Thanks to Doctor Seuss, when the calendar announces the annual cap and gown ceremonies, his classic book (named in the title of this essay) speaks to the day. I think of this now becauseit's June and there is another generation heading into those places. Some of those places will be comforting; some, threatening - that's the Seuss-an map. 'Iokepa Hanalei 'Imaikalani and I have a couple weeks left before our flight home to Hawai'i from this pastoral spot in Virginia. I'm reminded that there's a story that remains to be told before we leave. It could be called, "Oh The Places We've Been..." Perhaps, it is these words rather than Dr. Seuss's(we're not, after all, twenty-two year old grads) that should head this post.
Readers of Grandmothers Whisper and The Return Voyage know quite a bit about the places where 'Iokepa and I have been over these sixteen years together - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Yet, there remains a gap in explaining our past months on the road, and it seems to demand filling.
Last December, exactly six months ago, 'Iokepa and I boarded a plane in tropical Kaua'i and landed first in drizzling, chilly Seattle. We celebrated the publication of our new book there, then drove to Portland and did the same. A week later we flew to what was to become our winter and spring base in the snow-packed Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
It's June now; we are headed home in two weeks. In hindsight, what does a December-through-June book tour look like? What are those "Places We've Been...?"
Who, first of all, were these people who were glued to 'Iokepa's chant in his ancestral language orto my reading deeply emotional stories from the new book - or who laughed at 'Iokepa and me jostling to weave our differing points of view? I can escape the question entirely by answering it, "indefinably diverse." But I won't.
At theEssexCounty Ethical Society in New Jersey, housed in a seriously splendid, turn-of-last-century mansion, we spoke to a collection ofatheists. In New Orleans, at the Garden District's historic Unity church, we spoke to deep believers. InMonroe, Louisiana, the home of the "Duck Dynasty" people, we spoke in a yoga studio to a collection of hold-outs from their northern Louisiana political stereotyping. In Baltimore, we spoke to a packed room of powerhouse civil rights leaders from the generation whose suffering made the difference. In Pittsburgh, we were keynote speakers at a New Age conference filled with crystal practitioners and aromatherapists and reflexologists.
The people in the seats in front of us fed the content of the gatherings - absolutely - and not one of our events were the same. From a book event in Brooklyn to another in Long Island, maybe just twenty miles apart, the distance in outlook, temperament and expectation were greater-by-a-magnitude than those miles would indicate. In truth, we were forced again and again, to enter each gathering, take a look around and adjust our attitude.
Where did we speak? Oh we spoke in homes and at clubs and in churches. But when the time came, as it does with a book tour, to speak in bookstores - we offered our deep indebtedness to the independent bookstores, the heartbeat of the publishing industry. These are the folks who fall in love with a book, remain loyal toit, and do their damnedest to see that that book falls into the hands and hearts of sympathetic readers. We love these folks and, bless their hearts, some of them love us back.
We were invited back again for repeat engagements at some of the fine bookstores that celebrated our Grandmothers Whisper a few years ago. I want to celebrate them here: Elysian Fields in Sarasota, Florida; The Book Shelf in Winchester, Virgina; Phoenix & Dragon in Atlanta, Georgia; Breathe Books in Baltimore, Maryland; Journeys of Life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Red Shoes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
'Iokepa Hanalei 'Imaikalani, with his exotic Native Hawaiian face, his mid-back length silver hair, and his propensity to greet anyone with Aloha, does not need an official book event to speak his peace (and no that is not a misspelling). He carries the essence of his ancestral message in every step and every word. This man knows no strangers. (I often get dragged outside of my more interior comfort zone by the man I married.)
From our Shenandoah Valley perch in Virginia: Front Royal, Strasburg, Woodstock, Roanoke, Winchester, Charlottesville and more were his backyard. He spoke, too, the ancestors' words in Plains, Georgia, the home of Jimmy Carter - and he spoke them in Washington, D.C., the home of Barack Obama. He spoke them even last March 2, when my first granddaughter, Ramona Alice, entered this world at Johns Hopkins. He spoke them on my birthday in Ashland, Oregon at the Shakespeare Festival, and he spoke them in New York City at the Book Expo of America.
Everywhere he stepped, he spoke of amatriarchal culture that refused war for more than 12,000 years, "because the women gave birth - created life - and they didn't think God needed help taking the lives of their children. The men respected that; they honored the women. They knew they were half their mothers."
He spoke always of the responsibility of community to nurture every particle of that community - natural and human. He spoke of the precedent that the Native Hawaiian culture sets: "Aloha means, in the presence of all of God's creation in every breath."
Return: Crescent City, California
Both of us have been forced to admit that the books, Grandmothers Whisper and The Return Voyage, which we firmly believed were the purpose of this continental tour, were really only the means for other and greater purposes. Every day we found ourselves in situations where our presence might make a difference (a possibility exists for every one of us) - unplanned, unexpected, asking only a willingness. We concluded that the books simply led us where we were meant to be.
In the end, they led us to the place that we were truly meant to be all along - Crescent City, California, a coastal town just twenty miles from the Oregon border, and the site of our near-fatal car wreck, exactly two years before.
Here I hesitate. Because for those who've read The Return Voyage the back-story is crystal clear, but for those who have not...? I will say only this for catch-up. On May 20, 2012, we were at the end of a different national book tour, just two weeks from Hawai'i. Our Camry (with us inside) was pinned against a giant Redwood tree by a heavily intoxicated driver who was going 80 mph on a winding 40 mph road. He'd been released from jail four hours before. He ran into the woods while we languished.
Both 'Iokepa and I were unconscious. It took the jaws of life to extract us from the demolished Camry. 'Iokepa awakened remarkably unharmed. I was seriously injured; it took me almost a year to recover. The town of Crescent City fully embraced us (and Grandmothers Whisper) for the two weeks we were in her arms. We remain choke-up-to-tears grateful for that care. The book, The Return Voyage, tells that story in full.
Two years passed. We had no contact with the good people of Crescent City, other than a letter we wrote to the newspaper's editor a year later, offering our gratitude. Then, out of the blue, as we began this book tour, we were sent an email from a deputy sheriff of that town He wrote grateful words; he attributed powerful changes in his life to meeting 'Iokepa and me, to hearing our story, to reading our book. When he heard about the new book- he was insistent that Crescent City wanted to honor us. We jumped at the chance.
In mid-May, near the end of this book tour, we flew to Crescent City (or as near as you can get by plane to a town of 7,000). The local paper splashed our photos on the front page above the mast head, with a full page story. For four days, we were guests of the town. We could not take a step outside without strangers approaching us. "I've read your story. Crescent City will always be your second home."
Of course, we walked the halls of that tiny community hospital; of course, we visited the people who's lives intersected ours two years ago: the emergency room doctor who donated his car; the surgeon who paid out of pocket for our meds, hotel room, and suitcase; the physician's assistant who invited us for a home-cooked dinner in her garden. Of course.
The book event itself could have easily been anti-climactic. But herein lies the unseen purpose. We stood up to speak, waiting abrief moment for stragglers. A familiar young man (with a baby in arms) entered and took a seat in the back row. His was a face we'd seen briefly, two years before - behind a thick glass. The only time we'd seen this man (who I will persist in calling John Doe in these stories), he was in jail and I was in pain - just released from the hospital. He is the man who drove his car into 'Iokepa's door at 80 miles per hour - the man who nearly killed me.
Because I never know which stories from the book I might choose to read at any particular gathering, they're always a surprise. But I'd vowed to read the one about the good people of Crescent City - the strangers who treated us like family, and I did. Yet it felt as though I was reading it to only one person in that audience - the man in the back row with a baby in his arms. We both cried.
Afterwards. After the chairs were stacked, and the food tables emptied; after the crowd had dispersed, it was about 9:00 p.m. The party began. It was a very small party though; just four folding chairs pulled into a small circle. It was just 'Iokepa, me, and two young men who used to play football together in junior high - the deputy sheriff of Crescent City and the man who he locked up for almost a year.
I was a fly on the wall for most of that conversation. The three men held the floor: sixty-four-year-old 'Iokepa, and two thirty-three-year-old men who had waited two years for time alone with him. For hours they candidly spoke the truth of their lives. After midnight the three men embraced and reluctantly left the cavernous conference hall.
The book led us back to Crescent City, but the purpose sat alone for those hours past-midnight in a giant empty hall: where words touched hearts, full of healing.
"Oh The Places We've Been..."