Am I woman?

Scrubbed and polished sky shone brightly overhead as Dan navigated the twisty coastal road into the City. “It’s carmageddon,” he said, and I translated it karma-geddon thinking my own private thoughts. I was unaware that the term referred to actual cars. Unaware, as well, that this weekend marked the grand finale of Fleet Week in San Francisco, that traffic would be snarly, that people would be out in droves.

Our destination: the Legion of Honor Museum.

I hadn’t Googled it, so when we pulled up to a structure resembling a Roman temple on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, I was surprised.  I’d assumed something more on the order of Frank Gehry architecture; edgy contemporary, in-your-face innovation.

Instead, the structure bore witness to what I’ve been taught to consider the ultimate in cultural refinement – the Roman era – art, poetry, literature, scientific breakthroughs, palatial homes with sumptuous furnishings. Power and privilege.

Perhaps I was off balance from the get-go. Perhaps two years of pandemic lockdown in Bali, isolated, uncertain of everything, stripped me of social resilience. There were people. Everywhere. And that was before we even entered the building.

Had I done my research I’d have been better prepared.

I’d have known that the brilliant work of a female artist, Wangechi Mutu, was being featured. But I didn’t know, and I wasn’t prepared.

The following quote appears on the Museum’s website and describes Mutu’s art:

Over the past two decades, Wangechi Mutu has created chimerical constellations of powerful female characters, hybrid beings, and fantastical landscapes. With a rare understanding of the power and need for new mythologies—the productive friction of opposites beyond simple binaries and stereotypes—Mutu breaches common distinctions among human, animal, plant, and machine. At once seductive and threatening, her figures and environments take the viewer on journeys of material, psychological, and sociopolitical transformation. 

Her bold interpretation of femininity, unrestrained, superimposed on a backdrop of paintings by male artists depicting women as we’ve been taught to be seen, assaulted my nervous system. Wild emotions churned through me and I could only identify one of them as I navigated the exhibits: anger. What was it that made me furious?

I’m not someone who processes quickly. I tend to go first into a state of overwhelm where I can’t think, can’t verbalize, I just absorb information. Then piece by piece, over hours and days, I bring it out and sift through the layers.

It slowly seeped into my consciousness that I was angry at myself for living small for so many years…

for buying into the lie that men hold all the cards and women’s role is subservient…

for judging my value based on how I was valued by the men in my life.

I was angry that Mutu was the ONLY female artist represented in that vast collection of paintings. And yet, perhaps that was intentional, the productive friction of opposites…

I was f***ing furious that the standards of beauty – sensuality – sexuality – purity – allure, all of it, all of what I was supposed to be, has always been dictated by men. F***ing furious.        

And there was Mutu’s art. Mutu’s depiction of the feminine going beyond simple binaries and stereotypes.

Feminine images, sleek, gritty, organic, metallic. Alien. Alien. We have alienated ourselves from our true selves by allowing patriarchy to define us.

I’d identified another emotion. Grief.

In Defense of the Dustah (and other shapeless garments)

Lottie Nevin is one of the most intriguing women I ever met. She was living in Jakarta with her husband, Irishman she called him, when our paths crossed. He was teaching at a university there but they were often at their vacation home in Bali. Lottie and I were instant friends. Then they moved to Spain. I miss her.

She was a sunny-side-up, can-do person and everything she said was hilarious. One comment in particular has stuck with me. She was talking about her garment of choice. “I hold comfort in the highest esteem,” she said. “Why would any woman want to be trussed up like a Christmas goose and totter around on pointy-toed, spikey-heeled chambers of torture?” Her look of baffled disdain spoke louder than words. Then she shrugged, shook her head, and groaned. “But Irishman hates my dustah.”

“What’s a dustah?” I asked. It sounded exotic and foreign. She looked at me aghast.

“You don’t know? It’s that shapeless thing that hangs off your shoulders and doesn’t come in contact with your body anywhere else…the most comfortable thing alive. You can go naked as a jay underneath – it’s heaven.”

A memory took shape in my mind’s eye of my mother’s floral pastel, snap-up-the-front housecoat. She’d called it a duster – dustER. Ah-ha!

