Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, June 04, 2018

Return To Pun Pun


My report on this year’s adobe building workshop in Thailand reveals what appears to have been a blueprint for my current life and leads me into another adventure.


Return to Pun Pun

In 2008 I had been hungry to find a Thailand I knew my relatives couldn’t show me. One that more matched my values than the proliferation of shopping malls that Bangkok was becoming. So I joined a tour and embarked on a road trip to the north eastern provinces in the back of a truck farmer style, sleeping in rustic home built huts and using squat toilets exclusively. The tour was of organic farms that practiced sustainable methods and the new earthen buildings known as Baan Din (House of Earth).

The leaders of the tour were Jo Jandai the founder of the adobe building movement in Thailand and his American wife Peggy plus their son Tan who was maybe five at the time. The final destination was Pun Pun a small farm in the hills where Jo and Peggy had created an educational center to teach the skills of sustainable living. 

In this first phase of Pun Pun the people they attracted had built all manner of natural structures so that it had a whimsical rainbow festival feel to it. One man from Holland had built a circular house on stilts that was open from the waist up. Another from the States was in the midst of setting up a giant filtering system made from stacks of concrete culverts filled with sand, gravel and charcoal. He lived in a tiny adobe house with a roof thatched with coconut fronds. It was big enough for a desk and a loft bed. I recognized it as all I would need myself. 

Other innovations I was introduced to at Pun Pun included toilets that flushed with water into a compost pit, a pee toilet to collect urine for use as a nitrogen source in the garden, soap making, oyster mushroom cultivation and the fermenting of fruit waste to make effective microorganisms for what I didn’t quite understand. Several of these ideas I would later incorporate into my tiny house (including the microorganisms which I now knew to call Bokashi).

At the last build I had attended two years ago our yoga teacher announced one morning that she had just drank her own pee. I looked at her curiously as the remembrance of the taste crossed her face with an expression that told me it was not altogether pleasant but doable. Jo had been teaching about drinking your own pee as a remedy when you were sick and to recapture substances the body made such as melatonin. Well, if Jo was doing it there must be some merit to it I thought. On this trip I would learn that pee could also be used to treat cuts and skin abrasions too. Urea is, after all, an ingredient in plenty of high end body lotions. I tucked all this away in my alternative medicine chest. So much did I trust all that I learned through Pun Pun. 


The Mud Hut Sisters

Since that first trip with Pun Pun I tried to make it to the women's build every year as an investment into what I called my mud hut sisters network. Anyone who would come all the way to Chiang Mai to build a house from mud was my kind of person. At the last build I had made enough friends to visit from California to Portland. Others had become my circle of friends in Bangkok. Last year I connected with two who came to the Bay Area from Australia and China respectively. 


It was an hour and a half’s ride from the city of Chiengmai to Pun Pun by taxi truck. As we pulled up I spotted a gathering of patrons hanging out at what looked like a coffee shop. Was Pun Pun now a resort I wondered? The coffee shop was indeed a new enterprise since I’d been there and it gave the farm a destination feel to it. Inside there were baked goods, herbal farm products, bars of scented soaps and books many of them by Jo—his personal story about returning to his family farm and learning to build with adobe, his experience as a father and even his love life. Too bad all were in Thai. 

A quick look around showed me that almost none of the original buildings were left. They had been replaced after being eaten by termites. Much had been learned in the process and the new buildings had a more permanent and finished look. 

It was unusually cold out. So cold that we were all bundled up in coats and hats as though we were at the arctic and there had also been unseasonal storms. Climate change was afoot. At a nearby mud pit at the end of our tour of the farm we were persuaded to doff our coats and shoes and start stomping the mud. When everyone was in I felt the fun had finally begun. 

I put my arms around the shoulders of women on either side of me and started chanting monosyllables as a spontaneous expression of group bonding. Nobody joined in though It made Elsa the 10 year old girl resident of Pun Pun look up at me curiously. We had met before. She was a mirror for me sharing with me similar skin tone, dark hair and Asian features. We had worked together two years ago when she joined us for her first build gamely lugging bricks and climbing scaffolding for the entire ten days. Her Scottish mother Lisa was one of our instructors. Her father was from Burma. 

The continuity of seeing her tugged at me. I was ten years old when I left Thailand and so much that I called home, but couldn’t put into words. My memories were somehow embodied in the mud. Mud that in my childhood the local children had taught me to roll into marble size balls with which to play games squatting on our heels on the hard packed dirt. 


A House To Build

The house we were set to build this year was a few kilometers down the road from Pun Pun at a site that would be the next phase of their educational center. Peggy’s brother had already built the first adobe structure which could be seen from the road waiting a final coat of plaster and earth based paint. The house we were building was behind it deeper into the compound. It would be Peggy and Jo’s house away from the bustle of the Pun Pun farm. 

We could see it as we approached. The concrete foundation perched on the edge of a large pond. There were pilings in the water where a pier would be built. It would be two stories high and had a compact footprint with a covered outdoor barbecue area. There were also iron beams instead of wood ones since wood now cost the same as iron. One of the reclaimed doors had a window put into it an unusual feature in Thailand. The house itself had a modern look to it.

After brief instruction our team set to carrying buckets of mud from the mud pit. We then formed a long line to pass the dried bricks that had already been made — with a mixture of mud and rice husk poured into wooden forms. I loved this brick passing line that would only really work if you had a large group of people. It embodied the sense of community I was after. Withe bricks stacked inside we began building the walls in earnest.


The Cat Lady’s Story

A few days into the build just as we were coming to the top of the walls, we finished up early so we could drive to the Cat Lady’s house. This was a woman who lived in an adobe house a team had helped her build in a little village between two rice fields. We sat on the lawn in her vegetable garden as she told us how everyone thought she was crazy to leave Bangkok and come out here to live. 

“If I hadn’t left Bangkok I would have died,” she said dramatically. I could understand where she was coming from. 

She had bought herself a little plot of land just off the road in this village. The house was outfitted with a large outdoor cat cage of cyclone fencing connected to the house with a cat run alongside the top of the wall that let the cats in through the bathroom window. Next to the house a large outdoor kitchen with wood slat walls sat next to the house and behind it the garage. At the bottom of the garden was a guest house; those relatives who had thought she was crazy now liked to visit, but she didn’t want them in the house stepping on the cats’ tails.

As she told her story she mentioned that city people under 50 years of age were the most afraid of the country. This detail stuck in my mind for it put words to my own despair that the younger generations of my Bangkok family no longer valued the natural environment or even connected with it so enclosed were they in cars and air-conditioning. 

I asked the Cat Lady how she got the idea to come to the country. She said it was through her government job that she was sent out to the country and she could see for herself that the people enjoyed a better quality of life. Her story was both inspiring and odd so focused was it on the cats who were famous and had a following on Facebook. It was a rich lady’s story I sensed since she likely had investments that had allowed her to buy the farm. She grew food just for herself and any visitors. 

“They should have told us how the guest house could be an income,” said Clasina who would later become a pivotal figure in my story. We were riding home in the back of one of the pick-ups together. I too had ideas on how to improve her homestead. She had talked of wanting to improve the fertility of her soil yet she was flushing away a perfectly good source of nutrients that could have been had with a composting toilet.

“She’s just a crazy cat lady,” I said, “she didn’t need an income.” And like most urbanites the world over she likely had never considered digging her composted poop into the garden that would then grow food. Even Jo said people just couldn’t seem to get their minds around it and Pun Pun put their composted poop on fruit trees only.


Chosen Family

The cat lady’s observation of Bangkok people haunted me. I was left asking myself why were city people afraid of the country? I knew it had to do with the rapid growth of Bangkok since the ’80s. It was true that we who were over 50 grew up in a Bangkok that still had a relationship with nature living in houses that were not air conditioned with large gardens to play in. Plus TV was only broadcast in the evenings and of course there were no smart phone driven media and games. 

