Ho`oponopono is a traditional Hawaiian prayer practice of reconciliation and forgiveness.
It originates from the widespread Polynesian belief that a person’s errors cause illness, and that until those errors have been acknowledged and forgiven, misfortune will continue to affect the entire family system — through sick children, sterile land, and other forms of inherited suffering. It is defined in the Hawaiian Dictionary like so:
To put to rights; to put in order or shape, correct, revise, adjust, amend, regulate, arrange, rectify, tidy up, make orderly or neat, administer, superintend, supervise, manage, edit, work carefully or neatly; to make ready, as canoemen preparing to catch a wave.
Mental cleansing: family conferences in which relationships were set right through prayer, discussion, confession, repentance, and mutual restitution and forgiveness.
The rendition of the Ho`oponopono prayer included in this ritual was recorded in 2015 at a special ceremony by a group of close female friends, who sang it as a healing offering for my ailing mother — repeating its chorus again and again:
I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I thank you.
My mother as a little girl in the 1950s
Haunted by a painful legacy of childhood trauma (some of it remembered, some of it repressed), my mother grappled with deep fear and anxiety, and her home at High Acres Farm became her kind of private prison — both the site of her half-recalled traumas, and also her chosen refuge from the world beyond its gates.
For much of the final thirty years of her life, she split her time between an apartment in New York City and the Main House at High Acres Farm, where she more or less lived in her bedroom, surrounded by piles of paperwork that covered her bed, sitting and working all day in the same place where she would sleep.
Marks from my mother’s nail polish on kitchen cupboard doors from years of eating alone
Her fear was palpable here. She sealed off all the fireplaces with heavy sheets of plastic and blue painter’s tape, so that insects couldn’t enter through the chimneys. She kept the doors to the house locked all day long, and locked herself in her bedroom each night before going to sleep. She had burglar alarms installed at every downstairs window, triggering a computerized voice in her bedroom any time a window was opened or closed in the house.
Blocking the hearth
Her fear of intruders partially stemmed from the memory of a horrible burglary that her father experienced in the early 1970s, when he was snuck in on late one night while sleeping, tied to his bed in a downstairs bedroom, and beaten in the side of his face with a pistol during the robbery. Apparently the perpetrator was known but never convicted, wrapped up in some kind of messy local feud.
For many years, this climate of fear and anxiety kept me away — for stepping onto the land here was like entering a zone of sadness and suffering, and after more than a few days, those qualities would start to feel contagious.
In this ritual, a handmade effigy is assembled to resemble a “scarecrow” — using my mother’s standard summer uniform of plaid linen pants, a plain cotton shirt, and a pair of white athletic sneakers.
Scarecrows are rural totems that use fear as a tool to keep others away, and as a result, they end up standing alone in their fields.
The humanoid scarecrow is moved around the grounds of High Acres Farm, visiting the various sites of my mother’s possible traumas, before entering the old Main House, climbing the stairs, moving down the long hallway into her bedroom, and finally taking its place in her bed. As the scarecrow travels, it receives the healing Ho`oponopono blessing in each location — acknowledging and forgiving the past, while sending love and gratitude into the future.
Though this ritual was filmed around six months before my mother died, its closing moments eerily foreshadow her passing, as she ended up dying in bed in the very place where the scarecrow was ultimately laid.
In the filming of this final scene, an aberration in the lens caused a shadow to pass across the image of the scarecrow just as its head unexpectedly fell to the side — as if its spirit, shirking off its burden of fear, were finally leaving its body.