Thursday, February 14, 2008


She cried. She needed to cry. There was too much inside her. Compressing into a pressurized vault with explosive potential….She wanted to empty herself. She cried as hard as she could. Rocking and rocking until she exhaled all of the breath she could. She wanted to turn her insides out and wring them dry. Wring out the bitterness, the loneliness, the sting, the confusion, the repression, the indecision, the apathy, the longing, the hurt. But inhalation made it impossible for anything other than temporary relief. She wanted to self-destruct. But she knew the source of her malady could not be tangibly located. She didn’t know exactly what to destroy. Her heart was nothing more than muscle fibers contracting in regular rhythmic intervals at the command of her brain which was nothing more than a complex interwoven network of neurons firing on cue thanks to her lungs – repositories for gaseous essentials. Her stomach – churning. Where was it coming from?

The Source

It was a routine pop-in-the-mouth, over-the-tongue eating of the M&M that her dangerous sugar addiction had led her through so many times before. Things go down the wrong pipe. Solids go down the liquid pipe, liquids down the air pipe. It happens. But this time was different. This one in a million got stuck. She felt it lodge in her throat, triggering an instant gag reaction. Normally a bit of coughing would clear the way and life would continue as usual. She couldn’t breathe. She felt her air passages constricting and labored breathing became no breathing. She tried to inhale. Nothing. She coughed to exhale. She turned, bent over, towards her family who was by now confused and horrified by the unnatural sounds she was making. She didn’t even know how to gesture them to help. In the time it took for them to swallow their own fear and determine the best course of action, , she had somehow by the grace of God dislodged the wedged M&M and took a loud, raucous, grateful gasp of air as if she had just surfaced from an underwater contest trying to swim the length of the pool and back. She went right for the water in the fridge and leaned over the open door thanking God for the sweet gift of breath, and cursing him for how painfully scary it was to have it momentarily taken away. Hearing her breathing return to a comfortable normalcy, her frozen family realized what had happened and began to make sure she was okay. She laughed and coughed. She didn’t know why she laughed. She was terrified – still shaking. Maybe that was her nervous way of dealing with it – of hiding her fear. Maybe she thought it was funny because it would have been a humiliating way to go out – embarrassing in fact. Nothing heroic. Nothing even so far as to say tragic. More unfortunate. Choked on an M&M. Maybe she thought it was funny because it could have been that easy. Maybe she had found somewhere hidden in that M&M that life was the source of her hurt. Maybe she was laughing because this should have bothered her more than it did. Whatever conscious or subconscious took place in her twisted mind, she knew one thing for sure, she would not be eating M&M’s again in the near future.

Fragrant Touch

The lady went through the line raving about the “experience.” Isn’t that what we’re all in it for? Trader Joe’s has just captured that yearning and put it in a store. It’s ingenious really. Why hasn’t anyone else thought of it? Making you feel like you’re important. Giving you the little reasons to enjoy life. Not the big ones – you can’t buy love, or happiness or fulfillment off the shelves – but if chocolate covered edamame gives you a sense of satisfaction – however temporary – we’ll carry it. The lady was bright and sunshiny and though it is typically her job as a mission-centered employee to spread her own cheer, some customers are just more prone to contagion than others.
Her name wasn’t Carol. The voice must have been summoning the lady checking-out. In familiar female fashion, their voices got squeaky and nostalgic followed by embraces, a cocked head to the side and a genuine “How arrrrrrrrrrre you?” It has become….well not become…it’s always been just a formality. Something polite you are supposed to say to pretend you are interested. A rare few wait to hear the response. Most default to the cheap and easy “fine.howareyou?” intending to mask, encompass, account for and squeeze their human emotions of angst, anxiety, joy, dejection, despair and loneliness in one pre-recorded prevaricated response.

These two ladies had been broken by the experience. Nothing was falsified. It was so real it left her, the neutral uninvolved cashier feeling vulnerable. Carol asked how her caller friend was, and instead of lying through her teeth, her face suggested pain, and her eyes drifted toward the floor as she both with body language and words expressed that things were not as “fine” as they could be.

She didn’t want to get involved. She robotically scanned the items. Not-listening. Trying not to listen. Trying to remain Swiss. She was too close to them not to hear, and not to see the distraught caller start to crumble, caught in the arms of her long-lost friend Carol. She couldn’t determine the cause of her grief, but she knew it hurt. Her face was pressed to Carol’s shoulder, eyes scrunched, tears streaming.

She panicked for a second. She didn’t want to see a stranger cry. She couldn’t do anything to help this Eve she didn’t even know. She didn’t want to get involved, but by virtue of her proximity and her own very real feelings of empathy, she wanted to join the hug and cry too. She didn’t know the source, the root, the cause, but she knew the weight all too well. She knew what it felt like just to find someone in whom the slightest bit of trust invoked a somewhat involuntary dropping of the guard. The emotion – irrepressible. She felt like she owed Eve at the very least the reassurance of shared human experience.

Their embrace swept them into a world far removed from the counter, leaving her enough time to quickly finish the transaction and drop the receipts in the bag. She walked a way in a manner that suggested she was giving them space and privacy. She walked over to the flowers. Flowers, yes. It’s neutral. It’s compassionate. She scanned for a bouquet that simply said, “I don’t know what happened, but I know what it feels like. I hope that these make you smile.” Yes that one. The buds were bursting open. The smell fragrant to the touch. The colors. Yes this was the one.

She walked over to Eve and gently placing her hand just above her elbow, the cashier handed her the bouquet. Her brown jacket was soft. That made her easier to approach. She was still dumbfounded and didn’t know what to say. She hoped the gesture would speak louder than her silence.

Eve’s face dropped further than moments before and she started crying again. That was not the intent. No no no stop crying. Just take them and go. Take them and go. No no no hugs. Aw she hugged her.

