The Price of a Good Night’s Sleep

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The rains have come. They do every year.

Dry season is roughly June through October and wet season is the rest of the time. January and February are peak months with an average of 90 millimeters of rainfall each. But as of today, 500 mm of rain have fallen in Ubud since the first of January. Soggy has taken on new meaning.

So what does that have to do with sleep? Several things:

Rain pounding at the rate of Niagara Falls is loud. Very loud. Add to that a forceful gale that drives water under the roof tiles filling the house with a fine mist and the situation becomes disconcerting.

One thing, though, plagues me more than the rest. When winds are high, the tall coconut palm just outside my bedroom window whips perilously close to the glass. In nightmares I envision the muddy earth it clings to giving way. With a bolt of lightning and a crack of thunder I’m suddenly sharing my bed with shards of shattered glass, and a very large soaking wet tree.

Under normal conditions a palm’s root system withstands rainy season. But this tree is old, the earth is saturated, and the winds are strong. “What do you think, Ketut?” I asked my wise friend. “Will the tree fall down?”

We’ve had this conversation every year when the rains come and he always says, “Don’t worry, still strong.” But this year he had no quick answer. Instead he studied the tree, first from one angle, then another; from upstairs and down, and proceeded to chop off half of the tree’s 8 foot branches. “Now not so heavy,” he said.

I have to give him credit, Ketut is a problem solver.

Granted, now the tree was not so heavy, but it was also not so beautiful to look at. After a few more restless nights of pounding storms I approached him again. “I can’t sleep, Ketut. I’m still worried about the tree. Maybe you can find a Tukang Pohon who will cut it down.”

As luck would have it, that noon I lunched with a friend who, the day before, had watched a 20′ palm being removed. Her detailed description sounded so civilized, so professional, that I begged her to get the name and number of the contact for me. She did, and with that information in hand Ketut called Mr. Macho (I kid you not) who came right over. He quoted 600,000 rupiah and said he was busy now but could come back in three days.

Three days later Macho, his eight-year-old son, and a helper appeared right on time. Ketut hustled to provide the obligatory coffee and snacks which, in my experience, almost always precede the onset of work. They chatted and sized up the operation. Then, coffee finished, Macho plucked a leaf, put a cookie and a lighted cigarette on it and placed the offering by the small temple. “For not fall down,” he explained, then caught himself and laughed. “Tree okay. But not I fall down!”

p1130143The mood that moments before had been casual, took on intensity and singleness of purpose. Like a well-orchestrated dance many times performed, Macho scaled the tree while his assistant below kept the ropes untangled from the surrounding bushes that would hopefully be left intact. With surgical precision, Macho’s hatchet sliced off the giant fronds. I held my breath as they slithered through the leaves and landed with a shuddering thud on the ground.

p1130155p1130158p1130160p1130162There wasn’t a closed mouth among us as we watched. When the tree had been shorn of its crown, Ground Control tied a chainsaw to the end of one rope and up it went.

p1130165p1130168There was a mad dash into the house to shut windows and doors as the sawdust flew. When the wedge-shaped cut was made, and the ropes secured to the topknot, Macho Man climbed down. Now he and his assistant jockeyed for just the right position. They had a narrow window of opportunity for landing that massive clump without harming the house, the garden lamp, the shrubs, or themselves. This was the moment of truth.

Perfection! Well done Mr. Macho! With the main event accomplished, he chain-sawed the remaining trunk into two-foot sections tossing them aside as he worked his way down.

If for one minute you think this task didn’t require all the machismo that our hero’s name implies, just look at the concentration on that face! p1130199When nothing remained but a short stump, Mr. Macho struck a strong-man pose for the camera.

p1130216Standing amid the debris, Ketut lit up a cigarette and I could almost read his mind: “My beautiful garden…trashed!”

p1130215As the guys muscled tree parts off to the compost corner Wayan swept away leaves and twigs. Within an hour the only indication that major trauma had visited that garden was a telltale dusting of sawdust on the bushes.

p1130218Until I went upstairs, that is. The tree trunk used to run right up the center of this window. It was the first thing I saw every morning as the sun rose behind it. Squirrels chased each other up and down and monkey’s leaped onto it from the roof of my house. I’d watched doves courting in its branches, and once or twice a year it offered up a coconut for my dining pleasure if nothing else ate it first. For a moment nostalgia overtook me, but only for a moment; then relief.

p1130221The next morning Ketut appeared with my groceries and that 2000 watt smile. His first words were, “Good sleeping? No worries?”

“Was there a storm?” I’d heard nothing.

“Big rain,” he said.

I returned his grin and gave a thumbs up. In my world, the price of a good night’s sleep is 600,000 rupiah. And the show? That’s free.

Naughty Nuri’s: Anyone for a Body Scrub and Cleanse?

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Naughty Nuri’s is well-known in Ubud for its barbecued pork ribs. Always packed, most people who eat in this popular restaurant are not part of Ubud’s thriving spiritual community. Those folks go to the organic, vegan, and raw food places where to even whisper pork is anathema!

I gave up most meat long ago so I’d never been to Nuri’s. But after living in Indonesia for five years and eating fruit, veggies, rice, tofu, tempe, and not much else, about two months ago I began to crave nachos.

I coerced my partner in crime and chief confidante into weekly walks to Devilicious, a street-side eatery near her house where they make a few Mexican dishes. Nachos is one of them. An ice cold beer with a heaping plate of crisp, cheese-and-jalepeno covered tortilla chips became a weekly ritual, until last Sunday. We approached the sign with a red devil caricature boldly displayed and my heart sank. Devilicious was closed.

There’s nothing worse than having your taste buds set for a certain flavor and being denied that pleasure. We stood outside the empty café and I was less than cavalier. “I want nachos. Where can we get nachos?” I’m sure my whine was about as pleasant as a spoiled 5-year-old’s.

Without missing a beat my friend said, “Nacho Mama’s has them.”

“Nacho Mama’s? Why haven’t you mentioned this place before? Where is it?” As it turned out it was just a few blocks the opposite direction so we set off, saliva flooding my mouth.

I smelled barbecue long before we arrived at the entrance to Naughty Nuri’s and my friend stopped there.

“This isn’t Nacho Mama’s, it’s Naughty Nuri’s. They sell ribs, not nachos. Look at the sign.” Had she lost her mind? She knows I’m a closet vegetarian and although I may not be the brightest bulb, I can read!

“Relax already. This is the place. It used to be called Nacho Mama’s. They serve nachos, don’t worry.”

Skeptical, I followed her inside looking for an empty table. There were none but a lone man occupied a spot with seating for 8 so we parked ourselves at the far end. We’d been there a few minutes when a group got up and vacated a nearby booth. We grabbed it. The table was loaded with platters of gnawed rib bones and bowls still full of Nuri’s special sauce.

One of the wait staff began to bus the table. My accomplice and I were deep in conversation when the tray the girl had just loaded crashed to the floor. Something globby and wet splattered my hair, my face, arms, legs, and my favorite cream-colored skirt. A spoon still dripping with the stuff lodged under my thigh. Dazed, I saw that my entire right side was plastered with rich, red, oily, lumpy blobs of barbecue sauce.

For a split-second there was silence. Nobody breathed. In the next instant, the entire Nuri’s staff rushed to my aid. One dabbed my hair, another scrubbed at my clothes, grinding the stains deeper into the fabric. The skin on my face where barbecue had landed, burned from the chilies abundant in Nuri’s special recipe. No matter how they tried to swab me down with paper napkins the situation worsened.

Perhaps it was Isnuri herself, the Indonesian wife of the American owner, who finally took charge and hauled me to the sink at the rear of the restaurant still in plain view of all the diners. Scrubbing commenced in earnest. She grabbed my skirt, hoisted it high and pulled it into the sink so she could hose off the mess (which, by the way, is the consistency of chunky salsa but stickier.) How much of my white leg and Victoria’s Secrets were exposed I’m not sure. It was about then that I decided to take the matter into my own hands and shooed the hovering attendants away.

At some point in my energetic scouring, a flash of movement caught my eye. Off to one side, a Japanese man stood mopping at his cream trousers. I looked at him, he looked at me, and I recognized him as the person who had been sitting with his back to me in the next booth. Not a word passed between us but we simultaneously broke into uproarious laughter. It was the first time I’d realized that I wasn’t the only star in this drama!

When I returned to our table, soaking wet from hair to sandal on my right side, the surroundings would suggest that nothing untoward had occurred there. All was wiped clean. We ordered nachos and beer and rehashed the blow-by-blow account of what had just happened. The food came followed by the bill. My meal hadn’t been charged.

Out on the sidewalk I said goodbye to my friend. Before leaving we agreed that Devilicious still makes the best nachos in Ubud but Nuri’s can’t be beat for barbecue sauce! I walked home in the 88 degree heat, damp and comfortable in my ruined clothing.

After treating the skirt and blouse with Balinese bleach paste and soaking everything for several hours, miraculously the stains came out. Those areas are a little whiter than the rest but I can still wear the outfit. When I do, it will remind me that anything can happen on a beautiful Bali Sunday afternoon nacho run!

What to do when life throws a curve ball? Catch it!

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When I was a senior in high school in 1968, the year 2000 seemed impossibly remote and the likelihood of ever living that long was unthinkable.

Well, 2000 came and went. So did my 50th birthday that same year. If the thought of retirement ever came up I squelched it. I couldn’t imagine anything so boring.

But life has an interesting way of throwing curve balls. I couldn’t have dreamed in 2000 that in 2012 I would indeed retire and move to Bali. Nor at that point could I have envisioned my life now, 5 years later, so full of fabulous friends and adventures that boring has been forever banished from my vocabulary.

Take last Monday, for instance. A friend and I decided to spend the morning at the Arma Museum. She had never been and it’s one of my favorite locations in Ubud for many reasons: the grand Balinese architecture, extensive gardens, a broad spectrum of art both traditional and modern, and the free beverage in the Arma Warung Kopi that is included with the ticket.

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We toured the exhibits, marveling at the intricacy of the traditional Balinese style, remarking on the vibrant colors of the more current pieces, and wound up at the coffee shop about an hour later. We’d just settled in when a Balinese man in an old sarong, a none-too-clean semi-buttoned plaid shirt, and an iphone pulled up a chair and joined us. One of the wait staff set a cup of coffee in front of him.

Permission had neither been sought nor granted but that made no difference to the gentleman and it was obvious that whether or not it made a difference to us was of no consequence. So we visited. He wanted to know where we were from, how long we had been in Bali, where we were staying; all typical conversation starters here.  When we’d answered I had a few questions of my own.

“So, Pak, what is your position here?”

“You mean what do I do for work?”

“Yes.”

“I’m the gardener.”

“These gardens are spectacular! How long have you been tending them?

“Fifteen years. And I found a plant down by the river that I’ve never seen before…here…I have a picture on my phone. I’ll show you. Have you ever seen anything like this?”

We agreed that it was very unusual and neither of us had seen such a thing before. After a few more pleasantries, one of the servers whispered to him that he had a phone call. He excused himself and left. My friend and I exchanged looks, finished our iced tea, and moved on, not giving the incident another thought, at least not then.

That afternoon she called me. “You know that gardener at the Arma?”

“Yes…”

“Take a close look at the brochure they handed us at the ticket booth and call me back.”

You probably know where this is going. Our mystery guest, cleverly disguised as a gardener, was the owner, Agung Rai.

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We admitted to each other after the fact, that it had seemed a bit strange that the gardener could take time out of his work day to have coffee with random patrons. And the fact that he was treated so obsequiously by the staff had also been puzzling at the time. Then,  after I mentally took inventory of what exactly I had said to the man, hoping it was nothing too terribly inane, we had a good laugh. But I’ll bet Bapak Agung Rai laughed louder and longer than either of us.

kkkPosing beside offerings in front of a collection of ceremonial costumes in a corner of the museum.

 

Over the Top on Christmas Night

After five years in Bali, my blood has thinned to the consistency of water. I can no longer tolerate winters in Minnesota, not even for the holidays. Since Indonesia is largely Muslim, and the Balinese are Hindu, Christmas here is a non-event. I didn’t realize how refreshing that would be!

Many visitors from the West assume they will be able to eat their traditional ham, or turkey and stuffing, that carols will boom from every corner day and night, businesses will close, and the typical trees, stars, angels, and tinsel will manifest everywhere.

Not so, at least not yet.

I say that because the Balinese are ingenious copiers. If I give my tailor a dress and a length of fabric, he’ll make one identical to it and hand me the original intact when I come to pick up my order. And if a Christmas tree will bring people into a restaurant, the proprietor will make a Christmas tree! Since I moved here, a little more Christmas shows up every year. But I still have to hunt for turkey with stuffing!

This year a group of friends decided to splash out for Christmas Day. We’d get a driver for the 1 – 1/2 hour trip to Seiminyak, stop at the W Hotel for sunset cocktails on the beach, do a White Elephant gift exchange there, then continue a few blocks to Biku for a traditional Christmas dinner.

Pictures are so much better than words! Come along with me and celebrate Christmas Bali style!

The entrance to the W Hotel is flanked by bamboo which has been bent to form a feathery green arch overhead. I didn’t photograph that, but you can imagine! As we explored we passed pools upon pools overlooking the Indian Ocean.

