The Momentum of Intention and the Healing Power of Ritual

P1110803Today I did something I’ve never done. It felt important to remember Dad in a special way on Fathers Day. In America that falls on Sunday, June 19th.

When the idea dawned to assemble mementos, the 19th was still two days away. As I went about the normal routine ideas floated to consciousness: Dad loved to play Texas Mean! I’ll find the game and set it up. What were his favorite foods? He liked hot stuff, chilies! And raisin pie, and, oh! Flowers!

I fell asleep anticipating Fathers Day morning but awakened at 2:04 a.m. Where was that photo of him that I brought back with me from the States? As I was scouring my brain trying to place it I fell asleep only to awaken again at 4:18. His purple heart and dog tags! Those must be displayed, and pictures of our family…I dropped back into sleep. At 6:00 a sunrise befitting the magnitude of the day summoned me. I scrambled out of bed for the camera and captured a stunning sky.

Still in pajamas, I set about looking for his photo. It wasn’t in any of the expected places, but in the process of the hunt I found others. Perfect! While unearthing the Texas Mean game from its place in the cupboard a collection of old calendars caught my eye. Inserted between March and April, 2015, was my handsome Dad on his wedding day. Beside it was the program from his funeral. Did I want that reminder? It took a few minutes to sort through how I felt. Then one line caught me eye: Died January 29, 2016. Yes, his death was a fact of his life.

As I assembled the keepsakes, a carved Buddha head on the wall just above the display felt off. The eyes, locked into an unwavering stare, didn’t fit. In my scarf drawer was a black loosely-woven shawl. I draped it over Buddha’s head so just the shadow of a face could be seen. That was the missing piece. It represented the veil of sadness and loss that today I’m allowing myself to feel. Then the tears came.

A time-out to shower and dress restored my composure. Barefoot, I walked outside, down the stairs, and into the garden breathing the moisture and aromas of breakfast being cooked. I sensed Dad’s presence with me. He loved gardens! Damp and cool underfoot, a slow amble around the perimeter produced yellow, purple, and hot pink blooms. I’d just added two green chilies to the mix when Ketut appeared.

“Ya, good morning. What are you doing?”

“I’m preparing a ceremony for my father.”

His face lit up. “One years, same as Hindu?”

“No, it’s six months since he died. But in America this is a special day for fathers.”

“I will bring offering,” he said. A few minutes later he returned with two palm leaf creations filled with the appropriate grains of rice, flowers, and mossy bits that appear everywhere on ceremonial days in Bali. I asked if it was okay to put raisins, the chilies, and a sweet biscuit on top. He assured me that this is how it should be.

All in readiness, I lit a candle and incense.

The raspy voice of Johnny Cash came to life on the computer: I Walk the Line. It was a song we loved to sing. While it played I made coffee, one for Dad, one for me, and we had our time together.

Underlying the sadness was intense joy filled with loving energy both his and mine. From the moment of intention, my subconscious mind had spun the story. When it was time to bring the idea to fruition, all the needed elements were there for creating an altar of memories.

Ritual is healing. I’ve heard that but I didn’t really understand. Now I get it. It can’t just be a concept. It has to be performed. I’m grateful that I took the time, made the effort, and followed the subtle promptings of my heart.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad, and all my love…always…

Sherry

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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!

The Balinese Male Mindset

When told that as a foreigner with a retirement visa I was eligible for government medical insurance in Bali, I was skeptical. It seemed so out of the realm of possibility that I did nothing about it for months. Then I discovered that Ketut and his family could also be covered, and the cost was minimal. After hounding my neighbor for details, I cornered Ketut.

East meets West.
Leo meets Capricorn.
Stubborn meets equally stubborn.

It isn’t that he didn’t think it was a good idea, it was just a NEW idea, and one that he didn’t know how to navigate. So we did our dance. I’ve learned that the Balinese male mindset cannot be railroaded. It’s better to ask questions. Rather than saying I don’t know a Balinese man is more likely to text any number of contacts until he gets an answer he likes.

So it went for several weeks, I’d ask, Ketut would text, and information slowly accumulated.

As the facts leaked in it appeared that it would involve a trip to the hospital at a neighboring village to pick up the registration packets. A date was set to go but a prudent call to the hospital indicated that the office was closed. The next day Ketut was too busy. A few more days passed, then he showed up one afternoon with the forms. He’d gone with a friend who had done it before and knew the routine.

The second thing I’ve learned about the Balinese male mindset is that once the procedure is clear, things happen fast.

Day One: Packets…check.

Ketut immediately summoned his wife. Komang and their daughter arrived drenched from the hour long motorbike ride in the rain. “Tomorrow make photos and I take back to hospital,” he tells me. All of us needed passport type pictures and copies of important documents to submit with the government forms. Komang brought theirs with her.

Day Two: Ketut was busy all morning but early afternoon he told me that they had taken their showers and were ready for photos. We set out,  Komang and Nengah on one motorbike, Ketut and I another. We were in and out in about 30 minutes, pictures in hand, total price $4.50.

Back on the bikes we went another mile to a copy shop,  22 copies, 20 cents. At that point Komang and Nengah said goodbye. They have done their part. Ketut and I returned to the house and assembled the materials. The forms were filled out and he was ready to go back to the hospital when I handed him an envelope.

“Here’s the money. I want to pay for one year, not every month.” He frowns.

“Very expensive, not possible today.” It’s my turn to frown.

“Why not?”

“Today Hari Buda Cemeng Kelawu, cannot pay big money.”

“Buddha? You’re Hindu. What does Buddha have to do with anything?”

“This special day, Hindu ceremony give money only to god, cannot make big money go out.”

“I’m not Hindu. Maybe it’s okay for me?” Ketut has a repertoire of faces. The one he wears now is familiar. It’s a half-smile with lowered eyes that tells me he’d very much like to do what I ask but there’s no way in hell he’s going to.

“Not so good,” he says.

Tomorrow will be Day Three. Ketut will take the forms, the photos, the copies, and the cash, and go to the hospital. Then we’ll wait a month and he’ll go back to pick up our little plastic membership cards. Four people will be covered for anything and everything medical that can possibly happen to a human being in Indonesia, all for the equivalent of $12/month. I love this place. I love it’s inconsistencies, it’s inconveniences, and it’s incomprehensible devotion to a belief system that multiplies the inconsistencies and inconveniences exponentially.

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Offering for Hari Buda Cemeng Kelawu

And I love Bali’s inclusivity, but I’m still mystified as to how Buddha figures into this Hindu ceremony.

Off With Their Heads!

After the bizarre ferris wheel ride in the middle of godforsaken nowhere that followed a day of new experiences one after another, I’m exhausted. My roommate is still with her peers at the fair so I have our small room to myself, well almost. The scritch-scratch begins. “Oh no,” I moan as I whip the fuzzy blanket over my head and begin breathing my own fumes. I determine that whatever it is, it WILL NOT touch my skin, not tonight. The noises go on and on and I lay tense and waiting for the inevitable skitter of feet across some body part.

Then the tell-tale rustling stops. “Great,” I groan, “I know you’re just waiting for me to uncover my head and you’ll pounce!” I lay corpse-like, head sweating and hair plastered across my eyes and lips. “Enough already! I’ve had it! I’m done with this game. Go ahead, run over my face, see if I care!” I fling off the offending headcovering and lay listening once again. Still nothing. It takes me about two and a half seconds to fall asleep.

The morning alarm blasts through a dream. I return to my home in Ubud and Pasek greets me full of excitement. The new kitchen has been finished in my absence. He proudly leads me to it. It looks a bit like this, windows crooked, everything cartoonish.

I tell Ketut about the nightmare. “Oh,” says the wise one, “Bad dream mean kitchen good.” He thinks for a minute then adds, “If good dream, then maybe kitchen bad.” Yin yang. Balance. I thank him and suggest that he check on things. He has to go back to Ubud for a few hours today. I’m staying behind to avoid the three hour round trip on the motorbike. He says he will check.

The morning routine is the same as yesterday, but after breakfast, a woman with a box of footed red offering plates wheels in on a motorbike. She’s followed by a virtual army of others, arms full of supplies, long palm fronds, baskets full of flowers, fruits, moss, and a myriad assortment of necessities. Soon they’re thirty strong sitting on the low tables under the blue tarp. Their fingers fly.

In another corner the bloody business of butchering chickens is hidden from view. Unlike a pig slaughter, chickens are silent martyrs and the men are experts. Short work is made of the slim neck. Then the bird is held over a bowl to collect the blood and flung, still fully feathered, into a big, blue bucket. When it’s filled, the bucket moves to the next crew and the bird is neatly denuded. Rows of plucked bodies are strung on long skewers ready for the barbecue pit.

I pick my way through woodchips and bits and discover another enclave of men gathered around chopping blocks. These fellows are cutting up the onions and garlic that I, and hosts of others, spent hours peeling yesterday. But it’s not just garlic, onions, and chilies. There are warty roots, I’m guessing ginger, maybe turmeric, and medicinal looking leaves going into the mix. I smile, shoot a photo, and follow a basin of the chopped mix up the stairs. It’s dumped into a stone bowl and a tall, lean gent commences pulverizing it with a mallet.

The man and woman power represented here to prepare for a child’s birthday party, makes anything a normal family in the States might do look downright skimpy.

In mid-afternoon Ketut returns with a story that my dream was right. The kitchen is completed. “Wait you look-look,” he says with an evil grin. We both know that isn’t possible. I have a good laugh with Ketut at his wry, Balinese humor.

The women are finished. A buffet lunch is spread on outdoor tables. They fill their plates and relax, laughing and joking with each other. When the last bite is consumed, they file out of the compound and head home.

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About this time a bucket of fish goes by. They’re dumped out on boards and heads, fins, and tails get the axe. But that’s it. The bones are left in as the body of the fish is chopped into mush by serious looking knives. Minced bones and flesh are now united with the herb and spice mixture and fresh grated coconut to make the spicy satays that I love.

When the last stick of satays is roasted to a turn, the men are fed and they go home.

I’m summoned into the small room that has been decked out for the ceremony. Already a holy man is seated on the platform. Draped fabrics in red, purple and gold create the backdrop for the plates and mounds of offerings that I watched being made just hours ago. This is where I need my sarong but the borrowed one from Komang works fine. One size fits all when it’s just a two meter length of fabric!

The ceremony takes less than an hour. Children come in to stare for a few minutes then leave. Incense fills the room. The holy man rings the bell in a continual clanging and chants prayers as Komang and Ketut perform the rituals they’ve been taught from birth.

I have so many thoughts. First in mind, I’m embarrassed to admit, is the problem of having so much food in one’s bedroom. On the plus side, the critter that visited me the past two nights probably won’t bother when presented with this smorgasbord! But the ants? The sweet kue will attract hoards of them. And what about flies?

I banish those unholy imaginings and soak in the magnitude of the past three days. Ketut appears. “Finished?” I ask. He looks happy.

“Until tomorrow,” he says.

“What happens tomorrow?” Fair question, right?

“Oh, again for my brother, but this time dance.”

“Huh?”

“Ya. Brother’s baby six month ceremony tomorrow but holy man say have dance.”

“Tomorrow?” I repeat, seeing this wilderness vacation stretching on endlessly before me.

“Ya. Gamelan, like before.” As he speaks we walk toward a light and voices. “Can stay?” he asks.

We round a corner and there are Ketut’s brothers and their wives seated under the bare light bulb with a lone bottle of beer in the center of their small circle. They’re woodcarvers and though they’ve worked constantly all day long preparing for the ceremony, the job that makes money is carving.

I happen to know that neither Ketut nor his brothers drink alcohol. It’s expensive, and as Ketut tells me, “Too strong.” But a guest brought several bottles to the gathering today and the carvers are sharing one.

We leave the jovial group and I tell Ketut that of course I want to stay for his brother’s ceremony and the dance. What a privilege, what an honor, what an exquisite glimpse into a time and place that most Western eyes have never seen.

My roommate appears and we enter our little house together. She drops to the floor, rolls in her blanket, and is asleep. I turn off the light, grope for my sleepwear with one ear tuned for the scratch-scratch, and slide into bed. As I suspected, the ferreting varmint has better pickings elsewhere and I’m left in peace. Sleep descends.

A Strange Diagnosis

Ketut’s father is sick. The Balian, a traditional Balinese healer, is consulted. “How is Bapak?” I ask him the next day.

“Same-same,” is his reply. But there’s more to the tale and once again I listen in amazement to the complex interrelation of medicine, magic, and mystery that surrounds the lives of the Balinese. This is the story as told to me by Ketut.

One of his father’s ancestors a long time ago was a Balian and he had a book that had been passed down in the family for seven generations. The book (lontar) contained the collected wisdom of the healing arts, required rituals, recipes for medicinal cures, instructions for auspicious marriages, and all that the community needed to know to thrive. But it also contained the opposite, an operations manual for black magic.

When that Balian died, no one replaced him. The book that had been cared for, consulted, honored with offerings and placed in a special position of prestige, was ignored. It was kept in a cabinet in the father’s sleeping room.

“The Balian say book angry,” Ketut tells me. “My father sick because book want house.” I pepper Ketut with questions and learn that construction on a house for the book is underway. I’m trying to wrap my head around this but the concept is elusive.

A few days later I ask Ketut how construction is coming. “Not yet finish,” he says. I get the same answer as weeks go by. I’m picturing one of the small tower-like structures that I’ve seen in temples all over Bali. That, I assume, would be a fitting house for a book. But why is it taking so long?

The day comes when the new house is finished. “Is the book already inside?” I ask.

“Oh no.” Ketut answers many of my questions this way. “Not yet good days,” he says. “Manku make ceremony when good days.”  So this is a bigger deal than I thought. I should have known. The book can’t be moved until the holy man finds an auspicious day. Then the priest will be hired to come and officiate. Mountains of flowers, fruits, cakes, and chickens will be purchased or cooked and prepared as offerings.

