From the editor
Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Ohana values :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
Ohana. Isn't that a beautiful word? It's Hawaiian for family. Yes, I went on my summer vacation to Kauai, the least developed of the eight islands. But don't worry, I would never be obnoxious. I'd never rub it in that I spent time in an island paradise.
I am not going to go on about the magnificent island of Kauai, the spiritual magic of the Napali coast, the thrill of surfing or the poetry of the people.
I would not rub it in. Really. Promise.
Instead, I want to talk about our culture and honoring ohana.
One night in Kauai-did I say I went there this summer?-anyway, I was at dinner one night, sitting next to a lovely woman at a long table of about 16 people. I asked her how she came to Kauai.
"I came here about 20 years ago with my husband and infant daughter," she told me. "And when we arrived, my husband left me."
"Why did you stay?" I asked without thinking.
"Why do you ask?" she replied just as quickly. "Here everyone is family." Then, she went on to tell me how she thought long and hard about returning to the mainland. But, she said, on Kauai-that's where I went this summer-children are respected.
"In my job here, if I needed to take time off to go to a school play or be there after school for my daughter, my boss just knew that was where I should be. It's understood: Your children come first. Our culture makes time for our children and our families."
I thought then about "our" culture. We believe no child should be left behind. But children coming first? We don't see them as front runners.
The other women at the table turned their heads.
"I really felt as though people here understood that while work was important, raising our children is the most important job we all have."
At the table, we all murmured in awe. "Yes, that's the way it should be," we said.
So many times during the week I had to remind myself I was still in the United States-did I tell you I went to Kauai this summer?-things felt different. Not foreign, just different, and not vacation different.
It wasn't because of the lovely language. People pepper their words with Hawaiian there. I learned quickly to say "mehalo" rather than "Thank you" and to greet with "aloha." It was hard to stop, but Chicago people don't consider it charming when returning vacationers use Hawaiian words-especially Chicago people who weathered unseasonably cold temperatures and rain while I was basking in perfect sunshine-did I say I went to Kauai?
No, it wasn't the language. Things just felt very different. It felt very comfortable. People seemed to have balance-and not just on their surf boards.
Wherever I go, I always talk to people. It's what I do. And I don't leave that habit behind on vacation-I did say I was in Kauai this summer, didn't I?
But everyone-those who cleaned the hotels, waited tables or were gardening, those who drove boats, ran hotels and sat at the table with me for dinner-all gave me the same impression.
Yes, it's not cheap to live on Kauai. Housing is ridiculous and some goods cost dearly on an island. When I was there, milk was about $6 a gallon. But those complaints, they always said, were minimal compared to the quality of life. This is a great place for children and, ohana is important.
Everyone I talked to was doing the parent dance of juggling. But in Kauai, it seemed the dance was more of a lovely, thoughtful hula.
The more I thought about this, the angrier I got. In fact, it ruined a bit of that good karma I was trying to amass. Why should it be so special to value children? Why don't we do that everywhere?
And why aren't we talking about that during this presidential campaign? I know the candidates are often photographed holding a baby. But why don't we ask them what they will do to elevate the value of children? If family is a value-how is it valued? Will they make sure moms and dads can spend time with their children? Will their policies change the family dance we do as parents?
I think of the dance here, especially in the fall and winter, as a frenetic jig as we juggle homework, activities, schedules, sports, our responsibilities, their free time, family time and chores-and did you see your grandparents? All the while we are trying to pay our bills, cook meals, shop, make doctor's appointments, clean house, wash clothes-and did you rake the leaves?
If you are working, it's an up-tempo two-step-often performed with smoke and mirrors. Who's picking up the children when and what's for dinner?
Rhonda Present is the founder and director of ParentsWork, an advocacy group fighting for family-friendly policies. She points out the large difference between the number of days off our children get from school and the work days we get off.
In Evanston, Present's public school district, there were 28.5 scheduled days off last year-nine holidays, 15 winter and spring break and 4.5 teacher in-service and conference days. This is typical. But how many vacation days do you get typically? Anywhere near 28.5 a year?
This does not mean we are doing a bad job of raising our children. We're not. It's happening. We are raising some lovely little people because we dance.
But, I often wonder, are we doing a bad job of living? Are we honoring our children and our ohana with the greatest gift we have-time?
Did I mention I was in Kauai this summer? Because, actually, I almost forgot.