I’ve been reminded again about the importance of breath.
On April 26, I flew to Hawai’i with my girlfriend, our birthday gifts to one another. I’m writing this article in a cabana beside the hammock I’ll be sleeping in later, with the sound of torrential but temporary rain and invasive coquí frogs as background noise. The privilege to be able to do this has not left my consciousness for a moment since I’ve arrived. After the traditional greeting of “Aloha!”, local people ask me about home. “What’s it like where you’re from?”
“We’re flooding,” I say to the first Hawai’ian who asked. There’s a blank look in response and I want to explain, but the conversation carries on as I remain locked in the helpless knowledge that things at home are really, really bad. When I remember to breathe, it’s time to leave the grocery store.
At one of the places we spend the night, our host, a young woman, explains that she does not, like many other Hawai’ians, consider herself a US citizen. She says she belongs to the Kingdom of Hawai’i; she says aloha ‘āina or “love of the land” is foremost to every native. I know this is true for the Indigenous people of Turtle Island as well, and it solidifies the thought that if we make any headway against the capitalist, resource-extraction-obsessed culture driving climate change, it will be because we as a settler nation, and all settlers globally, will listen to Native people of every land. Our host speaks about rising sea levels and how that distinctly impacts her island nation—and how they know it will get worse. She is speaking to all white people when she looks at me imploringly and says, “Don’t you know we are all ‘āina?” Don’t we know we are the land?
Aloha is so much more than a greeting or a farewell. It’s used in place of love and care as well. Its literal translation is “the presence of the Divine breath”, taking from alo which means presence, front or face, and hâ, which is breath. When the problem is water, as it is in Hawai’i with rising sea levels, and in Muskoka with historic flooding, the solution is aloha—the solution is breath, the answer is love and care.
I hadn’t realized how preternaturally breath is tied to love until that conversation with our host who scoffed when asked if she voted in the presidential election and who showed us videos of authentic, traditional hula. Meditative breathing is how I learned to battle insomnia and anxiety. Breath is part of my practice of radical self-love—no decision must be made before talking a deep, loving breath. With the water levels rising, plateauing, and not receding in my home town, I have felt choked. There are amazing local groups supported by incredible activists and everyday folks sprouting up, like Muskoka Power of Many. We are learning to breathe together, against the flood. We are fighting the asphyxiating nature of helplessness, the hyperventilating pleas of ‘no more’—no more loss, no more cuts, no more steps backwards. With our collective breath we are not asking anymore.
Today I tried snorkeling for the first time. I love to swim, feel at home in water, and I enjoy trying new things. My girlfriend is a certified SCUBA diver so I knew I was in good hands. The place we’re staying allowed us to borrow snorkel gear and away we went to a relatively calm inlet. We tramped down the lava stones to the open water and geared up. Everything fit well and I was comfortable enough with my on-land lesson. However, as soon as I got into the water, even though my feet could still touch the ocean floor, I began to panic, experiencing my first breathless anxiety attack in years. I couldn’t wear my glasses because of the goggles so my sight was limited; the flippers impeded my ability to steady my footing against the waves; the long-sleeve shirt I wore because I’d gotten so sunburned the day before felt like seaweed grabbing at my wrists; and the thought of putting the snorkel tube into my mouth was so counterintuitive to my desperation to breathe that I couldn’t tolerate it. I yanked the mask off my face and sucked in breath, aching to get that air into the lower chambers of my lungs but unable to. My breath training and years of experience were failing me—I was succumbing to this attack. My girlfriend did everything right in supporting me, but I needed to figure this out myself.
I remembered that as long as I’m breathing, I’m alive. And the only thing stopping me from inhaling properly is me: there’s no water in my lungs, no hand over my mouth. I can do this. And I did. Eventually my breathing did slow, deepen. I yawned several times and finally one took, staggering the oxygen deep into my belly, the final stage in being okay after a panic attack. Half an hour later, I was holding my breath, jackknifing into the water, plunging to the ocean floor to fly along with the fish, then surfacing, blasting the water from my snorkel with a sharp exhalation, a short inhale, then a full inhale once certain the water is cleared. I had found my hâ again.
What I have loved most about experiencing Hawai’i is the introduction of the concept of the Aloha Spirit. According to the Session Laws of Hawai’i, Aloha Spirit is “…the working philosophy of native Hawai’ians… ‘Aloha’ is more than a word of greeting or farewell or salutation. ‘Aloha’ means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return. ‘Aloha’ is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence…”
If I could offer any lesson from halfway across the world, it is this: every single person is important to everyone else. If everyone acknowledged and lived by this universal truth, how would the way we treat each other, and talk to each other, change? Could we ever lose sight of another person’s humanity again, as has apparently become so easy to do in our world? Positive regard for others, compassion, and care—the cornerstones of a culture that has a lot to teach us, at this most vital time in our journey in solidarity and community.
It’s not a lot—but it’s everything.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.