What I’ve learned from old people about life, death and love

parama-and-patti-at-hearthstoneOld people often say that getting old’s a bitch. At the age of forty, I barely know.

Sensei Harvey Daiho Hilbert, a retired PhD professor at New Mexico State University and abbot of the local Las Cruces Zen Center, was one of my teachers in my early years of voracious study of Buddhist philosophy and avid meditation practice. When I went on a three-day silent retreat led by Sensei Harvey in the mountains of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, I did yoga postures on the scenic balcony atop the meditation temple. Sensei commented, “When you’re seventy, I want you to come back here and do yoga on the porch.”

Years later, I still haven’t forgotten his comment. I took it to heart. I’ve used that idea as a rocket fuel to propel me further into the space of my daily yoga and meditation practice.

I would like to think that I could live to be seventy; and if I do, I would like to think that I will still be dancing and doing yoga.

Geshe Michael, founder of the progressive, tuition-free Diamond Mountain University in Bowie, Arizona and one of my favorite teachers of Buddhism, talks a lot about death. He says that we should think about our death on a daily basis, because it makes us happier people.

(Say, what? Thinking about my own death is supposed to make me happier?)

At first I didn’t believe it.

But then, all kinds of crappy things started happening in my life … all at once: My grandma died; I was told I might have cervical cancer; I got a hemorrhoid; I almost got murdered; I had to move twice; I twisted my knee; I broke up with the most gorgeous, amazing man I’ve ever met after he told me he didn’t love me….

All of this crappy stuff happened all at the same time; like, within the span of a few months. It was a living hell. I almost killed myself over it.

I think I could have killed myself, were it not for a few kind-hearted doctors I consulted and were it not for my having listened to Geshe Michael’s dharma talks about death meditation: “Don’t pretend you’re not gonna die someday. Just be honest with yourself. Pretend that today could be your last day.”

After all that crappy stuff happened, I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I knew I could die any day, at any time.

Maybe if I knew that at a younger age, I’d be an even happier person than I already am. But maybe not. I don’t know.

I’d like to think that I’m about halfway through my lifespan. Maybe I have a few more years to go before I’m actually at that point. For all intents and purposes, let’s just say that at forty, I’m halfway to my death, but that’s just according to statistics on the average modern human lifespan. In making this assumption, I fail to consider a whole host of factors which are completely out of my control.

Let’s consider all the factors that could cause me to die unexpectedly, any day or at any moment:

 

(1) I live in the tropics of Belize, Central America. I could contract and die of dengue or Zika or malaria … or all three combined.

(2) Every day I go swimming in an emerald green river in the jungle. I could get eaten by a crocodile.

(3) One my favorite geeky scientist friends predicts that climate change (melting glaciers, anyone?) could lead to near-term extinction of the human race. Like, within the next decade. Bummer. Human extinction includes me. (Damn it).

(4) Not only do I live in the tropics, but I also happen to live in a jungle with a lot of wild animals (jaguars and venomous snakes included). Any one of them could bite me or eat me… any day, at any time. This could cause my unexpected, unplanned death.

(5) I could get run over by a bus. That could happen pretty much anywhere.

Reading this list back to myself makes me laugh out loud (lol)…. It’s somehow funny to think about all the ways I could die. Yet I’ve spent most of my rather enjoyable, uber-privileged young adulthood in a state of ignorant denial that I could die on any given day, at any given time.

Sorry to point out, dear reader (Hey, thanks for reading!): You could die too. On any given day, at any given time. But how often do we really allow ourselves to seriously think about that undeniable fact of life? (That fact that we all have to die, I mean).

Let me remind myself, just in case I forget: Someday, I’m going to die. That day could be today. At any time.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve already died hundreds of times in my life. I suppose, in a way, I have. I’ve experienced innumerable losses, as most people have. And each loss is like a mini-death.

Let’s consider all the ways I’ve died already:

(1) I’ve quit too many jobs to keep count. Loss of a job is like a death. It causes loss of money in the wallet, relationships, status, respect, and lots of other things that lead to grief, sadness and possibly depression and suicidal ideation;

(2) I’ve gone through three or four divorces and probably dozens of break-ups. (I can’t keep track.) Losing a beloved partner, for any reason, definitely feels like what I imagine dying could feel like;

(3) I’ve moved in and out of dozens of funky apartments and even a few tents. Once I took up residence in the trunk of my own car, not because I was too poor to afford my own place (I had a fulltime job with a decent salary), but just because I wanted to see if I could live in my trunk for a week. It turns out that I could. Living in the trunk of my car was like dying, because I killed my need for a bigger apartment.

By the way, I’m not mentally ill or retarded. I just like living life on the edge and taking risks. Calculated ones.

(4) I have almost been deliberately killed by other members of my own species for reasons that are not worth mentioning here. If you’re curious, you’ll have to wait for my novel to be published. Novels are good for telling stories about almost being killed. Stephen King does it all the time and makes a killing off his books…. so, I assume people like to read about death.

 

What was my point in making a list of all the ways I’ve died already?… Oh, yeah. To point out that death is a part of life. Life and death always go together, like eating beans and farting.

Older people are generally less apologetic about basic bodily functions and the fact that their teeth have fallen out. They seem to be more honest than younger people. I suppose there’s a reason for that. Experience and wisdom seem to go together, like old age and dentures.

Talking with older people has helped me learn a thing or two about life and how to live more fully while I still have the chance. I used to try having deep conversations with my grandmother, but I could never seem to get beyond superficialities. I guess some people just don’t really like to go deeper than what’s visible to the human eye. That’s okay. Grandma’s dead now. I loved her. She was a kind, generous woman. And she baked the best oatmeal cookies.

Some older people are actually capable of accepting the fact that they are going to die soon instead of denying it or complaining about it incessantly. Some older people are actually willing to engage me in an honest discussion about what it’s like to get old. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few of them and enjoying meaningful conversations about a wide range of interesting topics like marriage, jobs, finances, illness, diet, adult diapers, and dentures.

I assume that people who are older than I am might be pleased to offer me advice about how to avoid making the same mistakes they did.

Recently I had the honor of meeting one such refreshingly forthright older gentleman whom I’ll call Gary. I saw him sitting alone in a rocking chair looking rather sullen and somewhat lonely. He was on vacation with his wife at the eco-lodge in southern Belize where I live and work as a Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher.

Gary was part of a tour group that had left that morning to go on an excursion into the jungle. He thought that the trip would have been too physically challenging for him, so he’d opted to stay at the hotel and spend the morning sitting in the rocking chair by himself.

As an ardent student of life, I’m compelled to seek and find teachers in everyone I talk to and in pretty much every situation, not excluding this crotchety old dude in the rocking chair. I approached him and asked with the utmost sincerity how he was doing.

My genuine concern for his wellbeing was met with a sullen expression and a mumbled, gruff reply. He kept his head down, staring into the dim glow of his tablet device. Apparently, he was busy reading something, so I turned and walked away, pretending I had somewhere else to go, feeling somewhat spurned and justified in not wanting to talk to him ever again.

But then I remembered the wisdom of always trying to find the teacher in every situation. Despite logic and reason, I returned to the man’s side, reached out my hand to gently touch his shoulder, looked straight into his eyes, smiled and asked him, “Sir, is there anything I can do for you?”

I was prepared for any one of several possible responses: He could have spat on me or yelled at me to leave him alone. But he didn’t. He slowly shut off the hand-held device, took a deep breath and looked up at me. His pondered his words carefully before he spoke in a deliberate, calm manner:

“Well, thank you for asking, young lady,” he said. His face softened. He went on to explain that he was in severe pain from nerve damage to his spine.

I could have said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” or “I understand,” or any one of several possible responses, but I didn’t. Instead, I opted to invest some of my precious, valuable time listening to this old dude in a rocking chair.

