It is the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. Laurie and I are sheltering in place at our home, Ulu Loa, in upcountry Maui. The name was gifted to us over 20 years ago by Lei`ohu Ryder, a friend, Hawaiian spiritualist, songwriter and recording artist. Laurie, aka Lolly, is my wife and has served as my anchor and rock for the last three and a half decades, a reciprocal arrangement that keeps us both on course. She has studied Hawaiian culture, language and music for many years. Just about all that I know of things Hawaiian come from my proximity to Laurie. In addition to our self-imposed quarantine-like sheltering, we also take time for an occasional picnic in our own backyard, a pa`ina for two. Ulu Loa interprets as “abundant growth” and pa`ina means “feast” or “banquet.” Hawaiian grammar and linguistics often have broad and multiple meanings. Ululoa (one word) is also the name of a navigation star used by ancient Hawaiian voyagers and pa`ina can also mean “brittle, easily torn.” It's important to pay attention to intention when speaking Hawaiian.
Lolly marked her 73rd orbit around the star that brings life to our planet in May and I greeted my 77th year of this lifetime in August, in annual orbit, of course, of the same radiant star. Nothing quite like this pandemic has ever occurred in our lifetimes. I will spare you the staggering numbers and comparisons, in America and world-wide, but if you're interested, Google will bring them to your computer screen, as it has to mine, in a moment's beckoning (651,000,000 results in 0.84 seconds). What a world we live in.
We will remain hunkered down here on the slopes of Haleakala so long as this is what it takes to fulfill our duty to our community, our families, and to each other. It's been this way for many months now, with us venturing into town only to restore food supplies and necessities, taking all due precautions against infection, giving or getting. Now and then we also venture into the nearby forest, Kahakapao. It is said that the ancient Hawaiians came here to find the largest trees for the construction of their voyaging canoes, a process that took years to complete for each tree harvested. After they were felled, the huge trunks were partially hollowed with stone axes called an adz and then buried to cure, maybe for a year, then unearthed, hollowed further, and dragged to the the next staging area where the process was repeated until they finally reached the ocean, a monumental task that could take several years for a single trunk to be ready for the construction stage. Kahakapao interprets, roughly, as “a scraping or hollowing out, as with an adz.” I am reminded of those ancient Polynesians on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) who quarried the mega-ton stone monoliths and somehow got them to the shore and stood them upright, a similar massive chore, aided only with stone tools. “How'd you like to set them chokers, Luke?” asks the muse.
It is to Kahakapao we go to immerse ourselves in the natural beauty of the landscape and the endless variety of things that grow there. Large trail-side boulders glow in various shades of green, provided by lichen, moss and fungal growth. A vast field of kupukupu ferns covers a whole hillside while fragrant flowering kahili ginger fills an entire gulch just below. Countless towering trees provide an umbrella-like canopy that shades visitors from a tropical sun. Laurie calls such exploration “forest bathing,” feeling cleansed from the experience.
Ulu Loa feels safe, our home and sanctuary. Peace, beauty, and shelter is what you get here. Several acres of (indeed) abundant growth, private and productive, produce a robust work schedule into which Laurie excels and from which I sometimes cringe. Absence of social interaction leaves plenty of time for remembrance and reflection, of our lives, our country, and of each other. What other events occurring in our lifetime vie with this? Only in terms of sorrow, a universal emotion applicable to a singular or all-encompassing event, do any come to mind; of these there are many. Along with the politics of an election year, the evening news features breadlines and food banks with miles of cars waiting in line. Similar lines of people are seen awaiting service at employment offices or a test for the covid virus, images of our country during this pandemic. I have a preference for the stark black & white photos of the Great Depression, dust-bowl refugees, and rampant poverty of other times. I find that they do a better job than the TV news of making it personal, of putting the viewer into the picture. As western states suffer the worst wildfires in recent history and the country suffers through social and racial division, much of it engineered by our would-be leader, I wonder: do we have enough sorrow to go around? Have we lived through any year at all that competes with 2020 in terms of social disarray, natural disasters, sickening political theater, and economic turmoil, all encompassed within a world-wide pandemic?
This is a poor time to be absent leadership and heroes. Where are the invincibles, the Roosevelts, Churchills or Kennedys, those with the strength of character of a Lincoln or Washington? Where is the bold legislation, the Five Year Plans and New Deals, designs for a future? To whom does this lonely nation now turn? To whomever, the search will likely include women. So many of the male politicians and others of their ilk are such terrific assholes. Haven't we had enough of pasty white men modeling their suits and neckties as they wallow in grandiosity and self- importance?
As we await the emergence of the noble character we long to see in our leaders, Laurie and I turn to one another and to Ulu Loa. We embrace all that we see and give thanks for our abundant good fortune, health, and all that we still feel for each other. Our bodies continue to age and feature all that that implies, but if there is an upside, a silver lining to this pandemic, then let it be these months of isolation with one another. To remember what it is like to simply be ourselves, together, without distraction. To reach back and remember that special time when, dumbstruck and amazed, I found myself walking on air, adrift and giddy, and a great revelation flooded my consciousness: love is a crazy thing, an unbidden intoxication that sneaks up on you and happens of its own volition, even when you're trying to avoid it. Recalling Laurie's confession in anticipation of a first date: “ ... good God, don't let me fall in love with him—maybe he smokes—I could never be with a smoker.” Then learning that love can extinguish bad habits at the drop of a hat. Taking the time to discover with awe-inspiring certainty that the light shining from our eyes today is that of the love we first seeded all those years ago, able yet to delight one another with who we were, with who we are. Who would've guessed a pandemic could bring such renewal of discovery and joy? With a nod of thanks to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it feels like this must be Love in the Time of Covid.
It came to me like a lightning bolt, a sudden disclosure of a great secret: that writing can be a joyful endeavor. What a surprise. Only those who write, I suppose, share this discovery. I was inspired by this joy to think that one day I would write a book, even if not a prize winner—the joy is in the journey. And I did. And it did, too (win a prize), though nothing close to those awards endorsed by lofty literary establishments. Nonetheless, together with the laurels of an award presentation, a thousand US dollars in grand prize money and a jubilant banquet (how appropriate) hosted by our good friend Ed Olson, it felt like validation. Somebody, other than my personal friends and supporters, found value in what I had to say, or maybe just in the way I said it. I call it Volume 1 of my “Banquet” series, a memoir largely about consequences. To some extent it deals with what can come of defective choices and decisions, reckless risk taking, drug taking, failure to see a picture in its entirety when the whole thing is right in front of you, and so forth. It also includes a lot of personal history so that a reader might gather a better understanding of the writer who is talking to them.
A memoir is a non-fiction account, as true as you can make it, of events or a period of time in your own life. It also serves as a personal confrontation and a form of therapy for the writer, a road map of the reality you have created. The important part becomes recognition of the responsibility for that reality. The therapy will only be as good as the honesty you bring to the writing. Be a forgiving soul, especially of yourself. Like the physician: heal thyself; or the writer: confront thyself.
A word about taking responsibility: some 40 years ago, on a dare (a challenge, really), wandering aimlessly in a particularly fragile period of my existence, I was talked into subjecting myself to Werner Erhard's “est” training, buying into the idea that I would not otherwise be a complete and confident human being until I “get it.” What I learned (“got”) from the training was the concept of taking responsibility for my own reality, that I and no one else was responsible for its existence. Avoid being a victim. Understand that hard work, application, and keen vision are sometimes required. And similar abstract ideals.
The training took place over several days and consumed consecutive weekends throughout which trainees were compelled to be viceless and watchless (no time pieces allowed during the training). Trainees were also required to adhere to notoriously infrequent bathroom breaks while the training was in session. As I recall, we even signed contracts agreeing to various rules and absolutely no intoxicants, booze or drugs and the like, and punctual, responsible attendance. The est training required serious attention to matters at hand.
As the training came to its end, reaching a grand finale and crescendo of enthusiasm by the two hundred or so attendees, the big secret that had been reserved for this moment was finally shared in the form of a question: “... did you get it?” Many seemed to reach a state of ecstasy as they assimilated this question into all they had learned, a crowning jewel to assist their elevation to a higher plane of existence, that of an est graduate. Some, however, were bewildered and wondered, “ … get what?” A few wanted their money back. I thought of Arlo Guthrie sitting on the Group W bench in his profound and hilarious anti-war master work, “Alice's Restaurant.” I said to myself, “I didn't get nothing. I had to pay four hundred dollars and hold back my pee 'til it hurt.” Arlo, too, didn't get nothing but had to pay only fifty dollars and pick up the garbage, able to pee freely, we assume, as need would arise.
It took me a couple of years and a Federal prison sentence to understand that, yes, I “got it.” I will be a stronger, happier, and more confident person when I take responsibility for my reality and understand that it comes from my own hand and creation. No whining. No assigning blame elsewhere, not even to rats, snitches and informants. Accept the responsibility handed you. This becomes especially significant when you can examine your circumstance and surroundings, and tell yourself with all honesty and understanding: “I put those prison walls there.” The est trainers, capable, convincing and confident, also wanted me to understand that my responsibility includes such events as carelessly stepping in dogshit, at which I was to smile and revel in my understanding of responsibility for the event and outcome.
As simple as it all might sound, the difficulty comes in integrating these beliefs into your life, like breathing, having it become an autonomous part of your nature. It's easier when you don't consciously try to do it. Some things like, say, an investment portfolio, perform best when simply left alone. The dividends will happen (or not) without your meddling. You applied your keen eye, experience and able judgment to the matter before purchase, did you not? If Mr. Erhard had something in mind beyond these concepts for me to “get” from his training, then I no doubt failed, although I do think my bullshit detectors came away with a sharper edge, honed to a higher sheen and polish.
Case in point: our president. So difficult to ignore this certified con man and journeyman fool. From the beginnings of his public onslaught, his character and behavior have been transparent to me. Though perhaps it validates my thinking, I don't think that I needed his niece's book and professional diagnoses to define his glaring deficits. He does a fine job of showcasing all of that on a daily basis, all by himself. My detectors scanned this man as a towering pinnacle of bullshit, incapable when it comes to truth, honor, empathy, or benevolence, lacking grace in all things, including his golf swing. How can anyone who pays the slightest attention to personal character or national affairs not know, for certain and beyond doubt, that we saddled ourselves and our country with a fatally malignant president, a commander in chief who desecrates the military under his command, in word and in deed, and steadfastly refuses to take responsibility for anything except a circumstance in which he can claim, distort and otherwise use to make himself look (to his toadies and believers) other than flaccid. His inability to formulate a response to the coronavirus and recognize the reality of its deadly, runaway-train nature has resulted in a national medical catastrophe, the trashing of the economy, and the deaths of tens of thousands. Why on earth would this sad and defective individual aspire to the office that requires acceptance of more responsibility, his personal anathema, than any other on the planet? His failure to take responsibility for his office and sworn duty paints him weak and feeble, a small man running from things that scare him.
It is a rare circumstance for me to be this critical of another human being, however, I believe he intentionally goes all out to create this sort of reaction from his detractorsbecause it serves to further divide us and provides a food-source for his base. Losers and suckers? You bet. Unfortunately, the country is full of them. They are the followers, believers and enablers of this walking nightmare of a man. Calling them deplorable is being kind.
Lolly is a term of endearment I've bestowed on my wife who also serves as my conduit to the outside world. Others have life-like new-age computer programs they converse with. The programs have seductive voices and answer to names like Siri or Alexa. Owners of these digital slaves can direct questions and demands, even rudeness, at them. You would be well advised not to direct any rudeness at Lolly.
She greets each day an hour or so before I am upright and scans the internet, including a few newspapers, for things that interest her, noting various items she thinks might be of interest to me. She might also look at the weather report in Athens, and on Crete, and check into places we or she have included in recent travels—Provence, Northern Greece and Portugal—so very thankful today for having done so just ahead of the pandemic. A year earlier, I stayed home while Lolly, a born traveler, visited some of the smaller Tahitian islands and Africa. She never fails to bring home a lasting piece of her travels, usually leaving something of value behind. She likes to travel with a companion ukulele, known as a “ little guitar” in Africa (donated to a girl's school in Kenya) and a “kamaka” in French Polynesia, even if it's a Martin. She knows what goes on in Hilo and Honolulu, whether or not strife continues in Nairobi or if the government still stands in Uganda, all places where she has personal history and connection. She knows which Hawaiian recording artist may have released a new CD, and the latest acts of buffoonery committed in our national capitol. She also knows that I might find too much information coming at me first thing in the morning confusing, if not an assault, and saves some items gleaned on my behalf for later. I go off to make my coffee secure in the knowledge that she would alert me to anything that needed my attention without the asking. Exceptionally bright and capable, I find great comfort in our marriage and a lasting beauty in her person, confident that no one could program a computer to compete with the real thing. Other than the cost to humanity, her biggest worry about this pandemic is that it will, for some unknown period of time, prevent her from traveling to places that call to her.
In the meantime there is Ulu Loa, plantings to be tended and bounty to be harvested. As we begin to remember who we are and what we're about, there is a country to be rehabilitated and a way of life to be preserved.
Volume 2 of the Banquet series, the Banquet of Abundance, will eventually take its form in a collection of bits and pieces, sewn together catch-as-catch-can, as best that I can, one can, toucan, beer-can, garbage can, pelican, his beak holds more than his belly can, and I kick the can down the road as Ella Fitzgerald sings “…she certainly can, can-can,” on my cerebral radio.
I seek your forgiveness for this little “can” exercise. The Banquet of Abundance is also meant to celebrate a little silliness, sometimes an effective balm against the hard and stark reality we currently encounter on a daily basis. Further thoughts and events that have transpired in this boy's life are forthcoming. I am of course a late term septuagenarian but one who also thinks of himself in terms of always being that boy he remembers so well.