The place: Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The setting: a huge table topped with clams casino, prosciutto, Grandma Antoinette’s incredible pasta sauce, a beautiful feta-topped salad, and champagne. The gathering: one old friend, and many strangers. They are scientists, medical researchers, writers, and accomplished artists. The time: one night after the Iowa presidential caucus. In sum: this was a group of serious intellectuals of a decidedly Democratic Party bent. Wiry, intense Sally began the conversation with: “Is Return Voyage political?”
I answered, “There are elements of the Native Hawaiian experience that are political and there are sovereignty groups that address them. But Return Voyage is about finding common ground, identifying the cultural and spiritual strengths all humans share.”
Sally turned, looked toward her other neighbor, and talked about Obama. She never looked back.
I confess to a distinct empathy for Sally. I’d been a political reporter and war correspondent for much of my early life and I continued to be a political junkie long after.
Naturally, in those years living on Hawaiian beaches with no predictable source of income, all money that found us was spent on food – never on that supreme indulgence, a Sunday New York Times. My addiction to news took a decided hit. But on that night in Cleveland Heights, with ‘Iokepa to my right and the party (lively and loud) snaking a long table and busily dissecting the relative strengths of Obama, Clinton, or Edwards, I, like an alcoholic taking a single sip, felt that old zest returning.
I dove in. And yet the water felt quite different than it had before my immersion in Native Hawaiian culture. The political catch-phrases felt predictable and shallow – though clearly these people were anything but.
My husband, articulate and charismatic in any social gathering, sat silent, stoic as a Buddha. Silently, he was refusing to be drawn into what he called someone else’s reality. He was insisting that we each define our own. His culture’s reality was never political.
Finally, when the conversation turned to a very American political issue – Creationism versus Evolution – ‘Iokepa entered the fray and the table made way. He simply refused that dichotomy. He insisted that other people’s questions too often define our answers; that we must not allow it. Our choices are wider and deeper than the political pundits, the journalists, and the intellectuals allow.
The work of Return Voyage is not political. The Native Hawaiian people were not politicians. They were spiritual – deeply connected to the web of nature. ‘Iokepa says, “They didn’t see a category called spiritual; they just lived it. They knew their part in it – and they went out and shared it.”
Perhaps the next time someone tells us that the solutions to the world’s problems come only through our politicians and our political process, we might discover the strength, the imagination, and the insight to find a different answer rooted within ourselves.