Right now, for many of us, so much of our lives require interfacing with a screen: a computer, a TV, our phones. Human interaction has been stifled by COVID-19 resulting in significant interruptions to our communities. We don’t have to be suffering from the coronavirus to experience symptoms of this pandemic including loneliness, anxiety, and uncertainty.
Idaho Writer in Residence Malia Collins and the Idaho Commission on the Arts are presenting a non-virtual writing event designed to build community, encourage creativity, provide diversion and, potentially, to relieve some of the emotional weight we are experiencing during this time!
Registrations closed Friday, August 7, 2020, pen pals are in the process of sharing their writing. Below are responses to project prompts from Malia Collins.
Prompt 1: Working in the genre you write in, introduce yourself to your partner (think pre-pandemic). Write a poem, piece of flash fiction, or a memory you have of yourself. Describe yourself and your life (true self or fictional self) with as much rich detail as possible—this will be your pen pal’s first introduction to you. What do you want them to know?
Malia Collins, response Prompt 1: My mother wanted to name me Malie but worried people wouldn’t know how to pronounce it so she named me Malia instead. I was born in Kailua, on the island of O’ahu, late on a night with no moon and named after the glass bottom boat on which, it was rumored, I was conceived. When I was born the tips of my hair—long, black hair—the hair of a child, not a newborn—shone gold and my mother couldn’t believe her good luck. Hawaiians don’t tell their babies they’re beautiful because they don’t want the spirits to steal them away. So pupuka—the aunties said when they first met me—such an unfortunate looking child.
I grew up in the mountains and ocean. My father took me high up on the ridges and deep into the valleys behind our house to teach me the names of the ferns and the flowers. We picked lacy palapalai ferns, stacked laua’e one on top of the other like paper, untangled maile for lei, and passed acres of the light green uluhe fern—the earthly form of Kamapua’a, the pig god—that covers the sides of the Ko’olau Mountains thick enough to hide drop-offs from those hiking along the trails. When I was young, the albizia trees hadn’t taken over yet. When I dream about Hawai’i, I dream in smell and wake up with the scent of both rain and dirt on my clothes.
My mother was ocean. I wore orange bikini bottoms and no top until the swim coach gave me a faded blue one-piece swimsuit that came down nearly to my knees. I knew when to jump over the waves and when to dive through them. When my own children were born, I took them to the beach where I learned to swim and once they got older, they piled onto the boogie board I tied to my foot and we swam from buoy to buoy until they could jump in with me and match my stroke. Watching my son swim to the buoys at Kailua Beach for the first time by himself brought me to my knees. My grandfather on my mother’s side was renowned for his fish sighting skills and could see schools of aku, skip jack tuna, more than a mile off shore. My children love the ocean with the same devotion I do. It is where we go when nothing else makes sense. It’s where we stand in a semi-circle at the shore of Hakioawa, on the island of Kaho’olawe, and call to our ancestors. It is where we wade in and lay on our backs until whatever is holding onto us loosens itself and floats away.
This summer I’ve had to find my own water here—Hawaii is too far and too fragile to visit right now. Instead of going back home this summer, we’ve been home here, in Boise. Most mornings I spread two blankets under the trees in the backyard, next to the ditch that runs along the side of the house, and listen as the water flows past. At night, the raccoons slosh through it and set the dog off barking. I walk next to the Boise River and let the dog cool off in a small pool surrounded by fist-sized river rocks and more than once we’ve watched as the Great Blue Herons take off from the islets in the middle of the river. I think there is always a part of me looking for another island. I find water next to the trails near Fort Boise, and water running down the creek at Dry Creek—where crickets the size of small pencils rest in the middle of the path—their hard-shelled bodies completely black, the sound they make a click and whistle, both.
I planted Silverstone in pots out back because it looks like coral, and tall grasses that fan out like palms—all of the ways I’ve tried to find my way back to Hawai’i—all of the ways I live in water and mountains, clouds and sky.
Prompt 2: Using the character you created to introduce yourself to your pen pal, take that character (remember it can be true or it can be fictional) and have you or have that character look back to a memory of something you did, or a place you went before we went into quarantine. Describe that moment, or describe that place with rich detail so your pen pal can see it as vividly as you can.
Malia Collins, response Prompt 2: My father died a little over a year ago and sometimes in that place between the day ending and falling asleep, I dream that he is there at his house in Kailua, and we haven’t had the chance to see him yet because we haven’t been back home. When the missing is the worst, this is the story I tell myself: He’s just waiting for us, I think, going to work, driving back home over the Pali Highway, swimming in the ocean, watering the ferns in the courtyard, cooking dinner, sitting in his beach chair in the garage drinking a Budweiser. My father loved Budweiser.
In February, my daughter and I flew to Honolulu and then to Maui the next day for a memorial for my dad. We landed at HNL and drove straight to Kailua Beach—the rain fell hard and the wind whipped sideways—but we got in the water anyway. The August before was the last time I was in the ocean and that day it was filled with people who loved my dad, too. But in February, the beach was empty. I dove underwater and closed my eyes and imagined when I opened them he’d be swimming towards me, the way he swam towards me so many times before.
In February, my daughter and I stood in line at a strip mall in Lahaina, waiting for our shave ice. We took pictures in a parking lot, under telephone lines and a double rainbow. We sat on a crowded boat that sailed in the direction of Kaho’olawe and watched whales breech in the distance and then even closer. My Aunty L. taught a group of tourists how to dance hula. At sunset I walked along the beach on a path packed with other people, and then that night I stood at a podium in a hotel ballroom, two hundred people in the audience, while I talked about my dad. In the mornings, while it was still dark, I sat on a chair in the lobby with my notebook, looking out at the ocean, waiting for first light and then sunrise. I tucked my sadness into the pages. I found a shirt of my dad’s and packed it in my carry on. It is in my closet now with the sweaters. It was the aloha shirt he wore to pick us up at the airport, or when we went out to dinner. It is the one my son wore to the family gathering after his memorial—the shirt patterned in blue and gray and brown—always the colors of ocean, sky, and mountains.
The night before we went into quarantine, I stood in the Hemingway Center at BSU and read an essay about my father. During the weeks I wrote, I listened to his favorite Hawaiian music on repeat: Gabby Pahinui’s slack key guitar, the Makaha Sons, the Sunday Manoa—and brought him into the space with me. When I can’t find my way through something, I call to my ancestors for guidance, and my friend Norma says—your father is your ancestor now, you can call to him anytime you want to.
During the months after he died, I talked to the blue spruce in the backyard as if he could hear me. When a family of hawks showed up in the backyard at the tail end of June, and one perched on the bottom branch of the blue spruce and watched me while I wrote, I knew it was my father. The hawks disappeared in August. I’m still waiting for them to come home.
Prompt 3: Working in the genre you write in, describe what a day looks like for you now. What do you do, how do you spend your time? Is there a place you go or think about that gives you comfort? Is there something you’ve started doing since the pandemic started that brings you hope? What’s something you do that grounds you during this time? If you’ve got a funny story, tell it. If there is something poignant you want to share, start writing and see where it takes you. You’ve met your pen pal on the page—are there any connections between the ways you’re both spending your time? How could you bring those connections into the piece?
Malia Collins, response Prompt 3:
Wednesday, Sept. 30
Morning pages. Taught three writing classes over zoom. Picked up dog food and body wash at the store. Hadn’t left the house since Saturday. Scrubbed muddy dog paw marks off the outdoor couch cushions in the middle of the afternoon. M. came into the bed to snuggle Honi. We pretended the dog could talk.
Thursday, Oct. 1st
Morning pages. Wished T. happy birthday. She said the best gift she got was Covid antibodies. Trimmed cut flowers and cleaned out water. Marinated chicken thighs in pickle brine. Graded and realized there are a number of students whose faces I’ve never seen. Did meditation with Honi over Zoom. Our mantra as we sat was “I surrender to the flow of my life.” Waited in the car for M. so I didn’t have to take my temp at her dentist and sit in the kid-size chairs. Talked to an old friend through masks in the parking lot.
Sat., Oct. 3rd
Morning pages. Made Halloween cookies. M. ate most of them standing at the counter. Cleaned the grout on the kitchen backsplash. Hiked behind HW with J. and Honi. Reading and writing on couch on back porch.
Monday, Oct. 5
Taught three classes over Zoom. The girls did school outside on the couch. M. went for a run at lunch. Hiked with Honi behind HW and she didn’t listen. Saw a stick that looked like a snake and a dragon’s head. The sunlight was perfect. Why isn’t anyone on the trails?
Tuesday, Oct. 6
Put together a powerpoint for 8:30 class, while in bed. It was 8:20. Taught two Zoom classes. Worked outside. Went to the dentist since I canceled my first appointment back in April. Everyone in masks and behind plexiglass. Happy to lie down somewhere else and talk to someone who is not in my family. Wrote. Hiked with K. behind HW. J. cooked chicken tortilla soup for dinner. Plane tickets to Tahiti are only $800. Texted friend as if I was our dog and she texted me back as if she was her’s.
Wednesday, Oct. 7
Taught CNF. Wrote a story. Felt joy.
Thursday, Oct. 8
Took the day off and spent it with my mom. Drove to Pantera Market in Nampa for groceries and Panaderia Lupita for bread. Bought tamales from Nueva Vida bakery and ate them in the car. Walked the trail and hills at Cleo’s Ferry Museum and Nature Trail Drove along the Snake River. Every time I wanted to find a place I had forgotten about, we turned the corner and were there. It was like my dad was guiding the car. Bought pumpkins and veggies, fruit and apple cider. Frozen beef liver and peach pie. Mom cooked liver, bacon, and onions for late lunch. We ate surrounded by pictures of my dad. Drank bourbon apple cider cocktails.
Friday, Oct. 9
Saw J. doing pushups next to his desk before his work meeting.
Monday, Oct. 12
Read in bed. Drove downtown to get bagels. Hadn’t left the house since Saturday. Conferences with students over Zoom. Still haven’t seen some faces yet. I’m so tired of teaching over Zoom.
Wednesday, Oct. 14
Taught. Wrote. On our evening walk saw B. standing on a mound of dirt where a new house is being built. It’s fall. Crows flew into a tree and in the right light looked like hawks. Sent K. a text: I just walked under a tree filled with crows. In the picture I saw even the leaves look like wings.
Prompt 4: This last piece will be a collaborative piece—so you’ll take turns writing and sending the excerpts to each other to continue. Decide on where the end point is going to be. Tell the story of how the future will look with this new community you’ve built. If you’re writing fiction, imagine the world together. If you’ve writing a poem, build the future line by line or stanza by stanza. If you’re writing memoir, how can you imagine together what lies on the other side of this. What’s something you’re most anxious or most excited about. How can you write what’s next and invite your pen pal into the narrative?
Malia Collins, response Prompt 4:
House, March 2020
Honi picked up a Rubik’s cube with her paws and we marveled at that, even though she’s almost one and hasn’t figured out how to jump in or out of the car yet. We’re on an extended spring break, but staying home for this one. School is cancelled, Treefort, too, travel gone and this city still and quiet. I can’t remember the last time we were in the house together for this many days in a row. The kids and I rearranged the spice drawer, the pantry, the bathroom cabinets, the towel closet. I wrote a song about handwashing from Honi’s point of view called “Twenty Seconds Isn’t Just for People, Twenty Seconds Is Also for Dogs.” We turned her picture into memes, made bracelets, cookies, and baked rich, complicated buttermilk cakes. We planted spring flowers, walked next to the river, rearranged all of the tables in the house into desks. We drove to the Bruneau Sand Dunes and tried to sled, but couldn’t get any movement. One night J. and I drove downtown to all of our favorite spots, sat in the car, and told stories about what we’d order if we could go in. The days are growing longer. On the last night in March, the sunset backlit the foothills and the trees in our yard looked like they were glowing. Some folks say we’ll be back to regular life by July.
House, July 2020
I move a small table, chair, and two blankets out into the yard and pretend I’m walking to my office in the morning, and gather everything up late in the afternoon when I pretend to walk home. But I’m already home, because I’ve been here since March. I spend my days outside like some sort of reverse childhood: the tree overhead is the roof, and the blankets underneath me the house. On July 10, the morning of my dad’s birthday, the first since he died, M. and I jump in the car and drive to Portland and then to Cannon Beach where we walk, with our masks on, for seven miles. The ocean makes me feel better, and M. too, who does aerials and back tucks and toss fronts as we walk. I think about how the ocean is home for me, and how M. is home for me, and how M.’s body is home for her—the way she moves through the world both walking and flying. On July 20, in the middle of dinner, four hawks swoop in and land in four separate corners of the backyard, and one perches on the lowest branch of the Blue Spruce tree. Hawaiians believe in ho’ailona, or signs, and I wonder if those hawks are my sign. I think about the voyaging canoes in Hawaii and how the ‘iwa birds were their ho’ailona that they’d reached landfall and I wonder if the hawks are that sign for me—that I’ve reached landfall—that this is where I’m supposed to moor and tether. I’ve spent so much time missing things, I haven’t paid attention to what’s calling me home. It could be a year or more like this.
House, November 2021
M. is in college, and M. has taken over his room. Honi still can’t jump into the car, but she can make it up on the bed. The trees have all lost their leaves, and there’s snow in the forecast for tomorrow, but we’re happy enough to be out and about. It’s like those movies where the world opens up again and we’re baby stepping our way back into it. This place feels changed. The world we live in is gentler now. Neighbors still put out tables with food and new pairs of socks and paperbacks for whomever needs them. We still check on each other, pick up extras at the grocery store, stress bake cookies and deliver them to friends. Sometimes a smell takes us back, sometimes a gesture: bleach, lemons, wiping down the doorknobs, but for the most part, we keep moving forward.
We spent so much time tucked into the pages, imagining what was, and what could happen next. We witnessed the story unfolding and found our own ways to retell it. We turned that time into language, turned language into stories and poems and memory, and used them to rebuild a world we wanted to live in. We paid attention to those around us, noticed what was there, asked questions, wrote what was missing. We built a community of writers. I hope once we’re out of the wilderness of the time before the one we’re in right now, we still find shelter in each other, in what made us marvel, in those glimmers of possibility that have become the future we’re lucky enough to call home.