Aloha Kakou. My words have not left me altogether, but I feel them receding like you might sense a storm moving off shore, finding a true home over the ocean. My words are projections only. The real thing, what is it? I will try to share, this, what is real, now, while I am still able.
Today I rest on a pune'e, a daybed out on the lanai. Off to my right there is a cloud of smoke and gases blowing up island. This sulfur dioxide fume blanket is thankfully in my line of sight, but not affecting my breathing. The breathing is a shallow effort, not my best, but doing what it needs to. Sometimes I remember breathing styles from meditations long ago, and I try to begin to breathe from my pelvis. Last time I tried I coughed so long and hard the children came running in off the street outside, calling me tutu and bringing me ice to suck on.
My own children are not here, nor my grandchildren. This is the middle of the ocean, and their lives are elsewhere. I would prefer that you not think badly of them, nor judge me, based upon their absence. We had our time together, and we each made our choices to live where we live, respectively. True, they could choose to come here now, to witness what is going on, both in my life and the life and history of this island. But there is both inconvenience and expense. It will be different here when they come, and come they will, as Hawaii will always be a part of them, as it is a part of me. No need for them to carry with them a memory of me as I am today, bones inside skin with just enough muscle mass left to get up and down. Let them remember the tutu who did planks and drank whisky under the broad starry sky.
Over where that plume of gas and smoke obscures the bright blue canopy above, the lava is flowing down the mountain. It is not headed for my lanai, in particular, at this moment. One cannot say where the lava will go, exactly. It is the Lava Uncertainty Principle. One can take a heat photo, and visualize the ocean of lava under the ground. It is immense. An ocean rather than a mere lake rests beneath the crust of land, breaking out here and there in its enthusiasm, it creeps downslope with the intensity of ants, purposeful and relentless, seeking its end in the bath of the ocean.
Down the mountain, all the way down at the ocean, you can see the evidence of what happens when the waves meet the lava flow. Boulders the size of full grown pigs are thrown back up onto the blanket of hardened lava. Beneath that blanket, the shimmering red hot lava surges until it meets the sea and explodes in bombs that become pitted with splash of waves, and yet are round as breadfruit. Some are resting on the old lava flow now, left from a time when Mauna Loa burst open. I cannot tell you which time, maybe the last time.
This is not my story, but the story of this time and this place. This is in small part only the tale of the daybed on the lanai, here where one old woman with unfinished thoughts is waiting to cross over to a place where lava and time are the same thing. My father was here to visit this afternoon. I could see him as clearly as the palm shadows on the screens in the late day. He was so much younger than I am now, and that is to be expected as he made his crossing when he was but 55 years old. A youngish man, and it was younger than that he sat here near me today. He sat in silence, never having been a talkative person. His thoughts however were clear like music. He was waiting to see if I would come along with him. But the feeling was not of e kipa mai, come visit, but something considerably more far reaching, and I am tied just now to the lava event.
My daughter Alicia says I am waiting to see it fall once more into the ocean, dribbling down the pali, but it will not be like that this time. The ground is flat where it will enter. Probably it will form tubes and enter harshly, explosively, being thrown into the air like fireworks. Yes I would like to see that, but it is not likely anyone will allow me near. No, let me be more precise. It is not likely to happen before I cross over. This lava is taking its time, slowly crossing fields, slowing, stalling, starting again upslope and coming down in raggedy orange rimmed rivers. It is a fitful flow.
What will become of my home? I do not mean this small house with its lanai facing a ribbon of ocean, planted with a eucalyptus along side of it whose peeling bark seems to have taken its color randomly from a paintbox. I mean this part of this island. When you move to the side of a volcano to live, and you know the volcano too is a living thing, you can expect to have to move sometime. The volcano will slumber and then have a dream and you may or may not be caught up in the drama of the lava. This time, the lava is flowing in such a way that it is cutting off the part of the island where I live from the rest of the island. It is making an island within an island. At first, the main way in and out of this area will be cut off as lava flows over the highway. Until a few short weeks ago, that was the only way in and out. Now, there have been new roads cut, but not paved. These roads may never see pavement, as the lava stands to cover them as well. This lava, this time, this flow, should the lava find its way to the sea again. Many of us envisioned a bridge across the lava, but that seems to be for a future time, a time when the money does not belong to the few but to the many.
It has happened that my friends from other places have asked me, how could I choose to live where lava might one day overtake my vegetable garden, ruin my carpets, and annihilate my wardrobe. I asked whether lava was worse somehow than hurricanes or earthquakes that left you little time or no chance at all to choose whatever you might want to keep. There is an ebony statue just inside my door. I would take that, because it is carved so exquisitely. Truly, impermanence is immutable. You understand this when you live on the side of a volcano. You know as you watch lava consume everything in its path that at the same time it is creating the island, the very place you have chosen to live because, if you are not here, you cannot seem to get past the sadness of being apart from the place you love best.
As for the things that are mine, my photos are online, thousands upon thousands of them. I am guessing, although no one has talked to me of this, that when I am gone someone will run some of them as a slide show on my flat screen TV and play my favorite music while people come and go, eating and drinking and talking story. Maybe they will play "From a Dancer" by Ho'okena, a Keali'i Reichel mele. "I am pleased to have joined with you all in the dance of my soul". That, and the music that binds the reverence of this song for land and the ocean to the heart, that is the music I hope they will be drawn to as whatever is my essence drifts out like the scent of plumeria and stephanotis on the currents of the afternoon.
This island is its music, as much as it is hardened lava. The mele of Hawaii capture the spirit of a place, and set it to music. When you listen to this music, you can hear the longing of the one who has captured this essence, the yearning to join with the place in body and spirit. And you are here.
It feels often as though my mind and body are both adrift on a kind of cloud. It is not drugs at all. I take nothing, unless you count the awa, a concoction I never grew to care much for, but that does have the power to take away fear. Fear is an odd sort part of the human repertoire. It serves us well in the wild, and also when there is something or someone who might consider us prey. Otherwise, it serves no useful purpose. So I sip this brown cloudy tea, and am ready for come what may. It is not as if I will have to jump up and run away from the lava. I will be gone from here/now before it touches this land that is deeded to me.
There is something that has been bothering me of late. Of course, the lava is a problem. It is coming right through the little town of Pahoa. It is like a child's nightmare flowing into conscious life. But it will not run over anyone. It will destroy some property. It will chase away a lot of people. Those who do not leave will relocate. I have moved 36 times in my life. Relocation is not the end of anything that cannot be sustained by phone calls and social media. You think this kupuna does not know about Facebook? How do you suppose I stay in touch with the grandchildren? No, here is the problem. The neighborhood has put up signs suggesting that anyone not from here who walks down their streets is being disrespectful. This is because people want to see the lava as it enters the town. To watch this event is to connect one's self to history and to place. To those who had ancestors in the graveyard overrun by lava, this may be an abstract and intrusive notion. They feel their mourning taking up more space than what someone may not want to miss out on. They see themselves having to move their furniture out around hoards of gawkers.
And so, Pahoa is becoming divided both by the river of lava separating people on the Hilo side from people on the Kalapana side. There is shaming of those who clamor for access, because all they are interested in is what they can get, according to some Kalapana side residents who are struggling with how they are going to continue to get anything at all. So they want the photographers to move to the back of the bus.
Is it because I have one foot in the place where the lava has already covered the island many times over, where tides of mind carry stories of volcanoes that blew open and destroyed nations, is it for this blending of there/always and here/now that it seems so evident to me that no one is right, and everyone is right? It is as if everyone thinks the lava is coming through and then will be gone, leaving its black surface, then rushing underground to the sea. I have watched the lava for so long I can tell you that it is exceptionally interesting as it moves initially across pavement. It eats it with tongues of fire, and covers it over and this sight will not be repeated, not there. The lava will flow and flow on. It will cover other pavement, a few times, maybe. Usually it will ooze over the grass, bite the trees, make a lot smoke. Those who feel no need to travel by wheeled machinery have no respect for pavement. E Pele e.
Have respect, they say. No one is by virtue of circumstance more deserving of respect than anyone else. This is worth thinking about.
Imagine this. Across this street on land that someone owns who lives on another continent and never comes to visit, some people have cleared the land and planted a garden. There are avocado trees with fruit hanging almost to the ground. There are papaya trees with orange fruit clinging to the trunks. There are lilikoi vines dotted with green and yellow fruit climbing all over the fence and across the ground, and banana trees with long bunches of green fruit forming over purple flowers. The people who planted the land have moved on. It is watered by the rain and tended by no one. But the neighbor on the one side throws rocks at anyone from outside the block who dares to pick a fruit. Everyone gets hungry. The fruit belongs to everyone. No throw rocks. If you want to be a good person, pick some fruit and take it over to the next street. Find out who cannot get to the store, give them fruit. But, no throw rocks.
I see my neighbors from down the road, a couple maybe a decade younger than me, slowly passing in a long bed pickup truck, furniture all jammed in there, boxes and more boxes. They stop in front of my house, and Marlena gets out from behind the wheel and calls out to me as she runs up the steps to me on my pune'e. Our conversation shows you a little about us, the people of this place.
"Aunty, you still here?" she shakes her head. "No one come get you? No one come help?"
"Eh, Marlena, come here and give me a hug. I can sit up a bit."
I can see her peering in through my screen door, seeing my furniture sitting in there. "Tutu Pele, she come soon, you know."
"Not all that soon, no problem for me," I answer. "The lava will miss here." I add.
"You so sure of that? But who take care of you, when road cut off?"
"All my ohana who've already crossed over, they are waiting to welcome me. I see them all the time, they come, sit, sometimes talk story. So where are you going, now, with all your stuff?"
"Keoki and I go stay Paradise Park with friends, all stay in one house awhile. Together, watch Pele swallow Puna."
We talk story awhile longer. Keoki comes up, we all sit, Marlena goes inside awhile and comes out with a pitcher of lilikoi tangerine juice. I know they have plenty to do and send them along. Marlena says "I see you bye 'um bye, Aunty" and I know she means on the other side of this life. We all give hugs, and I stand up a moment for this. No need to die lazy.
There will be songs written about these days. I can hear them sometimes, in the far off. They are place songs, about Pahoa, about Puna. The stories will last of the people who helped move the refrigerators, who loaded the sofas and gave their neighbors a place to sleep as long as they needed to borrow a bed and a room for the bed. The story will persist of the high school students who saved the electric poles. The stories people tell and repeat gain the traction of truth in the times in which they are first told. Then from some horizon comes evidence that blots out part of the story and leaves behind something amazing. It is like the footprints in the ash in the Ka'u desert.
Here is a version of Keonehelelei, the falling sands. In earlier times, in the time of the revolutionary war in New England, the floor of Kilauea Volcano was such that water from rains would accumulate beneath the surface, the water table itself being higher than the bottom of the caldera. In 1790, there was a violent pyroclastic eruption. At the time, it is said that the conquering armies of Kamehameha had been fighting his cousin, Kiwala'o, and certain members of his cousin's ohana had survived the battles and were living in Hilo and Ka'u respectively. There was an uneasy peace on the island, broken when Keawemauhili in Hilo decided to throw in with Kamehameha and accept him as ali'i nui. Keoua in Ka'u was displeased, felt disrespected, and after killing his uncle Keawemauhili in Hilo, chased after Kamehameha, laying waste to the island as he went along. By the time he got to Volcano, and Kilauea crater, home of Pele, he began to feel a form of remorse. This remorse took the shape of fear of Pele. The crater was rumbling. So Keoua tried to appease the angry goddess for several days, then divided his army and sent them in separate contingents back through Ka'u. The timing was such that part of the army was annihilated in the eruption of 1790, when the wet ash exploded out of Kilauea, rained down ash and boulders, and made a storm of ash over the area of Ka'u around the volcano. The footprints in the ash were supposed by Thomas Jaggar, a volcanologist at Kilauea at the time of their discovery, to have been made by Keoua's army. As science advanced, questions about the footprints persisted. The science of lava retold the story, this time with such violence in the winds and pyroclastic flow of the 1790 event that in all likelihood the warriors were not alive enough to leave footprints. The footprints are not single directional. They are believed today to have survived as the legacy of ordinary Hawaiian people who traveled the Ka'u desert, made petroglyphs, fashioned weapons from the glassy lava, and carried on ordinary daily activities between outbursts from the volcano.
As I lie here on my pune'e, I feel life receding all around me. It is as if the volcanic cloud that blows away from my lanai is lifting my spirit in increments from this place. As it disperses, truth feels as fragile as any drift of ash. It settles upon me like a protection of my spirit, that who will see the lava as it spills over my town matters as much as a flurry in the rain. Some hear it, some feel it, the sudden shift in the rain is over, and eventually the storm passes. What happens to my home, Pahoa, my lanai, seems but a pencil sketch drawn hastily and about to be discarded. These tears that begin in my heart are the tears of my people. My people are all of us.
Something will survive, something like the footprints of Keonehelelei. We cannot know what it will be, who will marvel, who will think they know. I wonder if I will know, in that non-place of no-time. I wonder if there is mattering there. Maybe that is what is keeping me here, more than the lava, which it seems less and less likely I will see licking across pavement this time. I do not know why this matters, beyond simple human desire to make a record of one's own.