Who would have thought that a kid from the mountains of Montana would grow up dedicating his life to saving the sea? Allow me to introduce you to such a man: Kevin O’Brien, President of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project, which he founded in May 2019. If – like me – you don’t know where/what Papahānaumokuākea is, look at a map of the northwest chain of the Hawaiian islands (NWHI). You’ll see 10 uninhabited primary islets and atolls of astonishing beauty. Kevin is working to preserve an otherwise intact Hawaiian ecosystem – with monk seals, sea turtles, dolphins, seabirds and coral reefs – that’s under siege from ocean trash.
As a boy living on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Kevin got to regularly explore the tide pools of the Oregon coast on summer trips with his biologist father. He recalls his dad being able to remember the complex scientific name of a green sea anemone, and thinking to himself, “I want to do that when I grow up!”
Cold, murky, and mysterious, Oregon’s coastal waters didn’t bear up well in comparison once Kevin plunged into our warm, clear sea when he visited Hawaii partway through college. He felt at home, and transferred directly to the University of Hawaii. Here he earned a zoology degree with a Certificate from the Marine Option Program.
Kevin’s first job working with marine life consisted of tagging sharks in Kaneohe Bay at Coconut Island – what a cool job for a 19 year old! Once he graduated from college, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) hired him as a temporary technician to remove marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, which are now protected as a National Monument.
Kevin’s voice gets animated as he tells me of the child-like excitement he experienced anticipating his first-ever visit to this remote, rarely visited, tropical archipelago: Papahānaumokuākea. He had long dreamed of seeing Laysan Island, known for having one of the few natural lakes in Hawaii, a broad white sand beach, as well as the fullest complement of all the bird species in the NWHI.
“I was just giddy with the excitement of going there,” Kevin recalls. These islands constitute some of the most intact ecosystems of today’s world. “Even though I knew I was going there to remove marine debris – mostly abandoned fishing nets – I was not prepared for the sight that met my eyes.” The gorgeous white sand beach, a quarter mile wide, lay thickly littered with plastic trash washed ashore from ‘civilization’ at least 600, perhaps thousands of miles away. “I knew at that moment that I had found my life’s passion in this work.
In fact, the plastic debris on the beaches can become so profuse, female sea turtles, honu, that come ashore can scarcely find room to dig nests for their eggs, where baby turtles will emerge and head for the sea.
Kevin also described to me how Hawaiian monk seals are attracted to marine debris, like little children attracted to new “toys”, only to become fatally entangled in all the abandoned fishing gear. At this point 30% of the total 1,400 remaining monk seals are only living because human beings have rescued them from marine debris, fishing line, or intervened in some way.
As Kevin affirms, “It’s our fault, so it’s our responsibility.” Every year, 110,000 lbs of abandoned fishing nets accumulate on the reefs of Papahānaumokuākea, and an unknown, but staggering amount of plastic washes ashore on the beaches there.
No surprise, NOAA must have recognized what a dedicated worker they had in Kevin and offered him a permanent position. The only problem is, NOAA is a scientific agency dedicated to collecting information about the ocean and atmosphere. And while specialized operational capabilities have been developed by NOAA over the last two decades to conduct these complex remote removal operations, NOAA’s resources are spread thin among many other competing scientific priorities and mandates, and it became clear that, despite the best intentions to combat marine debris in Papahānaumokuākea, more had to be done if we were to keep up with the problem.
So after nearly 12 years working at NOAA, Kevin saw that another entity needed to come into existence with the specific mission of reducing sea trash in Papahānaumokuākea. For that reason he founded Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project (PMDP), a non-profit organization supported by grants and private donations. The Project works in close coordination with the 4 governmental agencies that manage the Monument to carefully remove ghost nets and such from the fragile coral reefs and beaches that surround the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
The Project’s threefold mission is to reduce:
- Entanglement hazards to Hawaiian monk seals & green sea turtles
- Coral reef damage
- Ingestion hazards to seabirds.
Kevin explains their philosophy: “When you love something, it’s really easy to want to protect it.” The Project therefore focuses on the beauty and amazing nature of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, showing us WHY they are worth loving and caring for. This protected National Monument constitutes over ⅔ of our entire Hawaiian island chain – a much larger area than the inhabited islands.
And these coral reef laced islets are breathtakingly, heart-achingly beautiful.
The archipelago’s name Papahānaumokuākea evokes ancient layers of meaning, in which the fertile Hawaiian earth mother, together with the expansive sky father, brought to life this exquisite lei of islands in the sea, as well as the people who live upon and amongst the isles. From this sacred place of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, life began in the form of a coral polyp, and to this place, the spirits return at death. A sacred name for a sacred place, certainly worthy of our love, protection and care-taking. Three cheers for the work of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project!
To learn more, and to donate to this important work, visit their website at www.pmdphawaii.org.
Photo credits: Steven Gnam of NOAA
Marta literally hit ground zero when she broke a hold, careened off a cliff she was climbing, then slammed into the boulders 15 feet below, breaking 4 vertebrae in her spine. As she endured a 12 hour journey to the hospital she had a lot of time for pondering. She arose from that fall asking herself, “If I’m given another chance at life, how do I want to live it?”
People who have come to Still & Moving Center for a long time recognize Marta as someone at my side from the beginning, helping me to design its remodel, create its logo, paint its interior and exterior wall decor, and take most of its early photographs. She even managed our operations for a year while heading up our aerial department.
Marta climbs rocks. Seriously. She’s a world class climber who likes leading the life of an adventuring nomad. Staying on Oahu for 7 years, married to a fellow climber and only occasionally going off-island on climbing trips, anchored Marta for a longer than usual time. Eventually, she responded to the call of those wild rocks – ours in Hawaii being pretty tame in comparison – and moved on. She and I have worked together over the phone and computer everywhere from Tahoe to Turkey to Tasmania. For reals!
Once she broke her back, things changed for Marta. She could no longer take things for granted that she had assumed about her life, her beliefs, her future.
She set to work straightening out the various dysfunctional relationships she had accumulated so far in her life, especially focusing on all the changes she needed to make to become the person she really wants to be.
The very week she and her husband finished remodeling the first home they had ever owned and were about to settle into it, Marta decided she needed a divorce. That started the ball rolling. To their credit, she and Dave have since worked through all sorts of old stories and habits to develop a close, valuable friendship.
Marta was creating the life she wanted to live. Realizing that she had more garbage/treasure from her past that she needed to sort through, Marta began working by phone with a local counselor here in Kailua, Nancy Rubin, on the recommendation of a close friends. As one of Marta’s friends says, “I could have saved myself years of therapy if I had worked first with Nancy!” Marta also benefited enormously from working with Nancy.
Moving from one climbing location to the next, Marta surrounded herself with a galaxy of interesting characters. In various friendships and romantic relationships, she noticed old patterns recurring and began finding ways to interrupt those patterns to put her relationships onto healthier footing.
Digging through her self-work, she gained insights that she then shared with friends who were struggling through life choices and relationships. Eventually her counselor said, “Marta, I’m so glad you are now finally ready to step into your life’s calling of working with people to help them on their journey of living more fulfilled lives.”
As much as that sounded amazing to Marta, she didn’t quite know how to get started. She took her time finding the way into her calling. She made an appointment with my business coach Tony Bonnici – a long-time mutual friend of ours and had him mentor her into the practice of coaching.
She began by gifting 100 coaching sessions, and enrolled herself in high level training with an international group of coaches. Once Marta opened her door and phone for public business, her client base expanded rapidly.
Marta can be very clear-sighted, honest and direct. She also cares a lot. And she has the guts to re-make herself. I’d never wish a broken back on anybody. I’m glad, though, that she’s used her accident as a catalyst to seek the best way to benefit others and contribute to the world she lives in. She will serve a lot of people going through tricky, rough terrain that they’d have trouble navigating alone.
If you were writing your Ode to Joy, how would it sound? And how would you achieve it?
As we look into a new year, a new decade, with the theme of Deep Joy at Still & Moving Center, I’m wondering what it is that brings this sense of Joy. It’s not the kind of joy whose opposite it sorrow. This Deep Joy often finds its way through a world of suffering and sorrow, to emerge, radiant, connected to everyone and everything. Kahlil Gibran reminds us that the deeper sorrow carves into our being, the more room we have for Joy.
Actually, I suspect that we truly find this Deep Joy to the extent that we feel our life has purpose, meaning. When what we do affects others – hopefully positively – our existence here on earth has made a difference. It takes some people a long time to find their specific mission, and in the meantime, everything we do can be a preparation for it. Sometimes it just falls into our lap, after a long period of yearning and waiting. I didn’t know I was meant to open Still & Moving Center until 7 months before we opened, and I was 55 at the time.
I can’t tell you how much Joy it’s given me since then to hold space for our students, teachers, therapists and staff to “claim their magnificence” in this community center / school of moving meditation! I certainly could never have accomplished it any earlier in my life, as my work, study, family, professional experience, and spiritual practice all formed necessary foundational stones.
The book I’m reading now, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling by Stephen Cope, is all about finding and pursuing our dharma, a richly conceptual Sanskrit word meaning our life-purpose, duty, raison d’être. The underlying assumption is that each of us comes into the world with a unique purpose to fulfil. If we look at our circumstances and at the many attributes of our natures, we can find what it is we are best suited to do in this life. It may or may not be how we earn our living, financially speaking. It always has to do with how we find the soul-satisfaction of finding and doing what we do best.
I love the author’s real-life examples, such as Harriet Tubman, a black slave who had watched her family members being split and sold to other plantations. After escaping herself, Harriet helped thousands of others to freedom via the “Underground Railroad” of which she was a “conductor”. She performed these services at great personal risk. She was a highly WANTED person by Southern plantation owners whose slaves she was spiriting away. They wanted her re-enslaved or dead. While she could have stayed safely in the North, Harriet felt absolutely compelled to return to the South again and again to rescue others, regardless of possible consequences.
Harriet showed an uncanny ability to avoid capture, to change plans in a twinkling based on an intuition that told her to do so. As a Christian, she always felt as if she was guided and protected by Providence. She asked for no payment for her services, and even after the Civil War and Emancipation of the slaves, she lived the most modest of lives in meager circumstances. Doing our dharma doesn’t always yield a pay check. I imagine her satisfaction, her Joy, at realizing how many people she had saved from cruelty and led to freedom, how many families she had reunited.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s fulfilling of his life purpose led him through tremendous suffering in other ways. He was born to a musical family, receiving his early musical training from his father, a talented but hard-hearted man. Ludwig developed such an eccentric personality, it was difficult to spend time with him. No one else at the time could completely comprehend the new rhythmic and melodic structures he was creating. Yet his dedication to his work and his genius as a musician, composer and conductor dazzled all the society people of his day.
To his horror, Beethoven began losing his hearing while still in his twenties. He first tried to hide it from people, then went into seclusion. Being thwarted in the occupation he so brilliantly performed, he questioned his existence, came close to losing his mind, and contemplated suicide. Yet he kept hearing the music in his head, in his soul. Beethoven held onto his musical dharma for dear life – literally – when all else failed him, and went on to compose his greatest masterpieces after becoming deaf. He came to realize that the world needed his music. Only by bringing forth the music moving within him did Beethoven find a sense of peace, even Joy.
Indeed, he composed his final complete symphony, Beethoven’s 9th, based on Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy”. Its debut performance in 1824 happened less than three years before his death at age 56. Violinist Joseph Böhm recalled the performance:
“Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts. — The actual direction was in [Louis] Duport’s hands; we musicians followed his baton only.”
Beethoven was several measures off and still ‘conducting’ when the musicians finished the piece and the audience began applauding exuberantly. One of the singers then walked over and turned Beethoven around to accept the audience’s acclaim. Even though he could not hear their clapping and cheers, he could see their five ovations, with handkerchiefs in the air, hats, and raised hands.
While the audience’s reception undoubtedly gratified Beethoven when he saw it, he was in a state of utter Joy directing his symphony before he ever turned around to see their response.
Mahatma Gandhi found an entirely different path to Joy. His life course led him from fear as a child and dismal failure as a young lawyer, to eventually leading the entire nation of India to freedom from the British Empire. To shrink the vastness of his 80-year life story into a few words, Gandhi came to realize that he did indeed have assets and abilities that he could access… but only when he stopped worrying about his own success or failure and instead put himself to work for the sake of others. Just as a trustee for a non-profit organization takes care to see that all the organization’s assets are put to the highest and best use, Gandhi came to see that his life did not belong to him, it belonged to the world.
With that realization, Gandhi cheerfully spent years locked in British-run prisons for his non-violent civil disobedience campaigns to free his people. He faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles and willingly looked death in the face on many occasions, knowing that his life was being spent for a greater cause than himself, following his dharma. Personal suffering became insignificant to him – it was all part of a deeper Joy.
Most people’s dharma lines are less grandiose – and absolutely as valuable – as those of Harriet Tubman, Beethoven and Gandhi. Yet the example of these three people’s lives begs the question of us: Are we open to finding and refinding our dharma, our life path, which could lead us – and others – to Deep Joy?
Dancing in Joy and resting in stillness with you,
And you, dear reader?
Just hit reply – I always love hearing from you.
from Steve Stephenson, 3 Foot Giant
Life may not always go the way we want it to. Here is a way to reverse-engineer your day to achieve your best life version possible:
- Think of times when your life works well! What are key things you do during those times? Write down 16 items that you do when your life works. These will be 16 activities for self-care. Dig deep.
Here are some examples:
- Dance (Sean provides a 3 minute Dance Party below!)
- Play Frisbee golf
- Eat salad
- Connect with a friend
- Drink water, etc.
2: Do at least 4 items from your When Life Works List every day. Make a monthly or weekly chart for tracking your daily progress in doing those 16 activities. Better yet, use your 2020 Still & Moving Center almanac daily for tracking your 4 When Life Works items!
3: Repeat for 3 months. Note the changes in how your life works!
See the first video below to hear Sean talk about his own When Life Works List.
My grandmothers always seemed old to me. In 1967 when the Beatles brought out the song “When I’m Sixty-Four”, my grandmothers’ average age was about 64, and I was 11 or 12. Could I imagine ever being that old myself? I doubt it. Well, here I am approaching my sixty-fourth birthday in a few days, and I STILL don’t think of myself as being much like my “old” grandmothers!
I’m probably going through some of the same physical changes they did at this age. I’m amused to see little ‘wings’ flapping a bit under my arms. My belts need to be a little longer than before. My nose is longer and my face is becoming more topographically “interesting”, shall we say. These inevitable battle scars of life seem fairly insignificant compared with the joy I get dancing, spending time with family and working with wonderful people at Still & Moving, both local and from around the world. Thankfully, both my grandmothers blessed me with the genes for a sturdy constitution, and each of them modeled strength of character.
Here’s a mental snapshot of the two: My mother’s mother, Granny was demure with a broad, smooth face and dark brown eyes, always wore dresses when I was a child. My Grandma Coleman on my dad’s side was a little pistol with rackling blue eyes, casually clad at home in her housecoat, shorts or slacks. Neither of them, at age 64, would have dreamed of strolling about in the dance/yoga clothes that I wear.
My grandmothers endured both World War I and II and the Great Depression. They lived at the time when proper ladies wore girdles. I don’t really know what they thought about or exactly what they believed in. They really cared about their children and grandchildren – that I do know. To me, they were just my Granny, the calm, retired school teacher (I remember her rolling rivelly noodles between her hands, and her neighbor’s horse that we got to ride in the field behind her vegetable garden), and my Grandma Coleman, who joked around a lot (she made mayonnaise salad for Grandpa and had a penny slot-machine at her basement that sometimes gave us jackpots!)
I’ve enjoyed so many opportunities that my grandmothers never had…who knows what they might have been like if we’d shared more similar life experiences? And I believe that – through my parents – these women set me up for the life of remarkable opportunity.
My mom’s mom, Granny, had an easier life than Grandma Coleman, financially, being the granddaughter of a respected businessman working with local farmers. Yet worldly opportunities did not abound in the town of 700-800 people where Granny lived, taught in a one-room school after 6 weeks of Normal School training, married and raised 5 children. She then returned to the elementary classroom during WWII and taught for another 25 years.
Granny was married to Pop, and they did their best with the accepted parenting practices of the time. Every Friday when Pop came home from out-of-town work, Granny told him their two sons’ misdeeds of the week. He would take the boys, and occasionally my mischievous Aunt Jane, out to the woodshed for a licking. (I like to imagine that Pop and the kids sometimes staged some loud noises and crying to give the appearance that justice had been served.) I’m sure neither parent savored this routine; they just considered it as their duty to raise their children properly. Unlike Cliff and I, they never took their children on family trips – their car would not have held that many kids, in any case. The boys went off to fight WWII. Unlike many small town parents, Granny and Pop encouraged their girls to get an education.
Granny and Pop lived in a two-story brick house across the street from her parents’ home. By the time I knew them, they enjoyed a more relaxed life together. When my brother, cousins and I came to visit, we played dominoes and rummy on Granny’s kitchen table, while she told my mom stories about very ordinary things that happened at the market or during the last snowstorm. “Well, you know….” she would always start. I liked listening to her. And she always sent us birthday cards with checks.
Grandma Coleman had been a 21-year-old widow, returning back to rural Ohio from Arizona where her husband had died of tuberculosis. She had travelled across country by unheated train with no food service, three children under age five, her late husband’s corpse in the baggage compartment, and the $12 her neighbors collected for her trip at the start of the Depression. There on a hardscrabble farm, she began raising my dad and his two sisters alone.