“Growing apart doesn’t change the fact that for a long time we grew side by side; our roots will always be tangled. I’m glad for that.”
― Ally Condie,
Somewhere between then and now, we grew into our new normal… we found a rhythm that works for us. I feel really content with where we are, and where we are headed. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, maybe it’s because that little girl finally feels the comfort of having her Father. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I love our new normal.
Just last month, he organized a barbecue at Ala Moana Beach Park to celebrate my graduation from law school. It was the sweetest gesture ever. This was his first time planning a gathering for me. He made a few calls, invited some family members, and gave me specific instructions to bring sausage to throw on the grill. I asked if we needed anything else — a salad maybe? Some rice? Anything? No, he had already designated items to other family members. My job: bring sausage.
It was a beautiful day at the park. Our lives seem to continue crossing at Ala Moana Beach Park — the same park I’ve mentioned in other blog posts. The same place where I met my friends in the “Forest,” the same place where I rollerbladed as a little girl growing up in Honolulu, the same place where I reconnected with “Hobo Bob.” So it was befitting that multiple generations were collectively coming together on the very shores of my childhood, all invited by my father’s direction.
The sky was painted an incredible blue that morning, and everyone brought their appetite. It was quite a fiasco trying to rally all the family members back into one spot to get the barbecue going. The kids were in the water, one of my cousins was fishing with my father at the opposite side of the park, my husband was busy with the kids, and the other family members were busy getting things settled under the tent.
I decided it was a good time to figure out how to operate the grill. I’m a “go-getter.” To my half-sister’s credit, she was somewhat cautious about my approach in attaching the propane canister to the grill. Okay, so maybe I didn’t really know what I was doing… and it wasn’t a good idea to try to flick the igniter while attaching the propane tank — the switch was not a mysterious “lock” to get the tank to screw on.
Thankfully, my husband returned and knew what he was doing. Everyone started to regather around the tent and slowly started pulling out their dishes. We brought our sausage like we were asked. My cousins brought meat as well. And my uncle and aunt… brought meat and a massive tub of kimchee.
Nobody brought rice.
I started to giggle. My husband knew what I was thinking, but didn’t want to say it. Finally I broke the silence and blurted out, “A bunch of Koreans are at a barbecue and nobody brought rice… how are we supposed to eat?”
It was cute. It gave us all something to laugh about together. My father shook his head in disbelief. He went around the circle and asked if they were absolutely sure that he hadn’t asked them to bring rice. This was the first time he had organized a family gathering, and we were all just really proud and happy to be enjoying each other’s company — rice or no rice. I’m glad it happened though… it seemed to break the ice, and helped everyone to feel more comfortable. Who knows, maybe he planned that all along!
The rest of the day was beautiful… the water was perfect for swimming. My father wore regular khaki shorts and shoes. He didn’t have any swimwear with him. I was a little surprised that he would suggest coming to this beach park, and not be prepared to get in the water. And then it dawned on me… I had no recollection of seeing him in the ocean. I had no memory whatsoever of being in the ocean with my father.
How could that be?
We live in Hawai`i. We are surrounded by water. The ocean is such an important part of my life — a source of healing energy, a way to reconnect with myself and my spirituality. I had to take another minute to consider this.
We have to get into the water together.
It took several tries to convince my father that his shorts would dry just fine. We had a paddle board and I begged him to let me paddle him around. I literally broke out into what probably resembled an excited 6-year-old’s dance. I hopped up and down, clapped my hands, grinned from ear-to-ear, and pleaded with him…
“Please, please, pleaaaase? Pleaaase? I’ve never asked for anything before! PLEASE get on the paddle board with me! You remember what I said about paddling and how it’s been such an amazing heeeealing experience for me? Pleeeeeaaase?”
I think he was enjoying every moment of my desperate whining. He quietly said, “If you keep pushing me, I won’t do it.” And then he flashed a grin. Okay, so I had to be more reasonable. I went to law school. Heck, I graduated from law school. I quickly adjusted to a new strategy…
“Dad, we have never been in the ocean together… and who knows when we will have access to a paddle board again? I’ll be really busy studying for the bar exam, so we may not be able to do this again for a couple of months. This is a great time to make new memories!”
Hook. Line. Sinker. 😉
I watched our feet disappear under the sandy shores of Ala Moana Beach Park that morning. The water creeped up above our ankles and then our knees. We shared a smile, and I soaked up the warmth of his skin under my hands. We were connected. With a little encouragement, my father sat on the paddle board and I was able to briefly standup.
There must have been a little confusion about what was going to happen on the paddle board. I thought I was going to be able to “paddle” away with him on it — he thought he was just going to idly “sit” on the board… on the shore. His reaction was darling. As soon as he realized what I had intended, he gripped the sides of the board and jumped off as fast as he could. I was so close!
Even though we weren’t able to leave the shores that day, I am still deeply appreciative for that brief moment we shared as father and daughter. I hope we can someday explore deeper waters. For now, I am loving our new normal… I am loving these moments that continue to unfold with each passing day.
Wishing everyone lots of love and inspiration in this life journey. Hope you enjoyed being able to hear of another “first” I experienced with my father and my family.
“Hungry for love, He looks at you. Thirsty for kindness, He begs of you. Naked for loyalty, He hopes in you. Homeless for shelter in your Heart, He asks of you. Will you be that one to Him?” – Mother Teresa
I recently had the honor of flying out to DC for the Rare Under 40 Awards Ceremony. The trip felt like a whirlwind, but I came back home feeling energized and uplifted from meeting so many inspiring souls. I have to admit I felt a little out of my element. I never thought I’d go from sidewalks to a red carpet because of this blog, my photographs, and from simply opening myself to others. I wished it could have been Hobo Bob, Darryl, Brian, Nani, or Roxy on the red carpet instead.
The story of my journey with my father may have captured hearts and souls around the world, but it’s the stories of those who I’ve met along the way that continues to weigh on my heart. There are endless waves of Brian’s, Nani’s, Roxy’s… all lined up alongside fences and scattered throughout parks. So many hearts hungry for love.
“What does that mean, anyway?”
We are all hungry for love… validation of our worth, our dreams, and our hopes. It’s easy to doubt ourselves, to shut people out to protect our hearts, to grow hardened from years of living in fear and uncertainty. The world is full of pain and suffering, but the smallest gesture of kindness can be the spark we/you/I need to preserve the softness in our hearts for others. I was reminded of that during my trip to DC.
I had an interview with Rare correspondents shortly after I arrived, and was running off of about an hour or two of sleep. Needless to say, my responses to the interview questions were brutally honest and I’m not even sure if anyone will ever see it. There were a couple of questions that really left an impression on me:
“In your opinion, what do you believe is the greatest challenge that millennials face today?”
I took a deep breath, thought about it for a second, and said what I felt… I think it went something like this…
“We crave connection. We live in a world where it’s easy to connect through the digital medium, but we’re lacking the human element. The human touch, a hug, holding our hands, holding each other, and being open to loving each other. I think that’s why I like to hug people… especially those on the streets, they all need that fundamental human connection.”
And it goes further… we long for friendship, and to have our hearts be seen. I’ve been reflecting on my past and continuing the journey of self-discovery. I know that in my heart of hearts, I have yearned for deeply connected friendships. Out of fear of being hurt or misunderstood, I know I have pushed people away and opted to stay in my own comfort zone. I would maintain a busy schedule, pour myself into projects, my family, and sometimes use that as an excuse for not investing in people who were trying to invest their hearts in me.
It’s an interesting feeling having so much of my life and my heart written out for others to see. I’m learning to embrace it because it helps me to live a life closer to my purpose. I’m not as afraid of people coming to me, opening themselves in hopes of having a shared connection. It has been an incredibly enriching experience, and I appreciate how much love I’m able to receive because of it. There’s still a lot to work on… on a personal level. There are still loved ones in my life who I want and need to reach out to. Someday.
Which brings me to the second question I was asked in DC:
“How do you stay motivated to do what you do?”
Another honest response… I shared how I wake up every morning with the understanding and acceptance that I will die. My eyes will close and never open again to see this world the way I do today. Knowing and accepting this gives me the strength and serenity to go after my dreams, to follow my heart everyday… to stay open to soul connections with people no matter their circumstances.
As I finish writing this blog post, I’m looking into my father’s eyes reflecting back into mine. Across the way is a homeless man who is suffering from mental illness, he just came by about 5 minutes ago and asked us for food. I don’t know his name, or his past… I don’t know what he is battling, or what kind of pain he is feeling right now. But I hope to find out soon.
My father said to me, “I’m so glad I’m not homeless anymore.”
Yes. Me too. Now it’s time to keep moving forward, and paying-it-forward. I’m sighing deeply this very second. Wishing all the best to you this beautiful day. Thanks for following along and I hope it encourages you to share one act of kindness today.
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
― Desmond Tutu
I recognize the last post made many friends, family members, and readers feel incredibly sad for me. No child should have to go through that experience. I have been thinking a lot about that period of my childhood, and realize that there have been many wonderful memories… moments of pure love and light from people who didn’t even really know me.
