Just a Day in an American High School…

By Neva Knott

Third Day of This School Year

Three classes today, block schedule, each is 75 minutes long. The first begins at 8:15. Traffic is bad, coffee line is bad, I get into my classroom at 8:10. Unusual for me–I like to arrive early, play some music, get my head in the game. But, my last job was teaching at a community college, and in that type of school, teachers arrive to the room with the students, so it was sort of familiar, too. I had my materials ready, having taught the same lesson to the first three of my six classes yesterday. The only glitch was logging on to the computer so that I could access the seating chart, take attendance, and play the videos that went with the lesson.

Tenth grade Biology…

The first unit is on how the brain works so that you can learn, but it’s also about how to take Cornell Notes, and how to do a close read and mark the text when reading for information. These are Sophomores, so most of them know, or should know, these study skills. But, it’s the beginning of the year, so we review.

B-Block Day, First Class

This class is sleepy. Compliant, sweet, good natured, but sleepy. It’s a small class–17 students–which can be good in terms of behavior, but also awkward when they are all quiet and sleepy and not so in to what we call the flipped classroom.

As I am turning on the computer and hoping it works, a boy comes in, introduces himself, shakes my hand. He was absent the first day. Nice way to introduce himself.

The bell rings, the computer loads, I take attendance, and we begin. I hand out the reading packet, write examples on the board of how to go through it and mark for key words, main ideas, and vocabulary. We look at the questions they’ll need to answer after reading, and I turn them loose to read. Four pages, and I give them 10 minutes. I know most students will finish, I know some won’t even start, and I know that some will work earnestly but will struggle. Ten minutes is enough time to read four pages straight through, but probably not enough to do the marking… but here’s the point… give them more time, and they won’t do anything until I tell them they have a minute left.

They work, I circulate the room and ask people individually if they understand, coach those not yet started so that they can begin.

And then there’s that kid. He’s been in a few of my classrooms in the 20 years I’ve taught. He’s always male. He always comes with some designation, in this case his online profile says he’s in the Indian Education Program. He sits, all day every day, in every class, and does nothing. He is openly, albeit quietly, defiant. He knows exactly where the get-sent-out-for-disciplinary-issues line is, and keeps one toe just over it enough to get whatever he is trying to get, and the rest of himself behind the line. Tuesday, our first day of class, he scrapped all the paint off the table. When I asked him to quit, his response was that the people who painted the table were so lazy they painted over tape. While I was instructing today, he was playing with one of those mini-skate-board decks that seems to fascinate 10th grade boys. Today, all he’s done is get out his shiny, new highliter pens, and is stacking them. Not reading, not marking the text, not giving a shit, just trying to rankle me. But he won’t. I give him two choices: 1. explain to me how you need my help to get started; 2. get started. I keep walking around, and when I come back by, he’s still stacking his pens. I restate my question/directions. At this point, I have taken his stack of markers as, and he says, “I need my markers.” I say, to get busy? He repeats himself. I give him the markers, and tell him that if I find him off task again, I will call the Dean. He is, and I do.

The Dean comes down, I motion for the student to quietly join us in the hallway, and I explain to her in all that educator kind of language that I am getting her involved because we are still setting expectations, and that I would like her support in emphasizing to him that, in my classes, we are–as the school saying goes–On Time, On Task, On a Mission, and that he seems to think working is an option. I also explain to her that he has been argumentative and defiant. She talks to him, he comes back, tells his table mate his woeful story, and continues to do nothing. Now he knows where I stand, and I know what I’m dealing with.

I fucking hate this shit. This is why I don’t teach full time anymore. The other choice I have is to ignore kids like him, which is what most teachers do. But, I can’t. I can’t because there is no good reason to…and, because kids like him want attention. The more they are ignored, the more they act out. So, on some level, he knows I care and that I am going to push him to succeed. But, that doesn’t lessen the bullshit factor of the situation.

Back to everyone else… they worked, diligently. I had to remind one kid no food in class, but I’m sure he remembered the rule because he was hiding his Reese’s PB cup… at least he didn’t leave his trash, hope that wasn’t his only breakfast. We got through the packet–all four pages and the questions–and it took about an hour. We had 15 minutes left, and the computer was working, so I showed them the youtube video we’ll work with next class session.

Ok, I thought, OK… we did it. I’m going to have to work to bring the energy level up in this class and to get them interacting in a learner-to-learner way. But not bad.

B-Block Day, Second Class

Big classes… 29 students. I have seats for 24. Let me tell you, teenagers don’t like to be all squished up, just sayin. Anyway, in they come. On the first day the internet dropped so I couldn’t put them in a seating chart, so that’s where we start today.

Did I mention there are a lot of them? So, I have them all stand along the side-lines, and start calling out names and pointing to seats, reminding them to “correct me gently” if I mis-pronounce a name. I get about a row and a half in, and I realize the disciplinary VP is standing in the doorway, watching. I had to call her to deal with a student yesterday, so I assume she is checking up on me–they do that. She’s smiling, so that’s good, but her time is valuable, so I float over and ask if she needs me “right now,” needs a kid, or needs to talk to me in a minute. She says in a minute is fine. I seat a couple more kids, and then she says, “maybe right now.”

Let me back up a minute–this is the second day I’ve had this class. The first day, it was plain to everyone that they we would do the seating chart today…yet, somehow, the other adult in the room then–the EA for the kids in special ed–didn’t bother to ask that I group together all of the students she works with, nor did she tell me who they are. So…as I started class today, she asked if I could group them. I said, with 20 students standing on the sidelines, and trying to keep them settled and focused, “Sure, but not right now. If you can give me their names after class, I will take care of it for Tuesday when we have class again.” Hmmm… so, back to the disciplinary VP… she says, “___________ needs you to group all of her students together.”

What the fuck? The EA left to tattle on me! Not cool AT ALL. I explained what I’d told the EA to the VP and assured her it would be done, but that I couldn’t do it right now. I paused, looked out at the sea of unseated kids, kids for whom I don’t really have seats, looked back at her and smiled with that smile that says, see what I mean.

Different lesson for this group: set up Cornell Notes, watch a video called The Learning Brain, take notes as review of how to take notes, do a variety of activities–pair share, whole-group share, me go back over stuff–to make sure they got it.

Sure, I had to give some behavioral reminders, like put your FUCKING CELL PHONE AWAY (that’s what I wanted to say, but of course I used teacher-speak language), and where’s your note paper? You’ll need to borrow a pencil from a neighbor, then… No, you can’t go to the bathroom while I’m giving directions, sort of stuff.

But, they got right to work. They worked, they didn’t just go through the motions–they actually worked to learn. Ok, most of them did. Even so, some kids had attitude. Who knows? They are teenagers.

Then it was time to get up and walk around the room and talk to two people you don’t know… it’s called building classroom community, it’s called think-pair-share, it’s called we just watched a video on how sitting too long decreases learning and we’re an hour in and y’all are getting twitchy.

Did I mention the video is only seven minutes long? Gone are the days of a seven minute video/note-taking taking seven minutes. There is some good to that… we use a variety of strategies so that students can experience the information multiple ways, which is what brain research says is most effective. But a lot of that time is eaten up with stuff that would have never been allowed when I was in 10th grade: coming unprepared; talking back to the teacher about which seat you’re assigned; not listening to directions and five people having to be retold what we’re doing, the VP popping in because the EA tattled…

So they are walking around for a minute or two… and one kid pulls out his cell phone and is setting up to take a selfie or a picture of his friend. So, I go over and call the office, ask that someone come down to confiscate the phone…

Since there are so many of them and they are up walking around, no one saw me call. I get them back in their seats and say, “let’s move on,” just as the hall monitor opens the door. Without missing a beat, I make eye contact with him, say, “hi, will you please take his phone?” while pointing at the kid. Dicey move on my part. I can tell this particular kid wants peer attention. I can tell he is not going to be openly defiant in front of 28 other students. The hall monitor takes him out, sets him right. I get the class on track for the next step of the lesson. As I circulate the room, I quietly tell him, “No phones. It’s a non-negotiable rule. Don’t have it out again.” What do you think he said back? “But we weren’t doing anything!” And kept arguing.

