For nearly three weeks we have ensconced ourselves on one of our favorite tropical islands (Kauai), which is every bit as lovely as it sounds. I could have, and perhaps should have, written a blog post every day about something amazing, but I chose to use my days toodling around the island with Dick and my late evenings to sit with my laptop and work on a revision of a novel I wrote in pieces a few years ago. It’s been sitting in a first-draft form (resting, I tell people), waiting patiently for me to get back to it.
Now I have gotten back to it, and I’m pleased to say that I feel that it’s a better second draft. It’s at that point where I can have a few trusted folks read it and tell me what they think needs fixing. I have learned over many years that showing a long work to others before you’re ready for the feedback can utterly paralyze you. I have a bunch of talented, kind, thoughtful writer/editor people around me who will also be sure to tell me what they like and what’s working about this novel. And we need to know that, too. Because every creative person I know, including me, gets fixated on the what’s-not-working stuff. We have to be reminded about the stuff that’s actually pretty good.
Technically, I’ve spent more than evening laptop time working on this novel. Mornings and evenings for two weeks on the lovely north shore of Kauai I went for walks on the beach, often alone, on purpose. Feet on warm sand, in warm water, bending frequently to pick up interesting bits of shells and flotsam on the beach (I assembled quite the collection of trash plastic bits)—this allows my mind to wander and the fictional characters who feel like real people to me to show up and interact in my head. Sometimes they talk to me about what needs to be tweaked or added or deleted. (I love it when a character convinces me that I don’t need a bit of dialogue or a whole scene. Characters as editors—brilliant!)
In other words, it all counts as creative time, even when it looks as if you’re wandering absentmindedly on a beach. Which you are. And some of your friends on social media may have gotten a teensy bit irritated by one more picture of your feet in the sand or that same goddamned lovely mountain or sparkling sea. They go about living their everyday lives with their job and kids and daily grind in a colder place, and you faintly realize that they do not need to see your happy place one more time.
(You post a photo of a particularly nasty-looking sky, charcoal rain streaking vertically toward the horizon so they don’t get the idea that every day is perfect in paradise. You remind people that you spent a good 24 hours without power after a horrendous rainstorm closed a bridge and had you trapped in your hideaway. You had plenty of food and a charged-up laptop so you could work, but still…)
But the truth is… it is pretty perfect. Because you have stepped away from your everyday life this whole semester. You have earned the gift of a paid leave of absence, and you are using this time, by God, to Do Stuff You’ve Long Wanted to Do. Sleeping in. Reading a lot. Starting a publishing company with friends and publish an amazing memoir. Spending three weeks traveling (and working on your book) on Vancouver Island. Taking small trips. Forgetting about college students and advising their publications and grading. For six whole months.
It’s pretty darn sweet. And there’s not much of this precious time left. School begins again for you mid-January, and next week, after you return home, you’re gonna have to go back to Your World and start to dig in again. But not without telling a story or two about your travels.
(Enough second person; switching back to first person, something I tell my students not to do in their writing… I am flouting the rules as if I’d never learned ’em. Yeah, baby!)
So as we neared the end of our fortnight on the north shore, one of the things Dick wanted to do was to hike up a bit of the deeply eroded, often slippery, always rocky Kalalau Trail at the end of the road at Ke’e Beach. A quarter mile into the trail is an overlook of Ke’e, which, in the right light, can look postcard fantastic.
I should say here that in his younger life Dick Schmidt was an ace hiker, taking on vigorous, difficult Sierra Club hikes in Hawaii, often carrying a lead-lined camera bag to protect his equipment. He and his late wife, Mary Lou Mangold Schmidt, long ago hiked the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail to a beach with the musical name of Hanakapiai (hah-nah-kah-pee-i), where Dick got some memorable photos of clothing-optional young people emerging from the surf. (But officials quickly tell you that there are no legal nude beaches in Hawaii.) They did not hike the whole 11 miles to the remote Kalalau Valley, which requires permits and at least one overnight. It is a bugger of a trip, not for the faint-hearted or out of shape. Or us.
Older and wiser and having fallen more than a few times, Dick and I are both extremely careful about tricky footing. It had rained a lot in the two weeks we were on the north shore, which can make the footing on the Kalalau Trail precarious. But we decided to try it, taking along a hiking stick provided by our hosts.
The trail was reasonably dry, except for a couple of places, and at one point, watching me slowly make my way up the trail between rocks and roots, a kind woman on her way down the trail handed me her walking stick. I used it to steady myself, and before long, we were (puff, puff) at the quarter-mile mark (there’s actually a sign there) with the wowie-zowie view of Ke’e Beach.
As we stood there photographing and marveling, a young couple carrying hefty backpacks clearly on their way back down the trail joined us. We chatted, and it turned out they’d hiked all 11 difficult miles in to the remote Kalalau Valley and spent three nights camping there (you need permits well in advance to do this). Dick and I were impressed, especially after they told us they’d hiked in as the weather worsened and remained quite stormy for their first night and day.
“People were hiking out in terrible conditions,” the woman told us. “We decided to stay put, and the weather got better.”
So there they were, taking in the same view we were, this hardy couple, the woman with support bandages around both of her knees, her hand firmly clamped around a nice bamboo pole she’d obviously used for support. People often pick up hiking sticks along the trail or pass them to other hikers. Mud streaked her legs and his; they’d earned a good, long soak in a hot tub. I hoped they were on their way to find one.
We exchanged our “aloha”s, and they left, and we made our way down the trail using our poles much more slowly—going down always offers more opportunities to slip and fall, it seems, than going up. And when we got to the bottom of the trail, we felt rather accomplished for a couple of older duffers. I took a photo of Dick under the Kalalau Trail sign, and we felt relieved that we’d gotten up and down this small distance unscathed.
As we turned to walk to the beach, I saw, leaning against a rock, two walking sticks. It was clearly a place where hikers left them behind for others to use. One, to my surprise, was the sturdy bamboo pole I was pretty sure was in the hand of the woman who’d talk to us at the overlook. I already had the stick given to me by another woman who thought I could use it (she was right), and now here was this other stick.
I should say that I love bamboo. We have friends on Maui who live on land surrounded by bamboo and bananas. They share the bananas with us when we visit, and I’ve long wanted to ask them to cut me a bamboo pole of good size, but I never have. There’s something about the feeling of bamboo in the hand that feels smooth and satisfying. Hula dancers sometimes use split bamboo sticks called pu’ili as they dance, hitting them together to make a nice sound.
I knew I needed this stick, the one that had taken this woman to Kalalau Valley and back. I didn’t need it—we were no longer hiking, and I had no idea how to get the bamboo home—but I knew, as soon as its smooth circumference met my palm, that there was something in this stick for me. The Hawaiians often talk about mana—the life energy that flows through everything, a divine power. And I felt it in this piece of bamboo that had traveled, for all I knew, the whole Kalalau Trail with this young woman with the two bandaged knees. Mana also means spiritual power and strength. This woman had mana, and here it was for me in a long bamboo pole.
“You’re taking that one?” Dick said.
“Yes,” I said. “I need this stick.”
It sounded funny, but Dick has known me a long time and has shipped many odd things home from Hawaii for me, the oddest of which was a partial cow skull and jawbone from Maui.
We took the stick with us. And, great guy that he is (as well as the founder of Schmidty’s Shitty Shipping Service for close friends and family), Dick crafted a mailing tube out of two triangular post office mailers to send the bamboo home for me.
No, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but this piece of Kauaiian bamboo will have a place of honor somewhere in my home and my life. It represents the spirit of this place, of a woman I spoke to briefly in an exchange that, in the moment, seemed like nothing. But it’s never nothing, these “chance” meetings.
Before Dick packed up the bamboo stick, I wrote on it in Sharpie:
Somehow (I don’t quite know how) this ties in with the creative work I’ve done here on a novel set in Sacramento in the 1950s and 1970s. How this fits together is a mystery, but then, so is pretty much this whole process of life. The world swirls around us, often is too much with us, and we get caught up in events that are not of our making halfway around the world. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be socially conscious people, but worrying and fussing about most things does not help us or the planet. I try to remember this, as it’s been attributed to Mother Teresa: “We can do no great things in the world, only small things with great love.”
A stranger left a piece of bamboo behind on a trail, and I picked it up and felt empowered. Small thing. Great love, indeed.