The cheers on the Mall had just hushed over my television when the phone rang. It was still early in the morning in Hawaii, and President Obama had already completed his inauguration speech. I expected to hear my best friend, calling from Kansas, another state with ties to the new president, and I was ready to quote from the president’s speech. Our patchwork heritage is a strength. Quiet force of progress. New era of responsibility. A man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
But when I answered the phone, it wasn’t Tommye’s voice I heard. It was Mary, another volunteer with the monk seal team who traipses around the island, posting signs, stringing rope and answering the public’s questions in an effort to save the Hawaiian Monk Seal from extinction. The very pregnant K13 was on the beach fronting the Coconut Marketplace for the second day now, Mary said. Would I go seal-sit? Last week, Mary’s husband called as I was heading to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge for my Friday afternoon volunteer stint, so I was glad today to say, yes, I could make it this afternoon.
After I hung up, my phone beeped. This time it was Tommye. She texted, “Thank goodness this day finally arrived.”
She wasn’t the only one feeling this way. The buzz–the hope–was rippling across the country like a pebble dropped in a pond.
I opened my Facebook page and read various friends’ status updates: One friend wrote that she was “over the moon about our new President.” Another wrote that she was “reveling in this bright, sunny day–Obama in the White House and 75 in L.A.” Another, “is thinking how wonderful it feels to be an American today!” “Is glowing with hope, pride and appreciation for what we *all* did together!” “Is so glad we are moving forward as a country…” “Is yippee kiy yeah!” “Is thinking “YES WE CAN.” “Is hopeful.”
My aunt called and said she was watching it all live on TV. Two friends were there, in Washington D.C., watching it live in person.
I was caught up in the excitement, too, and updated my status to: Kim says, “Welcome to the White House, Mr. President.” And I worried that I would not settle down enough to sit quietly 150 feet away from a sleeping seal.
When I arrived at the beach, a visitor from the state of Washington stopped by to ask about K13. It was 3:00 in the afternoon and the first time all day he’d stepped outside his hotel room. He said he had to drag himself away from the TV. Another visitor from California quoted from Obama’s speech, too.
Not all the talk was Obama-lation, though. We talked about seals, too. Their declining status: 4% per year. Their preference in the buffet line: squid, lobster, octopus, fish. Their gestation period: 11 months. Their threats: sharks, boats, derelict fishing nets, dogs.
It was after the third or fourth visitors departed, saying thank you for volunteering, thank you for what you do to help the seals, that I made a connection to another line from President Obama’s speech today. The spirit of service: the willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.
In an interview with Katie Couric that aired this evening, Obama said, “You don’t have to be president to serve this country.”
That’s it, you know. What brings joy to my life. It’s volunteering to help protect our seals, serving as a docent at Kilauea Point, training my dog Nickel with Kauai Search and Rescue and surveying reef health with ReefCheck. When my friend June calls and gets my voice-mail message, she asks, “Are you out saving the world again?”
Just moving to Hawai’i doesn’t bring happiness, as many may think. And volunteering for just any non-profit or good cause doesn’t bring meaning to life. For me, what works is that I live in a place where I can get involved in those things for which I am passionate. Hawaii gives me that. So that, seemingly without trying, without searching, without seeking, I find that I am happy.