Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Surprising Circle of Memory. Or; The Big Island begets thoughts of Thoreau, Moving, and moments from Hurricane Island

The family took a trip to the “Big Island” of Hawai'i recently, and it was a very interesting experience on a lot of levels. It’s nearly three weeks later now, and I’m going through some of my writing while I was over there.

In general, I found Hawai'i which is its proper name, a great deal more peaceful than Oahu. Part of that was most certainly the far diminished air traffic. The lack of Military traffic alone made the ambient silence almost unsettling at first. I am finding it is very true what they say about people being able to get used to anything. Between the commercial planes, and the fighter jets and the huge cargo planes, the noise on Oahu is quite substantial at times, but I suppose I had stopped hearing most of it, until it was absent. In general, I found the people we interacted with even more laid back than those on Oahu, if that is possible. There was a mellowness to them that was very genuine, and while there are areas of the island that were rather commercial, it was nothing like being in Waikiki. Waikiki seems more like Las Vegas at times. I found the climate a bit cooler and breezier than what were are used to as well.

You can’t believe the sheer size of the Mountains. Our first few days, we couldn’t even see the general shape of them-just a huge slope upward ending in clouds and vog. Now, I’ve never seen the Rockies, and the Blue Ridge down South and the Kittatiny’s of Jersey are quaint and all, but holy cow, once the clouds cleared about day three, it was like we were on another planet. Between the lava fields on the side of the two-lane highway, the jagged and black appearance of some of the coastlines, and the sheer size of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, I thought I had arrived on Mars. It was truly breathtaking.

Also, it was much darker on Hawai'i. The breakthrough light from Waikiki alone is quite bright, but it is even more noticeable when one travels a scant 170 miles West to Kona on the Big Island. The Island is home to the Mauna Kea Observatory, and from what I could tell, they chose a swell spot for looking at them there stars up there. Truth be told, I don’t feel I see them well on Oahu. I was nice to see the stars again in such an abundance, and if the moon were full as opposed to ¾ full during our visit, I would likely have been able to write by it. The night sky was crisp and black.

In all, it was a dramatic visual change from Oahu, and very much made me want to visit the other Islands.

It also made me think about the decision that we made to move all the way out here. There were a lot of reasons behind our decision and a year later, I stand by them even more. While there have been definite bumps in the road-some expected and some surprising, we have accomplished a great deal of what we came here to do as a family. We have simplified our life professionally, economically, environmentally, and personally. The wife’s career has done very well. We’ve challenged ourselves to move way outside our comfort zone.

I was reminded of a line from Thoreau’s Walden, recently.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Thoreau has always been a favorite of mine. When I came across this line, I thought that at its core, our choice to move to Oahu, while nowhere near as grandiose an experiment as Henry’s, was born of some similar motivations. We wanted to make choices about the kind of life we were living. I wanted the chance to be a full time Father to my kids. We wanted time to focus on our family. I no longer wanted to work the way I was working back home. I didn’t want to discover that “When I came to die” I had spent more time at work than I had with my own children and my wife. They, are my “essential facts of life,” so to speak.

Perhaps I am stretching the parallel to Thoreau, but, if I ever meet him and he asks me about it, I’ll just tell him I “heard a different drummer” and we’ll have a laugh about it and go have a beer with Hawthorne.

I think the newness of the Big Island really inspired me to think back on our move, as in all honestly, after we first moved here, Oahu felt like another planet as well, compared to New Jersey. It was somewhat humbling to see how things can change in a year.

As I sat on the balcony of our Big Island hotel one evening after the wife and kids had zonked out, looking at the stars that, for a change, were bright and twinkling as they should, I was reminded, and I’m not entirely certain why, of my time at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound in Maine.

I’ve never written about this trip before. It took place during May of my Senior year of High School, and was essentially a Senior Trip. It was the culmination of a series of courses we had to take to prepare during the year. Rock-climbing, ropes courses, that sort of thing. It had been a bad year for me. My Dad had died in October, and while I thought I was fine, I was a thorough mess in a lot of ways. It would take me a number of years to realize that, which of course is, another story entirely. But, suffice it to say that when I got on the bus to go to Maine, despite the fact that the SAT’s, the AP tests, the College decision, the Prom decision, all of the major choices of that time were made and paid for, I was a mess. I just didn’t always know it. I also didn’t know how to handle it at all.

