Just because it’s old doesn’t mean you have to get a new one

“Just because something is old and used doesn’t mean you have to go out and replace it with a new one.” — Sodaiho Harvey Hilbert

When I was in graduate school I joined an order of Zen Buddhist practitioners who gathered twice annually in the snow-covered mountains of New Mexico for a silent meditation retreat. Our beloved abbot, a PhD professor at the university, guided the retreat and gave the kind of wisdom-laden, spiritual “dharma” talks that had us all sitting with straight backs on the edges of our buckwheat-filled zazen cushions, eager students wanting to be filled to the brim with new insight and green tea on Japanese style trays.

I must have been ready to hear what my Zen master had to teach, because over a decade later, his wisdom-filled words still resonate like the sound of the metal gong that is struck throughout the day to signal a shift in attention.

My master was a perfect one for my twenty-something body, as I was (and still am, to some degree), an avid runner. During my graduate school days, I didn’t feel quite right unless I ran at least 3 miles daily. In keeping with Zen Buddhist teachings, this of course could not remain permanent in my now 40-something-year-old body, though I have managed to live up to my master’s behest: “Decades from now,” he said to me, “I want you to come back to this monastery and do yoga on my porch.”

(I couldn’t respond to him at the time, because we were in a silent retreat). Let’s just say his words made a deep impression on me, and I wished very much to live up to it.

Sodaiho had us all running together for miles and competing in regional competitions where we sported our Zen-consciousness t-shirts that said “Stillness in Motion”. He cheered us on at the finish line because he always finished first, to our amazement. We were proud to be his students, and I’m sure he inspired me to keep striving for … well, come to think of it, nothing.

I mean, that was the whole point of running. To be in a state of motion without getting anywhere at all. To realize that the finish line was no different than each footfall during the race to nowhere. To be here… now.

So, I suppose that’s why I still go jogging years later, to practice stillness in motion, which is why I keep practicing yoga postures. It’s all a metaphor for life. No matter what the circumstances, don’t identify with your posture (attitudes, beliefs, opinions) and definitely don’t expect it to stay the same forever. (Have you ever been in a headstand posture before?)

Things change. They break, fall apart, go away, reappear, and get repaired. People. Things. Relationships. Jobs. Every. Thing. Changes. Constantly.

This morning, by the end of my jog, I discovered that my running shoes had worn out completely. I jogged the rest of the way home with my toes sticking out, socks getting soggy in the puddles. I smiled and remembered Sodaiho’s wise words during our retreat: “Just because something gets old doesn’t mean you have to go out and replace it with a new one.”

I’ve been using the same pair of old sneakers for 5 years and I’ve literally run them into the ground. I think they’re beyond repair. But I held onto them and used them until I couldn’t anymore. Why replace them with a shinier, newer brand? Like wine and cheese, most things seem to get better with age.

I’m learning to consider how this teaching applies to my significant relationships. I might be better at keeping sneakers than partners. I think that’s worth some deeper introspection. I’ve been discussing this with my neighbor, a wise and respected elder in my community. He’s taught me things that are more valuable than all the gold in the world.

In the folly of our youthfulness, we can forget the value of spending time with our elders, listening to their wisdom. When we know it all, pride could prevent us from appreciating the good that comes with age and experience.

This post is dedicated to my teacher, Sodaiho. (It’s because of you that my running shoes got so worn out). I’m still practicing. What else is there to do?

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The Craboo Man

I sat on a wooden bench—the kind you can’t seem to get comfortable in—waiting for the bus. I heard a man mumbling behind me. He sounded crazy, like he was talking to himself, which I think he was. Then he sat right beside me on the bench.

My first impulse was to grab my backpack and move. Far away. He smelled funny. His shirt, just a cheap t-shirt, was streaked with dirt and damp with sweat. His pants barely fit him; he had some kind of twine as his belt and the extra fabric bunched up in the front where his thin belly was showing.

I smiled and offered him a plantain chip from the bag I was munching out of, mostly to pass time while waiting for the bus. Something told me to just talk to this man. Just see what he has to say.

He politely declined the chip, sticking a finger in his mouth to reveal that he only had one tooth left. He spoke Spanish and so I asked, “De dónde es Ud?” (Where are you from?) although I could’ve guessed. Guatemala, he said. I’ve lived here (in Belize) since 1980.

I was only 4 then, I told him. To get the conversation going.

