Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

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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Friday, July 22, 2016

It Takes A Village To Live Tiny

In early May after my return from Canada, Catherine told me that she felt our domestic arrangement had come to an end and it was now time for her to live alone. She asked that I move out by September. She said the same to her brother Steve. I was stunned and devastated. 

"Where shall I go? What shall I do?" I wanted to say in Scarlett O'Hara fashion.

"Frankly my dear I don't give a damn," said the the Bay Area housing crisis. I gave myself a month to wring my hands and absorb this shock. I had known my living situation was without a future in the sense that we were no longer in a committed relationship, but I had put my money on the mutually beneficial arrangement of my staying which had been going so well these last two years. That with all the care the two dogs demanded and the shared meals I made, the gardening and household chores I helped with she would want me to stay especially once she returned to working full-time. It was the only option I was willing to entertain because I had been enjoying a $700 rent for so long I would be hard put to afford a room in a house in the Bay Area. Most were double that. Perhaps I should have taken a different path I lamented.

I had been told by our therapist and others that legally I did have the right even in a domestic partnership to sue for half the value of the pooled assets accrued during our 20 years together. I hadn't wanted to do it. I feared that it could get ugly and destroy our friendship. I had opted to see what would unfold if I stayed. Barring her meeting someone else she wanted to live with this seemed like a reasonable expectation. But now Catherine felt this transition period was over. It was time for her to move on, she said. I made another plea on my behalf.

I mentioned that she had, at the time of our break-up, promised to buy me a tiny house on wheels. But when she researched online and saw figures close to $90,000, she said she didn't have the money and she did not foresee selling her house anytime soon (to free up cash). I didn't pursue it since she was allowing me to stay. Maybe something else would unfold I thought.  

"I'll buy you a tiny house," she said just like that as I recalled this discussion. This stopped me mid-argument. It had indeed been my dream to live in a tiny house one day even if I had to build it myself. A very big dream that I knew I would have to do alone for Catherine did not share this vision. The tiny house concept of self sufficient living embodied all the off-grid living ideas that I had been experimenting with for the last fifteen years. To actually live in one would allow me to fully realize my passion for this life. With Catherine's offer of the tiny house my grief and shock were arrested as I remembered the full potential of this vision. And they were not, after all, as expensive as she had anticipated given what I had in mind. A shell that was unfinished inside could be had for $25,000. I accepted her offer gratefully and immediately went to Craigslist to look for such a tiny house on wheels.

My Tiny Life Education

A year ago almost to the day, I had attended a two-day workshop where I had listened to a young woman teach a roomful of would be builders how to build and live in a tiny house on wheels. The workshop was given by the Tumbleweed company formed by the original creator of tiny houses to sell plans to would be builders. The tiny house that our workshop leader lived on was parked on a property out by the coast next to a horse paddock. That she was a cello player with a degree from a university in Europe fit right into my scenario of wealthy patronage hosting such a high end tiny house. The scenario evoked all my experience of negotiating class and racial boundaries in the Bay Area. This was an elitist solution I felt, a diminutive version of a high end house with all the material wants of a Western lifestyle. It changed very little about how one lived apart from having less room to live it in. And it would still require that you had a relationship with land to park it on which implied that you had enough social equity to find a host who would be willing to let you live on their land possibly illegally given city zoning. You could not even buy land and park the house on it because there were laws against "camping" on your land. There were also laws that prevented you building normal houses small enough to afford because most towns had square footage ordinances that prevented such tiny dwellings. Zoning was how the American landscape was divided into economic apartheid. Building the house on a trailer was a way to get around building codes. 

Still I loved the idea of living in such a compact, well designed space that I could custom fit to my own habits. It was an opportunity to design a lifestyle that would incorporate my ideas of how one would live using the least amount of resources possible. In fact I so wanted to experience such a space that I decided to design and build a mock tiny house just to see how it would feel. For this experiment I chose to build a loft in my mother's one car garage which was about the same size as a tiny house being 91/2 feet by 20 feet and was a separate building made of wood resembling a 1920's board and batten cabin. I had in fact already cut holes into the walls for windows when I was enrolled in a construction class a decade ago and wanted to practice my carpentry skills. By returning to this unfinished space for this project I was able to hone my tiny house building skills, practice installing electric lights and outlets, then finish the walls and paint them the white wash I so wanted to see over the OSB strand board I put up for the walls. 

The project not only improved my building skills it honed my mind to make decisions around all the details of living in a tiny space. Intellectually I was able to investigate practical aspects of spacial design, compact storage and how to make multi-use built-in features that would cleverly transform the function of the space. I experimented with salvage materials to see what could be used that might otherwise go to landfill. Bed pillows for instance made very good insulation for walls. Over a six month period of working a couple hours every other day, I put in 230 hours and the garage was transformed from a rat infested haphazard store room into a pleasant light filled studio space with ample storage in the loft I had designed. And all using wood I had saved over the years (and stored in same garage) and what I found on craigslist mostly for free. How I loved that humble building. And how I enjoyed improving the space and adding value to my mother's property. 

Ever Tinier

In considering what size of tiny house on wheels I would choose to buy I remembered something my cello playing instructor had said when I went to visit her tiny house at the bottom of the horse paddock. If she had to build it again she would go smaller, she said, because even in this small a house of 24ft by 8ft there was still plenty of room to accumulate excess stuff. And this included a boyfriend and two dogs. She would go to 18 feet she said. So when I went to craigslist that night to look for a tiny house I was looking for the smallest I could find. And there it was. It was beautiful being all shingled in cedar and having a red door. The photograph of it was so professionally done that it looked like a magazine cover. But it cost $32,500 and that was just too much I thought for an unfinished house. A few days later I looked again and there was a lengthy description telling the story of why this house had been built. 

Apparently two dads, John who sold things and Phil who was a professional roofer, had decided to build their families a vacation cabin. It was their plan to park it on a friend's land. They put into the project the highest quality materials they could find including high end windows and a wood floor. It was fully insulated and wired with electric outlets and wall sconce lights, but was otherwise empty inside. It had taken them a year and a half to build this much, by which time the friend had sold the land and their plans to use it were moot. As I read the description of the house I could feel the love they had poured into this project and how proud they were of it. The interior was lined with reclaimed salvaged redwood fence boards that gave the interior a soft variegated look. This fooled the eyed into thinking it was bigger than it was. The ladder to the loft was built from heavy beams from an old barn and was sturdy enough for a big man. It was small, only 6 feet wide inside and 14 feet long which was perfect because I wanted a narrow profile to better fit on a narrow piece of land. I had it in mind to park it at my mother's house next to the the beloved garage where I had been building the mock tiny house. 

To express my appreciation I wrote the seller a fan letter admiring the quality of the build. Then since such a letter seemed to warrant a reason for my writing it I explained that I could not buy it because my budget was only $23,000 or so. Ten minutes later John called me and said I could have it for $26,000. This was a considerable discount. I would get back to him, I said. I showed the ad to Catherine and she agreed to buy it if it was the one I wanted. And that Saturday I went to see it taking with me my new friend Tim, a carpenter I had met by chance just before I needed help to patch the leaky roof of my mother's garage.

To make sure I had a place to put this house, I had proposed to my mother that I park it on her property. She was not enthusiastic about the idea, but her boyfriend Bill had been more encouraging. "Think of the benefits of an onsite cat sitter," he said over dinner. When I showed her the glamorous pictures of the tiny house she clearly saw how lovely it was and urged me to buy it before someone else did. In terms of home ownership it was not very much money she noted. This was all the encouragement I needed.

Tim and I drove all the way to Hollister to see it. Once I laid eyes on the tiny house in person the height of it was a little scary. It was almost the height of a two story building, but I ignored that warning feeling for it was the height that made the inside bearable since there was so much space above your head. Tim asked Phil about the methods used to strengthen the walls. All was done to the highest standards. I felt confident to mover forward and put down a deposit of $1000 then set about preparing for the arrival of the tiny house in two weeks. I went home thinking I was well on my way to living my dream, but instead I spent a sleepless night wondering how such a high profile tiny house was going to be received in the neighborhood. For much as they seem so perfect a solution to homelessness, they were not legal to live in. It was legal to park them, just as an RV is legal to park on private property, but if you were living in it and the neighbors complained you could by local ordinance be evicted from your own house. 

To quell my anxiety I decided to ask the nearest neighbor who kept an eye on my mother's house, what she thought of such an endeavor. My mother, however preempted this meeting when she called me in the morning and told me she could not allow me to park the house on her property. It was just too evocative; it would soon attract the attention of the county officials. I had to agree that she was right and so I had to choose to either give up this dream (and my deposit) or pursue it in an aggressive manner unlike my usual low key approach. I never liked to ask for anything. 

I wrote up an ad on craigslist in search of a place to park and listed what I was willing to offer in terms of a little rent ($300-$600) and a lot of skills for home maintenance, gardening and care taking. I used the same beautiful picture of the house that had caught my eye. And I posted the link to the ad to Facebook and Twitter and the Yahoo group of my colleagues. People wrote back words of encouragement and ten of my friends  posted it to their pages asking their friends if they knew of a space. I did get some very nice responses both from friends of friends and strangers, but they were in the East Bay outside of my area and far away from clients which I was not prepared to do just yet. Still I felt enormously supported and loved it kept my heart open for a favorable response.

The purchase of this house with no land to put it on would render my dream an albatross that would cost me money to store it and be impossible to sell since few who have such cash are willing to live in a shoebox. 

I went away for the weekend to a house party where I got the opinion of all those present. My closest friends agreed that this could easily go sour, but one friend who had had many adventures in buying property encouraged me to go for it, because whatever happened I would end up owning something beautiful. I might end up leaving the Bay Area to live in it, but it might be worth it and if I left the country I could put everything I owned into it and still pay the same fee for storage as I would for my stuff alone and I would have something to come back to.

That night I picked up an e-mail from an acquaintance I knew from my Buddhist meditation center with whom I had done some solar oven demonstrations. She wrote me that she had a space in her backyard that might work. This was extremely encouraging. As soon as I got back from my house party I went to see her site. It was indeed feasible and well located being only ten minutes from my present home. I envisioned some fine collaborative eco projects in this garden for we had a shared eco sensibility. The space did, however need a lot of preparation in the trimming of bushes and moving of storage units. It was a tight space with sparse room around it. It was clear I would need a temporary place to park while I finished building the interior of the tiny house. 

There was another possibility that had been appearing in the back of my mind. Only a mile away from this site was my childhood home where there was a two car garage and a driveway down a cul-de-sac that would keep the tiny house hidden from view from the street. I could see myself working from my father's workshop using his tools and workbench. Could feel him helping me though he'd been gone now for 14 years and my stepmother had inherited the house.

My father had been a complex and difficult man given to rudeness and temper tantrums in my youth and a peculiar lack of understanding of human relationships, yet he was a brilliant engineer who had built his own computer in order to stay relevant to his work. He had had in all likelihood what we would now diagnose as Asperger's. The circumstances of his long illness with throat cancer that eventually led to his death had been trying to both me and my stepmother. I had not been very patient or diplomatic in my participation in his care while my stepmother had to contend with the brunt of his anxiety and non-compliance to his doctor's orders. I could not imagine myself asking her for any favors so estranged had we become. But as it happened I had recently spent some time with her and had had a chance to renew our acquaintance. 

While I was in Thailand for my mud hut building workshop I had been in Bangkok at the same time as she was, sharing the house my father built on the family compound which he had left to both of us. She was there with her boyfriend, a doctor who was charming and friendly to everyone in the household. So much so that all the difficulties of our family relationships seemed to fall away. He was warms towards me too. As I contemplated whether or not to ask her I realized that I had for so long put her in the roll of the heavy in my life as the figure who had usurped my inheritance, that she might welcome the opportunity to be my savior if I would only ask. 

Unfortunately I couldn't call her to explain to her the situation or even what a tiny house was because she and the doctor were in Germany on holiday. Time was ticking down so I wrote to her through Facebook explaining what I wanted to do. She didn't respond at first so I wrote again giving more details of my soon to be homeless status which could end up with me living in Bangkok in the house we shared. She wrote back with her cell phone and said to call her. She was sympathetic. Her only concern was that she would be able to get her car out of the garage and that the neighbors be informed. Neither was a problem so she said yes. I was so relieved. I had asked for help from so many people to get this house that I could truly say it takes a village to live tiny.

My Tiny Adventure Begins

The day the tiny house rolled into town, the neighbors came out to see the house as it pulled up and stopped on the side of the road.

"I love your tiny house," said a woman as she drove by.

"Pull it in here, I'll make room," said the neighbor across the way. The neighbor in front of my stepmother's house came out to network with my builders.

The two men had towed the tiny house all the way from Hollister. On the pickup towing it was a ladder strapped to the truck rack. This came in handy. The overhanging trees in the driveway did not clear the roof of the house adding to the drama of its arrival. The 20ft ladder was set up to allow Phil to climb on the roof and lift the branches out of the way while the truck was pulled forward. Then another difficult maneuver to back the house into position in the driveway. Once the house was leveled with the jacks at each corner it was done. All that was left was for me to hand over the cash.

When my stepmother returned she and the doctor welcomed me by inviting me to lunch when I came to work on the house. This offering of food was very Thai and made me feel right at home. It warmed my heart to feel so welcomed. I was eager to help with the chores she asked of me in return — hauling away things mostly, much of it my father's old books and papers. Her friends who came by admired the house in the driveway.

I was buoyed up by the reception to the tiny house. My tiny house. I was suddenly a celebrity with this cute unusual big thing. Thanks to the cable TV show Tiny House Nation and a few other similar shows, the phenomena of tiny houses had captured the American imagination. The compactness of such a lifestyle was a kind of antithesis to the horrors of excessive consumerism and collecting of stuff that had made the hoarding shows so popular. It solved the problems of mortgage debt and provided the mobility needed to follow job assignments. Viewers were charmed by the idea (though most did not want to live so small). There seemed to be no end to the cleverness that could be built into them. And now I was a part of this phenomena. An early adopter of a new innovation. Housing 2.0.

I marveled at how I had gone from homelessness to tiny house ownership in a mere three weeks. The tension in my relationship with Catherine evaporated too for I no longer had to be vigilant about a living situation that was forever poised to change. We would remain friends. I came to see that there are those in your life whose role it is to make sure you fulfill your destiny when you are too comfortable or too complacent to get around to it yourself. The tiny house was my destiny now. One that unfolded so effortlessly once I was committed to it that it elevated me to a new level of manifesting my life. The next few months would completely absorb and stimulate every cell of creativity I possessed. Ideas rolled out of my head and were manifested within the week with components that just seemed to turn up. I envisioned myself giving tiny house tours and tiny house dinner parties. 

To join in with the tiny house community I started a new blog to have a record of this new phase of my life and a blow by blow account of the build with photos. It's called "Tiny Red Desk: Living The Tiny Life". (I named it after the color of my writing desk). There you can join me for the tiny house journey.

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Monday, June 06, 2016

My Canadian Girlfriend

When I told my chiropractor that I was going to Vancouver to meet my Canadian girlfriend for the first time, he chuckled and said that in his guy world, men talked about having a Canadian girlfriend because it was better than saying they didn't have one at all and this way no one would expect them to bring her over for dinner. 

"She must give good e-mail," commented my friend Tian when I announced that I had bought my plane ticket on Facebook. 

"Do you know this woman?" asked my housemate Steve when he saw my trip to Vancouver marked out on the kitchen calendar.

"We've been writing each other for a year and three months," I said.

"Is she in prison?" he asked slyly.

"Good one," I said laughing. The idea of cultivating a romance through letter writing is somewhat antiquated these days. It harks back to a more genteel time of carefully penned missives, days of waiting for the mail, scented paper perhaps with a pressed flower enclosed. But in today's e-mail world, letter writing is taken to a day by day, even hour by hour sharing of each other's lives while at the same time creating a world of our own in words with references back and forth to our word history, our shared narrative.

She found me on OkCupid a cozier, more off-beat dating site than Match dot com. She was reading
profiles for a bedtime story and came across mine. When she saw that I had listed one of her favorite films in my list of favorites she wrote to tell me how rare it was to see that title mentioned. Bagdad Cafe was a quirky independent film about two disparate female characters thrown across each other's paths at a remote truck stop in the Mojave dessert. It holds a place in my heart for it's cross-cultural, cross racial lines, art based collaborative story of an unlikely friendship. I felt compelled to answer her passing comment. And of course I checked out her picture. She had a cute round face with brown collar length hair and big glasses. She was mostly dressed to be outdoors in cargo, shorts and hiking footwear. She was amply curvy, a body type that I enjoyed; given my skinny frame I wanted the luxury of padding. It was her no nonsense take-it or leave it presentation that charmed me for she bore no trace of body image issues. Plus she was three years younger than me and this slight seniority appealed to me. So feeling in a playful mood for story collaboration I asked if she would indulge me in a game to get acquainted.

"Let's pretend I fly in for the weekend. You meet me at the airport as you would a friend from college you haven't seen in 35 years. We were close friends then, but there was an unresolved attraction that was alluded to, but we didn't stay in touch. The first thing you would likely say to me might be "You haven't changed a bit." What would be the first five things you would tell me about your life?"

From her answer I was delighted to learn that she had been in a writing program and had had two short stories published. The detail of having once lived on a nude beach in the Kootenays intrigued me. Her parents were dead and so was her sister from cancer so I knew she had gone through some hard stuff too. She worked odd industrial jobs to keep a roof over her head and her cat's. She currently worked in an herbal vitamin plant. All of these details indicated an unusual person with a taste for the off beat experience. I replied in kind beginning with "I never did run away to the circus…" and we were off and running writing regularly every few days. 