There were hundreds of other things I could’ve opted to do instead; like do laundry, go swimming in the river, write my novel, eat chocolate, or wash my hair. Instead, I spent an hour chatting with Gary. He told me he was seventy years old. I told him he had thirty years on me, so I should probably listen to him for a while.

He laughed. I guess he thought I was funny.

We never even bothered to ask each other’s names until after we’d talked for an hour and realized neither one of us had ever asked.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to get old or be in constant pain,” I told him. “But I’d like to know what it’s like, for you.”

“It sucks,” he said. “You lose things. All the time. Your friends start to die. You get sick. You can’t do as many things as you used to be able to do.”

I listened. I didn’t say much. Again, I’d deemed that he was the wiser one of the two of us.

He wore a collared, button-down blue paisley shirt and tan shorts. He had a full head of white hair, wore wire-rimmed glasses and appeared to be in good physical shape, with a slim waist, athletic legs and smooth, tanned skin. He didn’t move while he talked, maybe because moving caused him pain, or he was content to simply stay still. I suspect both could have been true for him.

A former university professor with a PhD in molecular biology, he was well-read, articulate, thoughtful and intelligent. He and his wife traveled the world together.

“One thing I’ve learned about getting old is that you lose your concepts about what is true. You realize you don’t know anything.”

I smiled. I wanted to hear more, so I kept my mouth shut and listened.

Gary rocked the chair slightly and continued, “I was trained as a scientist. I used the scientific method. I’m a show-me kind of guy.”

He looked off for a moment. His speech was frequently filled by brief moments of pregnant pauses during which he’d look up toward the ceiling, ponder and collect his thoughts before he’d reply in an articulate manner.

Unlike the entertaining stimulation of a YouTube video, listening to Gary required some degree of patience on my part. I was willing to give it a try. I determined that listening to Gary was better or at least as good as the best YouTube videos I’ve ever come across. Unlike most online media, at least Gary was willing to be honest with me.

“I can’t prove there’s a God using the scientific method,” he said, looking up and going quiet again for what seemed like an eternity. Finally he mused, “Faith is beyond science.”

Then Gary turned to me and asked, “Is there a God?”

I followed Gary’s lead. I stayed quiet for what seemed like an eternity while Gary waited patiently for my reply.

Then, I said, “I don’t know.”

Gary laughed. Apparently, he thought I was funny.

“Well, I don’t know either,” he offered. “But I try to meditate a little every day,” he said.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn this about Gary. It was the last thing I expected, since my first glance at him had given me the impression that he was a crotchety, old man better left alone. I was glad to learn how wrong I’d been in judging him so superficially.

I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t need to tell him that I too meditated every day. I wanted to learn what he had to say about it first.

“I learned to meditate with a mantra. The mantra is meaningless. It focuses my attention away from the other thoughts, like the argument I had with my wife, that I have to mow the lawn, that I have to go walk the dog,” he said.

I listened. He continued, “I don’t know what happens or what to call it, but sometimes when I meditate, I get to a place where I lose all thoughts.”

Gary had completely sucked me into some kind of vortex. I suddenly felt like I had entered an alternate reality in which Gary was the only thing that existed in the entire universe.

Maybe he was. At that moment, anyway, and only for me.

“I used to be an avid runner,” Gary said. “I ran sixty miles every week. I wouldn’t listen to music. I would listen to my thoughts.”

He looked me straight in the eyes and asked in his deliberate tone, “Do you have a goal when you meditate?”

I gave myself ample time to pause for reflection before I responded that I didn’t think it was helpful to meditate with a goal in mind, because, I said, I’m probably not focused on meditation if I’m busy thinking about a goal.

Gary laughed again. I realized that he really did think I was funny.

Then I realized that I was genuinely enjoying our conversation. It was the first time in weeks that I actually wanted to spend time talking with someone for more than five minutes.

Gary said, “I try to think about what I am about to do before I do something or say something.

