Revising My Blob-ish Lifestyle

Before Covid, I had destinations. I walked.

In early Covid days, with Bali completely locked down, I did qigong, yoga, and surfed the net for workouts. I had to keep my body moving to manage the trauma. I couldn’t concentrate. The only thing I could focus on was movement.

That lasted about two months. Then I started writing again – and sat.

I sat through the last six months of 2020 and the first six months of 2021. Here we are in July and I’m a blob. Granted I’m a flexible, strong blob thanks to my continued dedication to yoga, But even though I haven’t gained weight, my flesh has settled into a new arrangement. I’m totally shapeless from my sagging seventy-one-year-old boobs to my flat buttocks.

It’s not that I can’t hit the pavement and hike around Ubud. I don’t have to battle tourists. There’s no traffic. The air is unpolluted. But I’m not one of those who can walk aimlessly just for the sake of walking. I need a purpose – a goal.

Without somewhere to walk to, I can’t make myself do it.

A week ago, as I was staring off into a sky puffed with cottonball clouds, I heard a sound that has become so familiar over the years it’s part of the morning music. My neighbor was jumping rope. He’s as faithful to his routine as I am to yoga, but that’s where all similarity ends. He’s ripped. His calves are knotted with muscle and there’s not an ounce of unnecessary flesh anywhere. Okay, he’s fifty, and he’s been doing this forever. But the light went on for me as his rope slapped the floor.

Faster than you can say Amazon, I was online with the Indonesian counterpart to that mega-store searching for jump ropes. There were choices. Some were plastic tubes with flashing lights. Others came in glow-in-the-dark colors. I settled on utilitarian black with ball-bearings in the handles, guaranteed to make the rope turn with a mere flick of the wrists. I put it in my cart and clicked the buy button. A message flashed on the screen. You need two more items. I puzzled over that for half a second. The rope probably didn’t cost enough to warrant shipping. It was about $5.

There isn’t an English language option on this site so rather than confuse myself, I added two more jump ropes to my basket. This time the order went through. Delivery July 6th.

They arrived yesterday, July 1st. I love that about Lazada – they under-represent and over-perform.

The ropes were long enough to accommodate an eight-foot supermodel, but they were adjustable. I spent the afternoon customizing one of them to my 5′ 2″ height, then tucked it beside my workout clothes and promised myself I’d start tomorrow.

Tomorrow arrived this morning.

My neighbor jumps non-stop for an hour. I decided I would set the timer for two minutes jumping, one minute resting, two minutes jumping etc. A nice, easy start. I spread my mat on the terrace, set the timer, and assumed position. Jumpjumpjumpjump – too fast.

I stopped, reset the timer, and started again. Jump…jump…jump…jump… Still too fast. One more reset. Jump………..jump……….jump……….

Heart pounding, I sat down to rest and revise my expectations.

After numerous stumbles and fumbled starts, I found a combination that worked – jump for thirty seconds and rest for 60. I kept that up as long as I could which today was about 15 minutes.

What a workout. I had no idea. And I also had no idea how little stamina I have. This rope has arrived just in time.

I’m not discouraged. It’s the kind of challenge that excites me. I don’t have to meet my neighbor’s level of endurance. OMG. Never in a million years! But I can and will keep at it until I can do two minutes non-stop without going into cardiac arrest.

There seems to be an added benefit. After that brief but intense exercise, the rest of the day I’ve been supercharged with energy and my mood is elevated in spite of the news that Bali is going into another lockdown July 3rd. The Delta variant has reached us and numbers of new cases have spiked from weeks of double digits to 311 today. That’s heartbreaking for the struggling economy and the millions out of work.

But the sad reality is, lockdown doesn’t actually change much of anything for me except physically meeting up with a friend in an outdoor restaurant. As of tomorrow, restaurants close to all but pick-up and delivery orders. Seventeen months later we’re back to square one. But I’ll tell you what… When this is over I’ll have the endurance of an ostrich.

**The ostrich runs at 30 miles per hour and has the endurance to keep it up for hours on end, thanks to their remarkable anatomy that minimizes effort while running. Having evolved on the plains of Africa, they are well-accustomed to the heat as well.

That Miserably-Addictive Chemical-Laden Seductive Killer

I awoke feeling virtuous.

Yesterday I walked the Campuhan Ridge at midday, a sweaty mile of uphill exertion and epic beauty. It was a solitary endeavor – a chance to collect my thoughts, commune with nature, and see if my post-lockdown body could still do it.

There were changes. In places the jungle encroached, overhanging the path with a dark quiet that spoke of slithery things hiding in its depths. A giant swing that had once enticed Instagram photos was gone and with it the man selling beverages and snacks. But most noteworthy was the absence of hikers. I passed a tall blond woman, and later two Indonesian women, the only humans besides me on the trail at eleven-thirty that morning.

Cloudless skies overhead, full equatorial sunshine, and a steady incline ensured an intense aerobic workout. The reward at the end of the climb kept me going. Karsa Kafe – the second floor seating overlooking swathes of green paddies – a haven of repose.