Somewhere in the mix of all that, the EA whispered to me that she told the Dean that the special ed teacher hadn’t contacted me… I think her gist was that she was trying to get the other teacher in trouble, not me. But what the fuck, anyway… she’s the one who dropped the ball.

B-Block Day, Third Class

Here it comes. The first day with this group, I spent most of my time being interrupted, and then reminding them of behavior guidelines and rules. The came with their A-game, for sure, the disrupt-the-teacher-so-we-don’t-have-to-do-any-work game. A sure sign they are low-skilled, and a sure sign they have not been made to take responsibility for their behavior in past classes. These are the kids that, in lower grades, were the one or two in the class who, because they were behind, found ways to eek out of doing work. Sophomore year, because of how electives and advanced classes work in mapping out the master schedule for a school, they all seem to land in one class, and that’s bad, because it’s a whole lotta wear-the-teacher-down behavior all day, every day for awhile. It can go several ways: they finally give in and let me help them; a bunch of them drop the class and then I am in the hot seat; they keep disrupting and I start writing referrals, which is about as effective as finding a missing sock… I have learned over the 20 years of my career that eliciting administrative help–ok, it is someone’s $80+ thousand-dollar-a-year job to be the disciplinary VP–gets me into more trouble than it gets the “bad” kid into.

So I stand outside the door, greet each one, and remind them to put their phones away. This establishes that they are entering MY territory and that I am alpha. When the bell rings, I shut the door, stand in front of the class and smile. Then I remind them that we’re going to work on classroom behavior today.

I start the lesson, and am bombarded with interruptions, kids blurting out either commentary meant to derail me, or just plain unnecessary crap. It takes almost 15 minutes to get started… you know, to watch the seven-minute video.

I start the video, and also stop it twice to go over what they should have in their notes. I then tell them I am going to let them finish taking notes without my prompting, though I will stop the video a couple of times to give them time to write stuff down–the woman in the video speaks very quickly…

I circulate the room, and guess what? Out of the 20 students, five are taking notes. One kids says, “no one has given me any paper yet,” even though it is written on the board, “bring supplies every day.” A couple of kids mumble and look down and say they don’t need help. A couple try to argue–WTF? A couple shrug their shoulders. One says he already knows how to do this, which makes NO sense, because…he isn’t doing it.

So we get through the video. Hardly anyone has notes. They begin, in random shout-at-the-teacher fashion to ask me about what was in the video, expecting me to tell them everything they should have written down. When I explain to them that I am not going to do that, because 1. the expectation is that they be on task; 2. the lesson is to practice note-taking… I get some real push-back. Then they want me to replay the video.

So we have another chat about classroom behavior. I point-blank, in a nice-ish way say, “Hey, if I would have seen people actually trying to take notes and actually paying attention, I might replay the video. But, since about two thirds of you all didn’t take any notes, even when I asked if you needed help getting started (multiple times, I might add, dear reader), and when I paused the video for you to catch up, and I saw people staring out the window, or with notebooks closed, or drawing on the desk, no, I am not going to tell you what to put in your notes and I am not going to replay the video.”

In this writing, I know I am forgetting some of the table-by-table stuff, the snitty little things said to me as I walked around, offering help… but anyway.

They had a lot to shout out about that…so I sat and waited until they quieted down. I wait…and while I am waiting, a kid walks by in the hall and one of my students shouts out to him, “what you doing, niggah?” The whole class goes silent and then looks at me. I say yep, we have to work on behavior in this class, for example language. One girl pipes in, “yeah, no profanity, especial the “N” word.” So now they are in my court and we are getting somewhere. If I had ignored the kid who had just made the ultimate faux pas in a mixed race classroom, I’d have lost them forever.

Finally, one kid blurted out, “Miss Knott, do you have patience?” I didn’t answer him. I didn’t answer, because in that moment, he didn’t want the answer–he wanted to make me look bad.

In that moment, also, the students who had done the work were getting that look that those students always get… the one of how the hell did I end up in class with these kids again?

So, I moved on in the lesson. Most of them realized by that time they weren’t going to get anywhere with the bad behavior, so they shut up, at least. What that looked like, 20 minutes before the end of class, was closed notebooks, pens/pencils put away, backpacks on tables, ready to hit the door at the bell.

The next step in the lesson was to have them share with the class from their notes–back to having students “touch” the information multiple times. I handed out note cards, told them to put the number 7 in the top right hand corner and then to write their name on the card. Wow…. over half the class had to have the directions repeated, more than once. Most of the cards weren’t set up as I said. Anyway… this is all information for me about these students.

So shuffled the cards and began calling on students to share from their notes. Those who had notes did a really nice job, quickly giving a fact. Those who had complained that I wouldn’t tell them what to write/replay the video just sat there, notebooks closed, pencils away. After a few share-outs, I said, “I find it quite odd that the people who wanted me to replay the video are the people with closed notebooks…” That changed nothing. So we kept going.

As I wrapped up class, I said, “You all did much better coming into the room and settling down today. But, we still need to work on on-task behavior, and not blurting out interruptingly and making snippy comments.” Somebody started to say some argumentative what-what, and I shut it down. I was done, and I know my facial expression said so, loud and clear. I said, response,  “No. I know the difference between what I need help looks like and I’m trying to “get” the teacher looks like, and most of what I’ve seen in here is trying to get the teacher.”

Some of this behavior is masking low skill level, which I can see already in their work. Some if it is learned helplessness. Some of it is just plain disrespectful bullshit.

Class ended. But I kept one girl behind. In the mix of all the crazy, she had not taken the seat I’d directed her to, hadn’t taken out her notebook, wasn’t doing the work… I talked to her at her table, trying to figure out why, but her table-mate interrupted and yelled, “she can’t speak English so you can’t make her do this.” Not helpful. Not respectful, to me, or that girl.

I walked her over to the counseling center to see if we could get her into a lower-level class. Her counselor told me this: “The Oregon Department of Education deemed that all ELD students (students who can maybe speak a little English) have to be in regular, grade-level classes.” But, no translator has been provided for her. No auxiliary materials have been provided for her. No one told me. The counselor’s first approach was to talk down to me and tell me to ask for help to find classroom teaching strategies to help her…she was really demeaning. I nipped that, saying, “I’ve been teaching in this district since 1995…I know the strategies. But, what she needs is help with translation. She didn’t even know what I meant when I was giving simple directions.” After a lengthy discussion, counselor-to-student in Spanish, and counselor-to-me in English, we determined that the girl’s cousin is in the class, and can help translate. I told the counselor that she seemed pretty lost, too, but that was countered with a gloss-over comment. I was given the name of the ELD teacher to contact.

Her first approach of help was to email the principal to see if there were many ELD students in the class so that it justified the use of a translator to “help the teacher.”

And then I returned to my classroom, pissed.

Pissed at the system that, in the 20 years I’ve been in it hasn’t found a way to help students who don’t speak English–and there are many. Pissed that behavior expectations are stated and not upheld–I’m not talking about uptight stuff, just basic classroom demeanor stuff. Pissed that a kid with a $300 cell phone thinks it’s my job to buy him paper. Pissed that 10th-graders think the expectation is too high when they are asked to take notes on a seven-minute video. Pissed that the ELD teacher phrased her email that I needed the help, not the student. Pissed that the EA called the VP on me…

And here’s the thing about having the VP called, and me having to call the Dean and then the Hall Monitor, and having to visit the counselor (which many teachers, especially in the situation of being a sub, wouldn’t have done)… all of that goes as little black-marks in the column that says, “we had to go to her classroom to take care of an issue again.” Fuck that.

I emailed the Special Ed teacher, noting that, after I had told the EA I would deal with the seating issue for the next class, the VP was called in. I wanted her to know, in my professionally worded email, that that was oh so the wrong move, and that I didn’t appreciate it. I think she got the message; her reply was effusive and an offer of lots of communication.