“I try to analyze my motivations for what I am about to do before I react. In my experience,” he said, “I find that it helps me avoid saying or doing something hurtful to myself or another person.”

Then, he said, “Am I boring you?”

“Well, yes, maybe a little bit,” I admitted to him.

He laughed. I laughed too. We laughed together.

“I like to talk,” he said.

“I like to listen,” I said.

“I think you would be a good meditation teacher,” I told him. Then I corrected myself and said, “I think you are a good meditation teacher. I’ve learned a lot just by sitting here and listening to you. I think I can honestly say that I love you,” I told him.

He chuckled and his face softened even more. He paused for reflection, looking skyward.

“I don’t know what love is,” he said. “Is it hormonal? I don’t know. I mean, I know I love my wife. I could explain to you why I love her, but if I did, I would only be telling you about character traits and behavior.”

Then Gary shared that he had been divorced twice before. He said that he has learned not to share his opinions all the time, because he’s noticed that opinions usually start arguments.

“I’ve learned to be comfortable with the idea that I don’t know anything,” Gary said.

Later that day, as I reflected on my conversation with Gary, I thought about how most of the time, we humans seem to prefer believing that we know something. Somehow I am supposed to feel more comfortable with the idea that I know how something works or that I’m in control of whatever is going on.

When I went to visit a few old people in a nursing home last year, I noticed that many of the old people had lost control of their bowels. They required regular diaper changes. Yet, most of them still had fully functioning intellectual abilities. They could talk to me while knowing that they smelled like piss, but it didn’t matter because they knew they were going to die soon anyway. A lot of things seem to become unimportant in the face of death. And a lot of things seem to become more important.

I played piano for an old lady at a nursing home where I volunteered last year. I knew that I wasn’t the best piano player, but it didn’t matter, because she knew she was going to die, so she could fully enjoy my company and the fact that I was there, playing the piano, even if I wasn’t all that good at it.

Age seventy seemed to be the theme of the day I met Gary, the old dude in the rocking chair. Later that night, I facilitated a singing circle and African dance class accompanied by live drumming by my friend and neighbor Emmeth Young. We had mostly older people dancing with us. One of the most enthusiastic dancers happened to be a woman who was celebrating her seventieth birthday that very night.

When the staff of the eco-lodge served her a birthday cake, she cried. I don’t know if they were tears of joy or sadness or a little of both. I think she liked the cake.

I think age helps. I think getting old means going through a lot of loss, which I think facilitates acceptance of one’s death.

I think about death every day. I would like to think it helps me be a happier person.

I don’t know.

Radical reform: Why I quit my teaching job in the U.S.

krista-with-monkey-copy

Over the course of my adventurous and unconventional life of self-imposed nonconformity, I’ve been able to discipline myself rather well, at least in terms of my diet and exercise routines. I suppose it’s something I learned from my industrious, multi-talented father, who completed every project he ever started and got up before sunrise every day without an alarm, like clockwork, to read the newspaper and start his workday as a geeky computer engineer.

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I was born into the privilege of hearty New England stock and raised in an upper middle-class Boston suburb where I was given an excellent education, graduating as valedictorian of my high school class and again four years later as valedictorian of my college class. For my krista-and-shawn-copyvaledictory speech, I braided my hair in corn rows, dressed in a traditional African style gown and quoted the transcendentalists, urging my classmates to live a life of nonconformity. Both my parents and my grandmother taught me to not only refine my intellect, but to also be conscientious of my diet and to take good care of my physical body.

My grandmother collected innumerable glossy magazines with color images of slim women eating salads and promoting the latest diet trend. She kept scrupulous recipes of everything she cooked in a categorized file system with notes about nutrition content and caloric intake. Grandma frequently baked oatmeal cookies and bran muffins and brought them to our house when she visited. She’d point out the merits of her specialty baked goods: “I didn’t use much sugar. Too much sugar’s not healthy for you, you know.”