I asked him what he does for a living. I assumed from his ragged appearance and the dirty, worn bag he carried that he could be homeless. Especially since he’d sat beside me on a bench in the bus station.

I offered him the rest of my water. Again, he politely declined. He smiled and told me he was a farmer.

A farmer? What do you grow?

I live in a village south of here, he said. I grow avocados and nancé.

Oh, I know the nancé fruit, I said. Here in Belize they call it craboo. Tiny yellow berry-like fruits with a tangy-sweet flavor. They get sweeter if you leave them to ripen in the sun.

I have hundreds of fruit trees, he said. Every day I pick the ripe ones and sell them in the market. Today alone I already sold everything. 40 dollars worth. He smiled. I saw his one tooth and noticed his gritty fingernails, weathered hands. He seemed to be fulfilled. Completely at peace with everything.

I’m Roberto, he said. He added his last name. His dignity and pride overtook his downtrodden appearance and in that moment I realized I was talking to a man of great accomplishment.

I was humbled. Put to shame. What could I do, how, with what ingenuity and sheer willpower, I thought, could I just walk into this bustling marketplace and earn myself $40? It was only 10 in the morning. This guy had already earned a day’s worth of work. Selling fruits that he had grown, harvested and hauled in buckets to market.

Roberto, the guy I’ll remember as The Craboo Man, woke me up out of my slumber of privilege, only thinking I was comfortable on that bus station bench. He reminded me not to pass judgment based on appearance. To look deeper.

The Craboo Man has accomplished something most of us can only dream of. Contentment. Self-sufficiency. A simple, happy guy.

Happy homesteading in Belize

 

Nothing worthwhile comes easily. After dedicating the past five years of my life to steady, focused work; I now have my own thatched roof hut on a fenced acre of fertile land, two puppies, a garden, and what’s beginning to look a lot more like a farm here in Belize. It hasn’t been easy, but it certainly has been worthwhile. I’ve discovered the happiness of homesteading.

Recently, I’ve delighted in the happiness of homesteading alongside my happy homesteading partner who happens to have been born and raised here in Punta Gorda, Belize, a tiny town where fishing and farming are still how most people make their living.

The indigenous Garifuna, known for their rhythmic drumming and lively dancing, are skilled fishermen and farmers, as these traditions have been passed down through the generations. “My father used to go out and fish all day,” he told me one night as we shared a pot of fresh caught fish that he’d brought me from the Caribbean Sea, just a ten-minute walk down the dirt road from my house. “My father used to catch so much fish, he would hand out fish to everybody.”

When I first arrived over five years ago in Belize, I spent the first two years volunteering on friends’ farms before I decided to start my own. I learned about Belizean culture and made friends with many local people, including the Garifuna. While visiting a friend, I saw a framed picture hanging on his wall of a black Jesus surrounded by black disciples with dreadlocks flowing down to their waists. I stared at the photo and re-evaluated my white Anglo-Saxon upbringing and the photos of Jesus I had seen in church: you know, the ones that make Jesus look like a blue-eyed surfer boy. As I stared at the picture of the black Jesus, I knew in my heart that Jesus must have been a black man, and his disciples probably were, too.

When I first met the Garifuna people of Belize, I was overcome by their beauty, grace, strength, simplicity, and depth of spirit. I decided that Jesus must have been Garifuna. I didn’t know that years later, I would meet my beautiful Garifuna partner at the local ice cream shop, of all places, fulfilling my wildest dreams of making a happy homestead here in Belize. One year after the completion of my thatched roof hut, I’ve planted my roots and essentially kissed my former life in the US goodbye, as returning to the States presents more obstacles than benefits to my happy homesteading life, as it is now.

I am home. Here in Belize, I have my hands—and my heart—full. I live simply and enjoy the bounty of a good harvest every day, in the midst of the most skilled fishermen and farmers on the planet. It has been a lot more enjoyable to share the joy with a homesteading partner, especially considering that he is the son of a fisherman and grandson of an herbal medicine wisdom keeper of the indigenous Garifuna culture. This morning he served me a steaming cup of freshly brewed jackass bitters, the leaf from a tree that grows on his ancestral farm. “My grandfather used to drink jackass bitters every day,” he said, “It will fight off any infection in your body.” I’ve found this to be true: At the first sign of the sniffles or a sore throat, a cup of jackass bitters usually nips it in the bud.