I arrived and settled in. The ever-present breeze licked away perspiration. Far in the distance, hazy purple mountains stood sentinel, their peaks ringed with clouds. All was as it should be – all except the emptiness. I was it, the sole patron of those glorious surroundings.

For two-and-a-half hours I drank in the peace – and the beer – undisturbed. A giant plate of crisp, sweet-potato fries fortified me while I let the frustrations and stresses of an unknown future slide off into the fields.

When my phone rang, I answered it. There was no one to disturb. Jessa, my oldest, was calling to congratulate me on getting vaccinated, the first long-awaited jab.

“When will you get your second dose, Mom?”

“It’s scheduled for August 20th.”

“Three months? That means you’ll come in September?”

It felt odd to make a plan after ages of uncertainty. Dare I hope? Could I be reunited with children and grandchildren as early as September? It felt surreal, intoxicating yet suspicious, like a gold-wrapped gift had been placed in front of me but would be snatched away the moment I reached for it. And yet, my optimistic nature overruled and I strategized whole-heartedly with her, stuffing doubt into a cramped corner with fear and worry.

High on hope, cooled and refreshed, I trotted the downhill path back home.

That’s why this morning I awoke feeling virtuous – all that great exercise – I deserved a treat. And what could be more delicious to kick-start the day than a steaming cup of 3-in-1 Nescafe?

I don’t drink coffee anymore. It wreaks havoc with my nervous system and my sleep. I weaned myself off by substituting ginger tea. I blend raw ginger root with a little water, squish it through a strainer, and store it in the refrigerator. One tablespoon of concentrated raw ginger juice mixed with steaming hot water lights my mouth on fire and curbs the craving for anything else.

Except Nescafe.

So I limit my intake of that miserably-addictive, chemical-laden killer to special occasions.

Like this morning.

I savored the aroma, salivated, nested the hot cup in my hands and sipped.

Bliss!

When the refined white sugar, glucose syrup, hardened palm oil, caramelized sugar, maltodextrin, mystery stabilizers, milk proteins, salt, emulsifier, instant coffee, and natural and artificial flavorings kicked in, which took all of about three minutes, a sense of magnanimous well-being settled over me. Anything seemed possible – even a trip to the States in September. Especially a trip to the States in September.

Five minutes later, the many forms of sugar I’d just ingested slammed my bloodstream with a megablast of energy. Luck was with me. Multiple pieces of furniture in various stages of refinishing waited on the terrace.

Ketut did the bulk of the work but he’d gone home for a few days. Within seconds I was armed with 1000 grit sandpaper, vigorously skimming the varnished surfaces until they shimmered silken-smooth to the touch.

Moving my body eased the hyped-up edginess.

But I know this story.

The rest of the day I’ll be aware of the low buzz. My limbs will tingle – not altogether pleasantly. And if I allow it, low-level anxiety will haunt me. By bedtime I’ll be tired but chances are I’ll sleep fitfully, if at all.

Is it worth it, that seductive killer cup?

Once every month or two?

You’d better believe it is!

Please don’t ever let this become ordinary

You know how things that once amazed and delighted you fade to ordinary over time? It happens with just about everything: jobs, clothing, marriage.

When I moved to Bali, I remember sucking in fragrant, moisture-laden air, staring enraptured into bottomless ravines, tasting foods that exploded with heat and thinking, “Please don’t let me ever take this for granted.” I’ve gotten comfortable here, but I’ve never lost the tingle of delight at the scents, the landscapes, and the bursts of fire on my tongue.

Early on, I learned to ask for “Not spicy, please,” whenever I ordered Balinese fare. There’s one memorable eating adventure that still makes me giggle. I’d pointed to the word Rujak on the menu and asked the server what it was.

“Fruit salad,” she replied.

“Safe,” I thought. Little did I know the sweet papaya, pineapple, banana, and watermelon would be served drowned in a dressing heavily laced with cayenne pepper!

I’ll admit, though, there is one thing that did fade over time.

I was curious about the whistling I heard daily. It wasn’t raspy, electrical-wire-humming sound that cicadas make. This was pure, melodious, and it went on continuously for around thirty minutes every morning. One day I was having coffee with my neighbor and there it was. The whistling.

“What makes that sound?” I asked.

“What sound?” It had faded into background noise for her.

“The whistling,” I said.

“Oh, that. It’s just birds.”

Whistling birds circling over my Bali garden

I accepted her explanation and thought little more about it. Nine years later, I sat down to lunch with an expat friend who had lived in Asia most of her adult life. I’d watched the birds circling and whistling that morning and was mesmerized anew by their disciplined flight pattern and ceaseless sound. Once again, I wondered what kind of bird it was. No amount of Google searching on my part had turned up any evidence. She answered immediately.

“They’re a kind of pigeon – like homing pigeons. They’re trained to fly in circles.” I quizzed her for more but she shrugged and said that was all she knew.

Later that afternoon, I refined my Google search and this time hit pay dirt. It was one of those mind blowing moments of discovery.

Wikipedia told me that whistling pigeons have been used in China since at least the Ching Dynasty (1644 – 1912) and are also popular in Japan and Indonesia. But wonder of wonders, the birds aren’t born whistling. Tiny, lightweight whistles, painstakingly carved, are sewn into their tail feathers. The sound changes with the speed and direction of flight.

Photos from China Today

I was instantly obsessed and had to learn more. Who makes the whistles? How are the birds trained? This video answered all of those questions and several others I hadn’t thought to ask.

It seemed the flock that circled my garden was the only one of its kind in town. Over the past year of lockdown however, with time on their hands, it sounds like others may have gotten into whistle carving and pigeon training. Now there’s a new school that circles high over my back garden as well. (Pigeons. A band, dropping, flight, kit, loft, passel, plague, school – notice I resisted using plague for obvious reasons!)

The practice in China has diminished due to increasing urbanisation and regulation. I understand why. It’s a noisy hobby.

Ubud is more laid-back. People here can raise anything they want. Across the street from me in the town’s center, a family keeps chickens in makeshift coops on their flat rooftop. When the humidity is high and the wind is right, I’m keenly aware of the pig farm a block away.

It’s the complexity. The element of surprise. The strict rituals of Bali Hinduism nudged up against the relaxed approach to the rest of life that keeps amazement and delight alive in me. There will always be a mind-blowing vista to discover, a suspicious cuisine to sample, a new perspective on an old idea to explore.

Ordinary? I should say not. Extraordinary? Absolutely – like falling in love again with each sunrise.

Adventure! Following the FBI in Bali

One of the first Indonesian words I learned was petualangan. Trying to wrap my Midwestern American tongue around that one was a challenge. But so worth it. Petualangan means adventure.

I woke up this morning with itchy feet. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the UNESCO rice terraces of Jatiluwih and they were calling. At 7:30, Ketut popped his head around the corner of the veranda where I was journaling. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and when he asked if I had a plan today, which he always does, I said yes, adventure.

“Where?”

“Jatiluwih. Okay with you?

“Ya! What time?

“9:00.”

“Good.”

It was a glorious morning, sunny with breezes. A quick check of the weather app showed a high of 77°F (25°C) in the mountains where we were headed. This would be a much shorter journey than the ridiculous 12-hour bike ride that left me feeling every one of my golden years for weeks afterward. I estimated one hour thirty minutes to get there and a quicker trip coming home, downhill all the way.

As soon as we left Ubud, the landscape opened. I sucked in lungs full of farm-scented air (through my mask, of course) and shed the cloud of gloom that’s enveloped the town since lockdown, March 2020.

It’s impossible not to feel a surge of joyous abandon when flying through the coutryside on the back of Ketut’s motorbike. The wind in my face, the congenial chatter, the comaraderie, the laughter – it’s a higher high than any drug or drink could possibly achieve.

Soon the road narrowed and we began to climb.

First we passed this guy.

Then we followed this guy.

It probably says something obscene below the big letters. I couldn’t make it out. If you can, and it does, don’t think poorly of me. I captured the photo on the fly and it was too good to pass up.

I wanted to have this adventure during Galungan. For ten days every six months, the ancestors return from the spirit world to visit their villages. As if by magic, streets transform overnight and elegant penjors arch and sway gracefully overhead.

Each town has its own style. You can tell how well-off the village is by the grandeur of the penjors.

The moment I set foot on this island, the profusion of artistic detail amazed me. From temples, to ogoh-ogohs, to the massive bulls and cremation towers that carry the deceased to their final farewell, the creative wizardry of the Balinese people is astounding.

And then…

What is it about rice terraces that unravels me? It’s been that way since my first trip to Bali in 2010. The guide stopped the car and said to walk around the curve and maybe I would like to take photos. Around that curve was the most jaw-dropping view I’d ever seen. Sunlight glittered on hundreds of pools of freshly planted paddies cascading down the mountainsides. I clutched my throat so my heart couldn’t escape, then burst into tears.

Today I didn’t cry, but reverent awe is always there.

At approximately thirty minutes in, our walk came to an abrupt halt. Heavy rains had washed out the land beneath the trail. The concrete path was broken and hung precariously over the abyss.

“What do you think, Ketut? Shall we try?”

He looked at me like I had two heads. “Maybe never come back,” he said.

“Good point. Let’s go eat lunch.”

By the time we’d hiked the thirty-minute return, starvation was setting in. My mouth watered thinking of the overflowing buffet at Billy’s Cafe. As soon as we entered, I realized that was a pre-covid memory. There was no buffet. There were no patrons. The menu had shrunk to a single, laminated sheet, drinks on one side, food on the other. But the view remained.

We ordered and chatted, ate and chatted, sat enjoying the perfect weather, the idyllic view, and the empty restaurant – and chatted – for hours. Bliss.

There isn’t much I enjoy more than lingering over a meal in the company of a good friend. But shadows were growing longer. It was time to go.

