Celebrating Magnificence: Beverly Kutsunai, Dedicated to Re-inventing Herself
By Renée Tillotson
I’ve known Bev as an enthusiastic Nia student of mine for over a decade, and knew that she had been a young widow, but I really didn’t ask much about her life until she emailed me a fantastic dance painting she’d done in an art class. Who IS this person?!? I wondered.
As it turns out, Beverly has “reinvented herself” a couple times since I’ve known her. Beverly explains that she long ago read a book called Mrs. Mike. In it a young woman who marries a Canadian Mountie goes off to live up in the hinterlands. She talks about her “first life” before she married, then her “second life” afterwards. In Bev’s case, she’s created many “lives” for herself!
Beverly grew up in Colorado until the age of 9. She loved her mountains and her grandmother, and she didn’t want to leave them for Hawaii.
Once she got here to Oahu, she threw herself into it wholeheartedly. Young Bev enjoyed suddenly hearing all the different languages around her, and celebrating all the holidays she’d never experienced before: Boys Day, Girls Day, the Okinawan festival for floating lanterns on the water, and Chinese New Years. She realized there hadn’t been a lot of “culture” in Colorado! She attended summer camp with all the local kids on the Hawaiian Homestead at Papakolea by Punchbowl, where the counselors kept asking her whether she (a white kid) really wanted to come there, which she did. For school, she went to Stevenson Intermediate school – also not supposed to be a place for haole kids. She fit in great!
Beverly loved meeting all the foreign graduate students in her mom’s UH grad program. As an adult, Beverly has traveled extensively, but has found nowhere else as diverse as Hawaii, where it’s all “shake up and mix up”! Hawaii can be a very inclusive place, she says; “It’s how you walk in your slippers.”
Bev not only walked in her slippers, she went sliding on the algae in drainage canals with her new Hawaiian friends, standing up on her rubber slippers. That no doubt won her some street cred early on. She also learned to swim at the Honolulu Natatorium, which was scary, not being able to see the bottom. The only thing was, “They knew more math than I did – they already knew their multiplication tables.”
While in high school she met Eric Kutsunai, first son of a Japanese American family. A drinking, smoking, pretty wild St Louis High School boy, Eric was always a rebel, always with a sense of humor. He once got his whole senior class to wear their mandatory school ties backwards for a day! She remade her life to fit in this “light on his feet and kooky crazy” boy. Kutsunai literally translates to “no shoes” – not even rubber slippers!
Bev went to UH, majoring in education because she the likes energy of little kids – the same reason she liked Eric, no doubt! She let Eric go on to the New England School of Law in Boston to get his law degree, and she spent 2 years in southern Oregon getting her Masters in Education while she taught school in in the backwoods of South Umpqua. Their affection for each other survived the long separation.
Eric’s mom proudly told her friends Beverly was the most Japanese girl he had ever brought home: she was quiet, shy, intelligent, and a stabilizing influence on their sometimes wayward son. Bev loved that big sumo wrestler kind of guy.
They married after finishing their educations, Eric becoming a lawyer with a big heart – they never had a lot of money because Eric would help clients who didn’t have the finances to pay him. Bev still owns a beloved wooden chair someone gave Eric in thanks for his services. The couple eventually welcomed baby Elise into their lives with delight.
When Elise was four years old, Eric died in his sleep one night. All of a sudden. No one knows why.
Beverly reinvented herself again as a single mom with an only child. Fortunately, Eric’s parents were also big-hearted. They had opened their family to her and now helped her – as did Bev’s own mom in Hawaii and her dad in Arizona – to raise Elise and get her through school in an ‘ohana of blended cultures across time zones and miles.
Hawaii, Bev found, was a great place to bring up her kid, mostly because of the sense of global unity. Elise of course was hapa, half European / half Japanese. No problem. And things don’t get to Hawaii as quickly as they get to other places. Gangs really never made it here from LA. As a mom of a young daughter, Bev thought, “I’m OK not being on the breaking part of the surf. I’m OK being back in the bubbles.”
And people learn a lot of good qualities here in Hawaii, which she saw her daughter benefit from: “When you go to a new place, you don’t need to push your way in. Wait respectfully to be invited.” Elise lived up to the middle name her great-grandmother had given her: Akie, meaning “clear and bright.”
As a science teacher at Kamehameha schools, Bev gets summer vacation, so she and Elise were able to do some traveling. Bev had a wonderful time raising their daughter to be a strong, self-reliant young woman. Then she left for college. And Beverly thought, “Time to re-invent myself!”
One of the things I’ve long known about Beverly is her deep love for moving to good music. She came over to Still & Moving Center from her gym to do Nia with us as soon as we opened in 2011. Bev is my most vocal fan of the many “beyond Nia” pieces of music that I throw into my Nia classes. So it does not surprise me that Beverly found her way onto more dance floors once she had a lot more empty nest evenings to herself.
Bev transformed her canal sliding rubber-slipper feet into barefeet, into tango dancing feet. I watched as she started weaving serpentine Tango steps into Nia classes. They are just irrepressible in Bev once certain rhythms come on! That went on for quite a few years, and then Covid-19 hit.
The dance floors closed. The tennis courts closed. Still & Moving Center closed for in-person classes. What was this exuberant energy-being going to do with herself? As a science teacher, she quickly understood that this virus was going to be around for quite a while. She thought: “I can’t just stay home in a bubble – that’s not going to save me.”
She quickly jumped from taking one in-person Nia class a week to three online Nia classes a week as a way to survive the stress of having to teach her little kid school classes from a computer in her living room. She loves the world music that we play in Nia. She enjoys the pacing that starts slow, gets ferocious, then calms down. She likes the intentionality behind Nia, the different threads of dance, martial arts and yoga that we include, that it’s eclectic, and that it’s both energizing and calming. “Nia is keeping me sane during Covid.”
Bev also decided to paint herself out of a corner! She’d done some photography, drawing and a little painting in the past, and this shutdown seemed the perfect opportunity to take up the brush! Just as it’s scary to go into the ocean if you don’t know how to swim, it feels daunting to dive into the world of painting with accomplished artists if you’ve only been dabbling your toes in paint up until now with the occasional art class.
An abstract painting about music with a cello came out of her a while ago during an event at the Art Academy. She didn’t have much drawing experience, so her teacher got her exploring different painters’ styles, including collage, so that she could cut out and arrange her elements – “Drawing with scissors,” as Matisse called it.
She’s now been painting every week since March, where she’s met vibrant new friends through her online classes. Her teacher says she has been “finding her voice as a painter.” Yes! You can see it for yourself in her many paintings that illustrate this story. He said “There’s a positive, magical, lyrical attitude about life that comes through your paintings.”
Bev agrees, “I LIKE to be happy, I’d rather be in that world than a darker one. If you are able to create something, you will feel better – there is science about that. If we do something with our hands, it goes into a different place in the brain than if we just look at it with our eyes.”
But she still needed a way to be outdoors. As she says, “I was the dog that I took for a walk on the beach. I was the dog that needed it!” And then the beaches were outlawed, except for crossing over the sand. So Bev, who we remember was never one who liked not seeing the bottom, remade herself again. She only intended to go into the edge of the water to meet the rules… but then something wonderful happened. The waves buoyed her up and started lifting her and twirling her. The sea became her new dance partner! With no dance floors open to her, Bev is partner dancing again!
So she’s dancing and painting herself into the world she likes to live in. As she summarizes her many ‘lives’ to date: “One can reinvent oneself and still be true to oneself.”
When life throws me the next whammy, I wanna be like Bev!