What’s with this Mexican salt!

When I took possession of my new home in San Miguel de Allende, there were perks. First of all, it was completely furnished right down to salt in the shakers, and there were two of them. There was also a bag of flour and a glass canister of sugar.

I didn’t have an oven in Bali, only a cooktop. The stove in my new kitchen looked to me like it belonged in an appliance ad straight out of Bon Appétit. I eyed its six burners and monster oven suspiciously, waltzing around its giant glass door that stared at me like a judgmental eye. I promised myself, and that eye, that soon, very soon, I’d set about re-learning how to bake.

A few days later, a friend posted a picture on Facebook of shortbread drizzled with dark chocolate. Saliva sprayed into my mouth. That was it, the challenge that made me want to bake again.

I found a shortbread recipe online: butter, flour, sugar, salt, vanilla. What could be easier? The next day I trotted down the mountain to Super Bonanza, a tiny grocery in the middle of the town center, and bought butter and vanilla. The other ingredients had come with the kitchen.

Putting that recipe together took forever. I was so out of practice, so careful…except when it came to the salt. I thoughtlessly unscrewed the cap while holding it over the flour/sugar mix already in the bowl. A shower of granules fell in. I didn’t think it was much, but I lessened the amount I added and slid the pan into the oven, did the calculation that would translate the Celsius numbers on the knob into Fahrenheit, and crossed my fingers.

Soon, a rich vanilla-y scent permeated the house. Ahhh, yes. This is why we bake.

I felt more than a little proud of myself when I pulled out the tray of perfectly browned shortbread. I could hardly wait for it to cool so I could sample the goods. You know how it is when you expect food to taste a certain way? Your mouth prepares. You lean into the bite and…

The spit reflex happened without thought or premeditation. That tiny morsel flew off my tongue way faster than it had gone in.

What in the name of everything unholy is with this salt?

Good thing I live alone. I hadn’t said that quietly.

I checked the recipe again: one-half teaspoon salt. I double-checked the ring of teaspoons. I’d used the correct one. Maybe more had fallen in when I unscrewed the cap than I thought. Or, maybe it had localized in one corner of the dough – the corner I tasted. Maybe the rest was fine. I tested a piece from the opposite corner with the tip of my tongue, shuddered, and dumped the entire contents into the trash. Well, I thought. That was disappointing.

I let a week go by and avoided making eye contact with the judging stare of the abandoned oven. But I’d invited a group of new friends over for brunch and planned to serve fruit, a quiche, and scones. Both the quiche and the scones required baking. It wasn’t the oven’s fault, I told myself. The oven is your friend.

The quiche recipe called for cheese, lots of it. Cheese can be pretty salty I reasoned, so I didn’t add the salt the recipe suggested. But the scones…I hemmed and hawed…should I chance it? I measured oh so carefully and skimped on the 1/2 teaspoon asked for. They came out of the oven looking absolutely gorgeous. Apricot Cream Cheese Scones. I had to try one.

I bit into a corner. NO!!! IT CAN’T BE! SALT! HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE SALT! They, too, were inedible. I was disappointed and so angry. I swore up a storm in that kitchen. I couldn’t believe that such a tiny amount of salt could be so utterly disastrous.

Later, when my friends had gathered around the table I told them the story and asked, “What’s with this Mexican salt?”

They looked at each other confused, shrugging their shoulders and shaking their heads. “I’ve never noticed that it was any different,” one said. The others agreed.

“Well, mine sure is!” I grumbled, then the conversation turned to a more interesting subject.

A day later I whipped up a batch of carrot hummus and left the salt out entirely. By now I’d dumped the contents of both shakers into the trash to make certain I’d never have that problem again.

But I’d put two cloves of garlic in the hummus and it was overpowering. (What’s with this Mexican garlic!) I thought sugar might offset the intensity so I stirred in a couple of tablespoons and tasted.

WHAT???? NO WAY! SALT?

Then it struck me. I stuck my finger into the canister of sugar and licked. SALT. When I’d baked the shortbread and the scones it wasn’t the 1/2 tsp of salt that wreaked havoc…it was the 1/4 cup of sugar that wasn’t sugar at all! Who puts a huge amount of salt in a big glass canister? Who does that?

And then I laughed,

and laughed,

and laughed!

I immediately went to Señora Petra’s little shop next door and bought all her carrots. Then went back home and made a huge quantity of carrot hummus without garlic or salt and stirred the ruined batch in, bit by bit, taste-testing as I went. It was perfect.

I’m glad the problem is solved and I’m friends with my oven again. But talk about a lesson in assumptions! What’s with this Mexican salt, anyway? It’s not sugar, that’s what!

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

I was making a video – something I don’t do often. I’d propped my phone precariously against a water bottle on an upside-down pot and it was catching too much ceiling and too little face.

Maybe it was because I’d finally gotten the perfect angle for lighting. Or maybe because the phone wasn’t threatening to plunge forward just then. Whatever I was thinking at the time, instead of finding something shorter to use as a base, I grabbed throw pillows from the couch and layered three of them on the slippery wooden seat of the chair determined to raise myself to the right height instead of lowering the camera.

As I hoisted myself to the top of the towering stack, the pillows began to slip.

I clutched at the table and missed. The chair flew in one direction crashing to the floor and I went the other. It would have been a laughable non-event had there not been that concrete pillar directly behind me. As I tumbled, the back of my skull cracked hard against the sharp corner of the square column. YOUCH! I pressed my fingers against the at small mountain that popped up and lay on my side on the floor wondering whether I would pass out, throw up, or have a concussion.

I applied more pressure to the lump and waited for ‘what next?’

When nothing happened, I gently removed my hand from the throbbing mound. It was smeared with blood. I hadn’t counted on that. Okay, time to move. I got up slowly, covering the wound with my palm, pressing, pressing… No dizziness. No nausea. I wondered what the back of my white sweater looked like. A fleeting thought.

