I met 'Iokepa Hanalei 'Imaikalani at sunrise Christmas morning, 1997. Count them: that was seventeen years ago. Perhaps you read about our first ten years together on the Hawaiian Islands in Grandmothers Whisper. Then we took the Native Hawaiian ancestral wisdom on the highways of America for the first time on September 7, 2007. That was seven years ago. For approximate half of each of those years, we accumulated 95,000 car miles, speaking in homes and churches, bookstores and clubs. Perhaps you've read about those seven years in The Return Voyage.
Time passes. Famously, the Irish poet T.S. Eliot suggested that our lives move past us in this way: "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." (And truly, our Starbucks gold card attests to the truth of that as well.)
It seems that most of us measure the passing years with the most obscure markers, and in the tiniest of memories. We choose the anecdotes rather than the full novel. And yes, permit me, please, the unforgivably pretension here: I will add still another, oft-repeated, borrowed line, this one from the German architect, Ludwig Mies van de Rohe. "God is in the details."
So this story is exactly that: the detail, the "coffee spoon" of memory. And because it is small, it may appear inconsequential. But, like the award for compassion and selflessness my oldest son won at sixth grade graduation, the moments that measure time past are not inconsequential.
Seven years ago; September, 2007. 'Iokepa and I were gifted a friend's frequent flier miles to Seattle, and we began our journey of outreach. After ten years on the Islands, we had neither winter coat nor proper shoes (let alone boots). As yet, we had no car to make the journey. All we had was an abundance of faith. (Read the books for more on that.) But maybe, because 'Iokepa wanted to reward me for ten years living in tents on the beaches of his ancestors, this happened.
We were wandering (by foot and bus) the streets and stores of Seattle, uncertain of our first/next step. We discovered a wonderful gift shop in a rather funky part of that city - Fireworks. To us (ten years after surrendering the material parcels of our former lives) the store was like the Rockefeller Center's Christmas tree - sparkling and aglow with promise.
I picked up, what was, at that time, incredibly new and remarkably inventive. It was a purse - and it was made of bright iridescent, taupe-colored, woven together seat belts. It was available in just one color and only three sizes, at the time. (In later years, the choices expanded.) I slung it over my shoulder - and I fell in love. In ten years, I had not bought myself a single new garment or gizmo. 'Iokepa looked at it, looked at me, and said: "You should have it."
Oh I hemmed and hawed, offered every kind of refusal - and then I succumbed: a large travel purse for the faith-filled coming years. And for each of these seven years of travel, that HARVEY'S Original Seatbeltbags (the label read) served me well: crammed full at any moment with plane tickets, MapQuest directions, and sun glasses.
But equally significant, I don't think a week passed during those years without being approached by a stranger in line at a grocery or gas station or a motel's reception desk praising the purse's good looks - and then speculating on what it might be made of. Very few recognized it for what it was in those first years. In later years, HARVEY'S found its way into the marketplace.
I actually believe that the seat belt purse led to more profound conversations and ultimate friendships than any other single piece of our traveling show. (And I include a couple books that I authored in that.)
What's more, the purse - which, over the years, I crammed (as we do with our purses) on filthy restaurant floors, in over-full guest room drawers; I never thought to wash it - looked like new. It held it's shape; it never frayed.
Last week, just a few days after Christmas, we were visiting friends in New York City. We emerged from the subway into Union Square. Union Square is downtown Manhattan's cultural hub. It is huge, tree-filled, and hosts a daily farmer's market. From it's ubiquitous park benches, there is an array of entertainment for every discerning taste: musical, sociological, and commercial. No stereotype can capture the diversity of humanity gathered in this one outdoor space.
The square is bordered commercially by Whole Foods on one side, and the crown-jewel of Barnes and Noble on the opposite. When you live on Kaua'i, Union Square is as close as you can get to the Island's antithesis. 'Iokepa and I love both.
And so, from a life that eschews consumerism as a matter of course, we entered the stores of Manhattan. I was pretty sure that I needed nothing. 'Iokepa had accidentally left his thirteen-year-old dress shoes (from our wedding) on Island. We stepped into a discount shoe store to take a look.
He looked, I wandered. He found nothing. I found a purse. Tentatively I hung it from my shoulder. What can I say in my defense? It was lighter than my woven seat-belts. It looked so...new. Again, my husband insisted; again I balked. As part of my solitary negotiations over the purchase of a new handbag, I told 'Iokepa that I would give the HARVEY'S away. It was the only way that I could justify the new one; I didn't need two.
We left the store - the HARVEY'S still on my shoulder; a huge DSW shopping bag in hand. 'Iokepa asked: "You're sure you want to give it away?"
I said, "I'm sure." (And I was!)
He said: "Then, why don't you switch purses now, and leave the seat-belt bag somewhere in Union Square? We don't need to carry this shopping bag around all day."
We headed to an open bench in the sun, where I emptied each and every privileged morsel from my Harvey's and into my unnamed new purse. There was a brief discussion: How and where?
I wrote the note: "Free! Enjoy!" and tucked in halfway into the zipper. Then we slung it on one of the decorative, iron, Union Square fence posts across from us. We smiled at each other, sat in the sun and studied my seat-belt purse still sparkling these seven years later - and we walked away.
I looked back once, regretted only that we hadn't taken a photo of that solitary icon hanging there on a post - measuring in "coffee spoons" the life we've lived, the people we've met, the stories we hold dear.