The Keys to Heaven and Hell

The mind is its own place,
and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell
a Hell of Heaven
-John Milton

Nearly two years ago to this day, I met two unforgettable working women on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Readers, tuck away your image of nubile brown women gyrating in grass skirts. The two women I’m about to describe were both, by my estimation, well over fifty—although there is a strong possibility that one of these women was much older than she looked, and the other, much younger. In any case, it is highly unlikely either woman would remember Ms. Lab Rat, or would have found our quotidian interactions at all remarkable. Yet in that day, just by going about their usual business in their usual ways, these two women inadvertently handed me nothing less than the Key to Heaven and the Key to Hell.
I met the woman with the Key to Heaven in a place you don’t find listed in any glossy Big Island travel guide. A place that has never been rated by Zagat. A place undocumented by Lonely Planet. My husband is in-the-know about quite a few noteworthy spots on the Big Island of Hawaii, as this island is his mother’s birthplace. He listed this particular location above all the other hot spots we planned to visit that day: above Onekahakaha Beach, which is totally a beach for locals, above Volcano National Park, which is totally a top-ten contender for any sane person’s bucket list. Be that as it may, this list I’m referring to was not my husband’s bucket list. It was his to-do list. You see, we happened to be staying in a plantation cottage so rural, so isolated, that there was no municipal garage pickup.
Yes, we found the woman with the Key to Heaven working at the local garbage transfer station.
I was as mystified as you are.
At first glance, the woman working at the transfer station looked completely ordinary. It wasn’t as if she wore a fragrant lei and a grass skirt. No, her outfit was more along the lines of a drab polo shirt tucked into pressed khakis. Yet this woman was utterly dazzling. She radiated well-being as she stepped out to greet us with what felt like the warmest word on the planet.
“Aloha.”
As she greeted us with Aloha, she was smiling uncontrollably, just beaming with joy, as though she had been waiting to meet our little family her entire life, and she could imagine no better place on the entire planet for this transformative event to take place than on this very spot. The garbage transfer station.
Her joy was utterly contagious. I couldn’t believe how happy I was to meet her. How happy I was to be there, at the transfer station, with my husband and son, where we could complete our meaningful task of getting rid of garbage. And to think we’d assumed this task was merely something we had to perform to go on to our real destinations.
“Aloha,” we responded. And it felt like we were returning, not so much a greeting, as a blessing.
Raise your hand if you think you know the meaning of the word, Aloha. I would have raised my hand, too, even back in the day when I thought all Hawaiian women traipsed around in grass skirts. Like most Mainlanders of my generation, I considered myself an expert on Hawaiian culture after I’d watched a portion of the three-part Brady Bunch Hawaiian Adventure. Ah, well. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’ll say this much—don’t look to little old freckled me, a haole, a white person, to define Aloha.
Instead, allow me to consult a genuine expert, good old Aunty D.
Aunty D’s Hawaiian Language Workshop cites the dictionary definition of Aloha as follows:

Greetings! Hello! Good-by! 


That dictionary definition is probably not too far off from my old Brady Bunch-inspired definition.
But buckle up. Aunty D and I are going to get all mystical on you. Aunty D digs a little deeper into the etymology of the word Aloha, to reveal that “alo” means presence, and “ha” means “Divine Breath.”
Now, what does the phrase, “Divine Breath” evoke for you? If you are of European origin, like me, that phrase may seem bizarre at first hearing. We white people do not, as a rule, associate the breath with the Divine. Breath can be bad. Breath can be good. (And then only when camouflaged by mouthwash and/or toothpaste.) But Divine? Get out of town.

According to Aunty D., Aloha is

…the spirit of God in Man. As life’s essence, Aloha is everywhere. It is the magnificence in every person, as well as in the `âina, i.e., the environs which is the air, the land, the sky, and the sea…

