[Congratulations to Jean Rhude for her runner-up written entry in our 2011 Creative Competition. Check back daily for the next several days as we post other recognized entries.]
I live on an Island in the Pacific Ocean. It is located half way between North America and Asia. They say that an ancient chant still sung by New Zealanders about celestial navigational routes, will lead you across this great expanse of ocean to the Wailua River on the island of Kauai. Kauai is a gentle place where the cultures of the East and those of the West blend beautifully with what are left of the Polynesian culture. I moved here seven years ago drawn by a silent chant, the coconut wireless, as modern locals refer to it. I make my home near the Wailua River. I came here to heal.
. . . .
The child's blue eyes sparkle as he watches from atop his fathers' shoulders. At about five years of age he is aware of the solemnity of the event. Even the lights strung along the park, at the river, seem to know better than to appear festive on this night. Even the ringing of the bells and clanging of the symbols carry a resonance of seriousness. This is not like when he and his father launch their kayak or picnic here on the bank of the Wailua River.
There is no program, just a quiet surrender to the unfolding of the event. Undoubtedly the coconut wireless has sent her silent message and I am captive to the ancient unfolding. I am here by her invitation, an invitation that nourishes like the milk from her cavity. I am both a participant and an observer.
The mostly Japanese participants welcome the other Asians, Caucasians, Hawaiians and Portuguese that make up the crowd of 150 or so. A portable altar is faced so that Sensei can look out to the river as he chants and lights a candle. A line forms and members of the Jodo Buddhist Temple bow before the altar as they pass in single file, bowing and dipping their fingers into a bowl of water. It reminds me of taking communion.
Several go to the hundred or so lanterns attached to a series of five barges and begin to light each individual one. Each lantern is inscribed with the name of someone who has died and for whom it has been purchased. This ceremony symbolizes their spirits returning. It is believed that the family members come down from the mountains/afterlife to help with the planting and harvest during the Bon season and now they return as the lanterns are floated out toward the sea, lighting their way. The boat that will pull them is lighted by a large lantern and an offering of fruit is placed inside. The barges, each containing twenty or so lighted lanterns, attached to the barge with a decorative lotus blossom, are gently placed in the water. Immediately their illumination is intensified by their reflection. The full moon shows through the swaying palm tress.
Slowly the series of barges are taken up the river and then brought back down where they pass the crowd of people on the shore. We are mostly holding hands or hugging. Young children sit on the sea wall and their Tutu's, (Grandmothers), have brought them couchin, paper lanterns, attached to sticks, with candles inside. They sit and watch in silence, dangling their feet just above the water.
There is the fragrance of incense. I stand holding the hand of my sister and we silently contemplate the lantern we have purchased for our mother and also one for my son. We do not know the precise lantern that floats their names but this is not important in the collective glow of their light. I consider the healing represented by grieving in this way, with strangers, whose shared experience is stronger than our separateness.
We share in the glow of that mingled light in a celebration of our collective love of our ancestors. It feels good to create ceremony here in this land that has become my home.
The young father leans low to explain to his son, the sweet boy with blond curls and blue eyes, "The candles are for peoples’ family members who have died. The candles light their way."
“Their way to where daddy,” the boy asks.
I listen closely to what the young man will say. His gentle reply, ". . . on their way to eternity."