Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Tag: tradition

My heart was cast in the Hawaiian islands

By association with nature’s enormities, a man’s heart may truly grow big also. – Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

I grew up immersed in the culture of Hawaiʻi. My family is Native Hawaiian on my mother’s side; my recently passed grandmother was 75% Hawaiian, which makes my mother, siblings, and myself all hapa haole. My mother grew up in Oʻahu before the family uprooted for the mainland; there they quickly built ties with the local Polynesian community. She started dancing hula as a little girl, and grew up to teach hula as a kumu hula for many different hālaus.

I myself have never lived in Hawaiʻi, though I’ve gone to Oʻahu on many extended vacations. The longest of which was three weeks back in 2000: two with family, and a third spent camping at Camp Pupukea. There I focused on learning traditional Hawaiian skills (as opposed to the regular Scout stuff) and earned the Hawaiiana Award. That’s probably the closet thing to work I’ve done in the islands, and trust me, once your feet touch sand, work is the last thing on your mind.

Most trips I’ve gone with family, and the trips have ranged in activity from an elaborate multi-family reunion (all housed in a multi-million dollar mansion), to spending a week in a three-room concrete condo barbecuing and flying a kite on the beach. But whatever the action, there’s no such thing as a bad trip to the islands.

There’s something ethereal about Hawaiʻi, a slight hum and a heartbeat I can’t explain, something that hits me in the chest the moment I land and whose throb beckons me back as soon as I leave. I feel at home with the sun, sea, salt and surf- a unique connection with the land that I don’t feel any where else. When you’re in Hawaiʻi, it’s what defines you; your cares, every measure by which you evaluate your life, simply melts away. So though I say my soul was forged in the redwood forest, my heart was definitely cast in Hawaiian islands.

As this post goes out, I’ll be on a non-stop flight to Oʻahu with girlfriend Anne for a ten-night vacation; my first “real” vacation since I moved to Washington, and Anne’s first time in the islands. I’m going to have to balance the desire to just kick back on the beach with showing her all the best “touristy” sights: the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, the Polynesian Cultural Center, Hanauma Bay, Nuʻuanu Pali, and of course, Matsumoto Shave Ice.

Anne wants to swim with turtles- yes, we’ll do that too.

Aloha!

/jon

Taoism and the role of human institutions

Every human institution can be broken down into two parts: its inward, primary essence and its outward, secondary accouterments. Learning to distinguish between these primary and secondary things is an important skill for Taoists.

In our society, the essence of any institution is much more important than the physical trappings that surround it. Chuangtse says:

The primary things should stand at the top and secondary things stand at the bottom.

The text gives several examples of institutions and their secondary things, such as the mourning of the dead:

Weeping and mourning and the wearing of hemp clothes and hemp hemming and the gradations in the length of mourning are secondary things in the expression of sorrow.

Though reflecting the ancient Chinese culture of the text’s origin, we can make clear parallels to the modern Western institution of mourning. Here, the wearing of black clothes, the funeral, the wake, all of these things are secondary when mourning the dead: the important, primary thing is the expression of sorrow.

On the other end of the spectrum, an example can be made of the institution of marriage. On one level we have two people committing their love to a stronger relationship, and the joining of two families. On another we have the costumes, the rings, the cake, the registry, the party, the dancing, and the ceremony. Which of the two groups is more important?

The difference is the thing and its representation. Love and commitment are the primary essence of marriage; the rings, which only represent that love and commitment, are secondary accouterments. Accouterments that aren’t instinctual:

These … secondary things require the employment of the mind and conscious planning before they can be carried out.

There is a broader Taoist thread against such materialism, something I mentioned in passing when I asserted that Taoists value direct experience over formal education. While the primary things are often emotional, experiential, and culturally agnostic (like love), the secondary things are often material, learned, and culturally specific (like the exchange of rings).

The secondary things don’t come to us naturally; such traditions are passed down from generation to generation by education, often in the form of stories. Can anyone deny the influence of fairy tales and childhood stories on our expectations of wedding ceremonies? On the whole institution of marriage?

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that our traditions, these seemingly unessential secondary things, are altogether bad. They don’t need to be discarded, just not put at the forefront of our minds:

The ancients had this body of the unessential knowledge, but they did not put it first…

This “unessential knowledge” helps define a culture, and is a part of all human societies. Problems only arise when those secondary things are held with higher importance than the primary essences which they represent.

We know this to be true, in mourning, love, and even telling stories: that when we follow traditions for traditions’ sake, and only “go through the motions”, we risk losing what’s really important.

A marriage without a strong sense of love and commitment won’t last, no matter how lavish and perfect the ceremony. Without true sorrow, going to a funeral and wearing black and acting somber is just that: acting.

We see this often in religious ceremony, and we all know people who only go through the motions. Remember, the moral values of a religion are more important than the details of their ceremonies; the meaning behind the teachings more important than the teachings themselves.

We need the secondary things because they’re an easy shorthand for us to express ourselves, and to teach our values to our children. They’re loose outlines and reminders of what’s really important in our lives. Taoism can’t and doesn’t require the elimination of such accouterments; it only asks that people understand that they are in fact secondary, and to not elevate their importance beyond the essential things which they represent.


An earlier draft of this article was originally published February 01, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.

/jon

My soul was forged in the redwood forest

The reason why we feel good when going to a great forest or a hill is because our spirits are usually cramped. – Chuangtse

I have enjoyed the wilderness my entire life. A decade in Scouting let me hike and camp up and down California, and one year even gave me a week in the forests of Oʻahu. But that’s not where my love of the great outdoors began.

As far back as I can remember, my family has made an annual camping trip to the California Redwoods. We’ve hit a few different spots, but our primary choice is Burlington campground in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Burlington has long history with my family; my grandparents used to take my mother there when she was a child.

We know the campground inside and out. We’ve hiked on every trail, from the short jaunts down to the river, to the two mile trek to Weott, where we stop to pick blackberries for tomorrow’s pancakes. As children we’d stop at the general store to buy comics and ice cream before the long hike back to camp. We ride our bikes down the the Visitor Center, and look at the same old displays we’ve known and loved for years. We hang out at camp and play cards or talk story around the campfire.

Some years we make the two hour drive to visit Paul Bunyan at the Trees of Mystery; other years we head to Ferndale, where we explore the little shops and admire the Victorian homes. As a child I’d spend forever in the used bookstores, trying to decide how best to spend my allowance.

In recent years, the highlight has been the trek to our secluded beach on the river. We drive a few miles up from camp, pull over on the side of the highway, and climb down the embankment. Then we pack our gear into an inflatable raft and swim to the beach on the other side, where it’s inaccessible by dry land.

We spend the day exploring the beach, swimming in the river when it gets too hot or stopping to make mud-castles. And at the end of the day we have to pack everything up again for the return swim, and the wet scramble back up to the highway.

Burlington and the redwoods are more than just a favorite vacation spot, it’s our home away from home, a place of family legends. The two times I almost drowned. The time my brother skidded his bike underneath a truck. The time we were hiking and an earthquake set the whole wood rocking. Each year we add more to our trove of Burlington stories.

This year I get the pleasure of introducing others to our family traditions. My girlfriend Anne and I will drive down from Seattle; it’ll be her first time camping in the redwoods. I’ll also be witness to the breaking in of my two nephews, as they write themselves into the family history at Burlington.

I’ve seen a good deal of the world’s beauty in my travels, but there’s a certain swell of the soul that only comes when standing before the majesty of a redwood forest.

It is, and shall forever remain, my favorite place in the world.

/jon