The Spirit of Aloha
From 2002-2005 I had the privilege of teaching several music courses at Brigham Young University-Hawai’i in Laie Hawai’i. I’m not a touristy kind of person so when I was looking for a place to live near the University, I wanted to be where the locals were so I could watch and learn about why I felt the way I did when I first got off the plane in Honolulu.
Over 9 million people visit Hawai’i yearly. The islands are tiny dots in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The weather is beautiful and the beaches are free to the public but flights and housing are incredibly expensive. Locals don’t get the “shipping is free with purchase” option. Ever. What is the draw? Why do some folks save for years for their once in a lifetime trip to Hawai’i?
I think it’s more than the beaches and the food and the weather and the unbelievable natural beauty. I think it’s the Spirit of Aloha.
Many folks think that Aloha is simply the Hawai’ian word for hello or goodbye. The dictionary says “Aloha is a Hawaiian word used when greeting or parting from someone”. But when I got off the plane at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on August 15, 2002 I had a physical and emotional reaction that I did not expect. It’s as if my body and brain recognized something was different about this place and I should pay attention and learn everything I could about why I was feeling this way.
The temperature that day was about 87° (which isn’t terribly hot) but the humidity made me feel like I was walking into the mouth of a St. Bernard dog. Not kidding. I wasn’t used to humidity like that. I thought many times that I wouldn’t survive the it. Additionally, as my friend and colleague Darren put it, “now remember, you’re living on an island teeming with life”. Some species of spiders on the island are so big, I thought they could pick up my sandwich and carry it to their house-sized spider web. The cockroaches…. (there are several kinds) are everywhere. Everywhere. No matter how clean you keep things…. everywhere. I had a friend who heated soup in a microwave and when she opened the microwave to take her bowl of soup out, a cockroach walked out first. It was in the microwave for the one minute and thirty seconds of soup warming and walked out completely unharmed.
I don’t mean to waste your time making you read these things (many tourists don’t see much of the teeming part because they don’t stay very long and I think about these things with great fondness now), I write them because, even with the amount of distraction about “teeming with life”, there was something about this place that changed who I was, enhanced my teaching and made me feel more whole and complete.
I loved hearing the greeting “aloha” whenever I attended any meeting or passed someone on the way to class, and, at first, I was so proud to say it back. But then I realized there was a different feel from many Hawai’ians about how they said the word, how it actually came out of their mouth. I found myself feeling awkward about saying it back to them, like I didn’t know enough about Aloha to say it back.
One day while talking with Lono, one of the first Hawai’ians I met, I asked him to teach me about “Aloha” because I sensed there was the “word” and then there was the “way” of Aloha.
He told me that Hawai’ans believe that when God breathed into the nostrils of man, He gave man the “Ha”, the breath of life. And when a Hawai’ian who understands this says aloha to you, the Hawai’ian is saying “here is everything about me, my “Ha”. And when you say aloha back, you are saying, “and here is everything about me, my “Ha”. Then you both usually hug and often kiss each other on the cheek and share that “Ha” (each other’s breath) because you understand that Aloha is who you “be”, how you treat others, how you make others feel when they are around you.
I don’t intend to sound cliché because it wasn’t, but that explanation changed me in that moment. I wanted to be Aloha, not just say Aloha. For the rest of my short time in Hawai’i, I wanted to make sure people felt safe around me. I wanted them to know they mattered to me even if our sharing of “Ha” was brief.
I taught the Men’s and Women’s Choirs, Music Theory, Music Education and several private voice students during my tenure at BYUH. I worked hard to be conscious about who my students were, how they were responding, and doing my best to make sure their time in my classroom was full of learning, meaningful conversations, humor and tons of music!
Then I started to notice my demeanor in all of my human interactions. I wanted to share “Ha” with the cashier at the grocery store, the internet guy who came to make sure I had a great wifi signal in my home, the custodian who cleaned my office daily, the student who dished up my food at the cafeteria, even every person I walked past. I didn’t do it by saying aloha every time. I did it by taking time to actually look at them, notice them, being aware of their “Ha”. Recognizing that I wanted to share my “Ha” with them. It became the natural thing for me to be – Aloha.
When I left Hawai’i I promised myself I wouldn’t lose my Aloha – not just saying the word but being Aloha with everyone I encountered. For the most part, it’s who I am now.
However, I haven’t always been successful. For example, I’m embarrassed to tell you about the time I had driven most of the night from the Key West, Florida to Homestead, Florida to claim the hotel room I had reserved. The deadline was 4am. I arrived at 3am but the hotel clerk had already given my room away and there were no other rooms available. Sadly, I lost it and was so not Aloha. After the meltdown between the two of us, I tried to apologize by telling her I really was a very nice person… lame…..
The part that was the worst for me was that someone I didn’t know didn’t get to experience the Spirit of Aloha because of me.
As I write this, I’m frustrated that my words may not convey the depth of what I want to say and how important I think it is especially to teachers and directors. I’m sad you and I aren’t in the same room so I can tell you in person about Lono and our conversation that day. I wish you could feel how important you are and how much of a difference you can make by recognizing your own “Ha”.
In my travels I come across too many people who “don’t do choir, band or orchestra anymore because their teacher/director made them feel unsafe”.
As a teacher/director, does everyone in your class or choir or band or orchestra feel The Spirit of Aloha (or whatever you might call it)?
Can they feel how happy you are to see them when they come into your rehearsal space?
Do they feel safe with you?
Do you recognize what they have to offer even when they might be disrupting what you are doing?
Do they love what you are teaching them because of how you be with them?
You don’t have to travel to Hawai’i to become Aloha (although I highly recommend it). I think you could assess yourself and how all people feel when they are around you. Also, how you feel when you are around them. From there, you decide what matters to you and how much of a difference you think it will make in your life.
Something to consider…
Thank you for reading this to the end. Malama pono (take the very best care of yourself) and Aloha, Merrilee Webb