Once Upon A Success!

There are many things I do well. I’m trying to think of one. Never mind.

I’ve been transparent about my shortcomings. My friends (you are my friends, right?) seem to enjoy hearing about my kitchen snafus. It softens the sting of failure to frame culinary disasters in the humorous light of story. Then, like so many other things in life we tell ourselves, the tale I’ve woven to make others laugh becomes my belief.

There. We’ve gotten the deep philosophical lesson out of the way.

No segue here – just stream-of-consciousness because my thoughts tonight are all-over-the-place and I don’t care if you see the scrambled brain I have to deal with to pull together a coherent piece of writing. By the end it will all make sense.

I hope.

I’ve noticed a change since isolation first began. Back then, I was diligent to a fault, going nowhere, washing every berry and leaf that entered my house and hanging my grocery bags in the sun for a few days to disinfect. At that time, Bali had one death and no active cases of the virus.

To be fair, I’d just come from Italy where infections were rampant and I was more than a little freaked.

That was four months ago.

Yesterday my gorgeous young neighbor came over for our weekly chat. Normally I’d have changed clothes, combed my hair, slapped on a dash of lipstick and at least attempted to be presentable. She was right on time, as always. My hands were in the dishpan. (We can’t hug anyway.) As I wiped them dry I shrugged and said, “Hey. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I didn’t even try to get cute for you.”

Her explosion of laughter was no doubt heard in the next village. “I can’t believe you said that.” She shook her head to emphasize her disbelief. “Normally I’d find a tank top that was a little form-fitting but…” she grabbed a hunk of loose fabric. “These are my pajamas!”

The longer this altered reality continues the more relaxed I become, which makes no sense because now the numbers of cases here are climbing fast. This is when I should be ultra vigilant. But I seem to have expended all my survival energy in those first scary weeks.

Other obsessions have come and gone. Cooking, for instance.

At the beginning, cooking was something to do at home that helped pass too many empty hours that flipped over like a book of blank pages. Making food gave me purpose – and something to eat.

I couldn’t believe how much enjoyment I milked out of experimenting with new recipes in my limited kitchen.

And then…nothing.

The desire to cook left as magically as it had come. Jigsaw puzzles became the new time-eater to soften the brunt of nothing to do and all day to do it.

After jigsaw, my writing mojo miraculously resurfaced and I finished the novel I’ve been working on for three years…really finished it…the final rewrite…DONE.

Today, wonder of wonders, my desire to cook returned.

But this time I went with something tried and true, something I know how to do well: stove-top granola. And because it’s more delicious than anything you’ll ever find on the grocery shelf, and because I want you to believe I don’t fail every time, here’s my process in step-by-step photos so you can try it yourself.

WORLDS’ BEST GRANOLA

  • Prepare about 1 cup each of dried apricots (cut into pieces) and raisins then set aside
  • Put 1/3 cup cold-pressed virgin coconut oil in a non-stick frying pan
  • Add 3/4 cup each raw sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds
  • On top of the seeds add 2 cups dried coconut flakes
  • Pour 4 cups rolled oats on top of the coconut flakes
  • Thoroughly mix so the oily seeds are distributed throughout
  • Turn gas flame on high (electric range owners you’re on your own)
  • With a broad spatula continuously rotate the contents at the bottom of the pan to the top so it doesn’t burn
  • When the coconut flakes start turning brown (about 4 minutes) remove the pan from the heat but continue stirring for another minute while the pan cools
  • Mix in the apricots and raisins

Now comes the secret that makes this granola the worlds’ best…

  • Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (I use pink Himalayan salt but it’s not required) to 1 teaspoon powdered stevia leaf and mix well

Warning! Do NOT use the white, processed, sugar substitute with the disgusting aftertaste! Use pure stevia leaf. It’s green.

  • Sprinkle one-half of the salt/stevia over the mixture in the pan. Stir well then sprinkle the rest and mix again.

The salty-sweetness without a trace of sugar makes this not only the world’s best granola, but very possibly the world’s healthiest.

WALLAH!

This Corporate Escapee loves her granola. And how about that? I didn’t try to get cute for you, either.

Curried Cabbage and Whipped Skim Milk

I’m embracing my kitchen ineptitude with undaunted optimism. My expectations are low so when an experiment emerges not only edible, but really good, I’m more surprised than anyone.

I’ve had a few successes lately, but there’s no danger of big-headedness. My domestic inadequacies go way back.

I spent my sixteenth summer walking in circles. Grandma B was the accountant for a company in Minneapolis that sent out promotional packets to their customers. All that summer I walked around and around a long table with five others collating napkins. Each one had a different picture and inscription signifying a special day: Happy Easter, Merry Christmas, Happy Birthday, Happy Anniversary…you get the idea.