She didn’t think flowers could dissolve the barriers of unfamiliarity. It wasn’t the flowers.

Eve hugged her. The cashier could tell she was making the same scrunched face into her shoulder. The one she had made when hugging Carol. She wanted to cry too. Someone had to be strong. She was tired of being strong. She wanted to cry into Eve’s shoulder.

She wanted someone to cry into. She was glad that she could be that someone for Miss Eve. Deeply grateful, Miss Carol also hugged the cashier, both thanking her profusely for what was a seemingly simple gesture. They both walked out of the store, not entirely consoled but profoundly touched, arm in arm.

She was left standing there, wondering why this affected her so much. She was overwhelmed by how trivial it was – what she did. She was overwhelmed by how closely the human thread is tied.

She wanted someone to walk arm in arm with. She needed her Savior. She wanted to feel her Savior in the form of a Carol. In the form of a cashier. In the form of fragrant touch.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Meet Johnny...

Traveling with an Infant Form

Thank you for choosing Contintental Micronesia. If you intend to travel with an infant, please fill out the following form and return it to the attendant when you check-in for your flight. Thank you for your cooperation.

Circle either YES or NO for all that apply.

1. Are you traveling with an infant? YES or NO

2. Is your infant under 3 years of age? YES or NO

3. Does your infant: (circle all that apply)

Cry? YES or NO

Scream? YES or NO

Whine? YES or NO

Whimper? YES or NO

4. At what noise level does your infant have the

ability to perform any of the above?

Whisper ? YES or NO

Murmur ? YES or NO

Conversational ? YES or NO

Tonsil bearing ? YES or NO

Blood curdling ? YES or NO

Ear piercing ? YES or NO

5. How frequently does your infant perform the above?

Rarely ? YES or NO

When provoked? YES or NO

Often ? YES or NO

More often than not ? YES or NO

Non-stop – without coming up for air ? YES or NO

6. Does the small, enclosed size of a cabin exponentially

amplify the noise that your infant is capable of

producing? YES or NO

Please add up the number of YES boxes you circled. Scores totaling over 12 may qualify you for our special reserved courtesy infant seating in the very middle of the cabin, completely surrounded by adults looking for a peaceful ride to their destination. Thank you for your cooperation and again, thank you for flying Continental Micronesia.

Meet Johnny

There is at least one on every flight. Perhaps there is an application for this seating as well that I am unaware of. Inevitably, about 20 minutes or so after taking off, the flight attendants begin tending to the cabin, offering an assortment of complimentary beverages – sometimes peanuts, if you’re lucky honey roasted peanuts, sometimes pretzel wheels and if you’re really lucky, a sandwich and some raisins. In order to fit all of this goodness onto one cart, the dimensions of the cart tend to be such that it consumes the whole aisle, the armrest of seat C to the arm rest of seat D with maybe just a few spare inches on either side.

Meet Mr. Johnny Patient sitting up in seat 2A. He's one of the first to receive his Coke, coastered with a napkin. Impatient because they took his slurpee away from him at a security check point, he downs the Coke and with a satisfied smacking of the lips, pounds the empty plastic cup on the seat tray. He looks around for a moment out of boredom now that the excitement of a free drink has subsided. It doesn’t take long before he realizes that he now has to use the restroom and so his sole focus becomes relieving himself. Without hesitation, he climbs over Jimmy and Suzie, comfortably reading and sipping on their beverage of choice. With minimal spillage but maximum inconvenience due to not so small adults playing musical chairs in not so large airplane seats, he triumphantly makes it to the aisle. To his dismay, he looks up and sees the rear end of the stewardess, working fervently behind her precious cart. Surveying either side of the cart, he realizes that his load is too wide to shimmy past. The flight attendant has a good 27 rows left to serve, but he makes the decision to wait it out. Initially confident this is a good idea, he stands upright, watching her adroit, rehearsed movements – pop, pour, napkin, serve. This amuses him for a while until the liquid pouring sound reminds him of his need to get to the restroom. He thinks maybe if he looks again there may be an opening he missed the first time that would allow him to squeeze through. Alas, the cart is the same size.

The stewardess senses someone is behind her and notices the gentlemen, not seeking her attention, but still unusually close. She continues working, not losing her focus or breaking her routine, for if she stopped for every inconsiderate passenger she would never finish her job.

Though she pretends not to notice, other passengers, particularly in seats C and D, do, and are now feeling awkward with this gentlemen hovering over their personal space. Johnny senses the tension and tries to look away but slips for a moment to check if they are staring at him. They are. Johnny’s look says something to the effect of, “Soooo, this is pretty awkward….probably couldn’t get more awkward, well, unless of course if I were naked, then I would be in quite a pickle,” which warrants multiple looks that insinuate, “You’re not a very intelligent individual are you?”

One row at a time, the stewardess works diligently, still slightly uncomfortable with someone leaning over her shoulder. Johnny Patient thinks she’s going slower on purpose just to embarrass him even more, and he begins to get frustrated, huffing and puffing to indicate that he is still waiting to pass. Hearing, but not acknowledging his anger, she smiles. Even after all of the flights she has worked and all of the clowns who do the exact same thing, she is still amused by his stupidity.

After what has to have been about 7 minutes, Johnny takes note of the emergency exit row – his one chance to escape! She unlocks the wheel brakes and he nearly knocks her over to squeeze past her before she blocks the next row. Sensing that she had given him enough of a hard time, she courteously rolls the cart back to allow him to pass and he scurries off to the bathroom.

Vacancy light on – off – on. He struggles to exit through the sliver of a bathroom door, stumbles back into the aisle and starts heading back to his seat….that is until he looks up and notices the cart back downstream at row 16.

Palauan Status

I was so excited to go to Palau, forgetting that this too would be a cultural immersion experience of its own. The Republic of Palau is a tiny group of islands in the farthest west point of Micronesia from which a small percentage of our Xavier students come. I guess I thought it would literally be all fun and games watching Xavierites and Palauan citizens play and run their hearts out in the 6th annual Belau games, but I found it more reminiscent of past experiences of pure discomfort, such as Saipan, Uman and sponsor families – just tagging along as an outsider with no particular purpose other than to observe - always on the outside looking in, embarrassed by the burden I put on people to feel like they have to baby-sit the foreigner. I don’t know what made me think this experience would be any different.

It was a blessing to be able to visit, and looking back, it seems like my trip was more for selfish reasons such as getting to see and experience life in Palau. I suppose that I erred yet again in thinking it was some grand gesture to show how much I care and how important they have been in my life. As a thank you for that, I gave them a burden for about a week……….ME – YAYY!! (if you know me, you know the tone in which that is squealed)

I don’t yet know how I feel about Palau. It is definitely an island and there are definitely glimpses of island life. You sweat your tukus off, there are coconut trees and you are surrounded by crystal waters, but it is so different from Chuuk. There is a very obvious sense of modernity that has tiptoed in and made its presence known on what was used to be a pristine culture. I felt a nagging sense of resentment towards such progressiveness.

I suddenly found myself self-conscious of what I was wearing. It hadn’t dawned on me that this was a place where ripped t-shirts aren’t socially acceptable to wear in public. I forgot the existence of the understood social principle: matching clothes. I was only one of less than a handful sporting the long Chuukese skirt and though I’ve seen them before I was easily offended by girls with thighs showing. The cars drive fast. Stores line both sides of the roads that the cars barrel down. People who drive the cars become easily road raged and are clearly more confrontational as opposed to humbly submissive.

* * *

A few of our students happened to be on the same flight going to Palau for a Junior Statesman Preparatory Conference. Across the way, there was another boy in the airport immigration line staring at one of our Xavier boys. So our student, what I think was casually, approached the gawker to ask him if there was a problem. Naturally, our student wanted to know if he had done something that would cause him to keep staring.

Well, the mother of this awkward Palauan boy stepped in and started inquiring why our kid was getting in her son’s face. Coolly, the Xavier student rejoined that her son was staring at him and he simply wanted to know why - perhaps not the best logic when approaching an impolite gazer, but one that certainly did not warrant the inflated response that ensued.

The mother didn’t like our student’s defense and so she flipped out. F-bombs flew, voice was well above reasonable conversational level such that the rest of the immigration line had either turned to see what was happening or turned towards the wall so as not to get involved. Myself and the other Xavierites played it island (FSM) style and backed off, trying not to make eye contact and feigning invisibility hoping that the aroused and irritated once sleeping bear might find someone else on which to prey.

Instead of settling down, she proceeded to call for Papa bear, who was halfway across the terminal. So I now find myself standing in between a normally confident senior in High School who is built, but not too much taller than me, and a good 250 lb., irate, Palauan gentleman who I assumed would have attacked on the spot had he not wanted to tarnish the glow of his shiny head which seemed to have been recently shaved and waxed.

His blood was boiling as he began yelling at my student, informing him that when you’re different, people stare at you and you should just get used to it because there is nothing wrong with staring. Being the token white person in the immigration line, this point offered the perfect opportunity for some comic relief. I should have interjected “Well, I’m more different that he is. How about your son just stares at me.” However, judging by the look on Tonto’s face, he didn’t seem to be much in the mood for humor. He then started to step forward, leaving his kids in line. My heart nearly flat lined as I was trying desperately to figure out how little ole’ me is going to prevent this angry beast from pummeling my kid. Thank the good Lord’s providence, immigration called him to the window, effectively diffusing the kafuffle. Unless the person was drunk (which isn’t that uncommon) I am fairly certain the situation would have been handled much differently in the FSM.

* * *

The western ideas of opulence and mentalities that value status and monetary wealth have also crept into the water here, which believe it or not you can drink right from the tap. It is traditional at graduation, as in most places, to give money as a form of congratulations. But at the Palau public High School ceremony, relatives slipped a $10 bill into an envelope, no card, no substantial message, just a sawbuck in an envelope. People buy mwaramwar (lei) instead of making them. People drive everywhere along the 1 ½ mile main strip instead of walking. I was washing dishes and since there was no basin, I was turning the faucet on and off so as not to waste water. My sisters walk up behind me, flip both faucets on and say, “This isn’t Chuuk, you can waste water.” Not that I am in any way in a position to be making criticism, but I suppose that these differences have become more readily apparent having ventured away from my Chuukese nest.

I was blessed with the opportunity to tour the Palau Capitol Building along with 9 other Palauan Xavierites. Fortunately, one of my rising sophomores is the daughter of a current senator and, as is as equally valued in Chuuk, it pays to be family. What was initial excitement was surpassed by disillusionment upon pulling up to the palatial estate. I had seen it before. Yes, I had seen the building before. Oh, I don’t know somewhere in hmmm Washington D.C. It looked exactly like the U.S. Capitol Building, only it was off white and adorned with Palauan storyboard symbols. There were 3 separate, but connected edifices for the legislative, judicial and executive branches complete with…….an oval office. I think that was the kicker. The president governs Palau from an oval office.

It’s not the fact that they’re mimicking American style that bothers me, but that the U.S. has created this standard for which people strive and are willing to compromise their own culture to achieve. It was really interesting to talk with another Xavier student’s anti-progressive father who was giving me the down low on politics in Palau. Apparently, up until a year ago, the capitol used to be in Koror – the main city. Five years after ground breaking, the capitol was moved to this brand spanking new state of the art building atop a hill overlooking the Northeastern shore of Babeldoab. Babeldoab is a separate island from Koror connected only by a bridge, but distinguishable in it’s bucolic, peaceful, unadulterated countryside – quite the contrast from the bustling commercial “city” of Koror. The decision to move the capitol was passed down by predecessors who, according to legend, claimed that Melekeok (the legendary person) was the eldest son of the 4 heirs and that the capitol building rightfully belonged to Melekeok (the state). What is not as respectable is that Melekeok is about 30 miles away and gas is 3.50/gallon. The state is practically deserted with just a few homes along the coast. The location is not convenient for anyone nor is it economically practical. The electrical bill alone is about 68,000 per month, 1/3 of the national monthly budget excluding other maintenance expenses. Eventually the modernity that has transformed Koror will creep out into the undeveloped country side, gradually dissolving the bridge that separates the “new” from the “fine the way it is.” Is it preservation of culture, rolling with the times, or flaunting a $42 million dollar investment for the sake of asserting status?

I don’t have any pants, I’ve worn skirts or long “running” shorts for 2 years. So when I wasn’t at the track, (Yep, Palau has a track!) I was kicking around in my Chuukese skirts which I initially didn’t think anything of, especially given the oblivion to any sense of fashion that I have cultivated here (and lacked in the first place). People started asking me where I was from, clearly confused by the contrast of obviously Chuukese garb and ghostly white skin. Slowly I began to notice that no one wears skirts here, let alone bright, floral, embroidered, unique local skirts. In Chuuk, it is customary to walk somewhat crouched down when you enter a roomful of people who are sitting, out of respect for not being at a level higher than everyone else. People looked at me funny, and told me I should stand up straight. Chuukese often use local utensils to eat, more commonly known as the 10 digits protruding from your palms. When I sat down to eat chicken and rice, which out of all foods necessitates the use of local utensils, someone commented, “Did you learn how to eat with your fingers in Chuuk?” It became much clearer after sitting in on a conversation, translated to me, after Lu-A had just finished eating and inadvertently wiped her hands on her pants. Sitting right next to her, her father chided mockingly, “Chuukese style eh?”

A cousin sitting nearby giggled and then explained to me that often times Palauans tease Xavierites because they come back home with Chuukese habits, referring to table manners, hair styles and manner of dress. Unfortunately, it made sense then, how highly Palauans regard their own culture and look down on Micronesians as uncivilized. On many occasions, I was offended and became defensive of what has become home. People criticized the trash, the corruption, the living conditions, the roads etc…. But instead of making me love Chuuk any less, it instead caused me to deplore Palau even more. Some sort of organization, structure and accountability are things that we long for in Chuuk. They have it in Palau, but with it comes brand names, cable TV, department stores, commercialism and consumerism. They speak Palauan, wear their hair really long and chew betelnut like fiends but everything else appears Western. That’s not to say their culture is lost, but something organic has to be sacrificed for this state to look like a Guam Jr. Again, not that I am in a position to be judging culture, but it was disconcerting to see Mami Rita curing a Spam Ham for her brother’s birthday instead of glazing bananas with coconut milk, or to notice that the decorations in the grocery store were hallmark paper cut outs celebrating the start of spring. Palauans don’t even celebrate spring. There aren’t any seasons here.

Chuuk may not be what most would consider paradise, but it’s simple. Whether that simplicity is by deliberate choice or default, I find it beautiful, and I don’t think that westernization grants bragging rights or status to insult.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Airport Goodbye

Just like the airport hello, the airport goodbye is an art really - the art of bidding someone an adequate and expressive farewell in a public space while maintaining grace, class and composure. It starts with the awkward check-in send off, when they’re not quite leaving yet, but leaving your side long enough to check their bags, passport and ticket. By this point, they are standing at a non-conversational distance, but close enough to make eye-contact. You try to relish the finality of their physical presence in your life. You follow their movement through the line secretly hoping they’ll be hindered for having over-weight luggage, an over-booked flight or an error in the reservation – anything that might detain them longer. But they pass through with ease, and you feel yourself silently resenting the smile on their face, alluding to their excitement of reaching whatever lies at the end of their destination, also completely ignorant of the pain of your loss. They reluctantly saunter back to you to continue draining the emotional energy out of you. Leaving their carry-ons at your feet, they leave again to make the rounds. You observe years of collided paths summarized in firm handshakes and mutually understood nods, the donning of mwarmwar (Chuukese leis) and a limp hug, the hand-shake pull into a one armed hug, the male favorite bear hug with forceful slaps on the back that preserve masculinity, the “I want to shake your hand but I don’t want to let it go so I’ll devise stalling techniques such as ‘Good Luck. You have your ticket? You don’t want to forget that (awkward chuckle). You’re going to keep in touch right? Have a good flight. Enjoy the peanuts’” interface, the good luck pat on the shoulder that says “I want to, but I’m unsure whether hugging you is socially appropriate right now,” the lover’s ‘head buried in shoulder’ extended embrace, the look-away, “you mean to much to me and I can’t bring myself to say goodbye to you it’s too hard I’ll settle for a handshake” adieu, or the merciless ‘rattle your hand off’ grip.

One would think after so much keen observation and practice, you would have mastered the art. As you survey the scene, everyone else can handle the trauma of the airport good-bye with minimal permanent damage. Confident you can do it also, you stand up tall, chest inflated, shoulders back – all of the necessary steps to convince yourself this is going to be as easy and as classy as everyone makes it seem. They start walking towards you with that look in their eye that says “it’s our turn.” They get closer and closer, and instead of making a motion to reciprocate their embrace, you panic. Unable to shake the thought that this is most likely the last time you will see them again, the last time you will look at them with the motherly “you’re getting so big” gaze, the last time life in this space and time will exist like this. The pre-planned handshakes or back slaps fall to pieces as the tears well up and you crumble in their arms. You can’t think of anything constructive to say that would encapsulate what they mean to you and express your prayer for their future success. All that comes out is “sniffle….sniffle.” but somehow, that says enough. They try to let go, but you’re holding on too tight because it’s more comforting to cry into someone than to cry standing alone. Mustering up enough strength to pry your arms off their neck, they step back, pick up their bags, give you one last look and a sympathetic smile, and walk through the double doors.

The art in the airport goodbye is that, unlike most things in life, practice does not make perfect. It breaks you down little by little and makes you scrap for the strength to pull it together enough to do it again…

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

(Xavier Marching in...)

“Listen up Xavier,” I said, quieting down the rambunctious mass of red sprawled out before me. “For any of you who are running relays this afternoon, do NOT do what that last relay team did or you WILL be disqualified. That last relay team was DQ’ed for 3 reasons…#1 – deliberately blocking other runners. #2 - obscenely lifting up your shirt as you ran by the team – yes you – you know exactly what you did and #3 – for arrogantly turning around to provoke the other runners and crossing the finish line backwards.”

While there are many cultural differences between track and field stateside and in Micronesia, in my mind, sportsmanship is something that is not bound by region. In the Pacific, there is often times more glory to be found in riling up the supporting crowd than actually winning a race itself. There is a thick, dark line however, between firing up your own team, and doing it at the expense of the competition.

(Hoo Hah)

Three times in one race, I put my head down in shame to be a Xavier coach. No amount of natural talent warrants the haughtiness that some feel, comes with the territory. Xavier took first in that relay alright and they were going to let everyone know about it.

I saw the officials congregating after the race and casually strolled over to see if I could overhear the conversation. It was no surprise that the group of irritated officials DQ’ed Xavier from the race they had just won because of their actions on the field. Agreeing completely with the call, I marched my infuriated tukus over to the Xavier tent with the intention of warning them before such behavior continued to subtract points from our score. Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite prepared myself for the onslaught to follow. The athletes were outraged with the call. One, in a most meretriciously innocent act, even tried to convince me that he was simply “turning around to see how close the next runners were.” And then, the head honcho - director of the school speaks up.

( DQ'ed)

The actual conversation:

“What was the call?”

“Unsportsmanlike conduct.” I replied.

“Unsportsmanlike conduct? That’s not in the rules! The other teams were just as physical during the race. That’s ridiculous!” he fumed.

“The officials are right over there if you would like to speak with them.” I responded, trying desperately to keep my cool. Appalled, I turned and walked back towards the infield to avoid the nasty comments and vicious glares I had already begun to receive for not contesting the call. Of course, if the director stands up and protests – one, and by one I mean all of the students and Xavier fans, would naturally assume he is right and I am wrong.

How I wished the conversation would have gone had I had more audacity and quicker thinking on my feet:

“What was the call?”

“Unsportsmanlike conduct.” I replied.

“Unsportsmanlike conduct? That’s not in the rules! The other teams were just as physical during the race. That’s ridiculous!” he fumed.

“Not in the rules? You’re a Jesuit, director of a Jesuit High School and you’re going to tell me that unsportsmanlike conduct is not in the rules? It is in every game you’ll play….and for you to stand up – with no support or regard for my efforts to promote Christian sportsmanship and condone that type of behavior in front of all of these students is atrocious. You are responsible for what Xavier does – not the other teams – just Xavier and if that’s how you want Xavier to play the game – here’s the clipboard, you coach. I don’t want to win by your rules.”

(Where did that Loyola uniform come from?)

(Our one legged that's not a true statement!)

(Vincia...she's laughing - she's having a good time!)

Though the day was a blast up until, and even after that point, it brought back all too familiar memories of a basketball trip to Pohnpei gone awry.

Xavier ended up taking 2nd place to Chuuk High – a hard fought battle both athletically, on the field, and energetically, under the tents. The screaming, dancing, chanting and cheering intensified the sense of amiable competition that seethed under the surface of the obvious rivalry between athletes. When you think high-school track meet, I’m sure this is the farthest thing from the image currently being generated in your mind, but I guarantee it will be the best time you might ever have watching people run in circles and throw stuff!!!

(Mapa - rousing the crowd)

Fan Itom XHS - In Your Name Xavier....

When I was a little girl, I used to love the holidays…Our celebration was usually small – Mom, Dad, Michael Edward, Grandpa, Nana and me…I loved it when Grandpa and Nana would come because the holidays were never just one day. They always came a few days early to help get ready and left a few days later to help recover. When they came, you knew it was special. The house felt a little warmer – with the fire glowing, more warm faces and more hugs to go around; smelled a little more delicious with krispies in the frier and renowned red peppers and relish in the fridge; and looked a little brighter. Mom and Dad tell me that I was infamous for, on several occasions, getting so excited for these days I would end up with a stomach ache!

After the leftovers were wrapped, gifts put away and decorations taken down, my excited anticipation was proportional to the disappointment of knowing the holidays were over. With tears rolling down my little cheeks, I used to stand at the glass window on the front door, watching as Grandpa and Nana’s car pulled out of the drive way and sounded two honks before turning down the street. I never wanted them to leave because I loved the way the house felt with them in it…

What I loved most about Nana was her innocence…Her ability to see the good in people was astounding. Everything she did – the way she walked, the way she spoke, the way she held my hand, or wrapped her arms around me, she did with a delicate innocence. Which is something I could never figure out – how someone so innocent and fragile could simultaneously be the strongest woman I have ever met. She may have needed help getting in and out of the car, or up and down stairs, but her strength dwarfed mine even in the strongest race of my life. Her ability to endure the negative with such grace and faith is a trait one can only hope is genetic, or inherited through careful observation and admiration…

While I can’t prove that I am any wiser, time can verify that I am much older…yet I’m still standing at the door – tears in my eyes, not wanting her to go…I love the way life feels with her in it. However, life isn’t and wasn’t always beautiful, particularly in these past few months. The beauty in pain and suffering was very hard to find. But when you’ve spent your life loving your husband, your children, your grandchildren and your family with the strength and passion that she did….it makes for a very beautiful ride.

I’m sorry I could not be there for you Nana and I’m sorry if I caused you to suffer more than you needed to, but I know how much you loved me - you would never let me forget it. And I pray that you know how much I love you. Now it is perhaps easier to tell you in person that I am and will always be your big doll.

May the Lord’s light shine perpetually upon your delicate face as you rest in peace.

January 24, 1922 – April 20, 2007

Monday, April 23, 2007


The white fabric was stretched across the counter-top beckoning for us to begin the daunting task that lay before us. Our stencils were hand-made and had been meticulously designed, laminated and cut. (And for the record, Cooper Black would not be my recommended font from which to cut numbers and size 45 type.) Several brands of permanent black markers were strewn across our workspace which had been lined with pencil drawn 6”X 8” grid blocks. It took several trial runs to get it right – finding the markers that bled the least, remembering to put scratch paper underneath so we didn’t leave a colorful graffiti gift on the counter – sure to incense the accountants, figuring out if we doubled up the fabric we could take advantage of the bleeding ink and work twice as fast, and determining the right configuration of bodies so that all three of us could work at the same time. We had it down to a science by the time it came to the 900’s and were perhaps a little high from the fumes to even joke about going in to business! By the end of the night we went from a blank sheet of fabric to a multi-colored array of 60 race bibs ready to soak up miles of sweat, dust and triumph.

For a few months now, Xavierites, and high-schoolers all over the island have been training for one day, one event – one moment in which to exhibit their athletic prowess – Track and Field Day. (Ironically, a competition spread across 3 days). For 6 of my runners, their opportunity presented itself in the wee morning hours of April 20th. Just like the glory days, we had a team pasta party the night before and exploiting the resources we had available, we employed the efforts of the sophomore boys to climb trees and retrieve natural sources of hydrating perfection – coconuts! Even though the distance team runs farther, works harder, puts up with more orders from me and complains louder, for that night of luxury, it was all worth it. They were treated royally – dinner up in the faculty lounge, a rowdy pep rally in their honor and the girls were invited to stay in the female faculty house…

We sent them to bed smug and content, and anxiously awaiting their 3:30 am wake up call. I now know what my coaches must have felt – nights of nervous slumber filled with tossing, turning and dreams about the possibility of what might be and the fear of what might not. For about a month, the assistant coaches and I had been getting up at 5:15 to run with the girls before school, so waking up without the sun was nothing unfamiliar, though the reminiscent feeling of race day made this morning, or middle of the night, different.

We woke up the girls and I went up to the kitchen to pack water and bread in the hopes of avoiding the misery of last year’s mistakes. With a truck full of athletes and a flatbed full of fans, we made the descent down the hill towards the course.

(Pre-race jitters - Nikki, Sarah, Rose and on photos to enlarge)

What seemed to be an unorganized mess at 5:15 somehow pulled itself together in time to have about 40 athletes on the starting line by 5:30, bearing their hand-crafted, individualized by school, race numbers. It was a beautiful sight…(if you’d like to see for yourself…) and a moment that couldn’t make a coach any prouder.

The race went well. Xavier took 8th, 12th and 13th for the ladies and in an impressive finish on the guys side, one of Xavier’s seniors won the race, another took 10th , and in a courageous effort to fill the spot of a last minute drop out, the Japanese ‘Beast from the East’ ran his heart out and took 15th. When the runners had recovered, the course had been swept of any stragglers and the road cleared, the coaches met to discuss results.

(My lovely lady marathoners in recovery - Nikki, Nessa and Sarah)

(Nessa shows her Xavier Pride!)

(Texter leading the pace and his protege J4 a 14 year old unattached rising star)

(The referenced 'Beast from the East,' Toshiki and his infamous partner returning from some unfortunate mishaps in the '06 marathon to give it another go - Thaine)

The rules only allowed for 3 runners from each school to participate, and the bib numbers were designed in such a way to indicate school and gender. For example, Xavier was designated the 900’s, so male runners wore 901 – 903 and females wore 904-906. We thought it would expedite the scoring process which in the absence of electronic timing chips, is done by hand.

As I’m perusing the list of results, I notice 4 runners had been listed as finishing the boys race for Chuuk High. I turn to the coach, point out the mistake and ask why he ran 4 runners…102…101…103…and 109. Offended by the accusation, he claimed he didn’t. He double checked his records and said that #109 wasn’t his athlete.

“Wait, you’re right…109 isn’t even a legit number. The males are numbered 01-03. That’s impossible.”

We started double checking the names, asking the official who recorded the finishers…maybe it was 901? No, that’s the Xavier runner who won the race. Maybe 106? No, that’s a female athlete. Who was 109? Then a light bulb goes off and in a moment of detective genius I exclaim…

“The kid pinned his number on upside down! He was supposed to be 601! The runner is from SDA!”

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments in my altogether unaccomplished Chuukese language career would have to have been my blissfully ignorant consent and follow-through leading about 70 “serafou” (youth) on a Lenten retreat. Piis, perhaps the smallest an inhabited island can be before qualifying as a misplaced coral deposit, is located on the outer reef that protects the north face of the lagoon. After having been to and fallen in love with this haven several times over, Marcos asked me if I might accompany him to experience and share in his passion. With a little faith in God and a lot of trust in my fearless veteran, I jumped in the boat that carried us through the sunset and to a vantage point that reflected my life on Weno in a distant haze. Knowing full well that my subpar Chuukese skills were not going to get me very far, it did not take long to develop a sincere appreciation for Kathy, the bilingual native, and her efforts to merge our two languages. Inevitable frustrations furthered my insecurity – feeling the weight of the language barrier crippling my ability to reach any deeper faith connection. Idiotic or impressive, fumbling or fluid, cringing or confident, abashed or assured, Marcos and I tried our best. We prayed in Chuukese, sang in Chuukese, read from the Chuukese translated Bible and even offered impromptu speeches. In our most sincere attempts, we would write down the prayers that we wanted to share and Kathy, in her abounding patience would correct our translations. I put on my best “r” rolling, syllable slurring, authentic Chuukese accent and plowed through St. John’s version of the washing of the feet. I concentrated so hard to translate and then string words and phrases together in an unnaturally fast yet still miserably inadequate pace. In all honesty, I felt more like a retreatant than an effective leader with anything substantial to offer, but perhaps that was the weekend’s hidden purpose.

Early in the weekend, the retreatants paired up with someone to build a partnership that was used in several activities. Unfortunately, a darling teenager by the name of Antel “drew the short straw” and got stuck with the “fin Merika” who “ese sinei fossun Chuuk.” I floundered through a few activities, all along with the guilt of ruining this kid’s retreat experience weighing on my conscience. He certainly could have garnered so much more from a solid conversation with someone of a higher intellectual level than that of a 4 year old. Fortunately the reconciliation service that we did on Saturday night required little vocal communication. The activity involved taking a paper cross and a pen, and writing all of your “tipis” on the “irapenges.” Then, two at a time, each partner pair walked to the candle and the canister in the center of the room to symbolically light and burn the cross filled with sins. Though the activity seems like a retreat standard – it takes on new meaning when blessed by the fire of the Holy Spirit.

The physical properties of burning paper would ensure that a few square inches of your typical Xerox paper would burn for no more than a few seconds before the flames receded into the pile of smoldering ash. Couple by couple, the crosses were offered up to the Lord, and as would expect, the light in the can extinguished itself just as quickly as it flickered its warm glow. Antel and I were the last couple to approach the center to make our sacrifice. He bent down on his knee and I prayed over him as he placed his cross in the flame of the candle, just far enough to char the corner which proved unable to withstand the contagion of fire. After he placed his cross in the can to burn, I did just the same, left my “tipis” in the middle of the room and we both returned to our spots on the perimeter of the circle.

The pervading silence in the room drew our attention to the center canister, now leaping with flames. The light continued to blaze dim yellow and soft orange tongues of fire. Quiet murmurs indicated that Antel and myself were not the only ones who found the divine humor in the situation. At first I turned to him with a childish grin and said, “Kich, mei wor chommong tipis.” He giggled a little and we both turned our attention back to the glowing can. Minutes passed and the fire continued to light the room full of flabbergasted faces. Under normal circumstances, paper would not burn like that unless there was something else fueling it.

After our reconciliation service, the youth gathered for a closing prayer service in which the mic was open for personal reflection. Speeches are an important part of Chuukese culture. It is proper etiquette to express thanks, congratulations, apologies etc… Therefore, as someone they mistook for a leader, I was, in a way, obligated to stand before the congregation and offer my own words of broken wisdom. As people began to take the podium, I prayed their speeches would last all night, or they would talk so long we would run out of time, but of course time in Micronesian culture is practically nonexistent and thus running out is never a legitimate concern. I thought maybe they would be merciful and let me off the hook, or forget I was sitting there, but of course, good luck trying to inconspicuously blend a white girl into a crowd full of Micronesians. Among the “leaders,” Kathy got up first and spoke so eloquently about the time of preparation and the value of the weekend in making time to prepare. I was secretly hoping Marcos would be as chicken as I was feeling, but of course he jumped at the chance to address the audience, and in broken Chuukese nearly broke into tears trying to express how grateful he was to the people of Piis for giving him life, a desire to share his faith and a reason to learn their language. As he sat down, I could have closed my eyes and still heard the subtly obvious noise of a roomful of bodies turning to stare at their hopeful expectation for the next speaker. Reluctantly, I walked up - praying for assistance in getting through the next minute and a half and quite disappointed that the podium was much closer than I thought. “Tiro ami meinisin, Nepong annim. Kinisou Chapur ren letting me be here with all of you.” I thought sweeping hand gestures might have helped my cause, but I think ended up being interpreted more as a flailing cry for help. “…and for letting me share this weekend with you. Nepwinei, ewe Ngunupin mi nonnomw ikei.” I began trying to explain what I saw that night. I tried to tell them that the Holy Spirit was there that night. The Holy Spirit was present in that room. “Ami mi kuna ena ekkei….you know the fire – you saw the fire in the middle of the room? You all saw it?” Half of a nod would have sufficed, but I couldn’t turn around now, I had to finish. I tried to tell them how I turned to Antel, somewhat embarrassed because at first it looked like the both of us combined had enough sins to fuel a forest fire. “Ewin, ua takir. Nge esop tipis. Esop tipis – It wasn’t sins, it was the Holy Spirit. The Ngunupin.” I had successfully lost them, and lost myself – I didn’t know anymore words, I couldn’t further explain myself without further confusing them. Shaking, voice quivering I thanked them again, perhaps the one expression I’ve mastered, and sat down. I turned to Regina sitting next to me, and through her response to my question “Mi wewe? Did you understand?” was a mere “Ekis – a little.” Her warm smile was enough commendation for my pathetic efforts.

I gave what I could, and as is true in most situations I find myself in….sometimes words just get in the way. Some moments are better left to indescribable emotion. And even in this attempt to recount the details of that weekend in my native language, I am still convinced there is meaning lost in the weekend’s hidden purpose.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

You Don't See This Everyday...

I thought I had it rough taking on the open seas aboard the Caroline Voyager. I felt sorry for myself. I felt nauseous. I may have even squirted a few tears over my dismal state….That was until I met face to face with a few current navigators of the Hokule’a and the Alingano Maisu. Approximately 30 crew members under the direction of the legendary Mau Piailug left Hawai’i in January and en route to Japan, made a scheduled stop here in the Chuuk Lagoon in early March.

(Aw that happens every day - luxurious ocean cruise liners touring the Pacific. But it’s cute she’s so excited about it.)

The Hokule’a and the Alingano Maisu are traditional outrigger canoes.

(A canoe!? Impossible)

Impossible right? One would think. But I saw the crew in person. I saw the canoes. I heard their story. Possible.

(She’s full of crap)

I didn’t think most people would believe me, and to be perfectly honest I’m not sure I was completely sold when I first heard, but once I saw the red thuu and the few patches of golden dark skin peering out from behind thick dark navigational tattoos, I knew the canoe had arrived to refute my doubt. Due to geography, among other reasons, navigation has always been a hallmark of island culture. The wood for the canoes was cut and hand carved, the glue gleaned from sap of local trees and rope made from the husks of dried coconuts. Generations and generations of males have passed down the remarkable skill of entrusting their fate to nothing more than stars, water currents and wind patterns, resulting in “the exploration and settlement of islands in an area of over 10 million square miles during a period of over 1,000 years.” (PVS website) Perhaps you were not the only skeptic of this colossal endeavor. The doubt of fellow disbelievers is what actually spurred the construction of the Hokule’a in 1975 in an effort to prove that the Pacific islands were not in fact discovered and settled by accident.

The Hokule`a “can be loaded with about 11,000 pounds, or 5.5 tons, including the weight of a crew of 12-16 people and equipment and supplies. It can make up to 10-12 knots sailing on a reach in strong winds.” (PVS website) How does an 8-ton, 62’ 4’’ X 17’6’’ vessel navigate the Pacific? When questioned about whether or not the crew carried a compass with them, they thought the question ridiculous. They said a compass was not necessary, and almost an inconvenience when they traveled by much easier, and more reliable methods.

The crew stopped long enough to stroll around Weno, and a few came up to the Xavier Campus to tour the attraction. I was walking behind one of the female crew in the hallway, in sheer amazement at the broadness of her shoulders. When I picked up my jaw long enough to ask her about her experience so far, she told me of how the crew works in 4 hour shifts, navigating, paddling, watching, observing. Unless of course there was a bad storm – then all of the crew would be employed to help maneuver the swells. I got the feeling that she was making fun of me in her head at my fawning over something she considered quite ordinary.

Unfortunately, I had classes to teach and could not accompany the juniors as they got to actually board the docked canoes and see first hand the intricacies of life in the hand-crafted vessel. I’m still in disbelief at how a sea-craft so small and delicate can travel such vast expanses of ocean and withstand the fury of the ravaging seas…

(Yeah me too, you fibber)

But hopefully the pictures substantiate my claim and further expose the beauty of the island cultures, and the stories they conceal prove the impossible possible…

As if that wasn’t eventful enough for one week, no sooner had the canoes left, than the next efficient means of transportation dropped off yet another spectacle to the Chuuk Lagoon. Perhaps you might be familiar with the World Youth Movement initiated by Pope John Paul in 1983. The movement has made it’s way to Micronesia and on March 15, Continental Micronesia opened up the cargo door to reveal Pope John Paul’s gift to the “serafou” of the world – the World Youth Day Cross and Icon. Someone, somewhere felt that Chuuk was important enough to receive something that has been a symbol of unity that millions of eyes have gazed upon, fingers have grazed and lips have kissed. “It has been carried by commercial airline, light aircraft, dog sled, pick-up truck, tractor, sail boat, fishing boat and on shoulders. From parish churches to youth detention centres, prisons, schools, universities, national historic sites, shopping centres, nightclub districts and parks.” (WYD website)

Just to be a part of it made me feel connected to something greater. It is hard when you’ve been living on an island that you can run around in under 2 hours, an island whose entire lagoon barely appears as a speck on the map, and an island whose size is dwarfed by the enormity of ocean that surrounds it - to feel empowered…to feel as though your efforts are part of anything beyond the geographical limitations of the reef. But that day, Chuuk was the center of the world. Christ’s cross came here, and for the 48 hours that it circled the lagoon, this tiny speck of nothingness was visible from outer space.

Catholic faces pressed against the fence awaiting its arrival. As the gates opened for the cross bearers, the expectant believers reverently slipped into the growing procession of followers. Trailing behind a pickup truck holding speakers and the Chuukese lady whose repetition of about 562 rosary decades was the blessed mantra that guided our every step, was an endless line of waddling mu mus. I don’t think that we could have walked any slower, which was the perfect pace to simply exist in the moment. Time stopped. The island, Catholic or Protestant, paused - all eyes on the shoulders of the cross bearers.

The procession ended two miles further, two villages over and two hours later at the Cathedral in Tunuch with mass and nightlong veneration. It began it’s trek to the 5 other islands in the lagoon at 6 am the next day and completed it’s Chuukese tour with mass at Saraamen Chuuk before it was hauled onto the plane to be received by the Guaminians. It will continue to travel throughout the South Pacific until it finally returns home to Sydney in 2008 in preparation for World Youth Day.

When you think about it, it’s just wood and nails. It’s fascinating how something so seemingly plain can bring you to your knees, or how something so small can radiate so much passion.