Jealous Lovers — Too Much of a Good Thing

There’s a happy place between not enough and too much that yields peace. It applies to just about everything in life. Like the story of The Three Bears – the chair can be neither too big nor too small, the porridge neither too hot nor too cold, the bed neither too hard nor too soft. For ultimate satisfaction, everything should be just right.

When we strike that balance it’s like catching the jetstream. Moving forward is effortless. Doors open. The way is clear. We know where we’re going and how to get there. There’s time for family and friends, for satisfying work, for self-nurture.

That pretty much describes my life for the past seven years. There were times I was pulled a fraction off-center but when that happened the discomfort was acute and I’d hastily course-correct.

Then an extraordinary event took place.

Nervous unsettledness had plagued me for several weeks. On the day of my birthday in January, I pricked a pinhole in a piece of paper and squinted at the moon passing in front of the sun. That Capricorn solar eclipse delivered an unprecedented explosion of energy. I was slammed with possibility, power-packed potential that rocked my foundations.

In the days and weeks that followed a geyser of ideas spewed forth and I implemented all of them. I queried fifty-five agents hoping to get representation for my memoir. I changed the voice of several of the characters in the novel I was working on. I started writing a self-help book. I formulated a new business plan for a friend. And that was just the beginning.

The energy of that eclipse carried me for months.

Then I lost the desire to query, so I stopped. The tangled plot in the novel defied me. I left it and worked on the self-help book. That reached a sticky point. Muddled, mired in my plethora of projects, I lacked inspiration for any of them.

Sleep came easily at night but exhaustion overtook me the moment I dragged myself out of bed. So I napped and read, read and napped and left the house only when I had a previously arranged commitment.

The situation, so out of character, bewildered me.

Each one of my ideas had seemed brilliant at the time and I was still keen to develop them. But they all required intense focus, attention to detail, and loving care. I could summon zero motivation for any of it.

As I journaled those thoughts this morning, my pen returned to the word focus. I slashed lines of emphasis beneath it. Focus was what I couldn’t do right now and more than anything else, that’s what was required. I glanced at my desk where stacks of tablets, folders, a clipboard, and three pens bore silent testimony to the clutter of unfinished tasks.

I’d become entangled in too much of a good thing.

Now I’m faced with having to choose what gets shelved for a while and what goes forward. It’s painful. I decided avoidance was the best approach and wrote this article. There’s nothing like procrastination to delay the inevitable. And yet, describing my process has brought a new level of self-awareness.

I’ve realized I’m not someone who goes lightly into anything. Writing pulls words from my gut, runs sentences through my heart, and produces sweaty pages of honest prose that undress my innermost being. I demand it of myself. Each project is a jealous lover who requires my all. Knowing that, it’s probably better to be faithful to one at a time.

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Reptilian Brain – Lizard Love

I’ve owned dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, parakeets. There was a cute white bunny one Easter. We named her Snowball. She grew to the size of a two-year-old and was just as needy.

I live blissfully alone. My pet-owning days left with the kids.

Almost.

The cicak is a common house lizard prevalent in tropical regions. They come out when I turn on the lights and slurp up any flying or creeping thing that crosses their path. We have an agreement: they occupy the wall and ceiling, I stay on the floor. It’s worked.

One night about a year ago I was hammering out an article intent upon finishing before bed. Lights were on, cicaks were feasting. Then the edge of my computer moved. For a split second the adrenaline rush, the accelerated heartbeat, the panic. A cicak, the tiniest I’d ever seen, crept into sight. He was no more than an inch from nose to tail. I watched him poke around for a bit. Then he disappeared and I went back to work.

Several minutes passed and I’d forgotten about him when something tickled my hand.

“No!” I said as the youngster proceeded to make his way up my arm. “No, no, no! This is NOT okay. Where’s your mother?”

He stopped and looked up at me, his round eyes shining pure lizard love.

On the terrace, I directed him to the floor, closed the door with him outside and went back to writing.

Tickle, tickle. It had been less than five minutes. He was crawling up my leg.

“Listen, Junior. This is creepy. Your reptilian brain isn’t capable of attachment and I’m not your mother.”

This time I went farther afield to abandon him. When I returned I shut down the computer and began my bedtime ritual. He found me.

Totally weirded-out, I hurried to the far edge of the garden and deposited him on a rock. In no uncertain terms, I told him we were finished. All night I kept waking up thinking he was crawling on my neck, my face. But he wasn’t. He was gone.

The other morning as I lay on my back in Shivasana, I noticed a teenaged cicak watching me from the rafters. How long had he been there? Motionless, he kept his vigil until I’d rolled up my mat. The next day he was there again. For three weeks I watched him watching me. “Coincidence,” I told myself. “He just happens to sit up there at this time of the morning. Or maybe he likes the music.” Shamanic Dream by Anugama, calming, meditative, and rhythmic is my go-to for yoga. 

Our ritual continued. He was always there.

Then one afternoon in broad daylight – tickle, tickle. Teenage yoga buddy was making his way up my leg. “He’s lost,” I thought. “As soon as I stand up he’ll scamper away.” I stood. He clung. I stamped. He clung. I walk-ran to the garden. He clung. “I don’t do pets,” I told him. “I don’t do reptiles. Your brain cannot form attachments. Neither can mine. Don’t come back!”

He didn’t.

Whatever strange bonding instinct was at work there, I want no part of it. I’m committed to humans – they’re hard enough.

Please Don’t Ever Change

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When I look at this photo I want to laugh and cry and fall to my knees. I want to say to the young man planting grass, “Please, don’t ever change.”

What I actually said went something like this: “Those sticks, Ketut. Do you really expect them to grow?”

“Ya,” he replied. “Soon many.”

My only frame of reference to gardening was Minnesota. If you lopped a branch off a tree and stuck it in the ground in that climate, trust me. It absolutely would not grow.

Ketut gathered cast-off cuttings from nearby hotels and scrounged compost piles after dark. He dug up bushes from his family’s garden in the mountains near Kintamani and transplanted them here. He had a vision and the skills to manifest it. In no time the grass filled in and the stick-garden matured. There were papaya and banana trees, frangipani, and bougainvillea.

In spite of my skepticism, the plantings matured and multiplied. I added a gazebo to the once-upon-a-time stick-garden. Ketut installed electricity and a fan. Now I could have my coffee there and read or write surrounded by voluptuous tropical foliage.

It’s been five years since Ketut gathered branches and stuck them in the ground. Hundreds of plants bursting with fruit and flowers have emerged from those scant beginnings. I wonder, have I changed too? Have the seven years in Bali transformed me from the stick-garden I was when I arrived to someone fully alive?

I have more close friends, more visitors, more invitations, and more commitments than ever before. I’ve learned a foreign language, written two novels and a memoir, and had many articles published. I’ve leased land, built a house, and explored the mountains and coastlines of the island on the back of Ketut’s motorbike. I’ve held Writing for Self-Discovery workshops and my blog has brought others to Bali to imagine their own possibilities.

But what about self-discovery, the reason I began this writing journey in the first place? I had to dig for those answers and when I did I found I’ve become more honest. I’m willing to be seen hanging out my dirty laundry. I’m prepared to be disliked rather than sacrifice who I am. My list was revealing.

  • I let go of perfect – horns fit me better than haloes
  • I know things – it’s okay to be smart, intuitive and right
  • I’m worthy of love – self-love is essential, not selfish
  • I’ve developed a sense of humor – dry and warped but it works
  • I thrive in tropical heat – with an ice-cold mug of Bintang
  • I’m a creature of habit – don’t mess with my routine
  • I’m courageous – but definitely not fearless
  • I’ve become transparent – see my shadow? It’s really dark!
  • I need privacy – especially in the morning
  • I feared loneliness – it didn’t happen
  • I can manage unconditional love – but not marriage

And Ketut? The young man I hoped would never change? His smile is broader, his laughter even more infectious. He’s incapable of malice. His kindness is immeasurable.

Everything changes, but some things just get better.

