Bali – Life in Technicolor!

 

When I practiced interior design, I told clients that their homes should reflect who they were (private persona) and how they wanted to be perceived by others (public persona). We spent significant time discussing this and often who they felt they were inside differed vastly from how they wished to be seen.

Personally, I wanted my home to tell the world how sophisticated I was. My mother modeled flawless manners: setting a proper table even for breakfast, insisting that I learn piano and listen to classical music when I much preferred playing guitar with my dad. Her need to look perfect to the world lodged in my psyche.

As an adult that ingrained training dictated appearances. The color palette in both the clothing I wore, and the furnishings I chose, blended a dazzling array of – you guessed it – neutrals. The absence of color was chic and classy. The only divergence from the black, white, beige theme was a red brocade jacket pulled out of mothballs at Christmastime.

I brought that aesthetic with me when I moved to Bali. The first thing I noticed after the two thousand shades of green, was the Balinese’ flagrant disregard for subtlety in their attire. Bali style was as far from neutral as Minnesota winter was from tropical paradise.

Layered patterns in bold, clashing colors challenged my tightly held conceptions of what worked and what most decidedly didn’t.

I searched the entire island to find quiet earth tones for accent pillows and cushion covers, but Bali would not be subdued. I settled for a dignified combo of black, rust, and avocado. Now, six years later, in response to a growing community of permanent Western customers, gray, taupe, and putty batiks and ikat fabrics abound, all those lifeless non-colors that no self-respecting Balinese person would ever want.

As the years passed I was unaware of my continental drift away from ‘safe.’ The change came so slowly I didn’t notice when the vanilla person hiding behind beige, went missing.

Upon reflection, blame settled on the Bali Blue Bed. When that precious antique handcrafted half a century ago by Ketut’s father for his growing family became my most cherished possession, my relationship with color began to expand.

Tentatively I added a little china to carry the emerging theme into the kitchen.Not long after the new dishes brightened up the far end of my quarters, I discovered skirts. Until that time, capris had covered my lower half, white ones, black ones, and of course non-threatening beige. I don’t remember when the first flowy, legless clothing crept into my closet but I remember the color: hot coral!

I loved flouncing around Ubud with naked legs! Breezes reached all those previously confined areas and I was so much cooler underneath! Soon the mid-length pants occupied a drawer that never got opened and the closet was full of skirts: blue, green, some with birds, others with flowers. Loose-fitting tops were the natural accompaniment and they came in various shades of bright. So the wardrobe morphed along with the house.

On the way back from the supermarket one afternoon, the bead shop lady greeted me on the sidewalk. Next thing I knew I was the proud and somewhat surprised owner of an enormous beaded basket!I’d ordered one that was half the size but when I had gone to the shop a month later to pick it up, the dear lady apologized. “So sorry, Ibu, but no small now, only this kind.” Evidently the current shipment of imported rattan baskets from Java that the woman used as a base for her beadwork, had only come in large.

As so often happened to me here, the Universe conspired to give me my heart’s desire. I’d lusted after the monster baskets so why had I ordered a small one? I knew the answer to that as well as I knew the reflection in the mirror. It was a lie as old as I was, instilled in the subconscious where it reared it’s ugly head from time to time when I wasn’t vigilant.

Thankfully, the ‘you don’t deserve such abundance’ story was overridden. I hugged the prize to my heart as the happy woman gave me a lift home on the back of her motorbike.

Then the heron came home to roost on top of the bookshelf.
It was a similar story with an interesting twist. I’d passed the bird in a shop window, stopped to look, decided it was unrefined, folksy even, and continued on. I did that several times over the next few days. Curiosity finally forced me inside to ask the price. Expensive. I left. Several weeks went by. Upon rearranging a few things in my house, a space opened up where none had existed before. The memory of that colorful creature popped into mind. I can’t explain why or how, but by the time I arrived at the shop, desire burned in me with all the passion of first love! Now every time I look at the stately bird, I smile and wonder how I could possibly have thought him provincial.

When the pillows and mattress cover on the the Bali Blue Bed recently grew too faded to tolerate, I went shopping. It was a shocking pink batik boasting mythical birds with glorious chartreuse tails that captivated me first. There followed a shimmering array of metallics for accents and a purple, orange, red geometric weave for back pillows. Handwoven eggplant colored fabric became the grounded base for all that whimsy.

The burst of color thrilled me. I loved to nestle deep in those delicious hues and absorb their intensity, to be cradled in the very essence of myself. Then it struck me: in my non-stop, stressed-out, U.S. workaholic life, I had to surround myself with boring neutrals. It was survival.

But in my laid-back, joyful Bali life, my nervous system has re-calibrated. I thrive in an atmosphere of visual stimulation, no longer living a schizophrenic existence. Who I am is on display for all to see in bold designs and brilliant hues. My house validates me the way insipid neutrals never could.

I’ve even ratcheted up the intensity in my clothing. The new temple outfit for the ultra important Hindu ceremonies I’m frequently invited to, is a hunting-jacket-orange kebaya with a fuschia sash over a hot pink-yellow-blue-etc. etc. sarong! And it just feels right.

Why did it take so long to come to this, to embrace the complex, colorful person hidden  somewhere inside? The answers have to do with fear, with the need to fit in, with concern about the perceptions of others, with self-denial, with…nevermind. Needless to say, the list of reasons is long. But the realization that all are now in past tense is sheer delight! I’ve burst the confines of conformity and traded suffocating sophistication for my technicolor Bali life.

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A Life of No Regret

 

I ran across this poem recently:

What I Regret
By Nina Cassian

. . . never having heard the voice of the Dodo bird . . .
. . . never having smelled the Japanese cherry trees . . .
. . . never having punished the lovers and friends that
deserted me . . .
. . . never having asked for honours that I deserved . . .
. . . never having composed a Mozart sonata . . .
. . . never having realised that I’d live long enough to
regret all the above . . .
. . . and much, much more . . .

What a heartbreaking indictment, a tragic litany for a final act.

At some point in my fifties I realized that if I continued my trajectory, I would die with huge regrets. The picture was graphic: I saw myself on my death bed. I felt the agony of an unlived life but it was more than that. I was ashamed. Why had I undervalued myself? Why hadn’t I followed my dream of travel, my love of adventure? Why had I squandered the gift of years? I was smart, strong, healthy, and capable right up to the end. I could have changed my circumstances at any time. But seeing the shrunken disillusioned shell I’d become, it was obvious I hadn’t.

The vision terrified me. But it prompted action: a slow steady turning of the barge midstream to head toward the waterfall, and conquering that, to the sea beyond.

What I know now that I didn’t know then is a basic condition of my character: I have the capacity for unfathomable darkness and I’m hard-wired for adventure. It’s in my DNA. But if I don’t get healthy excitement, and if the darkness isn’t deliberate it will come out sideways, corrupted, and dysfunctional. In my life, it had done just that.

People thought I was nuts to move to the other side of the globe alone, to a place where I knew no one and had only been once for a two-week vacation. But there are times when knowing settles into the bones; times when you realize that listening to the crazy voices in your head will save you.

People have asked me, “How did you summon the courage to do it?”

Courage? Ha! It was terror, pure and simple. I was terrified of the alternative and fear is by far the most powerful motivator there is.

That short visit was enough for me to know that Bali’s energy was different, that there was something there for me.

The culture is rich, deep, and ancient. Shamanistic rituals maintain the balance between darkness and light.

There are world-class events: the Ubud Writers Festival, the Food Festival, the Jazz Festival, the Bali Spirit Festival, the Kite Festival, the Arts Festival, that challenge and entertain.

There are natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, that provide enough trauma for several lifetimes.

There are problems: illiteracy, pollution, poverty, which create boundless opportunities to get involved and help. Bali, by nature, provides everything I need and allows me to be fully who I am, effortlessly. And maybe that’s the key: the lack of striving.

I hope you aren’t tired of hearing this from me. I know it’s a recurring theme. But I can’t emphasize enough the importance of living a fulfilled life. I hitched myself along for the ride on someone else’s dream many times. It’s a spirit-shattering business. Nobody but you can live your life. Nobody but you can nourish your soul.

Sink them! she said.

 

Susi

Susi Pudjiastuti Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (Photo from Wikipedia)

Susi smokes and has tattoos. She’s also the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in Indonesia and is credited with sinking 87 boats caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The Ubud Writers’ Festival is underway. Each of the four days of this world-class production has as many as 18 panels, ninety minutes each, where authors, journalists, and activists from all over the world expound in their areas of expertise. Since there are three venues and three different sessions going simultaneously at all times, I can only physically attend six per day.

I feverishly waited for weeks for the Festival Program Book to be available. When at last I held it in my sweaty little hands, I pored over the events, agonizing that I couldn’t be in three places at once.

One description, in particular, grabbed me. Who would not want to hear from an Indonesian woman who is high in government in a fiercely patriarchal society and is sinking boats? She must be really something, I thought.

Susi Pudjiastuti is not merely something, she’s something else, and she’s doing everything that her position in government allows to protect the ocean for the people of Indonesia. “The blue of the sea is my medicine,” she said, and I listened, mesmerized, as she told how boats disguised as fishing vessels were engaging in trans-national organized crime. Not only were they depleting the supply of fish available to local fishermen they were also trafficking humans for commercial exploitation and transporting illegal drugs.

But Susi had a plan: Terrify them. She also had a flair for drama. At this point in the interview, laughter erupted and I may have missed or misinterpreted what was said. But I swear Susi indicated that she staged explosions at sea and made certain they were captured on social media. It sent a stern warning: Don’t mess with us!

She wasn’t kidding. Illegal ships were apprehended, evacuated, emptied of fuel, swept clean of environmental hazards, and blown up. No lives were lost but boats were sunk – 87 of them in 2017. Now the waters surrounding Indonesia are fished by Indonesians only. Her methods may have been unorthodox, but they were effective.

Susi didn’t finish high school but her message to the women of Indonesia is clear: “Education gives you access to opportunity and women in business actually do better than men.” When asked about her nicotine habit and tatts she didn’t miss a beat. “None of that matters,” she said. “It’s time to change stereotypes. The most important measure of success is a good job done.”

What a way to kick off the 2018 Festival. The sessions that followed Susi’s were equally phenomenal. The Ubud Writers’ Festival is like drinking from a gushing fire hydrant. It’s enough intellectual stimulation in four days to keep me satiated until the same time next year. I can’t wait for tomorrow!

Meeting Diana Brandt

 

There are things you know immediately about someone who wears fire-engine-red glasses. Diana Brandt breezed into the restaurant, her silver hair cut chic and short. Her lipstick matched the sassy red frames and I made assumptions: artsy, outgoing, confident, with a tinge of quirky individuality.

She’d sent an email that she was coming to Bali and we’d arranged to meet for dinner. Within the first few minutes, I learned that she’d been reading my blog, Writing for Self-Discovery, for five years. Now that’s loyalty. I liked her immediately.

After an evening of intense conversation where food was an afterthought and drinks kept our vocal chords lubricated, she gifted me one of her handmade books. Pieces of wood carved Bali style and finished in a gold wash were front and back covers to a wealth of surprises: tiny envelopes folded from exquisite paper, a bookmark, a Rorschach-like stained teabag, and pages, enticingly blank, waiting.


That taste of Diana’s work served only to whet my appetite. I invited myself back two days later to learn more about her life, and her marvelous, mysterious books. This time I brought a friend who had been casting about for a creative outlet.

We spent an inspiring morning together that drifted into the afternoon. Diana demonstrated how the tooth of certain papers works with watercolors but not with ink. How liquid graphite pencil heightens the drama and enhances certain themes. She admitted to obsessions: expensive pens, Matisse markers, the Larry Post shop in Sydney, origami, and the Australian outback from thirty-thousand feet. She’d seen it from her window in the plane and painted its complexity in soft hues: dry river beds, lowlands, and drought-baked plateaus.

Her curiosity, her eye for detail, and her experimentation with line and color graced every page of her exquisite creations.

“But how do you make them, Diana? What keeps the pages together? It looks professional.” Surely she hadn’t done everything herself – start to finish – they were too perfect.

Our patient hostess adjusted her glasses and opened one of the books. “I stitch them. You need linen thread. I get mine from a saddlery. And blunt-ended needles. Then you make holes…here…like this.”

From a saddlery. Do we even have saddleries in the U.S? I should have known she wouldn’t leave a single detail to someone else. My jaw dropped and admiration for this industrious woman ratcheted up another notch.

20181007_110907The friend I’d brought along is a gifted artist in her own right and was familiar with the bookbinding process. But she listened intently and there was an ‘ah-ha’ moment. “I could make my own journals and use them to archive my adventures, my life stories.”

“What a great idea! I love it!” In that instant, I knew what I wanted to do with mine. “I haven’t written poetry for over a year. I think my new book wants to be filled with verse.”

Diana’s enthusiasm was contagious. Even though I’m not crafty (in the hands-on-projects sense) by the end of our time together I was ready to dash to the nearest art shop, buy beautiful papers, colored pencils, unique pens, and start drawing.

On the Primrose Paper Arts Inc. website, Diana tells about discovering box making. She began crafting boxes for her books…or books for her boxes. One example she entitled simply, Red. She says her next will be Blue. Of course.

Her list of achievements staggers the mind. Diana has written and published two books. It’s About Time instructs in the process of painting clock faces and The Rustic Charm of Folk Art outlines techniques and provides patterns for painting on wood. She mastered both those crafts before she wrote about them. On Oct. 20, 2018, she’ll be one of the demonstrator/artists for Matisse Derivan Open Day Fiesta in Rhodes, New South Wales.

But achievements and talent aren’t the only qualities that make Diana unforgettable. She’s one of those people who genuinely care about others. In her presence, I felt special, as though there was nothing more important to her in the entire world than whiling away the day in conversation with me.

Caught in the Crossfire

white and red balloons

Photo by Sirirak Boonruangjak

Someone says something, does something, implies something that upsets you. For days following you rehearse rebuttals, running the scenario through your mind over and over again. You write a scathing email but have the good sense not to push send. You run the incident past whoever will listen, adding their shock and outrage to your own. Ugliness expands and overshadows everything.

When that happened two weeks ago the insult wasn’t aimed at me. But it grew horns and a tail and I took it on, enacting the above scenario to the letter. In the midst of the heat and angst of that simmering kettle another situation developed. It was a blast out of nowhere that blindsided me and I was still trying to make sense of it when, Wham! A third shock-wave slammed full force.

The disruption of peace is so foreign to my life that by the time the fourth and final jolt landed, the utter absurdity of the sequence of events left me shaking my head. What was I missing? What lesson was being pounded home with unrelenting force?

The Universe knows me. When it comes to subtle hints I’m hard of hearing. Some people pick up the slightest whiff of – you might want to pay attention to this – and execute a course correction mid-stride. Not me! I have to be bludgeoned with it.

Intense dialogue between the inner world of experience and the outer world of events ensued. It was as though my personality was in surgery, undergoing a central re-calibration without anesthesia. No wonder I wanted that second glass of wine. And forget about Bintang kecil, the small bottle of beer. Bintang besar silakan! Large please!

But the numbing blur of alcohol was temporary. In the morning the issues were still there. My higher self looked on with disapproval.

It was time for a better choice. I dusted off the meditation cushion. I’d offer my predicament back to the Universe and see what She had to say for herself. She’s a chatty sort I’ve noticed. Given the chance, insights gathered from eons of collective wisdom are there for the asking.

No sooner had I maneuvered my legs into half-lotus and She was transmitting.

That injury you took on wasn’t yours – – an acquaintance had an expectation that you were unwilling to meet – – you were wrongly accused of an imagined infraction – – the performance of another fell short – – Why are you angry? It’s not about you.

What? Why am I angry? Not about me? What? What?

She hummed a bit, waiting. Blew a sweet-scented breeze through my hair. Whispered mysteries and magic while I reflected. I’d grown quite attached to my indignation. Entitled to it. I’d thought of hundreds of ways to verbally bring them down, make them think again before they messed with me. But, would I ever actually say those things? Probably not. I’d just let distress eat at me when indeed, it wasn’t my injury, my expectation, my mistake, or my performance.

She was speaking again. I strained to hear.

Let it go, She said. Let it go, let it go, let it go.

There are times when we don’t need to justify ourselves to anyone. Perhaps we’ve been standing too close to the conflict and we’re caught in the crossfire of a battle that has nothing to do with us. Engaging in the turmoil, even mentally, pulls us down. Fast.

It takes a conscious act of will but there is sweet liberation and personal empowerment when we choose to move away from the ruckus and just LET IT GO.

 

Dementia: My Head-in-the-Sand Approach

Those of you who follow me on Facebook have already seen my current article on dementia. But I realize that some of you who subscribe to this blog, Writing for Self-Discovery, are not on Facebook. (You’re smart!)

I’m inviting all of my current blog followers to also follow me on MediumIt is a platform for writers that has much more visibility than my personal blog. I’m nearing the final edit and rewrite of my memoir and one thing publishers want of writers these days is a following. They want to be convinced that there are people out there who like the new author’s writing and are potential buyers for the book they are considering for publication.

In the future the material I post on Writing for Self-Discovery will be different from what I share on the Medium platform. I hope to see you there!

Here is a link to my current article:

https://medium.com/@bronson.sherry/dementia-my-head-in-the-sand-approach-a98b22a6008

Thanks a million for your continued support!

Pushing the Reset Button at Retirement

I’m catching the sunset on Jimbaran Beach – in more ways than one!

Before you slam your hand down on that button and set off buzzers, bells, and alarms, let’s back up for a minute.

It’s better to begin in our fifties, a few years before retirement.

I was 59 when I had my first evolutionary astrology reading. I didn’t expect much. I’d been checking the weekly Capricorn forecast for years and it was vanilla pudding — never bleak but never celebratory either — a one-size-fits-all dispatch that could mean anything.

Imagine my shock when after an hour of recounting what nobody could possibly know about me, the astrologer, whom I’d never met and whose only access to my character was through my natal chart, issued this ultimatum: If you don’t change the way you’re living your life now, Sherry, you are nailing your coffin shut.

Gulp! Had I heard right?

It was the end of a Saturn return, she said, an event that occurs approximately every 30 years of a person’s life and whatever I put into motion or left unchanged in the next months would set the pattern for my final stage.

Now let me guess…you’re asking why I believed her?

It’s like this: when you’re on opposite sides of the country having a reading over Skype with someone you’ve never met and that person affirms everything you think you know about yourself, your tendencies, your f-ups, your sterling qualities, and all they have is a time, date, and place of birth, it’s hard to pooh-pooh any advice that comes forth.

Her pronouncement was especially disturbing since the litany of grievances I was managing at the time would have filled Santa’s better-watch-out list. I prided myself on my ability to handle just about anything. I was strong, stoic, unflappable. But when I heard nailing your coffin shut, my blood turned to ice. Mortality was a fact I didn’t want to look at and this stranger had shoved it in my face.

The session ended and I sat for a long time staring at the wall.

I’d pushed my desires and dreams to the side to be who I thought I should be for everyone else. The gravity of her damning words sank in while I searched for a shred of happiness in my work, marriage, friendships, and found none. My daughters had moved on after college, one to New York, one to California, and one to South Korea. Without them I ground along on a treadmill of monotony, lonely, disillusioned, and numb.

Questions floated through my mind:

Why was I still enduring Minnesota’s nine months of winter and three months of mosquitoes?
Why was I hanging out with people who shared none of my interests, calling them friends?
Why was I selling real estate when everything about the job sucked me dry?
Why was I married?

But the biggest question of all was: If not this then what?

What did I want? It took the next two years to figure it out and another year after that to execute the new plan. But at sixty-two my social security benefits kicked in and I was ready. When I left for Bali I left alone and I’ve stayed alone. I paid for a fifteen year lease on a house and remodeled it to suit me, using every dime of my retirement savings to do it. At my age that was risky and I wouldn’t recommend it but it worked for me.

Living here, surrounded by people as quirky as I am, I’ve found my tribe. I’m doing what I was meant to do in this lifetime which the astrologer defined as my north node karmic future. I’m creatively sharing wisdom, or kata mutiera — word pearls — according to the melodic Indonesian language. I write about the lessons I’ve learned along the way, and model an unconventional approach to aging. It’s not something I set out to do. It’s what naturally evolved as I allowed a future to unfold that aligned with the desires of my heart.

An unexpected gift came as a result of pursuing my north node path. My serious Capricornian self was set free to embody radical happiness. It’s a state of being I never would have known had I not been issued a dire wake-up call…and listened.

 

 

 

 

Happiness – delusion or reality?

I don’t cook.

I say that as a shopping bag full of fresh spinach appears in my kitchen. It’s accompanied by vibrant carrots scrubbed clean, and sweet potatoes.

My refrigerator is a college-dorm-sized square box and it’s full. No veggie storage capacity there. I have one option: cook.

An outrageous amount of spinach boils down to three cups. When spooned into a plastic bag it flattens and becomes stack-able. So do carrots and potatoes. Once chopped, steamed, and bagged, there’s just enough space to shove them into the wee freezer compartment of the teeny fridge.

I’ve made a royal mess. Most non-cooks do. When the pots and pans are clean and piled precariously on the dish drainer, it occurs to me I’ve overtaxed that kitchen accessory far beyond it’s capacity to function well. On normal days it more than adequately accommodates my coffee glass and French press.

As I study the teetering pyramid of pots my mind goes philosophical. The haphazard jumble in front of me prompts thoughts of unrelated other things: global warming, over-population, urban sprawl, water pollution, and people who talk too much, think too much, do too much.

Like my little drainer, the earth is being called upon to do what it wasn’t designed to do. People are too. The planet manages it for a while and so do we. But there comes the moment when critical mass is achieved, which, as defined by the Urban Dictionary, is the point when something reaches the threshold of it’s limits. If one more pot is added to the mountain of cookware chances are it will topple.

I used to operate at that level of near-insanity. It seemed normal because everyone around me was doing the same. My blood pressure approached hypertension. My heart fibrillated. Every morning my jaw ached from grinding my teeth. Back then nobody ever told me I glowed with happiness.

I didn’t crack and fall apart but my marriages did. Five times. It wasn’t until I turned sixty-two, took early retirement, and moved to Bali that I saw the off-kilter, out-of-balance craziness I’d deemed normal.

It took months in this relaxed, slow-moving paradise to slow down and allow my nervous system to re-calibrate. But the biggest surprise was discovering what real happiness felt like. I’d been a glass full person, never depressed, always sussing out the positive aspects of whatever setbacks came my way. For sixty-two years I told myself I was happy. Had I known then how painfully far I was from that reality, how deluded and detached — let’s just say it’s a good thing I didn’t!

When my ridiculously small drain rack is doing the job it’s intended to do, it has bandwidth to spare. It can take a stressful event in stride (like my cooking frenzy) and maintain its dignity and calm.

Humans are the same. We need to jump off the hamster wheel, come to a full and complete HALT and take a look at what we’re doing to ourselves and at what price. The abuse is unsustainable. Our earth is at critical mass. So was I. Are you?

Lost: One Castle

 

Memory is a tricky thing and the older I get the truer that statement becomes. It’s not that I’m forgetful, it’s just that there’s too much to remember – trivia stored in the limited capacity of memory from decades of events and people and places. That’s one of the reasons I journal. Not for the eminent now, but for the future when the past is a shadowy impression at best.

I saw many castles in Europe in 1995 when I studied abroad on a University of Minnesota UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) grant. But one was unique, spellbinding, and mildly disturbing.

Now and then when I revisit the memory of that time I’m there again, walking the cobblestone street up to soaring gray walls, through the massive gate, across a sun baked courtyard to the far edge where the mountainside dropped away, a vertical cliff.

The view from that vantage point remains indelibly imprinted, unforgettable. On a pinnacle of rock some distance below stood a structure, a castle in miniature. I was certain the round tower once held a willful princess who had been banished by the king to that forlorn aerie where she awaited rescue by her handsome prince or frog as the case may be. But the thing that made it eerily sinister was the fact that no visible means of accessing the mysterious place was apparent. It floated untethered from the land, a severed appendage.

I remember gazing into the chasm, sweating in the midday heat, trying to work it out. Why had the people in this 12th century town built a mini-castle on that impossible promontory and how had they gotten the materials out there to do it? Other queries flashed through my vivid imagining as well: Was it a prison? Were there underground tunnels to connect it with the main structure above? Was it an ascetic’s retreat? Was its purpose benign or malignant? So many questions!

After countless futile efforts to locate the lost castle, I gave up. Perhaps I’d fabricated it, chunked together bits and pieces of all the cathedrals and palaces I’d seen and created a fantasy. It’s the story I settled for but never fully believed.

Last night, scrabbling through old folders, I unearthed some pages from a journal documenting the last half of June, 2007. Why I brought them with me when I moved to Bali and ignored bins of notebooks filled with writings of other years, I don’t know. But I did. Fascinated, I began to read.

From Segesta, we headed toward the medieval town of Erice. That was the high point for me. It was stunning beyond belief! Cobblestone streets, well maintained though worn smooth from hundreds of years and thousands of footsteps, led to the castle itself. Looking over the edge of the walled precipice into the chasm below, was another turreted structure, much smaller but exquisite. It seemed suspended in mid air.

I caught my breath. My fingers flew to the keyboard. Castle in Erice, I typed into the salivating jaws of Google. And there it was, exactly as I had remembered it. I read the description and discovered the name I had never known: Castle of Venus. It hadn’t been the 1995 trip at all. It was twelve years later that I’d visited Erice in Sicily.

It feels as though I’ve discovered hidden treasure, or an item of great value that I thought was lost forever. My friends have lists of places they’ve yet to explore. They’re intent upon ticking them off one by one. But the pull for me is back to the sites I’ve seen and loved. The Adolphe Bridge in Luxembourg, Unmunsa, the cloud temple in South Korea, the Trulli houses of Alberobello, Materdomini and the unforgettable Hotel Albergo, San Genaro on the wildly romantic Amalfi Coast. And now heading the list is the long lost Castle of Venus in Erice, Sicily. It haunts me. I must return. I will.

Your Dull Suburban Heart Writing Memoir

There’s a way of expressing language that makes me want to slurp it up like melted ice cream, or a Killer Coconut Cocktail. For example, the following was taken from a speech Charlotte Wood made to an Emerging Writers’ Festival in New South Wales:

Allow your writing to expose your shameful ordinariness, your dull suburban heart, your fear, your humanity. Write truthfully into your frailties not away from them.

Your shameful ordinariness. Your dull suburban heart.

That’s what I mean. Using words we all know, Charlotte puts together phrases that make me want to read everything she’s ever written, want to feast on it hoping somehow it will nourish the same brilliance in me.

When I started the memoir, I didn’t know about writing truthfully into my frailties. But I did find myself stopping often in mid-sentence to ask, “Was that how it happened? Or is that just the story I’ve always told myself?”

I wrote the initial draft in first person present, reliving everything as though I was once again in that moment. It was tough. Really tough. The narrative was raw because my life was raw. I rehashed events taking no notice of the lessons they were meant to teach. But I finished it without slitting my wrists.

And sent it off to agents.

One answered. She said two things, 1) at 160,000 words it was too long, and 2) I hadn’t resolved the issues. She suggested slimming it to 80,000 words, an acceptable count for first time authors.

Okay, she wanted me to chop it in half. Sure, I could do that. And I did. But the second time through I told the story in third person past. It was me, older, wiser, pondering my younger self. As I wrote, it was obvious that of course I hadn’t resolved the issues; I hadn’t even recognized them. That’s when I started to question. Perhaps I hadn’t been the ravaged heroine I’d imagined. Perhaps I’d had more culpability in my tragedies than I’d been willing to admit. Victim energy leaked through the narrative and made me nauseous. Oooo. Ouch! Unacceptable.

That rewrite took the better part of a year. An entirely different story emerged, a truer one, and the word count was just a hair over 80,000.

I sent it off to agents.

One answered. She said, 1) the current market prefers to have memoir told in first person. There was no number two. As soon as I read it, I knew she was right. A compelling gut feeling told me that I’d needed that perspective for myself. But for the reader, the third person past point of view left too much distance between the main character and the action.

I’m currently in the third rewrite and once again it’s narrated in first person. But it’s coming from a much different place now. I won’t be well liked but I’ll be real. I won’t be a victim but readers will sympathize once they get over my serial stupidity. And the issues? Are they ever truly resolved? At least it will be clear that I’ve learned from my mistakes.

More than any therapist ever could, this labor of self-love, this monumental undertaking that has already spanned four years of my life, has helped me own my demons. Nobody really cares about Ms. Perfect. It’s the shadow that makes us interesting. In writing and rewriting life’s journey from three different perspectives, I’ve become honest about who I was and fiercely grateful for who I’ve become.

I’m about to send it off to agents…again!

Wisdom from Never-Never Land

 

In that groggy place suspended between dreams, I often get my clearest insights. Inspiration lurks there and I have to be quick to capture it before it dissolves into the murky shadows of Never-Never Land.

It’s fortunate on such mornings that I live alone. When I leap out of bed, throw covers on the floor, dash across the room, stub my toe, hobble to the table, scrabble among the papers for a pen, and write furiously without being able to see the words because it’s still that dark, anyone watching would have to laugh…I have to laugh!

Sometimes I return to my cozy nest and immediately fall back to sleep. When I awake again an hour or so later, I have no memory of my pre-dawn brilliance, throbbing toe aside, until I sit down with my first cup of coffee and see the scribbled note.

That’s what happened this morning.

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When I looked at what I’d written, the concept my subconscious mind had been chewing on all by itself with no help (or hindrance) from me came back in a flash. The more I considered it, the more it made sense. Here’s the gist.

1 – 20 Lost.     From birth to around twenty years old, we’re not our own. The adults in our lives make the plans. They mold us, scold us, and hopefully we arrive at adulthood fairly unscathed. Those years are lost in the sense that we don’t control them.

20 – 60 Learning.     I’d like to say that we have things pretty well figured out by age forty or so. But I didn’t. I was still repeating the same stupid mistakes I’d made in my 20’s and 30’s. They wore different clothes and had new faces but underneath those choices were driven by the damaged sense of self that hadn’t changed since childhood. Damaged or not, our child-rearing, career-building years are spent learning.

60 – ?  Living.     There should be another category tucked between 50 and 60 called Transforming. It’s a time of reckoning. The kids have gone on to start their own learning years. The nest is empty. If we’re still married there’s nothing to distract us from our mate any longer. It’s just the two of us trying to remember why.

And we change. It’s impossible not to. But is it conscious change or unconscious? If we’re aware of the growth opportunity and work with it, we’ll advance into our sixties wiser, making good decisions for ourselves and modeling positive aging for others. If the change is unconscious we may go to the grave still making the same mistakes.

The morning insights could have stopped there.

But my subconscious has a mind of its own and it likes to do math. (This is definitely not me.) What it came up with was so simple and obvious I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it myself.

Bear with me now. We’re going to throw away years 1 – 20, we had no control over them anyway. From 20 – 60, then, are forty years of self-management, probably much of it spent meeting expectations, shouldering responsibilities, keeping the nose to the grindstone, the pedal to the metal, with a two-week vacation thrown in now and then to maintain sanity.

But consider this: our life expectancy in North America is around eighty years. Think about all that happened between ages 20 to 40, then from 40 to 60. Now we have another 60 to 80 ahead, one-third of our adult life yet to be lived. My mother at 90, still works out five days a week, beats the pants off the others at Bingo, and pretty much rules the roost in her assisted living facility. So where am I going with this?

Don’t waste the Living years.

What did you always wish you could do but never did? Make a plan and do it. Have you neglected exercise and proper diet? Start now to implement healthy habits. Does the cost of living where you are prohibit retirement? Move. I did, and it was the best decision I ever made. Did you fail to finish your degree? Check out your state’s Statutes. In Minnesota senior citizens can attend college tuition free. Maybe your state has a similar ruling.

Live like dying isn’t an option.

It’s not denial, it’s grabbing hold of the greatest gift we’ve ever been given, life, and running with it…wee wee wee, all the way home.

 

 

 

 

 

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