A sailboat slides across the water. At this distance it is all abstraction: a large green triangle, a smaller green triangle, a vertical line. It moves across the horizon, cutting through the tall umbrella stands in the foreground. Between the distant boat and the umbrella stands at this seaside bar, surfers rise and fall on the gentle breakers. The sun is starting its afternoon descent, and the water is beginning to sparkle with flecks of gold. I sit in the shade of a banyan tree, its twisted branches canopying over me and plunging down into the earth beside me to create new trees. There are three distinct banyans here, and yet all are really the same, single tree, looping and twisting and shooting out new growth everywhere. I sip my mai tai and listen to the gentle music and the gentle waves, and everything—around me and within me—is wonderfully, perfectly calm.
Context is everything. Before I came to Hawaii for the first time, I found ukeleles and Don Ho and fruity rum drinks absurd—kitschy and silly in the extreme. And yet here I am, surrounded by all of that, and it all feels completely natural and correct. In fact, I find that I look forward to it. What seemed silly and childish in my abrasive and fast-paced life seems, here in Hawaii, to be normal—and more than normal: something to be desired. The music just fits. It fits the palm trees and the gentle breezes and the mild, cool water. It fits the people here. Like them, it is kind and gentle, lilting and quiet. The notes stretch out languidly and lazily, like the days. The voices are mellow and wistful. It is all tranquility and peace.
Does the world outside us inform our music, or does our music help to create a world? The aborigines are said to believe that song originally brought the world into being—and that only the correct song, remembered and resung from generation to generation, can maintain the world. I like that. It means that music is not simply reaction; it carries responsibility. We choose the world we want to live in, in part, by the songs we choose to sing.
Right now, “Over the Rainbow” is playing on the stereo—the ukelele and falsetto version one hears on TV far too often. It is very popular here—recorded and live. Strolling musicians love to play it at the local restaurants here—especially the restaurants popular with toursists. I’m sure it resonates strongly with visitors from the colder parts of the mainland…because there really is a land that we’ve dreamed of, once in a lullabye.
Obviously, it’s not all gumdrops and unicorns here. It is, after all, a real place. Skies are blue—but for many people, the dreams that they dare to dream don’t come true. On the leeward side of Oahu, where we have been working with some middle and high schools, there is a great deal of poverty and homelessness. Driving up the western coast, one can see tent after tent after tent. It’s hard enough to get students to do their homework when the surf is up, the teachers tell us—but it’s a whole lot harder when the kids don’t have a desk to work at…or electricity. But the people we meet are unfailingly nice, and are eager to make things better for their kids in whatever ways are possible.
We will be back again in a month, to continue the work we’re doing. For now, though, it is time to return home—to wife and boys and desert.
As my night flight lifts off, I can see the island outlined and defined against the sea by a ring of lights, the mountainous core remaining dark and mysterious. We swing around the south shore, leave Hawaii behind, and rise up into the clouds. And then darkness, all the long way home.