Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Twenty Years In Business: Some Observations

After spending two months earnestly dating all of the locally available women who would have me I realized I wasn't really interested in finding another long term partner. What I was really doing was networking, meeting new people in new circles of interest I would otherwise not discover. And if I could put this much energy into just talking to people I might as well look for work for clients. I had not worked for an entire month. The situation was dire. I looked up from my desk and said it out loud "I need clients". As if in approval of my change of direction two e-mails came a few hours later asking for my organizing services. Wow, that must have been a lot of energy I put out into the universe I thought to myself. Both were referrals from colleagues.

From Organizer to Human Catalyst

At which point I realized I had been fortunate enough to be in business for 20 years since my anniversary was this month. It was an impressive milestone and perhaps I would allow myself to say something about the profession. I did, after all this time, finally feel that I knew something about people and how they lived their lives.

When I started out as a professional organizer I was filled with my own cleverness for being able to organize anything anywhere. I would put rooms in order in a flash, find boxes in the recycle bin to make into drawer organizers, install a hook in just the exact spot it was needed, arrange appliances and kitchen tools for optimum time motion efficiency and clear a path through a cluttered four car garage in short order. As this was long before cable home improvement programs and hoarding reality TV, clients were not quite sure what professional organizers did. I spent my first three years learning to describe what I could do and how it would help them. I talked more than necessary trying hard to impress clients with how smart I was. 

It didn't take long to realize that they didn't care how smart I was if I could just solve the problem at hand. And so I learned to listen and ask questions to help me find out what it was they were hoping for. I had many skills from carpentry to spacial design so had many opportunities to talk to clients about different household problems. My colleagues also referred me to their clients for situations that called for my handyman-da skills. I happily installed closets and shelving, cat doors and curtain rods.

Over time I realized I had an affinity for the chronically disorganized, red flag clients who tried the patience of other organizers with their ambivalence. "They're not ready," some would say because organizers are results oriented and clients who are process oriented need more handholding. But as long as the client was asking me into their home I was willing to work with them and help them. 

Often the reason they couldn't achieve their goals I realized was because they were stuck at some bottleneck point. "My desks needs help" they would say and I would follow the trail of backed up clutter to the source of the block, which might not be in the office at all, but in the hall landing where a little shifting of furniture would move the clutter along and the client would be surprised at how much that helped.

During all this processing with clients I had a lot of time to study client motivation and how I could help them in that regard which led me to see my client situations as stuck energy not just in the Fung Shui sense, but on a psychological level. And the more I could engage the client in seeing where they were stuck the more I could help them by doing something that would increase their momentum and thus their energy for going further. 

Given my combination of skills I was able to use my design talents to pin point what small improvement would bring about the most reward. I could then implement the moderate household fix or shift of furniture that would solve a cascade of storage problems. This was very satisfying to both of us. If I got it right this momentum would inspire them to work on their own between appointments or talk to family members or office mates about their new found clarity for what needed to happen. 

As one client put it I was not so much an organizing consultant as a catalyst to get people thinking about where they were stuck and to prompt them to have the needed conversations that would facilitate doing something to get the whole eco system of the cluttered area to a more organized state and facilitate people creating their own systems that they could then maintain.

In a number of these eco-systems of clutter there were also big clues about what was going on in their inner lives as well. What their dreams were in the things that they were hanging onto. What hopelessness had been allowed to bog them down and hamper their perspective. I offered a willing ear because I was interested in people's stories. Many were about past trauma of some sort especially with hoarding clients. 

It was not my job to solve these psychological problems, of course. In fact as organizers we were constantly being warned not to step on the toes of the mental health profession for they guarded their territory jealously reminding us that we were not qualified. But there was no harm in listening without judgement and some emissaries from the psych professions (presenting to us at conference workshops) encouraged us to ask questions to gain insight into client perspectives. This would allow us to challenge their thinking by helping them to see what was a more realistic picture of time and space and what would better help them to increase the functionality of their space. (We used words like functionality because that pinpointed the end goal better than the more conventional aesthetics of having things look like a magazine spread.)

Such conversations of inquiry attuned me to the emotional life of clients. The tone of their voice would clue me in on what their emotional goals were even though they weren't telling me this was a priority. Often it was to relieve their anxiety about something they thought most people would think was minor. By the same token I also sensed what brought them pleasure in a much loved activity that had created the clutter. I was then able to focus my attention on leaving the client feeling emotionally relieved. Or feel they had received an unexpected gift. This I realized was where I stopped being an organizer. For I had put aside my desire to organize someone's space that would satisfy my own aesthetic sensibility in order to become the person to call to get things done.

Technology: Unintended Consequences

Despite advances in technology organizers of the human variety are not in any danger of becoming obsolete. If anything our technological advances had allowed disorganized people to become more disorganized by robbing them of time and diminishing their skill to actually do things. Clients were asking me to help them get off the computer because it had become such a center of social interaction and entertainment that they found it so distracting they forgot what they were supposed to be doing. 

Technology also made it more difficult for clients to find me. Marketing in the era of the telephone book was much simpler if expensive. People who saw my tiny two line ad in the yellow pages believed that I was a legitimate business and did not hesitate to call me when they read my business name "Don't Agonize, Organize!" and were in fact agonizing over not being able to find their stamps in order to mail their bills. Today marketing across social networking platforms has become a much more complex and time consuming endeavor. And in an age of texting people seem more reluctant to actually call and talk to someone. Old school service providers who once enjoyed regular business were getting lost.

I met other service providers who were excellent practitioners in their field who were equally impaired by the time and skill required to market their services (and if not time then copious amounts of money to pay others to write glib copy for social networking sites). This phenomena produced some observable trends. The most prominent being a high number of mediocre service providers who stay in business because they are seen on every networking platform and have managed to pull off the illusion that they are famous experts. This is offset by a smaller number of providers who are driven by their own interest to develop their knowledge and skill and who don't mind working with difficult situations and people because that just makes the work more interesting. These providers stay in business through referrals because they can reliably solve problems and produce results. I am pleased to count myself among them.

And then there are the superstars. Relentlessly ambitious, hard working colleagues who are inspired by a love of business (or need) to maximize their effort by taking on more risk, trying different business models, hiring staff, adding more services and credentials and who thrive on the challenge of lucrative large scale projects.

Such effort leads to becoming a specialist in order to maximize the effort needed to capture a market for a consistent stream of clients. One such specialty is relocation work—moving people from a 3,000 square foot house to a $5,000 square foot house say. Moving companies must be booked in advance and packing and unpacking scheduled with military precision. Plus a specialists hired to install closet shelving and another to hook up computers and TVs. I have happily worked for colleagues who take on these jobs. It is labor intensive work with long hours, but it is also exciting to work with a crew in these upscale houses much like putting on a theatrical production.

High end clients pay high fees, but come with high end liability issues. Discussions ensue on our professional forums on whether an organizer should drill into walls or swing a hammer (to install an organizing product) because it might cause a liability issue if something went awry. And because we have professional boundaries now, even more discussion about whether an organizer should accept client discards for their own use because it would create an exchange with the client that might erode our authority as a consultant (so some don't take things to Goodwill at all). 

Superstar organizers strive to become the organizing expert in a particular niche with specialized filing systems and day planners created for their brand. Ordinary things are stylized beyond client's expectations as signature methods are implemented. This fits in perfectly with a consumer driven culture. Much like shopping today where you are compelled to study the multiple features of a product across several websites, learn technical jargon for things you didn't know existed and read online reviews from strangers who may or may not share your lifestyle to determine whether this service will fit your needs. So too can you shop for an organizer. (Or cut to the chase and just call the president of your local chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers for a referral).

Clients are now telling me that when they look for an organizer for a job, the job that organizer is willing to do is so specialized that it creates more work for them or they have to find yet another service provider to do the bits left over.

"I found an organizer who does everything," a client gleefully exclaimed recently when I told her I could take things to Goodwill, move heavy boxes and organize. For her modest two bedroom move-in job I was able to do everything. And it was also an opportunity for me to create shelving for her office closet from boards and lumber I had on hand and could nail together in my home workshop. The result wouldn't make anyone's Pinterest list of 50 Clever Storage Solutions nor was it attached to the wall as required by earthquake standards, but the client thought it was brilliant and perfectly suited her needs in a temporary apartment living situation.

And yet I am harder to find. Challenged by the marketing skills required for this highly specialized consumer culture of escalating technology organizers are now writing, directing and staring in their own YouTube channel as the expert on all things organizing. This is what marketing means today with its five platforms of delivery from LinkedIn to Youtube. (Twiitter, Facebook and Pinterest being the other three in case you were wondering.)

And despite having all the skills necessary to write, direct and make my own YouTube videos of top-of-the-line organizing tips I can't think of a worse buzz kill for my creative spirit than to create for the sake of marketing. Because in the end being organized is not my end goal any more than it is my clients. The whole point being to increase our quality of life so that we can get to the non-organizing goals, the main event, the life's work, the family, the community, the being the change you want to see in the world.

But when they do manage to find me I get clients who bond with me almost immediately because they have stumbled on my photos on flickr of the shoes I made, downloaded and read my memoir (because that was the only available information they could find on me), watched my movie about reusing discarded doors, read revealing personal details on my blog or enjoyed one of my pithy politically slanted book reviews. As a result I have a work life that is rich in authentic exchanges with a great variety of people. And these exchanges somehow further both our goals to enrich our lives in an interaction of human collaboration.

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Is This Me?

The Road to Romance

My ex, having now declared she was single, had also discovered she had a libido. She began to play music in the house and dance. This was something to celebrate since only a year ago she seemed barely alive after the ravages of chemotherapy. She signed herself up on and started showing me profiles of women. My curiosity was piqued so I signed up too and was immediately shown her profile as my perfect match. We had a good laugh on that and I was forewarned that the algorithms controlling these sites were devoid of intelligence. This was a brave new world. I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up to find that all the bars had been closed and replaced with cyber vending machines where you could look into a window and see women on display tagged with interests they might share with you alongside their profile pictures. You paged through these pictures and clicked on the "quick view" button to view their specs—height, sexual orientation, body type, age, income, religious affiliation and geographical location. 

I can recall dating in only the vaguest of ways. It largely consisted of walking out of my college dorm room and into what was then the most popular hall where my fellow co-eds would roost and make trouble by taunting anyone who dared pass by. It was in this fashion that I learned that one Cindy Sunshine (yes that was her real name) had the hots for me. She was a dancer, short, blond with an enigmatic face. She happened to be my type particularly the enigmatic face part. A face that is not considered beautiful and might verge on homely except that the owner had a beguiling way of presenting it. And present it she did at my door late that same night. 

"I've come for you," she said. At which point I took her in my arms and kissed her, so bold I was already at 18. This being
the arts college at UC Santa Cruz in the '70s, I already knew that an alternative universe existed here where all manner
of sexual preference might express itself. My relationship with Cindy was soon complicated by the appearance of an on campus boyfriend, followed by an off campus one from home so I had to move on (albeit amidst megadoses of drama). Lots of women were bi-curious. I hooked up with them at our decadent dress-up parties, at impromptu hall gatherings or once in the shower with a man in one of our co-ed bathrooms. An unending supply responding to the rumors of my taste for women and my soft butch appearance. The lesbian community of that time did not embrace me nor I them. I didn't wear the requisite uniform of plaid flannel shirts and overalls and refused to cut my hair. I did have one dyke buddy in the dorms who told me her story of first love; it was so filled with internalized homophobia it was painful to dwell on. Being a lesbian was a sort of death defying identity at the time. 

When I returned to the more conservative Bay Area all was quiet on the still closeted home front. Women were not crossing my path quite as often as they used to. I did briefly date a man because he asked and we both loved movies, but he soon guessed that I wasn't really interested. It wasn't long before I learned about the LGBT center on the second floor of the old firehouse on Stanford campus. A local lesbian coffee group was held there open to anyone. I met my now best friend Stacy there. We didn't date each other, but we did date the same woman. A woman who worked at the movie theatre where I was a projectionist. I discovered she was gay because of her habit of drawing two women symbols linked together next to her name on the sign-in sheet. We both rode motorcycles so it was a natural that we would ride together to bars to meet women and meeting none who would have us we would go home together, but we weren't really together together. I took her to an event at the firehouse where she met Stacy and I went home with whomever was left over. 

When I went back to college I picked graphic design as a queer safe career option that was also fun; it turned out to be where all the gay talent gathered. I met an arty woman in my photography class. She had a gay best friend and thought that was cool; so cool that I stopped her in a darkened doorway after an art gallery opening and kissed her for an hour. That relationship lasted a year. My longest to date.

Later while working a stint at the library (data entry to convert the collection to the digital catalog) I would flirt with the college graduate working the check-out desk. As she walked by my computer terminal the novelty of a chair on wheels prompted me to alleviate my boredom by rolling out in her path. This flirtatiousness duly noted she was reeled in and stuck around for five years until she found a man to marry. At which point I conveniently took up with her bi roommate. My girl's high school also provided a couple of dates as alumni looked me up. There were other lovely ladies I haven't mentioned. I have to keep some sweet memories to myself. 

I did aspire to relationships, but the idea of permanence had not yet landed in my universe. That was the nihilism of the day. The lesbian baby boom didn't show up until the late '80s. By then I had moved in with a woman with a houseful of teenage boys (which was a good way to end any ideas about having children myself). She didn't show up at my door looking for me. It was I who showed up at hers brought to her house by my mother whom she had befriended at a party. She wooed me and smitten by the attention I was easily persuaded to move in. We lived one day at a time in the vernacular of AA. This was good for five years which exceeded my expectations. Then she met someone else more compelling who didn't want to share and I was summarily dismissed, but not before Catherine showed up walking into the lobby where I worked sporting a black leather jacket that caught my eye. A friend of a co-worker. They invited me along when they went for coffee and Catherine and I left the friend in the dust peppering the air with queer references as we flirted with each other. 

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Is This Me?

Twenty years went by. By which time everyone we knew was hitched, living together in their separate houses, hardly anyone new entering our inner circle. And so I was completely unprepared to have to go out and hunt women in the wild. But a traveling psychic who came twice yearly from New Zealand, told me there would be another lady for me. "Someone who'll bring out a different side of you," she said. I looked skeptical. "Cups means love," she said of the Tarot card she had drawn. Given this promise I beefed up my portfolio on Match assessed my market value and started interacting with women who were of interest. I went out with 6 women in two months. 

The first four had M names. The last time I had serial relationships during a period of transition all the women had L names. This alphabetical synchronicity added a sense of order to my expectations. My first date, M-1 lets call her, had a photo that was obviously shot by a professional. You could read an entire independent film into that photo as she bent over in a black cocktail dress and heels, reaching for a single boot in front of a BMW motorcycle. Her pixie haircut and beguiling smile was so fetching I made it a favorite just as a sample of what could be done in the way of photos. Since I did not meet her height requirement I was surprised when she wrote back thanking me for favoriting her profile. 

"I'm a good 4" over your height preference, but would you like to go out anyway?" she wrote. I wrote back saying that I was a good 4" shorter than her height preference so we were even, but all my height was in my body so we'd be okay if we sat down when we talked." She asked me to the Keith Haring exhibit; he was appropriately a gay icon from the '80s. Once at the De Young we texted back and forth until I finally found her. When I saw her in the gift shop she was chatting with the sales clerk and looking at her phone and I was suddenly struck with shyness. How could I be sure it was her even though there was no one else in the shop let alone any other 6ft women. I looked in all the other gift shops just to be sure, came back and she was gone so I went outside and texted her that my phone would not work inside. And she came and found me.

"I'm sorry your phone only works outside," she said coming through the door. I looked up from my capricious phone and she gave me a hug in greeting. Then she apologized for her motorcycle boots which put another 2" to her height. She had such a nice smile and was so eager to please that I was immediately into this dating thing as we walked back in to join the Friday night museum entertainment. Stopping at the cafe for a bite to eat, she asked the first question. "Where did you get that English accent?" And I was off and running. I told some of my best stories and got high just from being listened to so attentively by someone so smart and educated. She told me about falling in lover with her English teacher in high school. This early lesbian history made me feel at home. And we still had the exhibit to view. I had her take pictures of me with a painting. By the smile on my face I was deliriously happy.

"Well that was fun," I said as we walked out the door at the end of the evening, "you want to do it again?" 

"Oh good," she said with enthusiasm, "sure". And just before the bus stop I turned and gave her a hug and the extra couple of seconds I gave it I could feel it. That longing for connection. And I broke it off before it could say much more. 

Given this auspicious first date I was sure I was on my way to romance and lost my head a bit, writing to her when she didn't write back. I dug myself a hole with all my extra e-mails. She did accept my invitation for dinner, but then got consumed by a busy work schedule. Like so many in the Bay Area she was overworked, but I was willing to wait. I wrote some more e-mails when she was away for the holidays sending lots of pictures of my shoemaking to entertain her. Soon it became clear that she was not going to engage. Well maybe she just wasn't the e-mailing type I tried to persuade myself. Eventually I had to reel myself in—hard. Her silence I realized was making my head spin trying to fill in the blanks, the projections ricochetting off the walls of my brain like a bb in a tin can. I had an entire relationship going on in my mind from start to finish by the time I was done. It made me feel 20 again and not in a good way given all the emotional trampling that went with it. I was too proud now to succumb to such indifference. I had other dates scheduled.

M-2 was bisexual and lived with a man, but wanted a girlfriend on the side. She looked older than her given age and didn't believe in cell phones. That was fine with me; I liked her. I just wasn't attracted to her and was missing some shared cultural ground. M-3 turned out to be newly transgender. She was over 6 feet in heels and had no body fat on her which I crave. I enjoyed our dinner together and I treasured the daily e-mails she wrote me answering my questions about her transformation process. She kept me company in the face of M-1's silence. M-4 shared the most interests with me and we spent an intense 2 1/2 hours talking while sipping Samovor tea in the Castro, in the end discussing a possible film project. I liked this idea of collaboration and hoped we could get to know each other through this project. I also dated a therapist who offered lots of insight on both art and people. And I enjoyed a hike with another competent and articulate woman. I now had plenty of new friends, but no clear dating potential.

When a French woman named Dominique invited me to her facilitated support group I decided to go and invited M-4 along for the ride so if it got too earnest we could smirk to each other. It was illuminating to listen to women actually talk about relationship woes and participate in discussion that got to the heart of the matter instead of dancing around it. Dominique asked us to pick one word that captured what we wanted in a partner. We each voiced our one word and claimed them as a group—Trust, Fun, Meaning and Hot Sex we shouted in unison.  The realness of the experience resonated on my psyche. No more projections. Dominique was on to something. The meeting gave me much needed context and I started spreading the word about her dating salon. I could just go to her salon and forget about asking women out.

Deal Breaker Inventory

Despite having impressed everyone I met with my own accomplishments and entertainment value I didn't seem to be getting anywhere. I searched for possible deal breakers. Everyone can list how they don't measure up. The most common body type women checked on Match was "a few extra pounds". I was too skinny if anything and maybe too short. These physical aspects I could do nothing about, but after one of my dates said she knew I wasn't ready to date because I was coming out of a 20 year relationship I was intensely annoyed. Was everyone making these assumptions? How dare they. Plenty of people were fresh from other relationships. It was part of the territory of having been around the block a few times. People made jokes about it—how they didn't want a date bringing their baggage along, but an overnight bag would be okay. 

If someone didn't like that I lived with my ex that I could understand. But some crossed me off when they googled me and saw the size of my online footprint with ten years worth of personal essays posted to my name along with pictures of my half naked self showing off my abs. This led to some soul searching. It was possible that sharing so much of my life would deter people from wanting to become involved with me, but in the end I couldn't give it up. The level of intimacy this sharing had given me with my readers far surpassed anything I could hope for from a stranger. Friends who read my work, understood me at a deeper level and in turn would share their thoughts when they met me in person. This had allowed my life a greater sense of depth devoid of the unwanted projections that had been thrown at me throughout my youth (prompted by my British accent and my Far East foreignness). In these ongoing conversations I was offered a huge sense of connection and community and the opportunity to be authentic. I was still living in a California counter culture sensibility that indulged self revelations. But the level at which I had publicly processed my life had exceeded that of even a Californian. I didn't share everything, but only my closest friends knew where my pubic life ended and my private life began. 

The online dating platforms encouraged people to create spec sheets for a date by the questions asked when you wrote a profile. It reminded me of an arranged marriage only instead of the wisdom of a yenta and an extended family to match up pairs this was a do-it-yourself arranged marriage. No more would I know a woman in the context of a social milieu. I had now to invest 2 hours of conversation that could feel like a job interview and compete with candidates that were just a click away. Where once I felt lucky to connect with one person, now the shear numbers of available women were creating levels of ambivalence I had never before encountered both in myself and others. People thought they knew what they were looking for. They thought they could tell by a photograph if there was chemistry or not. And our iPhone culture had changed the way people controlled their input from the world. All of this was erasing the natural serendipity that arises in actual reality. People's brains were no longer open to real time input I feared. 

I gave up on Match and opened a profile on Ok Cupid which had a blog approach that felt less like online shopping and drew a more interesting crowd. Given one chance to impress a date I was trying to cram all of my amazing cross cultural life and complex, enigmatic self into one face-to-face meeting. I realized I also expected this level of immediate intimacy with my date. But though they were warm and often offered a hug upon meeting me, they were much more circumspect about sharing their lives with me. It occurred to me that I was perhaps a little too intense for most people. You think? And that these same people just hadn't put together so many words about themselves to be able to respond in kind. I had explored things intently for decades—enough to fill volumes. People don't do this I realized. I had to stop being apologetic about it. It wasn't me who was too much. I was expansively big. It was the culture that had gotten small. It had become a single serving reality (to borrow from the movie Fight Club). 

One date did see this about me—the therapist. "Wow," she said after I had filled her in for an hour and a half, "that's all I can say". Now I knew what she meant. (She sent for my review, some love poems she had combined with her artwork as an e-book. Quite a lovely presentation with the poems excavating her relationships with pithy details delicately handled alongside her impressionistic paintings of women together.)

Once I saw this single serving universe life had become, the whole overwhelming dating thing shrunk down to size so to speak. There was no need for me to impress anybody because there wasn't enough bandwidth for it anyway. All I needed was to hold out a single serving portion and find a way to keep it real. Stop trying to fit into the script our profiles had prompted. Challenge them in some way. I wouldn't even have to reject anyone. They would just fall away of their own accord. And if anyone was left we could set up camp and stay awhile. Otherwise I would continue on my journey already peopled as it was with traveling companions.

Happy Valentine's Day my lovelies.

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

Dead Like Me

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

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,


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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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