Author Archives: penny

My Smalltown Love Affair: From a Tiny Dot to a Tinier One

They say the town of Dingle has a population of 1,500. I know, I’m using the universal “they” here as I can’t seem to verify a number online, talented fact checker that I am not, but this is the number I hear and read most often.

And there’s certainly irony in it. Even if the number is under by a whole 500, according to one or two.

I mean, one of my biggest gripes with living in Lakeport was that it was so small. You couldn’t go to the grocery store without seeing at least one person you knew. And Lakeport boasted a big 5,000.

This past October, I decided to come here because I already had a contact here. A playwright. Someone who, as a creative, believed in the magic of the place. I’ve been curious about Dingle since two years ago when, on a whim, I chose the hand behind my life’s back containing a month-long trip to Bali instead of Ireland.

And she was right. It was love at first sight. There’s just something to this tiny dot that called to me from the vastness of a wide world map.

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While engaging in conversations with strangers, not a single soul has ever flinched when I admit I’m writing a book. The most common response has actually been: “Well, you’ve come to the right place.”

They’re all used to this sort of thing, no matter how small or sheltered Dingle might seem.

In fact, I frequently ran into or was introduced to other playwrights and authors. To poets and musicians, painters and filmmakers. To metal sculptors and woodworkers.

See, the actual problem is that I’m a pretty private person. It’s not that I don’t open up easily. When I feel comfortable with an individual, I’ll tell them much about myself and try to create safe space for them to do the same. It’s my way.

But I don’t like to feel easily read. I don’t want people to gather enough narrative from a distance to write my story for me in their own minds — or worse, collectively with friends.

I value my anonymity. If there are impressions to give, I want to give them directly, with my own voice. People are welcomed to distort from that point on, but at least I’ve had the opportunity to write me first.

None of us wants to get figured out. We’d like to believe that we’re walking riddles. That we’ve cracked everyone else’s codes while remaining utterly unsolvable ourselves.

But it’s nonsense. During my stay before, I got myself into something of a “like” triangle — more like a spider web in pattern and stickiness. And no matter how private I tried to keep my life, everyone I knew — along with everyone they knew — knew some version of everything. I couldn’t hide.

It’s impossible to get to know the opposite sex here, for instance, unless you’re willing to be completely in the open about things from the beginning. Unless you’re totally comfortable with the public nature of your I’m-not-sure-where-this-is-going-and-it’s-not-quite-yet-a-relationship-of-any-kind-but-everyone-seems-to-know-all-about-it-anyway connection.

To make matters worse, I live in the heart of downtown, right next to two of the most popular pubs. You can easily see into my apartment window from the street. I cannot hide.

So, why then — why would I choose to return to the epicenter of this brightly lit glass house that is Dingle?

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When I began my affair with Dingle, I told a close friend how confused I was about my connection to the place, especially considering how exposed I felt.

“It makes sense,” she said. “You value deep, intimate connections.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way. Real anonymity is only available in big cities where one could slip by unnoticed. Here, I was forced to let people in. And it’s true that I preferred this over surface-level connections. Even if it meant they might learn more about me than I’d intended.

These connections made my life feel fuller. There’s power in vulnerability. In the exchange of a single secret. In showing a card or two, if by accident.

Besides, by now, the spider web has been swiped away and I’ve maintained all of my original friendships.

And should my future decisions, actions, and evolving image come to change people’s minds about me, should interactions change or die because I’m living aloud, from just inside the glass walls, then I’ll have to accept the sometimes finite nature of human relationships.

That those who truly care will always be there. It’s a life lesson I’m just now beginning to grasp, or at least lightly graze with my fingertips.

Because the truth is the smalltown mentality was never the problem. It’s always the culture of a place that really draws you in or spits you out. As Dingle and the small village in Bali where I spent nearly all of my time while on the island have drawn me in.

Penestanan (Bali) is spiritually charged, it’s soft and peaceful, slow and relaxed; it’s graceful and artistic. And in Dingle, it’s about great craic (more on this soon, but for now, think good times), literature, art, warmth, charm, and ease. In both places, there’s also tremendous natural beauty and a sense of innocence that’s nothing short of moving.

Although I had wonderful connections in Lakeport, it could never be my kind of small town. Forgive me, dear residents.

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No matter how tiny this place is, my biggest dreams and deepest passions know no limitations. My own contracting and expanding are met only with open arms and elastic skies. I just fit here.

We were made for each other.

 

Top photo by Sean Tomkins (of Galway, Ireland)

A Halt on Travel: Why Ireland

It’s not that I no longer want to explore. It’s just that the exploration has shifted inward. And it’s shifted to paper.

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My last international trip was to Ireland — the most western point of the country, the Dingle Peninsula. I was there two months, indulging in a sort of silent period.

I poured all of my creative energy into the book. I stopped allowing myself to write blog posts. I stopped taking on assignments from back home. Stopped working on other projects, especially collaborative ones.

Nearly every day, I would spend hours writing everything. And also arranging all the pieces to determine how they might form a complete jigsaw and what shapes the puzzle might take. How it all might morph from a puzzle to a story, a message.

The book was a mirror, and as I daily looked into the glass and watched the chipping away process, I was startled to realize that witnessing it was only possible if the mirror’s subject was chipping away at herself — at myself. One begets the other.

Unlike what forms of art we create through compiling, contorting, and constructing, it’s the sculpture that was born out of deconstruction — the dismantling of nothing into something. The breakdown of excess to get to the essence. The core of it. The heart.

I didn’t know that writing about my own life would take so much from me. Would make me see my past and my present — my experiences, my behaviors, my habits — for what they were and are.

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I didn’t know that stirring memories that have hibernated for months, years, and sometimes decades could feel as chaotic or painful as their living moments. What life they still had in them!

As much as I consistently work on, face, and deal with the challenging aspects of my life as I go through them, it seems I’d stuffed so much away. And now I was choosing to confront all of it head on every single time I sat down to write. Was I insane?

Really, it has taken a kind of bravery I never expected it would. Sometimes between paragraphs I’d undergo a meltdown. Then wipe the tears away and carry on. Even now, there are parts I keep putting off. Things I’ll “get around to.”

But I’m still going for it. The more I carve away, the more I chip away, the more it all takes shape.

The more is leading to a deliberate less.The breaking down of excess to get to the essence. The core of it. The heart.

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I’ve returned to Ireland just this week to finish what I started. There could be no better place for me to finish this book than the country’s most beautiful corner, where people from all over the world are magnetized to visit and often never leave. I have so much to share about the place and my journey to, from, and while there. I’ll be posting regularly again beginning this month, so stay tuned.


World Travel’s Greatest Gift: The Plus Signs Between Even Improbable Pairs

I remember when I was 19, one of my favorite artists said at the end of one of his songs: “Love for President.”

A few years later, a close friend and amazing poet described his experience growing up in a Christian family (I was surprised to find this out about him, as I had just acquired my share of bad experiences with the religion and was completely turned off from it then): “It’s all about love,” he said. Curious.

A couple months ago, I was sitting alongside a jazz musician in Bali, listening to him talk about his spiritual beliefs: “Some people say ‘God,’ some say ‘Allah’; I say ‘Love’.”

One of my best friends said to me this past spring that she no longer wants to travel alone. A previous tenant expressed a similar sentiment: “It’s only worth it if it’s shared.” And both have traveled extensively on their own and know firsthand the magic in it.

It took me until very recently to understand love’s critical role in my life experience. I have spent the last sixteen years or so caught up in an art as my first objective. It eclipsed everything else: many social opportunities, relationships, and — at times — my mental health.

I felt the highest power was creativity and that love was nice.

The longer I’m out in the world, though, the more my priorities are shifting. Although I am constantly growing in experience and wisdom through my travels, although I am writing more than ever, although I am learning about how others think and live and adjusting myself as I see fit, there is actually something even larger that I’m gaining out here: connection.

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As a person who used to consider herself to be very shy and socially awkward, it’s strange to think that the thing that means the most to me these days is connecting with new people. But it does.

Over the past three months, I have found a little brother, a father, a kindred spirit, a teacher, a lover, a best friend, a mommy, a mentor — some of whom were the same person, some in more than one person.

Often I find myself frequenting the same establishments — even when it means spending beyond my budget or eating the same food again and again or drinking things I don’t much enjoy — just so I can run into the same people, the owners and patrons of the places where these connections were made.

All of travel is brilliant for this, but Southeast Asia seems the most conducive and — in particular — Indonesia.

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I met people on a very regular basis in Bali. There was actually a point during which I couldn’t write a word because a stranger would start up a conversation with me or new friends would by chance drop into the same cafe just after I’d settle in, and a whole new discussion or adventure would ensue.

I was so torn about all this at first because I felt like I couldn’t find the time and space to be alone and to be creative, yet I was gaining much from these encounters.

And, sure, you can do your best to plan your days — and you should if you intend to achieve anything — but you can’t plan the universe’s interventions: the people you are supposed to meet, the places you are supposed to be, the things you are meant to see even if it’s “supposed to” be writing time.

And why fight it? In my case, getting to the end of the writing process seemed the most important thing — to have a book finished — but with enough time I learned that each person was a character in my story and I in theirs; the only difference (and not always) was that I was recording mine.

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I explained to one person that I felt like I was in love with everybody, and I’ve since decided not to run from this notion. There doesn’t seem to be a precise word or phrase for falling into deep love with someone unromantically, but this is what I’m getting at.

We tend to value romantic love over all other types — sibling love, parent love, love for children, for your own child, for your pets, for friends. I felt the same way, even back when love didn’t take precedence. It seems that no matter how many beings we feel unconditional love for, no matter how loved we are or how many people love us, we feel like we’re missing something without romantic love — that most delicious elixir.

But I’m trying to be okay now with whatever form love shows up in, in not needing romantic love in order to feel whole: a restaurant owner giving me a thumbs up behind the back of the man I’ve brought in with me for drinks; my personal Swedish massage trainer in Thailand nodding and saying, “okay, okay, okay,” as confirmation after each of my tentative strokes on my model; or a handful of new friends revealing to me their deepest secrets — while exchanging favorite music with each other in the middle of the night surrounded by abandoned villas in Bali, or getting ready for work in the morning in Germany, or riding in the back of a songthaew in Thailand, or walking through a food festival in a tiny Irish town.

So many people earned my good-bye tears when we parted ways.

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Even with contenders like getting lost, missing my bus by a few minutes, sleeping through my train stop, conflicts with airport security, thirteen-hour layovers, being eaten alive by mosquitos, and forgetting my bank card in the ATM, leaving people is still the most difficult part of all of travel.

So, to Mal and Chris, Michael, Brian, Paddy, Leo, Mickey, Mabel, Elke, Boom, Caroline and Ali, Reza, Maya, Rose, Orçun — and so many others: You’ll forever be in my heart.

I’m grateful for the plus-sign once stuffed between us.

 

Photo 1 courtesy of a lovely Alchemy staff member; photo 2 courtesy of Michael Alemparte; photo 3 courtesy of Paddy Kearnan; photo 4 courtesy of Ali Ertürk

Do Not Touch. Dry Paint: Crossing Imaginary Lines in Chiang Mai

Ever notice how enticing the end of anything is? When we meet someone who piques our interest, for instance, we fantasize about sleeping with them or the serious relationship we’ll share with them.

And that becomes our entire focus with the person. We imagine that once we hit this point, life will suddenly blossom or that we can hold on to that anticipated feeling forever. But in the background, the endorphins are secretly, quickly dissipating…

As a former resident of the West, who still maintains plenty of its characteristics, I sometimes find it easier to see my old habits when I’m visiting a place where they’re not so prevalent. Like my addiction to immediate gratification.

Thus, I’ve been working on embracing process — trying to appreciate the fact that I’m still not at the end of everything I desire: to be a better person, a stronger one, a less reactive one, one who is always productive; to be my healthiest; to have written and published successful books.

All of these require ongoing work. There could never be a point where I say, “There we go. I’m done,” and brush my hands of it all. At least not until I’ve met my certain death.

