It could have been the bright yellow cover of Bali Daze: Freefall off the Tourist Trail, or the attraction of the short story format that made me grab Cat Wheeler’s book from the thoughtfully laid-out display on my carved desk at Bali Ecostay, on my first night there, restless with jet lag.
I was laughing out loud too much to fall asleep as I followed Ibu Kat, as Cat Wheeler the Canadian writer is locally known, on her hilarious journey of leaving Singapore after a decade and a thriving career to put down roots in Ubud nearly 20 years ago.
Cat Wheeler writes in a witty, warm-hearted and clever voice about her free-ranging life with her parrots, dogs, chickens and other wildlife for company (think tree frogs in shoes, scorpions in the cupboard and lizards in the bath) in the little house she designed and build at the edge of the jungle.
Cat’s stories about her Balinese housekeeper Wayan Manis, her neighbours and her frustrations with Balinese bureaucracy are funny and insightful vignettes into daily life in Bali far away from the yoga studios, the beaches and the boutique luxury.
We learn that living in Bali is a lesson in patience and learning to enjoy the lack of structure as staff might disappear for days or weeks to attend to ceremony at a moment’s notice. Architectural plans for her house are made and changed on the spot and life in general is in a chaotic state of flux that will eventually form into some kind of order, which seems to be the whole point of living in Bali.
“I think of my life in Bali as a sitcom with an ever changing cast of animals and people and a very unpredictable script,” she writes in the foreword to her latest book, Retired, Rewired: Living without Adult Supervision in Bali.
I am thrilled to announce that Cat Wheeler will join us up at Bali Ecostay for a half day informal “Talk with the Author”. She’ll share with us what she knows about storytelling, about life in Bali, and about life as an independent woman who has chosen a life of freedom (ask her about working as a geochemical technician at a tin mine in Australia).
There is a lot to learn from Cat’s stories about Bali and her way of storytelling. Her stories are punchy and short. It comes from years of living abroad, practising the art of letter writing and from writing a weekly column in the English language newspaper, Bali Advertiser.
Her column “Greenspeak”, she says in Bali Daze, was supposed to be about the environment but “I was kindly allowed to interpret that widely to include my immediate personal environment, which includes my dogs, garden, staff and any other straws I can clutch at.” We can be grateful for the many straws she found to clutch, because her popular columns, the best of which are collected in her two published volumes, are about the things a tourist will never see.
Like her first volume, Rewired, Retired, is a random collection of thoughts and experiences of life in Bali, ranging from what the Balinese find funny about our strange western habits of building houses with everything – including the toilet – under one roof, the sex life of avocados, helix snails having orgies in the garden, the spirit world of Bali, her chickens, how Bali turns grumpy, stressed foreigners into happy people to how to manage old age in Bali as a foreigner. I particularly enjoyed these stories about the tricky forward planning that is necessary in a country where dedicated elder care is usually the task of the extended family and planning for your final journey in a foreign land becomes another trail-blazing adventure.
It’s the deep, heartfelt stories about our own mortality that resonated most with me in this volume. Many of these stories were written during Cat’s annual visits home to care for her aging parents and her terminally ill sister.
One of my favourite, “A lesson in cherishing,” is a moving story about the death of her sister from cancer. It opens with this paragraph:
“In contemporary western culture we can talk about anything. Sex, drugs, on the rug with drugs, PMS, bizarre fantasies, snoring … anything goes. Except that last taboo, the subject most people decline to acknowledge at all. Our own mortality.”
I have written that same paragraph many times, in my head and in my journal, after my own skin-deep experience with death and grief (“We talk about oral sex, but we can’t speak about death” was my version).
When I met Cat over smoothies in Ubud one rainy morning last month, we connected instantly over the topic of grief and the need for resources that teach writing to heal.
From her stories I thought I knew way more about Cat than she will ever know about me. And yet, she knew exactly what I needed to hear that morning. Use what you have learned from grieving and teach the healing power of writing.
I wasn’t surprised by our deep conversation about death and grief, but I hadn’t realised that Cat is also a Reiki Master. It made sense. Something had definitely shifted for me that morning. It’s as if my inner compass had been realigned.
Cat is one of those rare writers who combines just the right dosage of deep wisdom and humour with a mean turn of phrase. I can’t wait for you to meet her!
A copy of her latest book, Retired, Rewired: Living without Adult Supervision in Bali, will be in your welcome bag, for when you need to take a break from your own writing.
If you don’t want to wait for your hard copy of Retired, Rewired, you can read both of Cat Wheeler’s books on your Kindle.
Writing for Wellbeing in Bali: Find Your Voice, Release Your Stories, Unleash Your Creativity with yoga & sound bowl balancing
October 30 – November 6, 2017
(retreat starts the day after the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival)