My First Day of Hula-- an unfinished blog post

My feet are tired-- they're propped up in the baby papasan chair; my back is sore (my physical therapist is going to scold me) and I should go to bed but I want to record my impressions of my first hula class while they are fresh-- while they are from today. If I wait till tomorrow they will flatten, truncate, abbreviate.

So today was my first day of hula! I've been wanting to start for ages--over a year. But signups are only once a year and I missed it in 2015 so this time I jumped on it. Or rather, I had my husband jump on it. I was in Colorado with my kids-- 8, 5 and 1 month old-- and even from afar I cajoled him into signing the girls and me up.

The girls were not impressed. They moaned and whined.

I do not care. I told them, "This is a non-negotiable."

They have very advanced vocabularies.

Today I overheard this conversation between my 8 year old  and a naughty 7 year old.
Naughty 7 year old: I saw a rooster and a hen HAVING SEX.
Circle of children: EEEEWWW
My child: So what?! It's awesome!
Naughty children: WHAT EEEWWWWW!?
My child: Yeah! They were just combining their DNA-- Their Deoxyribonucleic Acid-- in the female, in her eggs. And that's where chickies will come from!!
Children: Stunned silence.
Me: Nerdy beaming.

"Hula is a non-negotiable."

That is because we will soon be losing a significant source of support for our Olelo Hawaii. For the past four years my kids have attended and I have taught at the Hawaiian language immersion school. We've all learned Hawaiian, as well as is possible given that all of the Hawaiian speakers learned in college. I studied Japanese in graduate school at a very advanced level and I got very good grades-- but when you dumped me in Japan it because glaringly obvious that I was not fluent. So, yes, we've spoken Hawaiian every day for all of our school-related tasks. Yes, we can communicate whatever we need to communicate in Hawaiian. Yes, when we encounter linguistic stumbling blocks we can navigate them. My kids have both won the "Olelo Hawaii" awards for excellence in speaking the language at school. My second year at the school I tested into the intermediate Hawaiian language course from University of Hawaii, along with the 1st, 3rd, 4th grade teachers and the principal. But...I couldn't claim fluency.

But this year is our last at this school. I won't be teaching there anymore. I am sad to say goodbye to my students, to my classroom and the sanctified Professional Life Space that it created for me, and to the many daily challenges and adventures that four years of curriculum invention provided for me. And I know my girls will miss seeing their friends every day. But we're going to homeschool next year.

It's time to shrink. It's time to come home. It's time to center-- like throwing a pot, we're flattened and wobbling dangerously off-balance. We need to re-orient our lives. We need to step out of the maelstrom for a bit. We need to read. We need to paint. We need to take walks in the woods and dig in the dirt and pick fruit and knead dough.

So those things are good. But we won't have the daily wash of Hawaiian language. So, hula.

It may seem a little weird that I can speak Hawaiian but I can't actually hula. That I can speak Hawaiian and I know lots of Hawaiian stories but I'm not a cultural practitioner. That I can chant the oli to request entrance and the oli. But I am not Hawaiian.

Maybe that just seems weird to me.

For many interesting and complicated reasons, speaking Hawaiian in Hawaii is not like speaking French in France.

It's a political act, not just a linguistic act. It's a political act with centuries of nuance and history and contradiction around race and governance and sovereignty and identity and prestige. Hawaiian religion was toppled by the monarchy before any Christian missionaries came to the island. Hawaiian language was suppressed by the ali'i in their own schools for their children in order for them to learn the Queen's English. Later, the Hawaiian Kingdom was illegally toppled by Americans then annexed by the US, not till the last century. By then, Hawaiian Creole English or Pidgin was the Lingua Franca of Hawaii. Schools in the American territory of Hawaii were in English. Hawaiian parents kept their tongue from their kids so they would have every advantage this frought new world could give. My husband's grandma won an English Speech contest and was quick to tell me when I first met her-- Hawaiian was nearly lost not by active suppression but by bewildered neglect.

Embracing Hawaiian language now is an act that violently rejects a history of colonization and integration. It's an act of indigenous empowerment. Language is identity.

So what the heck am I doing speaking Hawaiian?

