Conversation with Tiki DeGenaro

Authored by: 
Kalani `Ohana

Tiki Degenaro
1. What brought you to Kalani? What's your story?

What brought me to Kalani was a plan of Perfection I could never have orchestrated myself. Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 15+ years I was totally immersed into my family, my high-tech job, my community and the myriad of roles and activities, which accompany those things. At the very end of a yearlong medical treatment plan (throughout which I maintained "my life,") I woke up one morning with symptoms, which landed me in the hospital.

After days of tests my doctors came to talk to me. "So what's the prognosis?" I asked. They looked at me, shrugged, and said "Hypersensitivity?" Basically the yearlong medical treatment was finally showing it's nasty colors in the form of yucky symptoms. What my doctor said next was to be quite a "turning point." "Why don't you take a medical leave? You've been through a lot and went through it with flying colors. Now you must focus on healing."

Looking back now it's quite interesting and comical as I remember exactly how my mind responded. My initial thoughts were: I'm totally fine. I don't need to take a medical leave. That means I did NOT go through the treatment with flying colors.

He told me to just think about it and I promised I would. Within days it occurred to me that a "medical leave" would be FANTASTIC! What was I thinking? With the exception of two very short/just months periods in my life I had always worked. With the exception of a month-long trip to Thailand with my family, my vacations had been short -- limited to one or two weeks at the most because I was always working.

Okay, I'll take the medical leave and travel to one of the countries still on my list: countries in South America and Southeast Asia came springing up in my mind. When I told my Doctor about my plans he gently said it would be very irresponsible and unwise to travel out of the country in case I became in need of medical attention. Shoot! My plan was quickly abolished.

Then I remembered Hawaii. I love Hawaii. I have been fortunate to vacation in Hawaii many, many times. I had been to Oahu, Maui and the Big Island many times and lived on the north shore of Kauai when my kids were young. I hadn't been back to Kauai in about five years and realized this was a great opportunity to take a longer-than-usual vacation there. My plan was to again hike the Napali Coast into Kalalau Valley to see if I could "do" it in my new, recovering physical state.

Luckily my wonderful son, Mischa was available to accompany me. He loves Kauai, too, attended Hanalei School through third grade and had been hiking into Kalalau Valley since he was five years old. Of course he's one of the main loves of my life and he's in super physical condition that made me feel confident about the somewhat rugged, backpacking trip. We spent one month on Kauai and swam, hiked, snorkeled, and visited friends until we began the trek on the Napali Coast.

This was the time of Katrina and Kauai had been receiving more rain than usual, a kind of residual hurricane. We needed to wait until the seven streams needed to cross-receded below knee-level. The day finally came and we were off. Because of the perilous conditions there were only 11 people in the Valley and we discovered each other quickly.

As we introduced ourselves, one guy said "My name is Brandon and I live and work at a place called KALANI on the Big Island." "Oh, I know Kalani," was my response. I continued, "I've vacationed there, took a workshop there, and have friends who have been there also. It's a very special place. I've always told my kids, 'If you're ever in a life transition, consider Kalani!' So if this were a short story or vignette of some kind, Brandon's response would be the CLIMAX. "Why don't YOU consider it?" he asked. "Oh! I never thought of it." I said. Brandon, by the way, is a very special man and was a Kalani-veteran. He was a super asset to Kalani's Landscaping Department and their resident hairdresser, his profession in the default-world.

Before leaving the magical experiences found in Kalalau Valley, Brandon gave me Kalani's Volunteer Manager's name and number. I told him I'd give her a call. This was late autumn of 2005 and by the Holidays I was being given "bon voyage" parties by friends/family and the Company where I worked for 14 years! The timing was immaculate. My son was living on his own, my daughter had just been accepted to college and releasing myself from all the material possessions of a home happened so smoothly and effortlessly I was assured at every step this was my new direction. Everyone was so supportive and there was a mutual belief that this "new" life was perfect for me. My Manager, a Senior V.P. called my move "the end of the Tiki Era" as we were two of the four people who began a division which grew to 100, became international, and did over $1B worth of business!

My last day of employment was February 8 and I flew to Kalani on the serendipitous day of February 14, Valentine's Day. After days I KNEW this was my "new" home-away-from-home. I committed to a longer time and began my immersion into Kalani and the Puna community within which it resides.

2. How long have you been living here? What was the transgression of your roles/jobs here at Kalani? How long are you planning on staying?

I have been living here for two years but I left once for five months and a second time for six weeks. The first time I left I had an opportunity to do some traveling with my newly found freedom. My son and I went to Europe and toured five countries and several Greek Islands. We were especially impressed with the most successful, alternative community worldwide, located about an hour north of Turin, Italy called DAMANHUR. Upon returning, my daughter had one full month off between college semesters and we went to Panama, the only Central American country I had not visited. We loved it and especially enjoyed staying with the Kuna Yala Indians living on islands off Panama's north shore in the Caribbean. They are the last self-governing natives and continue to maintain their authentic, village lifestyle.

