The world of Islam was properly introduced to me by my classmate Ershad Ali at Viard Intermediate. Me and Ershad were thick as thieves cuz we were both idiots. This one time in Home Ec, I decided it would be a good idea to sprinkle bacon bits on our pizza when he wasn’t looking then tell him after he ate a slice to see what he would do. After instructing me to go f. myself, he ran over to the rubbish bin and used two fingers to make himself sick. Prolly not the best example to use but what I was attempting to do with this here story was illustrate how I’ve always been intrigued by religion.
Mum: See, Kristian goes to church every week whereas my other boy Miki doesn’t but I actually think he’s a better person.
Krit: Yeah thanks, I’m sitting right here Mum!
My faith has played a big part of my life growing up! Both my parents come from strong Catholic upbringings [I have first cousins who are nuns and another one who was in training to become a priest but got kicked out for sneaking his girl into the seminary]. While I make it a point to attend mass regularly, I’m probably as liberal as they come!
Much of my progressive attitude/approach to religion can be attributed to my Aunty Anna. The reason I say this is because when it came to her faith, she did what worked for her.
My Aunty Anna is the most interesting person I know. Lemme run it back. There are eight siblings in my Mum’s family and Aunty Anna is two up from my Mum. Growing up, we spent the most time with my Aunty Anna and my Aunty Tree’s families [who happen to be the only two to have had Maori partners]. As a baby, I actually lived with my Aunty Anna, her partner Steve/Koko and her daughters Soranya, Elizabeth and Desley for two years. Over the last three decades, starting with that formative period of my childhood, I can say I inherited certain traits from her…
Having a big personality. Neither of my parents are rambunctious or particularly captivating [sorry Mum and Dad, your strengths lie elsewhere!] but my Aunty Anna’s both. She had charm coming out of her ears! All of my aunties and uncles on my Mum’s side were blessed with a great presence and a wicked sense of humour [not to mention some fine looks!] but when it comes to charm, Aunty Anna’s a crowd favourite. She knew how to entertain an audience – always using her wit to fill a room with laughter and making a big fuss over you so you felt special. She loved to sing and play you old music [Englebert Humperdink, Frank Sinatra] and tv shows/movies [“The Golden Girls”, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”] and provide commentary [which was either insightful and had you in deep thought or some plain old funny shit that had you pissing yourself]. On the flipside, she loved her some DRAMA. Aunty Anna could be pretty tricky and had a lethal temper [like they all do] – she was notorious for her acid tongue. When she fought, she spit RAZORS. It was almost an art.
Rolling with Maoris. That sounds like an odd thing to point out but that was part of her eccentricity. Up until maybe three years ago, I was constantly mistaken for being Maori. The fact I went to Kohanga Reo might have something to do with it! Aunty Anna ran one. She was fluent in Te Reo and had a great love of everything Maori. She worked for Whakarewarewa/Te Puia for over 15 years as a tour guide so as an undergrad, I’d take my friends down to Rotorua/Mamaku all the time and they loved hearing her speak. Throughout my studies and my employment I often found myself involved in projects pertaining to Maori. I ended up coordinating programmes specifically targeting Maori students and it wasn’t unusual for me to draw upon Maori pedagogies for my papers and in developing support initiatives for my students.
And last but not least, being spiritual. Some people like to define religion and spirituality as being outright mutually exclusive but we tended to be fine with mixing both. When I was at Lehigh I jumped at the chance to take a paper on interfaith dialogue and explore Israel/The West Bank. Aunty Anna and I would talk about faith and religion for hours [well actually it was more her talking and me hanging off her every word, she could dazzle your ass off with how knowledgeable she was on any given topic]. She found her peace in Buddhism.
Some people declare they’re Buddhists simply cuz they believe “what goes around comes around”. Aunty Anna is a ‘travels to India for holy pilgrimages and sends her kids to Dharma club’ kinda Buddhist. Before every meal my cousins had to recite their precepts and before bed everyone had to get their cushions out to sit on during puja. I loved being around her and my cousins and learning about meditation and mantras. They were right into their Buddhist teachings but at the same time Aunty Anna kept a wooden crucifix on her shrines as a nod to Jesus and his teachings and her relationship with the church throughout her childhood.
I remember one time me and my Mum walked into the house and it reeked something chronic. My Mum asked “what’s that smell?!” and as we looked over to the shrine in the middle of the sitting room, there lay a dead cat’s body stretched out with all the kids sitting next to it, watching tv. My four-year-old cousin answered, “Misty died” without batting an eyelid. My Mum was like “ok we’re going now”. We have a little laugh about it but the family’s only ever been accepting and respectful of Buddhist practices.
Earlier this year a close friend of mine lost her father. A week before Christmas another close friend of mine lost his too. On Christmas day I received news that my Aunty Anna passed away.
We’ve been anticipating her death for a while. She had been battling cancer for years but never reached remission. While I lived in the US, I was scared I wouldn’t make it home in time to see her. Fortunately I did! I got to spend time with her down in Mamaku over a few weekends. Despite being incredibly weak, she was still cracking jokes. On my last visit two weeks ago, I knew it would be the last time I saw her alive.
I told my Aunty Anna that I loved her and she cut me off saying “I never doubted that”. I’ve never had the opportunity to have a conversation with a loved one knowing they were soon going to die [my father passed away in Samoa while I was in New Zealand and my Grandma passed away while I was in the US, both were unexpected so I only got to make their funerals].
I went on and thanked my Aunty Anna for the role she played in my life, I thanked her for being so unique and I thanked her for being herself. She replied “if I’ve had an influence on your flamboyancy then I’m happy”. When I said I would keep praying for her she told me “please do, you’ve always been very spiritual and that’s our connection”.
Do what works for you. My Aunty Anna’s soul searching led her to something completely different from the rest of my family but in some ways it wasn’t that different after all. That’s what worked for her. I go to mass cuz that’s what does it for me. It’s a space I enjoy being in cuz I find it uplifting. It gives me a chance to get away from all the craziness for an hour and really reflect on life, think about others and be thankful for what I have. For me, religious or spiritual or not, as long as you’re putting positive energy out into the universe, that’s all that matters. Manuia lau malaga, Aunty Anna.