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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 10, 2001

Finding a Walden Pond retreat at the beach

By Wade Shirkey
Advertiser Staff Writer

Henry David Thoreau snuck off by himself to a cabin for a couple years and became an American icon, placing "Walden Pond" on American students' required reading lists ever since.

Wade Shirkey did his version of Thoreau at the big pond of the Pacific.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Recently, the idea has been enjoying renewed interest from Americans who find themselves too informed, too reachable and too, too busy. Encouraged by recent popular books and talk shows on the subject of "retreats" and "sojourns," I decided to sneak off by my lonesome to a seaside cabin for a period of weeks, in part to see if I could live without the intrusions of modern life, not to mention human contact, for that length of time. "Are you OK? I hear you HAVE to get away," a concerned friend asked. Co-workers gave me books on finding oneself or filling spiritual voids. The expression "mid-life crisis" was heard.

But my purpose was not to escape from an unhappy life, an unfulfilled relationship, a disappointing job or dismal surroundings. I just wanted to experiment with a novel concept in my life: What would I do with more than two days in a row with no commitments: to do what I wanted when I wanted, for a period of six weeks.

This "realization of purpose" first came from the owners of the Ka'a'awa cottage I chose for my "Time at Home Alone."

"Well, gotta take this," said Muriel Yin, removing the beach house's only clock. Husband Ben looked on, mildly amused. Both knew that, to give the gift of time to myself I had to first give up "time."

Since the age of 18, I have routinely worked two jobs, often while attending school. For the past five years, I have had the happy but ever-present responsibility of a weekly column as well as a full-time job in The Advertiser's newsroom. And, for the last 10 years, I've taught in a hula halau. What I didn't have was time.

Immediately missing during my getaway was what I began to call my "mental day-planner": "Let's see, if I do the column tonight, I'll do tomorrow's interview before Linda's birthday dinner — no, that's class night ... agghhhhh!"

So seldom was it that I had a complete day to myself that, when I did, I vegetated. But what would I do with more than one day?

To accomplish my goal of getting away, I arranged to take my monthlong vacations for 2000 and 2001 together.

One student likened it to a "retirement." And perhaps that's what it was, a rehearsal for retirement.

Electronic imperatives

However, before I could escape the modern world, I had to calm its complexities.

Advertiser columnist Wade Shirkey ponders the horizon — or maybe just the appropriate moment for a steak dinner — at a Ka‘a‘awa cottage during his six-week retreat from the clock.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

First there was a payroll computer glitch to threaten my well-ordered plan for automatic deposits and bill payments, so that I wouldn't have to think about finances during my trip. "Isn't it ironic," asked a soulmate with a good sense of the correct order of things, "that this payroll thing should happen just as you're going off to get away from things like this?"

Then I forgot to disable my home security system as I scrambled out the door, and it seemed to be braying at me for thinking I could leave.

Arriving at my beach retreat, I settled into a leisurely dinner of steak, wild rice, grilled asparagus and wine — I never said I'd be roughing it! — and salad of Waimanalo greens, artichoke hearts, capers and bean sprouts. I sat under a covered lana'i at the ocean's Ka'a'awa edge as the most delicious of sundae-colored sunsets punctuated a balmy sky. I quickly showered and came out again to do a little reading and writing overlooking the sea.

As I settled in with my laptop just a few feet from a languid midnight sea, I gloated over what now seemed my very excellent decision to undertake this seclusion.

As if in divine bachi, God at that moment saw fit to have my laptop screen go permanently dark in one brilliant cataclysmic electronic explosion. In the Great Scheme of Things, we will oneday find that computers are just jealous lovers. And mine had just dumped me.

My editor for this project had suggested I be made to forsake the laptop for hand-scribbled chronicles, to be delivered by homing pigeon. I didn't know if she was completely serious.

Following a restful evening of alternatively writing, and reading through three books of people's similar escapes from the harried world, I allowed myself that first night what I promised would be my last glance at my watch, before I locked it in my car: It was 4:30 a.m. It seemed like 8:30 p.m.

But life had saved its last remaining modern stranglehold on me for my first morning in my home away.

As the rice cooked, I removed bacon from the skillet, and gently slid in the eggs, which were soon sizzling, prompting an electronic wailing that only Folsom prison could match: I had set off the cottage's smoke alarm. I've always maintained I know when dinner is done when my smoke alarm goes off. I'd been joking.

Moments turned into years as I envisioned alarmed neighbors descending on me just moments before the long, laddered fire trucks arrived on an otherwise idyllic coastline, sort of a cosmic ahahanakokolele for my attempt at peacefulness alone.

But the smoke dissipated and the alarm subsided, allowing the sounds of a pounding surf to assuage my sensibilities.

Even away by myself with no phone, no beeper, no TV or radio, electronic things reigned.

