It’s been nearly three years since I last saw Harlan, since I last touched one of his broad, strong, calloused hands, since I last heard his voice. Every day I think of him, and every day I am grateful to have had the privilege of becoming his wife and the mother of his beautiful children. It’s easy (and sometimes dangerous) to elevate our lost loved ones to the point of beatification, but those who had the good fortune to know Harlan Masuda understand, in his case, it’s entirely appropriate.
I write this on February 9, 2017. February 11 looms, as it always does. I expect it always will. Tomorrow, I will, once again, look back at the text from February 10, 2014, and what would be our last written exchange:
“Hi Marnie, Will you be my Valentine? Harlan”
“Of course. If you’ll be mine!” (With lots of heart and kiss emojis)
But this post isn’t about moments in the past really, and I don’t want to go down that road. The narrative of the shock of tragedy. There’s been more than enough of that.
I want to ask you to do something–anyone whose eyes are taking in these words–whether or not those eyes ever had the good fortune of taking in Harlan in his physical form. I want to ask you to do something for me, and for everyone around you.
I want you to be Harlan for a while.
I know that sounds weird and “complicated grief”-y
Stay with me. I’ll explain.
One of the phrases I repeat to myself when I’m freaking out or struggling (at least once a day lately), came to me via a fellow Buddhist poet back when I lived in San Francisco and I was single, and I had time for things like writing poetry.
“Where there is no Buddha, be the Buddha.”
Joe, the Buddhist Poet, included that line in a poem he wrote about a baseball game. I thought he’d lifted it from a Sutra, translated it from Sanskrit or Pali–because he did stuff like that. All these years later, I’ve never found a single reference to this line in any sutra, or heard it mentioned in a dharma talk. It really stuck with me, and I think Buddhist Poet Joe must have made it up.
Buddhism is different from other faiths in lots of ways. For one, it does not contain creation stories, for two, it does not encourage or elicit the “worshipping” of a God or deity. To make a very, verrry long story short. Buddhist practitioners practice becoming the Buddha. Practice. Practice. Practice. Fail. Fail. Fail. Practice. Practice…
It’s really hard. And it’s not really hard.
Or…if this makes more sense: I ask you to add Harlan to your Pantheon, to remember him, even if you didn’t know him. So, on the advent of the Fourth Buddhist year of his passing, I wanted to share with you some things about Harlan Masuda consider, to hold in your heart, and to share. Then, if you knew him, and you have some more to share, please post on the “In Memory of Harlan Masuda” Facebook Page.
“Giver’s Gain.” Harlan used this phrase to “explain” his open-hearted willingness to always help someone. When he ran into a friend of his who had lost everything due to addiction issues and was living “outdoors,” he always greeted him as if nothing had changed. They’d chat and laugh a little. Then Harlan would quietly, almost invisibly, hand him $20. That was it. No pitying. No admonishing. No prodding. Just happy to see him, just quietly giving.
“Not cuz I gotta’ cuz I wanna.” Never perform any task with an aura of obligation. If you really don’t want to do something, don’t do it. If you do it, do it with love and enjoy it. If you have to do yard work all day Sunday, put your earbuds in and do it with your whole self. You stay at a party until it’s over and then you help stack chairs and sweep up. You always kiss or hug everyone hello and goodbye. Even if it takes forever. You do presentations every year for your kids’ classes and show them how the “Big Bucket Truck” goes up and down and show them the danger of touching power lines by frying a (toy) troll or two. Every year. Until they quit asking.
Actions and energy are the true tests of character–Harlan was a man of few words. He was a person who got things done, and who exuded the warmest, most open energy I have ever witnessed. He would walk into a situation and just start helping without being asked. He sussed things out, sensed where he could be the most useful, and would just join in. I still marvel at his ability to do this.
“Suck it Up.” Man, Harlan did not suffer crybabies (the only exception was our daughter. If she as much as pouted, he would do whatever the heck she wanted). This rule definitely applied to me. I am not the most detail-oriented person when it comes to non-text related things. When I pussed out on something, left something undone, or forgot a step in a process, he’d just smile, shake his head and say, “Sloppy work, Masuda.” Not in a mean way, but in a way that made me rethink my, ahem, attention to matters. He climbed poles and crawled in tight spaces with live electrical things. He wasn’t afraid of anything, really, except spiders. He really hated spiders.
Two days after we brought Jackson home from the hospital, he decided the hedge needed trimming. He was on a ladder and he slipped a little and, essentially, cut the entire top of his thumb off. As in, the top of his thumb was hanging on by a thread. I freaked out and said something soothing like: “I HAVE A TWO-DAY OLD HERE AND WHY WERE YOU CUTTING THE DAMN HEDGE?” He considered my bizarre non-sequitur for a moment, then walked into the kitchen and wrapped the whole thing in a paper towel until the blood stopped spurting. Holding the paper towel firmly over his severed thumb, he wrapped it with black electrical tape using his non-spurting hand and his teeth. He went out and finished cutting the hedge, came back in, sat down at the kitchen counter and drank a beer. He held our new baby carefully, so as not to get any seeping blood on him. An hour or so later, he sewed the tip of his thumb back on. I think he used fishing line, but I’m not sure because I left the room when I figured out what he was going to do. It held on, and healed eventually, but it left a serious scar. He didn’t try to get it straight, and, again, I think fishing line was involved. My mom (who witnessed this and knows I am not lying) and I dubbed it “Frankenthumb.”
