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.

 

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Do I have the right to IMAGINE you?

I wish I could speak with ironclad certainty about the right of fiction writers to portray anyone, from any culture, in any way we wish. In her opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Lionel Shriver, a celebrated U.S. author, adamantly took that stance. Her argument appeared sound: the genre is fiction, therefore it’s made up, imaginary, and nobody should take offense.

I’ve pored over her speech and studied the uproar of commentary it incited. Do you remember the movie, Fargo, now a television series by the same name? The Coen Brothers created the film and billed it as a true story. Here was a movie about my state, my peeps, getting rave reviews. I couldn’t wait.

I’d heard it called scathing social satire, but that didn’t prepare me for the film’s insulting portrayal of people, dare I say it, like me. I couldn’t separate myself from the exaggerated Scandinavian backwoods brogue littered with you betcha, golly,and gee whiz. But the problem went beyond a personal affront. People all over the world watched it and formed an opinion of Minnesota, a state of hicks who talk funny and are a little stupid, but really, really, nice. Nobody sat beside them saying, “This is a farce, a parody, people there aren’t like that, seriously they’re not!” It was cultural appropriation at its box-office best.

We can’t help ourselves. We believe what we read, see, and hear in the media. If we don’t swallow it whole, there’s an impression left in our mental data banks that sticks.

So I had a problem when Ms. Shriver, from a position of white American privilege, told the rest of the world in so many words: Shame on you for feeling marginalized. This is fiction. It isn’t about you, it’s about the author’s freedom to IMAGINE you.

Is she right?

Don’t we all love story? What if the freedom to imagine and create is censored, given walls, boundaries, taboos?

I didn’t like my group being portrayed in an unflattering way. Who does? And yet I’m a creative writer and imagining is what I do. I invent unsavory characters as well as quirky, funny, bumbling, brilliant, and dull ones. I visualize them in skin: tanned, pale, olive, sallow, wrinkled, white, brown. I identify them ethnically, socially, culturally, and by their own, unique voice. I give them place and purpose and bring them to life. It’s never my intent to ridicule or malign others. But have I unwittingly done that by creating people who are nothing like me?

How I love getting lost in a book that someone else has imagined, living with those characters in their reality while momentarily escaping my own. And how I love to create story, allowing my normally serious mind to come out and play, to run with abandon waving my magic wand as my dreamed-up people populate the pages and live and breathe before my eyes.

It’s scary when I extrapolate the issues of cultural appropriation in fiction to various possible outcomes. What if we were banned from writing anything but what we have personally experienced? Memoir would be off limits unless the only character was me. As soon as I introduced another person, an ex-husband, mother-in-law, one of my children, and shined my prejudices upon them, whether in a positive or negative light, zap! Guilty!

The fact that literary festivals are springing up all over the world, and writers are being introduced cross-culturally to a degree never before possible, brings issues of sensitivity to the forefront. Years ago, when authors wrote for a small segment of the population: those who could afford to buy books and also knew how to read, this was a moot point. But now that events bring writers and readers together world-wide, and literacy rates are increasing, those who have been portrayed in ways that don’t ring true to what they believe about themselves, are speaking out.

I get an uneasy feeling in my gut when the word censorship is bandied about. As a writer I come down solidly on the uncensored side of the debate. As a human being who identifies with a specific place and a distinct heritage, I’m torn. Cultural appropriation is a valid issue and one that won’t resolve anytime soon. Pandora’s Box has been flung open and as we say in Minnesota, who knows where the chickens will come home to roost.

How does this strike you?
Have we gone over-the-top with cultural appropriation, politically correct, sensitivity issues? Or have we barely scratched the surface of a necessary heightened awareness of The Other. Please share your thoughts.

 

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.

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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.

 

Go Light on the Blues – A Family Gathering in Bali

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Yesterday’s Gone

There was a song, Emmylou Harris sang it, or maybe it was Chad and Jeremy. It’s one of my favorites and the chorus goes like this, “…but that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.” Yesterday Minnesota was grey. Yesterday’s gone….

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It snowed. Actually that is incorrect. It is snowing. Over a foot of heavy, wet, sticky stuff has accumulated and it’s still coming down. I’ll have to admit, there is something magical about the first snowfall, especially if it’s the kind, like this, that turns a drab leafless tree into a frosted confection. So I pour a steaming mug of coffee and sit down to watch. It is vastly more interesting than watching grass grow! A minute later I jump up and run for my camera. The cardinals have come out to play.

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This sweet boy thinks he’s hiding, but his glorious crimson feathers against the whiteness shout his presence. Lady cardinal is in the bush with him and the pair of them take great pleasure flitting from branch to branch kicking up snow dust.

But I have places to go and people to see in spite of the weather. In Bali, whether it’s July or December, I can slip on a sundress and a pair of sandals and I’m out the door. Today I warily approach my closet, dreading the clothing ritual dictated by this climate.  I pull on a high-necked shirt and tights. First layer…check! Now what? Before that question finds an answer my neck starts to itch under the fabric scrunched tightly around it. I rip off the turtleneck and scratch furiously. Okay, how about a dress with the tights? I find a long-sleeved, knit number and slip it on just as the skin on my legs, sausaged into the tights, begins to crawl. Hiking up the dress I frantically peel off the tights and slather a handful of lotion on each leg. I briefly contemplate calling with some inane excuse to cancel and chuck the whole affair. But by now I’ve worked up an agitated lather and I’ll be darned if I’m going to let a little snow rattle my cage! Off with the dress.

I finally manage to pull myself together. Then adding to my layered ensemble a jacket, gloves, scarf and boots, I head out the door. First stop, World Street Kitchen, a new restaurant in Uptown.

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World Street Kitchen Restaurant in Uptown, Minneapolis, MN

I lunch with Jessa and Dan, the quintessential Uptown pair suitably decked out in sensible garb. They treat me to the ‘Kitchen’s’ Crispy Tofu Burrito and I swear it tastes just like chicken. (All humor aside, it is to-die-for-delicious!) Then I treat them to a giant slice of double-layer-banana-cake-with-peanut-butter-cream-cheese-frosting. Exquisite!

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While we make happy eating noises, a snow-plow truck tries to keep ahead of the still accumulating fluff on the street outside.

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I’ve been invited to a Christmas production and my friends are picking me up at the restaurant. I’ve given them decent directions and they have just called to say they’re getting close. I zip up my jacket, wrap the scarf around my neck, pull on my gloves, say a quick ‘thank you and goodby,’ just as Dan spots a car slowing down. “There they are,” he says, and I race out the door. They have turned into the parking lot and I trot around the end of the building to see them slowly continuing on through the lot toward the alley. “Stop!” I yell, knowing full well they can’t possibly hear me. My trot becomes a fast jog as they turn into the alley and keep going. Now I’m in a flat out run, snow stinging my face, arms windmilling to keep my balance and boots slip-sliding on the icy tire tracks. “Sto000000p!” I yell again, and the car slides to an unsteady halt. They finally quit laughing and explain that they were afraid if they stopped they would get stuck. They apologize profusely for failing to notice my frantic pursuit.

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Getting stuck is a valid concern. We pick our way across town past several vehicles stranded in snowbanks and one sitting with its tail on the guard rail and its front bumper laying a few feet away. But the concert is worth the effort. The full orchestra and two choirs, probably numbering close to 200 voices, nearly lift me from my seat. I am struck by the contrasts of this reality. Here I am in the midst of a mighty throng of people who share my Scandinavian heritage. The music is complex, melodic, familiar. But I find myself scanning the crowd looking for someone…different. Then I see him. He’s short, hidden in the back row. Of that vast company he’s the only one.

In the mountaintop Balinese villages I am the oddity, the pale moonface in a chocolate sea. Tonight his mahogany skin fills a lonesome corner of my heart. I breathe a silent ‘thank you’ for family and friends, for music and snow, and for someone different who unknowingly made the night extra special.

Fifty Shades of Grey

That’s the Minnesota landscape in December. Fifty shades of grey. Bleak.

Sunshine produces warm greys. Clouds make cold, hard, dreary greys. But grey is grey and there is nothing sexy or erotic about Minnesota’s Fifty Shades!

I’m lucky. For the last week before I left Ubud for the holidays in Minnesota, my Balinese friends would find me staring off over the coconut palms and frangipani trees. “What’s wrong?” they were concerned. Usually I’m doing…something! Shaken from my reverie I explained that I was capturing mental pictures of the kaleidoscope of color, the five million shades of green, that I would need to sustain me through 50 days of Minnesota grey. They laughed. You see, they don’t get it. They don’t get grey, they don’t get cold, and they definitely don’t get snow! It isn’t their reality. Ever. But it was mine for many years. I knew what to expect.

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Photo from Bing.com/images

I remembered a children’s story, Frederick by Leo Lionni, that I read to my girls years ago. While the other field mice worked to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sat on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he told them. Another day he gathered “colors,” and then “words.” And when the food ran out, it was Frederick, the dreamer and poet, whose endless store of supplies warmed the hearts of his fellow mice, and fed their spirits during the darkest winter days.

So that’s what I did. I gathered the suns rays. I memorized the colors. I stored up all the brightest, happiest words to cheer me. I soaked up paradise…Bali-rice terraces (1)

And it almost worked…almost.

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

Solving the World’s Problems at Murni’s Warung

MY LOVES

Leaving beauty, warmth, friends.

Returning to beauty, warmth, friends.

My heart has two homes,

both equally dear.

It is an emotional day. My last day here in Bali where I have been so utterly happy, is a tough one. Half of my heart breaks while half eagerly anticipates reuniting with family and friends. I had to write the little poem, above, to remind myself that here is not so different from anywhere else, and it is okay for a piece of my heart to reside on an island half way round the world no matter where the rest of it chooses to be.

This will be my last blog from Bali. Blogging has become a lovely piece of my life and I am not sure what kind of a metamorphosis it will make to continue once I return home. But I’m not going to dwell on that just now because the end of my amazing day yesterday was worth some photos and a blog post as well.

After the sacred cleansing pools, the batik factory, the fishing village with the mouth-watering shore lunch, Karin, Halle, and I decided that you can’t have too many farewell dinners. Our destination last night was Murni’s Warung. Murni’s was the first real restaurant in Bali. It has been in operation since 1974 and is a must-see landmark in Ubud. Murni’s occupies four levels on the cliff overlooking the Campuan River.

We were on the very lowest level with the most spectacular views.

Whereas our table at Indus had us perched at the top of a plunging river gorge, at Murni’s we were deep in the valley with the rushing sound of beautiful water music just below.

We again had our table at the edge. Often the first to arrive for dinner, we have the undivided attention of the staff who are always eager to please.

There are statues everywhere, some are old and some just look old which everything does in Bali after a short time because the humidity creates ideal conditions for moss to grow! The Warung houses many antiques from Java and Bali.

I love the flowers in this bowl in front of the giant Ganesha statue. Ganesha, the elephant, is called The Remover of Obstacles and is a beloved Hindu deity. How appropriate, don’t you think? If anything can remove obstacles blocking your path certainly an elephant can!

Here is another one of the cozy rooms for dining at Murni’s.

The three of us had such a wonderful time talking that I completely forgot to take food photos. You’ll just have to forgive me!  Halle and I had the vegetable curry with red rice and a rum soaked chocolate cake with coconut ice cream for dessert. Karin had the traditional Balinese duck and banana fritters. I will admit that the food played second to the fun of being with friends and enjoying lively conversation. Eating was a bit of an afterthought, although the three of us walked out stuffed to the gills and chose Murni’s complimentary driver over any thought of getting home on our own feet!

You will be relieved to know that between an Icelander, a New Yorker, and a liberal Minnesotan, we have solved the world’s problems. It only took three hours.

Goodbye, Bali. I’m shedding a few tears for the precious people and the beautiful memories here.

Countdown

I think it was October when I started surfing the net for plane tickets to Bali. In December I began shopping for my tropical wardrobe. Now it’s March first and I leave in 13 days! I’m so ready! The thick, wet, slippery snowfall yesterday cinched it. This has been a mild winter so far, really quite tolerable. But the inconvenience that accompanies a heavy snowfall in the city triggered my impatience. As I skidded into the side of my car, unable to find stable footing, and caught myself just in time to avoid sliding underneath it, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud…only two more weeks!  I’m so ready!

 

Last winter

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