“ʻŌlelo Noʻeau (Hawaiian Proverbs)”
I ka ʻōlelo no ke ola, i ka ʻōlelo nō ka make.
In the language is life. In the language is death.
(Words can heal; words can destroy.)
I’ve been a reader longer than I can possibly remember. The way I view the world — and so, the way I view my life — is through story. Things move in an arc and everything has a meaning or informs the whole story in some way.
So here’s a story I tell myself. I was born in Philadelphia and raised in one of those “white Jersey stringtowns” described by William Gibson: “where nobody knew shit about anything and hated anybody who did.” Gibson started writing cyberpunk around the time I graduated high school and decided to put Jersey in the rear-view mirror for good. I had been ditching school for a while and taking the Speedline to West Philadelphia, haunting the radical bookstores around the Penn campus. It was at one of these that I got the notion of living on an anarchist commune, “building a new world in the shell of the old.”
That road led me to sharing Victorian railroad flats in the Haight Ashbury with a shifting cast of characters, trying to figure out how to cover the rent and expenses. A chance meeting got one of us an in with a company called Apple, which was just starting to try and sell this new thing called the “Macintosh” that you operated with a weird remote control instead of typing commands on a screen. We started selling these “Macs” to artists and people like Robin Williams, who loved it. And like that, the radicals became techies. It turned out that musicians were really good at fixing computers: a guitarist who went by “Jazz” once taught me how to diagnose a program loop by feel, the hard drive vibrating a repetitive signature through the Mac’s beige case.
The Babylon scene took its toll, though: we found ourselves spending hours doing end-of-month inventory reconciliation instead of gestalt encounter sessions and designing the New Society. So some of us cashed out what we could and bought some land on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. We figured with our skills and creativity we could make organic farming work, and if not we could always fall back on the computer shit. It was 1993.
Ola na iwi.
The bones live.
(Said of a respected elder who is well cared for by their family.)
I paʻa i kona kupuna, ʻaʻole kãkou e puka.
Had our ancestress died in bearing our grandparent, we would not have come forth.
(Said to remind a member of the family to respect the senior line, because they came first.)
The village of Wailea is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town above the cliffs of the Hilo Palikū coast. I was one of the first white people to live there, my neighbors all elderly descendants of immigrants from Okinawa and the little fishing villages around Hiroshima. I would see them, I would wave hi, but I knew nothing about their lives or their culture.
The Hiroshima-kenjin and Okinawa-kenjin worked in the fields of cane and in the mills at the rivermouths where the sweet brown crystals of turbinado were loaded into steamships rolling on the Pacific waves. Their sons, who fought in Europe during World War II, went to college on the G.I. Bill, learned about the law, about socialism and international economics, and came back to organize the cane workers to strike for fair wages. They formed unions, started soup kitchens in the back of Buddhist churches with woks the size of coffee tables, and beat the bosses the same way they beat the Nazis in Europe: with guts, determination and unshakable loyalty to each other.
By the fifties, the little sugar towns along the coast had become prosperous. Each had a downtown with shops, a movie theatre or a few, a school with a big baseball diamond where fierce rivalries were fought out, and either a Jodo-shu or Jodo-shinshu Buddhist church (or both). The American Dream came to the tropics, with Bon dances under the July 4th fireworks. For a time.
But the sugar planters soon found that the cane grew just as well in the sun of the Philippines and Brazil, where they could get people to work for a fraction of what the islanders would. The mills closed, the cane fields went feral with stinging Guinea grass and sprawling Wainaku grass, and the children of the cane workers left for Honolulu and the mainland. Their parents took their small pensions and stayed in their towns and villages, stretching dollars the way their own parents had taught them, chickens in the garden amid the lotus root and mizuna greens. But tough as they were (and they were tough, they could work my ass into the ground), found it harder and harder as the years went on to spend hours pounding the wooden mallets into the stone basins filled with sweet, glutinous rice.
Me, the earnest white boy, I thought it sounded great.
So every New Year’s Eve, I’d wake up at 5am to start the fire with Uncle Wimpy, who’d already be puffing one of his foul-smelling White Owl cigarillos (and probably have already started a can of Miller Lite). We’d get the water boiling, set the bamboo frames on top of the pots to steam the rice, and let it cook. When it was done, we’d pour the hot rice into the stone basin and pound, one or the other of us darting in to turn the mochi in between strikes. Wimpy was better than me at not getting hit. I’d usually bust a knuckle or two, and I’d always tear a fingernail on the hot stone. People said we should wear gloves, but Wimpy didn’t, so I didn’t.
Soon we became a tourist attraction. After one of the inflight magazines did a feature on the mochi pounding, we got huge traffic every year, parked cars stretching all the way through town to the ball field. Everybody laughed to see the white boy who was pounding alongside the old folks, shouting gambatte in a terrible accent to encourage the tourists when they stepped up to try their hand. I didn’t mind. I had a place. I had an extended family of sorts. I had a community.
ʻIke aku, ʻike mai, kōkua aku, kōkua mai; pēlā ihola ka nohona ʻohana.
Recognize others, be recognized, help others, be helped; such is a family relationship.
Lawe i ka ma’alea a ka ʻonoʻono.
Acquire skill and make it deep.
E kūlia i ka nuʻu.
Strive to reach the highest.
In 1893, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was a sovereign government, with its own currency, diplomatic relationships with the great powers of the world, and a comprehensive school system. Over 90 percent of Hawaiians were literate in their own language, and Honolulu alone had dozens of newspapers. After a cabal of sugar planters conspired with a US Counsel to overthrow the Queen, the Hawaiian language was outlawed. Generations of native kids were forced to learn English in schools that taught nothing about their culture and history. Even a century later, Hawaiians in their own land were at the bottom of indices for education and wealth, at the top of those for drug abuse, depression, premature death.
Native Hawaiian educators took advantage of the charter school movement in the late 90s and early 2000s to set up a parallel education system within the public schools. The language of instruction was Hawaiian and English, the same educational standards were used, but the pedagogy and approach honored the Hawaiian worldview: traditional cultural practices, respect for the older generations, and intimacy with the land, sky and sea.
They needed a computer guy. Public schools in Hawaiʻi at that time had only a handful of computers, and the internet was virtually unknown. I didn’t have a college degree and I didn’t speak more than a couple words of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, but I did have my self-taught tech skills, so I got in as a part-time teacher. We couldn’t afford a big building so we rented a warehouse and built canopies of galvanized pipe with plastic tarps stretched over them: the tropics don’t require much. We got candy-colored MacBooks and rigged Wi-Fi antennas all around. The students learned science in the forests and math by plotting courses for voyaging canoes. I had the heartbreaking experience of having to explain to a six-year-old – a boy who wrote flawless Hawaiian – that the word “enough” was spelled with a G for no reason.
At the end of the year, the students took part in the Makahiki celebration: the festival of the god Lono, patron of fertility, agriculture, rainfall, music and peace. As part of the festival, the students and teachers were all to be put under a traditional restriction, or kapu in the Hawaiian system of conduct. For this Makahiki, in the winter of the year 2000, the kapu was Mālama pono, e aloha kekahi i kekahi (very roughly: ‘live righteously and care for one another’).
One of the other teachers, my friend Nālani, had told me before the story of a kupuna (elder) who had put him under a similar kapu and then died, so that he was bound by this restriction for life. Something about this really appealed to me: bound for life to be righteous and compassionate. So at the end of the Makahiki season, when everyone else was having it lifted, I asked Nãlani if I could stay under the kapu.
He shrugged. “Yeah,” he said, “but you should be careful what you ask for.”
That was probably the best and hardest lesson I’ve ever been given.
He lohe ke ola, he kuli ka make.
To hear is life, to turn a deaf ear is death.
(It pays to heed sound advice.)
The land we’d found was above Wailea town, ten acres with a spring which we subdivided into three little plots for each of the three couples. Mari and I had married, and built a house on poles so we didn’t have to have any interior walls. We caught rain off the roof. We had solar panels and a massive clanking Chinese diesel generator for backup. We were completely independent and off the grid. At the same time, the internet was starting to be a thing and I felt left out, so when the satellite TV companies started offering internet access I jumped at it. We were so close to the Equator that the geosynchronous satellite was almost at high noon: whenever a heavy tropical rain fell, the satellite dish filled with water and the internet went down.
I had missed a trick or two spending the 90s in a place where the “information superhighway” was a gravel cane-haul road. I was still a part of the old world, where people’s phone numbers were attached to their physical locations and friends could simply pop out of your universe if you didn’t keep up with their moves and name changes. When I reconnected to the internet and discovered that even people outside the tech world had email, it was as if suddenly a bridge had been built to my past. Lives I touched that had touched mine in my tender, alienated teens became all at once accessible to me again. I learned about Bob’s second marriage and the end of his tragic first, Sarahlee’s surprising but all-too-predictable-in-retrospect descent into suburban momhood, the whispers that dogged Sam’s Broadway success, Burt’s death from AIDS-related complex. And of course, I looked up my high school girlfriend.
When Tara and I broke up, we were each headed into the terminal plunge of our own hard-drugs addictions. She injected cocaine; I was needlephobic and smoked it. I had recovered into scientific utopianism and computer repair while she chose the law. She was a corporate attorney in the same suburban wasteland I’d fled fifteen years earlier, weaning her first kid and wondering about her choices. We were each others’ first intense relationships, there was an ocean and a continent between us, and we had email.
Of course my wife found out.
It wasn’t the first push on a stressed relationship. We’d been together for over a decade, I was seven years younger in age and immature even for that, we were broke, she had anxiety disorder and I smoked a lot of weed. But all of a sudden, parts of my life began dropping off like ice shattering before a calving iceberg: my beloved rescue dog Kamana went missing, Mari wanted an open relationship and fell in love with her old boyfriend, I developed gum disease, beautiful grafted Haas avocado trees I had planted wilted and died. It was about a six-month period from decision and action to consequences.
The human mind seeks patterns. Randomness offends our sensibilities: it’s uncomfortable to imagine we are just leaves being carried by a stream we can neither understand or control. I’ve often envied people of faith, but it seems like I lack the gene for it or something: I’ve tried repeatedly and failed, repeatedly, to find solace in religion. I persist, though, in acting as if there is something other than random chance, as if there’s some karmic spring in the hidden machinery of cause and effect that’s wound particularly tight for me.
As irrational beliefs go, it’s not a bad one.
ʻAʻohe hana i nele ka uku.
Every deed, good or bad, receives its just reward.
BIO: Paul Daniel Ash has been a carpenter, a newspaper deliveryman, a wireless systems engineer and an organic farmer. He recently made his home in Vermont and – with the collapse of democratic and social norms in the USA – decided to dedicate himself full-time to writing. Paul is currently an MFA student in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.