Happiness – delusion or reality?

I don’t cook.

I say that as a shopping bag full of fresh spinach appears in my kitchen. It’s accompanied by vibrant carrots scrubbed clean, and sweet potatoes.

My refrigerator is a college-dorm-sized square box and it’s full. No veggie storage capacity there. I have one option: cook.

An outrageous amount of spinach boils down to three cups. When spooned into a plastic bag it flattens and becomes stack-able. So do carrots and potatoes. Once chopped, steamed, and bagged, there’s just enough space to shove them into the wee freezer compartment of the teeny fridge.

I’ve made a royal mess. Most non-cooks do. When the pots and pans are clean and piled precariously on the dish drainer, it occurs to me I’ve overtaxed that kitchen accessory far beyond it’s capacity to function well. On normal days it more than adequately accommodates my coffee glass and French press.

As I study the teetering pyramid of pots my mind goes philosophical. The haphazard jumble in front of me prompts thoughts of unrelated other things: global warming, over-population, urban sprawl, water pollution, and people who talk too much, think too much, do too much.

Like my little drainer, the earth is being called upon to do what it wasn’t designed to do. People are too. The planet manages it for a while and so do we. But there comes the moment when critical mass is achieved, which, as defined by the Urban Dictionary, is the point when something reaches the threshold of it’s limits. If one more pot is added to the mountain of cookware chances are it will topple.

I used to operate at that level of near-insanity. It seemed normal because everyone around me was doing the same. My blood pressure approached hypertension. My heart fibrillated. Every morning my jaw ached from grinding my teeth. Back then nobody ever told me I glowed with happiness.

I didn’t crack and fall apart but my marriages did. Five times. It wasn’t until I turned sixty-two, took early retirement, and moved to Bali that I saw the off-kilter, out-of-balance craziness I’d deemed normal.

It took months in this relaxed, slow-moving paradise to slow down and allow my nervous system to re-calibrate. But the biggest surprise was discovering what real happiness felt like. I’d been a glass full person, never depressed, always sussing out the positive aspects of whatever setbacks came my way. For sixty-two years I told myself I was happy. Had I known then how painfully far I was from that reality, how deluded and detached — let’s just say it’s a good thing I didn’t!

When my ridiculously small drain rack is doing the job it’s intended to do, it has bandwidth to spare. It can take a stressful event in stride (like my cooking frenzy) and maintain its dignity and calm.

Humans are the same. We need to jump off the hamster wheel, come to a full and complete HALT and take a look at what we’re doing to ourselves and at what price. The abuse is unsustainable. Our earth is at critical mass. So was I. Are you?

Advertisements

Six Years of Happiness. Pop!

 

Life in Bali hasn’t been now and then a sparkle of joy. No. It’s been six years of uninterrupted happiness.

As soon as I made that statement, I started to question it. What about when Dad died? I had to ponder that. My dad was, still is, my hero. I was holding his hand when he left this realm.

Death is a giant thing and I’ve realized that happiness isn’t made up of giant things. Happiness consists of random pops of amazement that happen dozens of times a day. So even though I was overshadowed by giant death, the pops still happened. Right through the days and weeks of sadness, Pop! Happiness didn’t stop just because there was another presence in the room.

Today was a Pop! topper.

Ketut and I had one of our several-hours-long conversations. It started when I told him I would be going to two writing groups and the new one would start tomorrow.

“So you can finish the book fast?” he asked.

Who would assume that? Nobody. Pop! Amazement. He’d hit the reason square on the head. He wanted to know if writing made me feel stressed or relaxed. I told him writing a book was like play for me, but writing letters to agents to try to make them like my book was big stress. He agreed that must be so.

Then he told me he had loaned his car to an uncle to take offerings to the temple. Now, he said, his car was in the hospital because the uncle hit a truck.

“Oh, dear. Is your uncle okay?” It sounded serious.

“Yes, of course. There is only a wound on the car that needs new paint.” Then the inevitable Ketut wisdom, “Never all good, never all bad. Always a little a little.” Pop! Amazement.