Be humble and polite and smile often. Harlan was not picky, he was not quick to anger, and he was not judgmental. I am pretty much all of those things, so you know, it worked out. One time I said, “You know, it bugs me when we’re at a party and we have to call our kids over to pray to the Heavenly Father when we’re not even Christian.” He said, “It’s no big deal.” I said, all haughtily like I do,”Well, let’s have everyone chant or something at our next party.” He said, “Why would we want to chant at a party?” Dead pan. If he didn’t like something, he’d say “I don’t really care for it,” but only if someone asked. In Harlan’s case, this applied to food, mostly. There were people Harlan did not care for. If he did not care for you, he would not pretend to care for you. He never worried about speaking up at work when something was “bullshit.” He did not respect people who turned their backs on friends or coworkers, or acted like they were better than other people. He didn’t judge them or be rude to them or talk about them. He’d just kind of write them off. He was a proud IBEW union man and he “did not care for” overpaid, loudmouth bosses or “scabs.” He would not care for Donald Trump. If he saw Trump in person, he would probably knock him out. I never saw him hit anyone, but he could benchpress a bajillion pounds or something like that, and he would definitely pound that smug f**k into the ground, given the opportunity.
Where there is no Buddha, be the Buddha.
Humor. Make it Count. Again, Harlan wasn’t a talker. He had no problem with silence. But when he said or did something funny, it was very, very funny. His timing was impeccable. There’s a bunch of one liners I’d like to share, but there may be kids around so, trust me. When Harlan threw in a one-liner, that joke had some serious legs.
Be curious. Ask Questions. Harlan always wanted to learn everything about stuff. He wasn’t nosy about people’s personal lives or feelings. He always wanted to know how people did things. He never read a novel in his life (when I was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to some Freshmen, he wanted to read it and take all the quizzes. When I gave him the first quiz he got all nervous. Then he broke down, “Okay! Okay! I only read the Cliff Notes!”) He always had several “how to” books stacked by the bed, though. When we traveled places, he connected with everyone. I think Harlan was the most “in his element” when we were out of the country. Language barriers probably helped him communicate more fluently. He was fluent in smiling and gesturing and exuding openness. We have so many pictures of Harlan with strangers in other lands, and, in every single image, the stranger is always smiling as widely and openly as he is. It’s a strange and unlikely phenomenon. They never seemed bothered by his questions or requests for pictures; even Parisians got a kick out of him–shuffling around like he always did, with his backpack and shorts and black socks. Nothing fashionable or sophisticated or savvy about him at all. Just super excited about being a guest in their country and showing the world what aloha feels like, rather than telling the world what it means.
Hug for Real. Harlan was a big man. When he hugged you, he enveloped you, and the hug felt like all the light of his love was connecting with yours. I couldn’t see his face when he hugged me, but when he hugged the people he loved his eyes would close and crinkle up at the sides, and he would smile. It wasn’t “for” anyone–it was how he felt when he hugged people. Our children, my friends, my parents, his sister, his brother, his friends. Always eyes closed. Always smiling and glowing from within.
Do it with Gusto or not at All. When Harlan cooked dinner, which was often, he drank a few cans of Coors (again..nothing fashionable or sophisticated) and called it “Kitchen Stadium.” He put on music and danced around with Skylar. He spoke in a french-ish accent when he plated the food and told us what it was. “We have a leeetle breaded ah mahi ah, with zeee rice and zeeee brown but-air sauce.” He loved to fish, and he loved bodysurfing. He took a picture with every single fish he ever caught. I think the best day of his life was when he and Jackson brought in that 55 pound ono off Mala Wharf. He knew these moments were important. He loved sentimental songs–the sappier the better. On our first date he sang me “Crystal Chandeliers.” Maybe he did that on all his first dates, but it worked on this one. “All I have to offer you is me,” he sang. And I was like, ummmm, okay!
Throughout our almost-fifteen years together, he played guitar and ukulele almost every night and sang, even if no one was listening (I always was, even if I was busy cleaning the kitchen or sitting on my stupid computer). He’d sit on the table in the backyard, and pet Lucky, and call for us, when all the three of us were zoning out on our computers or other devices…
“Come out and look at the moon! It’s so bright and we’re all together and life is beautiful!”
So tonight go out and look at the moon. And hug someone with your eyes closed. And sing even if no one is listening. And give someone your whole self. And where there is no Harlan, be Harlan.