You Can Take The Boy Out Of The Mainland

We like how our neighbor in Laupāhoehoe used a cow guard to deal with the ravine at the bottom of their driveway, so we did what one does in utopia; we called them up to introduce ourselves (their phone number is posted on their entry gate for Fedex and UPS). Jim did the honors (have I mentioned how blissful it is to have a partner in life who is able to take initiative on this kind of thing?). Fast forward to last night’s dinner at their house. That’s the way it should be, right? Every introduction should end up with a dinner invitation. Nice.

Off we went on our next neighbor adventure, this time to get together with mainland transplants like us, with high hopes of further deepening our belief that we had found our people in our paradise on earth. This is a place, after all, where like-minded people, from all walks of life, with a shared commitment to relationships and a passion for simple living commune together with unspoken zen for how life is meant to be.

The evening started off pleasant enough. Another couple from further up the mountain were there, too. Lots of wine, things to munch on, and non-stop conversation and laughter. And yet, Jim and I returned to the camper close to midnight and said, almost in unison, “That was one of the most painful evenings I have ever experienced.”

This isn’t an uncommon experience for me as I move deeper into a life heretofore unknown to me: passion for nature, minimized needs, fewer responsibilities, and appreciation for solitude. But Jim has always been an evangelist for those who have made the journey before us. I remember well one instance as we made our way through the local health food store in Waimea when I became fully aware just how much I didn’t “get” and how strong my instinct to judge really was.

The store is always full of hippies: an assortment of people wholly committed to unprocessed and bulk foods, reflecting minimal concern for wardrobe or public presentation. They always seem blissfully unaware of anyone around them as they move through the aisles with a knowing sense of just what is essential and “right” in life. On this particular day, a notably – shall we say – “earthy” man and his toddler were navigating the tofu section (naturally). The kid, who clearly had never seen a hairbrush, listened intently as his father waxed on in an imposingly loud voice about the evils of one thing or another. He was dressed dreadlocked head to Birkenstocked toe in an array of mismatched, dirty natural fiber, with a noticeable smell of patchouli and B.O., which preceded and followed him at every move. Given his volume, Super Dad clearly intended to share his wisdom beyond his four-year-old audience. I gave Jim a knowing “check out this guy” glance, expecting a nod of understanding. Alas, I grossly miscalculated the situation.

He was pissed.

What followed was a passionate sermon, which – amazingly, given my shame – actually resulted in an awakening to just how judgmental I really was and how strongly I was holding on to the “right and wrong” ways of approaching life. Jim went on clearly and emphatically about the virtues of hippies, how they share a passion for protecting the world’s resources, for inspiring significant change, and for modeling an approach that we all should follow if there is to be any hope at all of saving the planet from complete devastation. That they don’t waste time or money on their appearances is simply testament to their super powers for goodness – not self-indulgence.

Yeah, but he stunk.

I didn’t actually say that, but I certainly remember thinking it would have been a viable defense for my apparent indiscretion. Instead, working to swallow my shame, I listened intently to what was clearly a guiding perspective for Jim. He was right…not – I discovered – about the power of dirty toenails and natural musk, but that I had a long way to go in my ability to see – much less accept – people different than I.

That was more than three years ago, so you can imagine just how spectacularly evolved I am in my willingness to see the good in everyone. Every. Single. Person. I’ve got freaking refrains of kumbaya running through my brain at all times.

So, there we were in the good company of our kindred spirits in our ‘hood. Wine was flowing, and we were quickly coming to know each other’s stories about how we ended up here. So far so good. T-shirts and slippers (flip-flops), beat-up folding chairs, and a collection of misfit plastic dishes. No fuss, no muss. Just the pleasure of one another’s company.

But then, the feeling of zen began to fade.

What started as light discussions about solar systems (of the electrical kind) and water catchment systems, became a whirlwind of how-tos and you-have-no-ideas. We received a tour of our hosts’ property, workshop, generator house, and ‘ohana (guest house), and before we knew what was happening, we experienced a kind of know-it-all feeding frenzy that had become foreign to us after five years in Hawai‘i. Panels should be hung this way. Flooring needs to be that way. Steel should be purchase from here not there. Don’t trust this guy. Make friends with her. And on and on. Jim and I dutifully acknowledged how much we had to learn, if only to stop the onslaught of lectures.

Over dinner it got worse. Our company clearly knew one another well, having both moved here 7-10 years ago from Massachusetts and Florida respectively, and the current of their competition permeated the air. Whose house sat at a higher elevation. Whose weather station was more accurate. Whose perspective on local resources was more informed.

Oh. My God. The Joneses are alive and well and living in Laupāhoehoe.

Jim sank into a world of silent observation, and I shifted into social-lubricant extraordinaire by asking all kinds of question about their pasts, their families, the origin of their romances, their plans for future travel – anything to steer us away from the “you should,” the “you need to,” and the “you don’t even realize” directives and statements. The constant barrage of lectures and pearls (clubs?) of wisdom steadily chipped away at our energy and resilience, and even without words, we knew we both were looking for any graceful way to make our exit.

As if the universe sensed our plight, two freakish things happened. First, as our host Mark leaned smugly back in his plastic chair, pontificating about his brilliance, the hind legs gave out. They didn’t break, and he didn’t crash down on the floor. Rather, the legs – the way they do on plastic chairs – slowly reformed themselves until they stopped, splayed out to the sides, shooting out like rays from the seat, which now was on the ground. It’s like the chair melted. Mark is a slight man, so I am certain it was not his weight that took him down. On the other hand, I also am certain that the burden of his bravado simply must have been too much.

Just when we’d all regrouped from the there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I moment, Jim (yes, another one), the man in the non-host couple, catapulted out of his chair and collapsed to the floor with a debilitating leg cramp. Lying there, wincing in pain, drenched in sweat, we couldn’t help but see his quite dramatic situation as a glimmer of departure hope. I am certain (my) Jim and I thought the same thing; our evening with the Joneses soon would be coming to an end.

Fifteen minutes and innumerable diagnoses and lectures about why the cramp happened – not to mention borderline awkward inner thigh massages by the other Jim’s wife – we were hightailing it back to the safe, silent, blissful haven of our electricity-less, water-less, neighbor-less camper. When I say we were exhausted, I mean we were both physically and emotionally drained, and all we could do was laugh until our sides hurt. Even as we dozed off for the night, the silence would be broken more than once when one of us erupted in laughter thinking about the specifics of the evening’s ridiculousness.

This morning, the comedy of the gathering seems to have worn off a bit, and a pall of sadness has taken its place. Should we lose all hope of finding Utopia? Is it true that keeping up with the Joneses is so engrained in mainland DNA that even here, a place that inspires the shedding of many of life’s known luxuries, we are destined to feel the grotesque pressures of competition?

What a lesson we learned last night. It’s not the zip code, climate, purpose, or even passion that is the at the core of our version of Utopia. Curiosity and learning are. Whether on a tropical island or in a concrete jungle, how truly interested we are in the people around us and how they live and love is what is the foundation of our paradise. Any curiosity we felt or any desire we had to learn as we headed into our neighborhood adventure was overpowered by a palpable exertion of control of the definition of right and wrong. Couple that with a very clear expectation of what we should know…hell. Honestly, it took me back to that health food store, where that tofu-studying hippie, too, seemed mostly inspired by sharing – and wearing – his unwavering views.

Jim talks about life’s being a quest to discover the right and wrong in everything, so maybe we all are just working hard to make progress on this front by acting as though we have “arrived” at supreme knowledge But how can we even know if it is “progress,” when just trying to define “right” and “wrong” is a totally subjective exercise? Shouldn’t the journey be about the endless search for more information, during which peace of mind ultimately will be informed about what is right and wrong and good and bad? Or perhaps, even better, when will we recognize that there is no there there?

If we were able to end more our sentences with question marks than exclamation points, then we would be able to exist in the beautiful and constant state of wonder and imagination. Dinner parties would be adventures in possibility, and shopping for food would be the Mecca of learning opportunities. Our brains would delight in being exercised in a sea of what-ifs. Maybe we would die not knowing the answers, but that shouldn’t stop us asking the questions, right?

What do you think?