SEARCHING FOR HAUMEA…
The reef rash on my shoulder still stings occasionally. I can be sitting there in the big wood-paneled room facing the stormy ocean on a frigid January day, struggling mightily to force some deep-seated thoughts out and into the laptop. Or find myself totally preoccupied with thoughts of the boundless Pacific Coast kelp fields, flooding my senses with the sight of echelons of graceful pelicans riding the ground effect over the waves in a search for small fish. The monsterous blue-gray swells topped with spuming plumes of spray roll in, like relentless fluidic juggernauts of doom, demanding total awareness. Plenty of stuff out there to divert the focus of my attention from any connections my brain normally makes with limbs, guts, and bodily sensations of any kind. Yet, suddenly the immense oceanic display of all that powerful wintry natural force splits right down the middle and twinkles out, as my left shoulder starts to twinge...
If it hadn’t been for the noni and aloe Haumea had slathered on me, I’d probably be covered to this day with rows of angry ridges of inflamed skin, where the sharp coral had raked my shoulder and back. It all happened many years ago and would be now deeply buried and lying near-forgotten in some chest of memories, if it weren’t for this occasional stab of fleeting pain.
I had been on a day trip to Makaha with Uncle Phil and Auntie Lilinoe, my adopted Oahu parents who had taken me in after Ma died. That locale on the West Coast of Oahu known throughout the surfing world as the home of the monster waves of winter was just an hour’s drive west on the bumpy roads from Pearl. Although the summertime at Makaha is marked by mild surf and nearly flat wave conditions, by my reckoning as an adult today that visit now has as much significance to me as a Haji’s pilgrimage to Makkah. A visit to a sacred site among holy places. A walk near the still waters of the pools fronting the Taj Mahal. But at that time I was just a kid, a keiki in the local island language. “Holy” had no meaning for me at all, unless it was somehow the combined effects of unlimited sun and waves, and no homework to have to study.
I was just this small, adopted haole kid, tagging along with my relatives as they took care of some ‘ohana (family) business in Makaha. Overhead the sun was fierce and unbearably hot. The dry nature of Oahu’s western summer shores made itself felt in the palpable currents of heat rising from Makaha's volcanic hillsides. Under such conditions, the cool ocean beckoned like a haven of refuge from that thermal beast of nature. Paddling well out from the beach on a borrowed board that was way too big for me, I had tried to find a few waves worth riding, although the surf was typically noniexistant. After what felt like hours (minutes often dragged by like hours for me, filtered through my kid’s perspective) of waiting astride my board, a few small swells finally struggled in from the ocean, showing seeming reluctance to rise up from the vast uniformity of all that beautiful blue-green water.
Haumea had apparently been watching from the shore when I pearled ungracefully at the bottom of the only mediocre wave that had offered itself up. The large longboard flipped under nose-first and then shot out and upwards as the crest steamrolled me under and smashed me to the bottom. Shore breaks are always a bear for the unskilled at Makaha and if the bottom isn’t smooth and sandy below you, a wipeout in the wrong place can grind you into bloody hamburger faster than you can say Quicksilver…or ground round! That goes double for kids, even when the summer seas at Makaha are almost perfectly flat.
Haumea wasn’t watching from the shore to assess my technique, since I was clearly a tourist kid and typically about as graceful as a Manatee with cerebral palsy on a longboard. She might have stopped by there on her way to somewhere else, to briefly amuse herself with the antics of the tourist haoles who hadn’t a single drop of Hawaiian blood anywhere in their pasty white, grossly sunburned bodies. Or she might have been sent by some unknown protective spirit to watch out over inexperienced haole kids who were clearly out of their realm of comfort. I’ll never have an answer for that last question, despite my fervent need to believe in aumakua (family protective spirits, that are often departed ancestors).
Haumea could afford to indulge herself in this manner, since she was everything on a board or off it that my race wasn’t and likely could never be. Haumea’s bloodlines reached back hundreds of years, to the ancient Polynesians masters of the waves who had come to the islands in the second influx of migrants from the Marquesas. With the effects of long exposure to the sun darkening the patina of her island heritage, reflecting back on that moment today, my guess would have to be that there were just enough pake (Chinese) and haole (outsider) ancestors in her family’s mix to segue her genes into the perfectly lovely amalgam of prescient wisdom and strong makuwahine (strong nurturing womanliness) stature she so perfectly embodied.