If you think isolation is boring, try walking around a table eight hours a day five days a week for three months.

Grandma liked to put her feet up when we got home and I was thrilled to be allowed free reign in her tiny kitchen. All through June, July, and August that year, as temperatures hugged 100 degrees (37.7 celsius) I baked potatoes, lasagna, apple pie – that oven ran from 6 p.m. onward and Grandma never questioned my judgment. Until one night…

I’ve long forgotten what dessert I made, but I do remember wanting to serve it with whipped cream. All we had in the fridge was skim milk. I was convinced if I just beat it long enough and added enough powdered sugar, I could turn that bluish liquid into a fluffy white miracle.

Gram was stretched out on the couch. A fan droned monotonously and did little more than give slight movement to the blistering air. I’d had the good sense to chill the milk in a stainless steel bowl to give myself every advantage. I pulled it out of the fridge and revved up the hand mixer. Five minutes passed, then ten as the beaters ground away.

Grandma lay peacefully, eyes closed, a slight smile on her lips, Fifteen minutes. Twenty. There was hot-engine smell coming from the mixer. The milk was still milk. I’d been steadying the bowl with my left hand but let go to wipe sweat out of my eyes.

The bowl shimmied to the edge of the counter. I jerked my left arm down to catch it and my right arm up. Whirling blades spattered milk on the ceiling. With the clatter of metal against floor tile, I burst into tears. Grandma’s hand flew to her mouth but her shaking shoulders gave her away. She was laughing.

That was fifty-four years ago.

Yesterday I decided to do something with the cabbage I’d blanched and frozen two weeks ago. Suspicious brown spots were appearing. How about creamed cabbage? Never mind I had no cream. No milk either. I had butter. Maybe a white sauce – throw in a little curry powder… There you go – creamed cabbage curry!

I melted the butter, mixed flour with water and poured it in. In no time I had dumplings, great lumps of pasty goop floating in a greasy sea. Unfazed by this minor setback, I let it cool, put the mixture in a blender, and turned it into the smoothest, satiny-est gravy you’ve ever seen. Back in the pan. Add chopped cabbage and throw in a few red pepper flakes and – oh yes – the curry powder.

I sat down to enjoy the feast. The first bite hit my tongue. Odd flavor. Dust?

It didn’t occur to me until later – after I’d visited the compost pile with all but the first two bites of my grand experiment – to check the expiration date on the curry. You don’t want to know but I’ll tell you anyway.

February 28, 2016.

I was right.

Dust.

Black Snake in the Kitchen!

There’s so much excitement – where to begin?

Since you already know about rats in the attic, it would be logical to mention snakes. Ron Lilley, the local expert on all things reptilian, says if you have rats, beware, snakes will come. He didn’t say it exactly like that, but close enough.

I was in the garden about to empty my bag of compost when a leaf moved. The wind, you say? No. It was in a sheltered corner where humidity hangs like a wet towel, deathly still.

Except for that one leaf.

I froze and a black shadow with yellow racing stripes glided across my path. He was a good meter long (a little more than a yard) and utterly undisturbed by my presence. I couldn’t say the same. I gave him plenty of time to disappear then did my compost dump and beat it back to the house.

I had nasty snake-dreams all night.

The following day the fogger came. Dengue fever is rampant in Ubud this year. Within days of each other, my neighbor next door and my neighbor downstairs were both suffering. As much as we hate fogging, we agreed it was time.

I put on my mask, closed the windows and doors, then captured the event in progress.

When I first moved to Bali eight years ago, I was equal parts shocked and enchanted by the relaxed approach to just about everything. The one exception was religion. Balinese Hindus do not shirk their duties to God. But other rules can be bent, regulations are more a suggestion than a requirement, and I took to it like the rebel I am. But I’ll have to admit, I still find fogging evil – albeit a necessary evil.

When the poisonous clouds had cleared and the windows re-opened, I sat down to work on my latest edit of Nettle Creek. For many weeks I’ve been unable to focus on ‘real’ writing. It’s great to be motivated again.

I was a few hours into it when the phone dinged a message from my downstairs neighbor.

The black snake is in the kitchen.

A ripple of horror coursed through me. It’s one thing to encounter wildlife when trespassing in their territory. It’s quite another sensation entirely when they trespass in mine.

I raced downstairs and peeked through the kitchen door.

Nothing.

I inched inside and peered under the counter. A long slim neck and triangular head stared up at me. I raced past him, got what my still-sick-with-dengue neighbor wanted out of the fridge and sent her back to bed. Then I posted vigil from the sixth step of my staircase and waited.