My favorite photo of today’s grand adventure is this one. Three Indonesian flags, whipping in the wind atop needle-thin poles marked the beginning, or from this perspective the end of the path through the terraces. Gratitude welled up within me for this country that has been home for the past nine years. I’ve been treated with utmost kindness. I never realized how much I needed that.

As I stood rapt, gazing upward, I could almost hear the national anthem of Indonesia. It’s blared from loudspeakers every Independence Day but I’ve never known the lyrics. Today I looked them up. The last stanza speaks my heart’s wish:

Let us pray

For Indonesia’s prosperity:

May her soil be fertile

And spirited

The nation and all the people.

Conscious be her heart

And her mind

For Indonesia the Great.

Now I’m curled in my comfy cushions at home, relaxed, rejuvenated, nurtured, and at peace. What a perfect day and a magnificent adventure. Thank you, Ketut.

‘Go Outside and Play’ – My Conflicted Relationship with Fun

The message I got growing up was that play was something you were told to do when an adult wanted you out of the way, out of sight, out of the house. You were no longer useful, your chores were finished, now you were a bother so, “Go outside and play.”

Was that part of your childhood? Do you remember the tone of voice that delivered that command? It had a sharp, brittle edge. I knew it wasn’t negotiable. I couldn’t counter with, “Could I just watch TV…?”

No.

Mom was clearing her space of ‘kid energy’ and the only acceptable response was her view of my backside going out the door.

As an adult, I’ve tried to define what play means for me. The closest I can get is this: a non-work-related pastime that is supposed to be enjoyed. But I confess, I find more pleasure in work than I do in play. Work is productive, challenging, and it feels like I’ve accomplished something. It moves me toward a goal.

And yet, I know play is important, especially under the current circumstances. Something that releases endorphins, eases the pressure valve, and lets steam escape is essential to both physical and mental health.

Endorphins can make you feel more positive and energize your outlook, and may even help to block sources of pain in your everyday life. They even improve immune response and reduce stress. Through vigorous, active play, then, you can boost your self-esteem and even trigger a euphoric outlook on life, says Darryl Edwards of London.

A euphoric outlook on life…really?

Three things qualify as fun for me:

  • Going out to eat with friends
  • A motorbike adventure
  • Reading

All three involve leaving, either physically or mentally. I wonder if there’s any connection with that childhood demand: Go……..play.

So let’s just be up-front about this and say it like it is: I have a conflicted relationship with play. If someone asks, “What do you do for fun?” I’m tempted to lie. I mean, it sounds so lame. “I go out to eat or…sometimes I take a ride and…of course I read…”

So today I needed a sprinkle of that euphoric outlook because there isn’t a lot of endorphin-releasing activity going on in the world right now.

I read yesterday.

I ate out the day before.

A quick check of the weather app predicted a window of fair skies opening between eleven a.m. and two p.m. On Ketut’s motorbike, we could get to the fishing village of Lebih for a dose of ocean and salt air and be home long before the rain. I already felt more positive and energized.

I corralled Ketut. In no time we were on our way! Click here.

There isn’t a beach at Lebih. The coastline is a tumble of black volcanic rock that reduces the breakers to a frothy foam.

Special offerings and children in temple clothes dotted the coastline. Today is Tilem – the day of the new moon, or dark moon as it is poetically called in Bali.

We strolled the beach. Click here to come along.

It doesn’t take long to see the length and breadth of Lebih and I was getting hungry. “What do you think, Ketut? Shall we eat here or stop at Janggar Ulam on the way home?” I shouldn’t have to ask. Janggar Ulam is his favorite restaurant.

I, too, used to love the place, but not for the same reason. Ketut liked the food. I, on the other hand, was captivated by the vast expanse of rice fields bordering the restaurant. They seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance. The restaurant itself occupied a large portion of real estate. There was elbow room, privacy, and always cool breezes off the paddies.

Then they built the wall.

A developer with a vision for a hotel marked his territory by erecting a cement block barrier between the restaurant and the paddy. The view was ruined, the breeze stifled, the ambiance destroyed.

I’m not sure why I suggested going there today. Actually, I know exactly why I suggested it. I am so grateful to have Ketut in my life. A view doesn’t matter to him, but food does. And he matters to me.

We took a different way back from Lebih. As we passed through Gianyar Ketut shouted, “Penjors!” The new streetlamps look exactly like the elegant totems that appear during Galungan every six months. Gorgeous!

Streetlamp Penjors in Gianyar
Real penjors on Jl. Gautama in Ubud

When we pulled into the parking lot at Janggur Ulam, it held one motorbike. Pre-covid it would have been full. We entered the grounds through a brick archway and I gasped. It had been transformed.

Now the view was centered inward on lotus pools and fish ponds. The wall had been treated with a screen of greenery and Janggar Ulam had added artistic tiles to mask the stern, Eastern bloc look of naked cement. I stared, my jaw gaping, enchanted. Nobody saw my open mouth since I was fully masked. Sometimes it’s a blessing!

Ketut ordered his usual fried chicken and fresh sambal with a mountain of rice. I tried their vegetable stir-fry, hoping for the best. Our meals arrived and mine looked suspiciously like spinach soup. I’m still not impresssed with the food. Ketut was happy.

