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.

The Long Bus Ride Home from War

By Neva Knott

It’s Tuesday, July 5. I’m bartending at The White Eagle Saloon, a small music venue in Portland, with an 11-room hotel on the top floor. The bar is pretty empty. Everyone has the holiday hangover, I guess. My first customers were a nice couple who’d just checked in to the hotel. Just down from Seattle, it’s fun to get away. As I’m chatting it up with them, I see a woman take a stool at the end of the bar, backlit by the heavy afternoon sun glare from the front windows.

I get over there, and immediately can tell something is off. She orders a drink, seems really confused, but not in a drunken sort of way. She’s sort of slurring, and wants a double. I’m sure she isn’t drunk, just agitated. I pour her double vodka and hand it to her. She seems to need to explain, so opens with, “I was visiting my daughter, but she made me leave early.” I tell her I’m sorry, stand there for a minute so she feels like we’ve connected.

I move off to cruise the patio, to see who’s out there, what’s up. Two of my Monday regulars are in their usual spot, having missed yesterday for the holiday. They come in and drink cheap beer and smoke and talk. Today’s topic is cars. I love to get them laughing, so I ask if they have all their fingers after lighting fireworks on the Fourth. They giggle and show me their hands.

Next table is a group of three who come in every once in awhile, though it seems more often lately. These folks typify the usual non-descript backdrop of business at any Mcmenamins pub. They work day jobs, they come in for a quick few beers and a snack with the people they like at work, usually to talk about work, and share a few cursory personal details. They don’t really expect much from us. Happy hour drinks and cheap tater tots. In and out. Their transactions here are pretty much what I imagine their days to be like. In box full, outbox full. I like to open them up. I’m not saying I want to get to know them personally, their nitty-gritty and all, but I do want them to know I see them as people. As regulars. As part of my day. A couple of days ago I had really bad allergies and kept messing up little things on their order. I apologized, and told them I was blaming the pollen. So today I opened with, “I took Zyrtec today. I think I’ll be a much better waitress for you all…” They laughed, a little chip in the ice.

So this is pretty much it the first couple of hours—I have my two talking and smoking guys on the patio, my work-talk threesome has left for home, another regular has come in with three friends, and they are on the patio, drinking iced tea. A couple of guys come in for a quick after work meeting, drink Old Fashions. As I pour their last round, one orders two dinners to go.

The vodka woman has moved outside and is sitting at a front table, nervously smoking. I understand her emotional state now, and can see it in each jagged move she makes. Each time I’ve come behind the bar to mix a drink, she’s blurted out a detail. Her daughter is in the rehab program across the street. She herself is in what she termed a bad relationship, and today her boyfriend decided to hit her in the face instead of her stomach. She is upset because she took her daughter roses, but made her daughter cry. I stayed with her as she talked and finally asked her if she had resources to get herself some help. She’s staying with her son and her mother, alternately. She’s looking for work. She graduated from Apollo College, but really wants to be a bartender, but doesn’t know how to mix drinks. I tell her you learn as you go. She thanks me for the drink, tells me it helped, uses the bathroom, and leaves. At least I think she leaves, until I realize a long while later she’s out front, shaking and smoking.

Janine, the other bartender for the night, comes in. We do a few things to get ready for the night, and chat. Still not much going on. A new group arrives, a mix of men and women. The guys are the sort of amblers who just can’t make eye contact or listen to an answer to one of their own questions long enough for you to find out what kind of beer to pour for them. Talking over each other, competing for Janine’s attention, ordering then walking off. The woman was one of those super-annoying people who want the whole menu narrated to her and then still can’t decide, so she ends the conversation with, “I think I’ll just go sit down–will you come wait on us?” Later, we find out they are a Toastmasters group—you know, the public speaking club. The irony is not lost.

The band arrives, creating a little flurry of activity, though it is still slow. We stock liquor, and decide it’s slow enough Janine should go home.

Into this mix walks a man looking for a hotel room. I’m coming out of the kitchen from putting my dirty dishes to soak. I look toward the front door and see this guy with a camouflage hat come in, dragging a huge rolling suitcase. He sees me, immediately drops the suitcase half in the doorway, and comes over, saying, “You got rooms here?” I can feel his exhaustion and general wariness, but he’s also gentle and polite. There is something in this combination that alerts me to deal with this guy slowly and calmly and to give him reassurance. We walk over to the hotel computer, and I tell him what we have available. He blurts out, “I’ll take it. I’m on the Greyhound, and I’ve been all across the country, but they don’t let you sleep in the bus station here. Strangest thing; I’ve slept in bus stations everywhere else.” As he’s talking, I’m making the reservation. He seems a little worried. He keeps alternating in his expressions, but now he’s alternating from worried to smiling. I see he has no teeth. His shirt is frayed, but he’s clean-shaven. I give him his keys and welcome him, let him know we have music starting soon if he wants to come back down and relax.

About half an hour later, I walk onto the patio and see him sitting there. I take his order and bring him a Bud. I ask him if he got settled in all right, and he says yes, that he likes it here, that it feels good to relax. I walk on by, and he actually leaves his seat and follows me out to the trash pit. He comes back to the whole can’t sleep in the bus station thing. I tell him the area of the bus station has been bad for years because of drugs, and that he’s safer here. I ask him where he’s traveling from. We walk out of the trash pit. As he gets back to his table, he tells me he left Afghanistan, went to Iraq, then to Germany, to Florida, and then on the bus to Portland. In the early morning, he’s going on to Seattle, to the VA hospital there. I get a shiver of sadness as he tells me all of this, even though he’s smiling. I guess this is how our government shuttles around veterans these days. He says it’s good to be home. I thank him, for fighting. Actually, I’m not really sure what I thank him for—fighting, or trying, or enduring. I ask him if he’d like another beer, and I buy it for him. He stays awhile, then thanks me and goes upstairs.

The band is about ready to play. This new guy headed for the bar is a piece of work. He’s all tatted up, I mean really tatted up, even for Portland—got the words on the knuckles and all that. He has a pristine white fashion-brand ball cap on, cocked just so to one. He has big, chunky black hipster eye glasses, and, of course, a goatee. He sort of acknowledges me when I greet him, but mostly keeps talking really jumpy and to no one, and saying not much. He looks around the room constantly. Finally he asks, “Isn’t there a band here tonight?” It’s early, and anyone who comes out regularly would know that the opening band is most likely just going to start. Plus, the stage is full of equipment. And, the lead guy from the band is sitting at the bar, about two stools down. So I know this guy isn’t a friend. He’s here to write a review, but he won’t tell me the name of the publication, which is just bad manners in terms of Portland creative culture. He slams a couple more drinks, stays for part of the band’s first set, does the bro hand shake and leaves. Scott, my favorite regular, who is seated at the bar, laughs at him, and I do, too.

Now that the sun is down, I’ve got the fire is burning outside on the patio, and I chat with the people sitting around the pit. They are talking about cocaine. Then about art. The woman tells me about a great resort in Colorado that has continuously burning fireplaces in all the rooms in the winter. I tell her I’d like to go there, tell her I’d like to teach writing workshops at places like that. She gives me a warning look and explains it’s expensive, says, “But you could work there—they always need people to serve.” I ponder her perspective–the usual assumption that bartenders lack other skills–as I throw another log on the flame.

The night ambles on, as a slow Tuesday with good music on a summer’s evening can do. I start my closing tasks. The band is done playing, and they all leave to drink wine at Scott’s. Two of the guys from the Widmer Brew Pub, just across the street, come in and are soon wrapped into a heated, friendly debate about who’s the better tennis player.

My last customers of the evening are two hotel guests, here on a guy trip. One of them is moving across the country tomorrow, so this is their last hurrah. I pour them a shots of good whiskey and listen to them find a way to say goodbye.

Bus Stop Angels

By Neva Knott

Monday, while walking my dog, Josh, in the rain at the little park by my house, the one next to Rose City Golf Course, I heard from under the boughs of a large tree, “Hello.” I looked up to find a man taking shelter from the rain. He was wearing a head turban and had an Islamic prayer book in his hand. He said, while gesturing at the weather, “You know when it is like this we say,” and then read me a very long prayer from his book, in Arabic. He explained that the rain is a blessing. Then he began to read again. He pointed to a word, and said, “This is goddess; do you know what is goddess?” I replied that I thought I did, but asked that he tell me what it meant to him. He enunciated and the word was gorgeous, not goddess. He began to read again in Arabic, turning little prayer book page after little prayer book page. Then he stopped and said, “You are gorgeous in the eyes of God.”

He told me that he liked to talk to people, but that some people don’t like to stop their day to talk. I replied that I like it, too. We parted ways.

Bus stop angel.

I had this room-mate in college, and that was her name for this type of encounter. She explained it as those people who we come upon while doing our daily doings (such as waiting at the bus stop) and they then impart something wise or special to us.

How nice to begin my day, regardless of my personal belief system, with the reminder that I am gorgeous in the eyes of God. This man was not crazy, he was not threatening or creepy, nor was he trying to hit on me. He was connecting with me through humanity, in the rain, from under a tree.

Hopefully, I gave him something in return.

II.

Last Thursday, Jimbo came in to the tavern I work at to drink whiskey and play pool, as he often does. He’s a Northwest neighborhood denizen–he’s been around for years. He’s the guy who takes your ticket at Cinema 21 and gives you the peace sign or a prayer bow as you walk in. He’s the guy who used to come into the Blue Moon, another tavern I worked at, and bus tables as an act of kindness. He’s the guy who lived across the hall and down one floor from me on Johnson Street when I moved back from Evergreen in 1990. He had one rocking chair and a rug in his living room, which I could see through his open door from the hallway. He’s the guy who, when I was a new teacher, walked through Powell’s with me, helping me select American literature titles. When I returned to the city a few months ago and started at the tavern, I had to remind him of why I was familiar.

Jimbo has always been part of my NW reality, but until last Thursday, I didn’t really know him.

Come to find out, we went to the same college, Evergreen State. He was of the first graduating class, he told me–eyes shining. He’s a Zoologist and he taught Biology at Portland State University for 20 years. In between serving my other customers and bringing him fresh whiskey, I heard of his time as a carpenter on Lake Chelan, and that he writes letters to Gary Snyder. What he didn’t tell me is the story of his brain injury that altered his life. In the end, he said, “People do what they do. I don’t need to be some big PhD. I just do my thing.”

III.

Last night, a girlfriend and I met at The Hutch for a drink. Neighborhood bar–I like that. Blue collar Portland–I like that.

When I walked in, there was a man of about 50 playing guitar and singing Eagles songs. I was drawn in to his rendition of the one that begins, I like the way your sparkling earrings lay… Kinda my attitude toward love lately. He had a nice voice, well-matched for his song choices and he was capable with the guitar. I thought about what it must be like to be his age, to have lived life down the path he’s gone, and wondered if he had a 70s teen-aged dream of making music. I’m sure he didn’t, at the age of 17, plan on playing cover songs at Tuesday night open mic in a low-brow corner bar.

At a break in our conversation, I noticed a girl walk in, crying and trying to hide it. I turned back to my friend, but pretty soon I realized this girl was really distraught. She was now standing at the bar with the phone book, talking on her cell phone, explaining to whomever on the other end that she didn’t have enough money to get home and was scared to spend the night in Portland. She needed 17 dollars.

My friend had stepped away to get another drink and came back to find me counting the money in my wallet. I pointed her attention to the girl at the bar and asked her what she thought. We discussed the risk that she was putting it on, and we discussed the reality that she might be in danger. Then I went up to the girl and gently asked her if she needed help. She told me she was stranded, lived in Eugene, was short for a bus ticket, she’d asked Greyhound if she could pay at the home end and was told no, had asked some police officers in the pizza joint next door where she’d been sitting for a long while for some help and they told her to sleep in the bus station, and she didn’t know what to do. I gave her the money.

I don’t know why. It just felt right. The girl took my address and told me she’d send the money back. I told her that was great, but if she didn’t that was fine, too. I said to her, “Get home safe; I’ve had people help me in all kinds of ways, too.”

Back at our table, I enumerated for Emily how many other ways I could indulgently waste the same amount, even referencing that the price of the drinks in front of us.

Walking home, I debated with myself: Why did I have to question giving this woman money? Why was my first thought that the man under the tree might be harmful? What the fuck is wrong with us in our world today?

Punk

By Neva Knott

It’s sweaty. I’m pushed right up front against the stage, to the right of Andrew’s drum kit. I don’t care about the little groupies trying to get his attention. Caitlyn’s here, too, and we’ve been his best girls for 20 years, so our vibe is move over, cute little things. I’ve been standing in this same spot at Dead Moon shows since the band began in 1987, and have no intention of losing my place now.

It’s sweaty and suddenly, the whole crowd pushes at once and I am pinned. Out of nowhere, our old friend Lyndsey stands behind us, creating a barricade and keeping Caitlyn and me safe from flying elbows and body slams. Better to be up front than in the middle of the mosh. The push always happens right about now on a Dead Moon night. The first chord is struck, everyone at the bar slams a last drink, and the night begins.

Andrew’s sweaty, and his curly long black hair is hanging over his face. As he hits the drums, he glances through the strands and sees me and Caitlyn. He catches my eye. I smile and dance. He smiles and hits his drums.

As I watch him play, my mind drifts across memories of our long friendship…

…all the nights at Satyricon watching bands…the time we left the VC and almost ran hand in hand to get to the club in time to see his favorite band, The Rats…the time we went to The Fuse, one of Portland’s first live-in loft galleries, where we sat on the floor, Andrew cross-legged and me in his lap, with his arms around me, and watched performance art. I could see the dish rack in the next room and thought it was the coolest way to live I’d ever seen…the days we’d go from bar to bar, bumming cigarettes and listening to the stories of the old men who gave them to us…the time we went to the river and I swam in my emerald green bra that I thought would pass as a swim top and someone made fun of me and Andrew told him to shut up, telling him, your dick is the size of a pea right now…the time I shaved my head and the guy at 7-11 called me Sinead and Andrew told him to leave me alone, that I still had a pretty face…the hot, hot, blistering summer day we went to Sauvie Island to swim in the river and it was so hot the cow ran into the river, bleating and crazed. That was the day I met Andrew’s mom, and she told me I was a blessing for taking him and his girlfriend to the river…the early days, when we were all still 20 something and we’d go to Sauvie Island on Sundays, to swim off hang-overs and nap on the beach…the time we went to The Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Wayon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristopherson, and we were two of the only people dressed in black, everyone else seemed to be wearing pink, and I tried to drink shot for shot with Andrew, until I ended up in the bathroom back at Satyricon, puking into a bucket while Andrew sent in Debbie and Ann Marie to check on me…jamming up to Crown Point in Ann Marie’s jeep with she and Rod to escape the city on a beautiful summer day, top down, Rolling Stones blaring…the time I got off early from a bartending shift and met up with him and we stayed out all night, playing pool and I neglected to call home to tell my boyfriend I was ok…he times we were lovers, off and on, throughout my college years.

He was the only person I wrote letters to while I was away at college and the first person I’d find as soon as I blew into town to escape Olympia and college life for awhile.

Andrew was my first friend in Portland.

I moved to Portland from Olympia in 1980, just a year after high school, with my high school sweetheart, Terry. Though I’d travelled extensively with my parents from the time I was six until about eighth grade, I was shy, and didn’t like new places. I tried to get to know our new neighbors, I tried to make friends at work, and of course, I tried to know Terry’s work-mates. But nothing stuck. Honestly, I didn’t like many of the people he brought home. So my social circle remained friends from high school, his sisters and my sister, who all lived in Olympia–but we visited often. Terry worked rotating shifts: two weeks of days, two weeks of swing, two weeks of graveyard, and I worked retail hours. I spent too much time by myself, watching 80s detective shows: Hart to Hart, Rockford Files, Magnum P.I., and Murder, She Wrote. I was lonely and scared and lost. I was also only 19.

I spent another three years trapped in my isolation. Our relationship ended just before my 22nd birthday. I moved out. The package of my freedom included a one-bedroom apartment, a couch, dining table and bed, a car, and my job as an assistant buyer for a local chain of jeans stores. And more empty minutes.

Jodi, a girl at work, befriended me. My loneliness matched hers, but she had different ideas than TV nights and girl talk. She introduced me to the scene. Portland in 1984 wasn’t the hipster, sustainable lifestyle, artisan mecca it is today. It was smaller, much smaller, and downtown was the core. Outer neighborhoods hadn’t been gentrified and the Pearl was just the warehouse district, where some of the guys I met lived in a space that was so large they had to skateboard to the bathroom. Most of us were too broke to have phones, but there were so few places to go that by word of mouth we all got to the right place for whatever was happening.

It was a Thursday night. Pick any Thursday in the winter of 1984, and it could have been that one. We went to the Virginia Cafe for buck night. The line was out the door as was standard, and it was cool to arrive a bit late, but not so late that you really had to stand in line. The bartender’s name was Fern, and the one-dollar drinks were strong. I’d not really been a cocktail drinker before, but you don’t go to buck night and drink beer.

While waiting to order, having finally made it through the door and down the gauntlet to the bar, I looked around, checking out the crowd: guys in tight black jeans and rumpled shirts, some with vintage brocade vests, some with old but ornate cowboy boots. Some with huge jangling belts, and many with dyed-black hair. Girls in short skirts and go-go boots, vintage dresses and coats, worn with black lace stockings with heels. My eye caught this one guy, making his way through the swarm of people and up to the drink line. He seemed to know everyone and smiled as he greeted each person. He had buoyancy to him. He was tall and thin, had black curly hair and he was cute and rich in persona. I looked at Jodi and said, “Who’s that?” His name was Andrew, and I wanted to know him like everyone else in the room knew him.

Buck night at VC was the Thursday night, Saturday night ritual, but the heart of the scene was Club Satyricon. Dark, dingy, loud, punk, Portland’s version of New York’s CBGB. In the early days, the vibe of Satyricon was more that of a corner bar, except we were all young and dressed in black, and the music was live, local, and loud. A decade later, Courtney Love of the band Hole and Kennedy, an MTV VJ, would claim they made the place famous, but if you ask most of us, they were a bit late to arrive, stuck-up pretentious poseurs.

I’d heard of Satyricon from a guy at work. He thought he was a little tougher than the rest of us, and tried to scare Jodi and me from going, telling us we’d get our asses kicked by punk girls. His admonishments had the opposite effect. I didn’t really know what punk was, but I was curious.

The front of the building, painted flat black, looked derelict. The long bar to the left, band posters everywhere, the big red horseshoe booth to the right. The stage was up front, a simple plywood carpeted platform. Every week or month or so, someone would paint the backdrop. It was an ever-changing street-style mural.

Jodi and I walked in and sat down on a couple of chairs up by the stage, in the darkness and waited–for what, we didn’t know. She was busy evaluating the tough chicks, girls dressed in shorter skirts than us and with more skin showing, wearing ripped stockings and big hair, bleached or dyed. I looked around, taking in every texture, gesture, sound. I felt naive and exhilarated.

We started hanging out at Satyricon, learned the cool bands–Billy Rancher and the Unreal Gods, Dan Reed Network, the Boy Wonders and later The Jackals, Napalm Beach–got on the good side of the bartender, Melissa, and flirted with the right guys. I’d see Andrew come and go, but didn’t yet have the nerve to put myself in his path.

Summer 1985. Jodi and I found ourselves at an after hours party. Somebody knew there was a vacant townhouse somewhere across town, and that the doors didn’t lock. The whole bunch of us bought six-packs of beer to go from the club and headed over to let ourselves in. Andrew was there. Jodi pointed his attention my way. I was sitting on a roll of carpet, and he sat down by my side. That night was our first as lovers. The next morning Andrew sat propped against pillows in my bed and showed me his match trip he liked to do to entertain his nephew.

Jodi and I parted ways soon after that party. I moved into a studio apartment in Northwest, the area of town populated by college students, artists, and 20-somethings at large. One of my first nights in that apartment, I went down to VC early on a Thursday, wanting just to be out, not wanting to slip back into my lonely evenings with Jessica Fletcher and Thomas Magnum, and wanting some food. I sat at the bar, by myself, something I would have never done just months before. Andrew, without my seeing him, slid onto the stool next to me, and in his casual way asked what I was doing that night. I told him nothing. He said, “Ruby and I are going down to the club–you want to come with us?” That was our first night as friends.

Andrew introduced me to his best friend, Ruby, and at Satyricon that night, the two of them introduced me to Heidi, Katherine and Alison. We girls danced while Andrew blended into the crowd of guys watching the band. In between sets we drank cheap beer and asked those get-to-know-you kinds of questions. As the night wound down, we bought to-go beer and headed to my apartment. I went in a car with Andrew and two of his friends. Ruby went in a car with the other girls. The driver of our car stopped for gas, and we lost Ruby, Heidi, Alison, and Katherine at the turn. So I hung out with Andrew and his friends late into the night.

Friday, I ran into Heidi at the grocery store–in the cracker aisle. As I turned the corner and saw her reaching toward the shelf, I hesitated, not knowing what to say, then walked up to her side and said, “Hi. I was worried when we lost you all last night–we stopped for gas.” Heidi said she was glad I told her and that she knew something must have happened, but that Ruby was mad and had kept saying, “That bitch took off with all the boys and all the beer.”

Music, as I knew it until I found punk in Portland, was the beautiful tonality and sound that circled out of my parents’ stereo, or was the loud hair band rock n’ roll that my high school friends and I watched strut across the stage of the Seattle Kingdome. Records were objects that people had, tokens of friendship I got at birthday parties. Singing was what my dad did to lull my sister and me to sleep when we were little girls. In Portland, music was more than entertainment or a pastime–it was, and is, the rhythm of the city’s heartbeat.

One Saturday shortly after our cracker aisle meet-up, Heidi invited me to the movie The Unheard Music by the band X. I went, thinking two things–what kind of music is “unheard,” and what kind of a band name is X? I sat in that theatre darkness and watched a woman with unkempt hair and blackened teeth blend her voice with that of a tall, thin man whose guitar seemed to emanate from his person. The songs they sang were songs they, Exene Cervenka and John Doe, wrote. Some were based on ideas, like “Real Child of Hell,” a song about the “true trouble…you never see coming,” and some were imagery-laden and raw in theme, “Imagine a silver cross on a coat of black leather, swinging side to side on the neck of a wolf.” The band’s music was poetry mingled with the slow strum of a guitar.

My life changed. I’d never heard anyone express deep thinking like John Doe’s idea about the real child of hell as a metaphor for hard trouble–I’d never experienced anyone thinking outside of school. Seeing X on screen was the day I saw music as art, and realized art was something people made. The band had formed to “play music that wasn’t bullshit.” Los Angeles, then, was what John Doe called “an open city,” one with no live music. The images in the movie were my introduction to social commentary. As the movie progressed, I learned that unheard music is music denied radio play, music not made for commercial gain. X and their brand of punk was an alternative to the Me generation of conspicuous consumerism foisted upon us in the 80s. That perspective stood in sharp contrast to the quaffed sounds of my teen years. I lost a bit of my naiveté that day; more importantly, I found my creative self in the beat of the unheard music.

A couple of years later, in 1987, I left Portland to attend The Evergreen State College. There, I studied social change, creative writing, and photography. My version of the ethos I saw in The Unheard Music developed. I left Evergreen in 1990, and co-founded Plazm magazine, an internationally known publication that featured work by emerging writers, artists, and graphic designers. In making that magazine, I made the media I wanted to see in the world, created for artists an alternative to commercial galleries and publications. Andrew and Dead Moon played a few fundraiser shows for us, always willing to support my endeavors.

Once, 1988 or so, I asked Andrew if he thought we could ever be together; he replied, “I’d love to be with you but I don’t want to drag you down into the shit I’m in right now.” Shortly after, he asked me to help him get clean so he could fly to Europe for the first Dead Moon show there. Not knowing why he asked me, I still don’t know, I did help him–he kicked in my college house bedroom, and I think we both hoped he’d never go back to that hell he’d been living in. If you know Andrew, though, you know he made his way back to that life of misery and it eventually took from him everything he held dear and ultimately kept us apart.

When I moved home from college in the summer of 1990, we spent pretty much all of our time together, when I wasn’t working and he wasn’t on tour. It was that summer that the band first played at Vera in Holland, their introduction to Europe. Andrew invited me to come on tour with them when they were to go back in the fall. I didn’t, because he showed up at happy hour the day after playing in Eugene, with a girl, and she was telling everyone she was his girlfriend. George, the owner of Satyricon, urged me to go anyway, telling me, “He really wants you to go–he doesn’t talk about girls like he talks about you. You should go, that other girl doesn’t matter.” But, I didn’t; I couldn’t go to Europe with someone else’s boyfriend. Andrew returned from that tour with Kersten on her way from Germany, supposedly to become his wife, the girl from Eugene lost in the shuffle.

That scenario shaped our relationship for years to come. We were always close, always gravitated toward each other in a crowd, valued the moments we spent away from the crowd, running around Portland for days on end, crashing on friends’ floors, making it home to my apartment sometimes, ending up at the river often. But there was always some other girl. I liked and became friends with the girls who became Andrew’s girlfriends, with whom he had actual relationships (and for their privacy I won’t mention names here). I’m still friends with them to this day, so much so that we helped each other in our grief. But I gave up on thinking Andrew and I’d ever be more than close friends.

George sold Satyricon in 2003 after a 20-year run. By then, we–the original denizens–called it “the living room.” The club had become famous as a musical seed-bed, with Portland bands like Dead Moon, Poison Idea, Napalm Beach, King Black Acid, and bands that went bigger, like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Foo Fighters, playing their early shows on that plywood stage. No matter the band, once they started to play, we all crushed up front, sweating, dancing, slipping in spilled beer, bumping into each other, loving life. Andrew, Ruby, Heidi, Alison, Katherine and I–and others we collected along the way–had made a pact of fun by which we lived out our twenties with the club as the epicenter of our world.

By walking through Satyricon’s doors, I found my way into the heart of the city I’d been so afraid to embrace. I found genuine and creative people there rather than mean punk chicks posturing to beat me up. None of us were the headline-making angry skinheads; in fact, we shunned them when they’d try to come onto our turf. Through the friendships I made at that dark, loud, and dingy punk club, I overcame my shyness. I owe my ability to gracefully slide in and out of social situations to that place and to Andrew. He taught me how to read people and how to hold my place in the world.

By the time the club closed, adult life had seeped in. Ruby was raising her son and daughters, Heidi and Alison had moved to California, I was teaching, and we’d lost track of Katherine. Andrew still lived the rock n’ roll life, a Portland legend, a famous punk drummer. He hadn’t had a “job” job since he bartended at Satyricon way back when, and I’d come by on a Monday or Tuesday for a burger and a bottle of beer after taking a night class at the community college.

Mid- to late 1990s. As I settled into my career, I went out less and less. Teaching made it hard to stay out late and get up early. But, whenever I made it to a show, no matter the band, I knew Andrew would walk through the door. A wall of people would glad-hand him on his way in and through the crowd. Always witty and energetic, he had the ability to make each person feel special. He would smile, make a joke for each one of them, then would slide onto the barstool by my side and squeeze my hand.

During the dark times in my life, when I was struggling with my career and family and relationships gone wrong and the betrayals of false friends and collective the shit of adult life, I’d think, “If I could just find Andrew and spend some time, it’d all be ok; I’b be ok.”

A few years ago, maybe a decade ago, probably longer ago, maybe it was that night we stayed out and played pool, I gave Andrew a ride home. He’d asked me to take him to an old room-mate’s on the way so he could pick up some bags of his stuff. In those days, his running free bachelor days, he called home the place with his “most bags of shit.” I helped him carry them, big black trash bags full of clothes and what-not. The knot in bag in my hand slipped loose. As I worked to re-tie it, something inside caught my eye; I’d written Andrew letters while I was away at college. I mailed them to Satyricon and he always got them. There they were, probably 10 years old, in that bag. All of them.

Late summer, 2014. Heidi came to Portland for a conference. After the meet-and-greet, she and I headed down to Dante’s, the city’s one plausible stand-in for Satyricon, to meet Ruby, her boyfriend Rod, and Andrew. Just as we stepped in the door and looked to the bar, I saw Ruby’s face. It lit up, framed now by grey curls, and she smiled. Two steps later, we three girls were all in each other’s arms, laughing, talking, hugging, mostly smiling. We made our way to the bar, still in a jumble. Andrew was there, waiting. I asked about Rod and Ruby pointed–he was out on the dance floor, watching the band. I watched him, sun-baked, braids as long as Willie Nelson’s, tall, ever-moving. He’d nod his head a bit, spin around, move to another spot, shuffle his feet. I joined him and we danced swing.

December, 2015. X played in Portland. Andrew and I went, the first time we’d been out together, just the two of us, for years. I was in the pre-Christmas funk, overwhelmed by all the commotion of the holidays, so I welcomed the step into that other world, the one of friendship and music. The Blasters opened the show. We stood up front and hung on every note played, every drumbeat, every lyric sung. In between songs, Andrew leaned in to give me his commentary on the history of the band or people in the crowd. There were no cute little things to push out of the way that night. Neither of us knew anyone in the audience and the show was hollow–people just stood and stared straight ahead at what they’d come to see. Andrew kept saying, “Don’t these people know they’re at a show? It’s The Blasters and X…” He was disgusted that the audience was at a punk show and were just standing around. For me, though, when X took the stage it was 1984 and 1992 and 2004 and a movie theatre and this club and Satyricon all at once. I was with Andrew and the rest of the world shrank away.

Shortly after that X show, Andrew called me one evening and told me he loved me, that he always had. Said he didn’t like how his life was going, that he regretted we’d never gotten together. He asked me, “Will you come stay with me at the rock n’ roll show in Seattle next weekend?” I did. Ruby came to Seattle too, and in the hotel room Andrew teased us, saying “Everyone must be mad at me…I have all the bitches and all the booze.” After that weekend, we stayed together through the cancer diagnosis and radiation and the sobriety rehab, until his he took his last breath this spring, March 8, 2016, my head on his chest, just the two of us in that hospital room, holding hands.

           

Hawaiian Immersion Graduation

 

            As was often true with colonialism, the missionaries deemed languages of the “heathens” to be coarse, base, unintelligible–forbidden, even. Use of one’s native tongue was disallowed, and use thereof was punished. In result, languages came near to extinction, as happened here in Hawaii. When missionaries arrived in the islands, they began their insurgence by forcing the islanders to speak English. In the 1970s, efforts were made to regenerate the speaking of Hawaiian. It is quite a beautiful language, rich in subtleties and nuance. There is a lilt to what is said, and the words seem to flow through the listener as a gentle breeze. All traditional Hawaiian language–story, history, genealogy, daily communication, chants, edicts–was spoken and not written.The written Hawaiian alphabet, a white man’s invention, has only thirteen letters.There are few consonants and many vowels: a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, n, p, w.  As is true in English, the sound of the letters and words changes with intonation. A slight change of intonation can alter the meaning of the word, such as in this example: lolo means brain, while lo’lo’ means idiot. Contrastingly, “Hawaiian articulation is based very largely at the back of the tongue, while that of English is nearer the tip” (The Compilers, Handy Hawaiian Dictionary).

            I lived and taught on Maui during the 2002-2003 academic year. I taught at Maui’s newest high school, King Kekaulike. KKHS is a beautiful school, spanning 50 acres on the gentle north slope of Haleakala, Maui’s volcano. The school sits at about 2,000 feet above sea level; it’s vista is the world-famous North Shore. From my room, I could take in the day’s surf and could see past Maui’s edges out into the Pacific. King Kekaulike is an Hawaiian Language Immersion school. Five of my students took all of their other subjects in Hawaiian and came to me for, as one of them said, English as a Second Language (I taught standard Senior English).Immersion students are required to speak Hawaiian at home as well, and it truly is the chosen language for them. The pride they hold as members of this amazing take back tradition program is something they exude. Immersion begins in Kindergarten and continues until graduation. At the end of Senior year, the participants graduate the immersion program as well as walk for regular old American style high school graduation. I was personally invited to the ceremony by Kamaka, Ululani, Kapeka, Jasmyn, and JoAnna. A great honor–I was one of a handful of teachers there, and none other was invited by all of the graduates. The ceremony took place on May 25th, in the KKHS gym. The invitation was bilingual, but the program was in Hawaiian, as was the whole ceremony.

            The gym was decorated with ti & palm leaves, ginger flowers, and pandanus mats, in simulation of a traditional dais. The graduating students stood on a platform, the boys in black pants and white shirts and the girls in shifts of unbleached cotton. On the right of the stage sat the elders, in traditional robes, and in front of the stage to the right the parents, also barefoot and in traditional robes. In front of stage left at the administrators, barefoot and dressed by gender–men in black pants and white shirts and women in mumus. The Hawaiian way is to go barefoot. Shoes, again, were forced onto feet by missionaries–to the extent that acacia trees were imported from Africa because they drop thorns, which were seen as a way to make the Hawaiians wear the shoes. Ironically, it seemed to me, the black pants and white shirts the graduating boys wore are were missionary-style.

            The ceremony began with children from each lower grade of the immersion program chanted. I have no idea what was said, but it was all done with much feeling and pomp. Then the graduates chanted. After, they danced a hula in honor of their parents. Next, the previous year’s graduates came forward and danced the hula of the myth of Maui who stole the sun to give his people more time to work and play.

            After the opening chants and hula, the graduating students were wrapped in a symbolic cloth by their kumu (teacher), while she sang. Each student was wrapped individually, and quite ceremoniously, in a pale yellow under-cloth (the boys took off the white shirts for this part) and then a pale green top cloth, which had been stamped with the class tattoo. For each graduating class, the kumu creates a special design that incorporates the number of students graduating–in this case, nine. Each student has the design inked as a tattoo on his or her shoulder as a proud sign of the life-long unity, a pledge of sorts, of the group.

            Once the students were wrapped and instructed by kumu, the rite of passage segment of the ceremony occurred. It was pretty intense to watch, and I can only imagine how the kids felt. Actually one fainted and had to sit down for a bit. For each student, one at a time, the parents came up and put their arms in a circle around the child. In this position they chanted down the family genealogy–this is a big deal in Hawaii, as bloodline was an important factor in all facets of traditional life. Traditional Hawaii was a monarchy. Lineage kept the blood-lines pure in terms of social rank and ruling order. Also, knowing one’s lineage was a form of society introduction, a moniker of status and breeding. In the day of kings such as Kamehameha or Kekaulike, any visitor to an island was required to chant this information, and should the chief not like what he heard (the chant possibly elucidating an enemy in the lineage), he’d simply kill the visitor. As white people first came to the islands, they also were expected to do the same. Unable to do so, were thought odd, crude, coarse, base, or unintelligible because they could not chant down their ancestry. Therefore, they were called haole, a term that now means white foreigner and sometimes carries the connotations of a racial slur, but in traditional times meant “of no breath.”

            Afterthe parents chanted they placed a haku, which looks like a Grecian crown of leaves, on the child’s head and presented him or her to the audience. After the parents had acknowledged the student’s place in the family lineage, the kumu told each student of his or her responsibilities to family, community, and the land. The students each listened with serious attention. Then, the kumu and the students walked out of the gym, singing.

            Outside, we all gathered round to hug the students and give leis. Commonly, a lei is a flower necklace, but contemporarily, for a celebration such as this graduation, they are also made of all things: money, candy, toys. By the time I got to one girl she had so many leis on that her head was covered and she was using her arms to collect the leis that we continued to hang on her.

            After the usual hugging and tears, the crowd dispersed, some to family barbeques, some–spectators such as myself–left to continue their day. As I walked to my car, I remembered the words of Ululani, one of the day’s graduates who is continuing her love of Hawaiian language by training to be an Immersion teacher, “Languages speak us, we do not speak them.” 

 

 

No longer Kerouac’s America…

He’d been riding freight trains. From Florida, originally, but just in New Orleans. Coming west to look for work. That’s how he said it, “look for work,” as if an apparition from the Great Depression, from years gone by. “There’s no work in the eastern South.”

Today, he and friends were coming up from California, headed to Seattle. The train they were on had sided–stopped, so another could pass by on the opposing track. They’d gotten off to pee, he, friends, and the 4-month-old pup I’d found him standing with alongside the road. He thought one of the friends had grabbed the pup, so he jumped back aboard. Down the tracks he realized the pup wasn’t sleeping amongst the packs or in someone’s lap. He was gone, left off the train, and they’d sped ahead a good thirty miles by now. He began to cry when he thought of his pup sitting there lost and alone.

He jumped off the train as soon as it slowed enough, and hitched his way back, not really knowing where he was going. He says he got lucky, because they guy who picked him up told him the only places the tracks ran through. He got there, to the spot the train sided. The pup was sitting, waiting, barking. For him.

I picked them up just outside of Tenino, Washington. On my way home from work. I don’t ever pick up hitch-hikers here, but something told me to stay slow, to slow more, as I pulled out of the little town onto the 50 mph highway. I looked at the kid and saw the pup, and pulled over, not even thinking otherwise. Something in me felt it right, sensed the kid’s spirit. And he had a pup. Brindle brown little thing, pit and chow mix, sweet as could be.

I pulled over and told him I could take him into Olympia. He got in, and the pup jumped into the back seat. I did a quick once over, looking for any signs of alarm, signs I shouldn’t do this, signs I was in danger. I’m highly trained in self-defense, but still, one shouldn’t put oneself at risk. He was a twenty-something, on the new end of that decade, fresh in his enthusiasm and the raw experience he was having. Kind–I saw it in his eyes. Polite–I felt it in his manners and mannerisms.

A little unsettled by his morning, I could tell. In love with that pup.

He was a bit dirty from the rails and road, but not unkempt. I was in a white jacket, expensive jeans and shoes, and on my way home from my professional day of teaching.

He told me of his ordeal, and that he was really going to California (land of milk and honey?) to work as a trimmer, but had decided to check out Seattle before settling into the job. Our conversation meandered around places familiar, those places we’d both been. Meandered around legalization and the economic and cultural impacts it might bring. He told me that, to someone from the east, Oregon and Washington are still wild.

Then he popped the line, “Someone said to me the other day that it’s not Kerouac’s America anymore.” I replied with my theory that there are many Americas, like in the Whitman poem, “I Hear America Singing.” He said that’s why he’s so influenced by the Beat Poets. I asked him if he wrote. He does. Asked if he could read me the poem he’d written just that morning. It was lovely. That was the only word I could find to describe it. He smiled and said thank you. I meant it. He meant it.

I’ve begun On The Road twice. I’ve never finished it. I used to live that roadtrip lifestyle, minus the Beat infatuation with drugs. The first time I stopped reading the novel because it felt familiar. The second time, I just stopped, even though I love Kerouac’s prose, his insight, his wisdom.

I dropped the kid and his pup in the Taco Bell parking lot, just at the on-ramp to I-5 so he could get to Seattle and rejoin his friends.

Sitting in a Church Basement, Learning to Plant Trees

Sitting in a church basement, surrounded by people in rubber boots and every variety of raincoat. Drinking coffee out of small church cups, eating donated baked goods. There is even something that looks like pink whipped cream Jello on the food table. Boy Scouts of America Troop 64 meets here, as I can tell from their 4’ by 4’ bulletin board on the wall. There is a rolling bookshelf of Bibles near the water fountain.
On tarps set out around the room are two displays. One has a leafy tree in a black plastic pot, its boughs bound by twine; two 2” by 2” stakes, a shovel, rake, and a post pounder; hard-hat. The other display holds all the same goods, except the tree is barren. These are the tools of this simple program.

It’s cold and drizzly outside. Fall is turning to winter soon. It’s tree-planting season and the Friends of Trees Crew Leader Training begins, here in this warm basement that is abuzz with the caffeinated chatter. This is a pretty multi-generational event, an uncommon characteristic to most Portland things. These are shiny people, all here in good cheer and with a simple purpose.

Friends of Trees here in Portland, Oregon operates in partnership with The Bureau of Environmental Services for the simple purpose of increasing the city’s canopy cover—the portion of the city covered in trees. Last planting season, 3700 volunteers planted about 4600 trees in 80 neighborhoods. Friends of Trees operates as a volunteer, organization. Residents purchase trees for a small fee, participate on a planting crew for a day, and weekend after weekend, the city becomes more lush and leafy.

A couple of hours are spent inside, learning the procedures to teach our volunteers. Then the neighborhood homeowners arrive, and everyone shares a potluck lunch together of warm soups, macaroni and cheese, cookies, and lemonade. Again, all donated. One of the tenets of the program is to build community while planting trees—by bringing neighbors together.

As the meal ends, people are divided into small work groups and tromp outside. Each crew has a set of houses in the neighborhood to visit. Trees have been delivered by the pre-planting day crews, and the holes for them have been dug. On my crew, I have someone from Environmental Services, a guy who just moved from Las Vegas and is studying horticulture, two young college students, four Hispanic teenagers from a high-school service club, and the homeowner of one of our planting sites. Three hours later, eight new trees are in the ground. Now dirt-covered and exuberant we laugh and chat our way back to the church, wash the tools and call it a day.

As I wash my hands and watch the dirty water swirl down the drain, I realize a few years’ worth of “I should…” have crumbled away, Today I joined an organization that plants trees to slow climate change, to improve air and water quality, to enhance horticultural diversity and watershed health. For inspiration, those who run the program have looked to the work of Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai, who started The Green Belt Movement in Kenya. These are her words, “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope. We also secure the future for our children.”