Last week, in hula, we spent time making lei po’o (head leis) out of ti leaves. We were making them for a performance yesterday, Sunday, which I couldn’t make since I was in service. As a result, I spent my time in class helping my hula sisters tear and braid their lei.
First, you have to measure the thickness of the ti leaf, and tear it into strips, and then cut into smaller pieces to be braided in. Once you get the hang of it, this can be soothing in its repetition. You de-bone the other leaves to be used for braiding, tear them in half and microwave them, to make them soft and pliable.
The small pieces get collected in bundles of three and braided in to the lei, making it full and attractive.
As we braided and talked, I remembered being in hula when I was young, and my mom making pieces like this for me and with me. My fingers are still clumsy, and I still get frustrated easily. I am not a perfectionist like some others, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. I had a sense of fullness in this lei making – a sense of being brought full circle.
I don’t think I’ve learned any more skills since I was in class as a kid, but my body still remembered it. I had, in my muscle memory, something deeper even than my own memory – it felt ancestral. It felt like there was a part of me recognising and remembering how to braid together this lei which might not even have belonged to me, or my mom, so much as it belonged to my great and great great grandmothers, and even further back beyond them, extending to those whom I have never met.
As my fingers pulled the braid tight, I thought about the strands of DNA in their double helix, and the many strands we weave together to form identity. Something about pulling that braid, making it strong, was firming up something in my own identity.
There are parts of identity which we feel, or know, or believe – but many more parts, I think, which are made through our actions.
This might be a bit like people who say they are spiritual, but not religious. While spirituality is certainly something which can be felt, there isn’t an action beyond one’s own self. In a religious setting, in contrast, the action is gathering with one another, singing or praying together – and this action informs one’s identity, not only as a religious person individually, but as part of a religious community.
Helping my hula sisters to braid their lei, I was acting in a belief of community; of Hawaiian identity; of creation of beauty.
May we be gifted by the presence of community as we braid our many strands of identity together.