The Ghost in the Cupboard


I covet furniture.

Interior design was my career, my bread and butter, my love and my dread for many years. Love because beautiful things have always delighted me and I could spend other people’s money to buy them, and dread because much of what I did was customized and I had to depend on the aptitude of others to get it right. That’s tough for a control freak perfectionist.

Now, years later, although I’ve downsized to a ridiculous level of uncluttered spaciousness, lovely things still delight me. And if they’re unique as well as pretty, I lust.

Such was the case when I noticed a new shop on Monkey Forest Road about a month ago. I walked through the door into stacks of clutter arrayed in the most artful way. Antiques the world over smell like old wood and that same, dusty essence, met my nostrils as I scanned the tumbled assortment of treasures, first to the left, then to the right, taking it all in. Expecting the real finds to be toward the rear, I almost missed a stout cabinet, the rough-textured plank top and rattan basket drawers an unusual combination.

I glanced, then looked again, touched the delicious ridges and hollows of ancient wood, went on my knees to pull open the charming baskets, then checked the price tag. The number warranted closer inspection. How was it joined? What species of lumber was used in the body? The top was old, the rest was new with the exception of three antique wood drawers marching across the front sporting vintage hardware. They slid in and out precision-smooth. With the possibility of a serious traffic jam in the main aisle of the shop, I slid the piece away from the wall just enough to look behind it. Oooo! Impressive. The back and sides were recessed panels. This little honey could be floated in the center of a room, presentable from every angle.

Trying not to drool on myself, I pulled away and circled the rest of the store debating:

This isn’t what you thought you wanted.

But I really don’t know what I want.

It’s pretty expensive.

It’s quality.

You haven’t looked at anything else.

Good point.

I left the shop determined to make a trip to the nearby village noted for its furniture and visit the competition. But I never quite found the time. Two weeks later I was back. Standing in front of the cabinet, it didn’t look the way I remembered it. Were the baskets irregular? Was it a little too big? Small? I approached the attendant prepared to negotiate. How about a discount? Local price? Morning price? You have fixed price. Oh.

I left the shop again. As I entered my house, the piece I wanted to replace, a clunky wardrobe far too large, loomed, brooded, and mocked.

Two more weeks passed until one morning I awoke with a new plan. I’d buy baskets, measure the cabinet, and have one made at half the price. The style of basket wasn’t native to Bali so I asked Ketut to come along, figuring if he saw them he’d know where to buy them. We parked by the shop and strolled in. The chest was still there. He studied the baskets, scrutinized the design, then looked at the price tag. “Expensive,” he said.

“Yes, a little. That’s why I want to buy the baskets and make one. Do you know where I can find others like these?”

“No in Bali.”



We left the shop. Back home the bulky wardrobe leered with blatant malevolence. “Don’t look at me,” I snapped, then felt foolish but wary.

Right after breakfast I was out the door. The store was a mile walk and I got there in record time. Tutup. Closed. Because of the holidays, Idul Fitri for the Muslims, Galungan for the Hindus, I assumed the worst, that it wouldn’t open for several days, and now the desire to own the little chest burned in me like a fever. I stood to the side wondering what next when a woman hurried up, “Sorry, sorry!” she said as she unlocked the door.

This time I gave the object of my obsession just a cursory nod and went straight to the cash desk. What the heck, I’ll try again, “Discount?”

“Sorry, fixed price.”

“Free delivery?”


“Okay, okay.”

Four hours later, looking like it had never existed anywhere else, the new cabinet sat where I’d pictured it. The behemoth, on the other hand, was wedged against my bed to be unloaded and relieved of its post. But it could wait until morning. Worn out, I wanted nothing more than to crawl under the covers and read myself to sleep

That didn’t happen. Perhaps I had agitated the spirit of the wardrobe. Or perhaps it was the gecko that lived behind it who had just been rendered homeless. Whatever the case, unsettling noises emanated from the vicinity of the displaced item all night.

Up early, I dressed, drank a cup of coffee, then tore out the contents and piled it on the bed. “Okay, old thing, you’re outta here,” I said. When you live alone, inanimate objects become targets for random comments or rambling dissertations. I gripped the sides, see-sawed it around the corner and down the hall. I live on the second floor. Outside my front door is an area approximately 4 feet square (120 cm) and the steps drop down from there. The wardrobe and I wrestled each other to that landing. At the point where the beast was sitting at a diagonal across the skimpy space, Ketut came into view down below. He had, no doubt, heard the scuffling, and I had, in essence, cornered myself. I think he finds me relentlessly amusing. His smile was enormous but it wasn’t his gentlemanly smile, it was his…oh, don’t you look ridiculous smile…and that’s okay because I’ve done the same to him when the occasion warrants! “Good morning, Ketut. How are you?” I flashed an equally large grin back at him. I’d been busted.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“I think I need a little help.”

