One of the most lasting cultural lessons I garnered from my time on Kaua’i was the concept of mana, or life force. It’s a concept that’s common throughout Polynesia, and the idea is basically that both positive and negative energy is carried in both human forms and inanimate objects, such as things we wear close, like flower lei, which is why they have to be disposed of in certain ways.
I also firmly believe this is why I’m a pack rat. My parents, who are much more sensible than I am, see things for their utility and little else. You break something, you throw it away and buy new.
For years, my bookshelves and toy boxes and curio cabinets were littered with family items that had been broken, but that I refused to let my parents throw away. Half of a set of little glass candle holders in the shape of a pair of angels broke either going into or coming out of a Christmas storage box, and the figurines were essentially intact, even though they couldn’t hold candles anymore, and they took up residence on my bookshelf because they’d been around for several holidays and carried that positive energy within them. I don’t still have them and can only assume my Mother finally tossed them while I was at college.
If there’s a memory attached, I’m a goner. When I was helping my mother clean out her sister’s apartment after she’d passed away I found this cute stone relief carving of a series of owls sitting in a graduated row. Mother recognized it and brightened up, “Oh, this used to look so darling sitting on top of… wherever she had it,” but immediately flipped to disappointment when she noticed it had broken in two and been poorly superglued back together. She was about to toss it in the trash when I said I’d take it.
My mother’s fond memory of it told me it had mana. That it wasn’t worth much but my aunt had taken pains to repair it also told me it had mana. My aunt’s life was difficult and relatively short but one commonality I identify with her is we both have a care for and attachment to the things we live with. The little owls are sitting on my mantelpiece.
Tangible, lasting expression in the form of art also carries mana. It’s the very core of human civilization. That our brains are powerful enough to emote inspiration from the things in our world and make art, whether it’s functional or non-functional, from a great painting to embellishment on a piece of serving ware to figurines in the shape of animals to decorative objets – they all carry mana because of the inspiration that creates them and the emotions they stir in us when they populate our lives.
One Thanksgiving when my Grandmother was in her mid-80s, she fell and broke a bone and wound up in the hospital, while my parents were out of state on vacation. I spent most of the night in the emergency room with her, and went back after my shift at Nordstrom. Because hospitals are no fun, I used my discount to buy one of the Christmas items we’d just put on the floor: a plush snowman lady dressed up in a red chenille bolero top with a twill ribbon scarf and a matching beret with a mirrored button accent. There was a music box inside that played some Christmas tune or other, and I’ll never forget my Grandmother’s twinkle-eyed smile as she laid in her hospital bed, comforted by the sound of the music box, feeling the softness of the plush and her fancy garments, and smiling back at the snow-lady’s sewn-on smile.
We often visited my other grandmother, who lived in Sitka, Alaska, after her husband passed away, and we’d often bring her stuffed animals, for which she had a fondness. One of a smiling Eskimo lady with a nested baby doll, with a content smile framed by a faux fur parka and lovely movable arms which wrapped around the baby and velcro’d together into an embrace; another was a wound little easter bunny with bows on each ear and a pink floral pair of overalls. She spent her last years in rainy, isolated Sitka in a warm house on top of a hill with a great view of the city surrounded by mid-century modern furniture and books and the stuffed animals we’d brought for her and a huge curio cabinet with lots of carved animal figurines (elephants were a favorite).
The point is that material things have a conflicted place in Judeo-Christian Western heritage, because the faithful among us generally believe that our reward comes in the next world, to which we can’t take any of the objects we share the current one with. But for many of these objects I think about the mana they acquire by the spirit in which they’re given: to comfort us when we’re unwell, frightened, lonely, scared, or just share our space as silent, inanimate companions while absorbing the mana of the interactions and emotions we leave in our earthly wake.
The Grandmother who had broken a bone on Thanksgiving ultimately passed away several years later, a few months shy of her 91st birthday, but I didn’t have a good cathartic cry about it (I generally find funerals calming because of the notion of a soul being at rest) until several months later when I was going through some of her Christmas decorations and I came across this absolutely hideous little stuffed polyester Santa Claus whose beard and eyes were shaped in such a way that they had an almost villainous quality to them.
Her taste in Christmas decorations was famously tacky, but I stared at that hideous little Santa Claus and the mana overwhelmed me as I thought about how much she loved Christmas and all the knick knacks she’d acquired over the years, and how lovingly she packed them away and hoarded them out of habit year after year.
So I had my moment, but at the end I realized that when we leave things behind, we leave behind more than just things. We leave behind mana – our life force in continuous, often unspectacular, unvarnished, humanity.