Uncomfortable in My Own Skin

A few weeks ago while in Kauai, I was reminded of events that happened during two previous visits, episodes that made me aware that I may be freer to walk in the world, because I’m white and middle-class.

During my first trip, I had an afternoon free before I had to return the rental car and fly home. I wanted to spend my last few hours in paradise at the beach. However, checkout was 11:00 a.m. I had to turn in my keys and couldn’t use the chaise lounges at the resort condos where I’d been staying.

A nearby resort routinely put out a slew of chaises on their lawn overlooking the beach. Guests didn’t have to check out chairs. I figured I could blend in with actual guests and hang out there for a few hours. I looked the part of a paying customer—I was wearing clean clothes and had a backpack, towel, and an iPad. Not the profile for a homeless person.

It was a small gamble. Who would wonder about a middle-class white lady? Turns out, no one.

Another time in Kauai, I went for a long walk to Shipwreck Beach. Along the way I enjoyed the red and yellow hibiscus, hot pink bougainvillea, and orange bird of paradise blooming in the resort gardens I passed.

On my way back, I was in full broiling sun and the walk began to seem more oppressive than fun. I could feel myself getting seriously overheated. So I decided to take a break in the air-conditioned lobby of a nearby hotel. Again, I hoped to blend in. The desk clerk smiled and nodded to me. She probably thought I was waiting for someone. After 15 minutes or so, I had cooled down enough to leave the hotel and continue on my trek.

In each case, I wasn’t bothering anyone, but I was trespassing. Perhaps that’s why I started to speculate—would I have been treated as nicely if I were a black or Latina woman? Would somebody have asked, “Can I help you?” with the imperious tone that really means, “What are you doing here?”

 

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Gaining Ground

“Feel the Earth beneath you. Draw on the Earth’s energy,” my Yin Yoga instructor often says during the opening meditation. I rarely think about the Earth this way. The Earth is something we walk on, build houses on, and drive cars over. Usually it feels inert. However, my perception of the Earth changed after I visited the big island of Hawai’i.

On the Hilo side of the Big Island, rain forts have overtaken the lava fields.

On the Hilo side of the Big Island, rainforests have overtaken the lava fields.

On the eastern and southern sides of the island, vast lava fields stretch to the horizon. The lava is crumbly, dark brown, and in some places, swaths of it intersperse grassy plains. To my Midwesterner’s eye, it resembled freshly plowed fields—as if some farmer had run amok turning over the soil. Up close, the lava looks like cindery gravel and boulders.

Lava filed on the Kona side of Hawaii.

Lava field on the Kona side of Hawai’i

I am fascinated by this enduring, unyielding evidence of Earth’s energy and power. The Earth erupted dozens, hundreds, or thousands of years ago, depending what part of the plain you’re viewing. Lava flowed down the side of the mountain to the sea. Where it flowed quickly, tumbling over itself, it looks crumbly like crunched up Oreos (a’a lava). Where it flowed more slowly, the lava lapped into thick swirls that resembles the crust of unfrosted brownies (pahoehoe lava).

On the Kona side, a’a lava (like crunched up Oreos) overlaps pahoehoe lava (resemble the crust of unfrosted brownies).

On the Kona side, a’a lava (like crunched up Oreos) overlaps pahoehoe lava (resembling the crust of unfrosted brownies).

Though it’s easy for me to forget it or ignore it, the Earth is still volatile. Today, lava is erupting from the summit of the Kīlauea Volcano in the center of the island and flowing south from the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent to the ocean. As the lava cools and hardens, it makes new rock, essentially forming brand new ground. Because of the Earth’s incredible energy and force, the island is expanding, gaining ground—hardly inert.

Lava spouting from a crater in Volcano National park

Lava spouting from a crater in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

But it’s not the explosive force of molten magma I think of in yoga class. Sitting squarely on my mat in the Midwest, thousands of miles from the Hawaiian volcanoes, I now picture Earth’s energy humming beneath me. The energy that both destroys and creates. I visualize sending my irritations and fears down into the Earth to be burned away. Or drawing on the Earth’s creative force to energize me. I have gained a new connection to the Earth.