I’d like to share a really special memory with you.
My 9th birthday was around the corner and my Mother asked me what I would like for a present. We didn’t have much money then and were jumping around between her friends’ apartments at the time. I didn’t really want any specific thing, I just wanted to have a birthday party… a clown, balloons, food, and a cake!
I didn’t get to spend much time with her because she worked nights and was usually sleeping during the day. It was a really big deal when she agreed that I could have a birthday party — it meant that we would get to spend more time together. My little heart felt so full that morning.
My Mother gave me a budget of $200 and said I would need to help with planning — I was all for it! Later that morning, I went right to work with a list of invitees. I basically invited everyone in our apartment building. I drew up handwritten invitations, picked the earliest Saturday (which was just 3-4 days away), and spent the entire afternoon sliding invites under everyone’s door. The party would start at 11am at the pool deck, food would be provided!
On the morning of my birthday, I found my Mother still sleeping in bed. She had had a long night… I had given her the list of all the items, prices, and places to go to buy everything for the party. I tried to wake her up, but she was so groggy and wasn’t really responding. I decided to walk over to the refrigerator to see if she had bought the cake last night, the food… and there wasn’t anything there.
My heart sank. I walked back over to my Mother and tried to shake her awake. She was tired. I understood and didn’t fault her, but all I could think about was how everyone would be downstairs in just a couple of hours. There wasn’t enough time to write another note to all those people, and I didn’t even know who I actually invited. I felt so stupid for not making a list of the invitees.
A couple of hours passed and my Mother was still asleep in bed. It was almost time for the birthday party. I peered outside the lanai and saw the figures of people downstairs on the pool deck. They had presents and some had a balloon. I could feel the tears forming in my eyes and the embarrassment on my face. I disappeared back into the apartment.
Not too long afterwards, someone was knocking on the door. It was one of my favorite neighbor couples. I wish I could still remember their names… They were a younger couple and would let me into their apartment to play with their computer. The husband taught me how to type on a keyboard, and the wife was always so sweet to me. I remember wishing they were my parents. Since I can’t remember their names, let’s just call them Mark and Sarah.
Mark and Sarah asked why I wasn’t at the party, and I told them that my Mother wasn’t feeling well. They must have seen my disappointment. Then Sarah said, “Well, maybe we can take you out to celebrate for dinner instead?” My heart felt so full of joy again. They both smiled and we agreed that I would get my Mother’s permission, and would meet at the lobby around 6pm. Mark also let me know that he would let everyone know that my Mother wasn’t feeling well. I appreciated that so much.
They took me to the old Hard Rock Honolulu across the street from the Convention Center by the entrance of Waikiki. I had never been there before, and felt so special to be there that evening. They treated me to anything on the menu. I ordered a steak with extra fries that night. I remember sitting next to Sarah, and drawing on the back of the kiddy menu. Gosh, that feeling… as I write this, I am literally tearing up remembering their incredible kindness.
Sarah asked about school, life, my home life. My grades were crap, but I liked having friends. I never got to see my Mother, and I spent most of my nights begging her not to leave for work. I cried a lot because I didn’t like being alone — Sarah knew about that part and that’s why they let me spend time with them.
Then Sarah did something so simple, but it has stayed with me throughout all these years. She picked a napkin out of the holder, and asked:
“Do you know what Roy G. Biv stands for?”
I shook my head. I had no clue. She smiled warmly at me, and started to pull out a crayon one-by-one. She pulled the red one and wrote the letter “R”, pulled the orange crayon, and wrote the letter “O,” yellow crayon for the letter “Y”, green crayon for the letter “G”, blue crayon for the letter “B”, purple crayon (she said it’s actually indigo) for “I”, and then the purple crayon again (she said it’s violet this time). I laughed at her and said, “the last two are the same thing!”
Then I remember Sarah saying, “Diana, I want you to remember this for me… Roy G. Biv stands for the colors of the rainbow and whenever you feel sad, I want you to think about this rainbow because it represents the beauty in life… the hope… and just like when it rains and the world seems like it’s crying, know that there will always be a rainbow afterwards… something beautiful, like you.”
To this day, I still think about this wonderful couple who opened their hearts to me. I still think about them when I see a rainbow, and have told my children the same thing about rainbows and how it represents hope. I wish there was someway that I could find them, to let them know how much it meant to celebrate my birthday with me.
Later that evening, Mark asked me if I could do something really important for him. He asked me to close my eyes and count to 30 without peeking. Sarah put her hands over mine just in case!
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10… all the way to 30… I don’t think I ever counted that slow in my life.
When I opened my eyes, I saw a huge banana split with a candle on it! Sarah held my hand, and they all started to sing “Happy Birthday” to me… I just couldn’t help but cry and smile. I wanted my life to freeze at that moment — to live right there in that happiness with Mark and Sarah.
My friends, Mark and Sarah, moved away a few months later. It was so hard to see them go. I have never forgotten how something so small and seemingly ordinary can have such a profound impact on a human life. I’m 30 years old now, with two children of my own… a husband who is incredibly patient and loving. And I like to think that I have done right by continuing to hold onto the beauty in life despite the pain. In all honesty, I’m grateful for the suffering I’ve endured because without it I wouldn’t ever have known how strong I truly am.
Life is not perfect. I don’t have “the” answer to solve homelessness, child abuse, substance abuse, and other crippling life events. But I hope that by sharing snippets of my life, it can somehow continue to help others. I am so grateful for the complete strangers and good hearted people who have helped preserve and grow my human spirit. I think at the end of the day, kindness can go a long way… it provides that hope that things can be better, and the ability to make it through another day.
Curious to know if any of you have had similar experiences of unexpected kindness. Please share. 🙂
“The wounded recognized the wounded.”
― Nora Roberts,
I have been spending more time focusing on law school and my family these days, but there’s also been this quiet voice inside that keeps speaking to me. You would think that after everything, I would have finally learned to embrace being open and vulnerable. It seems like every time I face these moments of hesitation, I take a few steps back to climb into my cave and hope the thoughts will go away. But then I remember that hiding doesn’t do anything, and I know that this could really help someone else out there.
My externship experience has been professionally very rewarding, but personally challenging. I have observed a number of courtroom proceedings ranging from divorce to CPS, and more recently juvenile cases. One of the reasons why I sought out this opportunity was because of my own childhood experiences. I had gone through child protective services twice — the first when my kindergarten teacher made a report after finding bruises all over my body, and the second time was when a neighbor called the police. There was a lot to both “incidents,” and I am not quite ready to express all of that in detail here… but, these memories continued to “come up” while in court.
It seems like an entire lifetime ago… almost like it wasn’t even me. And yet, when I sat there in the courtroom and listened to the attorneys and social workers, it came right back to me. The yelling, the hitting… not always having food or anyone around to watch me… wearing dirty clothes, wishing I had “normal” parents like everyone else… wishing I had somebody who could help me sew the cut-out fabric for May Day. I was the 8 year-old kid who stole shoes from your front door and left the “IOU” note because my parents were busy playing hot potato with my life. I was also the kid who knocked on your door with a car vacuum, hoping I could make $5 to buy new markers for school.
I did a really good job surviving back then, and actually credit my resourceful nature to the unfortunate circumstances of my past. There were lots of times when I’d watch my parents fighting… biological parents, step-parents, it seemed like every time an opportunity to finally be a family just never worked out. I could see the pain in some of the children’s faces, and it reminded me of where I once was. I wished so badly that I could reach out to them, to walk up to them, and say something to give them hope that they will someday have more control over the circumstances of their lives.
I was there.
Many, many years ago, I had a wonderful friend that I met mid-year at Ala Wai Elementary School. I was the new girl again, but this time it seemed different. People liked me and were curious… My friendship with (let’s just say her name is Chloe) Chloe grew and I quickly learned that she lived right down the street in a little 2-story walk-up. Her parents were divorced and she stayed with her dad in the walk-up for part of the week. I would visit her and we would rollerblade along the Ala Wai Canal after school, sometimes even skating towards the McDonalds across from Red Lobster by the Ilikai Hotel. It felt so good to have a friend to play with again.
Then one day I went over to her place, but she wasn’t there like usual. Her dad invited me in anyway and asked how school was going. I hated school. I embraced getting “Ds” and proudly stated that “D” was for “Diana.” I liked Chloe’s dad. He had these really interesting silver figurines that he liked to paint. It looked like medieval characters, all lined up for battle in a sandbox. I asked when Chloe would be back, and he said that he could call to ask. So I waited in the living room and heard him talking over the phone… Once he got off the phone, he smiled and said that Chloe would be there tomorrow.
He walked into his bedroom, the only other room in the apartment, and asked if I wanted to see the figurines. I was excited to see them. It was the one thing that was “off limits” to us. He let me pick out some of the unpainted ones from the shelf, and when I turned around I noticed he was sitting on the edge of the bed smiling. Then he asked me to sit next to him…
This was what led up to the first time I was sexually abused.
As I sat there in that courtroom with the knowledge that one of the girls had been sexually abused, my heart completely broke for her. Again… I wished I could just give her a big hug, and reassure her that she can feel whole again… that she could learn to trust, that it is possible to love yourself and others, and you can someday have that family you have always wanted.
Having to sit there passively stirred up so many feelings and thoughts. I could feel that fire in my gut burning with fury, that same fire that I used to push and tear down my past for the future. There is so much fear, pain, and suffering in this world. I absolutely loathe the fact that there are children all over the world who are sexually abused, physically abused, exploited, and neglected. Someday, hopefully soon, I pray that I am able to reach out to them… to share in the understanding of the pain, guilt, and sadness of being hurt in a way that never fully goes away. It’s a memory that I have learned to calm so that I could embrace the beauty that surrounds me… my children, my husband, my family… they are my light and I appreciate the second chance that I have been given in this lifetime, so that I can somehow help others who suffer.
I have never publicly shared what happened that day in the bedroom… I’m not sure if I can “go there” and talk about everything yet. But I want to share that it happened… because if there’s one thing that I learned from all of this, it’s that if my discomfort in being vulnerable can help somebody else out there, then here you go. Here is my heart through my words. I hope that it helps.
We can heal together.
My father and I met-up a couple of weeks ago to celebrate his birthday, and for finally passing his examination! He wanted to go someplace low-key — just somewhere we could have a good meal and hangout. We settled on a modest little spot in our usual area, and both ordered our comfort foods. I went for a bowl of tofu stew (“soon du bu jigae”), and my father ordered spicy cold noodles (“bibim guksu”).
Eating Korean food always has a way of reminding me of my childhood, and parents in particular. The spices are so familiar to me, yet I rarely find myself ordering or making the dishes I grew up on. Part of the reason was because it made me feel homesick during the years after I had runaway from “home.” And my husband knows to this day, that when I go out to order Korean food, it either means I’m feeling really sick or missing my parents.
It had been years since I had this specific stew in the presence of my father. And it took nearly half an hour to eat it because it was so hot! I could tell he was amused watching me struggle in consuming this boiling hot stew, while he slurped his cold noodles down in less than ten minutes.
“Too hot to eat, huh?” he said.
I laughed out loud and nodded. He was right, I should have ordered the noodles with him. As we shared our lunch, he asked about school and how things were going. I admitted that it’s been a struggle staying balanced with law school, family, work, and making sure we’re paying the bills. The decision to leave my full-time job and transition into the full-time law program has certainly added some strains, but I know we’re almost there.
I think he must have sensed something was up, because he asked what I had planned to do after I graduate. I told him the truth, “I don’t know.” What I do know is that I trust things will work out the way they’re supposed to! He seemed pretty satisfied with that answer. I switched the topic to his plans. He still plans to start driving, but wants to take some time to decompress and relax. A part of me wishes that I could go out and buy him a used car to start driving right now. I know timing is everything, so I’m letting things unfold the way it has with us. Maybe after I graduate and start working again.
A lot of the time we share together is filled with quiet, and I appreciate that. I’m sure someone looking in from the outside may find it odd that we’ll just sit in one spot for half an hour, and intermittently glance over at each other and share a few thoughts, then go back to gazing at the scene in front of us. It must be a “photographer thing,” where we feel most comfortable blending in and letting things happen without our influence. Our time together is almost meditative… quiet and lovely.
He isn’t rushing anywhere in life right at this moment, and neither am I. It’s intriguing how much we are alike and different at the same time. We generally initiate conversations by saying whatever random thought is in our heads.
“Dad, remember when I told you that I started paddling? I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I thought about you in every race towards the finish line. I thought about where you were, what it felt like to be there with you, and I took that and used it to push past my physical pain towards the finish line.”
My father was quiet for a minute or two, and then he nodded and said, “But now you don’t need to think about that pain. Now you can just make a goal, and work towards that goal, and do it. You look to the future now, not back.”
It meant so much for me to hear this when I did — he was right, it’s time to look forward. We are looking forward separately and together. I’ve thought a lot about what he said to me about looking forward in my life in the past weeks. There is still so much that I want to do and accomplish in this lifetime, and I feel so grateful for the opportunity to grow from the experiences I’ve had with him and on my own.
I feel like it’s time to share my story beyond what I’ve written in this blog and what is already “out there.” A part of me has always felt the pull to do that, but it requires that I look back in order to keep moving forward. It requires that I dig deeper, to open my heart, and sit in my own vulnerability to write the full story. I’ve tried to do that before and it was really depressing. I’ve spent the greater part of my adult life learning how to separate myself from the dysfunction of my childhood, and to move past it so that I could be the person I am today. It’s something I’ve struggled with more recently, especially since my experiences with my father have become so public. I felt like I had moved past it all, until he came back into my life just a couple of years ago. I realized there was so much more emotion and feeling underneath this protective shell I’ve grown over the years.
I’m still trying to find that balance, but the focus right now is to continue growing with my father and devoting more time and energy into my family overall. And of course, I continue to reach out to my friends on the streets and have community talks and conferences planned. I feel as if I’m on the cusp of a new chapter, and I’m grateful for all of the experiences I’ve shared with my friends, my family, and from people who have reached out near and far.
So with that, I want to wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving from my heart to yours. I am so thankful for the life I have, that he has, that we all have today. I’m grateful for my good health, and the ability to keep sharing and connecting with all of you. As I continue discovering who my father is, I’m learning who I am as well. Thank you for following along. Sending you a big embrace this holiday season. 🙂
I have been getting e-mails and messages from friends all over the world about ways to “help” and “support” the project. And I’m happy to share that friends and family can now, for the first-time ever, support by ordering prints. The photographs mean a lot to me, and were shown in my first gallery exhibit at the Hawai`i Pacific University’s Homeless Awareness Week.
A portion of the proceeds will go towards the ongoing efforts of the Kickstarter that was launched last year.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to open this up to the public… I think in some strange way, I felt protective about the photographs and didn’t want to put a “price tag” on it. At the same time, I’ve come to recognize that people really do care and they want to financially support my efforts… and at the end of the day, the support does help me to keep doing what my heart wants to do!
So, thank you to everyone for your continued support through this process and for encouraging me to share my photography with the world!
Prints Available: https://homelessparadise.smugmug.com/The-Urban-Forest/
Just a couple of days ago, I had the opportunity to speak to photography students at ‘Iolani School. I was so impressed by their thoughtfulness. I told them that I was an open-book, that they could ask me anything they wanted and I would answer honestly. One student had asked about my feelings and how I managed to “keep it together” while everything was unraveling. And what role the camera played in the process. These questions were like the ones that career reporters were asking me, but it was so different to hear the questions in-person… to see the youthful faces of curiosity shining in front of me. I loved it. And I was more honest with them than I had ever been.
There are still so many parts of this story, my past, my experiences with my father, and everything that happened from when I was born until today… and I know that I’ve held a lot back because it’s difficult to keep things in context. I’ve already learned the challenges of sharing something so intimate at such a “large” scale — and how bits and pieces of my past get blurred. It’s okay, I know that’s how it goes. But it felt really nice to be able to stand in front of these high school students and respond in-person, to have an open dialogue, and to continue sharing my respect and love for the visual medium.
Another student asked whether I thought I could have had the same journey without photography being a part of it. I don’t think that would have been possible. The camera is what brought me to them… it’s what connected all of us in that classroom, our shared passion for what the camera could do. At the core of it all, the camera itself is just a tool that allows us the freedom to capture and express a part of ourselves. And these images that are created can be so powerful, to the point where it moves our hearts and minds. I have always respected and admired the people (both presently and from the past) who continued to document and use this medium as a way to spark social change.
That was part of my message to the students in the class — that we are all part of this life journey, and each of us know what we really want… what we really love and are interested in. And it’s up to us to manifest that into reality. If you’re going to do something, put everything into it so you don’t look back and wonder.
I also wanted them to recognize that they can be creative in bridging various interests together. In my case it has always been photography and the law. Initially they may seem completely different from each other, almost at odds with each other. But I recognized early on that I wanted to do more than just document social issues, I wanted to be able to understand them at a deeper level. I wanted to understand the policy implications, the legal barriers of access to healthcare, and the way in which the law shaped the world I photographed. It has been an ongoing theme in my academic life… and I never imagined how personal it would be with my own biological father becoming homeless.
I truly appreciated this opportunity to have these meaningful conversations with the youth in my community. I look forward to my own sons growing up and developing into such thoughtful and curious teenagers… Deepest gratitude to the teachers who reached out and made this connection possible. Until next time…
I met Derrick standing by a bench next to the Kapalama Canal. His deep tan seemed to glow against the reflection of the water. The air felt clean and my skin was still cool from being at the news station for my morning interview. I glanced at him and made quick eye contact. He was busy talking to someone and our eyes met again — this time I waved at him. He nodded and smiled. I awkwardly introduced myself, almost interrupting their conversation, and sort of back-stepped towards a bench.
I could tell he was curious about me and my half-hearted attempt to say “hello.” I didn’t have any specific plan by being there. I had just left the news station from doing an interview on the Sunrise Show. I felt the pull to drive by the canal. Someone had mentioned that a one-mile fence would be built alongside this canal… another way to address the “homeless problem.”
So, there I was. I wanted quiet. Some “me” time. It is always emotionally draining to expose myself… to be vulnerable to a public audience, even if I’m just sitting under bright lights with a really warm reporter/human-being next to me. It was nice to be outside… a good break from where I had just been. I sat there alone, on the picnic table, and watched people come out of their tents. One lady was preparing her breakfast — it smelled like she was frying up some eggs and sausage. My stomach started to growl. I hadn’t had breakfast yet.
My attention came back to Derrick. His friend was gone and he was standing right next to me. Smiling, he asked what I was doing here.
“Here we go,” I thought.
I was honest. I told him where I had just come from, my journey, and my nervousness about sharing personal details of my life. He listened attentively. Layer by layer, I shared my hopes, my pain and fear. I mentioned how I felt so alone at times. And how I appreciate the quiet and solitude because it is a reminder that I, alone, will have to face my fears and manifest my hopes and dreams into reality. It’s that moment of pause we have in life that gives us the freedom to choose our next step.
I went on to share my thoughts about the money that would be spent on building the fence. I explained my belief that helping isn’t always about spending money. As children, we are oftentimes asked if we want anything… if there’s anything we can buy to make them happy or feel better. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to buy a gift or a token of our appreciation. But it is the thought and intent behind it that truly touches the person… touches the child… It’s about love. People want to feel loved, to have someone listen to them and their feelings, and be held when they’re not feeling good. I’m not so sure that building a fence will help the situation.
He shared his own life story — how he had lived a life of incredible financial freedom at a young age. Derrick had money, lots of it, and he blew it all away on the “wrong things” in his early years. He remembers a time when he would drive by homeless people, scoffing at their circumstances and turning away from them — seeing them as failures in life.
My stomach started to growl.
I asked if he was hungry and his response made me laugh. “Girl, I am one Hawaiian braddah, I can always eat.” Thank goodness. I was starving. We walked over to the nearest Zippy’s restaurant and ordered rice, eggs, and portuguese sausage. He liked his rice the same way I did — colored with shoyu and tabasco. Perfect.
We sat by a big window and he shared more about his life and the new perspective and life path he was on. He enjoys helping people. Derrick reflected on a time when he had “everything,” yet he was incredibly unhappy with life. And now at the cusp of being 50 years-old, he has very little in the material sense, but has never felt more content. He is happy. He is learning to be at peace with himself, and being on the streets is part of that journey in helping him to get there.
The journey for Derrick is more spiritual than anything else. He shared the struggles of his father, his family, those who came before him… and at one point he lifted his shirt, revealing a tattoo across his chest that read:
‘Ōiwi na’u koko ha’aheo na’u koko
(Hawaiian by blood, proud by choice)
I grew up in Hawai`i, but cannot claim to fully understand the incredibly deep, interconnected, and enriching history and language of Hawai`i. However, I do have a deep respect for Native Hawaiians, like Derrick, who are part of an ongoing economic, social, cultural struggle that threatens the cultural practices and way of life of Indigenous Peoples. For those who are interested in learning more, I highly recommend reading “Who Owns the Crown Lands of Hawai`i?”.
He explained that many people living near Kapalama Canal express frustration in wanting a subsistence way of life, but not having the option to. At the same time, there are many who are depressed and need a friend. I realized that Derrick and I were a lot alike in this way… Wanting to be a friend, feeling connected to ourselves by connecting with others, but also appreciating our moments of solitude to recharge and reflect.
I wondered if he was depressed.
I openly shared how, in retrospect, I was depressed while my father was homeless. And how I learned to deal with being alone, compartmentalizing the pain, in order to keep things together in other areas of my life. It was so hard, and I know I’m a different person because of it. I have grown, no doubt, but I have also learned how to approach challenging experiences as an opportunity for growth. And I don’t mind having to push myself… I’m accepting what it means to be uncomfortable.
“Kūlia i ka nu‘u,” he said.
(Strive to the summit)
Derrick acknowledged what I was sharing. I was revealing myself to him — a period of personal turmoil that I really hadn’t broken down yet. It was hard, but I got over it. And that’s really all that mattered. But he didn’t mind listening to the details, watching the layers unfold that morning, as I was fresh from just sharing my story live on-air.
I think he noticed the change in my mood because he abruptly changed my train of thought by mentioning his mother. His mother shared something with him at an early age, and he wanted to share it with me. He asked me to spell out the word “depression.” I said each letter out loud, slowly… Then he asked me to cross out the first “d”, the “e”, and the “i.”
When you take the word “depression,” and you cross out those letters, you’re left with the words “press on.” If you don’t “press on” in life, then the three letters you took out spell “die,” and you will surely “die” because of your depression.
“So, Diana… press on, kūlia i ka nu‘u, strive to the summit” he said.
Yes, Derrick. I will. It has taken me over a week to write this post… I’ve held onto the strength and thoughtfulness of his words… of the life that is woven into his words… It means a lot to me, and now I’m sharing them with you. As I drove away that morning, I felt happier… understood, validated… I smiled knowing that he had helped me, and I had helped him. We saw each other and our hearts nodded quietly as I waved goodbye. It’s never truly goodbye, though. Deep down inside, I know I will see him again.
Wishing you all the best in the journey… until next time…
I started off the morning with my Dad at the Dillingham DMV, shuffling through paperwork to get him ready for his road test. The last time I had been to a DMV for a road test was when I was 16 years-old. My best friend’s mom (now mother-in-law) was with me on my third attempt at passing the test. She was (and still is) such a sweetheart. Even after failing the test twice, she continued to encourage me, and shared that it took her kids more than one attempt to pass. I’m not even sure if that’s true or not, but it meant everything to have her support and patience. It felt good to have a mother-figure around…
I thought about my own experience as I shuttled by Dad around at the DMV. I anxiously watched my Dad engage with the check-in receptionist and road test examiner. A part of me wanted to talk to the receptionist for him, but I forced myself to take a backseat and let him do it. He gave her the license and registration, insurance card, and confirmation e-mail I had printed out for him. We walked over to an empty bench and I playfully shared my experience in failing the test. I think it was my way of reassuring myself that it would be okay if he didn’t pass for whatever reason. My heart smiled knowing that we were creating another memory together — making up for a missed opportunity.
His name was finally called and I jumped up closely behind him as the examiner ushered him to the parking lot. I could feel the butterflies of excitement building in my gut and smiled proudly as he walked towards the car. Wait, maybe we should have practiced in my car? I watched as he fumbled trying to get the automatic door opener to work — crap, the battery was dead on that device, he would need to manually stick the key into the car door and turn it. My Dad looked over at me, and I signaled to stick the key into the door and turn. I quickly signaled again while the examiner had his back turned to me. He got it. Phew.
He drove off smoothly… good, I thought. I sat alone in a metal patio chair left obscurely by the wall and absorbed the scene in front of me. Teenagers were rushing by with their anxious parents, an elderly woman in a wheelchair was escorted into her car, and a man who appeared to be homeless stopped in front of a garbage ban to look for recyclables. The vision of my Dad on the streets flashed back into my mind, as I watched this man pluck out empty cans. He looked up and smiled at me, I smiled back. He walked away towards a friend before I could stop him to talk. Another time, I thought.
So this is what it’s going to feel like when my boys get older and it’s their turn to take their road test. I started to get lost in my own thoughts and didn’t realize half an hour had passed. I got up to see if they had returned, and the car was parked around the corner. As I walked into the DMV, I saw my Dad talked to another receptionist and quickly made my way over. Did he pass? Please tell me he passed!
He was beaming, a full ear-to-ear grin. His smile reminded me of my older son’s smile. I gave him a hug and stood back to let him get his paperwork processed and have his photo taken.
God, thank you. Thank you for this moment, for this second chance.
I am so proud of him and still marvel at how far he has come in such a short amount of time. He is slowly taking steps towards becoming independent again, and I feel so grateful to witness his recovery. Miracles do happen, it happens to normal people like you and I. It happens in the quiet details of life, like passing a road test, sharing a smile, watching someone stand tall again…
As I finish writing this blog post, my heart and mind is connecting with the hundreds of e-mails and comments I have received from people all over the world. People who share similar stories, understand the struggle, have experienced the pain of not having a healthy family or upbringing, and especially those who lost their parent(s) and were never able to have that “second chance.” I want you to know that I truly appreciate your messages and am sending you hope, love, positive and healing energy. Thank you for being part of this journey, for reaching out, for caring, and for allowing your heart to be touched by mine. It means everything to me.