It was only many years later that I found out who Haumea really was; that among her other many accomplishments, she was a champion surfer and a true ‘waterwoman’ (an all around natural in the water—diver, surfer, paddler, swimmer, and lifeguard) with few peers, either male or female. With sun-streaked long dark hair tied back, the unmistakable smile she always wore while sliding over the swells was visible for hundreds of yards (I am told), like the dazzling flash of a lighthouse beacon through the gathering coastal dusk. It was a singular thing with her, that smile, for it just developed naturally whenever she was on or in the water. To say she was an amazingly adept waterwoman is understating things the same way someone might casually compare the liftoff of a space shuttle booster to the spurting explosions of a roman candle. A true surfer of the soul, Haumea, a sacred bearer of the aloha spirit, was only truly at home in the ocean waters surrounding Makaha’s point. The spirit of aloha ran deep in her veins. But I didn’t know all this at the time. I was simply a water-logged keiki who was out where I shouldn’t have been—out of Auntie Lilinoe and Uncle Phil’s sight and looking like a drowned poidog (Hawaiian for ‘mutt’).
Slender, graceful, superbly-toned and smoothly muscled in the manner so many surfers tend to be, Haumea was…even from my immature haole keiki vantage…about as handsome a woman as you can find in the islands. And she was a local, which meant that someone like me--a non-local haole kid--could normally expect to be forever relegated to the sort of second-class citizen status that is the modern island norm among locals. Everyone knows that locals and haole tourists don’t mix socially, especially hapa (half) haole military families from Pearl Harbor.
But I digress. I had just swallowed a ton of salty brine and come up gasping for breath. Once the ocean finally released me and spat me out on the shore, I was simply grateful to be breathing again and all in one piece. The battered old longboard I had been using hadn’t had a leash, since it was almost as ancient as Uncle Phil, and besides…leashes weren’t even invented until the late 70s. My katonk (island slang for ‘local Japanese-American’) friend Calvin Nishinaka had left it with me just before he and his family had departed Pearl for an assignment in Japan, and now it floated forlornly in the soup nearby, more waterlogged than floating, due to all the dings.
Crawling out of the water, I noticed that I was dripping red stuff. The coral! My back had been raked raw by the living coral and only inexplicably good luck had kept me from having my face ground into the reef instead of my back. My white skin and the bright crimson blood must have made a strange contrast for onlookers. I surely must have looked pathetic to those gathered on the shore, such as Haumea, who routinely stop at Makaha State Beach to watch the malihini sliders try their luck on the ‘wild and raging’ (one foot high) summer crests of Makaha. There was little solace at all to be found in the fact that there were at least seven or eight other, equally pasty white haole carcasses falling off boards on baby waves out in the tranquil waters. They were all adults, however, and I was this little kid all by myself. Just another little haole keiki, vicariously imagining himself a tiny dot on the thundering walls of winter surf. Those towering swells that can make a grown man and experienced surfer wet himself just watching them smash in to shore.
The sandy beach at Makaha rises up steeply from the water’s edge and I stopped for a moment to look back at the small surf that most kanaka maole (native locals) would regard as mere bath water, suitable only for the local keiki (children). It was then, as I stood with my crimson shoulders turned mauka (facing inland), that Haumea probably noticed the severe reef rash. Fortunately, I couldn’t see the extent of the wounds myself, but the saltwater was starting to make me painfully aware of just how badly I had been lacerated by my collision with the sharp coral growths. Typically, the intense pain isn’t apparent right away, since it takes a while for the body to check itself over, tally up the score, and communicate with damaged nerves before alert signals run screaming to the brain’s pain centers. They say it is the same way with surfers who have lost an arm or leg to a marauding tiger shark; at first, there’s no pain at all. Not even slight discomfort. Until the extreme shock of what the bloody waters reveal settles in, to run insanely down the echoing corridors of the human brain.
As I stared out at the baby swells that had dislodged me from Calvin’s ancient borrowed board, I heard a voice behind me ask “That has to hurt, eh!” The voice, soft and low, but very definitely feminine voice was my introduction to this amazing woman. Since haoles have been falling off surf boards for almost 100 years now, I had not been too surprised to immediately place the voice as a ‘local voice’ even before I saw her face. Locals at Makaha usually reserve only their most austere disdain for the tourists, at most. They do not normally choose to mingle voluntarily with the malihini (mainland) tourists and Makaha is definitely a local area that hews to strongly established local custom. Unless the visiting tourists lack the good sense to stay off the better waves and out of the way when the local hui he’e nalu (local surfers) are out. Then add alcohol or meth to any encounter between the locals and the tourists at Makaha and things can get pretty ugly in no time. This is especially true if one of the outsiders has the ignorant audacity to try to poke squid with a local sistah. But then, unmindful of all this adult awareness I would later gain, I turned and faced the singular woman I came to find out was Haumea.
Viewed in the eye of recollection, many years later, she had been slender and tall, but regally proportioned; not the usual economy sized island wahine. As an impressionable kid, I recall she had seemed to tower over me with some sort of undefinable presence. I recall also that Haumea had worn a yellow pareau (a Tahitian style wrap-around garment affected by women) over a green tank suit. Her long dark hair tied back gave evidence of having been very recently in the water and her dark sun-burnished skin accentuated the soft green of her suit with startling contrast. “Come over here,” she said, motioning towards her. “I have some aloe and a bottle of noni lotion up there (gesturing back up-beach) and you really need something on your back right away.”
I must have appeared semi-stupified by her appearance, for clearly Haumea was about as intensely impressive a woman as any I can ever recall having seen until then. Despite my dazzled state, I could sense a sort of natural authority mixed with benevolent concern behind her words, and it totally demanded my full attention. To this day I seem to have this special ability to sense spectacularly vital female ‘presence’ like that and as an adult I am notorious for turning into a quivering blob of speechless jelly, capable only of croaking pitifully, when confronted by it.
There is a sort of ill-defined recognition that dawns within me at such moments that I am confronting a primal source of life force that shakes me to the core. I felt it as a keiki then and I feel it as an adult now. Too, in my years of adult experience, I have found I am directly confronted by truly substantial women usually only about once every ten years, so that sensibility must have been triggered early on by this singular local wahine. [Years later, a pake (Chinese) friend, learning of this encounter from me, said “Go buy one lottery ticket now, brah! Neva too late!” I will never figure out exactly why he said that, but clearly this childhood experience of mine meant something deeper to him that eluded me then, as it still does.]
“You were in the wrong spot, eh! The break over the coral is bad unless you are very, very good on the waves. Safer to stay over the sandy bottom in the center of the beach. Judging from what I just saw, you are clearly NOT ‘very, very good’ right now, but…good news! You stay go out there regularly and it will come to you.” Haumea had said this without any ambiguity, smiling through her eyes with sincere empathy over my discomfort, clearly concerned with my raw shoulder, so there could be no misunderstanding of her intent. Too, I could readily sense that her words came from her heart and that she meant every single word of it. “Good thing this is July. Makaha’s no place for anyone except the best of the best, when the big swells of winter roll in.”
Still somewhat tongue-tied, out of breath, and bemused by her sudden appearance, I briefly waded out to grab Calvin’s old longboard and with her help I wrestled it up the beach to drop it just out of reach of the docile surges of the ocean. Then, following Haumea as trustingly as I imagined a small child (like me) would his own mother, I trudged through the sand towards the coco-palms and the pile of towels and clothes near the lifeguard stand she had pointed towards. The lifeguard had clearly recognised Haumea, waving a big shaka at her as we passed by his covered orange perch. Haumea’s big white smile flashed back in return. Remembered through the filter of decades of adulthood, I still swear it could have peeled wax off a surfboard at 100 paces or cleared the fouled bottom of a fishing ketch of a lifetime of barnacle growth in mere seconds. It was that kind of smile and it communicated volumes of warmth and unforced, natural goodness. It engendered in me, as I understand it now, the same sort of overwhelmingly powerful imperative to respect life and all of creation that watching a monstrous winter storm wells up deep inside me.
Flashing a sidelong look at Haumea, I had no idea that she was in her 40s at the time, since the ability to guess at or even be concerned with trying to gauge a woman’s age would not effect me at all until well after I had reached puberty. There had been a white flower tucked behind her left ear, island style, an indication I now know of the fact that that she was married, and she possessed a natural confidence and presence that suited her mature female beauty perfectly. Reaching the pile of towels, she gestured to me, as she had picked up a small squeeze bottle full of some fluid and removed the cap. “This is aloe juice; it will help take the pain away. Noni will also help lots, but if you don’t get something on that rash right away, you’ll have scaring there that won’t eva go ‘way.”
Looking directly at me and smoothing the jelled fluid gently on my raw shoulder with her strong hands, she continued, “Your family staying at Makaha Shores, mebbe? Where you from? Visiting from the mainland, perhaps? Not local haole, anyway. Where’s your mom and dad and where did that battered old board come from? It's not yours: too big for you!”
I had admitted the obvious, that I was just passing through for the day while Uncle and Auntie ran some errands in town. I didn’t admit we were all from Pearl Harbor, since I had heard even as a kid that that admission could provoke some displeasure by locals on the island who lived well away from the military base and who still resented the Makua Valley intrusions.
“Well, haole boy, the surf isn’t much in the summer, but you managed to wipe out pretty badly in dakine baby soup, nonetheless.” She was smiling again. “That’s a distinction of sorts, I guess. You keep at it, before you know it you’ll be way bettah. Need lot of practice to become good on a surfboard, though! You can call me Auntie Haumea, by the way.”
I wasn’t so overawed by her radiant vitality and powerful strength of her personal warmth to miss the fact that she had referred to me as a ‘haole boy’, but I took that as a friendly compliment, coming from someone as impressively local and healthy as she was. “Thanks. My name is Kaliki”, is what I managed in return. Lame for an adult, perhaps, but adequate for a kid.
“Ho, you have island connections? That’s a nice Hawaiian name...means 'Christian'. Once you catch the wave, stay back on the board more, but if it helps make you feel better, blame that pearl-dive on the board. Everyone takes that cheap shot from time to time. Sometimes better than aloe to take the sting out, eh!” More smiles. “I have to go now, but try to stay out of trouble, OK? I’m not always here to take care of stray ilio (dogs) and haole keiki” The big white smile flashed again as she laughed at my embarrassment and further explained: “Makaha can be tough on outsiders and the water is no place to get into trouble of any kind that you can avoid. Learn to read the water first, eh! Now you go find your Uncle and Auntie and don’t stray too far from them, OK? Not my day to be lifeguard today, eh!”
So saying, she turned her head to grin at me one more time and that great big smile defrosted all the ice off my preadolescent self-esteem in an instant. Then, with a flip of her long dark mane she had gathered up her things, waved to the lifeguard on duty, and began walking back up to the parking lot adjacent to the Makaha Shores condos. A tawny colored poidog (‘mutt’) of medium size ambled from behind the lifeguard station and joined up with her as she left. Thoroughly entranced by this impressive woman, I permitted myself to stare after her, unabashedly slack-mouthed as I noted the way she seemed to dance lightly uphill, through the sand.
Thoughts of my own lost mother mixed confusingly with my child-like feelings of being an adopted orphink at that moment. I admit that as an adult I’m quite unusually moved by displays of singular female nurturing of this type, but even at that early point in my life it was clear this was no ordinary makuwahine. There is in all of us, after all, a primally fierce compulsion to love and respect one’s mother, something I had been denied by fate and forces beyond my youthful understanding. Sadly, only in a few of us does that deep formative need transform itself into a passionate surrogate regard for our ultimate mother: Nature, the Mother of all Creation. Strangely enough, I recall having something approximating that exact thought as Haumea walked out of sight and my youthful life on that day (either that or I have imposed this thought retroactively on the experience, not that it matters either way).
That short and embarrassing ride, I am ashamed to admit, was just about the best one I had had at Makaha that day and two hours after being patched up by Haumea, I left again for Pearl with Uncle Phil and Auntie Lilinoe. It would have humbled me greatly to reflect on my amateurish wipeout on the baby waves at Makaha had I been a grown-up, since I’ve always subsequently thought of myself as the proverbial surf legend in my own mind. But confronted by the undeniable reality of that primal encounter with lovely Haumea, I realised only too well that we are all simply what we all are…and very little more.
Each of us develops very differently from one another in ways that are largely unmanageable, and no amount of retroactive self-delusion ever changes that basic poker hand our genes and formative environment deals us early in life. Some are gifted by genetics and enviromental influences with greatness and mastery, others are not. Despite this immutable fact, the great salvation of our kind is that we are nevertheless capable of being inspired by examples of greatness around us. To say I was inspired that day is the greatest understatement!
Haumea would continue to live the idyllic island life I imagined she had always led at Makaha, after we left. She with her makuakane (husband) and keiki, engaged in many community concerns and activities associated with love of the ocean and life, would doubtless inspire many others like myself, who by natural inclination continually search for goodness and the aloha matrix in all things. Unknown to me then, I would some day in future end up frequenting the cold North California coast, where an occasional twinge in my shoulder would forever force me to look back, yet again, and dream about the warmth and beauty of that strangely impressive island moment. Despite regular immersion in the coast’s year-round 53 degree water, it would never fail to exert an effect something like the catalysing shock of a cold cresting wave, but with less explicitly sexual overtones.
Afterwards, I actively thought nothing more deeply about that experience with Haumea until about 6 months ago, when I happened to be watching the Quicksilver professional surfing contest on Oahu’s North Shore via satellite link. Midway through the women's pro heats, the CNN camera panned the judges and I could swear I caught a glimpse of Haumea standing near the commentators, chatting with them as if they were 'ohana (family). Come to think of it, they probably were and to this day I will continue to marvel over why she took an interest in my chewed-up shoulder that hot summer day at Makaha, so many years ago. Surely there can’t still be that many genuinely good women like that walking around on the tough Wai'anae Coast Oahu beaches, who routinely express loving concern over haole tourist kids as if they were their own?
To my supremely good fortune, Auntie Haumea, as I came to understand later, was one of the most revered and highly respected local women to be found anywhere on all of Oahu. Lovingly regarded by nearly everyone in the islands who knew her (and most did), she was (so I am told) every bit the genuine living legend that my juvenile Munchhausen persona could only remotely dream of being. Meeting her that day was for me sort of like winning a lottery of the soul, now that I reflect back on it.
That encounter with the essential core of pure Hawaiian warmth and spiritual female mana (spirit) possessed by lovely Haumea still greatly beguiles me when I think about those days. A few rough scars remain on my shoulder from that pounding on the reef that I took some years ago, but I regard them rather proudly as trophies of a unique rendezvous with primal forces of the eternally female human spirit that transcends my limited kane (male) understanding, but that shall forever fascinate me to my very last days on Earth.
There are, of course, innumerable oedipal currents running around buried deep within many of us, although most of them are so profoundly submerged in submarine canyons of the conscious psyche that most will never even be vaguely aware of them. As for mine, sitting here in front of one of the most spectacular displays of nature’s ordered chaos conceivable (the Pacific Ocean), I recognise my own glimmer of those primal instincts as vaguely lumenescent shapes, like abysmal creatures lurking in the darkest anthracytic reaches of the ocean’s stygian bowels. At my bidding, they rise upwards towards the surface, towards that solar brightness, where they take archetypal form as mythical Haumea, the prototypic Earth-Mother Goddess and traditional source of all womanly fertility in ancient Hawaiian eyes. The same Haumea I have little doubt who revealed the smallest part of her myriad mysteries in human form to me briefly, as a child on that Makaha beach, many years in my past.
[I share all this now with you, well mindful of the ancient Hawaiian saying: “I ‘ole ‘ola no ka huewai i ka piha ‘ole”. It translates directly to “The water gourd gurgles when not filled well”, but I won’t reveal the intended actual meaning. That is for you to wonder about, unless you have a well-developed familiarity with Mary Kawena Pukui’s seminal collection of traditional Hawaiian proverbs and poetical sayings, ‘OLELO NO ‘EAU’, eh!]