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.

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A Life of No Regret

 

I ran across this poem recently:

What I Regret
By Nina Cassian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Memories Replace Movement – What do I want?

 

This morning I’m looking out a frosty window at a world as far removed from my tropical home as it could possibly be and I’m pondering a question that I answered six years ago:

What do I want?

Moving to Bali was a fabulous decision then. There were no grandchildren. One daughter lived on the West Coast, one on the East Coast, and one in the Midwest. None had married.

Everything changes. I’m here in Minnesota in the dead of winter because my youngest just gave birth to twin boys. Eighteen months ago I was in New York to meet my first granddaughter. All three of my children are beautifully partnered now and their lives have taken on new dimensions. They’ve indicated that my physical presence (more often and prolonged than it has been) is very much desired. They want me to be an integral part of their lives. What a beguiling draw that is.

Yet my love of Bali hasn’t diminished. If anything it’s deeper now than ever. I have an intimate circle of friends. I’ve created a life around writing that nurtures me as does the warm climate. I love the exotic landscapes, the thunderous rains, the balmy winters and the Balinese families that have claimed me as their own. The two scenarios couldn’t be more different or compelling.

There’s a ‘knottier’ question though, and I suspect I’ll resolve my dilemma as I reach conclusions about this:

At the end of life, what will I regret NOT doing?

That’s the game changer and it’s a tough one. The unknowns are problematic. There are no guarantees. Anything can happen at any time to alter circumstances. There’s a haunting sense of carpe diem. Time is running out but there’s no way of knowing how much is left.

I want it all of course! I want to experience the joys of participating in the lives of my children and grandchildren. I want to continue my Bali adventure. There are still places in the world I want to see, and some I’ve seen that I want to revisit. I’m fortunate to have those options and the good health to pursue them…now. But most of all, when I approach that future time when memories replace movement and possibilities have reached the age limit, I want no regrets.

 

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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A Fathers Day Farewell

Sherry and Dad on guitarDad died in January. It’s my first Father’s Day in sixty-six years without him. I don’t know how to be with that truth. He was the most important person in my life. I was alone with him, holding his hand, when he took his final breath.

The last years weren’t easy for him. I was glad when he shed the troubles of his worn out body and escaped to wherever kind, hard-working, beloved men go. His presence hasn’t left me. He’s the blue butterfly that flutters around the bougainvillea and threads in and out of my house. We commune in a language free of words.

But when I saw an ad for Father’s Day, my heart lurched with pain, searing, immediate, deep. I was bereft knowing that this year I would not scan Amazon for a book with pictures of Norway, or stories about boyhood in the Midwest to send to him. When Dad stopped reading I knew his life-force was weak. He loved to read. When he was no longer interested in food, I mentally prepared for the inevitable. When the message reached me that he was failing, I took the next plane.

How will I navigate Father’s Day without him? I need a plan, a ritual, something that will not allow the day to pass like any other day. Perhaps….

…I’ll gather flowers. Dad loved them and taught me their names: bloodroot, honeysuckle, clover, buttercup, lady slipper, goldenrod, and many more. I followed his footsteps through fields of alfalfa bordered by marshy swamps as he pointed them out. None of those exist in this tropical climate, but Dad won’t care if it’s frangipani and heliconia instead.

I’ll listen to some old Johnny Cash tunes, maybe strum a few lines of Down in the Valley. Dad loved to sing and play guitar and he taught me the chords. We spent hundreds of hours playing and singing together.

And because this is Bali and offerings are an integral part of every-day life, I’ll prepare one for the ancestral spirit that is now my Dad. It will have raisins, chocolate-covered cherries, and the hottest chilies I can find. He’s the only Norwegian I’ve known who popped them in his mouth like candy, grinned with sweat beading on his brow, and asked for more.

Then I’ll play the video Jessa made with the song she sang at the funeral while her partner, Dan, accompanied her on Dad’s old guitar and I’ll cry. Of course I will. There have only been a few tears so far, but I’m ready. They’re stored up behind my eyes like a pressure in my skull that reaches all the way to my heart. And it will be the first time in many years that I’ll be with my Dad on Father’s Day.

Background song: Fall Down as the Rain written by Joe Crookston. Guitar by Dan Gaustad and vocals by Jessa Walters and Dan Gaustad.

Part One: Death isn’t the end

Six months ago, in a hardware store in Denpasar, Ketut answered a phone call. He moved to a quiet area behind metal shelving to talk. It was a light-hearted outing but the man who emerged after the call walked as though wounded and his face, attempting a smile, masked pain.

“Ketut, what’s wrong? What happened?” He didn’t speak right away. Maybe he was still grappling with disbelief. But when he was able to answer it was a message that sent my heart plummeting to my feet.

“My father die.”

———-

Extended family performed the necessary procedures on the body, washing, wrapping, blessing, keeping watch, and burying. But other ceremonies in the village took precedence so the funeral for Bapak had to wait. In Abang Songan there is a mass cremation every five years. Very few families can afford the expense of an individual cremation, so the body is buried and later exhumed for burning with the rest.

P1070891That poses a bit of a problem. The spirit must have a proper sendoff. Nobody wants the spirit of the deceased hanging around for long because it requires tending. Since his passing, Bapak Ketut has been fed every time the family is fed. When gifts are received, he is given a portion. Ancestral spirits are honored and kept happy because it is believed that an angry spirit will wreak havoc. Even with all possible care taken, every stubbed toe and skinned knee in the ensuing months will be attributed to a dissatisfied soul.

October 30th was the day ascertained by the holy man to be auspicious for the releasing of Bapak’s spirit. I was invited to attend. Ketut went home days before to help prepare. There were shelters to be erected, platforms and blankets and tarps to be borrowed, chickens killed, fish caught, vegetables collected. The guests would bring rice, coffee, and sugar as part of their contribution.

Ketut’s older brother, Nengah, came at 7 am the morning before the ceremony to pick me up. When we arrived in the village an hour and a half later, an army of people were already at work.

There’s one job that I know how to do. Only one. Without that job I am destined to wander aimlessly with my camera for hours, long past the battery’s capability for more photos.

I peel onions.

But the kitchen had gone missing.

“Di mana dapur?” I asked the first woman I saw. She motioned in a direction back where I’d come from, then took my arm steering me around a corner, then around another, along a narrow alley between a tarp shelter and a house, over a stoop and behind another house. There they were, the piles of vegetable, the steaming woks and kettles, whole chickens flattened as though they’d met with a steamroller, and the Ibus, chattering and working as smoothly and effortlessly as a new Mercedes Benz.

I greeted them and was invited to sit.

“Thank you,” I said, “But first, where are the onions?” My question was followed by a shotgun volley of words in Balinese, a language I will never understand, and then laughter. A blue plastic laundry basket was hoisted off a shelf and the contents poured into a pan. “Knife?” I asked. A sabre of fearsome proportions came my direction. “Small please?” More laughter but a smaller knife was produced. For the next few hours I peeled onions, made jokes in my broken Indonesian, and functioned as a member of the kitchen crew.

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Bali onions are tiny, about the size of a large clove of garlic. and red. One pan full was the sum of my whole morning’s work.

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For about twenty minutes these two industrious young ladies helped me peel.

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In another area women assembled hundreds of offerings.

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Some of the designs for this particular ceremony were elaborate and unusual.

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Ketut told me that this vertical basket contained sixty different kinds of leaves. “All the leaf from my house to the river,” he said. It also held sixty eggs, and sixty garlic cloves, sixty onions, in essence, the fruits of the land. To my question, “Why?” there was the usual answer…

“I don’t know.”

P1070857 In another area the men chopped fish and chicken, bones and all, into a meaty pulp. They mixed each of them with pulverized coconut, onions, garlic, and chillies, then smooshed the mixtures onto bamboo sticks. The sticks had been carved the day before.

Coffee and sweets were served when the workers arrived and again later in the morning. At 11:00 am the blue laundry basket appeared, this time heaped full with steaming rice. Dishes of vegetables and tofu, satays, bean soup, potato soup, deep fried fish, and chicken with spicy sambal (the Balinese version of salsa) created a feast for the eyes and the palate. After eating the men smoked and the women chattered, then it was back to work. Mid-afternoon the young girls of the family in tightly wrapped sarongs, once again brought out trays of coffee and sweets. At 4 pm the buffet reappeared. When the last satay stick was licked clean, people drifted to motorbikes or started the walk home. Easily fifty people were fed twice on this day as they had been for several days prior.

But as the sun set and evening chill settled over the mountain there were still a dozen or so extra bodies hanging out. Ketut and his wife insisted that I take their room with the double bed, television, and privacy.

“Where will you sleep?”

“All sleep outside, many many.”

“All these people are spending the night here?”

“Ya, all. You want shower?”

“But where is everybody going to sleep?”

“Ya, here.” A sweep of Ketut’s arm indicated the platforms that earlier held the offering makings.

“Outside? Really?”

“Ya.”

“Ketut, it’s cold!”

“Oh no, many people, very warm. Ya, you take shower now.” As if on cue, his brother appeared carrying a bucket with a small faucet attached.

“Hot,” he said.

I dutifully followed him to the bathroom where he showed me how to operate the faucet then left. The hot water felt wonderful. I dabbed at my face, neck, and did the best I could without soap, washcloth or towel, and the pail was still 3/4 full when I finished. But fresh guilt assaulted me.

“I don’t want your wife and baby sleeping outside when I have a warm room. That’s not okay.”

“Ya, later they sleep inside.”

“With me?”

“Ya, later.”

“Promise?”

“Ya.”

Somewhat mollified I kicked off my sandals at the door and went in. The bed seemed wide enough to sleep crosswise so I stretched out at the foot leaving plenty of room for Komang and the baby. Remembering a previous experience with nocturnal visitors, I left the light on hoping to discourage unwanted guests.

At 5 am I awoke to barking dogs and cock-a-doodle-doing roosters, alone. Still fully clothed, I ran a comb through my hair, pulled on a sweater, and poked my nose outside. A row of mummies, sausaged into a variety of blankets, stirred ever so slightly. Ketut’s head popped out. My glare was answered with his happy grin that spoke, I won! louder than words.

Next

Day Two: March up the mountain

Today I Lost a Friend

It began like a normal morning with roosters crowing in advance of the sun. I awoke with them around 5 a.m. As the sky brightened I checked the clouds, puffy white in a sea of blue, perfect. Ketut appeared with groceries from the market. “I’d like to go to Denpasar today. Are you busy?” He wasn’t.

A half hour later we were tooling through rice paddies and small villages in high humor. I’ve mulled on the fact that Ketut tends to speak little when I can hear him but becomes a regular chatterbox when the thick helmet, rushing wind, and surrounding traffic noise make it almost impossible to decipher his words.

The shop I wanted to see was in Kerobokan, but as we entered the Denpasar area I spotted an ACE Hardware Store. These are not like the Ace Hardware’s at home. Here you can find fake plants, ‘a plastic garden’ as Ketut puts it, bathtubs, and children’s toys as well as auto parts, tools, hinges and toaster ovens. Neither of us had been there before so we took time to check out all three floors of the massive building.

We were looking at the display of safes cleverly disguised as canned vegetables, when he got a phone call from his wife. Workers were repairing the floor in that vicinity of the store so Ketut moved to a quieter area to take the call.  When he came back he had a strange look in his eyes. I told him I was finished and asked if he was ready to go. Holding me in that deeply intense gaze he said, “I’m sorry.” My gut did a flip. Something was terribly wrong.

“What is it Ketut? What happened?”

“My father die,” he said. The bottom dropped out of my heart.

Ketut’s father was special. Whenever I was a guest at the family compound he sought me out to talk. He asked questions about my country and my family. He wanted to know about the seasons in Minnesota and how it could be so cold for part of the year and so hot at other times. His mind was sharp and quick to grasp the nuances of things he had never seen. Knowing him I understood where Ketut got his facile intellect and ready wit.

Not only did he possess a natural curiosity and a fine intelligence, but he was kind. deeply kind. That’s another attribute that Ketut inherited from his papa.

The ride back to Ubud was a teary one for me. I know that outward expressions of grief are not appreciated here. A ‘clear face’ is highly prized. Sadness is thought to attract negative energies and upset the balance.  I was glad of the dark glasses and the hour on the back of the motorbike to process my emotions.

Every so often Ketut asked, “You okay?” The dear man had just lost his father and he was still tending to me.

“Yes, I’m okay. You okay?”

“Ya.”

The motorbike bumped it’s way back to Ubud while Ketut told me the story of his father’s illness. He had been to the Balinese healer and a Western doctor. The doc told him his arteries were closing and surgery wouldn’t help. The Balian gave him a medicinal concoction to drink every day. Some days he felt strong. He drove his motorbike and cut grass for the cows. Other days were not so good.

“My father say he want big photo,” Ketut said as we reached the outskirts of Ubud. “For cremation.”

Bapak is survived by four older siblings. One sister had requested a photo for her cremation several months ago. I snapped a picture, had it enlarged and printed, and delivered it to her on a subsequent visit. It was a very big deal.

“Is it too late?” I asked.

“Oh no! Not until cremation.”

I have the picture. It captures this man, his elegant bearing, wise face and kind eyes. He looks far younger than his seventy years and for the hard working mountain farmers, that isn’t often the case.  I’m glad there is one last thing I can do for Bapak as his soul speeds on its journey. Goodbye, my friend. I’ll miss you.

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Tadpoles, Caterpillars, and a Naked Tree

There is a lesson here. I’m sure of it. The Tree, rounded and lush, was home to a pair of cooing doves. Many times daily they sought cover in  her protective branches and rustled around copiously completely hidden from prying eyes. Mine.

The Tree

That morning I spied a ladder propped against the trunk. Look closely…it’s there. Being unfamiliar with the species of Tree or the possible nature of her fruit, my first guess assumed harvest. The Tree had produced something delectable that Ketut would gather. I parked myself on the balcony in a position affording the most advantageous view and waited. My patience was rewarded. Ketut climbed the ladder with a wicked-looking curved knife in hand. On his way up he chopped at a few stray branches and sent them crashing through the vegetation below. Next thing I knew, the ladder was below him. He was scaling the trunk and hoisting himself into the thick crown of leaves above him.

Ketut in The Tree

In the next instant he was hacking off branches at an alarming rate. Well, I mused, maybe this is a pruning rather than a harvest. What if the doves have a nest in there? What if he upsets it and they can’t go home? Anxiety was setting in. At the onset I had feigned nonchalance, observing but trying not to be obvious about it. Now I was fully engaged, horrified, not wanting to believe my eyes. Hack, hack, hack. More and more branches crashed through the palms and frangipani below. I had to bite my tongue to keep from shouting Stop! Please stop! Ketut, after all, is the gardener and the garden, after all, is not mine. With each loud whack of the knife and each crashing fall of a branch my heart sank a little deeper into grief. I turned away and busied myself with distractions not wanting to see what I feared.

Later, after all had been silent in the garden for some time, curiosity compelled me. I had to look. Mon Dieu! Butchered! Denuded! The Tree stood naked and grotesque against the sky. This was abominable! I needed an explanation. My thoughts were stormy…Where is he? Where is that Ketut…that butcher! He’d better have a good story because I an not happy.

Naked Tree

I found him, of course. Summoning as much composure as possible I inquired, politely, about the tree. It was for safety, he said. Too much wind, tree fall on house. What about the birds? I needed to know. Was there a nest? Many nest, Ketut smiled, but no egg. He further explained that he was not finished. The whole top of the tree would be cut off but his knife had broken. The whole top of the tree. Then what? I asked. He smiled that angelic smile…Then, one month maybe, new tree!

I’m sensing a theme here…first the frog, now the tree. Death and rebirth. Transformation. For my last visit to Bali I lived at the edge of a rice paddy. I arrived when the new shoots were tender green rows against the muddy earth. I left just before harvest. The paddy was a golden field, ripe, mature, and I had grown as well. This time I live at eye-level with the treetops. My neighbors are the birds. I am in mid-heaven, halfway between the sacred and the mundane. And I know why I’m here. Yes, to rewrite the manuscript…yes, to hold a workshop…but the greater purpose, wrapped all around in this beautiful cocoon of my home, is to liquefy. I’ve already felt the beginning of it. I could be terrified, or I could yield into acceptance. What choice does the caterpillar have? What choice do I?

A lone dove sits on a naked branch of The Tree. One month, little friend, I tell her, one month.

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