So, part of the process of embracing process is to accept that there will always be work to do on myself and that it will be challenging and at times I will hate it, but I’ll have to keep pushing through it. That to get closer to my purest self, I will need to tear away layer upon layer, and each time the flesh will rip and the nerve endings will blare.

And through it, there will also likely be times of vulnerability, when I’m forced or simply inclined to admit my flaws and quirks to new friends and sometimes even strangers.

Times when I may say aloud or write in a blog post that I’ve always had a strange discomfort with affection. Aside from a few select people — the babies and small children in my family, my nana, and boyfriends or lovers — I have generally evaded being physically close with people. Even good friends.

I can remember all the tactics I’d use to avoid hugging and kissing relatives as a child: filling my arms with a large load needing to be carried at the precise moment a relative is saying good-bye; doing some chore outside of the house; running to the bathroom just as a relative arrives and staying there until they’ve become occupied with something.

Even as an adult, when people would arrive at my nana’s house where I kept my office, I’d try to escape potentially physical greetings: getting on an “important” call or putting on headphones and suddenly working diligently.

In my early twenties, I dated a guy originally from Europe. Whenever we would visit his family, they would say “hello” and “good-bye” by kissing both cheeks. It was unbearable. My face was always bright red during these moments. I never knew which side to go for first and is there a hug in there or is it just the double kiss? Lips on cheek or cheek-to-cheek?

Such a non-thinking gesture actually caused me tremendous mental anguish and so, again, I’d find ways to dodge the embrace.

I remember once being invited to a party filled with people I didn’t know. I was told they were all very warm and welcoming and I would likely get hugged a lot. So, I came up with good reasons to cancel at the last minute. And this was just within the last year.

I can probably trace it back to a lack of affection in my household growing up, maybe some residual insecurities. Regardless of where it came from, it’s been with me since I was very young and I was finally ready to work out the final kinks of it.

This is why I decided to enroll in a Thai Massage course in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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I explained this intention to a few close friends, but even as I said it, I didn’t really fear it. I had been in this setting plenty of times: a group of people gathered to learn a common skill, like when I became certified as a yoga instructor. The truth is I’d most likely thrive.

In other words, it felt like a shortcut to dismantling some of my shit. I would lifehack my issues.

I arrived the first day without much worry. The format of the class turned out to be simple enough and after some yoga or tai chi each morning, before beginning our lessons, the whole school would enjoy a coffee/tea/hot chocolate/social break together.

I met a woman from Indonesia and we became fast friends. And another from California, one from the UK, one from Japan, and another from France. In pairs, we practiced some massage patterns on each other’s feet until lunchtime. Massage school was cake.

And then the afternoon arrived like a cheap shot.

Sure, I wasn’t entirely confident in whether I was hitting the correct acupressure points on the feet earlier in the day, but now we were dealing with energy lines that ran up the legs and into the groin region. Further, my latest massage partner was male and I wasn’t particularly comfortable with him.

An instructor sat next to me as I took my turn as massage therapist, constantly correcting my movements — I was getting the lines all wrong — including placing my hands much higher on his thighs than I had intended to go or right on his pelvis to “open the wind gate.”

My discomfort was overthrowing the courageous parts of me. How could I stop all of time for the seven seconds it would take me to grab my bag and flee this room, this building — maybe even Thailand?

I really tried to think of it in terms of getting it over with. At least I was practicing upper thigh/groin/pelvis massage on a strange man during the first day, and since we always change partners, I’d only have one more man I didn’t know in the class to reluctantly massage.

There was some silver lining somewhere in this moment. I was sure I’d survive it and that Day 2 would be much better.

But on Day 2, I left my apartment a little later in the morning. It was pouring rain, as it had the previous day. And I like rain; it suits me. But today the rain soaked my clothes and I was dripping wet. Taxi drivers weren’t willing to drive me to my destination, and when one finally did, he dropped me off down a side street that was unfamiliar.

After walking in circles, completely drenched and defeated, I finally found the school and entered my classroom in the middle of our opening ritual, utterly embarrassed. This was not the start I needed to another day of working through lifelong issues at an unreasonably rapid rate.

Now we were moving into the yoga portion of the massage: The therapist stretches the clients’ hips and legs and feet while using her own body for leverage.

My latest massage partner was perfect for me. We felt very comfortable with one another, and we laughed and fumbled through things. You’d figure this would have made it all better, but my insecurities began flaring up again, and the messages that arose with them were the opposite of true: You’re going to hurt her, you’re invading her space, your nervous energy is contagious.

— OK, that last one was probably very true, and I’d like to take a moment right now to apologize to all of my fellow massage students for inducing anxiety versus relaxation as I uncomfortably massaged them. I appreciate you all!

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As each hour passed, I felt less capable of finishing out the week — the day even. All of my apprehensions with physical touch were bubbling to the surface and I felt like I was suffocating.

I had to talk myself out of sobbing all over my massage clients. I had to talk myself out of leaving early. I had to talk myself out of not returning tomorrow. On the second-to-last day, I had to talk myself out of skipping the test and not completing the certification process.

And I had to repeat the following statements to myself:

1. You are not going to hurt your clients by applying pressure to or stretching their muscles.
2. If your clients are uncomfortable with the amount of pressure or stretch, they will tell you.
3. These massage clients know the steps of the massage; they know what they are getting into. You are not invading their personal space, and they understand that you, like them, are in the learning process and could potentially get things wrong while practicing.

But even with the constant self-reminders, I struggled. I experienced a wide range of self-judgments: from unworthy to intrusive, incompetent to unwelcome.

Massage school was a vehicle that sped across some of my deepest insecurities. And I was tied to its bumper with thick rope, dragging raw through the whole murky thing.

Still, I stuck it out.

I practiced on a friend before the final day and I attended against my ego’s best excuses and harshest criticisms.

In the end, I scored 99% on the final exam and received very useful feedback from one of the instructors. The massage began feeling more natural over time, and I went on to register for a Swedish Massage course to continue this self-dismantling process.

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But it’s an ongoing practice. I still feel that anxiety rise from time to time, so I make a point of being the first to enter others’ personal space: going in for a hug even if I’m not certain they want more than just a handshake; rubbing people’s arms and backs as a means to emphasize my understanding, empathy, or appreciation; and massaging even new acquaintances (with permission, heh).

If every country represents something different, Thailand’s purpose was to acquaint me with the unfamiliar. It was the first country in which I’d traveled alone from the beginning (even though I spent much time in Indonesia alone, I began each visit alongside a friend); the one in which I caressed the most strangers (I would have hit the record if the number was one, but it was way more!); and the one in which I started slicing through the gaping space between me and new friends when greeting or leaving them.

In other words, next time I see any of you, prepare to have your wind gate opened. Mine certainly has been…

 

 

Group photo courtesy of Airi Oyama.

Rising to Reset Ourselves: Sunrise from Mt. Batur

I don’t remember ever seeing a sunrise. I’ve been awake at sunrise — usually some form of still awake — but I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed it outside of the paintings and movie scenes it has inspired: the elusive sunrise…

And it’s one of the only things in this world we have access to for free every single day. The way I see it, I’ve missed 12,226 sunrises across my entire lifetime. But not on this day.

Our excursion was to begin at 2:30 a.m. and so we debated napping for a few hours and possibly waking up exhausted or staying up all night and possibly being exhausted anyway.

We compromised, each sleeping about one hour before our alarms would rip us from our beds, too disoriented to be excited.

But there was excitement. Crammed just beneath our zombie shells only the surprisingly chilly air could crack through once we were expelled from our van into the parking area two hours later.

We were fully in the adventure by now, and we didn’t know what to expect.

Our group of six and another of equal size were herded into a circle by three guides, who told us their names and explained that one would walk ahead of us, one would walk in the middle, and one would walk behind us.

They would march us up, as if for crimes we’d committed, to the very top, and we had no choice but to follow orders. After all, Mt. Batur belonged to them and we were at their mercy.

There’s something almost menacing about a mile-high mountain in the middle of the night with no moon. It felt instinctive to avert my eyes whenever I’d notice its pitch blackness towering just to the right of us, as we wrapped around our path of loose sand between rows of tall trees and vegetable plants.

And then, before we knew it, the path opened wide and we were standing at the foot of the volcano, dumbfounded.

Although the moon was absent, the sky was incredibly clear and so served as a mirror — the stars sprawled across it the way the volcanic rock was sprawled across the trails up Mt. Batur.

And up our collective path, a long strand of lights — the flashlights of hikers ahead of us — illuminated the way, like the souls of the enlightened ascending to a common summit. The mountain suddenly clearly sacred.

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The hike up would take two full hours, and because we relied entirely on the light of our flashlights (I actually relied on that of my hiking partner) and because the path was narrow, and because we weren’t seasoned at this, every single step mattered.

This was one of those experiences in which you have to be entirely present. Deliberate. Every rock you step onto, the amount of weight you place, the position of your hand for support — it all counted. You gauge the most secure steps amid the large embedded rocks, climb them, and then turn to the person behind you to see if you can offer your hand.

For 120 minutes, aside from our lovely guides’ occasional advice on how to negotiate certain points, we climbed in complete silence. We lifted ourselves above our to-do lists, above our mobile phones, internet access, and small talk, and the brisk air washed through not only our lungs but our entire bodies, purifying us, preparing us for the peak of it all.

What happens when there aren’t visible mountains or an ocean in the distance from behind which the sun can rise? I wondered. I was new to all this, gazing out over the clouds beneath us, blocking our view of the ground below, once we reached the top. Waiting, waiting, waiting…

And then: “There it is,” my hiking partner pointed it out to me, as he positioned his camera to steal this image my mind could hardly understand.

The sun began lifting through the center of the thick cloud layer, like awareness rising out of the mental chatter about things gone seemingly wrong — the yolk of an egg, a birth of sorts.

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We imagine the sun comes out each morning from its nightly hiding place beneath the horizon, behind the mountains, but we have it all wrong.

It is us whose backs are turned toward the sun during what seems like abandonment by light. It is we who reset so we can begin again and whose mouths will still gape whenever we are willing to open our eyes in time to roll forward toward this blazing, bursting centerpiece of the Milky Way.

As my eyes were open then, awestruck by the great executor of day, unable to turn from it.

After tea and breakfast, after exploring Batur’s craters and caverns, and after warming our hands over the pockets of steam we found rising from holes in this active volcano, we began making our way back down, a greater guide shedding fresh light on our path.

We were like new, and we had the whole day ahead of us — this whole life. And we sensed we would somehow get this chance over and over again: to climb our mountains with intention. To reset ourselves. To descend our mountains with new perspective.

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After all, this precise moment was — is — always the beginning of everything else. It is the catapult for all moments to come.


Following Wave Orders, Swallowing Saltwater: Thursday on Nusa Lembongan

Recalling the name given to us through the blur of the previous evening, my friend ventured out into the morning to find us our captain and his boat.

He returned 30 minutes later to pick me up and we sped off on his motorbike, only to stop abruptly when we realized the captain he’d driven through the whole village to find was just across the street from us.

We both had an $0.85 omelette at the attached warung and then followed him along the shore, all the way to the mangrove forest. I’m talking dense masses of trees that grow out of the sea, their roots like the tangle of cables in a server room.

The captain apologized that he had another tour to lead and so he passed us off to his brother. A woman led us down a path, past a sign meant to assure us of our substitute captain’s talent, to another small shore where we met him and his modest boat.

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We winded through the mangroves and eventually out onto the open sea. The water was rougher than either of us had expected, and it only grew in intensity over the next 20 minutes.

Brave adventurers that we were (at first), we sat at the very front of the boat and watched in disbelief as the kinda choppy blue waters inflated to massive waves now appearing opaque black and gelatinous.

The waves rolled into and underneath us, lifting the nose of the boat to 45 degrees and higher, often dropping us in a free fall so that we’d slam against the sea surface, surprised each time that neither our spines nor the fiberglass boat had shattered above the impact.

But whatever fear attempted to arise in us would just as quickly escape through our jaws, gaping in amazement.

By the time we arrived at Manta Cove, however, I still wasn’t convinced that it would be an okay thing for us to snorkel in water that moved so much. And how deep we were, anyway? My body had never dipped down into the ocean more than six feet and there were no shorelines in our periphery.

But there were other people. And other boats — all much larger and better equipped than ours, with crews and tours of several with lots of gear — so I suppose we weren’t entirely out of place or our minds by being there. Only a little, maybe.

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My friend took the plunge first and I followed eventually, unsteady and unready. I looked through the mask to 40 — maybe 50 — feet of ocean depth beneath me, and I panicked. I swam back to the boat, which I’d moved 20 feet from in 20 seconds by the sheer force of those waves, and I climbed back in. I needed to think this over.

“I found one!” shouted my friend and the captain pointed to him, encouraging me to get back in the water, and so I did.

I squeezed my mask and fins back on, bit down on my snorkel, and swam to him. I looked down into the ocean again and there it was: a manta ray. Just 30 short feet beneath us. I was thrilled and scared and confused all at once.

I felt so out of control. My mask kept filling with water and it both blurred my vision and convinced me I would accidentally breathe water through my nose and choke and die an uncomfortable death in the middle of the ocean.

Plus, the snorkel was so wide that it felt unnatural to breathe through my mouth through a huge tube, let alone breathe through my mouth at all, ujjayi breather that I am.

Between rounds of ripping my mask and snorkel off to re-suction the former to my face and empty water out of the latter — all while gulping and gagging on saltwater — I did manage to see one more manta swimming beneath our boat, along with lots of scuba divers several feet beneath us — obviously looking at something amazing down there that we were missing up here — their rising bubbles like clear jelly fish, tickling us as we swam through them.

It was time to move to the next spot and so we swam back to the boat and climbed in, the waves making this just a tad more difficult than climbing a swimming pool ladder (<— sarcasm).

We moved back out through the viscous sea and into Crystal Bay, not too far from a beach. This seemed much more promising, except that all of that swallowed sea water, last night’s cocktails, and the unyielding waves had done me in. I was on the verge of hanging my body over the side of the boat, as my friend and our captain looked at me with concern.

“Go, please go. I’m fine,” I said, trying to keep things down enough to feign ladylikeness.

He hopped back in the water and I sat very still, not knowing whether to open or close my eyes. I tried to breathe slowly, and after a few minutes I was actually okay. I tried another set of gear — a tighter mask and more narrow snorkel — and it was brilliant.

Literally brilliant. I could keep my face down for long periods this time, breathing easily as the water moved me about in much shallower depths now. The coral was bright green and pink and blue and resembled huge bunches of cabbage blossoming. The fish — there were so many — whites and blacks, purples, greens, oranges, and blues. They were stunning and they swam around us, as if we, too, belonged there.

This is why I had come to the island. This was that thing that called directly to my heart when my friend first made the suggestion to go, and now I had arrived here and I understood.

I’m not sure there is anything more magical than the underbelly of the ocean.

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Obviously, the trip wasn’t without flaw. There were definitely some minor injuries and a solid handful of embarrassing moments, including accidentally flashing my nether-regions to our captain while trying to change into my bikini beneath a sarong. And, after a long, hot motorbike ride, standing up to find that the back of my pants were quite visibly wet with sweat. Or trying to move from the front to the back of the boat and slipping to the floor, its side a surprise water slide. And then there was driving on the right side (read: wrong side) of the road while heading toward a young child on a pedal bike, almost making us both crash.

No, things were definitely not perfect. I came back home with plenty of bruises and scratches from falls and crashes, a sunburned face and heat rash, and a touch of Bali Belly. But in each of them I have a memory of being brave and of glimpsing a world I couldn’t even imagine before this trip.

After a little while longer out over this great secret, we gave each other a knowing look and swam back to our boat. We decided to skip our third snorkeling point, as we were completely spent.

And life had delivered well more than our money’s worth.


Drivers of Discomfort, Passengers of Whim: Wednesday on Nusa Lembongan

“The faster you go, the easier it is to balance,” he explained from his own motorbike.
I was really wanting to drive this thing Flintstones style, though. Actually sitting on the bike, I no longer had the desire to turn the motor on, to take this risk.

