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.

The Corona Effect – Can you explain it in eight words or less?

Clouds pile up like mounds of gray wool on a shearing floor. Staring into them, half meditating, half daydreaming, I’m reminded my lesson today is presence. Take time. Be in the moment. Feel the breeze. Smell the incense. In the distance, wind chimes clunk their hollowed-out happiness.

And there’s that other sound.

When I first moved to Bali I blew up a hair dryer. It gave me a healthy respect for 230 voltage – a bit different from 110, standard in the US. I assumed the buzzing sound I heard throughout the day, all day, every day, was that powerful current ripping through the tangle of wires festooned overhead.

Several months passed and I was visiting a mountain village. There were no wires yet the humming persisted. I asked a local, “What’s that sound?”

Jangkrik,” he said.

“Electric?” I asked, thinking I’d heard wrong.

He repeated it very slowly, “Jaaaangkriiiik,” opening his mouth long and narrow for the first syllable, then wide and toothy for the second, looking at me in a way that communicated his sympathy for my obvious mental inadequacies.

I had him write the word.

When I got home I typed jangkrik into Google Translate and hooted.

Cicada.

All this time those humming wires of my imagination were simply thousands of little bugs singing their lungs out.

So back to the sights, smells, and sounds of this morning…

I wanted to add cicadas to my opening paragraph and say they sounded like the buzz of overloaded electrical wires. But it dawned on me there might be an actual name for that occurrence.

Google to the rescue – and I kid you not. That high-voltage phenomenon is called the Corona Effect.

This kind of thing happens to me all the time. What are the chances I’d google that today, or ever for that matter? But I did, and when I read this part of the definition, I knew why.

Corona discharge from high voltage electric power transmission lines constitutes an economically significant waste of energy…

The corona discharge of this pandemic is:

  • Uncertainty
  • Misinformation
  • Restriction
  • Loss of income
  • Depression
  • Illness
  • Death

Its effect is a significant waste of energy, and managing the reality and the fear around so much negativity requires conservation of resources. The only action that seems to accomplish that is to be fully in the present.

If you were inside my head today, you’d have heard my new mantra:

This is a precious moment of life. Don’t waste it worrying about the future or regretting the past. Engage fully with this moment and be grateful for all that’s good, right here, right now. That’s enough.

Until now my nervous system has been a victim of the Corona Effect, twanging away on overload, leaving me permanently exhausted. Today was different.

I love this teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh –

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While thinking of other things we are barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus, we are sucked away into the future — and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

Today I washed the dishes to wash the dishes.

Desperate To Feel Normal – What’s Your Name?

Sweet Orange is a special place hidden deep in the rice fields. Its Vietnamese coffee, ayam sambal matah, and black rice pudding with coconut gelato is a meal fit for the goddess. I fall short of that label but I was hungry and desperate to feel normal.

“You want lunch?” I asked Ketut. He’s yet to turn down a meal.

“Ya.”

In the past I’d always walked the rice field trail to Sweet Orange.

This was the first time I’d ridden a motorbike there. It will also be the last. The narrow path between paddies was so broken and bumpy I thought for sure I’d end up head first in the muck with the ducks. The bike bucked and jerked. I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my teeth so they wouldn’t shatter.

I should never doubt Ketut’s mastery of his machine. He got us there safely, all body parts intact.

We found a place to sit – it wasn’t difficult – a mother with twin toddlers were the only other diners. We ordered. Then, as if conjured, the twins appeared next to us. “What’s your name?” one asked.

“I’m Sherry. What’s your name?” By now their mother was standing behind them. They were blond, blue-eyed sweethearts and reminded me of my twin grandsons far away in Minnesota.

“Avianpuppychocolatepigbirdcatpillowyellowicecreamstars…”

You lost me at chocolate,” I said.

His mother laughed. “This is Alexander. But he likes to be called Avian, and when asked his name he lists all his favorite things.”

They were almost three years old, bright, precocious, and verbal. When their dad came to pick them up they shouted their goodbyes and ran to him.

I’ve missed that about Bali. When I first arrived I met someone new every day. There weren’t as many visitors back then, and the ones who came were friendlier. With the pandemic there are so few foreigners we’re all a bit starved for each other. Once again conversations spark spontaneously and new friendships are birthed.

Our Vietnamese coffee arrived.

I’d bragged about it to Ketut, “Like Nescafe but better,” I told him.

He took a sip. “More like Luwak,” he said.

“What? No way!” For the uninitiated, kopi Luwak is fondly known as ‘poop’ coffee since the beans are eaten by civets and pooped out undigested. They’re collected, cleaned, roasted, and become the outrageously over-priced Luwak coffee.

Ketut just chuckled.

I turned my attention to the flowers blooming beside us. They looked like impatiens, super-sized.

Bali’s tropical climate does that to plants. What was a potted poinsettia on the table at Christmas in Minnesota, in Bali becomes a tree.

By now I was starving and quickly lost interest in the flora.

Because patrons are as rare as feathers on fleas these days, there was only one person working. My stomach let out a growl loud enough to be embarrassing just as he set heaping plates in front of us.

Sweet Orange makes ayam sambal matah like no one else. You can too, and here’s how. Put the following in a bowl:

  • Roast chicken breast sliced fairly thin
  • Sliced shallots
  • Sliced clove garlic
  • Sliced lemongrass
  • Birdseye chilies julienned

Squeeze fresh lime juice. Add a pinch of salt, a little olive oil, and shrimp paste to taste. Lightly toss the above ingredients with the dressing. Serve on salad greens beside a mound of red rice.

So easy even I could do it. But I’d rather go to Sweet Orange because I can’t make their Jegeg. Oh bliss! It’s chilled creamy black rice pudding topped with coconut gelato.

I ordered one and enjoyed the heck out of the first bite. But after polishing off my heaping plate of chicken, one bite was just right. Ketut happily finished the rest.

Soft Balinese music, tinkling wind chimes, and breezes sighing over rice paddies creates a serenity that makes leaving hard. I was nervous about climbing on the motorbike for the return trip. “Maybe I should walk. I’m a little afraid.”

Ketut turned to me with that smile that makes everything sunshine and rainbows.

“It’s shorter going back,” he said.

“And how is that possible?”

“I’ll show you. Climb on.”

I reluctantly obliged. I thought maybe he knew a different way. He’s famous for his back-road detours. We retraced the exact same route we’d come, yet it did seem shorter.

“Ok, Ketut. It was the same road but it felt like half the time. What happened?”

“Going home,” he said. “It’s always like that.”

The mind on COVID – What’s happening?

I want someone who has studied the workings of the mind to tell me what’s going on with mine.

In the last few months I’ve become a fascinating creature very unlike my former self. Fascinating to me, that is. I doubt anyone else would find me particularly remarkable. It’s just that in less time than it takes to grow an onion, I’ve morphed into someone I don’t recognize.

I like things I didn’t like before. I take pleasure in doing things I didn’t want to do before. On the flip side…I’ve no interest in projects that used to absorb me for hours.

It’s involuntary. That’s what’s so weird. If I’d decided to take up cooking because I had time on my hands and it made sense, fine. But it wasn’t like that. I just woke up one morning with a maniacal urge to cook. There was no forethought, no pre-planning, only a fierce, single-minded compulsion and I knew if I did nothing else that day, I – would – make – food.

Crafty projects? Just shoot me.

That was before. Inspiration strikes frequently now. There was the plastic bag flag-string to deter bats. I had a hoot making it. I refinished my table top. The design for a veggie garden I dreamed up was implemented by Ketut – I was quite happy to delegate the actual work!

And today…

Stencil the steps.

Where did that come from? This isn’t the States. I can’t run out to Hobby Lobby, Craft Warehouse, or Michaels and pick out a stencil that tickles my fancy. If I want to stencil my steps I’ll have to come up with a design, find a piece of heavy plastic, transfer the image, cut it out…

By this time the old Sherry would have said, #@&%$ the steps! (The new Sherry doesn’t swear…HAHAHA!) But, no! The challenge energized me. By noon I’d Googled stencils, found one I loved, made a copy, taped it to an old laminated flier, and…

stopped.

The more I studied the image the less I knew how to proceed. Where did I want the paint to show up? Where should the concrete be left bare? How could I cut it so the holes were where I wanted them without the entire thing falling apart? Am I boring you yet?

Somehow I figured it out.

Several hours later I’d stenciled the left side of the steps, taken the paint-covered template upstairs, washed it, dried it, and flipped it over to use the reverse pattern on the right side. One more step to go…

And…

done.

My makeshift stencil worked. I hadn’t been one-hundred percent enamored with Ketut’s whitewash. It needed something. The indistinctness of the butterfly isn’t too dressy but it brings closure to an otherwise unfinished thought.

Which reminds me of my original question: What’s going on in my head?

It’s kind of fun being a stranger to myself – disturbing, too. What if I began changing in radical ways over which I had no more control than I do over the wild inspiration to cook or craft? Whoa! Way too much fodder for the imagination – scratch that.

I was starving after I finished the paint job. Google had a recipe for adzuki bean hummus. My mouth watered.

In no time I’d whipped up a purplish-brown bowl of the beany paste and sat down with crackers and a crisp, pinot grigio to write this post.

I’m sure I’m not the only one questioning my sanity after months of COVID craziness. What I’ve emphasized here are more-or-less positive manifestations of a mind deviating from its norm. Don’t misunderstand. It deviates in negative ways, too. But I keep those meanderings caged. I’d rather laugh, wouldn’t you?

Bendik and Rakel – a love story – of sorts

Unlike my paternal grandfather, I love bananas.

Grandpa Bendik was born to a farming family in Førde, Norway, in 1881. He had a sweetheart, Rakel, on a nearby farm and they wanted to marry. But Grandpa wasn’t satisfied with what he could offer his intended, so he set sail for America to better himself.

As the story goes, the first thing he saw when he landed was a vendor selling bananas. Unfamiliar with the fruit, he failed to peel it before chomping through the tough outer skin. He spit it out and never touched the ‘foul stuff’ again.

This tale has a happy ending. He found work, went home, married Rakel, and brought his new bride to the land of the free. They bought land and built a house in northern Minnesota where they raised twelve children. Number seven was my father.

It’s too bad Grandpa didn’t give bananas another try, although they probably weren’t readily available in northern Minnesota in the early 1900’s. But by 1950, when I was born, they were, and from first taste I was hooked.

Bali has at least forty-two different varieties of bananas and I am addicted to pisang merah, the red ones.

Pisang goreng was one of the first things I ate upon my arrival eight years ago. This isn’t just a naked banana plopped in hot oil. It’s a naked banana, sliced and dipped in batter, then plopped in hot oil, fried, and served with palm sugar and sometimes, if you’re lucky, grated fresh coconut and ice cream.

I’ve never attempted to make them myself…until today. There are two reasons for that:

  • I didn’t know how
  • They’re like dessert, something I rarely eat

This morning I stared at six ripe-and-ready red bananas sitting on my countertop. I cannot – will not – waste a single molecule of that precious fruit! There exist many varieties of red bananas and they’re not created equal. The uber sweet, custardy ones that make me drool are grown on a different part of the island and are not easy to find in Ubud.

As I pondered their perfect readiness wondering how many I could eat before they went bad, another thought materialized. What about pisang goreng?

I obsessed while I journaled, while I yoga-ed, while I meditated, while I dressed, and finally succumbed to temptation.

Google had a recipe. It called for flour. You may recall my hazardous attempt to make naan with banana flour and yeast. That’s still the only kind of flour I have on hand. But this recipe used baking power as its leavening agent so I thought…maybe…red bananas…fried in banana flour batter…why not?

Oh, people!

Even now, hours later, after eating way too many of them, I get a severe case of drools just thinking about the crunchy outside and the buttery sweet inside of my red banana goreng.

I dipped them in palm sugar while they were still warm. The first one I ate with a fork. After that…the fork was way too slow.

I want you to note that I now have two back-to-back culinary successes to my credit. Not to appear overly confident or anything, but I may be on a roll. It’s too bad Grandpa isn’t here to try my banana ambrosia. I think even his pure Scandinavian taste-buds would do a happy dance.

Once Upon A Success!

There are many things I do well. I’m trying to think of one. Never mind.

I’ve been transparent about my shortcomings. My friends (you are my friends, right?) seem to enjoy hearing about my kitchen snafus. It softens the sting of failure to frame culinary disasters in the humorous light of story. Then, like so many other things in life we tell ourselves, the tale I’ve woven to make others laugh becomes my belief.

There. We’ve gotten the deep philosophical lesson out of the way.

No segue here – just stream-of-consciousness because my thoughts tonight are all-over-the-place and I don’t care if you see the scrambled brain I have to deal with to pull together a coherent piece of writing. By the end it will all make sense.

I hope.

I’ve noticed a change since isolation first began. Back then, I was diligent to a fault, going nowhere, washing every berry and leaf that entered my house and hanging my grocery bags in the sun for a few days to disinfect. At that time, Bali had one death and no active cases of the virus.

To be fair, I’d just come from Italy where infections were rampant and I was more than a little freaked.

That was four months ago.

Yesterday my gorgeous young neighbor came over for our weekly chat. Normally I’d have changed clothes, combed my hair, slapped on a dash of lipstick and at least attempted to be presentable. She was right on time, as always. My hands were in the dishpan. (We can’t hug anyway.) As I wiped them dry I shrugged and said, “Hey. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I didn’t even try to get cute for you.”

Her explosion of laughter was no doubt heard in the next village. “I can’t believe you said that.” She shook her head to emphasize her disbelief. “Normally I’d find a tank top that was a little form-fitting but…” she grabbed a hunk of loose fabric. “These are my pajamas!”

The longer this altered reality continues the more relaxed I become, which makes no sense because now the numbers of cases here are climbing fast. This is when I should be ultra vigilant. But I seem to have expended all my survival energy in those first scary weeks.

Other obsessions have come and gone. Cooking, for instance.

At the beginning, cooking was something to do at home that helped pass too many empty hours that flipped over like a book of blank pages. Making food gave me purpose – and something to eat.

I couldn’t believe how much enjoyment I milked out of experimenting with new recipes in my limited kitchen.

And then…nothing.

The desire to cook left as magically as it had come. Jigsaw puzzles became the new time-eater to soften the brunt of nothing to do and all day to do it.

After jigsaw, my writing mojo miraculously resurfaced and I finished the novel I’ve been working on for three years…really finished it…the final rewrite…DONE.

Today, wonder of wonders, my desire to cook returned.

But this time I went with something tried and true, something I know how to do well: stove-top granola. And because it’s more delicious than anything you’ll ever find on the grocery shelf, and because I want you to believe I don’t fail every time, here’s my process in step-by-step photos so you can try it yourself.

WORLDS’ BEST GRANOLA

  • Prepare about 1 cup each of dried apricots (cut into pieces) and raisins then set aside
  • Put 1/3 cup cold-pressed virgin coconut oil in a non-stick frying pan
  • Add 3/4 cup each raw sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds
  • On top of the seeds add 2 cups dried coconut flakes
  • Pour 4 cups rolled oats on top of the coconut flakes
  • Thoroughly mix so the oily seeds are distributed throughout
  • Turn gas flame on high (electric range owners you’re on your own)
  • With a broad spatula continuously rotate the contents at the bottom of the pan to the top so it doesn’t burn
  • When the coconut flakes start turning brown (about 4 minutes) remove the pan from the heat but continue stirring for another minute while the pan cools
  • Mix in the apricots and raisins

Now comes the secret that makes this granola the worlds’ best…

  • Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (I use pink Himalayan salt but it’s not required) to 1 teaspoon powdered stevia leaf and mix well

Warning! Do NOT use the white, processed, sugar substitute with the disgusting aftertaste! Use pure stevia leaf. It’s green.

  • Sprinkle one-half of the salt/stevia over the mixture in the pan. Stir well then sprinkle the rest and mix again.

The salty-sweetness without a trace of sugar makes this not only the world’s best granola, but very possibly the world’s healthiest.

WALLAH!

This Corporate Escapee loves her granola. And how about that? I didn’t try to get cute for you, either.

How to Avoid a Glaring Failure of Epic Proportions

I’m not talking about the very recent rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, although I could be.

There’s an old adage: ignorance is bliss. Operating on that assumption, I set about making my first ever batch of naan, that fluffy, flavorful accompaniment to an Indian meal.

My expectation for favorable results was understandably optimistic because this time I had all the ingredients. No substitutes. Cooking in a skillet on top of the range was listed as an option. The stars were aligned.

I stirred the yeast into lukewarm water with a tablespoon of sugar. It frothed perfectly. I thoroughly blended yogurt, oil, and salt into the flour until crumbly then slowly added the yeast mixture. The directions said to knead the sticky dough for ten minutes and it would become elastic.

I kneaded.

If too stiff, add more water.

I added more water.

And kneaded.

After ten minutes the dough, in my humble estimation, was more like concrete than elastic. But I covered it with a damp paper towel and set the timer for two hours after which, according to the recipe, it would have doubled in size.

The waiting was productive. I finished The President is Missing, co-authored by James Patterson and Bill Clinton. I don’t usually read thrillers since I find life quite thrilling enough as it is, thank you. But it was on my shelf and once started I was hooked.

The timer buzzed.

I peeked under the paper towel at a lump that hadn’t changed one iota in size. Maybe the dough was too stiff. Should I add more water and give it another two hours?

I took a quick peek at the next series of directions. Form dough into balls the size of lemons. Pat flat on a floured surface and bake until brown spots appear. Flip and bake the other side. I decided if I could create a patty that would hold together while transferring from counter to pan, I’d proceed.

I scooped out a lemon-sized lump and sprinkled the countertop with flour. In spite of it’s density, the dough responded well to my patting. The pan was hot. I plopped the unbaked disc into the skillet and hovered over it waiting for pillowy bubbles to appear.

That didn’t happen.

After about four minutes the underside had browned. I flipped it. Four more minutes and it was done. But instead of the hoped-for pliable, bread-like consistency, my naan appeared to be the close cousin of a saltine cracker. I broke off a piece for a taste test to determine the fate of the remaining dough.

The flavor wasn’t bad, a bit like the Norwegian flatbread of my youth. I patted and baked the rest of the lemon lumps and had a fine meal of red lentil stew with my crispy naan.

But what, oh what, had gone so terribly wrong? I’d followed the recipe to the letter. I had all the right ingredients. Or did I?

A question lit up like neon in my brain. Does yeast need gluten to rise? I Googled it and what do you know: gluten captures carbon dioxide given off by yeast – which makes the dough rise. My first ever order of banana flour had been delivered the day before. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to question the use of that gluten-free substance in my naan experiment. No wonder I’d had a solid lump of banana-flour concrete that refused to budge.

Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is ignorance, and it can be the difference between success and failure.

After the dream…what?

Sometimes I feel almost normal. I wake up without hyperventilating. The sunrise is splendid. Roosters crow and doves coo. The aroma of my neighbor’s coffee prompts me to brew my own. The beans are organic Kintamani Arabica and they’re almost gone. Mental note: order coffee.

By this time I have a plan for the day. I’ll take a walk.

Trust me, it’s a plan. For three months I barely left my house. Now there are a few – very few – cafes opening and I’ve begun to venture out. First there was Monsieur Spoon for coffee and almond cake. I was a bit traumatized – can you tell?

Then a daring evening out at Mingle.

So far so good. This week I tried Tropical View, a picturesque restaurant overlooking a rice paddy next to Monkey Forest. The nachos were great.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a consistent theme…

No people.

Today my walk took me along Monkey Forest Road. Normally at 2:00 in the afternoon this time of year the sidewalks are crammed with tourists and exhaust from cars and motorbikes inching their way along Ubud’s narrow streets clogs the air. COVID has changed all that.

There wasn’t a single moving vehicle on this stretch, and I was the only pedestrian.

It takes a fair amount of numbing to manage the silence without feeling like a dream has died. So many dreams. I tell myself to enjoy the peace while it lasts only to remember the article I read that said recovery may take two years.

That’s a lot of peace.

It isn’t just here. Ubud is a snapshot of the rest of the world. As I walked I tried to imagine how I could force a positive spin on this situation, at least for Bali. There are thousands of unemployed who are in desperate need of the basics for survival. Some have gardens so food for them isn’t a worry. The ingenuity of others has spawned new services. But for the vast majority…

As I passed the soccer field I had my answer. If there’s no work, there’s an over-abundance of one commodity: time.

Plenty of time to fly kites.

Three stages of confinement – Three paths to meaning

I awaken lying on a cliff. If I move my arm a milimeter it will dangle over the edge of the chasm. As I move out of dreaming, the sensation morphs into a vast mindspace of emptiness. Engulfed in a sense of futility, the title of a book I’ve never read flashes behind my eyes: Man’s Search for Meaning.

Alarms sound in my brain: Dangerous territory! Do Not Enter! I mentally regroup. What day is this? Saturday. What’s on the calendar? Nothing. Nothing today, or tomorrow, or for the foreseeable future.

I haven’t yet opened my eyes.

I remind myself I’m a writer. I have an unfinished novel to address. I’ve neglected my blog posts. I’m behind in e-mails.

I have so much free time it feels like nothing is urgent. I can waste as much of it as I want. Never before has that been the case for me. It probably isn’t the case now but that’s my perception of these days of separation from friends and family. This ongoing confinement.

I open my eyes.

Gray light filters through the curtains. Stormy skies encircle a gap in the clouds where glowing pink-gold promises a sunrise. I snap a photo on my phone which has become the sixth digit on my right hand – my only connection to what once was my life.

Normally at this point I would kick into action: make my bed, get dressed in yoga clothes, make coffee. I skip steps one and two and go directly to coffee.

Minutes later, sitting in my journaling chair that first cup of steaming caffeine beside me, curiosity surfaces and I Google Man’s Search for Meaning. I click on Book Summary. In a few sentences the hair on my arms stirs then pops into gooseflesh. It’s happened again. The very moment I need it, the Universe delivers a gift.

As I’ve said, I’ve never read Man’s Search for Meaning. In fact, when I first saw that title it was during a period in my life when I had very little patience with men in general and no time at all for men in any kind of self-indulgent, solution-seeking mid-life crisis in particular. I’d just been replaced by a much younger version of myself when my then husband sought meaning for his life. Ouch.

I’ve learned to take notice of things that appear between dreaming and waking. That book wasn’t at all what I needed when I noticed the title at forty-something. But it turns out it’s precisely what I need now. Did I know that? No. So what brought so clearly to mind that specific book that I hadn’t thought of in thirty years? There’s something profound at work and although I’m not religious, I’ve lived in Bali long enough to know there’s a lot more to the unseen than meets the eye.

Imagine my surprise, and the pang of guilt that stung as I read the first few paragraphs summarizing the book. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, observed the effects of confinement on the human psyche then went on to found Logotherapy: healing through meaning, and write his book.

Frankl describes three stages of the human response to confinement:

  • Shock
  • Apathy
  • Depersonalization

I’m somewhere between apathy and depersonalization: a lack of interest and a sense that things around me aren’t real. His book charts a course through the craziness of what we are experiencing globally right now. It couldn’t be more pertinent. He suggests three paths to discovering meaning:

  • Through achievements and accomplishments, doing deeds, or creating works of value
  • Through experiencing positive things like love or the beauty of nature
  • Through suffering which can be a major human accomplishment if we can find meaning in it

This is a bare sniff of the banquet Frankl lays out. There was enough meat in that summary to fire up my natural optimism. I set two goals for today. First, I’ll post this experience to my blog. Then I’ll brave the empty streets of Ubud hoping to find a copy of the book.

. . . . .

As I journal these thoughts, the protests raging throughout the world in response to George Floyd’s brutal murder come to mind. People – immense numbers of people – have burst out of confinement to ‘suffer for the cause’ and ‘do deeds’ grabbing hold of meaning with both hands.

The battle against racism has been fought for decades but never won. Perhaps now, when men and women worldwide grapple to make sense of the craziness, conditions are perfect. We’ve been stripped of the things that ordered our lives. We’ve been told we can’t go back to the way it was. Many of us don’t want to. We’ve been shown no map for the road ahead. So what exists, which has never existed before to this magnitude, is a colossal, blindingly brilliant opportunity to reshape reality, society, governance, and create a system that values and sustains life, plant, animal, and human, no matter what color it is.

What are you doing to create meaning in these strange times?

Has the Universe offered up any sychronicinistic gifts while you’ve been confined?

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