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

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

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

But backing up…

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

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

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

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

Jetlag subsided about the time I left New York.

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

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

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

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

They were every bit as delicious as they looked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And suddenly I’m lonesome.

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

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THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A PLUTO SOUL

When you have a Pluto soul…

Wait. Back up…

You know you have a Pluto soul when your evolutionary astrologer reveals that tidbit of terrifying information during a birth chart reading. She says it matter-of-factly, then adds, Oh, and by the way, the god of the hell realm also opposes your Venus and resides in your fifth house of sexuality, creativity, and…children.

I had my first reading when I was sixty. It was a telephone session. The person didn’t know anything about me. After an hour of listening with my jaw hanging, the dear woman said, and I quote, “Sherry, if you don’t change the direction of your life now, you’re nailing your coffin shut.”

It was harsh but she got my attention. I took her advice to heart and two years later, when my divorce was final, I retired and moved to Bali. It was as though I’d been bound and gagged my entire life and now the fetters were off. Every day was an adventure. Everything was new. I was in love with life, in love with Indonesia, and a bit more in love with myself than I’d dreamed possible.

I’d lived abroad for three years when, at sixty-five, I had my second reading. It was from this practitioner that I learned how significantly Pluto figured in my chart. With Pluto opposing Venus, she told me, it was almost impossible to have a successful romantic relationship. By that time I’d accumulated a distressing number of failed marriages.

To complicate matters, Pluto sat conjunct my moon. I had to find healthy ways to feed my shadow otherwise it would manifest catastrophe and dysfunction. The dark is so much a part of you, she said with an earnest, concerned look, if you don’t get enough excitement in your life in positive ways, you’ll create your own destructive chaos. Ouch. I won’t even go into how that tendency haunted my past. But nurtured appropriately, she assured me, your shadow is the truth teller. It can be a powerful ally.

I found much of that necessary nurture on the Island of the Gods. Bali, a paradise of sunlight and smiles, knows how to honor the darkness. It isn’t dusted off, polished, and shoved under the rug. Death is on display. Gamelan pounds in frenzied discordant percussion as sweating men carry the tower and bull to the cremation site. Smoke layers over the town while the body burns. On New Year’s Eve, monsters parade the streets enticing evil spirits to enter them. Ritual trance dance, ceremonial cleansing, shaman healers, black magic – they’re all just business-as-usual here – Pluto soul-food. Perfect for me. And the perfect place to write.

I noticed, however, that Pluto didn’t fully appreciate the need for quiet in my writing life. It’s a silent, solitary business and I spend many hours inside my head with imaginary characters of my own devising. This morning, try as I might I couldn’t focus. Lead-gray clouds poured rain. So I burned incense, turned on lights, did yoga and meditated, drank coffee, but restless itchiness persisted. Pluto grumbled. As torrents pelted down, the noise provided a rare opportunity. I scanned YouTube, hooked up my sound booster, and blasted, really blasted, music.

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about, Pluto seemed to say. I followed up with Leonard Cohen: “You Want it Darker,” “The Traitor,” “The Waltz.” So I waltzed, spinning through the house, one two three, one two three, one two three, whirling and dipping and letting go. Cathartic. I feasted on sound for three solid hours and sated my Plutonian appetite.

Evolutionary astrologers don’t mess around. When my second reading was finished I was stunned. How could she know me so well? She told me things about myself that hadn’t been clear, even to me, until she spoke them. I felt affirmed, seen and understood.

Beyond that, she showed me what still hung on from my karmic past, the snares that continued to trip me up, the tendencies that seemed to repeat in a never-ending loop. And she gave direction for the way ahead, the path of evolution to my highest, happiest, most fulfilled self.

Only evolutionary astrology accomplishes that. Many say it’s better than years of therapy. I wouldn’t know. But I do know the information I received in those two readings gave me the motivation and the awareness necessary to change my life.

Reptilian Brain – Lizard Love

I’ve owned dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, parakeets. There was a cute white bunny one Easter. We named her Snowball. She grew to the size of a two-year-old and was just as needy.

