Sometimes a single moment offers a crash course in understanding one of life’s many lessons. Not the sort of understanding we think we’ve acquired after wading through a pile of “self-help” books or by attending an array of seminars offered by widely advertised experts in the matter. Nor the kind of understanding cloaked in fancy terminology or bolstered and fortified by various exotic exercises … some ostensibly for the mind and others for the body. No …
It’s an understanding which floats by on the wind of a coincidence, unsought and unexpected. After all, we haven’t signed up for the class nor purchased the book. It’s free. Requiring only our recognition for it to take root and suddenly present us with a burst of pure awareness.
It happened a couple of weeks ago. I’d eaten my last head of lettuce down to the white sawed-off stem and that morning my box of breakfast cereal had yielded up nothing from its depths but multi-grain crumbs dusted with sugar residue. I’d blown the sugar off into the sink and sprinkled the crumbs on the top of my egg.
A trip to the grocery store was clearly necessary. Dreading the prospect of driving to Safeway, where the parking lot was invariably full and the checkouts perpetually constipated with shoppers wheeling carts overflowing with a month’s supply of provisions for large joint families, I decided to walk to the small local grocery store a few blocks away. As I set out, I was grumbling a bit at the fact I’d be paying more for everything at Food Pantry, since it catered mainly to tourists in Waikiki. I’d have to restrict myself to only the cereal and lettuce. And the store would be crowded with tourists. Wearing flowers in their hair and those dreadful floral print shirts sold in the hundreds of identically stocked shops lining Kalakaua Avenue. And everyone would be laughing and being silly.
I wasn’t in the mood for any of this. My breakfast had been sparse and my music scores were piling up on the piano.
When I reached the Pantry after fifteen minutes of weaving my way through throngs of people swarming down Kalakaua avenue, I headed directly for the produce. The lettuces were fresh and nicely trimmed. As I reached for one, I noticed it was on sale. Only a fifty cent reduction on the already inflated price and still more expensive than Safeway. But somehow it seemed a good deal as I dropped it into my basket. However the breakfast cereal was another matter. It was tagged at an outrageous price, well over double what I usually paid at the large store. I picked it up and then put it back. Just too expensive. Then I noticed a large sale sign posted next to a display of raisin bran cereal. I could always have a different cereal, I reasoned as I reached for it. It would be okay.
Resisting a temptation to scope out the frozen desserts, I firmly oriented myself towards the checkout area. Only two of the five counters were open. And there were dozens of people waiting in the queues. A motley group including every conceivable variety of age, race and gender. A baby was howling as her young mother tried to console her with a piece of candy, an elderly man in a wheelchair was laboriously pushing himself along with one hand as he held large black dog’s leash in the other. A pretty Asian girl had her face buried in a small bunch of flowers, a tanned couple in beachwear openly fondled each other while beside them, a gay man chattered away on his cell phone. No one seemed impatient.
I took my place in one of the two queues. The cashier greeted each person with a cheery nod of her head and exchanged a few words as she rang up the sales. People smiled as they moved forward and each customer carefully placed the divider bar on the conveyor belt with a friendly nod to the person standing behind. Suddenly I could feel my impatience dissolving as I put the divider bar down behind my lettuce and box of cereal and turned to the customer behind me, an older man with heavy tattoos running up both arms to his neck. “Aloha” I said.
By the time I’d paid and tucked my groceries under my arm, I was also smiling as I walked out the door. I looked up the street and decided to take the alternate route home. A mere two blocks mauka took me abruptly away from the bustling streets of Waikiki to the Ala Wai, a beautiful canal embracing the edge of the tourist mecca. A narrow walkway at the edge of the canal competed with patches of grass. Rows of palm trees provided shade and small iron benches had been placed at particularly pretty vantage points, offering a temptation to stop for a moment of enjoyment.
As I turned onto the promenade, I was struck by the fact that there were so few people enjoying this treasure. Barely two blocks away the streets of Waikiki were jammed with tourists and vendors, while the traffic was so thick it could take fifteen minutes to drive three blocks in the evening rush. And the cacophony of giddy visitors, hawkers and hyped-up Hawaiian music drove the noise level to almost intolerable levels.
But here next to the Canal, you could hear the palms rustle and the pigeons were so tame, you had to watch your step or you’d suddenly be engulfed in a flurry of fluttering wings. I stopped for a moment to look out over the water, marveling at the various shades of blue in the pattern of ripples on its surface. Mentally pulling out my palette and deciding between pthalo or cerulean with perhaps a touch of Payne’s grey for the shadows beneath the coconut trees at the far end of the canal. But then there was a yellowish tinge in the bright blue sky. Perhaps the sun contributing warmth to the hue.
As I walked beside the water, I was suddenly aware of a sweet soft perfume carried on a puff of wind from a group of a dozen or so Plumeria trees planted in a careful row between two of the benches. The flowers grew in huge bunches, arranged as artfully as if a florist had prepared them for a wedding bouquet. All that was missing were the white ribbons. Hundreds of these natural bouquets swayed in the wind above me. I looked up and inhaled. Then I looked down and noticed another fragment of perfect beauty lying at my feet. Somehow embedded in the concrete was an imprint of single perfect leaf, as flawlessly rendered as any sculptor might produce in his casting studio. I bent down to touch it, running my fingers over the perfectly textured veins. Perhaps as the concrete hardened a sudden shower pushed the leaf against its surface … or maybe a worker had gently pressed it into the pavement in a moment of inspiration.
I stood up, suddenly warmed and overwhelmed by the beauty swirling around me. As I looked back at the canal and focused on the ripples on its surface, I took another deep breath of the fragrant air.
And suddenly …
A cyclist came up behind me, deliberately swerving to catch the edge of my bag. Just close enough to startle me, but not knock me to the ground. And waiting until the brief moment of contact to yell “Yahhhhhhhhh” as he swept by.
I stumbled and dropped the bag. And as I leaned down to retrieve the lettuce, two parallel experiences offered themselves to me. The FIRST one was ….
I picked up the lettuce and saw that one side of it had been bruised in the fall. Now I’d have to cut away the wounded portion before I sliced it up for my salad. And the darned thing had been so expensive … at least fifty cents more than if I’d bought it at Safeway. I dropped it back into the bag as I stood up. The cyclist was already yards ahead of me, weaving back and forth with a show of silly gymnastics as he threw his hands in the air. I wished my responses had been more prompt and that I’d lunged at him and knocked him off the bike. I had a brief image of him sprawled on the path. It was a satisfying figment of my imagination and I enhanced it by adding several bad scrapes to his knees and arms.
It was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. The City had recently added bicycle paths on nearly all the major roads in Honolulu in an attempt to encourage people to be more active and healthy while reducing dependence on cars. How could anyone believe such a project would do anything other than slow traffic and deprive the pedestrian of the ordinary expectation of taking a walk without being mowed down? Now hordes of nasty young punks had taken over the roads and sidewalks. And none of them had the clicker bell mounted on their handlebars which was required in Canada. But they were so arrogant and rude, they’d probably not use it anyway. Only a few cyclists ever called out a warning as they approached from behind. And they were nearly all women. Not cocky young males.
I stared at the cyclist’s rapidly disappearing figure and mentally hurled a curse after him, hoping he’d ram into a tree. Or one of his wheels might come loose and in his confusion he’d hurtle over the canal barrier into the water. That would be justice.
The next traffic light was only a few yards away, so I decided to abandon the canal promenade and cross the road to the other side. Maybe there wouldn’t be so many cyclists on the sidewalk bordering the rows of luxury apartments. As I waited for the light I scolded myself for not just taking out the car and going to Safeway in the first place. The produce was cheaper, my cereal would have been priced fairly and I could have done a little more shopping. Besides there wouldn’t have been so many tourists either with their silly exuberance.
As I reached my apartment building and started across the lobby towards the elevators, one of the seniors who regularly came down to collect her mail, greeted me with her standard “Aloha”. Usually I’d stop for a few words but today wasn’t in the mood for niceties. And her benign query, ” Are you just coming back from a stroll?” merely fueled my exasperation.
” Hardly a stroll,” I replied. ” I ran out of lettuce and cereal and made the mistake of going to Food Pantry. Horribly expensive and crowds of tourists everywhere. Everything in Waikiki is so noisy and hectic. To escape I walked back along the canal and some jerk on a bicycle nearly knocked me down. And I dropped my groceries and ruined my lettuce. Stupid cyclists everywhere and our taxes going to pay for the damned bicycle paths while pedestrians are mowed down … ” I paused to catch my breath before adding, “with impunity …”
My neighbor nodded her head in a gesture of apparent sympathy. But her usual blandly pleasant expression remained in situ. She was clearly oblivious to my tirade. I managed a weak smile as I pressed the elevator button.
As I opened the door to my apartment, I tossed the grocery bag onto the counter and muttered, “Thank God that’s done.”
As I stumbled, dropped my bag and leaned down to retrieve the lettuce, I chose an alternative experience. The SECOND one was ….
I picked up the lettuce and saw that one side of it had been bruised in the fall. Now I’d have to cut away the wounded portion before I sliced it up for my salad. But I normally cut off the outer leaves anyway. As I put it back into my bag and stood up, I felt a wave of relief that I hadn’t been knocked down. In the distance I could see the youth speeding off down the path, weaving back and forth and throwing his arms up into the air. Silly kid. He could so easily have knocked me off my feet. But as I watched him, I realized he was making perfect arcs along the walkway, a little like the diagram of light waves in my elementary physics books. The red ones undulated in longer curves while the blue ones were cramped into sharper trajectories. The cyclist seemed to be in perfect control of those waves and probably had calibrated my position, the speed of his bike and the path with confident, if brash … precision. I felt a moment of relief as I exhaled.
And then continued along the promenade. Two outrigger canoes raced towards me from the far end of the canal. I could hear the steersmen and callers shouting directions to their crews as their paddles hit the water in perfect unison. For a moment I thought of the exquisite discipline of a good symphony orchestra, each member a single cell carefully guided by the maestro into and organic and harmonious whole. Beautiful.
I paused for a minute and then climbed up onto the cement canal wall and sat down, dangling my feet over the edge just inches above the water. Under my sandals I could see a school of tilapia swirling around a small piece of bread someone must have tossed into the canal. The piece was far too large to be easily swallowed so the fish were nibbling at it as they jostled into the best position to tear away a tiny piece. I considered their dilemma for a moment before reaching into my bag and tearing the cardboard flap off my cereal box. I carefully pried the waxed paper pouch apart and grabbed a small handful of the bran flakes.
“Here you go guys,” I said as I tossed the treat into the water. The fish swarmed towards the flakes, leaping up out of the water and thrashing their tails as they snapped at the morsels. I waited for a few moments as they gorged and then when the water became calm again, I hurled the second instalment high into the air, watching the flakes disperse over a larger area and the fish widening their banquet area. I felt a little frisson of pure delight, that shiver of joy small children sometimes feel as they feed their pet dog a treat and are acknowledged with a wagging tail. The fish leaped and circled and thrashed and I sat there enjoying their show.
After a while I swiveled around and started back home. I was humming under my breath, a fragment of a piano piece I had been working on that morning. Suddenly the transition into a minor key seemed to answer the problem I’d been wrestling with for a week. I increased my volume a bit and was satisfied. Good … it was good. I was so engrossed in the melody that I missed the intersection traffic lights and only when I saw my apartment building looming in the distance did I realize I’d have to risk a speedy jay walk to the opposite side. Looking nervously around for any sign of cops who often hid behind trees to nab offenders, I dodged between a couple of oncoming cars and hopped onto the pavement.
But I turned the corner to my building, there was the familiar police car, pushed back a bit behind some construction cones. A surly looking officer leaned out of the window and I crammed my fist into my mouth like a toddler about to be scolded.
“Bad bad. You been feeding the birds and now jaywalking too …” he growled.
I stopped with fist still in position, waiting for my sentence.
Something must have amused him because he continued, ” Okay so was fish an’ not birds, and you pretty fast on the hoof between those cars. Sentence commuted. Just be more careful eh, sistah …” he said with a big grin and the familiar shaka sign.
As I turned to go up the steps to my apartment I was chuckling a bit. I paused just long enough to snap off a large hibiscus bud on the bush at the entrance. Hibiscus are unique in their almost magical ability to bloom the day after being picked, without water. You can lay the bud on a table the night before and by the next morning it will be wide open, minus any blemishes of bugs or wind. I always tried to remember to pick one when I came home so I could put it next to my aquarium and be reminded the next day of Nature’s whimsical little trick.
I was twirling the bud around with my fingers as I walked into the lobby. Sitting on the bench next to the post boxes was Mattie, one of the seniors who regularly came down to collect her mail. Every day she’d dress up and put on a some lipstick and then settle down there with her mail in a little pile beside her. Obviously her mail run was her excursion for the day and probably one of the few opportunities she had to meet people and have a little chat. I always stopped for a moment when she greeted me.
“Aloha dear, are you coming home from the store?” she asked, her question obviously answered by the Food Pantry bag in my hand. I sat down beside her, commenting on the happy crowd at the shop, the lovely walk along the canal and the famished fish. Then I added the excitement of the wayward cyclist at which she covered her mouth with her hands and gasped. And then I wrapped up my afternoon’s adventures with the tale of the policeman who had “waived my sentence”, which got an outright laugh from her.
Before getting up to leave, I presented her with the little hibiscus bud, telling her NOT to put it in water but to place it by her bedside table where in the morning she’d see a miracle. Leaning close, I whispered mischievously, ” I put a spell on it …” She looked puzzled until I urged her to be sure and follow the instructions. “No water” I warned, waggling my finger at her as I got into the elevator.
As I opened the door to my apartment and put my bag of groceries onto the counter, I paused for a moment and said ” Thank-you God …”
We have a choice. We always have a choice in how to respond to a situation. Sometimes it will be a very serious issue, even a heartbreaking one and we will react spontaneously. We will rage or cry or even curse the Universe for causing our pain. Which is a human and natural reaction. But the overwhelming number of daily issues are small and unimportant strokes on the broader canvas of our lives. And it’s these small things which we too often allow to dictate our moods.
A “bad mood” is not grief. It’s petty and self-centered. As a small child I was not allowed moodiness and was promptly banished to my room to “lighten up” by a very wise mother. We can argue that the cyclist was wrong and mean and was endangering me. Or we can say he was exuberant and enjoying his skills and perfectly in control of his wheels.
The bottom line is that I wasn’t hurt. That I had a choice to work myself up into a rage, ruin the remainder of my walk, raise my blood pressure, be abrupt as I complained to my neighbor and finally arrive home angry and resentful.