“On a full planet, we are all islanders.”
~ Sponge Brains ~
Skimming over an endless series of wide open-ocean swells, slicing effortlessly through their surface wavelets from the steady push of the tireless trade winds of the South Pacific, Kalea confidently made her way to Rarotonga, the most populous island of the Cook Islands, as her final port of call of the cruise. Bob and I stayed busy attending to the needs of our passengers and the operation of the vessel, while Lua produced a steady stream of delicious delights from the galley during our days at sea.
The cast of Kiss Me on Kalea was a bit more relaxed now that Tucker was no longer in the group. Julie and Paul were spending many hours with Lua in the galley, laughing and engaging in lively conversations over some tea-like concoctions. The jealousy and competitive drive between Jan and Clara subsided with Tucker’s departure, and they began spending more time together talking about their careers and cataloging an endless array of defects of former husbands and boyfriends.
Jack would spend many of his waking hours fiddling with the sails and rigging and scanning the waters around the boat for any signs of marine life. At night, he would lie face down in a prone position on the rear trampoline netting and spend hours gazing down into the deep-sea blackness, mesmerized by the scattered bluish glow of thousands of tiny bioluminescent phytoplankton scintillating like stars in a night sky around Kalea’s dual wakes.
One clear night during the final hours of our week-long island hopping adventure aboard Kalea, I took a short break from my watch duties to lie face down on the rear trampoline netting alongside Jack and observe the brilliant luminous display of tiny organisms disturbed by the passing of Kalea’s twin hulls. Turning over to look up on that cloudless night revealed a sky bursting with stars. We were both silent, lost in the beauty and wonder of the glorious lights above and the plethora of glowing life below.
I thought about how, in advanced economies, we have tragically lost connection with many natural sources of wonder and awe. We don’t have the same sensory experiences as our ancestors only two generations back. City lights wash out the view of the star-saturated night sky. Traffic noise drowns out the songs of birds and the soothing sounds of wind-blown trees.
Few people ever get the opportunity to peer down into the dark ocean depths at night from a small boat to witness the dazzling array of life that is ever present there. ‘The sea, once it casts its spell, can hold one in its net of wonder forever,’ Jacques Cousteau famously said about the mystery and wonder offered to those souls fortunate enough to have had a close relationship with the ocean world.
“Hey Jack, I have a question.” I felt a sudden urge to break the mesmerizing trance we were both under.
“Shoot,” he responded.
“If sponges grow in the ocean, and they absorb water so well, wouldn’t the oceans overflow if all the sponges died?” I couldn’t resist floating the silly question to my scientist friend to see his response.
“Sure, Rico. And when sea-level rise from global-warming-induced melting of land ice and from thermal seawater expansion becomes a really big problem, we could just 3D-print a few trillion sponges and chuck them into the oceans to absorb all that excess seawater—problem solved,” Jack returned.
I deserved that one.
Why do sponges exhibit such a lust for liquids? A sponge is uniquely effective at soaking up stuff because of its peculiar design. It is composed of loose fibers that form an object that is more empty space than anything else. It is because of all this empty space that the sponge can work so well.
The holes between the fibers soak up the water and cause the fibrous material itself to swell. This is what prevents the water from sloshing around inside the sponge, like baffles in a fuel tank, or from flowing right back out again. Instead, the water is trapped inside until the sponge is squeezed. If you were to remove all of the empty space in a sponge, you would see that the actual matter that makes up the sponge would take up less than one-third of the sponge’s actual size.
The next morning, I mentioned my conversation with Jack to Lua, figuring she’d be amused by my ingenious spongy geoengineering solution to the problem of sea-level rise.
“You are silly, Mister Rico,” was her not unexpected reply. But she couldn’t resist the temptation to absorb my silly idea and squeeze out a spongy simile to express her concerns about a very troubling trend: “You know, our brains are like sponges that are naturally good at absorbing vast amounts of information. But we are now living in a time of exponential information growth, making it necessary to differentiate between what is important and useful and what is trivial. A sponge, after all, can only soak up so much before it is saturated and is no longer of use.”
~ Time is Life ~
“And along with this information overload, there are now so many demands on our time as well,” Lua continued. “They say that time is money. It is not. TIME IS LIFE! I think many people do not understand that the actual cost of a thing is the amount of life—in time and energy—which is required to be exchanged for it. Whether it involves physical or mental effort, time is being exchanged to satisfy some desire.”
It seemed to Lua that perhaps we should slow down a bit and spend less time pursuing extremes of material comfort, ever more complicated technologies and organizations, and ever more information about matters of ever less importance.
We would be better off—psychologically and spiritually—spending more time with each other, in Nature, and in quiet solitude to give our sponge brains a break. “While our heads have become filled to capacity, our hearts are hollow and our spirit is weak,” she observed.
“But what would we do with all the free time if we were not always working hard to keep up as we do now? An idle mind is the devil’s playground, no?” I questioned.
Lua responded without hesitation: “Oh, there are plenty of wonderful ways to take advantage of more leisure time that would keep head, hands, and heart fully engaged—with little time or energy left over for gratuitous mischief. For example, people should be more fully engaged in local community and political life. They should get more physical exercise from slower but healthier and more environmentally friendly transportation like walking and riding a bike. They should learn new skills to develop greater self-reliance and self-confidence to cope with potentially hard times ahead and nurture the shared culture of the community through participation in art, music, and dance programs, café conversations, and project collaborations. They should spend more time in Nature for psychological health and spiritual growth. These are all great uses of free time. And, of course, preparing healthy meals and enjoying them with friends and family is always a good idea.”
“Wow, that sure would require a major cultural U-turn in the U.S.,” I responded. “It would be very difficult to rejigger our cherished American way of life to that degree—but not impossible, I suppose. The American psyche does contains traces of what may be required for that degree of cultural rebirth.”
