And That’s All I Need To Know

My nervous system is recalibrating. I don’t wake up to monkeys screaming at dawn. Ketut says they’re still there. Every day. Many.

I loved Bali. No other place has ever captured my heart and soul like that mysterious island did. No other human has shown me such kindness or giggled as contagiously as Ketut did, and still does, but from a great distance now. Life, however, moves on. Circumstances change. As Willie Nelson so eloquently put it, Shit happens.

So we pick up the scraps and move on, a little battered, a little shaken up, but still hopeful that the path will open before us and the sun will shine again.

It’s important, though, especially for those of us who are optimists, to feel the feelings. Everything is not always sunny-side-up and we need to let grief in where it belongs.

When I landed in the U.S. I was numb. Reuniting with family after two years should have been bliss. I had expectations. It would be a love-fest – joyous – thrilling. My heart experienced it that way but my mind was in a state of utter overwhelm. I remember almost nothing of that time with my children and grandchildren.

My nervous system was in dire need of a reset.

The past five months in Mexico have been healing. The joys and sorrows of life are played out in the streets. There seem to be no taboos. One day they’re dancing and drumming with wild abandon. The next day brings a procession so somber and reverent the beholder hardly dares breathe. Battles, revenge, love, craziness. People in costumes depicting angels, demons, and everything in between. Effigies of personas non grata hung over the streets and blown to smitherines. My energies merge with theirs and I’m purged and cleansed.

Writing used to occupy my free time. I could sit for twelve hours at a stretch, so absorbed in the story I’d forget to eat.

I don’t know if it’s the altitude, the weather, or the tectonic shifting within my own being, but here in Mexico, my body wants to move. It refuses to sit still. It’s all I can do to bribe it into a chair long enough to hammer out a blog post.

So in-between delightful visits from friends who view my current proximity to the U.S. as a much less arduous undertaking than a trip to Bali, I seek projects.

The patio set on my roof frustrated me. The Acapulco-style table was missing its round glass insert. If mine ever had one, it was long gone. The rubber-string top was worthless if I wanted to set my coffee cup or glass of wine on it. I didn’t want a glass top anyway. I preferred a statement table, something that would express with color and design what stirred in my heart and didn’t yet have words.

Roberto, my landlady’s son, supplied a round piece of plywood.

I borrowed a brush from Martin, the handyman.

There is a Sherwin Williams paint store down the street. I stopped in and bought a can of black, a can of white, and a can of marine varnish – a product Dad used years ago to protect an antique coffee table he refinished. To this day it doesn’t have a scratch on it. An art supply shop had tubes of red, green, and gold and the smaller brushes I needed for details. I was ready.

For some reason, I decided to use a sponge rather than Martin’s new brush to apply the white base coat. I shook the can vigorously and pried it open with a tool that was not made for that purpose. In minutes my tabletop was white.

I took the sponge to the kitchen sink and squeezed it under running water. It was at that moment I realized I had not purchased acrylic paint. A sticky, oily, white substance covered my skin and the faucet. Panic. I grabbed a bar of soap and scrubbed to no avail. By now my hands looked like the face of a Parisian mime.

Stop, Sherry. Think.

Nail polish remover? I didn’t have any. I quit polishing my nails around month number six of Covid lockdown in Bali.

Rubbing alcohol? Worth a try. But anything I touched was going to be slathered in white. I slapped my palms down on two pieces of newspaper. It stuck like glue. I found the bottle of rubbing alcohol and gave my poor hands a liberal dousing. It didn’t work on the paint but the paper disintegrated.

Now what?

Martin had been painting recently. There might be turpentine in his supplies. I applied fresh newspaper and ran downstairs. The storage cabinet was full of bottles all labeled in Spanish. One looked promising, diluyente de pintura. Dilute the paint? Thinner perhaps? Back at the kitchen sink, I poured and scrubbed, poured and scrubbed, poured…. Were my hands a slightly pinker shade of pale? There had to be something that worked better than this.

Newspaper refreshed once again, I hurried back downstairs and paged more carefully through the confusing labels. Solvente de poliuretano? Polyurethane solvent? Now we’re talking! Back up the steps, two at a time. I poured a small amount of the liquid into a cup and dribbled it on my hands. This time paint came off when I scrubbed. Jackpot! I picked up the cup for another splash of miracle juice and WHOOPS! My magic paint remover had dissolved the bottom of the cup and solvent was running over my polyurethaned concrete countertop!

I don’t want to crash the climax for you, but there is a happy ending to this story. I grabbed a rag and swabbed down the counter. No harm done. The solvent removed most of the paint from my hands but a residue clung to my cuticles creating interesting half-moon shapes that framed the fingernails for weeks.

It took each coat of oil paint three days to cure and there were multiple coats. After the basic white, I taped squares and painted them black.

When that dried, I taped over those black squares and painted another layer of black to create a checkerboard pattern. The black paint bled into the white squares under the tape. Wiggly edges looked like the scribblings of a toddler, not at all the crisp, professional masterpiece I’d envisioned. The quickest fix: sandpaper for a distressed finish. It worked.

Adding the artistic touches was a treat. The flowers, slightly transparent, allowed a shadow of the black and white to show through. Touches of metallic gold added a sprinkle of sparkle to catch the light.

The project that I’d hoped to finish in three days took three weeks because I assumed I was buying acrylic paint. I didn’t ask for a water-based product so why would I assume? If I were in the U.S. I would have specified exactly what I wanted. Sometimes my ignorance astounds me.

The important thing, though, is the finished product, a hard surface where I can securely park my morning coffee cup or evening wine glass.

But even more special for me is the subtle message written in paint. Black and white checks represent the balance between darkness and light. Every Balinese Hindu male owns a black and white checked sarong and important statues are draped with checkered fabric for protection against dark spirits. Nothing says Bali to me like that pattern.

Vibrant red flowers are life itself – creativity, innovation, fire, passion, beauty.

Green is growth. Renewal. A calming, peaceful, dependable color.

And you might ask why I didn’t cluster the flowers in the middle? It would have created a more symmetrical balance. Science shows that symmetry is comfortable. Our minds don’t have to work to process symmetry. But asymmetry is more interesting and we engage longer with it. I’ve never been satisfied with comfortable. I like challenge, and the design I chose to paint reflects that truth.

My table says it all! It’s wonderful! My body had to move a lot to get those stories painted. But for the last three hours, it’s been perched on this chair, retelling the saga that’s already been told in color and pattern. And now it’s begging me to finish because it’s after midnight and this bird is not a night owl.

I’m grieving the loss of my beloved Bali, feeling it deeply, and that’s necessary. At the same time, I’m enjoying wonderful new friends in San Miguel and visits from dear old friends in the U.S. I don’t have all the answers but I know I’m in the right place for right now, and that’s all I need to know.

Taking Out The Trash In The Valley Of The Corn

I have three options for garbage disposal, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On any of those days, if I get up before 7:00, put on my mask and jacket, grab the bag of trash, wobble downstairs, unlock the massive metal door, step outside, re-lock the door, turn the corner and cross the street, bags are piling up. Shadowy figures in the half-light of morning lugging their own refuse approach from every direction.

If I wait until I hear the clanging bell of the running man as he races down the street slightly ahead of the garbage truck, I’m too late.

I live on Valle del Maiz, a name that translates as Valley of the Corn and I’m usually awake long before 7 a.m. However, right now in San Miguel de Allende mornings are cold – 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit cold – and it takes a generous helping of stern self-talk to motivate.

But today I did.

I’ve established a ritual to reward the pre-dawn effort. Once back inside the house, energized by the brisk journey, I pour a steaming mug of coffee and climb the stairs to my rooftop. Sunset in SMA is glorious, but so is sunrise and the after-trash timing is perfect.

As I emerged onto the terrace this morning, four hot-air balloons floated silently against a pink-purple sky laced with gold.

I marveled, mesmerized, at this other-worldly visitation. If I didn’t look up, I’d never know they were there. Soundless, carried on breezes, they drifted directly overhead, a special gift just for me. I felt it like a bubble in my chest, a burst of joy, a message without words.

By the time they’d passed, I’d taken dozens of photos and my fingers, and coffee, were cold.

I shivered in my jacket and headed downstairs for the warmth of the kitchen. Coffee refreshed, I grabbed my journal and resumed the routine that carries me through the other six days of the week. So far, every rooftop, garbage-day dawn has been graced with balloon sitings. What a touch of magic for simply taking out the trash.

Hello, 2022. You’re a welcome sight…

We’re three days in. Already your energy feels hopeful.

2022 A new dawn. A new day.

Photo credits Alamy 2C52HKF

2020 and 2021 brought a harsh reckoning…a world reset. None of us is the same person we were at the end of 2019. Life as we knew it came to an abrupt halt and we’ve been scrambling ever since.

But I don’t need to revisit the nightmare of the past two years.

A new dawn, a new day, and a new home. I’m settling in and embracing the differences. From a tropical island in Asia to the high desert of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico – how opposite could it be? I’ve exchanged hot and humid for cool and dry. That, and the altitude, required this shocked, very-soon-to-be 72-year-old body, to slow way down and recalibrate.

My Bali home…

My San Miguel de Allende home

It’s been a month already and, to my delight, I’m finding far more similarities between here and my Bali home of the past ten years, than differences. I’ve exchanged the practices of one devout people for the very different but equally devout rituals of another. Bali Hinduism is unique in that it is heavily influenced by ancient animism. Mexican Catholicism is also a blend. It retains flavors of Mayan, Aztec, Toltec, and other long-gone cultures.

It feels right to me to have a hint of those shamanic elements of the ancestors operating today. It fulfills a need to connect to a past where spirituality was an integral part of life, if not life itself. I’m also glad the decision-makers have been selective about which ceremonial activities to leave in the past – human sacrifice for instance – not a fan!

The Day of the Dead in Mexico and the march of the Ogoh-Ogohs on Nyepi in Bali – the wild clang and crash of gamelan orchestras accompanying the monster parade – feed my Plutonian shadow. Darkness is lured out of hiding. We’re face-to-face with the ‘other’ realm and perhaps confronted by our demons. It’s an invitation, an opportunity to look at our own dark underbelly and accept that part of ourselves. That wasn’t available to me in the U.S. Darkness was kept hidden until it came out sideways, unhealthy and destructive.

There are other similarities, the double lives, for instance. In Bali, a beautiful smile, gracious hospitality – a facade is applied for the tourists, the ex-pats, the foreigners in white skins. It’s like that here, too. I hate it. I can’t say it more bluntly than that. I’m studying Spanish with a frenzy, as though my life depends upon speaking the language, because the life I want, does.

Only when I learned Indonesian did I become privy to the reality of the lives of the Balinese, the nitty-gritty behind the smiles.

I’m hoping that’s the same here. A common language is a connector that opens doors. Only when we can communicate in a shared language are we able to trust ‘the other’ enough to speak our truths and our secrets.

I was ready for a change, but I also hoped that I wouldn’t have to sacrifice some of the daily things I loved about my life in Ubud like the Ibu (esteemed woman/mother) who had the fruit and veggie stand where I bought all my produce.

Imagine my delight when, lo and behold, there was Señora Petra’s tiny tienda not ten steps from my door. The Señora sells just about…no, not just about…she sells everything I need to survive out of her hole-in-the-wall space no bigger than an average American bathroom. Besides fruits and veggies, I get my cheese, eggs, yogurt, crispy corn tortillas (by the 30-count package) flour, sugar, salt, a few select homemade pastries, beer…

And yesterday, on a whim because a button fell off my favorite shirt, I asked if she had white thread for sewing. She cocked her head and grinned. From somewhere in the depths under the back of the counter, she extracted a plastic box and – I kid you not – there it was. Thread in an assortment of colors. She fingered them and pulled out a white one. My jaw dropped. (Yet another example of a time when I’ve been thankful for the mask!)

Ubud has two Western-type supermarkets. So does San Miguel and I’ve been to both of them. (There may be more but these are walking distance from me. SMA is a city. Ubud was a small town.) It only took that one trip to each of them to know that I’d only be going there when I want, not NEED, just WANT something like Italian seasoning or baking powder which I found yesterday at $10 USD for a bag of Red Mill brand – the only option. I nearly choked.

On the flip side, there are gigantic traditional markets where I wander, overwhelmed, dazed, enthralled. I’m the odd duck, very much in the minority, in the midst of hundreds of local people going about their ‘business as usual.’

There are similar-but-different markets targeting tourists and ex-pats. I’ve visited a couple of those, too, just to see what’s there. It’s fun to look but I find them high-priced and glitzy. I’m happier in the markets with less ‘show.’ I’m not necessarily more comfortable, aware that my white skin radiates like a beacon and certain assumptions are made about me on that basis alone.

But I need that, too, to remind me of my privilege, my entitlement, my colonizing heritage that has wreaked destruction for centuries upon centuries.

How does one atone for that? It’s a question that weighs heavily and one I need to answer for myself.

So, “Hello, 2022,” from this new place, ten years into my ongoing adventure called RETIREMENT. I’m poised excitedly, hopefully, on your doorstep with so much to be grateful for, and so much to learn.

The end of the line…or…the bus stops here

I’ve been in San Miguel de Allende for twenty-six days and I’m adjusting.

First, and most noticeably, there was the altitude. My home in Bali sat 650 feet above sea level. San Miguel perches at 6000 feet. I knew the climate would be different, but I didn’t realize what an impact it would make having my head in the clouds more literally than usual.

After three weeks, it was getting better. I didn’t feel feeble, huffing and puffing up the near-vertical streets, pausing to pant every third or fourth step. Tired, dizzy, headachy. Trying to fight the dread that I’d never feel strong and confident again. Just an old biddy past her used-by date. That had been in the back of my mind while my body tried to keep up with an insane social calendar. But, as I said, it was getting better.

I’ve made major moves in the past, but never to a place where I already knew people. Before, it was cold turkey, so to speak. I had to learn my way around. Take myself to places where I’d meet people and sift hopefully through the ones that turned up. It was a long process.

Here, the skids were greased for me before I stepped off the plane.

There came a point, though, where I needed to figure a few things out on my own. Like how far does the bus go in the opposite direction? The city buses that cost eight pesos (forty cents) per ride, stop right in front of my house. They come by every four minutes or less. I took this shot of the number eight from my balcony.

This one’s going into Centro, the hub of San Miguel. I usually walk in that direction because it’s downhill all the way. No huff/puffing when I’m working with gravity.

And I have a reason to go there frequently. I’ve grown fond of the Bonanza grocery just a few steps from the manicured trees and wrought iron benches of the jardin, a restful garden park. Bonanza has become a destination and I load up on all kinds of novel items plus a few recognizable ones. I know if I can carry my purchases a quarter of a block, the bus will whisk me back up the hill and dump me at my door.

I do mean dump!

I’m lucky if the driver stops. The door swings open about half a block away and I’d better have my pesos in his hand and my foot out the door when he slows down! Adrenalin rush! My motorbike rides in Bali had nothing on the San Miguel bus!

Señora Petra’s tiny shop is a few steps from my house. It has everything but you may have to dig a bit. The other day I walked in and looked around – you don’t walk around, there isn’t enough space. I wanted a watermelon but I didn’t see one. I know how to say, “Do you have a watermelon,” in Spanish so I asked. Petra bustled around the counter and dug to the bottom of the pineapples. Wallah! A watermelon!

Today was the day after Christmas – always in some ways a relief, and in others an anticlimax. I needed fruits, veggies, and eggs, and Petra’s was tempting, but I also needed a distraction.

It’s a beautiful day for a bus ride, I thought. I wonder how far the bus goes in the opposite direction? What if it goes all the way to that Costco-size grocery-plus-plus store, La Comer? I could wander in there for hours. With pesos in my pocket, I caught the number nine bus heading away from Centro and settled in for the ride.

The farthest I’d been in that direction was Tianguis, the gigantic traditional market.

There are six, or maybe eight, football-field-sized arched metal roofs that house this hodge-podge of delights from lightbulbs to live rabbits, not to mention heaped tables of clothing, shoes, and enough tortillas and enchiladas to feed the entire Mexican army. (Just a guess.) It’s full to exploding with vendors from near and far. Utterly overwhelming!

We circled the complex. A few people got off, a few more got on. Then we were back on the highway, zooming toward my destination. At some point, the driver turned right and we were in an unfamiliar downtown area. That lasted a few minutes. Another right put us on narrow cobblestone streets that became narrower and less welcoming the farther we went. We’d just passed a rusted car covered in vines sitting on cement blocks when the bus pulled to the side and stopped. The driver got out. Bathroom break, I thought. I sat another minute or two then craned my head around to look behind me.

The bus was empty.

The driver reappeared, climbed back in, and stood facing me, hands on his hips. He said something which probably translated, “Where did you think you were going?”

“Is this the end? Are you staying here?” I asked, with appropriate gestures to indicate All she wrote? Curtains? No enchilada?

He gestured back and made me understand this was indeed the end of the line. I must have looked frantic because at that point he stuck his head out the window and motioned wildly. An identical bus rattled to a stop. My driver made a shooing motion at me, “Vamos! Vamos!” I shoved eight pesos at him hollering “Gracias! Muchas gracias!” and dashed to my salvation.

The new driver retraced the jaw-jarring trail back over cobblestone streets, circled the Tianguis Market, and brought me safely home. He even stopped for me to disembark. Mission accomplished. I found the end of the line and I have no need to go there again.

I ducked gratefully into Señora Petra’s shop and found everything I needed, including this beverage.

The idea seemed good at the time. But if you should ever run across it and wonder…unless you’re really keen on beer mixed with lime and, wait for it, way too much Tobasco sauce…don’t even think about it!

You’re not in Kansas anymore…

I click my Ruby Red Slippers and I’m in Oz! Well, maybe not Ruby Slippers – more like warm socks with ugly shoes. And maybe not Oz, exactly…

I’m sitting on the rooftop terrace of my new home in San Miguel de Allende, thawing.

It’s been a long journey, mentally, physically, and especially emotionally. When did this transition begin?

In my heart, I could feel it three years ago. It was the kind of knowing that something had changed and something else was coming, but I had no idea what or when. Then Covid arrived and the pandemic took over the world. It stopped me in my tracks and made me face the reality of my age and the distance from my family. It created an urgency that had been absent before.

After finally getting my second vaccination, and jumping through a great many hoops, I was on the plane to the U.S. On October 4th I landed in San Francisco and spent two jetlagged weeks hiking the rocky coast along Highway 101 with Jessa and her partner, Dan.

The contrast between the U.S. and Bali stunned me. It felt so normal, so like life as I remembered it, before…

Dazed and overwhelmed I did my darndest to be in the present moment with them and integrate into the vibrant energy of California. I think I failed. I’m pretty sure I failed. On the heels of two stressful years in a destitute Bali, seeing the abundance of life-as-we-knew-it playing out before my eyes while my friends on the island suffered lockdown isolation, presented a dichotomy that hurt my heart.

So I stuffed that reality into the chamber of my mind that says, “I’ll think about this later,” and continued my cross-country journey.

In Minnesota it was an ecstatic, far too-long-awaited reunion with Jenny and Kennen and my delightful twin grandsons. We’d all aged two years since my last visit. The twins, at two and wobbly, were now four, running, bouncing, and talking non-stop. Those two little guys are incredibly well-behaved. Their patient, loving, but strict parents provide the magic formula for ultra-creative kids who could otherwise manufacture all kinds of trouble!

My sister and her husband live in northern Minnesota on the remote edge of nowhere. In a whirlwind week with them, I reconnected with many of my Norwegian relatives and friends. I drank more coffee and ate more cookies and cheesecakes than I’d had in years.

Gwen and her husband W, bought the family farm. She knows me better than anyone and we share a common history, common that is until I moved to Hawaii. A year later, she moved to Arizona. Covid reunited us through emails. We’ve maybe missed three days of correspondence since February 2020. I love my sister. Now my logical Capricorni-ness understands her quirky Gemini-ness far better than I used to.

My daughters and their partners are wise, wonderful adults coping unbelievably well in their individual, unique circumstances. I’m so proud of them. I had one more family to see.

Joy and Kellen and my two grandaughters welcomed me into their busy boisterous lives with open arms, bountiful snuggles, and affectionate kisses. Two years ago, my newborn granddaughter had raven black hair and screeched whenever Mommy was on the phone with Granny. Now she’d turned two with golden curls, a bubbly, joyful child. And my five-year-old granddaughter, in Kindergarten full time, is a budding zoologist. She stores more facts about animals in her head than I ever knew. Their dad, Kellen, maintains a loving, much-needed order in that household of independent females which was especially appreciated while Joy and I spent hours brainstorming ideas for her business. She also gave me great feedback for a new service I’m considering. More on that another time!

No photo description available.

All this while, I kept reading the news from Bali. My original plan was to fly back to San Francisco for one last week with Jessa and Dan then return to Indonesia. My ticket was for Dec. 6th. But the rules were strict and inescapable: if I went back I would have to quarantine in a hotel in Jakarta for 10 days at my own expense, and the devastating economic circumstances in Bali hadn’t changed.

Sitting in front of the fireplace on a chilly evening in Pennsylvania with the girls burrowed close on either side of me, I agonized.

The last thing I wanted to do was return to Bali with a new variant, Omicron, bringing more uncertainty. Over the past two years, I’d come to the conclusion that I wanted, and needed, to be closer to my U.S. family. Mexico, it seemed, was the logical option. Why not check it out before going back? See if it was a fit. I had friends in San Miguel de Allende.

Suddenly that seemed like the most common-sense idea I’d ever had. I spent a couple of hours on the phone with Singapore Airlines. They finally agreed to change my return ticket to January 4th, 2022, with a valid reason and another $50 added to the original price. I hoped I could trust the old saying: Take a step and the path will appear. The Universe seemed to be showing the way.

That’s when I clicked my Ruby Red Ugly Shoes!

ReAnn Scott (My Home On The Roam) welcomed me with overwhelming hospitality. In the first eight days, I met more people, had more invitations, (even played Rummikub with a group of fifteen people that meets weekly) than I’ve ever before in my life experienced. Everyone was friendly, inclusive, and best of all, interesting.

With ReAnn’s help, I found a house to rent that exceeded my wildest hopes. Another piece of the puzzle clinked into place.

Years ago, when I was trying desperately to figure out who I was, I made a list of things I love. Not people, things. One item on the list was: Sunlight streaming through French doors.

  • This house has five sets of double French doors.
  • I wanted to live on the second floor. The house is built above a first-floor garage/storage/laundry space. The living quarters are on the second floor.
  • I wanted a rooftop terrace. I have that, too, with a 360° view of San Miguel de Allende.
  • I wanted to be in the area called Centro which is close to the town center and I needed rooms with plenty of open space drenched in light. There are huge skylights in every room and it’s a fifteen-minute walk to the famous cathedral, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, that occupies the place of honor in the heart of the city.
  • I had a budget. The rental amount was within the parameters I’d set.
  • Last but not least, it had to be a Mexican-style home, not new construction void of all personality. Plaster walls, a wood-beamed ceiling, bright Mexican tiles…it had everything I wanted plus a kitchen that would make a professional chef jealous!

The Universe laughed and I knew instantly this house was mine. I paid the deposit and moved in the next day. That was fourteen days ago.

And now I know won’t be returning to The Island of the Gods on January 4th. I have a 180-day visa for Mexico and I intend to extend that permanently. This already feels like home.

This morning I journaled for the first time in over a month. In a few paragraphs, tears were flooding the pages and smearing the ink. That chamber where I’d stuffed those vulnerable feelings about Bali and the friends I was leaving behind cracked open. I sobbed for a long time.

As I write this, grief wells up again.

I had ten phenomenal years there. My dear Ketut and his family helped me grow, learn, and heal some very old wounds. He was my closest friend, loyal employee, and wise teacher. I’ve written about Ketut and our hair-raising motorbike adventures many times over the years.

His family accepted me as their own.

Perhaps deep in my subconscious I knew I wouldn’t be back but couldn’t face the goodbyes to him and so many others: Nina, who became like a daughter.

My friends in the Ubud Writer’s Group who challenged me to edit, edit, edit!

Mu and Shane who provided laughter, deep philosophical conversations, and loving support.

The courageous and beautiful Sriy Sinawati who will one day follow her dream…

And many more…so many goodbyes unsaid…

And yet, I know this is the right place at the right time for me. A new adventure for this dreamer. Won’t you please, come along…?

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