Blessing

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I’ll be frank. I would not have chosen a year of wrangling a rare auto immune disease. I would not have chosen the headaches, the aching joints, being cloaked in fatigue, the fear that it would always be this way. The fear of having a stroke. Of losing my eyesight. But, having gone through a year of Giant Cell Arteritis, I see the blessings. I learned some things in that year that I would not have otherwise learned. Or, let’s just say, it would have taken me a lot longer.

I learned that people are not perfect. I know, I know, this is something you could have told me, and saved me quite a lot of grief. When I was dealing with the jots and tittles of the estate after my father died, I expected people to do their jobs, if not perfectly, at least with some degree of aptitude. Some were kind and efficient, able to take care of their end of things without making my life harder. Others were incompetent or simply failed to do their jobs at all. My father’s attorney, for example, made over 30 mistakes, the most significant being getting the date of my father’s death wrong on legal paperwork, and neglecting to get Dad’s name right. Now my father didn’t make it easy. He had no fewer than 7 versions of his name used for bank accounts, utilities, investment accounts, and whatnot, a peculiarity which complicated my role as executor considerably. Still, one would think (I did) that the attorney and his paralegal would look at the copy of the birth certificate and/or the death certificate to verify the legal name of the deceased. They did not. It appears that they grabbed one out of a hat and slapped it onto the paperwork before sending it off to the courthouse. Which meant that the personal representative paperwork I needed had the wrong name, which meant that it had to be amended, which sounds inconsequential now, but every delay, every mistake, every correction meant that I had to start over. The attorney was only one among many who did not do their jobs well. I won’t bore you with a diatribe on this. Suffice it to say, I was enraged at the lack of perfection smacking me in the face. Right. First lesson. People are just people. They are not perfect. Expectation of perfection only leads to blistering headaches.

Second lesson, I must be my own advocate, with doctors and nurses, with my husband, with my friends and with strangers. People cannot know how to support you unless you stand up for yourself and say (out loud) what you need from them. It turns out that people are not very good at reading minds, even those closest to you. I’ll delve into this topic at length another time, but I’ll say that it took for  some spunk for me to stand up to my doctors and challenge the need for all of the drugs they’d put me on, it took persistence to deal with insurance people all over the country trying to get my medication covered, and it took digging deep to ask my husband for the kind of support I needed from him. Learning to be my own advocate was incredibly hard for me because, initially, I didn’t want to be a bother and I didn’t think I deserved what I was asking for. But I learned. If I don’t value myself, how can I expect anyone else to?

Finally, one of the biggest lessons of this illness was learning to let go of anger by not feeding the story behind it. Sure, I was able to justify my rage at each of the people who had not done their jobs competently, or at all, when I was dealing with the estate. I relished telling my family and friends how unqualified, incompetent, and idiotic these people were. Did I feel superior? Of course. Did I get sympathy from these rants? Sure. Did it fix anything? Not at all. Talking about my indignation just fed my anger, which fed the flame of headache in my skull. I had the “right” to be angry, especially with the people I was paying to do this work. I had the right to be angry, to fire them, to file complaints, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. I still needed to wade through the tangles of the estate, and the reality was that most of the problems associated with the estate were the doings of my father. The many iterations of his name confounded people and the process. The fact that he hadn’t set up the trust in the way that he wanted to meant that the attorney had to get involved. And the fact that he had gone over everything with me years before he died, but hadn’t kept it up to date, created a mess that he never intended. That was the hardest part for me. Not only was my father not perfect, he was not here to help me sort this out. I knew that he had high expectations of me and that, no matter how well I did my job as executor, I could not do it perfectly, nor could I make him proud. Well. That was the crux of my anger there. Dad was gone, things were a mess, I was going to have to sort it out, and my “last chance” to do something of which my father might be proud of me could very well blow up in my face. What a story I was telling myself. That I had to be perfect, to make not a single mistake. That the mistakes of my father fell on me. And that, if I could just figure out how to do this job with perfection, my father would finally be proud of me. It was as if I had a vision of my father sitting on a cloud somewhere, watching over my efforts. I could hear his voice in my head saying, “Oh cripe,” grumbling when he realized what a mess things were with the trust. Would he have been able to say to me, “Sorry for the mess, kid, but you’re doing a great job,” or would he have placed the blame at my feet? I can’t know and I won’t ever hear him say that he was proud of me, but I can imagine. It’s far better for me to shift the story, to say the words I longed to hear, “I’m proud of you. That was a real mess to get through, and you did a fine job. Thank you.” Far better for me to shift the story and let the headache go.