So that’s what we were talking about. Lottie’s accent was decidedly not English in the Midwestern U.S. style. It had the delightful flavor of the British Isles that made ah’s out of r’s.

I remembered Mom wearing her gown in the morning. But after school lunches were packed and breakfast eaten, she exchanged comfort for clothing that fit her form. It sounded like Lottie missed that step and dear Irishman didn’t approve.

Mom had Dad to impress. Lottie has Irishman.

I don’t cater to anyone but myself. But Lottie’s words stick in my mind every time I slip into my most comfortable outfit. I’ll have walked a mile or more with intense tropical sun beating on my head. I’ll be dripping, my clothing drenched in sweat. As soon as my feet touch home turf, I beeline for the shower and peel off the soggy garments.

Showered and refreshed, I reach for the dress. As it slips over my head, pure joy floods my soul. Stress leaches out of my body. Invariably I inhale, deep and long, and release a blissful sigh. Nothing else even comes close to the relief of lounging the afternoon away in unbound ecstasy.

The pandemic has changed my apparel. Comfort is the ultimate driving factor and yesterday I came face-to-face with the consequences of that. For eighteen months I’ve worn nothing snug – nothing that requires me to suck in my stomach. I’ve sat way more than I’ve stood or walked. Now that I’m packing for a trip to see family in the States, I’m trying on ‘real’ clothes. To my horror, a fleshy spare tire seems to have settled around my waist and hips. I’m pear-shaped with toothpick legs and that is not okay.

There’s not much hope of remedying the situation in the eleven days before I leave. But once there…

Jessa and Dan have promised long hikes on the ridges along the California coastline overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

In Minnesota, I’ll stroll the path along Minnehaha Creek to Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha with my twin grandsons.

Pennsylvania with Joy and Kellen and my very active, very precocious granddaughters will be anything but sedentary. By the time I return to Bali I’ll be whipped into shape.

Re-formed.

Or…Maybe I’ll melt back into my ‘dustah,’ breathe that blissful sigh, and revert to my old, wicked ways.

Do any of you out there share Lottie’s love of the shapeless, unconfined comfort of the dustah?

Has the pandemic changed the way you dress?

Has anyone else gone pear-shaped?

Remembering 9/11 twenty years later – An excerpt from my memoir

There have been countless memorable days in my life and I tend to focus on the happy ones. But the circumstances around September 11, 2001 cannot be forgotten. This morning I felt compelled to open my memoir and revisit the chapters that summed up that experience.

I’ve decided to share them with you. The names of my daughters have not been changed – all others have.

Chapter 55

The contractor came highly recommended. Rusty stuttered a little. One of his fingers was a nub at mid-joint. Day or two old stubble, fine and sandy-colored, poked from his cheeks, and he avoided eye contact. A plaid flannel shirt, pilled and faded with one corner of the pocket ripped loose, flapped open over a thread-thin tee. Pleased I wouldn’t have another chatty business partner, I welcomed his quirkiness. Innate goodness shone about him like an aura and my gut said I could trust him. 

Work progressed at snail’s pace but Rusty delivered with a precision worthy of any obsessive-compulsive perfectionist. Every week he brought receipts and a bill for his time. I paid with an eagerness that surprised me.

Summer passed with the lingering smell of sawdust and turpentine ever-present in the house.

Joy, my fashionista, had been packing for weeks. Outfits went into the suitcase and came out a day later, replaced by other outfits. She would be in a dorm on the FIT campus in the heart of Manhattan, the Fashion Institute of Technology, her dream.

I flew with her to New York. It was the second time in that city for both of us, and we planned to decipher the subway system, get her settled with her roommates, and say goodbye.

All was accomplished in three short days. I was due to catch a cab for the airport the next morning and Joy would walk a couple of blocks from our hotel to the campus to begin her new life. A blanket of grief wrapped around me. We crawled into the room’s one bed and I couldn’t stop the great salt streams drooling from my eyes.

“I’m sorry I’m crying, honey. I’m really so happy for you!” I blubbered as we hugged each other and rocked back and forth. “You’ve always wanted this.” Joy had tears too, but I knew they were only in response to my distress.

“Oh, Mommy,” Joy hummed in her kitten purr. “You’ll be fine. Jenny’s still at home with you and I’ll call every day, I promise.”  I burrowed my head into the pillow and tried to sleep, but there was none of that as night dragged into morning.

Both early risers, we were up at five. Spent and tearless, I gathered my scattered belongings for the flight home. The aroma from a coffee shop next to the hotel lured us and we grabbed one last cup together. The crush and din, even at this early hour, dirty fog, and a city crowded with too much humanity overwhelmed me. But the feverish excitement that radiated from Joy left no mistake. New York was right for her. I had to let go.

It was time. We summoned a cab and I wrapped my spunky angel in a final, mighty hug. “Call when you get home,” Joy said. I nodded, mute, through a fresh onslaught of tears, and ducked into the back seat of a cab. As the taxi pulled away, Joy’s face grew tiny, then evaporated in the teeming throng.

Chapter 56

True to her promise, Joy did call every day. It was Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001. She’d been in New York for two weeks. As I drove Jenny to school on my way to work, an announcement interrupted the song on her favorite radio station. An aircraft had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. My first thought was that an air traffic controller had made a terrible miscalculation. As we waited for more information the sounds coming from the radio escalated into mass hysteria. The announcer gasped. There was another plane. The second tower had been hit.

At the school entrance I jerked to a stop. Jenny and I stared at each other, horrified, as the radio continued to blast chaos.

“Call Joy,” Jenny’s voice squeaked, thready and tight. I punched speed dial and held my breath: Your call cannot be completed as dialed. I tried again, then abandoned the speed key and entered Joy’s number by hand.

“It’s not going through.” I tried to keep the fear out of my voice. “I’ll keep trying. Are you okay to go to school?”

“I think so.”

“If you need me to pick you up early, just call, okay?”

“Okay, Mom. Do you think Joy’s all right?”

I summoned a confidence I didn’t feel. “The campus is at least a mile from the towers. I’m sure she’s fine.” I desperately wanted to believe it, but my hands shook as I pulled away from the curb and tried the phone again. Why wouldn’t the call go through? The radio spewed frenzied madness as my mind created nightmare scenes in the city I’d visited less than two weeks before. When my phone beeped, I jumped, praying it was Joy.

“Sherry, where are you? Did you hear?” Hope sank. It was the voice of my business partner.

“Mae! Yes! I’m trying to call Joy.”

“I’m watching the news. Communications in New York are down. You probably won’t be able to get through.”

“Oh no!” The panic I’d been fighting to control edged in.

“I brought the portable TV. It’s hooked up here in the office.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

All morning we sat in darkness glued to the impossibility of the tragedy in New York, window shades pulled against the sun’s glare. The flicker of the screen stuttered on our faces as devastation played over and over again. I kept punching the #3 key, desperate to hear Joy’s voice.

Weeks ago I’d scheduled an appointment with a new client for two o’clock on September eleventh. The woman hadn’t called to cancel. It was in an old-money neighborhood minutes away. The TV droned on. The two explosions at the World Trade Center were followed by a plane that plowed into the Pentagon, and a fourth that crashed in Pennsylvania. The country was paralyzed. Where would terror strike next? President Bush issued an order that all aircraft were grounded. No one was to take off or land on U.S. soil.

At 1:30 I grabbed my briefcase and left the misery of the news behind long enough to walk to the car and turn on the radio. I approached the client’s address, parked, got out, and hit #3 one more time. Joy answered. My knees buckled. I grabbed the door and sagged against the side of the car.

“Joy! Oh my God, Joy!” The slam of relief was almost too much to bear.

“I’m in line waiting to give blood. I’m okay, but it’s awful Mom. You can’t imagine.” I leaned against the cold metal, tears of relief streaming, and listened. Crisp leaves from ancient oaks swirled in the wind that eddied around my feet. Joy sounded strong but would it last? How long before the trauma sank in? She said she’d felt the vibrations from the crashes in her dorm. Her eighteenth birthday was two weeks away. Can a seventeen-year-old legally give blood? The thought flitted and was lost.

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m okay,” she reassured me again. “I’ll call you tonight.” The phone went dead. In front of me, the house with Corinthian porch columns waited. Joy was okay. My happy-go-lucky, sun’s-always-shining daughter was okay. I wanted to bask in the huge blessing of that forever. Instead, forcing one foot in front of the other, I climbed the steps to the massive double front door. A woman about my age, pixie-like with cropped Mia Farrow hair, invited me in. I could hear the drone of a TV in the background.

“Have you heard?” the woman asked.

“I was just on the phone with my daughter in Manhattan.”

“Our son works at the Pentagon in the wing that was hit. He had a meeting out of the office this morning…” She stopped, clutched her throat and reached for my hand. Minutes ticked past, measured by the beats of two mothers’ hearts fused in gratitude and grief.

“He’s okay then?” 

“Yes.” She whispered it so low I almost didn’t hear. We sat together that afternoon drinking tea and sharing stories of our children, the design proposal forgotten. When it was time to pick up Jenny from school, I asked my new friend if she wanted to reschedule.

“You know,” she said, her brow forming V-shaped ripples that met above her nose, “it doesn’t matter now.”

“Doesn’t matter?”

“The changes I thought were so necessary. Hundreds of people are dead but my son was spared.”

“I understand.” The knot in my throat tightened and tears threatened again. “I’m glad your son is okay.”

“And your daughter.”

 We hugged as she let me out. I crossed the street to the car, turned the switch for the radio off, and started the engine.

Joy called that night, still brave, but the next day, shock hit. “I need to come home Mom, just for a few days. It’s crazy here! There are bomb threats at the Armory just a few blocks from the dorm. We had to evacuate our rooms three times last night.”

“Oh, no! Okay, honey, but airports are closed.”

“I don’t care. I’ll take the train, or a bus.”

“Let me check Amtrak, I’ll call you back.”

“I’m packed. I’m going to start walking to the bus station at Port Authority.”

“Joy, wait. It’ll only take a minute…”

“No, Mom! I can’t! I’ll hitchhike if I have to, but I need to get out of here.”

“Don’t hitchhike!”

“You don’t understand…”

“No, no, I don’t, but…”

“Okay, call me. I’m heading out now.” The phone went dead. I rifled through the phonebook for Amtrak’s number. Their terminals were closed. Greyhound was running but I was told the Port Authority in New York might not be open. Nobody seemed to know. I called Joy.

“There are no trains and Port Authority might be closed.”

“No, it’s open. I’m in line right now. I’ll stay here all night if I have – hang on Mom!”

“What? Joy?” Again, silence. Frantic, I punched her number. No answer. Again. No answer. I wore out the button and still no answer.

There was no comfort this time. I’d heard the alarm in her voice. Something had happened right where she was. Sick with dread I turned on the news as I tried to reach her. But there was no mention of Port Authority, only macabre reruns of crashing planes and people jumping to their death from burning towers. An hour later my phone rang.

“Mom, I’m on the bus!”

 I burst into sobs.

 “I’m sorry, Mom. There was a bomb threat at Port Authority. Everyone ran. The lines got scrambled. When they let us back in, I was in front. Remember Mr. Grolick from our old neighborhood? He’s my seatmate. I’ll be home in twenty-one hours.”

Twenty-one hours later I waited at the Greyhound bus depot. One after another, the silver monsters groaned to a stop in their numbered stalls and leaked their human contents. Travel-weary sojourners staggered bleary-eyed to collect their luggage from the bowels of the beasts. I was glued to stall number seventeen. Within minutes of the scheduled time, hissing brakes brought the bus from New York to a shuddering stop. Before the door opened, a current of emotion ripped through me. The trauma of the past few days hit full on, constricting my chest. Joy was the third one off the bus. She spread her arms and ran. “Mama!” Her body slammed into mine.

“My baby, my baby, my baby…” was all I could manage through my sobs.

“Mama. Mommy…”

Joy stayed for a week. We celebrated her eighteenth birthday. Then she flew back to an uncertain future amidst the char and rubble and the lingering stench of smoke.