In the bathroom, I dabbed at my blood-soaked hair with tissues and doused the gash with alcohol all the while thinking, Dangit! I will NOT let this stop me from recording that video today. I’ve already procrastinated too long.

When the bleeding was under control, I checked my face, the scarf at my neck, the white sweater. All good. Even my hair, from the front, showed no sign of disruption. The pain had localized at the point of my wound but only that was throbbing. I did not have a whole-head ache.

Okay, good from the front. Nobody will know the back of my head is hemorrhaging.

This time I did it right. I put the pillows back on the couch and found a prop that positioned the phone at a lower point. After a few false starts, I recorded a decent video. It wasn’t 100% perfect but certainly good enough under the circumstances.

That done, I unpinned my up-do and examined the damages in detail. It looked like a bad scene in a movie where the killer didn’t quite finish the job. I got in the shower taking care not to touch the golf-ball-sized goose egg, and gingerly rinsed out the matted stickiness until the water ran clear.

As I stood there with hot water streaming over me, I reflected on the fact that I almost never have accidents.

I can’t remember the last time I hurt myself. I’ve learned to be mindful. I only allow daydreams when I’m sitting down. Otherwise, I’m riveted to what I’m doing or where I’m going.

Bali was a veritable gauntlet of potential disasters: pieces of sidewalk wide open to the chasm below, a tree left growing in the middle of the path, or a low branch jutting out just where your head should be. Then, too, there were motorbikes going the wrong way on a one-way street, or zooming on the sidewalk to pass slower-moving traffic. I learned to be constantly on the alert.

San Miguel de Allende with its steep inclines, cobblestone streets, perilous stairways up and down the mountainsides pose equally treacherous circumstances.

But I was at home, fixated on making a video – a very uncustomary activity – and I lost my common sense for a moment. A moment is all it takes. One lapse in judgment, one mindless act…

I woke up alive this morning. I think the back of my head has survived though it’s very, very tender. But let that be a lesson to me! There’s no room for stupidity. Ever! You’re old, Sherry! Be careful. Be mindful. Be present. You were lucky this time…don’t press it!

Hello, 2022. You’re a welcome sight…

We’re three days in. Already your energy feels hopeful.

2022 A new dawn. A new day.

Photo credits Alamy 2C52HKF

2020 and 2021 brought a harsh reckoning…a world reset. None of us is the same person we were at the end of 2019. Life as we knew it came to an abrupt halt and we’ve been scrambling ever since.

But I don’t need to revisit the nightmare of the past two years.

A new dawn, a new day, and a new home. I’m settling in and embracing the differences. From a tropical island in Asia to the high desert of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico – how opposite could it be? I’ve exchanged hot and humid for cool and dry. That, and the altitude, required this shocked, very-soon-to-be 72-year-old body, to slow way down and recalibrate.

My Bali home…

My San Miguel de Allende home

It’s been a month already and, to my delight, I’m finding far more similarities between here and my Bali home of the past ten years, than differences. I’ve exchanged the practices of one devout people for the very different but equally devout rituals of another. Bali Hinduism is unique in that it is heavily influenced by ancient animism. Mexican Catholicism is also a blend. It retains flavors of Mayan, Aztec, Toltec, and other long-gone cultures.

It feels right to me to have a hint of those shamanic elements of the ancestors operating today. It fulfills a need to connect to a past where spirituality was an integral part of life, if not life itself. I’m also glad the decision-makers have been selective about which ceremonial activities to leave in the past – human sacrifice for instance – not a fan!

The Day of the Dead in Mexico and the march of the Ogoh-Ogohs on Nyepi in Bali – the wild clang and crash of gamelan orchestras accompanying the monster parade – feed my Plutonian shadow. Darkness is lured out of hiding. We’re face-to-face with the ‘other’ realm and perhaps confronted by our demons. It’s an invitation, an opportunity to look at our own dark underbelly and accept that part of ourselves. That wasn’t available to me in the U.S. Darkness was kept hidden until it came out sideways, unhealthy and destructive.

There are other similarities, the double lives, for instance. In Bali, a beautiful smile, gracious hospitality – a facade is applied for the tourists, the ex-pats, the foreigners in white skins. It’s like that here, too. I hate it. I can’t say it more bluntly than that. I’m studying Spanish with a frenzy, as though my life depends upon speaking the language, because the life I want, does.

Only when I learned Indonesian did I become privy to the reality of the lives of the Balinese, the nitty-gritty behind the smiles.

I’m hoping that’s the same here. A common language is a connector that opens doors. Only when we can communicate in a shared language are we able to trust ‘the other’ enough to speak our truths and our secrets.

I was ready for a change, but I also hoped that I wouldn’t have to sacrifice some of the daily things I loved about my life in Ubud like the Ibu (esteemed woman/mother) who had the fruit and veggie stand where I bought all my produce.

Imagine my delight when, lo and behold, there was Señora Petra’s tiny tienda not ten steps from my door. The Señora sells just about…no, not just about…she sells everything I need to survive out of her hole-in-the-wall space no bigger than an average American bathroom. Besides fruits and veggies, I get my cheese, eggs, yogurt, crispy corn tortillas (by the 30-count package) flour, sugar, salt, a few select homemade pastries, beer…

And yesterday, on a whim because a button fell off my favorite shirt, I asked if she had white thread for sewing. She cocked her head and grinned. From somewhere in the depths under the back of the counter, she extracted a plastic box and – I kid you not – there it was. Thread in an assortment of colors. She fingered them and pulled out a white one. My jaw dropped. (Yet another example of a time when I’ve been thankful for the mask!)

Ubud has two Western-type supermarkets. So does San Miguel and I’ve been to both of them. (There may be more but these are walking distance from me. SMA is a city. Ubud was a small town.) It only took that one trip to each of them to know that I’d only be going there when I want, not NEED, just WANT something like Italian seasoning or baking powder which I found yesterday at $10 USD for a bag of Red Mill brand – the only option. I nearly choked.

On the flip side, there are gigantic traditional markets where I wander, overwhelmed, dazed, enthralled. I’m the odd duck, very much in the minority, in the midst of hundreds of local people going about their ‘business as usual.’

There are similar-but-different markets targeting tourists and ex-pats. I’ve visited a couple of those, too, just to see what’s there. It’s fun to look but I find them high-priced and glitzy. I’m happier in the markets with less ‘show.’ I’m not necessarily more comfortable, aware that my white skin radiates like a beacon and certain assumptions are made about me on that basis alone.

But I need that, too, to remind me of my privilege, my entitlement, my colonizing heritage that has wreaked destruction for centuries upon centuries.

How does one atone for that? It’s a question that weighs heavily and one I need to answer for myself.

So, “Hello, 2022,” from this new place, ten years into my ongoing adventure called RETIREMENT. I’m poised excitedly, hopefully, on your doorstep with so much to be grateful for, and so much to learn.

The end of the line…or…the bus stops here

I’ve been in San Miguel de Allende for twenty-six days and I’m adjusting.

First, and most noticeably, there was the altitude. My home in Bali sat 650 feet above sea level. San Miguel perches at 6000 feet. I knew the climate would be different, but I didn’t realize what an impact it would make having my head in the clouds more literally than usual.

After three weeks, it was getting better. I didn’t feel feeble, huffing and puffing up the near-vertical streets, pausing to pant every third or fourth step. Tired, dizzy, headachy. Trying to fight the dread that I’d never feel strong and confident again. Just an old biddy past her used-by date. That had been in the back of my mind while my body tried to keep up with an insane social calendar. But, as I said, it was getting better.

I’ve made major moves in the past, but never to a place where I already knew people. Before, it was cold turkey, so to speak. I had to learn my way around. Take myself to places where I’d meet people and sift hopefully through the ones that turned up. It was a long process.

Here, the skids were greased for me before I stepped off the plane.

There came a point, though, where I needed to figure a few things out on my own. Like how far does the bus go in the opposite direction? The city buses that cost eight pesos (forty cents) per ride, stop right in front of my house. They come by every four minutes or less. I took this shot of the number eight from my balcony.

This one’s going into Centro, the hub of San Miguel. I usually walk in that direction because it’s downhill all the way. No huff/puffing when I’m working with gravity.

And I have a reason to go there frequently. I’ve grown fond of the Bonanza grocery just a few steps from the manicured trees and wrought iron benches of the jardin, a restful garden park. Bonanza has become a destination and I load up on all kinds of novel items plus a few recognizable ones. I know if I can carry my purchases a quarter of a block, the bus will whisk me back up the hill and dump me at my door.

I do mean dump!

I’m lucky if the driver stops. The door swings open about half a block away and I’d better have my pesos in his hand and my foot out the door when he slows down! Adrenalin rush! My motorbike rides in Bali had nothing on the San Miguel bus!

Señora Petra’s tiny shop is a few steps from my house. It has everything but you may have to dig a bit. The other day I walked in and looked around – you don’t walk around, there isn’t enough space. I wanted a watermelon but I didn’t see one. I know how to say, “Do you have a watermelon,” in Spanish so I asked. Petra bustled around the counter and dug to the bottom of the pineapples. Wallah! A watermelon!

Today was the day after Christmas – always in some ways a relief, and in others an anticlimax. I needed fruits, veggies, and eggs, and Petra’s was tempting, but I also needed a distraction.

It’s a beautiful day for a bus ride, I thought. I wonder how far the bus goes in the opposite direction? What if it goes all the way to that Costco-size grocery-plus-plus store, La Comer? I could wander in there for hours. With pesos in my pocket, I caught the number nine bus heading away from Centro and settled in for the ride.

The farthest I’d been in that direction was Tianguis, the gigantic traditional market.

There are six, or maybe eight, football-field-sized arched metal roofs that house this hodge-podge of delights from lightbulbs to live rabbits, not to mention heaped tables of clothing, shoes, and enough tortillas and enchiladas to feed the entire Mexican army. (Just a guess.) It’s full to exploding with vendors from near and far. Utterly overwhelming!

We circled the complex. A few people got off, a few more got on. Then we were back on the highway, zooming toward my destination. At some point, the driver turned right and we were in an unfamiliar downtown area. That lasted a few minutes. Another right put us on narrow cobblestone streets that became narrower and less welcoming the farther we went. We’d just passed a rusted car covered in vines sitting on cement blocks when the bus pulled to the side and stopped. The driver got out. Bathroom break, I thought. I sat another minute or two then craned my head around to look behind me.

The bus was empty.

The driver reappeared, climbed back in, and stood facing me, hands on his hips. He said something which probably translated, “Where did you think you were going?”

“Is this the end? Are you staying here?” I asked, with appropriate gestures to indicate All she wrote? Curtains? No enchilada?

He gestured back and made me understand this was indeed the end of the line. I must have looked frantic because at that point he stuck his head out the window and motioned wildly. An identical bus rattled to a stop. My driver made a shooing motion at me, “Vamos! Vamos!” I shoved eight pesos at him hollering “Gracias! Muchas gracias!” and dashed to my salvation.

The new driver retraced the jaw-jarring trail back over cobblestone streets, circled the Tianguis Market, and brought me safely home. He even stopped for me to disembark. Mission accomplished. I found the end of the line and I have no need to go there again.

I ducked gratefully into Señora Petra’s shop and found everything I needed, including this beverage.

The idea seemed good at the time. But if you should ever run across it and wonder…unless you’re really keen on beer mixed with lime and, wait for it, way too much Tobasco sauce…don’t even think about it!

You’re not in Kansas anymore…

I click my Ruby Red Slippers and I’m in Oz! Well, maybe not Ruby Slippers – more like warm socks with ugly shoes. And maybe not Oz, exactly…

I’m sitting on the rooftop terrace of my new home in San Miguel de Allende, thawing.

It’s been a long journey, mentally, physically, and especially emotionally. When did this transition begin?