The schizophrenic American mind is, after all, an odd, awkward blend of old European values—with their long history of aristocratic social hierarchies, stratification, and dominance over Nature—alongside a respectable dosage of rugged Native American independence with its defiance of authority, reverence for Nature, and egalitarian social structures.
Curiously, the notion of Indian ‘chief’ is actually of European descent, where it was natural that a leader in society should tell other people what to do. Furthermore, this person should be easily recognizable by their dress, by the behavior of subordinates, and by the size of their dwellings. Since most Indian societies were egalitarian, the early Europeans were often confused and frustrated when they could not readily identify the Indian ‘chiefs.’ They were confounded by the fact that the leaders wore the same clothing as other people, were treated the same, and lived in similar dwellings.
Tellingly, a surprising number of early European settlers wound up joining Indian society rather than remaining loyal to their own culture and group—but flow in the opposite direction very rarely happened! Apparently, the intensely communal nature of an Indian tribe held an appeal that the material benefits of Western civilization couldn’t offer. And Indian clothing was certainly more sensible and comfortable in the New World!
The Native American religion was less harsh and its social structures were essentially classless and egalitarian and emphasized sharing. There was much less surplus accumulation of things and therefore less material inequality. As a consequence, no one was rich or powerful enough to capture the government and steer it toward their own individual, selfish ends.
Of these two value sets, the classic European values with their Nature-dominating, technology-focused notions of societal progress and stratified social hierarchy clearly won out. People feel the need to work hard to fit into this model and climb the ladder of wealth and social status. It is a core element of the ‘American Dream.’
Traditional Native American cultures—with their ethics of simplicity, sharing, egalitarianism, reverence for Nature and that most fragile of assets, mutual trust—have generally been despised and ridiculed for their poverty and social equality by the white European conquerors.
Yet the American mind contains elements of both value sets!
~ A Great Resetting ~
For a remote South Pacific islander, Lua was admirably well informed on what was going on in the wider world beyond the shores of her island home. She felt that it was unfortunate that the world seemed to be heading into a new age of environmental tipping points, social turbulence, and planetary turmoil.
She noted that environmental threats are growing with each passing year. The world economy is in a prolonged slump, and all the developed nations are doing everything in their power to restart high-growth economies. This is a foolish endeavor and will ultimately fail. They are inevitably going to have to simplify their lifestyles and reconnect with the material realities of a finite planet and the slower rhythms of Nature—a culture that islanders understand very well.
Lua knew that this would be a very difficult concept to grasp for those folks who’ve only ever lived economically advanced, hyper-competitive, high-growth oriented Western consumer lifestyles and assume that human progress always means more energy and material throughput, more technology, more complexity, and doubling down on degrading and demoralizing ‘trickle-down’ wealth distribution—which negatively impacts quality of life for everyone and severely erodes social capital.
Though there have no doubt been obvious gains in material comfort, convenience, and security in the recent past for millions that have achieved middle-class lifestyles—primarily from capitalizing on a one-time endowment of cheap, abundant, easily accessed, high-density, portable fossil-fuel energy; going forward, these notions of societal progress will have to change on an ecologically stressed planet with ever increasing energy, material, and pollution-control constraints and a swelling human population.
“There may have to be a Great Resetting of social norms and notions of human progress following an unavoidable ‘climacteric,’” she continued. “A more sustainable and desirable future surely means simpler living and community-based, materials-light, low-carbon, service-based economies—less stuff and less social isolation and more experiences and stronger connections to community and to the natural world. And more time for music and dance!”
Lua believed we could make great gains in the quality of our lives and in the inventiveness, cooperation, and self-reliance of our communities by engaging the creative intelligence and purpose of community members to co-invent the future and redirect our energies toward improving healthcare and education, enhancing social care, renovating and refurbishing buildings, increasing leisure and recreation hours, protecting and maintaining green spaces, and engaging in more cultural activities. All of these endeavors contribute positively to the quality of our lives and well-being and are far less ecologically damaging and spiritually draining than activities associated with unsustainable high-consumption lifestyles.
Lua was preaching to the choir. I had been steadily drifting into this way of thinking myself over the last several years following the devastating impact of the financial crisis and what was revealed when that tide of false wealth finally went out—a rigged casino economy where financial gambling and predatory lending schemes benefited clever ‘insider’ one-percenters who thrive on privatizing gains and socializing losses.
Bailouts from these unproductive and demoralizing money games diverted massive amounts of financial capital that could have been used more effectively to transition from a dirty, dead-end, fossil-fueled endless growth economy teetering atop a crumbling physical infrastructure to a steady-state, clean-energy, regenerative economy with meaningful jobs retrofitting, restoring, and rebuilding for a better future for all.
Currency manipulations and financial shenanigans only resulted in greater levels of income and wealth inequality and even more dependence on a debt-bubble based, dirty-energy fueled, climate-destabilizing economy with diminishing prospects from too much debt in the world and too little economic growth to service it.
I sensed there was a growing yearning in society for simpler living. Most people, though, equate simplicity with childhood—and believe it must end with adulthood. Through a child’s eye, the world is beautiful and wonder-full.
Nature-boy Jack had retained this childlike quality into adulthood and was able to earn a living indulging that childlike curiosity and wonder as a scientist. Fellow ‘wonderer’ Isaac Newton had said, ‘truth is found in simplicity,’ not in the multiplicity and confusion of things. Einstein, upon whose theories much of our complex tools and technologies today are built, believed that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best—both for the body and the mind. And economist E.F. Schumacher observed that, ‘any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent—it takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.’
Lua would surely agree and add that simplicity breeds clarity—the same clarity by which children, and childlike adults such as Jack and Lua, see the world.
Those with the consciousness of simplicity never lose their childlike appreciation for the simple pleasures of existence in a beauty-full, wonder-full living, evolving universe. They maintain a profound reverence and respect for the wonders of the natural world, of which they instinctively know they are a part. They are mindful and connected to the world they live in, yet maintain an inner strength and guiding compass that is not ‘of’ the world.
These are the simple, essential pillars upon which human health, well-being, empowerment, resilience, creativity, and progress are built.
– Reunion at Rarotonga –
We had all settled into comfortable routines and enjoyed a few blissful days at sea. Each of us had a favorite go-to person when bored, but everyone enjoyed frequent chats with Lua and would stop by the galley several times throughout the day to see what she was improvising for the next meal.
Bob and I stayed busy with a variety of minor maintenance and repair projects and answering questions from Jack and Julie about sailing, seamanship, boat building, and ocean navigation.
We finally arrived in Rarotonga late in the afternoon. SlimC had flown in to the island a few days earlier with a small production crew to have time to plan and prepare for a glorious Polynesian dinner celebration with requisite tiki torches, live music, dancing, and a large fire pit.
Captain Bob had notified SlimC over the radio about Tucker’s abrupt desertion and said he would provide more details about the whole affair upon our arrival. He was waiting for us at the dock as we motored into the calm harbor. We were glad to once again be in the comfortable world of hot showers, air-conditioned buildings, and high-voltage electrical outlets.
After Bob and I secured the dock lines, the passengers disembarked and SlimC escorted them to the resort where they would be staying the night and where the feast was to be held. They were instructed to pick up their room keys, get cleaned up, and relax for a few hours before coming together again at night for the banquet.
Bob, Lua, and I stayed behind and stowed all the deck furniture, collected all the garbage, washed down the deck, furled the sails and made sure Kalea was left in shipshape condition at the dock. She was sure to attract attention from the locals, and Bob wanted his pride and joy to look her best. Then we made our way to our rooms at the resort for some much needed rest, a long shower, and a clean set of clothes.
Along the way, SlimC pulled Captain Bob aside to question him about Tucker. As they discussed the incident, I could see Captain Bob at times shaking his head. I never found out what they discussed, but I’m sure it had something to do with deciding how to capitalize on Tucker’s violent outbreak to boost show ratings.
As we walked, I asked Lua if she thought Paul and Julie would fess up to a brewing romance between them that evening at the dinner. They had been spending more and more time together during the last few days at sea, and perhaps Lua had seen or heard something. Had there been a kiss aboard Kalea?
Lua smiled and responded, “Mister Rico, Paul and Julie are both very nice people who have each gone through very difficult times. I think they really enjoyed each other’s company, learned a lot from one another, and became good friends. But I think they are only just starting to get acquainted and are smart enough not to rush into anything, even if SlimC would have liked things to move along faster.”
That was the only hope I could see for any second-chance romance emerging from this group. Nature-boy Jack had been far more interested in observing the many moods of the ocean and variations in the weather or scanning the horizon for pods of dolphins or a whale sighting or fiddling with Kalea’s sails and rigging. He had been happy and childlike at sea and never did pay much attention to any of the women.
Perhaps Jack never had any real intention of finding a companion or lover and was just looking forward to a new experience sailing the waters of the South Pacific, though I think his unexpected confrontation with Tucker on the beach would be among his most cherished memories.
“So I guess the whole project was a bust, huh Lua?” I said.
“I don’t know, Mister Rico. I guess that depends on what the show’s creators were hoping for.”
After rest, showers, and a change of clothes, we all made our way to the banquet table out by the fire pit. It was a beautiful natural setting bordered with torches and mature gardens of native flora.
A look up to the heavens revealed thousands of brilliant stars pinned on the dark, cloudless night sky. One by one, we took our place at the dinner table after serving ourselves from the extraordinary buffet featuring a magnificent glowing ice sculpture of a smiling dolphin at its center.
SlimC, already seated at the head of the table, was eager to learn more about our time together at sea and about any future plans, particularly with each other.
Jack said he enjoyed his time aboard Kalea immensely and, with the exception of Tucker, was happy hanging out with the other cast members and crew. He was considering staying in the South Pacific for a few more weeks to learn more about the plastic pollution problem in these waters.
Julie and Paul would also be staying back for a few days in the Cook Islands to experience the full range of local cuisine and to deepen their growing friendship.
Captain Bob asked Lua to join him on Kalea and manage the galley on his next island-hopping charter booked for the following week. She was grateful for the offer, but said she had already been away from friends and family for too long and had promised to spend significant time with them after this project was over.
As we were waiting for Jan and Clara to arrive, SlimC confessed that he had developed an interest in Polynesian culture from the research he had done for this project and that he had become even more fascinated with these islands during the last few days here. He told the group that he was seduced by the rhythm of life and natural beauty here and would most likely return to the South Pacific, after this project was complete, to work on a documentary about the islands and the inhabitants he had met. Many told him they would never consider living anywhere else.
With all of us now deep into our food and conversation, SlimC asked me to go check on the women to see what was holding them up. He was anxious to question them about their experiences and, in particular, grill Jan about her attraction to Tucker before he bailed on the group.
I excused myself from the table and made my way to the building where they were staying. As I passed by the waterfront where Kalea was berthed, I heard two voices coming from inside the pilothouse. I walked out onto the dock to get a closer look.
In the darkness, I could just make out, through the high rectangular pilothouse window, the profiles of two women. They could be heard arguing about something. I moved in for a closer look. Then the heated verbal exchanges suddenly stopped, and there was a moment of silence before the first woman turned away.
The second woman caught her upper arm, pulled her back abruptly, grabbed her forcefully by the jaw with her other hand, and pulled her very close. The first woman did not pull away. They stared into each other’s eyes. I stepped onto Kalea’s deck to get even closer.
The slight motion of the boat must have startled the two, and they abruptly turned their heads and stared at me, wide-eyed. When they realized who I was, they both seemed quite relieved. They turned once again to face each other. They smiled—hesitated for a moment.
And then Jan and Clara kissed.
– – –
I flew home the following morning with a brief stopover of a few hours at LAX to meet with my friend Joey and fill him in on what happened on my trip. The image of Jan and Clara kissing on Kalea brought to mind the lyrics of Don Henley, ‘What the head makes cloudy, the heart makes very clear.’ I wondered how SlimC would spin this story when Kiss Me on Kalea aired next season.
Perhaps he had scripted this exact outcome from the beginning! Isn’t that how most ‘reality’ shows actually work—cast members pitted against each other in a contrived, scripted drama of odd alliances, backstabbing, unexpected turns, and dejected ‘losers’? Just like WWE ‘professional wrestling,’ reality TV too thrives on the fake spectacle of ugly emotions, conflict, conquest, humiliation, and suffering. Like barfly ‘Schwartzy,’ I looked forward to the last reality show ever made and was just eager to get home now to start writing about this whole experience—and about Lua.
– – –
When I arrived for my stopover at LAX, Joey joined me for dinner and drinks at a restaurant in the airport, and I told him all about my adventures aboard Kalea. He listened patiently and politely with mild interest to all the human drama stuff but noticeably perked up when I got to the topic of surfing.
“Hey Joey, did you know that surfing was the ‘in thing’ in ancient Polynesian culture. They say it may have first been noticed in Tahiti in the mid-1700s by the crew members of the Dolphin, who were the first Europeans to visit the island. When Mark Twain visited Hawaii in the 1800s, he wrote of, ‘seeing naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing.’”
The idea of naked people surf bathing seemed to really resonate with Joey. But I sensed that there was something deeper in his connection with surfing than just the thrill of the ride or the occasional Baywatch babe sighting.
Some surfers feel that since the ocean was the place where life began on this planet, the act of riding on a wave momentarily connects a surfer with this vast living memory. Perhaps surfing provides some form of subconscious access to the Jungian collective unconscious of the planet.
Famed psychologist and psychedelics researcher Timothy Leary once called surfing our ‘highest evolutionary activity,’ as both surfing and evolution deal with waves—the fundamental structure of nature.
Surfing enables an individual to playfully interact with the immense power of the ocean; and for many surfers, the act is an authentic spiritual experience where Nature = God, though they may not articulate it quite that way. It is not uncommon for some of the more introspective surfers to become mystics later in life.
Perhaps this mysterious connection between the recreational riding of ocean waves and our deeper longings will be the thing that brings my friend Joey around to questioning our mainland culture’s careless disregard for the health of the oceans. If life in the sea suffers, so will life on land—no blue, no green. Surfing may be the connection to Nature that opens his heart to the environmental challenges we face and the collective activism we need.
“That’s cool, man. I’ll have to get out to those islands sometime and ride the waves to honor those early surfer dudes of the South Pacific who were hanging ten way back then. Maybe being among those islander spirits for a time will improve my technique,” Joey replied, enthusiastically. We said our goodbyes and I boarded the red-eye flight back to South Florida.
The next morning, after only a few hours of deep, dreamless sleep aboard the airplane, I got home, dropped off my duffle bag and guitar in my small studio apartment and headed over to GoodVibes Music School—the local music school and shop in Delray Beach where I teach guitar part-time. I suddenly had a burning desire to check out their extensive selection of ukuleles.
Being somewhat of a guitar snob, I had never paid much attention to their impressive collection of 4-string ukes when I would drop in to teach music a few days each week. But this was before fate and a phone call from ‘Unknown’ had placed me on a Polynesian cruising catamaran in the South Pacific for a week with a very musical, funny, life-loving, world-wise, ukulele-playing chef from the Cook Islands.
I had developed a secret love and respect for this dopey diminutive four-stringed instrument during those days at sea listening to Lua sing and play. I was seduced by the simplicity, portability, and warm islandy sound of this humble little unassuming thumb-strummable shrunken guitar.
Perhaps I had fatefully stumbled upon a second-chance romance of my own on this bizarre island-hopping reality-show odyssey!
I tried out a beautiful baritone ukulele. It was crafted with a Hawaiian Koa top, back and sides; Rosewood fingerboard and bridge; and ultra-smooth glossy finish. I was able to awkwardly thumb-strum a few tunes after reprogramming my fingers by fooling them into thinking they were just playing my regular six-string guitar with the lowest two strings AWOL. She sounded great! I named her ‘Laughing Lua,’ in honor of my merry musical crewmate from the Cook Islands, picked out a strong, durable case for her, and brought her home.
When I got back to my apartment, I spent some time getting used to the new chord fingerings—while my guitar ‘gently wept’ in the corner—before strapping my new blessedly-portable mini guitar on my back, throwing my backpack with notebook computer tucked securely inside into a saddlebag hanging off of my rear bike rack, and riding over to WorldBeat Café—the artsy, local coffee shop where I regularly read the news and write stories. There would be much to tell about this extraordinary South Pacific adventure, and I wanted to get down to some serious writing before the details faded from memory.
WorldBeat Café is also where I would play guitar out front from time to time with other local musicians who would stop by at odd hours of the day. Many considered this sort of leisure activity just a way to ‘kill time’ between the more important work of the day. But those ‘many’ sadly did not understand the true magic, mystery, and necessity of music. And how it connects.
– Go(o)d Vibrations –
Lua believed that music—the most profound of all the arts—represented life and living as no other art form could. She was convinced that life’s mysteries were better understood through analogies drawn from the world of hearing than from the world of sight. While eyes and hands are good at perceiving space, the ears perceive the passage of time as an audible image―an image of tones or vibrations, in the case of music. Music makes time audible. So with music, we experience time, which is life, and therefore get to ‘play’ for a time in life’s deep mysteries.
Music requires time to reveal its essence, to demonstrate how parts relate to wholes, both melodically (horizontally) and harmonically (vertically). We don’t know until the end of a song how the parts of a musical piece have served its purpose. So—much like life itself—music is a process―not a material thing or mechanism; it only reveals its nature from a holistic top-down view, not by looking at a particular static slice of time, which would be musically meaningless. In music, as in life, all things are in motion—all things are in process.
Jack had shared with us his own scientific view on how music reflects reality. Everything is ultimately made up of the same substance and bound by the same laws: a handful of particles, a hundred or so elements, and four cosmic forces. The universe differentiates within itself, creating finer patterns and more complex forms as it quickens through the course of time.
Today, modern physics recognizes that these subatomic particle are not absolutely distinct, but rather ‘smeared out over a probability wave’ just as individual musical notes are ‘non-local’ in the sense that each note in the ‘line’ of a melody is also a participant in other relations, intersecting and interacting with them. The same note will be experienced in a completely different way, depending on its musical context, just as an atom serves a different purpose in your body than in a rock.
Moving from the smallest of empirical scales to the largest, the universe itself is a whole system, so its parts can only be understood in the context of the whole. It cannot be understood by analyzing the parts and then coming to understand the whole.
Wholeness is the primordial condition of the universe. The solid matter we construct out of our locally evolved senses cannot be dissected from the sea of energy―the music―that underlies it. This sea of energy is all vibrational.
Ultimately, everything in the universe is somehow inside everything else, much more like a living organism than a mechanical machine. It dances to interdependent rhythms, heavenly clockworks—what the ancients called ‘the music of the spheres.’ Poet Maya Angelou expressed this idea very … well … poetically, ‘Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances.’
Rhythm is the soul of life. When we fall out of rhythm, we get into trouble. The excitement we feel when we hear the drumbeat suggests to us that music is a magic key that opens doors into realms of spirit—the mystery behind the veil.
Jack also explained how astonishing it is that our universe seems precisely tuned, like an instrument, in a miraculous way. The ‘standard model’ of particle physics identifies around twenty mathematical parameters that, if changed in any way, would make the existence of stars, planets, complex molecules―and us―impossible.
Lua believed that because music expresses life and living so purely, it has a unique way of putting us in touch with something outside ordinary experiences, a different order of being. We have the experience of being taken out of time and space altogether, and also out of ourselves, perhaps even out of our material bodies.
It brings us closer to a perception of the inner, unspoken significance of life—it picks up where speech leaves off and represents internal emotional states that cannot be put into words. It conveys the ineffable and makes us discover in ourselves depths we did not know were there. It creates impressions and states of being unreachable by words alone. It speaks the unspeakable, touches the untouchable.
Plato argued that music was a moral law. It ‘gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.’ Aldous Huxley said that ‘after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ And Nietzsche characteristically cut right to the chase: ‘Without music, life would be a mistake.’
Music is the expression of love, emotion, beauty, harmony, the spiritual, and the natural. It touches people’s emotions in a way that nothing else can. It has rather miraculous qualities to transform consciousness and take the mind and spirit to places unknown.
Music transforms spirit into sound. It enhances our lives and gives them deeper meaning. It creates moments of lightness and grace in an often hostile world. It bestows well-being and compassion.
And above all, the musical experience is an experience of connection and of love: love of self, family, friends, strangers, and Nature.
Sadly, in modern Western civilization, music has become a commodity and just another product for mass consumption. The ancient world had a very different relationship with music. It had real power and was used in healing and ritual on a regular basis. It was the most effective way to connect people to the rhythmic universe they lived in where everything alive spins and oscillates with varying rhythms.
The rhythmic patterns of complexity—that delicate life-creating and sustaining balancing act between the extremes of order and chaos—seem to be the standard building blocks of Nature. Rhythms tie together so much of the external phenomena outside our direct control, but integral to our lives: the seas, the winds, the heavens, the stars, the cycles of life, death, and rebirth.
As far as we know, no human culture has ever existed without music. It seems to be inseparable from our humanity—and not just for survival or entertainment. It fills needs at the very center of our being. Perhaps it is the very thing that makes us human.
Music, dance, and ritual celebrates the stories and events that bring community closer together. In carnival, with its shared spirit and emotion, the sense of community membership is often reinforced by music and dance. These are activities that are interactive, synchronized, and require people to playfully engage with each other. There is a sense of being willfully swept up in a spontaneous and beautiful social event free of any difficult or stressful decision making, politics, or uncomfortable obligations.
The play of carnival lifts the spirits, prevents boredom, neutralizes aggression, and bridges the distance between community members. It is the domain of strange attractors where order and chaos, life and death, the sage and the ass—all dance together for a brief time.
Carnival is the party that gives community its cultural life.
Though we may never fully understand the mysterious power of music, we do know that it has a crucial role in creating well-being by transcending culture, politics, race, and gender. The arts have a special way of communicating across cultural boundaries better than words. The vital and necessary ‘play’ that it encourages is essential for bringing and maintaining social balance and cultural harmony in a world of mounting stresses from ecological and financial abuses and exploitations.
Music has the power to morph problems into possibilities.
Lua’s last words to me before I left Rarotonga were about music: “Mister Rico, don’t ever stop playing music. Sing. Dance. Listen. Learn. Discover. Teach. May the gift of music always be with you. Trust it to take you where you need to go.”
I promised her I would.
– It’s Her! –
When I arrived at WorldBeat Café, I walked up to the counter to order my usual light morning breakfast—coffee and a croissant. A lovely smile emerged from behind the large pastry case. It took a few moments to break my gaze away from those gleaming white teeth and look up to see a perfectly proportioned nose; large, brown eyes; and straight, jet-black hair. Two large golden hoop earrings dangled just above her slender shoulders. She had a slim figure wrapped loosely in a light, colorful sarong of vibrant teal and magenta swirls
It was her!—the mysterious young woman with the cute little blue ukulele who had joined our Saturday morning Community Music Circle for a short time at the green market several months ago.
“Hello, Mister Rico. Your usual breakfast?” she asked, apparently having been given a heads up by the café manager about the ‘regular’ that comes in, often carrying a guitar and backpack, and usually wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a plain white ball cap with sunglasses perched on top. Her smile suggested she recognized me from the Music Circle gathering, but I couldn’t be sure. I don’t think I’d ever seen her not smiling.
“Yes, my usual, a beer-and-peanut-butter smoothie topped with a swirl of spicy mustard,” I joked, seeing what reaction I might get.
Not missing a beat, and acting rather surprised, she responded “No way! That’s my favorite too!” and then burst into laughter. We both enjoyed the silliness.
I told her about my recent adventure crewing aboard a Polynesian double-canoe sailboat in the South Pacific and gave her a quick summary of all the highlights, cast, and crew. I was anxious to move on to questions about her. She giggled for some reason when I pronounced ‘Kalea’, the name of the boat.
“Wow! That’s an amazing story, Mister Rico.”
I asked her where she was from. I wanted to know more about this intriguing young person after she had joined our musical group that Saturday. She explained she had just moved here from an island in the Caribbean—she didn’t specify which one—and that she was working at the café part-time while going to school.
“What are you studying?” I asked.
“Sounds interesting. What’s that all about?”
“Ecological Economics is a growing transdisciplinary field based on the sciences and scientific worldview of today—not of 200 years ago—that re-embraces the full spectrum of social, natural, and behavioral sciences and brings the full potential of our intellectual capital to bear on the huge problems we now face. Basically it challenges the absurd notion of infinite growth on a finite planet. It points out that the Earth is now well past being full in terms of our human impact on the environment. It attempts to bridge the sciences and moral philosophy to create a more honest, fair, and fitting human story for our times. It proposes an economic model of ethical and sustainable development based on three interdependent core principles: sustainable scale of material and energy flows, just and fair distribution of resources, and economic efficiency in the allocation of those resources. Put simply, Mister Rico, it’s now all about quality, not quantity. Optimums, not maximums.”
“Wow, I’m impressed!” I said. I glanced behind me to see if there were any other customers in line behind me. There weren’t. “Tell me more.”
“Sure,” she continued. “It is quite a comprehensive subject really, but it really all comes down to this: we now require a very different regenerative economy that recognizes the obvious truth that the human economy is embedded in, and a part of, Earth’s biogeochemical systems—which also means, by the way, that toxins in the environment means toxins in us. So energy, matter, entropy, and evolutionary biology must all be factored into all economic models at every level. It is an economic system grounded in the realities of a world that is effectively filled to capacity with people and must operate within the biophysical limits of a finite planet and the moral obligations of a just society. And we must get real and transition from a global culture that values endless growth and virtual wealth—money—to a culture that values prosperity and real wealth—healthy people, happy places, and a habitable planet for future generations. Not such a radical concept, is it?”
“Not at all,” I said. “Seems like those concepts should be introduced at every level of education. Lua would surely approve!”
She smiled curiously when I mentioned Lua and then turned away to work on my order.
~ Right Relationship ~
I returned to my table to begin the grueling task of writing about, and making sense of, my magical time aboard Kalea with Captain Bob, that motley group of reality-show cast members—and our remarkable Chef Lua.
That brief discussion of Ecological Economics made me think about how the evolution of the human economy has quickly passed from an ‘empty-world’ era in which human-made capital like homes, factories, tractors, fishing boats was the limiting factor in economic development to our current ‘full-world’ age today in which the remaining natural capital—forests for timber, petroleum deposits for crude oil, fisheries for fish—has become the limiting factor.
In the ‘empty-world’ economics of the past, resources from natural capital were considered free goods, not including harvesting or extraction costs, and were freely plundered. But society experienced a Great Acceleration in the production and accumulation of human-made capital after World War II through the consumption of fossil fuels and the rapid growth of market economies, which radically changed our relationship to natural resources.
Today, the human ecological footprint has grown so large that, in many cases, limits on the availability of natural resources now constrain real progress more than human-made capital infrastructure limitations. As a response to our current ‘full-world’ economic condition, stocks of natural capital like timber, oil, and fish are being liquidated to temporarily keep up the flows of natural resources that support the sunk-cost value of an oversupply of capital infrastructure like sawmills, refineries, and fishing boats. Obviously, the goal of any human economy is to sustainably improve human well-being and quality of life. Material consumption and GDP growth are merely means to that end, not ends in themselves.
Natural capital and social capital—under increasing stress today—play a large role in human wellness. So there must be limits to human economies. Any new economic system must champion an ethos of ‘right relationship’ with life and the world and dramatically transform our troubled relationship with the living Earth.
It makes sense to replace the goal of constructing and motivating consumers to maximize consumption with the nurturing of ecological citizens and shift to a form of production that is less throughput-intensive. It is a natural evolution from an ‘empty-world’ economics—having few people, but full of natural capital and characterized by rapid growth and expansion, cutthroat competition, and open waste cycles; to a ‘full-world’ reality—with many people and rapidly declining stocks of natural capital.
Business-as-usual economics would surely only increase existing stresses along fault lines of ethnic and religious divides, especially in areas with dense, resource-constrained populations, that could easily rupture and cause widespread social unrest, violence, and widespread suffering.
Any new economic system must focus on qualitative improvements through more efficient use of energy and materials, cooperative alliances, and recycled ‘closed loop’ cradle-to-cradle waste flows. It must favor a developing economy—in contrast to a growing economy—an economy that is getting better—with more efficient use of energy, materials, and knowledge. A developing economy is an economy that is not necessarily getting bigger, but one where the overall well-being of a stable population is clearly improving.
