And That’s All I Need To Know

My nervous system is recalibrating. I don’t wake up to monkeys screaming at dawn. Ketut says they’re still there. Every day. Many.

I loved Bali. No other place has ever captured my heart and soul like that mysterious island did. No other human has shown me such kindness or giggled as contagiously as Ketut did, and still does, but from a great distance now. Life, however, moves on. Circumstances change. As Willie Nelson so eloquently put it, Shit happens.

So we pick up the scraps and move on, a little battered, a little shaken up, but still hopeful that the path will open before us and the sun will shine again.

It’s important, though, especially for those of us who are optimists, to feel the feelings. Everything is not always sunny-side-up and we need to let grief in where it belongs.

When I landed in the U.S. I was numb. Reuniting with family after two years should have been bliss. I had expectations. It would be a love-fest – joyous – thrilling. My heart experienced it that way but my mind was in a state of utter overwhelm. I remember almost nothing of that time with my children and grandchildren.

My nervous system was in dire need of a reset.

The past five months in Mexico have been healing. The joys and sorrows of life are played out in the streets. There seem to be no taboos. One day they’re dancing and drumming with wild abandon. The next day brings a procession so somber and reverent the beholder hardly dares breathe. Battles, revenge, love, craziness. People in costumes depicting angels, demons, and everything in between. Effigies of personas non grata hung over the streets and blown to smitherines. My energies merge with theirs and I’m purged and cleansed.

Writing used to occupy my free time. I could sit for twelve hours at a stretch, so absorbed in the story I’d forget to eat.

I don’t know if it’s the altitude, the weather, or the tectonic shifting within my own being, but here in Mexico, my body wants to move. It refuses to sit still. It’s all I can do to bribe it into a chair long enough to hammer out a blog post.

So in-between delightful visits from friends who view my current proximity to the U.S. as a much less arduous undertaking than a trip to Bali, I seek projects.

The patio set on my roof frustrated me. The Acapulco-style table was missing its round glass insert. If mine ever had one, it was long gone. The rubber-string top was worthless if I wanted to set my coffee cup or glass of wine on it. I didn’t want a glass top anyway. I preferred a statement table, something that would express with color and design what stirred in my heart and didn’t yet have words.

Roberto, my landlady’s son, supplied a round piece of plywood.

I borrowed a brush from Martin, the handyman.

There is a Sherwin Williams paint store down the street. I stopped in and bought a can of black, a can of white, and a can of marine varnish – a product Dad used years ago to protect an antique coffee table he refinished. To this day it doesn’t have a scratch on it. An art supply shop had tubes of red, green, and gold and the smaller brushes I needed for details. I was ready.

For some reason, I decided to use a sponge rather than Martin’s new brush to apply the white base coat. I shook the can vigorously and pried it open with a tool that was not made for that purpose. In minutes my tabletop was white.

I took the sponge to the kitchen sink and squeezed it under running water. It was at that moment I realized I had not purchased acrylic paint. A sticky, oily, white substance covered my skin and the faucet. Panic. I grabbed a bar of soap and scrubbed to no avail. By now my hands looked like the face of a Parisian mime.

Stop, Sherry. Think.

Nail polish remover? I didn’t have any. I quit polishing my nails around month number six of Covid lockdown in Bali.

Rubbing alcohol? Worth a try. But anything I touched was going to be slathered in white. I slapped my palms down on two pieces of newspaper. It stuck like glue. I found the bottle of rubbing alcohol and gave my poor hands a liberal dousing. It didn’t work on the paint but the paper disintegrated.

Now what?

Martin had been painting recently. There might be turpentine in his supplies. I applied fresh newspaper and ran downstairs. The storage cabinet was full of bottles all labeled in Spanish. One looked promising, diluyente de pintura. Dilute the paint? Thinner perhaps? Back at the kitchen sink, I poured and scrubbed, poured and scrubbed, poured…. Were my hands a slightly pinker shade of pale? There had to be something that worked better than this.

Newspaper refreshed once again, I hurried back downstairs and paged more carefully through the confusing labels. Solvente de poliuretano? Polyurethane solvent? Now we’re talking! Back up the steps, two at a time. I poured a small amount of the liquid into a cup and dribbled it on my hands. This time paint came off when I scrubbed. Jackpot! I picked up the cup for another splash of miracle juice and WHOOPS! My magic paint remover had dissolved the bottom of the cup and solvent was running over my polyurethaned concrete countertop!

I don’t want to crash the climax for you, but there is a happy ending to this story. I grabbed a rag and swabbed down the counter. No harm done. The solvent removed most of the paint from my hands but a residue clung to my cuticles creating interesting half-moon shapes that framed the fingernails for weeks.

It took each coat of oil paint three days to cure and there were multiple coats. After the basic white, I taped squares and painted them black.

When that dried, I taped over those black squares and painted another layer of black to create a checkerboard pattern. The black paint bled into the white squares under the tape. Wiggly edges looked like the scribblings of a toddler, not at all the crisp, professional masterpiece I’d envisioned. The quickest fix: sandpaper for a distressed finish. It worked.

Adding the artistic touches was a treat. The flowers, slightly transparent, allowed a shadow of the black and white to show through. Touches of metallic gold added a sprinkle of sparkle to catch the light.

The project that I’d hoped to finish in three days took three weeks because I assumed I was buying acrylic paint. I didn’t ask for a water-based product so why would I assume? If I were in the U.S. I would have specified exactly what I wanted. Sometimes my ignorance astounds me.

The important thing, though, is the finished product, a hard surface where I can securely park my morning coffee cup or evening wine glass.

But even more special for me is the subtle message written in paint. Black and white checks represent the balance between darkness and light. Every Balinese Hindu male owns a black and white checked sarong and important statues are draped with checkered fabric for protection against dark spirits. Nothing says Bali to me like that pattern.

Vibrant red flowers are life itself – creativity, innovation, fire, passion, beauty.

Green is growth. Renewal. A calming, peaceful, dependable color.

And you might ask why I didn’t cluster the flowers in the middle? It would have created a more symmetrical balance. Science shows that symmetry is comfortable. Our minds don’t have to work to process symmetry. But asymmetry is more interesting and we engage longer with it. I’ve never been satisfied with comfortable. I like challenge, and the design I chose to paint reflects that truth.

My table says it all! It’s wonderful! My body had to move a lot to get those stories painted. But for the last three hours, it’s been perched on this chair, retelling the saga that’s already been told in color and pattern. And now it’s begging me to finish because it’s after midnight and this bird is not a night owl.

I’m grieving the loss of my beloved Bali, feeling it deeply, and that’s necessary. At the same time, I’m enjoying wonderful new friends in San Miguel and visits from dear old friends in the U.S. I don’t have all the answers but I know I’m in the right place for right now, and that’s all I need to know.

With Luck, I’ve Learned A Lesson

My last walk was ten miles through downtown San Miquel de Allende and ended with this steep climb – hundreds of steps – up to my home near the top of the mountain.

I’m feeling boundlessly grateful today for my robust immune system and the two AstraZeneca vaccines that strengthened that solid foundation. This is my seventh day of isolation. I have Covid.

At first I ‘knew’ it was ‘just a cold.’ It felt like every other cold I’ve ever had. But I quarantined myself while my daughters urged me to get tested. I sent out a request to my new friends here in San Miguel for a home test kit and one appeared. The very clear POSITIVE reading stunned me.

How could that be? It’s just a cold.

But it isn’t just. And now, seven days into the experience, I feel the difference. The coughing has passed. The fever’s gone. A raging strep-like sore throat has finally dissipated. My nose runs but the congestion was never extreme. My bronchial tubes and trachea remained clear. I had no problem breathing.

But what happened to that powerhouse of energy that used to propel me out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and keep me going like Napolean’s army until sundown and sweet sleep?

Gone without a trace.

I have no choice but to rest, which I haven’t done since leaving Bali three-and-a-half months ago. Of course, all this downtime brings with it hours upon hours to reflect on – well – seventy-two years of life, and be humbled. There were events I shouldn’t have survived physically. There were years when I could have been devastated emotionally. There were traumas that might have left unhealable wounds.

But none of that happened. Why?

As I reflect on that question, I see the faces of kindness at each fork in the road.

Kindness.

In the last seven days, confined at home, one after another of my new friends have messaged me,

“We’ve found a test kit. We’ll drop it by…”

“You must need groceries, Send us your list…”

“How are you feeling today? If you need anything…”

“If you need anything…”

“If you need anything…”

Kindness.

My daughters were relentless. They knew far more about the virus than I did and my cavalier approach brought out the mama-bear fury in each of them. I was scolded, educated, and reminded how much I was loved.

I’m a bit ashamed that I had to be knocked flat out to realize the unsustainable pace I’d set for myself. It isn’t like there weren’t gentle nudges along the way. (Falling off the pillow and conking my head, for example – not so gentle but definitely a nudge.) Then along came Covid making it physically impossible for me to push myself.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, that’s it. Will this time be the charm? Will I accept that I’m human, elderly, and have limitations? Oooo. That’s a tough one. I guess time will tell.

Fawn Lake isn’t frozen, but I am…

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

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

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

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

Questions…

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

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

Meanwhile….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and I’ll step again.

Love is a Decision of the Will – Really?

It was 1981. I’d stopped in to see a friend, a strong, smart woman who had been married long enough to have three children – the oldest was four. She was large with striking looks, double the size of her husband, and she wore the pants. He was a sweetheart, mild-mannered, jovial, engaging. He adored her and took her bossing with a good-natured wink.

On this particular day our conversation turned to intimate themes. I can’t remember what triggered her statement, but I’ll never forget what she said.

“Sherry, love is a decision of the will.”

I felt as though I’d been gut-punched. I didn’t want to believe it. How cold. How unromantic. How, how, how…true?

I thought about the two of them, what an unlikely match they appeared to be. Was it a struggle for her? Was her morning mantra, I will love him today? Did she make that choice every single day, deliberately? Or was her comment in response to something I’d said? I hadn’t married the man of my dreams, but I didn’t want anyone to know that. It was all about the show, like my mother and our perfect family. But I felt safe with my friend. I might have let it slip that he was a disappointment – perhaps going so far as to say I no longer loved him.

Love is a decision of the will.

“You can’t mean that. Where’s the magic? What wife wants to have to will herself to love her husband? It shouldn’t be that hard.” At that time I was still trying to believe in happily-ever-after.

She didn’t smile. It was more of a raised eyebrow, you-poor-ignorant-child kind of look as she slowly nodded her head and sighed.

I ‘willed it’ with that husband for fifteen more years, long after any feelings of affection, any modicum of respect, any hope of change had withered. Her words gripped me with a force that commanded obedience and I obeyed.

Then one morning I woke up and chose not to love anymore.

There are two lessons here:

  • Words are powerful – what we say can change the trajectory of a person’s life, impact them emotionally for their betterment or their detriment, enhance or endanger their self-esteem, reverberate in their head forever
  • Strong statements must be tested – don’t swallow them whole even if someone you admire speaks them

Is love a decision of the will?

Forty years later, I’ve come to the conclusion that love is not one-size-fits-all.

For instance, there is nothing my girls could do that would ever stop my loving them. It isn’t possible. No matter what their feelings for me, no matter what their choices, no matter what, I will always love them. It’s unconditional. a response as involuntary as my heartbeat. It isn’t something I decided.

For everyone else, my love has an IF attached.

I’ll love a good friend IF they respect me, reciprocate my affection, and don’t misuse me.

Love for family members used to be automatic. I have to love you, you’re family. I no longer aspire to that belief. It takes a lot, but IF a relative won’t associate with me for whatever reason, I may choose not to love that person.

A partner?

Tricky, tricky, tricky. But I think I’ve learned a bit in my old age. Love cannot be based on a feeling. Romantic love is an illusion – a pleasant one – but an illusion nonetheless. It’s 70% hormones and 30% imagination and it’s unsustainable. Some of us can manipulate those percentages masterfully so imagination approaches 100%. It’s a story we tell ourselves to make believe things are better than they really are. It’s easier than admitting to a dysfunctional relationship. Easier than leaving.

We have to know ourselves well enough to understand what works for us and what doesn’t then negotiate the terms with our partner. There are those who have said:

I can love you IF we maintain separate homes. It works for them.

I can love you IF you will allow me the freedom to see other people.

I can love you IF I can spend one week a month away.

I can love you IF you give me $1000/week for whatever I want (Trust me – it happens.)

I can love you IF…

Then there are those precious ones who are so good to us that whatever they do that could be cause for annoyance is quickly forgiven and forgotten. Affection deepens with time. Trust grows. Love is easy. IF you are that good to me…

Love, then, is a compromise.

There’s more softness there. It suggests working together for the common good rather than one person’s steely-minded commitment not to hate. To me, a decision of the will says I will tolerate you, and that’s a beggarly substitute for love.

I don’t believe we can force ourselves to love. There has to be some element of love-ability which can be totally in the eye of the beholder and not visible to another soul, but it must exist.

These are my personal conclusions from a life lived with an abundance of misunderstanding around love. I very much enjoy deep philosophical discussions. Is love a decision of the will is a question ripe for exploration. You may wholeheartedly disagree with my point of view, and that’s wonderful. Let me hear your juiciest thoughts. Then I’ll decide whether or not I love you!

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