Drum Circles, Sexual Temples, and Skinny Dipping in Hawaii — An Essay by Emily Meg Weinstein
ESSAY: UNSAFE SPACES, BY EMILY MEG WEINSTEIN
To a New Yorker, California is far out, or so I believed when I moved there. But when I arrived, all the real adventurers had set their sights not on the edge of the country, but on the states that weren’t even attached.
My friend and fellow East Coast refugee, Jeff*, had done me one better and moved to Hawai’i. Like me, Jeff was from Long Island and had gone to a fancy college, but he found those experiences lacking. His search for something more had taken him first to the far north coast of California, and then, when he tired of the soap-opera politics of small-town dope-growing, into the Pacific itself. He picked me up at the airport on the sunny Kona side of the Big Island, drove us to the rainy Puna side and announced, “This is what’s left of the town of Kalapana.“
What was left of the town of Kalapana was a drive-thru salmon-burger joint and a combination outdoor concert venue, picnic area, and bar that doubled as a church on Sundays. Some people, Jeff said, passed out drinking on Saturday night and woke up in attendance at the Sunday morning service.
We walked on the hardened lava that had destroyed what wasn’t left of Kalapana, drank some kava, and enjoyed the high caliber of reggae only beach towns can attract. Then we went to Jeff’s hobo camp, a small plot of land he had recently purchased in a dense rainforest outside Pahoa, a place described in theBig Island Revealed guidebook as “a town of outlaws and wackjobs.”
Jeff had hacked his way to a space big enough for him to erect his Burning Man shade structure over a sleeping pad, some plastic storage bins, and a bucket he used for a toilet, creating a makeshift shelter he planned to live in until he built his cabana.
Jeff only lived at the hobo camp part-time. He had been attending a series of workshops at what he described as an “intentional communal sustainable holistic living experiment.” The experiment was run by a permaculturist and polyamory advocate named Pono, and the workshops included free camping.
The next morning at the farmer’s market, we visited Pono’s booth. Pono supported his intentional community by climbing untended coconut trees, shaking down coconuts, and selling them at the famer’s market.
While Jeff and Pono discussed DIY sewage options, I perused Pono’s personal collection of poetry, music, and mission statements, which were on display next to the coconuts. These documents were neatly organized in plastic sleeves in three-ring binders, and included such titles as “I Party Naked,” and “Spirit Re-Quest.” I leafed through the mission statements on tantric sexuality, instinctive eating, and mindful co-parenting, but slammed the binder shut when I saw the words “nonviolent communication.”
What was it about the words nonviolent communication that made me feel so…violent? And then, immediately, guilty about this reaction? Nonviolent communication could probably help me cope with these feelings, but I had only ever had nonviolent communication advocated to me by a certain kind of man, the kind of man just now explaining how humidity affected excrement composting times. This was a man with both a graying ponytail and a receding hairline, whose sexuality was just a little too close to the surface for my comfort.
It wasn’t just the presence of this type of man’s sexuality, it was that his sexuality had been workshopped into its current prominence. His workshopped sexuality was wrapped in layers of acceptance and celebration that had been workshopped there, too. These workshops, which were conducted in “safe spaces,” had created too safe a space, a space safe for something that, paradoxically, made me feel less so.
There was something about the way men like this used words like “nonviolent” that was similar to the way the Bush administration used words like “freedom” or “democracy.” The very deployment of these words instantly implied their opposite. When he labeled his communication as explicitly nonviolent, the ponytailed man with the openly displayed chest hair made me think that without extreme efforts to the contrary, he would, in fact, be violent. His constant insistence that we were in a “safe space” hinted at danger.
At Pono’s polyamory workshop, Jeff told me, a sixty-something woman had invited him to the sacred sexual temple with her. (Like me, Jeff was in his mid-thirties.)
“I didn’t end up going,” said Jeff, “but it would have been a good opportunity to confront my ageism.”
I looked down at my deeply tanned cleavage, wondering whether, if I attended the right workshop, I could one day convince a much younger man that I had created a safe space for him to resolve his Oedipal issues.
When I snapped back to the present, Pono was emphasizing the importance of making sure one’s homemade toilet not only encouraged, but demanded, a squatting position. “Are you familiar with the benefits of squatting?” he murmured gravely.
