”  He’s next to me and the lady says to him, “What can I get you?” He points at me and I get my pound of fish flesh.

Later the student asks me, “Does that happen every time? What do you do if you don’t have a local person with you?” I have to jump up and down and make a scene! I just have to wait.

The next week we stopped there again on the way to the taro patch and my same student said, “hey, let’s do it again.” So again, he watched from a discreet distance as I was ignored, and then came to my rescue, just by standing next to me and when he was asked what he wanted, he pointed at me.

This kind of thing? Being just a little bit invisible? Happens all the time.

It’s a silly little thing. Like I said, it’s not some huge persecution—and it’s not malicious. It’s just that I’m not who local folks expect to interact with. I don’t look like their other customers.  I make them… just a little bit uncomfortable. Not that these are folks who hate all white people—it’s just OBVIOUS to them that I am different.  And that difference means that I am unpredictable. Better leave me alone until my intentions are a little bit more clear. Am I one of those white people who can blend in? Was I raised here? Do I speak pidgin? Do they know me from high school? Am I a tourist?

And, I’m ashamed to admit, I totally get that "wait-and-see" stance towards difference. Being someplace and seeing somebody who really sticks out from the crowd—it’s not that I’m judging them, it’s just that I don’t expect them to behave like everybody else. I should probably just keep an eye on them, just to see what they’re going to do.  Aaargh, how stupid.

So there’s a lesson: Really, truly. Treat people the same.  

Over here I get the weird experience of hearing people code-switch to talk to me. At the park, a mommy will talk with her friend in her natural pidgin, and answer me in an affected Midwestern accent. The conversation dies right off—who can maintain that fake “proper English” accent for longer than a minute?

Have I code-switched like a racist before? Probably. Yes. For sure. Have I talked down to people I perceive as other, or awkwardly tried to match my style with what I’m guessing is theirs? Quite possibly. Ugh, how mortifying.

So another lesson: Don’t dumb down your conversational topics with people from other countries. Don’t over-annunciate when you’re talking with somebody with an accent. Don’t focus your conversation on your perceived differences. "So, where are YOU from?" It’s boring.

What sparked this train of thought tonight was a party at my daughter’s preschool. It’s a nice little school—it demands a lot from parents. We all have to volunteer time to clean and fundraise and help out, so all us parents see each other at weekly meetings, and in the daily pickup and drop off rituals. Tonight was the first time that the school came together just to socialize. Families set up cute little trick-or-treat tables around the school yard and the kids got to rotate around, collecting temporary tattoos and lollipops and glowing bracelets.

I haven’t really gotten to know many of the other parents—I wondered if they were just a particularly shy or serious group. But tonight I walked around with my kids and we were like the wrong end of a magnet—quelling conversation, dispersing groups whenever we came near.
Again, I really don’t think most of these folks would outright say that they hate white people. Some would, because it’s a Hawaiian immersion school, and that whole the Hawaiian-Kingdom-Was-Illegally-Overthrown-by-da-Haoles is a tetchy subject.

It’s just, I’m different, and difference makes people uncomfortable. It’s easier to interact with people who share a common language, history, and culture with you. It takes a little bit of extra effort to deal with people who talk or look different from you. It takes a bit of concentration to examine the way you deal with people you think of as “us” and people you think of as “them.”

And being a them? Not that fun. I have to just keep showing up, and hope that my consistency and predictability will put folks at ease. I have to prove that I might look or talk differently, but I'm "normal." Well, "normal-ish." I am a major geek, but still. Geekdom transcends all boundaries.

Living over here, where I’m not integrated into the privilege of Local belonging, makes me realize how pervasive and invisible my privilege was on the mainland. And hopefully, having my eyes opened to the irritation and isolation of being perceived as other will help me be less of an ignorant jerk to people who I otherwise might have judged as Different From Me.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Five Paragraph Essay

At this moment, children across the United States are gazing at posters of hamburgers, counting on their own five fingers, sketching outlines studded with roman numerals and dots and dashes. Why? to try and construct that keystone achievement of the public school classroom: the five paragraph essay. We teachers natter on about Thesis Statements! And Topic Sentences! And Supporting Proof! As if these are universal truths—divine principles like Faith, Hope, and Charity; Maiden, Mother, and Crone; John, Paul and Ringo. We cling to this five paragraph lifeboat like it can calm the waters, guide us to shore, take us to new realms. But is it all just tinkling brass—form without substance? Is the five-paragraph essay really the essential first tool for organizing thought on paper?

Poetry doesn’t have a thesis statement. Gerard Manley Hopkins didn’t need to say, “Eh hem. This poem will be about the variegation of life and how that diversity reflects the joyfulness of our connection with our Creator.” He simply splashes us with his cacophonous rainbow of description: “skies of couple-color as a brinded cow, rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim, fresh firecoal chestnut falls, finches wings…” Much of the work of poetry is to mask the formal organizing elements—not underline them. Emily Dickenson’s poetry may seem to march directly to its point as it bounces along in hymnodic beats, but it remains compulsively rereadable because the meaning of her poems opens, closes, shifts and inverts, depending on the moment of reading. The poems that I read at 15 are not the same when I reread them at 30. The words have remained unchanged marks on the page, but somehow they are new.

Fiction, too, doesn’t spell out its aims and purposes—in fact, it offends our sensibilities as readers if the moral of a story is too obvious or heavyhanded. As JRR Tolkien muttered in the introduction to The Fellowship of the Rings,  “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”  Fiction may be symbolic or relatable or relevant—the author masks the work of that symbolism and relevance. Fiction is thematic, not pedantic. This means that great fiction includes in its body (like organs on a skeleton) universal human ideas such as Redemption, Pain, Revenge, Faith, Love, Change, Growth, but that it refrains from moralizing about those great ideas. The freedom to draw conclusions “resides,” as Tolkien says, in the reader, not in “the domination of the author.”

Great works of biography, fiction, poetry and drama lack the obvious external machinery of Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences and Concluding Paragraphs.  So why do we insist that students master this form? I spend days demanding coherent topic sentences, clear theses, and substantive proof. My students rage, I snarl, outlines are erased and re-done and erased again; essays are returned horribly marred with gashes of color (I don’t think it softens the blow to receive essay corrections in purple crayon, but I persist.) This is why: The simple machinery of the five-paragraph essay shows the WORK of thought. I want my students to be able to use the lever, the inclined plane, the wedge of basic writing to roll, screw, fasten and MOVE their ideas from the inside of their head to the inside of my head. Later, once I am convinced that they understand the skeleton of their thoughts and that they know how to stack the legs upon the feet and not upon the ribcage, and to top is all with a crowning skull of an ACTUAL POINT, then I will help them obfuscate. I will help them drape their body paragraphs with meat. I will help them circumlocute. I will teach them to be ironic, to distract, to prop up and then light up strawman arguments. I will teach them subtlety and wittiness and understatement.

So in spite of the classroom hours spent hissing and spitting, “WHAT IS YOUR THESIS UNDERLINE YOUR THESIS MAKE YOUR PROOF SUPPORT YOUR THESIS” and the forehead-denting headsmacking that accompanies the outburst, “Kumu Becca, what is a thesis?” I will persist in insisting on Introduction, Body, Body, Body, Conclusion; Bread, Lettuce, Tomato, Meat, Bread; Thesis, Topic Sentence, Proof, Proof, Proof, Topic Sentence, Proof, Proof, Proof, Topic Sentence, Proof, Proof, Proof. Because the milk has to come before the meat; the 2x4 frame before the drywall, the daily jog before the marathon. The five paragraph essay remains the first exercise in logical writing.