Small House Magic


How much do I really need?

That was the question I asked myself as the calendar left 2010 and I turned sixty-one. My life wasn’t working. The numbers I scrawled in my journal every morning didn’t add up to an early retirement – more like no retirement – ever. Too many bills. Too much debt. Too little IRA.

As blizzards stormed through that January, the thought of another winter in Minnesota gave me cold sweats. It wasn’t just the sixteen-hour arctic darkness, or icey steets, or no parking so the plow could get through that I dreaded. Or snow snow and more snow, or shoveling off the roof, the driveway, the sidewalk, or frozen pipes, broken pipes, ankle-length down coat over layers of fleece, socks, boots, hats, mittens, heating bills, aching joints. It was all that and more that made it unbearable.

And…I…was…over…it.

So when the numbers didn’t add up to the right answer, I tried a different question. How much do I really need? That sentence hounded me. The truth stared me in the face. I needed very little and had way too much. The weight of my belongings crushed me. I was imprisoned by abundance.

I’m a Capricorn – a goat-like being with stubborn drive and dogged persistence toward a goal – the top of the mountain will do. Without that vision it’s a slippery slide into grumpy discontent. I was teetering perilously close to the pit. But one thing was clear: I had to purge possessions.

Was it easy to let go of prized belongings? Not the Ralph Lauren farmhouse table. I knew if I could part with that I could part with anything. So I took photos and put it on Craigslist. It sold within hours. I whirled and whooped in the space where it had been and paid off two-thirds of my credit card debt. I couldn’t get rid of the remaining treasures fast enough. By winter of 2011 everything I owned fit into three plastic bins and a suitcase.

Debt-free from sales of all the unnecessary excess I could afford to dream. Without the responsibility of stuff I could go anywhere. I’d vacationed in Bali several years earlier. As I journaled through that December, visions of terraced rice paddies and swaying palms floated through my mind. Could I retire early and move there? My 62nd birthday was a month away. On March 1, 2012, a week before the first Social Security check came, my plane touched down on the Island of the Gods.

I took some risks those first years – used every dime of savings to lease a parcel of land in the center of Ubud and renovate the old house that sat on it. I knew nothing about building in Bali but I drafted plans for a major overhal and the patient crew told me I’d drawn walls too high to sustain earthquakes. They would build them for me if I wanted, but just FYI. Back to the drawing board…literally! Finished, my new apartment was a hair shy of 500 sq. ft. and it was perfect.

There’s magic in small spaces. Since upkeep is minimal, I have time and energy to do all the things I love. I possess only items I want to look at because there’s no place to store anything else. I get fresh produce daily because my small fridge will accommodate only one day’s fruits and veggies. I eat simple meals because I don’t own a microwave or an oven. I save money because it’s less expensive to care for 500 sq. ft. than it is to maintain a mini-mansion.

That leap into the unknown has changed me. How could it not? I no longer have to cope with winter. I love my tiny house, my giant view, and the wild freedom to live life full throttle. But to get here…

I had to take that leap.

The custom teak table and chairs do dual duty: desk and dining. Behind the carved door is my only closet…gulp!
The kitchen is compact and functional. I love the hand-carved apron and the hand-woven under-counter storage baskets.
The dorm-size refrigerator tucks under the counter. The only other appliances are a blender and yogurt maker.
During the day the doors slide open to give the breezes and butterflies free access.
The daybed (original paint) was buried under logs and branches in the corner of Ketut’s family’s woodcarving shed. His father made it years ago for his growing family. I’d been looking all over Bali for exactly that! It’s my sofa.
The queen-size bed faces east. I love waking up at 6:30 to the sunrise!
Sometimes the first thing I do when I open my eyes is grab my camera.
I’m standing in the shower to take this photo of my sweet 4′ x 6′ bathroom.
The shower occupies the far end.
The ceiling peaks at 20 feet and lends volume and beauty to the simple room.
And my view over Ubud’s rooftops…to die for!

Self-Discovery – I’m Old


I woke up one morning twenty-nine years ago to an identity trauma – who was that middle-aged woman staring at me from my mirror?

The strangest part of the mid-life crisis is that it doesn’t creep up bit-by-bit allowing itself to be integrated gently. No. It slams, shocks, knocks upside the head with a stunning force that shouts: You’re old.

Until that morning I felt vibrant and sexy, very much alive. I hadn’t given aging a passing thought. That stymies me even now. How could I not have seen it coming? Proof of the process is everywhere – parents age, siblings age, movie stars age – my own children were aging. I had to have known that I wouldn’t escape the inevitable. Yet the shock of it flattened me.

Today a similar jolt brought me up short. It was a thought that loomed at the edge of other thoughts. It had dark borders and felt ominous so I ignored it as long as I could. When it saw it’s chance, it sprang and the impact of its message pierced me with slivers of dread.

Questions swirled. At what point will I no longer be taken seriously? When will my opinion be brushed over, my suggestions ignored, my point of view deemed irrelevant simply because others assume I’ve exceeded my use-by date?

I’m not talking about dementia or Alzheimers. People with those afflictions often lose their ability to think logically or communicate well. My concern is ageism – the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of age alone. It hadn’t concerned me before. But as the idea wormed into my headspace today it felt just like that morning twenty-nine years ago when I saw myself for the first time at the far end of youth.

It has me thinking about how much I appreciate my deductive reasoning abilities. I enjoy having my words respected and my advice sought. I relish intelligent commentary, debate, and the rare witty comeback that I pull out of somewhere! I don’t want to be marginalized and set to boil dry on the back burner. Death would be preferable.

Why isn’t there an outcry against ageism in the media like there is for racism and sexism and gender bias? Why is discrimination on the basis of age accepted as normal? Possibly because it’s so commonplace. It’s such an automatic response that we’re unaware we’re doing it. I’m guilty. I’ve discounted the abilities of the elderly based solely on their white heads, but never again.

The realization has dawned that this kind of stereotyping could become my personal reality. That’s terrifying. Fortunately for me, I live in Bali where the culture honors oldies. If I hang exclusively with my Balinese friends I’m safe!

Seriously though, it’s time to rally. Babyboomers are 60 million strong. If we join forces and speak out against ageism, I guarantee we’ll be heard – white hair and all.

Wisdom from Never-Never Land

 

In that groggy place suspended between dreams, I often get my clearest insights. Inspiration lurks there and I have to be quick to capture it before it dissolves into the murky shadows of Never-Never Land.

It’s fortunate on such mornings that I live alone. When I leap out of bed, throw covers on the floor, dash across the room, stub my toe, hobble to the table, scrabble among the papers for a pen, and write furiously without being able to see the words because it’s still that dark, anyone watching would have to laugh…I have to laugh!

Sometimes I return to my cozy nest and immediately fall back to sleep. When I awake again an hour or so later, I have no memory of my pre-dawn brilliance, throbbing toe aside, until I sit down with my first cup of coffee and see the scribbled note.

That’s what happened this morning.

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When I looked at what I’d written, the concept my subconscious mind had been chewing on all by itself with no help (or hindrance) from me came back in a flash. The more I considered it, the more it made sense. Here’s the gist.

1 – 20 Lost.     From birth to around twenty years old, we’re not our own. The adults in our lives make the plans. They mold us, scold us, and hopefully we arrive at adulthood fairly unscathed. Those years are lost in the sense that we don’t control them.

20 – 60 Learning.     I’d like to say that we have things pretty well figured out by age forty or so. But I didn’t. I was still repeating the same stupid mistakes I’d made in my 20’s and 30’s. They wore different clothes and had new faces but underneath those choices were driven by the damaged sense of self that hadn’t changed since childhood. Damaged or not, our child-rearing, career-building years are spent learning.

60 – ?  Living.     There should be another category tucked between 50 and 60 called Transforming. It’s a time of reckoning. The kids have gone on to start their own learning years. The nest is empty. If we’re still married there’s nothing to distract us from our mate any longer. It’s just the two of us trying to remember why.

