Note: If know me, or have followed this blog, then you may know that I am not a religious person, that our family is Jewish, and that I am neither Christian nor Jewish. You should also know that I am not prone to religious experiences, or singing praise in the name of any God. I am moved by beauty; by deep, real emotions; by things that touch me. This story requires that you think a little differently because this is a different king of story.
If you’ve never been touched by the hand of providence, or stumbled into an experience that is so touched by magic and mystery that you can only wonder about God, or the power of the mystic, then this tale will sound like coincidence, or just a surprising day, on vacation. It will sound like the effect of sun and sea and paradise, because that is where it took place. But as I sat awake all night, dissecting in my mind the nuances and details of our day, the sense that something far beyond the usual had happened has filled me with a deep sense that the universe is filled with moments that illuminate a path, and if you’re not open to the mystery you will miss them. Personally, I believe in magic. I believe in signs and mystical meanings. This week, on a very special day, it was as if it all came together to shake a finger at me and yell: Open your eyes! Take this in and use it.
The day began wonderfully, if not a bit unusually, in that my husband- Smart Guy, my son- Little Man, and I had set out from our hotel, on the west side of Oahu, to try and see some surfing on the north shore. Winds were high for two days, and there were rumors that we might see some of the surfing magic that our entire family loves in documentaries and sports channels. I am generally the more spontaneous spirit, the one who prefers to just “free fall” and explore as we go. Smart Guy prefers to have a plan. He likes to know where we’re going. He studies the maps and the recommendations and likes to go where the plan dictates. I like to drive, with a general direction in mind, and then follow my impulses. Instead, Smart Guy seemed to just be meandering, just following the road, while I found myself feeling more attached to finding the surfers, impulses be damned.
As we drove, the small town of Haleiwa (Hah-lei-eva) seemed to come out of nowhere. We didn’t see it on the map, and it was not in the plan. But we took an unexpected turn, and as we drove through we spotted the shrimp truck we were hoping to find. We decided we’d go explore the Banzai Pipeline, world famous destination for surfers around the globe, and come back to eat later in the day. The town was a classic preserved old Hawaiian town, with beautiful architecture and character. But we weren’t really in the mood for shopping and figured we’d just come back for food, and be done with it.
We drove along the coast, taking in the wild surf and the lush landscape, but weren’t finding any of the surfers we’d come for. We pulled into Waimea valley and hiked to the falls. The 5,000 varieties of plants, the peacocks and the various birds were stunning. We didn’t swim in the falls, but the journey there was gorgeous. When we were done, we jumped in the car and headed back to get a late lunch in Haleiwa. A local guy had told us that we “had to stop at Giovanni’s Shrimp truck, on the north shore.” For the record, it was some of the best food advice I’ve ever gotten. Without a doubt, the garlic shrimp we got from that crazy looking truck, was perhaps the best shrimp I’ve ever eaten in my life. That’s saying a lot, coming from a girl who loves her shrimp and crustacean. Hail to “off the beaten path.”
From there we stopped and got killer coffee (heavenly coffee with vanilla ice cream for me) and decided to walk the main street to check things out. That’s when something along the lines of divine intervened and we fell down a wild and twisty hole, and we all lost our bearings completely. The sign on the gallery said Art…is, and it didn’t interest me at all. It was a colorful building, with painted surfboards all around the front. I later learned that the surf boards were donated by famous and not so famous surfers, when damaged, and Ron Artis made art of them. I could see CDs on display inside; but, I wasn’t interested in another gallery or music right then. Frankly, I was frustrated when Smart Guy walked through the door, knowing his tendency to get sucked into gallery spiel, and my desire to keep walking. It was a cool enough looking place, set under a giant banyan tree, with murals and painted surfboards everywhere. Little Man and I waited outside as long as we could, and then headed in to drag Smart Guy out.
Instead, upon entering I came face to face with a striking woman who reminded me of Alice Walker, a few years ago: her braids pulled up in a bundle on her head, sharp pale caramel colored eyes that looked right into me, and a bright pink sweater emblazoned with the hand painted words: Art…is. “My name is Victoria Artis, welcome to our gallery.” The play on words confused me for a minute. Was her name artist, artis, art…is? Was she saying that her name was Victoria and she was the artist? Had I missed something? I was off balance from the start.
It was as if the minute our hands clasped, we spun into each other, and the next hour, two hours, three— none of us were sure— melted into an experience that turned everything else upside down and around. No sooner had we exchanged names, and she pointed to a painting and said: “Those are my 11 children.” Before I could really look at the painting, a handsome young man stepped forward and introduced himself, adding “I’m one of the 11.” Like his mother, his energy was an instant jolt. I could hardly look away from either of them.
