One of the unexpected benefits of living on a ramshackle off-grid homestead in rural Hawaii is that whenever friends come to visit from the “real” world, they can never quite restrain themselves from fixing things, building things, or making the small but necessary changes I never seem to get around to completing on my own. No matter how sincerely I assure them that a visit to my land does not come with work-trade requirements, when they see the jumble of tools and the overgrown garden, few of them can resist the urge to put some small piece of this chaos in order.
They remind me of myself when I’m editing a book—poking around, finding better places for things, telling me I should really add this or get rid of that. Before I know it, they’re swinging hammers, pruning trees, and tackling all that is leaky, wobbly, broken, dangerous, or all of the above. I feel a sense of kinship with the authors whose books I gaily assault with my own fix-it projects, and hope they feel the love in what can otherwise be an overwhelming experience, the same way I feel my friends’ love in the knots tied, screws driven, holes patched, and heavy objects moved around my land.
While my friends are fixing things, they also love to project their own dreams onto the land. Why not have a rope swing over here, and a fire pit there? Why not build a trellis for those air potato vines, or drag in a clawfoot tub? I’ve lost track the number of times I’ve heard the words, “If this was my place, I’d build a tree house in that monkeypod.” (Indeed, it’s a running joke in the valley that every newcomer dreams of building a treehouse in a monkeypod, and you can tell how long someone has been here by the fervor with which they express this desire. Meanwhile, most longtime residents have abandoned their monkeypod treehouses and embraced the convenience of life on the ground.)
One friend who stayed with me recently is an avid bird watcher.
“Why not put a bird feeder in the garden?” he said. “You’ll be able to watch birds all day while you’re writing.”
I was skeptical, and told him so. I already saw plenty of birds every day—eating the seeds off the amaranth plants, perching on the ‘awa stalks, chattering in the bamboo at sunrise and sunset. What did I need a bird feeder for? This wasn’t some suburban backyard where one had to carefully court the visits of wildlife. Besides, the kind of birdseed people used on the mainland would probably get moldy in this wet and jungly part of Hawaii, and who knew if tropical birds would even eat it?
Undeterred by my grumping, my friend cut a thick piece of timber bamboo and piled some lava rocks around its base. He set an old metal platter on top of this rudimentary post, weighing it down with another rock. Next, he cut a few bananas from the rack we’d harvested the previous day, and laid them on the platter along with some papaya skins. I groaned inwardly at his naivety.
“You’ve just made a gecko feeder,” I protested. “And a fruit fly feeder, too.”
I imagined myself cleaning up the rotting mess after he left, the same way I’d discreetly dismantled a few of my other friends’ well-meaning but ill-considered contributions to the land. Sure enough, the first visitors to the bird feeder were the bright green geckos ubiquitous to this part of the island—cute enough in their own right, but hardly the feathery spectacle my friend had in mind. Meanwhile, the birds continued to eat the amaranth seeds and perch on the ‘awa plant, ignoring the bounty of fruit.
I’ve lived here for five years, I thought, feeling amused and a little smug at the correctness of my prediction, but anyone who comes down for a weekend always thinks they know better than me. I thought ruefully of the ways that I, too, had ignored the advice of long-term residents when I first moved onto my land—planting a garden in the middle of a swamp, pitching a tent where falling tree limbs could crush it in a storm, and yes, boldly declaring my intention to build a treehouse in a monkeypod as if no one had ever thought of that before.
What is the correct balance between letting yourself be surprised and inspired by another person’s vision, and gently affirming your own experience, wisdom, and authority? As a writer and editor, I ask myself this question all the time. Sometimes, I have to push back on a chapter or section that just doesn’t work. Other times, I have to ask myself if I’m rejecting an idea out of true discernment, or out of the inability to appreciate its potential. Am I being too deferential, or too headstrong? If I let an author have their way against my better judgement, am I giving their vision the benefit of the doubt, or failing in my sworn duty to stop them from needlessly driving over the edge of a very well-traveled cliff?
As an editor, I have to have some measure of confidence in my own sense of what will make a book successful—otherwise, there would be no reason for me to exist. When an author clings to a beloved-but-unnecessary section or paragraph, I sometimes need to summon the inner strength to say, “Look—I’ve been doing this for years, please trust that you’re in good hands.” In my early years as an editor, wary of hurting authors’ feelings, I sometimes refrained from making changes I knew would benefit their books—ultimately robbing those books of the expertise I’d been hired to provide. Even now, I’m still learning when to insist and when to indulge, when to suggest and when to assert, and when to say, “You want to know why nobody who’s lived here for a long time lives in a monkeypod tree?”
“Maybe the birds don’t like the shiny platter,” said my friend. He scrounged around my scrap wood pile until he found an old wooden cutting board. He set it on top of the bamboo post with a fresh offering of papaya and bananas.
The next morning as we sat outside drinking our tea, they appeared: little green white-eyes, rainbow-feathered leothrixes, and a pair of yellow-billed cardinals with a brown-headed baby in tow. We watched for over an hour as the cardinals pecked at the papayas, feeding pieces to their chick, and as waves of leothrixes carried bits of bananas back to their nests. Although I’d seen all these birds before, I had to admit it was wonderful to watch them close up, for extended periods of time—to see their colors and hear their songs and scoldings. My smugness melting into sheepishness, I thanked my friend for his persistence. In this case, at least, a short-term visitor really did know better than curmudgeonly old me.
Since then, the bird feeder has become a daily source of wonder and companionship. The birds keep me company as I sit on my little porch, tinkering with books for hours at a time. In the weeks since my friend went home, I’ve seen the baby yellow-billed cardinal learn to feed itself, and watched the pale brown feathers on its head slowly turning to brilliant red. It makes me wonder how many of the other ideas I’ve dismissed out of hand would change my life if I let them. I, too, am still learning how to be edited—how to trust in the expertise of others, when appropriate, and how to invite others to draw me out of my tunnel vision instead of remaining cozily ensconced within it.
Living off-grid, I’m surrounded by reminders of the never-ending balance between consulting your own authority and deferring to the wisdom of others. Gazing up at a crooked rafter in my cabin, I remember the moment I wanted to ask my friend to start over with a fresh two-by-four, but refrained out of fear of looking ungrateful. When damp specks of mist blur the pages of my notebook, I feel a twinge of regret for failing to heed my neighbor’s warning that this north-facing deck would get all the weather, even as I’m constantly grateful for the cool shade it provides.
Although there will always be moments of ambiguity, the bird feeder reminds me to always maintain a seed of skepticism towards my own doubting tendencies, an openness to being humbled and amazed—and the ability to see the singing, feathery potential in another person’s ideas, even if the early iterations of that idea are all geckos and fruit flies.
As we move into spring, may you all be blessed with birdsong, no matter where you live—and with friends whose wisdom enriches your life, even if it takes some courage to let them.
Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing