MUDDLED MIND

Muddling works for mojitos and mint juleps but it isn’t great for the mind. In fact it’s dreadful to feel at loose ends, directionless, lacking purpose. It can drag a person down.

For the past two months I’ve hosted a colony of ants under my skin. You may know the feeling. My body insisted on a constant state of motion, demanding long walks in excruciating 90°F (32°C) heat. I’d come home red-faced, drenched in sweat, ripping off clothes as I bee-lined for the shower.

For years I’ve guarded my solitude. Too much socializing drained me – at least that’s the story I told myself. Now I was the one organizing get-togethers, entertaining out-of-town guests, making any excuse I could conjure to keep myself busy.

Countless times I opened my computer, stared at the novel I’d been writing, and wondered where I’d found all those words. Two minutes, three, squinting, reading a few lines. Then I’d shake my head, hit the power-off button and message a friend or two to meet for lunch.

Distraction was the name of the game and I was winning.

During one of those get-togethers, the topic of vision boards came up. It seems my friends also felt anchorless. We agreed to meet at my house and see if we could muster clarity with the cut-and-paste approach. I found old issues of Vanity Fair and a National Geographic at the Smile Shop – Ubud’s Goodwill-type donation store – and snatched them up. Years ago in the States I had stacks of Architectural Digest, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Elle, House Beautiful, and Country Living. But not here. Finding six dusty, ripped, moth-eaten magazines was like striking gold.

On the appointed day we gathered at the dining table with paints, pencils, markers, scissors, glue, and the ratty magazines. Pages turned. Nobody spoke. The air hung heavy and still with the intensity of our concentration. I hadn’t a clue what I was hoping to accomplish. But every-now-and-then a picture jumped out at me. Or a word leaped off the page. Soon I was snipping feverishly with a collection growing beside me.

We did well, but after forty-five minutes the silent focus was unsustainable.

“I’m hungry,” I said.

My friends looked up, dazed. “Well, it’s five o’clock somewhere. Let’s go eat.”

We chatted in the back garden of a nearby cafe that happened to have two-for-one happy-hour cocktails. And what luck! My favorite drink of all time was on offer: frozen mojitos. I wasn’t born during the depression but there’s something about two-for-one anything that makes it immoral to have just one. I had two frozen mojitos and a to-die-for roasted-veggie salad.

After whiling away a few more hours at the restaurant, my friends left promising they’d work on their projects at home. I felt the mellowing effect of my drinks but was strangely energized and eager to see if the stack of cut-outs had a common theme. Would a direction emerge? Had my subconscious or a bevy of capricious Bali spirits come out of hiding to help me choose those words and pictures?

I’m not a crafty person. Normally I’d devise any excuse to avoid this kind of activity. But as I arranged the images that same laser-like focus returned. Body, mind, and spirit engaged and I saw myself reflected in pictures and words that validated the very essence of who I am. It didn’t spell out in a sentence, Sherry, do this, yet the message was unmistakable.

You know the feeling when you’re telling someone your deepest truth and they get it? I felt like that looking at my board. A bubble of joy that made me laugh. A sense of relief that I’d worked through the fog and could see the way ahead. And gratitude. Gratitude for friends. Gratitude for the simplicity of a vision board to help gain self-knowledge. And gratitude for this place where energies abound to support the inner journey.

Stressed? Just throw a good old-fashioned tantrum.

Yesterday I woke up cranky. Perhaps a smidge beyond cranky. The usual start-the-day-right rituals, wash face, make coffee, journal, do yoga, meditate made it as far as the journal. By the time I’d written a few sentences trying to get to the source of my dire mood I was so antsy and agitated I couldn’t sit still.

That state is rare for me – like once-every-twenty-years rare – and the usual methods of dealing with small irritations weren’t working.

I got up from my journaling chair and paced. It felt as though the house couldn’t contain all my roiling, boiling energy. I had to escape. I grabbed my phone and sent a quick message to Ketut. Do you have plans today?

The reply was instant. No plans. You have?

I’m stressed. I want wind in my face. I want adventure.

Ok. What time?

Now.

One of the many things I love about the Balinese people is their passion for gossip. We’d barely straddled the motorbike when Ketut said, Why you have stress? I was only too happy to vent my wrath to the back of his helmet, yelling my grievances: drought, heat, politics, monkeys, my friend with cancer. He nodded his understanding while navigating the insane Ubud traffic. When I stopped for breath he asked more questions plumbing for details, anything juicy.

It was during one of those breathing moments that I realized what was happening. I was speaking Indonesian and the vocabulary to describe emotions, frustrations, the craziness I was feeling wasn’t translating well from English. The words I pulled in to communicate my bizarre state of mind changed the story. My rant sounded silly, even to myself. I wondered how Ketut was hearing it. The image of a naughty child in full-on tantrum mode flashed before me and I exploded into laughter.

Ketut’s helmeted head swiveled as he ventured a curious glance over his shoulder.

Ya? You okay? That made me laugh harder. Was I okay?

Okay? I repeated, my heart pumping pure gratitude for this friend. Yes. I’m finished now. No more complaining. Thank you for listening. It’s your turn, Ketut. How do you feel today? Is your family good? Is your garden planted?

I knew what he would say – could have mouthed the words with him: Ya. Good. Same same. There was a pause as landscapes I hadn’t noticed to this point rushed past. I sucked lungs full of clean air and feasted on the glorious greens of paddies and jungle – and waited.

I’ve learned a bit about Ketut over the years. He’s a great listener but given the opportunity he’ll tell me just about anything. I was hopeful. Then, Maybe I borrow cow, he said and the floodgates opened.

We sailed along climbing steadily toward the rice terraces of Sidemen. I sat back, clear-headed, relaxed and content to listen to Ketut’s happy prattle.

From the precipitous roadside I caught glimpses of farms spread like patchwork far below, and Mt. Agung ringed in clouds. Our destination was Warung Uma Anyar, a rooftop cafe perched on the mountain with sweeping vistas of terraces, paddies, and jungled foothills. The memory of that view had prompted my urge to flee Ubud and we were getting close.

An hour-and-a-half after leaving home we pulled off the road. There it was: the chalkboard sign out front, the smiling owner, and the sinful cup of Nescafe with fake cream and processed white sugar that I’d been craving.

Crispy kerupuk, peanuts still hot from the roasting pan, and chemical-laden coffee. Heaven! Ketut took a minute to answer emails and I morphed into a vegetative state of bliss.

Mount Agung in the background almost obscured by clouds

We snacked on peanuts and crisps and basked in the immensity of solitude. Then the food came. I’d ordered vegetable soup picturing something like the canned Campbell’s we used to have growing up and couldn’t have been more pleased when the Warung Uma version arrived.

My delight must have been evident because the man who delivered the colorful dish beamed and told us he’d worked in a big hotel for nine years. It was owned by an American and featured a Thai restaurant. He’d learned to cook everything on their menu. Then bankroot, he said.

The meal proved as tasty as it looked. Ketut and I lingered over it, chatting about the tawon that appeared to be building a nest in the roof. Ketut asked what tawon was in English. Maybe bee? I said. Or hornet? A quick consultation with Google pegged it a wasp. When we couldn’t scrape another morsel off our plates, a young man appeared to clear the table.

Bali people eat 15 minutes, Ketut said. We already eat two hours! But he seemed to approve the slower pace. When I observed he hadn’t ordered his usual Coca Cola and would he like one now, he smiled and nodded. Okay, he said.

While he enjoyed his sugary hit of extra caffeine, I studied the map. Let’s go home a different way. See? I showed him the phone. If we turn here, we can cross over to Sidemen village and take the other road. He asked me to put it on my phone. I plugged in the route and we headed off, waving goodbye to our host and promising to come back soon.

The warung was still in sight when Google sprang into action issuing orders. Right turn one-hundred meters, left turn one point five kilometers. The paved two-lane road narrowed to one lane. Left turn six-hundred meters. The asphalt was old here. Chunks were missing and what remained was potholed and lumpy.

We bumped along. A little farther on even the patchy asphalt disappeared. Then we were climbing again. The single lane became a trail of eroded, rocky gravel. We rounded a switchback. I gasped and grabbed Ketut’s shoulders. The way ahead was a vertical plunge to another sharp turn a long, long way below. My terrified croak, I’ll walk! was swallowed by the crunch of wheels grinding into the gravel. Good view, Ketut said as we started down. I shut my eyes.

By some stroke of fate (or Ketut’s expertise) we made it to the bottom, rounded the hairpin curve intact, and trundled on. The trail now was the width of a motorbike tire, a mere depression in the grass.

And then…

We’d been following Google’s instructions all the way. The map on the phone showed the road leading to a river. We were there. Water rushed wide and brown in front of us. Rice paddies stretched in all directions. But that was all. No more road. No bridge. This isn’t Sidemen village, I said.

Maybe Google not understand Bali, Ketut answered.

Definitely doesn’t understand Bali, I agreed.

We stood a few more dazed minutes. Then without a word, Ketut turned the bike around and I climbed back on. The impossible hill wasn’t as bad going up.

It was a magnificent day – the perfect adventure. There was not one single bit of it, not one fraction of a moment that I wish had been different. The wind in my face, the beauty, the terror, the food, the fiasco, and best of all, the friend who listened.

*Note: The ‘tantrum photo’ at the beginning of this post was taken by Sharon Lyon. Thanks, Sharon, for the worst photo anyone has EVER taken of me!

Old Married Love, Steadfast But Unsurprised

In the past three weeks I’ve seen Bali through new eyes. After eight years some things become business-as-usual. I forget how green, how lush, how unlike Midwestern U.S. this tropical island is. Even though I told myself when I moved here that I would always remain amazed and enchanted, things eventually become familiar. Love becomes the old married kind, steadfast but unsurprised.

Enter Susan and Michele.

They arrived like little tornadoes full of frenetic Western energy, totally upsetting my Bali Zen. With insatiable appetites they seized upon every idea I threw out, not realizing in my mind it was either this, or that, or maybe just a massage.

Our days were packed from dawn until dusk, and when I left them of an evening, dragging myself off to bed, they scurried back out to sample the hopping Ubud nightlife.

Their curiosity and willingness to go anywhere, do anything, intoxicated me to the point I couldn’t stand to send them off alone and miss an ‘Ah ha!’ or a ‘Whoa! Look at that!’ So I accompanied them and gained new insights to this place I call home.

As we scoured the length and breadth of the island, I found that some of the iconic Bali landmarks have stood the test of time. Their beauty and integrity remain unscathed. Others that I hadn’t visited since I arrived eight years ago, shocked me to my toenails.

I tried to mask my dismay when Ketut pulled into the coffee plantation near Tegallalang Rice Terraces. What used to be a simple grove of bean trees with a hut for demonstrating the roasting process and a single table for tasting, has morphed into a full-blown Disneyesque amusement park. Giant swings and Instagram heart photo-ops along with slick sales people in a glitzy shop bore no resemblance to what I remembered. And the high-wire bicycle ride…? My stomach lurched as Michele pedaled off into thin air on a piece of cable about the thickness of my thumb. Then Susan took a turn. I cowered and watched from the safety of solid ground.

Michele braved the swing alone. Once she landed, unharmed, Susan and Ketut went in tandem.

The Botanical Gardens in Bedugul were on the ‘must see’ list. I wondered what shocks lay in store for me there. I needn’t have worried. The grounds were unspoiled, except – like all of Bali as the heat intensifies and the long dry season continues – they needed rain. The cacti were the one exception. They seemed happy enough with the current climate.

Towering stands of bamboo appeared to be weathering the parched conditions although dry yellow leaves littered the ground beneath.

We left the gardens and Ketut drove his car full of chattering females along the ridge outlining the crater lakes Bratan, Buyan, and Tamblingan.

I had to look, then look again. Yes. It was what it appeared to be: a truckload of blue hydrangeas with no driver in sight. Where were they headed? A wedding? The market? A grand hotel lobby? There was no one to ask and we moved on, the mystery unsolved.

The more my friends saw of Bali, the more they wanted to see, so when Ketut invited them to meet his family in AbangSongan village it was as though yesterday wasn’t soon enough.

The little girls clustered around while Susan and Michele taught them, “See you later, alligator!” These children won’t learn English until high school. And that will only happen if their parents have the money to pay for it. Elementary school is free.

Nengah and Komang Kecil (little Komang) cuddle with their daddy.

Before we piled into the car for the hour plus drive back to Ubud, Ketut’s brothers bestowed gifts. They’re woodcarvers and specialize in ocean creatures: sharks, turtles, and stingrays. But Ketut’s older brother confided that when he gets bored with fish, he carves a mask just to shake things up a bit. My friends were so taken with his bizarre creations that they each bought one insisting on payment over his, “No pay. You can have.”

The next day we were on the road again.

Perhaps my happiest of happy places in Bali is Jatiluwih. The UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces stretch for miles in all directions and a walk along the trails takes you deep into a softer time uncluttered by tourism and giant swings.

When I first visited the island in 2010, it was a scene similar to this that made me vow I would return. I’ve visited the Grand Canyon, Versailles, fiords, cathedrals and the ruins of Pompeii, but nothing has ever whispered to my heart like Jatiluwih.

Days flew by and when her two weeks were up, Michele wasn’t ready to leave. She loved everything she saw and made at least three trips to Bali Teaky for more teak bowls, spoons, and cutting boards. With singleness of purpose she devoted herself to improving the economy of the island. Susan and I had to wrestle her out of a furniture-maker’s warehouse or she would have been the proud owner of a ten-foot teak-slab dining table! Then she was off in a cloud of exhaust to catch the red-eye back to the U.S.

But Susan had another seven days and she wanted to explore more of the countryside.

We’d run out of time to go to the Mother Temple, Besakih, with Michele, but Susan was keen to visit this most holy Hindu site on Bali’s tallest mountain. We packed the appropriate clothing, a sarong and sash for each of us, and decided motorbikes would be quicker and a lot more fun than navigating the mountain roads in Ketut’s car.

We strolled the grounds, climbing ever higher. Ketut told us that each Balinese clan has its own temple in the Besakih complex. He posed for his photo in front of the one dedicated to his, the Pande, who historically were metalworkers and were the only ones allowed to make the revered keris swords.

After riding motorbikes to Besakih, Susan was hooked. No more car trips for her!

We took roads less traveled, Susan rode with Ketut while I shot photos from the back of Wayan’s bike.

Mt. Agung presides over the landscape around Sidemen. As we tooled the zig-zagging switchbacks we stumbled upon Warung Uma Anyar. Imagine the thrill of sitting at the top of the world with paddies and palms unspooling below us. We had the place to ourselves while we munched roasted peanuts and krupuk, washing them down with steaming cups of Nescafe.

The morning before she was due to leave, Susan said, “I want one more motorbike adventure before I go back to real life.” Throughout the day I dropped little hints like: This IS real life. My life. You too could have this real life. I’m subtle like that.

But the best I could do for now was honor her wish for a last foray beyond the borders of Ubud.

There was a road going north that I’d never traveled. We set out early. Like Michele, Susan had the red-eye flight so there was plenty of time to squeeze in a final outing.

I’d Googled our route and discovered a landmark: Tukad Bangkung. It was touted as the longest and highest bridge in Bali. I have to admit to a bit of apprehension. I don’t like heights. But I love adventure and this was an area I hadn’t explored. I ignored the hint of nausea induced by the images and plunged ahead with our plans.

The weather was perfect. I marvelled at the exceptional condition of the roads and the tidiness of the towns we passed. Prosperity oozed from the surroundings and that isn’t often the case in rural areas.

As we neared our destination, images of the endless expanse of roadway perched on narrow concrete pillars that I’d pulled up from the internet swam through my head. Anxiety prickled. I hollered at Wayan’s helmet bobbing in front of me. “Let’s stop and take photos before we go across.”

A few minutes later, the bridge came into sight. She pulled off the highway and shot a you-don’t-fool-me look over her shoulder.

Ketut and Susan pulled in behind us. Lucky for me it was the perfect vantage point for photos. I could assess the situation before committing to it.

Ketut announced there were sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. “Maybe we walk across,” he said. I noted the neck-high iron fencing solid enough to stop a locomotive. My anxiety evaporated. This felt safe. Midway I took a shot straight down. It was, indeed, a very high bridge.

Ketut walked ahead, joking and laughing as only he can. Suddenly he was clinging to the side, leg up as if to climb over. “Too much stress!” he yelled.

He might have frightened us for a moment if he hadn’t been laughing so hard. No amount of telling him how NOT FUNNY that was could dampen his delight.

Once we’d made it to the middle, there seemed no need to continue to the opposite end. We’d reached the highest point and stared down, down, down, at the threadlike stream that was probably a roaring river when viewed from its banks.

I turned and caught Susan’s eye. “Let’s go home,” I said. “But first, one more photo.” Here they are. The road warriors, my travel buddies.

Later that evening Susan and I had a bite at Tutmak Restaurant while tapping our feet to the syncopated sounds of Siji Latin Band. “Bali has exceeded my expectations by 2000%,” she said, staring off into space, letting her words hang then drift away. I wondered what images were playing on the imaginary screen only she could see. What stories were running through her mind? Turning to me, she nodded and smiled, once again fully present. “But I think I’m ready to go home.”

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.

The greatest of life’s mysteries – Death

Image by Prajna Dewantara ॐ

I have this thing about butterflies. Is there a creature anywhere more symbolic of transformation?

A butterfly lives two distinctly different lives: first as a worm, and second, as a glorious winged being. When its earth-bound days are ending, it weaves its own shroud and liquefies. What emerges bears no likeness to what it once was.

Shortly after my father died I was sitting in my treetop house, doors and windows open, writing (as I usually am) when an elegant caramel-colored butterfly with black wingtips flew in and lit in front of me. Without pausing to think I said, “Hi, Dad. You found me.” Since then he’s hung around my garden. He always loved tending his own. Now and then he flits through my house. He’s the only butterfly that pays personal visits.

But my story today is about Mom.

She cared for Dad for years as his memory faded and he became less and less able to manage his own needs. Before he died he told her he’d meet her at the Pearly Gates. He’d be standing there holding them open for her when she was ready to join him.

Mom clung to his promise. She rehearsed it for everyone who’d listen. In the three-and-a-half years since he passed, Mom continued to live her life. She played Bingo and often won. Three times a week she exercised on the stationary bikes at Well Camp in the assisted living complex where she had her own apartment. She did armchair yoga on the days the fitness center was closed. Always social, she stayed busy and involved. The staff and residents loved her.

But she missed her partner of sixty-seven years.

Three weeks ago, Mom began weaving her shroud. She sensed it was time. She loved the story of Dad in my garden and told me I would see her with him there soon. I said I was certain of it, that I’d be expecting her.

On August 9th she passed. Yesterday, I caught sight of Dad fluttering above the coral bougainvillea. I scanned the bushes, the trumpet flowers, the heliconia. He shouldn’t be alone now. Where was Mom? From out of nowhere a brilliant white butterfly whirled into view, cavorting, swooping, dancing. She circled the handsome lone stranger three times and seemed ecstatic to be in my garden with him. Then she frolicked off, lighter than air, buoyant, free.

I was left to sort out my misconceptions.

I hadn’t expected a white butterfly. She’d be a near twin of Dad, caramel with black-tipped wings, maybe a tad smaller. I pictured them fluttering together more or less as they had throughout their married lives. But her energy was unlike the proper, dignified mother who raised me. As she looped and dived she had the effervescence of a bubbly teenager. Mom seemed to be fully and completely her own being. She was delighted to see Dad – giddy almost – but no longer dependent upon him for happiness, the picture of embodied freedom.

My sister has been sorting through Mom’s things. When I told her about the butterflies she gasped. Then she laughed and laughed and I knew there were tears pouring down her face. “You’ll never believe what I just found,” she said. She grabbed her phone and sent this photo.

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Then I, too, laughed and laughed and cried.

This morning I saw Mom again. She was alone, swirling skyward on the dry monsoons that visit Bali this time of year. Dad must be sleeping in.

MINDFUL OF THE GOOD

I’ve found the best way to keep from dissolving into a state of overwhelm after reading the morning news is to walk. It’s essential for my sanity. Without it, doom and gloom tend to consume too much psychological bandwidth.

I go slowly and notice things. Pretty things. Funny things. Solid, recurring, timeless things. I don’t own a car – in fact, I own nothing with wheels. On the rare occasion I need to leave Ubud, I hire a driver. Forty dollars U.S. covers my transport for an entire day and I probably do that six times a year. Maybe less.

So come with me on my stroll. It’s a beautiful morning. A slight breeze carries traces of incense and cooking. At the bottom of my stairway Wayan and Ketut have already thanked Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa for peace and abundance.

As I walk past I wonder…what if I didn’t have to step over offerings on the sidewalk in front of every shop, every day? Could I still be happy? These bright tokens make walkways in other parts of the world seem drab.

As I cross the bridge that separates me from my favorite grocery store, I stop to watch a Ngaben in progress far below. The ashes from a cremation have been brought to the river to be purified – the final step before the spirit can return to heaven to begin the process of reincarnation.

Hindu rituals have been enacted in Bali for hundreds of years. There’s something that can’t be destroyed here. I try to know what it is but it hovers at the fringes of my understanding and I can’t quite catch hold. Yet I feel linked with antiquity. Grounded. Safe.

At Bintang Supermarket I pick up a few supplies I can’t get at the traditional market: raisins, toasted muesli, ginseng tea, and gift bags. You can never have too many gift bags!

Then I’m on my way to Bali Buda Mart on the other side of Ubud. I’m addicted to their sourdough bread. For months I guessed at the mystery ingredient. Cardamom? No. Fennel? Not quite. What then? I was driving myself crazy and finally approached the bakery manager and begged for the recipe. Cumin! I don’t have an oven so I’ll never bake it, but I had to discover the source of that elusive flavor.

My route takes me past Ubud Palace. Could there be a wedding today? Is this the royal getaway car? Exquisite! I could apply perfect lip liner looking into the mirror finish on that classic automobile. What a shine.

It’s hard to pull away from the festive florals and over-the-top decor, but I must. Sourdough sells out early and I finished mine with a spicy omelet two hours ago.

Self-discipline is rewarded. I score the last loaf and continue my loop past Ganesha Book Store then to Sugriwa and Hanoman Streets cutting across on motorbike paths. It’s a quick backtrack north to Dewisita Street where another eye-feast awaits.

I laugh out loud at the sheer creative whimsey of a hot pink bicycle. The new shop is Pina Colada. Even the name makes me smile…and makes me thirsty.

Fortunately, Mingle Cafe is a few steps away and their frozen mojito has no equal on earth. Happy hour begins at 3:00. It’s a favorite afternoon destination.

I check my watch. It’s as I feared, only ten a.m. I order a cappuccino.

Image result for cappuccino Bali style

Tomorrow I’ll read the news again. Ignorance isn’t bliss. Denial solves nothing. I want to be informed.

Then I’ll take another walk.

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.

Dirty Little Lies And Other Truths

I’ve had some hard-to-swallow ‘ah-ha’ moments in my life. Epiphanies aren’t always pretty.

In my forties, I developed writing-for-self-discovery techniques specifically for mucking around in my subconscious. After decades of pretending to be what everyone else wanted, I had an overwhelming desire to know who I really was. In the process, I dredged up uncomfortable core beliefs only to discover that many of them were lies:

You’re not loveable
You’re not worthy
You’re not smart enough, pretty enough, rich enough
You can’t do it alone
Everyone leaves
Love hurts
What you say doesn’t matter
What you want doesn’t matter
Nobody cares about your opinion

The list went on and on. My thoughts, self-esteem, and actions had been informed by those subconscious beliefs.

I needed a different narrative but mantras didn’t work. Saying something over and over again doesn’t change anything if you don’t believe what you’re telling yourself. I found if I listed facts that countered the lies I could reshape my beliefs. For example, I challenged the ‘you’re not smart enough’ story with the fact that I’d graduated at the top of my class in college. ‘You can’t do it alone’ was a joke. My income was supporting my three daughters and jobless husband. Those exercises changed my life and propelled me to move abroad and write my memoir.

Fast-forward to yesterday.

A friend read my completed manuscript and we met for lunch. I asked for an honest, spare-no-feelings critique. Her feedback was insightful and I took notes. Then she swallowed a bite of coconut gelato, sat back and looked dreamily over the rice paddies stretching before us. “You were a clear example of the prostitute archetype,” she said.

Have you ever experienced a situation where something hits with such force, such truth, you’re caught there and everything else dissolves around you? My chest constricted. I held my breath. My heart rate tripled at the very least. Goosebumps lifted the hair on my arms. A sickening lurch rolled through my stomach and five marriages scrolled across my mind like a movie.

But we were married. My pathetic rebuttal was silenced by the ugly certainty that marriage changed nothing. It was, in fact, the ultimate soul-selling deception: my services for their income secured by a vow.

I’d written the memoir but I hadn’t seen myself for what I was until my friend pointed it out. I’m grateful in a stunned kind of way. It reinforces what I’ve witnessed time and again as I’ve gone through the process of regurgitating my life. We are the stories we tell ourselves and often they are fabrications that make our experiences bearable. We can accept small revelations of actual truth doled out over time if we’re aware enough to see them.

Accepting that I played the prostitute role is a hard pill, but I swallowed and I know my friend is right. In spite of this grossly unflattering information, there’s a part of me (undoubtedly my shadow) that’s excited. Something hidden has been dragged into the light. I’ve been given the opportunity to examine the implications as they affect me going forward and make necessary adjustments. I’ll be a healthier human as a result.

And my honest friend? I appreciate her more than ever.

The image at the top is attributed to lonerwolf.com. To learn more about the prostitute archetype click here.

Please Don’t Ever Change

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When I look at this photo I want to laugh and cry and fall to my knees. I want to say to the young man planting grass, “Please, don’t ever change.”

What I actually said went something like this: “Those sticks, Ketut. Do you really expect them to grow?”

“Ya,” he replied. “Soon many.”

My only frame of reference to gardening was Minnesota. If you lopped a branch off a tree and stuck it in the ground in that climate, trust me. It absolutely would not grow.

Ketut gathered cast-off cuttings from nearby hotels and scrounged compost piles after dark. He dug up bushes from his family’s garden in the mountains near Kintamani and transplanted them here. He had a vision and the skills to manifest it. In no time the grass filled in and the stick-garden matured. There were papaya and banana trees, frangipani, and bougainvillea.

In spite of my skepticism, the plantings matured and multiplied. I added a gazebo to the once-upon-a-time stick-garden. Ketut installed electricity and a fan. Now I could have my coffee there and read or write surrounded by voluptuous tropical foliage.

It’s been five years since Ketut gathered branches and stuck them in the ground. Hundreds of plants bursting with fruit and flowers have emerged from those scant beginnings. I wonder, have I changed too? Have the seven years in Bali transformed me from the stick-garden I was when I arrived to someone fully alive?

I have more close friends, more visitors, more invitations, and more commitments than ever before. I’ve learned a foreign language, written two novels and a memoir, and had many articles published. I’ve leased land, built a house, and explored the mountains and coastlines of the island on the back of Ketut’s motorbike. I’ve held Writing for Self-Discovery workshops and my blog has brought others to Bali to imagine their own possibilities.

But what about self-discovery, the reason I began this writing journey in the first place? I had to dig for those answers and when I did I found I’ve become more honest. I’m willing to be seen hanging out my dirty laundry. I’m prepared to be disliked rather than sacrifice who I am. My list was revealing.

  • I let go of perfect – horns fit me better than haloes
  • I know things – it’s okay to be smart, intuitive and right
  • I’m worthy of love – self-love is essential, not selfish
  • I’ve developed a sense of humor – dry and warped but it works
  • I thrive in tropical heat – with an ice-cold mug of Bintang
  • I’m a creature of habit – don’t mess with my routine
  • I’m courageous – but definitely not fearless
  • I’ve become transparent – see my shadow? It’s really dark!
  • I need privacy – especially in the morning
  • I feared loneliness – it didn’t happen
  • I can manage unconditional love – but not marriage

And Ketut? The young man I hoped would never change? His smile is broader, his laughter even more infectious. He’s incapable of malice. His kindness is immeasurable.

Everything changes, but some things just get better.

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.

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