A guide to weeping in Bali
Saturday October 24, 2009
Parenting, like travel, brings joy and despair. "The one truth I've learned from my own parenting is that we are never ready for the changes in our children's development and that seems to be part of life."€” Testimony from a wise acquaintanceSINCE receiving this idea about a year ago, I find myself getting about with it, in the ordinary way that a bushwalker might carry a compass, a snake-bite bandage or a little flask of brandy. I have discovered that these deceptively simple words can come in very handy to the parent stumbling in the darkness €” particularly at the time when offspring wriggle out of childhood and go whirling off into adolescence to become "teenagers".The word "teenager" seems useless; it's such a sedate and shallow term when you consider the upheaving human animal it's trying to indicate. In this weak, innocuous word, there is no sense of space traveller, vampire or earthquake whatsoever €” as there should be. Nor is there any suggestive onomatopoeia or sense of tectonic plates grinding and shuddering as the continents move."Teenager" is a dysfunctional word. I don't know who invented this puny term €” probably a tricky advertising person or a well-meaning statistician; it seems such an absurdly coy and anaemic word for the lurid, churning expansion of existence that it's meant to denote.I don't much care about teenagers one way or another, but adolescents are a different matter. They are interesting. They are soulful freedom fighters at war with stale, oppressive regimes: families, schools, community standards. They are ruthless revolutionary destroyers and renewers, disturbed and flawed like Che Guevara, whose iconic image they sometimes wear across their hearts. They fight for independence and bring change through passion and brute force €” the best of them do, at least. They will blow the family holiday to smithereens and not even blink. It happened to me. It has been truly said, "we are never ready for the changes in our children's development".* * *Human development may be difficult enough, but decline and degradation are another kettle of fish. Who is ever ready for those sorts of changes; the ones that gatecrash our nice little party? No sooner do you plant your garden than the climate changes and things hot up. No sooner do the traffic lights change than someone's impatiently tooting you from behind and a huge shopping complex and oil refinery are being built in your backyard. Each day an almighty, ever-changing world crashes into the frailty of our ever-changing body. Just as we were getting our hopes up, we are caught with our pants down and the rug comes flying out from under. No sooner do you arrive on Earth than it's time to leave. Life is just a short holiday.* * *I had a short holiday in Bali recently €” with my wife and teenage offspring. Going to Bali is something that many Australian families do. We thought that we needed a change.Travel warnings had been issued. The Australian Government suggested that Bali was vulnerable to terrorist attack. Friends had warned that travelling with adolescent offspring was extremely risky. We ignored all the advice. Somehow the two different warnings cancelled each other out. Travel warnings mean little to the faithful, and for me, the journey was something of a pilgrimage. I wanted to visit the scene of a previous happiness.I went to Bali 37 years ago. Richard Neville and Rennie Ellis, with whom I was working at the time, had encouraged me greatly. "You'll be changed," they said. Perhaps they thought I needed to change.And changed I was. I went with my first wife before we had children. We were young and curious and tender. We were the children. The Indonesian soldiers at Denpasar airport wore machine-guns. The afternoon was hot and heavy with the wet season, and the beguiling smoke of clove cigarettes rushed into our blood. In a big, battered, pink American car we were driven through lightning and thunder up through the rice paddies to Ubud €” the town of artists and painters.I was agape. A lush world of temples, ducks and water buffalo drifted by like a dream. Gracious, bare-breasted women walked from the rice fields in single files, threading gracefully along terraced gardens with baskets on their heads. Rain gathered in the warm black clouds of evening as pigs and chickens and children scuttled and stared at the big pink car splashing its way through paradise. Villagers lit lamps and made offerings. Spicy cooking smoke swirled in the sweet dimness and wide-eyed stone gods, adorned with frangipani and red hibiscus, glared in wild suspicion at the pale young travellers passing wide-eyed through their darkening land.Electricity had not yet reached beyond Denpasar. It was night when we reached Ubud and rain was falling heavily. Lamplight passed its gentle blessing into the night. The magical sound of distant gamelan could be heard through the music of dripping rain and running water. Geckos and tree frogs sang from walls of bamboo. Fireflies danced in the dark. Whatever could be discerned seemed perfectly pitched and placed. The silences were many and seemed somehow sensuous €” they fell at the exquisite moment and ended in perfection. The relief of coming at last to such beauty and rightness was so profound as to stupefy. Bali had seeped into you €” and what you had let go of in order to assimilate this rapture would never return.A gathering chorus of roosters announced the new day and light revealed the threshing and winnowing of rice on the dirt road at your doorstep, and an organic, agrarian wonderland wandering with animals, and inhabited by the most friendly and elegant people in all the world.Just a few years earlier, outside your door, the same dirt road had been strewn with the bodies of hundreds of Balinese, murdered by unknown neighbours in the night during the swift and bloody purge of paradise in 1965.* * *2009. It is better not to go into the details about the pilgrim's return to Bali; the holiday with his beloved second wife and their offspring in the full throes of adolescence €” and the memories he carried of beautiful Ubud as it was before electricity and mass tourism (a calamity in which he played his part), or the memories of his dear first wife that he took along with sadness and gladness, perhaps to place them like a floral tribute somewhere along the old road to the monkey forest.And of his beautiful children, let there be no details, save to say that they only wanted to be back in Australia with friends and could not comprehend why they had to be marooned with parents in such a place.Of mother, we can say that a meaningful moment came as she sat sobbing quietly in a restaurant after taking heartfelt responsibility for organising what had inexplicably turned out to be a terrible ordeal for her children.One morning as the pilgrim and his wife lay in bed, there was an astounding earthquake €” the largest in Bali's living memory. The house swayed and shook as the tectonic plates did their thing, but to mother and father in the full throes of parenthood it seemed enchanting and otherwise quite natural.And on a balmy afternoon in the peaceful rice fields, the little family came upon a dead traveller in a blood-smeared body bag. He had fallen from his bicycle into a deep chasm. When it happens, it happens quick €” and often when life has never looked lovelier. We are seldom ready.Of father, well, Bali has changed too much, and so has he, but as the tears flowed gently from his wife's eyes on to the restaurant table, memories came, of her giving birth to the boy and girl now sitting beside her as large as life €” memories of all her years nursing and feeding and fretting for their health and happiness. Tears may surprise, but when they flow we may be sure that something is changing and growing and healing.After facing the aggressions of adolescence with as much wisdom as can be mustered, I cannot help but admire them for shaking and changing us so. Their life-giving insurgencies and revolutions for independence are exemplary.It hurts like hell, but if only we could do something of this in middle age €” as passionately and naturally as is done in youth €” then we might know the rapture of forever adorning life with hibiscus and crying at restaurant tables. Weeping for joy!