You only think you know what you want: Lesson 2

A flyer sits in my e-mail box. It’s from a friend in Australia who holds retreats in Bali. Spring is in the air…it begins. For a hair’s breadth I think, “She needs to update her website. It’s September. Spring is in March…April latest…OH!” Whoops! Southern hemisphere, the seasons are up-side-down. She’s absolutely right, in Australia (and Bali) it’s spring.

This gives me pause. How often, I wonder, do I pass judgment based on my frame of reference?

Often.

It’s one thing to study different countries and cultures in books. It’s another thing entirely to relocate your life to a place on the opposite side of the equator from the familiar comfort zone. My understanding of how things should be is challenged daily. Two recent occurrences come to mind, ceremonies and sleeping arrangements.

Someone said that to the Hindu, life is ceremonies and everything in between is just filler.  The truth of that statement cannot be fully appreciated until it’s experienced. In my white Anglo-Saxon Protestant past, church on Sunday was the tradition. It was an hour of sitting in respectful silence and listening to the sermon with the occasional call-response or hymn to break the monotony. When the pastor said, “Go in peace, serve the Lord,” it was my signal to stop daydreaming, find the page for the last song, and make sure my legs hadn’t fallen asleep.

Not so the Hindu. Rituals are not an hour on Sunday morning. Ceremonies can last hours, days, sometimes even weeks. The priest may be ringing his bell and chanting Sanskrit prayers but men and women continue to gossip and laugh and virtually ignore him.

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At first I’m appalled. What disrespectful people! How can they offend the priest like this? Why doesn’t he say something? All the while I sit piously, hands folded in my lap, paying rapt attention. But the holy man never appears to be offended and as soon as he finishes he joins in with his own jokes and good humor.

I’m an expert at imposing assumptions from my narrow experience on a culture that doesn’t share that experience. Their reverence is shown in ways that I’m only beginning to understand. But I’ve taken note and I’m loosening up.

Yesterday posed a different problem, however, and I tried to play the I’m-not-Hindu-so-that-doesn’t-apply-to-me card. It had to do with the orientation of my bed. The Balinese are adamant about sleeping arrangements. The bed must be positioned so one’s head points either east or south, and I’ll qualify that by saying it depends upon where a person lives on the island in relation to Holy Mount Agung. In Ubud, Agung is to the east. Because of the configuration of the bedroom, however, I want the head of the bed on the west wall.

“Not possible,” says Ketut.

“I know, I know,” I gear up to hold my ground. “But I’m not Hindu so it’s okay for me.”

“No good,” he continues. Impatience rises up at his inflexibility on this topic but I try to reason with him.

“Look, if I put the wardrobe here on the short wall, and the bed here, it’s easier to get to the bathroom. Otherwise too crowded.”

“Ya, but no good.”

I want to say, Why not, dammit?! But instead I offer a meek, “Why not?”

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“Machine. Too much noise. No sleeping.” For a few brief seconds I try to make sense of how a machine has worked it’s way into this spiritual conversation. Then it dawns. The neighbor’s washing machine is directly behind the west bedroom wall. An early morning spin cycle, a little off balance, would be sleep disturbing. I feel the defeated grin spreading across my face as I shake my head.

“Why do I even argue with you?” It’s a rhetorical question, but Ketut has the answer.

“Maybe you forget machine,” he says.

 

 

 

 

 

Diplomacy Bali style, you only think you know what you want!

The jungle has it’s place. My idea of a garden, however, is more orderly, manageable, controlled.

In the months preceding the acquisition of the small plot of land adjoining mine, I visualized, sketched, imagined what my garden would look like. Ah, lovely! A solid base of mosaic stone pathways known as batu sikat to create the backdrop for potted palms, bougainvillea, gardenias, and other tropical varietals. It would go from this, its current jungle-ish state,

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The ‘before’ look of my future garden

to something more like this.

Garden plan

The basic idea

I show my drawings to Ketut who will be instrumental in manifesting the vision. (In other words, to him falls the questionable pleasure of uprooting and relocating the jungle and transforming it into planned perfection.) “Oh,” he says, with that tone that I’ve come to recognize as not being quite on my page. “No small mountain???”

For the sake of clarity, the Balinese style garden is a series of earthen mounds. In the center of each is a tall tree that is bordered by leafy plants in varying hues of green, red, and yellow, which are again skirted at the lower level with shorter flowering shrubs creating a mountain affect.

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Balinese style garden

There is no question that it’s beautiful. But I want something  different.

“No small mountain,” I say, with the inflection of voice that leaves very little room for doubt. “I want pots, not mountains.”

Ketut is thoughtful and quiet.

“What are you thinking?” I get wary when there’s no give and take.

“Oh ya,” he says, and nothing else.

A day passes and Ketut’s industry is beautiful to behold. The jungle, like Bali magic, disappears and I venture into the cleared space to reintroduce my plan, just in case. Ketut speaks first. “Ya, three small mountains, one here, one here, one there.” I decide to go the route of diplomacy.

“Ketut,” I try to be patient. “Tell me what you see.”

After a brief explanation I see the same thing he sees, a traditional Bali garden.

“I don’t want small mountains, just pots. Many batu sikat and pots. Is that possible?”

A small “Ya,” is my answer.

Another day passes. More space is cleared and new plantings appear along the back wall.  It’s taking shape. With drawing in hand I once again venture into the clearing, drumming up the necessary resolve to hold firm with my vision.

“It looks beautiful, amazing!” I tell him, and it does. But I don’t see any indication of a design that includes my decorative pathways. “Where will we put batu sikat?”

“Oh, very expensive,” he says.

“How expensive?”

“Maybe broken.”

“Broken?”

“Ya, land very soft, easy make batu sikat broken. Maybe a little a little around pot. And here small mountain…”

The end of this story is obvious by now. In true Balinese fashion, Ketut has given me what I want, his way. He never tells me I can’t, but with gentle stubbornness he guides me to reach that conclusion all by myself. I have to loosen the reigns. When I do the results are always spectacular. The creativity that erupts in such abundance in this culture astounds me. I have no doubt my garden, when left to Ketut, will be a thing of wondrous beauty. I’ll have a few pots, he’ll have a few mountains, and I’ll believe it was all my idea in the first place.

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Ketut hard at work in the new garden

The Big Fat Full Moon

What’s more romantic than moonlight?

My father proposed to my mother on a bridge with the reflection of the moon on the Mississippi River below. She loves to tell the story, how she didn’t answer right away so he took her by the shoulders, peered into her eyes, gave her a little shake and said, “Say yes.” She did, of course.

But I haven’t had any proposals recently, and tonight is Purnama, the ceremony that celebrates the full moon.  Here’s the culprit, just an hour ago, smiling down on my balcony.

P1070350I have no curtains, shades, blinds, or draperies of any kind on any windows. I love light, most light, that is. Moonlight is different. It’s blue. Blue light is not my favorite, neither the eerie illumination from the moon, nor the cold neon glow from the cool color light bulb I bought by mistake. And when it should be dark outside but my house is bathed in that phosphorescent sheen, I don’t sleep. When I don’t sleep, I do other things, like think.

So while I was not sleeping last night as the moon approached full, I contemplated the Hindu calendar that pays homage to the lunar cycles. Purnama is the full moon ceremony, Tilem celebrates the dark moon, and they alternate every fifteen days.

All Balinese ceremonies, celebrations, and rituals have a meaning and a specific purpose. I’ve seen the women walking to temple with offerings on their heads around 8 p.m. on the moon nights. But I never thought to ask why.

So after Ketut finishes arranging a potted bougainvillea at the bottom of my stairway, I snag him. “Tell me about Purnama and Tilem. What are the meanings of those ceremonies?” Sometimes I ask him questions pertaining to rituals and he’ll think for a minute, make a sheepish little laugh and say, “What it means? I don’t know.” This time he explains in some detail and I come away understanding that this ceremony, like many, ensures the balance of opposites, light and dark, life and death, good and bad, happy and sad. If a person is experiencing sadness now, he is told not to worry because soon he will be happy. And if happy, don’t get too excited because it will change. He ends by saying, “Always like this,” and I don’t know if he’s insinuating that from the beginning of time this is the way it’s been done or if every fifteen days it’s always the same. It’s because of the possibility of various interpretations that I decide to check the internet. Google agrees with Ketut but goes on to elaborate.

P1070343Balinese people believe that at the height of the full moon and the peak of dark moon, clusters of galaxies emit a certain energy that affects the lives of living creatures on earth. Therefore, the people of Bali begged (pray) that the energy provided will be positive energy for life.

When you consider that the 2,740,300 Hindus on Bali, are all taking offerings, going to temple, and praying in the blue moonlight tonight, that’s a lot of concentrated focus on a very small island. No wonder the energy here feels different. Where else on earth is it prayed in from the galaxies?!

 

 

What’s the worst that can happen?

Are you passionate about your life? What exactly does that mean? Should I be? Passionate?

From where I stand, it looks like there are a scraggly few who can proclaim that they’re living the life of their dreams. Why is that? I can think of only two reasons: 1) They don’t know what they want, or 2) They’re afraid to do what it takes to have what they want.

Many, and I was one of these, live with their eyes on tomorrow. Tomorrow things will be better. That’s deadly. It keeps you from living in the present and it delays action indefinitely because, as they say, tomorrow never comes. For a very long time I didn’t know what I wanted. I was afraid to dig too deeply looking for it for fear I would see the truth of how miserable I really was.

And there’s something else. Some people fear that if they go for it, go all out and follow their dream, they’ll find out that it’s not what they wanted after all. That’s a scary enough thought to keep you stuck exactly where you are. So what it really boils down to is only one thing: fear.

I like the What’s the worst that can happen? game when confronting fears. So what if I follow my dream and find out it’s not what I really wanted? What’s the worst that can happen? What if I dig deeply for my truth and realize I’m miserable? Don’t I already know, on some level, that I’m miserable? What’s the worst that can happen?

Most fears are irrational. When they’re put to the What’s the worst that can happen? test, they lose their power because the worst that can happen is often quite manageable.

I’m not questioning anyone’s belief system, but in the absence of proof to the contrary, it appears that we get one shot at life on this amazing planet. We get one chance, a brief span of generally less than 100 years, to explore the grandeur of earth’s terrain, experience the cultures of people different from ourselves, delve into the mysteries of our existence, and eat snake for breakfast. (If you haven’t tried it, you must. It’s one of my favorites.)

And here’s the last test. Do you laugh every day? Not just a chuckle, titter, or giggle, but a belly laugh that makes your tear ducts overflow? If not, you need people like this in your life.


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You’ll find them when you find your joy, when at last you can say, “This is it! This is who I was meant to be. This is MY BIG, BEAUTIFUL, PASSIONATE LIFE!”

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Travel Guide Barbie

Few things are more terrifying than a trip to the hair salon. I can say with absolute honesty that I’ve never walked out of an appointment satisfied. I’m always convinced I could have done it better myself. (Overly confident? Narcissist? Confirmed do-it-yourselfer! Yes!) So for the past several years I’ve applied Nice-n-Easy #108 Natural Reddish Blond every couple of months with deeply satisfying results.

Fast forward…Bali.

I’ve been here for two years. When friends or family ask, “Can I bring you anything from the States?” I’ve begged them to load up on as much #108 as they can comfortably stow in their already overcommitted luggage. In exchange I play tour guide, help them find drivers and navigate the unwieldy currency exchanges. To date, my sassy hair has gotten by on the good graces of visitors. Then that thoughtless company discontinued #108. Trying creatively to meet my needs the last shipment via Jan’s suitcase held various alternatives. Bless her for trying.

Those events propelled me into panic. I’m not about to give up my vivacious strawberry blond-ness without a fight.

I began my search locally and realized in short order that a natural red-blond hair color could not be found in this village. Ubud is a thriving tourist center that caters to Asian women who all have dark hair. The products I found were in shades of mahogany, burgundy, pinky-purple, and brass.

I was three months into my last color job. Desperate, I got a lift with a friend to the upscale Mal Galeria in Denpasar, an hour’s drive from Ubud, and began the inquiry. Matahari had hair dye but nothing permissible. The apologetic clerk suggested Hypermart. The name, at least, sounded promising. Reality was a bit something else. Picture Walmart times ten and you’re close. The battalion of check-out counters with lines stretching to oblivion made me re-think going natural. As I did a No way! about-face my eyes caught sight of a small pharmacy tucked into a niche on the left. It’s worth a try, my ever optimistic self said.

I asked in pidgin Indonesian if they had hair color while pointing to my head. After a quick stop at shampoo and a few more meager attempts to communicate, I was led to the back of the shop. There, in a cluster of the usual sultry mahoganies and sables, I saw an incongruous label sporting a cartoonish red-head with enormous eyes. Her hair, Sweet Apricot, was the right color.

schwarzkopf-fresh-light-hair-color-sweet-apricot-L_p0018326099I blinked several times and she was still there. May I look? I said. The name on the box was in English but everything else was undecipherable. Is it for children? I asked. The question seemed reasonable enough to me. The imp on the box was a cartoon after all! What guru of marketing would put a video game type character on a box targeting…Asian teens and young adults? Didn’t they invent the gaming phenomenon? Of course! Brilliant!

The clerks were discussing me, looking at the box, then pointing to my head. This good for you, the older one said.

Now there was no way out. The 95,000 rph price tag translated to about $9 U.S. Shelling out a fist full of 10,000 rph notes I thanked the smiling clerks, tucked my tail, and left.

The box lay hidden in a drawer until last night. A glance in the mirror at my two-tone hairline, dishwater meets redhead, sent me digging under a bag of cotton balls, bandaids, and miscellaneous other supplies. I pulled out Sweet Apricot and was appalled anew by the image. It’ll be okay, I said, Relax! You can do this!

I opened the package and organized the contents in an array before me. The design of the applicator bottle seemed to have significantly superior engineering to the single aperture squeeze thing I was accustomed to. The hermetically sealed packet of plastic gloves weren’t the whisper thin, wrist length throw-aways that Miss Clairol sees fit to supply. They stretched all the way to my elbow and were textured for a non-slip-grip. Sweet Apricot was dead serious about protecting the delicate hands of it’s users.

A quick Google Translate provided instructions that sounded familiar. It’s just hair. As I thought it, I wondered how many times I had breathed out those same three words prior to a disaster of epic proportions.

I’d stalled long enough. With the picture directions spread out on the countertop, I noticed a punch-out circle in the box just the size of the applicator bottle. I was instructed to remove the circle, secure the bottle in the opening for stability, then pour in the color cream, cover securely, and scramble. (Google translate isn’t perfect.) I did as I was told.

You don’t need a blow-by-blow, but the experience was shocking. Once again my sub-grade expectations put me to shame. The solution didn’t singe the nostrils like the Nice-n-Easy brand. It smelled good. The comb-like applicator was 100 times better than the Clairol product and delivered the color cream in an even, perfect flow through its teeth. The goo stayed in my hair and didn’t dribble down the back of my neck or under my chin. Of course all that would be moot depending upon the final outcome.

When I finished, Ubud was experiencing one of its humid, evening rain showers so I knew my hair wouldn’t dry until morning. Final judgment would have to wait.

As the sound of roosters and a chorus of frogs heralded sunrise I stumbled to the bathroom mirror. Spikes of shiny plastic Barbie-doll-ish hair sprouted in all directions. But the color wasn’t a normal Barbie color. It was more like Roller Blade Barbie or Mud Wrestler Barbie. I found myself once again squinting and rubbing my eyes. Maybe after a cup of coffee…?

P1070235After coffee I loved it! No more imports of inferior products from America. No more impositions on the good will and big hearts of Bali bound travelers. I’ve found my color at last, Sweet Apricot!

When I skyped with daughter, Joy, this morning she thought for a minute then christened me, Travel Guide Barbie and I’m okay with that. I’ll still do the tours, arrange drivers, and help with currency exchanges. And I’ll do it with gratitude for my friends who are planning future trips to Bali, because I’ve yet to find a workable alternative to CoverGirl #210 Perfect Point Plus Espresso eyeliner pencil!

 

 

When you just keep falling in love

For someone who’s sworn off men, I’m not doing too well. I’m alone, that isn’t the issue. But my defenses have been shot to shreds in the loveliest possible ways and I find myself falling in love a little bit every day.

First there’s Ketut. I’ve written thousands of words about Ketut, glowing, gushing words. When I first came to Bali he was my room staff. I remember when he met me at 3 a.m. as I disembarked from a taxi after a trip of thirty-six hours from the States. “You Zely?” he asked, then hoisted my brick-heavy suitcase on his shoulders and told me to follow him. The next morning, there he was again. “Breakfast?” he said. “Kopi? What you want?”

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Ketut with baby daughter Nengah

I remember my thoughts. A man? Why? Couldn’t I have a sweet girl cleaning my room and bringing my breakfast? Drat! I don’t want to put up with man-energy. But I didn’t understand then that the Balinese man isn’t like the men I’d known in the West. Ketut filled my room with flowers, daily. He anticipated me, knew when I would be hungry and showed up with treats. Knew when I wanted company and hung around to chat. Knew, even more importantly, when I wanted to be alone, and left me alone. His intuition was far more highly developed than mine, and I’ve come to realize that’s true of Balinese people in general. (But I won’t go into details here! Another time.) In short, Ketut healed my heart.

Enter, Gede! He’s another member of the staff in the neighborhood where I live. Gede is a clown, a twenty-one-year-old little boy who loves to laugh and make others laugh too. One day he gave me a lift on his motorbike and told me he wanted to bring me a kebaya. That’s the beautiful, traditional blouse that women wear to ceremonies here. It seemed far too generous a gift for someone who doesn’t even employ him, but the next time he went to his home in Kintamani, he came back with not one, but three stunning kebayas for me. They all fit like they had been custom tailored for my body. I fell in love with Gede long before the kebayas, but I fell a little bit deeper that day.

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Gede…always the trickster!

The Tukangs working on my house, we’ll call them Dewa One, Dewa Two, and Pak Mandi, all have a slice of my heart. Dewa One scared the bejeezus out of me when I first met him. He had an angry man look, his hair was wild and his body was as tight as a coiled spring. He snapped orders at his crew and I steered clear. But his work was immaculate and one day I drilled up the nerve to tell him how happy I was with his skillful precision. He smiled. No, you don’t understand. He SMILED! There isn’t a more beautiful face on earth than the smiling face of Dewa One. My heart became gooey. Now I find every possible opportunity to praise him and he graces me with that gorgeous grin every time. I love Dewa One.

workers that took down the yoga deck

Dewa One…you’ll have to trust me about the smile!

The most outrageous of my loves is Pasek. He’s blatant, calls me his second wife, makes highly suggestive comments and enjoys watching me bristle. I’ve met his first wife and I adore her but I wouldn’t want to be her. Her hubby’s a handful. But do I love him? Oh yeah. Pasek is the one I call when my electricity goes out, when my faucet leaks, when I need food from the market, or when I want to know about Balinese culture. His harmless joking has become just another part of life here. And he, too, anticipates me and shows up just when I am about to dial his number.

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Pasek and his wife, Nyoman

But it doesn’t end there. I’m in love with my tailor, with the taxi drivers, with the man who sells tickets on the street, and the shop keeper at the corner convenience store. I’m in love with my neighbor’s husband, and pretty much every Balinese man I know. Do I use the word too loosely? I don’t think so. The men in Bali are kind to me. I’m susceptible to that. In the West kindness has become a lost art. We have bumper-stickers to remind us to be kind. But here it’s a fact of life, so I just keep falling in love.

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The neighbor’s husband! (Don’t worry, Nina…you have zero competition here!)

 

 

My Village, My Tribe

 

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I woke up the other morning to emailed photos of the annual Family Picnic. It’s an institution, an every year reunion of all living members of my father’s large family of origin. There were twelve children who had children who in turn had children, and those children are currently having more children.  So they gather, those who aren’t feuding or living far away, at the home place, to eat, reminisce, play softball, and marvel at how they all look the same, never change, don’t age, and isn’t cousin Charley’s little girl a handful!

I puzzled over the photo for a long time and then took a walk. My injured foot felt ready at last.

The past six weeks I’ve been immobilized due to an injury. During that time I became aware of a different world. On the best days it was vacant, void of feeling, a long tunnel of boredom. On the worst days a sodden blanket descended over everything and the atmosphere darkened with anxiety, foreboding, and fear. It was a place empty of gratitude. In my small room, day after day, foot propped on pillows, construction noise hammering around me, there were times when I sank into that other world.

But today marked the end of solitary confinement. I set out under paintbrush blue skies washed with sunlight and expectation. The taxi drivers in the street welcomed me back. Where had I gone? Had I been in America? I met an Australian friend for lunch and mailed a letter at the post office. Out of nowhere gratitude spilled over me. In gratitude anything is possible. The air sizzles with potential. People smile and instant bonds form. It’s a world of generosity and heart wholeness.

At the end of my outing, giddy and joyful I approached home. The shaggy grass in the yard had been trimmed by my neighbor. I drew closer and saw Ketut’s head in the kitchen window. I could hear Lake Batur fish sizzling in the pan. “How did you know I’d come home now and be starving?” His uncanny intuition is unnerving. “Did you read my mind?” I’ve accused him of that before.

“You long walk, maybe hungry,” he said as he piled mounds of stir-fried vegetables, steamed rice with chunks of sweet potato, and the crisp body of a whole fish on a plate and handed it to me.

“Yes,” I thought, “A very long walk, right out of one world into another.” I had created them both by what I allowed my mind to dwell upon. Ketut is always kind and thoughtful. The sun in Bali is always shining. I have no more or no less money today that I did yesterday. But for six weeks my stony little heart lacked gratitude.

Bali - Ketut's Family (4)

And then it hit me. What seemed odd about that picture was that all those people have white skin. Of course they do. They’re Norwegian with a smattering of other European genes. My family here is Indonesian, mostly brown, and sometimes I forget that I’m not.

But it isn’t skin color that makes a village, or shared history that creates a tribe. It’s the condition of the heart, the bonds of love and service, the willingness to be vulnerable and accessible to one another. That can happen anywhere.

And gratitude is the gate between worlds.

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