Old Married Love, Steadfast But Unsurprised

In the past three weeks I’ve seen Bali through new eyes. After eight years some things become business-as-usual. I forget how green, how lush, how unlike Midwestern U.S. this tropical island is. Even though I told myself when I moved here that I would always remain amazed and enchanted, things eventually become familiar. Love becomes the old married kind, steadfast but unsurprised.

Enter Susan and Michele.

They arrived like little tornadoes full of frenetic Western energy, totally upsetting my Bali Zen. With insatiable appetites they seized upon every idea I threw out, not realizing in my mind it was either this, or that, or maybe just a massage.

Our days were packed from dawn until dusk, and when I left them of an evening, dragging myself off to bed, they scurried back out to sample the hopping Ubud nightlife.

Their curiosity and willingness to go anywhere, do anything, intoxicated me to the point I couldn’t stand to send them off alone and miss an ‘Ah ha!’ or a ‘Whoa! Look at that!’ So I accompanied them and gained new insights to this place I call home.

As we scoured the length and breadth of the island, I found that some of the iconic Bali landmarks have stood the test of time. Their beauty and integrity remain unscathed. Others that I hadn’t visited since I arrived eight years ago, shocked me to my toenails.

I tried to mask my dismay when Ketut pulled into the coffee plantation near Tegallalang Rice Terraces. What used to be a simple grove of bean trees with a hut for demonstrating the roasting process and a single table for tasting, has morphed into a full-blown Disneyesque amusement park. Giant swings and Instagram heart photo-ops along with slick sales people in a glitzy shop bore no resemblance to what I remembered. And the high-wire bicycle ride…? My stomach lurched as Michele pedaled off into thin air on a piece of cable about the thickness of my thumb. Then Susan took a turn. I cowered and watched from the safety of solid ground.

Michele braved the swing alone. Once she landed, unharmed, Susan and Ketut went in tandem.

The Botanical Gardens in Bedugul were on the ‘must see’ list. I wondered what shocks lay in store for me there. I needn’t have worried. The grounds were unspoiled, except – like all of Bali as the heat intensifies and the long dry season continues – they needed rain. The cacti were the one exception. They seemed happy enough with the current climate.

Towering stands of bamboo appeared to be weathering the parched conditions although dry yellow leaves littered the ground beneath.

We left the gardens and Ketut drove his car full of chattering females along the ridge outlining the crater lakes Bratan, Buyan, and Tamblingan.

I had to look, then look again. Yes. It was what it appeared to be: a truckload of blue hydrangeas with no driver in sight. Where were they headed? A wedding? The market? A grand hotel lobby? There was no one to ask and we moved on, the mystery unsolved.

The more my friends saw of Bali, the more they wanted to see, so when Ketut invited them to meet his family in AbangSongan village it was as though yesterday wasn’t soon enough.

The little girls clustered around while Susan and Michele taught them, “See you later, alligator!” These children won’t learn English until high school. And that will only happen if their parents have the money to pay for it. Elementary school is free.

Nengah and Komang Kecil (little Komang) cuddle with their daddy.

Before we piled into the car for the hour plus drive back to Ubud, Ketut’s brothers bestowed gifts. They’re woodcarvers and specialize in ocean creatures: sharks, turtles, and stingrays. But Ketut’s older brother confided that when he gets bored with fish, he carves a mask just to shake things up a bit. My friends were so taken with his bizarre creations that they each bought one insisting on payment over his, “No pay. You can have.”

The next day we were on the road again.

Perhaps my happiest of happy places in Bali is Jatiluwih. The UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces stretch for miles in all directions and a walk along the trails takes you deep into a softer time uncluttered by tourism and giant swings.

When I first visited the island in 2010, it was a scene similar to this that made me vow I would return. I’ve visited the Grand Canyon, Versailles, fiords, cathedrals and the ruins of Pompeii, but nothing has ever whispered to my heart like Jatiluwih.

Days flew by and when her two weeks were up, Michele wasn’t ready to leave. She loved everything she saw and made at least three trips to Bali Teaky for more teak bowls, spoons, and cutting boards. With singleness of purpose she devoted herself to improving the economy of the island. Susan and I had to wrestle her out of a furniture-maker’s warehouse or she would have been the proud owner of a ten-foot teak-slab dining table! Then she was off in a cloud of exhaust to catch the red-eye back to the U.S.

But Susan had another seven days and she wanted to explore more of the countryside.

We’d run out of time to go to the Mother Temple, Besakih, with Michele, but Susan was keen to visit this most holy Hindu site on Bali’s tallest mountain. We packed the appropriate clothing, a sarong and sash for each of us, and decided motorbikes would be quicker and a lot more fun than navigating the mountain roads in Ketut’s car.

We strolled the grounds, climbing ever higher. Ketut told us that each Balinese clan has its own temple in the Besakih complex. He posed for his photo in front of the one dedicated to his, the Pande, who historically were metalworkers and were the only ones allowed to make the revered keris swords.

After riding motorbikes to Besakih, Susan was hooked. No more car trips for her!

We took roads less traveled, Susan rode with Ketut while I shot photos from the back of Wayan’s bike.

Mt. Agung presides over the landscape around Sidemen. As we tooled the zig-zagging switchbacks we stumbled upon Warung Uma Anyar. Imagine the thrill of sitting at the top of the world with paddies and palms unspooling below us. We had the place to ourselves while we munched roasted peanuts and krupuk, washing them down with steaming cups of Nescafe.

The morning before she was due to leave, Susan said, “I want one more motorbike adventure before I go back to real life.” Throughout the day I dropped little hints like: This IS real life. My life. You too could have this real life. I’m subtle like that.

But the best I could do for now was honor her wish for a last foray beyond the borders of Ubud.

There was a road going north that I’d never traveled. We set out early. Like Michele, Susan had the red-eye flight so there was plenty of time to squeeze in a final outing.

I’d Googled our route and discovered a landmark: Tukad Bangkung. It was touted as the longest and highest bridge in Bali. I have to admit to a bit of apprehension. I don’t like heights. But I love adventure and this was an area I hadn’t explored. I ignored the hint of nausea induced by the images and plunged ahead with our plans.

The weather was perfect. I marvelled at the exceptional condition of the roads and the tidiness of the towns we passed. Prosperity oozed from the surroundings and that isn’t often the case in rural areas.

As we neared our destination, images of the endless expanse of roadway perched on narrow concrete pillars that I’d pulled up from the internet swam through my head. Anxiety prickled. I hollered at Wayan’s helmet bobbing in front of me. “Let’s stop and take photos before we go across.”

A few minutes later, the bridge came into sight. She pulled off the highway and shot a you-don’t-fool-me look over her shoulder.

Ketut and Susan pulled in behind us. Lucky for me it was the perfect vantage point for photos. I could assess the situation before committing to it.

Ketut announced there were sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. “Maybe we walk across,” he said. I noted the neck-high iron fencing solid enough to stop a locomotive. My anxiety evaporated. This felt safe. Midway I took a shot straight down. It was, indeed, a very high bridge.

Ketut walked ahead, joking and laughing as only he can. Suddenly he was clinging to the side, leg up as if to climb over. “Too much stress!” he yelled.

He might have frightened us for a moment if he hadn’t been laughing so hard. No amount of telling him how NOT FUNNY that was could dampen his delight.

Once we’d made it to the middle, there seemed no need to continue to the opposite end. We’d reached the highest point and stared down, down, down, at the threadlike stream that was probably a roaring river when viewed from its banks.

I turned and caught Susan’s eye. “Let’s go home,” I said. “But first, one more photo.” Here they are. The road warriors, my travel buddies.

Later that evening Susan and I had a bite at Tutmak Restaurant while tapping our feet to the syncopated sounds of Siji Latin Band. “Bali has exceeded my expectations by 2000%,” she said, staring off into space, letting her words hang then drift away. I wondered what images were playing on the imaginary screen only she could see. What stories were running through her mind? Turning to me, she nodded and smiled, once again fully present. “But I think I’m ready to go home.”

New York, New York to California Dreaming and everything in-between!

The end of my U.S. visit approaches. I’m nursing a Cubano and munching almond biscotti at Soul Grind, a cool coffee shop atop the cliffs at Linda Mar Beach while Dan braves the 7:30 a.m. surf in the fog.

Why anyone would want to risk that cold, wild ocean to catch a wave for five seconds is beyond me. But he’s an early bird and I couldn’t resist the offer to hang out for a few hours in that artisan coffee shop while he matched wits with the Pacific.

But backing up…

I left Bali at 11:00 p.m. on August 29th and touched down in New York City 36 hours later. It’s a brutal flight that leaves me brain dead and thirteen time zones out of sync with my sleep patterns – not a good combo for meeting the high expectations of Hadley Sophia, my 3 ½ year old granddaughter, whose energy could power the whole of New York City, and seeing her new sister, Delaney Mae, for the first time.

For nine wild and wonderful days Joy, Kellen, Hadley and Delaney entertained me at their cabin in Pennsylvania. We watched deer munching in the lawn and eagles soaring over the lake while we contemplated new exterior paint colors for the house and garage.

The serenity of the setting brought balance to their insanely busy lives. Despite the fact that Joy was on maternity leave, she was in the throes of interviewing for a new job. During my stay she accepted an offer from a company headquartered in Paris. I was thrilled to be on hand to experience the beginning of this next chapter for their family.

Whoever gets me fresh off the plane from Bali gets a zombie with a defunct brain. It isn’t fair, but it’s the truth.

Jetlag subsided about the time I left New York.

I caught my Sun Country flight to Minnesota at Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey where my carry-on was thoroughly searched. The sketchy item turned out to be a bag of coffee beans from Tana Toraja, a mountainous region on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. In my opinion, Torajan coffee is the best in the world and I always try to bring some of those fragrant beans as gifts. I held my breath as the official scanned, sniffed, and swabbed the package. Finally, he allowed it through and I boarded the plane.

The flight to Minneapolis was memorable for two reasons: first, it was distressingly turbulent, and second, I sat beside a fascinating young man who plays flamenco guitar professionally and lives in Spain. He entertained me for three-and-a-half hours. Several times as he was describing the history of the dance he broke into song. Yes, right there on Sun Country Airlines in the midst of lurching, bucking, nausea-inducing turbulence, he sang to me!

My seatmate was also a skilled conversationalist – a rarity these days. In fact we became intimate old friends over those few hours together. Then, in spite of the ‘bumpy air,’ we landed safely. I raced off in one direction to collect my luggage and he disappeared in another. In minutes Jenny, my youngest daughter, pulled up at the curb and the second phase of my U.S. journey began.

She knows me! Our first outing was a nearby Mexican restaurant that featured – you guessed it – Nachos!

They were every bit as delicious as they looked.

Jenny and Kennen’s twins are twenty-two months old now and absolutely irresistible! They just started daycare and Jenny began a new job so this household, too, was in the midst of transition.

Rowan, left, and Remy, right, are identical yet their personalities are solely their own. For several days they burst into tears every time they saw me. But finally I was accepted. After that, if I wanted to solve a problem, Remy was my man on the scene. If in-depth conversation was called for, Rowan was quick to oblige. It’s fascinating how quickly my grandchildren became who they are. It took me sixty years and I’m still working on it!

For this photo the boys must have been sleeping. Jenny and Kennen grab every opportunity to chill out during naps for a few moments of ‘alone together’ time.

When I planned the trip to meet Delaney Mae during Joy’s maternity leave I didn’t know I’d be saying goodbye to Mom at the same time.

She was ninety-one and had been ready to join Dad since his passing three-and-a-half years ago. She’d continued to engage with the community at the assisted living facility where she had her own apartment, but old age regularly took her friends and she was tired of funerals. On August 9th, she died in her sleep.

My sister took care of our mother as she slowly lost the ability to drive, manage her own finances, and a million other details that required Gwen’s assistance. Now as she planned the memorial service, she assigned me only one job. I was to find the urn for Mom’s ashes. It gave me purpose. When I saw the cowrie-shell basket in one of my favorite shops in Ubud, I knew Mom would approve.

Gwen wanted an outdoor service on the banks of the Mississippi at a site about a quarter mile from the riverside home where we grew up. At first it sounded like a lovely idea. But as the date approached, I remembered September weather in Minnesota. It can snow. In my worst imaginings I saw us huddled under the pavilion with icy sleet blowing in our faces.

On the phone with my sister I ventured a tentative question, “Gwen, what’s plan B? I mean in case it storms?” With no hesitation whatsoever, she said, “No plan B. We’re at the river rain or shine.” She paused for a heartbeat then added, “The weather will be perfect.”

I experienced a moment of irritation. September. Minnesota. Outside. No plan B. But as quickly as it came, I let it go. Gwen was the one on the front lines. She was handling everything while I was still in Bali, and all she’d asked of me was to find the urn.

Of course the date came and it was a stellar, perfect Minnesota fall day. Somehow Gwen knew.

It was also one of the most overwhelming days of my life. At Dad’s service, Mom was front-and-center. She was the recipient of all the well-wishes, reminiscences, and tears. This time it was me, the eldest child, and it was wonderful. Old neighbors I hadn’t seen for 40 or 50 years came up to tell me how much they loved my mother. While I was hugging one guest I’d see the next familiar face approaching. Typically I avoid large crowds and prefer intimate gatherings. But that day I channeled my mother. She loved socializing and the bigger the group, the better.