Our tour continued to a clothing-optional beach down a short, steep, lava trail, where I became preoccupied with finding the right level of nudity. Options ranged from fully fig-leaved to totally naked, to totally naked and painted. In the drum circle, women were mostly bare-breasted, though heavily accessorized. When I asked if this were some kind of festival, Jeff told me that it was just the weekly Sunday morning drum circle, held following ecstatic dance.
On the beach, people were drumming, gyrating, smoking, nursing beers, nursing babies, and sitting in small circles, doing what Jeff said was “processing.” Given the popularity of polyamory on the Big Island, processing was a Sunday morning activity as common as drumming or ecstatic dancing. Processing, as far as I could tell, meant that everyone talked about every feeling they had about everyone having sex with everyone else. I had the sense that a certain kind of eye contact was involved in “processing,” perhaps a type of listening preceded by an adjective, like “active,” or “patient,” or “radically empathetic.”
Hardly anyone was swimming, but I’ll choose pretty much any activity over processing, active listening, or a drum circle. I decided to take advantage of this safe space to swim like a man, in just my board shorts, while maintaining some kind of shield to indicate that I would be celebrating my own sexuality as a party of one.
We waded into the thundering surf and swam past the breakers. It was only when we were just far enough out to make getting back a project that I realized the ocean was a not a safe space. A strong current pushed toward a jagged promontory. The shoreline sloped steeply, and you had to scale a forty-five degree ramp to get clear of the waves before an insistent undertow sucked you back out.
I watched an older man eating it in the breakers over and over, getting tossed and slammed like a rag doll, trying to crawl ashore. When some other naked beachgoers finally pulled him out, his nose was bloody. I had never seen waves hurt anyone before.
“I want to go back in now,” I said, in a voice alien to my own ears.
“Then you better pick a better wave,” came an equally otherworldly voice. Jeff was nowhere to be seen, but a bearded, naked sage was floating belly-up nearby, as if we were in a calm lake.
He wasn’t afraid. I had only just started rock climbing then, but the glint in this man’s eye and the sinew on his limbs reminded me of the guys who had gotten me started. I trusted this old sea turtle like I trusted those old desert rats. These were the men of any age I found attractive. Not the ones who preached about nonviolent communication and created safe spaces into which their celebrated sexuality could ooze, but the ones who knew how to stay safe in spaces that really weren’t.
“This is a good one,” nodded the naked old man, blithely stroking further out to sea. I swam into the swell. It lifted me up and hurled me shoreward, forcing me headfirst into a gravel trench. I stabbed a foot in front of me, clawed my way up the sand and outran the Pacific’s frothing jaws.
Once clear of the waves, I hunched over, gasping and choking, then straightened up, wiped my nose, and shucked my shorts. I no longer cared if Jeff, or any of these Hawaiian hippies, saw me wholly naked. I was alive, in that way you can only be when you apprehend, even for a moment, how easily you could not be.
A storm rolled in. Without breaking rhythm, the drum circle migrated into the rain shadow of a cliff. I bought a beer and lit a smoke and let the raindrops fall on me, feeling like I had gotten away with something that I needed to preserve by pickling and smoking it into my cells for deep storage.
The next day we went up the volcano and watched its crater smoke. There was a visitor center with scientific exhibits and stacks of an emphatic pamphlet: “Lava Viewing: COMMON SENSE IS NOT ENOUGH.” It turned out there was another entity on this island that thought safe spaces were a joke — the molten mother earth herself.
It was then when a spiritual experience found me on the Big Island, not at ecstatic dance but in the volcano visitor center. Next to the brochures was a painting of Pele, the goddess of this volcano. She lived, the placard said, in its crater.
The painting represented her as if she were the volcano. Her long hair, curly like my own, formed the fire rivulets that ran beneath, and sometimes broke, the earth’s surface. She sat in the lotus position, meditating with a Mona Lisa smile before a subterranean lava lake, holding a flame in her hands. The goddess looked like me to me, but not as worried.
It was the first time I saw an image of a deity and wanted to worship. The pamphlet was right — common sense was not enough. The waves were so big, the volcano so unpredictable, the islands so isolated, the lava so sharp, that to live here, a person would need more than common sense. They would need more than Pono’s pamphlets. They would need deities.
The volcano did not care whether it communicated violently or nonviolently. After its outbursts, nothing was processed. No workshop could make its space safe. Gods and goddesses couldn’t help us or save us, but they could give us someone to beg, or to blame.
*Names have been changed.