Supporting, I hope, the survival of the language. Normalizing the language so that it can gain the critical mass to survive. Helping it transition from a language on paper to a language echoing in the air.

So anyway, it's important to me that we keep progressing in the spoken Hawaiian language. Enter Hula.

The girls' class was at three. We came rushing up the hill. All the kids were there with flowers in their hair. Their kumu scolded them. Make sure they come with their hair in a TIDY bun and a fresh flower EVERY TIME. And wear a hula skirt-- heavy yards and yards of cotton that swishes slowly hung from hips.

The girls start lined up outside the room, trailing across the concrete awning and into the drying grass in the church parking lot. They chant an oli that begins "Wehiwehi kauai i ka malie..." about the bounteous greenness that is kauai. I waited outside with the other parents, passing the baby around. Some aunties like to pick her up and just take her away. I always feel a bit bereft and naked without the baby. Marcie loves to snuggle her and say sad things in a sing-song voice into her tiny soft ear. "Auntie's gotta snuggle you cuz auntie cannot have no more babies, that's right, auntie's babies had died, Auntie's cancer took away her babies..."

Auntie Kalei is a mystical mormon Hawaiian from Colorado, finding her way as a repatriated islander who is now out of synch with local culture. The tall and beautiful but weathered (as most white people in the tropics are) teacher Bridgette, and Julie who I haven't seen much of since she and her husband took over the family restaurant.

I peeked in at my girls, leaned on the counter in the kitchen and made the baby bounce her legs on the table top until we got shooed out by the short plump auntie who takes the roll and collects the donation cans for the church.

After the class ended, my kids were in a weird place of both boredom and overwhelm. Darn it. It's hard to start new things... and they were irritated that they understood the Hawaiian but Kumu slowed the class down to explain it. But they didn't know the hula so they had to look at the kids are them to follow along. Alas, a feeling I recognize.

We crossed the busy road to get plastic wrapped snacks from Pono Market. Salty fried chicken with pickled daikon, spam musubi warm and heavy. We ate in the graveyard and drew pictures while the Kane had their class. My middle school boys came and danced, fiercely, excellently. It's cool to do kane hula, to know how. You may go to Merrie Monarch. You may get to show off your muscles in a malo.

The baby fell asleep in the backpack by the time it was my turn for class. The big girls ran around in the grass with the other kids and threw a frisbee around.

I wrapped a pareo I had in my car around my waist, under the baby's legs, and lined up off in the grass and oli in. "Wehiwehi Kauai i ka malie..."

I didn't know many of the other wahine-- there was an array. Young and willowy, aged and floating like large clouds with small delicately pointing fingers and dimpled knuckles. Two of my graduated students were there, and kumu Maka teased them relelentlessly and made them dance on the front row. They teased me, "Kumu BECCA!!" and that gave me a place in the crowd-- I could translate the song, I could tease my former students. Another auntie is my friend's mom and one of Matt's clients with a chicken coop. Another lady was 9 months pregnant and goes to my same midwives. We're strangers but interconnected.

I was alright through the warm up-- I've danced a little bit of hula at school every year, and so I know what the moves are called. I was feeling okay, even with the baby on my back and feeling like a bit of a stranger.

Then kumu Maka starts in with a new hula for us. It's a chant-- really haunting and beautiful. And we're doing "Only," he says, "the first sixteen verses!"
Here's an unbelievably cute version by the Kindergarteners at our school:

Kumu showed us one verse at a time, just once. I could chant, or dance. I could remember a verse at a time, but not what came next. I had broken chicken arms-- not the easy grace and strength I saw in the other dancers. I reminded myself-- this is what being a beginner feels like. It's okay. It's uncomfortable but it doesn't last forever. I'll get it.

Baby was asleep on my chest, my back sparking pain, my hips starting to shriek. As my body faltered, my attention flagged. Kumu Maka taught us another song-- a more modern piece in the Auana rather than the kahiko style-- flowing and melodic and utterly pretty. By the end and I was stumping around, no longer telling left from right, retaining nothing. You could have picked me up and smeared me across the road, I was so tired.

At last, at last, Kumu maka called us all into one big circle. We sang a prayer. I regained myself a little-- I can harmonize! There is something I can do! We said our mahalos and went around the circle, making sure to kiss everyone goodnight.


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