Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Dead Like Me

In this piece I view the events of my life through the prism of my death and the transformation of my rapidly unraveling relationship into an exercise in impermanence. Not as macabre as it sounds and very helpful actually.

I wrote my obituary recently and it was strangely empowering to take by the horns my own death. It was part of an assignment for the Death Cafe I had joined, a salon where people meet to discuss death. This emerging social franchise was an idea that a Swiss sociologist started as a way to normalize discussion of death by talking about it. It was then adopted in Paris followed by London before making its way to Columbus, Ohio in 2012. Tea and cake is served and the conversation begins usually with a question. Such as how did you first come to understand death? Or what questions would you ask a dead person? Our chaplain friend Don in Portland told us about it. And in October of 2013 Catherine and I went to one at the Zen Center. That was where I met Barbara, a New York transplant who would invite me to join the cafe she would host with her husband at their lovely home in San Francisco. I invited my friend Stacy to come along too. You can find a death cafe at www.deathcafe.com.

I was drawn to the topic of death because I had come to realize that in America people see death differently from how I was raised. Since the topic doesn't come up very often it took me twenty years or so to see this. In my 30's I had a job videotaping a group of women with metastatic breast cancer and that was when I first noticed that Americans did not take death lying down as it were. They took death on as though it was an enormous responsibility they personally had to fight to keep from happening. And when I remarked upon it someone asked me why I found this odd. Was it because life was considered cheap in Asia? How that comment infuriated me. Didn't they get the memo? That we will all die? So why be so distraught about it I was asking. But it just made me sound callous. 

Once I got talking at Barbara's house I was surprised at how much I had to say on the subject, surprised at what was coming out of my mouth in terms of beliefs and attitudes. The premise allowed me to have a different kind of conversation. Life from the point of view of death was made interesting in ways I had not thought of before. I felt curious, joyful even. So when we gave ourselves the assignment of writing our own eulogy or obituary I saw it as an opportunity to foresee my life by working backward from its end.

And to get to the heart of the matter I visualized the actual death itself:

"Having decided she was too feeble to continue teaching her geriatric exercise classes and cultivating her permaculture backyard farm, Amanda Kovattana 87 went home to embark on her final journey and demise through starvation assisted by her young wife Anastasia 67. During her final hours a gathering of shamanic friends came to assist in drumming to induce the theta state necessary for shamanic journeying. Thus she passed peacefully and happily before becoming a burden to her community as was her wish."

No one in my Death Salon objected to me taking my death into my own hands. They thought it gutsy that I actually gave myself an age at which I would go. (On the other hand no one commented on what a young wife I'd picked for myself. This was after all my first attempt at fiction.) But my mother did object to the idea of this end of life suicide which led to quite a lively conversation. All the spiritual works we had been reading counseled that suicide was a wrong choice and would badly mess up your karma. I argued that it was not suicide. On the contrary what medical intervention could dish out was every bit as unnatural and prolonged the inability to let go. And letting go was the natural cycle of life (as I am constantly reminding my hoarding clients).

Having control of my own death handed me back the reigns of my life. I needed to get a grip on at least some part of it. This year my life was unraveling at such a clip that I no longer had a confident relationship with my own narrative. And thus I could no longer write about my own life unfolding as I had done with near complete transparency and trust in the world for ten years as I shared my adventures with a public audience. 

I had grown to believe that I could control my life with my words and direct it like a movie. But that turned out to be a hubris that blocked me from seeing what was coming. I had a leg up on accepting death owing to my Thai culture, but it did not prepare me for loss.


Death of a Relationship

Nearly a year ago Catherine and I broke up. We were in a negative dynamic that kept us stuck unable to grow either together or as individuals. Catherine realized it first while I was unbelieving that this could happen after 20 years. She did not ask me to leave the home we had created together so it was a slow motion sort of break-up with the goal of transitioning into a friendship. We undertook the process with as much love and compassion as we could muster beginning with the help of our therapist just to make sure we had left no stone unturned in the solving of our relationship dynamic, but in the end there was no turning back. There was too much to overcome.

Released of my reactionary stance of resistance to her ongoing leadership, I was able to sort out what it was I truly valued in our living together. I continued to cook for us to be sure we both ate well. And the more I cooked the more I cleaned. I was claiming how I belonged in this house that did not belong to me. It was a study in impermanence as the Buddhists would say. How to embrace the existence of life while acknowledging that the details I was grasping at were completely temporary and made more so now that we had no future together. Or in the lexicon of Kubler Ross and her five stages of death — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, I was spending a lot of time in the bargaining stage. If only I could keep this part of our life together, or this I bargained as each piece of our life that we normally did together came up for reassessment.

Catherine was at the same time leaving her job. She didn't intend to go down that path, but it became clear that in that relationship too she was unable to grow or be acknowledged for her leadership. She had felt beholden to the job because she needed it to pay the mortgage. Her brother Steven and I help to pay it too, but she paid three quarters of it and that was a big enough obligation to feel the job was crucial. And thus selling the house became a possible solution to throw into the mix as she crafted her future. I persuaded her that the house was also a resource that could shelter all of us for whatever comings and goings she wanted to include in her new life. So she refinanced it to make it more manageable. We also sold the rental house I had managed in San Bernardino which ended our property management project that had so stressed us out with countless bad tenant issues and hefty plumbing bills. I was relieved that we got back what we put into it. With that money back she could further build her future. 

It is at this part of our story that people want to know how my financial future will shake out. In the language of divorce did I not contribute to our relationship in so many intangible ways that by law I had a right to sue for half the value of the house? I knew I had this power, but I couldn't morally bring myself to do this. It had never been my intention to take Catherine's wealth away from her unless she died and left it to me (or parts thereof). If I did demand what the law was able to give me under our domestic partnership I knew it would destroy our friendship. We would never speak again, let alone live together. American style divorce was basically a garbage disposal for failed relationships, shredding them up and flushing whatever was left down the drain. Catherine was a valuable person in my life and I did not believe in throwing people away like that. I had my own wealth just not right now and my mother would also help me out. I would not take this destructive road. This decision halted the wounding.

Which is not to say that it didn't hurt that she was redesigning her life without me. It hurt a lot, but just as death shows us what we are grateful for in life so did this break-up show me what I valued in our living together. Once we could agree that we had both contributed to our failed relationship and that it wasn't just my fault for being unable to be intimate or her fault for being so harsh in her judgements of me, we were able to enter a common narrative again. Getting to this point had been the most painful, but I knew that if I just embraced the pain as much as I could the healing process would begin.

Shortly after this I intuitively adopted a gratitude practice. If death was a way to appreciate life then it made sense that gratitude was a way to alleviate suffering. 

So I walked into her room one morning and said "I want to be in gratitude so I want to thank you today for introducing me to the shamanic path." She smiled, surprised and said "It seemed obvious." Catherine had given me a book on shamanism and told me that I needed to study a spiritual path so we would have something to talk about and having not had any luck interesting me in Buddhist studies she realized that I was more a shaman than anything else. I devoured the book and it launched me. I chose that particular gratitude that day because I was going to lunch with a friend I'd met through a shamanic circle. 

