That opalescent sky I wrote about yesterday felted together, just like it does in Prince William Sound when a storm’s coming. The clouds bunched up, turned smoke-blue. Sopped wads of low cloud obscured Maui. We drove to Mahukona in the late afternoon, for Craig to swim in the roughed-up gray seas while I ran the old sugar cane road. Afterwards, getting ready to leave, a big white diesel truck pulled up next to our car. Four local guys got out, two men in their thirties, two boys 12 or so, black hair, mocha latte-colored skin. Out of the truck bed they pulled four white plastic chairs, which they set up side-by-side on the cement under a maile tree, facing the ocean. Mahukona is not a beach; it’s not a park. It’s a cement dock leftover from the sugar cane days. The trains delivered sugar cane to ships from the big plantations to the north. To swim at Mahukona, you jump off the dock or descend a ladder. During big swells, huge waves wash across the entire dock. Feral cats roam the ruins. It’s funky. It’s a very local place, especially on weekends, when families in pick-ups come to fish or hang out, where guys come for beers after work. Tourists from Kona arrive in rental cars, get out, wander around, and often leave, not knowing quite what goes on there. Swimming can be a bit intimidating, with swells rolling in past the ladder.
Craig and I changed our clothes in the car and watched the four guys, who pulled out a cooler and a big bag of potato chips. One of the boys raced back to the truck cab and turned on the radio to a local station. Ironically, it was playing, at that moment, a breast cancer screening public service announcement – Be cancer free! Get your annual screening, said a woman with a Hawaiian accent. Then the ubiquitous Hawaiian pop-reggae came on. The men cracked open beers, the boys sodas, and they sat in the chairs facing the water, in their flip-flops and board shorts and t-shirts, passing the bag of chips back and forth. They didn’t talk, just watched the weather coming in. It was “pau-hana,” which literally means “stop-work,” the first hours of the weekend. “Have a great weekend,” Craig called out as we started the car, and the guy closest to us turned and gave a big wave. They filled us with good will. “Next year,” I said, “I want that to be us. I want plastic chairs. I want a cooler.” Those men had all the requisite ingredients. The late-model, diesel extended cab white truck. The chairs. The cooler. It was Friday, the work week over. They had a jumbo sized bag of Maui onion potato chips. They had ice-cold drinks. They had the panorama of a storm coming to watch. They’d probably been born on the island. The boys would probably raise families on the island someday They had it all, as Craig says, and then some. We drove away feeling buoyed up, like their pau hana energy had rubbed off on our haole selves.
And the feeling stuck. The next morning, we woke to rain. It’s been very dry on the Big Island, unusually so for winter, so the rain was a balm. I imagined the earth as a big thirsty dog rolling over on its belly, opening its mouth, and letting the rain fall onto its long pink tongue. We drove up the hill to the farmer’s market, and perhaps the pau-hana energy of the scene at Mahukona the night before gave wandering in the rain between the scattered stalls under the great banyan trees a particular sweetness. We took our time. We bought fresh whole wheat rosemary bread and mac nuts and dried bananas and honey. We hugged our friend Douglas. We drank coconut juice through straws from a freshly macheted nut. We bought pumpkin and banana bread from Philippina aunties who sat at card tables holding blue and white umbrellas over themselves. Hippie kids manned the Starseed Farm table, let the rain fall on their bare skin and dreds. Some crouched on the banyan tree roots in hemp harem pants and dirty bare feet and thrift-store tank tops. They needed showers and the weather provided. One of them ran over to his car to bring us his special honey stash when he heard we kept bees in Alaska. “It’s from the farthest east you can go on the island, near Puna,” he said. “Taste this,” he said, “this hive was just left on its own for four years.” He dipped a straw into a half-filled quart jar of tarry goo and handed it to Craig, and then dipped it in again and handed it to me, and we discussed the flavor like it was a fine wine tasting. “It has a nice bite at the end,” Craig said. “Yeah,” I said, “probably from the propolis.” I kept my karo syrup impression to my self.
What does this have to do with Cancerland? Hold on. I’m getting to the point, I think. I actually don’t have any idea of what the point is when I start to write these things. But I’m starting to get that feeling like it’s just around the next bend in the ramble. This morning, I read something in The Book of Awakening, by Mark Nepo, that made me rethink my pronouncements about meditation in yesterday’s blog. The Book of Awakening is one of those daybooks, with a reading for each day of the year. Mark Nepo is a cancer survivor and poet, so his reflections hold particular resonance for me. I let him say things like the authors in In the Face of Fear say without getting mad. Because he writes out of the fire. Today’s reading was about staying in the moment and straying from the moment. He writes, “In diagnosis, I feared surgery. In surgery, I feared treatment. In treatment, I feared stronger treatment. In recovery, I fear recurrence. No one can avoid this straying, but our health depends on the breath that stops us from straying further. No matter how far we’ve gone, it is the practice of returning to whatever moment we are living now that restores.” When I read those words, I realized that if that’s what meditation is, it’s the essential practice for me after all. It’s meditation of a very particular kind. I’ll call it “living meditation.”
It’s been three months since radiation ended for me, and my chest wall and arm pit are still painful enough to wake me up in the middle of the night if I’m lying the wrong way. I thrash awake aching and grope around and feel for “thickenings,” “nodules,” or other ominous signs, find just skin, muscle, ribs and scar tissue, but the inevitable thought-engine roars to life, and the next thing I know I’m on a train they call the “City of Insomnia.” Every time I follow the physical pain down the rabbit hole of worry and scenarios and “how will I handle it if the cancer comes back,” all I can possibly do is focus back on the moment I’m in right now. And it’s HARD. Last night it was trade winds drifting into the window, how the wind here is so physical – it has hands! – and the wind chimes sounding, and a rat up on the roof, and the neighbor’s cows bellowing, and Craig breathing, asleep beside me, and then I was asleep. I don’t have a mantra of words and the body scan meditation is tough when the body’s a mine field, and I’m just not Buddhist enough to sit and focus on my breathing without my brain getting involved. But it does seem that the world outside myself is a kind of mantra. That’s it: the earth is my mantra. Maybe it’s what gave those moments of saving grace I described in yesterday’s blog their power. And maybe it’s what gave that scene at Mahukona its resonance, an elixir strong enough to flavor the next morning. Maybe a real Buddhist would call those distractions, a kind of straying from the no-thing-ness of true meditation. But for me they’re the opposite of straying. They’re refusing to stray, they’re staying right here, taking in whatever beauty or solace or balm is available in the moment. Sometimes it’s a potato chip. And sometimes its karo-syrup flavored honey dripping from a straw. As my friend the poet Liz Bradfield put it, it’s “the balm of the small.”