friday feast: the home within

They say you can’t go home again.

I believed that until I found this poem — “Leaving,” by Cathy Song.

It begins:

Wahiawa is still
a red dirt town
where the sticky smell
of pineapples
being lopped off
in the low-lying fields
rises to mix
with the minty leaves
of eucalyptus
in the bordering gulch.
(Rest here.)

This may well be the only poem ever written about my hometown of Wahiawa.

All I wanted to do thirty years ago was leave it.

Leave the red dirt and pineapple fields
the mildew under the eaves
the GIs from Schofield Barracks
the Filipino men clapping when I sang
the “Unchained Melody” in the saimin restaurant.

Before I could read, Wahiawa was just fine with me.

I didn’t know about snow
or seasons
or overcoats and boots;
didn’t know it was possible
to drive from state to state
or that I lived on a tiny dot
in the middle of the Pacific.

After I opened a book,
real life, exciting life, worthwhile life
seemed to exist somewhere else.
Hawai’i was just too limited, too remote,
too forgotten by the rest of the country.
I read so many books,
but never saw myself in any of them.

In “Leaving,” the narrator talks about being “kept under cover” by her mother. In their small, dark world, the children knew mold, mildew, and centipedes, building “houses within houses,” depending on National Geographic for a glimpse of the outside world. They were “squeamish and pale.”

This made me remember why I left my family and friends and moved to England after college. My destiny just seemed to be very far away from where I was born. I refused to become part of the undergrowth.

Now, I’ve seen a little more of the world, but whenever I sit down to write anything, I’m still writing from Wahiawa. I guess you can take the person out of the place, but you can’t take the place out of the person. I keep wondering if I’ll always think so small, so limited, so confined. Writing is my way of trying to break free.

Cathy Song also grew up in Wahiawa, graduated from Wellesley College and Boston University. So she left, too (but eventually returned to Hawai’i where she lives now). As children, we lived five minutes apart, but never knew each other (I did know her older sister, though).  All these years later, I’ve met Cathy through her poetry. I know so well of what she writes.

“Leaving,” from her first collection, Picture Bride (Yale University Press, 1983), has taken me back home.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Big A little a.


“Life’s a voyage that’s homeward bound.” ~ Herman Melville


25 thoughts on “friday feast: the home within

  1. “Life’s a voyage that’s homeward bound.”
    “My destiny just seemed to be very far away from where I was born. I refused to become part of the undergrowth.”
    Wow, those are delicious thoughts. I copied them to my desktop so I can savor them all day. Thank you.


  2. Yes, but Paul lived on the bigger dot.
    NOW! it ALL makes sense….
    WHO in their right mind would leave an island of tropical beauty, sunshine, blue skies, green surf….
    For an island where “If the sun don’t come, you get a tan from standing in the English rain.”…
    If not for LOVE!
    “for LOVE is ALL you NEED!”


  3. Re: Yes, but Paul lived on the bigger dot.
    Yes, my secret is out! I sought out Paul — but also Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Keats, et al.
    BTW, sunshine is overrated :).


  4. I just found out Mary Oliver grew up in the town next to where I grew up. Isn’t it something to find an amazing poet from your own backyard? I always wondered what it would be like to live in Harlem or Paris and know all the big names as regular people.
    Sunshine is overrated? I guess dreary cold damp days have their usefulness…


  5. but also Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Keats, et al.
    All those guys were dead and could be as easily found in an Hawaiian library as an English one.
    But I understand…. 😉
    yeah!, yeah!, yeah!


  6. Re: but also Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Keats, et al.
    Yeah, nothing really made sense until I saw the actual places where these British writers lived and worked. You should have seen me swooning at Jane Austen’s Chawton house, or wandering the Bronte moors up in Yorkshire — or bowing at the Apple Records entrance!


  7. Yes, it is amazing — because people you admire don’t usually fall into the realm of “ordinary people.” But everyone is human and has to come from somewhere. I love Mary Oliver’s work!
    Sunshine can be boring, day after day, all year round, believe it or not. Hawai’i is an endless summer. I wanted to see the leaves change and snow fall from the sky!


  8. until I saw the actual places…
    Shame on me!
    Here I haven’t even visited Emily’s house and it’s only 40 minutes down the road…..


  9. I lived on Okinawa for a time, and it was strange, living in a place where you couldn’t just drive away from it all.
    Look at everything you’ve found by leaving, and yet you still have what you left, too.


  10. Happy day after Lei Day! (I couldn’t post in time for the actual day.)
    I think of Hawai’i as a very glamorous place to live. Unlike the places I grew up. Also, I don’t know what my hometown is. I lived in one place from age 0-2, another from 2-6, another from 6-12, another from 12-17. When people asked where I was from, I would just say, “New England,” rather than try to list the different towns and states.


  11. I wouldn’t have called Hawai’i glamorous, but one thing I have learned for sure — its greatest asset is the people. Other parts of the world have beautiful beaches, and waterfalls — even volcanoes. But Hawai’i people are the friendliest, the most down-to-earth. “Aloha spirit” is not a myth. It’s inbred.


  12. double whammy
    This is a great post. I love Cathy Song’s poem, and I love your poetic thoughts on what it means to leave home. There’s a Scott Miller song, “Across the Line,” that says: “There’s nothing wrong with where I come from; sometimes it’s meant to be just that.” Which is how I’ve come to feel about my home state, too.
    Also fascinating to me is this dark, dreary view of Hawai’i. I never thought of it as a rainy, muddy, moldy, centipede-y place. Shows what I know.


  13. Me too!
    I can really relate to the idea that you always write from your hometown, even though you have been many more places. When I was growing up in a small town I thought that if I could just get to New York City I would be happy forever and never look back. I LOVE NYC and have visited there many times. I have been lots and lots of other places as well and have not lived in my home state for 18 years. I don’t look back with a sense of longing for home, but rather to get perspective on how far I have come. Thanks for this post!


  14. Great post! I ABSOLUTELY believe that what we know first is in our blood, or at least the very core of our being.
    Sara said it best: “Look at everything you’ve found by leaving, and yet you still have what you left, too.”
    Mary Lee


  15. Re: Me too!
    Nice to hear that you can relate! I also had a longing for NYC — I was dying to live in Greenwich Village and be cool. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” also made a strong impression on me. NYC is such a fabulous place!


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