Last week, with the help of my favorite building contractor (the esteemed Mr. Jose Bo, a Mayan man from the neighboring village), we surrounded my acre property with a barbed wire fence and over one-hundred sapodilla posts. Sapodilla is a hardwood tree harvested locally that will allegedly last over fifteen years without succumbing to the elements, which here include termites, heavy rainfall and tropical humidity.

During the entire first year of living in my thatched roof hut, I lavished myself with plenty of leisure time to get used to being a homeowner. I spent an inordinate amount of time relaxing in my hammock, dreaming of all the awesome projects that I would one day accomplish. I made detailed, ambitious lists and stared longingly at them while lying in my hammock. One year later, I am now sufficiently motivated and courageous enough to put on my work boots, don my straw hat, and grab a shovel. I drop an inordinate amount of sweat under the hot Belizean sun in so doing, but like I said, nothing worthwhile is easy. I can always look forward to the coolness of evening, when my partner and I cook dinner with herbs and vegetables from our farm, light the kerosene lantern and gaze at the millions of stars visible in our unprecedented starlit sky.

 

Chaya, a highly nutritious, leafy green that is similar to spinach when steamed

There’s nothing like the feeling of eating a home cooked meal with vegetables from your own garden. Nothing. It’s the kind of satisfaction that can only be understood by someone who has had the same kind of experience, which is why I’ve learned to share homesteading success stories with other happy homesteaders who can relate to my hard-earned payoff.

I was most proud of my successful installation of door handles to my wooden door, which I’d grown tired of awkwardly grasping around the frame. I realized that I could only install the handle after purchasing a Phillips head screwdriver, the first one I’ve bought specifically for the purpose of making home improvements. As I happily wielded my new screwdriver and door handle, I smiled at the thought that only a strong, determined woman could move across two borders, build herself a house, and cultivate a happy homesteading partnership here in Belize. Only someone like me could handle what it takes. Our two puppies agree.

 

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Vintage winemaking in Belize: turning chocolate beans into wine

Did you know that the beans used to make chocolate can also be used to make a delicious wine? At Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize, Central America, we are turning cacao beans into wine every day!

Cotton Tree Lodge is an eco-lodge nestled deep in the tropical jungle of southern Belize beside the flowing Moho River, where guests can experience a unique adventure with sustainable tourism to local Mayan ruins, waterfalls, underwater caves, as well as a variety of cultural activities. Not only is Cotton Tree Lodge a destination for tourists seeking a peaceful getaway surrounded by pristine nature — it is also the site for some of the world’s most unique, locally sourced products; namely, Cotton Tree chocolate bars and a new product currently in development: cacao wine.

Cotton Tree Lodge’s sprawling hundred-acre property has dozens of mature cacao trees from which we get the beans for making our award-winning Cotton Tree chocolate.

Our experienced farmers harvest ripe pods and break them open to reveal a hidden jewel: white beans surrounded by a juicy white flesh. Historically, the ancient Maya once used these cacao beans as a currency, and today, farmers still strive to sell the best quality cacao beans for the most competitive price on the market.

The cacao beans are extracted and placed into burlap bags, delivered to our processing facility, where we collect the fruity-tasting juice. It is from this deliciously sweet, fruity juice that cacao wine is then made through a fermentation process that our resident food scientist intern, Hali, a recent graduate from Pennsylvania State University, is currently researching and developing at our processing facility at Cotton Tree Lodge.

After earning her Bachelor of Science in Food Science with a minor in International Agriculture, Hali knew she wanted to gain some valuable work experience that would set her apart from others. “I didn’t want to go get just any run-of-the-mill internship like everybody else was doing,” she related in a recent interview inside the thatched roof facility where she has been perfecting the fermentation process daily through trial and error–and a lot of patience, persistence and research.

Hali had traveled to Belize in 2014, where she bought a Cotton Tree chocolate bar in the airport. “I had to spend the rest of my Belizean dollars,” she said, “and I remember how good the chocolate was. So when I graduated, I emailed the owner and asked if he needed an intern in food science.”

It just so happened that Hali’s bold, back-door approach gained her entry into the world of bean-to-bar chocolate making in what some call the “chocolate center of the universe” — the southernmost district of Belize, Central America, where the rainfall and soil content are ideal for cultivating cacao saplings into mature, fruit-bearing trees within 3 to 6 years, depending on the variety.

Once Hali completes her three-month internship researching and developing cacao wine in Belize, she will return home to work as an assistant winemaker in Pennsylvania. “Since I interned at the winery back home,” Hali said, “I was invited to take on this project here in Belize.”

The cacao fruit juice is a by-product of chocolate making that–were it not for the creativity, resourcefulness and commitment to zero waste at Cotton Tree Lodge’s farm-to-table restaurant and resort–the cacao juice would simply drain off and go unused.

Hali works alongside a local Belizean farmer who is responsible for fermenting and drying the cacao beans, which will then be used to make Cotton Tree chocolate.

“Fermenting cacao juice into wine is like making any other fruit wine,” said Hali, who can be found avidly researching online whenever she is not busy testing out her process inside the facility. “You have to make sure the sugar is at a high enough level so you have enough alcohol for it to be classified as wine.”

Hali, with the help of her skilled assistant, a local Belizean farmer, is able to turn the cacao juice into wine through a fermentation process that takes about 4 to 6 days, depending on the ambient temperature, which is typically 85 degrees Fahrenheit or more on most days of the year. “It’s been cold here lately,” said Hali, “so some of our recent batches have been taking longer to ferment.”

The winemaking process represents Cotton Tree Chocolate company’s dedication to wise, sustainable use of local resources, because the cacao juice that is used to make the wine would otherwise go to waste.

“Normally, when farmers sell cacao, they harvest it the day before it is sold, put it into a burlap bag, and all the juice drains out,” food scientist Hali explained. “Whoever buys cacao isn’t buying the juice. They’re just buying wet cacao beans and whatever pulp is still around them.

“What we’re doing is buying wet cacao, putting wet beans into a perforated bucket and collecting the juice.”

After a month of trial and error, the process has become more productive and successful. Each week, the facility receives 30 buckets of wet cacao beans. Out of that, Hali is now able to produce about 6 buckets of cacao wine.

“By the time we get the beans here, the juice is already draining off,” Hali said, “so we get what we’re calling the first day juice. We let them sit overnight. It’s better, when you’re fermenting beans for chocolate, to have them kind of dry. You don’t want all that moisture. So we’ve been collecting the second day juice too.”

While the process is still in the research and development phase, the most recent guests at Cotton Tree Lodge who have been fortunate to taste test the first few batches of cacao wine gave it a thumbs up with helpful suggestions for improvement. Hali commented, “In the future, we hope to try and add something to sweeten the wine so it’s not quite so dry.”

“The cacao juice itself tastes sweet and slightly floral,” Hali said while the small, stingless Mayan bees hovered nearby, pollinating the nearby cacao trees and making honey. “The wine kind of carries that flavor over. Normally you want to let a white wine age 6 months to balance everything out. Right now, a lot of our batches taste acidic because the flavors haven’t had enough time to mingle. We are still trying to iron out some details about how we are going about filtering and letting things settle out.”

Good-tasting cacao wine will be a new, unique product for Belize. Some other cacao wines on the market taste too much like vinegar, according to the latest market research. “I hope that with a set process and standards of cleanliness and sanitation, we will produce a good fruit wine. It will be the first of its kind in Belize,” said Hali.

When you come stay with us at Cotton Tree Lodge, be sure to order a glass of our cacao wine from our friendly bartenders, and be on the lookout for our delicious, bottled cacao wine on the local market!

Click here to book your stay at Cotton Tree Lodge and try our new cacao wine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ethnic “white privilege”: Maybe we are the “poor” people

Can you…

Weave your own clothes?…Build your own house in a day from materials straight out of your own back yard?… Cultivate your own field of corn, rice and beans?… Build your own canoe from the trunk of a tree?

Well… Can you?

I bet that if you’re a privileged, white person from one of the “First World” nations, you probably answered “no” to most or all of these questions.

You might be thinking, “Who can do all these things?”

The indigenous people of Central America can. They’ve been doing it for centuries, and they will continue to pass these skills onto their future generations, unless their habitat and natural resources are destroyed due to the insane agenda of my country of birth (the U.S.), among other First World nations who are hell-bent on exploiting the natural resources of the world as fast as possible.

Unlike most of my fellow Americans, I was willing to admit that my life of privilege in the U.S. meant that I agreed to consume more than I needed as well as fund wars every time I paid my taxes. In my mid-thirties, I abandoned my life of privilege in exchange for a humbler, simpler life. I packed my bags, quit my job, donated most of my belongings to a charity, and came to southern Belize, Central America … sight unseen.