Then just as we climbed on the motorbike for the last leg of the journey home…

Rain.

I played today. I had fun. For a little while I forgot about corona, sedition, impeachment, Amendment 25, and a United States of America that’s gone off the rails. I can’t say it’s given me a euphoric outlook on life. I remembered all those things as soon as my helmet was off and stowed in the cupboard at home. But for a few hours I was ridiculously happy.

Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you look back (at 2020)

It’s almost in the rearview mirror – this never-to-be-forgotten year. Even though turning over the date on the calendar won’t change reality, there’s something about ditching the double 2-0 that feels hopeful.

I’m not setting out to bash what we’ve gone through the last ten plus months. A microscopic virus has accomplished what monarchs, armies, and governments never could. Overnight it brought life as we knew it to a screeching halt.

I want to acknowledge and honor the significance of all of it. Once. Then it’s face forward utilizing what I’ve learned in preparation for a very different future.

So what were my lessons of 2020?

Number one with fifty exclamation points:

I need people

Boy, oh boy! Do I need people! A deep-seated belief that I’m a loner, perfectly happy to entertain myself for days on end, ended when that became my reality. But it’s not just people. It’s friends who care, who are committed to being there for each other – give-and-receive relationships that spring from the heart and don’t disappear when times get tough. Living alone with neither a partner nor pets, these friendship connections have kept me sane.

Number two could be listed shoulder-to-shoulder with number one, it’s that important:

I need ritual

I have to know there’s something to wake up for, something to occupy the beginning hours of the day. Fortunately, that routine was already in place, it just became longer, and vital. First, I journal with coffee. When I realized coffee was adding nervous energy that exacerbated anxiety I switched to ginger tea. Journaling finished, I do a yoga workout to hypnotizing hang drum music. After that, relaxed and soothed, I sit in meditation. By then I’m starving and ready to mindfully savor every bite of breakfast.

I need to move my body

Yoga’s great, but a walk gets me out of the house and out of my head into the empty sidewalks of Ubud. Sometimes I stop at Circle K even though I don’t really need anything, just to say a few words to another human. Sometimes it’s the library. The disorganized shelves of used books for sale are like hunting for treasure in a sea of trashy romance, but it passes time.

I need sunshine’s vitamin D

Rainy season came and cloudy days along with it. I wasn’t getting out as much and my thoughts grew steadily darker. It dawned on me one bright morning that I no doubt lacked vitamin D, a mood elevator delivered naturally via sunshine. I was out the door in a hot minute. That day I walked four miles and felt almost euphoric. Now I’m more cognizant of the shift toward depression and avail myself of stabilizing sunlight whenever that golden ball appears. It works like magic.

I need purpose

This one’s tricky. From my arrival in Bali in March 2012, until I returned from Italy in March 2020 and found the island in lockdown, my purpose and single-minded focus was writing. I wrote two novels, a memoir, poetry, this blog, and an occasional short story. My entire life centered around writing and writers’ groups. Literally, overnight all desire to write vanished. I’m still trying to figure out why. But whatever motivated me prior to Covid was suddenly as utterly absent as my non-existent sex drive. Months passed and I regularly engaged in other projects, cooking projects, sewing projects, puzzles, and a plastic-bag-flag project. But I’ve found nothing to replace the all-consuming passion I once had for writing.

I need adventure

Perhaps some people get their excitement fix from movies or TV. I’ve never developed the habit. For me, it has to be an embodied experience. Go there, do that! But in my Covid-altered state, I forgot that I could jump on the back of Ketut’s motorbike and take off for favorite haunts or discover new ones. Even a bike tour of the backroads surrounding Ubud is adventure enough to scratch that itch for days. Now that I’ve remembered what pure joy it is to ride, it’s become part of the survival plan.

I need hope

We all need hope – a belief that 2021 will be better. But I’ve let go of the fantasy that there will be a return to what was. After flailing about for the first few months of the pandemic it began to sink in how destructive and broken the old ways were. Some were already obvious. Others have come boldly to the forefront to blatantly challenge history as contrived by and for the privileged few. In spite of the chaos, loss, and irreversible damage, Covid has pushed a massive reset button. For that, I am deeply and truly grateful.

Tomorrow is the 31st here in Bali. Fireworks and parties are banned and I can’t say I’m sorry. On this night in the past, Ubud has sounded like a war zone until three or four a.m. Instead of tossing sleeplessly for hours, tomorrow, in the silence, I’ll pay my respects to 2020 for the things it’s taught me. Then I’ll burn the calendar – a letting-go ritual signifying endings. I’ll bring out the fresh, new one with the number prominently displayed at the top. 2021. I’ll crank up the music to that iconic song from the Broadway play, Hair, This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Age of Aquarius…

and I’ll dance.

Bali Beaches and an Un-Planned Christmas

I’m sold on the un-planned Christmas.

I told people I wasn’t doing anything. Wasn’t going anywhere. Would stay home and think happy thoughts and that was absolutely my intention. Then a get-together scheduled for December 21st had to be moved. How about the morning of the 24th? Christmas Eve Day? Does that work?

Well..I wasnt’ going to…but…sure. That works.

It turned into a psuedo white-elephant-gift-exchange, great coffee, and lots of laughs. Santa appeared out of nowhere, and carols played non-stop.

Warm and fuzzy inside I walked home with a gentle breeze cooling my face – one of Bali’s stellar-weather days – glad that I’d had Christmas Eve morning with good friends.

I’d barely gotten inside the house when my phone beeped a Whatsapp message. It was my neighbor next door inviting me to an impromptu lunch – if I didn’t already have plans for Christmas tomorrow. The complexion of my solitary holiday was changing fast.

I’d love to!

The high-octane energy of a family with a young child is a whole different ball game from the gray-haired gatherings I’m used to. But who can resist a five-year-old dynamo on pink roller skates?

We were well entertained and the meal of four-hour Balinese green beans, chicken betutu, cream-cheese mashed potatoes, and homemade frosted Christmas cookies was magnificent. The wine didn’t hurt either.

All that and a mystery guest. I finally got to meet a person I’ve been hearing about for years and if anything, the glowing reports were too humble. He’s one of those down-to-earth, funny, sincere, fascinating VIPs that you just wouldn’t expect to run into at your neighbor’s spur-of-the-moment Christmas lunch.

After two celebratory days I didn’t want the fun to end. I suggested to Ketut that it was time for another motorbike adventure. My back took weeks to recover from the marathon ordeal I put it through three months ago, but a visit to the beaches south of Ubud wouldn’t be a taxing trip. I wanted to check out the rumors that there are actually people down there – visitors – domestic tourists – because in Ubud they’re rare as unicorns.

As with most outings, eating figures in at some point. For this trip I wanted to stop at Cantina Warung. It’s on a dirt road that dead-ends somewhere between Seminyak and Canggu, and it’s so close to the ocean you almost feel the salt-spray on your skin. We’d check out Sanur and Kuta beaches on the way and easily be back in Ubud before the predicted afternoon downpour.

There was no traffic as we approached Sanur. The bodies standing in the water were fishermen, not tourists. Ketut thought he saw one family that probably came from another part of Indonesia but the few people enjoying the sun and sand were local. I’d expected that. Sanur isn’t the hotspot for vacationing party-ers who want a nightlife.

We hopped back on the bike and continued our search. Traffic by the Mall Galleria was almost non-existent.

In Kuta and Seminyak the story was the same with a slightly different twist. Here there were no locals, just a smattering of visitors and miles of empty lounge chairs on the deserted beach. Were we too early? Were the partying people still in bed nursing hangovers? It was getting on toward noon – surely they’d be up by now – if indeed they were here at all.

On the bike again I hollered through my mask at the back of Ketut’s helmet. “This adventure’s making me hungry. Let’s get lunch.”

There are several restaurants in Bali that are so enchanting I just want to keep eating so I can sit there for hours guilt-free. Cantina Warung is one of those. A constant ocean breeze, the rumble of breakers rolling in, comfortable chairs…don’t ever underestimate the importance of cushy seating – it’s huge…and today there were people sunbathing. People swimming. People walking dogs. We’d finally found PEOPLE!

We settled in and ordered lunch. Ketut is predictible – fried chicken and coca-cola. I had the BBQ chicken burrito with fries and a mojito. Not sure why the french fries came garnished with herby greens. They were easy to remove. But I have to say, that chicken burrito with chunks of avocado, crunchy lettuce, a sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauce on the melt-in-your-mouth grilled poultry – oh my! I’m drooling just remembering.

We’d whiled away about an hour and a half when Ketut pointed to a sign that I’d ignored and said, “Look. Our table is reserved for eight people at four o’clock. We can stay three more hours.”

That’s when I ordered two cups with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in each, and a pot of coffee to pour over it. We stretched that out until about two o’clock when all of a sudden Ketut said, “Mungkin hujan di Ubud sekarang.” Whoops! In my idyllic reverie I’d completely forgotten about the afternoon rain I’d been hoping to avoid.

The ride home took us through Canggu. There was a lot more traffic there than we’d seen anywhere else. Shops and cafes were open. Perhaps what I’d heard was true, that Canggu is the hot spot right now. Hot may be too optimistic a word. A warm spot.

As we approached Ubud the road was wet. “Maybe rain is already finished,” Ketut said. Three minutes later we were pelted with huge sloppy drops.

“Do you have your plastic, Ketut?”

“Ya. You?”

“Ya.”

“You want to stop?”

“No.”

“Good.” He laughed.

How precious, memorable, and unexpectedly rich this holiday has been. I could have sat home and survived. I would have called it a fitting end for a year during which many of us have done little other than sit at home and survive. So I’m going to see my unplanned Christmas as a positive energetic shift, a vital lurch propelling us toward a brighter 2021.

May it be so.

How many days of ‘poor me’ do I get?

It’s a compulsion. Whenever I meet someone I haven’t seen for many months, the first thing I want to ask is, “How has it been for you – this year…” I want to add, ‘from hell’ but maybe it wasn’t for them. The question has to hang there, open-ended, untainted, allowing for either possibility.

I can tell you how it’s been for me. In a word, brutal.

I’ve lost a dear elderly uncle and a young friend. The struggle to keep my nervous system in balance has taken intense focus and sometimes outright trickery. Like now. I’ve been listening to Epic Choir chanting Om So Hum for an hour and I’ve just hit replay. Like the vaccine, I need a second dose and I can’t wait a month. Having soothing sounds in the background makes my body believe all is calm, normal, in control, even though my mind isn’t convinced. So while my body’s distracted, I’ll occupy my mind with this task of writing.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But besides being brutal, I’ll tell you what else this year has been for me. Revelationary. Twenty-nineteen has been a time of intense self-discovery. And as you might suspect, most of it exposed the dark side. Fears came barrelling to the forefront. Old insecurities lit up like fireworks. Regret, blame, shame, guilt…all sat in judgment as months passed and reality settled over me like a burial shroud.

Then one morning I woke up thinking, How many days of ‘poor me’ do I get?

That sounded suspiciously like the old Sherry, the pre-Covid Sherry. So I laughed and answered my question: As many as you need, kid, but don’t make it a habit. I’m trying to take my own good advice. I allow myself some sadness – deep enough and painful enough that it approaches depression at times. But I love my natural optimism too much to risk losing it forever in the Slough of Despond.

Over the years I’ve learned that awareness of a problem is the first step in the path to managing it. My self-discovery journaling was all about getting to the root causes of my destructive patterns so I could take a different way forward. This year has given me enough psychological fodder to occupy me for the rest of my life, and it’s not over yet. My heart breaks at the thought of those who don’t have the mental steel-trap that I use to lock out despair and force myself back to sanity. It’s a gift that has enabled my survival during difficult times.

But the unrelenting length of this extraordinary set of circumstances concerns me the most.

In our instant gratification society we haven’t developed ‘staying power.’ I watch my children getting stretched to their limits, adjusting, then getting stretched again. (Okay, I started to feel anxious then realized my music had stopped. I just hit replay – going into the third hour of Om So Hum…!) They (my children) are young, resilient, creative, employed, and healthy. So are my grandchildren. What a blessing. I’m grateful every moment. But nothing for them is as it was. Two of them are working from home with toddlers. Locked down and locked in both by legal mandate and by snow. And there’s that 24/7 togetherness…I rest my case.

Then, as if conjured from the ether, I was given another self-discovery tool that left my mouth gaping. Gene Keys. I’d never heard of it so after accessing my scary-precise and in-depth free profile, I did some research and found that the profile info is a mere surface scratch. Richard Rudd studied the I Ching, astrology, and another body of learning called Human Design. He used aspects from all of them and came up with this vastly complex system that spits out information about you, perhaps as you’ve never seen yourself before.

To try it, click here. There’s a button for a Free Profile. Enter your birthdate and place and time of birth. If you don’t know what time you were born, just plug in 12:01 – a minute after noon. No problem. Mine nailed me, calling out both my strengths and my shadows. It brought me to another level of understanding about what I need, what I may want that doesn’t serve me, and antidotes for the pitfalls in my personality.

I’ll try anything if I think it will shed light on this creature that I am and help me navigate my life more effectively. I don’t have a lot of time left. The luxury of learning ‘the hard way’ is a thing of the past. I want to come out on the other side of this Covid freak-show a wiser, healthier, more compassionate human.

How many days of ‘poor me’ do I get?

Hopefully, soon, that won’t be a question I even have to ask.

When It All Comes Crashing Down

Hibernating gets old. Just ask any grumpy she-bear who’s been holed up in a cave all winter in a state of suspended animation…

Does this sound familiar?

Of course Bali doesn’t have cold weather…or bears. But it has more than its share of expats who are feeling the effects of confinement. For the past few days I’ve barely stuck my nose out of the house. I meant to, but it was easier not to.

This morning, for some inexplicable reason, I woke up at 5:30 supercharged. The sky was brightening but the sun wouldn’t rise for another half hour. I made my bed, certain this was a fluke and the jolt of energy was just that, a jolt, and would quickly pass.

It remained.

The voice I’ve come to recognize as my stern grandmother (if you’ve never had a Norwegian grandmother you’ll have no idea what I mean) pulled me up short. Skam på du! she said. I think that’s the only Norsk phrase I ever learned. Shame on you!

She washed my hair once. I was about 4. My scalp was raw from her vigorous suds-ing. When she dumped buckets of water over my head to rinse out the soap, I came up spluttering and choking. That’s my most vivid memory of her.

I threw on yesterday’s clothes, masked up, and bolted out the door.

At 6 a.m. the air was cool and sweet. A brisk pace took me to Ubud Palace. Across the street the traditional market was already bustling. I don’t blend into the crowd very well, so I didn’t stop and shoot a photo straight into the market area where bodies moved shoulder to shoulder in a dense sea of commerce. Had I done so, my actions may have been misinterpreted, or at the very least, unwelcome. I don’t want to be the Ugly American.

But a few paces farther along, I captured the motorbikes lined up in front.

I stuffed my phone back in my bag and continued past the glistening Arjuna statue that marks Jalan Raya’s east end. For probably the 2,578th time in my nine years in Bali, I stopped, backed up, fished my phone out again, got the perfect angle, and took the photo. I’m still awes-struck at the elegance, the intricate detail, and the sheer size of these artistic works depicting scenes from the epic Hindu texts, the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Still brimming with energy and smiling under my mask, I continued to Delta Dewata, one of two major grocery stores in Ubud.

I assumed it would be open. There was a patch of shade on the flight of steps leading up to…locked doors. I sat on the stairs and checked the time. 6:35 a.m. Their website said they were open every day, 8 – 10.

It wasn’t that I’d intended to shop. But I’d have browsed and found something I didn’t know I needed before resuming my jaunt.

I sat there, plotting my next move only semi-aware of the person working in the shrubs beside me. When a cracking sound caught my attention, I looked up – just in time.

WHACK! A huge penjor crashed onto the pavement, almost taking my nose with it.

I jumped. Probably squeaked a bit.

Then the ah-ha moment. Today is the day for removing these elegant, graceful tokens that are erected every six months during the celebration of Galungan-Kuningan. They invite the spirits of the ancestors back to their family homes to be remembered and honored. It suddenly made sense: That’s why the offerings I’d been seeing were more extravagant than usual.

Now I had a mission. I continued my meandering journey photographing the bountiful offerings and the women making their way to the temple.

Throughout the day, thousands of penjors will be removed. Their splendor has faded. The once-brilliant fabrics adorning them are now washed-out pastels. The spirits of the ancestors left weeks ago.

The penjor crashing down in front of me woke me up. It’s as though Grandma Rakel was scolding again. “Pay attention!” she said. “Don’t walk through your life asleep. Be present for the small things – they are your reality. They are right now.”

Wise and terrifying Norwegian Grandmother Rakel, thank you.

She Cans While I Contemplate The Third Noble Truth

My sister and I began emailing every day at the beginning of lockdown. That’s approximately 344 emails to date and we haven’t let up.

I’m not talking a sentence or two. I’m talking paragraphs – five or ten or more – and photos. Seriously.

Our topics run the gamut. Canning – she has a prolific garden and makes it look easy…

We discuss politics – how can you not. And Covid – again, how can you not. But one of the things I most appreciate is her willingness to ‘go there’ with me, and that could be anywhere from musing on the existence of spirit guides to the likelihood of being rescued from a dying earth by aliens.

Yesterday, however, my sister who never complains almost complained. I’d sent her an overview of a project I’m working on and she wrote back: Sherry, I’ve had more time to look at your outline but it’s vague.

My feathers ruffled momentarily, then I realized she probably thought that’s all I had. So I answered…

“Regarding the outline, think of it like this. I have piles and piles of garments in assorted colors for different seasons but I have no hangers so the clothes are heaped on the floor. (The clothes are the content.) Hangers just got delivered.  Now all I have to do is put the clothes on hangers removing the ones I no longer want, sort the colors by season (which are the subject titles and subtitles) and hang them in order in the closet (which is the outline).

“That may be a disorderly way of doing it but that’s my MO.

“Some people start with the outline whether it’s writing a book, giving a speech, planning a course. I don’t. So often inspiration comes in the form of one sentence that intrigues me. So I start the story, or in this case material for a workshop, without much of a notion where it’s going or how it will get there. 

“I don’t like to be confined by convention or an outline that presupposes an outcome. I want my thoughts to have free reign, to respond to prompts from who-knows-where, to sprout and grow in whatever direction they will until I latch onto the idea that makes me passionate about the book or the speech or the workshop. That way I don’t get attached to a predetermined form and try to force my story into it.”

When I wrote that it brought to mind my morning meditation.

I’m not Buddhist but I find the practice of non-attachment, The Third Noble Truth in Buddhist teachings, an interesting one to grapple with. Buddhism suggests that attachment is the root of human suffering. And isn’t it true?! When you want so badly to see a certain outcome from your efforts that you try to force your life into that expectation and then it doesn’t turn out that way, there’s such a feeling of futility, remorse, failure, disappointment, in a word – suffering.

But if we approach everything with curiosity and non-attachment we leave our hearts and minds wide open to be delighted. We then live in alignment with our truest, best self, a self that embraces growth and change and allows us to fluidly adjust to new situations.

I can’t tell you how exciting it was to have made that connection.

The non-attachment principle has bothered me for some time – just couldn’t wrap my head around the feeling of chilly disengagement it brought up in me. Now I see it from a completely different perspective, one that liberates rather than withholds. And it never would have happened if I hadn’t gotten my feathers ruffled and felt the need to explain my ‘vague outline’ to my sister who never complains.

All photos taken at The Farm by Gwen Hall.

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: