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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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?

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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.

 

 

 

The Frogs’ Melodies Tonight

By Neva Knott

Full moon. That majestic golden orb shines through the still-bare boughs of the maple tree just at the edge of my yard. This morning, even, while I was walking the dog at dawn, I saw it in the sky, too full yet to move on to the other side of the world. Since, it has made its rotation, and brightens my night.

My dog Josh is on the deck, listening to the frog orchestra that began a week or two ago. The field below our house floods in the spring rain, bringing these amphibians that, night after star-bright night, vocalize their passionate search for a mate and signal the change in temperature as the world shifts toward spring.

Each spring evening I’ve heard the frog-song, I’ve thought of my father, of a particular memory of him. When I was a very little girl, three or four, we lived on the shores of Chambers Lake, on the other side of town. Across the lake, coyotes roamed along the railroad tracks. They howled, and on those nights, my father would awaken me, wrap me in a blanket, and carry me to the porch to listen, to nature, to the universe. This memory has become emblematic of the legacy my father left me. He died when I was fifteen, but before passing, instilled in me a deep understanding of the connection between humans and the natural world.

In the 1970s my father worked as a zoologist for the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand, where I attended seventh grade at the International School. He gave a lecture to my class, “Man and the Natural Environment.” I have his notes, dated September 17, 1973, in front of me this evening:

The natural environment surrounds us with geography–mountain vistas, high plateaus, low hills used for farming, river valley deltas made into rice paddies, the land itself. The natural environment includes seasons and sunlight and the rainy season and typhoons and all of it culminates in soil quality.

Humans need the soil to grow food. Without good soil, there is no rice, no fruit. Work animals–yak, buffalo, horse, and elephant–live off the land, too.

Humans influence the natural environment. We make our mark by building houses, planting crops, keeping livestock, and using resources to make clothes, travel, and build cities.

Humans need nature, the good environment–clean air, clean water, green scenery, and wildlife. The bad environment is dirty air, dirty water, no green, no wildlife but rats. The bad environment is caused by too many people, ignorance, and the desire for wealth now.

The warning bells are loss of wildlife, loss of green across the landscape.

His endnote reads, “If they can’t live–can man????” On this part of the note page, it is clear my dad pressed his pencil hard into the paper.

As I read these notes I realize my dad’s schema of “Man and the Natural Environment” is the same as the ecologists’ schema today. If they can’t live–can man???? is the still the biggest environmental question.

These are the notes of the man who instilled in me my love of nature. Even though the last decade of my life has been rife with crises, I live as a dreamer who walks often along the river, listening to the muted splash and caress of water on rocks. I listen to the softly ensconced echo of the world’s sounds as the trees pull sound down and drop it into the river’s flow. I take these walks with Josh, who also lives to walk along streams, to find himself tangled in long grass along the banks, and then goes splashing with a distinct surge into the river’s tumult and flow.

Nature allows me to I survive.

I return my father’s notes to his desk. The moon illuminates my thoughts and I realize the frogs’ melodies tonight are the beating of my father’s heart as he held me close, listening to the coyotes.

Chanting E ala e

By Neva Knott

Jim’s rustling in the kitchen and the smell of coffee awakens me. It’s four in the morning. I stay nestled in my blanket on the couch, listening to him find pans to make breakfast, listening to his wife Gail turn on the water for a shower. The lapping sound of the ceiling fan reminds me I’m in the tropics, not at home in rainy winter Washington. I stretch my arm over the couch. Jim puts a cup of coffee in my hand and says good morning. “I’m up, really,” I reply. I’m usually the sleepy head of the bunch, but today we need to get a move on, so I get up, dress quickly, organize a bag for the day, and step out onto the lanai, into the still darkness. Our rental is a cabin is in Haiku, a residential area just off the North shore. Each Hawaiian island has a wet side and a dry side–Haiku is on the wet side, the jungle-y part of the island. No street lights, curvy roads through gulches and eucalyptus. The air smells clean yet musty, as it always does after a night of rain in the islands. I swing for a while in the hanging porch chair, taking in the warmth of the coffee, the dampness of the air and the silence.

Twenty minutes later, we pile into the rental Jeep. Our destination is Haleakala, the “house of the sun,” Maui’s volcano ten thousand feet above sea level. We’re going up to watch the sunrise, so pitch black is what we want right now, the darkness is why we’re up so early. It’ll take us about an hour to drive to up. Though I lived on Maui for a year a decade ago, and though I drive up to Haleakala National Park every few visits, I’ve never been up for sunrise. Haleakala is, in Hawaiian culture and oral history, a sacred place, a place of ancient ritual. In the words of Mark Twain, who visited the islands in 1866, Haleakala is a place of “healing solitudes.”

