The Momentum of Intention and the Healing Power of Ritual

P1110803Today I did something I’ve never done. It felt important to remember Dad in a special way on Fathers Day. In America that falls on Sunday, June 19th.

When the idea dawned to assemble mementos, the 19th was still two days away. As I went about the normal routine ideas floated to consciousness: Dad loved to play Texas Mean! I’ll find the game and set it up. What were his favorite foods? He liked hot stuff, chilies! And raisin pie, and, oh! Flowers!

I fell asleep anticipating Fathers Day morning but awakened at 2:04 a.m. Where was that photo of him that I brought back with me from the States? As I was scouring my brain trying to place it I fell asleep only to awaken again at 4:18. His purple heart and dog tags! Those must be displayed, and pictures of our family…I dropped back into sleep. At 6:00 a sunrise befitting the magnitude of the day summoned me. I scrambled out of bed for the camera and captured a stunning sky.

Still in pajamas, I set about looking for his photo. It wasn’t in any of the expected places, but in the process of the hunt I found others. Perfect! While unearthing the Texas Mean game from its place in the cupboard a collection of old calendars caught my eye. Inserted between March and April, 2015, was my handsome Dad on his wedding day. Beside it was the program from his funeral. Did I want that reminder? It took a few minutes to sort through how I felt. Then one line caught me eye: Died January 29, 2016. Yes, his death was a fact of his life.

As I assembled the keepsakes, a carved Buddha head on the wall just above the display felt off. The eyes, locked into an unwavering stare, didn’t fit. In my scarf drawer was a black loosely-woven shawl. I draped it over Buddha’s head so just the shadow of a face could be seen. That was the missing piece. It represented the veil of sadness and loss that today I’m allowing myself to feel. Then the tears came.

A time-out to shower and dress restored my composure. Barefoot, I walked outside, down the stairs, and into the garden breathing the moisture and aromas of breakfast being cooked. I sensed Dad’s presence with me. He loved gardens! Damp and cool underfoot, a slow amble around the perimeter produced yellow, purple, and hot pink blooms. I’d just added two green chilies to the mix when Ketut appeared.

“Ya, good morning. What are you doing?”

“I’m preparing a ceremony for my father.”

His face lit up. “One years, same as Hindu?”

“No, it’s six months since he died. But in America this is a special day for fathers.”

“I will bring offering,” he said. A few minutes later he returned with two palm leaf creations filled with the appropriate grains of rice, flowers, and mossy bits that appear everywhere on ceremonial days in Bali. I asked if it was okay to put raisins, the chilies, and a sweet biscuit on top. He assured me that this is how it should be.

All in readiness, I lit a candle and incense.

The raspy voice of Johnny Cash came to life on the computer: I Walk the Line. It was a song we loved to sing. While it played I made coffee, one for Dad, one for me, and we had our time together.

Underlying the sadness was intense joy filled with loving energy both his and mine. From the moment of intention, my subconscious mind had spun the story. When it was time to bring the idea to fruition, all the needed elements were there for creating an altar of memories.

Ritual is healing. I’ve heard that but I didn’t really understand. Now I get it. It can’t just be a concept. It has to be performed. I’m grateful that I took the time, made the effort, and followed the subtle promptings of my heart.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad, and all my love…always…

Sherry

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.

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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.

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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!

The Dance of Demons and Ghouls

It’s 3:00 in the afternoon, still early, but I’m impatient. The air sizzles with excitement, and the methodical background of gamelan holds a promise of things to come. I grab my camera and head for Hanoman. I’ve been told the ogoh-ogohs are already lining up there. Last year I had no idea what to expect so I found a cafe by the street and waited for the parade to come to me. Not this time. I want to be at the starting line. I want to catch the action from its inception and merge with it, lose myself in it’s ferocious intensity.

Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, is a celebration like none other. For weeks leading up to Nyepi Eve, in villages all across Bali, young and old work feverishly creating mosters of enormous size and hideous countenance. Artistic genius is unleashed to create it’s worst nightmares. In parks, garages, and banjars a framework appears first. The next day it has a penis or two immense breasts clinging to it’s skeleton. Every night the gamelan players whip up a frenzy of sound to cheer on the workers. They have already done a full day’s work at their real jobs, but the driving music propels them to slave feverishly on into the night, building a fiend that will storm through the streets at dusk, restoring a peaceful balance to the energy of the island.

As I turn the corner from Dewi Sita onto Jl. Hanoman I catch sight of the first ogoh-ogoh.

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Suckling pigs are used as offerings for the more auspicious Hindu ceremonies. This particular dark spirit looks hungry!

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Notice the man standing to the left. Once the framework is hoisted onto the shoulders of an army of Balinese men, these statues do battle with the utility wires that span the streets.

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This one has fuzz by his toenails. Where does the inspiration for that come from?

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Remember the breasts I mentioned? The flimsy red skirt doesn’t hide much either.

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This dude is enormous. He has to be 20 feet tall, at least.

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The mammoth boar comes complete with sound effects. It’s either a recording or a human inside who may not be able to talk again for a week!

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The attention to detail is astounding.

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This team puts on a show! They twirl thier monster, dipping and swaying. They run forward then side to side making their diabolical looking golden buddha appear to be very much alive.

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King Cobra is even more stunning after dark. His head and entire body are outlined in lights. His eyes flash red and his mouth glows green.

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This one may be my favorite, although that screeching boar is pretty awesome!

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I want a skirt like this! Not the tail, just the skirt.

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A pack of tomorrow’s leaders sport special hair in honor of Nyepi.

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“My dad’s an artist too…!”

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Ogoh-ogohs surround the field that is filled with curious onlookers. Notice the mysterious little orbs floating about. My camera does not have a dirty lens. These only seem to appear when I’m taking photos in temples or at ceremonies. ?!

By dusk the teams and their ghouls have all arrived. Now it’s time for the real cacophany to begin hearalding the march to the cemetery where ritual burning of these sinister entities will ensue. One by one the gamelan that accompanies each team plays a frenzied percussian as their group exits the field. The crowd roars its approval while the players hammer out the complex sycopations. Just when I think it can’t get any better than this, the next gamelan begins, racheting up the volume, pulling out all the stops until the roar of the crowd and the ecstatic pounding beat drowns out the memory of anything else.

It is glorious. I walk home through streets, deadly quiet, contemplating the immensity of the moment. All of that, the pageantry, the noise, the hours of preparatory labor, is a grand performance to maintain the balance between good and evil. The Balinese don’t just make offerings to the high spirits. The eve of Nyepi is meant to wake up both the benign and the malignant so they will see the abundance presented on their behalf and be at peace for another year. It feels primal, and right for this place that sits so close to the equator that dark and light, both literally and figuratively, are in balance here.

The next morning I awake to the sounds of Ibu. I shuffle, sleepy-eyed, out of the bedroom, then scurry back for my camera. She has outdone herself. The offerings on this day are heaped with fruits and flowers.

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 She piles them on top of one another, sumptuous and bountiful. She is elegant in her temple clothes, but I know she has crossed a river where there is no bridge, and walked through the jungle to bring these gifts and bless my house today.  The incense drifts lazily in fragrant swirls. There are no planes overhead, no cars or motorbikes in the streets. Bali rests like a quiet green jewel in the blue sea. Any spirits who might be looking to make mischief will assume there are no inhabitants here and pass by.

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People who spend any time here will tell you that Bali is like nowhere else in the world.  If you have any doubt, come for Nyepi and see for yourself.  I find it irresistable, and the longer I stay the harder it is to imagine life anywhere else.

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