A News Free Zone

The very first day of our retreat, during our all-group orientation, one of the ground rules I laid out as a core group agreement was this:

“One of the great things about being in Bali for 15 days is a break from the news. I know some of you—those from the United States—are looking forward to a break from the ever-present toxicity and anxiety in our country right now.

“So, I’m going to ask you to avoid topics connected to the news when we’re all eating together or touring together or sitting in a van together going from one place to another—or anywhere where others can’t walk away from your conversation.

“If you want to get into these kinds of discussions with someone else on our trip, that’s fine, but do it privately, out of earshot of others. I know I for one don’t want US politics to be part of my meal conversation. Or what I’m listening to in transit.

“However, there is one caveat, in writing class, whatever comes up in your writing—I don’t want you to censor it. Whatever naturally comes up in your writing, we’ll witness it as we would any other writing.”

There was visible relief on most peoples’ faces and bodies when I said this, and ever since, people have respected this boundary in group spaces. I think for most Americans on our trip, this has been a huge relief.

Personally, I’ve glanced at the headlines on my phone every morning for a minute or two, but less and less as the days have gone on.

Before I came to Bali, I thought I’d give a nod to the news back home by listening once a week to the politics chat Heather Cox Richardson records most Tuesdays, providing a historical perspective on the latest news. I always find it grounding to listen to her.

I woke at 5 AM this morning. Not wanting to disturb my friend Nancy, with whom I’m sharing a room. I got up quietly and headed out for an early morning walk, one of my favorite things to do while traveling. But it’s something I haven’t done yet on this trip to Bali. It’s not the easiest thing to pull off when you’re the group leader.

Thinking this private early morning hour would be a good opportunity to listen to Heather’s chat, I grabbed my earbuds and turned her on as I left the hotel.

The village we’re staying in, Nyuhikuni, right outside Ubud near the Monkey Forest, was just waking up. Shopkeepers in small warungs (convenience shops) were opening for business. People were sweeping the street. Women were placing offerings and lighting incense in shrines, on doorsteps, and on the street. A lone tourist was out, like me, for a morning constitutional. I took all of it in as—kind of—as Heather Cox Richardson talked about Samuel and Martha Alito in my ear.

Suddenly I thought, “What the F am I doing??” The cognitive dissonance was staggering. Here I was trying to fit an old habit into a new reality halfway across the world. I suddenly realized:

I DID NOT want to listen to the news!

I ripped out my single earbud and suddenly the street erupted into a cacophony of sound: scooters carrying people EVERYWHERE, dogs of all sizes barking in a variety of doggy tones, dozens (or was it hundreds?) of roosters crowing, women softly chatting and gossiping in Indonesian (or was it Balinese?) as they bought small bags of morning supplies from the warung. And maybe I even heard the sound of a monkey—I couldn’t really tell for sure.

I loved that I made that choice to unplug from the litany of frightening woes, something I find much harder to do at home. The rest of my walk was far more pleasant for having done so.

Here are some images from my morning stroll through my temporary neighborhood. I particularly loved the crazy mix of ancient, sacred and modern urban life.

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