And That’s All I Need To Know

My nervous system is recalibrating. I don’t wake up to monkeys screaming at dawn. Ketut says they’re still there. Every day. Many.

I loved Bali. No other place has ever captured my heart and soul like that mysterious island did. No other human has shown me such kindness or giggled as contagiously as Ketut did, and still does, but from a great distance now. Life, however, moves on. Circumstances change. As Willie Nelson so eloquently put it, Shit happens.

So we pick up the scraps and move on, a little battered, a little shaken up, but still hopeful that the path will open before us and the sun will shine again.

It’s important, though, especially for those of us who are optimists, to feel the feelings. Everything is not always sunny-side-up and we need to let grief in where it belongs.

When I landed in the U.S. I was numb. Reuniting with family after two years should have been bliss. I had expectations. It would be a love-fest – joyous – thrilling. My heart experienced it that way but my mind was in a state of utter overwhelm. I remember almost nothing of that time with my children and grandchildren.

My nervous system was in dire need of a reset.

The past five months in Mexico have been healing. The joys and sorrows of life are played out in the streets. There seem to be no taboos. One day they’re dancing and drumming with wild abandon. The next day brings a procession so somber and reverent the beholder hardly dares breathe. Battles, revenge, love, craziness. People in costumes depicting angels, demons, and everything in between. Effigies of personas non grata hung over the streets and blown to smitherines. My energies merge with theirs and I’m purged and cleansed.

Writing used to occupy my free time. I could sit for twelve hours at a stretch, so absorbed in the story I’d forget to eat.

I don’t know if it’s the altitude, the weather, or the tectonic shifting within my own being, but here in Mexico, my body wants to move. It refuses to sit still. It’s all I can do to bribe it into a chair long enough to hammer out a blog post.

So in-between delightful visits from friends who view my current proximity to the U.S. as a much less arduous undertaking than a trip to Bali, I seek projects.

The patio set on my roof frustrated me. The Acapulco-style table was missing its round glass insert. If mine ever had one, it was long gone. The rubber-string top was worthless if I wanted to set my coffee cup or glass of wine on it. I didn’t want a glass top anyway. I preferred a statement table, something that would express with color and design what stirred in my heart and didn’t yet have words.

Roberto, my landlady’s son, supplied a round piece of plywood.

I borrowed a brush from Martin, the handyman.

There is a Sherwin Williams paint store down the street. I stopped in and bought a can of black, a can of white, and a can of marine varnish – a product Dad used years ago to protect an antique coffee table he refinished. To this day it doesn’t have a scratch on it. An art supply shop had tubes of red, green, and gold and the smaller brushes I needed for details. I was ready.

For some reason, I decided to use a sponge rather than Martin’s new brush to apply the white base coat. I shook the can vigorously and pried it open with a tool that was not made for that purpose. In minutes my tabletop was white.

I took the sponge to the kitchen sink and squeezed it under running water. It was at that moment I realized I had not purchased acrylic paint. A sticky, oily, white substance covered my skin and the faucet. Panic. I grabbed a bar of soap and scrubbed to no avail. By now my hands looked like the face of a Parisian mime.

Stop, Sherry. Think.

Nail polish remover? I didn’t have any. I quit polishing my nails around month number six of Covid lockdown in Bali.

Rubbing alcohol? Worth a try. But anything I touched was going to be slathered in white. I slapped my palms down on two pieces of newspaper. It stuck like glue. I found the bottle of rubbing alcohol and gave my poor hands a liberal dousing. It didn’t work on the paint but the paper disintegrated.

Now what?

Martin had been painting recently. There might be turpentine in his supplies. I applied fresh newspaper and ran downstairs. The storage cabinet was full of bottles all labeled in Spanish. One looked promising, diluyente de pintura. Dilute the paint? Thinner perhaps? Back at the kitchen sink, I poured and scrubbed, poured and scrubbed, poured…. Were my hands a slightly pinker shade of pale? There had to be something that worked better than this.

Newspaper refreshed once again, I hurried back downstairs and paged more carefully through the confusing labels. Solvente de poliuretano? Polyurethane solvent? Now we’re talking! Back up the steps, two at a time. I poured a small amount of the liquid into a cup and dribbled it on my hands. This time paint came off when I scrubbed. Jackpot! I picked up the cup for another splash of miracle juice and WHOOPS! My magic paint remover had dissolved the bottom of the cup and solvent was running over my polyurethaned concrete countertop!

I don’t want to crash the climax for you, but there is a happy ending to this story. I grabbed a rag and swabbed down the counter. No harm done. The solvent removed most of the paint from my hands but a residue clung to my cuticles creating interesting half-moon shapes that framed the fingernails for weeks.

It took each coat of oil paint three days to cure and there were multiple coats. After the basic white, I taped squares and painted them black.

When that dried, I taped over those black squares and painted another layer of black to create a checkerboard pattern. The black paint bled into the white squares under the tape. Wiggly edges looked like the scribblings of a toddler, not at all the crisp, professional masterpiece I’d envisioned. The quickest fix: sandpaper for a distressed finish. It worked.

Adding the artistic touches was a treat. The flowers, slightly transparent, allowed a shadow of the black and white to show through. Touches of metallic gold added a sprinkle of sparkle to catch the light.

The project that I’d hoped to finish in three days took three weeks because I assumed I was buying acrylic paint. I didn’t ask for a water-based product so why would I assume? If I were in the U.S. I would have specified exactly what I wanted. Sometimes my ignorance astounds me.

The important thing, though, is the finished product, a hard surface where I can securely park my morning coffee cup or evening wine glass.

But even more special for me is the subtle message written in paint. Black and white checks represent the balance between darkness and light. Every Balinese Hindu male owns a black and white checked sarong and important statues are draped with checkered fabric for protection against dark spirits. Nothing says Bali to me like that pattern.

Vibrant red flowers are life itself – creativity, innovation, fire, passion, beauty.

Green is growth. Renewal. A calming, peaceful, dependable color.

And you might ask why I didn’t cluster the flowers in the middle? It would have created a more symmetrical balance. Science shows that symmetry is comfortable. Our minds don’t have to work to process symmetry. But asymmetry is more interesting and we engage longer with it. I’ve never been satisfied with comfortable. I like challenge, and the design I chose to paint reflects that truth.

My table says it all! It’s wonderful! My body had to move a lot to get those stories painted. But for the last three hours, it’s been perched on this chair, retelling the saga that’s already been told in color and pattern. And now it’s begging me to finish because it’s after midnight and this bird is not a night owl.

I’m grieving the loss of my beloved Bali, feeling it deeply, and that’s necessary. At the same time, I’m enjoying wonderful new friends in San Miguel and visits from dear old friends in the U.S. I don’t have all the answers but I know I’m in the right place for right now, and that’s all I need to know.

Day 1 of the ‘New Normal’

Around eleven a.m. yesterday I heard the familiar laugh. Ketut came up the path lugging twice his weight in potatoes and squash. I slipped on my flipflops and hurried to help.

I’d photographed the grocery list the day before and WhatsApped it to him.


In five minutes I’d had his response.

“Ok.”

There’s a trait I’ve found that generally holds true. A man of action is a man of few words. Ketut’s no exception.

I knew he was familiar with most everything on the list, but the mei nasi vermicelli (which I spelled wrong) might have been a mystery so I added a photo.

A little later he sent this picture and told me he and his youngest, Komang, were stealing broccoli for me from his in-law’s garden.

As it turned out, it was both broccoli and cauliflower, perfectly formed bouquets.

After several trips back and forth to empty the minivan, I saw what my list looked like in real life. Food overflowed the bags on the table and the floor around it. We took inventory. There was one bunch of mystery leaves mixed in with the spinach.

“What’s this, Ketut? Not bayam.”

“Daun ketela. Like Padang food. Bayam in market finished.”

So the traditional market had sold out of spinach and Ketut had improvised. Good man.

I love Padang food, the cuisine of West Sumatra. I’d never cooked cassava leaves, but if that was the unique flavor in Sumatran veggie dishes, I was excited.

After Ketut demonstrated how to light the water heater and change the gas bottle…

after he asked for the umpteeth time if I was sure I wanted him to stay away for a month…

after he suggested he could come in the back way and work on making a new garden behind the house and I wouldn’t even know he was there…

I assured him again that a) he was due a good long paid vacation for all his years of faithful help, and b) if he even stopped for gas somewhere he might take the virus home to his village.

“Okay. But if any problem, you call me.”

I promised I would.

After separating the bounty with my downstairs neighbor, I Googled cassava leaf recipes. The easiest one had onion, tomato, and peanuts. I had those ingredients. Instructions said to chop everything, brown the onion, stir in tomatoes and leaves and cook for 30 minutes adding water when needed. Peanuts last.

While watching the water level on the simmering pot, I steamed broccoli, boiled eggs, and prepared dragon fruit for the freezer. It was four o’clock when all was completed and I realized I hadn’t had lunch. The experimental dish was tasty but daun ketela will probably never appear on my future grocery lists.

This morning I woke to Day One of the ‘New Normal.’ I’d been anticipating this, longing for the opportunity to fall into a routine, gain some modicum of control over my life. As I stared at the morning face in the mirror, I was transported back to my first full day in Italy. A storm raged, churning the ocean to white froth. Wind battered the shutters and rain pinged against the windows. I remembered thinking…thirty-two more days…

Of course the rain stopped and I had a fabulous time.

I found myself wishing I knew if this would be thirty-two days, or sixty, or a year. I suddenly missed my family, my grandchildren. I let sadness come, sobbing through yoga, tears dampening my meditation pillow. I hadn’t allowed grief. I’d been distracted by doing what needed to be done. And then, when there was nothing more to do, I’d spun out of the present and lost myself in an unknowable future.

Catherynne Valente said, Do not ruin today by mourning tomorrow.”

Like a cloud passing over the sun, sadness dissipated. The cathartic energy of sorrow left me feeling cleansed and strong once more. I moved back into the now with renewed resolve to stay there.

Do you notice when you’re spinning into the future? Perhaps you could tell yourself, “This is my body now. There is nothing to fear in this moment.”

%d bloggers like this: