Kapu (Set Apart)

Kapu image
Kapu placed at Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Kohala, Hawai’i Island

On the GoVisitHawaii site, there is a warning, “Honor Kapu Symbols When You Visit Hawaii”. Kapu means that something is set apart from other things. Usually, this has something to do with separating the sacred from the profane. It protects what lies beyond, as this picture of kapu symbols shows. It signifies that permissions are required to go any further. In days past, a death sentence could be the penalty for breaking a kapu. Today, we would like to think we are beyond such measures. When I was growing up, I didn’t hear this word that often unless we were talking about the Hawaiian Kingdom where life was regulated by a kapu system. My mother used to tell us there was a kapu where you couldn’t walk in the shadow of the King. As kids we used to imagine how many kanaka lost their lives for this infraction. With the collapse of the Hawaiian religion, the kapu system declined. But the idea of kapu is worth revisiting, even in our modern lives where personal boundaries are breached daily by our forays into Social Media and the almost universal casualness of the workplace or school.  At the same time, we arm ourselves with more efficient firewalls to keep intruders from stealing our personal identities. Our need to exercise our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness often comes face-to-face (or virtually face-to-face) with people who don’t respect the unspoken kapu that allows people to live peacefully together – respecting the separateness or integrity of the other.  Each of us has the right to a part of ourselves that remains separate and requires permission should someone wish to enter. We might not put up a physical kapu, but the kapu is discerned in our language. In words like “please”, “no”, or “respect” or in the attitude of our posture and gesture.

The internet has taken over time and space. The way we separated the work day from the rest of the day has all but vanished now that our personal and professional worlds collide in the universe contained within our Smart Phones. We answer personal email while eating lunch at our desks. We check our work email “one more time” after the children are put to bed, “just in case” an emergency has happened since we left the office. We are never out of touch unless we have the good fortune of vacationing somewhere in the world where there is no internet access. “Can you hear me now?”

Maybe it’s a good time to consider the value of kapu. Is our personal time worth protecting? Can we place a kapu to keep out all of the things that vie for our attention and distract us from self-reflection and discernment? We know that our environment is worth it and I was happy to learn that a kapu was placed on the sacred ‘Ohi’a Lehua this year which is suffering a population decline due to a fungus. The Lehua blossom is revered in the hula community and used to adorn the dancers of hulas related especially with the volcano goddess, Pele. But this year a kapu was placed on the trees to give them time and space to heal and regenerate – to protect them. The dancers honored the kapu.

ohia blossom
‘Ohi’a blossoms at Kilauea Iki Crater, Hawai’i: photo by M.Vassey on Flickr.

I began this blog when I first learned I would be a Tutu. Our first grandson is taking his sweet time – a week overdue as of this writing. I’m reminded of the ritual of “confinement” practiced in Victorian Society that kept a pregnant woman out of the public eye until after she gave birth. In essense, a sort of kapu. I used to think this was sexist. But having gone through two pregnancies myself and now watching my daughter come closer to her time of delivery I think a kapu could be a good thing. At least a mental kapu. We need to be reminded of the sacredness of life. Of the powerful bond between mother and child. Of the great risk, even today, a woman takes whenever she says “Yes” to life. There is a point in labor where you know you are alone and it’s just you and the universe pushing out this new life. A kapu makes us stop and wonder and recognize that sometimes we have to let go of power in order to let something else thrive, or be what it is supposed to be. Whether it is the majesty of a King, the continued existence of the flower of a goddess, or the delivery of a infant child born of more humble circumstance.

Update: Grandson Thomas Jonathan Schwartz was born on 7/24/2016. 8lbs 12oz.




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