I live blissfully alone. My pet-owning days left with the kids.

Almost.

The cicak is a common house lizard prevalent in tropical regions. They come out when I turn on the lights and slurp up any flying or creeping thing that crosses their path. We have an agreement: they occupy the wall and ceiling, I stay on the floor. It’s worked.

One night about a year ago I was hammering out an article intent upon finishing before bed. Lights were on, cicaks were feasting. Then the edge of my computer moved. For a split second the adrenaline rush, the accelerated heartbeat, the panic. A cicak, the tiniest I’d ever seen, crept into sight. He was no more than an inch from nose to tail. I watched him poke around for a bit. Then he disappeared and I went back to work.

Several minutes passed and I’d forgotten about him when something tickled my hand.

“No!” I said as the youngster proceeded to make his way up my arm. “No, no, no! This is NOT okay. Where’s your mother?”

He stopped and looked up at me, his round eyes shining pure lizard love.

On the terrace, I directed him to the floor, closed the door with him outside and went back to writing.

Tickle, tickle. It had been less than five minutes. He was crawling up my leg.

“Listen, Junior. This is creepy. Your reptilian brain isn’t capable of attachment and I’m not your mother.”

This time I went farther afield to abandon him. When I returned I shut down the computer and began my bedtime ritual. He found me.

Totally weirded-out, I hurried to the far edge of the garden and deposited him on a rock. In no uncertain terms, I told him we were finished. All night I kept waking up thinking he was crawling on my neck, my face. But he wasn’t. He was gone.

The other morning as I lay on my back in Shivasana, I noticed a teenaged cicak watching me from the rafters. How long had he been there? Motionless, he kept his vigil until I’d rolled up my mat. The next day he was there again. For three weeks I watched him watching me. “Coincidence,” I told myself. “He just happens to sit up there at this time of the morning. Or maybe he likes the music.” Shamanic Dream by Anugama, calming, meditative, and rhythmic is my go-to for yoga. 

Our ritual continued. He was always there.

Then one afternoon in broad daylight – tickle, tickle. Teenage yoga buddy was making his way up my leg. “He’s lost,” I thought. “As soon as I stand up he’ll scamper away.” I stood. He clung. I stamped. He clung. I walk-ran to the garden. He clung. “I don’t do pets,” I told him. “I don’t do reptiles. Your brain cannot form attachments. Neither can mine. Don’t come back!”

He didn’t.

Whatever strange bonding instinct was at work there, I want no part of it. I’m committed to humans – they’re hard enough.

Small House Magic


How much do I really need?

That was the question I asked myself as the calendar left 2010 and I turned sixty-one. My life wasn’t working. The numbers I scrawled in my journal every morning didn’t add up to an early retirement – more like no retirement – ever. Too many bills. Too much debt. Too little IRA.

As blizzards stormed through that January, the thought of another winter in Minnesota gave me cold sweats. It wasn’t just the sixteen-hour arctic darkness, or icey steets, or no parking so the plow could get through that I dreaded. Or snow snow and more snow, or shoveling off the roof, the driveway, the sidewalk, or frozen pipes, broken pipes, ankle-length down coat over layers of fleece, socks, boots, hats, mittens, heating bills, aching joints. It was all that and more that made it unbearable.

And…I…was…over…it.

So when the numbers didn’t add up to the right answer, I tried a different question. How much do I really need? That sentence hounded me. The truth stared me in the face. I needed very little and had way too much. The weight of my belongings crushed me. I was imprisoned by abundance.

I’m a Capricorn – a goat-like being with stubborn drive and dogged persistence toward a goal – the top of the mountain will do. Without that vision it’s a slippery slide into grumpy discontent. I was teetering perilously close to the pit. But one thing was clear: I had to purge possessions.

Was it easy to let go of prized belongings? Not the Ralph Lauren farmhouse table. I knew if I could part with that I could part with anything. So I took photos and put it on Craigslist. It sold within hours. I whirled and whooped in the space where it had been and paid off two-thirds of my credit card debt. I couldn’t get rid of the remaining treasures fast enough. By winter of 2011 everything I owned fit into three plastic bins and a suitcase.

Debt-free from sales of all the unnecessary excess I could afford to dream. Without the responsibility of stuff I could go anywhere. I’d vacationed in Bali several years earlier. As I journaled through that December, visions of terraced rice paddies and swaying palms floated through my mind. Could I retire early and move there? My 62nd birthday was a month away. On March 1, 2012, a week before the first Social Security check came, my plane touched down on the Island of the Gods.

I took some risks those first years – used every dime of savings to lease a parcel of land in the center of Ubud and renovate the old house that sat on it. I knew nothing about building in Bali but I drafted plans for a major overhal and the patient crew told me I’d drawn walls too high to sustain earthquakes. They would build them for me if I wanted, but just FYI. Back to the drawing board…literally! Finished, my new apartment was a hair shy of 500 sq. ft. and it was perfect.

There’s magic in small spaces. Since upkeep is minimal, I have time and energy to do all the things I love. I possess only items I want to look at because there’s no place to store anything else. I get fresh produce daily because my small fridge will accommodate only one day’s fruits and veggies. I eat simple meals because I don’t own a microwave or an oven. I save money because it’s less expensive to care for 500 sq. ft. than it is to maintain a mini-mansion.

That leap into the unknown has changed me. How could it not? I no longer have to cope with winter. I love my tiny house, my giant view, and the wild freedom to live life full throttle. But to get here…

I had to take that leap.

The custom teak table and chairs do dual duty: desk and dining. Behind the carved door is my only closet…gulp!
The kitchen is compact and functional. I love the hand-carved apron and the hand-woven under-counter storage baskets.
The dorm-size refrigerator tucks under the counter. The only other appliances are a blender and yogurt maker.
During the day the doors slide open to give the breezes and butterflies free access.
The daybed (original paint) was buried under logs and branches in the corner of Ketut’s family’s woodcarving shed. His father made it years ago for his growing family. I’d been looking all over Bali for exactly that! It’s my sofa.
The queen-size bed faces east. I love waking up at 6:30 to the sunrise!
Sometimes the first thing I do when I open my eyes is grab my camera.
I’m standing in the shower to take this photo of my sweet 4′ x 6′ bathroom.
The shower occupies the far end.
The ceiling peaks at 20 feet and lends volume and beauty to the simple room.
And my view over Ubud’s rooftops…to die for!

Self-Discovery – I’m Old


I woke up one morning twenty-nine years ago to an identity trauma – who was that middle-aged woman staring at me from my mirror?

The strangest part of the mid-life crisis is that it doesn’t creep up bit-by-bit allowing itself to be integrated gently. No. It slams, shocks, knocks upside the head with a stunning force that shouts: You’re old.

Until that morning I felt vibrant and sexy, very much alive. I hadn’t given aging a passing thought. That stymies me even now. How could I not have seen it coming? Proof of the process is everywhere – parents age, siblings age, movie stars age – my own children were aging. I had to have known that I wouldn’t escape the inevitable. Yet the shock of it flattened me.

Today a similar jolt brought me up short. It was a thought that loomed at the edge of other thoughts. It had dark borders and felt ominous so I ignored it as long as I could. When it saw it’s chance, it sprang and the impact of its message pierced me with slivers of dread.

Questions swirled. At what point will I no longer be taken seriously? When will my opinion be brushed over, my suggestions ignored, my point of view deemed irrelevant simply because others assume I’ve exceeded my use-by date?

I’m not talking about dementia or Alzheimers. People with those afflictions often lose their ability to think logically or communicate well. My concern is ageism – the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of age alone. It hadn’t concerned me before. But as the idea wormed into my headspace today it felt just like that morning twenty-nine years ago when I saw myself for the first time at the far end of youth.

It has me thinking about how much I appreciate my deductive reasoning abilities. I enjoy having my words respected and my advice sought. I relish intelligent commentary, debate, and the rare witty comeback that I pull out of somewhere! I don’t want to be marginalized and set to boil dry on the back burner. Death would be preferable.

Why isn’t there an outcry against ageism in the media like there is for racism and sexism and gender bias? Why is discrimination on the basis of age accepted as normal? Possibly because it’s so commonplace. It’s such an automatic response that we’re unaware we’re doing it. I’m guilty. I’ve discounted the abilities of the elderly based solely on their white heads, but never again.

The realization has dawned that this kind of stereotyping could become my personal reality. That’s terrifying. Fortunately for me, I live in Bali where the culture honors oldies. If I hang exclusively with my Balinese friends I’m safe!

Seriously though, it’s time to rally. Babyboomers are 60 million strong. If we join forces and speak out against ageism, I guarantee we’ll be heard – white hair and all.

The Importance of Mistakes

picture from: https://id.pinterest.com/vexyvee/pins/
Don’t let remorse trap you in a non-life.

My daughter came home fired up from a company training session. She thought the concept that mistakes would no longer be referred to as mistakes was brilliant. In that progressive industry errors in judgment were labeled opportunities. I remember at the time thinking, Why not call a spade a spade? Nobody wants to take responsibility anymore.

I was wrong.

At the time I labored under clouds of guilt because of my own mistakes. My definition agreed with the Cambridge Dictionary: an action, decision, or judgment that produces an unwanted or unintentional result. I’d accumulated a significant number of those unwanted results and anything that smelled like avoidance of responsibility for my errors in judgment annoyed me.

It’s curious, isn’t it, how things like that can hang around to haunt you? In fact, that word, opportunity, wouldn’t let go. One day it hovered in my consciousness bugging me until I finally checked the definition.

Opportunity: A favorable juncture of circumstances.

I ran through a few mental equations:

If mistake = opportunity

And opportunity = a favorable juncture of circumstances

Then mistake = a favorable juncture of circumstances

Really?

The answer is yes and no. It’s what we believe about our mistakes that either imprisons us in guilt and shame or catalyzes our personal evolution. If we try to avoid the pain of our misjudgments or wallow in the messy consequences of them, we limit our ability to progress into a deeper relationship with our own life.

But what if we saw every mistake as a favorable juncture of circumstances? The possibilities of that blew my mind! What a viewpoint shift, right? That change in perspective would empower us to forge ahead, to look for opportunities for self-discovery and growth in the midst of the fallout of an error in judgment.

Sometimes our mistakes hurt others.

That fact cannot be remedied or undone for anyone else. What’s left for us, personally, are the stories we tell ourselves — our response to whatever repercussions have been generated. We can be destroyed, damaged for life, or we can move forward toward healing. There are lessons we would never learn without those events. Often the greatest opportunities for growth are brought about by our most grievous mistakes. Revelations come as we allow the pain, admit culpability for the part we played in the debacle, and move through it into greater awareness of our weaknesses and tendencies.

It can be terrifying to take a close look at the past and risk being flooded with unresolved grief. But until we do, we’re more handicapped than someone on crutches. We’ll never be able to fully express who we are when a portion of the self is kept hidden.

Changing how we perceive mistakes isn’t as simple as telling ourselves that the hairy monster living in our psyche is a wonderful growth opportunity. Depending upon the degree of trauma and fear, we have to find a level of safety that makes it possible to begin our mental shift.

There are several approaches.

1) Therapy is one of them. I personally found the expertise of a Somatic Experiencing therapist incredibly helpful in dealing with my guilt, shame, and self-blame. But everyone is different — find what works for you.

2) Telling a trusted friend or family member — with extra emphasis on trusted — who will listen without judgment to what happened, what you fear, how you want to move forward can be first a step toward liberation.

3) Write it. I cannot emphasize enough the insights to be gained by writing the whole story as you remember it. Memory is tricky. As you describe what happened you may find yourself asking, “Was that really how it was?” As you write, ask why questions. Why did I do this? Why did I think that? Why did I say what I did? Keep asking those questions until you get to the real answers which may not be the story you’ve always told yourself.