And we change. It’s impossible not to. But is it conscious change or unconscious? If we’re aware of the growth opportunity and work with it, we’ll advance into our sixties wiser, making good decisions for ourselves and modeling positive aging for others. If the change is unconscious we may go to the grave still making the same mistakes.

The morning insights could have stopped there.

But my subconscious has a mind of its own and it likes to do math. (This is definitely not me.) What it came up with was so simple and obvious I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it myself.

Bear with me now. We’re going to throw away years 1 – 20, we had no control over them anyway. From 20 – 60, then, are forty years of self-management, probably much of it spent meeting expectations, shouldering responsibilities, keeping the nose to the grindstone, the pedal to the metal, with a two-week vacation thrown in now and then to maintain sanity.

But consider this: our life expectancy in North America is around eighty years. Think about all that happened between ages 20 to 40, then from 40 to 60. Now we have another 60 to 80 ahead, one-third of our adult life yet to be lived. My mother at 90, still works out five days a week, beats the pants off the others at Bingo, and pretty much rules the roost in her assisted living facility. So where am I going with this?

Don’t waste the Living years.

What did you always wish you could do but never did? Make a plan and do it. Have you neglected exercise and proper diet? Start now to implement healthy habits. Does the cost of living where you are prohibit retirement? Move. I did, and it was the best decision I ever made. Did you fail to finish your degree? Check out your state’s Statutes. In Minnesota senior citizens can attend college tuition free. Maybe your state has a similar ruling.

Live like dying isn’t an option.

It’s not denial, it’s grabbing hold of the greatest gift we’ve ever been given, life, and running with it…wee wee wee, all the way home.

 

 

 

 

 

Six Years of Happiness. Pop!

 

Life in Bali hasn’t been now and then a sparkle of joy. No. It’s been six years of uninterrupted happiness.

As soon as I made that statement, I started to question it. What about when Dad died? I had to ponder that. My dad was, still is, my hero. I was holding his hand when he left this realm.

Death is a giant thing and I’ve realized that happiness isn’t made up of giant things. Happiness consists of random pops of amazement that happen dozens of times a day. So even though I was overshadowed by giant death, the pops still happened. Right through the days and weeks of sadness, Pop! Happiness didn’t stop just because there was another presence in the room.

Today was a Pop! topper.

Ketut and I had one of our several-hours-long conversations. It started when I told him I would be going to two writing groups and the new one would start tomorrow.

“So you can finish the book fast?” he asked.

Who would assume that? Nobody. Pop! Amazement. He’d hit the reason square on the head. He wanted to know if writing made me feel stressed or relaxed. I told him writing a book was like play for me, but writing letters to agents to try to make them like my book was big stress. He agreed that must be so.

Then he told me he had loaned his car to an uncle to take offerings to the temple. Now, he said, his car was in the hospital because the uncle hit a truck.

“Oh, dear. Is your uncle okay?” It sounded serious.

“Yes, of course. There is only a wound on the car that needs new paint.” Then the inevitable Ketut wisdom, “Never all good, never all bad. Always a little a little.” Pop! Amazement.

The conversation meandered from the car to the placenta of Ketut’s new baby daughter. As custom dictates in his village, the afterbirth is buried beside the door to the house and every time the child cries, the sadness is sent there and she stops crying. Pop! He asked if we do this with placentas in my country.

“No, Ketut…’fraid not. The baby just cries.” I’m sure he thinks our practices are nothing short of barbaric.

Should I go on? I mean, this was a really long conversation that rambled without obvious connection. One topic sparked another in random disorder punctuated by gut-busting laughter.

I wouldn’t want to bore you…well, okay, just a bit more.

I have white walls and a few of them are empty. Today I bought a gorgeous sarong. “What if I hang this here for decoration, Ketut? Nice, ya?”

He eyed it then said, “Ya, but the fan will make it go like this.” He caught one end and flapped it furiously. Pop! Then he brought up the idea of putting a mirror on the empty wall. “It’s better than art because every time someone new comes into the room, the picture changes.” Pop! Pop! I love his quirky logic. I’d never thought of a mirror that way but I’ll never be able to look into one again without those words ringing in my head.

Coffee and treats always accompany our chats. Today I had a plate of coconut bars sitting on the table to my left. I picked it up and offered it with that hand.

In Bali all things are given with the right hand for very good reason. I know this but I sometimes forget. I apologized as soon as I realized what I had done. Ketut launched into a lengthy explanation that Balinese children are trained from very young never to offer anything with the left hand. He slapped his own hand away to show me the nature of the training. “That way they never make a mistake,” he said.

Then he let me off the hook. “But for you, it’s okay. You are not a Bali person and it is more difficult for you because you are already not young.” Ouch! But he was just getting warmed up. “And,” he continued, “if someone is upset and points at you with his right hand, it’s a warning that he is a little angry. But if he points at you with his left hand, there is no more talking. You run.”

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“Okay, then,” I said. “Get ready, Ketut. This is for calling me old.” That’s when I pointed at him with my left hand.

 

 

 

At the beginning of this story I said happiness is small things. But a visit with Ketut is like a banquet of delicacies complete with Veuve Clicquot champagne. I never want it to end.

Usually, though, the first Pop! of the day is the sound of a rooster crowing. Then the pink of dawn. A holy man chanting prayers. Sweet fragrance of incense. Steaming hot coffee. Dragonfruit. See what I mean? Happiness. Uninterrupted. Pop! Pop! Pop!

When Memories Replace Movement – What do I want?

 

This morning I’m looking out a frosty window at a world as far removed from my tropical home as it could possibly be and I’m pondering a question that I answered six years ago:

What do I want?

Moving to Bali was a fabulous decision then. There were no grandchildren. One daughter lived on the West Coast, one on the East Coast, and one in the Midwest. None had married.

Everything changes. I’m here in Minnesota in the dead of winter because my youngest just gave birth to twin boys. Eighteen months ago I was in New York to meet my first granddaughter. All three of my children are beautifully partnered now and their lives have taken on new dimensions. They’ve indicated that my physical presence (more often and prolonged than it has been) is very much desired. They want me to be an integral part of their lives. What a beguiling draw that is.

Yet my love of Bali hasn’t diminished. If anything it’s deeper now than ever. I have an intimate circle of friends. I’ve created a life around writing that nurtures me as does the warm climate. I love the exotic landscapes, the thunderous rains, the balmy winters and the Balinese families that have claimed me as their own. The two scenarios couldn’t be more different or compelling.

There’s a ‘knottier’ question though, and I suspect I’ll resolve my dilemma as I reach conclusions about this:

At the end of life, what will I regret NOT doing?

That’s the game changer and it’s a tough one. The unknowns are problematic. There are no guarantees. Anything can happen at any time to alter circumstances. There’s a haunting sense of carpe diem. Time is running out but there’s no way of knowing how much is left.

I want it all of course! I want to experience the joys of participating in the lives of my children and grandchildren. I want to continue my Bali adventure. There are still places in the world I want to see, and some I’ve seen that I want to revisit. I’m fortunate to have those options and the good health to pursue them…now. But most of all, when I approach that future time when memories replace movement and possibilities have reached the age limit, I want no regrets.

 

My Six Year Search for Baking Soda – The Danger of Assuming That We Know What We’re Looking For!

 

I took many things for granted before moving to Bali six years ago. I assumed that:

  • days were warm and nights were balmy
  • rainy season was the occasional thunder storm
  • hair products and cosmetics were available
  • I’d have a kitchen
  • not only a kitchen, but a shower and flushing toilet
  • earth tremors were nothing more than a gentle massage

Reality proved to be a variation on that theme.

  • days were hot and nights with a fan on high were tolerable
  • rainy season was a continuous deluge from January through April
  • hair products and cosmetics proliferated but not for blond Norwegians
  • kitchen meant a two-burner camp stove on a counter that hit just above my thighs, a doll-house sized fridge, and no oven
  • the shower was a concrete reservoir with a dip-pour bucket that also served to dump water into the toilet bowl to flush it
  • earth tremors were uncomfortable – earth quakes left my nervous system on high alert for days

Over time I built a house with a real shower, flushing toilet, and a state-of-the-art-kitchen, Bali style. (Still no oven.) I found a hair color that worked. Cosmetics – not yet. My body acclimated to the heat and I learned to appreciate the months of rain in ways I had never embraced snow.

The absence of an oven significantly reduced the need to stock certain ingredients. But baking soda has a multitude of uses beyond its leavening properties, so every few months I cruised the grocery aisles searching for the familiar box.

baking soda

Nada.

The day I found it was the day after I’d eaten a heaping plate of too spicy, too greasy, mei goreng.

mie goreng

 

My stomach revolted. If only I had bicarbonate of soda! The two-mile walk to the grocery store wouldn’t hurt my condition so I set out with singleness of purpose. Once there, I made a bee-line to the area that stocked flour, sugar, salt, seasonings, and spices. The unusual packaging and foreign names of things had become familiar but a sudden revelation dawned. Maybe, just maybe, I should look for something other than the orange box.

 

 

Seconds later, in a wire bin in the dark corner of a bottom shelf, I found it.

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Soda Kue – 3,450 rph = 25 cents. The package was minuscule – a little larger than an egg.

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No doubt it had been there all along. If I hadn’t been fixated on the orange box, I could have been enjoying the many uses of that simple white powder for years!

As I walked home, I wondered how many other things had escaped me because I was locked into images from the past. How often had I predetermined what an outcome should look like and closed myself to the magic of discovering something new? The more I thought about it, the danger of defaulting to unconscious settings became clear. If I wasn’t paying attention they’d kick in automatically, and hinder the potential for surprise in my life.

I got home, stirred up a glass of water with soda, and drank it down. Ugh! Same disgusting taste. But the gurgling and belching that ensued brought instant relief.

Awareness is tricky. It runs counter to old programming, and challenges core beliefs. It’s easier to remain in the realm of the unconscious, thinking how we’ve always thought and doing what we’ve always done the way we’ve always done it. But I want more than that from life, and now when I catch myself assuming I know what I’m looking for I hit the pause button, and run it through the Baking Soda Test.

 

 

 

 

 

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

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I didn’t cry right away.

My expectations for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2017 were low. It would be my sixth year attending this epic literary event in the town in Bali where I live. Perhaps it was due to the volatile shaking of Mt. Agung threatening to erupt just fifteen miles away. Perhaps it was because my friend and fellow writer, Carol died two months ago. Her wry humor and cynical critiques wouldn’t be part of my Festival experience this year. Whatever the reason, I approached the first day’s events with little more than casual interest.

As always happens, two minutes into the program I was hooked. An Indonesian woman, Nh. Dini, now in her 80’s, but with more attitude and spunk than anyone half her age, traced her colorful life from flight attendant to environmentalist to her courageous and ongoing battle against gender discrimination. When told that her bold opinions might get her arrested, she shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t care,” she said.

Ms. Dini was followed by anthropologist, Nigel Barley, who mixed fact and fantasy to write, Snow Over Surabaya, a historical novel about Surabaya Sue, best remembered for her work as a radio broadcaster for the Indonesian Republic during the struggle for independence. Sue was somewhat of an embarrassment to the Indonesians, it seems, with her love of attention and her unorthodox lifestyle.

The discussions had me entranced, but not tearful.

After Nigel, a panel of expatriate authors pondered how we relate to the places we leave behind when we relocate and re-imagine our lives. Their thought-provoking questions echoed my own as they talked about the widening gaps in frame of reference the longer we’re away from our places of origin.

It was approaching 1:00 p.m. Although still dry-eyed, my stomach growled ominously. A break for lunch does not exist at the Festival, but the food court wafted mouth-watering aromas across a section of parking lot where tables topped with red and white checked cloths waited for the catch-when-catch-can, hungry crowd.

These food vendors knew how to entice. Their exotic dishes rendered to perfection sat on display. I drooled over them all and finally pounced on terong ayam, a spicy dish of chopped chilies (lots and lots of chopped chilies) with bits of chicken and other vegetables. At another booth I added a springroll with tamarind sauce and stuffed tofu, then grabbed a latte to make sure I stayed alert for what was still ahead.

Tummy full and happy, I rushed to the next venue and settled in for charismatic Robert Dessaix as he bantered with the moderator over The Pleasures of Leisure, his devilishly humorous take on a stressed-out, overworked world. He asked us to consider how taking leisure seriously could give us back our freedom and deepen our experience as humans. I thought of my daughters, the toll of working too long, too hard, and their complaint that there’s not enough time to create the kind of lives they really want. I thought of myself doing the same until age 62 when I finally quit the rat-race and embraced my current life of focused idleness.

Over four days, I attended nineteen panels, two book launches, and one documentary film. The experience of this Festival, as one friend put it, is like gulping intellectual stimulation from a fire hose. Concerns from every corner of the globe, political, environmental, ethical, social, literary, journalistic and more, are raised, debated, and explored by the people who are living the issues.

For the first three days I was entertained, shocked, and enlightened. But day four infused me with agitated inspiration. Each presenter was more passionate about their work, and more driven to make positive change than the one before.

And then Nila Tanzil took the mic. The tears began. I can’t even write this without crying.

A forty-something fire-ball, Nila looked seventeen. Her corporate career was humming along, propelling her to the top of her game when she heard a statistic: her country of Indonesia had the second lowest literacy rate in the world. She was horrified.

The fact that Indonesia consists of 17,000 islands, and villagers in remote areas have limited electricity, or none, and no running water, suggests that education and books are not uppermost in their minds. Nila went to those villages and asked children what they wanted to be when they grew up. They had two answers: teacher, and priest. Those were the only occupations besides farmer or fisherman that existed for them.

Determined to make a difference, Nila personally funded a library in one of those remote areas. She was told by the villagers that they wouldn’t go into official buildings. They felt they had to bathe, put on their best clothes, and wear shoes to enter such important places. Adding a library to a school wasn’t the answer either. Schools were often a distance away and school libraries usually consisted of textbooks. They were synonymous with pekerja rumah, aka homework; not where kids tended to hang out.

Nila wanted books to be accessible after school, on weekends, whenever children had time to read. She approached individuals in the village and gained their cooperation. Her first libraries occupied a corner of someone’s home or shop and contained about 200 books. Every few months the books were rotated providing a fresh supply of reading material.

At some point she quit her corporate job and formed Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Garden) a non-profit that has, to date, established 63 libraries on 15 islands in Eastern Indonesia with more on the way.

I’d just sat through hours of talks about things that won’t change in Indonesia, or the world, unless people change. And people won’t change unless they have knowledge. Knowledge is obtained by access to information through reading, yet vast areas of the country still have no books.

What Nila is doing will alter the face of Indonesia. It may not be this year, or next year, but it will happen. The need for more books, and more libraries, in more villages is beyond imagining.

I found Nila afterwards, thanked her, and told her I wasn’t a professional fund raiser and I wasn’t rich, but what she was doing resonated deeply in me and I wanted to help.

This blog post is my first step. Below are links to the Taman Bacaan Pelangi website, Nila’s TED Talk, and her personal website. There are clips to watch of the kids she’s helping. Her voluntourism company, TravelSparks, invites travelers to spend a bit of their vacation volunteering at one or more of the libraries. She’ll arrange everything.

You can’t come to Indonesia without feeling something. For me, it was love at first sight. But the problems are glaring and the elite have intentionally kept the masses uneducated. I believe that time is ending because people like Nila see a different future. I’m crying again.

Take a look at the links. If you feel inspired to contribute something, a bookshelf, books, cash, please DO IT. I’ve never felt compelled to help like this before and I hope to learn how to do it better. But for now, thank you for reading.

NILA’S FESTIVAL VIDEO     (Yes, I cried through this, too!)

WEBSITE

TED TALK

NILA TANZIL

DONATE

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