The conversation meandered from the car to the placenta of Ketut’s new baby daughter. As custom dictates in his village, the afterbirth is buried beside the door to the house and every time the child cries, the sadness is sent there and she stops crying. Pop! He asked if we do this with placentas in my country.

“No, Ketut…’fraid not. The baby just cries.” I’m sure he thinks our practices are nothing short of barbaric.

Should I go on? I mean, this was a really long conversation that rambled without obvious connection. One topic sparked another in random disorder punctuated by gut-busting laughter.

I wouldn’t want to bore you…well, okay, just a bit more.

I have white walls and a few of them are empty. Today I bought a gorgeous sarong. “What if I hang this here for decoration, Ketut? Nice, ya?”

He eyed it then said, “Ya, but the fan will make it go like this.” He caught one end and flapped it furiously. Pop! Then he brought up the idea of putting a mirror on the empty wall. “It’s better than art because every time someone new comes into the room, the picture changes.” Pop! Pop! I love his quirky logic. I’d never thought of a mirror that way but I’ll never be able to look into one again without those words ringing in my head.

Coffee and treats always accompany our chats. Today I had a plate of coconut bars sitting on the table to my left. I picked it up and offered it with that hand.

In Bali all things are given with the right hand for very good reason. I know this but I sometimes forget. I apologized as soon as I realized what I had done. Ketut launched into a lengthy explanation that Balinese children are trained from very young never to offer anything with the left hand. He slapped his own hand away to show me the nature of the training. “That way they never make a mistake,” he said.

Then he let me off the hook. “But for you, it’s okay. You are not a Bali person and it is more difficult for you because you are already not young.” Ouch! But he was just getting warmed up. “And,” he continued, “if someone is upset and points at you with his right hand, it’s a warning that he is a little angry. But if he points at you with his left hand, there is no more talking. You run.”

20180701_233416

 

 

 

“Okay, then,” I said. “Get ready, Ketut. This is for calling me old.” That’s when I pointed at him with my left hand.

 

 

 

At the beginning of this story I said happiness is small things. But a visit with Ketut is like a banquet of delicacies complete with Veuve Clicquot champagne. I never want it to end.

Usually, though, the first Pop! of the day is the sound of a rooster crowing. Then the pink of dawn. A holy man chanting prayers. Sweet fragrance of incense. Steaming hot coffee. Dragonfruit. See what I mean? Happiness. Uninterrupted. Pop! Pop! Pop!

The Crabby Old Lady Syndrome

Mild panic grips me when children visit. My house isn’t fragile, but little ones have a way of ferreting out exactly what I don’t want them to find and desiring it. If parents hesitate to say no, I’m left in the awkward position of either allowing the treasure to be handled or becoming The Crabby Old Lady.

Don’t get me wrong, I have colored markers and reams of paper. When my girls were little those would have kept them enthralled for hours. There’s also a covered cup with dice inside that can be rattled, or opened to explore the contents. Dice. Right. That’s about the extent of my toy collection. Balls roll off the edge of my living room and drop two floors to the garden. Can’t have balls. Everything requires storage space. There’s not an extra inch of that.

Dad always said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” So when Ketut and Komang brought three-year-old Nengah to visit me yesterday, it was time for creativity overdrive. I remembered a collection of empty yogurt containers that substitute for the non-existent Tupperware here. My guests watched with curiosity while I assembled the bottoms with the matching tops and stacked them, one by one, higher and higher. In less than a nanosecond we were embroiled in a wild game of build the tower and knock it down. Everyone within miles heard Nengah’s shrieks…and mine!

I don’t remember when I’ve had so much fun. Later, alone in the happy aftermath, I waxed reflective. It struck me as ironic how the richness of life seems to multiply with simplicity. True happiness requires so little.

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.

P1090818

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.

P1090819

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!

Battling the Terrors

My past frightens me. It is a long, arduous trek through unconsciousness. So much of it seems to have happened to someone else. In all fairness, I should have been institutionalized long ago. I should have cracked. But I was lucky. I perfected a serene, composed exterior. No matter what kind of hell was breaking loose just below the surface, it was my secret. No one ever knew, no one but me.

