This post was originally published as a first-person essay on parent co., May 3, 2017. It also appeared on the author’s website On Monkey Forest Road, under the title “Mother, May I?” It is used here with the author’s permission.
When my husband, Victor, was offered a teaching job at a new school in Bali, I held off sharing the news with my mother for as long as humanly possible. I knew that when I told her we were moving her Jew-ish granddaughter to a predominately Muslim country, the arrow on her paranoia meter would swiftly catapult beyond the red zone. I expected her to fret and cry and do all she could to change my mind.
What I didn’t expect, though, was that she would be so wise.
I called her on a Tuesday morning. She listened silently as I recapped the events of the last few weeks: from reading about the school in a magazine, to convincing Victor to send a resume, to his Skype interview, to him flying to Bali to check it out, to him coming back to California with a signed contract.
When I finished speaking, I tensed, waiting for the emotional storm to blow through the phone line. “When will you move?” She asked so calmly I thought perhaps I’d called someone else by mistake.
“In six weeks. We have to find renters and pack up the house and deal with the cat and get a million shots and—” I got so anxious thinking about the list that I cut myself off. “Anyway, we’re really excited. It’s going to be amazing.”
“Loy is only six years old.”
Here it comes, I thought. She’s going to let loose her worries bit by bit, like an IV drip. “So what, she’s six? She’s going to love it. I mean, come on, Mom. It’s Bali!”
“And you’re not troubled by the fact that Muslims hate Jews?” she asked with barely a hint of distress in her voice.
“Mom. That’s ridiculous. Not all Muslims hate all Jews,” I said, swatting away her closed-minded assumption as if it were a gnat. “And besides, most Balinese are Hindu.” I pictured her sitting on her white couch with her hand flung dramatically across her chest like a movie star overcome by shocking news.
All she said next was, “That’s good to know.”
I was beginning to lose patience with her patience. “Okay, well, I’ve got to—”
“Why do you want to move to Bali, Lisa?”
“What are you hoping to get out of it?”
I could tell she was getting ready to pounce; to lay bare all the reasons we were making a huge mistake. “I don’t know, Mom. I mean, it’s beautiful and the people are lovely and the school is supposed to be really great so Loy and Victor—”
“Lisa, of course it’s beautiful. Why else would so many people go there for their honeymoon if it wasn’t a beautiful place?”
My suspicions gave way to bewilderment. She didn’t seem upset. She wasn’t trying to talk me out of going. Who the hell had appropriated my mother and replaced her with this unflustered woman? “Then you’re okay with us moving to Bali?” I said, flinching a little out of habit.
“You haven’t answered me, sweetheart. Why do you want to move to Bali?”
I had more important things to do than justify to my uncharacteristically unconcerned mother why I wanted to leave California and create a new life in Southeast Asia with my husband and child. There was sunscreen to buy and dresses to choose and languages to learn. There was money to transfer and people to interview and books to sort.
“Lisa? Are you still there?”
I stared out the window. Twisted my hair around my finger. What was the proper answer? For Victor, I knew moving to Bali would offer up innovative fodder for his middle-school classroom. He’d get to enlighten foreign children; not just Californians.
Loy would make friends from around the world. She’d be immersed in a new culture. Introduced to unfamiliar art, music, food, sights and sounds—a veritable treasure trove for her ever-expanding brain.
But, what about me?
Me, the hippie mother who took too many drugs in the 80s and then worked for Microsoft before getting a well-endowed two-book publishing deal, and then for the life of her couldn’t write her next book.
Me, the brooding bitch who too often wallowed away in her office looking for a distraction.
I wanted to find peace of mind. I wanted to rest assured that I’d seen what there was to see, explored the beyond, and lived to tell about it. I wanted to stop looking over my shoulder, and the shoulders of strangers, so that once and for all I could cease asking What Else Is There?
“If we move to Bali,” I finally said to my mother’s doppelganger, “I will be more mindful. I will find my higher self. I’ll learn to be a better mother and a more loving wife.”
“You can’t do all that where you are?”
“I suppose I can but I think it will be easier in paradise.”
“If you say so.”
Really? I almost shouted into the phone, “MOM! YOU’RE FREAKING ME OUT THAT YOU’RE NOT FREAKING OUT!” but instead I said, “We can talk more tomorrow,” and was about to hang up, when she uttered, “Let me tell you a story I heard once.”
“What? Victor and Loy will be home from school in five minutes. I really gotta go.”
“So this man learns that he’s going to die in a year and he wins this prize or a lottery—I don’t remember exactly—but God and Satan let him come visit heaven and hell to see which one he’ll want to go to when he’s dead.”
“He goes to heaven and oh, it’s so lovely. Lots of harps and violins. Tuna fish sandwiches being passed around on silver platters. You know, nice.” she said brightly.
“Then he goes to hell. The gates open and he walks in and sees there’s a big party. Hundreds of gorgeous women are dancing around in skimpy clothes and there’s a band playing his favorite Frankie Valli songs and there’s really expensive champagne flowing from a fountain. The man is laughing and dancing and drinking and he has a great time.”
I saw Victor’s car round the bend toward our house. “Okay, so he picks hell to go to when he dies. I get it.”
“Of course he does, and when he finally dies, he shows up and what does he see but fire shooting down from the sky and flames everywhere and people are moaning in pain and the devil is whipping and torturing everyone and it’s just awful. Horrible.”
I had no idea where she was going with this.
“‘Satan, I don’t understand,’ the man says. ‘I was here a year ago and it was all so different, so fun. There was music and dancing and—what happened?’ Before unraveling his whip, Satan smiled at the man. ‘Ah, that’s because last time you came as a tourist.’”
I remembered that little tale of hers again while writing the last chapter of RASH, my memoir about moving to—and, ultimately, running away from—Bali. I was reflecting on the how excited and hopeful I felt while flying back to the States. Not because we were finally leaving our Bali nightmare behind, but because I was going to be a tourist; once again experiencing that unfettered wonder one gets when you go on vacation:
Visiting someplace else is way different than living someplace else. Typically, when you go away on a short holiday, you unpack a few belongings, spend some moment-to-moment time tasting the new; peeking at the strange; marveling at the different. If, instead, when you get to your destination, you unpack your books, stock the fridge, hang family photos, and decide to stay awhile, the exoticness eventually evaporates and you’re left with the same issues you had back home. Life in Bali was just life somewhere else.
My mother’s nimble parable was dead on. Much to my surprise, the person I had been in California followed me to Bali, and once we moved into our hut, I no longer danced with scantily-clad women or drank ever-flowing champagne. Instead, I borrowed Satan’s whip and gave myself a good lashing. I constantly worried about Loy getting sick or hurt. I complained about the insects of all nationalities who flew in and out through our wall-less, window-less hut as if jet-setters on a whirlwind tour. I whined about the rancid smoke from smoldering trash and burning corpses that suffocated my lungs and brain. My bitchiness increased by a factor of 18. Victor and I fought so much that he suggested I go back to California. Without him.
Though it didn’t turn out to be paradise, I believe that going to Bali has made me more grounded. More accepting. My heart is softer. My eyes are wider. My spirit is lighter. I am more grateful than ever for the abundance that surrounds me. I no longer have an untamable itch to go looking for something else to make me happy.
I’m fine just where I am.
Lisa Kusel is the author of the novel Hat Trick (Hyperion, 2003), and Other Fish in the Sea, a collection of linked stories (Hyperion, 2005). Rash, a memoir about her family’s Bali nightmare was released in September, 2017 (WiDo Publishing). Kusel’s poems and essays have appeared in Zuzu’s Petals, The Mondegreen, The Manifest-Station, and Parent Co. Magazine, as well as in the tea-stained journal on her nightstand. When she is not parenting or meditating or running or cooking, she can be found writing at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont.