Ballerinas, machine guns and Corcovado––a dance with doubt in Brazil

On the heels of my dad’s death last July, a fellow pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago invited me to stay with her in the mountains outside of São Paulo.

Yes, please.

I had no expectations other than I’d spend my days writing in a charming mountain hamlet where I’d talk long into the night with people at my friend’s pousada,

hike to waterfalls, enjoying dives into unbridled beauty,

and trek a beautiful camino to La Piedra del San Francisco.

I’d effectively flown from one San Francisco to another. God has a great sense of humor. 

But my dear friend had arranged a surprise excursion for us––one of many––and soon we’d make a trip to Rio de Janeiro to see the Paralympics.

Since we had met as pilgrims, it’s no surprise that we’re drawn to great treks. Corcovado called. It took us about two hours to climb to the storied statue of Christ. With the beaches of Ipanema below and Sugarloaf in the distance, the experience at Corcovado eclipsed many I’d had in some of the world’s holy places.

Corcovado’s gigantic arms outstretched over Rio. More than breathtaking, more than life-affirming, more than anything I could have imagined. In this pinnacle moment as we ate some ice cream, machine-gun wielding Brazilian militia encircled us in military helicopters.

Flying around Corcovado.

Through the sights of my cell phone camera these machines of war seemed like errant flies swarming the statue of peace.

Around and around they went in a kind of dance. Good and evil. War and peace.

A security breach by a private helicopter in the air space close to the landmark triggered the swarm. It took time to find out why we were being circled by three military helicopters.

Grateful to have an explanation that wasn’t more serious, I began the even more serious business of hunting for the right Corcovado souvenir in every cheesy tourist store on the top of the mountain.

During my quest, I remembered that nine months earlier at year’s end I created a vision board to inspire my work and life. The vision of Corcovado had become a stunning, even dramatic reality. When I shared my realization with my friend, our experience began the turn from the exotic into the sacred.

She asked if I found the souvenir I wanted. I told her I’d struck out. Most were disturbingly awkward. Mass-made faces of Jesus looked kind of strange. All the proportions seemed off.

I wanted to remember what I felt at Corcovado. The feeling of the swarm. How there are no coincidences. What a joy it is to have a dream come true. The excitement of life unfolding in ways one never expects. The adventure of life. The good stuff. How my breath had been taken away by the fear of the helicopters and how my heart had filled with peace at the same moment.

My friend and I skipped the hike down and took the train to the bottom. I decided at the last minute to head into one more tourist-trap to see if I could find something, anything to remember the experience––a marker, so to speak. Like people made in Biblical times to commemorate the grace they’d received when God accomplished something extraordinary in their lives. My marker wouldn’t be stones on the side of the River Jordan, but a cheesy statue of Corcovado.

I looked everywhere. Still, no luck.

On my hunt I heard a small voice ask, “Are you American?”

I turned around and came toe-to-toe with a beautiful troupe of American ballerinas from Missouri. Happy to run into a fellow countrywoman, they invited my friend and I to their performance the next evening in Rio. They were sweet, well-spoken and as you can imagine very, very thin.

“What are you dancing?” My friend and I couldn’t make the performance because of our travel plans, but I was curious and wanted to make some polite conversation.

The Screwtape Letters.”

Really. How do you dance to that?

I’d only known the novel by C. S. Lewis because an acquaintance referenced the book once earlier that summer. C. S. Lewis, in addition to being the famous author of the beloved childhood series, The Chronicles of Narnia, had also converted from being an atheist to a Christian on a famous walk he took with J. R. R. Tolkien at Oxford.

Lewis was a prolific writer about Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters was a body of work based on the premise that a senior demon wanted to communicate to his minions a set of instructions on how to trap humans into making life-ending, or life-altering bad choices. It is a cautionary tale about the power of choice, and a statement on the criteria humans use to make them.

Basically, these southern girls were dancing for Jesus. Really? Evangelizing through ballet in a troupe called Ballet Maganificat!

Hmmm. This, I had to see.

We attended their ballet performance in Campinas, a suburb of São Paulo. The girls danced beautifully. One of the most enchanting moments portrayed a demon of doubt inviting a beautiful girl to dance.

The enthralling, passionate dance made it clear how our dance with doubt is one we all accept. It is a choice we make to join hands with charming doubt (or any number of our other personal demons).

I watched how the ballerina danced willingly, trying to escape at first then totally losing her will to escape until she gives over to doubt totally. I thought about all the dances I’d done with doubt in my lifetime. While witnessing the dance, I received peace through wisdom and insight. All things made new. Strength for my journey.

Our greatest power is the power to choose. To dance another way. To refuse the invitation.

I hope you might be encouraged to be aware of the invitation when it comes and that you have the right to refuse, or dance another way with strength and courage.

During the performance, I discovered my friend had been a professional ballerina. The performance brought back memories she hadn’t had in years. What a joy to get to know my friend in a way I never had before.

I continually marvel at God’s humorous, extravagant ways.

The exotic journey of the heart

These first golden weeks of the new year always uplift my spirit. I hope they’ve done the same for you. There’s nothing quite like the promise of a new year to tune into dreams and passions.

It’s been over a year and a half since I sold most of my stuff, stored the rest and went out into the world to discover the Lord’s will for my life. And I have a decision to make. End my walk in the world, or keep going?

This is one of the most unique and intimate moments in all of my travels.

It happened early one morning in September on the day I was going to return to São Paulo. So there was a specialness about it. A knowing. This was my last time to feel the energy of the cataratas (waterfalls). Oddly, I got the feeling that this wouldn’t be my last visit.

When I stepped out for my early morning walk to the cataratas, I had no idea I’d be the only one on the path.

The park wouldn’t be open to the public for another hour. I was fortunate enough to be staying at a hotel within the park, just across the street from the waterfalls. This granted hotel guests special access. Access I didn’t take advantage of until the last day. Still, there was no other hotel guest around in this moment and that surprised me.

 

Dad went home to be with the Lord a few months before, and since that time I’d felt God with me more closely than ever. This was one of those moments. The hotel would be one of the first places I’d work remotely in order to conduct and write an interview for a new online magazine. Iguaçu Falls blessed me in so many ways.

I walked deep into the gorge and took a minute to survey the stunning view of the largest waterfall system in the world––so large it spans the watery borders of Brazil and Argentina. A happy accident led me there––my friend planned the trip. A total surprise.

When I arrived at Iguaçu, I recognized the falls from a photo Dad had taken and mounted on his study wall most of my life. I hadn’t planed to see this wonder. God did.

I remembered the eulogy I gave at Dad’s memorial service about how Dad chased waterfalls all over the world as a hydroelectric engineer. Harnessing their power. Speaking the international language of energy.

And in this, the last moments of saying goodbye to the waterfall, a massive rainbow arched over the entire sight. 

“Hi, Dad,” I said, hitting my knees after snapping the photo, in the shadow of such beauty.

The Lord whispered, “This is just the beginning.”

In the hundreds of people whose lives I’ve been blessed to be a part of this year, I have noticed the need for people to have courage, including myself. But what does that look like? It’s a little bit different for each of us. Sometime courage looks like––

the bravery to forgive, 

to not believe lies society or other people are wanting us to believe, 

overcoming a bully, 

or heartache, 

to find the power to forgive ourselves, 

to walk in grace,

to believe that God is good even in the midst of tragedy, 

to heal, 

to make that decision, 

to show others how to treat you, 

to fight for justice, 

to hand your heart to a friend to hold to because your heart is too heavy to remember your hopes and dreams,

to laugh 

All along the way, it has been no coincidence that my obstacles have been dis-couragement. It begins with little or big disappointments that can turn into discouragement if I am not careful, mindful. Please be careful with disappointment. Don’t let it derail you or your dreams.

Please.

The journey of the heart is perhaps the most exotic. It says in the Bible to guard our hearts. This, I believe is one of our most important tasks.

I have made so many mistakes along the way. Learning much about how I fall short and how not to let fear rule the day.

When discouragement knocks I remember the rainbow over Iguaçu. I remember what the Lord whispered.

And I believe. 

Most of what I’ve learned this year has to do with the brevity of life. Too brief to be discouraged.

Each day is a new day. My prayer for you is that you wake up each day and face it honestly, with an open, courageous heart.

I hope you enjoy this story I wrote about my friend and I at Iguaçu Falls, Brazil called Brazillian Bikinis and Mango Shrimp 

Going Big : 90 days around the world

java indonesia rice paddies, travel, inspiration

For me, Going Big is the joy of feeling totally alive and terrified. My mom named the thrill “horrible-wonderful.” While very real, horrible drops away pretty quick when I’m wonderfully following my heart.

On Gili Air and in the silence of Nyepi, I decided to return to Java and write the screenplay. I flew from one kingdom to another, from Bali to Yogyakarta. It’s difficult to describe how freeing and scary this choice was for me. For nearly thirty years I’d made every big decision together with my husband. Going Big alone was new to me. Since the trip to Indonesia had met with so much resistance in my past life, the fact that I had actually taken the trip was huge. Extending my trip meant Going Big for myself, my art and my faith. Going Big became my new mantra.

I’d begun to write the screenplay in LA before I left, but something was missing. I hadn’t been to Indonesia and the script was the poorer for it. I touched down on Java painfully aware that the last time my dad had been on Javanese soil was as a prisoner of the Japanese. I would spend the next two weeks writing the screenplay about how dad fought for his life, while I was fighting for mine. Java’s perilous past fascinated me as I faced a seemingly perilous future. Was there some kind of message here about how I might survive?

As catastrophic as the end days were for Dad and our family on Java, the Indonesian way of life gave him constant joy. I’d find him in our Chicago basement hacking a coconut with an axe to extract its fresh milk, frying krepuk (shrimp crackers) on our back porch, filling the house with the scent of coconut curry chicken, topping jasmine rice with serundang (toasted coconut). Dad never said a bad word about the Japanese. He’d even encouraged me to buy a Honda when I’d saved enough of my waitressing tips to buy half of my first car—my parents treated me to the other half. Over the years, Mom and Dad would travel to Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nikko, Tokyo and entertain Japanese engineers at our home in Chicago. No one ever knew about his experience, not even Mom. I certainly didn’t. Not until Dad turned eighty. We spent the next ten years talking. Sometimes we corresponded by letters, but most of the time we’d sit in his room in Florida and we’d chat for a few hours at a time.

The final draft of the screenplay is nearly completed.

4/1/14

I just arrived at the d’Omah hotel. The perfect place to write. They even offer an amazing Rijsttafel here on Sundays (Rijsttafel is a Dutch word which means “rice table” and is an elaborate meal the Dutch had during the colonial days when Indonesia was the Dutch East Indies). Omah means “home” in Indonesian. I’m on a quest to find a home in the world. This truly feels like one. 

As I settle in I hear buzzing, lots and lots of buzzing in the background. I walk down the road past the rice fields to the main street where parades of motorcycles, very loud motorcycles, wave large red flags. Villagers at the roadside watch the spectacle. Indonesian elections come with throngs of motorcycle-riding, flag-flying, noise-making party people. I’m hooked. I’ve never seen anything like their intensity. Some wear face masks. I’m standing here watching the scene among the masks and the revving. This is definitely Going Big.  I film what I see. As election day approaches, I can’t wait to start writing.

Love, Light & Liberation : 90 spontaneous, inspirational days around the world

hindupurification

One year ago today my friends took me to the Tirta Emmpul Temple for a Hindu purification ceremony. I had all kinds of hesitation at participating. It scared me a bit to be a part of a ceremony of a religion (some would say a philosophy) I’d only tapped the surface of. Would I anger my God by participating? But then I got to thinking about how God sent me to Bali. I didn’t arrive on my own power, but by His power alone. He had made the decisions that gave me the strength and the opportunity to meet Made and have him become my spiritual teacher. And through thinking about the amount of miracles that brought me to Ubud, a Balinese word that means medicine, I realized one very important thing. God is love. Love is the best medicine. And because Made and his family loved me so much and sought to instill healing in me immediately, they wanted to do something very sacred to them for me. And out of love for my God, and for them, I accepted their precious gift. Made and I had many very long talks together, over many days. And slowly, but surely, my heart began to open and the negativity that had entered my life slowly slipped away and would be washed away in the holy water of the temple, in baths for the body, mind and spirit.

3/24/14

I just set my alarm to get up at 4 AM for my Hindu purification ceremony. And I’m a bit scared by going. The advice I get from time to time about life is to do one thing everyday that scares me. Tomorrow I will have done at least one before breakfast.

