The global implications for the war in Europe are huge. It can be overwhelming to address directly. So instead, my take on geopolitics at a grassroots level in this garden saga.
The Saga of the Beautifuls
Lily grows taller than the roses in this Garden. She wrinkles her ribbed petals open into an upside-down umbrella.
The Rose Sprays grow in clumps of threes and fours, spreading their petals in tight circles. They want to sun themselves and hope for a smell-drunk bee to fall into their eager bellies.
Prideful Lily spreads wide over them; her indulgent display casts a shadow on all the short flowers underneath.
“NO!” the Rose Sprays protest. “We need the sun, the glorious sun!” So, the Rose Sprays place their hopes in that wee sliver of sun that might slip through the gap between Lily’s far-flung grabby petals. Lily adjusts her angle. She cheekily stretches, closing up even the tiny sliver of hope.
The Rose Sprays pipe up under mumblings. The Rose Sprays schemed. “We could probably stab at Lily bit these thorns; we just need a breeze to reach over there…. or maybe our caretaker might show Lily some sense.”
Overhead, a bee lands inside Lily’s newly advertised pistil, erect and pointing to the sky.
In the Garden’s next row, the Freesias are fighting amongst themselves. One new bud is opening over the top of the older ones. Resigned sighs & self-imposed tremors came from the dilapidated white blooms below.
A stand of tulips watched silently. Most of the tulips are proper and keep stiff upper lips. They won’t fight out loud amongst themselves. In all the fuss, though, just one, Mr. Tulip is just beside himself. Can’t all those grumpy flowers just shut up! Mr. Tulip recently developed a rash of red among his set of yellow petals. He tilted his body slightly, hoping that the garden master won’t notice his red hue.
Orchid’s bold bloom is withering away in the other corner with potted fellows. She tries hard to keep her petals tight until the deceased blossoms fall. If she manages to stay gorgeous, she’ll get to hang out in the showroom just a bit longer.
Next to the Orchid is potted Hydrangea. She is super pregnant with tight unblossomed babies. She silently wishes the fighting Rose Spray & Lily would keep it down. Hydrangea needs all her energy to push through tiny bursts of purplish flowers. Her blooms are due to burst any day now.
Allison came out to look over her Garden. Allison is the keeper of the Garden, equalizer, and consummate adjuster of angles, positions, and hierarchies. All rules and orders were delivered under her watch. She noticed the bright blooming Lily. With a snip of her garden clippers, Allision brought the sun to the Rose Sprays. Allison: the peacemaker, and the murderer too. Allison returned indoors with Lily in her gloved hand to adorn her dining table.
Sunny the Cat meandered into the Garden. He liked to play with the flowers unsupervised. He nuzzled Mr. Tulip and then gazed at the other flowers. Suddenly, Sunny pounced across the Garden and swatted at the base of the Freesia. A few older blooms fell to the ground. Casually, Sunny pawed at the dead flowers here and there. Allison popped her head through the window. “Stop that silly cat. That is MY Garden.”
The Orchid shuddered. The Hydrangea pushed a bit more. Mr. Tulip blushed deeper. The Rose Sprays sighed. The Freesias cried.
While the beaches and scenic vistas on Hawaii Island are unparalleled, in between those lovely views, the country’s more significant housing issues are playing out in paradise. In my few weeks here, I am learning to see a few systemic problems just under the surface. My perspective comes from my ability to choose where I would like to stay. As I get to know the island, I see the truth to the classic complaints about this island. Housing is expensive, and there is little public infrastructure.
The old adage, “it is who you know NOT what you know,” goes quite deep in Hawaii. I initially spent two weeks at the home of an acquaintance, introduced to me by our mutual friend in Tokyo. From there, I began to search for my own place to rent. Getting started here required me to call upon a lifetime’s worth of patience and resourcefulness. I found both my current home and my car privately through a circle of acquaintances.
Between Luck & Charm
My studio rental is a convenient sub-lease from another traveler. With a gorgeous garden setting, fully furnished, and entirely solo, it is a pleasant change from my first two weeks here, in the acquaintance’s home with five other housemates. Though my temporary studio is beautiful, it includes a cat, traveling geckos, and barking neighbors. As I explore homes in this area, I know people like me are part of the problem. I have some savings to work from and can work online.
