Pennick and Ford

As a father, I was sometimes quite ornery, maybe even mean, I have come to realize.

 Early in our family life, we would drive from Iowa City, where Joan and I were attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to Cedar Rapids, where Joan’s Mom and Dad lived.

We had to drive by the Pennick and Ford Quaker Oats factory. The factory gave off an odor of sour mash, a smell that reminded me of the sugar mills in Hawaii. The sugar mills filled the air with the odor of molasses.

Being homesick for my island of birth, I said as I drove along, “Mmm, doesn’t that smell good?” Joan looked at me. The children looked at me. I said, “Take a deep breath. Doesn’t that smell good?” This is what I said and how I behaved every time I drove by the Pennick and Ford plant, and pretty soon the children were saying it: “Mmm, doesn’t that smell good?”

The children loved and trusted me, and for better or worse I had conditioned them to love the smell of the Pennick and Ford plant. In the same way, growing up in Hawaii, I learned to love poi, that gray stuff made from steamed taro roots that the Hawaiians eat as a staple.

When I was an infant, my mother would put a spoonful of this gray stuff into my mouth and say, “Mmm Mmm, good!” At first, I would spit it out. But then I swallowed the gray stuff, spoonful after spoonful, and I came to love poi. I wanted everybody to love poi. “Mmm, isn’t it good?” I’d say to Joan, when we moved to Hawaii. I told her how my mother used it, instead of library paste, on the back of a postage stamp that had lost its stick. Fresh poi is so bland to many. She tried it, but I’m not sure what she thought about the grey stuff at first. Now she likes poi enough to want some when I get a bag.

We grow up being so bound to our particular cultures. How can it be otherwise? Our parents are culture bound, and they comfort us and teach us to be human in the only way they know how. We become culture bound. Soon we see everything through the lens of our own culture. Sometimes all we can see is our own culture, and things outside our culture do not exist–unless we live where another culture encroaches on ours. Then, our sense of well-being is disturbed, even ruptured. This is no small matter, because too often we go to all extremes to reestablish our wholeness again. Sometimes we may successfully stamp out the other culture, assimilate it. Sometimes our culture may be stamped out and assimilated.

But this is not how it has to be. Jesus himself was born into a particular culture–the Jewish culture of biblical times. But he was not culture bound, because he was adopted into another culture–the inclusive culture of God’s reign, which abides, I believe, within all other cultures. Jesus remains a Jew, but abides in God, as God abides in him. We, too, may be adopted and accepted and loved for who we are, if we abide in God, as God abides in us.