Am I woman?

Scrubbed and polished sky shone brightly overhead as Dan navigated the twisty coastal road into the City. “It’s carmageddon,” he said, and I translated it karma-geddon thinking my own private thoughts. I was unaware that the term referred to actual cars. Unaware, as well, that this weekend marked the grand finale of Fleet Week in San Francisco, that traffic would be snarly, that people would be out in droves.

Our destination: the Legion of Honor Museum.

I hadn’t Googled it, so when we pulled up to a structure resembling a Roman temple on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, I was surprised.  I’d assumed something more on the order of Frank Gehry architecture; edgy contemporary, in-your-face innovation.

Instead, the structure bore witness to what I’ve been taught to consider the ultimate in cultural refinement – the Roman era – art, poetry, literature, scientific breakthroughs, palatial homes with sumptuous furnishings. Power and privilege.

Perhaps I was off balance from the get-go. Perhaps two years of pandemic lockdown in Bali, isolated, uncertain of everything, stripped me of social resilience. There were people. Everywhere. And that was before we even entered the building.

Had I done my research I’d have been better prepared.

I’d have known that the brilliant work of a female artist, Wangechi Mutu, was being featured. But I didn’t know, and I wasn’t prepared.

The following quote appears on the Museum’s website and describes Mutu’s art:

Over the past two decades, Wangechi Mutu has created chimerical constellations of powerful female characters, hybrid beings, and fantastical landscapes. With a rare understanding of the power and need for new mythologies—the productive friction of opposites beyond simple binaries and stereotypes—Mutu breaches common distinctions among human, animal, plant, and machine. At once seductive and threatening, her figures and environments take the viewer on journeys of material, psychological, and sociopolitical transformation. 

Her bold interpretation of femininity, unrestrained, superimposed on a backdrop of paintings by male artists depicting women as we’ve been taught to be seen, assaulted my nervous system. Wild emotions churned through me and I could only identify one of them as I navigated the exhibits: anger. What was it that made me furious?

I’m not someone who processes quickly. I tend to go first into a state of overwhelm where I can’t think, can’t verbalize, I just absorb information. Then piece by piece, over hours and days, I bring it out and sift through the layers.

It slowly seeped into my consciousness that I was angry at myself for living small for so many years…

for buying into the lie that men hold all the cards and women’s role is subservient…

for judging my value based on how I was valued by the men in my life.

I was angry that Mutu was the ONLY female artist represented in that vast collection of paintings. And yet, perhaps that was intentional, the productive friction of opposites…

I was f***ing furious that the standards of beauty – sensuality – sexuality – purity – allure, all of it, all of what I was supposed to be, has always been dictated by men. F***ing furious.        

And there was Mutu’s art. Mutu’s depiction of the feminine going beyond simple binaries and stereotypes.

Feminine images, sleek, gritty, organic, metallic. Alien. Alien. We have alienated ourselves from our true selves by allowing patriarchy to define us.

I’d identified another emotion. Grief.

Remembering 9/11 twenty years later – An excerpt from my memoir

There have been countless memorable days in my life and I tend to focus on the happy ones. But the circumstances around September 11, 2001 cannot be forgotten. This morning I felt compelled to open my memoir and revisit the chapters that summed up that experience.

I’ve decided to share them with you. The names of my daughters have not been changed – all others have.

Chapter 55

The contractor came highly recommended. Rusty stuttered a little. One of his fingers was a nub at mid-joint. Day or two old stubble, fine and sandy-colored, poked from his cheeks, and he avoided eye contact. A plaid flannel shirt, pilled and faded with one corner of the pocket ripped loose, flapped open over a thread-thin tee. Pleased I wouldn’t have another chatty business partner, I welcomed his quirkiness. Innate goodness shone about him like an aura and my gut said I could trust him. 

Work progressed at snail’s pace but Rusty delivered with a precision worthy of any obsessive-compulsive perfectionist. Every week he brought receipts and a bill for his time. I paid with an eagerness that surprised me.

Summer passed with the lingering smell of sawdust and turpentine ever-present in the house.

Joy, my fashionista, had been packing for weeks. Outfits went into the suitcase and came out a day later, replaced by other outfits. She would be in a dorm on the FIT campus in the heart of Manhattan, the Fashion Institute of Technology, her dream.

I flew with her to New York. It was the second time in that city for both of us, and we planned to decipher the subway system, get her settled with her roommates, and say goodbye.

All was accomplished in three short days. I was due to catch a cab for the airport the next morning and Joy would walk a couple of blocks from our hotel to the campus to begin her new life. A blanket of grief wrapped around me. We crawled into the room’s one bed and I couldn’t stop the great salt streams drooling from my eyes.

“I’m sorry I’m crying, honey. I’m really so happy for you!” I blubbered as we hugged each other and rocked back and forth. “You’ve always wanted this.” Joy had tears too, but I knew they were only in response to my distress.

“Oh, Mommy,” Joy hummed in her kitten purr. “You’ll be fine. Jenny’s still at home with you and I’ll call every day, I promise.”  I burrowed my head into the pillow and tried to sleep, but there was none of that as night dragged into morning.

Both early risers, we were up at five. Spent and tearless, I gathered my scattered belongings for the flight home. The aroma from a coffee shop next to the hotel lured us and we grabbed one last cup together. The crush and din, even at this early hour, dirty fog, and a city crowded with too much humanity overwhelmed me. But the feverish excitement that radiated from Joy left no mistake. New York was right for her. I had to let go.

