It was death that propelled me to seek meaning in life. My mother, with whom I was very close, died in March 2018. It was expected, but it still knocked me to the ground.
Her pile of things sits in my O‘ahu home waiting for attention, but my grief is tucked into the little spaces, so when I open the boxes, sadness tumbles out too, and I have to pack them back up and leave them for another day. This has become a monthly ritual.
While it may be the natural cycle of life, her death cut a small wound in my heart that only seems to be salved by ongoing internal dialogue. Where does the soul go? What is the purpose of life?
Something has slowly shifted in me. I am not the same person I once was. I am seeking. I am uncomfortable. I have activities and people I enjoy, but at my core, I am restless and questioning if this is all there is to life.
At the same time, I think my mother and my great-grandmother are looking out for me. I grew up hearing stories about Tūtū Helen Maliu, a full-blooded Native Hawaiian, and have always been comforted by the idea that she is our family’s ‘aumakua.
Therefore, I don’t think it was coincidence that I was drawn to visit Kīlauea after its eruption in May 2018. In the first days of the lava flow, I interviewed Hawaiian cultural expert Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa for KITV about “Pele’s people,” a clan that maintains ancient traditions that honor the volcano goddess.
Our conversation off-camera veered into the personal, and I mentioned my Hawaiian heritage and my great-grandmother, Tūtū Maliu, who was born in Keokea, Maui; lived in Papakōlea, O‘ahu; and died in Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i. Maliu, commented Kame‘eleihiwa, is mentioned in some of the chants for Pele.
Intrigued, I began researching my possible connection to descendants of Pele. This led me to Kumu Hula Michael Pili Pang of Hālau Hula Ka No‘eau, who referenced the first verse of the mele “No Luna I Ka Hale Kai o Kamaʻalewa:”
No luna i ka hale kai o Kamaʻalewa Nānā ka maka iā Moanonuikalehu Noho i ke kai o Maliu A kū aʻela ka lehua i laila ʻEa lā, ʻea lā, ʻea I laila hoʻi
Pili Pang interpreted the chant as part of the legend of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele as she travels back from Kaua‘i with Lohiau, Pele’s lover. As she crosses the Ka‘ie‘ie Channel, she sees a vision of her ancestor, the goddess Moananuikalehua, sitting in the ocean. Maliu is the name for the section of the sea in the Ka‘ie‘ie Channel. “Ke kai o Maliu” translates to “sitting in the sea of Maliu,” explains Pili Pang.
This thin connection between my ancestor and Pele’s descendants probably meant I wasn’t part of this tribe, but it still served to draw me in further. Next I spoke with Kekuhi Keali‘ikanaka‘oleohaililani, kumu hula of Hālau o Kekuhi, which is famed for its dance style honoring Pele and her sister Hi‘iakaikapoliopele. Keali‘ikanaka‘oleohaililani identifies as a descendant of Pele.
What Keali‘ikanaka‘oleohaililani wants people to understand is that Pele is more than a fiery, jealous goddess. For Native Hawaiians, the cultural understanding of Pelehonuamea is deeper and more nuanced. For starters, Pele is both the name of the goddess as well as a Hawaiian word for lava.
“The Pele element is simply the fluid lava. What the pele does, how she moves through chambers and up through cracks, is a concerted effort of Pele and all of her relatives,” Keali‘ikanaka‘oleohaililani explained. She listed a few of Pele’s many relatives who play roles in eruptions: Father Kānehoalani is the sun or the big volcano. Mother Haumea is the Earth’s core, the source of the magma. Brother Kānelūhonua produces the earthquakes. Other deities control sulfur, gases, steam, fissures, sounds, ash, lightning, and other elements. Youngest sister Hiʻiakaikapoliopele’s purview is ferns and ʻōhiʻa, the earliest plant growth on new lava fields.
I asked Keali‘ikanaka‘oleohaililani about the chant in which Maliu is mentioned. She explained that double meanings are common in Hawaiian verse. There is the literal definition, which is the place name. Then there is the figurative meaning—maliu also means “to listen.” Perhaps Hi‘iakaikapoliopele wants this section of the sea to dwell on her plea.
As for my relationship to Pele?
Keali‘ikanaka‘oleohaililani suggested I figure it out for myself. Meditate about it, she told me. “Why are you thinking about your ancestors and Pele? What is happening in your life right now?” she asked. “This is coming up for a reason.” This, I decided, was probably what my mother and great-grandmother were nudging me toward.
Maliu: To heed, give attention, listen, look upon with favor, turn toward
Pele beckoned. I flew to Hawai‘i Island. I wanted to be in her presence, soak in her energy, and see what feelings came up when she was near.
The National Guard allows me and other members of the media to access a mandatory evacuation zone of homes close to the lava and volcanic gas. They bring us 200 meters from Fissure Eight in the Leilani Estates subdivision, where we stand on a deserted residential street, mesmerized by the glow and the sight of the lava. Pele is hypnotic and powerful. In one arm, she cradles life; in the other, death. She pulls both close to her bosom.
I close my eyes to tap into Pele’s energy, which is thick with warmth, heavy with thunderous boiling, and tinged with a slightly rotten-egg odor. I think about my existential questions and then focus on the sounds, the smells, the senses.
Then I have an epiphany: This lava flow, like life, brings unknowable change. It is my own challenge to accept constant flux, release the past, enjoy the present, and embrace the future, however that may look. I took a circuitous journey to reach that understanding, one I believe was sparked by the unseen forces of my ancestral guardians. I give silent thanks as I look at the pele for a few final seconds.