Now city people flocked to the indoor shopping malls and spent their leisure time inside these hyper stimulating artificial environments to get away from the heat and polluted air. With food courts and entertainment the malls contained everything they could want. In 2017 the photo site Instagram reported that out of the the entire world the location where people uploaded the most pictures that year was from the Siam Paragon mall. People taking selfies with the latest status car or some perky pop art display I guessed.

I could see the allure of these entertaining malls, but going into one made me feel like I was in an aquarium with limited air in my tank so much did I want to get away from the materialistic displays.

The two children who lived at my old house were rarely outside even when their cousins came over to play; they preferred playing games on the large screen TV. How could I relate to children who did not play outside? An entire generation lost to artificial indoor environments I lamented.

When I talked to Peggy about it she confirmed that when Bangkok children came to Pun Pun they were afraid of everything and were also clumsy, falling a lot on the unpaved ground; they were so unused to walking on natural terrain. And I could see she didn’t like to say it, but they were also already trained to feel the entitlement of their class and so refused to do things they thought beneath them like washing their own dishes. This annoyed me even more so much did it resonate from my observations.

My dismay sapped my strength and I looked for support. I had on the first day introduced myself to Robyn from Australia who was older than me (by a large margin she said). At the end of a day of building I saw her sitting on the sidelines and I joined her. “Tired”, she asked me. I told her of my despair at my family making me tired. How I didn’t understand their motives. She sympathized and waited until I offered a strategy to cope with it encouraging me in this positive direction. I felt fortified just from being understood.

Robyn had come to the build with a younger woman she referred to as her daughter which further intrigued me when I met Meredith with her butch haircut. Later I would learn that they were not actually blood related which made me curious how Robyn constructed her world. She referred to a partner too disabled to travel. During our chats she told me about her chosen family of daughters in various countries. I was intrigued by this concept. How did one acquire daughters in this manner? Was there a formal bonding ritual? But I did not have the words to ask her at the time. Just the glimmer of an idea that you could create a chosen family.


My Feet Can See

I took refuge in life at Pun Pun. There were many working volunteers to talk to who came from all over the world with similar desires to heal the earth. I tried out the solar shower and favored the squat toilets in their own adobe building in a central location. (Throne toilets were now offered on the other side.) The guest houses did not have toilets so it was a bit of a walk in the middle of the night. I found I did not need my flashlight as there were floodlights shining from various buildings. The paths were well worn and packed down under my sandals. There was only one part of it that was completely in the dark as it crossed a road. As I walked into the dark part I had the strange sensation that my feet could see. This made me curiously happy. For to be so sure footed was a comforting feeling as one gets older. 

The small children who lived at Pun Pun were also sure footed and agile. They enjoyed a free range existence with few toys. They picked up tools as toddlers and learned to use them as they wandered into our work area. They participated in projects and were sweet to each other. It comforted me a great deal to see teenage boys helping out. Tan now taller than his parents was quiet, confident and free from that cockiness and attitude that marked teen boys I knew in the West. He recognized me and we just smiled at each other across the dining hall too shy to speak. On an outing to visit other Adobe buildings I was touched to see Elsa holding the hand of her big brother Jack who towered over her. I could not remember seeing even one example of such sibling affection in the US.

We took our shoes off Thai style as we entered the guest houses and the dining hall. The tables we ate at were low to the ground so we could sit on floor cushions thus avoiding the need for chairs. This spared us the noise of them scraping on the floor. There were a couple of picnic tables with benches at one end for those not able to sit on the floor. This furniture free life agreed with me, with my childhood sitting on the polished wood floors of Thai homes. 

My study of biomechanics and how the body needs a variety of movement had long shown me that you pay a price for the use of furniture with the diminishment of range of motion which led to diminishment of function of the joints. The Asian squat long seen as somehow primitive and feral had been exonerated by biomechanists as vital for proper elimination. The creative marketing of the Squatty Potty having driven this point home on Facebook. 

There were no comfy chairs in this low furniture life. The beds were hard too being nothing more than a 3 inch chip foam block. (Chip foam is what we put under carpets.) This hardness was better for the body I had read in a medical article. For while sleeping the body moves in such a way as to adjust itself, realigning bones back to their optimum position. 

And then I remembered how I had trained my feet to see. After reading Katy Bowman’s book on foot health I had laid a path of loose river rocks outside my tiny house so I could force the bones in my feet to be pushed around as she recommended. The path also allowed me to walk to my freezer in stocking feet. Six months of this had given my feet new found skills evaluating unstable ground. This was what had given me the sensation of innate knowledge, of “seeing”. 

Shoes, especially well padded shoes with all kinds of support, robbed the feet of the opportunity to gain muscle strength. Too ironic that the more we have sought comfort the worse off we made ourselves. Still I piled on three blankets to ward off the cold temperatures of this climate change era. When my roommate from Taiwan asked why there was no glass in the windows in the hall where we did yoga I told her no one thought it would ever be this cold in Thailand. So we wore our jackets to yoga.

My reading on health had further taken me on a tour of our personal micro biome. How the bacteria inside our guts provided services — everything from synthesizing melatonin to affecting our moods. These beneficial and some not so beneficial bacteria lived in the colon. One of the residents who had also just discovered the microbiome herself showed me a root vegetable she had bought in the village called the Yacon which would make it all the way through our digestive system to the colon. We were certainly enjoying such fibrous foods with the vegetable focused meals that came out of the semi outdoor kitchen. Meals made from scratch much of it from the garden. Not a tin can could be seen in this kitchen. My body responded to this non-material, non-artificial environment. If my relatives could not appreciate this it was their loss.

One morning I woke up feeling renewed and happy. Pun Pun had worked its magic on me. 

A Farm Of Our Own

On the last day I said goodbye to Elsa, not knowing when I’d make it back again or if I was up to another build so tired had I felt. And perhaps the builds didn’t need me anymore now that they were so well attended. The movement to teach sustainable living techniques had matured since Pun Pun established itself. Now there were some 80 such groups and outfits teaching permaculture farming and natural building methods in Thailand alone. The movement was maturing and the participants reflected this change.

Unlike those who attended in previous years looking for something different to do these woman struck me as serious about actually building a house for themselves. Yilin my roommate from Taiwan had moved to an island resort she had loved as a child and had run tours both on bicycles and by kayak. She was now looking for ways to help the locals make a living that would preserve their way of life. Two Thai cousins already had a garden and were interested in permaculture. Syri, a Japanese woman who had trained as a chef, had her grandparents farm to return to. A young Thai woman grew micro greens on her balcony in Bangkok and sold them at a farmer’s market. And then there was Clasina, a South African woman (married to a Thai) actively looking for land to make a food forest. I had enjoyed her enthusiasm and bubbly spirit.

When I got back to Bangkok my cousin was eager to meet with me to make me an offer for my share of a piece of land the family owned where we had had a factory to assemble Venetian blinds. Her offer was enough to warrant my attention, though my stepmother believed it could sell for eight times that value. But all over Bangkok family land lay locked up in such disputes and what good was that? I didn’t want to be similarly waylaid. So I accepted the offer and she  took me to the bank and gave me an envelope of cash so I could feel my money she said and get used to this new wealth. It did stir in me many new thoughts. I had no real need for things, but with this new wealth I had enough to buy land, not in Bangkok of course but outside of the city, a farm even. And then bam it hit me I already knew someone with just such a plan.


I messaged Clasina asking how much was this farm. I hadn’t been paying attention, but she had indeed been looking at a farm she wanted to buy. She sent me a picture of it. There were mountains in the background as she wanted and in the foreground a banana tree and a structure with a corrugated tin roof. The tin roof was my personal symbol of Thailand before globalization. I had used this same material in my tiny house to remind me of this humble past. It captured something this picture; something I longed for. In American dollars it was a mere $64,000; it had sounded so out of reach in Thai baht at 2 million.

How perfect that Clasina lived near my family home in Bangkok. She tutored English for a living and was planning to eventually live on such a farm having collected a garden full of potted fruit trees. I couldn’t yet move to Thailand for some time if indeed that was my future, but I could have the fun of planning it with her and returning to work on it. It would give me a reason to visit and keep up my family ties and network of friends in Thailand. My family and friends grasped this immediately and supported the plan. 

In short order Clasina and I were discussing land deeds and survey maps through Facebook messenger. I committed to returning in July to buy it. I was overjoyed to have a farm with so many friends already living in the area. My mud hut sisters network was entering a new dimension of possibilities. Some wanted to come and do a build with us even. I was excited by all the new things I would learn and do. My mind expanded to take in this new reality and was nurtured by it. My world so much larger now and made more whole.

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Saturday, May 05, 2018

Hello Sixty!


Having made it this far I am given to indulge myself on this most auspicious of birthdays with a brief account of how I got here in such a self-congratulatory mood.


To Begin With

When I was a child I had the hands of a much older person. The palms were so hard and dry that other kids didn’t want to play games with me that involved swinging from hand to hand. They didn’t want to grab my hand because it creeped them out. The lines of my palms were so clearly lined they were of interest to palm readers, most of whom told me I would have a long life. This being Thailand there was a lot more status and respect given to those who were old. In fact you didn’t really have the status of an adult until you were sixty. Sixty being the fifth cycle of the Chinese astrological calendar. I looked forward to turning 60 as the marker of when I would finally have a say in things Just as people listened to my grandmother because she was the family elder. No one dared to openly defy her.

My hands continued to remind me of my destiny as I traveled to the West where the messages about being old were embodied in the Beatles song —will you still need me, will you still feed me…when I’m 64. What a brutal culture this was though fresh and exciting for the young.

My hands aged faster than the rest of me. The backs of my hands were wrinkled and the flesh underneath scrawny. It fascinated my lover to lay these hands against my full young breasts and photograph this contrast as if these were the hands of an old woman fondling the body of a younger one. 


Just Keep Moving

My love of old movies gave me my first role model of aging in Fred Astaire. When I read that he could dance and rehearse longer than performers half his age, I was heartened to know that being physically fit didn’t quit if you didn’t. While searching for what he had to say about aging I see that he sums it up nicely.  “Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it you have to start young.” Yes indeed the problem with aging is that we spend too much time youthing. Fifty is the new 30. Staying up until all hours, working a fifty hour week, running marathons on the weekend and making love as if our vitality depended on it should all be possible by sheer force of mind. After all we’re as young as we feel, no? Not to mention we need to look like we’re thirty just to stay visible. Pass the youthing cream please.

My young parents were role models of fitness playing tennis every weekend. They brought home the Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Plan For Physical Fitness book that was popular at the time. Hardly more than a pamphlet it offered 5 exercises and a chart on how many reps to do given age and gender. My father demonstrated them. I insisted on doing the boys exercises because, being already a feminist at age 15, I thought the book was adhering to cultural gender biases. My father did not object. Thus I learned to do a real push-up instead of the half baked one. 

None of us kept up these exercise, once we had proved we could do them. But a little later when I felt I had lapsed into a non fit state sitting in a darkened movie theater catching my breath after I had run just a block to make it to the opening credits, I thought to get some exercise into my life. Something called the Parcourse had been installed in various parts of town. I loved this adult playground idea. So that’s where I took up my free fitness regime jogging from station to station to do my push-ups and pull-iups. 

My favorite parcourse was on the Stanford campus so I could pretend I was a student there and feel smart at the same time. I also joined the students who marched in the Take Back The Night march and was angered by the vulnerability of women as a target for night time assault. And when I attended a kung fu performance at the International House on campus I was so smitten by this fighting dance form I decided to take up martial arts. Thus killing two birds with one stone learning to defend myself and perform a skill from my Asian heritage.

In my thirties a book came out that was full of glamour photos of buff aging athletes. Called “Growing Old Is Not For Sissies”. Just to look at the cover was enough to assure an entire generation that to age was to prevail. And with Jane Fonda at the helm having launched the home exercise video market there was no excuse. The Boomer generation would beat this thing called aging. But still that didn’t quite do it for me. I had not finished my quest. There were other aspects of aging that couldn’t seem to be bucked with exercise.


While Waiting

As a young person I was noticeably hard of hearing from the age of ten when I was first tested. So I knew that some features of aging were not just age related. My hearing loss was some kind of congenital problem or genetic thing for my great Auntie Jessie was quite deaf early in life. In my late twenties I got hearing aids and here again was a talisman of old age. Maybe I had to be old first before I could be young like Merlin living backwards.

At a spontaneous walk-in reading in the town of Mt. Shasta, a psychic told me I would achieve success when I was 50. Hmmm. Nothing to do but wait. Meanwhile I could tell my story for I was tired of explaining myself, the whole multi-culti, mixed race thing. I would write it down which then prompted me to find a writing class so I could figure out how to construct a narrative. Being a writer was also an actual profession I could claim befitting my station in life (the one that expected a profession of me). I told my mother I was writing a book. For 20 years I worked on this book. I had time after all.

While still in my thirties I learned that the brain did not stop growing. It was in fact flexible and plastic that way. I was thrilled with this as I felt I had never been quite smart enough to keep up with my peers most of whom were long into advanced degrees and professions; this would give me a chance to catch up. I talked about it on the way to an end of year lunch with a group from the Stanford Psych Department where I was working at the time. Being only a staff member I was hoping to impress the learned people with their PhDs and research papers.

“So I figured I could grow my brain enough to become a doctor,” I said after summing up my discovery. 

“Yes, only by that time you’ll realize you didn’t want to become one after all,” said one of the learned woman smiling at me. I laughed for it was true I didn’t want to become a doctor of any sort for I did not want to be indoctrinated by an institution. I had found them to be limiting and authoritarian. I just needed permission not to bother with a degree (apart from the low status commercial art degree I got at a state school so my parents wouldn’t completely give up on me). 

I would forage for my knowledge at the public library and fend for myself like Truffaut’s The Wild Child a film that fascinated my therapist mother. What I would become was on its own schedule I felt. And I did by the age of 50 publish my book, but it brought me neither fame nor wealth nor an appearance on Oprah, but reading from it at the book party my writer’s group hosted for me was the happiest day of my life. It was huge this milestone and I sold copies to all my friends and colleagues until I was satisfied that I had gone with it as far as I could go and I was likely going to have to grow old to get on with it.


Aging In America

I continued asking around to get to the bottom of aging in America and how to go about aging successfully. No one had any real advice despite the insistence that aging could somehow be avoided. Fifty being the new 30 after all. There were clues from women I admired. One colleague a generation senior to me made a point of keeping up with new technology where I was more likely to resist kicking and screaming and hang onto traditional analog ways. 

When I asked her how she came to have such an open mind to technology, she told me of her exposure to the innovators of her day. If a speaker was in town she invited them to dinner because being a mom with young children at home she couldn’t attend their lectures. This being the birth of Silicon Valley conversations that transpired at her dinner table gave her a jump start on how to receive the future. She was thus prompted to learn and incorporate these new technologies into her life as she went along. This conversation changed my idea of the attitude one should take as an elder. Keeping up with emerging discoveries and innovations with the long view perspective of time was a good mission for an elder I decided.

I asked my chiropractor what caused all the aches and pains of old age for I feared arthritis. He said they were mostly accumulations of injuries that had never quite healed. So that’s what old age looked like I thought. You were a walking collection of past injuries. I took note to get myself tuned up for the slightest pain or out of whack joint. I’m in his office every month now. When I asked why people seemed to have more joint problems than ever he said he believed that increased use of vegetable oils was the culprit due to oxidation producing the free radicals that led to inflammation. I read “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and learned that cholesterol was what the body used to patch up that inflammation. And soon after we saw the return of saturated fats and I laid it on thick with the butter and eggs even bacon.

Another colleague also contributed to my picture of aging by proudly telling the story of her mother who was so against sugar she scraped the icing off the doughnuts she brought home for the kids. When the paramedics came to get her at the end of her long life (in her own home) they noted how unusual it was that she did not have a bedside full of prescription drugs. So that’s what old age looked like in America I thought and took note to stay away from prescription drugs (and avoid sugar). 

My chosen career as a professional organizer also had an impact. How could it not? So often was I called in to help clients with a backlog of unsorted paper, memorabilia and accumulations of stuff. This window into the lives of ordinary people often took place after some kind of crisis. Usually one that disabled normal tidying up procedures (if there ever was any). Had I not seen it for myself I would have blithely hung onto everything too. 

People somehow think that their sunset years will be filled with time. Extra time to go through papers and stuff after a lifetime of procrastination; unfinished projects they’ll have time to finish one day, memorabilia they’ll want to revisit, organize and put into albums. But no, it turns out people have less time as faster and faster they try to cram in more on their already overextended schedule trying to get in that last bid for success, that last dream, that last love relationship before time runs out. 

Crisis is what drives people to deal with stuff so they throw it into a storage unit for a future that likely won’t match the contents. Possibly a future less friendly than the current one. Better to sell the most valuable items and buy something useful I reasoned when I learned to e-bay. Like solar panels, a hand crank clothes washer, empty five gallons buckets and a bag of sawdust…

One more thing I am grateful to have learned from my profession and that is to choose words carefully and speak using nonjudgmental adjectives framing things in the most optimum positive perspective so as not to humiliate the client with their own mess. (And no I never use the word “mess”.) I was also mindful of how I described things less I betray values other than the ones held by the client. An energy worker would say this strategy allowed me to vibrate on their same vibration and thus more effectively help them. As a side benefit this stance allowed me lots of room to observe people in their natural habitat allowing them to play out all the scripts from the playbook of their life so I could step aside before I got run over.


Don’t Go Down Fighting

There was one remaining bugaboo of aging that concerned me. My maternal grandmother had had dementia; my mother was spooked by this and feared that it was hereditary so I too saw it as a possible future. I read “The Nun’s Study” and other emerging research. I adopted tactics to keep my memory fresh and my brain agile. There was no point in reading books to learn new things if I didn’t remember the things I learned I reasoned so for every non-fiction book I read I wrote a summation of all the new knowledge I’d gained and posted it to my Flickr account along with a picture of the book. Thus I created a very handy, searchable, visually-cued library for myself which became quite useful in heated online arguments as I sharpened my sword on unsuspecting commenters on Facebook.

This however may be my downfall for as I am beginning to realize with the help of my acupuncturist, it takes way too much energy to fuel the brain with such emotional vigor. This hyper vigilance on top of my usual stage fright and performance anxiety didn’t let me rest. I was on all the time. Throw a year of family drama on top of that and I was so drained from all that unfolded I was likely on my way to adrenal failure of some sort. I did not come this far just to fight I realized. 

I looked for ways to lay down my sword. Use some of those non-violent communication strategies one can’t seem to avoid learning as a leftie in California. My liver was much happier if I told stories of personal process and didn’t stew on frustrating, unresolvable problems my doc counseled me. I had to come up with ways to break the log jam of my brain. Breath deeply three times. Think of empty space. Try not to forget what I was doing after the first breath. Count to a hundred so slowly I near let a thought slip in, then catch myself. Expend energy miserly while on this thin ice. Nurture the root energy back. Slowly, slowly I was recovering.


Hello Sixty

And now finally (trying not to get too excited) I am so ecstatic. I have arrived at last and in better shape than expected. Not dead yet. No chronic pains, no prescription drugs, able to fall expertly owing to 30 years of being thrown to the mat in karate. And having insured my bowel health by maintaining my Asian squat I am good to go. Heh. I am ready now my lovelies. Ready for my third chapter, ready for my mission, ready for whatever I have come here to do. Vibrating my frequency, calling to me my destiny…

XO,
Amanda

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Friday, February 02, 2018

The Man From Kuwait


The day before yesterday I returned from my final trip to Bangkok in this triptych of family land transfer events—first the funeral, then the court appearance (where I made my request to become my grandmother's executor) and now the stepping into ownership.

I was personally moved forward so profoundly by the role I was able to play that it felt as if I was being propelled by a global energy shift. I am not given to sharing new age analysis, but a youtube astrologer’s forecast was sent my way by a pivotal friend I made on the trip. You can watch it yourself here if you are so inclined and would welcome a positive spin on things (plus tips on how to navigate the potential shadow side).

It so captured my take on how I was experiencing the shift from 2017 to 2018 on an emotional level that it inspired me to write the story below about talking to strangers as I moved through the world on my international travels. I posted it to FaceBook where it was warmly received so I thought I would share it here as a sample of my experience.

Love,
Amanda


The Man From Kuwait

I have a story to share from my travels yesterday that expresses the serendipitous experiences I’m enjoying as a solo traveler. So am taking advantage of my awake jet lagged state to write it up.

I was standing in line at passport control in the departures terminal of Bangkok’s international airport. It was going to be a long wait and I was looking around for a possible conversation to pass the time before opening my book. The hall was filled with Asian people and a few sunburned Europeans. Next to me I spy a man in a t-shirt printed with rows of tiny flags of the world. At the top I can see half the wording —CAL Fullerton. I check out the wearer — a black man likely an American around my age staring into the middle distance. His energy is calm and neutral so I decide to risk speaking to him in English. 

“Did you go to CAL Fullerton?” I ask him pointing to his shirt. It takes him a second to tune me in.
“What’s that?” he asks and I repeat the question.

“Oh no my daughter went there,” he said smiling understanding now that I am making conversation (so rare these days). So we soon find out that we’re both going back home to California and he introduces me to his Thai wife who speaks little English so remains focused on the line ahead. He asks me enough questions to find out where I went to college, calculates how old I am (same age as his wife who is from Northern Thailand so I get that she’s from a poor farming family). They’ve had a long journey he says. He asks me if I have children and I tell him about the dogs I share with my ex. “A man I assume,” he says meaning he wouldn’t assume that at all, but he’s given me an opening. I take it. Then he is telling me that he sees a lot of lesbian couples traveling the world these days and was wondering what was up in my community. Not that I had a clue, but I am amused by his curiosity. So we speculate about the travel habits of “my community” before going onto what I do for a living and how he could definitely use a professional organizer. I laugh and give him my business card though he lives in LA.

By this time we have exchanged names. He is named after Ted Williams the baseball player he tells me. Then I notice that the man behind me is leaning forward as if he wants to join the conversation. So I give him my attention and ask if he wants something. He gestures to his ear and I think he might be deaf and half expect him to pull out one of those deaf alphabet cards. Black hair with a beard and light skin, Middle Eastern I’m thinking. He is also stooped over slightly and seems to have a bit of palsy. Ted picks up on his gestures.

“Oh you’re enjoying listening to our conversation,” he says. The Kuwaiti man nods vigorously and gestures for us to continue. At which point I realize that we have become live entertainment as I note the glances of a young blond woman who is not smiling.

“Where are you from?,” my new friend asks the Middle Eastern man.

He pulls out his passport and points to the gold print on the blue cover. 

“Oh Kuwait,” Ted reads and our new friend shakes hands with both of us. Then Ted tells me how he went to fight in Kuwait and noticed that the country was so rich he was asking himself why we were fighting for them when we could be helping some poor country. And the Kuwaiti man turns to him and says “thank-you I love you” and moves to give Ted a hug which he accepts with good humor and continues with his memories of how he really enjoyed being mistaken for a Saudi when he was in Saudi Arabia.

“You Korean?” the Kuwaiti man says to me suddenly.

“Me? No I’m Thai—half Thai and half…” at which point I pull my American passport up from the shirt pocket of my crisply laundered white travel shirt. At the words “I’m Thai,” I feel the attention of the Asian people now that I’m suddenly not a tourist. 

Then a voice calls to us from the next line. “That man is going to be late for his plane” he says and gestures at the clock and our line where Ted’s wife is up next.

“Oh you’re looking out for a fellow traveller,” says Ted, “that is good of you.” I notice that this speaker is also an African American man wearing a tourist t-shirt with a heart in the wording.

“Oh he can go ahead of us,” Ted realizes. Then he takes our Kuwaiti friend by the arm and speaks to his wife who lets the man by. By this time both lines of people are watching and there is a little murmur of appreciation of this act.

“You are an Angel that’s what you are,” says Ted to the black man as if the presence of divinity has just manifested into the room. “And you are an Angel too,” he says turning to me. I smile at his acknowledgement of my part in this story and for a moment I am proud to be an American for we have just displayed the positive side of American public friendliness and a sharing of our personal lives which often seems embarrassingly exposing of ourselves through the eyes of Europeans not to mention the Asian brand of privacy.

As I move through passport control into the terminal I note that the Kuwaiti man has joined a group holding a placard marked Dubai and I feel good about having entered a world full of Angels looking out for each other.

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Friday, January 05, 2018

Year In Review

A huge part of my year was taken up in correspondence while I evaluated my life and my future through the eyes of a potential new partner. I buried this personal story within the context of my tiny house on my tiny house blog. The lessons learned would turn out to be pivotal for my life going forward so I am leaving this signpost to it here back dated to correspond to the timeline. Tiny House Living One Year Later

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

My Day In Court


With the passing of my aunt and my appearance at her cremation in July I found that I had a new status in my Thai family. It actually surprised me that I had any status in this family at all given that I had been an outsider for so long and had written a book that had revealed a few too many family secrets (which I then felt I had to keep secret from the family).

Only months before her death my Aunty Ah Pahdt had contacted me via her son writing to me on Facebook messenger. Now that she was 76 she was worried about the matter of property being properly transferred to the heirs — the heirs of my father's will which included my stepmother, the two children of my aunt and me. Ah Pahdt and my stepmother who was also Thai had met with a lawyer who advised them to ask me to act as executor for my grandmother's will. My father having not quite finished all the details pertaining to his mother’s will in particular the transfer to his name of the land upon which my Ah Pahdt's house was built. That parcel needed to be transferred before my father’s will could be implemented and the new owners instated.

My father had specified in his will that the land not be sold and that my grandmother's house was to be left standing. I was beginning to understand why he had specified the no selling part. So many people lived on this land, most of them not related by blood—12 by my count. He too must have wanted them to continue to have a home. And by putting 4 people as the owners he had pretty much insured that we would never agree on anything let alone on selling it. 

Now that I was being asked to be my grandmother’s executor I felt this was a role I had been waiting all my life to step into. She had been proud of me as her only granddaughter and had groomed me to follow in her footsteps. There was no denying that I was her only blood relative which made me the rightful heir to the entire estate in the eyes of the staff for they respected my grandmother deeply for her many kindnesses and charitable work.

My grandmother had told me how she had intended to divide up the land so my Ah Padt would have the parcel her house was built upon, my father the adjoining parcel and me the final third. But my father thought he knew better how to manage the succession and he had persuaded her to leave all the land to him. Why he hadn’t transferred the one property that had now come to me to transfer was unclear. 

A Court Date

To accept my role as executor I had to show up in court 3 months later in November to get the proper legal document.

First I had to answer questions the lawyer would pose to me to explain my story. This had to be done in Thai for a translator was not permitted. The script was so filled with unfamiliar formal words I began to panic and told my boy cousin I didn't understand 80% of it. He put in a call to his sister and she came to coach me herself. I carefully wrote down the answers in words I could understand. At the end of our session she said I should also wear a dress to pay proper respect to the court. 

"A dress," I exclaimed, "no one told me about that part. You'll have to provide one." Luckily she was the same size as me so on our court day she brought me two outfits, both in stylish black and white from the recent year of mourning for the death of the King. I chose the dress over the jacket and skirt and she borrowed some shoes from her sister-in-law for me to wear. Thus transformed we met with the lawyer, a young man who sat with me in the atrium of the court house to rehearse our script. 

I was interested to note that adorning the wall of the courthouse there was no picture of the King either old or new. There was only a picture of the Buddha with hand raised to quell fear. I took comfort in this. Then the lawyer told me that I had to do this without notes for I could not take anything with me into the witness box. Another deep breath as I took this in. We would manage somehow. 

This particular court was devoted to matters of family inheritance and was presided over by a rather beautiful woman judge. To pass the time I found myself fantasizing about running into her at a lesbian bar and chatting her up. But soon it was my turn to enter the witness stand where I swore to tell the truth or face dire consequences to me and my entire household. I stumbled through the series of questions reeling off the memorized names, dates of death and cause of death of my grandmother (by heart attack). 

"Then what happened," the lawyer asked. 

"Then my father died," I said. When we rehearsed this it sounded somehow so unlikely and careless for him to die so soon after his mother that it made my girl cousin and me laugh. I gave the date and the part about how one parcel of the land was still in my grandmother's name.

The lawyer asked me another question and somehow I didn't understand it. I closed my eyes and thought I was going to loose it so I just said the only thing left to say.

"And so they said I should be the executor," I said. The lawyer nodded relieved. The judge repeated the names and details of our story and granted me the paper naming me executor. I was exhausted by the ordeal which had so taxed my brain it felt as if all the English had been sucked out of it. I couldn’t put two sentences together for a week after. But it was done. There remained only the transfer of the land to the new owners which would take yet another trip.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Lessons Gleaned From The Dead

On a recent trip to the family homestead in Bangkok for my aunt’s cremation I scramble to find my Thai persona and my role if there was one as the family structure is reconfigured around the loss of her considerable leadership.

Evening Prayers

“How many people are expected for the funeral?” I asked Pong the daughter of my dear departed Aunty Ah Pahdt.

“At least 400”, she said. Yes, I had expected a large crowd too, but 400 was impressive. My aunt had been a leader in her women’s business community and much loved socially with a light hearted laugh that made everything seem easy and fun. She had died shockingly quickly everyone said. No one even suspected she was sick. Once diagnosed with liver cancer the disease took her in two months. She was only 76 so was survived by a large number of her peers. Three buildings  at the temple had been rented for all the guests.

The night before the cremation we gathered for the pre-cremation evening prayers. I went to the temple to help transport the coffin from one Sala (a small open sided building) to another. Seeing her coffin on a pedestal at the end of the room stopped me. Nothing so final as being in such a box. Or so lonely. She had been lying in it since February. Pong had chosen the 100 day mourning period for her as befitting her status. It had also allowed me time to plan my schedule so I could fly all the way to Bangkok for the event. 

The temple compound commanded a considerable piece of real estate in this high end area of Bangkok. Looming just beyond the orange tiled temple roofs was the cement structure of the Sky Train cutting through the visual space much as you would expect of the monorail at Disneyland. Several glassed in office buildings filled the rest of the sky. The temple compound was every bit as busy as the bustle outside for the dead still needed to be honored as befitted tradition. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

The family was required to accompany the deceased whenever she was moved. Thus we walked in a procession followed by her white and gold coffin on an ornate gold and red cart pushed by male attendants who did all the heavy lifting as well. Pong gave me Ah Pahdt’s framed photo to carry and I followed her brother Thop who carried the lamp that had been kept lit at the side of the coffin. An elder monk led the procession walking briskly through the temple compound between dozens of other funereal buildings. 

Once the coffin was carried into the larger Sala the attendants set about bringing in the numerous flower bouquets and laying out the religious paraphernalia for the monks who would chant the evening service. Guests were arriving and performing the prayers of greetings so I took my turn, first kneeling at the foot of the Buddha statue to the left  and then kneeling in front of the coffin. I returned to my seat filled with a sense of emptiness and peripheral grief. I sat cross legged in meditation until this existential void wore off. Only a pair of nuns at the end of the row seemed to notice—Buddhist nuns in white robes. I opened my eyes to see before me my Ah Neung, the niece of my grandmother older than me by two years. She and her sister and I had played together as children. 

“Were you meditating?” she asked as she sat down next to me.
.
“Yes,” I said not wishing to say more. Ah Neung looked around the now crowded room and noted that there were no relatives of my Ah Padt. None were expected. Her mother had died a year ago with a mourning period of the briefest 7 days. (Three was the minimum to allow the spirit to leave the body.)

