Sunday, November 9, 2008

Old gods

James Mitchener described the Hawaiian culture over 11 centuries. My dog-eared copy of Hawaii, read and reread when I was 16, is long gone. The paperback binding was broken apart and the cover was elsewhere, by the time it left me. I looked for it years later, not remembering I had finally let it go. Occasionally now some snippet of Mitchener's story comes to me - like one main Chinese character, Char Nyuk Tsin, whom I can rediscover on the Internet! In 1959 the idea of the world of information at my fingertips on my laptop, including the very passage from the book that I needed, would have sounded like science fiction. We only had TV and radio.

But on the net I find Wu Chow's Auntie to help me craft this essay. One of Mitchener's main characters in a long saga, her devotion to the lepers of Molokai despite the dangers of contracting the illness herself amazed me. It revealed "her loyalty and compassion to her fellow humans. This experience begins a habit that will last until her death the night she achieves American citizenship at age 106; every night she examines her body for signs of leprosy, and when no such signs are found, she can continue on her hard working way." (Hansen's disease is now curable, but only since the mid 20th century.)

I was interested in Hawaii at age 16 for two reasons: my friend Gail's grandmother lived in Hawaii and she talked about the place with affection. In a time when trips to Hawaii were taken maybe once in a lifetime, Hawaii became more real to me. Then I met a boy from Hawaii and my study of things Hawaiian became a passion. I married the boy and had two children by him, one born in Hawaii, both children blessed with the grace of the royal Hawaiian characters in Mitchener's book. I'm not kidding. In 2004 I toured the Hawaiian island of Molokai as part of my trip to my son's Kauai wedding.

Now I am 65. A few years back I found Moloka'i by Alan Brennert. The story of the lepers came alive again - of Father Damien, who spent sixteen years ministering to patients before he himself died in 1889 of leprosy. At 16 I had no concept of the many things that happen in one long life. Char Nyuk Tsin showed me that. Then Brennert drew out my sorrow for the ignorance that causes such suffering.

A new Mitchener memory popped up recently and is the reason I started to write this essay. Where all that other stuff came from, I don't know. I recalled that when the Christian missionaries convinced the people that their old Hawaiian religion was barbaric, there were a few stragglers who still worshiped their old gods in secret--because the old gods were more comforting! (Never mind that the "new" god also had some strange ideas about punishment.) I love this secretive bent of some of the old Hawaiian people, given my current hesitant affection for the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and The Power Of Now. My old "god" I turned to when I was upset and got immediate comfort. Now Tolle says I don't ever have to be upset! And he is right, given my so far limited but impossible to deny spiritual growth from his teachings. But leaving the familiar? I'm working on it.

Oh, what a comfort it was, to turn to what never failed me in my usually self imposed but nevertheless miserable case: my own brand of "god". Now I find myself on the edge of what appears to be an evolutionary movement. I'm trotting along with the others, wondering if we are either lemmings or brave warriors, sure only that we are leaving the old gods behind, only occasionally slipping back into that secret comfort. Well, time takes time. And persistence. 'And bravery because it's getting a little, um, unusual out there. I've heard Chuck Yeager quoted twice with the same quote in the last week: He was the first person to break the sound barrier. When he landed from the flight the media ran to him and asked what he had to say. His first comment was “just before you break through the sound barrier, the cockpit shakes the most.” On Tolle and the world in general right now? I can hear a kind of escalating vibrating hum, can you?

Humming away, I push the past into the present and try to figure out what the heck this essay is about: well, if I live to 106, I now have 41 more years to perfect my spiritual growth, checking myself nightly to see if I'm still aliiiive. I need every minute, let me tell you. Rather, every current moment. And with so much personal history- well it's not a saga, but 65 years is a lot for me to keep organized-- I am living what would have amazed me at 16. If I make it-- and my age is the age you really begin to wonder, I bet I will gasp- agog at the constantly accelerating evolution of life. But in this moment--gotta --wanta!! ---live in the now. Get out the meditative eraser and wipe away the random thoughts to let the more creative ones show up. Now I know what I think, just for now. What's next?

Geez. What was all that?