Two activities undertaken in the last month; one I’ve never done before, the other not for a long time, have struck a chord in me that I can only put down to the impact of my recent experiences in the US.
The first saw me visiting, after a number of years away; a country show, local to the area in which I grew up. The occasion is such a familiar part of my childhood and I was warmed to find the sheep pens and prize cattle exactly as I remembered.
It was in the crafts tent that it happened. Standing immersed in the under 5s ‘animal made from vegetables’ category, particularly captivated by a potato zebra with carrots for legs, I glanced up to see a familiar face from school days now clutching her own children. At the same time I was hit by an early memory of myself at that age proudly brandishing ‘ballerina made from eggshell’ at another village event, and the continuity of it all rushed over me in a wave. The warm feeling that followed seemed to encapsulate much more than simply the ‘never changing landscape of the Yorkshire Dales’ but resonated with me personally; connecting me to a place and way of life that would always be a part of me just as I had been a part of it.
I wondered in that moment why I hadn’t felt that warmth before or certainly not for a long time. I wondered why even when I had, I’d often dismissed it rather than embraced it. Something has shifted in me recently causing me to reflect more on the people and places that have made me who I am and I can pinpoint that shift to an exact moment in time. Let me take you there...
It’s hard to find the words to do justice to the magic that is Oahu, Hawaii. All I can say is that I fell in love with it the first time I visited and now having been a second time and having had the opportunity to learn more about the indigenous culture at its core, I’m well and truly under its spell.
And to think, the moment that really changed things for me, the series of experiences that taught me how important it is to know where and who we’ve come from all came about quite by accident. Or maybe not…
I’d just climbed Flat Top Mountain in Anchorage and was on my way to ‘survivor’s drinks’ when I met David. Bunched together in a car we got chatting about life as GPs and within minutes I sensed I had met another kindred. Hailing originally from Minnesota, he hadn’t had much exposure to traditional or integrative medicine in his early medical career but that had changed when he moved to Hawaii. Now, running his own clinic on Oahu serving a diverse native and immigrant population he was proud to tell me about how both his way of thinking and working had been transformed. He completely understood my frustrations with the western medical model in relation to managing emotional distress and echoed my passion for seeking out alternative approaches. When I told him I was coming to Hawaii later that month his eyes lit up and he replied, “You need to come and see what we’re doing there”.
Fast forward to two weeks later and I was standing in Ho`oulu `Aina, an area of land owned by David’s clinic in the ancient and sacred Kalihi Uka valley, watching a group of young people carve their first canoes.
I’d been surprised on walking through the clinic doors that morning to be told almost immediately, ‘let’s get out of here and see where the real healing happens’. Now, standing amidst forested volcanic peaks and low hanging mist without a consultation room in sight, it did indeed feel like I was exactly where I needed to be to learn something new.
Gardens growing indigenous plants flanked me on both sides while next to the canoe- building workshop the final pieces of the native healing centre were being erected. Everywhere community members were scattered; planting, sanding, teaching. My guides were David and Jeffrey, a psychologist and academic working in the clinic, who had grown up on Oahu but was Philippine by heritage. As we walked the land, they talked about Ho`oulu `Aina being more than a community garden; more than simply a place to bring people together. It was a space where people could find a connection to the history of their surroundings, they said, and through that connection find meaning and healing. The part that struck me as most special, though, was their emphasis on this connection not being exclusive to a certain population. It was not only possible for native Hawaiians to find meaning here but for everyone to feel a connection to this history as well as to their own. On hearing this I began to feel hope that I might find an answer to a question that had been burning on my mind for some time.
I put that very question to one of the native healers I met later that morning after experiencing the pivotal ‘shift’ I referenced earlier. But first let me tell you about that.
It is the custom both in the clinic and nearby land to greet each other ‘in circle’ at the beginning and end of each day. The format of this practice is a ‘talking circle’ of sorts, however brief, it is an opportunity for each member to share part of their story in turn and for others to listen. The ‘subject’ may be a hope for the day or a reason to be thankful but the crucial ingredient to all of the circles in this particular clinic is the acknowledgement of the importance of our roots in our wellbeing and therefore a literal expression of a part of our history when we meet with each other.
One of the core concepts of native Hawaiian spiritual belief is the power of connection to ancestors and this belief is honoured in every circle that happens at the clinic through the ‘bringing forward of an ancestor’ when it is your turn to speak. Some believe this action evokes the actual presence of an ancestor in that moment while for others it is more symbolic; a way of feeling grounded and rooted to something in a world where it is so easy to feel lost. For those who take part it doesn’t matter because the result on the psyche is the same. In the mentioning of a family member’s name you are at once connected to those who came before you, carrying with you their support but also the responsibility of honouring their memory.
David had told me about this practice before I came to the clinic but I can honestly say I hadn’t appreciated it or understood the potential impact before I found myself sharing my Grandad’s history as a way of introducing myself to a circle of strangers. Framing my own story with his felt inexplicably powerful.
By that point I’d heard a number of Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians introduce themselves in a similar format which included their own, their parents and their grandparents names and tribes. Whilst I’d enjoyed hearing this I’d not, before now, stopped to reflect on how such a simple thing could be so influential on a person’s sense of well being.
The importance of knowing your roots underpins everything that goes on at Kokua Kalihi Clinic. They understand that everyone’s personal story is different but that finding a connection to a part of history, whatever that might look like, can give meaning and hope where it has been lost. I saw it in the canoes being carved, in the ways in which doctors spoke to patients and to each other and in the ‘Roots Cafe’ that serves as a portal for increasing knowledge around indigenous ingredients and cooking. I saw the past being used as a healing tool and I saw it working.
The questions that, up until that point, had been weighing heavily on my mind were these:
“ As a doctor in London, how can I begin to find ways to reconnect people to their roots and culture as a form of healing when the population I see is so diverse? How can I find a common link that might be meaningful to everybody?”
The native healer smiled over the tea she was brewing as I asked her and replied, “I think you know. A story doesn’t have to be yours for you to connect to it. Each one of us will find the way back to our roots if we are asked the right questions and if we understand why it might benefit us to go there. So, ask your patients the question and be prepared to listen to the answer”.
As cryptic as this sounded at the time, I think I did know, finally.
And so I started asking. Each and every person that has crossed my consultation threshold over the past month has been asked where their parents and grandparents are from. I won’t pretend that this hasn’t been met with confused looks more than half of the time and I believe one utterance of ‘ I can’t believe what the NHS has come to’, but for the few where it has triggered a meaningful conversation, I want to keep going. It’s a small start but it’s a start.
So, where to end this? Maybe with where my grandparents are from... bringing me back full circle to that second activity…
My paternal Grandfather was German and up until a few weeks ago I’d never even looked at where he was from on a map. I’d never considered myself uninterested particularly, it’s just that before I ‘brought him into the circle’ with me that day in Hawaii, I didn’t understand why his roots were important and how his story in part has shaped my own.
Tracing his origins on paper that day felt good and in time I hope to go there. Not to force feelings that might not exist but to find further meaning from a root I’ve not previously excavated.
In our society, we are constantly being told not to live in the past but to embrace the present. Traditional cultures actively follow the same ethos but also acknowledge how rich that present can be when one is aware of what has brought them to it. I’m beginning to experience that richness myself and I only wish I’d learned the lesson sooner.