June Tanoue at the Peace Pagoda in Leverett, MA

I’ve been following the fires on Maui with a sinking, sobbing heart.

Bernie and I flew out to Maui often, usually to visit Ram Dass. I haven’t spent much time on islands, but I have visited the Hawaiian islands of Oahu, Big Island, and Maui, and the last is by far my favorite. For several years we had friends who offered us their time-share in Wailea, on the southwestern part of the island, in which to stay.

We brought my mother there once. She said it was beautiful, but I had the sense that the pace was not for her. She wanted us to travel every day as tourists while we, after working hard back home, needed rest.

You have to open yourself up to Maui, uncover and expose the pores of your skin to the generous air that you feel as soon as you land in Kahului Airport, unblock your eyes to take in the turquoise water and lokelani, hibiscus, and birds of paradise. It’s as if somewhere out in our polluted, confused world there’s a place not caught up in human dramas, industrial pollution, or bitter historical rivalries. As if karma has gone on vacation when we’re in Hawaii. Disagreements and opinions rear their heads as they do everywhere, but they don’t dominate. Something else always beckons in Hawaii.

Not that the islands don’t have their history of colonialism, of mass deaths of natives from Western diseases, peonage in sugar and pineapple fields, and tribal rivalries from before people who look like me ever arrived. The pages are written, but they’re not the main story. The long, many-voweled names, the languorous grace of dancers, the soft, warm stroking of wind and wave—they put all the craziness in perspective. Here, I often thought to myself, is how humans were meant to live.

In fact, in my very first visit to Hawaii in 1999, Bernie asked me if I would like to live in Hawaii, catching me by complete surprise. Live here, while the world goes up in flames? What about our peacemaking work? What about the cusp of war and violence in the Middle East where my family lives? Hawaii felt so far away from the rest of the world.

I have no idea if he was serious or not. It now occurs to me that perhaps he was seeking encouragement from me to live differently from how both of us, separately, had lived till then.

Now, even Maui is burning. The air is no longer so pure, what with the particles emitted by the wildfires. The charming one-lane highways that slowed you down when you drove from one town to another also slowed down the families trying to escape this past week, as well as emergency personnel.

We used to stay in Wailea, both in our friends’ rental unit and later in hotels (they were expensive and we always looked for bargains). I began to talk to native Hawaiians who found their cost of living zooming up because of mainlanders coming in and buying homes and condos. The food, across long distances, was expensive.

We didn’t often drive up north to Lahaina, which this week went up in smoke. It was charming but touristy. I believe we saw the movie Hunger Games there after walking along the old harbor and looking at boats coming in. Each visit making sure to sit on the thick, stubby branches of the famous banyan tree that was a meeting place for so many people.

If Hawaii‘s burning, what’s left for the rest of us?

My friend and teacher, June Tanoue, flew in from Chicago and stayed with me briefly. June is both a Zen teacher and a hula teacher. She was born on the island of Hawaii (called Big Island), and she took Bernie and me up to the great volcano of Kilauea years ago. We peered down at the red fires below as she told us the stories of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess who resides, in one form or another, in Kilauea.

Later, June and her husband, Zen teacher Robert Althouse, lived with us here in Massachusetts for a year and June offered classes in Hula, which she had studied for many years. It was a great pleasure to see her again this week.

The Hula dances we did were always accompanied by songs, and the arm movements reflected the words, such as a tree moving in the breeze or cresting waves, while your feet kept basic time doing certain steps. June also knew a great deal about Hawaiian medicine and the healing virtues of certain bark, plants, and leaves.

But what I most absorbed during that year was the amazing female energy of Hula. Pele herself could be passionate, angry, even violent, but the dances commemorating her and telling her stories were both strong and gentle, compact and exquisitely graceful, painting body movements in the air.

I couldn’t help but compare it to other spiritual traditions I encountered—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism—that were so masculine in words, texts, and images. They often made gestures towards female energy: Catholics bring in Mary, Jews point to the Shechinah, Buddhists remind you of Mahapajapati, etc. To me they always sounded like tokens. Important tokens perhaps, but still tokens, something to show why the tradition should feel relevant to the other 50% of the world’s population.

When I danced Hula with June, heard her tell her stories and watched her movements, I felt like I’d finally come across a female spirituality that wasn’t perfunctory and superficial, but deeply grounded and lifegiving. The body’s movements reflected the cycles of life and the weaving of humans with rocks, trees, waves, and mountains, putting the homo sapien brain in its more limited place, echoing the timeless rhythms of nature.

Often when I heard women speak proudly of the inroads their religions had made accommodating female energy, I’d say (or think to myself): “Once you do Hula, you will finally understand what female spirituality looks like and what it makes possible.”

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