I wrote in my journal during the bus trip North from Jersey that: “I just feel so alone here-I don’t know why, I just do. On a bus full of friends, I feel alone. Go figure.” We were somewhere in Connecticut, and it was dark and late, and I was writing in pencil for some reason, so there’s a lot of stuff I’m still trying to decipher, but I got that one out pretty clear.

Early on in the trip, our group did some rock climbing, and then moved on to a repelling area. Hurricane Island is off the coast of Maine, so our cliff faced out on the Atlantic Ocean. I can’t tell you how beautiful it was. I don’t know that I took any pictures, but my journal is non-stop about the beauty of the place.

I remember stopping about halfway down on the climb, and I tugged myself off and braced my feet. I then turned away from the rock wall and looked out at the sea. Hanging in midair, I remember feeling very small, and watching the sun move down towards the horizon, I remember exhaling, and feeling like it had been the first time in a long time that I had done so. It was just me, and the sun, and the ocean, and it felt in some ways like a reckoning.

A voice from above told me to put it in gear, and I finished my repel, and rejoined the group. There was a moment there where I felt like I could have made some peace.

The course continued, and I had a number of interesting experiences after that. The water and boat initiatives were fun for me, and I felt like I was really beginning to be part of the group.

I’m not proud of the fact that I was an emotional mess at this point in my life, but I will not apologize for where I was at the time. I was a kid. I was faced with a pretty serious challenge. I didn’t have the life experience or the stones to yet weather what it was I had to manage. I’m not proud of the fact that it took me a good 6-7 years more to get myself together. And even then, there were moments.

And that too is no ones fault: it was simply the way of things.

But there was a moment, on Bald Island, about 3-4 days into the course, when I knew, and felt deeply, that I was going to be alright. Someday. It’s a moment that would end up meaning a great deal, and had I been smart enough to cling to it, might have saved me some grief.

Bald Island was a stone quarry back in the early 1900’s. They took pretty much everything of value from the island, and as it stood when I was there, it was Bald by pretty much every estimation. It was kind of like a group of rocks just decided to live together in the middle of the Ocean.

Our group leaders dropped us there as out “solo” group activity. We were allowed to take five items, and our group settled on four sleeping bags, and a loaf of bread. Obviously we had our watch book and our med kit, but as memory serves, we later wished we had opted for that fifth sleeping bag. We managed though, some of us better than others. But that is another story.

As the sun went down, there was not a lot to do, and we had been at sea all day, so most of the group was winding down. The island was bald in every possible way, and there were clear ruts in the rock from where the rail system had run. It was such an empty space.

I was really drawn to this place, and I walked off by myself for a while, just down to the shore. The sun was rapidly descending. I walked out on the shoreline, my beloved “Duck Boots” giving me confidence on the rocky spots that were becoming the only thing to stand on, as the tide came in.

I walked out on the rocky shoreline and I looked around. If I tilted my head just right, I felt like I was standing on the water. There were other islands, and some high areas in the distance, but as I stood there on the rock that later became its own island, in the North Atlantic, I was alone, all out there, by myself, with nothing between me and the rest of it all but words and inclination.
I stood there a long time, and I remember the very moment that the sky turned red, and then, inexplicably, it turned purple, and as the tide had come in somewhat, I found myself standing on a small stone in the ocean, and the shoreline was several feet behind me.

And I looked to the left, and I saw a deep purple sky, where the sun had dropped down below a nearby and somewhat hilly island. I looked to the right and saw a gentle darkness.

In a moment that would become something of a "signpost" moment for me, I leaned back, spread out my arms to the sky and just breathed. I remember feeling in that moment like I just might make it through this whole mess I had found myself in. That I might be this broken now, but somehow, this moment would be the start of something.

I don’t know that anyone noticed me or my ocean moment, but as I jumped back, stone to stone to reach the shore, I came back to the group and immediately asked for the “group journal/log book.” My journal was stuck on the boat, as it was not one of our five items, and so I had to write in the log.

