[I wrote this last week, while traveling, but didn’t get a chance to post it until now.]
There are several times in my life when I have paused and thought to myself, “How did I get here?” That thought goes through my head in the middle of chaotic messes, when things are either falling apart or burning down or some other nonsense is taking place, and the same thought occurs in the middle of good things, as well. I had those moments when I walked the stage to receive my Master’s degree. I had that moment when I got to see an exhibit I helped create unveiled for the first time. When I looked in the mirror on the first day at my new job, dressed in a suit jacket and looking like a grown-up.
Sitting on a beach in Hawaii.
That’s right. I said Hawaii.
I am there.
And I kept thinking “How did I get here?”
The obvious answer would be “you boarded a plane and flew for about ten hours.” I understand that. That is, afterall, how air travel works (well, that and a healthy dose of science – read “magic”).
In this case, though, I’m thinking a little more esoterically. I’m here in Hawaii for work, not necessarily a vacation – though, let’s face it, any work in Hawaii is a vacation – which seems incredible. For the past three years, my work trips have been travel to a grant ceremony at a small museum, where I received a particularly heavy brick (yes, that was an actual work task) or driving to Leonardtown for a one-day conference on museum interpretation and exhibits (where the people representing the education and interpretation departments left around lunchtime).
Fast forward to this year. Since starting in February, I’ve traveled to Las Vegas for a conference on economic development in Indian Country, gone to Tulsa for a meeting with people on the front lines of Tribal renewable energy and STEM education, and now Hawaii for a conference on energy efficiency in American Indian Housing. I am surrounded by bright scientists and talented diplomats dedicated to improving life for Native communities and protecting the environment. I am learning so much, and am so impressed by what people in Indian Country are doing…especially considering the number of hoops so many of these entities have to jump through to get business done.
It’s a completely different field than what I grew up with. My experience of Indian Country at-large had mostly been from a law enforcement or cultural studies viewpoint (plus, you know, being Native). Now, I’m looking through the lens of business and other government offices. I’m not surrounded by tribal cops and yet…every day I am reminded of my father.
I’m reminded of his tireless efforts to improve the communities he worked with. I’m reminded of his pride in all Native people, of his ability to straddle traditions and mainstream American culture, and his unmatched skill as a mediator in difficult situations. I’m reminded of how his eyes would tear up when he watched Native people from all regions come together, showing that they were still a vibrant culture with much to offer – I teared up at RES earlier this year, watching representatives from Alaskan villages dancing next to those from White Mountain Apache, Seminole next to Seneca.
I miss him every day. Maybe especially as I make my way through Indian Country for all of these trips. He loved to travel – he especially loved to drive – and he loved talking about the wonderful places he had seen and people he had met. Sometimes that was on a beach in California, sometimes it was in a smoky casino in North Carolina, and sometimes it was in a dive in the middle of a desert town accessed through a literal hole in the wall.
And I miss him here, sitting on this beach. Hawaii was the one place he didn’t get to in his long career in Indian Country. He would have loved it here. There are so many birds and different flowers with lovely names. He liked to say Liriodendron tulipifera – the Latin for tulip poplar. I can only imagine his joy at saying things like Heliotropium anomalum or Humuhumunukunukuapua`a. Watching the surfers riding waves yesterday evening, I remembered when we learned he knew how to surf. That he had, in fact, surfed quite a bit when he was a Marine stationed outside of San Francisco.
Walking around the paths near the Byodo-In Temple, I remembered all of the times Dad took us out for walks, teaching us the things we could eat if we ever got lost (and the things we should never eat), pausing to identify birds we heard in the trees, and pointing to game trails that were near-invisible to our untrained eyes. I took in all of the things around me – from the scent of incense in the temple, as people offered prayers, to the splash of the koi fish in the ponds, looking for food, to the feel of light rain on my arms and the natural beauty all around me and I realized…
…this was one of the greatest things that Dad left with us. Not just a love of the natural world, but the ability to notice and appreciate everything about a particular moment. Dad thought about the future and remembered the past, certainly, but he was very talented at living in the here and now. He appreciated every moment he got.
With this realization comes the understanding that the question shouldn’t be “How did I get here?” It shouldn’t be a question at all. Questioning how you got somewhere isn’t really all that helpful or illuminating, in the long run (unless you’re trying to figure out how to avoid getting into a situation in the future, I suppose). The point is…you got there. You are here. If you ask a question at all, it should be “What are you going to do now that you are here?” Experience that “here.” Experience the “now.”
We are never guaranteed another day with the people we love and, when they are gone, we should be able to think back to moments with them and know that we experienced them fully.
Don’t waste the time wondering how you got somewhere or when you grew up. Enjoy that you’re there.
I know I am.