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.


  1. Brilliant. As always. I hope that your experiences continue to inspire you to share your growth with the rest of us. We're better for it.


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