Always a fan of new experiences, today I stood in my kitchen under the map of Hawaii and opened a can of Spam.
In my life, I have opened many cans, but never a can of Spam.
Then I made hash. I included the Spam and some sauteed breadfruit.
In my life, I have sauteed many things, but never breadfruit.
Then I fried some eggs and put them on top of the hash.
In my life, I have fried many eggs.
It was not a momentous occasion, but it was significant. From now on, whenever anyone asks if I have opened a can of Spam and eaten it with sauteed breadfruit, I can tilt my head and raise my eyebrows and say, “Why, yes. Yes, I have.”
I am a changed woman, slightly more sophisticated and worldly than I was yesterday, and all because of a can of Spam and a breadfruit.
A while before Christmas, along with the plastic Santas and blinking lights and frighteningly-flavored candy canes, fireworks started to appear in the supermarkets and drug stores. There were all sorts, from simple sparklers to huge variety packs of things that go pop and bang and boom and pfizzz.
A friend had explained that regular fireworks, the kind that go boom in the sky and shower the earth with lights and patterns we can only imagine unless we get hit in the head with a baseball, those fireworks are illegal for private use in Hawaii. But they are brought in anyway, by the barge load. We thought he was joking.
In the evenings, we started hearing the occasional bang or pop, sometimes distant, sometimes rather close. Was it engine backfires? Maybe. Handguns? Unlikely. Hawaii has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, something we are extremely grateful for. So we wondered, but as with so many things in this strange, new world, we had no idea what was going on.
Last night, New Year’s Eve, the bangs and pops started before it even got dark. We’re surrounded by trees so we couldn’t see much. We enjoyed listening as the intensity grew, but us being us, we lit up our $10 bag of bangs and pops and climbed into bed by 10:30.
I couldn’t sleep, so I was laying in the dark thinking my thoughts when the clock struck midnight. The bangs and pops suddenly escalated enough to draw me out of bed. I crept to the bedroom window and found that if I rested my forehead against the screen, I could just see the upper arc of fireworks rising above the trees from a couple of streets over.
I was entranced. I stared at the glowing points of colored light as they quickly faded and disappeared. At the same time, I could hear more bangs and pops, hundreds of them, coming from other directions. The curious kitten inside me grew desperate for more.
I tiptoed around the house checking all the windows but could only see a distant glow. Still, the bangs and pops continued.
There was no moon and our street has no street lights, so I eased the front door open and inched my way outside. The street was inky dark. I looked up and saw the twinkling glow of a billion stars. From the end of the driveway, I could see the pulsing glow of fireworks in all directions, now to my right or left, now behind me, now dead ahead.
The air was mild, the breeze gentle; I stood in our driveway, in my underwear, wrapped in a robe of sulfurous smoke, slowly turning to take in the stars, both in the distance and so very close, totally alone and yet at one with the universe, feeling a sense of childlike joy as pure and inviting as a freshly fallen snowbank.
My wish for you, gentle reader, is that you find a moment to discover that joy some time in the coming year. It’s out there. You just have to look for it.
I woke up this morning, the day after Christmas, with an urge to watch bears eating honey. It has been my experience that it’s best to scratch such itches before they fester, so I consulted my pal Youtube, who kindly obliged with a video of two large black bears laying siege to a wooden beehive.
The narration was a smooth baritone in the gentle, insinuating style employed by public broadcasters worldwide. I don’t know what the dude was saying because it was in German, but I did catch the words “Fort Knox” as the bears continued to assault the box. They worked themselves into a honey-scented frenzy despite the stinging objections of the bees. The battle turned when they used brute strength to tear the roof off the hutch. They yanked out the trays of honeycomb and scraped through the soft wax with their powerful claws; their pointed snouts and pink tongues became coated with golden, sticky nectar. The final narration said “fur dei beenen, (something-something) enden, fur die bearen, (something-something) fest mas laden”, which I think means “bees: zero, bears: one”, as the sugar-charged bears trotted back into the woods, their beady eyes rolling in absolute pleasure.
We spent Christmas eve with new friends, especially Paul, our taiko drumming teacher, and members of his extended family. Or not. There were two kids there so all the adults were called Uncle or Auntie but in Hawaii that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone’s related. At any rate, it felt like family, people who knew each other well and were very comfortable together and willing to welcome strangers to their fold.
We stuffed ourselves with Hawaiian bounty and then Auntie Susie said we had to stay for The Ball Game.
The Ball Game turned out to be a ball of Saran wrap and a pair of dice. You play the game by trying to peel off the layers of plastic wrap while the person to your left rolls the dice. As soon as they get doubles, you pass the ball to them and they pass the dice to their left. As sheets of plastic dropped away, a surprising assortment of treats were revealed, and whoever managed to free them got to keep them. It started with candies and soon escalated to packets of instant ramen, dollar bills, shopping bags, baseball caps, dryer balls, bottles of hot sauce, gift cards. It was a cornucopia, such a simple idea but so much fun, way better than any dumb old pinata.
The winner was the one who made it to the center of the ball to discover a Tupperware full of pretzels and $20. Technically, Paul’s daughter Emily won, but I think I did better, scoring both a Lord of the Rings baseball cap and a Dairy Queen gift card.
If you’ve ever watched in helpless horror as the plastic slips off the edge of the box and attaches itself to the roll, you know how strongly Saran wrap likes to cling to itself. So the game took a while, everyone shouting and laughing as we tore at the plastic, our attack less violent than the Siege of the Beehive, but our pleasure just as real.
Christmas day we stayed home, opened presents (I received a jar of Wililaiki Christmasberry honey and didn’t have to fight off a single bee), ate a lot (not turkey; there’s no way we could top November’s Thanksmas celebration), tried to stay awake to watch the Grinch on TV, and were generally rather smug about how lucky we are.
And that was our first Christmas on American soil in the past three decades. So far our new life is off to a great start. And we’re going to do our darndest to keep it up with relentless curiosity, goodwill, humor, open hearts and open minds…and honey, sweet golden liquid, Hawaiian sunshine in a jar, the scent of heaven and the taste of love.
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.
I was on the deck the other morning and Nutball was skulking under the eaves of his house, pointing a smartphone at me and narrating how he would post the video of the horrible woman next door on Facebook.
Just how many people does he think will watch a chubby, middle aged, single breasted woman do yoga?
If he wasn’t so sad, he’d be comical.
I have come to think he is the price I have to pay for all the wonderful in my life. That price might seem steep but it isn’t. Near and far, I have my family and friends, people who genuinely care about me and I feel the same about them. I have my health and what looks like a pretty good care network to look after it. I have the house and every lovely thing in it, the garden, the car, the cats, a fridge full of food and wine in my glass.
But even more than all that, today I got…a bed.
Oh, what a bed.
I am grateful for the beds that came with the house, but they are jiggly and they had jiggled me out of sleep every night for the past four months. We spent 30 years sleeping on a futon on the floor. Unless there was an earthquake, no jiggles. I realized I could no longer bear the jiggles. But for once, along the bumpy, rutted road of the past two years, here was something I could fix.
Girding our loins and clutching a credit card, we approached the bed store. “Firm,” we said. “Extra firm. Solid. Absolutely anti-jiggle. Sleeping on rocks.”
We bought a bed. It arrived a virgin, swathed in plastic, untouched by nightie nor pajama, longing for human contact, eager to embrace our weary bodies, unable to suck us into the depths of saggy back-aching foam and jar us awake with endless jiggles.
At bedtime tonight, we will have a jiggle exorcism ceremony and then sleep the sleep of the just.
I don’t know if we deserved all that we went through last year. I don’t know if we deserve all we have now, this beautiful life in this beautiful place. But I’m pretty sure we deserve a decent night’s sleep.
All men, women and children deserve to be jiggle-free. So here is my blessing to one and all: May your belly be full and your bed unjiggly. Happy Thanksgiving.
A few years ago, I was riding a train somewhere in Tokyo. It must have been pretty late because the train was nearly empty. I looked down at the seat next to me and saw a tiny blue race car, probably dropped by the sleepy fingers of a child who’d been carrying it around all day. At that very moment, somewhere in the vastness of Tokyo, that child’s sad face and quivering lip might have been breaking his mother’s heart as he begged her to go back and look for the tiny car. That thought tugging at my heartstrings, I picked up the tiny car and tucked it into my pocket, vowing to keep it safe and love it well.
Now I have my very own tiny car, L’il Six, a 2015 Honda Fit and just plum peachy perfect for my needs. Six and I were making our way home the other day, trying to merge into rush hour traffic. The people in the next car did not want to let us in. To make that clear, the young woman in the passenger seat turned to me, smirked, and gave me the finger.
Voices of Mary Poppins, Aunt Bea and other prim ladies tut-tutted in my head, asking where such unpleasant behavior could have come from.
My word. Good gracious. Heavens to Betsy.
The day before that, someone keyed our car in the parking lot at Foodland. I think it was the pouty-faced boy sitting in the back seat of the van parked next to Six, but can’t prove it. I don’t even want to. The damage is done. Maybe someday that awful child will realize what a dickhead he was and try to do better. Or he’ll end up in prison. I don’t care which.
I’ve never had any illusions about living in paradise. Along with breathtaking sunsets, mesmerizing surf and exotic flowers and birds, there are also bugs and slugs in the garden, endless rain, mushrooms growing on the deck and lava dust in the dryer. All of that is as it should be. But I was not expecting such spiteful, petty nastiness, such surly arrogance, especially among the young. And more than that: the belief that a moment of vengeance makes any difference. And even more: the ignorance of just how much damage their selfish actions do to other people’s lives.
But the pendulum also swings the other way. Among many others, there was the lovely lady at the ATM who gave me change for the copy machine and refused to take my dollar, the warm smile of the man who blessed my sneeze at Home Depot, the support and encouragement of the younger members of taiko class.
Icing on the cake, this story belongs in the Halloween Hall of Fame:
Little bitty trick-or-treater with a sad face and quivering lip: “Is that chocolate?”
Rick: “Yes, it is. Would you like something else?”
Beleaguered Trick-or-Treater’s mom : “Just take it and say ‘thank you,’ buddy.”
LBToT: “But, Mom, I don’t… [insert huge shuddering sobby sigh]… like chocolate.”
Rick, understanding this is a Big Deal, shows him the whole bowl: “See if there’s something else you want.”
LBToT: “Is that a wace caw?”
Rick: “A race car? Yeah, you can have it.”
LBToT: “THANK YOU!”
LBToT Mom: “Thank you!”
LBToT, echoing down the sidewalk: “Mom, I got a wace caw. I got a wace caw!”
Sir Isaac Newton said that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I suppose that works for physics, but for humanity there is an additional factor. Perhaps Finger Girl and Sourpuss Boy got a moment of spiteful bliss from their horrid behavior, but I will get years of pleasure from the ATM Lady, Home Depot Guy, the Drum Kids and IBToT. The good is worth more. The good is a wace caw.
On July 12 circa 1930, G. C. Lovejoy climbed the gangway to board the SS Hm Banker of the American Merchant lines. G. C. was traveling from London to New York. I don’t know if G. C. carried the suitcase or paid a porter to do it. I don’t know if G. C. stayed in first class or steerage. I don’t know if G. C. dined well or was seasick the whole way. I don’t know if G. C. looked forward to the voyage or regretted it bitterly. I don’t know if G. C. was tall or short, happy or sad, a man or a woman.
So many years later, G. C.’s suitcase found itself in my dad’s possession and in November of 2010, became the protector and resting place of two antique clocks, lovingly laid in a nest of wadded newspapers. There they slept, until G.C.’s suitcase arrived here in Hawaii two days ago. It was minus its handle but otherwise intact, its brass latches still functioning, its seersucker lining unassuming, smelling of years gone past, hopes and dreams packed and unpacked and packed again.
The newspapers mostly carried crossword puzzles and obituaries, or maybe that’s just what caught my eye. In tribute to G. C., I ironed the crosswords back to life. The obituaries were more of a lost cause.
And now the clocks sit on our Japanese cherry wood tea cupboard, only a quarter century old and made by prison inmates rather than traditional artisans, but lovely all the same.
The clocks flank Mariko, a Heian Period kimekomi doll. (What’s a kimekomi doll?) Mariko has a serene expression, as if lulled by the ticking, pleased for the company, unfazed by the hourly bong-bong-bong, as confident in her own beauty as the clocks in their control of time.
Above all this is a tapestry from a temple in Kyoto and to the left, another I found in a junk shop. Inside the cupboard are a painted case from Turkey, a carved Anubis and coffee mugs from Egypt, a Buddha-shaped incense burner, Meditation Cat and a couple of pink unicorns.
I put the clocks on top of the cupboard to keep them safe from the cats, thinking the placement was temporary. But the longer they sit there, the more they belong, their almost Gothic look somehow bringing everything together, bringing out the best of the whole rather than the oddity of the details.
Those clocks were a part of my childhood, their ticking perfectly in harmony with the creaks and pops of the old farmhouse we lived in. The slight smell the clocks give off is the smell of time, no less incongruous with the smells of Hawaii than I am.
The clocks need to be wound. That is the price we pay for the illusion of controlling time. But time is the one immutable constant, the one thing that can neither be given nor taken away. It can only be lived. All of us, our loves and hates, our joys and sorrows and disappointments, are only pieces of time, moments to be savored or forgotten, and only to be lived once. They are no more or less than what we make of them.