When I first arrived at Kalani I worked in the Kitchen Department. I loved working in the Kitchen. It was an opportunity to be in the experience of service and to meet and get to know many other volunteers, staff, and the on-going stream of vacationers and workshop attendees. I was in the Kitchen about nine months and played a variety of roles from scrubbing pots and pans to food prep to FOH/front of house to helping the chefs prepare an entrée, side dish, salad or dessert.

After the Kitchen I was asked if I would like to be the Cafe Manager. The Cafe is a wonderful place open daily for hanging out, events, and wireless connection. At night it is open to serve teas, snacks and the famous Hilo homemade ice cream. I loved being Cafe Manager. I was taking care of a special space appreciated by all.

Currently I am in training at Kalani's front/reception desk. I am so happy to learn all the details of the workings of this Retreat as nearly all "go through" the Office. In addition to my main jobs/roles I have really enjoyed performing other tasks. Shola is our resident tropical flower arranger and I'm her back-up/substitute. Every week Kalani buys a gorgeous assortment of tropical flowers and I've learned to create 30+ arrangements collecting greenery from our totally reachable jungle to accent the flowers to be distributed around common areas of the property. In addition, I am on the facilitators' team for our weekly Sunday, Ecstatic Dance. For six months I have been organizing weekly "`Ohana Nights" where a different activity is offered to the Kalani staff and volunteers.

My answer to the question "How long do I plan on being at Kalani?" is "Indefinitely." Having lived such a structured life, it feels so freeing and positive to even say that. Kalani offers a community/support system to enable anyone to continue on his or her path. I'd like to take advantage of its resources and pristine beauty while giving back with my involvement and dedication.

3. I love your name. What's the story behind your name?

My Father nicknamed me "Tiki" within minutes after I was born. It actually means small/tiny/petite/little in his native Italian dialect. My parents had only one child, my sister who was born 19 years and 10 months before me. Yes, you heard correctly -- almost 20 years before me and that's another story. Anyways, my parents did not know my sex but if I was a girl they planned on naming me Marilou Marie Elizabeth, a very Catholic name also honoring my Mom and my aunt, her only sister. At birth my sister weighed over 10 pounds and had coal-black hair and dark skin and of course my Dad was subconsciously expecting the same. When they handed me to him he asked for a pillow as he was a big guy and thought I looked smallish and different at seven pounds with light and hair and blue eyes. He began calling me little "Tiki" and the name stuck. To this day I warn new parents about the dangers of nicknames. I have a nephew who was called "Baby Tony" until he was nearly 30!

So I've been called "Tiki" all my life with the exception of one nun who did NOT believe in nicknames. Yes, I'm a product of 12 years of Catholic school. She actually called me "Elizabeth" as she believed everyone's name should be the name of a canonized saint. I was secretly happy to discover St. Elizabeth, the Queen of Hungary during the Middle Ages was the first "Robinhood." She collected money from the wealthiest and re-distributed it among the common people. Plus she was a real Queen! How cool is that?! I always believed saints were poor, tortured martyrs!

So many people re-name themselves and I'm often asked if I gave myself this name because I love Hawaii and live in Hawaii now. Actually, Hawaiians do not name their children "Tiki" as it's a god-name and would be considered irreverent. Kiki is common, however. I have met five other Tikis in my life. Three in Florida, all girls and two in California, one guy who lives in Santa Barbara and another in Venice Beach.

4. What was your life like on the mainland?

My life on the Mainland was full and wonderful. My children are my joy, work was satisfying and often too time-consuming, and my extended family/friends was impressive. It was a constant challenge to juggle all my responsibilities. Working out and having a social life had to be put on the calendar so it had a chance of happening.

Northern California is another seemingly endless playground so when you have free time so much is readily available. There's the dynamic city of San Francisco full of diversity and culture. To the south is "Silicon Valley," home of the first and largest high-tech companies. To the north is wine country and to the west are forests and the coast. To the east lies the Sierras, home of the second largest lake in the world which sits at almost 7,000 feet above sea level and hosts gorgeous pine forests, literally hundreds of smaller lakes, and hiking and skiing galore. These were our destination places when we found the time to take advantage of them.

5. How has living on the Big Island changed your perspective? How has living in our community changed you? What inspires you here?

Living on the Big Island has already given me more than I could have ever thought possible. I'm in love with natural beauty and this Island has it all. It is a precious reminder to wake up each day with the jungle surrounding you and the vast Pacific within view. Being here reminds you both of your insignificance and the immeasurable Perfection that gives you your life, breath-to-breath and heartbeat-to-heartbeat which lives within you.

The Kalani community is made up of so many different kinds of people; people of different ages, educations, abilities, backgrounds, etc but all learning and appreciating all that Kalani and this Island have to offer. I'm inspired by the stellar dedication and joy of the core staff as well as the love, which everyone who comes to visit -- and most return at some time -- has of this unique retreat in the jungle.

6. So you just recently took a trip to the mainland, where did you go?

Basically my return to the Mainland involved spending time with my family, especially my now very grown-up children/young adults, friends, and some doctors.

I attended some very special events including fundraisers for Democratic hopefuls including Dennis Kucinich. It was incredibly inspiring to meet Dennis Kucinich, an extremely bright, polished politician who uses words like consciousness and mindfulness. He has offered two, impressive plans to the Senate, one on America, strength through peace and a workable revamping of our healthcare system. What a fantasy to envision a person like him as President!

Also, I attended Burning Man, an annual art and community fest in northern Nevada. At the last Kalani staff meeting before I left, I found myself saying that if it wasn't for seeing my kids and continuing my annual trek to Burning Man for the past 10+ years I'd prefer to just stay at Kalani!

7. So Burning Man! From what I've heard already, we can spend a whole month talking about Burning Man. So let's narrow it down: What do you love most about Burning Man (why do you keep returning)? Top three moments, inspirations and/or epiphanies at Burning Man?

Burning Man is an epic, awesome, event showcasing the themes of art, community and responsibility. With some infrastructure in place, people come together and create a City. The City is a place to explore the artist within you. You can originate or participate in any art project, large or small. No money is exchanged/nothing bought and sold while there so sharing/gifting is part of the theme. At the end, the City is "taken down" leaving no trace of the nearly 50,000 attendees and literally hundreds of art installations and a wide-variety of living, class/workshop, art and party spaces, as well as a Community Center/Center Camp and buildings which every City needs including a police station/the Black Rock City Rangers, a Medial Center, an alternative Medical Center, a Post Office, a Bicycle Repair Shop, a radio station, a newspaper office which produces a daily newspaper, etc.

This year the theme was GREEN. Burning Man provided the venue to experiment, share, and learn about the changes we can make to be kinder to and further sustain our planet.
To witness what human beings can accomplish when given the freedom and space is mind-blowing! This year there were almost 200 major art installations.

I love everything about Burning Man: the art, witnessing it and participating in it, the extreme spontaneity of living there; a 24/7 fantasy adult playground, and the experience of no money, no driving, and living with the bare essentials while communing with the unpredictable weather of the high-desert. This year my daughter was able to go to Burning Man for the first time. At 21, she's always been in school and Burning Man begins when most schools' classes begin in late August. It was icing-on-the-cake to host her "virgin" year. I showed her that Burning Man is a live, community experiment on many levels. It's not just staying up all night partying which one can do anywhere. It offers a plethora of experiences all of which star YOU.

One piece of art, which was especially moving, was named ""Crude Awakening." I couldn't get enough of this mega-art installation. It took minutes to just bicycle around it. Weeks later I am still processing its poignant significance. Here's the exact description from the artists:

"Nine figurative steel sculptures, weighing 7 tons each and standing 30' tall, embody the faithful. In their various poses of worship from around the world, they bow down and reach forth to the Revered Oil Derrick, that icon of the religion which now stands above all others. The Derrick is a 90' tall wooden tower with stairs all the way to the sky. At any time, 200 people can amass on its upper platform while below, the nine faithful belch their fiery prayers from within and around their bodies. Each figure is bound by a participant-activated fire effect, created by Pyrokinetics. On Friday night at 10 pm, as the air raid siren wails and the battleship smoke generator pours forth its malevolent cloud, the Revered Oil Derrick will light up with a fire display like none before or ever after. A flame gusher will then explode from the center of the tower, creating 2.4 gigawatts of raw power in only one minute. You will bear witness to the largest flame cannon in history and the tower will fall."

8. What are you really into these days? What stimulates you? What's taking your attention?

These days I am focusing on my physical health and my spiritual growth. It is a never-ending process learning how to improve your health and deepen your soul's experience. I'm experimenting with various alternative healing modalities and implementing a daily meditation practice. I'm currently reading books by Eckhart Tolle/Power of Now, etc. and Dr. David Hawkins, the study of kinesiology. The extraordinary beauty of Kalani and this Island has inspired me to continue to learn about the art and skill of photography and to transfer that medium into creative writing pieces. My intention is to continue practicing being attentive to the perfection of my center as well as the perfection of my surroundings.