Maui / Oliver Sachs

A few days into my Hawaii research trip this year, I woke up before dawn and drove down the dark, windy roads from Wailuku to Lahaina.  I had yet to see Maui during daylight, having arrived late the night before.  I took this research trip on a tight budget, relying on the public bus systems of six cities, springing occasionally for the economy class on trains.  But twice in Hawaii I’d had to rent cars to reach farther-flung courthouses and archives, and the previous night at the Maui airport my bargain-basement car rental got upgraded to a Mustang sports car.  It revved when my foot approached the pedal, and I guided it warily around the local streets from the airport to my Wailuku hostel.  In the dark pre-dawn hours, when I headed out for the next day’s research, a light beneath the car door shone a shoe-sized mustang onto the pavement below.

I wound my way from the middle of the island to its western edge.  The darkness of a Maui dark is complete.  The road arced under trees, eventually lined the coast.  I trusted in the darkness that substituted for landscape, sensed rather than saw the ocean, the West Maui mountains overhead.  Before daybreak, I parked on a Lahaina residential street and made my way to the downtown port where I would board my ferry to Lana’i.  I sat on a rock and waited by the clapboard ticket shed.

There was so very little discretionary time on this research trip.  Most days I had barely enough time to get from one archive to the next; usually I was running, scribbling notes on a bus.  I ate granola from Down to Earth by the handful.  Once in a while, I would stop and stand in stilled awe: face-to-face with a place my book described.  At night, I typed notes, prepared the next day’s questions, put on reserve yet more materials from the Hawaiian and Pacific Collections at the University of Hawaii.

Occasionally there would be random moments of stillness.  Like that morning, in the dark by the dock of Lahaina, waiting for the ferry to Lana’i.  And in those few minutes of silence I found this op-ed in that morning’s New York Times: Oliver Sachs had terminal cancer (he has since died).  He had this to say: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

So much of my own life is a vacillation between my richest, most productive life and periods of compromise.  A life in the arts is immensely rich: it opens me to wonderful, thoughtful friends and acquaintance who care deeply about the world and create beautiful work.  It opens me to endless curiosity and exploration, it gives me a regular pathway to empathy, and to the great joy of creative work.  It demands that I take risks.  I am happiest when I am in these moments, facing risk, focusing on my work, stretching, growing, building momentum.  My life is not always that: for periods of months or years I often feel stagnant, focused on my income-sustaining second career, which I have not always found as enlivening as my first.

I am so grateful to have had Oliver Sachs’ words resonating alongside my book that morning.  In the dawning sun, I attended carefully to the details of landscape from the ferry.  Soon, I will be describing that landscape (not this one, photographed, but the one I saw of Lana’i, just forty minutes afterwards) in the pages of my book.  In the moment that morning, I was completely present.  And I was also removed: aware of just what it was to be there and to be my most purposeful.

If you haven’t read the Sachs op-ed yet, please do.  His reflection has the charge of a mission statement.  Here is what I would like my life to do:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.  — Oliver Sachs

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This Year / Hawaii

Morocco

It has been an extraordinary year.  In the course of it, I have traveled in four continents, written my book, built a partnership with a wonderful man, roadtripped with my mother, and connected with dear friends — old and new.  There have been moments in this process — following, as it does, a period of pain — when I have been stunned by life’s capacity for growth and resilience and adventure.

In February, in the middle of my book-research trip, I flew to Hawaii.  I had been to Hawaii once before, at the very beginning of writing my book.  In all the years since, as I’ve worked on the stories in my collection, I have compiled a list of archives and museums and historic sites I’ve longed to visit.  For all these years, I have imaginatively accessed World War II Hawaii, my characters wandering through its hotels and sugar cane fields and internment camps.  But it’s an expensive trip, and I never expected to be able to go back to finish my research.  I found creative solutions; I made do.

When I received my grant last fall — this grant that has changed my life — I almost hesitated to take my research trip.  I had so thoroughly accepted that I wouldn’t get to engage with this creative work, that I could not even recognize how deeply I wanted to.

In the end, I traveled from Japan to Hawaii on a long, backward-through-time, overnight flight.  As soon as I saw the land of Hawaii through the plane window, I felt in my full body the rightness of the moment.  All day as I walked through Honolulu, prepping my notes, walking through spaces that I have inhabited so long in my own book, I just kept thinking, dear life.  It is the title of an Alice Munro collection that I quite like, and that day it also felt like an unprompted prayer.  Here is where that scene takes place, here is a room I wrote about looking just as I imagined it, here is the very building where they danced in that story.  Such an extraordinary homecoming, to come home to places you have never been but so long imagined.  To come home and walk around inside your own book.  Dear life.

There have been difficult moments in the months since, times when the writing has been difficult, or when I have felt unmoored, uprooted, or times when I have felt unspeakably discouraged with myself and the progress of my life.  There have also been moments of such joy and clarity they’ve astonished me.  These, let me hold onto.