Is my passion worth an hour a day?

By Neva Knott

My life has been a frazzled mess for a couple of years. Or five years, to be specific. Or the last decade since I made a huge career move not knowing the recession was coming and having not yet totally gotten back to full-time, professional employment. Or for the last twelve years since Adam died. He’s not the only one… my mom died in 2012 and left a messy house and decades worth of crap for me to deal with, and then my lover–the man I’d fallen in love with in 1984 and just recently entered a relationship with–was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2016. The glue that has been holding my life together is a toxic concoction of loss, grief, and despair.

Yet I believe in the future. I believe in positivity, and I struggle to put my belief in myself into action. In this messy timespan, I have completed two Master’s degrees, both of which I cherish. I finally got hired to teach at a college–my life-long dream. I keep adding amazing people to my life, and I have reconnected with long-lost, important friends and family members. I have learned to ask for help, I have learned a lot about my deeper, private self. There have been moments of extreme beauty in between all the big failings.

All of this is the backdrop for this hour this morning. A friend asked me yesterday, “What are you doing tomorrow?” I replied, “I don’t know… just home stuff I guess until I come to work. I keep trying to find time to write, but I don’t.” He said, “You just have to do it. Every day. One hour a day.” As an English teacher, I’ve told students that so many times. I’ve told myself that so many times. I’ve made that hour a day my practice so many times–when I feel settled, and until some next life tsunami knocks me ass over tea kettle. I told my friend that I’d read somewhere that no one made time for Wallace Stegner to write. Stegner was prolific in both fiction and non-fiction, founded the creative writing program at Stanford, taught full time for decades. And I’m sure he had his messy timespans; don’t we all?

So what do I want to write about today, in this hour?

1. I returned from Iceland on Thursday. A short trip, just four days, to celebrate my birthday. I met my aunt & two of my uncles there. We drove the southern coast, saw a varied and mesmerizing volcanic landscape–some of it barren, some of it lush. In Reykjavic, the urban forestry caught my eye. Here at home in Portland, Oregon, I volunteer for Friends of Trees, an organization that works to grow the urban tree canopy of our city. (I’ve written extensively about the science-y aspects of the program on my other blog, The Ecotone Exchange). Iceland is an un-forested country. What timber was originally there was cut for human settlement. The patterns of planting in Reykajavic are thoughtfully done. Stands or copses of a variety of species, a different pattern that the usual city streets lined with mono-species planted more for ornamentation than what trees have to offer. Along the countryside I noticed that farmers had surrounded their property with similar planting, stands of trees that can grow to accommodate lumber needs.

2. When I think of trees and air travel, and all of the natural disasters going on right now, I think of climate change. Ok, truth be told, I am constantly thinking of climate change. Not only do I think about it, I evaluate everything I do in relationship to it. Climate change is directly related to–caused by–human activity. Flying is a huge negative, and I am one who has been flying to travel my whole life. Iceland is my only plane trip this year, and I know soon I should stop flying all together.

When I travel, I practice what I call “trash-less travel,” (also the title of a post on The Ecotone Exchange). I refuse as many single-use plastic items as I can. I take a fork and spoon in my cosmetic bag, I carry a reusable drink bottle–that I used on this trip for in-flight wine, coffee, water, and tea. During my Iceland trip, I only wasted one plastic plate at the airport–I thought the food I ordered was going to come in a paper box like the display–and one plastic smoothy cup/lid/straw. Everything adds up.

3. The third thing on my mind this morning is why it is so hard to find this hour each and every day for my passion (s)–writing and photography. Simply, I get distracted. By the strong and ugly emotions that I awake to in my mess of a life, by the stress of not feeling settled, by the story I tell myself that I have to write something good and clear and meaningful, and sometimes I am distracted by sheer exhaustion. These are all bad habits, signaling that I don’t put myself or what I know to be my meaningful work as a priority in my life. I’m glad my friend gave me such a good reminder yesterday. Today, I put words and images on this page.

 

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.

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.

 

Zihuatanejo Fishing Boats

By Neva Knott

Easter, 2011. I traveled to Zihuatanejo to spend nine days by myself on a beach. I wanted to hear another language. I wanted to feel a different culture. I was in graduate school and bartending and burned out. I stayed at a little place called Treetops in a little palapa of a cabin. I spent most of my days on a beach chair under a palm-front umbrella, reading and napping and watching the ocean roll along.

When I travel, I like to make photos that show the essence of the place, that narrate how life is lived there. While Zihuatanejo is just down the road from Ixtapa, a major tourist resort area, and is famous as the filming location of The Shawshank Redemption, it is also a fishing village.

Trees and Trash, Zihuatanejo, Mexico

By Neva Knott

Easter, 2011. I traveled to Zihuatanejo to spend nine days by myself on a beach. I wanted to hear another language. I wanted to feel a different culture. I was in graduate school and bartending and burned out. I stayed at a little place called Treetops in a little palapa of a cabin. I spent most of my days on a beach chair under a palm-front umbrella, reading and napping and watching the ocean roll along.

Every few days while in Zihuatanejo, I walked this mile-long dirt road from my beach cabin at TreeTops to get to the highway and bus-stop to go into town. The trash dumps under every tree stood in sharp contrast to the lush beauty of the flora. As with the tide-line trash I depicted in my previous post, this problem is not unique to Mexico.

This is my first sketch of an environmental photo story.

Tide-line and Trash, Zihuatanejo, Mexico

By Neva Knott

Easter, 2011. I traveled to Zihuatanejo to spend nine days by myself on a beach. I wanted to hear another language. I wanted to feel a different culture. I was in graduate school and bartending and burned out. I stayed at a little place called Treetops in a little palapa of a cabin. I spent most of my days on a beach chair under a palm-front umbrella, reading and napping and watching the ocean roll along.

Evenings, I walked the beach. One such evening, I followed the trash trail left by the last high tide and photographed it. The next morning the beach was clean again, the trash having been dragged into the sea. This problem is problem is not unique to Mexico–I found the same along the banks of the River Lee in Ireland when I ran there evenings in the summer of 2014.

Jodi Cobb: Telling Big Stories

By Neva Knott

In May of 2013, saw National Geographic photographer, Jodi Cobb, speak. She was the first–and only–woman photographer on staff at that iconic magazine. In her 30 years there, she roamed 65 countries to, “illuminate worlds never seen,” to play a role in shaping our consciousness of people, places, and the human condition.

Cobb showed theatre-screen sized images as she spoke. As her words explained her personal journey through life via photography, the images explained her passion, her perspective, and her heart. Cobb share a childhood photograph of herself, standing alongside her brother. That particular day her brother, age 4, had asked her mother, “What can I do today that I’ve never done before?” Cobb explained that her brother’s little-boy words helped her shape her perspective in finding stories to tell with her camera.

Through her work, I was given passage into her visual stories of American cultures often ignored, into the intimate details of of a commune in the Ozarks, backstage with bands such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, afloat on the houseboats of Swannee River dwellers, and inside Nashville’s opulent yet dying country music industry.

Then Cobb took us overseas. She explained that she looked for big stories, stories that became about ideas and that made up narratives, rather than being just pictures about places. Her new storied places included Jeruselem, Hong Kong just at the time of take-over and the end to British rule, where she road along with marine police as they monitored arrival of immigrants from Viet Nam. Cobb was the first photographer allowed into China when it opened to the world.

by Jodi Cobb

by Jodi Cobb for National Geographic

And she shared that, as she began to work for National Geographic, she began to notice women were depicted in the magazine as objects. She made it her goal to show more women doing something.

The most heart-wrenching story of Cobb’s, the one with the rudest awakening for the audience, or at least for this viewer, is that of Human Trafficking. Her images of child slaves depict a global problem that touches the lives of all of us–because of the vast amount of goods we unthinkingly or habitually consume are made by these children. Children who are forced to work inhumanely long hours in harsh conditions and toxic environments.

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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.

 

 

 

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.”