Alex asked: What was/were the best decision(s) you ever made in your life? (Either because there were immediate benefits or it caused a chain of events that lead to something else you didn’t know you needed.)
Life is replete with opportunities to choose between two or more courses of action. Shall I turn left, or right? Should I take the long way home? Which will have the better pay off, Option A, B, or C? We make so many decisions arbitrarily, rarely considering how one such harmless and innocuous choice could alter our life forever. When you asked me what decision I made most changed my life, this is what I thought of: decisions that, only in hindsight, you are able to identify as life-altering.
Certainly, there have been times when I decided on a course of action, knowing in advance that it would result in complete upheaval. Every so often, you can see a singular moment, a choice that will alter your course irrevocably. The decision I made to move to Hawaii from California when I was 18 was one such decision. I made it during a visit to Hawaii to see my mother and stepfather, while sitting in the dark on their lanai, looking out at the ocean off of Kailua Beach and desperately trying to divine what was going to come next in my life. Many decisions are like that, you know? Made out of complete desperation. I wanted so badly for my life to start, but I was terrified of the prospect of severing ties with everything I knew in order to catapult my life out of torpidity. So reluctant was I to actually make that decision, I broke out my tarot cards and asked Spirit to tell me what to do. I don’t remember what cards manifested in that reading, nor what message they delivered, but clearly recall making that most momentous decision that very night. I flew home, packed my bags, and returned to Hawaii just a few months later, though I can’t say that I never looked back.
I knew moving to Hawaii from California was going to change things forever, though I certainly couldn’t have predicted in its entirety the complete magnitude of that decision. I had anticipated moving, going to college, graduating, and going back home. That last part, though, never came to pass. Part of it was my parents dying and the following sense of being truly marooned on an island, but there were other factors as well. A nondescript moment in my first semester of college where I sat down with my mother to choose next year’s courses and decided Sociology 100 over Psychology 101, for instance. An inane choice between the study of society and the study of the mind that had more to do with my dislike of Sigmund Freud than anything else ended up changing my life entirely — I met my husband in that freshman classroom. Had I not moved to Oahu, I never would have encountered him at all, and we may have missed each other, had we both not made an arbitrary decision to sit in Ms. Mann’s class on sociology at 9:45am on Tuesdays and Thursdays that fall.
I’ve made countless other life-changing choices since then — and clearly, the choice to become pregnant and give birth to Moira is at the top of that list. To be honest, though, I’m not sure any of the other decisions I’ve made in the last ten years have been quite so staggering as those first two. The reason being that each subsequent decision I made; to go to college, to become an interpreter, to marry William, to have Moira; all of them followed naturally after first deciding to up-end my life and move to the island, and then to meet my husband (unintended though that decision was at the time). I made a necessary, heart-wrenching decision to relocate to a strange place and live among strangers in order for my life to start — and boy, did it ever.
Today was your birthday. You would have been 59. I couldn’t bring you a card, or cake, or flowers, so I brought to you your legacy — a little girl with the same turn of jaw and curve of chin. We turned East and drove to that beach where you rest, to those waters that are now your arms, and legs, and laughing mouth, to that sand that is now your hands and feet. I couldn’t see you, I couldn’t feel you, but I prayed to God that you were there.
Moira was a little scared at first, like she is when she meets a stranger. I sat with her at the outer limits of the surf as the waves drifted slowly in and you tickled her toes, wet her hair. You whispered to her quietly, confidentially through the waves. She picked up wet, sloppy handfuls of sand and squeezed them delightfully through her fingers, and I imagined that she was squeezing your hand. She stomped her feet in an oncoming wave, and I pictured her dancing with you. We walked into the water, past the shorebreak, and into the crisp blueness to sing you Happy Birthday, and I imagined your arms around us, holding us. It was the very best I could do.
I opened my hands underneath the waves, closed my eyes, and prayed, much as I have done every time I have visited this place. Let her be here, let her come. Let there be a touch, let me be open, let there be something.
I heard Moira laughing as she played with her daddy in the water. I felt the waves ripple past my skin, warmed and cooled in turn by the sun and the afternoon’s breeze. I waited, but the supernatural evaded me, as it is wont to do.
Closing my hands, I brought them up out of the water, and opened them toward Moira. She smiled in that way that proves she was born for her Hawaiian name — Kealohi, The Light. “Hau`oli Lā Hānau, Meemaw Janis,” I said, sing-song for us both, before turning to go home.
The concept of “home”, to me, is about family. And “family”, as far as I’m concerned, is about so much more than who your relatives are. Blood is not the only thing that makes a family. Marriages are direct evidence of this principle: even if you don’t intend to merge your genetic material to create offspring, when you get married, you form a new family. But even without government documents to bind us, families can be created in so many ways.
In our ever-expanding world, people very rarely continue to live within the same ten-mile radius that they were born into, often times moving thousands of miles away from where they were born and where their nuclear family unit resides. What then? We create our own homes, we find a new tribe, and we integrate into a new community. We set about adding branches to our family tree.
The people who surround us, care for us, and support us become our family through ties created of love. I’m very comfortable with the idea of an “extended” family. When I was growing up, it didn’t occur to me that my Auntie Rose and Auntie Nettie weren’t my mom’s real sisters — she loved them, so I did. They are part of my family. End of discussion. As a teenager, I began to wage my own life-long bonds of friendship and sisterhood. It was the first time I recall feeling bonded through shared experience: we are the same age, we come from similar dysfunctional backgrounds, we have similar interests. That was the foundation of our friendship. Then, just like Mary-Louise Parker’s character says in the movie “Boys on the Side”: there is something special that goes on between women. Through time and the magic of sisterhood, we became more than mere friends. We were sisters. Now they are my family. They are my blood. Period. End of discussion.
When I was 20, my mother died after slightly less than a year of fighting multiple myeloma. Just a year and a half earlier, we had lost my stepdad to lung cancer. I had moved from California, where both my relatives and my tribe did reside, to an itty bitty island in the middle of the Pacific in order to live with my mom and dad. And then they died. And I was alone in a way that one person should ever be. I had a roof over my head, but no home.
It took some time, but I crawled out of the crater left by that gargantuan life event. I finished college. I got married. I figured out who my real friends were and who would be members of my new tribe. I still felt like an orphan, but I managed to connect with a number of compassionate women who loved me like a daughter. I started to mend.
The thing about love, though, is that not all love is created equally. Don’t get me wrong: all love is good. But when you lose the love of a mother, no amount of love from friends or siblings or fathers is going to completely fill that empty cup. I felt, deep down to the very bottom of my soul, like a motherless wastrel in desperate need of some mothering. Every day that passed I felt more and more like an orphan, and all I wanted was my mommy.
I got my wish, after a time. In spades, you might say. And this is where I think Fate played her hand: if I hadn’t come to Hawaii, I wouldn’t have learned about Hanai family, and I would never have found mine. In Hawaiian, hanai means to adopt, to be close to, to nourish, to sustain. It was not an uncommon practice among Hawaiians newlyweds to practice the hanai custom by bestowing upon their parents their first born child to be raised by them. Children whose parents were unable to care for them were also given hanai parents, perhaps outside of their blood relations. It was seen as a blessing to the hanai parents, to be given the opportunity to care for and love a child that did not come from their union. The concept of family, or ohana, extended to all members of the society: we are all in this together, we who are bonded by blood or by love, it makes no difference. My hanai mom (really, I have more than one), like my sisters, has no qualms about our relationship. We’re family, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities therein. Period, end of discussion.
It’s funny to think: I had to wind up a million miles from home, in a place I never anticipated I would go, surrounded by people I didn’t even know ten years ago, in order to find my family. My home.
I never intended to use this blog as a forum for my rants — and I really try to avoid doing so — but given how many of my neighbors and community members have recently spoken with me about the following, I’m going to ask readers to bear with me.
Recently, a Huffington Post article about the 18 Worst Things About Hawaii made the rounds on Facebook. The author made some good points, despite purportedly not being from Hawai’i himself. As it was, though, the article swept the newsfeeds of local people due to one simple fact: We are all so god-damn tired of being accused of living in “paradise”. And I’ll tell you why.
1. Yes, the scenery is beautiful (most of the time) but you will rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to really enjoy it. This is due to the fact that the cost of living in Hawai’i is nearly 50% higher than the average cost of living for the contiguous 48 states. The national average for a gallon of gas is $3.54 — I would kill to be paying so little, when an average trip to the pump will cost me $4.25 a gallon. Of course, gasoline is still cheaper than some food staples: a gallon of milk at Safeway runs between $4.50 and $5.60 a gallon, depending on whether it is on sale or not. This is the reason that you and your roommates/spouse/partner will be required to hold down two or more jobs just to afford the basics. Not a lot of time leftover for lounging at the beach when you’re working 80 hours a week (unless you live on the beach, which plenty of people end up having to do).
2. Don’t think that just because the cost of living is so much higher that your income will be commiserate.Poverty level guidelines from the Department of Health put the poverty threshold for a family of 4 in Hawai’i at $27,090 per year, which you might recognize as more than half of the average salary earned by American males. In fact, certain careers, like teachers for instance, earn LESS than the national average for the same position in another state (about $35,000 in Hawai’i, compared to $56,000 national average). No wonder there’s such a big push locally to raise minimum wage. And if, as many locals suggest you do, you give up and want to go back home, I hope you’ve been saving up for that eventuality this whole time. The cost of shipping your possessions back to the Mainland is likely more than what they are worth in total.
3. Every time there is inclement weather on the Mainland, you will be inundated with snide comments about how much better/easier/prettier your home island is. Seriously, you can’t so much as make a comment about needing to put on a sweater without some Mainlander questioning you derisively, “What, you think Hawai’i’s cold??” Yes, when it’s 59* outside and your house does not come equipped with windows that shut all way to prevent drafts, it’s fucking cold. Maybe not I-have-to-spend-an-hour-shoveling-the-walk cold, but still uncomfortable. Besides, it actually does snow in parts of Hawai’i. We even get nasty golfball-sized hail every now and again.
4. The traffic is soul-crushing — and I’m from California. Now, I get that LA now owns the illustrious distinction of having the nation’s worst traffic, but that was a recent development — Honolulu was number one on that list until 2013, with an average of 59 hours spent in traffic in 2012. But even if LA is worse, consider how much farther you get to go on the Mainland. Living on the continent, it’s not uncommon to work 20 miles away from where you live — a distance that is hardly achievable on O’ahu. So, the two hours you spend to drive 20 miles is not equivalent to the 2 hours I spend to drive 15. Sorry, it just isn’t.
5. This actually isn’t a very family-friendly place to live. With the median cost of a single family home nearly three times the national average and a nearly equivalent earning potential, it’s not likely that you’ll ever be a homeowner here. This is one of the reasons why multi-generational homesteads are so common. And as I’ve previously mentioned, the cost of living can be difficult to maintain, so it’s not likely that you’ll have the spare cash for a $700 plane ticket to fly back and visit your folks at home. And if you’re considering raising a family here, think about how Hawai’i’s schools are some of the lowest ranked in the nation, and a private school education will cost you $17,000 per child per year, minimum. So just to recap, you can’t afford to own a home, can’t afford to fly out to see your family, the schools are terrible, and you will end up living with your parents, children, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, grandma, grandpa — forever — because you can’t afford to live independently.
6. No matter what your skin color, somebody thinks you’re a fuckin’ haole. I’m really surprised this fact didn’t make it on to the Huffington Post article about the worst things about living in Hawai’i because this is a widely known truth — if you don’t look Local, get ready to rumble. Maybe this isn’t something people like to talk about, since we all like to believe that Hawaii is America’s melting pot, but truth be told, everyone’s a little bit racist out here. Sometimes, it’s a well-meaning kind of racism (if there is such a thing), like comedian Frank De Lima performing skits for school children that rely heavily on the racial stereotypes developed during Hawai’i’s plantation boom, when immigrant workers from over the world poured into the state to find work in the fields. We laugh when he sings a Filipino Christmas, and when he talks about the Portagees (my people) and Haole Anonymous. But most of the time the underlying racist attitudes carried by the born-and-bred locals harken back to the ancestral memory of Native Hawaiians being denied rights to their own land. The Hawaiian word “haole” actually means “foreigner,” though it’s most commonly applied to white people, because, let’s face it, it’s always the whities who show up thinking they own the place. This in turn translates in to a sort of running joke that really isn’t funny: “Oh no, I don’t go to the beaches out Ewa-side — I don’t wanna get beat up!” And given particular conditions, shit can get real ugly, real fast.
7. You will mostly likely be sick a good portion of the time, at least for the first few years (and then periodically forever after). The climate in Hawai’i is special, and by “special” I mean “stupid”. If you’ve ever suffered from an autumnal hayfever, be forewarned: pollination season for some native plants is year-round, and guava trees are especially pernicious to the allergy prone. Not to mention vog, the toxic mix of volcanic ash and noxious gases that drifts back over the East-most islands from the West in Kona wind weather. If you’ve ever had asthma, you’re in for a real treat. Especially since climate change is shortening the number of tradewinds that we have and increasing the number of Kona winds we get instead. I never had sinus problems in the 18 years that I lived in California, but after moving to Hawai’i, I need antibiotics at least twice a year.
8. You will get island fever and it will make a polar vortex sound like an adventure you’re willing to take. Granted, I’ve never lived in a place where I have had to shovel snow. If I had, I probably wouldn’t think it looks so pretty. But by that same token, you have never lived on an itty bitty island in the middle of the Pacific ocean that offers you just over a 20 mile radius to explore. No road trips, no weekend get-aways (unless you can drum up the cash to island hop), and a very limited number of things to do that aren’t outdoorsy — I mean, I like to hike and snorkel, but I could do with a little art and culture every now and then. Which leads me to my next point…
9. Make a list of your favorite things. Now tear it up, because you’ll never find them here. Your favorite bands will never come play here, and if they do, the show will probably cost you hundreds of dollars, if you can get tickets at all. Heard about a new art exhibit traveling the country? Yeah, Honolulu probably isn’t on the list (worse, if you live on a neighbor island). Or maybe you enjoy live televised sports? I hope you’re willing to watch that football game at 7:00am on a Sunday, because depending on daylight savings time (which we don’t have), Hawai’i is up to 6 hours behind the continental US. And the list just goes on and on: chain restaurants and department stores that you love have no local establishments, shipping costs severely limit the amount of things you have justify buying online, and new products released on the Mainland will take untold extra time to make it out here, if they come at all.
10. In large part, it’s like living in the middle of a giant tourist trap. Just like Vegas, San Francisco, New York, and other city destinations, Honolulu is crawling with tourists on the daily. But they don’t just stay in the city. They get in their rental cars and clog up streets all over the island, pulling over on the freeway to take photos of the Ko’olau Mountains and flooding all of the three major malls on island to find more tourist schlock they can bring back home. The majority of business establishments prefer to cater to the tourist industry, since it’s so profitable, which means insane mark-ups on products and services that you won’t see elsewhere.
11. You will be frequently assailed by the Paradisiacal Guilt Complex. Whether it’s your Mainland family and friends giving you a hard time when you complain about work because “at least you live in Hawai’i” or your own feelings of anxiety when you decide that you’ve had quite enough sun and just want to lay in bed all day, someone is always going to assume that since you live on a tropical island, there is a certain way you ought to spend your time (as if you could really afford to go to the beach everyday). You might even develop feeling of mild hatred for the beauty that surrounds you, because it seems to mock you every time you have a bad day: how dare you not recognize what a paradise you live in! You are blessed, damn it! BLESSED! Yes, well, it really is gorgeous, but I still have to work, I still have bills to pay, and I’m still wasting half my life in traffic. I don’t have the same right to bitch and moan as someone from Schenectady because my backdrop is prettier? I call bullshit.
So there you go. In addition to the things mentioned of HuffPo, another 11 reasons why living in Hawai’i kind of sucks. That being said, I know there are worse places to live. I guess my consolation prize for living on the verge of poverty forever is all the pretty rainbows I get to see and periodic whale watching.