The Question and the Smile

So that kid who asked if I have patience… he has no idea. And, yes, I will answer his question on Tuesday when I start class and remind them again of behavior expectations in the classroom…and this is what I will say, “I have no patience for disruptive, rude behavior (and why should I?). I have infinite patience for kids who are trying.”

We’re supposed to teach behavior–it’s written everywhere in all the school-rule stuff. We’re supposed to know the kids and what they need in terms of educations. It was a hard fucking day, one that reminded me why I don’t want to do this full-time. But, guess what? That girl, the one who doesn’t speak enough English to know which seat I’m directing her to, she smiled at me when we finished our conversation with the counselor. And that is the same in any language.

 

 

Malama Aloha A’aina Kaho’olawe: Caring for the Land the Hawaiian Way

By Neva Knott

I’m dreaming and a beautiful noise comes in and I’m dreamt awake to the sound of the conch shell, the pu. The night is still dark. Time to prepare for sunrise. Time to go into the ocean and cleanse. I walk down to the shore and take in the stillness of the morning. I don’t swim–the water is only ankle deep and the waves are harsh–and to swim in the dark is to swim with sharks. I wade in, naked and wobbly in my negotiations with the boulders and surf. I breathe to the rhythm of the waves and watch the sky turn to the deep grey of predawn. The water is cool and brings me awake. I use this time to think through my dreams and the remnants of the previous day, and to let go of all that is uselessly left over. I give to the ocean any distractions that may keep me from being present to the work here on the island of Kaho’olawe, any distractions to getting answers from the a’ina, the land. Hawaiian culture is a land-based way of living. To be from here is to be kama a’ina–the contemporary translation means resident, the literal means child of this land.

KahLandscapeKaho’olawe is the uninhabited island off the south shore of Maui. It is uninhabited because it was used as a bombing test site for the US and allies since the 1950s. The island’s surface was left covered in unexploded ordnance. The vegetation is dead except for a few tenacious kiawi trees, there’s no terrestrial or marine wildlife, and the water lens is cracked.

This island is steeped in tradition; in fact, the original navigation points to Hawaii from Tahiti are the stars above Kaho’olawe.

Kaho’olawe reverted to Hawaiian ownership in 2003, the year of this trip. Our group, teens and adults from the Hawaiian Canoe Club, are here as guests of the Preserve Kaho’olawe Ohana. The task of the Ohana is to malama aloha the a’ina–to take care of the land. It’s a privilege to be here.

Because of the traditional and spiritual significance of the island, we learned ancient chants and rituals that we’ll use throughout the week. Tomorrow, we begin work on extending a trail across a ridge and down to the ocean shore, to a set of whale bones, considered sacred. Two kupunas, elders, from PKO will guide our work. Auntie Davi and Uncle Maka. “Auntie” and “Uncle” are informal titles of respect, softer than Mr. or Mrs., but a reminder that, no matter age in years, Auntie Davi and Uncle Maka are beyond us in wisdom.

As I turn back from the water, Niccole, another adult chaperone, appears in shadow silhouette and asks if I swam, and if I will stay with her while she goes in. I hold her wrap and keep an eye for her safety, all the while leaving her at silence and peace. She does not swim either, but sends her worries on their way and gives thanks. Just as I hand Niccole her wrap, Wendy appears. Like Niccole and I, Wendy paddles for Hawaiian. Not only are the three of us friends and team-mates, we teach together at King Kekaulike High School. As the sky lightens to soft grey, Wendy tentatively steps into the water. She stands for a moment, silent, then turns and says, “That’s enough for me. Sharks out there, and it’s cold.” The three of us walk back to our tents for water bottles and warmer clothes, then head to the main beach that serves as the gathering place.

Morning Beach Fire, Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.

Others are in the water at the main beach. Uncle Maka is supervising. He checks to make sure Niccole, Wendy, and I have gone into the water. His job is to teach culture and to make sure we all adhere to protocol. The three kuas, stewards in training who will eventually take on the role of cultural education alongside Uncle Maka, have built a fire on the beach near the canoes. Though I hadn’t gone too far into the water, I felt clear and purposeful as I sat to warm myself in the still pre-dawn. I watched others come quickly out of the ocean in silhouette, rush in to clothes, and join others by the flames. No one talked much at the fire, a fragment of speech here and there, but there was really no need. It was a time of silence, or reflection, of setting one’s perspective for the day. It was a moment of individuality within the collective. Then, we began together, to move toward the day’s events and endeavors.

The sun was just starting to throw light behind the east peak of Haleakala volcano on Maui, eight miles across the water to our north. Now warm by the fire, we made our way up the shoreline cliff to chant the sunrise. Image a single line of thirty individuals along a ridge, clapping and chanting in the coral and orange glow of a new day. Imagine the rhythm of sixty hands and the cadence of the words,

E ala e Ka la i kahikina (Awaken, arise)

I ka moana (the sun in the east)

Ka moana hohonu (from the ocean)

Pi’i ka lewa (climbing to the heaven)

Ka lewa nu’u (the heaven highest in the east)

I kahikina (in the east)

Aia ka la. (there is the sun)

E ala e! (awaken!)

It took about forty minutes for the sun to break over the top of the volcano. As we chanted, we watched the sky change from blue-grey, watched the sun light the undersides of the clouds, saw the mountain in silhouette, felt the warmth come into the air, and saw the last, farthest light in the Maui town of Ulapalakua fade. There were still no boats upon the water. There was no noise except for the lap of the ocean and the voices of our group, the voice of one greeting the day. Auntie Davi stopped us from chanting when the sun was sufficiently high in the sky. By then we were chanting with eyes closed for the brightness.

Sunrise over Haleakala.

On the way back to camp we visited a couple of cultural sites, mostly fishing koas, or altars. Auntie explained the proper types of offerings to leave, and even though we would not be fishing, she felt that leaving offers was a gesture toward renewal of the life of the island and the ecosystem has been destroyed by the bombings.

All access to Kaho’olawe is granted by either Preserve Kaho’olawe Ohana or the Navy. PKO began illegal occupations on the island in the 1970s to stop the bombings. Their efforts ended in court battle against the Navy to regain Hawaiian access to, and care of, the island. PKO won. The court’s decision also mandated that the Navy conduct a clean-up mission. So far, the ground has been cleared of explosives to the depth of four feet.

Just after lunch and our arrival yesterday, the Navy representative swooped in via helicopter for his info-visit. This is when the past horror of the place became real. We were shown picture upon picture, all catalogued in huge binders, of the explosives tested here. These facts sent a chill through me at the thought of the physical destruction to this place, for the deaths in reality caused by such mechanisms, and for the destitution to the Hawaiian soul wrought by these acts. At the end of his presentation, we signed waivers limiting the liability of the Navy should any one of us be hurt. We turned in the waivers and were given instructions for radio channels in case of emergency.

Bombs in Land and Water Warning, Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.The Navy man’s attitude was aloof. His tone was business as usual even though he was explaining to a group of teenagers that there are spent bomb casings everywhere, and possibly live explosives. He seemed to have no frame of reference that this land had once belonged to the people listening to him, and that they considered the bombings desecration. He didn’t seem to see the culture and tradition of a people coming to the island to rejuvenate it. It was clear that his America is elsewhere, and that the native history of this island lays just past the fringe. He then swooped away in his helicopter and we were left to walk softly.

It took awhile to get going after breakfast, after rising so early and hiking up to chant the sunrise. A group of girls washed dishes and the older boys dug the imu, the roasting pit, and filled it with the food for dinner. Another group packed lunches and another organized tools and water for our afternoon work trip. This was another aspect of culture we learned, children served adults. So, while the teens cleaned up after one meal and prepared for the next, we lounged, wrote, pondered, and talked, took a few trips from tent to beach and back to the to camp, making the little motions of settling in.

Traditional Hawaiian Roasting PIt.

Then we began our work. The pu sounded and we gathered tools: pick axes, rakes, shovels, hoes, gloves, water and food. We hiked to a sheltered beach and stashed the food there, then back up to the shoreline cliffs to begin the labor of moving rocks from their embedded places to the edges of the trail. Before we started to work, we chanted, the mele for healing the island. Then we found our rhythm in our chores. Some cleared the path, some hunted rocks. The boys carried boulders as a way to show off masculine strength.

WorkCrewKahLunch time came. Before eating, Niccole, Wendy, and I walked out to the whale bones. The trail had yet to be put there, so we followed the cliffs and crossed beaches of olive-colored sand. The whale, which washed upon the shore some time ago and was cleaned by sharks, is buried under a cascade of rocks in a slight crevice. Auntie Davi and Uncle Maka told us the death of this whale stimulated a regeneration, or flourish, of marine life. Lobsters and fish appeared in what had, for decades, been the sterile boundary waters of Kaho’olawe.

MeCrewKah

It was too hot to work more on the trail, so we returned to camp. Late afternoon, Wendy and I gathered soap and towels and headed to the beach designated as the bathing spot. The sand was a black mixed with beige, and there was a small bay made by the descent of the sea cliffs into the ocean and around the beach. The break appeared rough, but there wasn’t a strong current so the waves were easy to negotiate and the bottom was sandy, making it easy to balance while ducking waves. We had just waded into the surf when Niccole appeared. The tide was fairly high, so it was easy to submerge to bathe. Though we were left with a salt film, which one gets used to living near the ocean and swimming daily, we felt clean after hauling rocks in dust and under the sun all day. While we were bathing a few of the girls came down to join in. We all body surfed in the waves for awhile, and then got out to dry off, dress, and return to camp for dinner.

In Hawaii, almost all leisure–at least all outdoor leisure–is multi-generational, and everyone lives to finish every day with some sort of connection to the ocean.

On our way back, the sun was fading behind the West Maui Mountains and the sky was a soft echo of the blue of the day. The Navy work helicopters were flying toward Maui, our home that was only eight miles distant but felt so far away in consciousness, time and space. As we walked, we came upon the marker for the two activists who disappeared in the 70s–their bodies never found–while protesting here. As I placed a blue lobster shell I’d found on the beach on the altar, I felt a pain in my heart for all of the wrongs done on Kaho’olawe. And I felt a lightness in my being knowing that we were here as a group to continue the work that these two men started almost three decades ago. I realized that each rock moved today was a piece of this island’s history, and each tired body this evening an agent of change, each story told when we arrive home in a few days a new chapter in Hawaii’s oral history.

Dinner was a traditional Hawaiian luau with hams from the imu (whole pigs are too big to bring), roast taro root, rice, and cabbage salad. Our whole day had been what I imagine an ancient Hawaiian day to be like: the rising in the dark for the cleanse, the chanting of the rising sun, the collective work of the day with much time given to the preparation of food, the play after hard work and time in the ocean, the celebratory meal and thanks given. The individual acts that come so seamlessly together to create the whole. No conflicts, only laughter and smiles. Every little disturbance along the way solved by help from another.

After eating, many went to bed early. Uncle Maka talked story, telling us more and more about Hawaiian history, about the fight in the 1970s, all the while giving commentary on contemporary culture in the islands. He told fishing stories and “when I was a boy” stories. Random conversations floated about, something about sustainable building, something about replanting the island and the water supply. At one picnic table some played cards.

The next day, our third on Kaho’olawe, was the best. We’d settled into a routine and had something meaningful attached to our trip here. One has to have some meaning behind experiences such as this or each excursion is reduced to mere consumerism, entertainment, reduced to statements like, “I got to go to Kaho’olawe.” We’d found the rhythm and balance between work and play so that we began each day enthused and ended it fulfilled. We had begun to understand the richness of traditional ways and the meaning of our work here–that as we moved each stone, rock, boulder we were rejuvenating a sacred place.

By this third day we were quite used to awakening to the sound of the pu, hearing it as a call to gather, organize, or move to the next endeavor, so that dream-ending hollow, low sound came as a comfort rather than a surprise. Niccole, Wendy, and I now habitually gathered at the beach near the canoes and took our cleanse in the ocean. I had begun to enjoy using this time to set myself for the day.

Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.There was a lot of work left to do on the trail, and this was our last day. Auntie wanted to wait until the rain stopped to begin the work. While we waited, the teens had the ritualistic mud fight–a part of every Kaho’olawe trip–that turned into a wrestling match and a mud bath.

The adults sat on the beach and watched, talking of the fun we’d had, learning from Paul, one of the HCC coaches and another of our teaching colleagues, about the spiritual significance of the island and of the religious practice called makaheke, the Hawaiian version of a vision quest or journey of homage, held here in the winter. He talked story of the other trips he’s made to Kaho’olawe, of the excellent fishing offshore.

Paul settled in to a long narrative of the intent of PKO to teach as many people about the culture and traditions as possible so that the Hawaiian way can live on, can be lived by anyone who really wants to live the Hawaiian way. Paul gestures at his heart as he expresses this. Chad, a colleague from the high school, and Paul, talked about their ancestry. Both are from old, old Hawaiian families. Paul’s family have owned the same land on the south shore of Maui for well over three hundred years, and Chad is a direct descendant of King Kamehameha, the king known for unifying the islands. I love the history that comes into story so regularly in Hawaiian conversations. We passed a couple of hours this way, in the soft rain, watching the teens become part of the earth.

Around lunchtime, the rain had stopped, though later we wished it would have continued as the day turned in to the hottest we’d had. The trail was marked to the whale bones as far as had been cleared of ordnance, so we reorganized our efforts to clear more of the cliff line as a path. We worked until the kiawi trees became too fierce for the tools we had. The older boys wanted to keep chopping, but the adults called a halt. It was time for a swim. As we walked to the beach, we all remarked at how far we’d gotten. The path to was now clearly delineated and drew a connection between the cliff line and the shore.

Sacred Path to Whalebones on Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.

At the beach we all swam, for a long time. It wasn’t like an ordinary day at the beach–when one knows she can return to that spot again. Playing in the waves that day was a way to hang on to these irreplaceable moments in time on Kaho’olawe.

Traditional Hawaiian Haeiau, Kaho'olawe, Hawaii. Just before sunset, after bathing, Auntie Davi and one of the kuas, Niccole, Wendy, and I took the teen girls to the women’s haeiau, or sacred place, which is on the cliff side above camp. The girls were tired and resistant, but Niccole and I insisted they come with us. The fading sun light set the tone for our gathering.

Auntie explained the traditional purpose of a women’s place of gathering and worship, that a women’s haeiau is a safe place, a place away from gender obligation, fear, or violence. Niccole and I each explained our knowledge of what experiences and the value we’ve found in a modern way with sacred women’s spaces, that they are places of internal honesty and growth. Lara, one of the kuas, talked about the importance of coming together as women to talk across generations about common experiences. Then we sat, silent. Then the girls began to talk, first the one who’d been hanging on the sidelines the last couple of days explained how hard for her it is at home. Then the girl who has no mom. Then from almost everyone else…stories of the gravity of their lives. Too soon, too soon for these teen women to have to quit letting go of their worries, it was dark enough that for safety’s sake, we needed to go down the cliff.

Evening on Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.

It was a night of celebration and ceremony. When dishes were done and the kitchen part of camp was packed away, ready for our departure in the dark of the coming morning, the older boys danced on the hula pa. With their bodies, they told the story, “How Maui Stole the Sun.” Maui, a demigod in Hawaiian folklore, urged by his mother, stole the sun from the sky to slow its rotation so his people would have more time during the day to work and play. So much power in that dance, so much pride in their expression. Such an appropriate story for hour time here, working and playing on Kaho’olawe under the hot sun. One of the girls in the audience whispered, “It’s so sexy,” and I smiled at this accidental recognition of one of the original purposes of this type of dance–for one gender to get the attention of another.

After the hula, all thirty of us sat in a circle, and each of us shared one thing we’d gained by coming to Kaho’olawe. Again and again, the responses were an offering, a chance to contribute, to give while learning, to connect. No one, not one person, made a selfish comment. The fire faded and the talk died as we each sat in silent recognition of all that had come from the hearts in that last hour.

The pu sounded and it was getting light, it was much lighter than at our usual rising. Wendy and I jumped at the sound and the realization that we were late to launch the canoes, jet skis, and supplies boat–an important consideration because of the swell that would rise while we made the crossing to Maui. We began running gear down to the beach, helping others disassemble tents, waking the teens and getting them organized. We helped launch the canoes, then jumped into the surf to join the line of people moving gear wrapped in trash bags (to keep it dry) to the supply boat. Finally, wet and cold, we boarded the boat to head home.

Hawaiian Canoe Club returning from Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.

Unloading, Maui-side, at Makena Landing.

Next…surviving the loss of love, buying a house, and digging in the dirt to feel alive again

By Neva Knott

Dirty dishes are piled in the sink, one cup atop one plate, atop one bowl and flanked by one knife, one fork, one spoon. There’s a pan for each day’s meal: the saucepan for Monday’s soup, the skillet for Tuesday’s packaged potstickers, and the baking dish for Wednesday’s and Thursday’s pre-seasoned packaged fresh fish. The wire rack in the adjacent sunroom holds paper plates, a coffeemaker and filters, paper napkins, and a box of extra wine glasses. All are remnants of gathering for meals after the long days at the hospital, and after. The cupboards are bare, and the refrigerator holds mostly condiments and those are from summer at best. The dog hair is piled in the corners, the floor has gone dull from dust and note enough cleaning, though there is a brighter pathway from door to sink, sink to fridge, fridge to counter, counter to stove. The espresso maker looks well-used. The wall near it is spattered with coffee drips.

***

I bought the house after I returned from living on Maui for a year with my partner, Adam. I had chosen to return to my teaching job in Portland, having taken a leave of absence for our adventure, but he wanted to stay another year–he wanted to be by himself for a year. That’s all the explanation I got.

StewardStHouse

The first time I saw this house the porch was falling off. I had looked at seventy or so houses in this transitional–affordable–quadrant of Portland. Dump after smelly dump. I was ready to give up when my realtor called, “Neva, I think you should see the house I just listed. It’s a lot of house for the money and the seller is going to do most of the work it needs. If the neighborhood isn’t too sketchy for you…” So I drove by on my way home from work. I arrived to find the porch unhinged, a 70s van jacked up in the drive way, siding the color of rancid butter and dull flat dark brown trim. Dump. I didn’t go in. A day later, motivated by weariness and on the brink of desperation, I called my realtor, “I think I should look at that house.”

I navigated the rickety porch and stepped inside the 1920s bungalow, very traditional Portland in style, imagined it painted in a warm color. I stepped into the living room and saw the original nail-top hardwood floors and built-in shelves. I fell in love with the way the light came into the living room through the clearstory windows above the bookshelves. The living room proper extended into a dining area. I love to cook for people, and room to throw a dinner party was on my list of must-haves. I continued to walk through. I fell in love with the huge kitchen. I fell in love with the attic. Never mind the holes punched in the bedroom walls. Never mind the layers of do-it-yourself projects executed with ineptitude over the lifespan of the house. I walked out the back door, into the big back yard, and saw potential. Never mind the decrepit shed. Never mind the viney, tangled, creeping mess that was the back yard.

I fell in love with the house.

I bought it. I went back, and then I signed the mortgage papers, and moved in. It was the first time I’d seen my name in such official print.

MauiAnniversary1

Adam and I on our Anniversary in Hana, Maui, 2003.

Adam called. I shared the news of my triumph. Home ownership was a goal we had in common, so I thought he’d be excited for me. He wasn’t enthused about the house at all. It seems he’d decided he didn’t really want “a year.” Rather, he missed me and wanted me to come back to Maui, right then. He insisted that, no, he hadn’t ended our relationship–he’d just said he needed some time to himself. There was no rationality in his scenario–I had just bought a house. The school year had just begun. I’d quit my job on Maui. He’d left me sitting alone on a beach to figure out my next move, separate of our relationship, our life.

The previous owner did most of the work to mitigate the damage to the house, but there was much left to do to really bring the house back to its potential stature. I began with the yard. Blackberry bramble impeded walking and took chemicals and my brute strength to remove. Cherries dropped from the 40-year-old untrimmed trees, onto everything, everywhere. Two branches were reachable, and the cherries sweet, but the fruit was mainly for the birds. Large-leafed weeds grew waist-high, though toppled easily with rain. The shed stood, built from scrap and adorned with a black spray-paint skull and crossbones. The squirrels grew fat with random filberts from the tree intertwined with the wire fence.

I quit the gym, bought a book entitled Plant and a shovel, and took a gift of a push mower from a friend. At night I read about gardening, and on weekends and evenings I wrestled the unwanted scraggle from the earth. I jumped on the shovel with full body weight to turn the earth. I discovered that I couldn’t rototill because of all the trash that’d been thrown in the yard for who knows how long. I found a one-inch drill bit, a hanger with a decayed cotton and synthetic blouse still on it, plastic toys, broken bathroom tiles, bottle caps, bottle glass, duct tape, tin foil, wire, spark plugs, batteries, plastic bags, pencils. I jumped, dug in, and turned.

The work ethic of my grandparents glistened in the sweat on my brow. My neighbors leaned over the fence to chat, glad that someone who cared had moved in. Some time in May, I got the vegetable seeds into a patch of soil under the old clothes-line. Some of them grew.

While I worked, I thought about my life, about what I wanted out of life, about what was next, and about all the “nexts” that had come before. I am detrimentally, to a staggering degree, afraid that my life, in the end when accounts are totaled, will be a waste. Because of this fear, I am always planning the next thing.

While I worked, I remembered what it was like to live with Adam…

The counter was laden with fresh tomatoes, limes, and garlic. The floor was swept clean of dog hair, dishes were done, and there was no dust atop the refrigerator. The counter had been cleared to make a work surface. A knife ready next to the cutting board, a skillet warming on the stove, and a fresh piece of halibut draining in the sink. Soft Brazilian music played on the stereo, and the soft glow of the summer light faded outside. The air was fragrant with the scent of fresh limes mingled with garlic. Cooking began to happen in tandem, a ritual of our daily life.

I met Adam while waiting tables at Alameda Brewhouse in Portland. During summers after graduate school, I worked to pay off my student loans. He was the brewer there. A co-worker talked me into going out with Adam. I did, and fell in love with his tall, thin frame and goofy smile. After we’d been together for a couple of years, we moved to Maui. I got us there by getting a teaching job at King Kekaulike High School.

I remember our conversation about leaving Portland. Adam and I were sitting at the Lucky Lab pub. We were at an outside picnic table, and I was leaning my back against the cold cinder block wall. We were having a beer and chit-chatting, as couples do on Saturday afternoons. I looked up and out at the sky. I was looking up and away from Adam in the way I do when I want to avoid what I have to say or don’t like what I’m thinking. I look up sometimes to escape my mind. I felt like I was going to cry, and Adam said, “What?” My voice shuddered and I replied, “I don’t know. I really fucking hate this place.” My eyes descended from the clouds and met his, “I don’t want to live here anymore.”

I don’t remember why I so badly wanted out of Portland–Portland had always been safe for me. Home. The other times I’d left, for college or work, I’d happily snapped right back to that city by the rivers.

The tone of his reply was apprehensive underneath, in the bass note, but his words and voice were encouraging. We’d always, from the day we started dating, talked about living abroad. I’d travelled extensively as a child and had wanderlust. Adam hadn’t travelled; he’s made it from the mid-West, Indiana, to Portland. The most expansive place he’d been was the Pacific coast.

Before we moved to Maui, I was having some health problems and was often emotional. Adam had had it with my crying and freaking out about not feeling well, but wouldn’t talk to me about it, wouldn’t listen, either. And we were having some problems in our relationship I still don’t understand. Add to the mix that, for as laid back and happy-go-lucky as Adam was on the outside and to the world, he was a very moody and depressive person inside. We never really talked about the mess we were in. Instead, we took our problems with us to Maui.

Adam really came alive living the island life, and when he began diving he found his calling. I joined a traditional outrigger canoe team. Living on Maui cured my illness and brought me strength. Together, we swam in the warm cerulean blue ocean, learned to body-board, hiked in the jungle, jogged in the pineapple fields, and made our home the gathering place for our new friends.

Adam learning to body-board at Big Beach, Maui.

Adam learning to body-board at Big Beach, Maui.

Somehow, though, things got tangled–professionally for me, and for us as a couple.

I was unwilling to keep teaching there. I taught Senior English and had students who’d never been issued a textbook, assigned reading, or written an essay. I had students who couldn’t write a sentence, yet I was expected to graduate them all. The ethics of the situation flummoxed me. I couldn’t foresee spending my career and my professional energy in that setting. I had to make a decision–stay on Maui or return to Lincoln.

On the beach one evening, after a swim on the way to the grocery, Adam asked me, “So what are you going to do?” I told him I didn’t know yet. Getting out of Portland in general, and living on an island, had been my dream. But, I was invested in my profession. He told me that, no matter what I decided, he was staying on Maui. He never said what he wanted from me. He never tried to help me sort out my dilemma. When I asked for his thoughts, he said he wanted to be by himself for a year. “A year,” he specified.

I moved back to Portland, bought my house, and returned to teaching at Lincoln. Adam visited for Thanksgiving and we made a plan: he’d come to Portland in the spring so I could finish the school year and sell the house. Then, we’d return to Maui together, for good, to make it our home. Adam stayed on Maui until summer, until the day before our mutual friends, Bryan and Theresa, got married. He returned to Portland, very unwillingly, to serve as best man.

Adam and me at the wedding, July 2004.

Adam and me at the wedding, July 2004.

Adam came home in July and we knocked down the shed. We pulled up blackberry roots that spanned the width and length of the yard. We planted grass and put in a mini-patio made of pavers. We sat outside to eat dinner or for cocktails.

The grass seed blew or rolled downhill and made a wispy patch where no lawn was intended. The cherry leaves blew in the wind, and there were seeds sprouting everywhere in the dirt from last year’s crop.

Adam said he hated the house, hated how much work it needed.

We lay in bed and talked about going back to Maui.

***

Adam didn’t make it home from work on Sunday.

He kissed me on the forehead and left for his shift as the beer buyer at Whole Foods. Late, in the middle of the night, I awoke and he wasn’t home. I was pissed, thinking he’d gone to a co-worker’s house after work and had not called to let me know. Around 5 AM, I got a call from the hospital, explaining he’d been in an accident, and asking how quickly I could get there. I called Bryan and Theresa, and Bryan said he’d seen the wreck on the news. Theresa came and drove me to the hospital. Bryan met us there, and we walked into hell. It seems it was really foggy that night. It seems Adam had stopped at a bar where one of his friends worked, but didn’t seem to have had that much to drink, according to his friend and his blood alcohol level. Somehow, he drove a mile past our house, going 88 MPH, hit a bridge railing, and was thrown from the car. Three days later, he died.

The last picture of Adam alive...on the MAX with our friends's kids, the Saturday before his accident, January 2005.

The last picture of Adam alive…on the MAX with our friends’s kids, the Saturday before his accident, January 2005.

Friends came and took charge of my house. They sat with me until I could fall asleep at night. They kept my wine glass full. They helped me deal with the cremation and plan the memorial. Whole Foods sent food. Lincoln sent flowers and cards and chocolate. I drank tea and sorted through photographs, the only way I could keep from losing my mind. I drank tea and sat, wrapped in Adam’s old college-bed quilt, and stared at the wall. When they finally left each night, I cried into a shirt of Adam’s that I held onto as I fell asleep.

 

Bryan, Theresa and I, Adam’s brother, and the Indiana friends, wrote these words for the memorial:

 “Adam loved people. He loved the ocean, and beer, and good food, and to laugh. Whether eating a fine meal with close friends or drinking a beer with a total stranger, Adam loved giving his time and attention to others, and he made sure to never leave anyone out of a celebration. He shared his joys in life through mastery of the brewer’s craft and by becoming a dive master. His kind and gentle spirit gave him a magnetism that drew people to him. When we think of Adam, we will always remember his smile.”

After the memorial, I stayed home for a month. There really was no escape. I lived in the now-empty house just as I lived in my skin. There was an echo of Adam around every corner. I sat on the couch, forever wondering what was in between feeling trapped and that my life was totally out of control. I told myself that the future was all about my goals, my interaction with the world. I could sell and move–back to Maui, or across town closer to friends and farther away from the site of Adam’s car wreck. I could move on without accomplishing anything, with all my time here tallied as a waste, an endeavor of longevity pre-empted because of situation, circumstance.

In May, Adam’s family, our close friends, and I took his ashes to Maui and put them in the ocean. We did it the Hawaiian way, we wore leis, and each of us, after throwing in a handful of his remains, dove in to take one last swim with him.

Me on the boat to put Adam's ashes in the sea.

Me on the boat to put Adam’s ashes in the ocean on Maui.

A while later, one of my oldest friends asked, “So kid, what’s next?”

I replied, “That’s the question, isn’t it? Until I find the answer I guess I just go to work and pay my mortgage, just like everyone else.”

***

It’s been three months since Adam died. This weekend friends came for a visit, the same friends that spent the weekend of his accident with us. Friday night I cooked goat cheese and black bean enchiladas, messed up the whole kitchen, and we ate together at the dining table. On Saturday we built two raised garden-bed frames and laid black landscape plastic over the clay and stubborn weeds in the side yard. We hauled 24 bags of dirt from Home Depot. We planted seeds: bush beans, snap peas, carrots, radishes, lettuce. We made flowerbeds around the porch. I took the potted herbs outside. It rained the whole time we worked. In the evening we all piled onto my bed and watched a movie. The next morning, while I was making the bed, my friends’ four-year-old daughter said, “Adam didn’t die.”

How I wish her statement was true.

Collage of life…saving cards and reading them years later

By Neva Knott

I’ve been going through those boxes… you know, the boxes stuffed in a closet while moving or while reallocating space in your home. Today I found my basket of cards, overflowing and priceless. I picked it up and thought, do I still want these? Instead of making a snap decision, I sat down on my bed and read each card–its cover and the personal inscription.

The basket of cards I've saved over the past 10 years.

The basket of cards I’ve saved over the past 10 years.

Then I decided to use William Burroughs’s cut-up method, which allows for random order in arrangement of words–usually, the result is intriguing and somehow spot-on. I typed the key line inscribed in each card, determined to come up with a free-form poem.

Here’s my excerpted version:

I just love the blanket you gave Cora. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. I LOVE the camera. Thank you so much for the notebook, I love it. Our room looks out over a snorkel cove and I am sitting on the balcony listening to Sophie read her Greek homework to the sound of the surf. You’ve weathered such a storm the last two years as gracefully as one could hope for–crying jags in Target notwithstanding.

You will always be in my heart.

I cherish our friendship–don’t know what I would have done without you in my life all of these years. I’m glad you moved back and look forward to spending more time with you. We love you and will always be by your side. A book should be arriving from Amazon soon. You are such a sweetheart and it’s been a pleasure working with you and getting to know you.

Wishing you strength in this difficult time. All the very best all the time on your journey. We’re here if you need us. There’s nothing like a home…especially a first one. Congratulations, you’re a grown up now. I got you a thank you card for your birthday–the picture reminded me of you.

We’ve come a long way from being a bunch of drunk kids to being a bunch of drunk adults. Thank you for the beautiful ornament and years of wonderful friendship.

I love you–Mom.

I am so glad you came home–you are my friend, cheerleader, adopted sister. It is better to stride with integrity as you’ve done. You are a fabulous, vibrant artist and I appreciate all that you do to brighten the world. Finally watched Gatsby and was thinking of you.

