By: Ellen C. Caldwell
As I write this, I am currently one day into a month-long writing residency at the Bali Purnati Arts Center in Batuan and it is already magical. However, during the last couple of days I spent getting ready to leave my home in Los Angeles, it was really hard for me not to think of everything as a symbolic “last” as I mined for symbols at every turn.
Before I left my house, for instance, I washed my sheets and made my bed, thinking of the changed and tired me who would arrive to this oasis of a mattress after a month-long residency and international travel. I wondered what would lie in store for me and what stories and lessons I would bring back as I drifted off to sleep my first night back home.
Leaving my parking garage for the last time also felt dramatic and final as I clicked the button and watched the door close behind me in my rearview mirror. And as I looked out ahead through my front window, the low-rising fingernail of the new moon confronted my gaze directly as I drove out—presenting me with something that felt like such obvious symbolism that I smiled. It was in those moments that I couldn’t stop thinking about my new beginnings, how I would travel, and who I would be the next time I drove back in.
But the thing is that whenever we come back home, we are a changed person, right? Every day when we leave our house and return from work, we are different in some way. Biologically even depending on what we ate, how or if we exercised, and mentally and psychically of course, depending on the day and the moments we have conquered, cherished, or endured. But when you are leaving your country, comfort zone, and routines for a month, you know the change will feel and actually be bigger – and more dramatic. So for me, the last two days turned into an exercise of looking, noticing, and feeling. The following are three observations I made on the road to Batuan…
- The night before I left, I ordered a pizza, having already emptied my fridge in preparation for my time away…To pay for this, I busted into the $300 US cash I had put aside for travel emergencies. (Whenever I travel now, that is my go-to amount of cash to have on hand—probably because it is the max my ATM will dispense and it somehow feels reasonable and safe.) Buying the pizza with said cash made me a little nervous, not seriously nervous, but nervous as if one might be without a lucky jersey before a game or a talisman before a test. It just didn’t feel complete, but at the same time, the lack of completeness wasn’t going to a) stop me from buying the pizza or b) propel me to replace the $20 at the ATM.
But the next morning, when I took my family’s dog on a walk, we promptly found a crumpled $20 bill on our usual route, making me feel even more ready and prepared to travel, with my $300 stash back in tact. A sure sign of good things to come.
- I was recently lucky enough to go to Australia with my best friend about five weeks prior to this Balinese departure. As we were leaving from the international terminal at LAX, we decided to kill some time at the wine bar. There was a bartender there who seemed to be a real talker and was pretty chatty with everyone at the bar, so Tory and I had naturally sat aside at our own high top table to speak amongst ourselves. When I returned to LAX just five weeks later, I saw this bartender and again noticed that he was talking to everyone at the bar… so I again retreated to my own spot. (Given this opportunity to chat it up at the bar with a handful of strangers departing to different countries around the world, I retreated to my comfort zone, declining and hiding away despite the fact that I had told myself this time away was all about my being open to new people and new experiences.)
Eventually “Bucky” the bartender found me, though, and started a conversation. (His name alone was a sign, as my dad and I share a travel pillow by the name of Bucky—one which I had of course brought with me for this journey and one which we co-cherish because it was my grandpa’s.) He wanted to know what I was doing and where I was going. Turns out he is a musician and was really inspired by my trip and residency. He even brought me a glass of wine on the house, toasted the trip, and exchanged his contact info with me. Besides the fact that I am a sucker for toasts, it was a crystal clear reminder for me to not judge so harshly, to remain open, and to give everyone a chance. Another step in the right direction and another clear couple of omens, I thought.
- Twenty-four hours later in the Denpasar airport, after I had gotten through multiple staggering, Disneyland-like wrapped lines, I was glad to find that both my bags were there and had already been pulled neatly off the baggage carousel. I collected them and looked around for a cart. As I was walking though, I rapidly started to feel that rush of nerves you only get when you are about to fall hard – I was in a real puddle on a very slippery floor – and for a fleeting moment, I thought I could potentially catch myself. But that quickly vanished and to my shock, things got worse. I slipped all the way down, legs out from under me, pushing the suitcases away and somehow contorting myself to land painfully back on both of my knees with third and fourth impacts on my unprepared wrists. I looked up, embarrassed and hurt, with a mixture of shock-battling-relief that no one came to help.
As I was standing up, I could only think two things: where the hell did all of that water come from? And, what now of my symbolism mining? Both questions made me smile. I might find symbols everywhere, but this by no means threw me off my course or made me scared of what was to come, as if it could be some sort of foreboding sign. No, I got up with a couple of newly-forming bruises to get my luggage and cart, laughing to myself about my cocky prediction of only positive symbolism from the past few days.
And around the world in Bali just two days after the night I left my parking garage, and in what feels like a sort of parallel universe, I got into my king size bed that sits in a room amidst palm fronds about three stories high, and I thought about my neatly-made bed at home. I brought a pillow and pillowcase with me all the way to Bali, following in my friend Al’s footsteps and life mantra that you can never be too sure that a place will have a pillow that’s right for you. (For a month where I plan to do a lot of sleeping, resting, and writing from bed, I thought that would be/could be key.) But as I crawled into bed and nestled in under the romantic, flowing canopy of the mosquito net that first night, I buried my face in the pillows here and breathed in deeply, only to be taken back so swiftly (in a way that only scents can do to you) to a perfect combination of memories at both of my grandparents’ houses in Pasadena, California and in Lanikai, Oahu. Something about the warm sheets and the slight dampness in the air felt and smelled exactly like home. I didn’t even need to bring it with me.
So I will take a page out of Bucky the bartender and my favorite book and toast—to new beginnings, to travel adventures, to symbols both received and relieved, and, to always coming back home to ourselves—wherever we might be.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based writer, editor, and art historian.