Years later, when she was too old to live by herself, she would move into my parents’ house in Florida and keep up her healthy diet routine. When I visited for what I suspected would be the last time, she said, holding her salad bowl and munching, “See, Jen, I still eat my salad every day.”

“That’s good, Grandma,” I humored her.

She said, “When I went to see the doctor, he told me I must be doing something right. To keep doing whatever I’m doing.” She chuckled.

krista-nmsu-student-copyAs an educator, I assumed that teaching my students about how to keep their bodies healthy with a thoughtful diet should be an integral part of their education. Luckily, as an educator in a private school, I was granted enough freedom by a relatively progressive administration to start a small organic garden in large plastic tubs I obtained from a farmer friend who donated the materials to help me get started.

In the classroom I would share a little something from my own snack bag, like raisins or trail mix or fresh fruit. Apparently I had this freedom before the time when kids were stricken with rampant nut allergies. I attempted to make a positive influence on my students’ lives in the same way my parents and grandmother had on mine. Sharing healthy food and commenting about healthy diets.

In the U.S., I had established over ten years of a successful career in special education as a consultant in public and private schools; in addition to earning certification and practicing professionally as a Licensed Massage Therapist and yoga teacher. I earned a Master of Arts in Education and gained a wide range of experience working with children and adults who were diagnosed with developmental and learning disabilities. I enjoyed working in the field of education, but I felt deep dissatisfaction with what I deemed to be a restrictive, top-down model that limited my creativity and freedom to design my own curriculum.

I became disillusioned with the public school system in the U.S. and envisioned an innovative approach that involved outdoor, experiential education on an organic farm. I published two books that instantly became bestsellers in “Experimental Methods in Education”—a good sign that I have the support of people I’ve never met but, nonetheless, they must share my radical ideas about education.

Absenteeism due to sickness—a cold, sore throat, flu, stomach issues—was all-too-common over the course of my years as a schoolteacher. It seemed to worsen as the years went by. I noticed the same ill fate of my colleagues, who seemed to suffer from carrying too much weight, lethargy, fatigue and general malaise. It appeared to me that physical sickness and the concomitant complaints about said sickness were part of the everyday fabric of the school day, an obvious problem that was rarely addressed in ways that would make a significant difference.

When I proposed to the director that we start every day with physical fitness that included exercises, breathing and maybe a few minutes of silent meditation, I was given a cordial smile, told thank you, yes, but we already have PE, and besides there are more important things to talk about at the beginning of the school day. Morning meeting consisted of boring talks where the kids sat in a huge group, fidgeting and listening reluctantly to two men, the director and assistant principal, set the tone for the day by reinforcing the rules and generally reminding everyone who was in charge. And, oh, by the way, your tiny physical body in need of movement can wait till after lunch to move around in any satisfactory way. Until then, stay still and listen to the boring lecture.

If I had been in charge of the school, things would have been a lot different. A lot of things. But the differences I wanted to see were forced into under-valued, under-paid, after-school offerings to a small percentage of the student body who were corralled into taking my yoga classes because they didn’t want to play other competitive sports. I would have preferred to make yoga a daily part of the school day for both my students and my colleagues.

Years later, teaching full-time as a special educator at a similar private school in California, I would propose similar ideas to an even more progressive administration. But still, there were more important, pressing matters, like stuffing mostly useless information into the kids’ heads.

Never mind the scientific literature indicating that kids’ brains and circadian rhythms are wired in a such a way where academic, rote learning doesn’t come naturally to them until well after mid-morning. The healthiest, most natural thing for young bodies to be doing is what agrarian families in a homesteading situation would do at the start of the day: take care of the animals, work in the fields, shovel dirt and poop, haul heavy things, get dirty…. Yet, in our schools—places where we are supposed to be teaching people basic skills—we seemed to be ignoring the things that mattered most and forcing our kids to be dutiful, unthinking automatons following arbitrary rules that they would prefer not to follow, if my observations were at all accurate. It seemed like the kids were always breaking the rules, anyway. So, why were the adults so determined to enforce rules instead of giving the kids an opportunity to discipline themselves?

In my opinion, self-discipline can only be taught by example. It can’t be forced on anyone. People need to discipline themselves of their own accord. It’s not my job to dumb anyone down with rules and useless information that they will soon forget as soon as the exam is over. But it is my job to take care of myself and be the best person I can be, which might have some kind of positive influence on the people around me.

Parama w students

Although my ideas for radical reform of the education system failed to take root in the country of my birth, I haven’t given up on my ideas, yet. I doubt I ever will.

Parama w guitarists at ComitanI quit my last teaching job at a public school in the U.S. over five years ago, gave up the comforts and conveniences of my privileged lifestyle, and took my innovative ideas with me south of the border to the tiny country of Belize, where I purchased an acre of fertile land and started building an off-grid homestead in the company of like-minded neighbors.

I published a series of books in 2014 that have been on Amazon’s bestseller list in “Experimental Methods in Education” since their publication date, indicating to me that people seem to support my ideas for radical reform of methods in education. You can check out my books here, and if you would like to visit me in Belize and participate in an interactive workshop where we explore these ideas, you can find out more and register for our next workshop here.

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Cotton Tree Lodge in southern Belize

 

Fumbled attempts at building my off-grid homestead in Belize

5-armando-mr-bo-and-me-holding-claySince moving to Central America five years ago, I’ve learned that paying the local men to do meaningful, productive work other than trying to marry me or get me pregnant can be met with cultural resistance: Here in the third world, I get the impression that most of the men are unaccustomed to having young, single women tell them what to do and for how much money. (I’m not talking about sex, though that’s an important topic worthy of discussion, not including the two photographed men). I’m talking about an equally important topic: building my own house and growing my own food, both of which I’m attempting, with fumbled trial and error, to accomplish here in the third world country of Belize as a solo woman.

The indigenous Belizeans, many of whom I have managed to turn into trusted friends, have commented about my unique situation: “La chica tiene huevos,” commented one astute observer in Spanish slang. (“The woman has balls”)…. And another observation by a Christian missionary friend of mine: “When you don’t have a husband, you have to wear the pants.” (No comment…. Well, okay, one comment: I wear pants whenever the hell I want to. It’s much more practical than a skirt most of the time).

Parama harvesting bamboo copyIf I had it my way, I wouldn’t have to pay skilled workers to do a job that I would much prefer to do myself. However, since I’ve hammered a nail into a piece of wood only a couple times in my life, I am obliged (for now) to hire my friends and coworkers–indigenous Mayan men–who’ve been building houses with materials straight out of the surrounding jungle since they were old enough to walk.

Mr. Bo, a Mayan elder and respected member of his community, lives in a tiny village within miles of where we work together at an ecolodge deep in the jungle of southern Belize. Over a year ago, I hired him to build my off-grid house, a humble 16×16 foot hut made from locally harvested wood with a rooftop made from the leaves of a local palm tree. I envisioned a structure that is somewhat different from what the Mayan people are accustomed to building. If you visit any of the Mayan villages in Belize, you will notice a homogeneous quality to the houses.

Being a nonconformist, I insisted that we try something new and different: I sketched a blueprint of exactly what I wanted and handed it to Mr. Bo. He puzzled over it for a few moments, placed my sketch on the table in front of us, rubbed his strong, weather-beaten hands together and said, “Okay, ma’am, you’re the boss. Whatever you want to do, we can do it.”

I thanked him for his vote of confidence. And for giving me the satisfaction of being called “boss” for the first — and hopefully last time in my life.

Parama's houseAll I knew was that I wanted my house to be built at least nine feet off the ground with a wrap-around porch from which to enjoy the view of the surrounding jungle. The height serves a threefold purpose: (1) to keep me away from the pesky sand flies that would otherwise bite the hell out of me, leaving itchy, swollen, red welts that last for days; (2) to catch a nice breeze off the nearby Caribbean Sea; and (3) to give me some sense of security while I sleep at night as high off the ground as possible, with a ladder that I can pull up into the house, rendering it difficult for anyone to enter from down below.

I don’t know; maybe I’m paranoid. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a single woman in a third world country where most men treat women like mere objects to be bossed around and/or baby factories. Mostly the latter. In Belize, most women have at least three kids. And not all from the same man. The locals are … prolific. Biologically speaking.

Here, I am an anomaly. Not only am I single at forty years of age, but I do not have kids. The local people, especially the women, frequently ask me why I don’t have kids. I am always reluctant to explain fully why I’ve carefully, purposely and conscientiously chosen not to be a breeder in my lifetime. It is a combination of philosophical, environmental, biological and spiritual reasons that I care not to expound on in this blog entry. My point is that being an anomaly within a homogenous culture that expects women to fulfill certain societal roles leaves me feeling at a loss for how to proceed here as a single woman. I find few role models worthy of my respect and admiration in this department. If you have suggestions, kindly share your thoughts in the comments.

A little more than three-thousand US dollars after hiring Mr. Bo and his talented crew, a lot of work still needs to be done. I have an unoccupied house lacking in infrastructure that would make it reasonably habitable: There is a frame but no walls, floorboards that still need to be nailed down, and a beautiful thatch roof that my neighbors, also off-grid homesteaders, attest is well-done. I wouldn’t know the difference.

A great segue to my next point: I am an intrepid, determined woman in charge of a job that I know little to nothing about. I have entrusted my hard-earned money and vision of a habitable home in the jungle to Mr. Bo and his chosen crew of workers, mostly his own sons and personal friends, who I can only assume must know what they’re doing. I know that I don’t know what I’m doing, other than what seems to be a good idea.

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My house is fully self-funded with money that I have earned through work done by my own two hands as a massage therapist rubbing tourists on vacation in Belize. I live frugally and simply here, so I find it easy to save money and invest in things that I think matter most, like having my own house and a small garden of vegetables and fruit trees on my one-acre property.

I wish that at the end of the day I could bask in the satisfaction of having gotten my hands dirty by doing the work myself. But the honest-to-God’s truth is that I pay people to do it for me. I mostly stand by and watch or get busy chatting with people on Facebook while the boys’ foreheads drip with sweat and their heartbeats quicken from the physical effort. My heart is still broken. Abandoned by my partner and most of my family members who would agree that I must have lost my mind, I am without a companion to share in the adventure. At least for now, I carry on with staunch self-reliance.

I go to bed clutching my pillow to my breast, dreaming of a day when I can rest, nestled in the arms and warmth of kindred spirits who are as passionate and dedicated as I must be about living life of service to the calling in our hearts. For me, it’s been a lonely endeavor, as it is for most people who choose to follow their own path instead of the one laid out for them by the mainstream.

Since I was a child, I’ve been a misfit. I spent most of my teenage years, thankfully before the age of Internet and Google, with my nose buried in books, including the gargantuan set of Britannica encyclopedias that my father bought and shelved in my bedroom. “These are for you,” he told me, and whenever I had a question about anything in the world, he told me, “Go look it up. Tell me what you learn.”

I learned from my brilliant father to not only be stubborn and self-reliant, but to love books and book learning (Thanks, Dad. I know you’re reading this. Thank you)…. I graduated valedictorian of my high school class and had the nerve-racking privilege of rehearsing and delivering my valedictory speech, in which I quoted the transcendentalists, encouraging my classmates to lead a life of nonconformity.

I didn’t know at the time that my radical views would take me to such faraway places on a journey motivated by ideals that I had only begun to formulate in my young mind, influenced by poets and philosophers who I imagine also suffered from the same torturous sense of isolation that I’ve felt every day of my adult life, as I fail to find many people with whom to share my radicalism. Yes, they’re out there, but usually, they are too focused on their own missions to bother with mine.

Today I had planned for Mr. Bo and his workers to go nail down my floorboards, deliver more topsoil for the garden that is now drying up, and to spray a toxic poison to kill the relentless termites that would otherwise chew up my house and turn it into a collapsing deck of playing cards within weeks, if left unsprayed.

I was looking forward to having a house with an actual floor where I might be able to walk around, do yoga, … hell, maybe invite a friend or two…. So, I called Mr. Bo on his cell phone. (Yes, poor Mayan villagers use cell phones … in remote jungles, no less. And Internet. In remote jungles). “Yes, ma’am?” he answered. “Where are you?” I asked him. He snickered. “I’m out in a di bush,” he replied in a Belizean Kriol accent. (This means that he was out working in the jungle). With excellent cell phone reception. “Are you going to work on my house today?” I asked him.

I interrupt here to inform you, dear reader (Hey, thanks for reading!) that this conversation with Mr. Bo was the inspiration for writing today’s blog entry with the title, “Fumbled attempts at building my off-grid homestead in Belize”. Incidentally, as I look below my writing desk just now, a fuzzy tarantula is slowly crawling beside my feet. I should put a leash on him, give him a name and tie him up next to my bed at night to protect me…. (But that’s no way to treat your man).

Let’s get back to my cell phone conversation with Mr. Bo: “Are you going to work on my house today?” to which Mr. Bo replied, “Not today, ma’am.”

“Not today? … When?” I asked him, suddenly feeling an uncomfortable feeling of frustration and (as usual)… isolation.

He went on to explain that he had gone to work on his farm instead. I put the phone down and thought about it for a few minutes before … reacting. Mr. Bo is a skilled tradesman in high demand for his excellent work and trustworthiness. He works hard at low-paying jobs five to six days per week with precious little time off. He also supports a wife and eight children who depend on him to not only bring home fiat currency but also to cultivate and harvest corn, rice, beans and vegetables from their family farm.

Today was probably the first day in weeks that Mr. Bo had available to take advantage of the dry, cool weather: ideal time here in Belize to work in the field. A magnificently beautiful country where only 20% of the land base is inhabited by humans, the Belizean government issues land to all Belizean residents, most of whom still know how to work the land, grow their own food and live sustainably with minimal carbon footprint. The Belizeans are blessed with fertile land, bountiful natural resources and a warm climate that makes growing food year-round possible, if you can handle sweating profusely in the sometimes debilitating heat.

So, I took all of this into account and forgave Mr. Bo for working on his farm instead of on my house. I reflected on it all day and took it as a lesson that if I am not willing or able to do the work myself, I just have to be patient and wait till somebody can do it for me. Or pick up a hammer and start slamming nails in myself. But I always seem to have excuses, like, “I have to work” … or… “I have to go check my emails…” or…. (the latest one) “I have to write my novel”. Maybe the latter is a reasonably good excuse. Few people can write novels. I happen to be able to. People like Mr. Bo happen to be good at other things, like building houses. So I pay him.

I only pretend to be an off-grid homesteader. The reality is that I’m a poser. (Really, I do lots of yoga). I own an acre of land and I pay people like Mr. Bo to work for me (while I do yoga). I have a long way to go before I can honestly claim to know anything useful about maintaining a productive homestead or a garden. I would like to believe that someday I can get there….

In the meantime, I offer therapeutic massage and spa services as well as daily yoga classes at a charming ecolodge in southern Belize, a forty-five minute ride south of the nearest town where my house sits, waiting for me to call it home.

“Myth” by Delerium

It’s a weird game
I’m lonely without skin
No end to begin and only
your mind to hide in
I nudge life
like an unborn child

A dream inside but now I live behind your eyes
I’m uninvited

I’m only a memory that comes through

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot be
I’m way out of your reach

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot see

Is it you or is it me?

I can’t protect what you can’t forget
but now I live behind your eyes
You recognize me as only a memory
that comes through

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot go
beyond everything you know
I’m living in your dreams
You won’t find me anywhere
I’ve vanished in the air