Does this deeper meaning of Aloha remind you of any single word in English?
Me neither.
Where I was growing up, The Divine was never mentioned in the same breath as breath. The official word was that God resided in churches, in flat tasteless communion wafers, (and then only through the specialized mediation of a priest.) God was not in Man (or woman), and was certainly not in the air, the land, the sky, or the sea.
Then again, I didn’t grow up in Hawaii.
Luckily for me, I was raised by parents who hauled us kids off to the woods to check in with God at least as often as they hauled us off to church. My mother would remind my sisters and I, “Your body is the temple of the Lord.”
Aloha, Mom.
I would not encounter a word even remotely similar to Aloha until I was an adult confronted with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, and I thought maybe the lifestyle I’d been living wasn’t working too well for me. I got myself to a yoga studio. The first word I learned there was a greeting in Sanskrit.
Namaste.
Namaste means, roughly, the divine in me recognizes the divine in you. That’s not so different from Aloha. I must say, either greeting is far superior to, “May I take your order?”
When the lady at the dump greeted us with, “Aloha” that morning, I not only heard the word, I felt it, too. I felt the spirit of the Divine in this magnificent woman. I immediately understood her source of contentment. It was within us, and all around us, right there in the transfer station. I saw that she wanted for nothing; she had a job, a useful job, in a beautiful place. Her status in life was irrelevant. Her job description might not impress anyone, but that was irrelevant, also, because she was clearly in no need of external validation.
In retrospect, I don’t think I was viewing the transfer station agent’s situation through a vacationer’s rose-colored glasses. I think she was simply so magnificently present that she blew away all the labels and judgments that habitually taint my perceptions. I tell you, it was a relief to take a moment to lay down this burden. I could clearly see the Divine in this woman, the Divine in her workplace. Sure, it didn’t hurt that the sun was shining, and that the sky was blue, but I might not have noticed the warmth of the sun, or the color of the sky, had I been wearing my habitual blinders.
I thought a lot about that moment when I started reading a book by Eckhart Tolle. What a Hawaiian might call the power of Aloha is what Tolle calls “The Power of Now.” He observes, “identification with your mind creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgments, and definitions that blocks all true relationship. It comes between you and yourself, between you and your fellow man and woman, between you and nature, between you and God. It is this screen of thought that creates the illusion of separateness, the illusion that there is you and a totally separate “other.” You then forget the essential fact that, underneath the level of physical appearances and separate forms, you are one with all that is.”
In The Power of Now, Tolle implores us to, “Break the old pattern of preset-moment denial and present-moment resistance. Make it your practice to withdraw attention from past and future whenever they are not needed.”
I found myself in no rush to leave the transfer station, in no hurry to reach the many distant points on our list. That shift in consciousness proved useful. As it happened, the next destination on my husband’s list was clear across the Island, on the rainy side, and the speed limits on the one road available varied from 45 mph to 25mph. The posted changes were frequent, and seemingly random. A recipe for aggravation? Only if you weren’t driving in the Now. The view out the window was lush and verdant; life in spectacular display. That road dared you to care to be anywhere but where you were. It was a darn uppity road.
As there is no photograph of the Transfer Station, the place where we found the woman with the key to Heaven, I will supply no photograph of the restaurant where we encountered the woman with the Key to Hell.
The woman with the Key to Hell may have dressed better the woman with the Key to Heaven. But my heart didn’t leap at the sight of her. Surely, she held a more prestigious position, at a far more prestigious place. Or so you would think, if you were unaware that every place is sacred.
The hostess took her time acknowledging our presence. She fluffed a few papers on the lectern before her. Looked to the right of us, and to the left of us, without appearing to have spotted us, although we were the only people standing in the entrance.
When she ran out of ways to avoid looking at us,
it was clear that she saw three dirty people who had sloshed through ocean water, and over lava rocks. She surely didn’t see three expressions of the Divine. It is true we three were not at all attired for dinner at, say, The Four Seasons. But this restaurant was not The Four Seasons. This restaurant was located at the top of a volcano on an island where acceptable nightlife footwear is a pair of zoris, or flip-flops. Not that you’d ever see a local eating there. No, this restaurant’s clientele consisted entirely of the marooned—those of us dressing out of suitcases and backpacks. Our little family had eaten there many a time in the past, dressed as casually, or worse.
Having run out of alternatives, the restaurant hostess finally deigned to greet us. She did so mechanically, using the same word as the transfer station agent, but without so much as a fake smile on her face.
“Aloha.”
Here’s what Hawaii’s last ruler, Queen Lili’uokalani, had to say on the subject of Aloha:

More than a greeting, it is a blessing. To be ONLY used with sincerity: “‘Aloha’ could not be thoughtlessly or indiscriminately spoken, for it carried its own power. No Hawaiian could greet another with ‘Aloha’ unless he felt it in his own heart. If he felt anger or hate in his heart, he had to cleanse himself before he said ‘Aloha’.”
Did our hostess have anger or hate in her heart? I doubt her feeling was as vehement as that. She went to extreme pains to continue to treat us as if we were invisible by asking, “How many of you are there?” As though it wasn’t plain to see.
My husband helpfully suggested, “Three.”
She pursed her lips. “I’ll check and see if there’s room.” Without another word, she turned her back on us and disappeared inside the restaurant. She was gone long enough for us to start discussing a Plan B. As our hostess was insinuating, this was indeed the best restaurant for miles. But that was only because it was the only restaurant for miles.
My husband and I had just agreed to start back for the cottage when our hostess returned. She sighed, exasperated. “I can squeeze you in.”
We followed our hostess inside the serving area, a vast room with all but two tables empty. Just as our hostess had found us invisible, we found her crowd of patrons invisible. Clearly, she’d manufactured the seating problem.
Tolle asks, “Why make anything into a problem? Isn’t life challenging enough as it is? The mind unconsciously loves problems because they give you an identity of sorts. This is normal, and it is insane.”
Later, he reflects, “The pain that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, the resistance is some form of judgment.”
Indeed, I feel a little guilty singling out this one hostess. She is not the exception. Her behavior is almost the rule. Some people, some very insecure people, actually prefer to eat out in an establishment that snubs them. Think of the Groucho Marx joke, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
I’d like to think there was more going in that restaurant than I was aware of. Perhaps the hostess was doing a remarkable job remaining calm, as the cook had just keeled over and died in the kitchen. Indeed, that explanation would also explain the quality of the food we would be served.
Oh, gentle reader, in my judgments, I carry the Key to the Hell, and in my observations, the Key to Heaven. I can almost hear those keys jingling, day in and day out, with every sentence that I write. I didn’t need to travel to find two women to illustrate the options. I can look no further than myself.
Similarly, I can assure you, Gentle Reader, that you don’t need to go to Hawaii to experience Aloha, or to India to encounter Namaste. Eckhart Tolle would advise you to tear up your bucket list, and stay right where you are. And while you are there, you could do worse than reading his simple book, The Power of Now. It won’t change your life. It will change how you live it.
Thanks for reading!
Aloha.
For more about the joy available to all, watch this talk by Srikumar Rao.

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