Tears Before 9 A.M.

Tears are easy for me. Sad movies, happy movies, a poignant story, a gesture of kindness…. It’s 9:00 a.m. and I’ve already had two good cries this morning. But first a note about meditation.

Ubud is a guru-abundant community crawling with yogis and healers. The streets are full of tourists, half of them are couples in matching his/hers outfits and the other half sport breathable but form-fitting, zen but trendy, yoga attire. They’re everywhere. But the ones I listen to are often seated at the next table in a café. Eavesdropping because it’s impossible not too, I’m soon aware that whatever else spirituality might be, here it’s big business. In what could easily become the spiritual seekers capital of the world, these enlightened beings self-promote shamelessly and one-up each other on daily hours of meditation, mastery of impossible poses, number of followers, DVD sales, podcasts, guest appearances, until I can’t help myself. I slow- swivel in my chair for a serupticious peek at the braggarts.

What happened to the student seeking the teacher in a cave on a lonely mountaintop somewhere in Tibet?

So when I sat down to tell the story about my tears and was about to mention meditation, discomfort squirmed around the word. My prejudice goes back to being raised Lutheran in the Scandinavian style. There were two subjects in our household that were taboo for discussion: politics and religion. They were seen as controversial, and controversy wasn’t tolerated. Kids, crops, and cooking, were acceptable topics.

Spirituality settles into the broadly defined religion category and I’m not surprised to note that prior programming still kicks in. So although it makes me uncomfortable to tell you that this morning I was meditating, it feels important in context, and in truth, I was.

It was at the end when, with prayer hands stretched high overhead in thanks for the unbelievable blessings of my life, that the first onslaught hit. Intense sobs from nowhere heaved in my chest and tears drooled down my cheeks. Gratitude feels like that sometimes when the bigness of it doesn’t fit the smallness of my expectation. I’m still incredulous that I’m here, in Bali, living in an apartment that dreams are made of, with a view of palm trees and red tiled rooftops and the overarching blue bowl of sky.

I collected myself, finished the meditation, and made coffee.

Sipping the thick, sludgy brew that I’ve come to love, and staring off into space imagining the day ahead, I didn’t hear Ketut come in. “Good morning.” His voice made me jump. He carried an armload of bags and deposited them on the kitchen counter. “Kue from Ngusabetegen,” he said and proceeded to remove fruits and cakes, and treats from the bags and place them on the countertop.

“So many, Ketut? All for me?”

“Oh ya, not so many. You keep in kulkas.” Kulkas is the Indonesian word for refrigerator and mine is a 2′ cube that sits beneath the counter. This abundance will max it out. Abundance. What he has brought me are not the 20 cent packets of fried dough or the over-ripe finger bananas that usually appear after ceremonies. Quite the opposite. I’ve watched his family make these confections over the days preceding an important ceremony like Ngusabetegen, and this gift represents more than just sharing leftovers. The gesture speaks to my heart with clarity. You are appreciated. You are respected. You are loved.

He sees my delight and hears my thanks. The Balinese culture is one of controlled emotions but Ketut has become accustomed to my hand-clapping, squealing excitement. He grins and beats a hasty retreat. As soon as he’s gone the dam bursts again and remnants of the earlier overwhelm wash over me. I dab at tears while unwrapping each precious offering.

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In the front are hairy, pink, rambutan. Behind them are the cutest fruits on the planet, mangosteen, with its round purple body, perky green cap, and six-petaled brown flowerette at the base. In the back at the left is bulu. It reminds me of a bundt cake or a very large donut with a hole in the middle. The bon-bons in palm leaf wrappers sit directly in front of the bulu. These are dodol and they contain a sticky-sweet black rice paste with a mildly smoky flavor. Unusual. The red and green grapes are red and green grapes, anggur merah and anggur hijau. In front of the grapes is an orange but it tastes and peels more like a tangerine. Jeruk. A giant pink and white cookie that is made only for Ngusabetegen in this village is simbar. Behind it are pink and white rice crispy cakes, jaja gina. The white satuh balls remind me of Mexican Wedding Cake cookies, but these have no moisture. The moment you bite into them they decompose into a pile of sticky dust in your lap. Notice the green leafy thing at the right-hand edge. It’s called tape beras. My first encounter produced the gag reflex, but I’ve acquired a taste. Inside this banana leaf packet is watery, fermented rice. Yum!  Oh! I forgot to put the lycee in the basket! There were 8-10 of those fruits in my gift as well.

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But the granddaddy of them all, the sweet snack that took me to Ketut’s family home for a stay of four nights so his mother could show me how it’s made, is jaja uli. Brown rice, black rice, and white rice are the basis for this delicacy. Pounded and pulverized first, then mixed with palm sugar, or in the case of the white, left plain, they are packed into forms to get the round shape, then wrapped in coconut leaves to preserve them. To serve, thinly slice and saute in coconut oil until crisp. The flavor is exquisite. But the time…and the labor…? This is enough to feed the entire village and it’s now in my kulkas.

So like I said, I cried twice today, and all before 9 a.m. Can a heart break with happiness? If it can, mine does every single day. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a little nibble of dodol while I fry up some jaja uli!

Diplomacy Bali style, you only think you know what you want!

The jungle has it’s place. My idea of a garden, however, is more orderly, manageable, controlled.

In the months preceding the acquisition of the small plot of land adjoining mine, I visualized, sketched, imagined what my garden would look like. Ah, lovely! A solid base of mosaic stone pathways known as batu sikat to create the backdrop for potted palms, bougainvillea, gardenias, and other tropical varietals. It would go from this, its current jungle-ish state,

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The ‘before’ look of my future garden

to something more like this.

Garden plan

The basic idea

I show my drawings to Ketut who will be instrumental in manifesting the vision. (In other words, to him falls the questionable pleasure of uprooting and relocating the jungle and transforming it into planned perfection.) “Oh,” he says, with that tone that I’ve come to recognize as not being quite on my page. “No small mountain???”

For the sake of clarity, the Balinese style garden is a series of earthen mounds. In the center of each is a tall tree that is bordered by leafy plants in varying hues of green, red, and yellow, which are again skirted at the lower level with shorter flowering shrubs creating a mountain affect.

Julies garden

Balinese style garden

There is no question that it’s beautiful. But I want something  different.

“No small mountain,” I say, with the inflection of voice that leaves very little room for doubt. “I want pots, not mountains.”

Ketut is thoughtful and quiet.

“What are you thinking?” I get wary when there’s no give and take.

“Oh ya,” he says, and nothing else.

A day passes and Ketut’s industry is beautiful to behold. The jungle, like Bali magic, disappears and I venture into the cleared space to reintroduce my plan, just in case. Ketut speaks first. “Ya, three small mountains, one here, one here, one there.” I decide to go the route of diplomacy.

“Ketut,” I try to be patient. “Tell me what you see.”

After a brief explanation I see the same thing he sees, a traditional Bali garden.

“I don’t want small mountains, just pots. Many batu sikat and pots. Is that possible?”

A small “Ya,” is my answer.

Another day passes. More space is cleared and new plantings appear along the back wall.  It’s taking shape. With drawing in hand I once again venture into the clearing, drumming up the necessary resolve to hold firm with my vision.

“It looks beautiful, amazing!” I tell him, and it does. But I don’t see any indication of a design that includes my decorative pathways. “Where will we put batu sikat?”

“Oh, very expensive,” he says.

“How expensive?”

“Maybe broken.”

“Broken?”

“Ya, land very soft, easy make batu sikat broken. Maybe a little a little around pot. And here small mountain…”

The end of this story is obvious by now. In true Balinese fashion, Ketut has given me what I want, his way. He never tells me I can’t, but with gentle stubbornness he guides me to reach that conclusion all by myself. I have to loosen the reigns. When I do the results are always spectacular. The creativity that erupts in such abundance in this culture astounds me. I have no doubt my garden, when left to Ketut, will be a thing of wondrous beauty. I’ll have a few pots, he’ll have a few mountains, and I’ll believe it was all my idea in the first place.

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Ketut hard at work in the new garden

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