In my heart, I could feel it three years ago. It was the kind of knowing that something had changed and something else was coming, but I had no idea what or when. Then Covid arrived and the pandemic took over the world. It stopped me in my tracks and made me face the reality of my age and the distance from my family. It created an urgency that had been absent before.

After finally getting my second vaccination, and jumping through a great many hoops, I was on the plane to the U.S. On October 4th I landed in San Francisco and spent two jetlagged weeks hiking the rocky coast along Highway 101 with Jessa and her partner, Dan.

The contrast between the U.S. and Bali stunned me. It felt so normal, so like life as I remembered it, before…

Dazed and overwhelmed I did my darndest to be in the present moment with them and integrate into the vibrant energy of California. I think I failed. I’m pretty sure I failed. On the heels of two stressful years in a destitute Bali, seeing the abundance of life-as-we-knew-it playing out before my eyes while my friends on the island suffered lockdown isolation, presented a dichotomy that hurt my heart.

So I stuffed that reality into the chamber of my mind that says, “I’ll think about this later,” and continued my cross-country journey.

In Minnesota it was an ecstatic, far too-long-awaited reunion with Jenny and Kennen and my delightful twin grandsons. We’d all aged two years since my last visit. The twins, at two and wobbly, were now four, running, bouncing, and talking non-stop. Those two little guys are incredibly well-behaved. Their patient, loving, but strict parents provide the magic formula for ultra-creative kids who could otherwise manufacture all kinds of trouble!

My sister and her husband live in northern Minnesota on the remote edge of nowhere. In a whirlwind week with them, I reconnected with many of my Norwegian relatives and friends. I drank more coffee and ate more cookies and cheesecakes than I’d had in years.

Gwen and her husband W, bought the family farm. She knows me better than anyone and we share a common history, common that is until I moved to Hawaii. A year later, she moved to Arizona. Covid reunited us through emails. We’ve maybe missed three days of correspondence since February 2020. I love my sister. Now my logical Capricorni-ness understands her quirky Gemini-ness far better than I used to.

My daughters and their partners are wise, wonderful adults coping unbelievably well in their individual, unique circumstances. I’m so proud of them. I had one more family to see.

Joy and Kellen and my two grandaughters welcomed me into their busy boisterous lives with open arms, bountiful snuggles, and affectionate kisses. Two years ago, my newborn granddaughter had raven black hair and screeched whenever Mommy was on the phone with Granny. Now she’d turned two with golden curls, a bubbly, joyful child. And my five-year-old granddaughter, in Kindergarten full time, is a budding zoologist. She stores more facts about animals in her head than I ever knew. Their dad, Kellen, maintains a loving, much-needed order in that household of independent females which was especially appreciated while Joy and I spent hours brainstorming ideas for her business. She also gave me great feedback for a new service I’m considering. More on that another time!

No photo description available.

All this while, I kept reading the news from Bali. My original plan was to fly back to San Francisco for one last week with Jessa and Dan then return to Indonesia. My ticket was for Dec. 6th. But the rules were strict and inescapable: if I went back I would have to quarantine in a hotel in Jakarta for 10 days at my own expense, and the devastating economic circumstances in Bali hadn’t changed.

Sitting in front of the fireplace on a chilly evening in Pennsylvania with the girls burrowed close on either side of me, I agonized.

The last thing I wanted to do was return to Bali with a new variant, Omicron, bringing more uncertainty. Over the past two years, I’d come to the conclusion that I wanted, and needed, to be closer to my U.S. family. Mexico, it seemed, was the logical option. Why not check it out before going back? See if it was a fit. I had friends in San Miguel de Allende.

Suddenly that seemed like the most common-sense idea I’d ever had. I spent a couple of hours on the phone with Singapore Airlines. They finally agreed to change my return ticket to January 4th, 2022, with a valid reason and another $50 added to the original price. I hoped I could trust the old saying: Take a step and the path will appear. The Universe seemed to be showing the way.

That’s when I clicked my Ruby Red Ugly Shoes!

ReAnn Scott (My Home On The Roam) welcomed me with overwhelming hospitality. In the first eight days, I met more people, had more invitations, (even played Rummikub with a group of fifteen people that meets weekly) than I’ve ever before in my life experienced. Everyone was friendly, inclusive, and best of all, interesting.

With ReAnn’s help, I found a house to rent that exceeded my wildest hopes. Another piece of the puzzle clinked into place.

Years ago, when I was trying desperately to figure out who I was, I made a list of things I love. Not people, things. One item on the list was: Sunlight streaming through French doors.

  • This house has five sets of double French doors.
  • I wanted to live on the second floor. The house is built above a first-floor garage/storage/laundry space. The living quarters are on the second floor.
  • I wanted a rooftop terrace. I have that, too, with a 360° view of San Miguel de Allende.
  • I wanted to be in the area called Centro which is close to the town center and I needed rooms with plenty of open space drenched in light. There are huge skylights in every room and it’s a fifteen-minute walk to the famous cathedral, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, that occupies the place of honor in the heart of the city.
  • I had a budget. The rental amount was within the parameters I’d set.
  • Last but not least, it had to be a Mexican-style home, not new construction void of all personality. Plaster walls, a wood-beamed ceiling, bright Mexican tiles…it had everything I wanted plus a kitchen that would make a professional chef jealous!

The Universe laughed and I knew instantly this house was mine. I paid the deposit and moved in the next day. That was fourteen days ago.

And now I know won’t be returning to The Island of the Gods on January 4th. I have a 180-day visa for Mexico and I intend to extend that permanently. This already feels like home.

This morning I journaled for the first time in over a month. In a few paragraphs, tears were flooding the pages and smearing the ink. That chamber where I’d stuffed those vulnerable feelings about Bali and the friends I was leaving behind cracked open. I sobbed for a long time.

As I write this, grief wells up again.

I had ten phenomenal years there. My dear Ketut and his family helped me grow, learn, and heal some very old wounds. He was my closest friend, loyal employee, and wise teacher. I’ve written about Ketut and our hair-raising motorbike adventures many times over the years.

