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February 19, 2017

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Entering Nalu: Writing My Life Story

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.

December 14, 2016

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Makahiki Celebrations at Pacific Quest

By:  Janna Pate, Academic Coordinator

Makahiki is a holiday season that marks the end and new beginning of the yearly farming cycle in Hawaii. It is similar in timing and purpose to Thanksgiving, Oktoberfest, and other harvest celebrations. At Pacific Quest, we celebrate Makahiki throughout the month of November.

Our celebrations culminate in a day of cultural lessons, including storytelling, games, crafts, chants, and dancing. At the end of it all, there is a Makahiki feast that we cook in a traditional Hawaiian imu, or underground oven.

Makahiki Celebrations at Pacific Quest Wilderness Therapy

Hand painted garden sign

During the days that lead up to our culminating celebration, students at Pacific Quest turn their attentions to harvesting fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs from the garden. Some of this bounty goes toward our meal preparations for the Pacific Quest community, and some is donated to the local farmer’s market.  During Makahiki season, Pacific Quest students make a special effort to donate to the farmer’s market in abundance. Our donations may include handmade bundles of fresh herbs, greens, or flowers; seedlings and shoots from our nursery; hand-painted gourds and garden signs; hand-picked avocados and citrus fruits from our fruiting trees; a wide-array of organic vegetables; and more.

Traditionally, once tributes like these were collected from around the island, communities gathered to celebrate Makahiki with feasts and games. Both men and women and everyone from chiefs to commoners competed. Pacific Quest students celebrate in a similar way.  Throughout the month of November, we teach our students traditional Makahiki games. In ancient Hawaii, the main purpose of these games was to train warriors. As such, Makahiki games tend to focus on building strength, stamina, and agility. We focus on building those skills with our students as well by facilitating traditional Hawaiian games like ikaika (lifting of stones), moa pahe’e (sliding of wooden darts or, at Pacific Quest, lengths of bamboo), and foot races.

In addition to physical challenges, we also teach Makahiki games that challenge the mind. For example, we teach konane, or Hawaiian checkers. Traditionally, konane is played on a board with 64 playing pieces made of black lava stone and white coral. At Pacific Quest, we use black lava stone and red cinder from the paths of our gardens.

Makahiki Celebrations at Pacific Quest Wilderness Therapy

Traditional Hawaiian craft-making, Lauhala weaving

We teach traditional Hawaiian craft-making as well. One such practice is lauhala weaving, or weaving with the leaves of the hala tree. Lauhala weaving has been a part of Hawaiian culture for thousands of years. In ancient times, weavers transformed hala leaves into everything from floor mats to pillows and sails. At Pacific Quest, we teach our students how to craft lauhala bracelets and headbands using hala leaves from the trees in our camps.

We are also lucky enough to have staff who are trained in hula dancing and traditional Hawaiian chanting and who graciously bring those lessons to our students with permission and well-wishes from their own kumus, or teachers. Hula and chanting go hand-in-hand, and both were a major part of Makahiki celebrations in ancient Hawaii, especially in the creation of ceremonial spaces. We use them to create ceremonial spaces at Pacific Quest as well.

In ancient Hawaii, it was a processional ceremony that marked the beginning of the Makahiki season. The chief carried a staff topped by a small carved figure and a crossbar supporting a white sheet of kapa, or cloth, around the island in a clockwise direction. Stopping at the boundary of each ahupua’a, or land division, the chief collected gifts and offerings from a stone ahu, or altar.

Hawaiian staff members from across multiple departments at Pacific Quest came together to create a replica of the traditional staff for students in the adolescent program to observe. This replica stood in the dining area where students brought offerings of food from their camps for the community to share. Some camps made organic salads and homemade dressings while others made honey-glazed carrots, stuffing, or mashed potatoes and gravy.

This year, we cooked kalua turkey and pork in the imu at Pacific Quest. For vegetarians, we also prepared a dish called tofu laulau, or tofu wrapped in taro leaf. And of course, there were also desserts: sweet potato haupia pie and kulolo, a sweet taro dish.

Here is a recipe that our logistics team uses for kulolo:

Kulolo (PQ Style)

4 cups taro
12 oz honey
1 cup coco milk
8 pc ti leaf

Grate taro until you have 4 cups.
Put taro in a ziploc bag. Mix in honey and coconut milk.
Line pan with ti leaf, leaving half of the leaf sticking out from the pan.
Add mixture to the pan on top of the ti leaf and flatten out.
Wrap the remainder of the leaf over the flattened kulolo mixture.
Cover with aluminum foil.
Bake in oven at 400 degrees for 1.5 hours.
Remove foil from tray and cook for another 30 minutes.

