I wasn’t born into a wealthy household. When my mother was pregnant with me, she and my father lived in a tiny, rented house at the end of a long driveway, situated on a property in the middle of Palolo Valley that had five other houses on it. My parents were young. They were beach bums. They drove used cars and spent their nights lying on the sand under the stars because they couldn’t afford a television. Mama surfed with a gang of guys. Dad got into fist fights while paddling. (He was a ‘fucking haole.’) They were rebels. My parents actually met in a cocktail bar: mama was a waitress and dad asked her out a hundred times until she finally said yes (to a car ride home, but after another hundred times he persuaded her to date him). When mama called to tell my dad she was pregnant with me, she had gotten out of her VW Bug to fight a woman on a moped in the middle of the street, yelling over the phone about how she “kept hitting her, but she wouldn’t go down.” They were wild. My father used to tell me fantastical stories of the things that happened while they lived in that house. There was the crazy cat lady that lived across the driveway and always asked my mom (but never my dad) to dinner, the couple who once had a knife fight next door, the night they invited family over and Uncle Scott started telling stories punctuated by throwing beer bottles, the time my dad woke up to mama shaking him, a robber shining a flashlight in her face…
I don’t remember the time when my parents were together, but I do remember the house. My dad says mama chose it because it had a huge yard: a mango tree, crown flowers, a vegetable garden, ginger, gardenias, and a sprawling lawn with a circular, raised stone casing for the flowers mom would plant every season. When my parents split up, dad left the house, but mom and I stayed. I remember having lots of windows that let the light in, ferns that hung outside of my window with a bird nest in them every spring, a big leather couch, and flowers everywhere; my mother loves flowers. We used to have summer lei-making parties, Christmas cookie baking contests, monthly garden club meetings. I was born into that house. So was my younger brother. My mom brought her dog back from Catalina, and Anu had three litters of puppies in that house. It was a place full of beginnings and middles and endings and life. It was small, and we didn’t have a lot of things or a lot of money, but that place was filled to the brim with love.
I spent seven years of my life in that house. There are so many memories: tart mangoes in summer, sparkler-burnt fingers on New Year’s Eve, watching the Monarch butterflies break out of their chrysalis’ in the spring. And then my parents got married (to other people, thankfully), and mom and I finally left. Dad moved to a big, white house on top of a mountain. Mama moved to another house with a big yard, this one three times the size and walking distance from the water. They got newer cars. They enrolled me in a private school, in dance classes, in a thousand sports teams, in anything I was interested in. They were gone more. Everyone was busy, myself included. But even with all of that, I never felt like money ran our world. We still had love.
I grew up in those other houses. My mom kicked me out of hers more than once. We fought over lots of silly things, and some important ones. I always came back to her, no matter how many times she told me to go. She always took me back, even when I told her I didn’t need her.
I developed insomnia, and I learned to love every piece of the world in the nights I spent out on my father’s deck: staring at the sea and the stars, listening to the owls ‘hoot’ as they flew over at night, watching the sun rise in the morning, sitting in the wind and the rain and feeling as if everything I had ever done could be absolved through the beating of the elements. The inability to sleep is devastating. It ruins your life. But somehow it also saved mine. It taught me to live and love in a thousand different ways: through silence, through words, through touch, through nothing at all.
I got what I needed to become a person. Most of the time, I got what I wanted, too. But not always. My mom didn’t let me get a phone until I was fourteen. I didn’t get an iPhone until I was a junior in high school. They never bought me my own car. I didn’t have a television in my room. I wanted those things, but I didn’t need them. The way my parents raised me taught me the difference between want and need. They taught me the importance of money. They never denied me anything, but they forced me to really examine and explore my desires before I acted on them; they taught me delayed gratification.
And in Hawaii, money is a weird thing. It is a ridiculously expensive place to live. It probably has something to do with the palm trees and beaches. But the economic disparity is harder to see there. I grew up with the great-grandchildren of missionaries, worth hundreds of millions. I grew up with kids who lived in the same house as their entire extended family. I grew up with only children. I grew up with the children of artists and actors and developers and stay-at-home moms and carpet cleaners and real estate agents and flight attendants and surfers and lifeguards and radio hosts. They looked the same. They acted the same. They drove mostly the same cars and lived in a lot of the same houses. The biggest dividing factor in Hawaii does not stem from wealth, but race. Money is not the biggest problem. History is.
I went to the mainland and it was so different. Lots of people feel the need to show off their money. I think it has something to do with the way their parents showed them love. When your affection is constantly bought, money becomes the way in which you express your feelings. That’s natural, I guess. I wouldn’t know. My family was never like that. We showed love through back rubs and head tickles, comfort food and cuddles, surf sessions and days in the sand. Our love was far from perfect. In a lot of ways it was cracked at the edges, and in some places it was broken all the way through, but it was always there. I could always feel it.
Leaving that love was hard. My family was thousands of miles away, and their love felt so far. I’ve always been the type of person who loves through proximity. I couldn’t feel their love from across the ocean. I couldn’t show my love, either. I felt small and alone and I spent hours crying over the emptiness. I overate and I overslept and I spent time with a lot of people I shouldn’t have trying to feel something that mattered. But gradually, the love came back.
Now, I am surrounded by beautiful souls. My life is full of love. Sometimes, everything shines. (At other times, lightning strikes…but that’s another story.)
Because money and status and all of that weren’t a big part of how I was raised, I often forget about it. It goes both ways. I’ll forget that not everyone can go out to the movies or to dinner whenever they want. I’ll forget that some people buy expensive things because they’re expensive, and not because they’re beautiful or useful or important. I’ll forget to be impressed by fancy things. I’ll forget to pay people back. I’ll forget to ask people to pay me back. I’ll forget to buy things when I’m supposed to. I’ll forget not to buy things when I shouldn’t. I forget to talk about money. I get surprised when it defines people’s existence. I don’t understand it.
Living in Los Angeles this summer has been even more of a culture-shock in terms of how I interact with money. I have to pay my own bills: rent, gas, food, gym memberships. That has definitely reinforced the existence and importance of money to me. But more importantly, I’m surrounded by either ridiculously wealthy people, or people who live on the streets. On my walk to buy groceries, I pass at least three homeless people every day. Once I get to the health food store, everyone inside looks like they should be in a catalogue or on a movie screen. They wear their money on them like it’s all they have. Maybe it is.
I went into a café on Melrose Avenue the other day, and was immediately struck by a girl sitting in the corner. She was reading one of my favorite books: Night by Elie Wiesel; she was one of the most beautiful people I have ever seen. I ordered my food and sat down two tables away from her, glancing over every now and then to check if she was real. It was like one of those Fitzgerald novels, where the golden girl glitters and everyone is entranced. She was a Daisy. She was a Siren. I could feel my dreams coming true just sitting near her.
In the time it took for my food to be made, three men came up and asked to sit with her. Each time, she politely declined in her husky, foreign accent, pointing at her book and smiling. My heart broke a little for each of them. Then someone called her name, and she looked up. It was another man, and this one oozed money and prosperity and something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but seemed a lot like greed. She put down her book and smiled. When he asked if she wanted anything, she said yes, and he came back with some blended, caffeinated drink, and a croissant. He sat down and she lit up, talking and talking away as he sat there and stared at her body, objectifying her, leeching her beauty. She didn’t even notice. Or maybe she did and it didn’t matter. I watched her turn from a star into a satellite in front of me, orbiting around him and his money instead of shining on her own.
It was one of those moments that blinds you. A moment of horror. I walked out of that café and everyone I passed looked like her: empty eyes, empty soul, covered with luxurious clothing and accessories and things but full of nothing.
I have always tried to be the type of person who looks for the best in people. I used to be a big believer that a beautiful soul and a beautiful mind could outweigh a beautiful body and beautiful things. I understood the importance of money before, but I didn’t really understand the appeal of wealth. Now I do. I understand why people kill, cheat, lie, steal. I understand why we fight over land and oil and technology. I understand why we enslave people, why we burn houses down, why we kill children. I get it. Money is entrancing. You fall in love with the beauty of it. You sell your soul. It’s all cliché and in books and movies and it’s all true. It’s terrifying. I never want to be that type of person. But I also do. I want the wealth. I want the power. I want the man-made beauty, luxury, opulence. Greed. The argument for inherent evil has never made so much sense to me.
I called my mom crying when I got back to my apartment. When she answered the phone, she thought I was homesick. When I told her what was wrong, she got quiet. I don’t think she knew what to say at first.
My mother is the one person in the world that I am a hundred percent sure that I love. I think it has to do with the fact that we shared the same body for a time: the same blood, the same heart beat, the same oxygen. I can’t verbalize half of the things we’ve been through. We’ve put each other through hell. But we also love each other more than anything. My mother is my world. I am hers. She screamed out at the universe and waited for an answer and I was the only one that came. I was her ‘Eureka!’
And so when my mother speaks, I listen. Even if I don’t agree. Even if it’s nonsense. Even if she’s completely wrong. She carried me in her body, created my life from her life; the least I can do is be silent for a moment every now and then…
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that you were beautiful when you were growing up. I’m sorry I didn’t teach you how to do your hair, or your makeup, or how to talk to boys. I just didn’t think that was important. You are so much more than your looks. You are more than what other people think of you. We are all worth more than what money can buy. And to me, you are perfect. Even though I don’t like using that word, because perfection doesn’t exist. But you are perfect to me. I love you.”
In a little more than a breath my mom managed to capture the epitome of how I was raised (or at least how my parents hoped to raise me, though the path got wonky sometimes), the type of person I want to be, and how I want to raise my children.
I understand greed now more than ever. I understand base desire and the temptation of evil. More than I would like to admit, I am seduced by it. I want clothes and good food and new things and to be able to travel and do whatever I want without thinking about it. But I want to be good more than I want any of that.
I realize that the ability to recognize and make these types of choices comes from a place of privilege. I have the ability to decide upon what I want to do with my life. Many people lack that capacity. It is all luck. It is so unfair.
I hope that in choosing love and goodness I can somehow help those people to have more, that I can fill my life up so much that it spills out into others, or I can make people happier. I do not know if I will be able to. But I can try. I’ll definitely slip up. It happens to me all of the time. Perfection really doesn’t exist. Mama was right.
And who’s to say that you can’t have love and laughter along with money and success? It’s been done before. It can be done again. What I’m trying to say (and what’s been said by a thousand different people a thousand better ways a thousand times before) is that I don’t want to just chase money. I want to do something better. I want to chase something more. I don’t really know what that ‘more’ is. It might not exist. We might be inherently evil. Money might be all we have. Everything might mean nothing. But maybe not. I really hope not.