She ordered a copy of my book and discovered my many essays on my blog. So she was way ahead of me in getting to know my opinions on life while I kept a little distance in order to better get to know her. From the start she was solicitous of positive vibes for difficult events of her life so I gave of my support on this astral plane. Her enthusiasm for nick names and references to favorite children's books reminded me of a girlfriend from my '20s and this irked me. She sent me things, cards, the CD with the song from Baghdad Cafe and a calendar that I actually could use, but a map of Vancouver sent my already cluttered desk into overwhelm, plus I knew I wasn't going to send her stuff so felt guilty. She wanted to talk on the phone, but I was way too busy while she lived alone. So we Skyped, but I tried to be dull and slow so as not to encourage her. It was clear though that she had a big heart and once we shed the nicknames we could get real. She expected acknowledgement for her birthday. That wasn't too much to ask though I was lazy in matters of card buying. I made her a card I pretended had been put together by my dogs with photos of me with each dog purposely glued askew to the card. I included also a black feather from one of our dog walks.  "A crow feather just what I always wanted!" she wrote back pleased that I 'got her'. 

Sheilagh, for that is her name, was from a family knee deep in psychiatric nurses, doctors and therapists. I had had my share of the language of analysis from my therapist mother so we understood what each had been up against with being so off beat in a family that judged one's sanity rather too closely.

After a few months she wanted to come to San Francisco to meet me and I told her not to. In fact I was a little harsh about it. I knew that such a visit could not be half hearted for someone to come from so far away just to catch a glimpse of me when we were only newly acquainted. I didn't want the responsibility of showing her a good time for my life was just too full at the time with clients, canoe team practice and all my household duties and meal making at home with my ex and the dogs. That she wasn't phased by me living with my ex counted in her favor, but at the same time maybe that indicated a screw loose on her part. Not everything could be sussed out by words alone.

She drew back at my harshness, but we kept on writing and eventually she forgave me and I apologized for the harshness. I had not had a lot of practice saying no I told her. We followed each other's lives for the better part of a year. She telling me of challenges at work, me telling her about my interesting client situations and household events. She would hear my stories and give them a little literary summation that entertained me and offered insight. While I commented on her work life and tried to be helpful. 

Distance gave her liberty to be affectionate, but it gave me reason to be resistant for the idea of a long distance romance with all it's expense and logistics just didn't seem practical. I continued to discourage her by telling her I no longer cared for sex with anyone save for fantasies about sailors. She sent me a picture of a "sailor" sporting briefs from a gay men's underwear catalog. I had to hand it to her for coming back with such humor. In further discussions I could see that she really did accept my domestic living arrangements as one I had consciously chosen and had no judgement about it. Our friendship thus far was solid. 

Distance Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

When I went to Thailand for my mud hut building workshop I had a sort of epiphany regarding our relationship. I told Sheilagh I would be gone ten days without a wi-fi connection (not having a smart phone). She also followed my frequent posts on Facebook and there was only one; I managed to upload a photo of a new outfit by tapping into a hot spot created by another mud hut builder on her phone. On the tenth day I picked up my e-mail. No one had written me except for Sheilagh. No one had seemed to care except for Sheilagh. 

"My Canadian girlfriend misses me," I told Cheyenne a fellow builder from Australia who was swinging in a hammock looking at her phone.

"Oh that's sweet," she said. She asked me about her and if we had ever met. I appreciated that homophobia no longer existed for the young for she was interested in the details as with any romance being all of 24. I told her no, that Sheilagh had in fact wanted to meet me but I had said no.

"You said 'no'? You bitch!" she exclaimed. I laughed at this youthful response. "I would have been on a plane in a second," she said. This gave me pause. Did young people have so little resistance to borders and distance that they would spontaneously cross thousands of miles to meet an online dating prospect? I had no need of yet another long distance relationship. I had a hard time keeping up with friends in Thailand and the UK plus all those scattered across the US. But my perspective had been jolted from my complacency and I realized that I had grown fond of Sheilagh, had come to count on her presence and interest. And I was further moved that someone who only knew me online would miss me so deeply that an absence of 10 days had made her anxious for my return. Could a love relationship exist on nothing but words? 

That night I bought her a Christmas present — a wallet with many zippered compartments from our representative of a local crafts guild of refugees selling hand sewn bags made from naturally dyed cotton. I also bought a different zippered bag for Catherine whom I still cherished as family and was going home to for Christmas celebrations. I included in my package to Sheilagh a card from Bangkok and soap from another entrepreneurial endeavor of the mud hut builders. She received it with recognition that I had stepped up my appreciation for her.

Meanwhile I continued to meet women on OkCupid hoping for someone more local, but they either never wrote back after the cursory though pleasant coffeehouse meeting or annoyed me by testing me for deal breakers. The whole online dating thing was annoying me. People just didn't seem interested in getting to know me, but in how well I might fit into their parameters and world view. And some were so inept in writing skills I felt compelled to reject them myself. I reported my annoyances to Sheilagh and she reported that she too had found none of her dates interesting enough to pursue. 

I buried myself in a building project of which I sent detailed reports to Sheilagh that would bore most as I described wall building and reported the finding of the dried up corpses of dead rats. She sent me her cat's toy mouse to guard against further intrusion by live rodents. Then she sent me pictures when she was visiting her older brother on Salt Spring Island for Easter. And another of the view from the ferry crossing and one of a chicken from his back yard farm inviting me to visit. Plus a few more of the tiny house her brother rented to transitional types. This Salt Spring Island farm of her brother's was quite the place I thought.

"When's a good time," I wrote back. Then it occurred to me that I could go. Vancouver was not after all very far in terms of my recent world travels. It was only two and a half hours by plane and thankfully did not involve a different time zone for I was having a hard time recovering from jet lag in my old age. She also said she would take a few days off if I came. My unexpected announcement that I would come and see her threw her for a loop. I fixed a date for three weeks out and specified that having only enough to spring for airfare I would have to avail myself of her couch. This sent her into a frenzy of cleaning for she rarely let anyone into her apartment, only those who could appreciate its artistic abundance. Then she called me honey. 

"Does the default endearment really have to be honey?" I asked still prickly about traditional terms of romantic engagement. I suggested Dahling in the manner of the silly British show Absolutely Fabulous. But maybe I was being too British in my reserve. I began to question why my heart was so locked up. There was a time when I threw myself into love with all the obsession that I now reserved for shoemaking and building projects. But those adolescent like obsessions were mostly projected onto women I didn't know and was trying to make into something I longed for. This did not always turn out well. So I was cautious for I did not know what my natural inclinations were with eyes wide open so to speak. And I wished to maintain our creative edge, not take up traditional scripts. She called me Deer. I wrote her back with "My Moose Deer Canadian girlfriend," and signed it "your American girlfriend where the Antelope play". She loved that.

"Dear Honey Bee" she wrote sticking to the animal theme, "auto text just made that Horny Bee". Horny Bee? Auto text innuendoes made me laugh and this one woke something up in me as well. We might as well go for it I thought. With only this one chance we should have no regrets about not having explored every possibility of being in the flesh as it were. This might be our one meeting. At any rate it would only work if we stayed firmly in the present.

"I am not as fit as I was when I was first going to visit you," Sheilagh wrote as the trip grew closer.

"Dear Ms. P., I am hoping you are quite pleasantly plump, the better to pillow with," I responded. She immediately inferred the reference to pillow talk, was delighted by my preferences and proceeded to feast at a buffet she was attending. I was pleased. I could not be with someone who didn't eat regularly and often.

And in telling me how much stuff she would have to rearrange to make me a bed on the floor she asked if I would mind sharing her spacious queen size bed. "I was thinking same," I wrote and we decided we would go directly to her home from the airport and have our way with each other. I told her too of Steve's suggestion that she was living in a prison.

"Yes," she wrote, "we have done the time and now we will do the crime."

Border Crossing Lesbian

When I arrived at the Canadian passport check the immigration officer asked me what was the purpose of my visit.

 "Love," I said with a smile. He laughed and said he hadn't heard that before and proceeded to grill me in a friendly way.

"Are you visiting friends? What will you be doing?"

"Yes and we are going to Salt Spring Island," I said remembering this magical name. This seemed to fit my outfit given my black suade vest over a red checked pirate shirt, my signature Australian leather bush hat on my head and waxed cotton jacket over my arm. He stamped my passport and wished me a pleasant visit. 

I came out of customs from a side door, the special Canadian Airlines door so stood looking for a few moments at the crowd. Soon I saw her coming towards me talking, looking just like herself. I gave her my best lesbian hug, gently squeezing her in a full body massage held for a beat longer than customary. 

"Thank-you," she said and I thought she meant for the hug. "Thank-you for coming". 

"You are smaller than I imagined" I said for she was about my height.

"So are you," she said and we began to walk towards the exit.

"Can I help you carry anything?" she asked. I had just a small bag on a luggage cart and a back pack.

"You can carry my hand," I suggested placing my hand in hers. And so we made our way out to the Sky train. The sun was shining on my afternoon arrival though it had been scheduled to be overcast.

It wasn't far to her stop in one of those transitional city neighborhoods of low rent older buildings and a hipster coffee shop edging in. She had told absolutely everyone of my impending arrival, she said, so when we ran into her friend Al, a friend I had not been scheduled to meet I felt this was a fortuitous occurrence that would carry the weekend.  And he was pleased to meet me too and didn't keep us long. 

Soon she was letting me in the door of her apartment and it was indeed abundant with her things. She had told me how sparseness reduced her to tears in those characterless, artless, bookless homes. I had assured her I liked having lots of things to look at. And she did indeed have most of her walls covered in framed art each chosen for its own merit not just to "go with" anything, plus collections of treasures on table tops and bookcases arranged to make statements of their own. Her many bookcases filled with literary books I recognized and many unknown to me. It was a small apartment for such a life rich in possessions, but I was used to sizing up collector homes and my professional eye soon saw that what many would see as clutter was perfectly functional. The apartment had its own order as her mother had stated when she was young. And it was organized into appropriate living sections with only an overflow of coats on the back of a chair that fell over when I added mine to it. I picked up the chair, rearranged the coats and sat down on her home made couch admiring the rock solid sturdiness of it. There was a box of chocolates tucked against the arm. I opened it.

"Watch out for one's with bites in them," she warned. I picked one of these up, looked at the revealed soft center said "This looks good," and ate it. She laughed and turned her head away slightly in embarrassment perhaps. "That's one of the advantages of living alone", she said. Then said she needed to lie down after all this excitement. So we had a nap and then got to hugging and I kissed her thirstily as though emerging from a long drought. 

"Well that broke the ice," I said as we got ready to go out to dinner and the documentary movie she had picked out for us at the film festival in town. The film was sold out so we came home and had our way with each other and again the next day (in case you were counting). And I would look at her and see the familiar face I knew from pictures, but also the face I didn't know; the face not presented to the camera. She had one that would look at home in another era, a vintage face behind those modern glasses. Her movements too were something to discover, quick and efficient, but leisurely when we were not catching a train. The cadence of her speaking voice fit the voice I knew from her letters, but the pitch and timbre of it I was still getting to know. The novelty of these additional features adding to my pleasure.

Salt Spring Island

In the meantime I enjoyed Vancouver. Canadians struck me as remarkably friendly. It was so odd seeing people who looked like Americans, but were, in fact that wonderfully progressive and sensible northern neighbor.

"I like your hat," people told me, "I like your coat". Those two items that made me look suspicious in my own neighborhood made me feel at home in Vancouver. "Canadians love everyone", Sheilagh assured me. And it was not because they were a homogenous population. I was surprised to see so many Asian people living in this town. 

That night we went on a dance and dinner cruise down the Fraser river which favored us with a lovely sunset. We were joined by her best friend from grade school and ex boyfriend from art school who was now gay. A lesbian couple, older than us, sat down at the next table and when I asked how long they had been together, they said "20 years".

"We've been together two days," I said enjoying the effect of a good romantic story. 

I had also met her middle brother Bob the psychiatrist who rode down to meet us on his bicycle for a coffee after tai chi class. When I mentioned my clients he wanted my professional opinion on his sister's home. This annoyed her intensely when she asked what we talked about for all of two minutes while she was in getting coffee. 

The next day we took the ferry through the Gulf Islands. The sun gracing us in a landscape of such beauty I was in awe. Another smaller ferry took us to Salt Spring Island which had an atmosphere of long summer days by the water's edge with all the wooden piers hanging over the water. 

We were met at the bus stop by Lois, her ex-sister in law who offered us a bag of hot donuts to welcome me. I was feeling like a visiting dignitary. Sheilagh had clearly  been talking about me and was now introducing me to every significant person in her life. Her older brother David came to pick us up in his truck shouting out the window "Hey crazy cat lady" when he saw her. We wandered through the farmer's market filled with stalls of artisan crafts and gourmet foods. I was impressed by the caliber of the goods made by these local artists; it was worthy of a juried show. Clearly Salt Spring Island was something special to draw all this talent. Sheilagh said the island was why she had moved to Vancouver so she could come any time as she had been doing since her brother moved there when he was 19. He had a blasting business blowing up rocks mostly for construction. He commented as we drove through the rural countryside with its roller coaster hills. 

"We are now entering the Tofu curtain," he said. He pointed out a neighbor named Rainbow walking alongside the road. 

"What does she do," asked his 12 year old daughter from the back seat.

"The usual hippie things, massage, herbal remedies."

He took us to Kismet Cafe a coffee shop in the woods to see a sample of local inventiveness. It was full of scavenged architectural details worked into the walls and garden that made me want to look closely to see how things were put together.

David's own home charmed me with its backyard farm and chicken coop plus a glorious tiny building made of rogue logs gathered from the water, runaways from local mills. The logs had been stood upright and caulked together making a square hut. It had a living roof of grasses. This unusual hut was his sauna which we would later make use of, Sheilagh having built a fire in the wood stove as soon as we arrived. David's daughter making us a dinner of quinoa and veggies.

My trip was purposely short so no one would have a chance to get tired of me I reasoned. While waiting for the bus to the ferry which would take me on to the airport the following day, I talked to Sheilagh for quite a long time about how uncertain my future was with all the plans Catherine was making as she visualized different scenarios for her own future as well as options I had for living in Bangkok, or traveling for a bit. This was why I held so firmly to the present to keep the chaos from exploding my head I explained. We had succeeded in not speaking of the future, nor did we make further plans, satisfied that we had wrung out of every moment of our four days together all that we could soak up. But we would, of course, still write. 

We held hands on the Skytrain all the way to the airport no one giving us a second glance those most tolerant Canadians. Then shared one more hug and kiss, before I walked through the gate. 

"Thank-you for coming," she said ever the polite Canadian. 

"Thank-you for having me," I replied. And as we returned to our correspondence I felt my previous prickly resistance and caution drop away now that I had fathomed her realness. 

A few days later she sent me a link to a dating site specifically for Americans who wanted to hook up with Canadians in advance of a Trump presidency. 

"I'm such a trendsetter," I said.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Of Mind And Mud

In which I find everything I need in the mud pit — an international sisterhood, a shifting paradigm and a cure for cancer. Here I offer my report from a ten day adobe building workshop with 30 women in northern Thailand.

Stories From The Mud Pit

The earth that would build our house was so red with iron it stained our feet like red betel juice and could not be washed out of our clothes. Behind us the mountain of Chiang Dao earlier masked by the morning mist was now revealed in massive peaks. And just to the right the golden spire of a pagoda high up in the hillside reminding me that we were in Thailand. 

In this orchard of mango trees watched over by dragon flies hovering overhead, a space had been cleared at the rear of the property for us to build the first of many tiny houses. Houses that would provide a retreat space to rejuvenate the activists of IWP (the International Women's Partnership for Peace & Justice).

My first clue that this was going to be a unique experience was the revelation that one of our American members was an amputee. Her boyishly short haircut having already set off my Gaydar. Nattily attired in backward baseball cap of local fabric and a tie died t-shirt over jeans she looked all of 19 and struck me as slightly cocky and sure of herself having been to Thailand before. But her radiant smile as she showed up at our morning yoga class in day glow green shorts won me over. Actually it was her leg that did it for that was the first glimpse I had of it in all it's steel and fiberglass novelty. Anyone going through life explaining that detail over and over had to have an interesting take on life I figured. 

The prosthetic leg made a rubbery farting noise as she popped it off for one of the yoga poses. The noise startled the woman to my left who said "oh" audibly as she looked over. I partnered up with Val for one of the exercises. In studying the leg I could see that it was a birth defect being shorter in the thigh bone than the other so not a result of an accident.

"I like your leg," I told her.

"Thanks," she said. 

"It's different," I said which was all I could manage in the way of scintillating observations.

"Yes it is," she confirmed. Val was 24 the youngest of us save for our mighty girl builder Ailsa (pronounced Elsa) the daughter of one of our instructors.

Later when I asked her if she was out about her leg she said yes, why would she not be and told me her story which she began with a question.

"Have you heard of Chernobyl?" she asked me.

"How could I forget," I said suddenly aware that I had over half a century of history embedded in my memory and at 57 was likely the oldest woman present. She continued with her story.

She was born in Russia along with a number of other babies born with deformities soon after the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuke plant though the authorities never admitted a correlation. Her Russian parents immediately put her up for adoption. An American woman with a birth deformity herself (an undeveloped hand) had adopted her and with her husband had brought her to the states. Decisions were made that led to Val having her foot amputated and several operations later a prosthesis fitted. This gave her the most options for mobility. Val had a maturity and cheerfulness beyond her years possibly in part because of this journey. I found myself wondering what missing pieces, what traumas we had all sustained that were not visible to the eye. 

Photo by Melissa Mulder-Wright
The missing pieces of my life were soon soothed by the mud. Making cob gave me time to process while doing something useful. Cob, a mixture of mud and straw, would be in much demand for the build. The doors and windows as well as the wood beams upon which the roof would be built were all attached to the adobe walls with mud. Plus two of the bathroom walls were wattle and daub, a similar idea to lathe and plaster only with cob filling in a lattice of bamboo splits. We would also include in the walls a pattern of bottles embedded in cob which would let in light and provide decoration.

The cob pit team sat on piles of dry straw and rubbed a handful of straw into the softest part of the mud in a motion that reminded us of washing clothes. The color of the mud prompted comparisons to poop, diarrhea and coffee.

"I like to put coffee up my butt," said Sherrie to amuse Val who had started the conversation.

"You did the coffee enema treatment?" I asked her eager to hear details. Sherrie was my roommate for the duration of the build. On the first day at the building site I had glanced at her t-shirt and was startled to recognize a profile as familiar to me as what I saw at home everyday. There where her left breast would have been was a flat space. 

"This is a wild coincidence", I told her in our room at the end of the day, "but I live with a one-breasted woman." She did not seem particularly surprised being possessed of an even tempered demeanor. At first impression she had struck me as a very nice woman if a little mainstream in her presentation. Someone reliable with no surprises. She had just turned 50. My respect for her increased tenfold with this additional revelation. No one is left unchanged after such an experience I knew from my own still fresh memories of Catherine undergoing treatment for her cancer two years ago (not to mention my dad having died of cancer at 69). That Sherrie did not hide this absence of a breast impressed me even more. 

She also happened to be a molecular biologist which made her the perfect person to explain how a coffee enema worked to both detox and revitalize all the cells in the bloodstream while also de-stressing the liver. She had followed the Max Gerson protocol for her cancer she told us because there was no cure for triple negative breast cancer 8 years ago. They offered her a clinical trial of a new drug, but as a scientist she knew better than to take that option, she said. Nor did she accept radiation; she didn't believe it would help. Her doctor gave her 6 months to live. And her family ostracized her for refusing the conventional forms of treatment. Only her husband stood by her.

I was now no longer in the realm of mere coincidence. Triple negative breast cancer was not all that common, but it was the same cancer that Catherine had had two years ago only she had taken the clinical trial option and when that nearly did her in was given treatment with two more chemotherapy drugs. The experience was so horrific it scarred us both. I was still angry at the cancer narrative perpetuated by Western medicine. The whole story about pushing the body to the brink of death in order to kill the cancer as if cancer were an alien virus and not something the body fought off regularly never sat well with me. It reminded me of the defense industry, so eager were doctors to use these pharmaceutical weapons to fight the noble battle against these terrorists cells.

Sherrie told us about how the cyanide in seeds attack cancer cells while leaving healthy ones alone. Apple seeds for instance were worth eating for that reason; she ordered apricot kernels online. The substance found inside an apricot kernel, the key ingredient of her treatment protocol also known as B-17, was a controlled substance in the United States, the FDA having determined it was a harmful toxin.

"I've read that testosterone is also a controlled substance;" I said. "Perhaps it should be more so," I added referring to those in charge.

 "We're working on that," she said good humoredly. She was lucky that she had the background to do her own research because even in this retelling I cannot remember all the details. I had heard of many of these alternative cancer treatments that were offered in Mexico and elsewhere. They had sounded hoakie and too good to be true. Recently an internet video series called The Truth About Cancer had surfaced on my FaceBook feed. It had an overdramatic narrative reeking with conspiracy theory rhetoric, but the information on alternative treatments was intriguing and I thought worth perusing. Sherrie confirmed that the series interviewed many of the doctors and treatment options she had researched. Two of them had recently been found dead. They were just about to publish a paper on their cancer treatments Sherrie said. So you see how the plot thickens. 

Every member on the board of The American Cancer Society is a representative of a pharmaceutical company, Sherrie told me. This was why there was nothing in the organizations literature that spoke of finding a cure for cancer. They only talk about treatment, preferably pharmaceutical treatments. Conspiracy or not, Western Medicine is being controlled by the pharmaceutical industry. But we live in such fear of the dreaded disease that there was no way people were going to disobey their doctor at the very moment they were most frightened. We had to believe something else first before we would be able to say no to this self flagellating narrative. Nothing like hearing a personal story to bolster confidence. And this was the second one I had heard regarding triple negative breast cancer.

I asked Sherrie if she had considered sharing her story. She had thought of writing a book she said, but in the end the retelling of her story took her back to that dark nightmare time and she wanted to move on. I could certainly understand that; other survivors probably felt the same way. So that left me, the side swiped bystander. I sat in the cob pit after everyone left mulling over this confirmation that there were plenty of alternative treatments to cancer. Later I would ask Sherrie if she would mind if I shared her story. She kindly offered additional information which I've put at the end of this post. I also asked Val if I could share her story too because sometimes you just need live confirmation that man made disasters did indeed have the impact we predicted though authorities are loath to admit it. 

Of Mind And Mud

As Sherrie told her story others too spoke of using coffee enemas. And drinking their own pee. Was there no end to these interesting 'home brew' treatments? I had come to the edge of the world to meet my people and they were pushing me where no one had pushed me before.

Meanwhile Rebekah our Goddess of Yoga whose statuesque physique and lion's mane of blond hair made her stand out like a deva, was having us do a yoga breathing exercise while compressing our stomach that she told us would cure constipation and indeed I can testify that it worked. This healing vortex along with the ongoing building of our mud house was beginning to make me feel I had arrived in a utopia, an alternative universe of peace and healing. 

The next day in the mud pit Simone the young woman from the Netherlands told me how she had suffered from job burn-out at a high tech start-up. The Dutch had a word that described a pre-burnout condition so she had been sent home by the company doctor to rest. Ah, the Dutch, they are so civilized. 

"We need that word," I told her. 

During her time off she had participated in a rocket stove building workshop which encouraged her to seek out more off grid type solutions. And so she had quit her job to take time out to seek a more fulfilling vocation. Many others too had the same story about quitting their job after burnout. It was sort of a recurring theme of the group.

"I don't want to quit my job," said Penny from New Zealand, "I like my life." She was a nurse and was currently taking a 9 week holiday to use up her vacation time. (Nine weeks! Think of it, what poverty of time off we live in in the US.) I sort of felt the same way about my life though I was intrigued by all these options of dramatic change and relocation.

I was very curious about the Chinese women, three from mainland China and one from Taiwan plus MayMay who was 12 who spent the time reading a Harry Potter book in Thai and could speak at least four languages including Karen. The Chinese women were networked into the group by Sylvia, May May's mother, a woman who lived in Mae Sot and had learned about earthen houses in that busy border town of cross pollination. Sylvia was in charge of preparing the food for our group. Many had gone to Mae Sot just to explore all the various helping professions offered by NGOs camped out there. Yu Yin had met Sylvia there and heard about the workshop, posting it on Facebook for others to find. (And yes Facebook is blocked in China, but you can buy a workaround black box to access it.)

Xiaoou (pronounced Sho-A), a mainland Chinese woman who had majored in gender equality studies at the University of Ireland wanted to know how I identified my nationality when I had two parents of different nationalities. I wrote a whole book about it I said acknowledging the complexity of my life as we sat in a hot tub together at the day's end. At the nearby hot springs, hot tubs had been fashioned out of cement culverts just big enough for four to sit in. Xiaoou asked the same question of Gioia (pronounced Joy-a) sitting across from me; a stunningly beautiful woman of mixed Japanese and Italian blood living in Rome, she had chosen to document the workshop with a video camera having just finished a degree in filmmaking from the UK. We both spoke of having many skills with which to relate to our different nationalities, but not feeling completely at home in any one place. A fourth person in that cement culvert was an Australian who lived off grid and had completed a few building projects of her own. Dhaniella said she didn't relate to her nationality, but more to various sub-cultures within Australia. This sentiment was easily shared by those of us from North America. The problems of the US in particular stood out this year.

"The whole world is wondering why America can't just get rid of guns," said Tracy at dinner. She was English living in Bangkok and married to an American with whom she could not discuss this problem America had with guns.

"You can't take guns away from Americans because they are afraid they'll run out of food and they'll need their gun to shoot squirrels," I said, "It's the same reason you can't take cars away from Americans because they might have to sleep in them if they find themselves without housing." This made her laugh. But there was a kernel of truth in the absurdity of the U.S. being the world's wealthiest country while its inhabitants lived in a psychological state of impending scarcity. A sort of ongoing pre-apocalypse mindset.

Others from the US (and Canada) commiserated with me about how nuts our country had become. It seemed to help to get that off our chest right away. 

Val said to me that she didn't know what to plan for because the world seemed to be so imminently ready to end that she didn't expect to see 30. I had felt that way too I told her.

"But then another ten years go by and the world still hasn't ended," I said, "except that the rich have gotten richer and the poor poorer." 

There were two things that eventually changed my mind about the world ending I told her. One was the mushroom people. Paul Stamet the mushroom man I'd heard at Bioneers had been developing mushrooms for mycoremediation, developing strains of mushrooms to break down oil, nuclear waste and possibly even plastic he said. Mushrooms seemed to have an intelligence, a caretakers mission; the vast mushroom network could reach out to the far edges of the forest and bring back nutrients needed by the trees living in the dark regions of the forest. I was happy knowing that mushrooms could also detox the planet. 

The second promising thing that changed my mind was meeting a Canadian psychic on my Stonehenge trip who told me she and other intuitives got together to broker deals with Gaia to ease up on things like earthquakes in populated areas. Saying this out loud I realized I sounded a bit wacky, but my point was that that there were unseen forces at work that we have no idea about that are trying to help us. 

Women Building Community

Meanwhile here on the edge of the forest we had managed to build a house in seven days with a group of untrained women. Women who individually had had no idea they could accomplish this. "I don't see it is possible," Xiaoou had told me on day two. But we had done it in community, with kids playing by our side and one 8 year old as able to swing a bucket of mud as the rest of us. Ailsa was half Scottish and half Karen and looking at her I saw myself at 8 not just in her mixed blood, but in her spirit. How able she was and eager to contribute to the build, cutting bricks with a machete and climbing up on the scaffolding with the rest of us. There was something that felt so intrinsically right about women building a house together with children being cared for in our midst. Perhaps it harked back to the origins of communal living in small tribes. Or it was the egalitarian-ness of it, something I longed for and when it happened left me feeling deeply satisfied.

The mud had worked its magic again as I knew it would. What fascinated me now was seeing what intrepid women would be drawn to this experience. Who would make visible to me the new paradigm that each of us were embodying in our own way.

That we were an all women build had been commented upon by both outsiders and within our ranks. The purpose of an all woman build was to demonstrate that women could do every part of a build. If a job needed muscle the job was broken down until it was manageable. Four bags of cement to mix became half a bag. No one need compete to show how strong they were. We more preferred to be useful to the whole, pitching in and supporting one another compensating for any shortcomings. 

By the sixth day I was in love with everyone confident that no one was judging me or misunderstanding my motives. By the final day we had not only finished building the house, we had plastered all the walls inside and out and created three dimensional vines and flowers to decorate the exterior walls. The experience of this accomplishment profoundly affected us all and comments at the wrap-up expressed some of these revelations.

"I've always wanted  to build my own house, but I thought I would need to find a man first," said Cheyanne a young woman from Australia, "now I know I just need a few friends."

 "I will be a seed," said XiaoV another of the Chinese women as she explained that she would go home and give a presentation so that those in China who were beginning to be interested in sustainable living could benefit from her time with us. Like the mushroom people we were bringing needed solutions from the edge of the forest back to the center where convention and fear had kept people in the dark.  

"I feel healed," I said. Healed from my fractured life of keeping up with my tribe in three different time zones all on Facebook. Healed in the knowledge that cancer could be cured with coffee enemas and seeds. Healed by the door that had opened to greater control of our lives. Healed by living in community for ten days harvesting the stories of woman I met. Stories of seeking a better life for ourselves, stories of self-healing, independence and free thinking. I could spot us now, see these women at airports traveling alone all over the world bringing home new skills and ways of thinking. 

And so was I, for all of these new gleanings would go with me into everything I did and talked about as I too wished to push the old paradigm through to a more enlightened understanding of how we could live in harmony with the natural world and in turn enhance our own well being. In telling this story I hope to bring to you some of these gleanings.

Wishing you all the best for the holidays and for 2016.

For more photos of the build click here to my album on flickr.

A useful site about alternative cancer treatments. Sherrie also wants to share the fact that there are many resources available, but she does not believe any one of them to be 100% accurate. So ask who is delivering the information and judge for yourself how credible they are. Any information or topics that resonate with you as an individual is an invitation to learn more, she says. She believes that the best chance at success is to participate in our your own healing because no one knows you better than you. So it's important to scrutinize many sources and consider what might work best for you.

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