It was time. We summoned a cab and I wrapped my spunky angel in a final, mighty hug. “Call when you get home,” Joy said. I nodded, mute, through a fresh onslaught of tears, and ducked into the back seat of a cab. As the taxi pulled away, Joy’s face grew tiny, then evaporated in the teeming throng.

Chapter 56

True to her promise, Joy did call every day. It was Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001. She’d been in New York for two weeks. As I drove Jenny to school on my way to work, an announcement interrupted the song on her favorite radio station. An aircraft had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. My first thought was that an air traffic controller had made a terrible miscalculation. As we waited for more information the sounds coming from the radio escalated into mass hysteria. The announcer gasped. There was another plane. The second tower had been hit.

At the school entrance I jerked to a stop. Jenny and I stared at each other, horrified, as the radio continued to blast chaos.

“Call Joy,” Jenny’s voice squeaked, thready and tight. I punched speed dial and held my breath: Your call cannot be completed as dialed. I tried again, then abandoned the speed key and entered Joy’s number by hand.

“It’s not going through.” I tried to keep the fear out of my voice. “I’ll keep trying. Are you okay to go to school?”

“I think so.”

“If you need me to pick you up early, just call, okay?”

“Okay, Mom. Do you think Joy’s all right?”

I summoned a confidence I didn’t feel. “The campus is at least a mile from the towers. I’m sure she’s fine.” I desperately wanted to believe it, but my hands shook as I pulled away from the curb and tried the phone again. Why wouldn’t the call go through? The radio spewed frenzied madness as my mind created nightmare scenes in the city I’d visited less than two weeks before. When my phone beeped, I jumped, praying it was Joy.

“Sherry, where are you? Did you hear?” Hope sank. It was the voice of my business partner.

“Mae! Yes! I’m trying to call Joy.”

“I’m watching the news. Communications in New York are down. You probably won’t be able to get through.”

“Oh no!” The panic I’d been fighting to control edged in.

“I brought the portable TV. It’s hooked up here in the office.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

All morning we sat in darkness glued to the impossibility of the tragedy in New York, window shades pulled against the sun’s glare. The flicker of the screen stuttered on our faces as devastation played over and over again. I kept punching the #3 key, desperate to hear Joy’s voice.

Weeks ago I’d scheduled an appointment with a new client for two o’clock on September eleventh. The woman hadn’t called to cancel. It was in an old-money neighborhood minutes away. The TV droned on. The two explosions at the World Trade Center were followed by a plane that plowed into the Pentagon, and a fourth that crashed in Pennsylvania. The country was paralyzed. Where would terror strike next? President Bush issued an order that all aircraft were grounded. No one was to take off or land on U.S. soil.

At 1:30 I grabbed my briefcase and left the misery of the news behind long enough to walk to the car and turn on the radio. I approached the client’s address, parked, got out, and hit #3 one more time. Joy answered. My knees buckled. I grabbed the door and sagged against the side of the car.

“Joy! Oh my God, Joy!” The slam of relief was almost too much to bear.

“I’m in line waiting to give blood. I’m okay, but it’s awful Mom. You can’t imagine.” I leaned against the cold metal, tears of relief streaming, and listened. Crisp leaves from ancient oaks swirled in the wind that eddied around my feet. Joy sounded strong but would it last? How long before the trauma sank in? She said she’d felt the vibrations from the crashes in her dorm. Her eighteenth birthday was two weeks away. Can a seventeen-year-old legally give blood? The thought flitted and was lost.

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m okay,” she reassured me again. “I’ll call you tonight.” The phone went dead. In front of me, the house with Corinthian porch columns waited. Joy was okay. My happy-go-lucky, sun’s-always-shining daughter was okay. I wanted to bask in the huge blessing of that forever. Instead, forcing one foot in front of the other, I climbed the steps to the massive double front door. A woman about my age, pixie-like with cropped Mia Farrow hair, invited me in. I could hear the drone of a TV in the background.

“Have you heard?” the woman asked.

“I was just on the phone with my daughter in Manhattan.”

“Our son works at the Pentagon in the wing that was hit. He had a meeting out of the office this morning…” She stopped, clutched her throat and reached for my hand. Minutes ticked past, measured by the beats of two mothers’ hearts fused in gratitude and grief.

“He’s okay then?” 

“Yes.” She whispered it so low I almost didn’t hear. We sat together that afternoon drinking tea and sharing stories of our children, the design proposal forgotten. When it was time to pick up Jenny from school, I asked my new friend if she wanted to reschedule.

“You know,” she said, her brow forming V-shaped ripples that met above her nose, “it doesn’t matter now.”

“Doesn’t matter?”

“The changes I thought were so necessary. Hundreds of people are dead but my son was spared.”

“I understand.” The knot in my throat tightened and tears threatened again. “I’m glad your son is okay.”

“And your daughter.”

 We hugged as she let me out. I crossed the street to the car, turned the switch for the radio off, and started the engine.

Joy called that night, still brave, but the next day, shock hit. “I need to come home Mom, just for a few days. It’s crazy here! There are bomb threats at the Armory just a few blocks from the dorm. We had to evacuate our rooms three times last night.”

“Oh, no! Okay, honey, but airports are closed.”

“I don’t care. I’ll take the train, or a bus.”

“Let me check Amtrak, I’ll call you back.”

“I’m packed. I’m going to start walking to the bus station at Port Authority.”

“Joy, wait. It’ll only take a minute…”

“No, Mom! I can’t! I’ll hitchhike if I have to, but I need to get out of here.”

“Don’t hitchhike!”