Yield 1 half pan

Makahiki Celebrations at Pacific Quest Wilderness Therapy

Poi pounding

In addition to this taro-based dessert dish, students in the adolescent program had the opportunity to experience poi, a taro paste that was the main staple of the ancient Hawaiian diet. The Hawaiian cultural liaison at Pacific Quest provided the community with traditional stone poi pounders, and students learned to pound the pa’i ‘ai, or freshly cooked taro, with short, quick strokes and little dabs of water to keep the poi paste moist. This can be a bit of a sticky process, but also a satisfying one, even for students who remain a bit skeptical about the flavor of poi. It’s hard not to enjoy this type of “work.”

Once all of the cultural activities conclude and the food is prepared, therapists at Pacific Quest set the tone for the culminating feast by holding a therapeutic group in each camp on gratitude. Gratitude is culturally significant to the Makahiki season, and, as our therapists teach, it is of great personal significance as well. Gratitude has been shown to improve physical and psychological health, promote healthy relationships, enhance empathy, reduce aggression, promote better sleep, improve self-esteem, and increase mental strength. Whatever our struggles in life, a daily dose of gratitude is surely a part of the cure.

And so, after students bring forward their food offerings and chant the Oli Mahalo, a Hawaiian gratitude chant, the feast at Pacific Quest begins, carrying our Makahiki celebrations to a joyful close. Traditionally, Makahiki begins and ends with the timing of the Makali’i, or Pleiades, in the night sky. At Pacific Quest, students can observe the Makali’i during their nightly meditations, though perhaps it is during the afternoon Makahiki feast when they have the brightest constellation of stars in their eyes.

July 28, 2016

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The Intent Council Door: Part IV

In this four part series, Janna Pate explores the Rites of Passage work at Pacific Quest. From “Huli Ka’e,” the Rites of Passage experience that students participate in, to the “Staff Vision Fast,” a unique opportunity for staff to gain personal and professional development and a deeper understanding of this important component of the Pacific Quest curriculum. Part I discusses Rites of Passage at Pacific Quest and Part II introduces what we call “Intent Statements “. Part III looks at the development of Janna’s own intent statement. 

By: Janna Pate,  Academic Coordinator

As hard as it was to arrive at this conclusion and craft my Intent Statement, the hardest part by far has been living it—not just on the Staff Vision Fast, but every day of my life after that. I’ve been working on living my intent for over a year—sometimes joyfully and sometimes with great discomfort. There have been many ups and downs, many successes and many failures.

What helps tremendously is to know that there is a community of students and staff that are going through this experience together and can support each other throughout the process. When I go to work and look at the walls full of student intent statements, I can’t help but feel camaraderie with them and wonder what some of these students are doing now and how they are living their intents.

For me, some days after the Staff Vision Fast have been terrific. On those days, I feel like I have fully embodied my intent. I have created, accomplished, accepted, shared, given, forgiven, and loved in ways that I never thought I could. Who I am, and the way I am able to see myself in the world, has expanded as a direct result of my intent.

At the same time, there are other days when I haven’t even remembered my intent. It’s as if I have been sleepwalking, simply going through the motions. On those days, I haven’t appreciated the beauty and the inspiration in the world around me, or taken the chance to live and learn and grow.

And on the worst days, I’ve been aware of my intent and simply failed to live it. I’ve fallen into many of the same thought and behavior patterns that I’ve been struggling with for years. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve clung to some things that I should have let go, and I’ve let go of some things that I should have held close. I’ve shut down when I should have spoken up. Some days are tough.

Life is just that way. But experiencing Pacific Quest has taught me that I can get myself through the hard times by pulling on my Intent Statement like a lifeline: “I am whole-hearted.” It’s funny how complicated and painful it was to arrive at such a simple statement and how such a simple statement can continue to expand and unfold. I think it means something new to me almost every day.

Janna Pate intent

My hope and my belief is that every student who comes through Pacific Quest can continue on their journey with their own story to tell, their own Intent Statement, their own lifeline. This is an open door.

When we step through this door, we become new people, different people, yet more of ourselves. Our eyelids flutter up as if from a lingering kiss, or an unexpected daydream. We have touched something, started something, something new and old simultaneously—something precious, something fragile, something real. Perhaps we have planted a seed, or even birthed something: a possibility, an opportunity, a vision, a dream, a purpose, an intention, a goal. When we wake up in this way, we allow ourselves to be reimagined, rediscovered, and reinvented. We also see the world anew. In these moments, we are alive as never before.

July 21, 2016

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The Intent Council Door: Part III

In this four part series, Janna Pate explores the Rites of Passage work at Pacific Quest. From “Huli Ka’e,” the Rites of Passage experience that students participate in, to the “Staff Vision Fast,” a unique opportunity for staff to gain personal and professional development and a deeper understanding of this important component of the Pacific Quest curriculum. Part I discusses Rites of Passage at Pacific Quest and Part II introduces what we call “Intent Statements “.

By: Janna Pate,  Academic Coordinator

When I entered the fast, the Intent Statement I began with was: “I am unafraid of who I am and how I love this world.” This was the statement I brought with me to the group for feedback in a process called Intent Council.

Students at Pacific Quest also participate in Intent Council. This happens during their experience on Huli Ka’e. As a guide and later as a program supervisor, Intent Council was always my favorite group to witness and participate in. It takes a lot of courage to engage in this process.

PQ_00518 (1)

During Intent Council, students are asked to follow a set of guidelines developed through the work of The Ojai Foundation, called the Guidelines of Council:

  1. Speak from the heart.
  2. Listen from the heart.
  3. Be lean in your speech.
  4. Speak spontaneously.

It is always inspiring to hear students bravely voicing their intents to the group, receiving feedback from peers and staff, and wading through the waters of revision.

As a guide, I enjoyed seeing which suggestions students would take and which ones they would not. I loved learning what was most important to them about their own identities and watching them make new self-discoveries in the process. Their intents inspired me.

Like students on Huli Ka’e, everyone participating in the Staff Vision Fast is asked to present their Intent Statement at Intent Council. Going in, I felt good about the time I had spent in drafting my Intent Statement and volunteered to go first.

The questions that came back to me immediately were, of course, “So who are you? And how do you love?” And so the mumbling and fumbling began. I could think of plenty of ways to define myself, but none that I wanted to be defined by. For example:

“Well, I’m a Texan.” Where flowers are purchased from grocery store refrigerators and are systematically chopped off at the roots.

“And I’m queer.” More than anything, though, I believe that love and identity transcend gender and sexual orientation.

“I’m also a writer. And a philosopher. And a teacher. And a student. And an athlete. And a musician. And a sister. And a daughter. And a friend. And a lover. I don’t want to be just one thing.”

“Of course if I had to pick one, I’d pick lover. But that choice has been problematic for me in the past . . .”

I was quiet for a while after that. I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t have the answer. So I went to my personal tool kit and selected: poetry.

“I’m thinking of a line from Mary Oliver: ‘You do not have to be good.’ I want to believe that line. But I grew up believing that I was a sinner. That I was broken, fundamentally.”

Everyone was waiting on me to say something else, to reach some conclusion. But the only things I felt confident in claiming were the things I am not: I am not perfect; I am not straight; I am not religious; I am not connected to where I am from.

I knew that I did not want to be defined in only negative terms, or as a reaction against other things. But I also didn’t want to claim something that I couldn’t know, couldn’t do, or couldn’t be.

As the group sat in a circle, watching me, I began to think that creating an intent statement was one of those things that I just couldn’t do. It was so much harder to be in the spotlight than in the shadows, to be the one seeking guidance rather than the one giving it. My respect for students at Pacific Quest grew by the second. The silence felt crushing. By this point, I was crying.

“When I was introduced to Eastern philosophy, it was a revelation to me. The idea that humans are fundamentally whole—that changed everything. But I guess I’m realizing that I’m still working on really believing that, on believing that I am fundamentally whole, and on living that way.”

It was a short leap from there to my intent: “I am whole-hearted.” I knew that I had severed from my old paradigm of brokenness years before, but I hadn’t found a way to articulate what my new paradigm was, and I wasn’t really doing much about it.

On the one hand, I felt ashamed that I hadn’t realized this about myself sooner. On the other hand, I knew I was not alone. What brings every student to Pacific Quest and every staff to the fast is essentially the same: the need to change.


Check in next week for the final post in this series!

July 14, 2016

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The Intent Council Door: Part II

In this four part series, Janna Pate explores the Rites of Passage work at Pacific Quest. From “Huli Ka’e,” the Rites of Passage experience that students participate in, to the “Staff Vision Fast,” a unique opportunity for staff to gain personal and professional development and a deeper understanding of this important component of the Pacific Quest curriculum. Read Part I of the series here

By: Janna Pate,  Academic Coordinator

One thing that I have cultivated at Pacific Quest, one thing that has stayed with me, and grown with me, is my Intent Statement. From the moment I stepped through the doors of Pacific Quest, from the moment I saw the Intent Statements of former Pacific Quest students tattooed on the walls, I knew that I wanted to write one, even when the question was still “one what?”

intent statement

When I began working at Pacific Quest, I was lucky enough to be placed in the Huli Ka’e stage of the program. (“Huli Ka’e” means “to search the edge,” roughly translated from Hawaiian.) This is the most intensive Rites of Passage experience that we offer to students. Before going on Huli Ka’e, students are asked to spend time preparing for the journey. Part of the preparation involves crafting an Intent Statement.

These are the Intent Statement guidelines given to students:

  1. Your intent is a statement about the most important things for you to claim about yourself right now.
  2. Your intent will change over time, as the circumstances and challenges of your life change.
  3. Your intent should feel risky.
  4. Your intent, while something that you are always working toward, is also something you already know you are, inherently, at your core. Your intent highlights aspects of your best self that you are ready for the world to see.
  5. Your intent should be direct and to the point. It is the essence of you.
  6. You do not have to feel like your intent is attainable all the time. Sometimes it will feel very far away, buried once again under all of the challenges of life. However, it is something that you can always return to, an anchor that reminds you of who you are.

It was with these same guidelines in mind that I began trying to craft my own Intent Statement. For almost a year, I tinkered with my statement. I also began applying for the Staff Vision Fast.

This vision fast, led by experienced, internationally-respected guides, is a truly amazing, all-expenses-paid opportunity for a small group of Pacific Quest staff each year, and I definitely wanted to be among them.

intent statementTo me, the Staff Vision Fast is an opportunity to experience what our students experience, to put ourselves in their shoes, and to prove to ourselves that our program is powerful, worthwhile, and effective. It is an opportunity to experience the integrity of our program.

Most staff at Pacific Quest seem to be equally enthusiastic about the fast because there are always more applicants than spots, and almost no one gets selected on the first try. My first application was no exception. When my second application was accepted, I began the necessary preparations. As with students going on Huli Ka’e, one of the main things I had to do to prepare for the Staff Vision Fast was to draft my Intent Statement. Even though I had been working on my intent for a nearly year already, I knew that I had more work to do, writing draft after draft in my journal.

Check back next week for Part III!

July 7, 2016

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The Intent Council Door: Part I

In this four part series, Janna Pate explores the Rites of Passage work at Pacific Quest. From “Huli Ka’e,” the Rites of Passage experience that students participate in, to the “Staff Vision Fast,” a unique opportunity for staff to gain personal and professional development and a deeper understanding of this important component of the Pacific Quest curriculum. 

By: Janna Pate,  Academic Coordinator

The room I stepped into was the interior design equivalent of a full-body tattoo. Every wall surface and even the ceiling were hand-painted with colorful images, statements and signature markings: suns, moons, and stars, handprints and portraits, full hearts and open eyes, mountains and oceans, intricate mandalas, names and dates, branching trees and budding flowers, ships with sails and birds taking wing. Every entry had its own message: “I am an invincible huntress,” “I am an intrepid captain,” “I am a captivating creator,” “I am a brave and influential man.”

vision questThat was my introduction to Hawaii, to Pacific Quest, and to Rites of Passage. Later, I would come to know the writings on the wall as Intent Statements. But in the moment, what mattered about that scene was this: curiosity and amazement, those powerful feelings of wonder and awe, sparking in my chest like the kindling of the earth’s first fire. It was the same feeling I had when I read the poetry of Mary Oliver for the first time: “The fish leaps, all rainbow and mouth, from the dark water,” and my own mouth fell open. The same feeling I had when I took my first wind-kissed boatride. Or when I saw snow for the first time and danced for what seemed like hours under the starlit sky, wearing only a nightgown and bare feet.

Of course not all transformative moments are beautiful moments. Some are staggeringly sad, others outrageous. Some are tragic or even traumatizing. Some are deeply depressing. Some transformative moments are wedded to grief, some to suffering, and others to pain. The death of a loved one. A difficult and damaging childhood. The loss of a job. Sickness of the body. Sickness of the mind. A spiritual crisis. Broken relationships. Broken families. A fight with our very own demons.

Our most difficult moments are often our greatest teachers—or they can be, if we are prepared to learn from, to appreciate, and to respond to them to the best of our ability. Everyone must prepare his or her own tool kit—the carpetbag of things that carry a person throughout the day. Some people seem to be a bit of a Mary Poppins in this regard, able to reach for just about anything and call it to their aid.

vision quest

My own tool kit has developed a bit more slowly and feebly over time, and on the whole, I suspect that I have tossed out at least as many resources as I have allowed in. Some things are constants for me, like music, writing, and exercise. Other things have come and gone, been outgrown, replaced, or simply forgotten—morning coffee, for example, or even my baby blanket.




Read on for Part II of this series!