Taking Liberties: Life & Love in Upper Middle Age

Sunday, July 09, 2006


Letter #2 from Indonesia

June 17, 2006


Dear ones,

When I ended my last missive, my heart was still racing after surviving the Yogya earthquake. We learned that the quake was a 6.2 and had lasted 59 heart-stopping seconds. Try just saying, “Shake, shake, shake” for 59 seconds and you'll have some idea of our experience.) Chuck departed for the U.S. and I rested in Bali, trying to gather the courage to return to Java and help with disaster relief. My new friend, Janis, had told me, “Trust yourself; you’ll know when and if it’s time to return.” After a healing week in the warmth of a Balinese family, curiosity got the better of me and I resolved to go back to Yogyakarta.

It wasn’t as easy as you might think to connect with volunteer organizations in Java. I had no success in getting a response from the Red Cross, WHO or Unicef. Even the Bay Area Red Cross couldn’t make contact for me. I finally succeeded by using the “old girl network.” I remembered that a summer camp friend from 50 years ago had a career with the U.S. diplomatic service. I emailed her to explain my dilemma, she emailed a colleague at USAID, and within a matter of hours I was contacted by USAID and then by the Red Cross in Yogya.

Flying back to Yogya over Mt. Merapi, I felt crazy to be risking my life again. But I also knew I couldn’t happily hang out on a beach in Bali while there was so much suffering on Java. So I fearfully returned to the land of aftershocks and smoking volcanoes. I was invited to join a Red Cross psychosocial support team which had been reassigned from Aceh province (where they were doing tsunami relief) to assist the most severely damaged villages. I had already recruited a young woman to translate for me; she was a 24 year old Javanese volunteer I met on the tarmac in Bali. We spent the next 10 days together, 24/7. That in itself was an experience. We were assigned to the town of Klaten near the base of Mt. Merapi. The week before, the volcano had emitted white clouds of smoke; now it was belching huge black plumes of smoke high into the heavens. In Klaten, it seemed to be dusk all day long.

Although I remained afraid for my safety, I had an amazing and interesting time working with a team of 5 Indonesian mental health workers and being part of a close-knit disaster relief unit. We conducted activity groups for children in several villages where 90% of the houses had collapsed and where the schools had been damaged or destroyed. Whenever a particularly traumatized child or adult was identified, I was called over to offer counseling or support. In every case, the individual was dealing with the death of a family member. This included a mother struggling with guilt about not being able to save her five year old son and a twelve year old girl who had flashbacks from seeing her little cousin with his skull split open. With the aid of my translator, I also facilitated a support group for the women in one village and designed a training for teachers on helping their students manage trauma.

When I got back to Bali after volunteering in Java, I had the definite sense that I was was now entitled to hang out on the beach. The one I chose was Amed, a tranquil black-sand beach on the remote north-east coast of Bali. For three days I slept, snorkeled, read novels, ate meals, made music and sang, played with the local children, and enjoyed the company of other travelers. My favorite companions were two hilarious gay Dutch women on their honeymoon. They'd had a big legal wedding in Holland – complete with TWO white lace dresses. They were happy and matter-of-fact about being on their honeymoon. The curious Balinese would seem to grasp the concept, but then they would invariably end the conversation by asking, “And so where are your husbands?”

I yearned to stay longer at the beach, but my Indonesia visa was about to expire, so I needed to leave the country in order to re-enter it. (Please don't get me started on this bit of bureaucratic insanity...)

I flew to Singapore and, because hotels here are very expensive, I decided to go to a backpackers' hostel. When I first walked into the hostel late at night and saw the funky scene, I thought, “I'm too old for this.” By morning, I was delighted with my choice. For $16, I had a clean bunk bed in a quiet dorm with the best reading light of my whole trip. It had a clean bathroom with hot shower, air conditioning, free breakfast, Internet access, and a helpful young staff with information on just about everything! I befriended a female law student from Kansas and together we toured the city. Most interesting to me was the excellent museum at Changi Prison - where the Japanese kept their prisoners of war- with excellent displays describing the war in the Pacific. I was unaware that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, Malaya, Hong Kong and the Philippines all on the same day. Talking to the British tourist next to me, I asked, “Why did Japan invade all these places?” “Oil,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I pressed him, incredulous.

“Very sure.”


(Read Thomas Hartmann's excellent Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight for a powerful overview of petroleum – past, present and future. It will help clarify this hot topic: “What's our oil doing under their sand,” etc.)

While waiting to return to Indonesia, I also went to Vietnam to see the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum.) I've been told by many that Vietnam is a great tourist destination. I needed to bear witness to what we unleashed on that country before I could think about “vacationing” there. I don't have the space or the words to describe that museum. Here are three quick reactions: 1) War sucks! 2) Within even one lifetime, there is rapid turnover in who are considered the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys,” who are the victors and who the vanquished. I saw a remarkable photo of a Japanese guard at Changi prison handing over his sword to a (former) POW upon learning that Japan had capitulated. Now the Changi guard was to be a POW in his own prison. My week of travel and study in Asia gave me an eery sense of how quickly the wheel of fortune turns. (Think about the Japanese, the Vietnamese, the Russians, the Chinese, and perhaps the Americans....) Finally, 3) There is a massive disconnect between the self-image of Americans (friendly, fair, helpful, defenders of freedom) and how America is seen by many in Asia (droppers of the atomic bomb, aggressive invaders of foreign countries, arrangers of CIA-backed military coups, and consumate corporate exploiters.)

Back in Bali I've been having a joyful time in the company of 20 music-loving women from various Bay Area Threshold Choirs. (The choirs are the inspiration of Kate Munger who has taught over 500 women a repertoire of songs that can be sung at the bedsides of ill or dying people.) Their tour has been brilliantly choreographed. An American-Balinese couple are our guides, sharing their knowledge of the culture, language, religious practices, art, customs and traditions. For a few days of their 3 week trip, I've joined them in singing, volunteering by exchanging songs and chants with a group of severely disabled Balinese, visiting temples, museums, attending dance performances, participating in sacred ceremonies. What a rich and satisfying experience!

Whenever I’m in Bali, I return to Penestanen and the warmth of my Bali family. The sound of Putu Lia’s lilting voice, excitedly announcing “Mama Leah!” is the best music in the world. I intend to start a college savings account for her family when I get home. I had hoped these travels would help me identify a future “calling.” My heart seems to say I want to be a “global grandma.”

I get back to California on August 2nd. Among the things I look forward to with excitement are Chuck, our kids my friends, Moraga Valley Pool, my bicycle, WeightWatchers , western toilets and the blessing of low humidity.

Love to all,


Sabbatical Letter #3

July 10, 2006


The Balinese have very different beliefs about the causes of mental health problems from those of Western psychologists. In Bali, it is assumed that emotional difficulties stem from a disturbed relationship to the ancestors. Psychological healing comes about through repairing the problem in the relationship with the ancestors. Often this is done through trance work.

Before her departure for the U.S., the psychologist from Carmel who befriended me after the earthquake and settled me into a beautiful bungalow next to Putu Lia and her family, handed me a card with the picture of a brown berry of a man with a long white beard. “This man is an amazing healer,” Janis said. He's hard to get an appointment with, but why don’t you try.” Two weeks later, after my 10 days in Yogya, I flew home to Bali to keep my appointment with Ketut Arsana.

I walked into the peaceful compound at Ubud Bodyworks Centre and was greeted by a man with smooth brown skin, a warm twinkle, and a wrinkle-free face that belied his long white beard. “You look just like the man in the picture,” I quipped, holding up the card Janis had given me. I followed him up 3 flights of outside steps to what seemed like the very rooftop of Ubud. His treatment room looks out over a breathtaking view of rice paddies, temples, white herons and Ubud village with its lush canopy of tropical trees and verdant plantings.

Once inside, I explained to Ketut how I had just survived the Yogya earthquake.

“You were very lucky.”

“Yes, but I have always been so afraid of death that it interferes with my enjoyment of being alive.”

“That’s because you fight it,” he responded. “You just need to surrender. After all, this body is not yours. You must return it to the mother.”

“I know that with my mind, but not here.” I touched my heart and my belly.

“I’m not afraid of death,” he volunteered. “I have wanted to die at different times since I was 8 years old.” ( I immediately knew this man had lost his mother in childhood.)

On his treatment table, Ketut began a systematic tour of my body that was part exploration, part massage, part chiropractic adjustment, part acupressure – all with an extreme pressure that stopped just short of being painful. As he was working, I asked him, “Did your mother die when you were a child?”

“Yes, my mother and soon after, my grandfather, and then my older brother.”

I told Ketut that my mother’s biological mother had died shortly after giving birth to her, and then her father died just a couple years later. “I feel like I carry her fear inside me.”

“Yes, her spirit is connected with you.”

“Oh, she is not dead.”

“Her spirit is trying to connect with you,” he repeated.

“She’s 92 years old, but she is still I alive,” I corrected him once again.

“Not your mother,” he clarified. “HER mother.”

Oh! Taken aback with surprise, I wondered out loud. “She died of childbed fever when my mother was 8 days old. Do you suppose she knew she was dying?”

“Yes, I think so.”

Suddenly I was shivering with understanding. “Oh! Of course she would fight death. Of course she would be terrified. She would want desperately to live. To take care of her new baby girl and her 5 year old daughter.” I began to fill up with a heart-full of sadness. “Imagine the pain of knowing you are dying and you can’t prevent it, and you feel utterly responsible for these two babies and you can’t stay alive to protect them. Of course you would fight your death!

A huge quiet sadness was inside me, and ever so lightly, Ketut touched my third eye on my forehead, my heart, my belly. I was crying so softly and felt so perfectly held, that it didn’t matter whether sound and tears actually came out or not.

In that moment I understood that there is a vast difference between dying after a fulfilling life, with children launched, important dreams realized, and dying at age 29 with two young children – one a newborn.

“What was your grandmother’s name?” Ketut asked me.

“I don’t know. My mother’s adoptive parents preferred not to talk about it and my mother was careful never to ask. Her older sister may have told me once, years ago, but I’ve long since forgotten.”

“So, go home tonight and make an offering to her. Make an offering and she will come to you.”

Back in my room, I set up an alter. I placed flowers on it – fragrant frangipani flowers. I also put my bra on the altar – to honor the breasts and milk she would have given my mother if she could have lived. Putu Lia’s mother, Kadek, had made and given me a dainty necklace - a purple and black beaded pouch. I wrote a note to my forgotten grandmother. I told her that her baby girl had lived a long and satisfying life, she enjoyed a happy marriage, and had children who had children. I placed the note in the little pouch, buttoned it closed and set it on my altar.

That night, toward morning, I awoke knowing her name. “Clara.” I am almost sure that’s it. Now I speak to her by name – “Grandmother Clara.” Thanks to a healer in Bali, I retrieved a rejected part of our family history - a part that was disowned, almost like a secret. How strange to travel half way round the world to meet my grandmother and welcome her back to her rightful, honored place in our family. I hope that by remembering her, by understanding her emotions and her life experience, I can keep her in the family without having to BE her. I would like to honor her memory while being free to have my own emotions and my own life experiences.

Some of you will resonate to this story more than others. Simply know that it resonates profoundly for me.




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