I’ve spent a few Christmases away from home in my lifetime. South India in 1978, New Jersey (my old home) and Michigan (my wife’s) in the 80’s, in the Yucatan in the 90’s and one in Chile in the —aughts (?). And now again with the extended family in —Hawai’i. The Big Island.
It was unusual, to say the least, to spend Christmas Eve day walking to the rim of a caldera to see a steaming volcano in the rain and then on to a black sand beach and some swimming with sea turtles. Not the usual fare to invoke Santa on his sleigh. And then Christmas itself off to a spectacular waterfall and then time at yet another beach, with our own little private area.
We all have our fantasies of Hawaii, mine born from a Dennis the Menace comic book, a Ricky Nelson song and the TV Show Hawaii 5-O. But the roots of the tropical paradise myth go much deeper. Ever since Gauguin’s evocative paintings of Tahiti, Europeans huddled around fireplaces coming in from the London fog or the Vienna snow could dream of a perpetual sea, sand and surf where warm-hearted scantily-clad “natives” plucked fruit from trees and lived lives of leisure without banks, office hours, long hours spent in churches atoning for sins.
On a mythological level, this is all good. Don’t we all dream of a life of leisure, where food falls into our hands with a gentle pluck from a tree, the sun is shining, the ocean refreshes us, people walk around scantily clad—especially the young beautiful people shown in the postcards and movies? The coconut palms wave gently in the ocean breeze, the twang of the slack key guitar and plucked notes on the ukulele transport us to some magical dreamworld, waterfalls are a short walk away and beautiful flowers decorate tables, necklaces and more? In the modern post-Gauguin version, romance is in the air, that moonlit walk on the beach, all before choosing the wallpaper, figuring out who will drive the kids to soccer, dealing with the bills and waking up in the morning thinking, “Hmm. He/she is still here.”
The London of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes. The Paris of Hemingway, Stein, Picasso. The New York of the 30’s Savoy Ballroom or 40’s 52nd St. The Rio of Black Orfeus. And weirdly in my childhood, the Hawaii of Dennis the Menace figured into that. Mythical landscapes all, replete with associated music and characters and character. Myth is what gives it all shape and color and meaning, a place lived first in the imagination and then, if you’re lucky, lived again when you finally step off the boat, train or plane. As a reader, film buff, musician, poet, this all hits me where I most vibrantly live and each time the myth is evoked, life gets just a few inches richer.
But I’m also painfully aware of the political realities behind the myth-making, the colonial overpowering of native culture to make it a playground for the privileged rich whites. Interestingly enough, I felt that tension strongly my first time in Hawaii on the island of Kaua’i, but feel a whole different vibe here on the Big Island of Hawai’I, where there is minimal tourist overwhelm or surfer culture (at least around Hilo). We’re swimming at beaches where the locals go and neither feel shunned nor treated like tourist revenue.
Here I tiptoe to the dangerous precipice of the edge between mythmaking and political correctness. I don’t wholly shun the latter term and when it becomes a means to open people’s minds to others realities, wholly celebrate it. But there is a line where everything gets judged through that lens and the entire glory of much human artistic achievement gets tossed out because people fell short in their time and place of where we feel they should be in our time and place. Of course, cruelty and close-mindedness is never excusable simply by “these were other times” and kindness and compassion are timely in every century. I have no idea how to capture this complex matter other than suggest that political realities are part of the whole picture and an important part and myth-making and artistic dreaming is part of the whole picture and an important part. If either shuts out the other, life is diminished. There needs to be a conversation between the two and there is no formula for the proper balance, time or place. Suffice it to say that while further investigating the havoc wrought by Captain Cook, I still treasure the twang of slack key guitar singing over the moonlit beach.
P.S. And yes, I still will listen to “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” But I may switch which gender is singing which part.