We all have memories of that time. Lives were lost. Images of horror burned into our retinae that will never be erased – not in twenty years, not ever. My child was spared. My client’s son was spared and today I’m feeling immense gratitude for that.

Pandemic life in Bali eighteen months and counting

We’ve logged eighteen months of Covid in Bali. Nobody thought it would last this long. Nobody had a clue how devastating it would be to the economy, to morale, to human life. I wish I could say we’re learning to live with it. We’re not. There’s still a never-never-land hope that soon tourists will return. Soon everything will be like it was before. Soon.

Soon was supposed to be June, 2020. That was scrapped and moved to August 2020. Each new date set for the reopening of international tourism was exchanged for a later one. The most recent was this month, September 2021. We all knew it wouldn’t happen as the Delta variant bore down on Indonesia making it the world epicenter for the virus.

I hate to preach doom and gloom, but the only upside I can see to this prolonged slog through hell is a return to the land for those who didn’t sell out to the highest bidder. Paddies, neglected for years while their owners taxied foreigners to and from the airport, guided tours, sold sarongs, or opened cafes, are being tended again.

Fireflies haven’t returned yet but birds and butterflies have. Roads aren’t clogged with trucks belching black fumes, and there are no drones, helicopters, or planes disturbing the peaceful sky. Only kites. Hundreds of them pirouette on unseen currents high above. These photos are from the annual Kite Festival in Sanur, Bali. This year it didn’t happen, of course.

When there’s no work there’s an abundance of time – time enough to go fly a kite.

For many Balinese, however, there isn’t enough money to buy food, and the lack of funds affects the animal population as well. This article, Bali’s tourist drought sees hundreds of hungry monkeys raiding homes, hit international news today. These are the monkeys that visit me. They never used to leave the Sacred Monkey Forest which is a quarter mile from my home. But now they have no food and no tourists to entertain them. They’re bored, hungry, and they’re multiplying at an astonishing rate. (Nothing else to do, may as well make love.)

The longer the situation persists, the more aggressive they become. They use my roof to stage their battles. I wake up at dawn to the sound of snarling monkeys waging war as clay roof tiles crash to the ground. If Ketut isn’t here to do immediate repairs, I know the next rain will pour through the ceiling wreaking unspeakable damage.

I captured a photo of this guy coming toward my upstairs landing across the old roof.

Hoards of roving monkeys, thirty to fifty at a time, appear multiple times a day every day. Whatever isn’t behind closed doors is fair game, a plate of fruit, a bottle of water, a bouquet of flowers. They’re looking for something – anything – to eat.

Their petty thievery was manageable, but the roof issue was not.

Ketut and I engaged in endless conversations attempting to arrive at a solution to the problem. The situation was dire. I had to replace the fragile tiles with something monkey-proof.

Last week we found the answer. Genteng pasir. Literally translated that’s sand tiles, a pressed metal shingle coated with a gritty substance and painted the color of a traditional roof. The look was perfect and the price was right.

Ketut lined up a team, placed orders for shingles, nails, lumber, and cement, and work began. First, the old tiles came off.

The three-man crew worked, ate, and slept here, on site. They began at 8:00 a.m. and stopped at 6:30 p.m. when the sun went down. We provided their meals, coffee, and beds.

Ketut was the busiest of all, running to get take out food three times a day, making coffee, keeping the necessary building supplies on hand. Food, coffee, and snacks were all part of the package to ensure that the guys stayed well-nourished and happy.

They worked seven full days, non-stop, and did a stellar job.

Isn’t that a splendid sight?

I didn’t realize how on-edge I was. Even now, three days later, I find myself stiffening with a lump of dread in my stomach when I hear the beasts coming. Then I remember, oh! My roof is monkey-proof. I can relax.

Just in time.

Rainy season approaches and there’s nothing as important as an intact roof when tropical storms shed their pent-up tears in torrents – gallons per second!

It doesn’t solve the greater problem. The economy is worse than ever. People and monkeys are still hungry. I’m acutely aware of my privilege as a foreigner living here. Because I’m a long-term expat with the necessary documentation, I was given my vaccinations free, same as the locals. I follow government protocol to the letter, grateful for the measures they’re taking to end this plague so living can find its rhythm and a better life for all can begin.

Soon. Hopefully, soon.

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!

About the Monkeys…

Like slogging through a muddy rice paddy, we enter our seventh week of lockdown in Bali.

There are places to go. Grocery stores are open, Some restaurants ignore the take-out-only mandate and allow customers to sit and eat. It’s business as usual at petrol stations, banks, clinics, and pharmacies. What boggles me though, is the overwhelming number of buildings being built or remodeled. Is it optimism? Do they know something I don’t know? Or is it simply wishful thinking as numbers of new Covid cases in Bali nudged 2000 this past week. Builders’ supply stores are doing a booming business. That’s good news because I’m in the market for a new roof.

Ubud is home to The Sacred Monkey Forest. In the past, tourists paid handsomely to walk the mouldering jungle paths. They bought bananas at the gate which, one-and-a-half steps later, were snatched from their clutches to the absolute shrieking delight of besotted onlookers.

Those visitors have been gone for over eighteen months and none have come to replace them. The monkeys are bored without their daily entertainment. What’s worse, they’re hungry. Funds that used to feed them evaporated with the death of tourism.

They roam through town, performing acrobatics on electrical cables that festoon the streets. They savage neighborhoods, thieving food from fruit stands and pilfering bags full of groceries as customers depart the store. They stage war games on rooftops sending fragile clay tiles crashing to the ground.

My roof is in their path.

This never used to happen. The smart, mischievous macaques were happy in their forest sanctuary. At first they paid an occasional morning visit. As Coved droned on, that progressed to every morning. Then a late afternoon stop-by was added to the routine. Now they’re a constant presence, appearing throughout the day. If I lunch on the terrace I’m certain to attract a furry guest, or ten, who think it’s perfectly acceptable to snatch the plate from under my nose and eat the contents in front of me. Any move to salvage it is met with barred teeth and gut-chilling snarls.

It requires constant vigilance. If the house is left open and unattended, havoc is wreaked.

I’ve actually learned to tolerate most of it. But the roof is a constant source of concern. If a tile slips even a little, I’ll know it when the next storm passes through. If several are broken and I’m unaware of the damage, I’ll be scooping buckets of rainwater off the floor as mattresses get soaked and I practice words I didn’t know I knew.

Ketut spends more time on the roof than he does on dry land these days, replacing tiles.

That’s why we set out on the motorbike this morning. I’d found a shop online that sells metal roofing that looks like clay but it’s nailed in place. No slipping. No shattering into a million pieces on the ground. Ketut tells me metal isn’t completely monkey-proof. If one of those hungry beasts decides to break open a coconut up there, all bets are off. Even metal can’t withstand the jackhammer pounding of a determined monkey with a fresh nut. What are the odds that will happen? Quarterly? Once a year? Never? I’ll take my chances.

Today was gorgeous. Twenty-five minutes past lime-green rice fields, across bridges spanning bottomless gorges, through eye-blink villages, brought us to Sinar Sukses, a miniscule shop. The young man laughed when I told him Google said he had metal roof tiles. “Why would Google say that?” he shrugged. “This is a plumbing shop.” He suggested we try the building supply just a few blocks back the way we came and around the corner. Two women there listened to our request then pointed. Sheets of corrugated tin in various colors leaned against the far wall. No, they didn’t have metal tiles. Only the sheets. We asked if they knew where we could find what we were looking for. We left with an address a few miles away.

This store was large. It looked promising. We removed our helmets, washed our hands, entered and stated our business. A sad-eyed girl behind the counter shook her head.

It was on the way home that Ketut remembered a cousin recently roofed his home with metal tiles. He said he’d ask him where he bought them. A few minutes ago, the answer came. It was a building supply next to the market in Gianyar – the town we’d left a few short hours before.

I love it. I really do.

No, not the crashing roof tiles. That sound fills me with sickening dread and blood-lust – monkey blood.

I love the adventure. The thrill of The Hunt. The camaraderie as Ketut and I zip along roads that used to be clogged to a standstill with traffic this time of year. The laughter at our inside jokes that nobody else in their right mind would find even remotely funny.

The thing is, we’ll locate the tiles. Over much hemming and hawing – maybe this, perhaps that – a price will be negotiated. The job will get done. But right now, for my sanity’s sake, the longer a project takes the better. The more convoluted the search, the less time I spend missing my faraway loved ones. I seek out distractions with the same manic fervor I used to employ to avoid them.

It’s Bali. It’s lockdown. It’s life.

Revising My Blob-ish Lifestyle

Before Covid, I had destinations. I walked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow arrived this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baffling Bountiful Indonesia – Doors Fly Open For Wayan

Mysterious Indonesia, the largest island country in the world, is made up of over 17,000 separate island provinces. Most of them have their own language, their own religions, rituals, and customs. The country spreads in a graceful curve just north of Australia and has the world’s fourth largest population.

I’m reminded of the Tower of Babel story – in reverse. According to that tale, the Babylonians were building a magnificent city that would touch the heavens. They wished to make a name for themselves. God foiled their plans by confusing their language.

They could no longer understand each other so all work ceased.

Indonesian leaders realized the only way they were going to successfully govern such a mixed bag of rugged individualists was to create a national language and make it mandatory throughout the entire educational system. So when the country gained it’s independence in 1945, that’s what they did. That action emphasized and underscored Indonesia’s motto: Unity in diversity.

Because this diverse population is able to communicate with each other, the people, goods and wonders of all the islands often intersect.

In Bali, I’ve come to expect the unexpected. Opportunities to experience vastly different cultures and viewpoints present themselves daily. At the same time, the potential for misunderstanding is huge. Patience is essential and waiting until all have had their say, then coming to an agreement that suits everyone is diplomacy at its best. “Good for me, good for you,” is a familiar phrase in Bali indicating a satisfactory compromise.

The Balinese have also mastered kesabaran.* They sit for hours in full temple dress waiting for the high priest to arrive so a ceremony can begin. Unlike us in the West, they don’t expect anything to happen fast, not in ceremony, not in life.

I’ve sat with them on the ground, sweating in my corset and lace, eaten by ants. But when it begins…OMG! The pageantry, the ritual, the sound and color make me forget the hours of discomfort.

Wayan’s journey is proving to be no exception. As we go forward, we make new contacts and realize there isn’t just one option available. Right now we’re in the process of researching an offer that would allow her to begin training sooner and work abroad more quickly.

Every step advances Wayan’s adventure. It thrills me to see how willing people are to help this young woman achieve what very few in her position can hope for. All of you who donated so freely are the ones making this possible.

Hang on, friends! I’ll keep you posted as we go. This promises to be an exciting ride!

*kesabaran – patience

GoGetFunding and other nightmares!

In spite of tutorials…

In spite of Google searches…

In spite of having created my own websites and accomplished other technical tasks on my laptop, setting up a fundraiser for Wayan pushed all my luddite buttons.

Luddite (Urban Dictionary): One who fears technology (or new technology, as they seem pleased with how things currently are…why can’t everything just be the same?)

I’ve never felt so ill-equipped to deliver on a promise…EVER! That will teach me (hopefully) not to offer up specific help without doing a tiny bit of research first so I know what the heck I’m talking about.

But this is not all about me. It’s about my Balinese friend, Wayan, whom I’ve known since she was thirteen – she’s now twenty-one.

Wayan is Ketut’s sister-in-law. The oldest child in her family was a boy. He died young leaving six sisters and his grieving parents to cope without him. When I visited Wayan’s family home, I felt like I’d been whisked backward in time to a much earlier period.

At one point during my visit, Wayan’s mother handed her a large bucket and asked her to get water. I tagged along thinking I’d help her carry the pail. Once it was full it was bound to be heavy.

We walked a fair distance then the path dipped over what looked to me like a cliff. Wayan proceeded as though still on flat ground. I hesitated. Should I follow her, scooching down on my bum? I managed to keep up, slip-skidding sideways, grasping branches, and maintaining somewhat of a grip with my flip-flops – not the best for mountain climbing. We descended a distance of a two-story building then Wayan stopped at a bubbling spring. She filled the bucket, placed it on her head (no, really???) and began the ascent while I clawed my way behind her, crablike, in awe.

I think that’s when I knew this girl could accomplish whatever she set her mind to.

Unlike many young people raised in remote mountain villages of Bali, Wayan had aspirations. As I grew more adept at the language she began to share stories of her life. Her parents could not afford tuition to pay for high school so Wayan worked on a construction crew, carrying washtubs of rocks on her head to building sites. When she had enough saved there was a family emergency and her parents needed her money. “I was very sad, but I must help them,” she said.

Her education was delayed. Eventually, Wayan found a school in Tegalalang that offered night classes. She stayed with a family that had a small cafe there, working in the cafe during the day and going to school nights.

It was during that time, while still attending night classes, she came to work for me. She was even more industrious than I had believed and her desire to excel in everything she did was inspirational.

The need to better herself obsessed her. After graduation, she heard about a culinary program at Crystal College that offered evening courses. She was accepted into the program. Upon completion, she was granted an internship at a five-star hotel in Bangkok, Thailand.

There’s a phrase in Indonesian for that kind of resilient courage. Keberanian tangguh. Wayan has it in spades. She went to Bangkok and began her work at the hotel. Two months later the hotel and the whole world shut down. Covid had arrived. Wayan came home, devastated. She felt she’d failed.

Her parents had plans for her. She would marry her cousin. That way they’d have a male heir and the home would remain in the family when Wayan’s parents passed on. He’d agreed to come and live with them contrary to Balinese custom where the wife always goes to the family home of her husband. Women inherit nothing.

Wayan wasn’t on board with the plan.

In March, she came to visit so we could celebrate her 21st birthday. She was working to support the family, selling vegetables at the night market in the capital city of Denpasar. When her shift ended around 6 a.m. she motorbiked to Kintamani, 1 1/2 hours away, to cook in a cafe during the day. This was her schedule seven days a week.

“When do you sleep, Wayan?”

“There’s no time to sleep,” she said, and the deep purple half-moons under her eyes confirmed the truth.

Wayan’s 21st birthday dinner at Famous in Ubud

So when I got an excited message from her weeks later that said she was considering a job in Japan, I wanted details. Crystal College works with an international employment agency and they were interviewing for positions at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo. Wayan had interviewed and been accepted.

I messaged her and asked why she wanted to work in Japan. She sent this reply:

“I want to change my life to be better and all people who underestimate me see me success even though I’m just a poor person. I want to pay for my sisters’ school, I don’t want both of them to feel same as me – can’t continue to senior high school because my parents couldn’t pay for it. I want to build a new house and family temple for my parents. That is why I want to go to Japan.”

Wayan (center) with her parents and two sisters in front of their home

There was only one catch. Money.

Wayan’s current two jobs gross about $10.00 US/day on the days she works both of them. She’s supporting her family since her father is out of work and her mother isn’t well. Her starting salary in Japan would be many times that.

If she wants to work in Japan, she has to pay the agency 35.000.000 rph ($2,500 US) for providing her with two months of Japanese language education, a visa allowing her into the country, a work permit and sponsorship authorizing her stay there, arranging accommodations, providing airline tickets, and a three-year contract. She’d also needs to buy warm clothing – something unheard of in Bali.

That’s when I made my harebrained promise to set up a fundraising campaign to help her finance this opportunity.

It’s taken three days and many frustrations, but as of now Help Wayan Change Her Life is live on the GoGetFunding platform. If you have a little extra to spare, I can’t think of a more deserving person than Wayan to bless with a leg-up.

That Miserably-Addictive Chemical-Laden Seductive Killer

I awoke feeling virtuous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s scheduled for August 20th.”

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

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

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

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

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

Except Nescafe.

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

Like this morning.

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

Bliss!

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

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

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

Moving my body eased the hyped-up edginess.

But I know this story.

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

Is it worth it, that seductive killer cup?

Once every month or two?

You’d better believe it is!

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