3/25/14

One of the deepest spiritual experiences of my life. Be strong. Be happy. Don’t look back. I am now free, liberated from my problems and bad memories through the lovingkindness of what were once strangers and are now family. The solution is love and simplicity. Make every decision based on what God is—love, light and liberation. Consume less. Suffer less. Be true to myself. If I do all these things I will no longer be afraid or powerless. I will harness my power by knowing and praying for what I need. God will bless me with it. That is certain. Made told me, “If you are going West, Laura, don’t let others negotiate with you to go East. Don’t negotiate. With love, keep to your own path. Know thy path. Your heart is your home. Do not take everyone with you wherever you go.” He said this is my problem. He pleaded for me to take care of myself, in the kindest way possible. The experience was intimate, in a way I’d never known before. My friends and their wives had prepared incredible offerings to bring to their gods. Woven bamboo baskets filled with eggs and incense and rice and treats wrapped in banana leaves along with beautiful flowers. With flowers in my hair, the Hindu priest blessed me and pressed rice into my forehead to bless my thoughts. I took the rice and ate some to bless my words and pressed some to my chest to bless my heart. 

Later that night Made said I have to watch the way I walk. I said I walk bad? You need to teach me how to walk better. In a good way. He said, no. He looked at me and said, “No, Laura, I want you to walk sure.” 

90 Spontaneous Days Around The World : The Zen of the dark

Everyone needs their own torch…

Where I was when I decided to ditch the plan and got it alone...
Here, while snorkeling in Pulau Menjangan, I decided to ditch the plan and go it alone…

Late on my last night in Joga I realized I’d forgotten to pack a flashlight. When my friend Rinto found out, he insisted he take me to a store close by so I’d have one for the next morning’s pre-dawn climb to the summit of Bromo, I’d need one for the climb of Batur too. I figured I could get by without buying one. I had so many friends, I could just walk with them. But Rinto looked me in the eye and said I needed my own torch. That’s what he called it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve relied on that torch. How often I silently thank him for insisting. I’ll never call a flashlight a flashlight again. A torch is truly what I needed in my life at that time. Something a bit more primal than a flashlight, with a name that spoke to survival.

Everyone needs their own torch when the darkness overwhelms. A person can’t rely on another’s torch to help. This awareness was one of the best gifts Rinto had given me. He understood me better than anyone I’d met on the trip so far. Orphaned at eleven, he knew the pain of losing the people he loved. He knew what it was like to begin again. I was just learning.

That night we motored through the streets of JoJa, which at times felt like a life-and-death experience. There were swarms of motors (mortorbikes) and few mobiles (cars) winding around even more crowded streets than usual because of a concert at the Sultan’s palace. We picked out a small torch and he made me promise to never go without it. To always keep it near. In the countless times I’ve needed it, especially in unexpected times, I smile. He helped me see me in a new way. This was the beginning of discovering my light within.

In the rebuilding of my life, I never seem to be satisfied with the little bit of the path that the torch lights up. I always want to see more, more than a torch can show me. I become impatient and a bit unsatisfied with what I can see with just my torch at times. What I would learn as the trip continued is the real blessing of the peace that comes when I trust the light will take me where I need to go. To surrender to it. To trust it. This was seemingly impossible for me as the ability to trust was something I had lost. I would have to learn to trust myself.

After the ride and the torch and the concert, Rinto and I said goodbye. I left the next morning.

IMG_0911

The first act of faith of going it alone would be handing a payment and my passport over to the visa extension office in Ubud and trusting them.

“Come back next Friday at 5 PM,” the visa extension business owner said matter-of-factly.

Uh, ok.

This was one of those times where instead of a torch I wanted to light a bonfire and see if what I’d just done was the best decision of my life, or the worst. Most are somewhere in between.

Because of the time it took for the visa extension to process–they had to send all the extensions through Jakarta–I found myself in Ubud for a week. A beautiful place to be “stuck.” There was a reason I was there, although I didn’t know it at the time. I’d never travelled like this before—alone, with no plan. I was just getting used to being alone in my own life after having someone beside me for nearly thirty years. I needed to trust that I was right where I needed to be. This would take courage and become the adventure of my life.

The first part of that adventure would be to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Ubud because nothing says St. Patrick’s Day like a green Bintang at the Laughing Buddha Bar.