Papaya Lonely

Papaya Tree.

Longing and Fruit

“I’d be happy just to sit here and watch you all breathe,” I tell my daughter. We’ve arrived at her home at Pearl Harbor for a ten-day visit and she is working up a sightseeing itinerary. We planned our vacation to visit her, her husband, and the boys. It just so happens that for the moment, the U.S. Navy has sent them to live at a popular tourist destination, so we plan to visit some attractions, too. I mean, who goes to Oahu and doesn’t pay one’s respects at the USS Arizona Memorial?

Caught up in the family and tourist facets of our trip, I forget we are going to Polynesia. That sounds crazy, I know. But it’s true. About twenty years ago, I spent a year in French Polynesia, on a small island outside the tourist’s primary loop of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora. When I think of Polynesia, I think of Taha’a.

Oahu, with its streetlights, chain restaurants, and paved parking lots, doesn’t feel like Polynesia. Polynesia means Tapuamu, a village of 400 souls when I lived there. Polynesia means everyone gathering at the wharf for dance rehearsal. Polynesia means a road of crushed coral that carries more pedestrians and mopeds than automobiles. Polynesia means the island’s only policeman also delivers the mail, and drives you to the clinic if you sprain your knee.

It takes a papaya tree to make me homesick. Driving through Pearl Harbor one day, I spot a papaya growing in a yard, its tall, naked trunk crowned by a florette of deeply lobed leaves, the fruit gathered just beneath, ripening, as always, from the bottom up. Without warning, nostalgia for Tapuamu sweeps over me, practically swamping me.

And it’s not because I adore papaya. It’s because I remember the papaya tree that grew next to the terrace of my hosts’ home in Tapuamu. That tree welcomed me almost as much as they did.

I miss Polynesia. And this urban place is Polynesia, too, despite the Ks and Ls in its language, unheard of in Tahitian. Despite the Dennys and Starbucks and KMart. Yes, this is Polynesia too.

The next day Rich and I take our grandson, Cadence, to the Bishop Museum. He’s showing me things he remembers from earlier visits, things that interest a five-year-old boy. “They used these to strangle people,” he reports, pointing to a cord woven from strips of pandanus leaves. A minute later, we come to a drawing of a man being throttled against the trunk of a coconut palm, drawn with the intricate detail favored by British botanists sailing the Pacific during the age of discovery. And I see what he means. The penalty for violating a kapu, the caption reads, could be strangulation.

But in Tahitian it’s tapu, not kapu. Most Americans know the Anglicized taboo. The linguistic twists remind me: The peoples of Polynesia are not all the same. Hawai’i isn’t an overgrown Taha’a. It’s its own-sized culture. Unique. I knew this. I spent eight years in graduate school studying Polynesia, racking up all the credentials to complete a doctorate in anthropology.

And I thought I’d put it behind me, my love of the place, its cultures, its peoples.  I’d convinced myself that the only love remaining in me was for specific people, not for the peoples and cultures and landscapes and breezes and history and fruits that make the place what it is.

It takes this papaya tree to remind me. And so, in honor of the papaya, I let myself regret life’s complexities that led me to choose against a career in my academic discipline.

Like the final look before closing a casket’s lid, I need this moment of regret. I’ve denied it for nearly twenty years. But here, in the tropical sun, with that papaya tree nodding encouragement in the afternoon breeze, I bow my head for a moment.

I feel the clandestine burden rise from my shoulders. And I’m amazed, all over again, at what a moment’s quiet reflection can do for my heart, how I need to let the hurt breathe before I can see the better plan it camouflaged.

And I’m amazed at what a papaya tree can do, when I slow down to listen. 

21 Your ears will hear a word behind you, “This is the way, walk in it,” whenever you turn to the right or to the left. 22 And you will defile your graven images overlaid with silver, and your molten images plated with gold. You will scatter them as an impure thing, and say to them, “ Be gone!”
Isaiah 30:21-22 (NASB)