Through the miracle of the flying sardine can, otherwise know as Hawaiian Airlines, the mouse is back on the Big Island. There is much to do. Several months worth of cat hair beg to be swept under the rugs, spiders encouraged to take up residence elsewhere. The cats have marked their protest to my absence in my bed; much laundry has been done. I work my attack on the invasion of tropical weeds marching toward the house, a stoic terracotta army uniformed in shades of green. From under the wilting tomato vines a village of disease-ridden snails have been unceremoniously evicted. Lizards leer at me, papaya juice dripping from their chins as they feast on my bounty, perched on branches just out of reach.
This morning, while attempting to free the compost barrel from the clutches of a particularly vicious strain of crabgrass, a lizard leapt from among some palm fronds and landed on my calf, startling us both. But its touch was not the slimy pointy slithersome horror I had expected. Instead, it was gentle, soft, like the brush of the tip of a cat’s tail or the fingertips of a very young baby. I had expected to suffer an embolism but instead felt warmth, release, comfort.
I didn’t expect to be gone so long, didn’t know I would be back so soon. And yet, here I am, and in that one moment I realized I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
Sometimes you find yourself wandering along a beach, marveling at the beauty all around you and then life comes at you with a whoosh and suddenly you find yourself standing on the opposite shore scratching your head and wondering how you got there.
Rochi has had an ear problem for months now. We saw five different doctors in Hawaii and nobody could fix it. All along we’ve been paying cash for these services because we can’t even apply for insurance until open enrollment in November. That insurance doesn’t take effect until January, and when/if we finally do get it, the monthly premiums cost as much as our Tokyo rent used to cost except that rent did not also demand deductibles and co-pays and other fancy words that boil down to “shut up and do as you’re told.” Until then, I had been feeling smug that I had bought a house and, for the first time in my life, was not paying rent. Lesson learned.
The last doctor we saw said we’d done everything we could do at the clinic level. The next step would be a CT. Without insurance, the test alone would cost at least two months’ rent. She told us point blank that we’d be better off coming back to Japan.
So that’s what we did. We arrived on a Tuesday night. By Wednesday lunch time, he had insurance, we had seen doctors and been given medication. Total cost: about $50. A week later we spent a full day at the hospital, he had multiple examinations, two CT scans and prescription medications. Bill for the day: almost $200.
As we were riding the shiny new escalator toward the exit from the clean, modern hospital, we were both doing the math in our heads. In the States, that day alone would have cost us two trips to Japan, flying business class and staying in fancy hotels, maybe even a Rolex or two. Or about 2.5 years’ rent.
In the United States, people die, they DIE, because they’re afraid to go to the doctor. It’s not the pain that is so scary, it’s the bills that arrive weeks later, unexplained but final. Thou shalt pay. End of story. They even send email with the heading, “Great news! You have a new e-document.” I understand these documents are sent by computers but at some point, some actual semi-human organism must have written those words with that intended purpose. “Great news! You’re still sick and now you owe a bazillion dollars! Yay!” This is cruelty that borders on sadism. But the real irony, and the ultimate insult, is that there is nobody to explain and nobody to blame. You can call every number they give you, but everyone you speak to will tell you the same thing: “We don’t make the rules. We just send the bills.” I keep hearing voices in my head saying, “I’m not responsible. I was just following orders.” Where have we heard that before?
I have even sensed an undertone of, “You should be grateful you got to see a doctor at all.”
Are we talking about the same United States? The land of the free, where we have a right to the pursuit of happiness but not to basic healthcare? Is this the same home of flag-wavers who claim a love of God and equality for all but run for cover when we talk about universal health coverage? I thought we were talking about the United States where we have indoor plumbing and clean running water and safe food and cell phones and WiFi and Sunday football. But I guess these pleasures don’t extend to anyone who is running a temperature.
It seems fundamentally wrong that we have so many basic freedoms, things we take for granted, when millions of people around the world go without milk or shoes or education. We complain about slow Internet while people in our own country, maybe even next door, die of a simple infection they can not afford to treat.
We are lucky. We had the Japan option. But what happens to people who don’t? Not for the first time, I am ashamed of the country I represent.
I have always sworn that I would never live in anything called a ‘unit’. The whole idea gives me the willies. It evokes images of a Bladerunner world where robots live in beehive cells, all mindlessly doing the same jobs and eating the same food and pooping the same color. So it came as a great surprise when I found myself living in Hawaiian Shores Recreational Estates, which is the name of our subdivision, another term that makes the tiny hairs on my knuckles stand on end. But everything around here is a subdivision; most of them are called ‘estates’. Next to us is Nanawale Estates and just down the road is Leilani Estates. You may have heard of that. It was in the news a bit last year.
I would prefer to call these developments ‘neighborhoods’ but that, alas, is not how it’s done. Fortunately, the ‘estates’ part is just a marketing ploy. There are no estates, just ordinary plots of land topped with ordinary houses. Lawns are optional; we have crushed lava rock. Not one house on our street looks like ours and we have the only white picket fence in the whole…neighborhood…development…division…area.