Rhythms of the days

I decided early on that shaving, bathing, clean shorts and T-shirt would be part of the routine, usually after a quick breakfast of coffee and guava jelly toast or rice-and-something by the ocean. Beyond that, I would do whatever I wanted, including keeping a journal of my thoughts and experiences.

I wrote mostly upon awakening, sitting by the seaside as the sun sent light swords through a usually placid sky. In all the books I took with me about similar escapes, each of the writers seemed to rise with writing on their mind. Why, I wondered, were we not more prepared to digest our thoughts at the end of a day, when our feelings were the freshest?

Besides the books against which I would compare my hermitage — and without newspapers or TV to tie me to the outside world — I brought a few marginal projects: a DayPlanner to be culled through, and address book to be updated, a scrapbook to be finished, a car to be detailed. They sat untouched. I found I could fill my day with nothing. But not nothingness.

Among the rules I had set for myself, I did not demand strict isolation; though I vowed to stay out of contact with office, halau, friends and family, I was allowed to pass the time of day with people I encountered accidentally.

But I soon decided daily jaunts around Ka'a'awa town and conversations with its friendly denizens reminded me too much of pressures of the outside world. So I chose to stay within my self-imposed solitude for the remaining weeks.

Bedtime usually came at the end of whatever chapter I was reading, followed by some quiet time sitting on the beach wall, the spot that became my home base.

"Grandpa used to sit there for hours," the cottage's owner had told me, speaking of the cottage's late resident. "We thought he was bored!" I understood that call of the ocean now. A peaceful sleep always followed.

Time out of time

Without clock, calendar, newspapers or communication, I expected to feel rudderless. But I didn't.

I soon came to accept the various moods of the ocean, the evening inflight of birds, and the fluctuating cadence of traffic as sufficient gauge of the time: "That's the second rush hour," I'd tell myself, "6:30. Dusk will be coming soon." Clouds offshore would foretell of a quick, cooling evening shower.

The thunderous roar of tour buses following the Polynesian Cultural Center's closing set my mental clock each evening at 9:30 p.m. I'd have several more hours left of reading, sipping wine.

And there was the area rooster: Never content just to crow at the sign of a new morning, it crowed throughout the day, completely throwing my sense of time off kilter. I called it "Cock-a-doodle Doesn't."

For fear I would lose track of the days and overstay my welcome, I soon began to scribble a rough calendar, making note of ideas for stories, or things I wanted to remember. At dusk, I'd draw a line through the day's box, more a mental gymnastic than anything else. Upon turning in, I'd complete the "X" to pronounce the day pau.

The days moved much too slowly. The days moved much too quickly.

Beach traffic helped me keep track of the days of the week. Monday was a lonely absence of even surfers, he'e spearers or strolling lovers. Weekends, of course, were apparent by their activity: the weekend fisherman, the less-serious surfer; parents bringing mo'opuna to acquaint them with the ways of the ocean; dogs romping with their owners in the surf.

The realization that I had no inkling whether the world was at war or the stock market in cataclysmic tumble comforted me. I did just fine, thank you, not knowing the ways of the world.

My little microcosm asked little in information: Was I hungry? Sleepy? Perhaps bored? Did I have a need to go sit by the ocean? Should I eat — again?

I was most concerned not knowing the weather forecast: I absolutely prayed it would rain. I love a good, heavy rain. I soon learned to anticipate the occasional mauka shower by the parade of clouds and ensuant wind and subtle cooling off the ocean.

Of all the everyday information by which we mark our daily progression of time, I found I only missed the weather report. If I wanted to know the weather, I had but one method: Stick my head out the damned door! On this count alone, I begged to be better connected.

Alone, again, naturally

Until my retreat, I had never been to a restaurant or movie by myself, nor been a solitary traveler. Now, having imposed a six-week isolation on myself, had it been worth it?

 •  Wade Shirkey’s reading list

These are the books that Wade Shirkey took with him so he could compare and contrast his retreat experience with those of the authors:

“Running to the Mountain – A Midlife Adventure,” by John Katz, Broadway Books

“A Year by the Sea — Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman,” by Joan Anderson, Broadway Books

“Desert Sojourn — A Woman’s Forty Days and Nights Alone,” by Debi Holmes-Binney, Seal Press
(All available at BookEnds, Kailua)

As I returned to the real world, we had a new president and the Pali Highway lights by the tunnels had been repaired. An elderly pedestrian had lost his life in a crosswalk near my apartment. I really had been "away."

But I also had learned, along with the authors of the books I'd been reading, that my usual life, harried though may be, is quite alright.

Each of them, albeit testing divorce or midlife discontent in a couple of cases, chose to return to but a slightly altered life. And, like the divorcee who spent the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights in the desert alone, there was one common denominator, which I now shared: We all realized that we needed more time to ourselves. Some authors found it by remaining in their cottage; others elected to return on a regular basis.

Of course, figuring out how to wring that precious time out of my life would probably take me another six weeks away.