The influx of computer-clad techies is pushing the cost from residents beyond control. A new friend and fellow slow-traveler is renting an off-grid cabin (hear, no running water, solar-powered electricity, and 10Mbs speed internet) for $1,300 a month in Puna. For her, this is a good option. A helicopter pilot rents a furnished single bedroom with no kitchen and no internet for $900 a month in Kona. He has running water and hot showers. I think he got a deal. For the locals, these rates are beyond reach.
Poverty in Paradise
The town of Hilo, for example, is densely packed and rainy. Poverty is all around. I cannot help but notice the people pushing worn-out shopping carts from corner to corner. The Landless Lot, my free-verse poem, was written in Tokyo but echoed here. Affordable housing for working people is often in poor condition, if even available. Many city-side homes have upwards of 5 cars parked outside, a tell-tale sign of house-hacking when some share a home with multiple renters (much like my acquaintance’s home).
Though I am in a decent position to look around my limitations go beyond my budget. (I do not have the F-U money to buy a $3 million condo with thousands in monthly association fees. For anyone interested, there are some of those available in the posh North Kona.) For creative solutions, I have considered buying land and building on it. Two immediate hurdles are (1) permitting and (2) wastewater management.
Delays & Cesspools
If I were to buy land and build on it, there are multiple avenues for delay. First, the best contractors, builders, and architects are booked up through the following year. Second, getting a building permit could still take over six months with housing plans drawn up. The slow-moving housing and building departments remind me of Japanese bureaucracy. A labor shortage further compounds these delays. Most surprisingly, while I have been looking around Hawaii Island, I learned about cesspools. A cesspool is essentially a hole in the ground where you let wastewater drain. Cesspools are a popular option when a home cannot connect to the sewage system or won’t go through the expense of a septic system. The cheap solution: a cesspool that barely leads off your property. Later, it will drain into a lava tube on someone else’s land. The consequences are enormous public health concerns. Guess where the wastewater goes? When there is a lot of rain in the areas around Hilo, the beaches get runoff from turbid water. Locals know to check for water quality warnings. Though the EPA has committed Hawaii County to eliminate commercial cesspools, residential builds have a longer leash.
Hawaii County still manages to pull a lot of potential residents from the mainland. By comparison, cheap land prices in remote areas have their draw. Of course, incoming mainlanders create more cost competition for the islanders. Here, I have only part of the picture; the federal government’s program for native Hawaiians still has not delivered on many promised homes. As I pop around and everywhere, I see that Hawaii Island is a microcosm of the country’s housing crisis. The crisis here is compounded by a few active volcanos and poor infrastructure. Thank you for following along on my adventure!
Happy Valentine’s Day, dear reader. Along my way to a single’s V-Day, I celebrate the rite-of-passage known as the first date. I love meeting people, and that curiosity keeps me open to encounters of the romantic kind. Today, I am relishing the online stories of many bad dates. One of my absolute worst first dates was so disastrous I still remember it over a decade later.
Early in my career, I worked as an immigration attorney in Atlanta. Around that time, I had a cute scooter and rode it to an immigrant justice rally. There, I met Amir (come on, you didn’t really think I would share his real name). We had a few mutual friends, and we shared a multi-cultural background. Towards the end of the rally, he asked if he could take me out on his own two-wheeled transport. He was cute, clever, and seemed like good company. I am, also, such a sucker for a motorcycle ride and, of course, said yes.
When he showed up a week later at my place in Midtown, a tad late on his very lovely red Ducati, I immediately forgave his tardiness. I hopped onto the back of his bike clad in boots and a sweet rider’s jacket. We were off to dinner at the Vortex, I thought…
We took the gorgeous Ponce De Leon Avenue up towards Little Five. The road was smooth, but we were wavering a bit in the lanes, and at a traffic light, I stopped to ask if everything was OK. Amir replied: he was not used to so much weight on the back of his bike! He did not dare look at my face and sped off as the light turned green, and I sensed that I had just to hold on now for an interesting evening…
We had decided to get burgers at this lively spot in Little Five, but he drove right past the turn. So I asked what was going on, and he told me he had a package to drop off in downtown Decatur. It was a gorgeous night, and I enjoyed being a passenger, so I patiently and curiously hung out, enjoying the ride.
Finally, we arrived at an office complex’s underground parking, and Amir pulled out a package from his jacket. He dropped the thick stack of materials into an after-hours dropbox. Coincidentally, I recognized the attorney’s name where he shoved his delivery. She was a rockstar lawyer with a very niche focus in removal defense for immigrants with criminal convictions. I did not let on that I recognized her name. The night only got more interesting from there.
By now, it was getting late, and we were both getting hungry. We finally get to the Little Five neighborhood, and Amir pulls the bike into a parking lot about two blocks away from the Vortex. On the walk there, we saw a pop-up shop that had a line of over 50+ people waiting outside. I did not recognize the artist’s name, but Amir was eager to check it out. I uncomfortably agreed to wait in line (I no longer do this, Tokyoites!), so we waited outside for nearly an hour and made small-talk with one another. I learned he had several motorbikes and that apparently, he was behind on bike payments…. When we finally made it to the entrance of this pop-up, the staff asked us what we would like to get signed by the artist. Amir ended up springing for a $50 T-shirt. We shot a few selfies with the graphic artist and then rolled out of the pop-up. At this point, I sensed we were not on the same wavelength. He seemed amused, and I started to see the evening as a wash.
When we finally got to the Vortex, the dinner crowd was already seated at all the tables. The hostess suggested sitting at the bar. Amir stepped up with a yes, please, and we were seated, next to each other. At this point, I would have loved to use Uber to go home, but it was not around yet… Over burgers at the bar, I obliquely inquired about his delivery. He explained that he was in deportation proceedings stemming from a night of partying that resulted in a criminal trespassing arrest. His specialist immigration defense attorney would try to help him stay in the country. I knew from my legal work that he would need an excellent basis for relief in his removal proceedings. When I asked the basis for his relief was, he mentioned his marriage to a US citizen spouse! I am not in the habit of dating married men (on principle). I was already surprised, and then he casually mentioned that he and his wife also have two kids. Some surprises are best shared on a first date.
All the while, Amir seemed intrigued by my knowledge in this area. I had been working in immigration now for about 2 years and knew the legal shithole he was in. I imagined that things were not working out too well for Amir and his wife. He did seem quite eager to lean in and feel me out for free advice on his predicament. By this point, I was certain this date was going nowhere. When I thought it could not get any worse, the dinner tab showed. He said, I would have paid for you, but I just spent my last $50 on that T-shirt.
After we split the bill, he commented, you are pretty cool. Let’s hang out again sometime. I managed to keep from laughing in his face. Luckily, he drove me home without any other surprises. His audacity still gives me a good laugh. I no longer hop onto any old bike. In fact, I learned I much prefer walking to motorcycle surprises.
Watch out, ladies! Amir is still out there. He managed to stay in the US and now is an attorney too.
Last month, after I taught a class on flower arrangement, a class participant wrote to tell me she was envious of my life. I still have not found the right words to respond to her. Perhaps my life seen from social media does not show the dark spots along my path. Today, though, I want to acknowledge the darkness.
Despite all my expeditions into the light, sometimes only the darkness rises up. I know I am not the only one. Here in Hawaii, an acquaintance of mine carries his pain right on his chest; he has a tattoo of a lost soul floating in the dark ether of space. When I feel this type of pain, I tend to hideaway. We live in a culture that pushes us to look happy constantly. However, being human requires us to touch the whole range of emotions. For me, the very heart that chases beautiful vistas is also home to a heavy spot of sadness.
I have known the darkness my whole life. Growing up, I was accused of being moody, too sensitive, or full of attitude. I, now, have learned to recognize a few triggers of that darkness. For example, an insensitive comment, a perceived injustice, or sometimes dreary weather can cloud my disposition. After my father’s death, that darkness exploded into a full-blown depression. Through therapy, I learned some tools to help me manage those darker moments.
My pen has been a lifelong medium in confronting the dark spots. I have written in journals from about age seven. Those recollected pains are a history of my temperature changes. They are also reminders. I have seen the darkness before. I have looked right into the abyss, and I know there is more for me than that abyss.
