Mt. Airy resident practices quarantine on island of Bali

Posted 5/4/20

Laura sharpened her cooking skills while isolated on the Indonesian island of Bali. People have marveled at the bizarre Balinese holiday I have talked about for years and am currently fully immersed …

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Mt. Airy resident practices quarantine on island of Bali

Laura sharpened her cooking skills while isolated on the Indonesian island of Bali.

People have marveled at the bizarre Balinese holiday I have talked about for years and am currently fully immersed in now back home in Mt. Airy. New Year’s, also known as Nyepi, the “day of silence,” marks an annual ritual that arrives once every 310 days on their calendar: it is a special holiday that each of the four million Balinese Hindu must follow religiously. 

For 36 hours the island is on mandatory lockdown, we retreat behind closed doors, all traffic halts, airports are literally closed, everyone is confined to their family home, sounds and lights are kept low, and all of these changes strictly enforced by local authorities. Yes, this sounds harsh and all-too-familiar to each of us now.

I only returned to the U.S. a few days ago from my truncated trip to Indonesia, which was aborted midstream in order to return home to my family. I am physically here in Philly, but I’m still very much spiritually back in my beloved second home of Bali. This annual tradition of Nyepi (Nyip-pee) is one I love wholeheartedly, and when I planned to celebrate it with my loved ones in Bali this week, I had no idea that I would be forced to embrace it more completely than ever imagined. Little did we know that the world at large would be called upon to also exercise this tradition, an ancient ritual to balance the struggle of positive and negative elements. Allow me to set the stage. 

For weeks leading up to the New Year, in every village on the island, young people come together to build Ogoh-Ogoh, huge paper-mâché Mardi Gras-like monsters that embody the darker or unseen spirits that the Balinese believe live among them, mostly benevolently. These are magnificent creations. On New Year’s Eve, everyone gathers in the village center with all the Ogoh-Ogoh and parade them throughout town while making loud raucous music and noise to accompany them.

The raw energy, a cacophony of sound with the giant demonic creatures swaying overhead, the youth collectively navigating this chaos through the streets, and the rest of the village cheering and shouting creates pandemonium. It is beyond intoxicating; not only for us mortals but for the real guests at this special occasion, the dark spirits who lurk nearby, lured out of hiding by all of this craziness. Nyepi officially begins at midnight, and for next the day and night the island is totally devoid of worldly activities, literally on extreme lockdown.

On the heels of this fantastic night, Nyepi day is one of the most magical for me in Bali. A complete silence and serenity blankets the entire island. No noise pollution drowns the birds, frogs, and crickets that are now at center stage. No light pollution cloaks the night sky, making all the stars and heavens acutely visible. Together, yet in our own homes, we share a communal day of introspection, seeking to balance the yin and yang elements that abound.

For some, Nyepi is just a day of rest, reading, fasting or feasting, prayer and meditation, and being together. (In fact, in the past several years the government of Bali disables the Internet to force the focus inward, an extreme measure for many.) At night we use only candles, creating the illusion from above of an abandoned island.

This year, this ancient ritual connects directly to where I am now, in self-quarantine here in my Mt. Airy home: it is as if the entire world has been forced to practice Nyepi in a profound way. In this light, and following such a jarring juxtaposition of the two retreats, I see shards of light about our own confinement. While none of us is exempt from this pandemic, many in our global family are confronted with fear, sickness and death, isolation, poverty, hunger, the unknown and more, and my heart bends toward them. And yes, Balinese Nyepi is only about 30 hours long, but for us all, I see this as a new year forward. From our vantage point today we may not see the end of our global retreat. Yet, as if I were still in Bali, I am choosing to use this time as a “blanket of silence” that allows for reflection, re-centering and resetting with lessons to be gleaned by all who choose to embrace them. 

I submit the following: What we cannot control, try to release. What we can control, take responsibility for. Find some small ways to make friends with the unknown: the ebb and flow of this surreal time seem in constant flux, hour by hour. This new world implores me to practice, beyond words, a more fluid way of being.

Call someone you know who is in isolation or alone at home. Reach out. Trust that we learn lessons, both small and large, from this crisis, and we absorb these on a personal, spiritual and political level. Recognize how fortunate many of us are who have shelter, food and health. And, from that perspective, and even with the smallest gestures, extend a hand to those down the ladder from us.

I by no means expect the demons to be banished as easily as the Balinese hold (and practice), but I am mindful of the irony and power that Nyepi is now upon the entire world. Small gestures of grace abound all around us during this trying time if we can only feel them and pass them on. From my Balinese heart and soul, now felt deeply in my Philly home, to you and yours, in peace and hope.

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