Sharing Our Breath

**DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert on Hawaiian culture and customs. The definitions of certain Hawaiian words in the post below are not exact (they are merely my own renderings from the many definitions I have been told over the past few years) and the words can be interpreted differently. The thoughts shared in this post are from my perspective alone, and is not meant to reflect all of Hawaiian culture or its people.**


At the end of this past summer, I came back to Hawaii to begin my resident assistant (RA) job training. The days were long; we sat in cold lecture halls, and the topics ranged from planning fun events to suicide prevention. My future coworkers and I sat day in and day out listening to presenters and unnecessarily clapping before and after each of these sessions until it became a robotic routine. We later found out that we were required to complete a day of community service. Yaaay… more work…

There were three options to choose from:

  1. Lyon Arboretum- Help at a botanical garden run by our university

  2. Hoʻoulu ʻAina- Have a more cultural experience with agroforestry(essentially growing food/medicines in the forest)

  3. Campus Operations- Doing maintenance jobs on campus

I try to make an effort to understand the native Hawaiian culture, so I chose Hoʻoulu Aina. The day was overcast when our vans and cars arrived in the tiny parking lot surrounded by rainforest. Mauka side(in the direction of the mountains) showed patches of cloudless sky sure to come our way, but for the moment, the ground and air were wet from the rain of the previous night. Some of our coworkers who were more involved in Hawaiian culture oli-ed us in. (Oli: Hawaiian chanting used for many purposes. On this particular occasion it was used to ask for permission to enter the lands and begin working.) Our two leaders of the day were two young men with bushy beards and skin that was darkened by the sun. After the oli they asked us to make a circle. With slow steps we made the circle, unsure what this would lead to. The taller of the two men asked us to go around and announce a family member that we would like to (spiritually) bring with us while we worked that day. As the 30 or so volunteers began to announce their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and grandparents, the mood of the circle grew thick with a mix of melancholy and remembrance. I don’t think many of us had thought much of our family since the beginning of training.

The man then asked us to hold hands and offered for anyone to say a prayer to anything in any language. One of my good friends volunteered to pray to the Virgin Mary in Spanish. Regardless of religious affiliation, we all took one another’s hands in our own, closed our eyes, and bowed our heads. Midway through the prayer she began to cry, and for some reason my eyes, too, began to water. Although I had no idea what she way saying, it felt powerful and meaningful. When the prayer concluded, a group of our friends surrounded her, and without words, a group hug broke out with warm laughter holding it together.

With our minds opened to the land and each other, we made our way through the wet forest, stopping once to each touch our heads to a rock (said to be the head of a Moʻo, which is a creature of Hawaiian mythology vaguely described to look like a gecko) and share our breath with it (sharing breath with something/someone, called honi, is an important and spiritual aspect of Hawaiian culture that is used to greet another person). It may seem silly to share one’s breath with a Moʻo-head shaped rock, but it is an important part of the land’s history and not a single person skipped meeting their forehead to the damp rock to smell the sea, despite being miles away from the ocean.

At our final destination, our task was to make a line and pass mulch in large white buckets to one another in order to cushion a path that many people took to walk up to another location. The buckets were heavy and the work was tiring, but not one complaint was muttered. The opposite actually occurred. We laughed, shared stories, sang songs, and learned about the native and invasive plants that tangled with each other along the path.

Before I knew it, our work was done, and we were all back in the circle. The taller man, which my end of the bucket line had become more acquainted with, told us that if anyone wanted to say something, they could. In an unbelievable moment, one by one down the line of the circle everyone said something. People gave thanks for being there, showed gratitude for each other, and shared appreciation for the little moments in the day. The air surrounding the circle once again became thick with emotion, but this time with gratitude and a beaming energy that overtook me. Everyone’s words were affecting me so much. I felt as if I was connecting with each person’s words. Silent, warm tears made paths down my face after several people’s short speeches. I also saw that, without noticing, we had all come to hold each other’s hands again. One of my soon-to-be close coworkers broke into tears during her speech. Not sad tears, but tears of gratitude.

The number of people speaking before me began to dwindle, and I racked my brain for the right thing to say. So many people had gone before me and had said such powerful and touching words. I wanted to say something meaningful to me as well as the group. This is what I recall saying when it came to be my turn to speak:

“As a warning, I’m gonna cry. Today I have felt so much mana, so much power and energy from everyone and our group. I feel like today really brought us together and I’m really thankful that we came here. We’ve learned so much. I’m thankful for the sky above me and the ground below. For the two hands that hold mine and for everyone that came today.”

The next person then took their turn and the circle ended with our tall friend who said he was thankful that we came today and we shared our emotions with one another. Almost reluctantly, we let go of the hands we all held and once again hugs were shared. Trekking back through the forest, we greeted the gecko rock again when we passed it.

I don’t think anyone had a bad experience during our community work that day. Whether it be small or large, we all were left with a lasting impact. There was something in feeling the energy of the land and the people around us and working together on a task that would help others in the future. If given the option to choose again which community service project I wanted to take on, I would choose Hoʻoulu ʻAina. A thousand times over.

There’s something so rich and important in recognizing and participating in the culture of wherever one lives. It not only teaches the history of the area and its people, but also the values and ways of life that people carry in their hearts. It’s not something one can learn from a textbook, and it shouldn’t be. It’s something that has to be felt, breathed, lived, and loved. If I had watched a video or read a book on Hoʻoulu ʻAina, the experience would have differed greatly. I wouldn’t have witnessed a baby boy quench his curiosities by discovering small critters in our work area, and I would have missed hearing the wind rush through the thousands of trees. Memories like these are created everywhere I go, as long as I’m open-minded and allow myself to experience culture and to learn from people who live in it. Wherever you travel, you can make yourself open to these little moments and you’ll never believe how it changes your view of the world. Culture is a beautiful thing full of all sorts of interesting treasures. All you have to do is go find it.

 

Author

Raquel “Rocky” Reinagel is a MA candidate and graduate assistant in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; former president of Hanwoori Hawaiʻi; and Co-President of the Second Language Studies Student Association (SLSSA) at UHM.