Another half beat and she was asking me what I do: I write. Another son materialized, and they all enthusiastically asked me about my writing. The energy was so positive, their interest intense and focused on my answers to their questions. And if I’d thought things were normal up until then (and let me be clear: I was already feeling more than a wee bit unsure of my bearings), Victoria then began to ask very specific questions about my goals, my direction, what I want from my writing. “Are you going to publish it?” She asked pointedly. Smart Guy and Little Man laughed with me, knowing that my answer to that question tends to get muddy, these days. I’m trying to figure out which direction to go in. Our eyes locked. I’m holding myself back though; I’m stuck, I admitted. She smiled again, with so much love and acceptance that I nearly cried. I felt completely exposed, vulnerable, and yet so utterly safe and supported. Writing it down, can’t possibly convey the utterly surreal atmosphere of the experience.
Both of her boys sat and listened, intensely focused, as our conversation took off—Victoria asking more questions and adding her insights. She spoke with confidence and authority about all the reasons she felt I should go home and self publish my novel: cost of paper, cover options, title issues, traditional publishing drawbacks and pros… She seemed to know so much about it; I forgot that we’d just met, and that we knew very little about each other. It felt like getting advice from a wise old friend, who only has my best intentions in mind. The boys shook their heads in agreement, smiling their wide, warm smiles and it felt like my life was taking form, that answers were being clarified. In the moment, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else: I was totally focused on moving forward with the novel and seeing it published. It all felt settled and right.
A large portion of the “gallery” consists of a full recording studio. All of the children apparently play or sing music, or both. The Ron Artis Family Band is well known on the island of Oahu. On a small stage at the back of the room was a drum set, bongos, a keyboard, guitars, bass and several mic stands. A row of stools with a counter faces the stage, and we found ourselves sitting down there, as Victoria talked.
The entire time we were there, one conversation rolled into another— Victoria’s stories flowed from one to another, as we discussed: mindfulness; the galaxy; old growth trees; puppies and babies; her husband, Ron Artis’ career in music (with Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, etc); their decision to move to Oahu and raise their children with an eye toward creativity and exploration; Ron’s murals all around the island; the ministry they started, founded on music, art and a deep belief in the teachings of the bible— I don’t remember what we were talking about when Thunder Storm, the younger boy, stepped up to the mic and began to strum his guitar. I felt light and pinned to the moment, under the spell of the place. Then Thunder Storm began to sing, and we were all stunned into silence.
The voice that came out of the 16 year-old boy was unbelievable. Little Man and I kept glancing at each other incredulously, both of us finding it difficult that this much talent was singing to us, impromptu in a small gallery in the tiny town of Haleiwa. His voice was rich and soulful, the lyrics powerful and deep. He sang for a long time, eyes closed and voice holding us to our stools. It was a long song, mesmerizing—but again, our perspective of time felt foggy. Listening to Thunder Storm sing cast an even deeper spell on us all.
But my brain raced, trying to make sense of it all and the cynic in me, the skeptic, began to doubt much of what was happening—began to question their intentions, the sincerity they conveyed; it all seemed too much to believe, as my mind spun it round. Now’s when they’ll ask us to buy a CD or something, I thought. What’s the angle? I wondered. What’s the hitch? I began to see possible sales pitches; I started to question it all. How could something this simple and good, be just as it appeared? Several times while we were there, these thought interfered and I felt an anxious sense that I was missing a piece or being sucked in to something else, and then I would come back to Thunder Storm’s singing and feel that everything was just as it should be.
When he finished singing, Thunder Storm looked to us and Little Man exclaimed, “Wow! That was really great!” That was unbelievable! I added. He nodded and smiled, humbly— “Thank you.” He was watching me and without considering or thinking, I added: You are so talented! Your voice just touches people, but you need to open your eyes and look at your audience. “Amen!” His mother echoed behind me. I stumbled a second, afraid I might be too forward, not sure why I felt so compelled to tell him this. When you sing like that, when you can touch people so deeply, they want to connect back with you. When your eyes are closed, then we don’t connect with you. I know you keep them closed because you’re really feeling the music, I could see that—but, you have a special gift, and when you share it, you need to open your eyes. He watched me intensely, smiled, nodded and said: “Yes Mam,” and it struck me again how young he was. So young and so talented!
“Amen! Give praise.” His mother called. “We have all been telling him this since he started singing solos. Ron and I have always told the children this: you need to look at the people you sing to! So, we’ve all been telling him this for a while,” Victoria shared. “But, I think it’s clear now: God sent you here, brought us together, so that I could tell you what to do with your book, and so that you could open his eyes. He needed to hear it from you.” I wasn’t sure what to say. I got a chill up my spine, sure that she was right, and yet unsure of what I really believe in. Everything Victoria said sounded true; sounded right—regardless of beliefs.
When we’d finished talking about performing and connecting, I gathered my things and thought we’d leave, but Victoria said to Thunder Storm, “Sing one more for them, but with your eyes open now.” He smiled again, began to strum the guitar again, and then began to sing a song—about me, and him, and meeting each other. A fully fleshed out, beautiful song about the ways we hide in life, and what we give to others when we open our eyes. As he sang, his older brother silently stepped up to the keyboard and began playing with him, harmonizing on vocals. Then another man materialized and took up the drums, with only a nod and a smile in our direction. No one missed a note, not a beat, as the two men joined Thunder Storm, singing and performing.
It was so powerful that we all remained held to the spot, continuing to listen to this beautiful boy sing, as he opened his eyes and sang right to me— willing himself to look into my eyes, I reached out to him with mine, to encourage and celebrate his journey. As he sang “Open your eyes, open your eyes,” I cried. Victoria grabbed a mic and her voice provided lush harmonies. Each person took a turn at improvising the song, contributing to what Thunder Storm was creating right before our eyes. The entire world stopped while that boy sang, and we all shared in it. It’s hard not to believe in God, in moments that sublime.
When he was done, he and I hugged. We all hugged. It was like being with people I’ve known all my life: totally safe and good, infused with a surreal magic. Before we could leave, Victoria began talking again. She looked at me and began to tell a story about Satan— how there are these moments when we are filled with doubt, and we don’t trust the good that it is before us— Satan messing with good. Had she read my mind? Did she know that I was doubting things, while they unfolded? She said “creative people, like I know you all are, need to see past those doubts and just accept the good that we have. We have to believe in the good.” I felt a moment of shame, that I had doubted any bit of this experience. I can’t say that I believe in Satan, but the fact that she touched on this, sent a chill through me again… as I reflected on the doubts and negative thoughts that had run through my head, in the midst of such a positive and good experience. It gave me pause.
It was hard to leave. Each time we headed for the door, we were drawn back in by another story, another interesting thing. While her older son was telling us about his dad and the lessons he’s taught his children, Thunder Storm made a CD for us. He gave it to us as we were leaving, refusing to let us pay for it. We all exchanged contact information, in the hope that we might see each other again one day, and said goodbye.
As we left the gallery and headed down the street, it was like waking from a nap, when you can’t figure out the time and your mind is searching for clarity. Everything felt enhanced and brightened. Little Man broke the silence: “Well, that was totally unexpected!” I looked at him and we all laughed. What just happened in there? I managed to ask. “I have no idea!” Little Man replied. Smart Guy remained quiet for a long time, but as we walked a half hour later, Little Man turned to me again: “Did that feel like some kind of religious experience to you? Like something spiritual just happened to us? I mean, I wasn’t totally comfortable with some of the Jesus stuff, but do you feel like we just…” He drifted off again. I feel like something very special definitely happened, and I don’t know how to explain it, I finally answered. “I think we got to spend time with deeply grounded, spiritual people, that made themselves very open to us,” Smart Guy finally weighed in. “It just felt so good being there,” my son added. “It was so positive and happy there!” For hours we remained under a spell. Even as we drifted off to sleep that night, one or the other of us would say something along the lines of: “Was that real?”
If you’ve never been touched by the hand of providence, if you’ve never experienced something that is so wondrous that you are left spell bound, then you might think this was all just a quirky day, with some musical people. However, in the small town of Haleiwa, on the island of Oahu, I felt moved beyond any normal explanation. I felt touched by something special, something we can’t entirely explain. I choose to surrender to the unknown.
Final note: While we were there, Victoria Artis and her sons spoke with such love and reverence for Ron Artis. We kept thinking he’d come in and join them any minute, and we’d get to meet this great man. Their stories of his musical talent, his love of his family and commitment to being a good father, touched us all. Ron’s sons spoke with such respect and love of their dad: “My father taught me…, My father told me…, I learned from my father…” They told us of the many murals he created around the island of Oahu on schools and public sites, to improve the conditions of so many island locations. Later, as we drove, we noticed his work in numerous places. When we got back to our hotel, I looked up the Artis family, on line, in an effort to find some clarity around what we had experienced. It was then that I learned that Ron Artis, sadly, died in 2010 of an apparent heart attack. The three of us were sad to read this, as he seemed bigger than life while we were in his gallery. He left an amazing legacy in his musical career as well has in the remarkable family who still love him deeply, and who keep his memory alive in all that they do.
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