Pong, Ah Neung noted, had married into a very wealthy family. Yes I was eager to meet them. Her mother-in-law was noble born and had also started a packaged cookie business that had blossomed into a packaged food company and included the box fruit drinks being served that evening. It was this connection with the rich and high born that prompted me to review my outfit—a black v-neck t-shirt and a kilt I had made from fabric with a gross grain texture that was likely meant to line a bag; a belt with a large silver buckle of Celtic design and some simple silver disk earrings from Peru plus black flats. Luckily the protocol of mourning clothes was somewhat democratic discouraging flamboyant jewelry so I felt properly dressed even stylish in my own way. Pong had on yet another beautiful sheath dress; this one with flowers in the lace sleeves. Some of the outfits that were coming in were so sculptural in cut and design it gave the event a stylish modern look amidst so much black.  

I was a long way from my tiny house life. If they only knew how strange I really was. I had photos to show of the tiny house in a little photo album, the kind no one bothered with any more now that they all had smart phones. When I had gone to lunch with Ah Neung and her sister Nor I had shown them the photos. Upon realizing I had no real bathroom Nor announced that I was crazy which was something of a complement coming from Miss Prada whose silver sandals were so highly polished they looked like chrome. I had also shown the photos to the live-in staff at my house—Pryoon my maid since childhood and Wel my Aunty Lily’s maid. Their own rooms were bigger than the tiny house, though not by much; I wondered if they thought I had come so far down in the world I was now poor. But they could see I was so proud of my house they did not question why I lived there. Wel just asked if my stove being in a drawer could be closed when not in use. That was also one of my favorite features.

And there was a picture of me sitting on a meditation cushion inside the house which I had staged to show the relative size of the interior before I filled it with furnishings. Pong upon seeing it asked if I meditated, but made no other comment on my photos. She was still trying to figure out who I was now that it had come to her to negotiate with me as one of the four owners of the gated estate where we had both spent our childhood. No I would not try to show anyone else this strange life I led back in the U.S.

Soon the monks were assembling in a row on the raised platform.  They did their chanting and the congregation chimed in on the chorus. Then we were done. 

I had been invited to join Pong’s in-laws at their place for dinner afterwards. Their place turned out to be one of their restaurants, elegantly decorated with beveled glass, chandeliers and long drapes in a somber grey to mark the mourning of the King who had died last October and would lay in state for a year at the palace as befitting his status. Thus the entire kingdom seemed to be swathed in somber colors with the pubic largely dressed in black. I was glad to discover that his legacy of a sustainable economics through agriculture was finally being recognized and celebrated.

I sat at a table with my corresponding generation mostly Pong’s in-law siblings who readily introduced themselves to me in English. The children also spoke English to me with American accents as they were enrolled at the International School to further their business prospects. Had Ah Pahdt been there she would have introduced me to all the important elders sitting at their own table, but now such protocol seemed to have no place to land. Only after our meal of fusion Thai cuisine did the patriarch of the family come over to ask how my dinner was. Of course I said it was excellent then boldly told him I was reading his memoir (which had been given to me two years ago so I thought I'd better catch up on it on the plane). I asked how long it took him to write it. 

"Oh I didn't write it," he said, "I just did interviews; a ghost writer wrote it and my son edited it." Hmmm. My entire reading of the book shifted from intimate relationship with a writer to something more akin to a television broadcast and I could say no more on the topic. He asked again how the food was.

"Very beautifully presented," I said. Then as we all got up to leave, the matriarch herself came over to ask me who I was. I gave her the formal Thai wai of greeting with palms in prayer position, but she still wanted to take my hand. She was so gracious and her hands so soft I could appreciate that she was a true lady. My hands have the texture of sanded wood so much work did I do with them. I wonder if she noticed. She said she had wanted to meet me because she had noted the family resemblance between me and Pong. I was touched that this was significant enough to prompt her curiosity. She remembered my name the next day when she invited me to visit the elegant lunch buffet laid out at the temple for us as we waited for the cremation. 

Cremation Day

Referred to in Thai as the day we burn her, these proceedings took all day from the talk given by the monk in the morning to viewing the actual fire consuming the coffin. The day’s schedule included the feeding of the monks before noon offered on raised trays to the ten monks sitting on the platform. Then a nice long lunch for all of us giving plenty of time to visit. Plus we had royal patronage which meant more preparations and the sweeping of the site by a bomb squad and dogs. Apparently one of Ah Pahdt’s friends had connections and so was able to summon for her a Princess to light her funeral pyre. (Though she didn’t actually light it since it was a gas oven.) When I asked if this Princess would later be Queen, Well and Pryoon laughed. The Crown Prince was already on wife number three and this one was divorced long ago. But with all the events requiring royal personage no princess need be idle no matter her rank. A throne chair was placed in the largest and fanciest of the three buildings and red carpeting laid down. The immediate family was then coached on how to approach the princess. 

We occupied the time with official photographs in front of the coffin. Ah Padt’s son Thop made sure to include me in the family photos first with his family then with his sister’s family as well. The women having changed into the formal Thai long skirt and jacket. I had on a similar outfit I bought at a street market the day before for $30. The sleeves were not the requisite long sleeves, but no one commented on it. Pong’s husband and sons had on the white uniform associated with the palace for those who bore titles. 

Then the coffin was again placed on the red and gold cart and the family led the procession circling around the crematorium counterclockwise three times before the coffin was carried up the stairs and placed on a table in front of the oven to await the Princess. Finally she arrived with her entourage driving into the compound in cream colored Mercedes Benz. A giant traditional umbrella awaiting as she stepped out of the car. She climbed up to the coffin to do her official blessing then sat with the family as the entire congregation filed past the coffin up one set of stairs and down another.

The Lessons Of the Dead

By the third day of the funeral I had many questions. The day after we burned her we returned to the temple early for the ritual of the ashes. I was pleased to see the two nuns who had been at the service the first evening. One looked about my age and one younger. I asked if they knew my aunt and they explained that they had been Pong’s teachers when she became a nun for the traditional three month period. She had done this service following her father’s death. I asked them if I could ask some questions. They invited me to pull up a chair. Why was a meal served to the coffin every day? I asked. The elder nun told me that that was to show the people that the person was indeed dead no matter how long one knocked on the coffin. And that their body would not be able to partake in such pleasures again. And the knocking was indeed part of the ritual I had observed when the food was served. I asked about the lamp and she said this was to guide the spirit as one would use a lamp in a cave. She told me that the funeral ceremonies were more important than a marriage ceremony as it was a means to teach the people about impermanence and not to get too attached to things. It was also an opportunity to ask forgiveness of the deceased for any wrong doing, she said, in order to end any disputes. I began to see how this worked; that people were learning through death how to hold life lightly.

The ceremonies around the ashes were the most visceral of such death lessons. When we were allowed up to the crematorium Ah Padt’s ashes were laid out on a cloth and formed into a doll size figure. A startlingly, humbling vision this was. It made me feel naked to the bone looking at it. Monks came to chant and then the family decorated the ash figure with flower petals after which the attendants rolled the ashes up in a cloth and put the bundle in the urn. Then we all drove with the urn to the Gulf of Siam where a boat had been hired so we could drop the ashes in the ocean with flower petals and garlands thrown on the water to sweeten the send off. A stiff breeze blew our hair every which way along with our composure and I felt a sense of joy being on the water away from the hemmed in streets of the city and feeling more myself in my casual clothes.

Lunch was at another family restaurant. This one converted from the grandfather’s original house which was set over the water on pilings. I had my photo album along this time and showed it to Pong’s husband who worked for the World Bank representing Thai interests. He asked if I lived in this tiny house full time. I said yes, but explained that I had another house I could go to where I could hang out with my dogs. “I’m conducting an experiment to see how little I can use,” I told him. He seemed to understand my quest. It was after all similar to the King’s message of sustainable living to use as few resources as possible. Inspired by his message many Thais too were shifting their lifestyle to a smaller footprint I would learn later. Educated people, disillusioned by the corporate rat race, were leaving the city and buying a small piece of land to grow food using permaculture technology, They called these mini food forests “smart farms”. I was thrilled by this trend.

I had wanted to sit with the nun’s, but they did not eat after the noon hour as required by their vows so I joined them later to show them my tiny house photos. They perused the photos with interest. I told them the reason I liked my tiny house was because it was very easy to leave it, just lock the door and go. This seemed to prompt a response.

“You are living like a hermit,” pronounced the elder nun, “this is a good start for learning to let go of material things, plants, animals and people.” I was so intrigued by this perspective I did not interrupt though I had rather thought that the tiny house allowed me more time for plants, animals and people.

“It is very difficult to live as a hermit,” she said. “It can be lonely and forces you into contemplation.” Yes for a Thai being alone was to be avoided for fear of loneliness. But I loved the vision of the Hermit a familiar figure in Thai culture from childhood since he appeared as a character in the alphabet and was depicted wearing a tiger skin, sporting a long white beard and a jaunty little tiger skin hat. I had often wondered if he was mad, touched in the head. The nuns asked me how many meters wide and long my house was and compared it to their own living quarters nodding their approval.

Suddenly the elder nun poked my arm in a familiar way and said “Do you know how to leave your body?” 

“No,” I said thinking she was referring to an out of body experience. She explained that in meditation I could learn to leave my body which would make it easier to leave it when the body died. Then I would be reincarnated and each time it would be easier and easier to leave my body until finally I wouldn’t need a body. 

“Yes you get off the wheel of Samsara,” I said recognizing this concept. The phrase was familiar as this was a goal many an ambitious American Buddhist would tell me they were aiming for in their practice. As a writer I was certainly spending my time in the tiny house in contemplation of my life. And when it came down to it I was in essence ascribing to a certain spiritual practice in using only as much as I needed and more telling — disposing of my own bodily waste back to the land. Many thought I was touched in the head to want to do this part, even tiny house people. So yes — I was a slightly mad hermit, an eco monk. 

Finally I had a context for my tiny lifestyle in the Thai cultural experience. One that would set me outside of the status symbols of my high society relatives and the business priorities of money yet still be considered acceptable. I noted that I was the only person eager to speak to the nuns, but that too was befitting of my singular quest. It was all falling into place. My tiny house was a hermitage. My role was to contemplate my inner life, write down my revelations and dispense them to any who would listen. I was more than ok with that. 

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Tiny House Living: The Rubber Meets The Road

It has been six months since I became a proud home owner of a tiny house. After spending the summer steadily building and outfitting the interior it was time to move in. Time to put to the test my design decisions in this experiment of extreme living.


First Impressions

The first night I spent at my tiny house in the backyard where I had come to live, I noticed a cat sitting on the garden path lit by the security light as though by moonlight. She sat looking at me in my tiny fairy tale size cottage. What a magical sight I thought, a welcoming omen. I opened the door to say hello, but the noise of the door scared her away. Indeed it was so quiet in that garden I climbed into my loft up under the eaves and fell into a deep sleep I hadn't enjoyed in some time.

In the morning standing by my dresser I was startled by the morning light streaming in. With the two windows on each side of the house being only 6 feet apart the contents of my house were sharply lit with daylight. I could see every dust speck. I immediately got out a cloth and started polishing all the chrome—on my Berkey water filter, my electric kettle and my vintage insulated carafe. Once everything was free of fingerprints and water droplets it sparkled as though in a showcase. I was reminded of the work of Joseph Cornell with his arrangements of objects in shadow boxes providing a tiny view into a tiny surreal world. 

Thus the tiny house magnified the experience of living. The confined space, the strangeness of my kitchen layout plus the added dimension of being so tightly connected to other activities further down the road, emptying a waste water tank, pee tank and poop bucket for instance, all created an intense feedback loop that added a pressing dimension to every mundane activity having to do with cooking, eating, washing up and putting things away. It forced me into a state of hyper mindfulness. 

But this was the way I had wanted it. I wanted to be involved in the entire cycle of my water, energy use and waste stream in order to mitigate my impact on the planet. I just didn't know yet what kind of impact that would have on my routine and this unknown made me feel a little uneasy once I moved in. Add to that the stress of being in a new place, working out new routes to all my clients and figuring out what to feed myself now that I was single. This was why moving was stressful I reminded myself. My body reacted by being hungry all the time and I wished my outdoor freezer was full of frozen dinners.


Adjustments To Life In The Tiny

I had been congratulating myself for having finessed my move into the tiny house moving two or three boxes at a time while carrying on with my full schedule of clients. It did take longer, but I convinced myself it would be less painful that way, like pulling the bandaid off a little bit at a time. I wrote a post on downsizing and getting a taste of my own medicine as an organizer as I got rid of things while trying to squeeze as much of my old life as I could into the tiny house.

I had done numerous moves unpacking clients with crews of organizers. But those houses were so much alike there was hardly any difference between one kitchen and another. The challenge of my tiny house was that it was unlike anywhere I or anyone I knew had ever lived before. Nothing could be taken for granted to function normally from the fridge to the sink to the toilet. I had purposefully deconstructed and reorganized basic systems and I had no experience using such systems on a daily basis.

Would the cooler keep my food cold enough? What would it be like to boil water for all my washing up?  Would I be able to cook breakfast successfully given my regime of fried eggs, sausages and refried beans? How long would my butane cartridge hold out in my stove? Where could I buy more? What would I use for heat? I had joked that the house was so tiny it could be heated with a candle and besides I was menopausal, why would I need heat at all this being California in an era of global warming? And then it got cold, colder than it had gotten in some years.

Winter is a hard month to move into a tiny house. The days are so short there is little time to tend to things outdoors. I came home to a dark house with an unlit entrance gate to open. Then it rained and rain seeped into my outdoor freezer. I had the wrong footwear for the muddy garden I was to tend. The mud tracked into my house. My bicycle no longer had a garage to park in so I had covered it, but my karate uniform which was strapped to the carrier in a sports bag felt slightly damp when I put it on at class. 

I did order a propane heater and when I saw a space heater at a garage sale I picked it up. But the house would not stay warm on its own. What was wrong with it? It had felt so insulated during the hot summer months, staying so cool inside. 

A few days later while wiping the floor I felt a draft and tracked it down to a half inch gap under the door. No wonder the house stayed cool. It was pulling cold air across it constantly. It took two trips to the hardware store to find the right weatherstripping. Then I didn't have any nails on hand to install the rubber flange I got for I no longer had a garage. All my hardware was now at my stepmother's house two miles away. In the summer these were easy problems to solve, but the winter gave everything an edge of desperation. 

My car was so full of stuff thrown in it for lack of storage I put my lunch in one day and I couldn't find it come lunch time. These scenarios were both ridiculous and maddening for an organizer.

I spent my evenings urgently researching. What was the proper temperature for food safety? I bought a freezer thermometer which compounded my fears because the temperature in the cooler was in the red zone hovering near 50°. I did not fancy food poisoning on top of everything else. I researched every item I kept in the cooler from the eggs to the mayonnaise. Mayonnaise I was relieved to learn could be kept at room temperature because it was so acidic. And eggs in Europe were kept at room temperature because chickens there were vaccinated for salmonella unlike those in the states. Hmmm. 

Cooking breakfast was at least doable. I loved my stove in a drawer. And I installed a hook to hang my iron skillet right next to it. And another hook to hang the pot scrubber I used to clean it. It was the washing up I had to reinvent. What kind of dish drainer could I fit and where? I prowled the aisles of Target and Bed Bath & Beyond looking for solutions to new problems I seemed to face daily. Why hadn't I thought of pot holders for instance or a doormat? 

When the temperature dropped I braved firing up the propane heater, Mr. Heater (Little Buddy model). Little Buddy heated things up quickly and the 4" disk of burning wires felt like an open fire. I cracked a window so I wouldn't run out of oxygen until I realized that enough fresh air was entering through the drain in the shower pan. I also put together one of those flower pot heaters so widely demonstrated on youtube. Once I got all the right size flower pots bolted together and some votive candle holders to hold the four tea lights safely it worked beautifully offering a warm presence by my feet that didn't overheat like the propane heater. I used my electric space heater in the morning up in the loft. I also had a hot water bottle (courtesy of my Canadian girlfriend) to warm up the bed at night. A sleeping bag I was needing to store became my winter quilt.

Clients gave me all sorts of useful items and asked me what else I needed. Thus I was supplied with pyrex dishes sized for a toaster oven, silverware, pots, pot holders, tiny utensils from a VW van equipped to live in and containers to put it all in. And a weather thermometer. Very handy so I could watch how cold it was getting. 48° this morning. 


What Had I Done To Myself? 

Some things I thought I'd do a certain way had to be completely revised. My vision of dish washing Thai farmer style required room to spread out three dish pans of water—two soapy and one clean plus room to spread dishes out to dry; all this usually done outside. I knew I wouldn't be able to replicate the three dishpans; I had two dish pans that fit perfectly into my sink with their rims resting on the edges of the sink. I thought I would just switch them out, but moving full dish pans of dirty water got old pretty quickly. And dishes seemed to get greasier in the process.

It brought to mind my first Cat In The Hat Book. The one about the pink stain the Cat In The Hat was "helping" to clean up, but the pink stuff just moved from one thing to another until it became completely overwhelming got all over the house then shot outside and covered the entire landscape. That's what greasy dishwater reminded me of. Plus the waster water tank filling up prompted me to rethink even filling a dishpan.

I took a closer look at the drain in my shower pan, put a large mouthed funnel into it and poured any greasy water (from washing a pan for instance) directly into it (to the waste water tank below). I scraped my dishes clean into my compost bucket. Then soaped it up without laying it down anywhere. From my insulated carafe I poured clean hot water over the dish to rinse it into my dishpan. Now I had soapy mostly clean water in the dish pan where I could throw in my silver ware to wash. This was in reverse order to how my English grandmother had taught me when I was 8, but it worked. 

I found a minimalist dish drain at Bed Bath & Beyond that came strapped to a drying mat and laid it on top of my toaster oven. 

That was another thing about my kitchen. It came in layers. To open my cooler I had to bend over, hold that position and pull away the couch bench that covered the cooler. Then roll the couch bench back over it or I wouldn't have room to move. 

I learned to remember all the items I would need from the cooler for each meal though I'm still forgetting at least one thing. For the evening meal the dishes had to be put away or I wouldn't be able to use my toaster oven. Was there anywhere to put things down that wouldn't be used so soon? 

I discovered where. On my sewing table under the stairs. And on one bench. Plus my chair in a pinch.

The floor being cold I put down a rug, but had to shunt it out of the way to get to the cooler. Then put it back again. I did this with my feet. It got to be a little dance. Then to use the sink I had to step into the shower pan which was often wet I realized so I took to standing on the walls of the shower pan and leaning awkwardly towards the sink. What had I done to myself? I wondered. 


Getting Ship Shape

I told myself I was living on a boat. It sounded more romantic. My family had owned a sailboat in my childhood and I had marveled at the cleverness of the living space in the cabin with its dining room table transforming into a bunk. People had lived in their boats in that harbor and I read books about sailing solo across the Pacific. Yes the narrowness of my tiny house did resemble a boat being smaller than most tiny houses. 

Other tiny house dwellers strived for normalcy with kitchens equipped with sinks and refrigerators. Even washers and dryers. But those tiny houses were at least twice as big as mine and a little wider. I wanted to be low profile. This necessity cut into any normalcy. I felt like I was on an expedition climbing a mountain from a base camp. I'd read lots of those books as a kid too. 

This extreme living forced me to put things away all the time. The discipline of the tiny house was severe that way. Both waste water tank and pee tank only took a week to fill I would soon discover. That first week filled me with trepidation. But what really drove me to distraction was the unfinished curtains. The windows were small enough that I could buy just one panel and cut them into two for each of the windows facing the street. I pinned them to the wall and that took care of the street light that kept waking me up and the neighbors looking in as they got in their cars in their driveway five feet from my house. I just couldn't open the curtains to let any light in because I didn't have a curtain rod to slide them on. And I couldn't face going to any store on Thanksgiving weekend with all the doorbuster crowds. I longed for some sense of normalcy. I needed a break from all this hyper mindfulness living. 

I texted Catherine to ask if I could come over because my house was exhausting me. She was happy to have me as she was missing me. She fed me turkey dinner leftovers and I built a roaring fire. What a luxury of heat. We put our feet up and watched a movie. I did not have a TV installed in my tiny house. I suspected I wouldn't have time to watch it. (I had installed a hammock hoping I'd actually have time to lie around in it.) I stayed two days at Catherine's in my old room. Then having restored some sense of normalcy I began to miss my things and decided to go home and face the music. I would boldly empty the waste water tank.

I had bought an 11 gallon waste tank because I knew how heavy a 5 gallon bucket was and even with wheels this tank would likely be difficult to maneuver. It was my aim to empty my pee tank into it to dilute the pee so as not to harm any plants I was feeding with the nitrogen in the urine. I would then trundle the 11 gallons around to the trees and bushes that surrounded my house to water them via the handy outlet on the tank where a hose could be installed. Too bad the garden was already so well watered with all the rain. At least the plants would be fertilized. 

The tank was heavy, but relatively easy to drag around even over the tall clumps of grass. A week was a short leash, but at least in the dry months a weekly watering of the garden would be welcome. I just kept reminding myself that urine was sterile as I handled these tanks. The poop bucket gave me a month before I had to haul it out to empty into my rotating composting bin. An easier task. I also added the dog poop of the resident German Shepherd as it was part of my trade to pick it up thus closing the loop for both of us.

Gradually I adapted to the regime of the tiny house and it to me. I went to the Marine store and bought myself a deck tile to put in the shower pan. This kept my feet dry and the ergonomics of being able to stand where I was supposed to stand to use the sink was a huge improvement. I made a dumb waiter for the loft with a simple pulley attached to the ceiling so I could get my laundry crate down. I did laundry and washed my hair at Catherine's and we got in some episodes of "The Crown". 

I invited some colleagues over to see my tiny house. "What do you miss most ?" one asked. "Space," I said. A place to put down random things. Otherwise I had pretty much everything I needed. I could also multi task like nobody's business. Check e-mail while frying eggs, put my contacts in without having to walk to another room. I would probably never burn a meal again because there was no other room to be gone in. And after a couple of weeks of the hyper mindfulness my concentration and my memory seemed to improve.

And there was still room for the unexpected.


Room For The Unexpected

The helpful client of the VW bus utensils, off loaded a vintage model of an animal cell that had been at NASA (in the department that studied mutations). The cell model needed a home so when she retired from her job as a lab technician there she took it with her. I admired it every time I saw it in the condo she shared with her wife. One day she decided it could go. It was made of clear fiberglass upon which were attached all the parts of the cell painted in blues and green. It was so cool I told her I wish I had a bigger house to keep it in. 

The more I looked at it the more I wanted it so I took it home to admire. I set it on the couch bench where the blue green base blended in perfectly with the blue green of my couch. As I dusted all the cell parts remembering my high school biology I realized the base was hollow all the way into the cell body. Perhaps I could get a light into it I thought. No bulb would fit so I retrieved a string of Christmas lights from storage, stuffed the lights into the body of the cell, plugged it in and there I had a giant Christmas ornament. What a beauty. 

At nightfall my lit up cell was so beautiful and full of little lights it was all the holiday decoration I needed. It would be my pagan tiny house Christmas tree I decided.

How appropriate I thought. For some years now when asked what was my religion, I would put down that I believed in the divinity of cell division for that was as distilled as I could sum up my awe at life forcing itself into being with every seed and unfurling leaf. No matter what the conditions or circumstance, these intrepid cells of living beings of all forms still insisted on being born and carrying on. And so would I. And would we all whatever might befall us.

Wishing you all a joyful holiday and a proactive new year.


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