Free like a butterfly to visit.

Thank you for being an amazing friend who is kind, thoughtful, generous, and always up for my crazy ideas. Thank you so much for coming to teach girls’ self defense. Thanks for helping me set up my website and showing me those cool sites. My blog makes me very happy…thanks for helping me with it.

A special thanks for reading so beautifully the sensual excerpt from the Song of Songs at our wedding ceremony. Thank you Neva and Josh for the Wimpy Kid book. I wrote lots of stuff in it. Words can never really express the incredible gratitude I have for your friendship.

We can have a blast, and we can also dig into the shit and make shit-tastic lemonade.

Hope you had a good trip back and that Josh didn’t miss his portable bowl. Thank you so much for the awesome cookies. I know you don’t live in the islands anymore, but they still live in you. I miss you. We love you. The best part is having you back home. Thank you for the girls’ Valentine’s presents…Stella has worn her tights with overalls four days in a row.

You know, all of these years later, who’d have guessed we’d end up where we are if they’d seen us back then. We’ll have to go for a margarita or a piece of cake next time we see each other. I am staring at two elephants right now… I am proud of you, Neva, and you need to appreciate yourself for the warrior you are. Love getting little snippets from you on Facebook. It’s been so nice to be able to reconnect with you.

Love you much, my wonderful Seastar.

Thanks so much for the camel.

I’m a bit bashful about posting some of these comments; seen here they seem self-congratulatory. But that’s not what drew me to blogging about these cards…what I love about having kept them is the reminders of the depth of my relationships. Each card connects to a moment shared with others, documents the birth of a baby, the sharing of a weekend, my little cousin growing up, my friend’s son advancing from signing his portion of the card with a scribble to using his first-grader’s careful printing to thank me for a gift.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Some of the comments are very personal exchanges of our co-joined lives and some are philosophical meanders. Several are hand-made Valentine’s from the children of friends. And, I received the same card twice from my mom, the cover reads, “More than anything else, I want you to be happy…”

The senders document the diversity of the people in my life: my seventh grade best friend from our time living in Thailand; my high school boyfriend and his wife; my eighth grade best friend and her “little” brother; my cousins, aunts, uncles; my sisters and their families; college friends; colleagues who became friends; mentors; friends gathered on my path of life; children of friends and family; intimate notes from lovers; seasonal cards from my mom.

Sometimes, the card’s text IS the message:

Life is like a roller coaster. It goes up and down, makes you scream, and costs a lot to ride.

It’s your birthday!!! I got you a card!!!

Now listen here…you don’t stay young by playin’ by the rules. You gotta party outside the lines, stir up a little trouble. Know what I’m sayin’? Now get out there and make me proud.

To stay young, the doctor says exercise and eat the right foods. What? I thought he said accessorize and buy nice shoes!

With the right heels and some junk in the trunk, you’ve got a ticket to ride!

I also love the imagery, color, and graphics of these cards. Sometimes, the medium IS the message:

Another gem in the mix was the collection of cards my mom sent to me on behalf of my dogs, cards expressing Happy Mother’s Day, Happy Birthday, and one telling doggy Josh to take me out to lunch with the enclosed check, and intimating that he could bring some of his friends, too.

I don’t know why I began saving cards. I do know each card reminds me that, even in my toughest times, I am loved and appreciated and never alone. For all the sentimental reasons enveloped in each card, I will continue to fill my little basket.

 

 

 

Scream

By Neva Knott

The lights were on the band and I was dancing next to the guy I like, feeling guilty that I like him and wondering what he’d do if he knew, because my boyfriend just died two months ago and they were friends.

I looked around that familiar room, a bit like the room that held our collective youth, and wanted to scream. Primal, loudly, and to let it be drowned by the sound of rock and roll. In that moment my mind shattered into pieces of some other reality that still included Andrew…our first public kiss in just about that spot, a time when jobs and money didn’t matter, the reality that preceded the twenty wasted years of my life.

As the lights flashed on stage and the song changed my mind came back into focus and my heart flashed on reality. This is my life, these are my people, in this room, and I don’t want to waste any more time elsewhere. I left it all behind by stepping away into adult life. Fuck that, it’s been a let-down.

Not that I want to be destitute and irresponsible. I want to feel alive. The whole time I taught, and went to bed at 10 PM and arose at 6 AM and spent evening upon evening on my couch using my own time to grade papers that were shit and most of them shouldn’t have come to me until they were better written by students who largely didn’t give a fuck as long as their parents weren’t on them about grades, I was lost and angry and miserable and sad.

Andrew was what I missed the most. He, by that point, had shaped my life as much as I myself had…he and my dad. I told him so in his dying moments before the morphine was hooked up, that he and my dad made me who I am. Andrew was always the center of the scene for me…even after I accepted loving him in the sense of all things are beautiful and one rather than being the girl with the biggest crush on him. All else was the backdrop, but I loved it all and valued it, too. The people, the bands, the late nights.

While pondering all of this I watched one of our friends watch the band and remembered that the last time he saw Andrew was the last time I saw Andrew–and he was dead. I wonder what that was like for our friend…in the moment, in the hospital, in that frozen moment, he said “oh buddy” over and over, with tears in his eyes.

What became clear or just made me want to scream last night as the band played on was that the times in my life I’ve felt guilty weren’t about something I was or wasn’t doing at work, or how much money I was–or more likely wasn’t–saving, or about accomplishing goals. It was that deep inside of me I knew that I was denying my true existence by unintentionally, though with resigned acceptance, walking away from all this love and friendship and creative purpose…this essence of life.

I admire the people who surrounded me last night, immensely, because they have not succumbed to that fear.

Acceptance and grief are funny things. They bite you in the ass when you least expect to be gnawed raw by their brutal teeth. All the usual commentary becomes trite…you know he loved you, no one knew he was so sick, we all wish we had more time, if he would have taken better care of himself, so sad that you two finally got together and now he’s gone. All trite, but all of it what we say to each other as salve for the bite marks.

I need to scream because I am over getting over shit. My list is long…I was hit by a car age seven and had to learn to walk again; I realized, in a hotel room in Saigon in the 70s at age eight, that my mother really didn’t like me and that we’d never get along; my father died when I was fifteen leaving me alone with that bitch; I took a profession and pushed at it and pushed at it and exhausted myself pushing at it for twenty years so that I wouldn’t have to call myself a failure. I lost touch of myself along the way, and then I met Adam and he died; I moved to Maui and failed professionally and left behind my dream of island life; a few years later I got laid off, then I got fired. I left Portland to return to Olympia, this time to manage my mom’s estate after she died–a move “home” that never works for me. And came back. And then I lost Andrew. And then I had to put my dog down, mercifully, because of his old age.

So I will scream, though sometimes silently in the lonely dead hours of the night when I am alone. And I will dance and let the music fracture my mind into a different reality, one filled with life and love, but none of that will fill the hole left by Andrew. This time, I know he’s not coming back from tour, I know I’m not going to run into him at a show, I know we won’t get together for a drink someday soon.

I will scream because I can’t fill the hole left in our world by Andrew’s death. I will dance because I am surrounded by all of this truth and beauty and love, because the people who died, died and I am alive.

Leaving: the longing, nostalgia, and truth of traveling young.

By Neva Knott

1968 was a time of global intensity; mores and values were changing, driving social unrest. 1968 marked the significant increase in American deaths from the Vietnam war. It also marked the date of student protests in France that were considered a cultural, social and moral turning point in the history of that country, and 1968 marked an equally intense protest at Columbia University. It was the year of the My Lai massacre and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wonder what was going through my father’s mind the following year as he made the decision and the requisite following choices to move his family out of America and into the world of third-world countries and extensive travel in the South Pacific and Asia. As he retired from his thirty-year career at the Washington State Department of Game and maneuvered us to live his boyhood dream of traveling, did he think about Vietnam raging out of control?

My parents with one of the brown suitcases, so happy and in love.

My parents with one of the brown suitcases gifted to my dad by his colleagues on his retirement, so happy and in love.

 

I realize now how I’ve lived much of my life in the same way–going without consideration of what’s to come, valuing experience and the journey over the outcome or the destination. I pause—how are those two things connected…my father’s choice to take us out of the country at such a tumultuous time and my lose-the-map way of living? Is there a connection? Or, might I just be supplanting perspective on my memory of him and my fascination with that time?

Dad's Retirement Notice in the Daily Olympian

Dad’s Retirement Notice.

We left the States in September of 1969. My dad’s new job was on the island of Saipan, in the Marianas Islands, in Micronesia. A small island, just fourteen miles long and five miles wide. The Battle of Saipan was a major offensive of WW II, featuring the Allied troops against the Japanese. Another historical tidbit–one theory on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is that once her plane was downed, she was held hostage by the Japanese in a Saipanese jail. Saipan is part of the Marianas Island chain which sit along the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the Earth’s oceans.

I was six, a few days from turning seven. My sister was four, just weeks from turning five. I remember the leaving. In my little girl mind I was unaware of all the steps—my parents leaving their jobs, the packing, the selling of house and cars, garnering of passports, inoculations, the intricate decisions  about what to take and what to leave behind. We left our dogs. We left my pet bunny. We left our house by the lake.

The night before we flew out, we stayed at grandma and grandpa’s. I asked my grandma to come with us, a simple child’s request. At four in the morning my sister and I were awakened, and left the twin beds in that room we’d napped in so many days of our childhood. The beds with the polyester flowered comforters, one pink and one yellow, the colors we’d fight over in choosing a bed.

Grandpa and me, Rachel and Grandma, a few months before we left for Saipan.

Grandpa and me, Rachel and Grandma, a few months before we left for Saipan.

My parents had traveled to Hawaii the year before, something neither my sister or I was aware of until we found the slides, Kodachrome images of mom and dad as tourists, iconic in their 60s garb and naiveté as travelers, holding up pineapples, wearing leis. When Rachel and I saw those images, we realized just how green our parents were at travel that morning we left behind the warmth of grandma’s. As we left the States, we stopped over in Honolulu before catching our flight to Saipan. In Hawaii, Rachel and I stayed in a hotel for the first time. We swam in a hotel pool and the ocean for the first time.

Hotel pools were to become the mark by which my sister and I judged the fun factor of each of many long trips to places like Bangkok, Australia, Indonesia, India, Saigon. Hotel pools were where we formed our bond as the world got bigger and bigger and we knew we had to stick together.

In Honolulu we shopped at the Ala Moana Center, then a new mall, visited the Polynesian Cultural Center and Pearl Harbor. In a sense, that first trip was a rite of passage to our new identities as world travelers, as little girls who would come to know that most cultural practices were wildly different than our world of Olympia, Washington.

Flying from Hawaii to Saipan was a journey from the first world to a pin-dot on the globe in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Because of Micronesia’s remoteness, our flight stopped at little islands along the way to drop supplies. When the plane landed on Saipan, a fire truck raced it down the runway, just in case. The airport was barely more than a cement hut. Over time, we’d come to love the empanadas sold at a stand there, full of spicy, greasy meat that dripped onto our hands with each bite.

The first night on Saipan is forever etched in my mind. I can’t find the adjective for the sum total of the experience, but I remember the scene. Rachel and I were beyond tired. Our parents were tired. Collectively, we were clearly out of our element, and even at six I got this. We stayed at The Hotel Hafa A’dai. The hotel’s name means good day in Chamarro, the mixed language of the islands. The hotel was the best on the island, yet we were unseasoned travelers and didn’t know what that really meant. Our room had that musty smell I now know is inescapable anywhere in the tropics, a smell I now equate with longing and nostalgia and truth. There were geckos on the ceiling, they chirped all night, and my mother was scared of them. The air conditioner was loud and erratic, also a now beloved common feature of tropical hotels the world over. It seemed dark and dingy in the room, and our parents worked to smooth over the rough edges so that we could fall asleep in one of the double beds. Our new life awaited in the morning.

Our house on Saipan, on Capital Hill

Our house on Saipan, on Capital Hill.

During the four years we lived on Saipan, we went to the Hafa A’dai often, for dinner, to entertain visiting colleagues of my dad’s, or just so our parents could socialize while the kids swam in the pool. Music played from the bar, and our parents would linger while my sister and I went to the gift shop for Cadbury chocolate bars.

I don’t know what my dad intended, but I do know that traveling and living overseas during that world-gone-crazy time of the late 1960s and early 1970s shaped my world view. Maybe those experiences are what allow me to cope in these similarly chaotic times. I know they shaped my persistent belief that there are only two types of people in the world, regardless of social norms, politics, race, gender, creed, or culture–there are those who love and those who hate.

The swimming pool at the Hotel Hafa A'dai.

The swimming pool at the Hotel Hafa A’dai.

Sometimes, I dream of that first night on Saipan. Often, I dream of the Hafa A’dai pool and the beach just beyond its edges. I think I travel in my sleep to that innocent time, when my parents were alive and happy, to try to get back to whatever part of my soul is still there, listening to the geckos.

 

Rhythm and Fade: A Night Walk in Cork, Ireland

By Neva Knott

The Ovens Bar in Cork on a Tuesday in July. Older couples, men and women who looked like they’d worked a day in their lives, sat side by side in booths, facing into the room, backs at the wall. Each he, a full pint of dark beer, each she, a half. The booths were red and the walls dark and trimmed with heavy wood. Eyes followed us as we entered. Low words marked our presence, foreigners in a common place at day’s end.

The nine of us took a table and struck up little conversations in clusters of twos and threes. The World Cup was on the screen. Two happy Irish men tuned, violin and banjo, and made ready to play music. A third man, younger, muscular, jovial, carefully unpacked his tap dancing shoes.

My eyes on it all–the projected energy of the game, the enthusiasm of the band, the constant smile of the dancing man, the contemplation of the drinking couples, the random conversations of my company, the movement at the bar. Unwilling to drink more and unable to sit still any longer, I knew I had to take my leave.

How to explain I had to go, to walk? Not wanting to appear rude or disinterested, but as I watched the soccer players run and watched the dancer click and step, I couldn’t keep my place on that barstool. It was late evening, the best time to walk. I told my friends good-bye and left the bar.

Outside, the city was aswarm. The sky was still blue. As I walked it began to pale to grey, but a brightness remained behind buildings, and the sun still projected light above the church-tops and shop roofs. I walked along Oliver Plunkett Street to the rhythm of footsteps, the beat of young couples going to the pub, of overly made-up girls going for a drink, of tourists seeking entertainment, of shop workers going home. Buildings and shapes and languages.

Two blocks up, a man with a red electric guitar. He was an aging rock star, dressed in hippy-style motley, a man whose musical generation was fading in the same way the light dropped behind the buildings. His guitar shone, the sound amplified down the side-alley and along Plunkett Street, and his voice–mellow and strong, clear and convicted, gave to the fading light the words of a ballad, “Stairway to Heaven.”

The notes from the red guitar, the familiarity of the song, and the walking beat blended into me. I wondered, what, for me, glitters with gold?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The rhythm of the city’s dusk carried me past the closed shops, past the pubs with the noise of the World Cup spilling out of each doorway, across the bus mall, and onto Washington Avenue. Half a mile down, the avenue began to parallel the River Lee. I could see the day’s end reflected on the cool glass of the water.

The street was quieter now, though still populated. Shapes and textures of the city took my eye–the glass-scapes of modern hotels layered upon stone-built old churches. The Records and Relics shop with its mannequins in a shoot ’em up western motif. The quick-mart, still open for snacks and liquor, the forgotten milk, cigarettes, a sandwich. Row houses with iron gates, mild-mannered graffiti on cement garden walls, the flora of the college grounds. The ever-present, soft-flowing River Lee.

I felt alive and part of it all; I was walking.