Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

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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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Report From The Writing Front

You may have noted, dear reader, that my postings have become more infrequent, disappearing entirely over the last 6 months. Partly I felt that the terrain of blogging had changed and the 16 hours or more I put into an essay were reaping diminishing returns. Or I had changed and people weren't reading my essays as much now that they were more personal. Or they had migrated to FaceBook where snippets of personal news are easier to digest. FaceBook had also become my go-to platform for it offered more interaction, more discussion about issues that were germane to my contacts without me having to create the whole discussion through my essays. 

I have also been wondering what I had to show for all my efforts as a writer. Archiving the essays online didn't have quite the same sense of accomplishment as a book. My essays I feared might not have shelf life given that they were compelling because they were happening to me in real time and had the freshness of letters. Things might look less relevant over the long haul. I had also in the past loved to report on new adventures I was undertaking, sometimes going to an event just to write about it, but this last year I have repeated events so no longer had something new to report. 

There had also been physical adventures like falling off my Xootr (push scooter) and having to get 7 stitches on my chin. After which I realized I was exhausting myself. I had become strong and overconfident doing too much too fast having joined an outrigger canoe club (hoping to meet women) which required weekly practice in the bay just beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Spectacular, but very windy that week. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I've never been the competitive type and this team were hard driving champions. The practice boosted my muscle strength then proceeded to wear me out, plus it was an hours drive each way to get to the boat yard.

In falling off my Xootr, the hard rubber of the wheels slipped out from under me in the light misty rain just as I was leaving home for a networking meeting. Luckily I fall well and didn't break any bones by sticking out my hand and insisting that the earth stop coming at me. I gave credit to my weekly karate class where I have trained non-competitively for over 20 years (for the rigors of old age I see now). But the road was hard and rough when I slammed against it not like the mat in our dojo. I picked myself up and (without getting any blood on my clothes) drove myself to the emergency room, proud to have done so. A huge bruise welled up on my thigh and weeks of sessions with my chiropractor ensued to put my hip joint at ease again. 

I cut down on excessive self-propelled mobile jaunts. I quit the canoe club and dating. I had made friends dating, but serious dating was a slow business. Nobody had time to just hang out anymore; women were holding up a list of wants and don't wants, searching for the right person to mesh with their complicated lives and mine was no different.

And finally the things that were happening of interest in my life involved family members so were not my stories to tell. Suffice to say that my mother had become a snow bird living half the year with her new boyfriend in a gated community on a golf course near Palm Springs. My good friend Dave had moved to Oregon with his mother depriving me of regular lunch dates. Others had retired becoming busier. My own household with Catherine and her brother remained stable. Catherine and I get along better now that we are not "together" together. We go to movies, share meals and keep house like old pros, but we don't plan the future or talk about it in more than general terms. This makes life spacious with time.

Current news of my life had been my bread and butter as a blogger, but now I was drawn to other subjects. The parts of my life that still lay submerged like the two thirds of the proverbial iceberg. The parts that happened before the internet, before our daily sharing of details with our 'contacts', our virtual village. What was I missing by ignoring this dark past? 

I had often thought about writing another book and had been looking for a topic, but nothing seemed worthwhile for the amount of effort books seem to take. (My last book had taken 10 years to write.) I saw time differently now that I placed upon it an hourly fee as a freelance professional organizer. What could I possibly write (want to write) that would be worth my hourly rate payable at time of service? 

A Book Beckons

Last year I had a reunion with my now dispersed writer's group. The writer's group that had so lovingly helped me in the writing of Diamonds In My Pocket when we met monthly to read our work together. We had not met in 10 years, but in the weekend we spent together in a remote beach house by the sea, I remembered the value of a writing life. The literary aspirations and lofty goals of a book, the satisfaction of leaving a legacy. So over lunch on the ride home I told a handful of my writing pals my dilemma of time versus book value.

Connie who had found satisfaction in the writing of books above even the raising of her children was the natural leader of our group and spoke first. 

"Your dilemma is that you were raised to expect an inheritance which never came," she said referring to my Thai family history. Connie knew about these things; her entire writing life had been supported by an ample trust fund from her family's orchards in Southern California. It was generous of her to point that out about my life. That as a writer I had had to put most of my effort into supporting myself. 

Though others in the group had had to work too, most could go home from their job and devote their off hours to writing without having to worry about the security of their job hanging on their off hour skills. Skills in marketing which also required writing and sending out a newsletter, say, to flag down customers. The repetition required to tout my services as an unequivocal benefit to the customer in myriad ways was just not my style. I did it sparsely knowing full well that if I devoted even half the effort I put into those essays I would have enough customers to put aside my insecurities (or at least know I had tried). The happy result was that sometimes the essays themselves would flag down a rare customer or two who appreciated the lengths at which I was willing to reveal myself. (One had even downloaded my book to read because she could not find anything else about me.)

Two of our writers did have the self-marketing piece of it to contend with at some time in their lives. Helen had made her living as a potter selling mugs and salad bowls at craft fairs. She had also been raised by a painter who had been intentionally supported by her mother working a job outside of the home. (David Park whose work is now hung in SFMOMA and the Legion of Honor.) Her entire upbringing had wrestled with the dilemma of funding the life of an artist. An upbringing that also informed her that an artist had intrinsic value just in the work he/she did even though it didn't necessarily pay the bills. Her book about her father was a huge contribution to these values. Helen spoke her answer to my question with thoughtful intention.

"Choose a topic that will sustain you in the writing of it to the very end," she said. I let this sink in. Let the perspective of it push my mind around to the value of writing and its intrinsic ability to sustain me as a writer. A perspective that put aside even the needs of a reader who may or may not care about what topic I chose. I had once felt that my readers needed the information I was so able to explain, because this information had changed my life in some incremental or significant way that had led to lifestyle changes that they too might benefit from. 

Information like this was now more easily passed around on FaceBook and Twitter through articles that other people wrote which might include references, graphs, charts and the opinions of professionals. Viewers would comment and start a dialog that was pertinent to their lives within the context of their virtual village of contacts. There was still room for the personal essay, but somehow not quite as compelling. I could post a picture with a short caption to let people know what I was up to in a fraction of the time, but not everybody was on Facebook. And some, bless them, preferred a written narrative.

Choosing a topic that would sustain me to the very end was a refreshing perspective. At first I addressed it pragmatically and thought I might like to compile a book of recipes for my personal reference for all the clever eco-minded household things I had made like my fire starter tea bags which were dried tea bags drenched in wax melted in my solar oven. And my baking soda hygiene regime which had virtually eliminated store bought sundries from my bathroom. Not to mention the unique design of my urine diverting portable composting toilet. 

Connie had published a book of recipes called The Muse of Menus. We had all been proud of this book because it was the first one of many our group had published. It was enjoyable and accessible and bore the mark of Connie's unassuming literary style. A straight forward book with an unambiguous premise to hand down her family stories to her descendants. My collection of recipes evoked more questions. I wasn't handing down a family legacy; I was compiling a certain philosophical attitude about a life that had veered off the mainstream so much I had neglected to have a family to hand down to. 

It struck me that it wasn't so much the recipes that were interesting, but why one would want to do all these alternative things in the first place. Because, apart from my tea bag fire starters, plenty of others were demonstrating the making of these off-grid ideas on Youtube and Pinterest. What was missing from these online offerings was an overarching narrative, a story that would tell of a paradigm shift underway carried out by those who were living it. Now there was a topic I could imagine delving into.

A Door Opens

As it happens when I become interested in a direction something or someone comes along to offer support. I had over the last two years been studying a spiritual path guided by the archetypes of the Tarot which I accessed through Shamanic journeying. (And no, I have not shared this story because the writing of it would make it into something else altogether which would cease to help me, but you can ask about it). My Tarot teacher Pamela had also decided to write her memoir and was creating a group of like minded writers to provide structure and support. 

I had already attended Pamela's workshop on publishing where she had pointed out that the same technology that had brought huge changes to the music industry was rapidly changing the book publishing industry. Via print-on-demand technology authors could now publish their own books for the same cost per book as large publishing houses. To be sure such means meant a much smaller audience, but what did it matter? Books do not as a rule make authors a living. They were the back room sales of many an entrepreneur on the lecture circuit who made their living doing what they wrote about. Some of these books were a marketing project on steroids, but the ones of substance were a container for their methods and knowledge, a sign of passion and commitment. A book gave the author authority on a topic much as a  Ph.D would, opening doors to more opportunities and more writing. It appeared that just as blogging had made publishing my essays so easy the same was now true of book publishing.

I saw my old writing group again for a poetry reading at Waverley Writer's a longstanding monthly event at the Palo Alto Friends meeting house where two of our poets were featured readers that night. Over dinner I told Helen I had found my book topic and told the group I was joining a new writing group. They were a trifle dubious about the credentials of my new teacher despite my stating her former status as a Stanford professor of anthropology and author of many books on Tarot. The Tarot piece sounded suspiciously New Agey to them; New Age books being a notorious genre for bad writing.

"I hope you won't let your good writing fall," said Connie.

"No I will raise up the standards of the group," I promised. I wanted to work with Pamela not because of her literary credentials, but because she set me on fire. Her enthusiasm was contagious and her cosmic sense of purpose rubbed off on me and bolstered the smallest effort into a life work.

The five women meeting in Pamela's cheerful living room were not veteran writers, but as we learned about story structure beginning with the call to adventure and ending with the transformation of the hero, I was not so worried about good writing; I was wrestling with finding what underlying theme would hold my story together.

The Muddy Middle

I had followed a trail of hand built furniture searching for my first build and found myself in that murky territory of a self before I knew who I was or had potential to be; those early college years. College being nothing like what I had expected, it was not a pleasant remembrance. In fact it was downright unpleasant. Unlike the territory of my first book which gave me back Thailand and all the warmth of my childhood memories that healed my homesickness, the territory of this book was cold hearted and uglier than the Brutalist architecture of my college campus. But the act of looking at this time was changing and shaping the narrative as I grew compassion for myself. There was revealed a glimmer of a self that would not be broken. And this act of memory transformation was a healing elixir in itself. So I was hooked. Writing a book filled the voids in my life and was better company than a relationship I realized.

I searched for an underlying theme that might run through this territory, a unifying framework and, finding none, attempted to work backward from the end of the book, but that was even worse. How was I to know what was the end? I picked another part of my life to explore that included my passion for building, but then it sounded like an entirely different book. I reported back to Pamela's writing group and they weren't getting anywhere either except for one member who had run with her second story to write a screenplay. A cross cultural, bi-racial lesbian coming of age love story set in Geneva. Totally hot in the telling of it for she wrote beautifully with a classic literary style that was unmarred by puritanical self hatred. We all urged her to make it into a movie.

I did not want to write a lesbian coming of age love story though it was my favorite kind of love story. I wanted to write about making stuff. Was there a story in the making of stuff? It wasn't exactly a genre. But there were lots of themes—self-reliance, sustainability, purpose, creativity, collaboration. How these elements had motivated me, how the people I met inspired me, all those places I had been where I learned something. There was also a hint of some underlying psychological imprint linked to my past that I was seeking to rectify. Somewhere in there I knew was a story that would sustain me to the end. Unravel for me the source of my weirdness.

I was in what our memoir writing textbook called The Muddy Middle. Committed but with no end in sight. Too far in to back out. Searching for every available angle. Fretting about its future much as one would a new relationship. 

No idea how long I'll be here so I thought I'd offer an update to my extended family of real-time readers. You who share my journey so that I might have company. Next month I will be in Thailand for another mud hut building event where I hope to garner further perspective or at least some more Facebook friends like so many barnacles on a long ocean voyage. 

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Twenty Years In Business: Some Observations

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

From Organizer to Human Catalyst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology: Unintended Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Is This Me?

The Road to Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Is This Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deal Breaker Inventory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Valentine's Day my lovelies.

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