It’s nice in Hawaiian Shores. We have a community association that has laid out rules for peaceful neighborly coexistence, including a ban on farm animals and rusting vehicles in the front yard. We get home mail service, clean water, road maintenance and access to community facilities. The association office is in a park just a few blocks away. There are tennis courts, a baseball field, a playground, barbecue facilities and a pool. Nice, right?
Having lived here for a year already, I was also surprised to discover that there’s another park a few blocks in the opposite direction. It has a smoothly mown lawn and palm trees but is otherwise deserted. The story goes that 30 years ago, this area was being developed by none other than Pan Am, who thought it would be nice to have two community centers, one with a small pool for kids and another with a larger one for grown-ups. But before they could get all that done, the company went belly-up and the grown-up facilities never officially opened. They sat there, nearly finished, while the tennis nets rotted away to nothing and a papaya tree took root in the empty pool. The impressive wooden structure one assumes is a picnic area is now suffering the ravages of hungry termites. The metal light fixtures that may once have held fluorescent bulbs are rusted away, hardly distinguishable from the wood they’re mounted on. Abandoned bird’s nests peek out from the rafters.
But as serendipity goes, this leaves us with a rather delightful space for an exercise class. I’ve been a few times now. It’s all retired people. (Who else has time for such things at 10:00 on a weekday?) One gentle spirit peers out from her wrinkled face as she does the exercises seated in a folding lawn chair; she told me she was with the occupation forces in Japan in 1947.
I know from many years of experience at gyms and the dojo that a great deal of community spirit can be generated among strangers by sweating together. We roll out our mats and the indomitable Suzan Thompson puts us through our paces. With 25 years of experience teaching fitness at a YMCA, she is a combination of drill sergeant and caring elementary school gym teacher with a smile that can bounce you right into next Thursday. Her occasional off-color jokes motivate us to keep moving as we struggle against our middle aged flab. Today she had us doing glute exercises designed to ‘turn those flapjacks back into juicy orbs’.
Years ago we used to joke that Hawaii was the 48th prefecture, so we have often wondered why there aren’t more Japanese people around here. Susan mentioned that there used to be quite a few Japanese in the class but they’re all gone. They had bought their Hawaiian homes in the 80’s, back when Japan had more money than it knew what to do with, and had since ‘aged out’, gotten too tired to shuttle back and forth, too tired to tend their gardens. I read just recently that Japan doesn’t have the immigration problems the US is dealing with so poorly, mostly because Japan is dying, both literally and figuratively it would seem.
I looked at the slowly disintegrating, never-quite-happened community center and wonder what might have been. Images flitted through my head: A balding Japanese man in an aloha shirt grilling tiny strips of meat, lanky Pan Am stewardesses draped over lounge chairs sipping martinis through red painted lips. And then a fly nibbled at my calf, dragging me back to the present, the pulsing music, my sweaty classmates, Susan’s voice thundering over a background of twittering birds and swaying palm trees. As the aloha shirt and painted lips fade into a past long forgotten, I realize I am glad to be where I am, and who I am, and living in the here and now, even if it is a subdivision.
The other day, a friend stood next to a forklift and asked me, “Do you want to drive it?” The me of not so long ago would have looked at it longingly, quickly convincing myself there were too many reasons not to, most of all that I was not good enough, not skilled enough, too much of a galumphing dork to handle the situation. The opportunity would have gone sailing by like the pleasant scent of strawberries on a summer breeze, so delightful, so inviting and so quickly gone. And then I would spend days and months and years mentally kicking myself for being such a loser.
But that day, instead of cowering like a lump of leftover cookie dough, I smiled, jumped into the driver’s seat and said, “Hell to the hell yes!” (a phrase I’d long wanted to use and was saving until just the right moment). I didn’t get to do anything macho like stack pallets or unload a semi, but my joy ride once around the empty parking lot was just that: pure joy.
A very important lesson I learned in 2017 was that bravery is not bravado. It’s courage, its facing something that scares you and doing the scary thing anyway. There may be sweaty palms and jello-wobbling stomach jitters involved, but you face the monsters hiding in the musty tunnel. In time, you find yourself standing taller and holding your head higher, because once you have to face those fears enough times, you get stronger, you stop being so afraid. The scary thing doesn’t become any less scary, but you learn to have confidence in your own ability to cope. You might emerge from the tunnel with spider webs in your hair and bits of monster guts clinging to your shoelaces, but that unpleasantness will come to matter less than you ever thought it could.
As I slayed my monsters and learned to trust myself, to be braver and less afraid, I also discovered a form of faith. I learned to believe in following my own instinct. Under the fluff and feathers of civilization and designer labels and technological gadgets, we are, after all, animals, and animals do pretty well by surviving on instinct. It is one of the gravest tragedies of the human condition that we have regimented ourselves to following rules someone else laid out for us, blindly believing that those rules are the one true way to success in life. We keep climbing the caterpillar tower toward heaven, always finding that there is no place left to go but back down to the bottom.
I have discovered that faith can take a lot of different forms. Changing our lives took a leap of faith into the unknown, trust in ourselves, our instinct, to point us in the right direction. All in all, our faith has held true and guided us through a winding maze of difficult decisions and overwhelming paperwork. For that, I am humbly grateful.
So when you have doubts, any kind of doubts, pull yourself up by your gut-encrusted shoelaces and drive the forklift. You’ll be glad you did.
On the other hand, do you think they’d let me drive the…um…boa constrictor extractor?
Having gone backstage to share a little pre-show love with the kids in our former group, I was shivering in the auditorium at the university waiting for the Big Island Taiko Festival to begin. Suddenly, I remembered why I had set myself a post-a-day challenge.
A week ago, I had a lovely chat with one of my besties back in Tokyo and he asked me what I’ve been up to here, what my typical day is like. I was flummoxed, not sure what ‘typical’ might even mean. Each day is different. Almost every day there is a new first, be it a new view, a new sound, a new taste or a new face. So far, at least, there’s been an almost mystical balance between being busy and stressed and allowing myself to relax into the beauty and serenity of this little corner of the world.
As the lights went down and the curtain went up, I was overwhelmed with a sense of happiness and gratitude, literally moved to tears by the awareness of how lucky I am and how sure I am that turning our lives upside down and moving here was the right thing to do.
The challenge was to look at a week and see what happens and decide whether or not it is typical. I have determined that the answer is yes. It was a typical week, in all of its odd bumps and bounty, it was typical. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I was sitting comfortably at the end of a yoga class, eyes closed, hands resting gently in my lap, when the voice in my ear told me to list three things I’m grateful for. I thought a moment and realized it would be so much easier to list the things I’m NOT grateful for. Here’s what I came up with:
Today we witnessed the annual Pahoa Christmas parade.
We were amazed by the number of cars our sleepy village had attracted. I had assumed we could park at the catholic church, but the lot was overflowing. We managed to slip Six into a small slot behind the high school.
We found a good spot to park ourselves toward the end of the parade route. In leisurely Pahoa time, the mayor passed by, then the VFW marching band. Close on their sweaty heels came the Puna Rebels football team in purple jerseys and flip-flops. There was one float, a flatbed decked out in palm fronds and exotic flowers, not the familiar tissue paper blossoms of my youth. (I know how to make those!) Next came the Puna Ukulele association, a group of somewhat grizzled men and women strumming and singing That’s Amore, what I thought was Me and Bobby McGee but turned out to be Bill Bailey, and Mustang Sally. Oddly, none of it felt odd which was odd in itself. Next were girl scouts dressed as boxes of cookies (Thin Mints! Tagalongs!) and looking sweet enough to eat. Then the Horse Owner’s Association, their mounts festooned with tinsel and jingle bells. Toward the end was a power shovel adorned with glittering Christmas finery, its shovel filled with brightly wrapped gifts. It slowly lumbered its way down Pahoa Village Road, seeming to grin as it enjoyed its reprieve from shoving volcanic rocks around.
But the spice in the curry is the people of Puna. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors, a variety of delights like the cheese and salami selection at a large Italian market. There are hippies, both wrinkled, gray-haired Woodstock survivors and neo wannabes, so young and bright, vegan crystal worshipers unaware that fringe and dreadlocks were once innovations. There are seniors, one-time owners of a Nebraska car wash, missing their kids now grown and flown, the lady in sparkly purple tennies muttering to her dog, the slim lady who JUST CAN’T STOP dancing the macarena. And there are kids, lots of kids, running and playing and chasing their butterfly dreams flitting among the hibiscus flowers.
I stood at the side of the road watching that rainbow of life pass by and felt it reach out and wrap my belly in a sticky web of memories and gratitude so thick I could barely breathe. I felt the charm of the village community event despite the challenges it had faced, the enormity of the changes in our lives since we left Japan almost four months ago, the fact that I was alive and well and breathing freely, supported by the strength of my own two legs. Safely hidden behind my floppy hat and sunglasses, I wept, and as I did, a little boy ran up to me and handed me a flower. At least I think it’s a flower. It could be a garage door opener for all I know, which makes it that much more charming. I laughed at my middle-aged self discovering life like a small child: a crack in the lava, the scent of an unknown flower, the pointed tongue of a neon green lizard watching me do yoga. It’s all new, all exciting, all needing to be investigated. I delighted in my own innocence.
The parade petered out, so we wandered toward the community center and watched our taiko drum group perform a few songs. They even did Hiryu, the same song our beginners’ class is going to perform at our recital on December 14. (If you’re going to be in the Kea’au area, do drop by Hongwanji around 6:00. We’ll really try to get some of the strokes right. And there’s a potluck after!)
By the time we’d absorbed the spectacle of the parade and its people and the pepper-pop throbbing of the drums, we were ravenous. We dragged ourselves to the Black Rock Cafe where I devoured a club sandwich and fries, still exotic foods in my Tokyo tainted mind. And then we came home, exhausted but replete, where all of us dropped into an afternoon nap as sweet as the pink pads on the bottoms of Monkey Boy’s feet.
There are twenty-four more days of holiday cheer ahead of us. I’d best gird my loins.