After touring the grounds, we came to rest in the Ice Bar, completely empty and perfect for us! The drink menu required intense study. A Ginger Pepper Sour topped with key lime fizz and dried dates: where would I ever find something like that again? I ordered it, and with my first sip knew that it didn’t matter. Imagine drinking red bell pepper juice with a hint of ginger and a splash of lime. The dates saved me.

When my drink had been sampled or sniffed by all, we dove into the White Elephant exchange with gusto! What a hoot! Remember, the idea is to wrap an object that you no longer want and get rid of it cleverly disguised as a present. But some of the gifts might appeal to one more than another so after opening them, there’s the opportunity to steal the one you want. If you’re lucky, someone won’t decide they need it more than you do and steal it back!

It was unanimous that a curly gray hairpiece and the bald eagle ash tray were the most disgusting. The exchange was everything it was designed to be, hilarious! And then the sunset. If you’ve never seen the sun set over the Indian Ocean, well, put it on the bucket list!

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It was hard to leave. If our stomachs hadn’t been growling, we might have squeezed another hour out of that gorgeous setting. But dinner beckoned and Biku was everything it promised to be. This cozy restaurant feels like you’re dining in someone’s living room. It oozes warmth (not the 90 degree kind) is adorned to the hilt, and exudes elegance in a Victorian overkill kind of way.

We were greeted and ushered to our place in front of the tree. I was delighted to see that there was ample space between tables and the mixture of seatings for two, or four, or in our case, six, were arranged for maximum privacy and comfort. The musicians began with well-known carols, then branched out. In the video the men are wearing the traditional black and white checked sarong and the lead singer is in a modified version of Balinese women’s temple wear, not including the antlers or Santa hats!

Have I forgotten anything? Oh, the food…which was the purpose of this outing in the first place! It was plentiful and rich. We kicked off with a Christmas cocktail. Then our choice of a starter: tea smoked salmon with Asian salad or warm Vietnamese beef. The buffet had it all: roast turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, glazed ham, roast leg of lamb, potato au gratin, roasted vegetables, medley of spring vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy. There were three salads, watermelon feta, strawberry chicken, and mixed garden salad.

But the desserts…! When I didn’t think I could eat another bite, I loaded my plate with sweets and didn’t miss a beat! I loved the Christmas pudding with brandy butter…what’s not to love…and the ice cream with candied fruit mixed in. The Christmas cake and the trifle and the little tarts put me over the top. But over the top was a fine place to be on Christmas night!

My dinner plate:

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My dessert plate:

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And did I mention the smooth Savignon Blanc from New Zealand? Mmmmm.

Today my stomach is, shall we say, iffy. Based on what it’s used to, it has a right to complain. I’m hoping there won’t be an outright rebellion. So far so good.  And here’s one last video as the evening was wrapping up.

Happy happy holidays to all!

Magical Mystery Tour in Tabanan Bali

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Now and then if you’re lucky, you stumble into a once-in-a-lifetime magical moment that makes you remember why you love being alive on this earth. Today was one of those.

It began as an invitation from a trusted friend (emphasis on TRUST) to be a guinea pig for a subak tour. What’s a subak? Since Bali is a country of vast expanses of rice paddies, the subak is the engineering miracle that brings water from the mountains to thousands of acres of farmland.

My friend told me we would meet our ride at 9 a.m. and arrive an hour later in Tajen village in the Tabanan Regency. The only other thing I knew for sure was that it involved a walk and lunch, two things I do quite well.

The Tabanan Regency is home to Jatiluwih, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features the most glorious expanse of rice terraces imaginable. The Bedugul Botanical Gardens are also in Tabanan as is Mount Bratan and the spectacular scenery from the rim of the crater to the lake at its base. So even though I didn’t know Tajen, the opportunity to revisit an area that I love and learn more about the subak system, was irresistible. I told my friend to count me in.

On the drive,  Bapak Gusti  told us that the people of Tajen have organized the subak tour to provide visitors with a better understanding of rural life. The tradition of tending paddies with water buffalo and Hindu ritual, are being replaced by machines, pesticides, and growth enhancers. “We are trying to preserve the old ways,” he said. “Tourists who want to see traditional Bali must come to Tajen. The tours will provide jobs for the people of our village.”

We arrived and I began to be amazed. It wasn’t just the beauty of the landscape and the grandeur of three mountain peaks rising purple against the sky, or the complimentary walking sticks and conical woven hats provided to keep us balanced and shady. Nor was it the waterways themselves, rushing alongside grassy paths, or the boundless knowledge of our guides. What was it then?

Right now I’m searching for words that will do justice to something that must be experienced to be understood.

Perhaps it was this: although we were in a remote rural town, I felt I was communing with the princes of Bali. Our hosts spoke English with a fluency rarely encountered. The finest hotels in the world couldn’t match their hospitality and gracious attention to our little band. When we met the women they were like you’d want your mothers and grandmothers to be: strong, funny, sweet, kind. And as so often happens on this island, it was more like walking a prayer than touring the subak.

Now you’ll look at the photos and you’ll want to come to Tejan, meet these wonderful people, and take the subak tour. I asked Bapak Gusti when they will be ready for business. “As soon as possible, maybe January,” he said.

Mountains, paddies, and a farmer bringing in the harvest on his motorbike.

Hats, check! Walking sticks, check! Ayo! Ayo! And off we go!

Our thirst is quenched with young coconut water. The mellow sounds of the rindik players follow us while a Balinese mother and grandmother demonstrate the intricate beauty of canang sari offerings. Bapak Gusti patiently answers questions and we are given the welcome blessing by a ninety-year-old grandmother.

Delights appear around every turn. Rice flour pastries filled with fresh coconut and drizzled with palm sugar syrup are cooked over a wood fire while we watch. Yes, more please!

The women pounding rice…the women. My tribal heart beats to their rhythm.

The women…

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Mothers and grandmothers…

and food!

Thank you, Tajen villagers, for sharing your subak, your smiles, and your gracious hospitality with us. We will tell our friends, and we’ll be back!

 

2016 in Retrospect

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2016 was a year of significant change. I became a granny, something I’ve cleverly avoided until now!

Hadley Sophia was born July 1, three weeks early. I was in NYC with them by the 5th and spent a blissful six weeks studying the fine art of granny-ing and falling ever so hopelessly in love.

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Jenny and Kennen, tired of the dot.com madness of San Francisco, pulled up stakes, moved to Minnesota, and bought a house. Along with them in the move was an old chair that was earmarked for reupholstery, Jenny’s hobby. I cannot believe the gorgeous transformation!

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Jessa and Dan did their yearly trek to Bali (bless them) and presented Ketut with a Superman tee-shirt, of course! Dan is a master guitarist and gave a few lessons. There was pool time, computer time, lots and lots of talk time, but best of all…togetherness.

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I had a birthday. Seems to happen every year. But this one was a gorgeous evening on Jimbaran Beach with a motley crew of dear friends, Carol, Janet, Bayu, and big-hearted Steve, who master-minded the event. I’d have a birthday every month if they were all as special as this!

The day wouldn’t have been complete without a quick escape to Watercress restaurant with my busy, wonderful neighbor, Nina, who treated me to birthday lunch and kombucha.

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I had another fun day in a beach town: Seminyak. Shane, Terry, and Mu needed haircuts and the ONLY hairdresser they’ll THINK of seeing is in Seminyak. So Denise and I enjoyed coffee and snooping the shops while the others went under the scissors. Then they introduced me to La Lucciola, a beachfront cafe where we spent the rest of the afternoon refreshing ourselves!

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I met a new friend, Margaret Manning, and took her shopping at the Klungkung market for traditional Balinese temple clothes. She invited me to write for her online magazine, Sixty and Me, and the Huffington Post, proof yet again that it’s not what you know but WHO you know!

 

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There were some seriously wild times entertaining with my empty yogurt cartons! Ketut built towers, Nengah knocked them down then scooted to fetch when they scattered under the daybed. Patient Komang provided refuge on her back when things got a little too crazy.

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The Ubud Writers Festival was sheer brilliance this year. It just keeps getting better! The panel discussions covered a multitude of pertinent topics worldwide, and several centered around the U.S. election since at the time of the Festival that event was only a week away. But the closing party was icing on the cake. My Bali family, Ketut, Komang, Nengah, and Komang’s sister, Wayan, went with me. We were awed by the fire dancers. Truly spectacular.

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And finally, in his 94th year, my Dad died. I was with him day and night during the weeks before, and it was the most profound experience of my life. I will never see death the same. I loved him fiercely and I miss him every day. But there is no question it was his time. He knew it, and his infinite peace during those last days was a testimony to the life he lived. I was alone with him, holding his hand when he died. I cherish that sacred final gift.

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I bid farewell to another year and to you, dear friends and family who take the time to read my scribbles. I leave you with the lines of a poet whose ability to capture the essence of life and death in words always astounds me: Mary Oliver

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:

To love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones
knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Too Much Wind – Staying Healthy in Paradise

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About once a year I catch a cold. It starts with a fuzzy-dull feeling in my head then spreads to a tight chest heaviness. In cold climates the first snow used to bring it on without fail. Here in Bali, I chalk it up to walking in the rain, and from December through February, if I want to leave my house at all, chances are I WILL encounter rain.

