top of page
  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

What Lies Over the Rainbow? Aloha Spirit & the Art of Relaxing

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

I’ve always had trouble relaxing. For over 30 years, I did well in my career because I could manage multiple projects – juggling courses, interactions with students and colleagues, and creative projects. I always had a to-do list at hand, constantly checking things off and adding more on. Equally intense, I enjoyed the responsibilities of trying to be a good partner to my spouse and mom to my kids. When I traveled, it usually related to work or family, and I had a list of things to do, fitting in sight-seeing and visits with friends. I thrived because I was, in part, driven.

Now that I’ve been retired 10 months, I’m realizing that I don’t really know how to relax. In our slow travel mode, we have a lot of free time. This fall, for the first time, I have no lingering work responsibilities, and we are on a cruise ship for days at a time on the beautiful Pacific ocean. I go to stretching classes in the mornings amidst a backdrop of relaxation music, and it feels like the right thing to do for my body, but it’s not really relaxing either, because my muscles are tight from years of disuse. I can’t sit on the pool deck without wanting to take some photos or read a book. Even when I was lying on this deck chair in the warm breeze of a gently rocking ship, I was thinking about this blog post.

Paul reminded me that many people who retire have trouble relaxing, searching for new purpose in life. Then he said, “I know! Just put RELAX on your to-do list. In capital letters.”

We both laughed.

Several days into our cruise – which up to that point consisted of days sailing on sapphire-blue seas – I woke up to rain. After a couple of hours of steady rainfall, I glanced up to see a massive rainbow, arching from one end to the other across the sky. I was reminded of the connection between the rainfall of the tropics and its green ferns and forests, which I wrote about here a few years ago. This is not the best picture, since it was taken through the window just after the rain, but you get the idea of how big and pretty it was.

When this rainbow appeared, we were almost in Hawaii and our first port call, Honolulu. In 2017, Paul and I visited Honolulu for the first time, on our way back from New Zealand. The following year, we visited Maui, where we took an ukulele lesson from professional musician Pamela Polland, who resides there. In an hour, she taught us the basics of how to play “Over the Rainbow” - a song written by Harold Arlen and & Yip Harburg in 1939- in an arrangement she created based on the famous 1993 Hawaiian performance by Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwoʻole. You can see Iz' amazing performance here.

During this 2022 cruise, we spent four days visiting the Hawaiian islands. First, Honolulu, where we visited Iolani Palace, the meeting and ceremonial palace of the last kings and queens of the indigenous Hawaiian people. There we heard stories about the first Hawaiian king who united the islands, and the last king who tried to bridge the traditional life and culture of his people with modern ideas of democracy and comforts such as electricity. He promoted learning and cross-cultural exchange, meeting with Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, and other luminaries of the day. He composed music and championed traditional Hawaiian musical forms such as hula.

Paul and I walked along the beach and had a sensational meal (thanks for a generous retirement gift from colleagues) of sushi, individual plates prepared by a chef in a small setting. Each plate was a simple flavor, created by a master chef who made something complex look easy. We sipped home-made ginger ale with cinnamon and vanilla while looking at the waters of Waikiki.

The following day, we cruised along the scenic Na Pali coast, where the sheer size and scale of the cliffs magnificently towering over the water seemed to go on forever.

Day 3 saw us touring Kauaʻi, the garden island, where we saw the greens, pinks and browns of the Waimea Canyon, among other delights.

Finally, we stopped in Kona on the big island. There, we explored three separate climates in one afternoon – the hot, dry beach with trails of lava ridges left over from volcanic activity thousands of years in the past. We saw petroglyphs carved by inhabitants who fished the seas. I especially enjoyed seeing the petroglyph of a jumping (or maybe dancing?) man! Sea turtles swam in abundance before our eyes.

We left this beautiful, dry, hot land for a cloud forest up on the mountainside. There, we saw beautiful ferns, flowers, bamboo and rainbow eucalyptus trees, all nestled into the clouds in a cool forest.

Finally, we stopped at a Japanese coffee farm, tasting the Kona coffee and chocolate as the sun set behind our ship in the harbor.

The people of Hawaii are gracious. They seem relaxed and flexible. Happy to share the beauty of their islands, but careful to remind us to visit with respect for the land, the people, and the creatures of the sea. It is easy to see how the version of Over the Rainbow made so famous by Iz, became the theme-song for the islands. It takes a classic ballad and turns it into something that feels joyful and carefree, flexible and light, belying the musical complexity underneath. Like its land and its people, the song offers a friendly, warm welcome over a more complicated pattern. It balances tradition and modernity, creating a unique environment. I equally love the version of the song recorded by my teacher, Pamela Polland, which you can hear here. Pamela really exudes a relaxed warmth characteristic of these islands. She has taught me many things – how to make ukulele chords, how to sing with more confidence, and how to connect strums with the music. But it is her relaxing into a song that I find the most difficult to emulate. Maybe when I can relax into the rhythm and the sounds as effortlessly as she seems to do, I will achieve Aloha spirit and really, truly, relax.

You can see me sing and play “Over the Rainbow” here.


Oct 16, 2022

Were you able to see your teacher in person?

Kimberly OLeary
Kimberly OLeary
Oct 17, 2022
Replying to

Unfortunately, no. We stopped on 3 of the major islands but not on Maui, which is where she lives.

bottom of page