Bali, Indonesia – March 2019
I am in the void. Conscious and floating on my back. A copper shimmer traces infinity in the blackness above me. It spins into two eyes. They lean close and stare into mine. Shiny pennies. I catch my breath. Unfurl, exhale. Okay. Look. I’ve got nothing to hide. The gaze is curious, amused. Familiar.
I move my lips in the softest whisper. “Who are you?” The eyes recede into the murk. The spell is broken. A languid ascent from sleep’s abyss. “You are me. Aren’t you.”
I pull the mosquito net aside and rise from the bed. Step outside into the dawn sunshine. Swim through liquid air. A delicious glow has invaded my atoms since my arrival in Bali. Wicked intoxication. It feels just a little too good. I float into the dining area and lower myself onto a cushion, still unable to speak.
Pebby gives me a knowing look. “I always have the weirdest dreams when I sleep in that room.”
I find my voice and tell her mine. She nods. “Uh huh.”
My little sister Penelope – my “Pebby” – teaches science at an international school for expat kids. She has aged so little in the almost nine years since we were last together. Hers is feral beauty. Deep olive skin. Eyes a rich, earthy green. Hair that changes hue depending on the light.
“I feel so strange since I’ve been here. So good, but apprehensive, too.”
“Bali tests you. They even asked me during the interview if I was mentally strong. So many marriages break up here. So many people fall apart.” She tells me of her longtime on and off boyfriend’s recent visit. After so many years, she saw how ugly he was, on all levels. She can’t stand him anymore.
Her dog, Lala, lies in a patch of sunlight. Mottled hyena fur, bloated body, shrunken head, feet like chicken claws. Her stinky feet stench persists no matter how often she gets washed. The sweetest dogs are so often the most hideous.
Pebby takes me on a tour of the school. On the scooter ride home, a downpour ambushes us. I arch my back and let it wash over me. There’s something so luxurious about being drenched by tropical rain. I wouldn’t trade this for the comfort of a car. Sensations are the most memorable part of a voyage. Warm raindrops on bare skin. The aroma of cooking grease, vehicle exhaust, and incense intertwined in the dense air. The vivid rainbow colors of traditional dress. The percussive thud of my heart beating with exhilaration.
When we get to her house, we sink into the cushions. Into the comfort of reminiscing. The family. Dad. Gone so long now. We have both mellowed so much over the years. We have survived, and, despite the dark times, thrived.
March 30, 1981
Ronald Reagan has been shot. My family gathers around the television. The footage is replayed over and over. Pebby is lying on her stomach, legs bent, chin on her hand. “Watch. Now the Pope’s going to get shot.”
The person who used to be my dad stares at her, eyes ablaze. His lips move. My mom frowns at him and switches off the television. He rises from the La-Z-Boy chair and goes to the basement.
The entity who now inhabits my dad’s body calls himself The Mediator Between God and Man. We are no longer his family, but his disciples. He has a small following at St. Anthony’s church. They like to hear his prophecies. They think he’s special, because he uses big words that they can’t understand. They are so stupid. Nothing he says makes any sense at all.
The Pope is shot just weeks later. “You know things, Penelope. Tell me what you know.” He follows her around the house and the yard. Takes her for long drives. When he was a young boy, he made tapes of his prophecies. A priest stole them. The neighbors across the street are in on the conspiracy. “Where are my tapes, Penelope? Tell me where they are.” When she hears his footsteps coming down the hall, she crawls under the bed. He barges into our room without knocking.
This is me: twelve years old, ninety pounds of freckles, braces, and unruly blonde hair. I clench my fists. “She’s not in here.” I glare into those piercing black holes. What did you do with my dad, you bastard? Bring him back. He leaves. I slam the door behind him and slide the desk in front of it.
I peer under the bed. Fierce eyes stare out of the shadows. A wild animal in the underbrush. “It’s okay. He’s gone,” I whisper. But still she doesn’t come out.
My siblings and I held each others’ hands through early adulthood, keeping watch for signs of incoherence, paranoia, delusion. The voices. It’s said that if none manifest by the age of thirty-five, you’re out of the woods. Other than an eccentricity that we embrace, we have made it. A doctor once told my mother that it’s a miracle that we aren’t all drug addicts or dead. Love is what saved us. Before my father’s schizophrenia spiraled out of control, life was stable. We were taught right from wrong. That there is a reason to persevere.
We have a deep connection to spirit, but an innate aversion to fervor. An impeccable bullshit radar. We are unable sit in congregations and nod our heads in unison. We prostrate ourselves before no one. The voices in our heads are our own. Ego chatter and, with increasing frequency, guidance from the Higher Self.
Our conversation switches to the present. Her work at the school. My work as a bartender this past winter at a dive bar in my village in northern Michigan. Most of the patrons live in the dodgy rooms upstairs and have lost the right to drive. The bar is their universe. I’m so grateful for all of the colorful stories I’ve gathered. But I am exhausted.
Tomorrow we leave for a trip to Komodo National Park, after which I will take off for a few days. To Ubud, a place of pilgrimage for the New Age crowd. Pebby snickers. “We all laugh about the Ubudian Yoga Pants People. So annoying. But it is a pretty area. A good base for day trips.”
I wander to my room, stopping to give Lala a goodnight scratch behind the ears. I tuck my mosquito net firmly under the mattress. A poisonous snake crawled up through Pebby’s shower drain a few weeks ago. One of her friends found a six foot cobra in her bedroom. I take no chances.
My head sinks into the pillow. Eyes close. Fade. To white. The brain flickers. Not a dream. A transmission. A sentient radiance streams through the leaves of a giant oak tree. An eminence, benevolent and awesome, prowling on the periphery. The truth has nowhere to hide under this illumination. It sees me. Are you ready?
I lift my face to the immaculate rays. Deep breath. Yes.
It is my second to last day of work.
“Hey Barbie, how much to show us those beauties under that sweater?” I deliver their cans of Budweiser and walk away. In order for me to be offended, I’d have to give a shit. Which I don’t. “You’re a beautiful woman. What do you expect?” An accusation not a compliment.
A soft-spoken hulk of a man sits in his usual spot next to the kitchen. His name is Randy. “I can’t believe what you ladies put up with.” He shakes his head. “Makes me ashamed to be a man.”
I sigh. “The women are no better.” Such delight taken in deceit and manipulation. The stupid games and fabricated drama. Everyone is cheating on everyone and they’re so proud of it. I’ve had quite the education about modern love these past few months.
Every day after work, Randy drinks a few beers here, not enough to get a DUI. Then he goes home and drinks himself to sleep in the basement, which has become his bedroom. When he tells me the things his wife says to him, my stomach turns. He stays for the kids. And, in spite of her abuse, he still loves her.
I go into the kitchen to fetch a food order. When I turn around, Randy is standing there. He shifts his feet, holds out a calloused paw. “Well, have fun in Bali. I’m really glad I met you.”
I look at him. So humble. So broken. My heart swells. I wrap my arms around his neck and squeeze. “You’ll see me again. I’ll come by.”
When I pull away, he bows his head and hurries out the door. “Take care of yourself.”
But the next evening, he’s sitting in his usual place.
I smile. “Hey! Told you we’d see each other again.”
He lifts his glass. “I’m drinking coke.” He grins. “I quit drinking.”
“That hug you gave me…did something to me. It made me realize that I’m not a piece of shit. If a nice lady like you thinks I deserve a hug, then I can’t be.” He takes a deep breath. Exhales. “No matter what she says.” He pulls himself up tall. Steely glint of determination in his eyes. “And another thing I did. I made an appointment with a counselor. I’m going to get to the bottom of all my stuff.” He pushes back from the bar. “Gotta go. Just wanted to stop by and tell you.”
I can only manage a whisper. “I gave you the hug, Randy, but you let it in.”
He lifts his hand in farewell and strides out the door.
I retreat to the kitchen and slump against a wall. Head in my hands. Oh, this beautiful, broken world.
There’s a finality to everyone’s goodbyes. A resignation. It’s as if they know they’ll never see me again. Underneath it all, they don’t want to see me again. Not because they don’t like me, but because I come from such a different world. When I told them I was going to Bali, they looked it up on the internet. “You are making a difference, JD. I want to do that, too.”
“I’m just going on vacation.” I laugh and shake my head.
“You are an angel.”
But I’m not.
Too many days too close together. A tiny room on a small boat. Clouds converge, much more ominous than our usual tension. Pressure deepens. Thunder rumbles. Lighting flickers. By the time we get back to Bali, the tempest is in full force. A cloudburst of old, old resentments. My retaliation is unrestrained. Did those words just come out of my mouth? Things that can never be unsaid. And yet, it is possible to feel both profound remorse and unapologetic. It needed to be said. We retreat to opposite corners of the house. When she leaves for work, I emerge.
I lie on the wooden floor next to the garden, weighed down by a leaden heart. Luminous petals of sunlight stream through the frangipani tree. I’ve lost my cool, my bliss. It’s been so long since anything, or anyone, has pushed my buttons. I close my eyes. I’m being too hard on myself. No one ever evolves beyond doing things that require forgiveness. Just chill out.
The click of thick toenails on wood. Grunts of exertion. An odorous cloud wafts around the corner. A daft, bony face appears.
I lift my heavy head and smile through a sigh. “Oh, Lala. You are so beautiful.”
Letters are exchanged. Pebby’s is sweet and funny: Lala will miss you! Mine is more serious: I don’t know what’s come over me. Could it be Bali? We’re old enough to know that we can only spend a few days together before conflict arises, before the inevitable communication breakdown. This hurt is deep, but not fatal. We will meet up again before I leave.
To Ubud I go. My guesthouse is a traditional Balinese house tucked down a long passageway off a main road. Paintings and statues of deities everywhere. A little shrine sits off to the side of the courtyard. Rai is the owner. Tiny, regal, eyes of pure gold.
I drop off my things and make the exploratory lap around town. I wander inside a temple of lotuses. In front of each picturesque statue, flawless princesses line up for photo ops. Identical shrink-wrapped, immobile faces. Flat doll gazes. Long, flowing dresses. A blonde lifts her impeccably manicured hands to her forehead in mock prayer. Her lips are so inflated that they are unable to fully close. After a long moment, she turns away from the statue. Two women lurch forward. They glare at each other, vicious cobras about to strike. I flinch. The boyfriends take the photos, obedient and oblivious.
What of their time alone together? Every move choreographed, every moan practiced, every expression of ecstasy contrived. No risk of communion in those eyes. That which lies beneath the pretty masks is too shallow, even, for the most basic existential angst. There is simply nothing to explore. They were born into a reality where identity is meticulously fabricated in pixels on a screen and worth is determined by likes, follows, and fawning comments by strangers. A two-dimensional wasteland.
I turn away and head out to the street. The sky rips open. I cover my backpack with the rain poncho. Heaven’s tears cascade over me. Washing me clean.
The cacophony of desperation recedes. The tugs on my sleeve, the faces thrust into mine. The voices, beseeching. Taxi! Cheap! Look here! Good price for you!
A sign materializes: Magical Rice Field in Ubud. My soggy footsteps echo in the narrow passageway. There is more to be revealed. Are you ready? I roll my eyes. No. Not really. When I emerge on the other side, the deluge has already finished. Rice ponds shimmer like liquid metal. I step forward and peer into the opaque mirror. Into my iridescent shadow.
I am beautiful. I deserve to be seen and valued. Loved for who I truly am. Randy’s voice echoes through my mind: I’m not a piece of shit. I bow my head and wrap my arms around myself. “I’m not a piece of shit.” Sobs erupt. A relentless flow from deep within, viscous and red-hot. Molten magma of the heart.
The most devastating lies are those that we tell ourselves. And is hope not the most achingly lovely of all? This exquisite bouquet of glimmers that I’ve gathered. Under this light, so merciless and merciful, it withers and dies. Time to loosen my grasp and let it fall. If only I could. A hot wave engulfs me. I hurl it away. If it’s not meant to be, then be gone. I never wanted this in the first place. It boomerangs back.
The responsibility for this heartbreak lies with you. The person is merely a mirror. A perfect mirror reflecting your deepest wounds. Focus on the lesson, the pattern. Deep, slow breaths. There you go. Go easy on yourself. The attachment still serves a purpose. It will dissipate when it’s time.
There is one fundamental lie which culture instills in us from birth: I am not good enough. It keeps us from standing in our power. It keeps us in line. It attacks the source of life itself – our ability to truly love. If you dig deep enough, through all of the layers, you eventually find it. In all of its horrific glory.
I trudge back to the guesthouse. I curl up on the bed and tumble off the precipice into a dreamless sleep.
Nothing is more precious than a heart full of dreams in a world that has turned to stone.
Tendrils of incense snake through the little shrine. I sit on the ground and lean against the rough stone wall. Tremors of pain radiate through the bottomless fissure in my heart. Death throes. Rai performs her morning prayers. Ethereal ballerina movements. Chants of unknown origin float overhead. Vintage bird cages sway from the roofs. Songbirds chirp a melancholy melody. Votives flicker. These strange, smoky orange marigolds. The color of funeral pyres. Ultimate purification. Cheek against cold stone, I let my eyes close. Out of the ashes I will rise.
Watch, now, my insolent sashay into the vegan cafe. Cutoff jean shorts, floppy hat, constellations of mosquito bites on my legs. Disheveled, haggard, bleary-eyed. Past the man buns, dreadlocks, Macbooks. Yoga pants. Looks of condescension and bewilderment follow my haphazard trajectory. That’s right, dudes. Diving into the chasm of the soul isn’t photogenic. I could sneer at them for being hypocrites, but I can longer be bothered. I lower myself on a cushion and order an herbal tonic. Now the convalescence begins.
A somnolent drift through temples and palaces and sacred forests. Cloud-shrouded volcanos in the distance. The shrill symphony of bats. Mischievous monkey hijinks. Demons and deities. Not always easy to tell them apart. Without total annihilation there can be no resurrection.
I have managed to reclaim my worth as worker, family member, friend, and writer. The people in my life now reflect that. But as a woman. I shake my head. The transcendent love you deserve exists. You have cracked your heart open to make space. Now you must let the love in. I come to rest next to a murky pond. Gaze into the eternal parade of koi fish across the waters. My spirit dives in. Surrenders to the flow.
Back in Ubud, I wine and dine myself. Spoil myself rotten. Pretty sundresses. Silver rings on my fingers – turquoise for self-forgiveness, rainbow moonstone for new beginnings. Around my wrist, a bracelet of anyolite to harmonize the mind with the heart. In a humble shack, a gargantuan of a woman tears my body apart and molds it back together again.
Come into your wholeness. Come Home.
For my final two days, I head to the coast. To Kuta, beloved haunt of blue collar Australians. It is the lowest part of low season. The streets are nearly deserted. The pubs and shops are empty.
My last evening, I meet Pebby at a multi-floored labyrinth in Seminyak. I ascend a staircase and glide across a terrace. Bland chillout electronica wafts over the crowd. My floor-length sundress swirls around my legs. The multi-colored beads on my sandals glow like gems in the soft light. Salty air curls fall around my shoulders. Male and female heads turn in appreciation. I look down at the floor and blush. An invisible hand takes my right hand. A grip so warm and unwavering. My queen, there is no other choice but you. I’m so proud to walk by your side. I lift my face and smile.
Pebby waves me over. “This place is kinda trendy,” she grimaces. “Sorry.”
“Oh, whatever. At least the food is probably great.”
Our apologies are encoded in the comfortable conversation. No need to bring it all up again.
A wall of clouds creeps towards shore. A legendary Bali beach sunset is not to be. I’m no longer disappointed by such things. Like every voyage, Bali has given me exactly what I need.
By the time we find our way out of the building, it is pouring. Goodbyes in the rain. Of course.
“I love you, Pebby.”
Her eyes are soft, hesitant. “I love you, too.”
One last dawn stroll on the beach and then it’s off to the airport. With the exception of the surf schools, I am the only foreigner. Fishermen. Runners. Couples holding hands. They all make a point to wish me good morning. I lower myself on the sand and watch Balinese surfer girls frolic in the waves. A mutt trots over and flops down next to me. He presses his body into my side. Territorial, protective. I smile out loud and scratch behind his ears. No place has ever witnessed the truth of my soul and made me feel so welcome. But I’m so ready to go home to my wilderness.
Above the hypnotic waves, on a lingering cloud, the ghost of a rainbow appears. A promise.