All images courtesy of author
This Paradise of Fugitive Dust
When my wife, Brandy, became pregnant last year, I began writing a poem titled “understory.” In ecological terms, “understory” refers to plant life (shrubs, saplings, fungi, and seedlings) growing beneath the canopy of the forest.
I imagined a human understory as we read books, websites, and apps related to pregnancy and fetal development. Everything Brandy ate, breathed, heard, smelled, thought, felt, feared, and dreamed affected the embryo. In a sense, her womb housed an understory. They say amniotic fluid is ninety percent water.
We ourselves dwell within an understory. We are surrounded by dominant colonial narratives and structures, such as global capitalism, colonial nationalism, militarism, industrial food systems, media conglomerates, educational institutions, urbanism, and Western health care.
Brandy and I toured several hospitals during her pregnancy. Even though birthing centers are becoming more common, they still felt very cold and plastic. Doctor appointments often involved unnecessary tests, coercive prescriptions, and pressure to schedule a c-section.
Throughout the Pacific, indigenous healing, medicinal, and birthing customs were displaced and replaced by colonial health care practices. The establishment of hospitals was often seen (and funded) as charitable acts to civilize, sterilize, quarantine, and purify us—the diseased and dirty islanders.
A new story unfolded for us when we learned about a pregnancy class based on Hawaiian cultural values and customs, offered at a comprehensive health services provider, Kokua Kalihi Valley. The class was called Ka Lāhui o ka Pō, and included lessons, a free dinner with local ingredients, and a talk story circle. This class empowered us to explore the meaning of “birthing sovereignty.”
After 22 hours of labor, Brandy birthed our daughter, Kaikainaliʻi, on our bed, in our apartment, with the guiding hands of our doula, Grace, and our midwife, Selena. April, 2014. The hottest April in recorded history.
I continued writing “understory,” week-by-week, as Kaikainaliʻi grew. We take her on stroller rides around our Mānoa neighborhood, to the park and community garden. The poem asks: When do they spray herbicides and pesticides on the sidewalks and grass? We hand feed her first solid foods. The poem asks: Are these foods genetically modified? Treated with chemicals?
Summer 2014 was the warmest in recorded history. My mom, who lives in California, calls to Facetime with Kaikainaliʻi, her only grandchild. She tells us about the historic drought, tips to ration water.
A strong fever gripped Kaikainaliʻi during that summer. We constantly take her temperature, apply cold compresses, worry. We felt so relieved when her fever broke, her small body drenched in sweat.
Outbreak of enterovirus D68 in New York, outbreak of chikungunya in the Caribbean and Tokelau, outbreak of dengue fever in China and Japan, outbreak of MERS in South Korea, outbreak of West Nile virus in Texas and California, outbreak of ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, outbreak of measles at Disneyland.
When we take Kaikainaliʻi to the pediatrician, the nurse recites the names of the vaccines, shows us the expiration dates. Kaikainaliʻi cries as the needles pierce her thighs. They say our skin is forty percent water.
As the planet warms, our bodies host fever chains of transmission. Food-borne, insect-borne, water-borne, air-borne. Kaikainaliʻi was born into this fourth era of disease.
Kaikainaliʻi cries from teething. We wipe away her tears. How many children have been killed, maimed, and traumatized during the bombing and siege of Gaza? The poem asks: How do parents wipe away tear gas? Disarm occupying armies? #freepalestine
How do parents comfort children atop trains, children escaping domestic, cartel, and state violence? What lullabies echo inside private detention centers? What songs cross the teething US-Mexico border? #unaccompanied
The poem asks: How do parents hold violence at arm’s length, when raising our hands up is no longer a universal sign of surrender? #blacklivesmatter
Temperatures rise / violence intensifies
“The rape of Oceania began with Guam” (Douglas Oliver, The Pacific Islands, 1951: 234).
The history of sexual violence perpetuated by the U.S. military in Guam, Hawaiʻi, the Philippines, South Korea, and Okinawa (among other places) is well-documented. The history of sexual violence within the U.S. military is becoming more documented. #yesallwomen
The poem asks: How do we prevent Kaikainaliʻi’s body from becoming target practice? How do we protect our sacred islands from becoming live firing range complexes? #savepagat #savepagan #savetinian
The poem asks: How will we remember the names of those who have disappeared from reservations, machiladoras, villages, and schools? #mmiw #mmaw #bringbackourgirls
The first time we take Kaikainaliʻi to the beach coincides with RIMPAC (the Rim of the Pacific), a multinational maritime military training exercise, weapons showcase, and simulated war games that occurs biennially in the waters around Hawaiʻi.
Brandy carries Kaikainaliʻi into the ocean, holds her tightly to her chest. hanom hanom hanom.
The poem asks: What will 23 nations, 48 ships, 6 submarines, hundreds of aircrafts, and thousands of soldiers take from us?
The ocean warms and acidifies. Coral reefs bleach. Fish stocks collapse. Tides rise. Islands drown. Plastic gathers. Radiation seeps. Oil spills. Drills mine sea bed. Whales, deafened by sonar, wash ashore thousands of recently spawned fish, now lifeless, litter the shorelines.
The poem asks: Is Oceania memorial or target? Monument or territory? Dead zone or eco-resort? Economic zone or mākua?
Kaikainaliʻi loves the salt water.
We recently celebrated Kaikainaliʻi’s first birthday. Many of our friends and family traveled from around the island, as well as from Maui, Utah, and California. Throughout the year, we have witnessed Kaikainaliʻi reach several milestones. First latch, first grab, first laugh, first tears, first step. We have also witnessed the effects of reaching and crossing several climate and habitability thresholds: record floods, heat waves, typhoons, extinctions, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. We have witnessed an onslaught of human violence.
The poem asks: How will Kaikainaliʻi—and future generations—survive in this paradise of fugitive dust.
I am learning to divest from all that is destroying our world, our humanity. I am learning to let go of all that we have lost and will lose.
At the same time, I am learning to fight for all that can be saved. I am learning to hold onto all that is sacred.
I am grateful to Brandy, for her strength and beauty and labor. I am grateful to our families for loving Kaikainaliʻi, for raising us in the understory. And I am grateful to our friends (and fellow bloggers) for surrounding Kaikainaliʻi—and inspiring us—with art, poetry, activism, and music.
Sometimes I watch Kaikainaliʻi sleeping. Her breath rises and falls like the tides. Sometimes Kaikainaliʻi smiles, for a moment, in her sleep. I ask the poem: Please hold this moment for me.
I ask the poem: Please carry creation and destruction, birth and extinction, love and loss. Please carry a message for me, when I am gone, to Kaikainaliʻi: tell her that even though our stories are heavier than stones, she must carry them with her, no matter how far from home the storms take her small canoe.
Please tell her that she will always find family in our stories. She will always find shelter in our stories. She will always belong in our stories. And she will always be sacred in our stories hanom hanom hanom