The next day of my gratitude practice I told her that I wanted to thank her for the trip to Italy which I had resisted because it was going to be expensive, but she had made all the arrangements and in the end paid for the accommodations. And it was fabulous. Who wouldn't want Rome and Florence in their memories. Such iconic places.

She did not return my ritual of gratitude in kind, but each time she lit up and gave me a hug. It sweetened the day and fortified me for anything we encountered that might cause us grief by the end of the day. Sometimes there would be something that stung, but it stung less. 

The day I left for a conference in Nashville I thanked her for her support when I started my business; how she had believed in me and gone to my first out-of-state conference with me in DC and sat through awards night with me when I hardly knew anybody. 

When I came home from Nashville I thanked her for insisting that we get dogs because now they are the one's who make a fuss when I come home. And in this state of gratitude the positive memories flowed and I could reframe the sticky parts of resistance and troublesome passages we navigated. 

When we sold the rental property and went to deposit the check I thanked her for having put up the money to buy it sight unseen; it had been my idea and she had trusted me to look it over and make the decision. "See I did love you," she said in response, "I bought you a house."  (Two houses on a single plot actually.)

The gratitudes allowed me to pay off a debt; the debt of my resistance to her ongoing vision. I did not want to look back on our memories and think of the disagreements we had mixed in with the good time we had anyway. I didn't want to remember that I never thanked her for those times. Bringing the past forward in these acts of gratitude repaired something of our relationship and allowed me to embrace my grief and move through it into the present. 

I had come to that final stage of the Kubler Ross paradigm—acceptance. Our friendship, I saw now, allowed us more emotional connection than our actual relationship had done. I was more frank with her because there was less at stake. I had already lost the relationship and the future that entailed so I could stop trying so hard. I could see now how different we were not just culturally, but inherently. We might have been able to overcome those differences (with difficulty given how stuck we were) but once released of me Catherine's growth accelerated so rapidly I could see how much we would have had to overcome as she explored the things I had held in check; this new lease on life revived her vitality. In turn I was now to plan my own life; something I had shied away from.

By negotiating through the death of our relationship I had regained my equilibrium. Like the martial artist I was I now had a firm footing. And while there was nothing about the future I could take for granted good footwork would help me face it head on.


Rebirth Of The Future

Given the impermanence of our living together especially as Catherine talked about and tried out her plans for her future I realized that I also had to have my own contingency plan. So I gave it some thought. All I really needed I thought to myself was a room of my own (to borrow Virginia Wolf's famous paradigm). Painted yellow just as my room was now. And I could build this room as a one room house on wheels (or buy one ready made). It was a long time dream of mine to own the craftsman style house on wheels known as a Tumbleweed and thus escape the whole real estate dilemma of housing in the Bay Area. I would just park my rig at my mother's or anywhere else I could negotiate. When I told Catherine this plan that I would embark on should she sell the house, she offered to finance it for me and that I felt was generous and fair. Meanwhile she had already given me the Prius which I had been driving since my car went to the junkyard post crash earlier this year. (For herself she leased a new Chevy Volt.)

And thus contained in this new future I could proceed with some peace of mind. I would manage the house we shared that Catherine no longer had time for, so busy was her schedule that she would soon spend much of it away from home as she pursued her spiritual practice, her relationships with new people and her course of studies that would train her to be a Buddhist chaplain. 

Having gone through her own brush with death during her year with cancer she now wanted to spend time talking to others and helping them to face their death. This I thought was a very beautiful and meaningful outcome of her illness; one I wanted to support. And in fact she was doing this chaplain work already with a friend she knew from work who had liver cancer and whose difficult dying process she would be involved with to the end. And so Gil our dharma teacher ordained her as a chaplain to show that he stood behind her. She also started her own Death Cafe at our meditation center and took her place in the teacher's chair. Her salon would have a different tone from the light hearted one I was involved in, but it suited those who came for it and helped me integrate my own grief with Catherine's path.

As for my own future I wrote that into my obituary as well in a leap of fiction using my essay writing for a peak oil site called the Energy Bulletin as a springboard. (It was on this site, now called Resilience, that my essays enjoyed the biggest and broadest readership.)

"As one of the forerunners of the farsighted peak oil writers, her book "The Girls Guide to Off Grid Living" was followed by a speaking career. Her contributions as a member of the community of teachers and guides who shepherded the global population through the transitional times of petroleum depletion were characterized by inventive costumes and performances. Her shoe designs were in much demand and offered extensive travel when few could afford it as she was hosted from town to town making shoes for high end clients competing for her services. She also taught courses for others wanting to make their own shoes so that everyone would be equally shod. And she gave Tarot readings as part of the evenings entertainment offering many insights that became a source of inspiration and practical solutions as the population struggled to establish a broader community model of problem solving using the deeper democracy of consensus practices we enjoy today. Her chronicles of her travels, hand printed on vintage letter presses and delivered by carrier pigeon during those crucial years, were one of the most popular written documentations of the era.

A commemorative e-book of her life will be available for downloading during the next available energy cycle."

In this somewhat apocalyptic foretelling of our collective future I was reminded once again that my life would not be directed in a vacuum, but would evolve as most artistic collaborations do, in community with others and with the geo-socio-political events of our time. And so it would be counter intuitive of me to fix for myself any given future beyond the minimal structures of housing and survival, but I await with baited breath for further input for I am after all still very much alive. And having broken open the too small love that Catherine and I needed to shed like an old skin, I was now ready to meet the world with a bigger love.

I read this piece to Catherine before posting it and she liked it, liked hearing my stories again and it occurred to me that these essays are in themselves an old skin that I shed periodically, in turn leaving something of myself and where I've been for others to find and wonder at.

And with each too small piece of my life that I shed I grow larger to embody ever more of the great Cosmic Love. So that I can then meet the world and everyone in it with love. And in that rebirth become love itself.

With all my love to all of you,

Amanda

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Friday, August 15, 2014

The Boot Making Cure

In which shoe making and Chinese medicine come together to reveal to me a new perspective on health and resiliency.

On the train to Portland I made shoes. 

"Are trains a way for you to access your subconscious," asked my friend Stacy. I had persuaded her to come along and get a hit of Portland while I was taking a boot making workshop. She was also eager to experience the famous Coast Starlight route. I did love train travel. It was a way to slow life down, feel the full affect of distance and be in motion outside of one's life and those chores which telegraphed me every time I sat down for three minutes. On a twenty hour train ride I had plenty of time to contemplate things. I did think it was possible that the rhythm of the train could put you into a theta state, much as a drumbeat allows the visions in a shamanic journey. I liked to think that JK Rowling had accessed this state when she was on the train where she had dreamed up Harry Potter.

And as I worked on my shoe project (a slip on shoe using bicycle inner tube pieces for trim) I kept seeing myself traveling to make shoes and living on the train, possibly having a shoe workshop on the train. It was such a strong vision I wondered what I was meant to take from it. I felt it so clearly that it seemed a part of my identity, much like making shoes seemed somehow so right, so innate to me. The shoe in my hand made me feel masterful and working with hand tools seemed so familiar. I felt compelled to make things with my hands to fulfill some innate need as primal as eating. Perhaps it was cellular memory passed down from another generation. I asked my mother what profession her grandfather had had for I had heard it mentioned that he was a harness maker. 

"Well it's funny you should ask," said my mother "because my family didn't want me to know. And I was scolded for playing with his tools. I was told not to tell anybody what he did so I thought there was something wrong with him." I reflected on her childhood spent in the north of England in Yorkshire.

Turns out my great grandfather was a horse shoer. And his children were so eager to better themselves that they didn't want to admit that their father did the work of a laborer. I thought it was cool though—an important part of history. I had seen a horse shoer at work. It was such a specialty profession now; they were part of the rich horsey crowd, paid well and in much demand. I knew how to pick up a horses foot and use a pick; like shoe making it was a similar feeling of getting to the bottom of things. I spent time wondering if those who loved to be crafty were expressing similar cellular memories of their ancestors making things by hand.


Healing Cosmology

Recently in the usual serendipitous way of my life I met an acupuncturist who saw me at Walgreen's getting into Catherine's electric car (the new Nissan Leaf) and he walked over to ask me questions about it. I didn't have all the answers so he gave me his card to e-mail him later. The card said that he specialized in ADHD, anxiety and depression. I was very intrigued. Weeks later I found his card still on my desk and contacted him hoping that he might refer some of his ADD clients to me. As it turned out I would be the one doing the referring because my mind was so much clearer after one session I immediately wanted everyone who had any chronic condition to see him, My mother went for her arthritis and so did a client to cut back on pharmaceuticals and her son for his allergies. I ran into the client in his office and she thanked me and told me how much he had done for her migraines. My mother too became so much calmer with the micro current technology he was using. And he told me how the micro currents enhanced serotonin levels. 

"Ah," I said, "so body chemistry can be changed without the use of pharmaceuticals." 

"Oh yes," he agreed, that being the whole point of his career.

After witnessing the assault of chemotherapy on Catherine when she was undergoing treatment for triple negative breast cancer I secretly believed that this poisoning of the body was incredibly wrong and have harbored hostile feelings about Western medicine ever since. (I was already acquainted with alternative medicine through my chiropractor and was intrigued by what he had introduced me to over the years.) During the time of Catherine's treatment I met a woman who had the exact same triple negative breast cancer only she had refused chemotherapy. She had her tumor removed surgically but then went to an acupuncturist to help discover what was putting her body out of balance and she adjusted her lifestyle accordingly. She herself was a Chinese medicine practitioner so she understood and believed in this healing art. I was naturally fascinated by this because here was a woman who had walked away from chemo and survived. All she did was focus on getting more sleep with the help of medicinal marijuana. She also told me that her oncologist had warned her repeatedly that the cancer would return within 18 months if she didn't do chemo so her warning to me was that you had to have great strength of mind to walk away. You literally took your life into your own hands. Which was exactly what I had in mind. I needed a new healing cosmology. (To be fair, Catherine also received acupuncture treatment to help her overcome the effects of chemo and has fully recovered from all her treatments. So these "alternative" medicines were slowly making inroads, but it was a given that only chemotherapy could actually "cure" cancer and I resented that assumption. I felt it stood in the way of progress.)

Dr. Kniskern, was not Chinese; he was a white American in his 50's who had begun his medical education at Stanford medical school (after he already got a degree in psychology and business). Given that the primary treatment tool of Western medicine was pharmaceuticals and after reading down the list of side effects he soon realized that he didn't want to practice medicine by pouring poison into people's bodies. A friend who was in Chinese medicine helped him enroll in another college where he could simultaneously study Chinese medicine. (Stanford, however, warned him sternly against following this practice saying that there were not enough studies to prove that it worked. Never mind that the body itself responded immediately to the techniques and provided a perfect feedback loop.) He graduated and set up his practice using what he learned from both disciplines then continued his education with a degree in nutrition & immunology and one in comparative medicine. Clearly a man in search of answers.

He told me how he had used these tools of Chinese medicine to further develop his own treatment for Aspergers and Autism. Considering the complexity of these conditions I was indeed impressed. No one else had devised much of anything that worked for these kids. He had written a number of papers on his discoveries and treatments but the gate keepers of Western Medicine were so suspicious of such deviation from the norm that they refused to even consider publishing his findings. He was eager to demonstrate how the treatment might help me as I had mentioned that I had issues with high blood sugar. In the first session I could clearly feel the energy pulsing through my body. And what Dr. Kniskern referred to as brain fog was lifted. After a week of treatment my ability to get things done became a staccato military march driving me to tick things off my to-do list just for something to do. No longer did I dither and procrastinate. My mind was beginning to cannibalize my life sucking up my leisure time.

When Dr. Kniskern next looked at my tongue he told me I needed to rest more. Take time out and let your mind wander he said. I had forgotten how to do that. He would also ask me what was stressing me out. Stress he pointed out would raise my blood sugars by using up my available insulin. I did a blood test daily when I woke up just to check if his treatments made any difference. It took a while but after three months my blood sugar levels are now consistently close to normal. After he told me about the impact of stress I began to see patterns. All kinds of things stressed me out including exciting things and what I read on Facebook when I woke up as when my Thai contacts had posted about the political shifts in my home country. What I posted to Facebook myself also had an impact akin to stage fright if something I said or posted was particularly risky. Things that I expected to stress me out did i.e. our renters not paying rent on time, Catherine being mad at me, and me not having enough client work. I discovered too that working with clients was so absorbing (and monetarily rewarding) it actually kept my mind from stressing me out. Shoe making and writing also calmed me.

A friend who follows my various diverse interests told me that Tolstoy had also made shoes having decided that the peasants mental ease was a result of a life of toil and he hoped to counteract his despondency by taking up shoe and boot making as well as farming. I enjoyed thinking of Tolstoy renouncing his aristocratic roots and taking to the fields to toil alongside the peasants while making shoes in his leisure hours. That he was a writer made this exploration even more cogent to my interest. I had taken up shoemaking as an intriguing practical hobby, but making shoes not only fulfilled my appetite to make things with my hands, but kept me in the mental flow state that is said to be the ideal for the creative brain. I felt it strengthened my mind against interruptions and distractions. It was meditative in the sense that thoughts could come and go without attachment.


Where The Shoemaker Lives

To explore the depths of this new craft I was now ready to go to shoe school; they were few and far between and none in California. When I arrived at the shoemaker's house the next morning, I was thrilled to find that his house, too, was of interest with its front yard vegetable garden, rain water catchment system, adobe oven, garage workshop, chicken coop and rabbit hutches all in a space smaller than our own suburban lot. His basement shoemaking workshop sported four different vintage looking leather sewing machines and numerous hand tools slipped into a strip of leather loops nailed to the edge of a shelf full of shoemaking supplies. He had a book case of DIY homesteading books and peak oil books. The posters on the wall were from his gigs as a musician. Like me he was on a path to take life and what sustained life into his own hands.

On the first day of class Jason showed us the five hand tools that were all we needed to make shoes—a pair of scissors, an awl to punch holes, a stitching awl, a skiver to shave off layers of leather and a channel groover to cut a groove in the sole where the uppers would be stitched into. He mentioned putting these tools into a backpack as he travelled. When I asked him later about these travels he said he used to hop freight trains and go to wherever there were art fairs, renaissance fairs or reenactment events where people would buy handmade shoes by artisans. He rode the rails! Now my vision of making shoes on the train made sense. I had been tuning into the traveling shoemaker part of his life. This was so remarkable I told Stacy about it that evening.  

I also asked him how he came to make shoes and he told me he started by repairing his own clothes, so often that the patches upon patches became works of artisanal art. Then he made clothes and learned to tan leather so he made pants from leather. It was only a matter of time before his shoes wore out so he made shoes from the leather too. At first the shoes only lasted a year or so, but bit by bit he learned how to make them last. Eventually he met another shoemaker and hung around at his workshop learning from him. This shoemaker was coincidentally the same man who started the shoe school in Ashland that I visited in Spring—the Bonney & Wills School of Shoemaking & Design. The school was beautifully appointed in a commercial studio full of natural light and a line-up of new looking sewing machines. It cost four times what Jason's workshop did and evoked too much the high end specialty consumer. I preferred the cottage industry feel of Jason's basement workshop tucked into a neighborhood of like minded homesteading neighbors where he made shoes to the sound of chickens using medieval designs that had a home spun ageless quality to them.

I envisioned well fitting shoes that were available to everyone on a localized village level. In Oregon and especially in Portland there were many who shared these off-grid thoughts. But in the Bay Area, the land of high tech and innovation the very idea of making shoes seemed so odd that it stopped people in their tracks. I enjoyed their astonishment. It was anti-consumerist yet the way I was executing designs, my shoes were still a fashion statement. I was wearing my Roman sandals with metallic copper accents that included little Hermes wings on the sides that I made for my travels to Thailand last Spring. They were a big hit and no one once laughed at me for making my own footwear. When he saw them Jason immediately asked who had made them.

My compatriots in boot making class were edgier and younger; one woman sporting scenic tattoos and large gauge ear piercings. A regular do-it yourself crowd—the two men were in the trades and the women well versed in DIY crafts and classes in pioneer skills. Next to them I felt downright mainstream in my wide brimmed white summer hat and a floral print summer shirt I'd made. I looked like I might shop at Nordstroms. I was intrigued by their sense of style as much as by their skill level. Hana (who had the tattoos and piercings) was a hydrologist working for the U.S. Geological Survey and Thadeus our farmer and handyman both made elegant work books of tobacco brown leather that wouldn't stand out. Andy who worked at his parents awning shop picked matt black leather bringing to mind Folsom street leather bars. He then trimmed them in silver grey edging which reminded me of a football team. Sara an art student who designed her own clothes picked the red leather and lined them with apple green. Pictures here.

An entire day was devoted to making our pattern from duct tape casts of our own feet. Another was devoted to cutting out the heavy bison leather and prepping the pieces for assembly. I couldn't believe I spent three hours struggling to skive off the edges of the leather so the seam wouldn't be so bulky. I was hoping I would learn how to minimize my time. I would have given up right there, but it turned out that my tool had a crack in it that made it almost impossible to get it to work even though Jason could manage it. Then the sewing machine ran away with me and I broke a needle. Hand sewing the uppers to the sole in the stitch-under method was also challenging, but I managed a workaround by making the sewing holes slightly larger.

I thought a lot about my design. I too wanted to use the red leather with its richly textured grain. I paired it with the chocolate leather to make a two toned boot like a saddle shoe. Then when I saw some yellow pigskin lining material I could use for piping across the top of the boot it really made the colors pop, while the natural leather of the sole still made it look like a shoe. Once finished with chrome eyelets and brown laces they looked like a real design reminding me of European children's shoes—butch, but playful. And the shape of the wide toe box were so pleasing to my eye that it gave me a curious sense of recognition as if I was seeing my home after a long time away. It was my feet I was seeing reflected in the shape of the shoe.

Jason said that after we had made many pairs of shoes and were practiced in our craft these first pair would look crude. But though the stitching wasn't parallel and the seams were so bulky it looked like I could stand on the edges of the leather, I was awed by how nicely they turned out. This finished pair of boots made by my own hand gave me such satisfaction that I was filled to the brim with happiness and the awesomeness of it all. How was it that this four day accomplishment could be as satisfying as love? I marveled at this feeling of utter happiness having been harvested with my own hands and a few tools as if from the ground itself. 


The Red Shoes

I wore my red shoes to the restaurant where my hosts Don and Jerome took us after class and they were admired by the wait staff. My friends were equally impressed and later Stacy and her partner Peggy also wanted to try them on. There was something about them that compelled people to want to see what they looked like on their own feet. 

A couple of weeks later a masseuse, Catherine's new friend Kyna, came by to give us both massages. As I lay on her table in front of my bookcase she mentioned one of the books on my shelf and how much it had helped her long ago. I asked which story was it that most spoke to her and she said "The Red Shoes". So I took down Women Who Run With The Wolves which I never had the patience for before and read about the little orphan girl who made her own shoes and how she was adopted by a lady in a golden carriage and taught to dress properly and have manners. Turns out the little orphan girl was perfectly happy with her handmade shoes and when they were taken away from her something shut down inside her—the capacity to do things for herself, that wild self sustaining creativity. And out of this "soul famine" she yearned for the red shoes of her past and got herself into trouble with a new pair of red shoes that called out to her and were enchanted so that she eventually went to her death with her obsession with them. This soul famine sounded like something I had tried my damnedest to avoid. And then again maybe not. But I was glad I was again making my own little red shoes.


The handmade life, this off grid attempt to become self sufficient I could see was also a form of mental self-healing just as my acupuncture sessions were making my body quicker to bounce back from stress. The term emotional resiliency comes to mind. Tolstoy was onto something. I let my mind breath in this resiliency and took a mental celebratory pirouette as I contemplated a life prioritized around the things that nourished the soul and healed the body. What a different world that would be.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Mud Hut Building Cure


Details of my trip to Thailand, the political angst therein, my own life path at a crossroads and the all women mud hut building workshop I attended.

To The North

The only people who take the sleeper train to Chiang Mai are tourists, monks and government officials. This Victorian mode of transportation now ranking higher in charm and nostalgia than the faster deluxe motor coaches that ply the new highways or plane for those really in a hurry. I could think of no better way to travel than to be lulled to sleep in my own bunk with panorama window overlooking the rice paddies after enjoying a meal brought to me from the restaurant car. 

On this leg of my journey to Northern Thailand I shared my compartment with a young Czech woman traveling alone. We had so much in common regarding off grid living that I was soon showing her pictures of my homemade composting toilet I kept on my iPod. These days I seemed to have more in common with young people than my own peers. It is the young who realize that our modern Western way of life is no longer tenable.

The women's adobe building workshop I was headed for would draw similar seekers of sustainable living solutions both Thai and foreign. I heard of the workshop through Pun Pun Farms a sustainable outfit I had discovered through the international earthen building network Kleiwerks six years ago. I had already taken an adobe workshop from Peggy and Jo her Thai farmer husband who had brought adobe building techniques to Thailand after viewing the pueblos of Arizona. This cross pollination of interracial couples fit right in with my own world view. Together with the International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice we would build a house for another non-profit that served to support ethnic minorities students. What I used to know as hill tribe people. Still marginalized by not being granted full Thai citizenship they were also teased by fellow students for their accents and tribal background. And, being far away from home, lacked a supportive living arrangement. It was the aim of this organization to offer such support and thus the house we would build.

In Chieng Mai under the clock tower I was to meet my ride. Beneath the clock two woman sitting at a coffee shop table looked at me expectantly and that was how I met Jeab whose house we would be building. The other woman Nuch, also Thai, was a workshop participant too. Soon we were joined by Tanya, a Russian living in Bangkok and Susanna who arrived by tuk tuk dressed in the traditional clothing of  her home in Malaysia—a tunic over pantaloons—which she would also wear while building topped with a wide brimmed army hat. 

We jumped into the back of one of the ubiquitous red pick-up truck taxis of Chieng Mai and were on our way. Along the way we picked up more Thai women—Noi who had a compassionate face and was retired and Pom a young woman accompanied by her mother who sported a natty pork pie hat. Mother only stayed with us for a day or two, but Pom would throw herself into this workshop with a notable work ethic. Building a mud house was on her "bucket list" she told me later. I soon learned that Susanna was an avid bird watcher as well as a writer. While our Russian companion merely laughed at every question I asked her before finally offering that she was an architect. She would also sleep a great deal. She had not been able to sleep in Bangkok, she said during a meeting at the halfway point of our workshop. Indeed she would soon move to Chieng Mai.

Amidst the Rice Paddies


An hour outside of the city we arrived at a small farm of rice paddies with a humble wooden house on stilts such as my grandmother had lived in, but not quite as big. On the edge of the first rice paddy were two tiny wooden houses built in modified Thai style which appeared to be quite new. It was there that we were to stay and being the first to arrive we had our pick. Without discussion Susanna, Tanya and I settled ourselves in one house and three of the Thai women took the other. The remaining guests would stay in the two houses at the adjoining farm and have a bit of a walk to their meals everyday. 

The farms had been bought by rich Thais from Bangkok, Jeab told me. The flood of 2011 had prompted many city folk to think of investing in both an out-of-town getaway house and a source of organic rice. Now these new houses were no longer occupied as the city people became busy again and did not find time to come so far north. Jeab had arranged with the owners to rent the houses for the duration. She and her crew of Karen hill tribe students had spent many hours cleaning and setting up beds in preparation for our arrival.

Late that afternoon we had our first meeting to learn everyone's name and a little of their story. There was  Lek and I-tim (ice cream in Thai) who were an adorable mother daughter team from the south of Thailand and wore matching outfits everyday. Nodoka from Japan who said this was the nearest mud house building workshop she could find. Sonya from Hong Kong who was a weekend farmer. Ard, a farmer's daughter from Thailand living in the UK and married to a Kiwi. Khin and Wawa two Burmese women. Rung a yoga teacher from Bangkok who would hold our early morning yoga sessions. Non a documentary photo curator living in Chieng Mai. Knot whose good English she attributed to her love of American movies. The quiet but thoughtful Puk. Eh a writer and teacher who taught a class in local self reliance. Lisa an American woman from Chatanooga living in Bangkok and Molly from Sonoma, California whose parents had grown up in Bangkok. We were joined by three Karen girls Om, Pao Chah and Pegk who wore matching brimmed hats of a floral print and our teachers Peggy, Lisa from Scotland who was married to a Karen and spoke a smattering of border languages including Burmese, Jeab, Ginger and her French girlfriend Laetitia. Many of the paying participants spoke of wanting to work with their hands. So immersed were they in modern jobs.

Each morning we would rise for yoga, followed by breakfast, work on the house until lunch, then resume at 2 p.m. after the midday heat. (Later we had to forego yoga in favor of working during the cool part of the day and take a longer lunch.) The first day we learned to make bricks from mud and rice husks with a little sand added mixing it all together in mud pits with our feet. There were already 3,000 bricks ready to go that had been made by Jeab's students so we lost no time making bricks. And were soon laying the first course right on the cement foundation using the mud mortar from the mud pit. Bricks were passed along in a fireman's brigade and mud was carried in sturdy rubber buckets. We all helped each other.

Someone spotted a snake; I saw it too and we chased it into the bamboo grove by the stream. And I realized that I had lost my childhood fear of snakes. That dread that gripped and paralyzed me. Later I remembered the integration work I had done with my soul retrieval. In returning to the land of my childhood in this visceral mud covered way I could now truly inhabit my adult life.

On the second day of wall building, Khin the Burmese woman suggested that I stand on the oil drums to get to the top of
the wall and she would hand me bricks. "I am fat," she said by way of explanation and so I climbed up onto the barrel. On another occasion I worked with Wawa who gamely placed the bricks while I felt compelled to coach her on her technique. And as we worked together we got to know each other.
There were no shirkers. Everyone showed up and did their part. Some with more talent than others, but nothing was so difficult that we couldn't do every part of it. And though I thought that I was working very slowly the walls were going up amazingly fast. At the end of every day we would take pictures of what was accomplished usually with a pair of women in the foreground doing a yoga pose. There was something very feminine about this choice of presentation. And no one had to care how they looked. At the end of the day we washed ourselves and the buckets in the stream using handfuls of straw as a scrubber and then went for a swim in the pond.

Random Angsts of Existence

The temperature got hotter as the week progressed and one day I came to a dead halt halfway down the path to the stream. The 100° heat had leached out every last thought I had and left me with a sort of existential blankness. What exactly was I doing with my life I had been wondering? What could I be doing with my life going forward? But nothing came to me.

Back home the recession had given my business such a pummeling that 2013 was my worse year yet even with the emerging recovery. And my relationship had essentially been stamped expired (though we would continue to make a companionable life together). While some of my long time friends were planning on leaving the Bay Area given that the high cost of living had squeezed out all but the moneyed elite of Silicon Valley. In this atmosphere my life had somehow run out of meaning and my contributions deemed monetarily trivial, nothing more than a series of antiquated analog hobbies i.e. dressmaking, carpentry, bicycle repair, gardening, storytelling in various mediums and now shoemaking. Skills geared towards an obsession with a post-industrialized society that never came. (I had attached myself to this peak oil narrative in order to feel useful until I figured out how to weather old age and die without lingering. Starvation being my choice.) 

Thailand, the country that had given me Buddhist serenity, pride as an uncolonized nation and resourceful self reliance, was in trouble. Some of my contacts in Bangkok used the term "failed nation" in reference to its possible futures. I had come to Thailand to figure out what would emerge from the now five months protests aimed to shut down Bangkok. But the Thais I met had no more clue than I did what would be the outcome. 

The State of Emergency status invoked in February, after some minor violence between opposing sides of the protest, had given me a nice discount on my plane ticket though and the plane from Taipei to Bangkok was only half full, mostly with young Thais. It had been a pleasant time to visit. The traffic in Bangkok was noticeably diminished and the streets devoid of tourists leaving the restaurants and shopping malls half empty. Without the distractions of business, the occupants had been left to themselves to think things over, but seemingly with no words with which to think. 

Graced with the longest ruling monarch in world history—a King so revered that he brought to mind the Dalai Lama—and a political profile largely influenced by royal patronage and marked by military coups, nothing in modern Thai history had prepared the people for the compromises and negotiations of self rule. All that was known was unity under a benevolent King with Buddhism as a moral compass. To be Thai was to be gracious and avoid conflict for karma had determined one's existence and nothing was really worth fighting over—until now. The Thais I knew felt threatened that the Shinawatra family in power  were vying to depose the King as a unifying figurehead while changing the laws to allow ever more concentrated power for the prime minister, currently the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was self-exiled in Dubai to avoid corruption charges incurred during his term as prime minister. In their separate camps the ongoing rhetoric in Thailand was marked by the loud voices of extremists, divisive jokes and insults delivered to each other by a polarized populace favoring different cable TV stations. 

It was in fact not unlike what had become of democracy in America, but at least we had had two centuries of dialogue and history that had offered some sense of what was possible, some agency in this thing called democracy. And we also had state rule which could break down further into city ordinances. The banning of plastic bags from a city was enough to keep its citizens engaged in the democratic process. A process we learn at a young age in the electing of a class president in high school and in the decision making of after school committees. But not in Thailand where such lessons had not existed, at least not in my day, and centralization meant that every last policeman throughout the provinces reported to Bangkok, as did every other government official.


From an economic perspective I saw it as a struggle to transform what was essentially an economy of slavery to that of individual prosperity. For the price of rice on the global market had kept those in the provinces poor. So poor that they had essentially, until the last generation, remained peasants with little hope of upward mobility. This gap between poor peasant and the upwardly mobile city dweller had allowed Thaksin to earn the loyalty of the poor by offering progressive policies (badly executed and straining limited resources). With his ultimate goal being to concentrate power as prime minister so he could further privatize Thailand's resources for his own gain. I was reminded that this ongoing struggle with the pitfalls of democratic capitalism giving over so quickly to corpratocracy was happening all over the world. 

The Hand Made Future

In the heat of our workshop days, I stood on an oil drum looking out into the rice paddies and the hills beyond. All these thoughts of the future pushed to the edge of my mind leaving me with a vague feeling of existential angst. Eh, my building partner for the hour, looked up at me and asked cheerfully in English "What do you need? 

"I'm looking for the meaning of life," I told her. 

"Oh that you can find everywhere," she said with a smile as if it were in the very air we breathed. 

I would soon learn that Eh and I had more in common than I had thought possible—a sense that the solution lay in localized self-sufficiency, a desire to teach others, tarot cards and New Age spirituality. The world having gotten smaller she had just as much access to the same books and ideas as I did. I would continue to be surprised at what many of us had in common—a desire to experience a handmade life, an eco ethic of anti-materialism, a willingness to work together and get along with peoples of all nations. Each day we worked together, ate together and shared living space as we devoted our efforts to this single task of house building. 
Photo by Lisa Thom

By the second day the walls were finished and on the third we installed the doors wedging them in with a cob mixture of mud and straw. Once the windows were installed we could plaster the walls inside and out then apply an earthen paint. All in 8 1/2 days with few tools and the hands and feet of 30 women.

In the evening we would gather in the dining area under the main house where the wifi signal was and log onto Facebook. Facebook had become so ubiquitous that we were all thoroughly addicted, eager to post our updates for the day. It was the only thing about our little community that I questioned. Here we would work together all day, but at night we still wanted to trade comments with people back home. I missed the distance I could get by leaving home. I missed the long discussions I remembered from evenings at previous workshops and the visibility of books everyone was reading and how both created a group understanding of emerging new perspectives. That was only five years ago. 

By the middle of the workshop we had begun to friend each other on Facebook. And with all the tagging and posting pictures of each other, I no longer felt a need to report anything since my friends at home could see me happily posing with all my new mud covered friends. I could wait to report my experience and give it the perspective of time. This skill left largely undeveloped by so much breaking news reporting. Only Susanna with her feminist training and writer's mind could beat me to these bigger perspectives which she now applied to the story of the missing Malaysian airplane duly analyzing all the speculations and conspiracy theories in terms of our own wishful thinking. Some even checked their phones at the building site. When one of my Facebook contacts watching her stream came to realize that a childhood friend from Chatanooga was in fact attending the same workshop as I was I was duly photographed and posted as proof. This coincidence somehow leaving me unimpressed; so often did this happen these days. Facebook, which had been my life for two years, was now somehow an ersatz reality next to our daily immersion in mud. Mud that I spread over my skin instead of sunblock. "Clean dirt" I told Lisa from Chatanooga who did not like getting her feet dirty. Every day I washed the mud from my clothes and dried them on the line.

In the last two days of the workshop we adorned our building with feminine touches. Jeab pressed ceramic medallions into the walls—round tiles painted with floral motifs. In the front bedroom Knot and Rung created vines of cob plaster climbing the walls. And on the curved walls of the exterior Tanya, our Brutal Russian artist as she called herself in a photo caption, fashioned a full size tree out of rocks and colored tile that she labored over to the end when we had all packed our bags. 

In the wrap up at our last meeting it was obvious that people had been profoundly moved by the experience. Awed that we had managed to complete a viable house in so short a time for people we knew who would actually live in it. Wawa said she was surprised to discover her own strength and ability though she had never done such work. Lek commented that she was now confident that her daughter could look after herself in the world. Om, one of the Karen girls, thanked Molly for teaching them to swim. And Molly offered thanks to the earth and the pond, the cooks and everyone who had made the workshop possible. Nodoka was so overcome by emotion she could only offer a syllable then gave up. Khin mentioned that she had worried about her sick puppy at home, but had enjoyed learning to build. Tanya said that she was not normally impressed by non-professional architectural work, but in this case she was. Susanna spoke of how so many of us likely came to this workshop with unresolved problems and issues, but in this community experience together, we would likely go home and find some shift had happened. This prompted me to say that I had already benefited and been filled with hope for Thailand after seeing how so many from disparate classes and levels of experience and education had been able to work together in harmony. I had made many friends with my little dances during the break, my yearning in Thai for barbecued chicken and my confidence at building. 

When I got home to Bangkok I showed my Auntie Ah Pahdt the pictures of the house being built; she already knew of the
coolness offered inside an adobe building and she told me she had bought land in the very same province where the workshop had been. This seemed too serendipitous to be mere coincidence.

"Would you like me to build you a mud house?" I asked her ratherexcitedly. She didn't say anything but she did seem to hear me. My hands, already hardened by a lifetime of making things, were burnished like polished wood from the textured mud; my feet too had benefited. Mud hut building agreed with me. The weight of the bricks and the stickiness of the mud had worked its way into my tactile memory so firmly that I would think of the house as a part of me and I of it when I saw pictures of the roof being put on after we had left. The profound satisfaction of having done something real lingered with me. I could well imagine building more houses. 

Three days after I got home to California I had my Honda wagon loaded up with about ten boxes of books from a client job. Driving home in stop and go traffic I had to slam on the brakes as the SUV in front of me stopped at a light. But my car was so heavy it skidded into her bumper dislodging her muffler and leaving the hood of my car a mess. After we pulled over and exchanged information I wired her muffler back up for her, but I knew my car was toast. It was too old to be worth fixing though I had before gone to great lengths to keep it on the road as part of my frugal stubbornness even after Catherine had offered her Prius to me to drive (after she bought herself the new all electric Leaf). But curiously that little bump seemed to detach me from everything I thought of as my identity and my life. I saw clearly that all aspects of life were temporary and I would benefit from treading lightly. 

Just as Susanna had described I did feel a shift in my personal landscape. A restoration perhaps of the serenity and grace I had grown up with. Somehow the house that was now a part of me and my own labor on it in the climate of my childhood had cured me of an existential homelessness I had felt since I left Thailand at ten. I felt curiously light of being. It no longer seemed important what stories people were telling or the counter stories I told in self defense. My world had expanded and I was able to detach myself from the many narratives I had been wrestling with and replace it with a globe trotting, mud hut building sensibility that restored my self-value and opened up a miriad of possibilities. I returned immediately to my shoemaking and a little gardening. And soon missing my new friends I watched them on Facebook.

Photo by Jeab Sena

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Anarchist's Shoes

In which I learn why manufactured shoes are bad for you and how to make your own.

At Thanksgiving dinner the Anarchist was admiring the black ankle boot moccasins I was wearing with my sarong pants and I announced that I was going to make my own shoes. 

"I'd be very interested in how that goes", said the Anarchist who was a self designated non-conformist who had, during a discussion at one of our parties, announced that she was an anarchist. A term that fits well for this story. 

Her desire to join me in my shoe odyssey further intrigued me and she told me of her feet woes. How the combination of bunions and toes now curling up over her feet made it increasingly difficult to find footwear to fit. She didn't have good feet to begin with, she explained, but years of forcing them into heels and of being on her feet all day while working at a Hallmark store did them in. Only then did I realize that she always wore Ugg boots even in summer and now she could only wear the right boot of two pairs of Uggs. I showed her the work of a shoemaker who had blogged about making a pair of shoes for a woman with severely swollen feet. This gave us the confidence that we too could solve our shoe problems in the same manner.

I had my own reasons for wanting to make my own shoes. My daily dog walking was wearing out my shoes faster than at any time in my life. The soles of walking shoes did not seem to wear as well as they once did. I was shoe goo-ing them repeatedly (glue used to fix holes in tennis shoes). Then I read an article brought to my attention by a newsfeed I subscribe to called the Village Green Network which usually concerned itself with food and recipes for making something simple like laundry soap. 

The article was by a woman who had decided to make her own shoes because most shoes caused her pain on the long hikes she liked to take. She referenced another article that described how shoes compromise the natural gait of the foot. I was shocked and then not at all surprised. So often did a single assumption lead to misinformation never investigated. Shoes were still built on the same too narrow lasts as they had been for centuries under the belief that feet had to be supported. They were also too heavy, inflexible, reduced surface area of the foot and since they were drawn with a curve rather than on a straight axis forced the foot to an incorrect orientation.

The referenced article described how the footbed of shoes have an indentation under the ball of the foot designed into the shoe to make the foot look smaller. Sure enough I checked all my shoes and every one of them had that indentation built into the footbed. This slight dip compromised the natural arch of the foot especially when other areas of the footbed were compressed with wear. This combination put three important bones out of alignment. The reason arch support was needed turned out to be to raise these bones back into place. The turned up toes of shoes, the lack of flexibility in the sole, the stiffness of the uppers all interfered with the natural ability of the foot to grasp surface area, expand and move the body. 

The article also pointed out that you can tell by the wear pattern of your shoes that the natural gait was being compromised. I looked on the bottom of my shoes and sure enough all of them were worn down on the outside edge of the heels and on a spot in the middle of the ball of the foot as described. I thought it was because of my bowed legs causing my shoes not to land properly. I read the article several times before I could believe that shoes were not helping at all (apart from protecting the foot from pointed rocks) and were more likely reducing the foots flexibility and strength. Feet would be better off in a pair of moccasins the article concluded. 

Earlier in the year I had been similarly astounded by an article claiming that the brassiere seriously compromised the ability of the breasts to get rid of toxins and did not in fact keep a woman's breasts from sagging over time, but had compromised the muscle structure of the breasts to take care of this themselves. Given my personal minimalist topography I could happily give up the brassiere, but I could not do without shoes. Thus I embarked on my shoemaking education and found a book at the library with full color pictures that convinced me of what wonderfully colorful and interesting footwear I could make for myself. This led me to find the author online where I found the aforementioned blog about making shoes for swollen feet. She had also posted an article from the New York Times a bit more readable and less technical that said the same thing—shoes were bad for you.

I consulted my chiropractor and he told me about the body's remarkable ability to adapt. How bones that had been badly set would over time correct themselves. So feet would also adapt to shoes. And he himself would not be giving up the support of his hiking boots no matter what the claims of the new minimalist trends in sport shoes. One could simply train oneself to walk properly he claimed. I in turn told him how I had learned from a masseuse that the Asian squat was not a body position that one could learn in adulthood. That this act of folding the body up and squatting on the heels actually changed the angle of the hip sockets so only those who had practiced this sitting position from childhood could accomplish it so easily in adulthood. So wouldn't a person who had spent most of their time walking barefoot be similarly suited to unconstructed shoes? He agreed that I had made a convincing hypotheses for my new shoe wearing preferences. And given his theory of adaptation it is likely that others who adopted a barefoot lifestyle could over time strengthen their feet too. My karate class was, after all, filled with newcomers learning to exert their body for peak fighting performance while barefoot.


Shoemaking

I had been a seamstress all my life and I once made jester slippers from wool felting, but I hadn't a clue how to choose
leather or what a millimeter in thickness felt like. In order to become acquainted with the medium I ordered a three pound box of leather scraps from e-bay for $30. And what an assortment of cowhide did I receive. I picked over the fake crocodile in unnatural colors, the fake pink ostrich that came in lime green, red and turquoise, some shiny red metallic gold and copper pieces, floral embossed ones and weird ones that looked like flocked wall paper. I was both repulsed and intrigued and spent an afternoon art date putting together combinations of blue crocodile and lime green ostrich. Most of the scraps came in pieces too small to use so I would have to make a crazy quilt shoe.

I felt more compelled to meet the needs of my Anarchist friend for her need was greater and I still had shoes a plenty. Plus the caveat of making shoes for a "customer" excited me with visions of a new shoe making add-on to my services. Who could resist custom made shoes? Another of my clients also had problems with bunions gradually eliminating all but men's running shoes for her. She said she could have had an operation to correct her feet, but there was no way she would have been able to be off her feet for six weeks. (My Anarchist friend had said the same thing. It occurred to me that the abuse of women's feet in heels and the failure to correct them surgically was probably quite common among women, especially those that took care of others as women so often did.)

I watched a video on my shoemakers blog on how to make a last upon which to build a shoe and went to visit the Anarchist with duct tape and homemade play dough in hand. The play dough was for filling the spaces over the toes to make a shoe like shape. I had her slip on a pair of knee high nylons I had brought with me and she stood on the cardboard soles I had made with a little wall of duct tape around the perimeter. I went to town ripping off pieces of duct tape and wrapping them across her feet attaching them to the side wall.  After I was done I carefully cut the duct tape boots off down the top of the foot. The results looked like a pair of boots left behind by the Tin Man after a thorough beating.

Instead of flattening out my duct tape pieces to make patterns for a last as instructed, I decided to skip that step and just drape the leather over the duct tape forms themselves. I cut up an old black t-shirt to make a prototype. The Anarchist loved the pixie shape I had devised to accommodate the unusual shape of her feet. My challenge was to make the shoe for the more normal foot look the same as this high profile one. It would not be possible to make them identical, but I could mimic the same shape and hold the foot with a hidden piece inside the shoe. I had brought my bag of leather scraps so she could choose what kind of leather she wanted her shoes made from. She admired how soft and flexible some of the pieces. As they were to be her first pair,  were and chose black which would go with most of her outfits and hats for she was a snappy dresser.

She then showed me the pair of shoes she had had custom made by a professional shoemaker. They hurt her feet she
said and cost $500. They were so stiff and ugly they made me angry. There was no flex to the sole at all. Whoever constructed these shoes had decided that her feet were too crippled to be of any use and had made what was essentially the foot part of a wooden leg.

I ordered more leather from e-bay—remnants from upholstered leather sofa making. And I made adjustments to my t-shirt mock up until we were satisfied with the fit. Then I took apart my model and used the pieces as a pattern to cut the shoe parts out of the black leather. Next I had to learn how to sew leather together with the prescribed synthetic sinew. I bought myself the proper needles, a stitching awl, sinew and some non toxic cement. I could use my sewing machine to make holes in the leather that could then be enlarged by the stitching awl; the hand sewing went much easier once I made the holes large enough.

Hunting down material for the soles would be a challenge since this was a material only available to professional shoe makers in bulk rolls. My shoemaker blogger suggested going to Home Depot to look for rubber floor tiles used in workout rooms and garages; they were made from recycled automobile tires. The pack of 6 tiles I found would be enough for 12 pairs of shoes, but they were the right thickness. I was very pleased that they were a recycled product. 

The insoles were also challenging because my customer's feet were of such a shape that no conventional insole from the drug store would work. So in the end I used some square sheets of rubber I had on hand that came as knee pads inside gardening pants. I covered these thick pieces with scrap upholstery material I had gotten from FabMo a non profit that collected samples discarded by interior design stores. For shoe laces I decided to use gross grain ribbon from the fabric store was in order. These ribbon ties along with the pointed pixie toes made the shoes look magical. 

I had the Anarchist try them on. The problematic right foot was a bit loose in the toe. She got her canes out and took a test drive walking fast into her room and back. The pointed soles on one foot would catch a little as she picked up her feet so I took them home and cut and sewed the toes into a rounded shape. Now they fit better and were easier to walk in. She also commented that they were very comfortable and the soles offered plenty of arch support. That's funny I thought, I didn't build any arch support into the footbed. But the thickness of the insoles afforded enough cushion to feel like it and protected her protruding bones from the hard floor. She was pleased with the that they looked dressy too. 


Stepping off the Grid

Such off the grid journeys, I realized, usually started with a revealing piece of information. Shampoo I found out made your hair grease up which led to hair washing every other day when I really didn't need to wash my hair more than once a week if I used baking soda and an apple cider rinse as was done a century ago. Not to mention that some of the ingredients in shampoo were toxic. 

When I started reading up on what caused my blood sugar to spike I learned that our food supply was compromised by the misinformation of the medical institution creating a world wide aversion to saturated fat. The processed food industry then capitalized on cheap ingredients some of which the body was unable to digest. But as long as a package said low-fat or vegetarian any frankenfood would sell as a health food. 

My interest in electric cars taught me that automobiles could be built much simpler and lighter if it weren't for the demands of long distance travel and the crash test at freeway speeds. Crash test regulations kept other alternatives off the market even if you never intended to drive on the freeway, but at a much slower speed appropriate to neighborhoods. Housing was also controlled by regulations not necessarily for safety but to keep keeping them large. Too large to afford. I had believed that these first world regulations created a superior society, but I now see that it is more about upholding a standard of living. One that would continue to feed the profit margins of industrialized products made with machinery so large it required huge amounts of capital so only mega corporations could compete. Not to mention creating a society where shoes, cars and houses had become status items under designer label brands. These designs were so conventionally limited that there were only minute differences between brands and models creating a sea of choices that really offered no choice at all. Anyone wanting a different concept altogether was out of luck. Likewise anyone with abnormally wide feet or feet already ruined by fashion trends had no shoes at all. 

I too had been taken. Years of reading advertisements specifying the technical improvements of shoes in the sports industry had convinced me that a highly "technical" shoe corrected or at least enhanced the performance of feet. Now I saw that industrially made shoes were coddling feet with padding while undermining their natural ability to function. (Plus the overseas sweatshops with their underpaid labor and toxic work environments to produce these shoes always irked me.)

Others had also realized how the emperor had no clothes given all of the above revelations being passed around and I
was aware that a movement was afoot. More and more people were interested in old ways of doing things—cooking from scratch, finding ways to live in tiny homes, getting kids to school in Dutch cargo bicycles, investigating ayervedic medicine, massage, yoga and other ancient techniques of living healthily. But despite all this re-skilling as it has come to be known, not too many people had taken up shoemaking. In fact leather work as a hobby seemed to have fallen out of favor along with macrame plant hangers. I had found only the one out of print book in my library system. Even on the internet very little information was being offered. Those who had had taken up shoemaking were mostly moms and grandmothers looking for healthy shoes for children that would allow the foot to develop naturally. Shoes for adults were likely more subject to fashion demands and fitting into conventional work settings.

It was also a skill that pushed beyond most people's ability requiring sharp tools, a bit of strength to push needles through leather and thick rubber and an imaginative design sense plus an ability to visualize three dimensionally. Just the sort of skill set I had been cultivating since childhood. And the potential for recycling and making unique fashionitems would entertain me for some time. What better way to upset the paradigm than to make one's own shoes? A village cobbler could help turn a community away from exclusive designer brands to unique one-of-kind efforts in a locally made product. 

It is the Year of the Horse an kick ass time to manifest new ideas. And the horse is the only animal on the horoscope to wear shoes!

May ye all be well shod.

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