A recent bout of darkness followed the harsh words of a retreating romance. Again, I tried to write through it. This time I could not manage to ink away from the blues. But through a chance conversation with a wise soul, I have started to consider the salve of gratitude.
Then, in the dark, I began to find space to give thanks. I gave thanks for my past experiences with the darkness. In knowing this pain, I touch my humanity. I gave thanks to the capacity to be present with the discomfort. Though patience is challenging to muster when we are in pain, I felt gratitude for the faith that the darkness will lift at some point. I pulled all my strength together to put one moment after the next. By some stroke of luck, or sometimes, just patience, that dark will give way to light.
My own tools are not always a panacea. Sometimes, the dark still hangs about. The darkness has a message for us. Perhaps we have lessons to learn from it. At the very least, it is a reminder that we must embrace all of ourselves. The colors and the shadows add depth to our world. When it is too much, I hope a friend, a conversation, or a shift happens. There is a way out of pain. The course requires walking through the darkness. If it is too difficult, there are resources to find help. For anyone reading who struggles with the dark, I am sending faith. Faith that you can make it past the darkness. I send confidence that the sun will rise again. I trust that her warm rays will kiss your face.
Have you tried to get a dynamic and thought-provoking discussion going with a diverse group of people? Every time you interact, virtually or in person, with someone with a different cultural background, you have the chance to open yourself up. It is like flipping a coin. You could become offended, confused, or dismissive. Or you can use that opportunity to learn something new. Whether you are in a Facebook group, Zoom call with your remote office, or in a challenging board meeting, a few principles can help create the conditions for a meaningful discussion instead of discord.
To begin understanding a different worldview and potentially reach shared positions, establishing a safe discussion environment is the first step. With a shared purpose, mutual trust, the desire to listen, and mindfulness skills, diverse groups of people can come together to improve their understanding of new perspectives.
Down Home in Georgia
My life is riddled with experiences in contrasting world views. I was a high school student in suburban Atlanta, Georgia when the twin towers were attacked during 9/11. My family is a Muslim part of the Indian diaspora. Although I do not identify as Muslim, I felt sympathy for those in my community experiencing Islamophobia or marginalization. In the tense times after that tragedy, I saw countless instances where people missed nuanced points of view. Anger cannibalized the ability to detect or understand nuance.
Since then, I have been paying attention to identifying the optimal moments to exchange perspectives. My practice of law and work in litigation clearly showed how expensive it is to fight in courts instead of finding common ground. My interest in community organizing, conflict resolution, and ultimately, even travel, is grounded in hearing ideas that are different from mine.
Nowadays the headlines announce climate change, racial injustice, and divided national politics. There seem to be countless topics that could antagonize us. The basic principles I started to learn in Georgia laid the groundwork for my toolkit in learning to hear another person’s perspective. With shared goals, a safe space to discuss, empathetic listening, and mindfulness, we have the basic ingredients for a meaningful discussion.
1. Solutions, not Reactions
Around June 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations went from an American concern to a global movement. In Tokyo, I became a moderator for the local BLM Facebook group. I shared a video of a prominent Atlanta-based rapper who consoled an angry crowd. People in Georgia were angry at years of abuse at the hands of police; they were ready to burn Atlanta again. The rapper reminded the crowd that they would not solve anything by burning down their own homes. He moved people’s attention, instead, towards a search for solutions. With his moving example, I called for any forum members who wanted to join me in discussing solutions. From there we started a smaller, informal discussion group. For the next six months, and onwards, we held regular discussions in which we talked through social justice solutions.
At the end of 2020, I proposed the idea of opening the group to new people. Our purely online discussion group had coalesced and formed its own sense of community. As we debated opening up to other people, we realized it would require an understanding of our implicit code of conduct. Our chat about our healthy group dynamics is where the idea for this article was born. Since then, I keep finding myself in the midst of great discussions where the objective is to seek solutions. Through this work, I’ve come to appreciate and identify the ingredients for a sincere, meaningful exchange of ideas. Beyond a search for solutions, we also must provide psychological safety, empathetic listening, and mindfulness within our group dialogues.
2. Fear Keeps People from Sharing
We started our discussion group with the knowledge that we do not know everything and cannot speak for everyone. As a group, we represented various passports, professions, and educational backgrounds. Together we sought an antidote to “cancel” culture. In our first group chat, I informally proposed that we be kind and patient with one another as we learn and grow in our search for solutions.
This established a critical baseline, the idea of psychological safety. We were not going to summarily shut someone down just for voicing an unpopular opinion. If someone is in an exploratory phase with certain ideas, they may be afraid their opinion will be seen as stupid or biased. A conversation in a psychologically safe discussion group can be a place to flesh out ideas.
People in a casual discussion are reluctant to fully share their thoughts because they are afraid that they will get chewed out for their opinion. If someone shares, “Most white people make me angry,” the speaker would very rightly be concerned that those words may be used against them out of context. When confronted with the prospect of an angry response, people shrink from their willingness to share. They do not want a fight just to feel understood. The labels of “racist” or not being “woke” enough carry a real social stigma. People are afraid their voices will be “canceled” if an idea is unacceptable. Furthermore, the biggest fear looming over anyone bold enough to share a controversial opinion is that they will be called a hypocrite if their perspective changes.
All of these concerns can be assuaged if people can be confident that they are sharing in a safe space. Ground rules for privacy and also for the style and tone we take with one another can ensure civility and a willingness to share.
3. Listen to Understand, Not to Reply
Early in our discussion group, as an exercise, we each took turns to share a moment that made us feel marginalized or dis-empowered. We listened to each other’s lived experiences and pain. For example, I shared how I felt in high school when someone casually informed me that non-Christians will inevitably go to hell. In turn, I also listened to the perspectives of a new immigrant facing racial discrimination in Canada.
This type of sharing was one of the greatest tools we employed in our discussions. In our sharing, we developed the capacity to listen empathetically. Instead of replying with justifications or excuses, listened with the purpose of understanding how that experience affected the speaker. We realized that empathy is a tool for good discussions.
If you are ever struggling to find a way to understand someone’s pain or sense of indignity, think of a time you felt wronged. Recall that feeling in a physical sense. Without intellectualization and justification, get in touch with how that moment felt in an emotional sense. Then, when you hear someone sharing their own pain, you can “call upon” your own feelings of that kind. At that moment, you have the potential to see how the world operates from another person’s perspective.
4. Apply Mindfulness
Using empathetic listening, and then building on that with mindfulness makes it possible to have a meaningful group discussion. The formal practice of meditation includes cultivating mindfulness. That tool is critical in good discussions as well.
A common mindfulness metaphor is to see our thoughts as a gushing stream or river. That stream often carries with it a constant flow of critiquing and judgmental thoughts. If we can be an observer on the banks of the stream of our thoughts, instead of judging, critiquing, or becoming offended by what someone else is saying, we can refocus our awareness on the other’s perspective. Doing so allows us the possibility of truly hearing what the other person is saying.
By curtailing your own thoughts, I mean that you put away your desire to be right.Keep a pulse on your own emotional reactions through mindfulness. While your own thoughts and feelings are a signal that something does not resonate, those observations can keep you from really listening, with ears and heart. By being mindful listeners, we can make the person across from us feel understood. When you have made some feel understood, you create the space for your own turn to share.
Every opportunity to engage with someone from a different background is a chance to learn. Having a curiosity about the reasoning behind another’s perspective starts from a place of mutual respect. While none of the above is new, I hope to see these kinds of meaningful discussions taking place more often. We close the door for understanding in discussions while we areangry or want to prove someone wrong. This attitude impedes our ability to understand motivations or have an exchange of ideas in dialogue.
If our objective is to vent or to prove that we are right, it won’t get us far. If, however, we are operating in a discussion to seek a certain common goal, and we are able to listen mindfully with our full hearts, there is enormous potential for mutual understanding. We all have the potential to build bridges and understand one another.
As online forums and Zoom meetings become the norm, the subtle cues of in-person, face-to-face interactions are unavailable. In times like these, using these dialogue tools becomes even more important. As our world gets closer and closer through globalization, travel, and technology, I hope varied groups online can apply these tools to nourish and join in on the many interesting discussions enjoyed in a pluralistic society.