His family accepted me as their own.

Perhaps deep in my subconscious I knew I wouldn’t be back but couldn’t face the goodbyes to him and so many others: Nina, who became like a daughter.

My friends in the Ubud Writer’s Group who challenged me to edit, edit, edit!

Mu and Shane who provided laughter, deep philosophical conversations, and loving support.

The courageous and beautiful Sriy Sinawati who will one day follow her dream…

And many more…so many goodbyes unsaid…

And yet, I know this is the right place at the right time for me. A new adventure for this dreamer. Won’t you please, come along…?

Fawn Lake isn’t frozen, but I am…

I’m not in hibernation, although the temperatures here in Pennsylvania warrant it. I awoke to a powdering of snow that has progressed to a blustery, biting wind. The forest floor, layered with fallen oak leaves, crunches underfoot. Fawn Lake isn’t frozen…but I am!

I left Bali on October 4th. After months of waiting, I was finally fully vaccinated and travel to the US seemed feasible.

Two years is a long time to be separated from family. After seven weeks and three different states, my ‘hug deficit’ has been replenished. It feels marvelous. I’m catching up with my grandchildren – all incredibly bright and adorable, of course – but also two years older than when I last saw them. Now, they all walk, talk, count, and ask baffling questions.

The oldest, already five, is in Kindergarten. Hadley freely shares the uncanny array of facts she stores in her head. Granny, did you know that koala bears are nocturnal? Owls can have a wingspan up to five feet. Did you know elephants can live seventy years and weigh ten tons? Granny, what’s a ton?

Questions…

I’ve felt change coming for some time but had no answers for what, when, where, or how. I’d hoped this trip would bring clarity. Originally, I’d planned to return to Indonesia the first week in December. As that time approaches, there are still no international flights direct to Bali. I’d have to quarantine in Jakarta. I don’t want to do that so…

After my visit with family here, I’m flying to Mexico to meet up with friends and enjoy the milder climate in San Miguel de Allende. There’s a built-in community waiting for me there. I can explore possibilities and wait until quarantine requirements at home are lifted.

Meanwhile….

Emotionally, it’s a strange mix. I have amazing relationships in Bali, and a beautiful home that currently sits empty. (Does anyone out there want to start a new life on The Island of the Gods? Let me know!) Letting go is easier for me than most, but this feels hard. And yet, excitement bubbles in my chest imagining new challenges.

The bottom line crystallized with Covid. The uncertainty of the past two years brought reality home to roost. I can’t count on business as usual. The world came to a screeching halt almost overnight. Thinking there’d be time tomorrow for all the important things I’ve been putting off is a luxury in which I can no longer indulge.

It’s time to see the people I haven’t seen and tell them how much they mean to me.

It’s time to finish that last edit on my novel, Nettle Creek.

It’s time to admit that life is terminal and I’m closer to the end than the beginning.

It’s time to begin the next adventure – manifest the new dream.

The way ahead isn’t mapped. It’s a hard lesson for someone who wants her i’s dotted. I’m getting surprisingly adept at leaning into uncertainty and letting go of the need to see the whole picture – especially when there’s no other choice! There’s just enough light on the path for the next step and I’m taking it. Judging from past experience, when the time’s right there’ll be another glimmer of knowing…

and I’ll step again.

Am I woman?

Scrubbed and polished sky shone brightly overhead as Dan navigated the twisty coastal road into the City. “It’s carmageddon,” he said, and I translated it karma-geddon thinking my own private thoughts. I was unaware that the term referred to actual cars. Unaware, as well, that this weekend marked the grand finale of Fleet Week in San Francisco, that traffic would be snarly, that people would be out in droves.

Our destination: the Legion of Honor Museum.

I hadn’t Googled it, so when we pulled up to a structure resembling a Roman temple on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, I was surprised.  I’d assumed something more on the order of Frank Gehry architecture; edgy contemporary, in-your-face innovation.

Instead, the structure bore witness to what I’ve been taught to consider the ultimate in cultural refinement – the Roman era – art, poetry, literature, scientific breakthroughs, palatial homes with sumptuous furnishings. Power and privilege.

Perhaps I was off balance from the get-go. Perhaps two years of pandemic lockdown in Bali, isolated, uncertain of everything, stripped me of social resilience. There were people. Everywhere. And that was before we even entered the building.

Had I done my research I’d have been better prepared.

I’d have known that the brilliant work of a female artist, Wangechi Mutu, was being featured. But I didn’t know, and I wasn’t prepared.

The following quote appears on the Museum’s website and describes Mutu’s art:

Over the past two decades, Wangechi Mutu has created chimerical constellations of powerful female characters, hybrid beings, and fantastical landscapes. With a rare understanding of the power and need for new mythologies—the productive friction of opposites beyond simple binaries and stereotypes—Mutu breaches common distinctions among human, animal, plant, and machine. At once seductive and threatening, her figures and environments take the viewer on journeys of material, psychological, and sociopolitical transformation. 

Her bold interpretation of femininity, unrestrained, superimposed on a backdrop of paintings by male artists depicting women as we’ve been taught to be seen, assaulted my nervous system. Wild emotions churned through me and I could only identify one of them as I navigated the exhibits: anger. What was it that made me furious?

I’m not someone who processes quickly. I tend to go first into a state of overwhelm where I can’t think, can’t verbalize, I just absorb information. Then piece by piece, over hours and days, I bring it out and sift through the layers.

It slowly seeped into my consciousness that I was angry at myself for living small for so many years…

for buying into the lie that men hold all the cards and women’s role is subservient…

for judging my value based on how I was valued by the men in my life.

I was angry that Mutu was the ONLY female artist represented in that vast collection of paintings. And yet, perhaps that was intentional, the productive friction of opposites…

I was f***ing furious that the standards of beauty – sensuality – sexuality – purity – allure, all of it, all of what I was supposed to be, has always been dictated by men. F***ing furious.        

And there was Mutu’s art. Mutu’s depiction of the feminine going beyond simple binaries and stereotypes.

Feminine images, sleek, gritty, organic, metallic. Alien. Alien. We have alienated ourselves from our true selves by allowing patriarchy to define us.

I’d identified another emotion. Grief.

In Defense of the Dustah (and other shapeless garments)

Lottie Nevin is one of the most intriguing women I ever met. She was living in Jakarta with her husband, Irishman she called him, when our paths crossed. He was teaching at a university there but they were often at their vacation home in Bali. Lottie and I were instant friends. Then they moved to Spain. I miss her.

She was a sunny-side-up, can-do person and everything she said was hilarious. One comment in particular has stuck with me. She was talking about her garment of choice. “I hold comfort in the highest esteem,” she said. “Why would any woman want to be trussed up like a Christmas goose and totter around on pointy-toed, spikey-heeled chambers of torture?” Her look of baffled disdain spoke louder than words. Then she shrugged, shook her head, and groaned. “But Irishman hates my dustah.”

“What’s a dustah?” I asked. It sounded exotic and foreign. She looked at me aghast.

“You don’t know? It’s that shapeless thing that hangs off your shoulders and doesn’t come in contact with your body anywhere else…the most comfortable thing alive. You can go naked as a jay underneath – it’s heaven.”

A memory took shape in my mind’s eye of my mother’s floral pastel, snap-up-the-front housecoat. She’d called it a duster – dustER. Ah-ha!

So that’s what we were talking about. Lottie’s accent was decidedly not English in the Midwestern U.S. style. It had the delightful flavor of the British Isles that made ah’s out of r’s.

I remembered Mom wearing her gown in the morning. But after school lunches were packed and breakfast eaten, she exchanged comfort for clothing that fit her form. It sounded like Lottie missed that step and dear Irishman didn’t approve.

Mom had Dad to impress. Lottie has Irishman.

I don’t cater to anyone but myself. But Lottie’s words stick in my mind every time I slip into my most comfortable outfit. I’ll have walked a mile or more with intense tropical sun beating on my head. I’ll be dripping, my clothing drenched in sweat. As soon as my feet touch home turf, I beeline for the shower and peel off the soggy garments.

Showered and refreshed, I reach for the dress. As it slips over my head, pure joy floods my soul. Stress leaches out of my body. Invariably I inhale, deep and long, and release a blissful sigh. Nothing else even comes close to the relief of lounging the afternoon away in unbound ecstasy.

The pandemic has changed my apparel. Comfort is the ultimate driving factor and yesterday I came face-to-face with the consequences of that. For eighteen months I’ve worn nothing snug – nothing that requires me to suck in my stomach. I’ve sat way more than I’ve stood or walked. Now that I’m packing for a trip to see family in the States, I’m trying on ‘real’ clothes. To my horror, a fleshy spare tire seems to have settled around my waist and hips. I’m pear-shaped with toothpick legs and that is not okay.

There’s not much hope of remedying the situation in the eleven days before I leave. But once there…

Jessa and Dan have promised long hikes on the ridges along the California coastline overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

In Minnesota, I’ll stroll the path along Minnehaha Creek to Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha with my twin grandsons.

Pennsylvania with Joy and Kellen and my very active, very precocious granddaughters will be anything but sedentary. By the time I return to Bali I’ll be whipped into shape.

Re-formed.

Or…Maybe I’ll melt back into my ‘dustah,’ breathe that blissful sigh, and revert to my old, wicked ways.

Do any of you out there share Lottie’s love of the shapeless, unconfined comfort of the dustah?

Has the pandemic changed the way you dress?

Has anyone else gone pear-shaped?

Remembering 9/11 twenty years later – An excerpt from my memoir

There have been countless memorable days in my life and I tend to focus on the happy ones. But the circumstances around September 11, 2001 cannot be forgotten. This morning I felt compelled to open my memoir and revisit the chapters that summed up that experience.

I’ve decided to share them with you. The names of my daughters have not been changed – all others have.

Chapter 55

The contractor came highly recommended. Rusty stuttered a little. One of his fingers was a nub at mid-joint. Day or two old stubble, fine and sandy-colored, poked from his cheeks, and he avoided eye contact. A plaid flannel shirt, pilled and faded with one corner of the pocket ripped loose, flapped open over a thread-thin tee. Pleased I wouldn’t have another chatty business partner, I welcomed his quirkiness. Innate goodness shone about him like an aura and my gut said I could trust him. 

Work progressed at snail’s pace but Rusty delivered with a precision worthy of any obsessive-compulsive perfectionist. Every week he brought receipts and a bill for his time. I paid with an eagerness that surprised me.

Summer passed with the lingering smell of sawdust and turpentine ever-present in the house.

Joy, my fashionista, had been packing for weeks. Outfits went into the suitcase and came out a day later, replaced by other outfits. She would be in a dorm on the FIT campus in the heart of Manhattan, the Fashion Institute of Technology, her dream.

I flew with her to New York. It was the second time in that city for both of us, and we planned to decipher the subway system, get her settled with her roommates, and say goodbye.

All was accomplished in three short days. I was due to catch a cab for the airport the next morning and Joy would walk a couple of blocks from our hotel to the campus to begin her new life. A blanket of grief wrapped around me. We crawled into the room’s one bed and I couldn’t stop the great salt streams drooling from my eyes.

“I’m sorry I’m crying, honey. I’m really so happy for you!” I blubbered as we hugged each other and rocked back and forth. “You’ve always wanted this.” Joy had tears too, but I knew they were only in response to my distress.

“Oh, Mommy,” Joy hummed in her kitten purr. “You’ll be fine. Jenny’s still at home with you and I’ll call every day, I promise.”  I burrowed my head into the pillow and tried to sleep, but there was none of that as night dragged into morning.

Both early risers, we were up at five. Spent and tearless, I gathered my scattered belongings for the flight home. The aroma from a coffee shop next to the hotel lured us and we grabbed one last cup together. The crush and din, even at this early hour, dirty fog, and a city crowded with too much humanity overwhelmed me. But the feverish excitement that radiated from Joy left no mistake. New York was right for her. I had to let go.

It was time. We summoned a cab and I wrapped my spunky angel in a final, mighty hug. “Call when you get home,” Joy said. I nodded, mute, through a fresh onslaught of tears, and ducked into the back seat of a cab. As the taxi pulled away, Joy’s face grew tiny, then evaporated in the teeming throng.

Chapter 56

True to her promise, Joy did call every day. It was Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001. She’d been in New York for two weeks. As I drove Jenny to school on my way to work, an announcement interrupted the song on her favorite radio station. An aircraft had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. My first thought was that an air traffic controller had made a terrible miscalculation. As we waited for more information the sounds coming from the radio escalated into mass hysteria. The announcer gasped. There was another plane. The second tower had been hit.

At the school entrance I jerked to a stop. Jenny and I stared at each other, horrified, as the radio continued to blast chaos.

“Call Joy,” Jenny’s voice squeaked, thready and tight. I punched speed dial and held my breath: Your call cannot be completed as dialed. I tried again, then abandoned the speed key and entered Joy’s number by hand.

“It’s not going through.” I tried to keep the fear out of my voice. “I’ll keep trying. Are you okay to go to school?”

“I think so.”

“If you need me to pick you up early, just call, okay?”

“Okay, Mom. Do you think Joy’s all right?”

I summoned a confidence I didn’t feel. “The campus is at least a mile from the towers. I’m sure she’s fine.” I desperately wanted to believe it, but my hands shook as I pulled away from the curb and tried the phone again. Why wouldn’t the call go through? The radio spewed frenzied madness as my mind created nightmare scenes in the city I’d visited less than two weeks before. When my phone beeped, I jumped, praying it was Joy.

“Sherry, where are you? Did you hear?” Hope sank. It was the voice of my business partner.

“Mae! Yes! I’m trying to call Joy.”

“I’m watching the news. Communications in New York are down. You probably won’t be able to get through.”

“Oh no!” The panic I’d been fighting to control edged in.

“I brought the portable TV. It’s hooked up here in the office.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

All morning we sat in darkness glued to the impossibility of the tragedy in New York, window shades pulled against the sun’s glare. The flicker of the screen stuttered on our faces as devastation played over and over again. I kept punching the #3 key, desperate to hear Joy’s voice.

Weeks ago I’d scheduled an appointment with a new client for two o’clock on September eleventh. The woman hadn’t called to cancel. It was in an old-money neighborhood minutes away. The TV droned on. The two explosions at the World Trade Center were followed by a plane that plowed into the Pentagon, and a fourth that crashed in Pennsylvania. The country was paralyzed. Where would terror strike next? President Bush issued an order that all aircraft were grounded. No one was to take off or land on U.S. soil.

At 1:30 I grabbed my briefcase and left the misery of the news behind long enough to walk to the car and turn on the radio. I approached the client’s address, parked, got out, and hit #3 one more time. Joy answered. My knees buckled. I grabbed the door and sagged against the side of the car.

“Joy! Oh my God, Joy!” The slam of relief was almost too much to bear.

“I’m in line waiting to give blood. I’m okay, but it’s awful Mom. You can’t imagine.” I leaned against the cold metal, tears of relief streaming, and listened. Crisp leaves from ancient oaks swirled in the wind that eddied around my feet. Joy sounded strong but would it last? How long before the trauma sank in? She said she’d felt the vibrations from the crashes in her dorm. Her eighteenth birthday was two weeks away. Can a seventeen-year-old legally give blood? The thought flitted and was lost.

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m okay,” she reassured me again. “I’ll call you tonight.” The phone went dead. In front of me, the house with Corinthian porch columns waited. Joy was okay. My happy-go-lucky, sun’s-always-shining daughter was okay. I wanted to bask in the huge blessing of that forever. Instead, forcing one foot in front of the other, I climbed the steps to the massive double front door. A woman about my age, pixie-like with cropped Mia Farrow hair, invited me in. I could hear the drone of a TV in the background.

“Have you heard?” the woman asked.

“I was just on the phone with my daughter in Manhattan.”

“Our son works at the Pentagon in the wing that was hit. He had a meeting out of the office this morning…” She stopped, clutched her throat and reached for my hand. Minutes ticked past, measured by the beats of two mothers’ hearts fused in gratitude and grief.

“He’s okay then?” 

“Yes.” She whispered it so low I almost didn’t hear. We sat together that afternoon drinking tea and sharing stories of our children, the design proposal forgotten. When it was time to pick up Jenny from school, I asked my new friend if she wanted to reschedule.

“You know,” she said, her brow forming V-shaped ripples that met above her nose, “it doesn’t matter now.”

“Doesn’t matter?”

“The changes I thought were so necessary. Hundreds of people are dead but my son was spared.”

“I understand.” The knot in my throat tightened and tears threatened again. “I’m glad your son is okay.”

“And your daughter.”

 We hugged as she let me out. I crossed the street to the car, turned the switch for the radio off, and started the engine.

Joy called that night, still brave, but the next day, shock hit. “I need to come home Mom, just for a few days. It’s crazy here! There are bomb threats at the Armory just a few blocks from the dorm. We had to evacuate our rooms three times last night.”

“Oh, no! Okay, honey, but airports are closed.”

“I don’t care. I’ll take the train, or a bus.”

“Let me check Amtrak, I’ll call you back.”

“I’m packed. I’m going to start walking to the bus station at Port Authority.”

“Joy, wait. It’ll only take a minute…”

“No, Mom! I can’t! I’ll hitchhike if I have to, but I need to get out of here.”

“Don’t hitchhike!”

“You don’t understand…”

“No, no, I don’t, but…”

“Okay, call me. I’m heading out now.” The phone went dead. I rifled through the phonebook for Amtrak’s number. Their terminals were closed. Greyhound was running but I was told the Port Authority in New York might not be open. Nobody seemed to know. I called Joy.

“There are no trains and Port Authority might be closed.”

“No, it’s open. I’m in line right now. I’ll stay here all night if I have – hang on Mom!”

“What? Joy?” Again, silence. Frantic, I punched her number. No answer. Again. No answer. I wore out the button and still no answer.

There was no comfort this time. I’d heard the alarm in her voice. Something had happened right where she was. Sick with dread I turned on the news as I tried to reach her. But there was no mention of Port Authority, only macabre reruns of crashing planes and people jumping to their death from burning towers. An hour later my phone rang.

“Mom, I’m on the bus!”

 I burst into sobs.

 “I’m sorry, Mom. There was a bomb threat at Port Authority. Everyone ran. The lines got scrambled. When they let us back in, I was in front. Remember Mr. Grolick from our old neighborhood? He’s my seatmate. I’ll be home in twenty-one hours.”

Twenty-one hours later I waited at the Greyhound bus depot. One after another, the silver monsters groaned to a stop in their numbered stalls and leaked their human contents. Travel-weary sojourners staggered bleary-eyed to collect their luggage from the bowels of the beasts. I was glued to stall number seventeen. Within minutes of the scheduled time, hissing brakes brought the bus from New York to a shuddering stop. Before the door opened, a current of emotion ripped through me. The trauma of the past few days hit full on, constricting my chest. Joy was the third one off the bus. She spread her arms and ran. “Mama!” Her body slammed into mine.

“My baby, my baby, my baby…” was all I could manage through my sobs.

“Mama. Mommy…”

Joy stayed for a week. We celebrated her eighteenth birthday. Then she flew back to an uncertain future amidst the char and rubble and the lingering stench of smoke.

We all have memories of that time. Lives were lost. Images of horror burned into our retinae that will never be erased – not in twenty years, not ever. My child was spared. My client’s son was spared and today I’m feeling immense gratitude for that.

Pandemic life in Bali eighteen months and counting

We’ve logged eighteen months of Covid in Bali. Nobody thought it would last this long. Nobody had a clue how devastating it would be to the economy, to morale, to human life. I wish I could say we’re learning to live with it. We’re not. There’s still a never-never-land hope that soon tourists will return. Soon everything will be like it was before. Soon.

Soon was supposed to be June, 2020. That was scrapped and moved to August 2020. Each new date set for the reopening of international tourism was exchanged for a later one. The most recent was this month, September 2021. We all knew it wouldn’t happen as the Delta variant bore down on Indonesia making it the world epicenter for the virus.

I hate to preach doom and gloom, but the only upside I can see to this prolonged slog through hell is a return to the land for those who didn’t sell out to the highest bidder. Paddies, neglected for years while their owners taxied foreigners to and from the airport, guided tours, sold sarongs, or opened cafes, are being tended again.

Fireflies haven’t returned yet but birds and butterflies have. Roads aren’t clogged with trucks belching black fumes, and there are no drones, helicopters, or planes disturbing the peaceful sky. Only kites. Hundreds of them pirouette on unseen currents high above. These photos are from the annual Kite Festival in Sanur, Bali. This year it didn’t happen, of course.

When there’s no work there’s an abundance of time – time enough to go fly a kite.

For many Balinese, however, there isn’t enough money to buy food, and the lack of funds affects the animal population as well. This article, Bali’s tourist drought sees hundreds of hungry monkeys raiding homes, hit international news today. These are the monkeys that visit me. They never used to leave the Sacred Monkey Forest which is a quarter mile from my home. But now they have no food and no tourists to entertain them. They’re bored, hungry, and they’re multiplying at an astonishing rate. (Nothing else to do, may as well make love.)

The longer the situation persists, the more aggressive they become. They use my roof to stage their battles. I wake up at dawn to the sound of snarling monkeys waging war as clay roof tiles crash to the ground. If Ketut isn’t here to do immediate repairs, I know the next rain will pour through the ceiling wreaking unspeakable damage.

I captured a photo of this guy coming toward my upstairs landing across the old roof.

Hoards of roving monkeys, thirty to fifty at a time, appear multiple times a day every day. Whatever isn’t behind closed doors is fair game, a plate of fruit, a bottle of water, a bouquet of flowers. They’re looking for something – anything – to eat.

Their petty thievery was manageable, but the roof issue was not.

Ketut and I engaged in endless conversations attempting to arrive at a solution to the problem. The situation was dire. I had to replace the fragile tiles with something monkey-proof.

Last week we found the answer. Genteng pasir. Literally translated that’s sand tiles, a pressed metal shingle coated with a gritty substance and painted the color of a traditional roof. The look was perfect and the price was right.

Ketut lined up a team, placed orders for shingles, nails, lumber, and cement, and work began. First, the old tiles came off.

The three-man crew worked, ate, and slept here, on site. They began at 8:00 a.m. and stopped at 6:30 p.m. when the sun went down. We provided their meals, coffee, and beds.

Ketut was the busiest of all, running to get take out food three times a day, making coffee, keeping the necessary building supplies on hand. Food, coffee, and snacks were all part of the package to ensure that the guys stayed well-nourished and happy.

They worked seven full days, non-stop, and did a stellar job.

Isn’t that a splendid sight?

I didn’t realize how on-edge I was. Even now, three days later, I find myself stiffening with a lump of dread in my stomach when I hear the beasts coming. Then I remember, oh! My roof is monkey-proof. I can relax.

Just in time.

Rainy season approaches and there’s nothing as important as an intact roof when tropical storms shed their pent-up tears in torrents – gallons per second!

It doesn’t solve the greater problem. The economy is worse than ever. People and monkeys are still hungry. I’m acutely aware of my privilege as a foreigner living here. Because I’m a long-term expat with the necessary documentation, I was given my vaccinations free, same as the locals. I follow government protocol to the letter, grateful for the measures they’re taking to end this plague so living can find its rhythm and a better life for all can begin.

Soon. Hopefully, soon.

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