A pink glow lured me out early this morning, although I’d been up late the night before enjoying good conversation and that gorgeous big moon, which reaches full this evening. It had already set by the time Koko and I stepped out into the rosy haze of the pre-dawn world.
Walking down the street, we watched a hefty wedge of salmon-tinted clouds slide off the top of Makeleha. Shafts of golden light cut across the Giant as the sun nudged upwards, casting stands of guava in the rich hues of an alpenglow. The ironwoods sighed softly, stirred by a gentle breeze, and hunting dogs in a passing pick up truck exchanged barks with Koko.
It was the kind of morning that made me glad to be alive, and it made me think of how my friend last night expressed puzzlement over the recent spate of kids committing suicide even though they live on Kauai, a place where so many other people would love to be.
His comment made me think of an interview I had earlier in the week with a woman, born and raised on Kauai, who works as a substitute health aide on the local public school campuses.
She told me of encountering droves of elementary kids who find the smallest excuse to come to the health room, just to get a few kind words, a bit of love and attention.
Older kids, too, line up outside the health room door, arguing over whose turn it is to talk with her that day as they seek counsel about some pressing issue.
“They want to talk,” she said. “They’re looking for guidance. A lot of these kids have some serious worries on their mind and no one they can trust or talk to.”
Some complain of sore stomachs, the result of not eating for a couple of days because there is no food at their house. And some report that their parents are “wasted” all the time, or that they give their food stamp EBT cards to the dealer in exchange for drugs.
Others have parents who are struggling to pay the bills, yet too proud to seek any sort of public assistance. “It’s usually the local people who need help the most,” she said, “but they’re the least likely to seek it because they’re ashamed to admit they're not making it and they think everybody else is.”
When she offers the kids forms their parents can sign qualifying them for free meals at school, some express fear they’ll “get cracks” for talking about family problems with a stranger. So she gives them words to use with their parents, tells them to explain that they need to eat so they can learn and improve their lives.
“I feel such joy when the kids come back to school all smiles with that form signed,” she said.
Other kids tell her of being paid to run drugs between customers and dealers, an activity that troubles them, but how else are they going to get money? She said that one boy, after being asked to think about how the drugs he delivered were affecting the user, said, “You’re right, I don’t really need those Quicksilver shorts.”
"They don't seem to have anybody teaching them what's right and wrong," she said. "It's all about making money."
And that made me think of my young friend Kaimi, born and raised on the North Shore, who works with a lot of youth on that part of the island, which has been hard hit by gentrification. Besides teaching them how to fish and hunt and grow taro and do the other things he learned as a kid, he spends much of his time trying to counteract the messages of inadequacy perpetuated by popular culture.
“I let them know they’re alright just the way they are, that they don’t have to be one Justin Timberlake or Brittney Spears,” he said. “They have no idea how special this place is, how much other people want what they already have. All they see is that they don’t have money, but all these people coming from other places do.
“And unless there’s somebody to show them otherwise, they start thinking like money is all that matters. They don’t realize that once they leave, it’s not so easy to come back.”
As he sees it, the answer is to keep reinforcing values that offer an alternative to the mainstream model of acquisition and consumption, and to teach kids what's special and unique about local culture, and the role they can play in perpetuating it.
The school health aide also thinks that people need to move away from the emphasis on making money and return to the old ways of sharing and cooperation — values that strengthen families and communities, values that used to characterize life on Kauai.
"We were poor growing up, very poor," she said. "But everybody else was, too, so it didn't matter. We had each other, we had our friends and family, we raised chickens and had our gardens. I think the kids would be better off if we went back to living like that, because then at least their parents and families would have time for them."
Perhaps such a shift is the silver lining in this current economic downturn. Still, I’m not sure it will manifest spontaneously. Instead, it seems there needs to be a conscious and concerted effort to embrace the values of frugality and simplicity, to counteract the message of fear and deprivation now being touted by the media and remind kids — and ourselves — that people for many centuries have lived and been happy with less.