Then it was over. I spent the night with Gwen at her home reading sympathy cards, remembering our shared childhood from our own unique perspectives.

The time in Minnesota evaporated, and once again I found myself on Sun Country, this time headed for California.

The trip south was smooth with no scintillating seatmates, just a quiet young man on my left reading Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, and a serious young woman on my right with a book entitled Strong Mothers, Strong Sons, by Meg Meeker. I was sandwiched between them for four hours and thirty minutes with nothing to read, nothing to watch, and nothing to eat on that bare-bones, economy flight. I had only a pad of paper and a pen. So I wrote.

Jessa, my oldest daughter, and her partner Dan, met me at the airport. They also know what I like and a quick stop at El Gran Amigo restaurant produced dinner: take-out nachos! (Plus a burrito, refried beans, guacamole, wine and salsa.)

There are many languages but good food communicates love more clearly than words. When a meal is purposely served because it’s known to be one’s favorite, the heart is nourished along with the body.

Since my arrival, Jessa, Dan, and I have hiked miles of frothy coastline, rested on white sand beaches, marveled at circling hawks, and driven on roads through eucalyptus-scented mountains. We had devilishly decadent ice cream doused with TCHO chocolate in Golden Gate Park after an exceptional dinner purchased from The Breads of India food truck and eaten on a park bench.

I’ve taken hundreds of photos as they’ve introduced me to Linda Mar Beach, Big Beach, Bean Hollow, Maverick Beach, Little Beach, Pescadero Beach, Montara Beach. I know I’ve forgotten some. Each was more breathtaking than the one before it. I’ve been saturated with beauty.

Today there’s down time. A little while ago, I sent Ketut a photo of Jessa and Dan’s patio.

He responded by snapping a picture of my garden in Bali.

Ketut wrote on the photo: Here this morning a little rain only one time.

And suddenly I’m lonesome.

I’m a traveler and a homebody, a mother who is no longer a daughter. I’ve loved seeing family and getting a close-up glimpse into their busy lives. I miss them when we’re apart and I’ve started planning the next visit. But I have a different life on the other side of the world that I can only silence for a while and it’s beginning to whisper me home.

Lost: One Castle

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Image result for Bapak Agung Rai

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!

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.

The Momentum of Intention and the Healing Power of Ritual

P1110803Today I did something I’ve never done. It felt important to remember Dad in a special way on Fathers Day. In America that falls on Sunday, June 19th.

When the idea dawned to assemble mementos, the 19th was still two days away. As I went about the normal routine ideas floated to consciousness: Dad loved to play Texas Mean! I’ll find the game and set it up. What were his favorite foods? He liked hot stuff, chilies! And raisin pie, and, oh! Flowers!

I fell asleep anticipating Fathers Day morning but awakened at 2:04 a.m. Where was that photo of him that I brought back with me from the States? As I was scouring my brain trying to place it I fell asleep only to awaken again at 4:18. His purple heart and dog tags! Those must be displayed, and pictures of our family…I dropped back into sleep. At 6:00 a sunrise befitting the magnitude of the day summoned me. I scrambled out of bed for the camera and captured a stunning sky.

Still in pajamas, I set about looking for his photo. It wasn’t in any of the expected places, but in the process of the hunt I found others. Perfect! While unearthing the Texas Mean game from its place in the cupboard a collection of old calendars caught my eye. Inserted between March and April, 2015, was my handsome Dad on his wedding day. Beside it was the program from his funeral. Did I want that reminder? It took a few minutes to sort through how I felt. Then one line caught me eye: Died January 29, 2016. Yes, his death was a fact of his life.

As I assembled the keepsakes, a carved Buddha head on the wall just above the display felt off. The eyes, locked into an unwavering stare, didn’t fit. In my scarf drawer was a black loosely-woven shawl. I draped it over Buddha’s head so just the shadow of a face could be seen. That was the missing piece. It represented the veil of sadness and loss that today I’m allowing myself to feel. Then the tears came.

A time-out to shower and dress restored my composure. Barefoot, I walked outside, down the stairs, and into the garden breathing the moisture and aromas of breakfast being cooked. I sensed Dad’s presence with me. He loved gardens! Damp and cool underfoot, a slow amble around the perimeter produced yellow, purple, and hot pink blooms. I’d just added two green chilies to the mix when Ketut appeared.

“Ya, good morning. What are you doing?”

“I’m preparing a ceremony for my father.”

His face lit up. “One years, same as Hindu?”

“No, it’s six months since he died. But in America this is a special day for fathers.”

“I will bring offering,” he said. A few minutes later he returned with two palm leaf creations filled with the appropriate grains of rice, flowers, and mossy bits that appear everywhere on ceremonial days in Bali. I asked if it was okay to put raisins, the chilies, and a sweet biscuit on top. He assured me that this is how it should be.

All in readiness, I lit a candle and incense.

The raspy voice of Johnny Cash came to life on the computer: I Walk the Line. It was a song we loved to sing. While it played I made coffee, one for Dad, one for me, and we had our time together.

Underlying the sadness was intense joy filled with loving energy both his and mine. From the moment of intention, my subconscious mind had spun the story. When it was time to bring the idea to fruition, all the needed elements were there for creating an altar of memories.

Ritual is healing. I’ve heard that but I didn’t really understand. Now I get it. It can’t just be a concept. It has to be performed. I’m grateful that I took the time, made the effort, and followed the subtle promptings of my heart.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad, and all my love…always…

Sherry

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A Fathers Day Farewell

Sherry and Dad on guitarDad died in January. It’s my first Father’s Day in sixty-six years without him. I don’t know how to be with that truth. He was the most important person in my life. I was alone with him, holding his hand, when he took his final breath.

The last years weren’t easy for him. I was glad when he shed the troubles of his worn out body and escaped to wherever kind, hard-working, beloved men go. His presence hasn’t left me. He’s the blue butterfly that flutters around the bougainvillea and threads in and out of my house. We commune in a language free of words.

But when I saw an ad for Father’s Day, my heart lurched with pain, searing, immediate, deep. I was bereft knowing that this year I would not scan Amazon for a book with pictures of Norway, or stories about boyhood in the Midwest to send to him. When Dad stopped reading I knew his life-force was weak. He loved to read. When he was no longer interested in food, I mentally prepared for the inevitable. When the message reached me that he was failing, I took the next plane.

How will I navigate Father’s Day without him? I need a plan, a ritual, something that will not allow the day to pass like any other day. Perhaps….

…I’ll gather flowers. Dad loved them and taught me their names: bloodroot, honeysuckle, clover, buttercup, lady slipper, goldenrod, and many more. I followed his footsteps through fields of alfalfa bordered by marshy swamps as he pointed them out. None of those exist in this tropical climate, but Dad won’t care if it’s frangipani and heliconia instead.

I’ll listen to some old Johnny Cash tunes, maybe strum a few lines of Down in the Valley. Dad loved to sing and play guitar and he taught me the chords. We spent hundreds of hours playing and singing together.

And because this is Bali and offerings are an integral part of every-day life, I’ll prepare one for the ancestral spirit that is now my Dad. It will have raisins, chocolate-covered cherries, and the hottest chilies I can find. He’s the only Norwegian I’ve known who popped them in his mouth like candy, grinned with sweat beading on his brow, and asked for more.

Then I’ll play the video Jessa made with the song she sang at the funeral while her partner, Dan, accompanied her on Dad’s old guitar and I’ll cry. Of course I will. There have only been a few tears so far, but I’m ready. They’re stored up behind my eyes like a pressure in my skull that reaches all the way to my heart. And it will be the first time in many years that I’ll be with my Dad on Father’s Day.

Background song: Fall Down as the Rain written by Joe Crookston. Guitar by Dan Gaustad and vocals by Jessa Walters and Dan Gaustad.

SOLAR ECLIPSE: Compelled toward CHOICE

solar eclipse embodiedA Solar Eclipse happens the morning of March 9th, 2016. Energetically this is a moment of profound choice that will deeply affect your fate for the next 19 years.

When I read that statement, my body tingled and sprouted goosebumps.

The event is the equivalent of a monumental power surge supporting transitions. Actually, forcing is the better word. In this crucible of opportunity we are forced to choose only one specific and critically important area of focus in order to make use of the energy.

In recent months I’ve felt a minor irritation, like a wasp circling my head, not too close but close enough that I can’t fully relax into my life. I’ve noticed uncertainties toward specific writing goals and family relationships. The questions spin through my mind, searching but finding no answers.

In the past, these sensations have preceded major adjustments to the status quo. Evolution cannot remain static. It’s essential to listen to the sounds pounding in the psyche, the discomforts rattling through the nervous system calling attention to the need for change. On one hand, the past offers a familiar path, the karmic conditions that dictated what life looked like before. Slipping into old patterns is tempting. But ahead, in the strange mystery of the future lies limitless growth. It challenges everything and promises only to pay your experiences forward with wisdom and empathy.

solar eclipse islandMarch 9th is also Nyepi, the Balinese New Years Day. It follows a night of chaotic wildness as dark spirits are driven out and the island experiences a re-set of benign peace. The eclipse and Nyepi taken together are formidable in their potential for effecting transformation.

It’s entirely probable that this supercharged moment provides the ideal frequency to connect with life’s purpose and core soul unity, part of the answer to Why Am I Here.

On the morning of March 9th as the sun disappears and utter quiet reigns over the island, planes grounded, the airport closed, people confined to their homes for silent meditation and reflection, I’ll sit in waiting, acknowledging the power of wounds, empty spaces and the sacred darkness, refusing to re-live those wounds or identify with them. But as I sit, will I contract with the universe to discard karmic patterns and re-assert my agency in the process of consciously driven evolution? Will I re-examine my belief systems, questioning roles, rules, and narratives I have held as sacred, unquestionable, or absolute? Will I release and walk away from anyone or anything that isn’t on my energetic wavelength? Will I trust my intuition, gut instincts, imagination and dreams?

Will I resolve to do only what is mine to do?

I’m excited and more than a little apprehensive. I’ve enjoyed four years of deep healing and explosive joy, unequaled by anything in my former life. It’s been a time of sacred idleness, a holy reprieve and I sense the chapter ahead will stretch me. On March 9th I’ll seal my fate for the next nineteen years. Will I lean into the unknown, embrace fears and plunge headlong into the vortex of change? Or will I stagnate, immobilized by the immensity of my own power to choose?

 

Credits:  Quoted text from an article, The Eclipse – Another Roll of the Dice, by Lorna Bevan

Image #1  –  http://www.globallightminds.com

Image #2  –  Holly Sierra, American Magical Realism Painter

 

 

THE LONELINESS DEBATE

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Lonesome. Lonely. What’s the difference?

My Aussie and British friends say there’s no difference. If you’re lonesome then, by default, you’re lonely. I disagree.  I’ve not once been lonely since I arrived in Bali early in 2012. I do, however, from time to time miss my daughters and other family members back in the USA. A wave of lonesome washes over me. Then Ketut appears, or Wayan, or Nina, or any of a vast assortment of Balinese and expat friends and the moment passes.

It hasn’t always been like this. I know how lonely feels and for years I avoided being alone even though some of the loneliest times of my life were with mismatched others.

In this communal culture I have to work hard to be lonely, or even to be alone. Today is Kuningan, the end of the twice yearly, ten day celebration dedicated to ancestral spirits. At 9:00 a.m. Ketut appears in his sarong with food offerings. Bananas, snakefruit, peanuts, various kinds of Balinese home-made sweet treats, rice, a sugary milk drink in a small bottle, are heaped on a palm leaf plate and placed on my kitchen cooktop for those spirits.

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P1110084 He lights incense and prays for the blessings of the ancestors, abundance, safety, good health, long life.

Two round bamboo talismans secured to my terrace will ward off negative spirit energy. For the prior nine days these symbols have been rectangular in shape. Today they’re replaced by round ones, a significant difference indicating completion, fulfillment, and the circular nature of life.

Prayers and offerings complete, we chat briefly and Ketut leaves.

Fifteen minutes later he’s back with a morning treat. One item on the plate is a mysterious concoction of chocolate, rice flour, palm sugar, banana, all mashed together, wrapped in a palm leaf, and formed into a Balinese tootsie-roll! Yum!

I’m snacking when Ketut pops in again…

That’s what I mean. With these pop-ins there’s always laughter. Either I’m trying to convince the hard-headed Leo of something that he’s dead-set against, smiling at me as he disagrees, or he’s cracking a joke.

A neighbor stops by in full Kuningan regalia, sarong, kebaya, Mona Lisa, for a quick hello. About that time my phone sings the message jingle and another neighbor wants to come for an afternoon chat. Every day is some variation on this theme.

Of course the sheer number of interactions per day doesn’t guarantee anything. But that isn’t the question posed here.

So tell me please, who’s right? Is there a distinct difference between lonesome and lonely, or is it just one of those cultural misunderstandings that American English has with the Queen’s English and we’re both right in our own obstinate ways?

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