So check out this picture: It’s approaching 90 degrees and 100% humidity. I’m walking to the grocery store for feta cheese, something Ketut can’t buy at the morning market. Sweat covers my body head to toe and drips from my eyebrows into my eyes. Out of nowhere, the sky darkens and thunder grumbles. The temperature drops to the 70’s, and down comes the rain. I’m prepared. My umbrella flops open. But within moments the sidewalks are a rushing torrent of sludge water. My feet are slipping around in my flip-flops and I’ve had to move my umbrella so many times to avoid a low-hanging tree or another human that I’m soaked.

My Balinese friends seem much more susceptible to sniffles, coughs, and fever than I am and they have a cause always at the ready: masuk angin – wind comes in. I’ve learned to accept that explanation because to query further, one gets into murky territory where I’ve ventured unwittingly in the past. There are hints at Black Magic or Angry Spirits and once we’ve gone there, much dialogue around all the imagined possibilities ensues. An acceptance of the wind as culprit is a good thing.

So I recently had a run-in with the wind and currently have that yearly cold. But where I may avoid getting too much local input about the origins of sickness, I’m all for the traditional practices to regain health. One of the no-fail remedies in Bali is soto ayam, chicken soup, a cold cure that is quite possibly universal. Yesterday I had soto ayam, young coconut water (which is chock-a-block full of electrolytes) and enough teh adas (fennel tea) to sink a very large vessel.

This morning I felt better. But I’d heard of a jamu shop on Andong Street and neighbor Nina suggested the red ginger elixir to kick congestion. About that time Ketut appeared with another young coconut water. We jumped on the motorbike even though in my altered state I didn’t feel completely bikeworthy, and found Jamu Sehat.

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10262111_770004143023555_2114891911315740843_nA smiling man stood behind the counter. One of the things I love about Ubud is the lack of too many choices, although there is much more available now than there was when I arrived five years ago. There were four jamu options. I pointed and he ladled the thick juice from the red ginger pot into two recycled water bottles. I had him fill a third with Kunyit Asem as well. I’ve had turmeric jamu many times. It’s more readily available. But with the red ginger I was breaking new ground.

p1120649Back at home I wasted no time. Coco water first, slurp! Then red ginger.

Let me tell you something about red ginger jamu. If you think brandy burns all the way down try red ginger ala Jamu Sehat! I drank one bottle and my nose has not quit running. It’s far and away the strongest drink I’ve ever had. It stung, burned, brought tears to my eyes, and felt so good! I’ll do the turmeric before bed, another red ginger for breakfast, and I guarantee by noon I’ll be healed. I may also be hooked.

 

Are you content? BE TERRIFIED!

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Sometimes we get stuck in our lives. No matter how gorgeous, titillating, and inspired they may be, eventually it all becomes normal; still really really good, but normal. That state of complacency, cruise-control I call it, is often confused with contentment. “Oh everything’s great. I’m content with my life.” If that’s you, be terrified.

I’ve lived in Bali for five years. From day one I was awestruck. Everything was like nothing I’d ever known, done, seen, heard, believed, before. I was drinking from the fire hydrant of life at just about the same gushing flow. Joy was my perpetual state followed close on its heels by deep, soul-satisfying gratitude. I dreamed big and the dreams that manifested were bigger. Bali met me on every plane of existence with abundance above and beyond imagining.

But like many romances, infatuation becomes lust, becomes admiration, becomes love, becomes commitment…and then if the fire is left untended it wanes to coals and burns out to cold, dead, ash.

I woke up one morning and felt the chill.

Bali was still Bali. I knew that. But something inside me had shifted and I didn’t feel her the way I had before. I’d become content, but in the wake of the intensity of joy, discovery, and amazement, contentment was a colorless place emitting the low-level hum of boredom.

There was nothing wrong. It’s very difficult to sort out what’s not right when there’s nothing wrong. I journaled, meditated, yoga’d, did everything I knew to do. But I was metaphorically at sea in a magnificent sailboat without a breath of wind. My father died. My first grandchild was born. Life crested and dipped like waves around me but I remained stagnant in their midst.

Then one day by divine chance, I stumbled upon a book with the dreadful title, A Happy Pocket Full of Money, by David Cameron Gikandi. Truth be told, I would have never picked that book off the shelf. But because of the serendipitous way it crossed my path, I read it. Buried in a paragraph on page 85, was the key that broke the code. Paraphrased it went something like this: A major reason why people lose their joy is because they cease to dream. Sometimes this happens when comfort is finally achieved, which isn’t a bad thing. But if you find yourself going down, re-examine your goals and mental images, for life is images of the mind expressed.

Bingo! Sirens went off. Five years ago my head had been filled with images: the kind of life I desired, the books I would write, the home I would live in, the friends I would have. Five years later, I HAD IT ALL. I had achieved comfort. But the place in my mind once filled with fantastic visions and outrageous dreams was now empty space and I was going down.

The author didn’t stop there. He went on to make the remarkable claim that 5000 dreams are better than 500. His premise is that you want to give Source plenty to work with.

So I’m imagining my list of 5000 dreams. I have three so far but they’re big ones. Meanwhile, I’ve recognized that in the wake of so much blessing an old belief system had crept back in, one that suggested I’d been given so much more than I deserved, how dare I dream of anything else? Where do these idiotic lies come from? And why was I paying so little attention? I knew better!

It didn’t take months, or weeks, or even days. Within hours of the juicy birth of new desires, the lights went on, the expectant sizzle of potential zinged through my veins, and lusty infatuation for everyone and everything made me giddy with joy. Never, ever again will I let my life get comfortably dreamless. Thank you, Mr. Gikandi.

~~~~~

“With our thoughts we make the world.”
– Buddha

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”
– Walt Disney

“The empires of the future are empires of the mind.”
– Winston Churchill

“Where there is no vision the people perish.”
– Proverbs 29:18

“You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”
– Alvin Toffler

“Dreams are extremely important. You can’t do it unless you can imagine it.”
-George Lucas

“Cherish your visions and your dreams as they are the children of your soul, the blueprints of your ultimate achievements.”
– Napoleon Hill

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”
– Henry David Thoreau 

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Do I have the right to IMAGINE you?

I wish I could speak with ironclad certainty about the right of fiction writers to portray anyone, from any culture, in any way we wish. In her opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Lionel Shriver, a celebrated U.S. author, adamantly took that stance. Her argument appeared sound: the genre is fiction, therefore it’s made up, imaginary, and nobody should take offense.

I’ve pored over her speech and studied the uproar of commentary it incited. Do you remember the movie, Fargo, now a television series by the same name? The Coen Brothers created the film and billed it as a true story. Here was a movie about my state, my peeps, getting rave reviews. I couldn’t wait.

I’d heard it called scathing social satire, but that didn’t prepare me for the film’s insulting portrayal of people, dare I say it, like me. I couldn’t separate myself from the exaggerated Scandinavian backwoods brogue littered with you betcha, golly,and gee whiz. But the problem went beyond a personal affront. People all over the world watched it and formed an opinion of Minnesota, a state of hicks who talk funny and are a little stupid, but really, really, nice. Nobody sat beside them saying, “This is a farce, a parody, people there aren’t like that, seriously they’re not!” It was cultural appropriation at its box-office best.

We can’t help ourselves. We believe what we read, see, and hear in the media. If we don’t swallow it whole, there’s an impression left in our mental data banks that sticks.

So I had a problem when Ms. Shriver, from a position of white American privilege, told the rest of the world in so many words: Shame on you for feeling marginalized. This is fiction. It isn’t about you, it’s about the author’s freedom to IMAGINE you.

Is she right?

Don’t we all love story? What if the freedom to imagine and create is censored, given walls, boundaries, taboos?

I didn’t like my group being portrayed in an unflattering way. Who does? And yet I’m a creative writer and imagining is what I do. I invent unsavory characters as well as quirky, funny, bumbling, brilliant, and dull ones. I visualize them in skin: tanned, pale, olive, sallow, wrinkled, white, brown. I identify them ethnically, socially, culturally, and by their own, unique voice. I give them place and purpose and bring them to life. It’s never my intent to ridicule or malign others. But have I unwittingly done that by creating people who are nothing like me?

How I love getting lost in a book that someone else has imagined, living with those characters in their reality while momentarily escaping my own. And how I love to create story, allowing my normally serious mind to come out and play, to run with abandon waving my magic wand as my dreamed-up people populate the pages and live and breathe before my eyes.

It’s scary when I extrapolate the issues of cultural appropriation in fiction to various possible outcomes. What if we were banned from writing anything but what we have personally experienced? Memoir would be off limits unless the only character was me. As soon as I introduced another person, an ex-husband, mother-in-law, one of my children, and shined my prejudices upon them, whether in a positive or negative light, zap! Guilty!

The fact that literary festivals are springing up all over the world, and writers are being introduced cross-culturally to a degree never before possible, brings issues of sensitivity to the forefront. Years ago, when authors wrote for a small segment of the population: those who could afford to buy books and also knew how to read, this was a moot point. But now that events bring writers and readers together world-wide, and literacy rates are increasing, those who have been portrayed in ways that don’t ring true to what they believe about themselves, are speaking out.

I get an uneasy feeling in my gut when the word censorship is bandied about. As a writer I come down solidly on the uncensored side of the debate. As a human being who identifies with a specific place and a distinct heritage, I’m torn. Cultural appropriation is a valid issue and one that won’t resolve anytime soon. Pandora’s Box has been flung open and as we say in Minnesota, who knows where the chickens will come home to roost.

How does this strike you?
Have we gone over-the-top with cultural appropriation, politically correct, sensitivity issues? Or have we barely scratched the surface of a necessary heightened awareness of The Other. Please share your thoughts.

 

Judgment: an act of UnLove

My phone bleeped shortly after breakfast. A strange message lit up the screen. You’re invited to get together tonight at 7:00 to talk about love. The text was from my neighbor who often hosts impromptu drinks at sunset, or gatherings to hear live music in her garden. Just about any excuse is good enough for a party and since our houses share a property line, I’m usually included. But a get-together to talk about love wasn’t her usual modus.

I’d LOVE to come! I responded.

I LOVE your answer! She messaged back.

I’m an early bird and 7 p.m. is late for me to set out to party. So after a stroll to the local grocery for crackers and black pepper cheese dip to contribute to the evening, I took a two-hour nap. I wanted to be sharp for a discussion on such a profound topic as love.

The group was a combination of familiar folks and some new faces. My neighbor collects friends as easily as corners collect dust. Her outgoing persona is a magnet for visitors passing though our touristy Bali town. That night I was introduced to a fiery Indonesian woman from Jakarta, a dainty, elfin creature from Singapore, and a leggy, sultry, model-quality blonde from Estonia. Well established regulars, one from England and one from Italy, rounded out the European presence and there were two of us from the U.S. We were an eclectic group, the best kind, and I anticipated hearing a variety of contradicting viewpoints.

As we sipped wine, nibbling cucumber sticks and tropical fruit kabobs in a preliminary ritual for the business to come, I imagined a scene in Paris in the 1940’s, an intimate setting in the home of Gertrude Stein. Gathered around her would be the brilliant writers of the day, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis. Even legendary painter, Pablo Picasso put in an appearance at her salons to dissect subjects of interest in what I presume were scintillating conversations that became more animated and potentially heated as the wine flowed and the evening waned.

My wistful journey to the past was reined in when our hostess cleared her throat. She began with a reading from Plato and was followed by the Italian who had studied with Osho. She shared a sampling of his liberated teachings on love. We were in illustrious company as the wisdom of these venerable philosophers washed over us. I mean, really? What can you say after the greats have weighed in?

It so happened we had plenty to say. Opinions, like Cupid’s arrows, flew from one side of the room to the other. The Jakartan woman was raised Muslim under traditional expectations that with or without love, she would marry. She’s thirty, not married, and her family has stopped nagging, but she feels their disapproval. Love of music was discussed, how for some it’s a meditation that transcends all thought and leads to ecstasy. Familial love vs. love of friends, love for children, grandchildren, the freedom of loving without the cage of marriage, we touched on all of it.

After an hour or so, the theme worn out and threadbare, we strayed. “What do you think the world will look like in thirty years?” our hostess asked. It took only a moment to shift gears and we plunged headlong into seething controversy. Some believed technology would escalate exponentially and our problems would be solved. But the leggy blonde was the most vehement of all. With a tentative command of English, her second language, she explained why a blindingly rapid ascent was impossible. I half-listened with mild amusement wondering why this animated model-type was expounding with such confidence. My mind was busy collecting thoughts for my next argument when she dropped the bomb.“I used to build robots,” she said. The room went dead silent and our mouths dropped open with a collective gasp. She continued unaware that her credibility had just undergone a seismic shift.

The discussion dwindled after that and one-by-one we took our leave. Before my thoughts turned off and curled into sleep I recalled the Muslim daughter, criticized for her choice not to marry without love. I envisioned the Estonian beauty, how she’d had very little to say until the conversation veered into her scientific comfort zone. I’d questioned her intelligence, even though as a young woman I’d battled the dumb blonde stereotype and felt wrongly judged. Looking back I’m embarrassed and ashamed at how sexist and dismissive I was based solely on her looks.

We came together to talk about love and I was guilty of one of the least loving acts of all: judgment.

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