To mark the end of August, I’ve been wanting to do a post on the obon season here in Hawaii. Obon is a traditionally Japanese Buddhist custom to honor one’s ancestors as they return to “visit.” Most Japanese people return to their hometowns to celebrate this occasion, which is marked by a bon odori, or basically a very large traditional Japanese dance.
As a third generation Japanese-Okinawan American, I know next to nothing about the actual Japanese festivities. Here in Hawaii, it’s a little different. For one thing, the season spans almost all summer, from the end of June to the end of August, as opposed to the few days in each Japanese region. Generally all of the Buddhist temples here host their own obon celebration, complete with food vendors, craft fairs, and, of course, bon dances. All summer, every weekend is another bon dance somewhere on the island.
Evidently, there is an actual story behind this occasion, which I only discovered this moment on Wikipedia: One of Buddha’s disciples somehow found out his deceased mother was suffering in the afterlife and was informed by Buddha that he could help her by making offerings to the Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat. This allowed his mother’s release from her suffering and, in gratitude and relief, the disciple danced.
I still don’t know if obon season necessarily makes me feel closer to my ancestors. But, despite the fact that I’m really really bad at dancing, participating in the obon festivities always makes me feel grounded in my culture. Whether or not they struggle to participate in the dance movements, everyone is part of so many generations holding tight to all these traditions, even after all these years.
Which brings me to the fact that I’ve finally finished Emily St. John Mandel’s highly acclaimed Station Eleven, which is all about extreme nostalgia. I mentioned this title a few times in the last months, mostly because I’d picked it up in a moment of optimism about my reading abilities while coping with Issues. Unfortunately, the whole world-ending thing put me off for a bit because, well, Issues.
The story follows a handful of different narrative perspectives, both past and present, through the mutated epidemic that wipes out 99% of the world, the shaky years following, and all the way through Year 20, when the Traveling Symphony of musicians and Shakespearean actors continue to bring art and beauty to the surviving communities.
The crux of the main conflict comes in the form of a territorial prophet who believes the epidemic was God’s razing of the Earth, leaving only the worthy behind, along with those who will test the worthy one last time. (There always has to be one of those guys, right?) The Traveling Symphony runs afoul of him and things get creepy from there.
What was most interesting to me, however, was that, despite this prophet storyline, the much bigger and continuing conflict happens on a much more personal level for most of the characters: namely a longing for the past, a forgetting and remembrance alike, for everything from air-conditioning to electricity to iced lattes.