Waxing Existential: The Essence of Aloha

Maui coast%20wiki - Waxing Existential: The Essence of Aloha
The Maui coast. Photo by Ryan Oelke.

The man selling fresh fruit a couple of blocks from where I am staying in Maui first explained the best way to cut and eat a pineapple. After purchasing the perfectly golden delight, I asked what the meaning of “aloha” is to him. “Oh, many people say it for everything,” he said. “But most people don’t know the real meaning. It doesn’t come from the lips—it comes from the heart.” He made a gesture, his fist pounding his heart, his eyes clear and strong.

There are many reasons why people come from all over the world to visit Hawaii. The weather and the beauty are probably at the top of the list. It is a true vacationer’s paradise, with inviting beaches, resorts galore, and yes, fruity-sweet libations. Having been here for a few days now, I am inclined to find more. I prepared for this trip by purchasing a book entitled Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii, by Patricia Jennings and Maria Ausherman. I had read about the book in The New York Times Travel section recently and was intrigued by the story of the artist’s time on Maui spent with a little girl, Patricia. Patricia Jennings was 12 when Georgia O’Keeffe traveled to Hawaii.

Dole Pineapple offered O’Keeffe a commission that included a trip to the islands. She was to paint there, and produce a work that Dole would use for an ad in Time Magazine. She begrudgingly agreed to this commission, by the way, and only with the stipulation that she paint whatever she wanted. She never did paint a pineapple, until coerced to do so after she was back on the mainland. I mention this part, because it was her steadfastness that I believe allowed her to be completely authentic as an artist while on her travels.

While on Maui, she stayed at the home of Willis Jennings who managed the Ka’eleku Sugar Plantation. That’s where she met Willis’s daughter, Patricia. Jennings’ account of O’Keeffe’s time on the island and I recommend the book to anyone who may be interested in learning about Georgia O’Keeffe from the perspective of an adolescent girl living on Maui right before the onset of World War II.

I have always admired O’Keeffe. Her awareness of her environment, and the intention she put into her craft have inspired me for years. Viewing art, it is always a wonder to me how the artist sees their world. I believe O’Keeffe was one of those artists who viewed and received her environment using all of her senses, and her experiences came to life in her paintings. To read an account of the time she spent on Maui while I am actually here has been very meaningful, and has helped me to understand “aloha.”

According to Wikipedia, and Hawaiian folk etymology, “alo” means “presence, front, face, or share,” and “ha” means “breath of life, or essence of life.” Together, the meaning is an embodiment of being present in the essence of life. Ahhh…. For me, this has meant a slowing down to be at pace with my surroundings, instead of rushing ahead in a frenzied urgency to get somewhere and do something. Here, there is nothing to get to. The natural beauty provides nourishment to the senses. I am struck with the color and rhythm of the island—the landscape of vertical viridian and horizontal azure. The ocean’s breadth of rolling waves, shimmering on the shore, then receding with surprising force back into the mysterious depths. Truly, the surfer understands this rhythm—a flow of trust and skill that is built on aloha. The foliage may be my complete surrender to aloha. I cannot fathom the colors and shapes that nature has created. Some, like silky tissue paper growing unassumingly as shrubbery; others are sculptural, like origami birds in bright, bold pinks, reds, and purples. It is paradise for the senses, to be sure.

So how will I carry aloha home with me? I don’t see any available at the ABC Store. How did Georgia O’Keeffe do it? She didn’t have to “do it.” She just was “it.” And the truth is, the gift of being present with the essence of life is all around us. Aloha is a state of being, not being in a state, although there is no question that it helps to get re-installed in surroundings that present aloha in such prime circumstances. But if I am really to benefit from this re-installation, I need to be extra mindful of what I need to do in my day-to-day life at home. No, this isn’t a New Year’s resolution! I don’t think those really “work.” They are the ultimate set up for…contradiction.

No, what I want to think about after this idyllic day-to-day existence comes to a close is what was special about it. What helped me to slow down and feel inspired? What can I do to motivate myself with intention and authenticity? What helps me to be present with all of my senses? Truly, one has to do much more than looking. The essence of aloha for me is in the experience of seeing. Aloha to you for the new year, and mahalo, my existential ohana.

— Sibel Golden

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