“Yeah,” he said.

Ketut, assuming I wouldn’t understand, summoned Wayan in Balinese, “Come help! Grandmother has trapped herself in the cupboard!” I don’t know many words of that difficult language, but I knew those and exploded into laughter. A look of guilty surprise crossed their faces, then they, too, gave it up and giggled like a couple of naughty schoolboys.

Ten minutes later, the unwieldy reject, riding high on their shoulders, was carried out of my sight forever. When I stepped back inside, the change was palpable. Energy flowed, clear, light, and joyous. The proportions worked. There was agreement, as if the room knew all along what was needed and had been waiting for me to conclude the same. But to ensure that the restless wardrobe ghost would not wander back, I lit incense and chanted a celebratory incantation, ‘Happy me, happy me, the monster’s gone, happy me!’

The next day I was chatting with a neighbor who reported that her cats had acted in the most bizarre fashion the night before. They’d refused to enter her room. Crouching spring-loaded in the doorway, ready to attack or run, their wild slit-eyes remained glued fast to an unseen threat under her desk. She searched around and behind it but found nothing. They were finally coaxed inside but gave the suspicious object a wide berth.

I know that cats are nervous creatures and will balk at a shoe if it looks out of place. But I happen to also know there was a cranky spirit on the loose that night. Maybe it was checking out her desk for its new base of operations. Woo-woo! I went home and lit another stick of incense.



Part One: Death isn’t the end

Six months ago, in a hardware store in Denpasar, Ketut answered a phone call. He moved to a quiet area behind metal shelving to talk. It was a light-hearted outing but the man who emerged after the call walked as though wounded and his face, attempting a smile, masked pain.

“Ketut, what’s wrong? What happened?” He didn’t speak right away. Maybe he was still grappling with disbelief. But when he was able to answer it was a message that sent my heart plummeting to my feet.

“My father die.”


Extended family performed the necessary procedures on the body, washing, wrapping, blessing, keeping watch, and burying. But other ceremonies in the village took precedence so the funeral for Bapak had to wait. In Abang Songan there is a mass cremation every five years. Very few families can afford the expense of an individual cremation, so the body is buried and later exhumed for burning with the rest.

P1070891That poses a bit of a problem. The spirit must have a proper sendoff. Nobody wants the spirit of the deceased hanging around for long because it requires tending. Since his passing, Bapak Ketut has been fed every time the family is fed. When gifts are received, he is given a portion. Ancestral spirits are honored and kept happy because it is believed that an angry spirit will wreak havoc. Even with all possible care taken, every stubbed toe and skinned knee in the ensuing months will be attributed to a dissatisfied soul.

October 30th was the day ascertained by the holy man to be auspicious for the releasing of Bapak’s spirit. I was invited to attend. Ketut went home days before to help prepare. There were shelters to be erected, platforms and blankets and tarps to be borrowed, chickens killed, fish caught, vegetables collected. The guests would bring rice, coffee, and sugar as part of their contribution.

Ketut’s older brother, Nengah, came at 7 am the morning before the ceremony to pick me up. When we arrived in the village an hour and a half later, an army of people were already at work.

There’s one job that I know how to do. Only one. Without that job I am destined to wander aimlessly with my camera for hours, long past the battery’s capability for more photos.

I peel onions.

But the kitchen had gone missing.

“Di mana dapur?” I asked the first woman I saw. She motioned in a direction back where I’d come from, then took my arm steering me around a corner, then around another, along a narrow alley between a tarp shelter and a house, over a stoop and behind another house. There they were, the piles of vegetable, the steaming woks and kettles, whole chickens flattened as though they’d met with a steamroller, and the Ibus, chattering and working as smoothly and effortlessly as a new Mercedes Benz.

I greeted them and was invited to sit.

“Thank you,” I said, “But first, where are the onions?” My question was followed by a shotgun volley of words in Balinese, a language I will never understand, and then laughter. A blue plastic laundry basket was hoisted off a shelf and the contents poured into a pan. “Knife?” I asked. A sabre of fearsome proportions came my direction. “Small please?” More laughter but a smaller knife was produced. For the next few hours I peeled onions, made jokes in my broken Indonesian, and functioned as a member of the kitchen crew.


Bali onions are tiny, about the size of a large clove of garlic. and red. One pan full was the sum of my whole morning’s work.


For about twenty minutes these two industrious young ladies helped me peel.


In another area women assembled hundreds of offerings.


Some of the designs for this particular ceremony were elaborate and unusual.


Ketut told me that this vertical basket contained sixty different kinds of leaves. “All the leaf from my house to the river,” he said. It also held sixty eggs, and sixty garlic cloves, sixty onions, in essence, the fruits of the land. To my question, “Why?” there was the usual answer…

“I don’t know.”

P1070857 In another area the men chopped fish and chicken, bones and all, into a meaty pulp. They mixed each of them with pulverized coconut, onions, garlic, and chillies, then smooshed the mixtures onto bamboo sticks. The sticks had been carved the day before.

Coffee and sweets were served when the workers arrived and again later in the morning. At 11:00 am the blue laundry basket appeared, this time heaped full with steaming rice. Dishes of vegetables and tofu, satays, bean soup, potato soup, deep fried fish, and chicken with spicy sambal (the Balinese version of salsa) created a feast for the eyes and the palate. After eating the men smoked and the women chattered, then it was back to work. Mid-afternoon the young girls of the family in tightly wrapped sarongs, once again brought out trays of coffee and sweets. At 4 pm the buffet reappeared. When the last satay stick was licked clean, people drifted to motorbikes or started the walk home. Easily fifty people were fed twice on this day as they had been for several days prior.

But as the sun set and evening chill settled over the mountain there were still a dozen or so extra bodies hanging out. Ketut and his wife insisted that I take their room with the double bed, television, and privacy.

“Where will you sleep?”

“All sleep outside, many many.”

“All these people are spending the night here?”

“Ya, all. You want shower?”

“But where is everybody going to sleep?”

“Ya, here.” A sweep of Ketut’s arm indicated the platforms that earlier held the offering makings.

“Outside? Really?”


“Ketut, it’s cold!”

“Oh no, many people, very warm. Ya, you take shower now.” As if on cue, his brother appeared carrying a bucket with a small faucet attached.

“Hot,” he said.

I dutifully followed him to the bathroom where he showed me how to operate the faucet then left. The hot water felt wonderful. I dabbed at my face, neck, and did the best I could without soap, washcloth or towel, and the pail was still 3/4 full when I finished. But fresh guilt assaulted me.

“I don’t want your wife and baby sleeping outside when I have a warm room. That’s not okay.”

“Ya, later they sleep inside.”

“With me?”

“Ya, later.”



Somewhat mollified I kicked off my sandals at the door and went in. The bed seemed wide enough to sleep crosswise so I stretched out at the foot leaving plenty of room for Komang and the baby. Remembering a previous experience with nocturnal visitors, I left the light on hoping to discourage unwanted guests.

At 5 am I awoke to barking dogs and cock-a-doodle-doing roosters, alone. Still fully clothed, I ran a comb through my hair, pulled on a sweater, and poked my nose outside. A row of mummies, sausaged into a variety of blankets, stirred ever so slightly. Ketut’s head popped out. My glare was answered with his happy grin that spoke, I won! louder than words.


Day Two: March up the mountain

Hafiz had it right

I was searching for words this morning. I am a writer, I told myself. There are words for this. Then I asked myself, What is the ‘this’ I am trying to describe? From somewhere subconscious I recalled a poem. I did not remember the author or even the words, but I thought perhaps Rumi, or Hafiz. It took only a few moments of communing with Google to find it. Ahhh. Hafiz. Here is the poem:

I Have Learned So Much




So much from God

That I can no longer



A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,

a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself

With me

That I can no longer call myself

A man, a woman, an angel,

Or even a pure


Love has

Befriended Hafiz so completely

It has turned to ash

And freed


Of every concept and image

my mind has ever known.

From: ‘The Gift’
Translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Isn’t it beautiful that love is the friend that freed Hafiz from every concept and image his mind had ever known? As I sat with that thought it became clear that love is the only thing that will ever free us. To love others is to accept them in all the ways they are different freeing ourselves from judgement. To love the earth is to protect and care for her freeing ourselves from the consequences of her demise. To love oneself is the ultimate freedom for out of that love comes the capacity for all other love.

The past few days my journey has been inward. The name of this village is Ubud. It means medicine. The essence of Ubud is fundamentally healing to the body, the mind, and the spirit. I have asked myself, why is this so? Is it about the thousands of offerings made daily? The scent of incense ever-present in the air? The constant rituals and ceremonies performed specifically to maintain balance in the spiritual realm? Every day hundreds of tourists parade the streets of Ubud. Every day another rice paddy is drained to make way for a new resort or villa funded by money from the West. But inside the walled compounds of Balinese family homes, life goes on as it has for two thousand years. These people have a way of accepting the new, adjusting to accommodate change, but remaining virtually unchanged themselves. They do this with a self-possessed dignity that defies explanation.

I don’t know the answer to my question. All my life I have believed that everywhere was basically the same as everywhere else. I have traveled and visited amazing countries. I have seen works of art and architecture that left me breathless. I have met wonderful people who genuinely cared for me.  Yet nowhere else has a place whispered to my heart entreating me to stay, to learn, to just be.

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