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February 19, 2017

By: Janna Pate

To me, one of the best features of the Young Adult Program at Pacific Quest is the three-day period known as Nalu. In Hawaiian culture, nalu refers to ocean waves–specifically the calm spot on the backside of the wave from which you can see everything without getting swept up in it. But nalu can also mean “reflection” or “contemplation.” In this sense, nalu is not just a thing or an activity but a mindset, a mindful way of being in the world.

In the Young Adult Program at Pacific Quest, Nalu refers to the phase of the program where students write their life stories. While facts and events may be the basic “building blocks” of a life story, students are encouraged to focus their reflections on the feelings or “emotional glue” that hold a life story together. Nalu is a time and a space set aside for students to to contemplate their interior landscape and history.

When I became a guide, I decided that I would like to write my life story as well. After months trying and failing to cobble it together one piece at a time, I decided that the only way to finish was to do it the Pacific Quest way: to enter nalu.

In the Young Adult Program at Pacific Quest, Nalu is a time of solitude. Meals are served to students in their hales (Hawaiian for “homes”). Their schedules are their own, and they are exempted from chores. Writing their life story is the only major priority. While students can break up the day by exercising or working on the land, there are otherwise no distractions from the task at hand.

When I set out to write my life story, I didn’t exactly have my own hale at Pacific Quest to retreat to, but I did turn off my phone, pack my camping gear, and walk out into nature with a journal and a pen. Young adults at Pacific Quest spend a bit more time than this preparing for Nalu. They meditate. They create an outline for their life story, share it with guides, and receive suggestions and feedback. And when they are ready, they hold a group where they request and receive advice from their community of peers.

Some of the advice young adults receive before entering Nalu is personalized to the needs of the individual student, and some is more generic. Over time as a guide, I developed quite a laundry list of general recommendations.

First and foremost, I advise students to write their stories from an emotional core. The point of writing your life story is not to recount facts but to unpack the emotional baggage we all inevitably carry. I give students a detailed list of emotional vocabulary words and suggest that they use it to brainstorm, to sift through the waters of memory by using emotion words as a sieve. Pan for “elated” memories and see what comes up. Pan for “bleak” memories. Pan for “contentment.”

My second favorite piece of advice to students is to turn off their internal editor, the voice that criticizes everything they write, the voice of the perfectionist and the voice of the procrastinator. “Is this good?” is no longer a relevant question.

When you are writing your life story, the relevant question is: “Is this true?” So my third piece of advice to students is that they tell the truth–and not just the truth as they already remember it, but the re-examined truth. In Nalu, you must re-interpret your history. You must be willing to see and understand yourself and your world in ways you haven’t before. You must discover your truth.

This is still the best advice I can think of with regard to life story writing–and it goes against pretty much everything I was taught as a graduate student in creative writing. A life story is not the kind of text you manipulate for marketing purposes in the hopes of landing a book deal. It is the kind of text most publishing houses would dismiss as “sentimental.” It is a story told from the heart.

On a theoretical level, I knew very well how to write my life story. Plus, my childhood was relatively untroubled, and my adulthood so far has been largely successful. And I think I know myself well. So figured that writing my life story would be pretty simple.

It was definitely pretty simple to watch. As a Nalu guide, I had the privilege of being a witness, the first person to hear the full version of students’ life stories—hopefully, if possible, while sitting around a campfire on a clear night. The next day, students would read their stories aloud to their whole Ohana, or family, the group of peers and guides who would form their community in the next phase of the program. And there would be a ceremony.

For the reading of my own life story, I wanted a ceremony too. So I planned ahead and scheduled the end of my nalu time to coincide with 30th birthday and invited a group of friends and co-workers to come to the beach to celebrate with me and to listen.

But the day before my birthday, as I continued to sit and stare at my journal, struggling to encapsulate 30 years of life experience in a roughly 8-page document that I would soon read aloud to a group of people whose respect I valued, I began to fully empathize with the struggles of a Pacific Quest student and to wish I had a guide of my own to assist with the process. What I forced myself to do instead was even better: I trusted myself, and I finished.

My ceremony was a powerful moment for me. There were flowers and candles and nalu, the ocean waves rolling in, mixed with the sound of my voice and the attention of my friends. I could not have asked for a better 30th birthday.

Even more powerful, though, have been the moments when I have been able to share this story with others, especially students at Pacific Quest, but also anyone else who wants to ride the wave. Reflect on your life. Reflect on your feelings. Trust your heart and speak your truth. You are all invited to enter nalu.