“You don’t understand…”

“No, no, I don’t, but…”

“Okay, call me. I’m heading out now.” The phone went dead. I rifled through the phonebook for Amtrak’s number. Their terminals were closed. Greyhound was running but I was told the Port Authority in New York might not be open. Nobody seemed to know. I called Joy.

“There are no trains and Port Authority might be closed.”

“No, it’s open. I’m in line right now. I’ll stay here all night if I have – hang on Mom!”

“What? Joy?” Again, silence. Frantic, I punched her number. No answer. Again. No answer. I wore out the button and still no answer.

There was no comfort this time. I’d heard the alarm in her voice. Something had happened right where she was. Sick with dread I turned on the news as I tried to reach her. But there was no mention of Port Authority, only macabre reruns of crashing planes and people jumping to their death from burning towers. An hour later my phone rang.

“Mom, I’m on the bus!”

 I burst into sobs.

 “I’m sorry, Mom. There was a bomb threat at Port Authority. Everyone ran. The lines got scrambled. When they let us back in, I was in front. Remember Mr. Grolick from our old neighborhood? He’s my seatmate. I’ll be home in twenty-one hours.”

Twenty-one hours later I waited at the Greyhound bus depot. One after another, the silver monsters groaned to a stop in their numbered stalls and leaked their human contents. Travel-weary sojourners staggered bleary-eyed to collect their luggage from the bowels of the beasts. I was glued to stall number seventeen. Within minutes of the scheduled time, hissing brakes brought the bus from New York to a shuddering stop. Before the door opened, a current of emotion ripped through me. The trauma of the past few days hit full on, constricting my chest. Joy was the third one off the bus. She spread her arms and ran. “Mama!” Her body slammed into mine.

“My baby, my baby, my baby…” was all I could manage through my sobs.

“Mama. Mommy…”

Joy stayed for a week. We celebrated her eighteenth birthday. Then she flew back to an uncertain future amidst the char and rubble and the lingering stench of smoke.

We all have memories of that time. Lives were lost. Images of horror burned into our retinae that will never be erased – not in twenty years, not ever. My child was spared. My client’s son was spared and today I’m feeling immense gratitude for that.

That Miserably-Addictive Chemical-Laden Seductive Killer

I awoke feeling virtuous.

Yesterday I walked the Campuhan Ridge at midday, a sweaty mile of uphill exertion and epic beauty. It was a solitary endeavor – a chance to collect my thoughts, commune with nature, and see if my post-lockdown body could still do it.

There were changes. In places the jungle encroached, overhanging the path with a dark quiet that spoke of slithery things hiding in its depths. A giant swing that had once enticed Instagram photos was gone and with it the man selling beverages and snacks. But most noteworthy was the absence of hikers. I passed a tall blond woman, and later two Indonesian women, the only humans besides me on the trail at eleven-thirty that morning.

Cloudless skies overhead, full equatorial sunshine, and a steady incline ensured an intense aerobic workout. The reward at the end of the climb kept me going. Karsa Kafe – the second floor seating overlooking swathes of green paddies – a haven of repose.

I arrived and settled in. The ever-present breeze licked away perspiration. Far in the distance, hazy purple mountains stood sentinel, their peaks ringed with clouds. All was as it should be – all except the emptiness. I was it, the sole patron of those glorious surroundings.

For two-and-a-half hours I drank in the peace – and the beer – undisturbed. A giant plate of crisp, sweet-potato fries fortified me while I let the frustrations and stresses of an unknown future slide off into the fields.

When my phone rang, I answered it. There was no one to disturb. Jessa, my oldest, was calling to congratulate me on getting vaccinated, the first long-awaited jab.

“When will you get your second dose, Mom?”

“It’s scheduled for August 20th.”

“Three months? That means you’ll come in September?”

It felt odd to make a plan after ages of uncertainty. Dare I hope? Could I be reunited with children and grandchildren as early as September? It felt surreal, intoxicating yet suspicious, like a gold-wrapped gift had been placed in front of me but would be snatched away the moment I reached for it. And yet, my optimistic nature overruled and I strategized whole-heartedly with her, stuffing doubt into a cramped corner with fear and worry.

High on hope, cooled and refreshed, I trotted the downhill path back home.

That’s why this morning I awoke feeling virtuous – all that great exercise – I deserved a treat. And what could be more delicious to kick-start the day than a steaming cup of 3-in-1 Nescafe?

I don’t drink coffee anymore. It wreaks havoc with my nervous system and my sleep. I weaned myself off by substituting ginger tea. I blend raw ginger root with a little water, squish it through a strainer, and store it in the refrigerator. One tablespoon of concentrated raw ginger juice mixed with steaming hot water lights my mouth on fire and curbs the craving for anything else.

Except Nescafe.

So I limit my intake of that miserably-addictive, chemical-laden killer to special occasions.

Like this morning.

I savored the aroma, salivated, nested the hot cup in my hands and sipped.

Bliss!

When the refined white sugar, glucose syrup, hardened palm oil, caramelized sugar, maltodextrin, mystery stabilizers, milk proteins, salt, emulsifier, instant coffee, and natural and artificial flavorings kicked in, which took all of about three minutes, a sense of magnanimous well-being settled over me. Anything seemed possible – even a trip to the States in September. Especially a trip to the States in September.

Five minutes later, the many forms of sugar I’d just ingested slammed my bloodstream with a megablast of energy. Luck was with me. Multiple pieces of furniture in various stages of refinishing waited on the terrace.

Ketut did the bulk of the work but he’d gone home for a few days. Within seconds I was armed with 1000 grit sandpaper, vigorously skimming the varnished surfaces until they shimmered silken-smooth to the touch.

Moving my body eased the hyped-up edginess.

But I know this story.

The rest of the day I’ll be aware of the low buzz. My limbs will tingle – not altogether pleasantly. And if I allow it, low-level anxiety will haunt me. By bedtime I’ll be tired but chances are I’ll sleep fitfully, if at all.

Is it worth it, that seductive killer cup?

Once every month or two?

You’d better believe it is!

Your Rags, My Riches – Fashion Photo Shoot

What do you do when you’re bored out of your gourd?

Take a walk? That’s noble. Healthy, too. In the old, pre-pandemic days maybe you shopped. So did I. But I learned early on that my dollar stretched exponentially farther if I spent it at second-hand stores like Goodwill, Salvation Army, or here in Ubud, the Smile Shop.

For the uninitiated, the Smile Shop is a non-profit organization that partners with medical teams to surgically correct craniofacial abnormalities for children in Indonesia. The store overflows with a cornucopia of merchandise from books, to games, jewelry, shoes, household goods, and cast-off clothing donated by visitors from all over the world. I go for the thrill of discovery, never knowing what I’ll find.

After a few soggy days, the walls were closing in. I needed a destination, something sufficiently motivating to warrant the effort of dragging my body out of the house. I’ll walk til I drop if I’m meeting someone for lunch. I had no lunch date yesterday.

Wait a minute…what about…?

The Smile Shop was open, a three-mile round-trip. I grabbed a bottle of water and slipped into my flip-flops salivating at the challenge of the hunt.

I’ve been shopping for clothing this way since I was in my teens and I’m a pro. The mish-mash is overwhelming to some. For me it’s like writing a poem – I just have to find the words that rhyme. Yesterday I was looking for cool and shapeless. In the current sticky-hot climate I don’t want form-fitting. The less intimately my garments connect with my body the better.

Within moments of arriving I had two items slung over my arm. Then a sweet vest with a crocheted back jumped out at me. I didn’t notice the label until I got it home – Guess – a popular brand in the U.S. I took a few minutes to browse paperbacks and saw a number of favorite authors but I was walking and books are heavy.

Another time.

Back home, sweaty and happy, I ran the sink full of sudsy water, scrubbed my new finds, and hung them in the breeze to dry. I was eager to try them on, but – well – unlike clothing off the racks of the big retailers, these garments come with histories attached. I like to send their old stories down the drain before I reincarnate them to their new life.

My sister and I have exchanged emails every single day for over a year. The first few months of Covid, there were many times when her newsy note was all I had to look forward to. I snapped photos of my still-wet garments, attached them with an overview of the day, hit send, and figured I’d done due diligence.

But not so.

The little minx wrote back demanding pictures of the clothes with me in them. If this post seems like the ultimate in narcissism, blame my sister! She made me do it!

My first find, this long, asymmetrical tee-shirt thing, has peek-a-boo shoulders and just hangs. It ticks all the boxes. I love it!

You can take the girl out of the Sixties but you can’t take the Sixties out of the girl. What is it with tye-dye? People seem to either love it or hate it. I can’t leave it alone. It speaks to me and this one was channeling Lesley Gore, “I’ll bring you Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows…Choose me! Choose me!”

Another thing I can’t seem to resist is lace. And black lace is the epitome of sexy drama. No! I DO NOT buy pre-worn underwear!!!! Let’s just be clear about that! Ewwwww! Sorry…

I’m still working with the vest. Black on white was a spur-of-the-moment no-brainer and it’s okay, but I can do better. That’s the other bit of fun – mix-and-match – see what creative combos emerge.

Thrift shopping has ruined me for anything else. I cannot abide orderly presentations by size and department in ‘normal’ stores. Where’s the sense of adventure? Where’s the mystery? Why would you spend $500 on a designer item making some corporate gazillionaire richer when you could spend $5 and help a child smile?

That’s another thing. Brand-driven capitalism. Don’t get me started. But here’s where I’m a shameless hypocrite: I like to LOOK like I’ve spent $500.

I’m a Capricorn – the epitome of disciplined self-control…!

What high expectations I had for the regular Friday afternoon meetup with my neighbor. Our weekly chats run the gamut from current Visa regulations here in Indonesia, to quirky relatives, to where to buy the best bunkus in Ubud. If you aren’t familiar with bunkus, they’re cone-shaped packages of rice with various toppings: vegetables, chicken or pork, spicy noodles, egg, with a few mystery ingredients thrown in that you’re better off not questioning.

Besides stimulating conversation, I usually furnish beer or wine and something crunchy to munch on. Today it was Thai peanuts with lime leaf, carrot hummus, and krupuk – special crackers from the granny down the road who sells them in her tiny shop.

This time though, instead of Bintang beer, or Anggur Merah, the 14.7% alcohol Bali wine, I had a real surprise for my friend. Pu Tao Chee Chiew. I found it on a recent excusion to Grand Lucky, a grocery store that stocks things not available anywhere else in Bali. The name sounded like an exotic Chinese elixir and when I read the label and saw 37.15% alcohol I grabbed two bottles.

I feel the need to add a disclaimer here. Perhaps I’ve mentioned alcohol in too many posts lately because I had a very discreet email from a reader who wondered if I’d become a bit too dependent. I felt like saying, I’m a Capricorn, the epitome of disciplined self-control. There’s no way… but I didn’t. I decided to write this blog instead because I know she’ll read it and have a good laugh.

Here’s a snapshot of my life.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – wake up. Journal. Do yoga. Meditate. Eat breakfast. Write. Take a nap. Read. Eat dinner. Answer emails. Shower. Go to bed. No alcohol.

Every Friday – wake up. Journal. Do yoga. Meditate. Eat breakfast. Write. Take a nap. Prepare snacks and some fun alcoholic beverage for the four-hour chat with my neighbor.

So…about my neighbor…

This woman is one of the busiest people I know. She works two online jobs, cooks for her husband and daughters ages 5 and 13, tutors a Balinese child in English, helps with homework assignments, writes middle grade fiction, and I’m sure I don’t know the half of it. How she carves out time every week to entertain me is one of life’s greatest mysteries. Of course, I do ply her with alocohol…

Speaking of intoxicating beverages, I introduced us to Orang Tua – translated Old People – a wine with a nasty flavor reminiscent of the hot grog we had at Christmastime in the Midwest. I’ve served Brem – a thick-ish, cloudy rice wine, and Anggur Merah, a decent red grape wine made in Indonesia. But when I told her about my latest find she was as intrigued as I was.

She arrived and settled into her usual spot just as the afternoon rain started. I popped the cap and poured sparkling amber liquid into two glasses.

“Mmmm. Bubbly. It looks like beer,” she said.

We toasted then took that first tingling swig. “Oooo, sweet.” She licked her lips with only a slight grimmace. “Like dessert wine.”

“Or communion wine,” I added. “Or like drinking perfume.” A cloying floral bouquet lingered on my tongue.

There wasn’t much else to say about it, so we turned to the snacks and commenced our animated give and take filling each other in on the events of the week, which, if you recall what my Saturdays through Thursdays always look like, could put a caffiene junkie to sleep. But her lively stories more than make up for my yawn-worthy tales. Most importantly, we laugh a lot.

Around about the third hour of chatter, my guest frowned. “How much alcohol did you say was in this stuff? Thrity-something percent?”

“37.15 %. Why?”

“Well, I must have built up a heckuva tolerance because I don’t feel a thing.”

I took a minute to assess my own buzz but found none. “Now that you mention it, neither do I. How can that be?”

She reached for the empty bottle. “This is it, right? Let’s have a look.” Still frowning she sqinted at the small print,then exploded into laughter. “Guess what?”

I shook my head. “No idea.”

“This says fermented green grapes 37.15%. But up here at the top – see?” She twisted it so the label stared me in the face and pointed.

There it was, the sad truth if I’d taken time to actually read what it said. Mengandung Alkohol 5%.

“What?” I shrieked. “Five percent? That’s less than Bali beer. And I have another bottle of this worthless (expletive deleted) in the fridge?”

My feeling of betrayal was short-lived. We laughed until our sides ached.

So please, for anyone out there who might have wondered…I thoroughly enjoy my two glasses of wine once a week. But if my neighbor can’t make it for some reason, Friday joins the rest of the non-alcoholic days. I find no pleasure imbibing in solitary. And as for that extra bottle of Pu Tao Chee Chiew…it’ll make a great gift.

Bali Treats, Bali Terrors, and Weight-Loss Wisdom

It started out innocently enough – a little rain, smatters of lightning, distant rumbles. I paid no attention. It’s rainy season in Bali and this is an exceptionally wet month. Showers come every afternoon. I can almost set the clock by their appearance.

I was distracted by my evening session with favorite night show hosts. But when the noise of the rain and thunder drowned out the sound of my entertainment, I began to pay attention. The storm had intensified.

A blinding flash and simultaneous cannon-blast boom jolted me upright. Ketut came flying around the corner of the terrace. “Unplug your electric. Turn off the fan and the lights and stay in your room,” he hollered. I did as I was told. Jagged streaks and thunderous detonations pumped adrenalin like too much caffeine through my body and I suddenly craved – more.

Thunder, by Imagine Dragons. I wanted to pitch its alien images and sound-power against the wild night.

I found the song, cranked up my external speaker to highest volume and let-‘er-rip.

My house was dark except for the computer screen. Rain in angry torrents pummeled the roof. There was flashing, crashing, and Dan Reynolds belting out, “Thunder, feel the thunder, lightning and the thunder, thunder…” The volume, the raging forces of nature and sound and suddenly my energy shifted from fascination to ecstatic terror.

Ecstatic terror. Those two words shouldn’t be used together, but that’s the only way I can describe the sensations – as though dark entities had been summoned by the music and were prepared to carry me away with them. Part of me wanted to go. The other part turned on the lights.


That was last night.

This morning dawned clear and clean-scrubbed. Ketut and I jumped on the bike and headed south to Kuta. I’d scheduled a carcinoma skin checkup, my first ever. The weather promised a pleasant ride.

Grand Lucky, rumored to be the source of groceries that appeal to the Western palette, was a few blocks from the clinic. Kill two birds. I’d gotten hooked on Kelloggs All-Bran in Italy and had been on the lookout for it in Bali ever since. Maybe, just maybe Grand Lucky would have it.

With a little help from Google maps Ketut drove right to it. The parking lot was packed. An attendant took our temperatures and motioned to the hand sanitizer pump. Wafting through open doors, the fragrance of yeasty-sweet bakery drew us in.

We entered and I went into immediate overwhelm. People. People. Everywhere. And cheese. An oval-shaped island of world-wide cheeses stretched in front of us and acres of fruits and vegetables flanked it.

I’m not sure how long I stood motionless, staring, trying to assimilate the frenetic vibrations of so many real live bodies. Ketut went in search of a shopping basket.

By the time he returned I was reduced to a basic primal urge: Hunt it, kill it, and drag it home. I had no desire to linger. Where was the cereal aisle?

After a few minutes of aimless wandering, we turned the right corner. Kelloggs’ products lined the shelves, Cornflakes, Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Pops, Fruit Loops, Rice Krispies, Special K… Words and colors blended and smeared as I ran my eyes over the rows searching, searching. My hopes were sinking when – yes! There it was!

Not only did Grand Lucky have All-Bran, it had the biggest box of that cereal I’d ever seen. And the biggest price – 182.000 rph ($13 US Dollars). I didn’t bat an eyelash. Hunt, kill, go home.


So that explains the Bali Terrors and Treats of my title, but what about weight loss?

This past year I’ve added more stress, less exercise, and – I can’t deny it – a bit more alcohol to my life. Even though I’ve hidden the bathroom scale in a dark place, denied its existence, cursed it when it lies, my bra cups blab the truth. That’s where the extra pounds show up first. Don’t ask me why.

I’ve more-or-less dealt with stress, and compromised on exercise. But getting around the calorie content of alcoholic drinks is tricky. I prefer the buzz of two glasses of wine, a couple of mojitos, a large rather than a small Bintang beer. The buzz. Isn’t that the goal, the mildly fuzzy state Dr. Seuss must have been in to write nonsensical classics like Green Eggs and Ham or any of the other sixty-plus children’s books he churned out over the course of his career?

The question, then, is how to consume less calories but get the Dr. Seuss effect.

Weight-loss wisdom is really a case of simple mathematics: seek out drinks with higher alcohol content. I can drink less, buzz more, and minimize caloric intake.

Imagine my delight today when I stumbled upon a brand of sparkling wine I’d never seen before. My go-to most recently has been Anggur Merah, a sweet red with a fairly adequate 14.7% alcohol content. When I studied the label of Pu Tao Chee Chiew, I had to rub my eyes and squint. Yup, I’d read it right. 37.15%. A thimble full would get me to my happy place.

Now I need some brave soul willing to try this with me. It’s no fun to drink alone.

Instead, tonight while laughing with Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, and the Jimmys, Kimmel and Fallon, I indulged in a bowl of red bananas, dragonfruit, and Kelloggs’ All-Bran cereal. Not quite the same as Dr. Seuss, but there was enough fiber in that bowl to move mountains – another key to weight-loss!

Is this what normal feels like?

I awoke with the stangest feeling today. What was different? I could breathe. My jaw was unclenched. My skin wasn’t burning. The twisted circuits in my brain that had been trying to wrap themselves around chaos, lies and deception for four years were melting down and dribbling out my eyes. A wave of joyous relief swept over me. Is this what normal feels like?

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Could my gratitude for their willingness to step into the wreckage that is our un-United States be any greater? I don’t think so. It overwhelms me, gives me more hope than I’ve had for a very long time. Makes me cry.

In his first day as President, Joe Biden reversed ruinous mandates of the past administration in a grand swoop of legislation. With each stroke of his pen my heart soared. Thank you, it said. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I know we still have a raging pandemic that is gathering speed as it tears a swath of death across the world. But now the United States has leaders who care, who are willing to act, who are already doing what it is in their power to do to staunch the viral hemorrhage.

In my gut I feel we were perilously close to losing what I had taken for granted my entire adult life.

Under the sham of governance for the past four years, our allies no longer trusted us – those who had come to our aid time after time when we needed them most were treated shabbily. The courageous people who committed their lives to protect our country were disrespected in the basest ways. Racism at its ugliest ruled. Living in Indonesia I didn’t want to admit I was an American. I felt ashamed of my great country, ashamed and dirty.

It is a shock to the system to realize how quickly black becomes white, how readily we numb to unacceptable behavior, how willingly we turn blind eyes to atrocious wrongs against humanity and how almost half the U.S. voting population was ready to continue that devastation for another four years. There is a hideous cancer at the core of our country that fed on the steady diet of excrement being doled out from the top.

That food chain has been sliced off.

I don’t know of anyone else who has the experience, knowledge, integrity, faith, and compassion to work the miracles needed at this time. President Biden is our man of the hour and Vice President Harris is his right hand. It’s a Herculean task before them but I believe they were born for this, a calling if you will, their karmic purpose.

That feeling I couldn’t recognize this morning – I’ve named it now. Relief. Huge, nomalizing relief. And gratitude. They’re mixed together in a healing soup called HOPE. That’s what’s on the menu for our country and there’s plenty for all.

Eat hearty.

Mind Control to Major Tom – No, wait…

I was certain that was the opening line to David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

It was 5 a.m. in Bali. Roosters crowed. Shadowy edges of sleep retreated. I reached for my phone and typed in those words, mind control to major tom. They’d registered so clearly as I hung in pre-consciousness. I wanted the lyrics – find out what message the Universe had sent through my dreams. I found it – whoops! Not Mind Control – Ground Control. Hmm, Freudian slip?

I read through the verses. The last one said it all:

Here am I floating round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

Don’t listen to it unless you’re in a super cheery state of mind. It’s dark.

I could immediately relate. That sense of floating through the days, losing track of weeks, months. Planet Earth is indeed blue if you define blue as sadness. But is there really nothing I can do? Isn’t there always choice? Somewhere? I’ve built my life on the belief that there is, that I have sovereignty over my thoughts, that my thoughts dictate my reality.

So if my reality sucks, I’m the one to blame for not exercising mind control because, as realities go, I’m still living a golden life. It’s just different, very different from what it was before.

Once fully awake I felt the shift in energy. My gut told me this was a big deal, an opportunity to enter into a new agreement with myself. Mind control to Major Tom…get your shit together, human. Today’s the day. You need to jump on this power surge now. You’re being supported by forces beyond yourself to make this change.

After ten months, my morning ritual is sacrosanct. I don’t waiver from it. I don’t skip a day. To some, that may seem obsessive-compulsive but I’ll tell you what. It’s survival at its very basic level and I cling to that routine for dear life.

So I journalled, exploring the morning message with questions and words. Nadda.

Then I went through my yoga routine. Not even a whispered clue.

My last hope was meditation. I lit incense, put on my earth and sky mala beads, sank to the cushion and –

Woah!

I wish, wish wish I had words for what happens in those moments. Sometimes it’s a quiet knowing. Not this time.

It was as though someone shouted at me –

Mental Reset

However, and this may give you some comfort, I don’t hear voices. Instead, the words sailed toward me through the sky in Arial Black typeface and entered my skull with a jolt. My eyes flew open. In that instant, the landscape transformed from overcast to radiant.

Do you remember being in love? Or better yet, being loved? My insides felt like that. Happy. Hopeful.

Everything is the same, yet everthing’s different and I’m still sorting it out. There’s a tickle that feels like maybe, just maybe I want to start writing again. (Blogs don’t count.) I no longer feel panicky about the future and I’ve lost the compulsion to try to plan for it. What an exercise in futility that is! I still miss family. I still see transition in my future. But my present is here, now, and it’s populated by precious relationships and equatorial green.

My gratitude bucket is bursting it’s seams.

Normally I’d pull this phenomenon apart piece by piece, looking at all the angles, wondering what I should DO with a new perspective, a mental reset. I process. It’s who I am.

But that’s the most amazing part. It’s done. All I had to DO was sit on the cushion. The rest was a direct download from the Universe. Zap! And my new operating system was installed and running.

I want to encourage you if you don’t already meditate, start now. It’s not just for ‘those yoga types’. It’s the doorway to accessing your intuition – the things you know that you don’t know that you know – the most powerful tool the mind has to offer. Everyone has it but few take time to develop it.

Alan Alda said it well:

“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.”

I’d love to hear your experiences with meditation. It’s a practice that is unique to every individual.

‘Go Outside and Play’ – My Conflicted Relationship with Fun

The message I got growing up was that play was something you were told to do when an adult wanted you out of the way, out of sight, out of the house. You were no longer useful, your chores were finished, now you were a bother so, “Go outside and play.”

Was that part of your childhood? Do you remember the tone of voice that delivered that command? It had a sharp, brittle edge. I knew it wasn’t negotiable. I couldn’t counter with, “Could I just watch TV…?”

No.

Mom was clearing her space of ‘kid energy’ and the only acceptable response was her view of my backside going out the door.

As an adult, I’ve tried to define what play means for me. The closest I can get is this: a non-work-related pastime that is supposed to be enjoyed. But I confess, I find more pleasure in work than I do in play. Work is productive, challenging, and it feels like I’ve accomplished something. It moves me toward a goal.

And yet, I know play is important, especially under the current circumstances. Something that releases endorphins, eases the pressure valve, and lets steam escape is essential to both physical and mental health.

Endorphins can make you feel more positive and energize your outlook, and may even help to block sources of pain in your everyday life. They even improve immune response and reduce stress. Through vigorous, active play, then, you can boost your self-esteem and even trigger a euphoric outlook on life, says Darryl Edwards of London.

A euphoric outlook on life…really?

Three things qualify as fun for me:

  • Going out to eat with friends
  • A motorbike adventure
  • Reading

All three involve leaving, either physically or mentally. I wonder if there’s any connection with that childhood demand: Go……..play.

So let’s just be up-front about this and say it like it is: I have a conflicted relationship with play. If someone asks, “What do you do for fun?” I’m tempted to lie. I mean, it sounds so lame. “I go out to eat or…sometimes I take a ride and…of course I read…”

So today I needed a sprinkle of that euphoric outlook because there isn’t a lot of endorphin-releasing activity going on in the world right now.

I read yesterday.

I ate out the day before.

A quick check of the weather app predicted a window of fair skies opening between eleven a.m. and two p.m. On Ketut’s motorbike, we could get to the fishing village of Lebih for a dose of ocean and salt air and be home long before the rain. I already felt more positive and energized.

I corralled Ketut. In no time we were on our way! Click here.

There isn’t a beach at Lebih. The coastline is a tumble of black volcanic rock that reduces the breakers to a frothy foam.

Special offerings and children in temple clothes dotted the coastline. Today is Tilem – the day of the new moon, or dark moon as it is poetically called in Bali.

We strolled the beach. Click here to come along.

It doesn’t take long to see the length and breadth of Lebih and I was getting hungry. “What do you think, Ketut? Shall we eat here or stop at Janggar Ulam on the way home?” I shouldn’t have to ask. Janggar Ulam is his favorite restaurant.

I, too, used to love the place, but not for the same reason. Ketut liked the food. I, on the other hand, was captivated by the vast expanse of rice fields bordering the restaurant. They seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance. The restaurant itself occupied a large portion of real estate. There was elbow room, privacy, and always cool breezes off the paddies.

Then they built the wall.

A developer with a vision for a hotel marked his territory by erecting a cement block barrier between the restaurant and the paddy. The view was ruined, the breeze stifled, the ambiance destroyed.

I’m not sure why I suggested going there today. Actually, I know exactly why I suggested it. I am so grateful to have Ketut in my life. A view doesn’t matter to him, but food does. And he matters to me.

We took a different way back from Lebih. As we passed through Gianyar Ketut shouted, “Penjors!” The new streetlamps look exactly like the elegant totems that appear during Galungan every six months. Gorgeous!

Streetlamp Penjors in Gianyar
Real penjors on Jl. Gautama in Ubud

When we pulled into the parking lot at Janggur Ulam, it held one motorbike. Pre-covid it would have been full. We entered the grounds through a brick archway and I gasped. It had been transformed.

Now the view was centered inward on lotus pools and fish ponds. The wall had been treated with a screen of greenery and Janggar Ulam had added artistic tiles to mask the stern, Eastern bloc look of naked cement. I stared, my jaw gaping, enchanted. Nobody saw my open mouth since I was fully masked. Sometimes it’s a blessing!

Ketut ordered his usual fried chicken and fresh sambal with a mountain of rice. I tried their vegetable stir-fry, hoping for the best. Our meals arrived and mine looked suspiciously like spinach soup. I’m still not impresssed with the food. Ketut was happy.

Then just as we climbed on the motorbike for the last leg of the journey home…

Rain.

I played today. I had fun. For a little while I forgot about corona, sedition, impeachment, Amendment 25, and a United States of America that’s gone off the rails. I can’t say it’s given me a euphoric outlook on life. I remembered all those things as soon as my helmet was off and stowed in the cupboard at home. But for a few hours I was ridiculously happy.

Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you look back (at 2020)

It’s almost in the rearview mirror – this never-to-be-forgotten year. Even though turning over the date on the calendar won’t change reality, there’s something about ditching the double 2-0 that feels hopeful.

I’m not setting out to bash what we’ve gone through the last ten plus months. A microscopic virus has accomplished what monarchs, armies, and governments never could. Overnight it brought life as we knew it to a screeching halt.

I want to acknowledge and honor the significance of all of it. Once. Then it’s face forward utilizing what I’ve learned in preparation for a very different future.

So what were my lessons of 2020?

Number one with fifty exclamation points:

I need people

Boy, oh boy! Do I need people! A deep-seated belief that I’m a loner, perfectly happy to entertain myself for days on end, ended when that became my reality. But it’s not just people. It’s friends who care, who are committed to being there for each other – give-and-receive relationships that spring from the heart and don’t disappear when times get tough. Living alone with neither a partner nor pets, these friendship connections have kept me sane.

Number two could be listed shoulder-to-shoulder with number one, it’s that important:

I need ritual

I have to know there’s something to wake up for, something to occupy the beginning hours of the day. Fortunately, that routine was already in place, it just became longer, and vital. First, I journal with coffee. When I realized coffee was adding nervous energy that exacerbated anxiety I switched to ginger tea. Journaling finished, I do a yoga workout to hypnotizing hang drum music. After that, relaxed and soothed, I sit in meditation. By then I’m starving and ready to mindfully savor every bite of breakfast.

I need to move my body

Yoga’s great, but a walk gets me out of the house and out of my head into the empty sidewalks of Ubud. Sometimes I stop at Circle K even though I don’t really need anything, just to say a few words to another human. Sometimes it’s the library. The disorganized shelves of used books for sale are like hunting for treasure in a sea of trashy romance, but it passes time.

I need sunshine’s vitamin D

Rainy season came and cloudy days along with it. I wasn’t getting out as much and my thoughts grew steadily darker. It dawned on me one bright morning that I no doubt lacked vitamin D, a mood elevator delivered naturally via sunshine. I was out the door in a hot minute. That day I walked four miles and felt almost euphoric. Now I’m more cognizant of the shift toward depression and avail myself of stabilizing sunlight whenever that golden ball appears. It works like magic.

I need purpose

This one’s tricky. From my arrival in Bali in March 2012, until I returned from Italy in March 2020 and found the island in lockdown, my purpose and single-minded focus was writing. I wrote two novels, a memoir, poetry, this blog, and an occasional short story. My entire life centered around writing and writers’ groups. Literally, overnight all desire to write vanished. I’m still trying to figure out why. But whatever motivated me prior to Covid was suddenly as utterly absent as my non-existent sex drive. Months passed and I regularly engaged in other projects, cooking projects, sewing projects, puzzles, and a plastic-bag-flag project. But I’ve found nothing to replace the all-consuming passion I once had for writing.

I need adventure

Perhaps some people get their excitement fix from movies or TV. I’ve never developed the habit. For me, it has to be an embodied experience. Go there, do that! But in my Covid-altered state, I forgot that I could jump on the back of Ketut’s motorbike and take off for favorite haunts or discover new ones. Even a bike tour of the backroads surrounding Ubud is adventure enough to scratch that itch for days. Now that I’ve remembered what pure joy it is to ride, it’s become part of the survival plan.

I need hope

We all need hope – a belief that 2021 will be better. But I’ve let go of the fantasy that there will be a return to what was. After flailing about for the first few months of the pandemic it began to sink in how destructive and broken the old ways were. Some were already obvious. Others have come boldly to the forefront to blatantly challenge history as contrived by and for the privileged few. In spite of the chaos, loss, and irreversible damage, Covid has pushed a massive reset button. For that, I am deeply and truly grateful.

Tomorrow is the 31st here in Bali. Fireworks and parties are banned and I can’t say I’m sorry. On this night in the past, Ubud has sounded like a war zone until three or four a.m. Instead of tossing sleeplessly for hours, tomorrow, in the silence, I’ll pay my respects to 2020 for the things it’s taught me. Then I’ll burn the calendar – a letting-go ritual signifying endings. I’ll bring out the fresh, new one with the number prominently displayed at the top. 2021. I’ll crank up the music to that iconic song from the Broadway play, Hair, This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Age of Aquarius…

and I’ll dance.

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