Away

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I have been away for some time. I did not intend to orphan this part of my writing life, but for four years, I’ve been whip lashed from one major life event to another and I needed some distance to reflect.

In the early months of 2016, my husband and I packed up our Hawaii lives, and moved to Colorado. In the midst of moving, we learned that our daughter was in a medical crisis and would need surgery. I booked a flight to Ecuador where she lived to be by her side, but the surgery was unsuccessful. The surgeon recommended that she seek treatment in the US. We had just moved to Colorado and had no doctors ourselves, let alone knowledge of hospitals and surgeons in the area, but we shifted into high gear and found an excellent surgical team for her. Still, there were two additional surgeries before the crisis was resolved. The stress was unspeakable. There is nothing quite like the helpless feeling a mother has when she cannot fix the pain that her daughter is in. When she had recovered from the third surgery in the spring of 2017, I was finally able to breathe again.

Meanwhile, my father’s health was declining. After Mom died, Dad had continued to live in the house “on the ridge” overlooking the Missoula Valley in Montana. He was doing pretty well cooking for himself, but as 2017 dawned, he was finding it harder and harder to manage.  My sister and I were making trips home to see him and we talked with him daily by email and by phone. Then in mid December, he made the dramatic announcement that he “wasn’t going to make it through the winter.” We booked flights to Missoula and miraculously, found an independent living situation that he was happy with. A fleet of trucks arrived on an ugly, rainy morning and, with the help of friends, we loaded the barest necessities, leaving most of his worldly life behind, and moved him to The Springs. Four months later, he died. I so wish he’d been willing to move earlier. He enjoyed living there, he made new friends, and had support when he needed it. Most importantly, he wasn’t alone when he fell the first time, and the second time, and again.

Three months after Dad died, I got sick.

It began with headaches, then torched into jaw declension. I was unable to chew food without pain or extreme tension. I felt as if my jaw bones were wired together. My doctor ordered a biopsy to rule out an auto immune disease she suspected, but thought highly unlikely due to its rarity. The biopsy was positive. For the next year, I rode a bucking bronco called Giant Cell Arteritis. No one chooses to be in the auto immune rodeo, but there I was, in the saddle, slammed with persistent headaches, massive inflammation, and jaw declension.  The headaches were all consuming but they and the inflammation eased up after my dose of steroids was raised from 60 to 80 mg. Suddenly, I was on six different medications with the risk of stroke or loss of eyesight if I declined to take them. Most of the medications were to counter the side effects of the heavy lifter, Prednisone. Everything in my life ground to a halt apart from doctor’s appointments, managing medications, and trying to get my insurance to cover the pricey medication I needed to save my life. Well, not everything. As trustee of my parents’ estate, I had to muscle through the estate issues, juggling notes, folders, letters, emails, and phone calls, learning how to be a trustee while managing an auto immune disease. Many, many things did not unfold the way my father intended. I felt like a character in a swift moving novel,  the author cackling, sitting at the computer, throwing one dart after another at me, “And then torrential rain begins to fall! And then the bridge goes out! And then….hot lava as the volcano erupts!”

That is in the rear view now. As of July of last year I’m off the medications and all signs point toward a long life, free of Giant Cell Arteritis. I’ve been writing all along, but of necessity, it has been private, in my journal. As I said, I have been away. Being away has not been all bad. I’ve learned a great deal in these four years, primarily about stress and the gift of illness. I’ve learned that I do not have to do everything on my own. I’ve learned that my family is there for me, as are my friends, some of whom are very new. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to manage things when it all goes wrong. I’ve learned to let go, how to fail, how to fall, and how to land. Thankfully, I’m out of the rodeo now, and I’ve put that buckin’ bronco out to pasture. So long, Varmint, and thanks for the lessons.