Developing economies could shift investments away from human-made capital accumulation and toward natural capital preservation and restoration. Technology could focus more on increasing the productivity of existing natural capital than human-made capital. Progress could be defined differently as reforestation, restocking of wildlife populations, and providing renewable substitutes for dwindling reserves of petroleum, including investments in clean energy and energy efficiency.
The contrast with our current economic system is quite stark: our current economic culture values financial capital above all other forms and is single-discipline, human-focused, short-term, mechanistic, atomistic and assumes static human preferences while the emerging culture would value social/cultural capital and be multi-disciplined, multi-species, long-term, dynamic, systems-oriented, and recognize evolving human preferences.
Social/cultural capital is, after all, the social life and living essence of a community, its relationships, humor and good faith, common culture and ceremony, play, and ongoing conversation. It has real value.
~ ‘Seek Balance and Beauty’ ~
But I needed to stop thinking about these things and get back to the important work of writing—resistance and change, after all, often begin with the art of words and stories! Perhaps some ‘conscious breathing’ would help. A few long, deep breaths would surely do the trick and help clear my head so that I could focus.
I closed my eyes and … breathe in … breathe out … breathe in … breathe out … a series of phrases popped into my head as I took my last deep breath: Mainland Madness, Island Wisdom, Second Chances. Perfect! Those would all be in the title for my book about the sailing adventure with Chef Lua and Captain Bob and our Kiss Me on Kalea reality-show cast.
Those words captured the essence of what I experienced during this freakish Frankenstein project of being embedded simultaneously in the odd parallel universes of a cutting-edge reality-TV show with all its sophisticated recording technology, contrived drama, and mass-market appeal while blue-water sailing on a traditional lashed-together Polynesian double canoe on the wild, open waters of the South Pacific.
Looking back on the lessons of Lua, they were all really about a re-acquaintance with the timeless virtues of simplicity, sufficiency, and resilience. Conscious breathing. Eating whole, natural plant-based foods. Exercising. Listening. Learning. Connecting. Giving. Mindfulness and meditation. Simplicity. These are all attitudes, behaviors, and ways of being for crafting healthier lifestyles, caring, decentralized, low-impact communities, and sustainable well-being that do not require complex social or technical infrastructures, sophisticated technology, or advanced economies. They are readily available to all. They build personal and community resilience and strong, diverse, coherent local cultures for not merely persevering through difficult times, but for thriving at all times.
Pondering all those nourishing conversations aboard Kalea with life-loving Lua, I now see that she had very timely advice for a world now dealing with a global economic and ecological predicament caused by a deep disconnect with the natural world and fatal obsession with unsustainable growth, manic consumerism, and the concentration of extreme financial wealth in the hands of a tiny few.
Lua sensed the world was currently undergoing a grand civilizational transition away from a rather adolescent and rapacious empty-world ‘mainland culture’—effectively empty of humans and our collective ecological footprint but abundant in natural resources—and towards a more mature and diverse world full of humans, our artifacts, and our immense ecological footprint, but also decreasing rapidly in natural resources and safe environmental operating spaces.
In evolutionary time scales, our once-upon-a-time, ‘one-to-many’ relationship with natural resources has suddenly and irreversibly flipped: few people, many resources has now become many people, few resources. And because of these changes, we are sure to experience widespread financial, psychological, and spiritual hardship and multiple societal shocks as we deal with financial debt implosions and the negative environmental feedbacks of a too-long abused planet.
But our concern is misplaced if we think we need to somehow ‘save the planet’ from our abuses, Lua would say. While human settlements and surrounding ecosystems may certainly be in for a difficult struggle ahead as systems begin to collapse on their own or transition through some form of ‘managed descent,’ Earth will be fine. As Lua reminded us: Nature always bats last.
“Seek balance and beauty,” Lua prescribed. “Care for Good Earth, laugh often, be true,” she would counsel. “We Islanders get it, it’s now up to you.”
This simple message was often delivered in Lua’s own charming islandy way through one of her many beautiful ukulele songs, which so perfectly conveyed her joy in giving, gratitude for living, love of music, and her remarkable inner peace.
Lua’s Song! Of course! That would be a much better title for the book … it’s simpler.
~ Oh Lua, She Sings ~
After some time, Doc showed up carrying his beautiful natural-wood acoustic bass guitar. The breakfast crowd had come and gone, so we took our instruments out front to practice some new tunes to a captive audience of fidgety curly-tail lizards and an occasional passer-by looking very lost.
We worked on the arrangement for the beginning of a new song—inspired by my time aboard Kalea with Lua—that I had written during my flight back home:
Oh Lua, she sings, ‘bout the Mainlanders’ ways
‘Bout how they do spend, their nights and their days
Working and fighting, to get ever more
Dulled to those simple things, they should adore
Now make no mistake, she understands why
The Mainlanders think, they own land, sea, and sky
But those on the Island, love Balance and Beauty
And caring for Earth … their Sacred Duty
The Mainlanders’ ways, so noisy and fake
Make you believe, to thrive you must take
But Islanders know, a much better way
Be grateful for LIFE, and cherish each day
My new friend—the cheerful young barista with the lovely smile—had stepped outside to collect empty coffee cups and wipe down tables just as we were finishing the song. And right after I strummed the final chord, she sang a pitch-perfect outro with all the soul and conviction of a true believer:
And make sure to dine at the WorldBeat Café!
“Yes!” I cried out, “Of course!” We all laughed heartily at her witty sales-pitch jingle to end the tune.
We went back into the café together. I had to collect my backpack and wanted to finish my coffee before loading up my bike and riding back home on a gorgeous South Florida day.
“You got a few moments to chat?” I asked my new friend as I gathered my things and pulled a chair out for her at my table. I noticed that the café was quite empty and perhaps I could learn a bit more from this inspiring young woman.
“I can take a break for a few minutes, sure,” she responded.
“Are there any encouraging trends you are aware of from your studies?” I asked her.
“Oh, there sure are!” she replied enthusiastically.
~ Island Culture Rising ~
She told me that we are slowly but convincingly moving away from a dominant worldview of debt-created virtual-wealth and exploitative global markets—and a severely skewed emphasis on corporate products, profits and power—and towards diverse, small-scale, local, lean economies that value healthy people, happy places, a habitable planet, and a world worth inheriting.
These local, self-reliant communities can be described quite accurately as ‘island cultures,’ because they are characterized by broader and deeper ecological intelligence, acknowledgement of clear environmental limits and boundaries, and cognizant of their embeddedness in Earth’s web of life and their direct connection to the natural world—and to its fate. Self-reliant communities, like self-reliant individuals, rely on themselves first. To a large extent, they solve their own problems and find their own unique ways of doing things. They possess self-confidence, optimism, and a wide range of skills and are therefore strong and resilient and better able to help others in need.
Furthermore, to an islander, it is clearly evident that the human economy is fully embedded in the closed-loop energy and material flows of the land and surrounding ocean—the local ecosystem—and subject to the same chemical and physical laws of the known universe. The physical environment puts obvious constraints on the growth and development of biological subsystems, which in turn modify their physical environment to adapt as best they can to those constraints.
She said that we are recognizing (once again) that we are not masters over Nature. We are Nature. We live as part of a beauty-full, wonder-full, living, evolving universe. The flourishing of all life, not just human life, is once again becoming a principal moral concern. As Martin Luther King Jr. observed, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’
Progressive economists, with a firm grasp of ecological principles, are championing policies based on the explicit recognition of the interrelatedness and interdependence of all aspects of life on our finite planet.
Ancient wisdom traditions that acknowledged and celebrated human embeddedness are being resurrected.
She said that basic knowledge of the core principles of ecology and economics and about their essential interrelationship will go a long way toward shaping the new values that will move us away from mindless hamster-wheel lives of endless frivolous consumption and economic growth and toward a desirable and sustainable future for all.
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. These needs include allowing all living organisms to attain their full expected life spans. It emphatically rejects the perverse dominance-based logic that treats many ‘other’ people, things, and the Earth itself as conveniently disposable.
The basic criteria for maintaining natural capital and ecological sustainability include harvesting renewable resources at a rate that does not exceed the rate of regeneration, controlling waste streams so that they do not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment, and—for nonrenewable resources—requiring development of comparable renewable substitutes for those resources as they are depleted and recognizing that this will not likely be a simple, low-cost ‘plug-n-play’ substitution.
Ecological Economics speaks in the language of living systems using terms familiar to biologists and ecologists: balance, biodiversity, closed-cycle, coevolution, complex adaptive systems, limits, organization, thresholds, tipping points, renewal, and resilience. It values community, compassion, and environmental stewardship. It heeds the ancestral wisdom of indigenous island cultures living in ecological balance with their local surroundings.
A growing ecologically aware culture is ensuring that individual economic actors are no longer simply responding to the narrow profit incentive that, in aggregate, orients the economy towards unbridled growth. The fiduciary principle applied to the economy as a whole—managing the economy within planetary boundaries in trust for future generations—is also guiding economic actors and individual transactions.
There is a growing awareness that the social license to operate as an economic actor must also include a globally applicable test for the withdrawal of that license when externalities are generated that transgress planetary boundaries.
All countries and cultures will have a part to play in this great metamorphosis to a worldwide ‘island culture’ that aspires to a future of broad wealth and well-being for humans and for the great diversity of marvelous creatures that inhabit this uniquely life-rich planet.
With the human gift of intelligence comes the moral obligation of responsibility.
Island cultures recognize that the human economy is a subsystem of the global ecology, not the other way around, and that there are clear limits to biophysical throughput of resources from the ecosystem, through the economic subsystem, and back to the ecosystem as wastes. Biophysical systems, even when they are scientifically well understood, are mistakenly seen as things we live off of, not as places we live within.
“From caterpillar to butterfly, we are leaving behind old and severely limiting ways of being, living, and relating to our world and to each other and moving on to a higher level of consciousness and awareness that places greater value on truth, beauty, balance, play, connection, community, generosity, hospitality, warmth, and wisdom and that seeks a grander destiny for humanity on this good, beautiful, bountiful Earth,” she told me.
“So beautifully expressed,” I said.
“Thank you, Mister Rico. But now you’ll have to excuse me as I need to get back to work. Perhaps I’ll see you at your next Community Music Circle over at the green market on Saturday. I’ll stay a little longer next time, if that’s okay.”
“Absolutely! I’d love to have you join us again with your adorable little blue ukulele. And I’ll have you know that I am now—as of this morning—a fellow ukulele player,” I cheerfully responded.
“Great, see you soon then,” she said as she quickly wiped down my table and headed back behind the pastry counter. At that very moment, it occurred to me that I didn’t even know her name! My god, I was so caught up in what she had to say all this time that I never got around to asking her who she was.
I threw my backpack and ukulele over my shoulder and rushed over to the counter, but she had already disappeared back into the kitchen. I noticed that there were some headshots of a few individuals on the wall behind the pastry case next to the usual assortment of colorful paintings from local artists. Above the photos, the sign read: WorldBeat Café Family.
The pictures were of the owner, management, and staff. Each had their name inscribed in a small golden plaque below with a favorite quote and a nickname scribbled underneath.
My eyes were instantly drawn to the loveliest smile in the group. Being the most recent hire at the café, her picture was the last one in the set, and the only one on the bottom row. It was centered, as if supporting all the others above. The name inscribed on the plaque right below her photo was:
Below that was her favorite quote:
“On a full planet, we are all islanders.”
And just below the quote, her nickname: