When the dead aunts go home

There isn’t a situation, circumstance, life event, object, (animate or inanimate) in Bali that doesn’t have a particular ceremony assigned to it. The big ones, marriage, birth, death, are universal. But a day to bless metals? An elaborate celebration before a baby’s feet are allowed to touch the ground? A ritual dealing with incest? The coming of age practice of tooth filing to rid the body of carnality? These are foreign concepts. Then there are the temple birthdays, a day to bless the animals, another for trees and plants, the list goes on.

But every 210th day on the Balinese calendar, the spirits of dead ancestors return to their earthly homes. Elaborate preparations are made by the living to receive them and the festivities continue for ten days culminating in Kuningan when those restless souls take their leave to go back to their haunts for another 210 days until the cycle repeats.

Today was Kuningan.  I woke up having slept a total of about two hours all night, and felt the urge to walk. The sky was that particular shade of wisteria with a steady breeze out of the east. I set out heading north on Monkey Forest Road toward the Ubud Royal Palace. Offerings hung from doorways and women in temple clothes lit incense and sprinkled holy water over mounds of square palm baskets filled with flowers, rice, and treats piled on the sidewalk. 2015-07-25 10.24.55As I ambled along in no hurry to get anywhere, I looked back to see this car, adorned with the woven, shield-shaped ornaments that signify protection. Many cars and motorbikes had these woven palm talismans hanging on the front.

2015-07-25 10.10.53Bicycles, too, were the recipients of offerings and blessing.

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My lazy stroll took me past residences that I never see when the streets and sidewalks are crowded with people. But this morning I was the only non-Balinese person about, so I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph the stunning second story residence of a wealthy Ubudian. Every door and window was framed by intricate stone carvings, and the shutters and doors themselves were carved and painted the deep reds, greens, blues, and golds of the traditional Balinese style.

2015-07-25 10.24.29The home sitting next to this one was another example of unique architecture. Resting at the top is a lumbung built in the style of the old rice barns. This one has been embellished with paint and looks more like an elaborate child’s playhouse, which maybe it is.

2015-07-25 10.24.05My trek had gotten me as far as the football field, a well-known landmark about half-way between the Ubud Royal Palace and the Sacred Monkey Forrest. It was in the background across the street when I asked a young woman who was putting offerings in the roadside temple if I could take her picture.

2015-07-25 10.19.01Of my several walking routes, this morning I chose to take a left on Arjuna Street for the quieter feel off the main thoroughfare. I had seen men working on penjors earlier in the month but had not been back since they’d been installed. This year those towering arched poles with swaying tassels, seemed taller and more intricate in design than I’ve ever seen them.

2015-07-25 10.25.59 Arjuna Street comes to a T. I hang a right that takes me up to Jalan Raya, the main east-west artery in Ubud. More altars with offerings, palm weavings and flowers graced this busy area mail.google.comAs I continued along my way, down the steep hill to the bridge over the river and then the slow climb out of the valley, I watched family after Balinese family in full-on temple garb, riding sidesaddle and carrying the square baskets that hold everything needed to send the dear departed once again on their way.2015-07-25 10.44.00No matter how many times I see the offerings, the temples, the penjors, the men in their udeng headgear and double sarongs, the women in their kebayas, I delight in the exotic beauty of it all. Today was no different. When I got home, Ketut was back from his family responsibilities in Abang Songan and had performed the ritual blessings for my house, and even though my ancestors probably can’t find me here, I’m prepared! P1090939

The Mighty Jungle Meets Ketut!

This afternoon I took a break from writing, wandered to the railing overlooking the garden, and there were Ketut and Wayan, hard at work, beating back the jungle. It’s a thankless chore, like doing laundry or washing dishes, tasks that every homemaker knows must be tended to on a regular basis or they soon get out of hand. It’s not at all like weeding a Minnesota garden a couple of times over the course of three months, which is the sum and total of the growing season there.

No, the jungle is aggressive. If it weren’t tamed, it would soon take over everything, vines snarling around pillars, curling over walls and doorways, snaking through open windows. So the garden Ketut planted that looked so feeble at it’s inception, has morphed into a domesticated jungle that requires daily attention.

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Last October, Ketut planted every stick that is now a tree and every blade of grass that is now a thick carpet.

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This is the same corner that Ketut was planting in the previous picture.

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Wayan is carrying two hacked leaves from a banana tree that was encroaching!

Besides being a superb gardener, Ketut is half monkey. If there’s an offending branch or frond that’s too high off the ground to snag with the long knife-stick, he’s up the trunk in a flash, making quick work of the unfortunate interloper.

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This is NOT a tree-hugger pose! He has his long knife-stick in his right hand and is hanging on for dear life with his left!

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With focused intensity he’s going after a cluster of bananas that fell prey to one of the raggy squirrels that love to eat the stem of the flower which pretty much ensures that the bunch dies or its growth is stunted.

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Hmmm…I wonder if I can reach that dried  palm leaf waaaay up there….!

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Wayan looks on as Ketut hacks.

And you may as well get used to hearing about Wayan. Wayan Puji is Ketut’s cousin from the same village of Abang Songan, and he’s now a permanent fixture here. (I’m high maintenance…it takes two!)

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Wayan Puji

Ketut’s hobby is gardening, and Wayan’s hobby is cleaning! At least that’s what Ketut says, and I believe him. My windows have been washed, inside and out, three times in two weeks. My floor is swept every day and scrubbed every other day. And both guys like to cook so I’ve had to cut out rice and noodles to ward off the creeping poundage! It’s a lovely problem to have.

How do I describe a life that’s so unlike anyone’s frame of reference unless they’ve lived here? I write these blogs but they’re just words and snapshots of an existence that defies explanation. And yet I persist, hoping that something gets through, some part of the magic, the wonderment, injects itself into the reader with the kind of awe I feel every single day. Toward that end I write, and write, and write!

 

The Ghost in the Cupboard

*

I covet furniture.

Interior design was my career, my bread and butter, my love and my dread for many years. Love because beautiful things have always delighted me and I could spend other people’s money to buy them, and dread because much of what I did was customized and I had to depend on the aptitude of others to get it right. That’s tough for a control freak perfectionist.

Now, years later, although I’ve downsized to a ridiculous level of uncluttered spaciousness, lovely things still delight me. And if they’re unique as well as pretty, I lust.

Such was the case when I noticed a new shop on Monkey Forest Road about a month ago. I walked through the door into stacks of clutter arrayed in the most artful way. Antiques the world over smell like old wood and that same, dusty essence, met my nostrils as I scanned the tumbled assortment of treasures, first to the left, then to the right, taking it all in. Expecting the real finds to be toward the rear, I almost missed a stout cabinet, the rough-textured plank top and rattan basket drawers an unusual combination.

I glanced, then looked again, touched the delicious ridges and hollows of ancient wood, went on my knees to pull open the charming baskets, then checked the price tag. The number warranted closer inspection. How was it joined? What species of lumber was used in the body? The top was old, the rest was new with the exception of three antique wood drawers marching across the front sporting vintage hardware. They slid in and out precision-smooth. With the possibility of a serious traffic jam in the main aisle of the shop, I slid the piece away from the wall just enough to look behind it. Oooo! Impressive. The back and sides were recessed panels. This little honey could be floated in the center of a room, presentable from every angle.

Trying not to drool on myself, I pulled away and circled the rest of the store debating:

This isn’t what you thought you wanted.

But I really don’t know what I want.

It’s pretty expensive.

It’s quality.

You haven’t looked at anything else.

Good point.

I left the shop determined to make a trip to the nearby village noted for its furniture and visit the competition. But I never quite found the time. Two weeks later I was back. Standing in front of the cabinet, it didn’t look the way I remembered it. Were the baskets irregular? Was it a little too big? Small? I approached the attendant prepared to negotiate. How about a discount? Local price? Morning price? You have fixed price. Oh.

I left the shop again. As I entered my house, the piece I wanted to replace, a clunky wardrobe far too large, loomed, brooded, and mocked.

Two more weeks passed until one morning I awoke with a new plan. I’d buy baskets, measure the cabinet, and have one made at half the price. The style of basket wasn’t native to Bali so I asked Ketut to come along, figuring if he saw them he’d know where to buy them. We parked by the shop and strolled in. The chest was still there. He studied the baskets, scrutinized the design, then looked at the price tag. “Expensive,” he said.

“Yes, a little. That’s why I want to buy the baskets and make one. Do you know where I can find others like these?”

“No in Bali.”

“No?”

“No.”

We left the shop. Back home the bulky wardrobe leered with blatant malevolence. “Don’t look at me,” I snapped, then felt foolish but wary.

Right after breakfast I was out the door. The store was a mile walk and I got there in record time. Tutup. Closed. Because of the holidays, Idul Fitri for the Muslims, Galungan for the Hindus, I assumed the worst, that it wouldn’t open for several days, and now the desire to own the little chest burned in me like a fever. I stood to the side wondering what next when a woman hurried up, “Sorry, sorry!” she said as she unlocked the door.

This time I gave the object of my obsession just a cursory nod and went straight to the cash desk. What the heck, I’ll try again, “Discount?”

“Sorry, fixed price.”

“Free delivery?”

“Sorry…”

“Okay, okay.”

Four hours later, looking like it had never existed anywhere else, the new cabinet sat where I’d pictured it. The behemoth, on the other hand, was wedged against my bed to be unloaded and relieved of its post. But it could wait until morning. Worn out, I wanted nothing more than to crawl under the covers and read myself to sleep

That didn’t happen. Perhaps I had agitated the spirit of the wardrobe. Or perhaps it was the gecko that lived behind it who had just been rendered homeless. Whatever the case, unsettling noises emanated from the vicinity of the displaced item all night.

Up early, I dressed, drank a cup of coffee, then tore out the contents and piled it on the bed. “Okay, old thing, you’re outta here,” I said. When you live alone, inanimate objects become targets for random comments or rambling dissertations. I gripped the sides, see-sawed it around the corner and down the hall. I live on the second floor. Outside my front door is an area approximately 4 feet square (120 cm) and the steps drop down from there. The wardrobe and I wrestled each other to that landing. At the point where the beast was sitting at a diagonal across the skimpy space, Ketut came into view down below. He had, no doubt, heard the scuffling, and I had, in essence, cornered myself. I think he finds me relentlessly amusing. His smile was enormous but it wasn’t his gentlemanly smile, it was his…oh, don’t you look ridiculous smile…and that’s okay because I’ve done the same to him when the occasion warrants! “Good morning, Ketut. How are you?” I flashed an equally large grin back at him. I’d been busted.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“I think I need a little help.”

“Yeah,” he said.

Ketut, assuming I wouldn’t understand, summoned Wayan in Balinese, “Come help! Grandmother has trapped herself in the cupboard!” I don’t know many words of that difficult language, but I knew those and exploded into laughter. A look of guilty surprise crossed their faces, then they, too, gave it up and giggled like a couple of naughty schoolboys.

Ten minutes later, the unwieldy reject, riding high on their shoulders, was carried out of my sight forever. When I stepped back inside, the change was palpable. Energy flowed, clear, light, and joyous. The proportions worked. There was agreement, as if the room knew all along what was needed and had been waiting for me to conclude the same. But to ensure that the restless wardrobe ghost would not wander back, I lit incense and chanted a celebratory incantation, ‘Happy me, happy me, the monster’s gone, happy me!’

The next day I was chatting with a neighbor who reported that her cats had acted in the most bizarre fashion the night before. They’d refused to enter her room. Crouching spring-loaded in the doorway, ready to attack or run, their wild slit-eyes remained glued fast to an unseen threat under her desk. She searched around and behind it but found nothing. They were finally coaxed inside but gave the suspicious object a wide berth.

I know that cats are nervous creatures and will balk at a shoe if it looks out of place. But I happen to also know there was a cranky spirit on the loose that night. Maybe it was checking out her desk for its new base of operations. Woo-woo! I went home and lit another stick of incense.

 

 

When You’re Real

*

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

From The Velveteen Rabbit – by Margery Williams

For a long, long time I tried to be perfect. It was a need as deep as breathing and I fooled a lot of people including myself. “Oh Sherry, you’re so together. You’re always calm.” I heard it all the time and loved it. That was the image I created to cover the inside that was littered with guilt, shame, and blame.

But perfection’s a tough gig. Not only that, it lacks substance. Perfect is a china doll, an airbrushed painting, a lacquered wig. Somewhere along the way I began to suspect I was shallow, colorless. I was so tightly held, so carefully constructed there was no room for inspiration which, of course, added to the self-contempt. From age 26 to 56, this was my modus.

But something happened at midlife. It was like waking up from a Rip Van Winkle slumber. Who am I and where have I been for thirty years? Confused and disoriented, I consulted an insightful woman who told me to muck around in the nitty-gritty and don’t be afraid to get dirty. “I’m already dirty,” I said through tears. “I’ve tried so hard to get clean.”

“You’re not dirty, Sherry.” She plumbed to the depths of my soul with her eyes. “You’ve never been anything but perfect. The perfect daughter, the perfect wife, the perfect mother. I’m just asking you to be real.”

That may be the single, most profound thing anybody ever said to me. Putting perfect up beside real and seeing that the one made the other impossible, was revelation. As soon as she said it I knew it was true. I had no hope of being me unless I let go of perfect.

Of course, the person who emerged as the ‘perfect pictures’ slipped into the sinkhole of my shadow, was neither shallow, nor colorless. I found that I liked her irreverent, gutsy self. At first I protected her, didn’t say much about her past, just let her evolve and mature. But the more real she became, the less need I felt to gloss over the too-obvious flaws. The liberation that came when there was nothing left to hide, was the ultimate freedom.

Writing my memoir has been the full disclosure. I’ve filleted myself wide open to judgement but I’ve also let go at last of every shred of the need to look good as a disguise. I’m willing to let my hair be loved off, get loose in the joints and shabby, because at last I’m real, and I can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

Photo credits to Sharon Lyon

Going Bananas and Still So in Love

BANANA FLOWER YESTERDAY

SAME BANANA FLOWER TODAY

Maybe this doesn’t seem insane to you. I’ve never found an example that shows the rate of Bali growth as eloquently as these two photos of the same flower taken less than 24 hours apart.

Yesterday afternoon I shot the top image and posted it on my blog. About 10:00 a.m. this morning I happened to glance in that direction. I couldn’t believe my eyes! So I apologize for the repeat theme, but it proves to me I’m not crazy. I’m not just imagining trees that spring out of the earth and blossom overnight, growth here really is out of control.

Which sheds light on another area. Not only are things on the physical plane amped up and intensified, so too, on the spiritual plane. Inspiration and revelation seem to ooze from every nook and cranny of this island. Healers from all over the world come to Bali to work because it’s easier. Their healing gifts are supported by the life-force here, the same life-force that makes my banana flower burst it’s casing and bear fruit overnight.

Bali is magic. I don’t want to try too hard to figure it out. I’m willing to be like Peter Pan (I do believe in fairies, I do believe in fairies) and just allow myself to be amazed.  And why not? Bali never fails to deliver. And I’m in love, I’m still so in love.

 

 

 

Behold! Bawdy and Bold, the Banana!

My slice of heaven opens to a view of banana trees. At no time in the Minnesota years did I ever see a banana tree, not in the wild, and not in captivity. Even the Como Park Conservatory, that fantasy of tropical jungle under glass where I’d go in the dead of winter to be reassured that green still existed somewhere on the planet, didn’t sport a banana tree. I knew oaks, maples, an assortment of evergreens, and could tell the difference between birches and poplars. But when sliced banana appeared on my morning cereal, I didn’t think to wonder what sort of growth it sprouted from.

In Bali, there’s a new world of tropical flora to learn.  Unlike shy Minnesota flowers, Bali blooms are showy and bold, but when I noticed an extra large, bulbous, purple appendage dangling under a broad-leafed canopy, I stared in bewildered wonder.

P1090871“What’s that?” I point at the mutant growth that seems to have materialized in my garden overnight.

“Banana flower,” Ketut says.

“It doesn’t look like a banana, why would anyone name it that?”

“No,” he’s patient as always. “That flower make banana.”

I zoom in with my camera and, sure enough. Atop the eggplant color is a green fingerling hair-do, parted in the middle.

P1090874And above that are delicate flowers that look like rows of orchids.

P1090872It’s like watching grass grow on fast forward. Each day the flower looks more and more banana-like.

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P1020802the bunch is ready for harvest.

Fascinated by watching the exotic transformation from flower to fruit, I do a little research and learn some interesting banana facts:

The banana is a berry.

There are over 370 varieties of banana. Some estimate closer to 1000.

A banana stem, such as shown in the last picture above, can weigh up to 110 pounds and have 3 to 20 tiers with up to 20 bananas on each tier.

The banana tree matures, bears once, then dies, but before that happens, a new shoot has already sprung up from the base. In this sense, the banana is a perennial.

Bananas are naturally, slightly radioactive due to their potassium content.

In Bali, the entire tree is utilized. Small squares cut from the leaves form the base for daily house offerings. Food is wrapped in banana leaves for steaming. A piece of the waxy green leaf often doubles as a dinner plate. The trunk is soft and is fed to livestock or used as the center of the offering towers to secure the pyramid of fruits.

I’ve always loved the flavor, texture, and sweetness of bananas. But since moving to their native habitat, I’ve come to respect the prominent role they play in every nuance of Balinese life. P1090642And when Ketut brings me a plate of banana fritters with shaved palm sugar, and says, “Enjoy!” believe me, I do, every melt-in-your-mouth tantalizing morsel!

Love is a decision of the will

My husband prefers men, she said. Seated across from her, a Starbucks latte beating back the chill of Minnesota winter, I studied her face for a sign of emotion. Her placid countenance registered a winsome, dreamlike expression that grated on me.

Do you love him? I asked. They appeared to be a devoted couple.

Of course. The peaceful mask turned stern. Love is a decision of the will.

That was thirty-five years ago. I’d been married three times by then and I hadn’t heard that particular slice of wisdom before. But I took it to heart and tried it out with varying degrees of failure in the relationships that followed.

Part of the self-discovery quest when I came to Bali, was to understand where love and I had gone so terribly, terribly wrong. As I stepped back to observe the tumult within, to study my tendencies and learn different responses, I recognized that I had deep misconceptions about love. As I worked on reprogramming my entire response system, Bali threw opportunities in my path.

What are you writing about? Dewa asked as he did the regular morning schmooze with his guests. I was staying at his guesthouse, and by this time we’d had conversations that covered the gamut from the Hindu caste system, to his ideas for new business ventures, to why men cheat on their wives. So I decided to tell the truth.

I’m writing about my issues with men, I said.

Stricken, his hand went to his heart. You have issues with me? He looked so utterly gutted I had to laugh.

No, Dewa, not you. Just all other men! With a relieved little smile, he left and returned fifteen minutes later with a sweet bouquet of flowers. As he placed them on the table in front of me he said, These are for you. Please look at them while you write about your issues with men. 002 (3)My locked-down heart cracked open a notch or two and my eyes teared. Really? For me? Thank you!

Dewa’s caring caused the first fissure, and gestures such as his, random acts of kindness, unexpected and unsought, pried me loose from everything I thought I knew about love and overwrote the old programming.

Now, from the perspective of time, experience, and a more intimate understanding of myself, I know that love has nothing at all to do with a decision. I think too often I’d mistaken lust, need, dependence, admiration, or even the sick feeling of loneliness for love. Only an emotion that is pure, untainted by dysfunction or dependencies that muddy its integrity, should be called love. When it happens, it’s a rare gift, an awakening, and a glorious surprise. It flows from an inner place unchecked and it doesn’t need to be acknowledged or returned, it just is.

 

 

 

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