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March 30, 2016

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The Mango Twins from O’ahu

By: Dr. John Souza, Primary Therapist

Last year my wife and I visited the town where my Portuguese ancestors first lived and worked on the sugarcane plantations– Waimea, Hawai’i, on the island of O’ahu. There we discovered a fruiting mango tree with the most succulent mangoes. My wife suggested I bring a seed home to plant. At first I rebuffed the suggestion. But, with a little cajoling, I was soon toting home one of the seeds for planting on the Big Island of Hawai’i. From that moment I began to feel a sense of connection with the seed; it was both the symbolism of the seed as a part of my Portuguese heritage and also my worry about whether or not I could actually grow a tree from a seed I found in the wild. This is how horticulture therapy begins.

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When my wife and I returned home I was excited and anxious to plant my little bundle of joy. I hurried through online readings about how to grow a mango tree, to find the right container, and the right soil mixture. I was careful to find just the right spot in my yard for my little mango keiki (the Hawaiian word for “child”) to grow. I placed it near my front door so that everyday I would remember to check on it.

Horticulture Therapy and Seedlings of Hope

Each day I checked on my little seedling of hope, looking for any signs of life. Days became weeks, but alas nothing seemed to be happening. I began to lose hope and started preparing myself for the possibility that I had failed; either I wasn’t very good with plants or I hadn’t done enough. I felt pangs of disappointment in myself, a few times thinking I had let down my Portuguese kin.

Then, the following week, signs of life! I couldn’t believe the seed was actually sprouting! And what’s more, there were actually two sprouts showing. Twins! What joy! I was so relieved. Maybe I wasn’t such a bad gardener. I was after all, part Portuguese! I was beaming with joy as I talked to my twin keiki, showing them off to friends and family. I was a proud mango papa.

Months passed and my little mango keiki grew very well. Each had strong stems and bright almost fluorescent green leaves. All was going well, until I started to notice that their growth was slowing. At first I didn’t think much of it. But after another month of them looking relatively the same size, I wondered if it wasn’t time for them to move out of their comfortable little hale (Hawaiian word for home), into an environment where they could stretch out a bit. I knew this to be true, but subconsciously I put off actually doing anything about it. Two months went by and I was barely aware of the fears driving my procrastination: What if I hurt them? What if I killed them?! They looked so healthy; I didn’t want to do anything to cause them harm. Do they really need to be moved?

How a Mango Can Transform

But one day I woke up and knew it was time. I marched outside and gently picked up my mango twins. I began preparing two new pots for them, carefully placing in each another mixture of soil and tender loving care. Then, the moment of severance: I carefully pulled them out of their home. After a bit of clearing of some of the soil, I discovered they were still connected by the last remnants of the original seed casing! This meant having to physically pull them apart. I was aghast and worried as I pulled, hearing the snapping of little plant parts; heart-wrenching! I worked quickly to get each plant into it’s new home, offering a lot of love and several apologies for what seemed to me a cruel and unusual act of betrayal and plant butchery.

Then it was over. As I looked at my two beautiful twins, now in their own homes, separate, yet connected, I felt a bit of relief, but with a distinct undercurrent of anxiety and fear. Again, those pesky thoughts came to me: “What if they don’t make it? What if they die?!” However, I put these thoughts aside and went about my day, holding out hope that the twins would survive the transfer.

The next few days were nerve wracking. Each day I checked on my beautiful little keiki twins, and at first it looked like they were doing well. I knew that plants go through shock and that this could actually be a good thing for them to develop resilience. But as I looked at my twins, I noticed they were both starting to show signs of stress: Their leaves began to droop and on these leaves began to form dark spots. One of the twins was in really poor shape; it’s leaves beginning to brown. One day my wife noted that this particularly brown plant looked nearly dead. This hit me hard, as I had been in a bit of denial. But she was right. I had been blindly holding onto hope, not seeing what was happening right in front of me.

I began to panic. We’d had a few days of fairly heavy rain and my intuition had been telling me the twins were getting too much water. Why didn’t I put them under a shelter?! How could I have been so careless?! I texted a desperate plea for guidance along with a picture of the twins to my friend and Pacific Quest’s Horticultural Therapy Director Travis Slagle; no response. I looked online about what to do for a dying mango tree and websites offered the use of a weak sugar-water mixture. I jumped on the suggestion, but as I was about to pour the water, a little voice told me this was not the answer. They were already suffering from too much moisture. But I didn’t listen and poured the mixture onto the plants. Soon after, Travis replied texting, “They’re sensitive. Keep the faith and don’t over water.” Noooooo! Why didn’t I listen to that little voice in my head?! Why didn’t I wait until I heard back from Travis?! Why didn’t I do more reading ahead of time?! I was becoming overwhelmed with feelings, but not paying attention to the feelings; I was too busy trying to find a solution. I was in crisis mode.

Horticulture Therapy :: Life and Loss

Then my wife (clearly the level-headed one) noted that it seemed I was grieving something, and that it might be more than just the twins. This gave me pause and I considered the nature and source of my feelings. It turns out she was right (of course). In fact I was in the midst of a grief and loss response. The grief I was experiencing for the plants was interconnected with all the grief I had ever experienced throughout my life: The missingness of my father from my life subsequent to my parents’ divorce, moving to new towns and away from childhood friends, the deaths of loved ones, and on and on. All of it connected to the present sense of no longer being able to experience the joy of seeing my twins thriving. Moreover, I had imbued those mango twins with all myriad of meaning ranging from my ability to care for another living thing to my worthiness as the bearer of my ancestral heritage.

Again, I texted Travis, “I think one got too wet and may not make it.” Travis responded, “Namaste little mango.” And that was it; that was the correct answer. Namaste is the Sanskrit word for seeing the light in others. I interpreted that to mean to accept the good in all things, including life’s losses.

It remains to be seen if the twins will survive the transplant. Either way, I will accept that there is something good that will come from it, for they have already borne fruit by providing me insight into my own internal processes, compelling me to connect with friends and family, and most importantly, myself. And now it’s given me this story to share with you, which (hopefully) will inspire you to consider your own responses to life and loss. Then, be sure to share it with someone else. In this way, from a single mango seed from O’ahu, we will propagate connection with self and others.

Thanks for reading this far. Namaste.

June 6, 2011

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Defining “kuleana”

The Hawaiian term “kuleana” is quite difficult to define.  The literal translation, as I have heard, is “responsibility.” Kuleana means much more than that, as it seems to include a broader sense of responsibility –  a person’s responsibility to themselves and his/her community.  At PQ, we have named the second stage of growth Kuleana.  We have created a camp that aims to teach students that their kuleana for themselves will be a foundation to how they can interact with their families and communities.  In the second stage of growth we help students “claiming their kuleana” by practicing self honesty, accountability, integrity, and developing healthy coping skills to manage uncomfortable emotions.  This is usually evident in the way that their actions and words align.

I asked a group of PQ students to define what kuleana means to them and how that particular camp (or stage of growth) provided skills for life.  Below is the description produced by the group.

Kuleana means responsibility.  Responsibility means taking accountability for your own actions.  It applies to life in every single way.  Some struggles that we’ve encountered here have just been accepting that we’re here and that we needed to start being present and actually be responsible for our own actions here.  It also applies to  being responsible for past actions. 

Some tools I’ve learned while in Kuleana were exercising when becoming anxious or pissed off.  Journaling is another good toll for many people.  It helps getting out emotions and it relieves stress as well.  Being honest with ourselves and focusing on things that are in our control were two really good lessons.

You have to be responsible for yourself in order to keep your self. If you have a job then you have to be responsible for your work or else you will get fired.  responsibility is one of the key factors of becoming and being an adult.

I am really impressed by the students embodiment of kuleana.  They seem to be applying it much beyond the simplistic term “responsibility.”

April 12, 2011

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Sustainable Growth: A Parent’s Journey

When I went to the parent workshops last December to visit my 14-year-old son, I was struck by the language, the setting and the lifestyle of the Pacific Quest community.  PQ staff repeatedly emphasized the word growth.  I would naturally comment on “change” only to be gently reminded that the PQ philosophy stresses “growth.”   A second word and concept, Ohana, made an especially huge impact on me.  PQ has adopted many Hawaiian terms to capture the essence of what they are doing, and the concept of Ohana—family– is integral to their philosophy.  During the third stage of the program, the teens live in a new setting, or camp, and join an Ohana, learning the value and importance of being a contributing member of a healthy, functioning family.

The organic gardening culture at PQ encourages the concepts of growth and Ohana to co-exist and thrive in practical terms.  Everyday the PQ field staff teaches the teens the skills necessary to plant, grow, sustain, and harvest an organic garden.  Weeding a garden plot, planting seeds, transplanting seedlings, watering plants, harvesting vegetables, cooking raw foods, and then composting waste are all significant parts of the lifestyle and culture of PQ.  In our son’s first letter to us, he excitedly talked about all the vegetables, fruits and herbs he was planting and tasting, and ended by asking us to plant him an organic garden at home.  He had never really eaten vegetables or gardened, but was immediately inspired by the PQ setting.  It wasn’t clear yet to our son, or to us, that the gardening was actually a metaphor for how you can choose to lead you life, and that eventually the Ohana would be a model for how you can cultivate meaningful and supportive relationships with your family and others.

Because our son asked us to plant an organic garden and because his counselor emphasized the importance of the parents doing parallel work, I decided to start a garden in our backyard.  Though I understood that parallel work meant emotional and psychological work, like keeping a journal or writing out my old story (these were things my son was doing at PQ), it felt more manageable to do something practical.  Plus, I was hoping to have a new subject and hobby to share with my son through our letters, and ideally an activity that we could sustain when he returned.  What I didn’t realize five months ago was that planting a garden would mark the beginning of evolving into a different kind of parent, family and lifestyle.

Sustainable Growth: A Parent’s Journey - Pacific Quest: Wilderness Therapy for Teens & Young Adults

As my son’s letters became more emotionally deep, our garden became more physically rooted.  The PQ philosophy stresses the physical body and its healthy maintenance—proper sleep, food, exercise.  The gardening is an analogy to your own physical body and emotional well-being.  I learned to slow down and be present when I was gardening….no talking fast on the cell phone while checking my email.   I learned to be aware of my environment when I was gardening…is the soil dry and do the plants need water?  I learned to integrate my family into a process and experience of gardening… my son waters, my daughter picks lettuce, I pluck weeds.  I learned to cook healthier meals and to experience mealtime as a cohesive family…no more Panda Express eaten in front of the television, but rather a homegrown, homemade meal with everyone participating around a bustling kitchen. The process of planting and cultivating an organic garden has caused me to re-think my own habits, parenting, and family life.

Sustainable Growth: A Parent’s Journey - Pacific Quest: Wilderness Therapy for Teens & Young Adults

My son continued to write letters full of both gardening updates and Ohana updates.  The Ohana gardened together, cooked together, ate together.  The Ohana shared old stories, new stories, and intents with one another.  The garden and the Ohana members were all growing simultaneously.  Meanwhile, our home garden was inspiring something quite similar in our family life.  I became very hopeful about my son’s growth, my growth, and our family’s growth.

However, when it was time to meet with our educational consultant again, visit therapeutic boarding schools, fill out applications, and take our son to Montana, I was so consumed with these tasks that I neglected the garden.  I slipped into old patterns, my old story, of doing too many things at once and doing them too quickly.  I reverted back to delivery pizzas for dinner and eating in front of my computer.  The cilantro started to wilt, romaine lettuce started to die.  Family dinners at the
table were abandoned in the name of fatigue and stress.  Once again, I was in an old, familiar state of focusing on the future while neglecting the present.  My kids liked the harmonious feel of the new garden culture in and around our home and begged for its return.  I didn’t regain my own motivation until my son wrote me from his new therapeutic boarding school and said he was quickly losing his own connection to his body and its needs.  He was also reverting back to old patterns—eating fewer vegetables, forgetting to do his yoga breathing, over-exerting his body.  He said he missed his PQ mind-body-emotion connection and was feeling increased emotional distress.  His solution:  be more present and respect his body’s needs.  We visited him last week and he had salad and vegetables on his plate and was happier.

Of course it’s not all this simple, but I have learned through PQ’s philosophy of sustainable growth and Ohana that if you establish strong roots and a meaningful intent, you have the potential to thrive.  After some temporary neglect, my garden is once again thriving and we harvested scallions and arugula last night for both our family and my brother’s family.   For our family, the concept of sustainable growth started with PQ and our son, but has materialized in our vibrant backyard garden.  I am hopeful.

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