I want to speak about our friend Francis Xavier Warther - and I want to speak about a great deal more as well. Francis Warther, now crowding ninety years old, grew up in my hometown - Baltimore. His childhood and mine were light-years apart, by generation and ethnicity. He grew up German, in downtown Baltimore. early in the 20th century, and was educated by priests at Loyola. I grew up Jewish, in the suburbs, after World War II, and celebrated my bat mitzvah at Beth Jacob. But our unlikely paths crossed a dozen years ago on an Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean - me, securely in middle age, Francis already an elder. Who could have known?
The Francis Warther that I met in the Borders bookstore on Kaua'i spoke a language that I was wholly unfamiliar with. He was intellectually fearless. Where academics adhere like Super Glue to their assigned disciplines - Francis refused. Boundaries were not Francis' milieu. His agile, creative, out-of-the-box mind refused separation, embraced connections.
Maybe it was there, around their mutual commitment to connection that my husband 'Iokepa Hanalei 'Imaikalani and Francis Xavier Warther first found common ground. It was (and continues to be) a powerful shared conversation. I have been privileged to witness that conversation for a dozen years.
So Francis, the scientist, found his way to Kaua'i maybe fifty years ago. And though by education, the stars and the planets were his canvas - he found himself planted in an ancient culture, among an aboriginal people (my husband's people) who knew something about the skies, the stars, the planets. These were ocean voyagers, who for 13,000 years read the night skies for their navigation.
So Francis Warther (because he is Francis Warther) reached out beyond the closeted walls of his Astronomy Department. He tread not-so-carefully into the territory of Cultural Anthropologists. Know this about academia: astronomers do not speak to anthropologists; anthropologists do not speak to astronomers - except perhaps at the occasional cocktail party. Academic heretic, Francis insisted that one could not understand the night sky if one did not factor in the culture of the people on the ground who were observing and identifying it. He realized that these ancient voyagers had a great deal to teach him that his University had not.
In the many years before 'Iokepa and I met Francis, he allied himself with a native Hawaiian culture that had been sorely oppressed to the point of extinction - and he joined his knowledge to the ancient wisdom that had been buried under missionary law for 150 years, and that had shamed every practice of culture, ritual, and language. He became an advocate for awakening that wisdom. He became a humble student.
There the conversation between 'Iokepa and Francis began. Francis must be fully credited with measuring, staking out and identifying the Hawaiian heiau - those sacred grounds where stone walls were erected to recreate the shapes of the passing constellations in the night skies. At these sacred sites, chants and hulas were offered as ritual and prayer for each phase of the moon.
Francis both celebrated these ancient peoples' knowing, and reawakened it. He spoke and wrote fervently about their 'oracle towers' that were among the earth's earliest telescopes. Francis came to 'Iokepa with his measurements and his research. 'Iokepa came to Francis with the authentic language and its shades of meaning. But mostly, 'Iokepa came to Francis with his Grandmothers' knowing: with the DNA he carries in his aboriginal blood, ike hanau - birth knowledge. Together these two men made music!
As long as we knew Francis, we knew a man who lived like an ascetic in a rough-hewed, rustic cabin on the ocean edge. He spent his days with his books - at home or at Borders where we'd meet. He was not a man driven by money or acquisition. Some thought him eccentric; many thought him brilliant.
Three or four years ago, estranged adult children from a long-past divorce, rediscovered a father who was beginning to show his age, lose his eyesight, struggle with driving down his dirt and rutted road - in sum, beginning to need a hand. They agreed to the perfect solution for a father who was wedded to Kaua'i and would never consider moving off-Island. They found the finest independent living facility for seniors on the Island.
Naturally, we asked Francis in those first months, "Do you like it here?" He answered with a huge laugh: "They do everything for me. How could I not like this?" He waved at the mountain behind us - Haupu - to remember. "Look at where I am!" He had a housekeeper, a laundress, three meals a day in a lavishly decorated dining room. He was a short stroll (or community bus ride) from Borders.
Each time we returned home from our U.S. speaking tours - or Grandmothers Whisper book tour - we'd visit Francis, walk with around the lovely gardens, read together, share stories, exchange ideas - as always. Naturally, each time Francis - and we - were older.
This week we surprised Francis sitting in the lobby in front of the television set. He had Grandmothers Whisper tucked into the tote bag of his walker. We turned off the television; we listened to Francis - cryptic, as always, and well-spoken.
Without complaint, he told us this: "I'm not important. I've forgotten so many things."
It didn't take a moment to respond.
'Iokepa said: "You have forgotten nothing that you need, Francis. You have passed it on to us and to thousands of others. We carry it, and we pass it on to still more. The book you carry in your bag - it is your book.
"Your importance is undiminished, because all you've done, all you've been - your fearless, creative mind - passes now, like waves in the ocean, from ear to ear and heart to heart."
I added: "But now you don't often get rewarded with response in your face as you did when you were younger. Now you have to simply realize your importance - and know that it is far larger than it was when you were speaking into our ears, or other ears. Now it multiplies and travels further."
'Iokepa finished the thought. "You are important - and we credit you and your importance each time we speak of this culture and what you have given it. And, Francis...it wasn't even your culture. That was the extent of your giving. We are grateful."
Francis drank in the words like nectar. "I am so glad you came. I needed to remember." We all do.