We had decided to make a very quick trip to the island for adventure’s sake. This new friend of mine heard about areas where we could snorkel with manta rays and this sounded equally terrifying and exhilarating to me — a combination of emotions I knew meant go. Even though when I mentioned it to friends and family, they’d respond with “Don’t get stung.” Comforting. (Note to curious reader: Not true and not possible.)

After a much quicker fastboat ride than the one to and from Gili Air — one with no overbooking issues — we arrived around 5 p.m. and began exploring. My friend knew I both wanted and didn’t want motorbike lessons and so he suggested we each rent one.

But the challenge was upon me and I’d already rented the bike. The owner watched me, waiting for me to pull away. So, reluctantly, I rotated the throttle forward with a wrist nearly limp with fear and off I went.

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We planned to just wing it once we got to the island — not book anything ahead — and so we had work to do. Weaving in and out of the maze of tiny concrete and dirt paths between the shore and the main road, we managed to find an available villa for the night, snorkeling gear for the morning, and a recommendation for a captain and his boat for tomorrow’s adventure.

My friend followed just behind me as I negotiated what little traffic was on the roads, wanting to slow down or pull over for every vehicle that came within 20 feet of me.
But he was right about the significance of accelerating more for more control. And I think it’s important to consider instructions like these — those for learning a new skill or improving upon one — in the light of my own life, whenever they apply.
I was really at odds with the notion that increasing the risk (by increasing the speed) while riding a motorbike would somehow make things easier, safer even. Imagine that.
Perhaps, in the same way, retreating from all of life — shifting entirely to the internal — isn’t the only path to come back into balance with one’s self; maybe it’s not even the best path. After all, my trip to Bali this time is very different, much more outward, and yet I’m learning just as much about myself and the world as last time, maybe even more.

Without much thought, we took a side road up along a cliff, and landed at a restaurant that overlooked the ocean and the entire village. The food was pretty good, the cocktails were alright, but the menu — for a couple of people with backgrounds in things like English and linguistics — that was definitely the best part. Items were fantastically named, such as the Sunrice Cocktail, Confused Chicken, and the Laceration Cocktail. Bottoms up.

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“Lean into your turns, don’t just steer with your arms,” he continued once we found a secluded area in which to practice by making figure eights.
But what if I tipped the bike over and landed beneath it? Better, I thought, to do it my way so I could stay upright. Of course that didn’t pan out for me. Every single time I tried to make a turn “my way”— as if simply pointing the bike’s handlebars in the direction I wanted it to go would do the trick — I’d end up losing my balance and having to catch myself with my foot on the ground.

After a couple hours with our perfect view, we headed back to the village to see whether there were others out at this hour. Following rejection by a few closed establishments, we found a popular spot only on the verge of closing, made a few connections, and managed to bat our eyelashes for a couple of Bintangs to enjoy on the beach after hours.

But to lean would have meant to really commit. Like when I made this decision to venture out into the world. I remember the last two months leading up to my departure: I put my house on the market, 10 days later a couple viewed it, two days later they made an offer, 30 days later it was being pried from my hands, and two weeks later I was turning in my equipment on my last day of work.
I resisted in every way I could, trying to turn my front wheel away from the direction this vehicle propelling me toward my next step was heading.
I tried to create small dramas for myself, tried to make lasting connections with people who were fixtures in my hometown and who had no business in my life, tried to avoid getting rid of my material belongings. But through this, I only made things harder for myself, collecting a few scratches and bruises along the way in the form of stress and heartache.
These days, I’m working on leaning into life and on trusting that it will catch me if I can just let go for a moment.

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So, we leaned into midnight on the shore of Lembongan, after a long afternoon led by whim and caught breaks. We cracked each other up, told our best secrets, and sometimes just breathed in tandem with the ocean.

We didn’t need to be anything for each other, and we didn’t need each other to be anything. We were just riding the waves of the evening, reclined between ripples in the sand, beneath a cloudy night sky with just enough moonlight for us to still feel welcomed there, even as the rest of the island slept.

We were but observers then, using the moment to read some of the depths of one another and of ourselves, as we would the sea the next morning, wide open to beckon the unexpected.

Stay tuned…