I See It Now

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It is not easy keeping your emotions in check when someone dear to you is dying, but that is what I did, for five long weeks while my mother was robbed of her life. I kept myself in check because that is what we do in my family. First, there was the anxiety and confusion, which I had no trouble expressing. What followed, however, was the sadness, which crept over me like flannel as the reality of her death began to sink in. I allowed myself to feel sad in the privacy of my room and with my sister. Only once did I cry with my mother. I may have cried with my father, but only briefly, until we could get ahold of ourselves and turn away. At times, I felt an out of step happiness, being with my family again; out of step because it felt shameful to feel any joy at all while Mom was dying. But there you go. We laughed a lot. I did not see the anger then, anger being an emotion that we don’t talk about or acknowledge or recognize as normal. I see it now.

It has been two years since I sat with my Mom while she was dying. Until now, I’ve not been able to accept that I was angry. Not all of the time, but often enough, and not at Mom, or God, or whatever ill fate had given her cancer. I was angry, primarily, with myself for feeling lost, for not being able to figure things out in a crisis and, when I could figure things out, I was angry at my bumbling and my fear, the missteps and my desperate need for help when no one else was there. Help arrived eventually, but I wanted rescue mid-crisis, not later, after I’d managed to put out the fire. I was angry for feeling incompetent when what I needed was to be strong hearted and capable.

I might have tried to be a bit more compassionate with myself. I had never been through anything like this after all, the long journey toward death with my mother. How was I to know what to do? I might have tried to find compassion for myself but it was all I could do to hold my balance in the face of the day to day indignities of dying.

I see it now, the anger. Hard, raw, self-pitying, ugly. Anger with myself and anger with hospice for uneven, irregular assistance in our care of Mom. I had heard only positive reports about hospice care from friends who’d lost parents, husbands, partners, so I was not expecting to feel let down. It turns out that hospice is not there all of the time. It turns out that hospice care is done by human beings, some of whom are flawed. They do the work of angels, but some of them make mistakes. And some are not able to be there when you need them most. Worst of all, they can neither stop the progress of death, nor can they  hasten it when you are bone tired, down to your last shred of patience, and unable to take another hour of this.

I see it now, the dragon I tried to wrestle to the ground, that raw, self-pitying anger at my helpmate in the caretaking of Mom. This is the hardest to acknowledge. It feels like a betrayal, since we were in this together, there to support one another, and my anger is not all of it. I feel gratitude that she was there and the most profound love for her. But there was anger, rock spitting anger, that I did not allow myself at the time, because I could not risk my balance in the boat. The problem was this: I was afraid. I needed her there in the boat with me. I needed her there all the time. In case there was a crisis. In case I couldn’t handle things. In. Case. Mom. Died. I didn’t want to be alone in the caretaking, I didn’t want to be blamed for messing up. I didn’t want to be the only one there when she died. I was alone a lot. I’ll leave it at that.

This is how it was for me: I was afraid, and lonely, and angry and now I am told that it is normal to feel all of this when someone you love is dying. I am being given permission. Has it helped to know that anger is normal? No, not especially.

There wasn’t a lot of tolerance for anger in my family when I was growing up. When I got mad, which was often, I was sent to my room and told to “think about it.” It was never clear what exactly I was supposed to think about, but it was understood that I was to reflect on my bad behavior, feel ashamed of myself, and not return to the family fold until I could “behave.” Though I am now an adult, I still find it hard to allow myself to feel anger, to acknowledge that it was normal then and is normal now. My impulse is to stop the feeling as it rises; I banish myself to a place apart from people until I have calmed down, talked myself out of the feelings, managed to push them down. Until I can “behave.” I wish that I had been shown how to talk about my feelings in a way that was constructive, not hurtful, but it was not how we did things in the 50s and 60s. Not in my family.

Here is my truth. I am writing a memoir about this journey with my mother. I have been looking for a way around what made me angry, a way to gloss over it, or a way to leave it out altogether. I know now that I cannot leave my anger out of the story any more than I can leave my grief, my confusion, or my joy out of it. To do so would be dishonest. I need to tell the truth. If I am not willing to write this journey as I experienced it, then what is the point of writing at all?

So many times I felt incompetent and helpless in the face of my mother’s illness. I was not incompetent, nor was I helpless, but that is how I felt. Though everyone had faith in me, I had little faith in myself. Those of us who write from personal experience do so in order to make sense of our lives, to meet ourselves face to face, to find compassion and understanding, for ourselves as well as for others. I was angry. And because anger is part of the story, along with the anxiety, the love, the resentment, the relief, and the joy, I write about all of it. I write, and discover that I am strong hearted and capable, after all.

Finding my Way in the Dark

“Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could.”  (Neil Gaiman)

I am in the midst of something difficult. I am writing a memoir about my mother and the journey I took with her two summers ago. The journey is metaphorical. The book is about cancer and how she died, and how my father and sister and I did what we could. We took good care of her, hospice helped…or didn’t. We did our best, and she died anyway.

Some days I am not certain that I can write this book. I have a mountain of material in two notebooks that I call the “compost pile” and I am slowly turning this compost into a memoir, one handful of dark, rich humus at a time. I have been nagged by persistent thoughts that I don’t know what I am doing. I have read a number of fine books on how to write memoir; some have been helpful, but they have not answered my primary question: How do I write this book?

Then, in July, I found something I thought would light my path. I found a class, a master class that perfectly matched my needs. It was called “The Story Beneath Your Story” and was being offered by Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss. I knew in my bones that I’d found the answer. I needed this class; it was the key to moving forward with my book. I decided that I was going to get into the class whatever it took. Was I master class material? There was only one way to find out.

I sent a sample of my best writing with my application, and had two fine, articulate people willing to give recommendations for me. Because the writing retreat had what they called “rolling acceptance” to the class, I sent in my application 3 weeks early. Then I waited. And waited. At first, with anticipation, then with some anxiety, and then, with just a touch of bitterness as I realized that they were not, in fact, sticking with the rolling acceptance format. I surmised that, as the number of writers applying to the class rose, my chances of getting in fell.  The deadline came and went and I heard nothing. I became discouraged, then depressed. I tried not to lose hope. (Hope) Then, just in case I was still in the running, I envisioned my manuscript in the ‘Yes’ pile, hoping that they were simply looking for the best writers to join me in the weeklong class. It helped decrease my anxiety, but did not change the outcome. I did not get in.

Two weeks after the deadline, I got an email informing me that they had had an overwhelming response and that they were not able to offer me a place in the class. They wrote that I was “a strong writer” and that I was “at the top of the waiting list” if I wanted to wait and see. I did not. I live in Hawaii and making last minute plans to fly to the mainland is expensive, if it can be managed at all. I wanted a solid place at the table, not at the front of the line, outside, in the hallway. It was little consolation that they had accepted only six writers.

At first, I felt sorry for myself. When is it going to be my turn, I wrote in the privacy of my journal. I had had to cancel my enrollment at a writer’s retreat when my mother’s cancer had reached the final stages, a retreat that I had needed and had set my heart on. Now I needed this master class. How was I to move forward without it? I didn’t know what to do with all of that compost, and I had lost the opportunity to find out. I moped about the house, feeling childish and angry.

I called one of my friends, another writer, and told her that I had not been accepted into the master class. She commiserated with me briefly, but refused to buy into the idea that I would remain lost without it, saying, “You have it in you to do this.” She proposed that it was all for the best, and that I ought to write more of the book, find my voice, and the arc of the story, before asking others for comment or guidance. I saw her point. I got back to work.

I still feel at times that I am walking in the dark, that I don’t know how to do this. I now understand that all writers feel this way. I trust that the process of writing will show me how to write this book. Many days I flounder. On good days, I work the compost into something that is rich and dark and true. Other days, it feels like leaves and sticks in my hands and I must pretend that I am someone who can write a book, this book, from beginning to end. I thought that Edelman’s class would light the way for me. Since that did not happen, I will continue to look for, and light candles, along my own path, striking matches and hoping that the wind does not blow them out. candlelight

Lessons Learned the Hard Way, confession #1

Ten years ago, I joined Toastmasters here in Hilo. I’ll address what possessed me to do such a thing, and why I’ve stuck with it for so long, at another time, but I needed to provide context for the following story.

The Hilo Toastmasters held a speech contest recently, and I was asked to furnish the all-important question for the extemporaneous speakers. In Toastmasters, we call this Table Topics, and there is an opportunity at each weekly meeting for 2 or 3 speakers to stand in front of the room and practice speaking “off the cuff.”  Once a year, however, we hold a speech contest and declare one member the quickest thinker in all the land. Well, in the room, anyway. The winner of the club contest moves on to compete in the Area contest and, if sufficiently quick and clever, will keep advancing all the way to the District level, which, in our case, means that ultimately, one could be declared the fastest draw in the state of Hawaii. Don’t get me wrong. No guns are involved. Only words fly, and if you’re good at it, your words follow one another in a way that makes sense and leaves your audience with a 2 minute pearl of well-thought wisdom. This almost never happens to me. Which is why I have never entered the Table Topics speech contest.

I was delighted to act as the Table Topics master, however. As TT master, my role was to supply the question to the contestants, but first, I had to come up with a good topic. I thought, why settle on something merely good? I wanted to come up with something great, something people would be talking about years later. Right. No over-inflated sense of self-importance here. A week prior, I had asked the organizers what kind of question would be appropriate. “Something simple and light,” I was told. Simple and light. I thought about this for a few days and came up with some pretty ridiculous topics, questions that dabbled with such frivolities as ice cream flavors, vacation destinations (favorite or disastrous), and progress reports from all contestants on New Year’s resolutions made almost two months ago. Dull. And frankly, who would care?

Anyway, something bothered me about the word “light.” If this was to be a proper contest, then I thought that the question ought to have some weight, should in some way test the participants. Sure, I could come up with a softball question, easily answered by anyone, but wouldn’t it be far more interesting to ask a question that was both universal and provocative? The more I thought about it, the more I believed that this was the way to go. This is the question I settled on, in the end:

“What life lesson did you learn the hard way?” I doubt this question was so provocative that people were talking about it an hour later, let alone for years to come, but trust me, it was a better question than the others I had written.

There were three contestants and their responses were unique, each speaking to experiences in their own lives. It was a good question. Later in the day, while I was out walking, I considered how I would have answered.

I think we can agree that some people learn things the “easy way” and some of us learn things the “hard way.” I myself, always seem to take my lessons the hard way. Learning the hard way has left me with, at one time or another, scraped knees, black eye, a scar shaped like railroad tracks, bruised ego, wounded feelings, and scorching anger too hot to handle. I sound like quite the little tough, don’t I? I’m not. Though it does seem like, for a while there in my life, there was not a fight that drifted my way that I did not propel myself head over pitchfork right into the middle of. If there was a conflict, I could not resist getting in the middle of it, whether it was my business or not.

A case in point. I was, for two years, the president of the Master Gardeners here on the east side of the island. I was an enthusiastic and energetic leader and made it my business to have my fingers in every pie, or more accurately, every pot, project, and garden plot. When, one day, a member (let’s call her Tammy)  complained with some bitterness that another member (we’ll call her Pam)  had flat out refused to drive to her house and pick up some items needed for an upcoming educational booth, I jumped onto that carousel without a second thought. When I next saw the offending member, I “shared” (it’s such a slippery word, isn’t it?) that I’d received a complaint from Tammy and suggested that life would be ever so much more harmonious if we could have a bit more cooperation. I left in a mist of self-congratulation, thinking that I had handled the situation splendidly, and that the pair would get along beautifully in the future, thanks to my timely intervention. Wrong. Decorum forced Pam to hold her tongue in the moment, but she let me have it several weeks later.

There are two sides to every story, of course, a fact that somehow did not impress itself on my brainpan when I first listened to Tammy’s kvetching. I had taken what she had said at face value; in other words, I had believed every word of it. Unfortunately I came to learn that her version lay just outside the district of actual truth. I had taken Tammy’s side and put myself in the position of scolding Pam. What had I been thinking? I thought I had worked this tangle out, and, with some arrogance, I thought I had handled the situation masterfully. It never occurred to me to contact Pam and ask her if she had tried to meet Tammy halfway on this. She had, and more. When I had an opportunity to apologize, I did so, and meant it. I was mortified. I thoroughly hated being verbally thrashed in a public hallway for my offense, and it stung for months after, but I learned an important lesson. Mind your own business. Let other people work out their own tangles.

Here in Hawaii, we use the word kuleana to talk about responsibility, as in, “It is not my kuleana to tell you what you ought to be doing.” Kuleana refers to what is my personal responsibility, my concern, but it goes much deeper than that. Kuleana embraces the concepts of ownership, authority and right. In this case, I did not have ownership of the conflict the two women were having with one another, and I had a false sense of my authority in the matter. As a good leader, I felt it was my kuleana to get in the middle of it, to counsel the two women, thinking that all would be well if I did so. I was wrong. They were adults, not children. It was not my business, and I made it much worse. I did not have the right to take either side, and I was not right in tossing myself into the middle of it. It was a hard life lesson, but I got it. Now, when friends or colleagues find themselves in a tangle with one another, I stay out of it. I may lend a sympathetic ear, for a while, but I strive mightily to avoid taking sides. At times, I may offer an idea to help resolve the problem, though I find that people in the heat of their own hurt and anger are often not ready for resolution. Sometimes, people need to feel their own pain for a while. It’s part of growth. Their growth, their kuleana. It is their lesson to learn, the easy way or the hard way. I have my own lessons to learn. Usually, the hard way.

(glasswork by Dale Chihuly)

Hard Way Chihully

Untangle Away

I have delayed going public with this blog, until this day, until this very moment. I think that my hesitation has been that what I write here cannot be changed, that what I write may not come across perfectly. Perish the thought! Here’s a reality check: it occurs to me that the world may not stop spinning on its axis if I write something that I think better of later. Truly. Even though I might hold an exaggerated sense of my own importance in the world, chances are nothing I write, or say, will fall into the category one would label “earth shattering.” This takes some of the pressure off. I’d like to make you think about things in a slightly different way, if possible. I might share something wildly useful or profound. I won’t be focusing on one topic alone, such as gardening for grumps, or cooking with coconuts. In fact, there will be no gardening in this blog at all. Well, maybe a grumble about the jungle warfare that is gardening in Hawaii. But this blog is not the place if you’re looking for advice. On anything.  The purpose of my blog is to think aloud about some of the challenges I have as a writer, as a public speaker, and as a human being. I am curious about why people do the things they do, why I do the things I do, and sometimes, by writing about these curiosities, I come to an understanding I did not have before. Not always, but sometimes. Some of the curiosity I have about writing, speaking and life might be shared by you. Terrific. I like discovering that other people have had the same thoughts or feelings as I’ve had. It makes me feel less alone in the world. One more thing. I need to hear myself say this out loud. When I decided to start a blog, it was with the intention of having a place to play with words and ideas, to perhaps not take myself so seriously. I’d like this blog to not only be a place where I post the untangling of ideas in my head, but where my weird sense of humor can come out to play. Here goes! Untangle away! And let the playful thinking aloud begin!

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A Late Breaking Intention

‘Tis the season for resolutions.
By March, it will be the season of regrets.
Maybe. This is how it often goes.
This is why I don’t usually make resolutions.
I don’t like to feel bad when I forget the promises I made to myself.
There is, however, nothing wrong with creating intentions.

This is what I want to say to you:

Be brave this year and try something new.
Be kind to others, and to yourself.
Set goals for personal growth or better health if you must, but break them down into small steps so that you have a chance to succeed.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
Make more mistakes.
Be brave this year. Be brave.

What does this mean to me?
It means writing close to the bone, as truthfully as I dare.
It means not just writing but sending my written words out into the world. They should not be orphan children lurking in my filing cabinets. I should put some nice clothing on them, and send them out to find new homes.
It means pushing beyond my natural reticence to interact with people who are not characters in books. Lo! Real people can be wondrous characters too!
It means recognizing that I am not perfect, that I will make mistakes….and doing it anyway.
I mean to make more mistakes this year. And to learn from them.
I mean to be brave.

This Gift

It is the season of birthdays in my family and I am trying to remain calm. I am not a natural at this. By which I mean birthday celebrations, presents. Don’t get me wrong. We are all grownups, so we are not talking screaming 5 year olds, pony rides, and party hats. We are talking gifts. I want to get nice gifts for the people I love. Something unique, something that I can get my hands on without too much trouble, something that they will absolutely adore for now, for years, forever. Okay, that might be pushing it.

My husband, who prefers to deemphasize the passage of yet another year, wants to keep it simple. No party, no dinner out, and, best of all, he has a gift idea. He wants a gigantic mug for his tea. Done. I found a freakishly large mug with an ancient map of the Hawaiian Islands on it. Best of all, the islands rise from the surface of the cup. He can sip tea and survey the islands simultaneously.

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My sister is harder to shop for. She’d recently told me she’d like to read more, so I headed to a bookstore and bought her a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. Sedaris makes me laugh. Not snicker-giggle laugh, but uncontrollable laugh-attack laugh. I want her to experience that. I bought the book, then doubt crept in. What if I just got her the exact same book I gave her last year? Is this gift good enough? Maybe I should have tried to find something more to her liking. But what would that be, exactly? And what would be more to her liking than laughter? Finally, it dawns on me why I am turning myself inside-out over this.

I don’t have an especially good track record with my sister where gifts are concerned. There have been a few hiccups along the way. For years, when our children were young, I sent Christmas gifts to her and her family, not knowing if they celebrated Christmas or Hanukah, the solstice, or nothing at all. Oddly, I didn’t ask, stubbornly insisting on the tradition of gift giving because it is what we grew up with. For many years the gifts went unremarked, without comment or reciprocation. Then one year, my sister sent a box of homemade cookies. It felt like a box full of love. I have no memory of what I sent that year. I do remember every gift she has sent me, however. A silk scarf, a pair of earrings that look like pomegranate seeds, (pomegranate seeds!) a hand knit scarf in teal and rose, autumn leaves made of thin ceramic, brilliant with the colors I miss so much here in Hawaii. Her gifts are unique, often extraordinary. I have tried to send her things that are interesting, with varying success. No matter what else I wrap for the holidays though, I have always sent chocolate covered macadamia nuts and li hing mui Hawaiian snacks. These are the familiar gummy bears we grew up with, coated with dried plum, sugar, and salt. I recollect sending jewelry, a decorative neck scarf, anything I could find that I thought she would love, but I always sent food special to Hawaii, a care package full of sunshine and flavor.

Then one year, my sister sent a thank you card with a comment on the gifts I had sent. “Thank you for the snacks, but we had to throw them out because they have additives and dye in them and we don’t put those things in our bodies.” Oh. Right. “I just don’t want you to spend money sending us things we aren’t going to eat.” I felt like a troll in the temple of the gods. It’s not that I didn’t know that my sister is deliberate and selective in her food choices. It’s not that I didn’t know that she eats only organic food. It’s not that I willfully ignored that. Except that I did.  I guess I thought she might enjoy walking on the wild side, forgetting that she doesn’t make exceptions when it comes to personal health and well-being. Unlike myself. I eat well for the most part, but I don’t think it hurts to step off the pure path occasionally. Why not try Hawaiian style treats once? Say “yes” to dye, say “yes” to additives. One hit won’t kill you, will it?

I got a little paranoid about the gifts that I had sent over the years. How many things had been completely wrong? I asked if she had liked the necklace I had sent. It was a choker made of dried seeds, quite special I thought. Something out of the ordinary. Well no, she hadn’t really liked it. Thank you for the thought, but she felt it was kind of weird and Goth in style. Goth? I had missed the mark again. Have I become that out-of-touch relative, I wondered, with the horrid taste? I thought of my grandmother who used to send us handmade gifts for Christmas. The one I remember most vividly was a crocheted vest in green, orange and tan. I was twelve or thirteen years old when I received this gift, and I remember feeling horrified by the color combination, by the very yarniness of it. How could Grandma be so out of touch? I would no more be caught wearing this vest than I would go to school in my pajamas. I have a vague memory of modeling the vest for my parents on Christmas day, then putting it away in the darkest corner of my closet after sending a polite and enthusiastic thank you letter to my grandparents, thus ensuring something equally revolting the following year. I was raised to have good manners, and to be truthful. Being truthful did not necessarily apply when it came to thanking your relatives for gifts, however. The standard in our family was to be effusive in appreciation, timely, and to cover every single gift that was received.

Dear Grandma and Grandpa,

We had a wonderful Christmas and Santa brought lots of presents. It even snowed in the morning! Thank you for the presents you sent. I love the vest you made for me (lies, lies, lies!) and will wear it to school next week. (Unless I come down with the flu, and I think I feel a slight fever coming on.) Thank you for the rock candy. It is very salty. Thank you for the book, Black Beauty. I can’t wait to read it (true.) And, last of all, thank you for the orange and black mittens. They are very warm. (And will be perfect for one day of the year.)

Love, Kendal

Judge me if you must. I was probably spoiled, and yes, someone, somewhere might have been thrilled to have that vest or those mittens to wear. But my only thought was fitting in, and no one, not a single freshman in my high school, wore crocheted vests to school. I was not a trend setter.

We are not kids anymore. I admire how forthright my sister is. She says what she feels, what is truly on her mind. I don’t know if it is easy for her. Maybe she gets wound up like I do, overthinking it, wondering if it’s okay to say what she really thinks and feels. Maybe she does it naturally. I suspect that she has had to learn how to speak from the heart, truthfully, but without hurtful words. I’m glad she told me that the Hawaiian snacks were being tossed, and why. It provoked me at the time, and I would still argue that there’s plenty of room for a walk on the wild side now and then, but hey, if it doesn’t look appealing, why would you want to eat it? I get it.

Anyway, I think my sister will like the David Sedaris book. She sent me a book about a wolf for my birthday, a book that she liked. I sent her a book I like in return. We do this. We get gifts for people based on what we like, hoping that they will like them too. Why do we do this? My husband gets me flowers for my birthday, flowers which he likes. He says, “I really like these” rather than “I know you like these.” It occurs to me that he might have no idea what I like. I think most people have no idea what I like because I am so quiet about it. I do not volunteer the information, though if you watch carefully, you will know. It is what I gravitate toward when I walk around town, it is what I look at with longing but do not buy for myself, and it may not be here, in Hawaii. If we are talking flowers, and we are, the flowers I love are in the mountain west, Montana, Colorado, Washington. Not Hawaii. Maybe I do the same, getting gifts for the people I love that I would like and, through the gift, I am saying here is a part of me you may not know about. I like to laugh so hard I lose control and David Sedaris makes me do that. I don’t necessarily like to drink from a freakishly gigantic mug, but it if I did, it would have something interesting on the outside, something smooth and raised, to remind me of mountains. And if I send you weird snacks from Hawaii, it is because I am trying to share something that is unusual about this place that I find myself in. I am saying, here is something that no one else does in quite this way. Here is something my children grew up with. Isn’t it strange and wonderful, different from anything you’ve ever tasted before? This is what I am trying to say with this gift.

The Tough Contest

My parents and I have had an ongoing contest for years. The object of the contest is to prove that you have the “toughest” current weather situation. Extremes in temperature, ridiculous amounts of snowfall, and hail the size of basketballs have all provided sufficient evidence to win The Tough Contest. When I lived in Minnesota, we had a lively rivalry going. My parents would brag about the windchill caused by the wind shrieking through Hellgate Canyon, and I, in turn, would counter with 24 inches of snow on the ground and still falling. My credibility dropped considerably when I moved to Hawaii island with my husband and two children. Suddenly, I found myself living in a place with mild weather, no seasons that I could detect, and though Hawaii is not without snow, I was never, ever cold. The Tough Contest was no longer one I could win.

Then the year 2014 barrelled in. As I write, we are awaiting Tropical Storm Ana, predicted to make landfall this weekend. Parts of the island have not yet recovered from the destruction caused by Hurricane Iselle, so this late tropical storm (predicted to become a hurricane) which appeared out of nowhere in the Central Pacific, comes with a sense of disbelief. Again? To add misery to mischief, there is a lava flow slowly and steadily making its way toward the town of Pahoa in the Puna District. Thousands of people in Puna are trying to decide what to do. Stay, or go? Those who stay may find access to their homes cut off by the lava flow crossing the main route into the area. Those who go will be abandoning homes, gardens and businesses in search of somewhere new to rebuild their lives.

We live on an active island. Any number of disastrous events could happen to disrupt our lives. Hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, lava inundation, earthquakes. I might add termites and Little Fire Ants to the list, though some would argue that those don’t qualify as natural disasters. Having spent the entire day preparing for another hurricane, I feel I almost qualify for The Tough Contest once again. If Ana becomes a hurricane and hits the Big Island with full force, then I win. But as I reflect on being “tough enough” to participate in the contest, I realize the only way to “win” is to lose. For me to win this contest, we would need wind, rain, flooding, downed electric lines, fallen trees, torn roofs, and houses washed off their foundations. In that case, I would just as soon lose the contest. I am not as tough as I used to be, and I can live with not winning this round.