I am slowly dragging a kayak down the sandbar at Kailua beach– alone. A few days earlier, my girlfriends and I had taken a few double kayaks out and really enjoyed it. So, when I woke up restless and discontent that morning, something in me said I had to get out on the water. Stat.
That morning, I sat on the edge of the bed, unsure if I was actually going to go out on my own. Why did I need to go out there? What was I going to do?
I looked around the room and saw a few dried lei hanging. One I had bought as a welcome-home gift, a few that were gifts for my birthday or for presenting. Strangely, in that moment, those things seemed so far away.
A lot of things have changed in my life over the past couple of months. I’ve taken a new job, I have friends leaving the island and, for the first time since moving here, I’m heading out on a trip completely on my own. Now, we’ve hit summer break, and I’m left sitting with my thoughts for the first time in what feels like a very long time. It’s complicated and difficult and… good. I think.
So, looking at those lei, I knew what I needed to do. I grabbed the lei off the windows and the shelf. When I return to my apartment I grabbed the ones hanging there– gifts from students this past year.
I knew it was time to shed some skin. I knew it was time to say goodbye to parts of me. I knew it was time to sit with myself– and just myself– for a while.
So, as I lugged the kayak across the thick sand, a paper bag full of lei in the back, I prayed that I might find some peace out on the water.
The first time I went out on open water, I hadn’t known how to catch my breath properly.
I had asked a boy to take me snorkeling.
He was an accomplished swimmer and had grown up late-night fishing with his dad and swimming on weekends. For me, the beach was an entire-all-day kind of affair. It meant planning and packing and, yes, stress, so I rarely went. I had a handful of summer days riding waves on a boogie board when my church had a beach retreat, but that was about the extent of my water adventuring.
When he and I reached the edge of the beach, he asked if I was nervous. I nodded my head a little. He grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. He showed me how to put on my snorkel and we went out into the waters of Electric Beach, swimming through currents from a nearby power plant. The warm water draws tons of exotic fish in. It was beautiful.
But it was also terrifying. I had never swum so far from shore in my life, and I was ill-prepared for how tiring swimming is if you’re not used to it. I was sure I’d be fine, given my athleticism, but I quickly found myself huffing and puffing, and becoming anxious that I might drown. The current and winds were stronger than we planned, and I felt myself getting pulled farther from the shore than I wanted.
The boy pulled me to him and held me in his arms, my hands clumsily tangled around his neck and in his hair. He reminded me to catch my breath as he held us above water. He promised me we would be okay and make it back to shore. He asked if I trusted him. I nodded my head.
Eventually, he guided me back to the shore, and I learned that I could actually catch my breath under water, through the snorkel, by floating and lowering my heart rate so I didn’t panic and hyperventilate. We saw some more fish and eventually touched down on the sand.
When we got there, I was so exhilarated to be alive and to no longer feel scared that I ran into the boy’s arms, kissed him hard, and told him I loved him.
He was surprised; hell, I was surprised. It wasn’t that the words were necessarily untrue, but they were said without really thinking through what I was actually feeling.
“Love” in that moment encompassed gratitude and companionship. I was grateful to be alive and that he had guided me to the shore. I was thankful that, in that moment, I was not alone.
What– I take a huge stroke with my paddle– the hell— another stroke– are you doing?! I think as I begin to pull my kayak through open water. I still can’t believe I’ve actually done this– I feel my parent’s voices in my head berating me about never going out (in water, or in general) alone.
Still, I am only going about a few miles from the shore, and am surrounded by other kayakers, surfers, and paddleboarders. After a few minutes of pulling the oars through the water, I smile to myself. I make it to one of the small islands, grab a few photos, then decide to keep going and see how far I can paddle on my own.
Paddling, I soon learn, is about the closest, soothing movement I have found besides running in a very long time. The consistent strokes of the oars through the water are meditative. It is easy for me to set a direction and then just… go.
Out on the water, I quickly realize I have accidentally paddled into the reef area that the informational video I watched a few days ago reminded me to avoid. It was rocky and often had waves that capsized boats. I momentarily panicked.
I am gliding forward, unsure if I should try and go around the reef in either direction (I had no clue how far out it went, and trying to go around the other way meant heading back nearly to shore). All of a sudden, a turtle popped its head out of the water, raising its right fin at me.
“Oh, shit! I’m sorry, man!” I yell (out loud) at the turtle. It ducks back under the water and glides under my kayak, and I can’t help but start laughing. I take the turtle as a good omen, and carefully navigate my way through the reef. I let the waves gently keep me above the rocks below, and paddle hard when I get to open areas, looking out for rocks that are sticking up when the waves settle.
And, after a few minutes, I make it through the reef just fine. The water beneath me now is clear, bright turquoise. I look up and see that I’ve made it nearly to the Mokes, something I was unsure if I’d even be able to do that morning.
I start laughing. Then, without thinking, I start to cry.
I have built a life around the wants of other people. I come from a culture of obligation, where love is often shown by self-sacrifice, by giving, by choosing what’s best for the team or the family or the community instead, sometimes, of what someone wants. I don’t think it’s bad– I am joyful in my service to others and often find the greatest pleasure in giving to the people around me. Still, like all things, it requires a careful balance not to lose myself and my agency. I am turning thirty soon, and I have to be honest: I am not very good at asking for what I want, or demanding what I need from others.
So, sitting out on the kayak that morning, alone with only the ocean and a forgiving turtle, I am answering a question that I have had a hard time asking for years: What did I want? What did I need? To put it in the words and context of Beyoncé and Brittany Packnett, “I need freedom, too.”
I am doing it in small doses as I sit, by myself, for that moment. I am joyful knowing that I have taken this small slice of adventure and– most importantly– love for myself. As I sit out there, laughing and crying in the water, I realize that I really do and must continue to love myself. Up until now, my love has been one of constant sacrifice. If I loved myself, I think my ability to love others properly could be so much bigger than what it was right now.
The boy I had told I loved on the sand had ended up breaking my trust and being, perhaps, unworthy of my love, but I had forgiven him long ago. I hadn’t regretted what I had said either, just perhaps gained a new appreciation for what “love” might actually look like in practice.
It was not simply about companionship or gratitude. I realize that “love” now was knowing that I was fully complete. Love was the gratitude that I had chosen to take care of what I needed– then and, of course, before. Love reminded me that when I’d made that choice, people had come around me and embraced me as I was. Love showed me that I could do it again. Love was trusting that I would always be able to guide myself to shore, but knowing that I had cultivated enough love in my life that I was never alone.
Love was knowing I was worthy.
I reach behind me into the bag, and slowly begin laying the dried lei into the water. I cry and smile, silently filled with gratitude for each story the lei had represented, and then let them flow towards the ocean. The current pulls them away, not to be seen again.
I breathe in a deep sign, turned my face towards the island, and began to paddle.