I rarely tell my life story. When I do, people are aghast. Some refuse to believe me. Some are awed. But all listen unaware of their gaping jaws. The things that are easy to reveal, the five marriages and five divorces, are startling enough without getting into the more disturbing details. “You seem so normal,” they say. I smile, serenely, “I am,” I reply.

Trauma remains in the body. No matter how good a person is at coping with life and covering up the scars, trauma lurks in cell memory. It can manifest as depression, panic attacks, or hundreds of other psychological disorders that keep therapists in business. There were times when the roar of terror and hopelessness in my ears threatened to tear me apart. But I have always seen myself as a happy person. Terror and hopelessness are unacceptable to my self-image. Writing became my salvation. I could scream the outrage into poetry or prose, pound it out on the keyboard turning the insanity into something manageable. But ‘manageable’ was merely survival. I needed to believe there was more to life than that.

Then three things happened almost simultaneously. I began doing Qigong meditation. It quieted and focused my mind. I developed a way of writing that took me behind the scenes in my psyche. I learned my truth. And I made yoga a daily practice. Yoga opened my heart. I’ll never forget the moment I first saw myself with compassion. I felt an outpouring of love for the brave soul who had  willed herself through life, raised three daughters, owned businesses, worked so very hard to be perfect while neatly, in quietly civilized fashion, battled the terrors within. I made a commitment that day to her. It was a promise to pursue the joyous journey no matter what. It was an intention let loose in the universe. I had no idea what metaphysical magic I had put in motion.

But any of you who have been following my blog have an inkling of the results of that promise. I have achieved what few are able to in this lifetime, bliss, in giant portions. I live in a place that nurtures and supports my journey. And the terrors? They are being squeezed out. I love the Leonard Cohen lyrics, “there’s a crack, a crack, in everything…that’s how the light gets in…” My tightly held perfection has cracked wide open and light is pouring in. Natural light. Healthy light. And when the little terrors poke their ugly heads out, they’re zapped!

 

Rumah Kita…way better than “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel!”

If you haven’t seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I highly recommend it. That and four other movies helped me pass the 26 hours en-route to paradise. It is one of those heart-grabbing tales that touches truth with humor and sensitivity. The movie evoked tears and laughter, both in abundance.

And now I’m back! I’m living in the house of my dreams,  in the place of my dreams, doing what I love. (Pinch me!) When I first saw these rooms filled with light from the 8′ windows on three sides, my first thought was If I ever have the chance to rent this house I’d take it in a heartbeat. I inquired and my name was added to the bottom of a long list of “hopefuls.”  In early June, about a month after returning to Minnesota, I found out my name had, by some miracle, risen to the top of that list. I could have the house for 4 months starting mid-July but had to decide in 24 hours. Although I pretended to weigh the pros and cons, the decision had been made months earlier when I first walked through the door.

Here is my 10′ x 25′ balcony overlooking treetops and rooftops.

My breakfast is served here, on the balcony, by Ketut, my ‘house helper.’ Just so you can be completely envious, this house comes with staff. There is a house manager and a house helper. Pasek, the manager, takes care of the financial affairs of the property and shops for food and other necessary supplies. Ketut’s job is to take care of me. He prepares and serves my breakfast, cleans daily, and changes the bed and bath linens every three days. He keeps the house filled with fresh flowers…truly filled…and tends the gardens. When I want tea, or coffee, or a blended fruit drink I simply request it and it appears with Ketut, on a tray, along with another fragrant bouquet. I am already spoiled beyond recovery!

The night I arrived it was approaching 2:45 a.m. and I had told them to expect me between 1 and 1:30 a.m. But I no sooner stepped out of the taxi and Ketut was beside me, all smiles, in his grey hoodie sweatshirt. He hoisted my HEAVY suitcase over his shoulder and off we went, winding down the narrow path that leads to Rumah Kita, my beautiful new home. As I turned in at the gate I glanced up. The upstairs shined like a beacon. We walked up the staircase to the private entrance and opened the door. Every light in the house was on, the white tile floors were spotless and glistening. And flowers…the perfume of frangipani and blooms of unknown species wrapped me in fragrance and welcomed me in.

Ketut made sure I was comfortable, told me he would see me in the morning, and left me to unpack. Yes, I’d been up for about 28 hours straight by then, but there is something about unpacking that grounds me. When I finally peeled back the blue quilted comforter on the bed it was approaching 4 a.m. But all I could do was gaze in awe out the windows at shadowy palms and a sky full of stars and laugh and laugh and laugh. I was home.

As promised, Ketut appeared in the garden below about 7:30 (sunrise is 6:30 and the roosters and I were up at the crack of dawn!) “Would you like your breakfast?” he called up to me. My stomach had been rumbling for several hours by then…”Yes! Please!” He flashed a big smile…”What would you like?” Uh oh! I didn’t realize I might have options…”What are my choices?” I asked. Come to find out, I just have to let him know and I can have anything I want. I settled on fruit, omelet, and coffee, took my journal out to the balcony, and within moments breakfast (and more flowers) appeared before me.

I dined in sheer bliss listening to the Bali morning noises that I love. The house is near the river and overlooks banana palms, coconut palms, and a profusion of flowering bushes and trees. Some of the sounds are different from the chorus of the rice paddies that had become so familiar during my last stay. I love them all!

And I am intrigued by what I am beginning to call the ‘bliss factor.’ There have been times when there were one or two aspects of my life that brought me happiness. I learned to focus on those and if you asked, I would have told you that I was happy. There have been times of tremendous stress and pain but still there was happiness.  Here I experience something else. When I step off the plane and feel the warm softness of the air, see the brown faces and white smiles, my heart leaps into my throat. Tears well in my eyes. I feel a blinding shock of joy explode in my heart. It is a sensation I’ve never experienced anywhere else. I can only call it bliss. Some people meditate for years to achieve this altered state. I simply step off the plane.

From the edge of my balcony….Bali night.

A Storm, a Flood, or an Optimist?

I’m waiting for the storm. We may get 3 inches of rain tonight. For my friends in Indonesia who read this blog I know that sounds like a non-event. Trust me, in the midwest it means flooding. Unlike Bali, our ground isn’t equipped to absorb all that moisture so quickly. On the other hand, we may not get a drop. The sky can brood and bluster all it wants, but in Minnesota that doesn’t guarantee anything.

So I’m watching the lead-colored bottoms of the clouds with anticipation. It’s a cozy feeling. Intimate. And it can turn to abject terror in moments if the wind begins to rage and trees topple over. I felt inspired to write a quick Haiku:

Clouds form gray mountains

The air waits breathless and still

Nothing else happens.

The storm that never comes is a lot like expecting the worst. I’m a shameless optimist. I always (yes always) anticipate the best to the point of neglecting to prepare for less agreeable alternatives. I have a friend who is the opposite. He always imagines every conceivable disaster and prepares for it, just in case! I tell him he frets enough for both of us. I have another friend who worries but does nothing. I neither worry, nor prepare, just go blissfully on my merry way oblivious to dire circumstances lurking at every turn. As a result I never get sick, never have accidents, never seriously hurt myself, and have an average happiness factor of 9.9 on a scale of 10.

Personality differences are of great interest to me. I didn’t one day decide that I would be an optimist. I just am. I’m sure my friends didn’t set out to behave as they do. They just do. My three daughters are unique and wonderful and very happy, but unlike each other as they could possibly be. Why is that?

Thousands of words have been written about this subject and there are many self-help “how to be happy” books. But if you’re like my worrying friends, its a difficult task. Happiness doesn’t come naturally to them. It’s probably possible only in flashes, like lightening, then quickly followed by an ominous roll of thunder, which I haven’t heard yet tonight but the wind is picking up. I’m going to find a spot on the porch and settle in to watch what may, or may not, happen.

Summer storm approaches

%d bloggers like this: