With Luck, I’ve Learned A Lesson

My last walk was ten miles through downtown San Miquel de Allende and ended with this steep climb – hundreds of steps – up to my home near the top of the mountain.

I’m feeling boundlessly grateful today for my robust immune system and the two AstraZeneca vaccines that strengthened that solid foundation. This is my seventh day of isolation. I have Covid.

At first I ‘knew’ it was ‘just a cold.’ It felt like every other cold I’ve ever had. But I quarantined myself while my daughters urged me to get tested. I sent out a request to my new friends here in San Miguel for a home test kit and one appeared. The very clear POSITIVE reading stunned me.

How could that be? It’s just a cold.

But it isn’t just. And now, seven days into the experience, I feel the difference. The coughing has passed. The fever’s gone. A raging strep-like sore throat has finally dissipated. My nose runs but the congestion was never extreme. My bronchial tubes and trachea remained clear. I had no problem breathing.

But what happened to that powerhouse of energy that used to propel me out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and keep me going like Napolean’s army until sundown and sweet sleep?

Gone without a trace.

I have no choice but to rest, which I haven’t done since leaving Bali three-and-a-half months ago. Of course, all this downtime brings with it hours upon hours to reflect on – well – seventy-two years of life, and be humbled. There were events I shouldn’t have survived physically. There were years when I could have been devastated emotionally. There were traumas that might have left unhealable wounds.

But none of that happened. Why?

As I reflect on that question, I see the faces of kindness at each fork in the road.


In the last seven days, confined at home, one after another of my new friends have messaged me,

“We’ve found a test kit. We’ll drop it by…”

“You must need groceries, Send us your list…”

“How are you feeling today? If you need anything…”

“If you need anything…”

“If you need anything…”


My daughters were relentless. They knew far more about the virus than I did and my cavalier approach brought out the mama-bear fury in each of them. I was scolded, educated, and reminded how much I was loved.

I’m a bit ashamed that I had to be knocked flat out to realize the unsustainable pace I’d set for myself. It isn’t like there weren’t gentle nudges along the way. (Falling off the pillow and conking my head, for example – not so gentle but definitely a nudge.) Then along came Covid making it physically impossible for me to push myself.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, that’s it. Will this time be the charm? Will I accept that I’m human, elderly, and have limitations? Oooo. That’s a tough one. I guess time will tell.

Reptilian Brain – Lizard Love

I’ve owned dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, parakeets. There was a cute white bunny one Easter. We named her Snowball. She grew to the size of a two-year-old and was just as needy.

I live blissfully alone. My pet-owning days left with the kids.


The cicak is a common house lizard prevalent in tropical regions. They come out when I turn on the lights and slurp up any flying or creeping thing that crosses their path. We have an agreement: they occupy the wall and ceiling, I stay on the floor. It’s worked.

One night about a year ago I was hammering out an article intent upon finishing before bed. Lights were on, cicaks were feasting. Then the edge of my computer moved. For a split second the adrenaline rush, the accelerated heartbeat, the panic. A cicak, the tiniest I’d ever seen, crept into sight. He was no more than an inch from nose to tail. I watched him poke around for a bit. Then he disappeared and I went back to work.

Several minutes passed and I’d forgotten about him when something tickled my hand.

“No!” I said as the youngster proceeded to make his way up my arm. “No, no, no! This is NOT okay. Where’s your mother?”

He stopped and looked up at me, his round eyes shining pure lizard love.

On the terrace, I directed him to the floor, closed the door with him outside and went back to writing.

Tickle, tickle. It had been less than five minutes. He was crawling up my leg.

“Listen, Junior. This is creepy. Your reptilian brain isn’t capable of attachment and I’m not your mother.”

This time I went farther afield to abandon him. When I returned I shut down the computer and began my bedtime ritual. He found me.

Totally weirded-out, I hurried to the far edge of the garden and deposited him on a rock. In no uncertain terms, I told him we were finished. All night I kept waking up thinking he was crawling on my neck, my face. But he wasn’t. He was gone.

The other morning as I lay on my back in Shivasana, I noticed a teenaged cicak watching me from the rafters. How long had he been there? Motionless, he kept his vigil until I’d rolled up my mat. The next day he was there again. For three weeks I watched him watching me. “Coincidence,” I told myself. “He just happens to sit up there at this time of the morning. Or maybe he likes the music.” Shamanic Dream by Anugama, calming, meditative, and rhythmic is my go-to for yoga. 

Our ritual continued. He was always there.

Then one afternoon in broad daylight – tickle, tickle. Teenage yoga buddy was making his way up my leg. “He’s lost,” I thought. “As soon as I stand up he’ll scamper away.” I stood. He clung. I stamped. He clung. I walk-ran to the garden. He clung. “I don’t do pets,” I told him. “I don’t do reptiles. Your brain cannot form attachments. Neither can mine. Don’t come back!”

He didn’t.

Whatever strange bonding instinct was at work there, I want no part of it. I’m committed to humans – they’re hard enough.

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.


Thanksgiving on the Tundra!

Minnesota is a long way from Bali, geographically, aesthetically, climatically, and philosophically. But it’s Thanksgiving, and my family made plans to come from the east coast, west coast, and Midwest to gather in Palisade, 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of the Canadian border, to be together.

I couldn’t miss that. Even though I made a vow never to return to Minnesota in the winter, Dad’s 93 and Mom’s 87 and there may not be too many more opportunities like this one.

I was the first to land in Minneapolis. Jessa and Dan’s cozy apartment felt like an oasis of comfort after thirty hours of travel. The next day Jenny and Kennen arrived from San Fransisco, and fast on their heels Joy and Kellen flew in from New York. We caravaned in two cars and converged at The Farm, my sister and brother-in-law’s home that is no longer a working farm, just a big house surrounded by nothing, thirty miles from nowhere, to bask in the warmth of family love.

Sis and bro had outfitted their huge loft, bunkhouse style, so the couples and I could all sleep comfortably, and somewhat privately, in that space. By the third night we knew the breathing patterns and little animal sounds of each sleeper. We also knew to stop the pendulum on the obnoxious clock at the bottom of the stairs.

By the time we rolled out of bed Thanksgiving morning, sis and bro were already into their 3rd cups of coffee and half-way through the New York Times crossword puzzle. A quick pow-wow and we received our marching orders. Joy had promised to make her from scratch French Onion Soup for lunch. P1100644

P1100643 The Gruyere, browned to perfection, the chunks of baguette dripping with rich broth, and onions sliced and sauteed to a transparent gold, set the stage for a day of feasting excellence.

Jenny had grandma time.

P1100659Then grandma, Jessa, and Jenny helped grandpa get settled at the table for lunch.

P1100640Mid afternoon someone suggested that we should have pie and coffee now. “We’re always too full after the big meal,” he said…I’m sure it was a he. At around 3 p.m. Gwen’s pumpkin, apple, and French silk pies appeared and we ate melt-in-your-mouth tender crusts with gooey fillings, groaning with pleasure.

After pie, everyone pitched in: many hands make light work! There was a harried hour of napkin folding, the artichoke, the pocket, the turkey tail until sis stepped in and said, “It’s like this…” and so it was, exactly like that, perfect pockets for lunch and perfect turkey tails for Thanksgiving dinner.


THANKSGIVINGMy sister and my daughters are blessed with the cooking gene that skipped me. It was a gourmet Thanksgiving, Jenny’s beet salad with grapefruit, fresh basil, and feta cheese, Joy’s Butternut squash with sage hazelnut pesto, Jessa’s pureed cauliflower with garlic as a savory mashed potato substitute, and sis with three kinds of cranberries, traditional roast turkey and stuffing. Of course there were all the wines, beers, ales, and ciders to enhance the mood (that didn’t need enhancing) and accompany whatever food was being served.

And then it was over, too soon.

P1100670The girls and their guys loaded the cars and headed back to Minneapolis leaving me behind to spend a few more days with my parents, sis, and bro-in-law in the frozen tundra of the far north country.


Love is a decision of the will

My husband prefers men, she said. Seated across from her, a Starbucks latte beating back the chill of Minnesota winter, I studied her face for a sign of emotion. Her placid countenance registered a winsome, dreamlike expression that grated on me.

Do you love him? I asked. They appeared to be a devoted couple.

Of course. The peaceful mask turned stern. Love is a decision of the will.

That was thirty-five years ago. I’d been married three times by then and I hadn’t heard that particular slice of wisdom before. But I took it to heart and tried it out with varying degrees of failure in the relationships that followed.

Part of the self-discovery quest when I came to Bali, was to understand where love and I had gone so terribly, terribly wrong. As I stepped back to observe the tumult within, to study my tendencies and learn different responses, I recognized that I had deep misconceptions about love. As I worked on reprogramming my entire response system, Bali threw opportunities in my path.

What are you writing about? Dewa asked as he did the regular morning schmooze with his guests. I was staying at his guesthouse, and by this time we’d had conversations that covered the gamut from the Hindu caste system, to his ideas for new business ventures, to why men cheat on their wives. So I decided to tell the truth.

I’m writing about my issues with men, I said.

Stricken, his hand went to his heart. You have issues with me? He looked so utterly gutted I had to laugh.

No, Dewa, not you. Just all other men! With a relieved little smile, he left and returned fifteen minutes later with a sweet bouquet of flowers. As he placed them on the table in front of me he said, These are for you. Please look at them while you write about your issues with men. 002 (3)My locked-down heart cracked open a notch or two and my eyes teared. Really? For me? Thank you!

Dewa’s caring caused the first fissure, and gestures such as his, random acts of kindness, unexpected and unsought, pried me loose from everything I thought I knew about love and overwrote the old programming.

Now, from the perspective of time, experience, and a more intimate understanding of myself, I know that love has nothing at all to do with a decision. I think too often I’d mistaken lust, need, dependence, admiration, or even the sick feeling of loneliness for love. Only an emotion that is pure, untainted by dysfunction or dependencies that muddy its integrity, should be called love. When it happens, it’s a rare gift, an awakening, and a glorious surprise. It flows from an inner place unchecked and it doesn’t need to be acknowledged or returned, it just is.




My Top Ten Resolutions for 2015

* 1) Don’t forget how to be still and stare off into space P1070437 2) Trust your gut and follow its guidance photo 3) Remember every day to be grateful for exactly where you are P1080226 4) Allow the abundance to flow through you to others P1080117 P1070406 5) Accept help gracefullyPriest applying the ash to my forehead 6) Ask for help when you need it P1080495 7) Hog your peace: don’t over-extend and don’t over-commit P1070797 8) When you’re uncertain, wait. Don’t be pushed into a decision before you’re ready IMG_7947 9) Continue to be a student of life…and love P1040793 P108040310635758_10152536452433037_2535777418164997883_nunnamed 10) Live your truth!



When you just keep falling in love

For someone who’s sworn off men, I’m not doing too well. I’m alone, that isn’t the issue. But my defenses have been shot to shreds in the loveliest possible ways and I find myself falling in love a little bit every day.

First there’s Ketut. I’ve written thousands of words about Ketut, glowing, gushing words. When I first came to Bali he was my room staff. I remember when he met me at 3 a.m. as I disembarked from a taxi after a trip of thirty-six hours from the States. “You Zely?” he asked, then hoisted my brick-heavy suitcase on his shoulders and told me to follow him. The next morning, there he was again. “Breakfast?” he said. “Kopi? What you want?”


Ketut with baby daughter Nengah

I remember my thoughts. A man? Why? Couldn’t I have a sweet girl cleaning my room and bringing my breakfast? Drat! I don’t want to put up with man-energy. But I didn’t understand then that the Balinese man isn’t like the men I’d known in the West. Ketut filled my room with flowers, daily. He anticipated me, knew when I would be hungry and showed up with treats. Knew when I wanted company and hung around to chat. Knew, even more importantly, when I wanted to be alone, and left me alone. His intuition was far more highly developed than mine, and I’ve come to realize that’s true of Balinese people in general. (But I won’t go into details here! Another time.) In short, Ketut healed my heart.

Enter, Gede! He’s another member of the staff in the neighborhood where I live. Gede is a clown, a twenty-one-year-old little boy who loves to laugh and make others laugh too. One day he gave me a lift on his motorbike and told me he wanted to bring me a kebaya. That’s the beautiful, traditional blouse that women wear to ceremonies here. It seemed far too generous a gift for someone who doesn’t even employ him, but the next time he went to his home in Kintamani, he came back with not one, but three stunning kebayas for me. They all fit like they had been custom tailored for my body. I fell in love with Gede long before the kebayas, but I fell a little bit deeper that day.


Gede…always the trickster!

The Tukangs working on my house, we’ll call them Dewa One, Dewa Two, and Pak Mandi, all have a slice of my heart. Dewa One scared the bejeezus out of me when I first met him. He had an angry man look, his hair was wild and his body was as tight as a coiled spring. He snapped orders at his crew and I steered clear. But his work was immaculate and one day I drilled up the nerve to tell him how happy I was with his skillful precision. He smiled. No, you don’t understand. He SMILED! There isn’t a more beautiful face on earth than the smiling face of Dewa One. My heart became gooey. Now I find every possible opportunity to praise him and he graces me with that gorgeous grin every time. I love Dewa One.

workers that took down the yoga deck

Dewa One…you’ll have to trust me about the smile!