This is what I wrote in the moments after I walked back to the shore of Bald Island.

Mountains of Majestic Royal Stand before me
Defying the flight of a Prism sun.
Lucid Ice created a blanket around me, and I exist.

For but a moment, it seems the Mountains of Majestic Royal,
The Prism Sun, the Lucid Ice, and
The Conglomerate Sky,
Come Together. As one.

A Unified Force of Compassionate comprehension, and yet:
A diversified troupe of players.
Marionettes of our control? Or,

Independent agents of a universal appeal for a
personal understanding Of what truly is to be:

Or Together;
Or Real?

This is real.

I don’t have any journal entries of narrative note after that one for the remainder of the trip. I will never claim to have been much a poet any more than I will claim to be a good writer. But, in terms of pure moments, that was one that I can point to in my life as a snapshot moment of where I was at a specific time and place. Perhaps I might even go so far as to say that I really knew who I was in that moment, and even briefly, I felt released from the pain and the insecurity that had been the hallmarks of my year to that point. Regrettably, that pain and insecurity would continue to be problematic for a long time after my moment on Bald Island. It would be a moment I revisited in my mind a lot over the coming years, and I remember some time later thinking to myself, if I can get back to some sense of that peace that I had in that moment, It would be a good thing.

I remember feeling at ease for the first time in a long time after Bald Island. There were a lot of long nights and hurt hearts to come in the next years, but I know now, looking back that my first steps towards a more whole heart were taken in that time and place.

The rest of the trip in Maine went well, and I’d like to think that I did well by my group for the remainder. I know that we had to write a song to get back on the boat the next morning…And I know very well that I slept badly next to another who slept badly for similar reasons at the time. But that is another story entirely.

When the course ended, our group gathered on the shore, and we talked about what we had learned. Most of our group talked about how they had discovered themselves, and how they had learned to trust and know themselves in a new way. These things were true and real and felt in the heart, and they mattered. I’m sure they still do in fact.

I was scared about what I would say when it came to be my turn. I remember it vividly. I said, when Wendy asked me what I had learned about myself on this trip…I said:

“I learned that I knew myself pretty well when I came here.”

To this day, I’ve wondered how that came off. I worried that it came off conceited. While I can’t speak to what the other members of the Cormorant group thought, I knew, very clearly, that I was a complete mess when I came to Maine, and I was still going to be a mess when I got home, but that now, just maybe, I would have the stones to fight it.

That it took me years to rediscover that peace that I felt on Bald Island is not consequential, in the long run. That it took me years to even start working on repairing the damage I had done to myself and to my relationships is even less consequential now. It happened.

What matters to me in this reflection is that Hurricane Island gave me a chance to reboot. I was able to face some hard truths out in the ocean and it allowed me the opportunity to have my ass kicked by its grandeur and simplicity. And, the course allowed me to be a part of a group that in a variety of subtle and quiet ways, put me on the path to normalcy.

Those three moments, mostly the one at Bald Island, were very much in my thoughts as we visited the Big Island. I think it was the quiet. The peace.

The Real.

It was there with me in Maine, and I know I felt it again while sitting on the balcony on Hawai'i.

Guess it was a good trip. Still have those duck boots, too. It was nice to have time with the family, and nice also to have some time, and space to breathe and listen. It's amazing what memory gives us to work with at times. It's really surprising how it all comes full circle when we have the time, space, and inclination to catch it.

I remember a lot of stuff, some of it at times seems silly. I mean, do I really need Harry Truman's hat size memorized? Perhaps not, but then again, who knows? Someday I just might.

At this point, I'm inclined to think that we remember nothing on accident.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Preview of coming attractions, and, Expanding on an idea from Facebook

Our entire family has been quite ill with a nasty stomach bug the last week, and things have been very busy in the weeks prior to this one, with a trip to the Big Island, and kid ballet, karate, and preschool classes getting started after the New Year, that I've not had much time to write.

I have some good stuff I wrote old-school style (read: in a notebook) while on the Big Island, including two pieces that I've not yet finished editing. One explores the interesting experience of seeing another Hawaiian island. The other is actually a piece that really surprised me. For some reason, I was inspired to write about two experiences that I had while a student at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School back in 1991. I'm excited about the latter one, in particular.

But, those aren't ready, yet. So, I'm stealing an idea that many of my friends on Facebook have been doing. It's essentially publishing a list regarding "25 things you didn't know about me."

It's an interesting exercise on Facebook in particular, as I have reconnected with people as far back as grade school there, while I also use it regularly to communicate and share information with people we socialize with here on the island.

For those unfamiliar, Facebook is essentially a social networking website where you make a profile, and have the chance to connect with others as you wish.

I've enjoyed those "25 lists" that others have written, and thought I'd join in. Perhaps you know these things, or perhaps not, which I suppose is kind of the point. I've expanded and edited this version a bit from the one I posted there, but I hope the Spirit remains the same. I enjoyed writing it, and hope you enjoy reading it as well. I hope to have some of the above mentioned columns ready in the coming week. Thanks as always for your support and feedback.

25 things you don't know about me:

1) I have a really nice record collection. Vinyl. Old School stuff. A lot if was my Dad's, but as I grew older, I grew to seek it out myself, and have a collection I am growing proud of. A few items missing though...

2) My Paternal Grandfather was an orphan.

3) I was a Black Studies major in college.

4) I still have every card and every letter that was sent to me after my Father died.

5) During 6th grade until about the middle of 8th grade, I was considered by my school principal a "serious discipline problem." I kinda grew up a little around the middle of the year. Played the Angel Gabriel in the Christmas Pageant that year. Must have been that.

6) When called by said principal during school one day following an incident in Religion class (I was right, that time...) my Mother hung up on her, having had enough calls from her of late, and said, "Call his Father." She did. That is another story though. A good one...may have to write that one here someday...

7) I have boxes of "stuff" from friends and relationships from Junior High all through College, and can still tell you the story of it.

8) I seriously thought about studying to be an Astronomer.

9) I once worked as a garbageman.

10) I planted a Lime Tree in our yard here in Hawaii. (No limes yet)

11) According to our family tree, I am related to one former President and one former First Lady.

12) I watch Wrestling. Professional. Have for years.

13) I once bought a loft at College that my roommate hated, just because I had a crush on the girl I bought it from, and it was a way to spend time with her.

14) I have teared up every time I have seen the scene in "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," where The Battle of Helms Deep is close to ending and King Theoden rides out assuming to his doom, only to find Gandalf, Eomer and the Rhohyrrm, at the top of the hill, poised to charge, and Gandalf says:

"Theoden King stands alone"
And Eomer rides closer, charging replies, "Not alone...TO THE KING!" and they all charge down the hill. Gets me every time.

15) I got an A on the American Studies "Grapes of Wrath" exam, having not read the book, and a D on the "The Great Gatsby" exam, having read it twice and loved it. I went on to teach English. I loved telling my students that story. Some of them got the point.

16) I went through a "scarf" phase in High School, where I wore a different scarf to school, every day, for months, even if it wasn't cold out. I wore the scarf to class, and pretty much all day. It was my trademark.

17) I went on to coach a Championship Soccer team, and be assistant coach for 2 Championship Lacrosse teams, though I never played soccer beyond grade three, and never played organized lacrosse.

18) Once, in a snowstorm, driving a van, I skidded off the road on a long hill. The van was undamaged, but I was stuck. I tried a bunch of times to get out, but I was stuck. I stopped, prayed harder than I ever have in my life, made some specific deals with the Almighty, tried one more time, and got out and home safely. He held up his end, and I have held up mine.

19) I am one of two Dads in the MOMS Club.

20) During summers at the Jersey shore, I sometimes pretended to be English while trying to meet girls while playing pickup basketball games at the old Pacific Avenue Courts. It didn't work.

21) As a kid, I practiced my Grammy Award, Tony Award, and Academy Award acceptance speeches in front of the mirror. Regularly.

22) These days, I imagine my interview with Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" about my debut novel. I don't practice it in front of the mirror though. At least not until I finish it. OK, maybe once.

23) I have a collection of signed/rare books, including an autographed "To Kill a Mockingbird."

24) My wife and I had our first date at Wendy's. Classy, I know.

25) I still remember the phone number of the first girl who ever gave me her phone number.

So, these were the few that popped into my head while the twins were watching a show and the Bear was napping. Hope you liked it.

How many of them did you know?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

There is a haze over Leeward, Oahu. Oh, and Happy New Year

The Fireworks started weeks ago. But now that New Years Eve has arrived here in Hawaii, I see that everything up to this point was but a prelude.

A year ago today, I wrote about our experience in the apartment in Waikiki, which is beginning to shape up much like this evening. The kids are asleep. The wife is asleep on the couch, and I am outside on the porch writing, powered by candlelight and Andre Champagne. It is 10:39pm, Hawaii time, and the fireworks have been constant since 5pm.

While there has been rain tonight, the sky cleared up briefly. Both the smell and fog of powder fill the air in a way that is only overshadowed by the noise. In our small neighborhood, there are probably 120 homes. By my estimate, I would guess that 117 have purchased copious amounts of fireworks, which were on clearance at Foodland tonight.

Back home in Jersey, Fireworks were an event. One had to travel to see them-it was a big deal, and often, watching them on TV was a more amenable prospect. Here, they are constant. I’ve seen more fireworks in the last few days that I’ve seen geckos, rainbows, and children riding unsecured in the back of a pickup truck combined.

This year is very different that last year. I remember sitting on that balcony and watching what I thought were different towns lighting off their community fireworks, but as it turns out, every display I saw last year, and there were many, was one person shooting off their New Year’s Cheer. As I sit here on my porch, which faces the South Shore of Ewa, I see fireworks from every possible angle. My neighbors both up and down the street have taken turns shooting things off, some of which have been as impressive as anything we’d see in NY or Philly.

They take this stuff seriously. I’ve had people tell me, that yeah, we might have gone slower on Christmas, but you don’t cheap out on New Years in Hawaii.

The funny thing is, as the smoke builds up, I can’t see and appreciate the good ones. I can see the streams and the colors from the Beach that I like to go write at, but the colors are all blurry with the smoke. But the noise…that’s for real.

There’s a family down the block that strung their part of the street with firecrackers. They went for about 20 minutes until they just stopped, but if the hollering I heard is any indication, the fire went out, and they are re-gearing it…yup-there they go. Crack after crack, followed by ¼ stick… wow.

I just spent the last half hour talking with the guy next door. New Years Eve seems to a time in our little neighborhood where people walk around in broad darkness and talk to one another. It was cool.

You can’t believe the noise. I heard a ½ sick of dynamite go off a while back, and fully credit the miscreants I grew up with for my ability to discern the difference between an m80 and a ½ stick. I’ve actually impressed my neighbors with that knowledge.

The firecrackers have been constant, although there was a lull of all noise at 11:30 PM Hawaii time. I think everyone was reloading.

It’s been constant for the last, and the constant bombardment of sound has been intense. From every side there are celebratory flares both percussive and visual. The guy on the other side of us seems to really like the m80s.

Time Shift: I’m finishing this after the fact, On New Year‘s day actually. Happy New Year.

I was outside for the actual turn of the year, and there was no grand countdown…no ball, and no Rockin’ Eve. Just all of a sudden, everyone lit off their best stuff at once. There’s a guy around the corner that built a scaffold, and set off what he claims was 2009 firecrackers, all in a row. It sounded like more than that in execution. What I really liked was that he and his crew went through the wreckage and pulled out any that did not go off, and then set them off, to make certain that they had all been fired. The attention to detail was impressive.

I walked around the neighborhood a bit more, and what was most surprising was as loud as both the build up and blow-off to the New Year actually were, what was most impressive was the absolute silence that followed. Once the fireworks were done, they were done. People swept up the street, and went to bed. The next day was eerily quiet, like I’ve never seen our street before. It was like the entire neighborhood was asleep when they wouldn’t normally be. It was quite a turn of events. There was a light rain overnight, so the smoke and grime have been washed from the street, and you'd never know anything had occurred last night.

So-that was New Year’s in Hawaii. A lot of noise. A lot of lights. A lot of smoke…and then, quiet.

Like a wave, so to speak.