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