The most outrageous of my loves is Pasek. He’s blatant, calls me his second wife, makes highly suggestive comments and enjoys watching me bristle. I’ve met his first wife and I adore her but I wouldn’t want to be her. Her hubby’s a handful. But do I love him? Oh yeah. Pasek is the one I call when my electricity goes out, when my faucet leaks, when I need food from the market, or when I want to know about Balinese culture. His harmless joking has become just another part of life here. And he, too, anticipates me and shows up just when I am about to dial his number.

Bali - Pasek's Family (26)

Pasek and his wife, Nyoman

But it doesn’t end there. I’m in love with my tailor, with the taxi drivers, with the man who sells tickets on the street, and the shop keeper at the corner convenience store. I’m in love with my neighbor’s husband, and pretty much every Balinese man I know. Do I use the word too loosely? I don’t think so. The men in Bali are kind to me. I’m susceptible to that. In the West kindness has become a lost art. We have bumper-stickers to remind us to be kind. But here it’s a fact of life, so I just keep falling in love.


The neighbor’s husband! (Don’t worry, Nina…you have zero competition here!)



Dearest…a love letter

Dearest...Dearest…You don’t know it now, sweet girl, but in twenty years this dark place in your life will be no more than a shadowy memory.  If I told you of the immense joy that awaits you, the pain of the present would be too much to bear. But I can tell you that you do find yourself at last. You hit your stride. You finally realize that the person you tried so hard to be was never you, and you shed her like a snake sheds it’s worn out skin.

You’ll grieve, at first, for the lost years. But they weren’t lost, dear one. They are your story. The heat and pressure of them has refined you. It has burned away the superficial, the frivolous, and made you ready. The lessons that have seared themselves into your heart you will teach to others.  You’ll let go of everything that does not serve your highest good. In the end, you’ll regret nothing. You’ll be as light and free as air.

Your life will move to a place that supports who you are becoming. It will take you to the other side of the world. And you’ll be astounded that it feels so familiar, like coming home….


When my heart was breaking open and learning to love, I was overwhelmed with compassion for the person I had been. I wrote this letter to her. It was deeply comforting then, and it has become more and more true with the passing of time.

photo credits: wendythomasrussell.com

Hopelessly in Love – Bada Bing Bada Boom

I am. There’s no way around it. Deeply, irrevocably, and hopelessly.

IMG_7630 (640x480)

Dewa and his wife, Trina

When I first came to Bali I met Dewa, the proprietor of Jati Homestay where I spent two, delicious, delirious months. Dewa was my introduction to Balinese men. Every morning he greeted me with a gorgeous smile. He patiently answered my questions. I often took my notebook to a table in the breakfast area to write. One day he found me there and asked what I was writing about. “My issues with men,” I said. He put his hand on his chest, utterly crestfallen, and asked, “Me?”

I laughed. “No, not you, Dewa. Just other men!”

002 (3) (640x480)

My ‘issues’ bouquet

That brought the smile I loved. He disappeared. About fifteen minutes later he returned with a bouquet of flowers in a clay vase. He set them in front of me. “Here. Look at these while you write about your issues with men,” he said.

Bada bing bada boom.

My next residence was Rumah Kita. Enter Ketut.

I arrived from the thirty-hour flight at 2:00 a.m. My driver pulled to a stop in the deserted street. A hooded figure jumped off a bench in front of the convenience store and hurried over. “Good morning!” he said. “You Zely?” In my benumbed state I realized he was saying my name and answered in the affirmative. “I take you Rumah Kita.” With that he hoisted my overweight luggage on his shoulder and started down the path. I paid the driver and hurried after him.

Let me explain that the journey leaves me, not exhausted, that sets in later, just buzzed. So at 6 a.m. when I was still poking around my new house, unpacking, settling in, there was a knock at the door. The hooded figure from the night before stood in front of me, hoodless, beaming.

“Good morning!” he said for the second time in 4 hours. “You want kopi?”


You want kopi?

“Okay,” I said, wondering why he was here at my door at 6 a.m. Moments later he reappeared with a tray. There was a pot of coffee, a cup and saucer, sugar, cream, and a profusion of flowers: red hibiscus, yellow frangipani, and something periwinkle.

“On terrace?” he asked.

“Okay,” I said again and pattered after him to the broad balcony overlooking rooftops and gardens. The sun was just coming up. “What’s your name,” I asked as he transferred the contents of the tray to the low table and arranged the flowers.

“Ketut,” he said.

“The flowers are beautiful!” I was overwhelmed. “Thank you!”

That was the beginning. Each morning Ketut brought coffee, flowers, and breakfast. He was on hand to take me by motorbike wherever I wanted to go. And as if that weren’t enough, he appeared shortly after noon, daily, to clean my house.  You could eat off the floor. There was never a crumb. Spotless. And after each cleaning flowers appeared everywhere, a frangipani blossom on the vanity, one on my laptop, the bedside table, the statue of Buddha, the incense holder, and a couple on the toilet tank. They were replaced fresh every day, and positioned in new and ingenious places that made me laugh.


Yes, the toilet tank…really.

I wondered about Ketut. Who had trained him to provide this level of service? Was this the norm in Bali? By the end of four months he knew my routines. On many occasions he appeared seconds after I’d thought, “I’m hungry,” with a snack or a smoothie. “Did you read my mind?” I’d ask him.

“Possible,” he’d reply.

My time was up at Rumah Kita. I returned to the U.S. and Ketut e-mailed. “Apa kabar? How are you?”

“I miss Bali,” I told him. “I’m coming back soon.”

When I returned, I rented the house next door and soon discovered all Balinese house staff are not created equal. Ibu, my new helper, was moody. On a good day she might smile. On a bad day she was a looming thundercloud. The whole neighborhood tip-toed around Ibu. I heard it whispered that she practiced black magic. I really didn’t care, I just wanted her gone.

Each day after Ibu left Ketut stopped by. “You want eat?” he’d ask. I wasn’t his responsibility anymore, so I declined and thanked him. He wasn’t deterred. “Ya, I cook,” he’d say, and so he did, and wouldn’t take payment. Not ever.

That answered one question about Ketut. He wasn’t just staff. We were friends.

I finally summoned the courage to let Ibu know I wouldn’t need her anymore and arranged with Ketut to work for me part-time. I named a figure and asked if that was acceptable. He shook his head. “No pay, it’s okay.”

This time I wouldn’t hear of it. I wrote a contract spelling out what I wanted him to do and how much I would pay him to do it.

Now my life is once again managed by Ketut. I didn’t request them, but every day he fills my house with flowers, and my heart with joy. He cooks. When my supplies are low, he replenishes them. He brings me treats, Balinese sweets and fresh fish from Lake Batur. I asked for cleaning twice a week. He seems to be unconscious of time and my house gets the once-over daily.  He made a lotus pond for me, and manicures the lawns and gardens. No amount of money can buy such selfless giving.

And he reads my mind.

I have papaya for breakfast. Always. At 6:30 a.m. this morning, in the middle of an inverted yoga pose, I remembered I’d eaten the last of it the night before. There were eggs and bread in the fridge. I was recalibrating my taste buds to accept the change when a voice said, “Hallo?” It was Ketut, in my doorway, holding a papaya.

My friend is thoughtful, helpful, generous, and kind and has single handedly ruined me for anyone else. I am deeply, irrevocably, and hopelessly fond of this special man who asks so little and gives so much. Terima kasih, Ketut. Thank you. You healed my heart.


Ketut, his wife Komang, and their daughter Nengah


It haunts me,
calls gently.
Return, it says.
I don’t have to ask
the knowing is written
in my bones…
the longing
speaks more loudly
than love
or anger
or pain.
Return, it says,
to my green arms
to my heat
to my fragrance
to joy.
And I will…
This poem needed to be written. It was tight around my heart. I couldn’t put words to it because I didn’t know when. I didn’t know if soon meant weeks, months, or unbearably longer. Today I know. Weeks. I will return to Bali in July, in four weeks. That is just long enough to get a new visa. Just long enough to see friends one more time…just long enough.
I have never loved a place before. I’m trying to understand the improbability of it. Why this place? Why half-way around the world from everything I know?
Of course I explored the question in my discovery writing and the answer rang like truth when the words of it appeared on the page. With truth comes freedom. Freedom allows. And it is all about allowing ‘havingness.’ Havingness is about worthiness. Worthiness is about self-love.
There! Did you follow that process? Discovery writing unlocks truth. I love it! I created it and I believe in it. It has informed and transformed my life. And for those of you who have faithfully followed my blog, I am returning. Please come along!

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