There’s plenty of places in this country that encourage disenchantment, cities and states that practically compete to provide visitors with a sense of disillusionment and despair. Then there’s Hawaii. From the moment I arrived, there was something like a command to surrender to enchantment, a mandate for ecstasy. This makes a certain kind of sense: Hawaii’s physical beauty is legendary; the fact that even the air itself–smelling of flowers, of ripe greenness, fecund and full–is a thing of wonder should tell you something, namely that you are in the presence of the sublime.
All of which is to say, falling in love with Hawaii is not a hard thing to do, or it shouldn’t be. And yet, when I found myself there–first on Oahu, then Maui, finally Kaua’i–I had a hard time even paying much attention to the place I was in, so busy was I questioning my feelings toward the man I was with, my husband of less than a year, the father of the baby I’d only just days before learned was beginning to grow inside me. I found myself on winding roads, circumnavigating the reckless beauty of these islands, trying and failing to surrender to the demands of its glory, in constant doubt over where my future was headed. Would it continue forward? Or just wrap around itself, a snake eating its tail?
Some days were better than others. Some days, we would spend mornings walking in the sun, and afternoons on small boats, around which majestic whales would arc out of the water, splashing us with their slapping fins. Dolphins would speed by in playful packs and I would find myself laughing so hard that I’d start crying with delight. Other days, I’d sleep later and later, wasting the golden hours, denying myself sights other than what I could see out my hotel windows, crying into my pillow for complicated reasons that had little to do with joy. By the time we got to Kaua’i, the last island upon which we’d stay, I felt hopeless, like the lush wildness of the landscape was a personal affront, too stark a contrast to the devastation I felt inside than seemed fair.
On the morning my husband and I boarded a catamaran for a day of sailing and snorkeling I had barely slept the night before, and decided to spend most of the boat trip up front, apart from everyone else. I’d looked forward to this excursion for the simple reason that I had been happiest on boats during this trip; the rocking soothed something in me, my hand would drift down to my still-flat stomach, and for a little while anyway, I’d be sure everything would be ok.
This boat trip started out fine–more than fine. The rush of the waves had me smiling in spite of myself; the wind whipping at my hair and the sight of what I was sure was a pink dolphin made me giddy, sent me spinning. And then we stopped so that everyone could start snorkeling. This should have been good. I should have been happy. But my head was still spinning. I don’t know if it was pregnancy-related nausea or if this would be the only time I’d ever (before or since) experience sea sickness, but I suddenly couldn’t stand upright. Almost everyone on board told me to stay above deck, that the fresh air would be good for me. But I couldn’t handle the fresh air anymore, and the captain took me below deck, gave me a comfortable spot where I could lay my head, and told me not to worry, it would be alright.
I closed my eyes, trying to make the world stop spinning. It was then that I heard the music. Throughout the trip, our soundtrack had mostly consisted of songs we’d brought along with us (this was early 2001, so this meant CDs, this meant Sade’s Lovers Rock) interspersed with whoever was performing in the hotel lobbies and restaurants. But what I was listening to now was something else entirely. The music surrounding me had a deceptive easiness to it, a beauty and a lightness that was no less beguiling for its obvious prettiness. The deft touch of the song’s guitarist was soon joined by his soulful voice, his words were unknown to me, but they echoed and expanded inside and around me, finally forcing me outside of myself and into the at once joy- and sorrow-tinged space of this music.
In the dim quiet space where I lay below deck on this catamaran, with the distant sound of snorkelers splashing about in the ocean, I started and then stopped crying, refusing to risk making the rest of my time in Hawaii be about me. I lay there listening to what I would later find out was Hawaiian music legend Gabby Pahinui’s 1973 album Rabbit Island Music Festival, luxuriating in Pahinui’s virtuosic abilities on the slack guitar, grateful for the gifts of his voice, and for the reminder that the beauty of a place–Kaua’i, Hawaii, Earth—could be found in many places, not only upon its surface, but also below.
It was on that boat, listening to “Kaua’i Beauty,” trying still to settle my spinning head and heart, floating in the middle of the ocean, unsure of where my life was headed, that I accepted what it was to give in to something bigger, and it felt to me a particularly Hawaiian, achingly beautiful thing. Here in this state, where the wind bears the fragrance of the most gorgeous flowers on earth, where the islands are made of once-fiery rock that somehow manages to feel fully stable underfoot, there is a demand that you surrender–not that you forget about yourself, but that you commit that self to something bigger, to the vastness just beyond your borders. In the stillness of the bottom of that boat, I found myself embracing the mournful glory of Pahinui’s voice, understanding better than ever before that the sublime is not simply about beauty, rather it is about awe–and that’s what I felt in the face of the beauty of Kaua’i, of Hawaii, of life.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.