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Living in the Here and Now

(The Freeman) - February 28, 2021 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines —  While going through a box of papers last week, I came across a calendar from the nearly 14 years I spent living in Honolulu. I was preparing to pitch it when curiosity overcame me and I started leafing through it. On its pages I found a record of a life that seemed so impossibly exciting I could hardly believe it had once been mine.

I was newly (and happily) divorced, writing feature stories for a local magazine and developing an avocation as a jazz singer. The calendar was filled with entries on reporting trips to Maui and Kauai; lunch dates, dinners and parties; rehearsals for singing gigs; and visits from faraway friends and relatives – some of whom I had not seen in years.

The farther I go in time from my life in Hawaii, the more magical and dreamlike it seems. When I tell people I meet that I lived there for more than a decade, they are uniformly impressed and invariably they ask me why I ever left. And yet close friends from Hawaii will testify that, during nearly all of my years there, I longed to be somewhere else. It seems incredible when I think about it now – especially when objects such as this calendar surface to remind me of the seemingly rare and shimmering quality of my days there. But it is undeniably true. 

This peculiar set of circumstances may make more sense if I explain that I moved to Hawaii reluctantly. My on-again, off-again fiancé accepted a job there; he then waged a determined campaign to convince me to marry him and move from Washington, D.C., to Honolulu. At the last possible minute, I agreed – despite the concerns of my friends about our long-term prospects as a couple and my own worries about being so far away from my family in Pennsylvania.

My friends were right: My marriage failed in less than two years. But while I found it fairly easy to extricate myself from married life, cutting my ties to Hawaii was much more difficult.

I loved many things about my magazine job, and then I got what seemed like a far better job at one of Honolulu’s two daily newspapers. After my divorce, I dated a couple of eccentric Mainland transplants, and then I met a local guy who stole my heart. While part of me was struggling to break free from Hawaii’s spell, another part was binding to the island soil as firmly as the aerial roots of a banyan tree.

Even a nine-month fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor did not provide a means of escape. When the fellowship ended in 2001, I returned to Honolulu – to my newspaper job, my island boyfriend and the invisible skein the powerful spirits of Hawaii had wrapped around me.

The only thing more powerful than those spirits proved to be my concerns about my mother, who was still living in Pennsylvania and who had developed Parkinson’s disease. In late 2002, her condition deteriorated so quickly that I could no longer justify living thousands of miles away from her; I needed to be close at hand to help her in whatever way I could. I quit my newspaper job and, after an extended trip home to get my mother settled in a nursing home, I bid a brave aloha to my island life and moved back to Pennsylvania, where I had not lived since I left for college at age 17.

For the next several years, I never questioned my locale; my focus was on assisting my mother in her struggle against this cruel disease. After she died in 2009, I was more or less numb; in many ways, my mother’s struggle had been my struggle, too, and her passing left me both bereft and adrift.

A few years ago, however, a feeling similar to the chronic restlessness I knew in Hawaii began to make itself felt again. It caused me to ask myself, repeatedly and usually in the middle of a sleepless night, why – now that my mother was gone – I was still living in a place I had vowed in high school to return to only as a visitor.

In those wee hours, I would berate myself for not having packed my suitcases, pulled up stakes and made my home in some far more interesting locale. Why not France? Or Ireland? Or, really, any place but Pennsylvania?

Sensible answers – the blessing of living a mere four miles from my brother and my two nephews, or being an easy drive from friends and cultural events in major cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, or the difficulty (and expense!) of starting a new life as an ex-pat – did not help me get back to sleep on these nights. I began to wonder whether I was simply hard-wired for discontent no matter where I found myself, prey to nameless yearnings that could never be fulfilled.

When I had been living in Honolulu for about five years, I met a woman in the laundry room of my apartment building who had also moved to Hawaii from the Mainland. Over the industrious hum of the washers and dryers, we shared our stories of how we came to the islands and what our lives were like now. This woman was unabashedly joyful about her Hawaii life – even though, as I recall, she had faced her share of adversity there.

She said someone she met early on in Hawaii had given her a piece of advice that she took as a mantra: “Bloom where you’re planted.” Last week, as I paged through my Hawaii calendar, I realized with some amazement that I had done just that in my time there. I didn’t see it then, of course; my one-foot-out-the-door attitude had colored all of my perceptions about my island life. But nonetheless, when I left the islands for good, some part of me – root, flower or fallen leaf – remained behind.

Reflecting on my years in Hawaii last week, I wondered if I could apply the “bloom where you’re planted” mantra to my life now. Could I practice acceptance of my present circumstances instead of succumbing to vague but persistent longings for some imaginary, unrealistic and likely unattainable future? Could I, a lifelong malcontent, trade my anywhere-but-here perspective for enthusiasm about the here and now?

As I asked these questions, it occurred to me that, on a much smaller scale, I had already adopted a similar outlook earlier this year with respect to the onset of winter. I had been so demoralized by this frosty season last year that in early January I made three solemn vows: to firmly resist being overwhelmed by weather-induced despair; to look for examples of winter’s beauty wherever I could find them; and to remember that, no matter how bone-chilling the temperature on any given day, the weather would eventually get warmer. 

I am pleased to report that, with the exception of several days in February dominated by fierce winds and below-zero temperatures, I succeeded pretty well. I even went for regular brisk walks outside and captured some images of winter’s artistry with my camera. And to my surprise and delight, I discovered this week that, nearly three hundred miles to the north, an entire city has been responding to the season in the same upbeat way, with apparently magnificent results.

A New York Times story titled “Buffalo Embraces Winter’s Chill” described how, in a radical break with a long regional history of doing their best to avoid going out in the winter, Buffalonians have risen up off their blanket-covered couches to enthusiastically adopt winter activities like ice skating, curling, and even ice bicycling. A local businessman involved in developing one of the city’s popular winter sports venues noted that Buffalo’s reputation as a “winter town” has “defined our image in a negative way for so many years, and I think we can turn that around to make it a positive.”

Well! If this isn’t a perfect example of “bloom where you’re planted,” I don’t know what is. (And never mind that nothing blooms in Buffalo in the winter.) With the success of my own small experiment in embracing winter and the example of these hardy denizens of the Niagara Frontier for motivation, I am going to try for the next several months to practice living – and finding the good – in the here and now. If my new experiment works, it just may be that, in 10 or 15 years, I will come across my calendar from 2021 and see that my life then was, in its own way, as appealing and memorable as my years in my island home. (www.psychologytoday.com) - Susan Hooper

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