This trip to Maui is my way of saying thank you to Jim and Gail for helping me remodel my mom’s house after she passed away two years ago, my way of saying thank you for the support, the sweat equity, for feeding me and for letting me sleep on their couch for a long stretch while mom was in the hospital. This trip is also a celebration of our reunion. We went to high school together, but lost touch after adult life took over. Jim and Gail have only been to Maui once before, and they had the bad tourist experience. The whole plan for our trip is for them to see this beautiful island through my eyes.

We make our way out of Haiku and to the main roads. I direct Jim the back way through the still-sleeping town of Makawao and onto the rodeo road that connects to Haleakala Highway. Then it’s up and up, via an s-curved, two-lane road. We drive, mostly in silence. Jim has said he wants to see the sun “boil out of the ocean on one side of the island, and sink back into it on the other.” Jim’s request reminds me of the myth of how Maui stole the sun. Legend tells that Haleakala Crater is where the demigod Maui captured the sun in order to convince it to take longer crossing the sky each day, so that his mother’s bark cloth could dry fully. Maui held the sun captive in the crater for several days. Finally, the sun granted Maui’s wish, so he let it return to the sky. Since, the island has enjoyed full days of sunshine and warmth.

The sky is lightening as we snake up the last few miles. I glance between the dashboard clock, the sky’s edge I can see along the volcano’s slope, and gauge the distance to the top. We make it to the parking lot just as the whole sky is turning from gunmetal to coral. Jim parks the Jeep and we jump out. As we start walking to the viewpoint along rim of the crater, we hear voices. Gail asks, “What’s that noise?” It’s rhythmic and soft, low in tone. “Chanting the sunrise,” I tell her, though in my mind, I worry that I can’t remember the words. I give a quick explanation of the Hawaiian ceremony of chanting the sunrise as a prayer, and as a way to begin each day with purpose. We make our way to the guardrail along the rim, arriving just as the sun peeks through the cloud layer and burst into layers of crimson-orange brilliance, filling the sky. For that moment, nothing else existes, nothing except the sun rising out of the ocean, coming through the clouds, lighting the sky, signaling the beginning of that new day.

The sun shifts higher and higher, causing the colors in the crater to change. The cinder rock hills come out of shadow and take on their daylight hue of deep rusted burgundy, the sharp edges of grey cliffs come into relief so that the stone’s edges are delineated, the vegetation is now bright green. The angle of the sun in relation to the volcano’s peak reminds me of the first time I saw Haleakala come out of shadow. That morning, I was looking toward Maui from Kaho’olawe, the island eight miles off Maui’s South shore.

Kaho’olawe was used as a bombing practice target by the US military, for fifty years. In the early 2000’s, ownership of it reverted to the Hawaiian government. Because of all the bombing, the island is uninhabitable. The water lens is cracked, and most of the vegetation is dead. Kaho’olawe, like Haleakala, is sacred ground, a place of tradition and ritual. The Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana, a non-profit activist group interested in rebuilding a cultural connection to the island, sponsors work party excursions. While living on Maui and paddling on the Hawaiian Canoe Club outrigger team, I was invited to join one such trip. I went with my friends Niccole and Wendy, as chaperones of the teen members of our club. Before we were allowed to set foot on Kaho’olawe, we had to learn a series of rituals and chants. This morning, I’m reminded of the pre-dawn cleansing swim and sunrise chant for Haleakala, E ala e. As I stand next to Gail and watch the sun take over the sky, I think back, try to remember, and slowly, the words come out of the cadence of the chant I hear along the rim today.

As I listen, my mind drifts back a decade, across eight miles of ocean, to Kaho’olawe, to another pre-dawn awakening. In memory, I hear the group leader blow the conch shell, or pu, signaling it’s time for the day to begin. I rustle in my sleeping bag, and I reach for my flashlight but decide to leave it off–illumination will only upset the calm of the darkness, and will make it harder to see once I’m outside. I wake my tent-mate, Wendy, telling her I’m going to get Niccole and we’ll wait for her before we head to the beach. The last blows of the pu drift into the still-night darkness as I unzip the tent flap and step into the cool Hawaiian morning.

Rising before dawn is traditional cultural protocol. After the pu sounds, we are to make our way to the water, strip, submerge and cleanse ourselves of anything left from the day before or that crept into our consciousness during the night. The ocean will sweep away negativity, worry, guilt, exhaustion, anger, or distraction that will keep us from living this day fully. Wendy, Niccole, and I are alone at our scrap of beach, just yards from our tents. The water is shallow–ankle-deep, and the bottom rocky. We wade out as far as feels safe, knowing that darkness is not shark-safe, then kneel, dunk, and splash in the salty water. This ritual makes sense to me. I think to myself, “How can I awaken with such focused intention every morning?” The earth-based, cycle-of-life Hawaiian style of spirituality resonates in me.

After our dip, the three of us gather at the fire the kuas, or group leaders, have built. The sky is lightening, but is still some version of a blue-black-grey. After all of the group have made their way from tent to ocean to fire and are warmed and dry, we make our way up a shoreline ridgeline to watch the sun come over Haleakala, for the day to begin with purpose, as we chant our prayer for its climb from ocean to sky:

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 heavean)

Ka lewa nu’u (The heaven highest)

I kahikina (In the east)

Aia ka la. (There is the sun)

E ala e (Awaken!)

Just as these words weave into my memory, the Park ranger’s voice changes from the soft lilt of Hawaiian words to a tone of admonishment. His voice pulls me back to the present. I look at Gail and laugh, “And that’s the park ranger yelling at people not to crush the plants.” Haleakala is home to an amazing diversity of rare species, one of which is my favorite, the ahinahina, better known as the Haleakala Silversword.

As we turn away from the guardrail, the wind picks up and cold air hits us, and I realize I’ve forgotten to tell my friends it can be close to freezing up here. I have on yoga pants and a sweater, but am still cold. Gail is in shorts and a t-shirt. Jim runs back to the Jeep for our beach towels–Gail and I wrap ourselves in the hibiscus-print terry cloth, she in blue and me in red. As we walk back toward the Jeep, I suggest we drive the last half mile up, to the observation spot on the very top, to see the Silverswords.

The Haleakala Silversword grows only here, in these volcanic soils, on this volcano, on this island. The bottom of the plant is round and covered in silver-green spikey leaves that grow in a whorl. The flower stalk shoots up from the middle of this ball and grows to five feet. The Silversword lives fifty to ninety years, flowers only once in its life, then dies. The charismatic nature of this plant comes through in its bloom–the petals are a deep maroon and the hundreds of flowers on each plant burst open at once, engorging the stalk with life. The expansive grandeur of the bloom seems to represent the spirit of the volcano itself, seems to symbolize the sunrise, seems to elucidate the cycles of life in the islands.

Early visitors to the Park often picked the Silversword as a memento of having made it to the top of Haleakala. Local lore explains that it was the thing to do…not really a custom, but something like tossing a coin in a fountain for good luck…to roll the ball-shaped part of the plant into the crater, for sport. I have to admit, it does look a bit like a spikey bowling ball. And, before Haleakala was a National Park, the volcano’s slopes were used as rangeland. In addition to the picking and the rolling, grazing goats and cattle caused the plant almost went extinct. By the 1920s, there were just over a fourteen hundred plants left. Since the 1970s, Park rangers have re-established the plant’s population. Now, about fifty thousand Silverswords grow across this gritty cinder rock landscape.

As a photographer, I’m drawn to the Silversword’s Dr. Suess-world shape, prodigious bloom-stalk, and textures. But now we’re shivering. My hands are too cold to take more photos. Regretfully, the three of us pile into the Jeep and head down the s-curved, two-lane road. It was too dark to see much detail in the landscape on the drive up. What’s beautiful about the drive down is that the landscape changes again and again as we wend from the barren wind-eroded zone of the summit and through the trees along the slopes. Plants change, rock formations change, hill slope changes. Jack London called the landscape of Haleakala, “a workshop of nature still cluttered with the raw beginnings of world-making.” Both the North shore and the South shore are visible. I look across the water at Kaho’olawe, and smile.

As we descend, we watch the Maui awaken. It’s not quite 9 AM when we roll into Makawao Town, so early we have to wait for the coffee shop to open. Once inside, with warm cups in our hands, and almost unspokenly–in that way between friends of a long time–we decide we’ll go up again tomorrow.

Sugar Beach

By Neva Knott

I balance on smooth black lava boulders at the shoreline of Sugar Beach. I make my way just past the soft waves that undulate and dissipate. Ten yards out, the ocean meets the lava. There’s no surf, but enough water is hitting the rocks that they are slippery. I stop before I get to those covered in algae. I hold three flowers: a yellow ilima, a purple bougainvillea, and a red epidendrum. Behind me, my friend Gail picks her path so she can stand beside me, an orange bougainvillea in her hand.

Throwing flowers in the ocean is my Maui ritual. My partner, Adam, is buried in these waters. Each time I visit, I pick three flowers, of no special variety—I let them reveal themselves—one for Adam’s past, one for his present, and one for his future. This morning, I found the three in my hand while driving along the beach access road.

Adam and I had lived on Maui for a year in 2002. This island is a place to which people come and from which people go, and we were no different than others who’d left the mainland for Paradise. Work pulled me back to Portland, Oregon. Adam lingered on Maui for a few months, reluctant to leave. He made it back to Portland the summer of 2004, at the last possible moment to serve as his best friend’s best man. That fall, we decided I’d finish the school year and then we’d move back to Maui, for good. But Adam died in a car crash in January 2005. Our dream of the island life died with him.

***

This trip, I’ve come to Maui with my high school best friends, Jim and Gail. I moved to Portland a year after graduation. We kept in touch the first few years, until mortgages, professional obligations and adult life what-not allowed the 100 miles between our cities to stretch into twenty years gone by. We reunited at the fiftieth birthday party of a mutual friend. Recently, I moved from Portland to Olympia to remodel the house I inherited from my mom. Jim and Gail let me sleep on their couch, fed me, and volunteered themselves as my work crew. As we pulled carpet, tiled bathrooms, and painted wall, the gaps between the years filled. In appreciation for their help with the remodel, I hosted our trip to Maui.

Our third night here, we stood in the kitchen of our little ohana—a word that literally means family, but loosely translates as mother-in-law cottage and is the common description of small rental properties. Gail filled my wine glass and asked me about Adam’s accident. I’d forgotten she and Jim didn’t know the details. I sipped my wine and let the words roll out, giving the short version of the horror, but giving enough detail that my friends finally understood the magnitude. I’d explained my flower ritual to them while we were planning the trip. When I was done recounting the wreck and the days in the hospital, Gail said, “I want to throw a flower, and I want to say some words.” Later that evening, Jim sat on the couch and put his arm around me. He just kept talking, about anything and nothing, just like we did when we were teenagers, when we’d put gas in Jim’s car and drive around because we didn’t want to go home, until all the world’s problems were solved.

***

The spring after the wreck, Adam’s family and our group of Portland friends flew with me to Maui to put his ashes in the ocean. Friends who live on-island joined us. The dive shop Adam had taken scuba lessons through volunteered a boat and captain. I bought everyone flower leis. Niccole, a Maui friend, consulted a Hawaiian kumu, or priest, and prepared special leis for Adam’s younger brother, Wes, and me. She’d also learned the Hawaiian way to throw remains into the sea.

We launched with no destination in mind. As we moved away from shore and into the deep water, a pod of dolphins appeared. They escorted us to a popular dive spot near sacred native land. As the dolphins turned to leave, the captain cut the motor. Niccole explained what Wes and I were to do. The tradition is to throw a handful of ashes into the water, and then to dive in for one last swim with the deceased. Wes and I were to stay submerged until our ti leaf leis floated over our heads.

My hands shook, I fumbled, I began to sweat as I untied the bag of ashes. Finally, I submerged my hand into the container and pulled out a substance that felt reassuringly similar to sand. I threw my handful of what used to be Adam’s body into the water and dove in. The others followed suite. I lingered in the water and an ancient green turtle joined me. I felt Adam’s presence. The turtle looked at me, nodded, and submerged. I swam back to the boat. After our swim, from the boat deck, I watched garlands of white plumeria and those of green ti leaves slide along the swell of the water and float away.

***

This morning, Gail and I threw our flowers. I gave the yellow conical ilima to Adam’s past, the perfect funnel shape a reminder of his passage. I let the purple bougainvillea—the fullest bloom and softest of the bunch—signify his present. The epidendrum—a waxy, firm, sturdy burst of red and gold—will serve as the beacon for his future. They left my hand, one at a time, offered up with a silent prayer. The ilima was nudged by the waves and lodged between rocks. The epidendrum floated out along the point of the lava flow toward open ocean. The bougainvillea floated back and forth between rock and shore. Gail threw in her orange bunch. It landed next to my purple clump and undulated with the waves.

Jim and Gail and I walked along the tide pools and collected shells. Then I took my one last swim, again. While in the water, I overheard two women talking, their voices floating across the surface of the water, propelled by the soft Hawaiian lilt of pidgin, “When I was a little girl, my grampa tell me, you feel bad, you go to the ocean. It fix everything.”