I’m sitting on the balcony of my hotel room in Waikiki (Oahu, Hawaii). The humming of the air conditioners from the high rises around me is almost deafening. It’s 05:52. The city is waking up. Vehicles reversing with alarms. Deliveries clunking through hotel back doors. Cars being started and pulling away.
But I need to retain yesterday.
As the outside world gets noisier my own world offers the same levels of distraction. Text messages from friends. Mentions on Twitter. News alerts on my phone. My football team manager is sacked. More text messages. Derision from friends. Emails waiting to be seen, answered.
But yesterday. I need to retain it.
Yesterday I spent the day with the folks at Kokua Kalihi Valley (KKV) Comprehensive Family Services, an organisation whose first four employees spent their time going from door-to-door being neighbourly — “talking story”, as they call it. From those stories grew medical and dental services, micro-lending, and the state’s first shelter for abused women. Over time, KKV has expanded to all sorts of care for the valley’s low-income communities. Being awed by what they’ve built is inevitable. One can only imagine the honed entrepreneurialism with which they have won grant after grant to build a service that truly responds to the varying needs of the immigrant populations they serve. I have no doubt the journey is littered with as many failures as successes but trying to convey the technical details of all of what I learnt is not what I’m trying to retain. It’s something deeper.
When I arrived, they kept saying they were going to “circle up”. I heard the phrase five or six time as we said our hellos and I tried to get used to the hugging that seemed almost too intimate for my cold British heart. I finally asked what they were referring to and they explained that they start each day holding hands in a circle, each then sharing their name, their home and which ancestor they were thinking of.
Its not something I’ve ever needed to do and so, as the sharing began, I asked myself who I might mention. We were standing on some land that KKV has acquired the lease to. They felt they needed the land as a way to protect the health of the people they serve, people who’s construct of health goes beyond the individual, the bio-medical, to an appreciation of those that have gone before them, a sense of responsibility towards those that’ll follow them, and an understanding that the land they’re standing on is not something they own but something they’re short-term stewards of. Without access to land, the people that KKV serves can never completely feel whole.
As the sharing worked its way around the circle and towards me, I could feel myself question the ‘hippy’ nature of all of this talk. Am I not a scientist? Why am I standing here listening to hocus pocus? What have my ancestors got to do with my health other than giving me my DNA? Through this questioning, though, I remembered the story of my great grandfather who brought his family down from what was to become Pakistan as India was partitioned. As I understand it, our family lost the land it owned. In the new partitioned India we were to ‘start again’.
Did you notice?
Not “they” were to start again, but “we”. I’m not sure if I’ve always said we when I share that story but the act of being invited to think of my ancestors made that clear for me. My great grandfather wasn’t an abstract idea, a historical fact, a statistic in time, but a part of me. So I mentioned him in the context of we.
I’m sure that ‘Westerners’ write this kind of dumb post all the time. The values of ‘traditional’ cultures are often lauded by one-day visitors who share their experience as though they had an epiphany, an awakening - before returning to text messages, Twitter and news alerts. But I’m asking myself how I can retain that sense of connection to my past while the mania of the modern world comes crashing back into my life. I don’t see it as an either/or, more of a balance, to remain in my now while remembering ancestors - and those that will come after me.
Throughout the day there were multiple ‘circles’. At the start of the day one of my hosts joked there’d be nine. Another said seven. I think there were five. The last one was as I said goodbye. We were back on the land, the light was fading, and we were asked to share our name, our home and what we wanted to give thanks for. I found it interesting to be asked for my home again. London. I said it this morning. But this isn’t about restating a fact, it’s about rooting oneself, reminding oneself of those roots, and understanding your role as the steward of where you are, with respect to those before you and a sense of responsibility to those that’ll come after you.
When I talk about wanting to retaining something from yesterday, I think it’s the intentionality of the practice that needs to be retained. I remember during the day thinking about how much time these circles took, and how much productivity might be lost through them - a horrible, technocratic thought but one that I had all the same. But quantifying the time, the so-called productivity, misses the deeper value created through the practice, the sense of mission and meaning fostered through its intentionality.
It’s something my cold British heart will struggle with. But it’s a struggle I want in my life.
Dr Pritpal S Tamber MBChB
I explore why health systems in high-income countries fail their low-income communities. In the US, I do what I do as the CEO of Bridging Health & Community (BH&C), a Seattle-based nonprofit. In the UK, I do what I do as the Founder of Beyond Systems. In the US, my speaking agent is Executive Speakers Bureau. Elsewhere I'm represented by MFL and London Speaker Bureau.