“I want to come to the book ceremony,” I tell him. He says of course and he’ll let me know. Weeks pass. “Book ceremony soon?” I ask.

“Not yet, maybe three month.”

“Three more months?” I’m shocked. His father hasn’t gotten better. But this is Bali and the mills of the gods grind slowly.

As mid-April approaches I’m told that the day has been decided. It will be on Purnama Kedasa, the full moon celebration April 14th, an auspicious day indeed.

The long-awaited morning dawns bright and clear. Outfitted in temple clothes, my neighbor Julie and my visiting friend from America, Jan and I are ferried up the mountain to Ketut’s village in a decrepit mini-van. As we chug and cough along Pasek, who is with us, gets a text from Ketut. The priest hasn’t yet arrived. Pasek invites us to his house to wait.

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We’re greeted by Nyoman, Pasek’s wife

Jan is beautiful in her lacey kebaya and sarong

Jan is beautiful in her lacey kebaya and sarong

Nyoman cooked this amazing spread for usIt’s always the same with Ketut’s and Pasek’s families. We are plied with food and drink. When asked if they will be eating too it’s either, “Already,” or “Later.”

Not many foreigners come to this remote, mountain village so we are studied with wide-eyed wonder by the small children. The adult women wrap us in warm hugs. The adult men smile and shake hands or hang back. Teens whisper and giggle.

Waiting outside the temple for Pasek's father to bless us

After the feast we wander to the temple where a rug is spread outside. We squat or crouch in our tight sarongs awaiting the blessing.

It’s mid-afternoon and we’re still with Pasek’s family.  Ketut comes to find us. The priest has not yet arrived but Ketut is ready to take his turn with us. “Want to see book?” he asks. Of course we do! We all pile back into the rusty bucket. This time our route can barely be called a road. The jouncing and jiggling are fierce and I’m surprised my dinner behaves as well as it does. I’m worried about Jan. Her stomach was a little unsettled earlier. But she says she’s fine. It’s a miracle.

Ketut and Pasek's cousing with rice basket cookers on their headsFrom Pasek’s house we move to the home of another relative. A tour of the premises brings us to the outdoor kitchen where Ketut and our driver model the woven cones that are used to steam rice over boiling water.

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Stealing honey

Moving from one mischief to the next, these two decide to pry open the bee house and check for honey. The bees they’re disturbing look like overgrown fruit flies. We’re told they don’t bite, but they swarm around Ketut’s head as he violates their stash.

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He extracts some of the honeycomb and a little nectar for us to taste. The comb is dark brown and the honey has a tart vinegar-y flavor. It isn’t an instant hit.

Ketut’s father with the ancient books (lontar)

Ketut’s father appears and greets us. He is much better. He leads us to a room with a cabinet and takes a seat on a raised platform. This is the room where the lontar is stored. A footed offering plate holds several of the volumes. With utmost care he opens one of them and shows us the script that was cut into the palm leaves hundreds of years ago. Very few people can read the old Balinese writing. The modern alphabet is completely different.

P1060083We lean in close and Bapak says it’s okay to take photos. The inscription is faint but legible. There are dozens of the bound packets of hardened palm leaves. Ketut tells us that the leaf is dried, then soaked in hot water, then dried again and it becomes hard. The writing is done by carving each letter with a knife.

But there are new developments. The book no longer wants to be in the new house. The ancestral weapons, the kris, must go there first. Later if the book wants to be with the kris, it will tell the priest. But for now, the book stays where ‘she’ is and the swords will take up residence in the new house. How was this communicated? “The Mangku he know,” Ketut tells me later.

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This is the new book house. Ketut stands in the doorway and Komang, his wife and a niece look on. I’m shocked to see a real house with two rooms. All this for a book and a couple of swords?

Ketut’s family gathers round while we wait for the priest. More food is brought along with thick, sweet, Bali coffee.

Ketut has heard from the priest. Many blessings are scheduled for the full moon and he’s much in demand. It may be hours before he arrives, “Or maybe tomorrow,” Ketut says.

The sun set a while ago. We still have an hour-and-a-half ride down the mountain before sleep. With the timing of the ceremony uncertain, and the adventures of the day already enough to fill us to capacity, we opt to take our leave. As we bump along the ridge, the lights of the villages lining the shores of Lake Batur shimmer through a gauzy mist of cloud far below.

The island of Bali is another world. But the places we’ve been today could be another galaxy so far removed are they from what we might consider normal. And yet it works here. It fits. And I doubt that I will ever outgrow the amazement and wonder at the vast differences that feel so familiar.

 

 

 

 

 

A Writers’ Fire

It’s dark. Quiet. Still. I stand at the street looking down on a small circle of men in white. Where is everybody? I check the time…7:45…I’m early.

There are hundreds of people in Ubud for the 2013 Writers’ Festival. A large percentage of them are the volunteers from around the world. They make this event possible. All of us are invited here tonight. Is Minnesota, U.S.A. the only place on earth where people arrive a bit early to make sure they’re on time?

I make my way, with some trepidation, down the staircase toward the gathering. As I approach I notice a person sitting on the sidelines. His brown shirt, pants, shoes, and stocking-cap blend with his skin. He’s invisible. He notices me and says hello, then smiles a mouthful of white teeth. He’s no longer invisible. He assures me that this is the right place and invites me to take a seat on the platform with the holy men.

Holy men are scary. They shouldn’t be. I’ve been hugged by an ancient holy man who was about a foot shorter than I am. But in Balinese hierarchy, a holy man is at the very pinnacle of authority.

with holy man

One of the men in the circle has noticed me. He nods. I nod back and smile. The next thing I know he is beside me, asking my name and where I’m from. This is standard procedure anywhere in Bali. Siapa nama anda? Di mana?

Pak Ketut takes me under his wing and informs me that this ceremony honors the Hindu diety, Agni, the fire god. The priests are busy preparing the altar, which by now is covered with flowers and fruit. I’m surprised we aren’t here to ask the blessing of Saraswati, goddess of knowledge and the arts. I ask Pak Ketut about it and he explains that Agni burns away all that is unwanted. The intention of this ceremony is to clear out whatever stands in the way of a successful, 2013 Ubud Writers’ Festival.

While I’m engrossed in Hindu Ceremonies 101, a few others straggle in. They join Pak Ketut and me and get the same questions, Siapa nama anda? Di mana? There is a woman from Singapore, one from Borneo, an Australian chap, and me. This time when invited to join the holy men on the platform we do so.

It’s 9 p.m. when the 8 o’clock ceremony commences. I should know this by now. Bali operates on jam karet, rubber time. Nothing ever starts when it’s supposed to. When time is attached to an event it’s a mere suggestion.  The Balinese possess an innate knowing and always appear en masse at the precise moment things commence. Or maybe things commence when the Balinese appear en masse?

There isn’t a full gamelan orchestra, but one of the men has cymbals. Another has a rattle. I notice now that all the holy men have some type of instrument. The officiating priest rings a bell and it begins. There is a cup of water and a folded banana leaf in a dish in front of me. I watch as the others dip the leaf in the water and pour it on their hands, cleansing them. Suda, sitting beside me, tells me if I touch anything besides rice during the ceremony, I must wash my hands again. I am reminded of this every time I take a photo. Suda points to the water and I dutifully wash.

There is a bowl of dry rice and a banana between us.

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A low tinkling begins. The priest chants in Sanskrit. Those in the group who can, echo the response. As the volume builds the fire is fed and becomes a dancing apparition in the center. The sound ebbs and flows. The music stops. In a grand finale lasting at least fifteen minutes, the priests incant. The sound crescendos to an abrupt halt and we all grab a handful of rice and throw it on the fire.

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The chant resumes and this performance is repeated over and over and over again. The rice in our dish is replenished many times. Then it stops.

We stand and form a circle. Very slowly, clapping a rhythm, our intimate little group of about twenty people, circles the fire. Then one-by-one we approach the holy man. It’s my turn. I kneel and incline my head toward him. He dips his finger in a mixture of oil and ash from the bowl sitting in front of him and with one finger, puts a dot of black over my third eye. When all have received their mark, food is distributed and it’s party time.

We open our neat packages to explore the contents. My new friends poke tentatively at the food while I dive in with my fingers and gobble the delicacies. Yum. We say goodbyes then Pak Ketut is there. “What do you feel about this ceremony?” he asks me as he makes a circle in the air with his arm then pats his chest. “What do you feel in here?” I pause. What do I feel? How has the night impacted me? And how do I communicate that with someone whose English is minimal. I open my mouth, not sure what will come out, but the words are there. “I feel special,” I said. “I feel special and blessed.” Pak Ketut beams. “Yes.” he says.

Together we have fed the fire. Bushels of rice and bananas smolder in the embers. Agni’s tummy is full and so is mine. Let the 2013 Ubud Writers’ Festival begin!

And…The Woman In My Kitchen

I’ll get to the woman in my kitchen, but first: Galungan. There is no translation for that word. It is what it is, a sequence of days in the life of Balinese Hindus that represent weeks of preparation, the assembling of massive penjors to adorn the streets, and elaborate offerings. The belief is that the spirits of the ancestors visit their original homes during this time. Extensive offerings are made in observence of their return. Offerings are also made on the graves of family members who have died and have not yet been cremated. Business slows to a crawl, schools are closed, and the village concentrates on the events surrounding this sacred period.

Ibu informed me early that my house offerings this week would be “Mahal!” (expensive) because of Galungan. Expensive. When I quizzed her for exact numbers, the typical $3.50/week for the beautiful creations that she places around the house and yard every day would be a whopping $5.00. I happily shelled out the additional rupiah and eagerly awaited the auspicious date.

She had drawn an elaborate diagram on the tablecloth with her finger showing me exactly where each offering would be placed and how many were required at each location. How do the woman keep all the endless details of the hundreds of ceremonies tucked neatly away in their heads? I have seen Ibu studying the Balinese calendar hanging on my wall. Every Balinese home  and place of business has one. In the west, we pencil our appointments and ‘to dos’ in the blank space around the dates. Not so on the Balinese calendar. It’s filled in for you.

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Balinese Calendar for March

I’m guessing there may be some hints in the massive amounts of information contained in this document that would help jog the memory. It doesn’t help mine!

But back to Galungan…

I watched as the 67 year old woman made her way along the path to my house. She was in full ceremonial dress, but her sarong was wet up to the knees. Every morning she wades the river to come here. I knew the huge, square woven basket on her head was filled with gifts for the gods. Ibu began the process of sorting and arranging the offerings. Some have fruit. Bananas are an important offering ingredient for Galungan. All have flowers. And there are celophane packages of treats, cupcakes, doughnuts, peanut chips, and little vials of…could it be…jello?! After arranging the proper items in the offering bowls and trays, Ibu began.

Ibu sprinkling holy water

She dips the flower in the holy water and sprinkles each offering

The dining table offering

The dining table offering

The top of the refigerator offering

The top of the refigerator offering

The kitchen window offering (so only good things come in)

The kitchen window offering (so only good things come in)

The stove offering

The stove offering

Ibu was in the kitchen for a long time. When she finished, that tiny space had no less that four beautiful offerings. She completed her rounds, offerings at either side of both the back and front entrances to my home, the front and back yard, the altar, until the scent of incense was sweet and thick in the humid air.

Having completed the ritual she changed into her work clothes and again disappeared into the kitchen. This time when she emerged she had a treat for me. Pisang Lawi. I had never seen this dish before but it is now my favorite treat.

Pisang lawi, banana dumplings with fresh shaved coconut and a sprinkling of sea salt. TO DIE FOR!!!

Pisang Lawi, banana dumplings with fresh shaved coconut and a sprinkling of sea salt. TO DIE FOR!!!

We sat together on the platform, each with our heaping plate and steaming cup of Bali Kopi. A friend stopped by who has been in Bali much longer than I have and Ibu rushed to prepare the treat for her, too. She had never exprienced this particular dish before and gushed her enjoyment.

I could try to suggest that I, too, cook in my kitchen, but what I do is a sorry excuse. I heat up leftovers of the fabulous meals that others have prepared for me. I tried, I really did. And I’ll try again…maybe. But with experts who can whip up such things as this in a heartbeat, without scouring the internet for recipes, translating the ingredients into Indonesian, snagging a lift on the back of a motorbike to the market, then fumbling through the unfamiliar equipment that occupies my kitchen…I ask myself, why would I?

Dancing History, Dancing Memory, Dancing A Prayer

The entrance to the Water Palace was ablaze with light. Instruments of the gamelan glowed golden as they awaited the evening performance.

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We had been accosted by a man in a checkerboard sarong as we hurried toward the venue along Jl. Raya. “You see Lagong Dance at Royal Palace? You buy ticket from me. Only 80,000 rupiah.” I told him we were going to the Water Palace to see Gamelan, not the Royal Palace for Legong. “Yes, you go to Water Palace, Gamelan, you buy ticket from me, 80,000 rupiah.” He was walking sideways, ahead of us, earnestly explaining that the price was the same for us whether we bought tickets from him or at the gate. If we bought from him he would get commission.  There are many ways to make a buck in Bali, and that’s about what he made when we gave him our business.

Passing through the gate we strolled a pebbled walkway between two lotus filled pools and found a seat a few feet from the entrance to the palace. The air, heavy and moist, threatened rain. Those seated near us were speculating on the likelihood of that happening when the musicians filed in and took their places. There is a relaxed informality inherent in the Balinese alongside a dignified grace. The woman on the right checked her glasses, decided they were adequately clean, and repositioned them on her face. When all were seated a joyous and resounding instrumental introduction welcomed us to the performance.

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Gamelan is distinctly Indonesian. It is meant to be played outdoors. As one writer described it, “The open walls allow for the music to flow out into the community where the rest of the people may enjoy it. Inside closed rooms Balinese gamelan is inaudible and it easily trespasses the threshold of pain.” I have experienced it both ways and wholeheartedly agree that it must be played outdoors.

The instrumental introduction was followed by Puspa Wresti derived from the ceremonial Pendet dance. Young girls with bodies undulating disciplined and slow, shower the stage and the audience with flower petals. The flower offerings purify the temple or theater as a prelude to ceremonies. It is a ritual of welcome inviting the audience, and the spirits, to enjoy the delights of the performance. 

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The costumes, makeup, and artistry of the dancers held us entranced.
The movements of their hands and feet, arms and torsos, necks and heads, and even their eyes, were precise and provocative.
 

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The beautiful Bird of Paradise dance, Cendrawasih, followed. The complex choreography is designed to portray the arrogance of this magnificent creature, and the costuming reflects its glorious plummage. This sweet bird moved too quickly for the night setting on my camera to do it justice!

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No performance would be complete without the fierce Baris, glorifying the manhood of the triumphant Balinese warrior. The dance depicts the courage of a hero who is going to war. Once again the careful positioning of the feet, the impossible angles of the fingers, and the whites of the eyes tell the story.

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After the intense scariness of the Baris, it was time for the children to perform Kelinci, the Rabbit Dance! They came bouncing out all in white satin and floppy ears looking adorable. And they continued to bounce and playfully bat at each other executing their antics in orchestrated unison.

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Each performance was more exotic and technically brilliant than the one before. But at the end of the night I had a distinct favorite. The Panji Semirang tells the story of a young princess. When her husband marries another woman, the princess cuts her hair and changes her clothes pretending to be a man. She moves to the forrest with her servants. Granted, the Balinese men are gorgeous, but I don’t think anyone is going to mistake these beauties for handsome gents!

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Throughout the evening a light mist hung in the air, but no one noticed. The magic of sumptuous fabrics, intricate movements, and melodious gamelan kept us spellbound. These ancient stories have been danced for centuries, but they are more than mere entertainment. Woven into the artistry is a thread of reverent awe.  The performers are dancing history, and memory, and perhaps even prayer.

Deep Magic

The strangely discordant music of gamelan works in Bali. You can hear it emanating from open pavilions, raucously accompanying cremation processions, or drifting in soft tinkling waves on the humid night air. It is pure essence. It works because it is played in unconfined spaces with few or no walls to trap the cacophony. The cymbals, drums and the metallic keys of xylophones create an unparalleled din that is sucked up by the 100% moisture content of the atmosphere. Thereby muffled, blended, and slightly distilled it becomes dramatic background to weddings, cremations, and traditional ceremonies. It also accompanies the Legong, Barong, and a host of other dances performed by outrageously beautiful Balinese women and fierce, masked men.

But……when taken out of context, inserted into a bone dry climate, captured in a room with four walls and a ceiling, and visited upon ears that are tuned to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and even an occasional Led Zeppelin or Johnny Cash, gamelan assaults. It is instant headache. With every cymbal crash each delicate Western nerve ending spasms. Foreheads furrow, brows knit, the polite, politically correct audience sits on its hands to keep from covering its ears. It won’t catch on here. I guarantee.

I love gamelan. Is it an acquired taste? Not really. As I said, it works in Bali. It celebrates the rich abundance of the island. Life there is lived outdoors in the color and heat of nature. Gamelan proclaims in sound, tangled jungles, volcanic peaks, curling breakers, black sand, pounding rain, relentless sun, terraced hillsides, and deep magic. The complexity of ritual supported and enhanced by gamelan music is the heartbeat of the Balinese people.

I have downloaded a gamelan CD to my itunes. When I’m not in Bali something in me craves that sound. When I know I’m alone and won’t disturb the sensitive ears of my Scandinavian roots, I crank up the volume. Lighting a stick of supa-dupa Balinese incense I close my eyes and sink into the mystery. The frigid temps and monochromatic landscapes of my childhood melt away. In moments I have a headache. But in those moments I’ve been strangely replenished, fed, revived. It’s powerful stuff, gamelan…deep magic.

Making Peace with Good and Evil

Good and evil, yin and yang, are balanced today in the village of Bakbakan.  It isn’t easy to maintain harmony with these energies. The level of sensory intensity in the ritual prayers, dances, and offerings that are required to keep peace between the sacred and the profane is unparalleled by anything I’ve seen before.

My friend Wayan invited Nancy (who is visiting from the U.S.) and me to attend the temple ceremony as guests of her family. The village of Bakbakan is about 30 minutes from Ubud. I arranged with Pasek and Ketut for motorbike transport. After a sidesaddle ride, which Nancy accomplished with impressive decorum, we were delivered to our destination and welcomed warmly by Wayan and Komang in ceremonial dress.

A group of women had already congregated. They were stunning. They looked like brides, all in white with a colorful sash at their waists. We had a few minutes to visit and then a line started forming. The row of towering pyramids of fruit, cakes, whole baked chickens, and colorful confections were retrieved by the woman who created them and placed on their heads.

This woman’s husband helps her with her 4′ tall, over 30 pound offering.

I cannot comprehend this feat of balance and strength.  It’s a challenge for me to balance a book on my head for more than a few steps. How on earth do they do it? The stately procession was followed by the gamelan musicians. Nancy and I walked alongside the men, snapping photos as discreetly as possible.

A stunning parade, at least 50 women all in white, carried their towering offerings the 1/2 mile to the temple.

The temple complex has three areas. Those who cannot enter wait in the least sacred area outside the entrance. If a relative has died recently the family cannot enter the temple. If a woman is menstruating she must not enter. At we approached Komang politely asked if Nancy or I were menstruating. There are very few bodily functions that register as taboos in Bali. Community life is an open book. There is no embarrassment around such things. I assured him we were both well past that age. He smiled and motioned us to the holy water where we were sprinkled. Then we passed through the gate and entered a magical realm. All was in readiness for the evening festivities as we passed through this second area.

Stepping through the last gate into the most sacred portion of the temple a riot of color and commotion assailed us. The air vibrated with expectation and the hum of voices. We were urged onto a platform, a seat of honor, and woven bamboo mats were quickly spread for our delicate foreign bottoms. Nancy and I sat by Wayan while Ary slept peacefully in her arms.

Komang’s cousin, Made, appointed himself our teacher and began explaining the events that would take place. His English was excellent and I learned more about Balinese Hinduism in the 30 minutes with him than I have in 5 months of reading and asking questions. We sat and chatted while other friends and family came and went.

The gamelan began, signaling time for prayer. We sat on the ground in family groups. Each family brought, in addition to the 4’ high offering tower, a basket of flowers and incense which Komang’s mother placed in front of us. Prayers were chanted in unison as the intricate rituals were performed. I tried to chant. I’m pretty good at following along with most melodies, but this wasn’t exactly a melody. When we got to the end I recognized the words and gave it my all, Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om.

A buzz of excitement rippled through the crowd at this point and almost as a unit the we moved to the perimeter creating a center space. A cloth was spread on the ground and offerings were placed there. These were different. Some appeared to have been slightly burned. There were a couple of smaller, colorful ones but the rest were almost scary looking. Made explained that there would be a dance and prayers now to balance good and evil energies. A row of holy men in white sat behind the dark offerings. Incense was lighted that did not have the sweet fragrance we had been experiencing all night. This odor was acrid and harsh. The gamelan musicians began again. Then a grandmother appeared moving to the rhythm. Another grandmother joined her and soon a group of elder women were dancing in front of the offerings and the holy men. We had been told earlier that this would be a trance dance. It was eerie. The women appeared to be doing battle with the dark energies. I watched, mesmerized.

The solemnity of the prayers and trance dance complete, food suddenly appeared. Wayan handed us a tangerine, some beautiful little striped crackers, and a lacy confection of shredded coconut glazed with palm sugar. Yum! We ate, visited, and anticipated the beginning of the evening’s entertainment. People started moving into the performance area and Komang hustled us into position at the front. What followed were three traditional Balinese dances, each one more spectacular than the one before.

The first dance, Penyembrahma, was brilliantly colorful.

That was followed by the spectacular, twirling Bird of Paradise dance.

The costumes in deep maroon with gold were absolutely gorgeous.

Bird of Paradise was followed by a brilliantly costumed trio. I missed the name of this performance and it moved quickly so photo ops were difficult. It was hard to keep my eyes behind the camera when I really just wanted to absorb myself completely in the moment!

It was 9 p.m. by the time the dancers finished. We were told that there would be another performance starting soon, but this was a ritual dance and it would be dangerous for us to leave in the middle. It again had to do with balance of good and evil. Once we started watching we would have to stay until the end at about 2 a.m. As much as my curiosity, my heart, and my mind wanted to stay, my body was in protest. Komang graciously escorted us to the street. Pasek and Ketut had returned and were waiting for us. We exchanged sweet farewells and started home. The cool night air brushed by as we zipped through dark, quiet streets. I was overwhelmed once again with immense gratitude for the opportunity to live this kind of life, a life I have created for myself knowing what I need, what I want, and what I love. It is a life that fits me like skin.

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