The Trip and the Tribe That Changed My Life

A coworker of mine used to give me shit about my fondness for getting together with my “Hawaii girls,” a group of writers I met in the Aloha State. A mere week after our group parted ways, we were planning our first reunion.

“Don’t you guys have friends of your own?” she asked.

“Of course we do,” I replied. “We just really, really like each other.”

Last June, bleary from a pre-dawn call-a-car ride to the airport and a turbulent connection from New York City to Atlanta, I plunked down in my seat on a massive jet for a nine-hour flight to Honolulu. The woman beside me looked strangely familiar. Had we met somewhere before?

“You look like you might be on the Starwood trip,” she said. “I’m Kafi—I am, too!”

Kafi is a fellow writer, and she and I were both headed west to check out Starwood Hawaii’s health and wellness programs. Nine hours is a long time to share an armrest, and by the time we touched down we’d told each other the stories of our professional trajectories, our love lives, and our family situations. That’s what you do on business trips, right? (I had almost no experience with business trips.)

In Honolulu, we met up with more of the group and were shuttled to our hotel, a century-old confection tucked behind a massive banyan tree on the shore at Waikiki. It’s easy to forget the pesky parts of working in publishing when you’re encouraged to drop your bags as quickly as possible and make haste to the spa, which is precisely what happened. Even beating the next morning’s sunrise to watch 50,000 pounds of fish change hands at auction was a treat, which is a deeply weird thing for a vegetarian to hear herself saying.

I reminded myself that I had come to Hawaii to report on ways to find balance, not to fixate on what was happening on the other side of the continent.

My idyll took a direct hit later that afternoon when I fired up my smartphone to check on mainland news. Back in New York, industry sources were reporting that my magazine was dropping from 12 issues a year to 11. After watching colleagues all over the city fall victim to layoffs and hearing print’s perpetual death rattle like a particularly bookish version of tinnitus, I assumed the end was nigh.

“They are combining issues, ladies,” I whispered at my new friends. I think I wanted someone to hold me.

Instead, I got raised eyebrows.

“Combining issues? That’s happened all over the industry.” “You’ve got at least a year before the magazine folds, ha! Relax.”

Most of them were freelancers—which, they assured me, was infinitely more satisfying than being attached to a single publication. What was this end of the world I was talking about?

Exposed to the seaside air, my panic couldn’t hold its shape. I reminded myself that I had come to Hawaii to report on ways to find balance, not to fixate on what was happening on the other side of the continent. I considered my aversion to change as I assumed Left Shark versions of the graceful yoga poses the more accomplished ladies held on the lawn at our surfside class later that evening. I considered it again when we relocated to Maui and a meditation expert encouraged us to imagine ourselves alone on a small planet in the middle of blackest space. “Dessine-moi un mouton,” I murmured to myself.

It stands to reason, I think, that women who devote themselves to health and wellness would excel at promoting it in one other. It’s also incredibly difficult to feel anything other than fond of your companions when you’re all collapsed on lounge chairs after a rigorous sugar scrub; he or she who can remain misanthropic in paradise is misanthropic indeed.

That said, my Hawaii girls have become personal touchstones. I’ve seen them countless times in the year since we met—at midtown cocktails where they gave me half-marathon advice and we all dreamed of palm trees as the snow fell, at events to support each other’s projects, at my Goth holiday party (for which Kafi and Rebecca themed their outfits, bless them), at Julie’s bridal shower. I headed straight for them after I decided to stop pursuing salaried work and go freelance, a decision so terrifying it took me a decade to make it. They treated it like a coming-out party, shared their editors and references with me, and offered to introduce me to friends and colleagues so I could establish myself.

On the last morning of our stay on Oahu, we took part in a Polynesian gratitude ceremony in which we were instructed to walk into the waves and thank the various ancestors whose contributions to our lives had resulted in where we were that day (the assumption being, I think, that they must have done something right if you’ve ended up in Hawaii). At the time, I floated on my back, watched the sun gild the clouds, and thanked my family. A year later and five thousand miles away, I’m thankful for the women who floated in the water with me that morning.


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