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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, February 3 ,2002

Hawai'i — the healing place

By Jack Sidener
Professor of Architecture at the University of Hawai'i

When I want to restore my spirits, I head for the Asian garden at the East West Center, and sit on a stone by the waterfall. This garden is a microcosm of the world — water falls on the "mountain," runs down through the hills and across the plain, returning to M?noa Stream which stands in for the ocean. Being in a microcosm allows one to look either inside, or to contemplate one's place in the whole universe.

On my last visit my mind began to visualize Hawai'i itself as such a garden, a microcosm, a series of continents adrift in a sea, like the stones in the pond.

There is a school of thought which says gardens can be designed as healing places — water for calmness, flowers for relaxing fragrances, restful colors. Could Hawai'i be conceived as a large healing garden?

I realized that we're one year from the sinking of the Ehime Maru, as painful to many of us as more recent disasters. My own healing of the distress I felt last February began one day when I rounded Diamond Head, and there was a group of people chanting into the afternoon glare as the Hokule'a sailed by, taking Japanese families to the site of the sinking to pay their respects.

I felt privileged to share in this ceremony from cultures different from mine, and felt a lowering of my unease.

On a recent dark and gloomy day, (it was one of those days — the clouds weren't blowing away, my cold wouldn't disappear, my wife was oceans away) I went to Ala Moana center to buy a new aloha shirt. In this mundane environment, the beauty of Hawai'i touched me again. On the central stage was a talented family from Kaua'i, whom I'd often seen at the Bishop Museum.

The youngest daughter in the maile lei was pulling rain from the sky, on her face a beatific look which only a dancer who dances from the soul can have. Her slow and graceful motion pulled some of the dread from my heart. I lingered through many dances, from many islands. I watched the faces on the tired Mainlanders, some sick, most elderly. They were receiving a glow that was a true gift from the Hawaiians; their glow was not condescension, as some would have us believe. I shared in the glow, and walked away a bit lighter of step.

TheBus took me to the UH-M?noa campus; I struck out across the grass near Bachman Hall. Head down, I ran into a tangle of leafless branches, a nasty set of thorny tentacles, one knocking off my hat. I angrily looked up, and there in the midst of this tangle was an outlandishly beautiful blossom, like a large many-toothed snapdragon, maroon and yellow.

I was stunned, such beauty in the midst of ugliness. Another yellow blur startled me — it was a seldom-seen little yellow finch. He flitted to the grass a few feet away, and proceeded to lecture me, in his little chirp.

I couldn't help but laugh, and more of my dread left, whisked away by this tiny happy creature, who seemed concerned about me personally. Hawai'i was working her magic — all of these little events piled up. The aloha shirt, the dancing, the garden, the tree, the bird, brought a sense of calm — and then forced out a long-hidden memory.

Sitting on the grass, I recalled myself by the ocean many years ago. It was a time when, on another island, I was unsure if my design concepts were in the interest of the local community. I had driven down a long a steep gulch to an old fishing village site where Kamehameha was said to have fished. Surrounded by stone platforms at the edge of the ocean, I was overcome by a powerful sense of dread — my whole body was tingling, I was extremely uncomfortable.

I knelt on a lava ledge, only a few inches from a steep dropoff; the ocean was perfectly calm, and I could see fish on the vertical wall many feet below me. Suddenly a fairly large shark, copper brown on top, swam up toward me from the blue-black deep. He/she came to just below the surface, two arm lengths from me, stared at me, and then rolled over and back to the deep. At that instant all feelings of dread disappeared, and I felt a sense of peace, even of approval. Some would say that was my 'aumakua.

I don't know.

But I do know that when I've been low of spirit, Hawai'i has always found a way to lighten it. Many writers have noted the same thing — Joan Didion wrote of Waikiki as a place to heal the hurt of an impending divorce, Maxine Hong Kingston found a retreat in M?noa Valley to ease the distress from the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, Jonathan Raban came to make peace with his estranged daughter.

What power there is in this place called Hawai'i. Whether it belongs to any particular culture is not the issue. The issue is how can we share this with the world, play our very special part as a healing place unequaled by any other?

Some lately decry the continuation of the entertainment side of Hawai'i, whole or hapa. It's important to look inward, and see that whether authentic or shaped by migrants, the power of island music, graceful dancing, smiling people, flowered fabrics, birds, trees, water and spirit should be shared.

They are a gift to the world from Hawaiian hearts, and should be recognized in any new vision for Hawai'i's place in the world.