From the light to the dark and back again

Posted by Laura Cohn on

Laura’s Love Letter from Bali - March, 2024
While perched on the second-floor balcony, and looking across the field past my neighbor’s open pavilion, I hear and spy sprinkles of the daily pulse of Bali. The Bali Banjar, or local community hall, teems with activities on most mornings into the late night, including old grandpas doing their morning sun salutations in matching white track suits, younger kids learning traditional Silat martial arts, a loud someone with a bull horn commanding the crowds to muster, slight Balinese beauties practicing their graceful Legong dance, and our neighborhood gamelan musicians ringing out background music for my afternoon tea. The usual room I stay in is on the ground floor, but due to construction, my family asked if I would stay upstairs this year. Of course, I obliged, forgetting what an extra privilege this affords me to bear witness behind the scenes of my neighbors’ daily lives. Also, catching mother nature from this vantage point of a palm tree’s height, the birds swooping up and down, as swifts fly about snatching the afternoon mosquitoes just before dusk. Dragonflies swarm so close that the rapid flapping of their wings’ fans me ever so lightly, and I catch the last soft orange rays of sunlight before they fade behind the forest’s edge that frames this stunning canvas before me.
Especially in the light of the vanishing green fields (due to ongoing development), I delight in one of my very favorite sights: the duck herder shepherding his flock through the streets into the rice fields, calling to mind a swarm of starlings murmuration's, but on land. Dozens and dozens of individuals move as one. I took up the staff of the herder this year in my new role as tour leader for the first time in all my decades of travels to Indonesia. My seven ducklings included my husband Bill and three couples, dear friends of ours from Philadelphia and Chicago, who willingly followed the grains of seed I led them with over our two-week journey. I delighted seeing Bali through their eyes of my only slightly jaded Eden. Our flock experienced her through all our senses: tasting, hiking, soaking, climbing, swimming, riding, eating, witnessing, drinking, listening, learning, inhaling, cooking, sharing, dancing, laughing, and being. As expected, they all fell deeply in love with Bali. Mission accomplished: I navigated the ducklings from point A to point B, a journey as magical as I had hoped. It wasn’t a hard sell.
After our fellow ducklings migrated to the US, Bill and flew over to Java, to my old home of Yogyakarta for a few days of work, friends and a special treat. It had been 15 years since Bill (and Daniel) had been to Yogya, and we really wanted to return to visit Borobudur, the most stunning and largest Buddhist temple in the world, set in central Java. Built in the eighth and ninth centuries, and lost for countless years to volcanic eruptions and thick forest claiming it as its own, it was restored in the 1970’s by UNESCO. Unlike during my previous visits, the local authorities have now imposed strict rules on visitors by limiting the numbers to only 1,500 each day and very small groups at a time, giving the monument much need protection. For the first time, I could sense the strong presence of the many Buddhist monks who meditate on and honor this holy site, rather than the press of tourists climbing onto the ancient stone Buddhas laps to pose for photos. To look out to the ring of mountains surrounding the valley where this temple has stood for centuries, I regained the stillness that I needed after such a whirlwind month. The hundreds of stunning stone Buddha carvings inhabiting the monument reminded me to breathe in their beauty and calm in the face of such uncertainty in this wild world.
And a what a wild ride it was. Beyond wearing my more than my 30-year-old business hat, this year and one of tour leader/duckling herder, I also rallied at finishing up a fantastic large, commissioned carving that had been my charge for almost a year. Balancing all three jobs, in addition to catching up with all my local loved ones, kept me moving full time. Thankfully, Bali has a buzz of energy that I draw on unconsciously whenever I am there, and that keeps me smiling and grounded no matter what presents itself.
Oh and this year tested me beyond my multi-tasking, but on a deeper molecular level I had not anticipated. A week into my stay, my dad -- at home in Chicago – entered into hospice after many, many months of diminishing health. Just a year ago on my last visit home to Indonesia, my mother was in the same position on the runway in hospice and passed away this past June. Each night in Indonesia, after falling into bed following extremely long delicious days, I would text and talk with my family back home as they rallied around my dad’s shifting situation. Despite the distance between continents, I have honed an ability after 35 years to knit my two worlds into one, and surprisingly so felt no urgent pull to rush back to Chicago (and thankfully my siblings understood). My heart is most alive and at home here in Indonesia where I basked in the balancing act the Balinese embraced between light and dark, life and death, ying and yang. Daily they appease the lower-lying spirits with canang sari, offerings of vibrant flowers seated in a small woven palm basket and placed on the ground to feed the evil doers so they will be fed and cease from causing a ruckus. In the same movement, they place an identical canang sari, or offering, higher up on a family shrine to reflect gratitude for what they are thankful and hopeful for. They feed both the shadows and the light, seeking harmony when these seemingly contrasting forces coexist as neither good nor bad, but with all part of the whole. I held in my heart how grateful we were for my dads’ full life at the same time knowing his death is soon in coming, that may he have a peaceful transition. I was at once right next to him, only half a world away.
As imagined with such a full month, my days did not allow me time to sit and ink words to paper (as if) to capture all that was at play. Leaving Bali and all my loves there is never easy, but this year, returning home with Bill to the springtime early pink cherry trees and sun yellow daffodils made me happy. And yes, at this writing my dad is still with us, and I am Chicago bound this weekend to see him and sit with his last bits, whatever they look and feel like. With a creative imagination, I will see my tall handsome daddy, born and bred in pasty white Iowa (as was I), doing morning Tai Chi with all the elderly coffee skinned Balinese men in the Bali Banjar
across the field, and I will smile. I ask you, what do you see in your mind’s eye that merges this world and that, here and there, inside and out?
All my love from the light to the dark and back again,

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