A few minutes passed then the head and neck poked into view. Seeing the coast was clear, it slithered – the exaggerated S-curves of it’s body gave me the willies – out the door and into the bushes.

I’m a bit puzzled by friends who tell me they’re bored in isolation. Lockdown here has brought an onslaught of drama like never before. But even in the absence of outside stimulation, isn’t there always something to do – like try a new recipe for instance?

After my foray into skillet biscuits people sent ideas for all manner of delights to make on the cooktop. I’ve been too busy to experiment until today.

Today.

No foggers or rat guys or gas guys or snakes! Today was Skillet Peanut Butter Cookie day!

Just creamy peanut butter, soda, flour, salt, and egg. I didn’t add sugar. Bali’s Morin Creamy Peanut Butter is already too sweet.

When the dough could hold its shape, I rolled it into balls and put them in a non-stick pan. Pretty fork imprints characterize peanut-butter-cookie memories of my childhood – a must.

I covered the pan with a derelict old pot topper that I inherited from some forgotten somewhere long ago. It conveniently lost it’s knob along the way. The hole on top allows moisture to escape.

I put the burner on low and after about 10 minutes, turned the cookies over. For the second batch the burner was on high. It took 8 minutes total and they were perfect without flipping. A dash of pink Himalayan salt on top, a mug of coconut Chai, and I had the best solo tea party ever.

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon, time to pull up the manuscript and do a bit more editing. Then a beverage of choice accompanied by five calorie-dense Spicy Zanana Chips – no more, no less – and my day will be complete.

Lockdown – an Introvert’s Dream

Before the c-virus I was happiest spending long stretches of time at home entertaining myself with no distractions. My writers group met weekly and I’d usually have coffee or lunch with friends at least once a week. That was the extent of my social life. If too many dates on the calendar registered upcoming events or get-togethers, a cloud of mild anxiety hovered around me.

It’s not that I don’t like people. I do. I can play nicely in the sandbox with others. I expect to be liked and I think I usually am. That may be delusional, but if it is please don’t burst my bubble.

That was when I had freedom to choose when I went out or when I stayed home.

This is very different. There’s an unseen enemy that could be hiding anywhere, on packaging, in grocery stores, on door handles or money. And suddenly my options have shrunk to zero. I’m seventy years old. If I value my life, if I want to continue to see the sun rise and set for many more years, I have to stay home.

So of course what I want more than anything else right now is to socialize. Isn’t that human nature at it’s worst: always wanting most what we can’t (or shouldn’t) have?

You’ve heard the saying, Be careful what you wish for? I was wishing I could host a small party. There are dear friends I haven’t seen since I returned from Italy. I went immediately into self-quarantine for fourteen days. I was so looking forward to the end of my two-week isolation.

Due to government regulation and self- isolation, those two weeks have stretched to over a month with no end in sight. But today my wish for a party manifested. It wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned, but I definitely had guests.

They were a pugnacious bunch. A fight broke out on my roof and tiles went flying. My Bali expat friends can be rowdy but they aren’t that agile. My roof tiles would have been safe.

The monkey invasion squelched my desire for a party. It reminded me that I really do love being alone. I have vast fields of time to gaze at the sky and daydream. I can write – or not – as the mood dictates.

But there’s an underlying thread that I can’t quite access. It’s a feeling – a sense of divine purpose – that this had to happen. This. Nothing else. And despite the alarming death toll, despite financial ruin, despite a world thrown into chaos, despite the uncertainty, and fear, and hardship, and untold suffering, there’s a place for gratitude. For thankfulness.

In my hours of solitude, that’s what I want to access. Gratefulness, without needing to know why. Thankfulness, trusting that this time is necessary. And acceptance of what is, knowing there’s no other choice.

Guilty as charged!

There’s a guava tree in my garden. I’m not a fan. The fruit is loaded with disagreeable little seeds. On the way to the compost bin I glanced up at its branches bending under the weight of ripe abundance and felt judged. In these strange times, why wasn’t I utilizing a natural source of nutrition that required nothing more than the energy to pluck it?

So pluck I did, out of guilt, then probed the internet for a recipe that would turn it into something edible. And there it was. Guava cheese.

In regard to cheese, I’m a solid thumbs down on Velveeta and varieties that fail the ‘smell’ test. Otherwise I’ll try anything. Guava cheese piqued my curiosity.

The instructions called for two ingredients, guava pulp and sugar, in almost equal amounts.

I wavered. Some people are sweets addicts. Some prefer salty treats. I’m the latter. But in the dark recesses of my refrigerator were two atrophying lumps of palm sugar left over from a brunch buffet (a year ago?) when it had been sprinkled atop banana fritters. Getting rid of the sugar while assuaging my guilt over the garden guavas had the intriguing potential of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The entire process took an hour – that’s when I decided to quit stirring. But when I poured the hot sticky mess into a buttered pan to harden I had doubts. At 93% humidity, a temperature hovering upwards of 85 degrees (29.4 Celsius) and a 90% chance of rain in Ubud, the so-called cheese was a long way from solid with little hope of achieving the desired outcome.

Six hours later its consistency hadn’t changed. It seemed I’d made a batch of guava paste. I invited my neighbor for tea to sample my efforts.

We’re in isolation, me upstairs, her downstairs. We haven’t been off the property for many days. In a world where people eye each other suspiciously and pass giving wide berth, it’s a comfort having someone to interact with semi-normally knowing that neither of us carries the dreaded virus.

She accepted my invitation.

At the appointed time, Kaye arrived and seated herself at the table. “So this is guava cheese?” she said, poking suspiciously at the uncheese-like substance. “It looked different in the pictures you showed me. Like fudge – you could pick it up and…”

What could I say? She was right. “Yes, yes. Maybe think of it as guava butter and just taste it.” She spread a dollop on a cracker and took a tentative bite.

“What do you think?” I asked. She chewed thoughtfully and swallowed.

“Hmmm.”

Her hmmms can mean anything, hmmm good, hmmm bad, hmmm-I-don’t-want-to-disappoint-you-but…

“Well?”

A look of surprise crossed her face. “It’s really quite good, isn’t it?” she said.

We decided it resembled cranberry sauce and would be a tasty accompaniment to turkey – or spread on top of cheesecake – or with real cheese and crackers. Before she left we’d polished off the lot.

Even though my failed guava cheese was a hit, I don’t think I’ll be wasting my energy making it again anytime soon.

The only other edible growth in the garden is a chili plant.

There’s no guesswork involved with those little firecrackers. What you see is what you get, hot, hotter, and hottest in direct proportion to the amount added, no blending, straining or endless stirring required.

I’ll leave guavas to birds and squirrels. Going forward, chilies will be my guilt-assuaging choice.

A Violent Spirituality

Map_indonesia_volcanoes
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The 17,000 islands that form Indonesia are located in the Pacific Ring of Fire. They’re peppered with volcanic mountains and shudder under frequent earth tremors.
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pulaweh

 

This week, Paluweh on the very small island of Palu’e, east of Bali, erupted. Its incessant rumbling over past days alerted officials who evacuated most inhabitants to the nearby island of Flores. Six lives were lost.

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Even though the map lists only two volcanic mountains on Bali, there are at least six. Mt. Agung last erupted in 1963-1964. Mt. Batur in 1968. The others have been dormant for hundreds of years. Hot springs dot the calderas of these sleeping giants, and a geo-thermal plant harvests the power from fiery regions below Mt. Bratan’s crust.
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Earth’s dynamic unrest in this part of the world drives the energetic spirituality of Bali. The regions beneath the island paradise hold tremendous power. The Balinese understand, and daily tend to the balancing of energy through their rituals and offerings. They open their arms to spiritual practices from around the globe, and while the earth seethes, the air above vibrates with the hum of prayers, the movement of dance, and the ecstatic clang of gamelan.
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I’ve noticed that mindfulness is easier in Bali. Being present is a way of life. Gratitude soaks into the pores and becomes perpetual. I’m struck by the differences now that I’ve been in the States for a few weeks. Now that jet-lag has passed, and culture shock has subsided to a degree, and my emotions have stabilized, I can think logically about what it is that feels so absent, what gets in the way of connection.
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It’s the veneer. There’s a glossy coating on people in America that separates us. Maybe it’s competition, or power. Maybe it’s privilege, or sophistication, or make-up! But we’re isolated. Even walking down the sidewalk with hoards of others, we’re so alone. We are the casualties of progress, of technology, of narcissistic self-absorption.
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In Bali I don’t go 10 steps without an interaction. Maybe it’s nothing more than a taxi driver on the street offering his services, but someone has spoken to me and I have the option to respond and thank him and inquire about his day. I have the option to connect. I find I like that. I need that. And I take advantage of those opportunities. It has opened the door to a different kind of life. The taxi drivers remember. They stop offering “Taksi!” and instead say “Good afternoon, how are you today?” and we visit for awhile.
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The fragile brevity of life calls for more than just going through the motions. In the shadow of Mt. Agung, regal, serene, but deadly when aroused, there is a creative force that supports authenticity. It beckons, like these words by Rumi: “Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”

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