Six Degrees From Barach Obama: How I Knew His Mom

Six Degrees From Barach Obama:  How I Knew His Mom

As I listen to Barack Obama giving his farewell address to our great nation, I am taken back in time…

Actually, I have been transported back in time during these entire eight years. During the first Obama campaign in 2008, I had the privilege to shake Barack’s hand.  I said to him, “Masi bisa Bahasa Indonesia?” (Do you still speak Indonesian?) He answered, “Masih bisa.” (I still can.)  Then I said, “I knew your Mother.”  That got me a doubletake and a second handshake.  I mumbled something about the Ganesha Museum, but the reality is I did not remember how I met her, only that I knew her.

Today is the last day of Obama’s administration and still, I have not uncovered the mystery of how I met Anne Soetoro.  Nor have I finished this article.  Two things happen when you write memories from a distant past.  Remembering the past brings on a nostalgia and yearning for days gone by.  It also awakens one to the fact that our memories have holes — areas where the memory is not complete, where the surrounding details are lost.  All I really have are impressions of the past.  The following are my impressions. I don’t promise to be accurate.  Memories are never accurate.  The most important thing is that the impressions are a reflection of the impact events create.

In 1981 my first husband, Vinod, and I moved to Jakarta, Indonesia.  In the first six months house-in-kuninganof arrival, I gave birth to my youngest son.  I managed my time taking care of him, but immediately jumped into learning and living within the culture.  I enrolled my daughter in a Balinese dance class.  I looked for opportunities to meet Indonesian women and to learn from them. I was also active in the American Women’s Association (AWA), singing in the chorus and at the American Club, learning tennis (a lesson was just a dollar).  I often sat for tea with other expat wives or read voraciously from our book club collection of books.  Still, I longed for a deeper connection to the country I who was hosting me.

I had already experienced many admirable moments during that time.  I had, as an AWA singer, sung for events held by Martha Holdridge, the American Ambassador’s wife.  Our group also was invited to sing for the President of Indonesia and his wife, Ibu Tien Soeharto.  We posed for a picture behind Ibu Tien as she sat in her chair at the Palace.  I remember lightly touching her chair with quick reminder’s by her guards that it was inappropriate to touch Madam First Lady’s chair!

Sombrass-flyetime in those first few years, I heard about an informal interior decorating course taught by a wife of a key embassy personnel.  (I do not remember her name and never knew his position.  I could only guess that it was key by the house they were assigned.)  The woman who opened her home to our small group of six was a beautiful and welcoming person.  Her lessons resonated with me.  I learned the importance of focal points and especially ones with a bit of humor or that invite laughter.  Her’s was a stuffed cat with its leg up and head bowed as if licking itself that sat on her beautiful, stylish sofa.  Another that we used during lunch was a brass fly that one of our members brought.

It was in this course that I met Anne Soetoro.  Anne was the one who brought the brass fly.  The above picture is not the one she brought, but a similar brass fly.  They sold brass flies in the marketplace.  Often, they were ash trays in disguise.  We used it as a focal point or centerpiece for a dinner table arrangement.

Anne was an interesting person in our group.  Quiet and softspoken, but full of fascinating information about Indonesian culture, she enchanted us with her stories.  Some stories were what I called “Indonesian ghost stories”. She talked about a tree that needed to be cut down and nothing anyone did would release the tree from its place in the ground.  After many frustrating tries, the government changed the road to let the tree remain in peace.  The belief was that this tree had a powerful spirit and therefore should not be cut down.  Another story was about someone who had problems with their electricity.  They called a dukun (a kind of medicine woman or man) to see what the problem might be when the electrician could not fix the problem.  The dukun had them dig a hole in the backyard and they found a box that looked like it was floating in the hole.  After it was removed and prayers said, the electrical problems disappeared and never bothered the family again.

But Anne had a wealth of information about Indonesian art and culture.  I always looked forward to Anne’s stories at our meetings.  I also marveled at the “finds” our hostess received from Anne.  Once Anne found a beautiful ebony board that our hostess used to create a room divider.  It was exquisite!  We usually had to coax Anne to talk.  She was generally quiet and reserved at our meetings.  Because Anne worked, she was not always present at our meetings.  We missed her on those days.

Our interior decorating class developed into a kind of interest group that met for almost a year.  We started doing regular activities like visiting each other’s homes and sharing our decorating interests.  I remember visiting Anne’s home.  I believe Anne lived near the American Club in Keboyaran Baru.  It was a modest home compared to the large homes provided to us by the oil company my husband worked for.  The home had many plants outside lining the veranda.  The interior was full of interesting cultural artifacts from different areas of Indonesia.

Later, Anne arranged for us to visit the home of one of her friends, Halimah Brugger (at least I believe it was hers).  Halimah lived behind the Cilandak campus of the Jakarta International School.  I believe she taught art and music. When we visited, she was not at home but had provided us with entry.  I remember the living room having ten or more large batik pillows lining the living room floor.  No furniture, only pillows.  I loved the concept and how this minimalist look was so inviting.  It was fun to see how others decorated their homes so creatively with local flavor.

I was so happy when the class came to my home.  Anne was there as well and I shared my collection of Indian saris and batik sarongs.  This singular visit changed my trajectory in Indonesia.  One of the women in our group said, “You love textiles.”  Before this, I had already become inspired to learn Indonesian culture by joining a study group on Balinese art and culture through the Ganesha Society (an Indonesian museum volunteer group).  This single comment made me want to study Indonesian textiles and learn more about the history of textiles.  Anne told me there was also a textile study group.  I joined the textile study group and presented a paper on Patola Influence on Indonesian Textiles.  Somehow, I also managed to contact Iwan Tirta, a prominent batik designer, and borrow his antique textiles.  He also asked me to write about this topic for an India-Indonesia exhibit of textiles.  I am proud to say my article was published in an official book about textiles.  I also think that Anne was the person who translated my article.  Though, I have to admit she told me she did not get my copy in time to translate the difficult concepts I had included.  The translation is not exact in my edition of the book, Cindai, Pengenbaraan Kain.

During those days, Anne also told us about a great art exhibit by a Balinese up and coming artist, Dewa Nyoman Djati, that her friend, Kay Ikranagara, was sponsoring.  I was very excited to attend.  I fell in love with the large painting I bought that is in my living room today.  Looking back,  I think it’s funny how I never realized that Anne Soetoro had influenced so many small shifts and changes in my life and yet she did not play a central role.

Here is the painting which I have often said is a representation of who I am:


The most important memory I hold and the one I first remembered about Anne was a conversation we had outside the gate leading to her home.  I was waiting for my driver to bring the car around.  I remember Anne leaning on a cement wall with her long, thick hair and batik kaftan.  We talked for a long time about our backgrounds.  She shared her first and second marriages to an African and then an Indonesian.  I shared my marriage to an Indian.  We talked about what it felt like to live inside a culture — to experience it as a wife rather than as a typical expatriate.  I told her how much I wanted to experience more of Indonesian culture from the inside and not as the wife of an expat.  We shared our deep interest in culture and the values we brought.  I shared how out of place I often felt with the wives of other expatriates.  I seem to remember her telling me her son was going to go to Harvard.  I was so impressed because my son at five or six wore a Harvard T-shirt and proudly exclaimed he was going to go to Harvard.  (He did not, at least not yet.)  At the end of the conversation, we both agreed that a closer friendship would be right for us, but we also realized that her lifestyle and mine wouldn’t allow it.  She worked during the day and I made it a point to be with my family.  My family was everything to me.  There was no time for us.

Looking back I am amazed at how deeply I was touched by the brief and fleeting moments in Anne’s company.  We knew each other, but barely.  And yet, we respected one another and recognized in each other a camaraderie and connection as two people with similar values, goals, and lifestyles.  This is why I look at Barack Obama as the son of a friend.  Someone who is not unlike my own sons.  I admire Anne and all that she did in her life and I understand her. Because she is me.  I too have a life that drifts like tumbleweed on a wide plain.  I, too, have a love for Indonesian culture and Indian culture, and any culture that I touch.  I, too, have a deep love for my family and have experienced the inability to fully give them all that I would wish.

There is really too much to talk about.  Barack Obama is moving on tomorrow.  But, the memory I have of him, his family, and Anne will be deep and enduring.


It took me forever just to write these few paragraphs.  Every time I would start to write, I would check out if I was correct or confused.  I left out dates because I know during the time I knew her I would hear reports of her visiting India or Pakistan and that we met only a few times during the nine years I lived there.  Still, we knew the same people and walked in the same circles.  Much of my experience was influenced by the few exchanges we had.  My Indonesian experience is deep and enduring and one that I hold dear.

The pictures in this article were taken from the internet.  The fly was downloaded from eBay and is of one reportedly made in Italy.  The painting is my own and taken with my phone.  The house is a similar house in the neighborhood where I lived. 









Remembering Martin Luther King, My Thoughts

Remembering Martin Luther King, My Thoughts

A highlight of my life has been my experiences marching on Martin Luther King Day.  I haven’t been there for a few years, but this year I was invited to celebrate in downtown Dayton, Ohio.  I was treated by an inspiring talk by Daniel Juday, Director of the Ohio Diversity Council.

What inspired me were the fee points he made from his experience having lived in Thailand.  I also lived abroad.  So, his experience spoke to me and reassured me why I chose my path to train people who want to experience a life in a different culture.

He, like me, believes that having an intercultural experience is enriching and teaches us lessons we could never imagine.  As he said, “It doesn’t mean you are perfect.  In fact, no one is perfect in a different culture.”  You just are.  And, getting it right is generally not part of the process of learning.

I want to summarize the three points I took away from his talk.

  1. Be earnest.  What he meant by being earnest is approaching the experience of talking to someone in a different culture with an intention to learn.  Be genuine, but be interested.
  2. Be eager.  Approach everyone with enthusiasm and a sense of awe.  I love this one.  I believe that the most enjoyable moments are the ones we share with people who are different.  They teach us more about ourselves than anyone else.
  3. Finally, listen to the stories.  As he said, from our eager faces, stories arise.  Even  if that story is told in the silence of having no words.  He recalled a meal shared with a family in Thailand in which there was no way to talk.  Yet, the very act of being in their home told him their story.  And, when they were able to talk, he heard a little about their life.  I also have my own experiences.  My first trip to India.  I talked so eagerly to my Mother-in-law — in English.  She talked to me — in Hindi.  And yet, I learned so much from her.  I learned her expectations of a daughter-in-law and her love for her family and son.  Unfortunately, I also learned that the calves of my legs were too big and that muscles were not a desirable trait for a daughter-in-law.


While this advice is good for learning in a different culture, it is just as valid when walking into a home in the US.  We often forget through all that we share as Americans that we are also different.  We have differing values, hopes, and fears.  Right now as we are divided as a nation it is even more important to remember the lessons of Marting Luther King and his dream to see us all “bend towards justice”.

Here are Martin Luther King’s words:

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said in closing, “but it bends toward justice.”

In contemplating the civil war, Thomas Parker, a Unitarian minister wrote:

“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.”

Let us all ride the arc and find justice together!





This week’s photo challenge:  Spare.  It leads to too many possibilities.

Yesterday I had to trade in my spare tire. I took the wheel picture while waiting for my tires to be done. I have had fun roaming my home for spare parts.

First, spare change!  We all want some!


And who has a drawer full of potential spares?


There are lots of spare things around the house. Toys for grandchildren, games for grown-up children at heart, extra old glasses from Grandma, a scarf or shawl for cold winter days, books and spare mugs for rainy days!

If you live next door, there is always a spare cup of sugar!


And where do these spares go when we are done with them?  To antique houses willing to take your spare change!

Finally, there is often a spare bed for guests to share your spare time with you!


And, maybe, once in a while a spare stone to wish you peace and prosperity!


All of these pictures were taken with my phone!  It was fun to discover a few spares.  Although I am ashamed to say I have many, many more!

I would welcome any feedback you would like to share! It is always wonderful to hear from readers.


It’s a Brick and Mortar Thing…

It’s a Brick and Mortar Thing…

Today’s word prompt:  brick!

I can’t think about bricks without thinking of what holds them together — mortar!

Bricks are metaphors for all the skills and capacities we bring and mortar the way we weave them together.  Or, maybe bricks are our stories and mortar is the act of listening.

Using this metaphor, I think of the work I do in mediation, especially transformative mediation.  When someone is in conflict, the bricks are not being held together.  The mortar is not working.  There is nothing to hold the bricks together.  Think of a wall as a community.  Each brick is essential to the wall.  Each brick is an individual in the community.  If any one or two bricks start to crumble, it jeopardizes the whole wall.  Everything could come tumbling down!

So, the question is how do we transform the wall?  If  you think of the mortar as listening, then when listening and responding to someone’s stories breaks down (the mortar) there are cracks in the wall.  At the worst level, the cracks lead to decay.  The best way to stop the decay is to find a way to listen!

In mediation, the mediator’s prime job is listening and reflecting.  This process helps the other parties start to hear each other again.  Like the mortar, it helps rebuild the connection between the parties.  Once understanding is reached, the parties can start to make decisions and those decisions will start transforming the way they talk to one another.  It provides an opportunity for repair!

I love the idea of brick walls standing firm in their relationship with one another.  As we all should stand firm in our relationship with each other!



Today’s images are from my phone.  They are the bricks in my home.  They are my wall.  So, a part of my living is in this post!



Today’s daily prompt.  Flourish.  It feels like a “Go forth and prosper” kind of word.

Every month I give a workshop on organizational culture to a group of individuals re-entering the community and potentially the workforce from having been incarcerated. It is one of the most rewarding volunteer activities I do.  I am constantly learning from the insights and reflections of my class.

Today we had a rewarding conversation about how to get to where you want to be.  We talked about how to become more self-aware so that you have more control over designing your future.  We didn’t skip the challenges and difficulties in doing this from the standpoint of someone re-entering society.  That was on the table.  But, we also talked about having clear, realistic goals to achieve the desired result.

So, flourishing is about being able to get what you need and being intentional about it.  One can take a bad situation and find the skills learned from going through hard times.  It is an art to be able to take the worst and turn it around.  It takes guts.  It also takes skills and a lot of self-reflection. Ultimately to flourish is to go beyond what is thought possible and find the best of the best possibilities.

I think of flourishing as a dance.  A dance reflecting the joy of living.  An eternal pleasure. A gift.


The featured image is a painting by Tricia Calvert. You can view her collection on Instagram.  I felt the color and vibrancy of this painting matched the feeling I get from the word flourish.

Snapshots: Memories From a Life Preview

Snapshots: Memories From a Life Preview

In my life there have been moments and short encounters that looking back were significant in my life.  Sometimes, it is a representation of who I am.  That is, the encounter supports my own identity and values.  Sometimes, that brief moment has an indelible mark like a footprint in the sands of my time.

I always wonder why we remember what we do.  Why one memory slides in and stays to be called up at a moment’s notice and others disappear.  It reminds me of the genie in the bottle.  Rub the right spot on the lamp and a memory lights up from a cloud in the mind.  But, what secrets do these memories impart?  What wishes do they fulfill?

Today a memory was pulled from my mind in an announcement on facebook.  “Today is Jeff Berglund‘s birthday”, said my facebook notification.

I met Jeff in person once at a Sietarusa conference in Portland, Oregon two years ago.  He was working as a volunteer collecting items for the silent auction to provide scholarships for students to attend the conference.  I talked to Jeff and another volunteer briefly.  I don’t remember the conversation, but I do remember I was in a light and jovial mood. This made the conversation fun and entertaining.  Somehow, a connection was established and a friendship was made.  Just like that.

I attended Jeff’s workshop and he taught me the 2-1 ballroom step. I delighted in meeting someone who, like me, looked at the positive side of life.  He was kind enough to listen to my ideas about intercultural communication and mediation; and to be bold enough to give me excellent feedback. He asked critical questions that helped me think deeper and with greater clarity.

Since that weekend, I friended Jeff on facebook and learned that he spends his time teaching people about Kyoto and Tokyo Japan in video.  Like me, Jeff loves his adopted culture (mine is India) and is a strong multicultural personality.

This is the point for me.  That people make a difference in our lives if only for a brief encounter, or even a second of our time.  They create an impact and impression that is often not forgotten.  That brief time spent was memorable because it supported my perception of myself.  It helped me think through a direction I was taking in my life.  It represents and supports deep values and beliefs I either practice or aspire to achieve.

It reminded me of the words Edward T. Hall said to me at the Summer Institute for intercultural Learning.  He said, “The most important thing to remember as you study intercultural communication is to care.  Nothing else matters.” Meeting Jeff represented that aspect of caring.  That encounter highlighted how living in an intercultural world where everyone is different and everyone brings their own unique perspective and their unique blend of cultures is such a vibrant experience.  It reminds me why I love people and the stories they have to share.

This is a part of a series of memories I will call snapshots.  I will add to these memories as reflections on my life.  Stay tuned.