Then let it go?

Maybe not. The truth is, we can’t. Trauma remains embedded in cell memory. But how we choose to think about those life challenges has the potential to change everything. What we can let go is our attachment to shame, guilt, and self-blame. When we do, relief is enormous and liberating. The best parts of self are free to come out to play. And the depth of soul we can summon to meet others in their own dark places multiplies exponentially.

Before I understood the importance of my mistakes
SAD – HAUTED – STUCK
After I explored the opportunities surrounding my errors in judgment
FREE

Creating A Life that Fits Like Skin – Seven Years Later

 

Creating a Life That Fits Like Skin was the title of the first blog I posted when I moved to Bali. I knew I’d found my place, my people, my authentic self, and I thought I knew why.

The island nurtured me. The natural beauty of tropical rainforests, rugged coastlines, pristine beaches, and cloud-shrouded mountaintops offered ever-changing vistas. Exotic temples and terraced rice paddies awed me.

People were kind, welcoming, generous, and devoted to their Hindu rituals. They were other-focused – as non-narcissistic a group as could possibly be – devoted to the common good. They respected themselves and others and went about life with quiet dignity.

Those were my surface perceptions. They were all true and fed my starved soul. But there was another energy, something deeper, hidden, that hummed in me and came alive when I heard the metallic frenzy of a gamelan orchestra, saw a cremation pyre shooting flames and black smoke skyward, and I prickled with gooseflesh when the ogoh-ogoh monsters paraded the dark streets on Nyepi Eve.

I had much to learn about my Pluto heart.

In the holy springs of Tirta Empul, thirty minutes outside of Ubud, there are twelve gushing fountains to cleanse the body. Past another wall are four more for purifying the mind.

The water was chilly and fish nibbling at my legs distracted me. When I reached the fourth cascading fountain and ducked into it, Bali spoke: “If you dare to truly know me, you must accept the darkness with the light.” It was as though I’d been zapped by lasers. My eyes sprung tears, my body trembled, but my heart knew. This was the missing piece, not just in Bali, but the thing that had gone so terribly awry with my life.

The Balinese have a foot in both worlds, the seen, and the unseen. Their rituals strive to maintain a balance between the two realities knowing that both have their place, that neither is inherently good nor bad. Ancient texts written on strips of preserved palm leaf, instruct those who can read them in astrology, myth, medicine, and magic, both black and white.

Lontar

Darkness is paraded in the streets as though to say, “Look, everyone! These are the symbols. They represent what we cannot see. Look!” Offerings are piled in towering stacks and people gather in dance, trance, and prayer. 

The Midwest, mainstream, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant box I was raised in had no room for deviant behavior. Even Catholics were looked upon somewhat askance. For those of us who need the Plutonian connection with the underworld, there were few options. Some turned to opiates and alcohol to brush elbows with darkness. Others, like me, looked for it in marriage and found it in divorce.

It’s taken time to understand the message of that holy spring.

I didn’t know how to care for that other side of me. I created a facade for the person I thought I should be and played the role, denying self and watching my life disintegrate. This quote by C. JoyBell C. says it well: “The caterpillar does not become a butterfly by telling everybody it has wings. It actually buries itself in darkness and grows those wings.” 

The Balinese know that darkness comes out sideways causing great harm if left to fester unattended. Shamanic rituals offer an outlet for dark energies and are essential to everyday life. On this island of mystery and magic, I’m free to embrace the shady underbelly that makes me who I am. The shadow deserves to live openly, to dance with darkness and claim its place. When all has been said the truth will out: without darkness light has no significance.

 

 

Don’t Mess With A Bali Girl!

 

My friend’s villa has an oven. In the U.S. an oven’s a necessity. Here it’s a luxury. Balinese cuisine doesn’t use it. If a dish can’t be made on a cooktop, in a rice cooker, over an open fire, or atop a grill, it’s of no use. But times change.

Tourism has brought big hotels. Big hotels need chefs and ovens. There’s a new generation of Balinese who want to attend culinary school with an eye to cooking for five-star luxury: a Four Seasons or a St. Regis. Wayan is one of them.

I met Wayan seven years ago when she was eleven. Unlike other children in the village, she wasn’t afraid of my differentness. She followed me around, called me her big sister, and listened with determined intensity when I spoke English.

After an outing to the friend’s house where the oven lives, I told Wayan I’d like to write down her story. We sat at the dining table and she took me through the events of her life leading up to now. When she finished I asked her if I could share it on my blog. “Oh, yes!” she said.

WAYAN’S STORY

Wayan was born the fifth of six girls. In her mountain village of Banjar Belong Dauh, she walked five kilometers a day, six days a week, to elementary school. From seven in the morning until noon the children studied. After school, Wayan helped cut grass with a short curved knife to sell to neighbors who had cows. That was the family’s income.

After six years, she entered junior school. It was closer, a three-kilometer walk, and classes were from seven until one with a short break for lunch. For many rural Balinese, junior school is the end of their formal education. But Wayan knew she was smart. She had bigger dreams. Her parents told her high school wasn’t possible, they couldn’t afford it. But that didn’t stop her. She got a summer job working construction spending her days carrying buckets of rocks and sand on her head from the road to the building site. In one month she’d saved enough for high school.

At this point in her story she stopped. With sad eyes, she stared down at the table where we were sitting. “Wayan, what happened?”

“There was a family emergency,” she said. My parents needed the money. Of course, I gave it to them. I was very disappointed.”

“Family comes first, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said. “Always.”

But opportunity opened another door. One of Wayan’s sisters had married a man from Bedugul. She’d moved there with him and his extended family. The sister told Wayan that she could come and live with them and get a job at Sila’s Agro Tourism in Bedugul.

Wayan made the move to Bedugul and started training with Sila’s, earning a small wage. But just as she completed the first four weeks, word came from home that their mother was sick. Wayan hurried back to help her father and younger sister care for her mother.

“Did it seem like you would never reach your goal? Did you lose heart?” Wayan’s a diligent worker and a stubborn but loveable young woman whose disposition is perpetual sunshine. Yet the setbacks had to have been demoralizing.

“No, Mom,” she said. “I know if I keep trying I will get what I want.”

Shortly after she turned sixteen, Wayan heard of a job in a small local café in the village of Tegallalang about forty minutes from home. She seized the opportunity and located a high school in that area. While working and living in the café, she paid tuition, began night classes, and sent half her wages to her parents every payday.

Wayan had been at the warung six months when Ketut’s helper left and we were short-handed at my house. Ketut suggested Wayan as a replacement.

“No, Ketut. She’s your sister-in-law, too much family, and she’s only sixteen, still in high school.”

Two days later, Wayan came in with a bucket of soapy water. “I will mop the floor now, Mom,” she said.

That was three-and-a-half years ago. Wayan worked days and continued her schooling in Tegallalang at night. She graduated this spring and was thrilled to find a culinary college nearby with evening classes. She registered a few weeks ago and plans to continue working with Ketut until she’s hired by a hotel in Dubai, one of the countries where this school places graduates.

Wayan’s proud of the fact that she’s been able to buy a television for her parents and a new motorbike for herself. She pays for her younger sister’s schooling and continues to share the money she earns with her parents.

My friend with the oven finds Wayan delightful and wants to encourage her culinary dreams. So the other day we were invited to bring a recipe and ingredients for a baking session. I decided cookies would be easiest, and suggested Snickerdoodles. What could go wrong with flour, butter, eggs, and sugar? A date was set.

The recipe was easy to find online. I made a shopping list. We would stop at the grocery store on the way to the villa and collect what we needed. There was one ingredient I knew we wouldn’t find: cream of tartar. I googled it and discovered lemon juice is a substitute. Who would have guessed?

The day arrived and off we went in fine spirits to buy supplies. In the flour aisle, I stared hopelessly at the vast display, an impossible number of choices, all labelled in Indonesian. I’d never had occasion to purchase flour in Bali so I asked Wayan, “For sweet cakes, what do you use?”

She immediately grabbed Tepung Terigu Putih, white wheat flour. The bag had dessert-type pictures on it.

“This is the one? You’re sure?” She nodded.

The next hurdle was tougher. The recipe called for half butter, half shortening. Bali doesn’t have shortening. After stewing over what might be the best of the bad choices, I settled for sunflower oil margarine. It would have to be less oily than butter, wouldn’t it? I remembered as a girl substituting all butter to make my cookies taste even better than Mom’s. When I took them out of the oven, the dough had spread making one giant burned mess that covered the whole baking sheet. Lesson learned.

White sugar, lemons, the rest was easy. We left the store, hopped on the motorbike, and continued out of Ubud to Lungsiakan where my friend lives. She’d fired up her oven and baked a coconut custard cake to test the heat. I took a closer look at the appliance. An army of knobs marched along the oven’s front with dashes stamped on them. No numbers. No Hi, Med, Low. Just dashes.

“How do you tell how hot it is?”

“Trial and error, I guess,” she said, as she opened the door and pulled her confection half-way out, checked the bottom which was getting brown, twisted one of the knobs, and slid it in again. A sense of impending doom settled over me.

Other difficulties presented themselves. The recipe was written using cups. The measuring utensils in my friend’s kitchen were based on grams and liters. We pulled up a conversion chart online and I scribbled the metric equivalent next to each ingredient.

Mixing began.

As Wayan measured the flour she let it mound at the top of the cup. “Here, Wayan. Like this,” I said, taking the flat side of a knife and leveling off the excess. “It’s important to measure precisely.”

When all the ingredients had been added and the mixture was well blended, I could tell from years of Snickerdoodle experience that something was wrong. There was no way we were going to roll that wet, runny dough into balls. I looked at my friend, my friend looked at me. “More flour,” we said. For the next ten minutes, I added indiscriminate mounds of the powdery white stuff while Wayan stirred. So much for my strict insistence on precision.

Finally, the consistency was the way I remembered it. There was only one test left to see how we’d fared. If the cookies held their shape during baking in spite of sunflower seed oil margarine, and if they didn’t become tooth-chipping rocks because of all the flour, I’d consider our bake-off a raging success.

After a trial run to test the oven for heat and length of time – during which one pan of Snickerdoodles suffered burned bottoms – the rest were perfect.

The three of us sat down to tea and coconut custard cake to celebrate our victory and laugh about the sorry attempt to introduce Wayan to the magical oven.


Teatime finished, we left with an invitation to come back and try something else soon. On the motorbike going home, I felt the need to explain. “Wayan…”

“Yes, Mom?”

I searched for words. “You know, culinary school won’t be anything like this.”

She laughed in that knowing, spirited way that defines her. “I hope so, Mom,” she said.

A Life of No Regret

 

I ran across this poem recently:

What I Regret
By Nina Cassian

. . . never having heard the voice of the Dodo bird . . .
. . . never having smelled the Japanese cherry trees . . .
. . . never having punished the lovers and friends that
deserted me . . .
. . . never having asked for honours that I deserved . . .
. . . never having composed a Mozart sonata . . .
. . . never having realised that I’d live long enough to
regret all the above . . .
. . . and much, much more . . .

What a heartbreaking indictment, a tragic litany for a final act.

At some point in my fifties I realized that if I continued my trajectory, I would die with huge regrets. The picture was graphic: I saw myself on my death bed. I felt the agony of an unlived life but it was more than that. I was ashamed. Why had I undervalued myself? Why hadn’t I followed my dream of travel, my love of adventure? Why had I squandered the gift of years? I was smart, strong, healthy, and capable right up to the end. I could have changed my circumstances at any time. But seeing the shrunken disillusioned shell I’d become, it was obvious I hadn’t.

The vision terrified me. But it prompted action: a slow steady turning of the barge midstream to head toward the waterfall, and conquering that, to the sea beyond.

What I know now that I didn’t know then is a basic condition of my character: I have the capacity for unfathomable darkness and I’m hard-wired for adventure. It’s in my DNA. But if I don’t get healthy excitement, and if the darkness isn’t deliberate it will come out sideways, corrupted, and dysfunctional. In my life, it had done just that.

People thought I was nuts to move to the other side of the globe alone, to a place where I knew no one and had only been once for a two-week vacation. But there are times when knowing settles into the bones; times when you realize that listening to the crazy voices in your head will save you.

People have asked me, “How did you summon the courage to do it?”

Courage? Ha! It was terror, pure and simple. I was terrified of the alternative and fear is by far the most powerful motivator there is.

That short visit was enough for me to know that Bali’s energy was different, that there was something there for me.

The culture is rich, deep, and ancient. Shamanistic rituals maintain the balance between darkness and light.

There are world-class events: the Ubud Writers Festival, the Food Festival, the Jazz Festival, the Bali Spirit Festival, the Kite Festival, the Arts Festival, that challenge and entertain.

There are natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, that provide enough trauma for several lifetimes.

There are problems: illiteracy, pollution, poverty, which create boundless opportunities to get involved and help. Bali, by nature, provides everything I need and allows me to be fully who I am, effortlessly. And maybe that’s the key: the lack of striving.

I hope you aren’t tired of hearing this from me. I know it’s a recurring theme. But I can’t emphasize enough the importance of living a fulfilled life. I hitched myself along for the ride on someone else’s dream many times. It’s a spirit-shattering business. Nobody but you can live your life. Nobody but you can nourish your soul.

Sink them! she said.

 

Susi

Susi Pudjiastuti Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (Photo from Wikipedia)

Susi smokes and has tattoos. She’s also the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in Indonesia and is credited with sinking 87 boats caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The Ubud Writers’ Festival is underway. Each of the four days of this world-class production has as many as 18 panels, ninety minutes each, where authors, journalists, and activists from all over the world expound in their areas of expertise. Since there are three venues and three different sessions going simultaneously at all times, I can only physically attend six per day.

I feverishly waited for weeks for the Festival Program Book to be available. When at last I held it in my sweaty little hands, I pored over the events, agonizing that I couldn’t be in three places at once.

One description, in particular, grabbed me. Who would not want to hear from an Indonesian woman who is high in government in a fiercely patriarchal society and is sinking boats? She must be really something, I thought.

Susi Pudjiastuti is not merely something, she’s something else, and she’s doing everything that her position in government allows to protect the ocean for the people of Indonesia. “The blue of the sea is my medicine,” she said, and I listened, mesmerized, as she told how boats disguised as fishing vessels were engaging in trans-national organized crime. Not only were they depleting the supply of fish available to local fishermen they were also trafficking humans for commercial exploitation and transporting illegal drugs.

But Susi had a plan: Terrify them. She also had a flair for drama. At this point in the interview, laughter erupted and I may have missed or misinterpreted what was said. But I swear Susi indicated that she staged explosions at sea and made certain they were captured on social media. It sent a stern warning: Don’t mess with us!

She wasn’t kidding. Illegal ships were apprehended, evacuated, emptied of fuel, swept clean of environmental hazards, and blown up. No lives were lost but boats were sunk – 87 of them in 2017. Now the waters surrounding Indonesia are fished by Indonesians only. Her methods may have been unorthodox, but they were effective.

Susi didn’t finish high school but her message to the women of Indonesia is clear: “Education gives you access to opportunity and women in business actually do better than men.” When asked about her nicotine habit and tatts she didn’t miss a beat. “None of that matters,” she said. “It’s time to change stereotypes. The most important measure of success is a good job done.”

What a way to kick off the 2018 Festival. The sessions that followed Susi’s were equally phenomenal. The Ubud Writers’ Festival is like drinking from a gushing fire hydrant. It’s enough intellectual stimulation in four days to keep me satiated until the same time next year. I can’t wait for tomorrow!

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