Even in writing about why I’m not writing about it, I feel like I am saying too much.
Wait, let me back up a little bit and explain.
In November, I went to Hawaii to spend a week on the Big Island learning music. I was also there to write, I was invited as an experiment. These folks didn’t know so much from social media, they were curious to see what kind of organic coverage my participation would lead to. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my own reasons for wanting to attend — my abiding love for the islands, my long relationship with the ukulele, a rainy, dark November in Seattle, a feeling that I’d hit a plateau with my musical skills… I had — hopefully, still have, if his patience hasn’t run out — an editor keen for a story on this cultural immersion experience. I also have an interested audience at home, not just for stories on the blog but also, in person. I would go all in, I would sing in choir, I would respect, if not participate in, the prayers, I would observe and write and photograph and I would unravel this story over the course of the winter following my return to the mainland.
Except so far, with nearly six months elapsed, I have not been able to do that.
My first hurdle was the bizarre cast of characters. What do I do with these people? The guy who told me that he used to be the Grateful Dead’s accountant’s dentist or the guy who said he made his living in the 70s by scavenging copper from junkyards and dumps. A sweet faced woman of sixty or so and her past life touring with a women’s rock band, “The sex and the drugs and it all got to be too much.” Another, doe eyed, telling me of how she’d fled her expat home in Central America and somehow landed here, in this little village on the Big Island. An 11 year old girl who spits these words out over her dinner, “I don’t care if my father dies tomorrow from his diabetes, it’s his own fault.” Haole people of great privilege, almost aggressively trying to absorb their definition of aloha at the table with an auntie who disappears for a day or two because someone in her family is being evicted. An absolute giant of a young man in that Polynesian way who refuses to take off his sunglasses not because he is too badass, but because he doesn’t want anyone to see his sad eyes. Stars from the pantheon of Hawaiian or ukulele music and Hawaiian expats, people who have left the islands for different lives elsewhere. Drug dealers and massage therapists and I’ve already said too much, their past lives and secrets and personal heartbreaks… are these my stories to share? What are the rules in this place for someone who has come to participate, but also, to observe?
I had the idea that I would write some sparkling short travel piece about my time on the island at this place where everything that’s great about Hawaii meets everything that’s fucked up. I’ve been stymied by the collision of all these personalities with history and geography and… everything. Imagine a car wreck — the sun is creating rainbows in the gasoline that’s leaking onto the asphalt. How much time do you give to what’s causing that array of color to appear, how do you process the beauty of that array of color when it’s all underwritten with the feeling that any minute, the whole thing will burst into flames? No.
This is a bad analogy, maybe it is better to think of a storm on the coast, taking great bites out of the beach and undercutting the cliffs. One winter, we visited a shipwreck on the Washington coast. The road that led to the beach where the wreck lay was crumbling into the sand, the bluffs were so undercut that they felt bouncy as we walked along them. The beach was silvery gray at sunset, the tide was turning. It was beautiful and we had to watch every step.
No, that doesn’t work either. A travel analogy, then. You fall into a place where you do not know the rules. You are getting along fine, with a certain wariness, but as a careful observer, you sense a low level suspicion — why is she here? – and you are continually stumbling into shocking amounts of other people’s pain. You are on the rez, a place where you are not unwelcome but don’t exactly belong. And in the midst of that, there’s a big tour bus full of people in shorts and t-shirts and puffy white shoes, and you have more in common with them than the locals, if you have to be honest. You’re last on the bus, always, because you stopped to chat, or you saw something unusual you wanted to photograph and the locals indulged you while thinking how odd you are, and then off you went.
Maybe. Closer. Maybe.
I made a first attempt at writing the story and I failed. I had two writer friends read it for me and they both told me what I knew already, that the ending was weak. But there has been no ending, and I fall back on that as my excuse for not finishing the story. “Life-changing,” an island friend told me. That’s what she’d heard from others who’d gone to this — they call it camp, but that is wildly insufficient. Eye-opening. Heartbreaking. Humbling. Enlightening, I would like to say, but not in the sense that I have become enlightened, rather in the sense that daylight has exposed things that I would not have seen elsewhere. But a neat ending, that does not exist. I had no epiphany over a plate of kalua pork, there is no fortune cookie tagline. I did not vow to return or realize human commonatlites. Tidy cliched conclusions elude me, I only find more questions.
Writing about travel is typically very easy for me. I do not suffer. I know what I want to say and it falls out of the ends of my fingers onto the keys. I’m lucky in that. I don’t think it’s because I’m impersonal, either, I am not too guarded to tell you about how I cried all over Cambodia or how dizzy I was with the realization that I’d stepped on the last continent or oh, my heart still leaps right into my throat when I think about the elephants in the Serengeti campground, so close I could hear their ears swishing in the heat.
But this, this has been so hard. I feel bad that I haven’t written about it more, and then, when I do try to write about it, I feel like I am saying too much. I have been given something that requires great care and kindness. It feels weirdly melodramatic and incompatible with the highly ironic and critical parts of my voice. I’m stuck with telling a story about how I’m not telling a story. It feels like I am holding a bird’s nest, complete with tiny eggs inside it, just short of hatching. How did this end up in my hands? And what am I supposed to do with it?
Photo: Mine, imu fire, Pahala.