Riding (writing?) the new year’s wave

Two weeks plus into this brand new year, I’m rechecking my deadline date for this column, looking on my home office calendar at a wonderful, high wave turning in a curl of blues and lavenders — drawn by an artistic first grader. I look closer at the bright smile of a little Miss Brynn of Kalaheo Elementary School. Her artwork, submitted to the annual competition sponsored by the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative, won a place for the January page of the Calendar of Student Art.

“Winter Surf – Kauai,” with its high-energy roll before a horizontal background of greenery and earth-toned mountains, plus topped by blue sky, flying bird shapes and puffy clouds certainly could be a snapshot of this day. It’s also a terrific metaphor for the beginning of 2015 on our island.

And here on this Monday, we come to the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There was a heroic man — American pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement — who in the 1960s was an important catalyst in building momentum for the high-energy roll for our national consciousness. He paid for that gain dearly. The various commemorations to be held on island with the idea of freedom for all, peaceful spirit and the awareness of encountering and ending bias will be well-worth attending. If attendance is not possible, we can attend either via moments of meditation and/or the Internet links of remembrance.

On the spiral of time and human affairs, we again reached a nadir, the lowest or opposite of a zenith point, with the shock of the recent extremist attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, France. The killings and repercussion have rocketed shocking news and images around the world.

Before settling at my desk to write, I walked to post some letters and a behemoth papaya from our garden into our mailbox (our mail carrier appreciates occasional fruit offerings). I was struck by the peacefulness of the scene — the cushiony lawn beneath my feet, the sunshine and wide blue sky reminded me of my many blessings. I wasn’t too harsh with the marauding chickens peck-and-gobbling under the star fruit tree, and took time to splash water over the small Douglas fir that is struggling in this tropical climate to become a taller Christmas tree in our garden, meanwhile turning my face up to absorb the sunshine.

Last, before coming inside to return to work, I noticed the vertical gash of red earth showing on the northeast face of Mt. Wai‘ale‘ale. Without the usual clouds swathing the mount’s high reaches, the results of a recent landslide are highly visible, as my friend Jennie clued me earlier this week. What a dramatic fall that must have been, great building blocks of lava rock and earth, clinging bushes, ferns and wild grasses all tumbling over a mile to the base in a massive mountain dryland avalanche. But I never heard the rumble, roar, the crash …

Which reminds me of that old adage, the question of whether when a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it, then, make a sound?

As a writer who committed to the act of writing and the marvelous “code” of language as far back as second grade, and then re-committed for a journalism and creative writing career, I have over a long lifetime valued the power of the pen (or pencil, typewriter or computer-generated text, as the case may be). “The pen is mightier than the sword,” according to The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, is a phrase attributed to Edward Bulwer-Lytton writing his play “Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy,” in 1839:

True, This! –

Beneath the rule of men entirely great,

The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold

The arch-enchanters wand! – itself a nothing! –

But taking sorcery from the master-hand

To paralyse the Caesars, and to strike

The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —

States can be saved without it!

Bulwer-Lytton was preceded by several others who expressed essentially the same idea. George Whetstone wrote in Olde English toward the last of the sixteenth century, “The dashe of a Pen, is more greevous than the counterbuse of a Launce.” Then, in “Hamlet” (1602), Shakespeare gave Rosencrantz the line “… many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.”

Twenty years later, Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621) wrote, “From this it is clear how much more cruel the pen may be than the sword.” And my self-publisher hero, Thomas Paine, received a letter from Thomas Jefferson dated 1796 in which Jefferson advised him, “Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.”

Equal to the power of the pen and insuring its power is the freedom of the press. Hooray for all the pens and pencils waved as symbols of courage in the face of terrorist attacks. Words and graphics that are created and never published, never reach the wider audience. Equally so, voices raised in free speech, like their published counterparts, continue to lift — and live — the building momentum of this new year.


Dawn Fraser Kawahara, author and poet, regularly instructs on the topics of history and Hawaiian culture for visitors to Kauai through Hawaii Pacific University’s “Road Scholar” program through Pacific Islands Institute. The writer is hard at work now completing her second memoir, based on the Burma of pre- and post-World War II times, toward Burmese independence.


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