I’m not mentally handicapped or mentally ill, as many of my friends and family have insisted I must be (“Why would you quit your job?”… “You ruined your career” … “You must be crazy”…). I’ve already reflected and written about this here.

I exchanged my career, my cushy job, my new car, my proximity to family and Walmart and fancy movie theaters for the life I’m now living, which is much more sane than the life I would be living, had I stayed in my country of birth and continued serving the ruling elite in their agenda of planetary destruction. I chose to live a principled life instead of the privileged life I was handed by virtue of my birth and heritage.

Within a year of moving to Belize, I’d purchased an acre of fertile land on the outskirts of a small town where I found other counter-cultural ex-pats who shared my values: We’d left behind our lives of privilege in the First World to learn how to grow our own food, live off the grid in simple, thatch-roof houses, and attempt to acculturate in a Third World country.

Over the past five years, I’ve wanted to give up many times. But I made friends with the locals and learned from them. I improved my Spanish fluency to the point where I could joke around with the locals and haggle in the street markets. I learned how to be more resourceful and get by with less.

I’m glad I persisted, though I often feel uncomfortable and inconvenienced—sometimes terrified—every day. But I’m definitely not bored. In spite of the obvious challenges of living as a white woman in a Third World country, I choose to live a life based on principle instead of a life of privilege.

I now have my own small, thatch-roof hut with no electricity or municipal services. I now have a small garden of fruits and vegetables. I can now say that I prefer to live south of the border than in my country of birth.

I still have a lot to learn.

When I lived in the U.S., I used to think that I should come down here and “help” the poor people. In my blind state of privilege and hubris, I thought I had something valuable to offer. Then I actually came down here, to the Third World, and I gradually realized that instead of trying to “help” the indigenous people, what I actually needed to do was learn from them. After all, I’d been pushing pencils my entire life as an academic seated at a desk in air-conditioned rooms. I hadn’t gotten my hands dirty, hauled buckets of water, or any of the other forms of manual labor that are part of the fabric of life here.

I’d hammered a nail into a piece of wood … mmmm, maybe once?… Suffice it to say: I had a lot to learn. I had the sense enough to get over my pride and get humble enough to learn from the indigenous people.

Locals with whom I’ve had the pleasure to become friends have kindly and patiently taught me a lot of skills I otherwise wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t come down here and been willing to learn: how to plant rice, how to sharpen a machete, how to build a thatch roof, how to milk a cow, how to cultivate coconut trees, etc., etc…. The skills I’ve learned over the course of five years have enriched my life to the point where I no longer consider the local people to be “poor”; on the contrary, I now consider people in privileged, First World nations to be the poor ones, while the indigenous people are rich beyond our understanding.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend from the U.S. She told me that she had to put her mother, age 89, in a nursing home, because everybody in her family was too busy with their jobs to take care of her.

“That’s unheard of down here,” I told her. “Nursing homes don’t exist in Central America, unless they’re funded and built by Americans who value such a thing. The people down here don’t understand the concept of putting their elders in a nursing home.”

She said, “I can understand why you like living down there.”

I replied, “It’s a saner culture.”

Here, old people live in multi-generational homes, usually in one room where everybody sleeps beside each other, wakes up together, cooks together, eats together, and celebrates … together.

The fact is that vast majority of people in the world live on less than 10 dollars a day in a state of what we would call “poverty”, but when you look at it from a certain standpoint, maybe we privileged white people from the First World are the “poor” ones.

It’s a Faustian bargain: We white people live a life of privilege in the First World in exchange for living in a rat race where we barely have time to talk to each other. If it’s hot outside, we close ourselves off from nature in air-conditioned rooms and complain about the heat whenever we have to walk to our fancy cars. We spend more time on our fancy tablets and smart phones than we do talking to our kids and our elders. We eat poor quality fast food, get sick and don’t have time to exercise. We bury ourselves in debt until we die and get buried in fancy cemeteries. We rely on specialists instead of learning how to do basic skills ourselves.

On and on and on… We privileged people are an abomination: We’re indulgent and spoiled without even realizing it. We’ve sold our souls to the devil, and the devil would have us believe that we are the best. That we have it all.

In a desperate, vain attempt to assuage our deep-seated guilt, we take trips to foreign countries and make donations to good causes. Sorry Charlie, but that’s not enough. It was never enough and will never be enough.

A friend of mine, a reluctant messiah of a message that no one wants to hear, points out in his incisive writings that we should have dismantled the whole rat race and stopped being hamster cogs in the giant wheel a long time ago. But in our selfishness and denial of reality, we failed to do so. We settled for a life of privilege in exchange for destroying our own planet. To deny it is to ignore the undeniable facts.

From an economic standpoint, Third World countries are poor because of the disparity created by First World domination and appropriation of resources. In a saner arrangement, we’d all have enough, and we’d all be living like the indigenous people of the Third World: getting by on less than 10 dollars a day, building our own houses, healing our bodies with medicine from the plants we cultivate in our own back yards.

I don’t know where we privileged white people get off thinking that we can come down to Third World countries and redeem ourselves by leaving stuff behind as donations and then returning to our jobs, our big houses, our big cars….

I suppose I can have compassion for the hubris of white people who think they need to “help” the poor, indigenous people. I’m guilty of it, too. I came to Belize, Central America over five years ago with the same pompous attitude. I was born and bred in a culture of privilege where I never had to pick up a broom or pull weeds out of the garden or get my hands dirty, unless I was playing in a sand box in my school playground. I understand the mentality of trying to help people who are less privileged than me. Yet, I no longer participate in it. Instead, I left my life of privilege behind and chose to live and work with the indigenous people, gradually developing appreciation, respect and admiration.

Here, indigenous people learn how to survive without industrial inputs before they learn to walk. Meanwhile, we privileged white people show up in Third World countries in large tour groups, in shiny vans with shiny, new suitcases and shiny, new shoes, determined to save the world with a few donations of shiny, new “stuff” that we assume the villagers need.

An indigenous wisdom keeper once shared a story with me from her childhood. She remembered how a bunch of volunteers from the U.S. showed up in her ancestral village in Honduras with a truckload of shoes for all the children. It was a custom in her village for the indigenous people to walk around barefoot, because they believe that our feet are our “soul”: When we walk barefoot, we stay connected to the earth.

After the white people had dropped off the shoes and left the village, all the people gathered, threw the shoes into a large pile and set it on fire. My friend recalled with a smile how she stood there beside her mother, watching the shoes burn for hours.

Reality check: The villagers have been getting by just fine without these shiny, new things for centuries, and they’ll keep getting by, with or without us.

If one is willing to slow down and examine what lies at the root of our predicament, as I do daily in quiet, seated meditation, I can clearly see that fear is the primary motivation. We privileged, white people are afraid that we are not good enough. That we don’t have enough. We believe we are not enough. So, we desperately build more… faster, better, bigger, more … more … more…. on and on and on.

It’s a culture of insanity rooted in a culturally inherited inferiority complex that would have us assert our dominance over nature and other less developed nations, thereby proving to ourselves that we are better. Bigger. Faster. More.

Fear is, ultimately, like a raging river fed by rivulets of comparing oneself to others. Fear motivates all kinds of insane, disordered behavior and activities designed to deceive oneself into becoming better or more than what we thought we were before.

What if I’m enough, right now, just as I am? What if I don’t have to race like a rat in a maze designed to keep me confused and busy? What if I can slow down and enjoy my life?

What if I accept that I have enough… I am enough…. There is enough… for everybody?

If I am willing to accept reality as it is, without the overlay of my culturally inherited inferiority complex and concomitant disordered behavior and thinking, then I might start living more like the indigenous people of the Third world. Getting by with less. Being satisfied with less. Living well with the natural resources that surround me. Without needing to assert my dominance over nature, other humans, or other species.

Please, do yourself and the world a favor. Don’t go on a weeklong excursion to a foreign country in the Third World thinking that you can drop off a load of toothbrushes and parasite medicine and then return to the U.S. feeling good about yourself. The indigenous people are likely to forget about the toothbrushes, and the parasites will be back in two months, anyway. Besides, the herbs and plants in their gardens can do a much better job of getting rid of parasites than your medicine. Like I mentioned already, they’ve been getting by just fine for centuries with or without us sticking our long, European noses into their simple, humble lives.

We privileged white people assume that we are helping indigenous people with handouts, when our charity might actually be harmful, or at the very least, unnecessary….. Consider for a moment that indigenous people know how to do most everything themselves, while we rely on paid specialists and laborers to do most everything for us: mow our lawns, build our houses, take care of our animals, grow our food. If you’re a white person living in a First World country, when’s the last time you did any of that yourself without complaining or paying somebody to do it for you?

I’d suggest you try what you might consider impossible, or at least, more challenging: Stay here for longer than a week. Get to know the people. Live with them. Get your hands dirty learning from them instead of just leaving your money behind and getting on a plane to get back to your job, your big house, your mortgage payments, etc, etc….

Stop thinking you’re not good enough, and look inside of yourself to realize that you already have enough. Stop acquiescing to the agenda of people who would have you believe that you need the next best product… faster, better, bigger… more.

I am enough.

I have everything I need, right here, right now.

I don’t need to go looking outside of myself.

I enjoy my life.

Call me crazy (I don’t care): I consider it a compliment

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” —Krishnamurti

I’m not mentally handicapped and no one has declared me to be mentally ill, though I’ve been evaluated by licensed professionals. My accolades, among other accomplishments of merit, would indicate that I’m highly intelligent: I was valedictorian of both my high school and college class, which means that I graduated with the highest academic achievements of my classes and delivered the valedictory speech at my graduation ceremonies. I’ve written and published over a dozen books.

I’d like to think that my intelligence would port over into all aspects of my life, including relationships, but history would demonstrate that I’ve fallen short in that area. I suppose that’s one reason I’m still alive: I have more opportunities to learn and grow, at least in terms of relationships. But then, I know a lot of smart people who are challenged in relating well to others, probably because our brains have the capacity to entertain, ponder and originate far more ideas, concepts and theories than most other people. For those of us whose minds are firing at the speed of light, we typically don’t relate well to others.

Consider the bell curve. For those on the far end of the spectrum, we are fewer in number. We prefer to spend time alone. We tend to isolate ourselves. We are geniuses. Prodigies. Anomalies.

Like autistic people, we can’t help but express—sometimes nonverbally—what we are actually seeing, thinking and feeling. Everyday social interactions become uninteresting and difficult, because most people can’t seem to get beyond superficialities. We tend to relate better to animals and nature.

As a highly intelligent woman who speaks her mind and follows her heart, I’ve been accused of being “crazy” on numerous occasions by people who are not worthy of mention here. I take no offense, because I know that the designation “crazy” bears no real meaning: “Crazy” is a label that is often slapped onto people, especially women, whose ideas, behavior and/or actions stray from the norm. Again, consider the bell curve. For women on the far end of the spectrum, we are fewer in number. We end up alone because there are fewer men who make suitable matches, and we prefer not to compromise. Our standards are … higher than most.

When a woman is considered to be “crazy”, it is most likely due to the fact that she challenges and therefore compels others to question reality. She is courageous enough to examine her assumptions, therefore inciting others to do the same. Willingness to look more profoundly and honestly at oneself and the world inevitably makes one more accountable to self and others. Women, in general, possess the uncanny ability to intuitively “know” things that are beyond the purview of most men. It’s something we do because we nurture life. We are in tune with the cycles of nature.

Women understand the cycles of life more naturally than men, while men often try to control and dominate the natural cycles. Women know this isn’t possible, so we gracefully and graciously stand aside while the men run around asserting themselves, to no effect. Look where it’s gotten us.

When a woman is labelled “crazy”, it’s probably because she doesn’t accept things the way they are…. She probably misbehaves and gets called a “bad girl”… She doesn’t politely say “yes” and follow directions like an automaton. She is probably stubborn, strong-willed and unwilling to accept the status quo. A lot of people probably don’t like her. In the past, she was burned at the stake, whereas in modern times, she gets unfriended on Facebook and smeared on social media.

I know, because I am one of these women. I don’t know whether or not I’d prefer not to be one of these women.

In a patriarchal society marked by gender inequality, men seem to assume that they are in control and pretend to dominate nature. When outspoken women like me take a stand—regardless of how eloquent or compelling our verbal expression—it’s common for us highly intelligent women to be labelled “crazy”, especially those of us who are change-makers: Our words and actions challenge the sociopolitical norms. Women who catalyze change in a patriarchal society will inevitably be vilified, ostracized or, at worst, killed by the sociopathic patriarchy.

It’s been happening for centuries. Consider the Middle Ages. The Salem witchcraft trials. The classic novel, The Scarlet Letter. Women who push the envelope often end up pushed overboard, burned at the stake, or sliced into pieces and buried.

Like the elephant tied to a rope on a stake, perhaps we women have gotten so used to it that we don’t realize we have the strength to break free. For some of us, we’ve given up. We’ve stopped making waves. We’ve gone into hiding. We probably cry a lot. We’re probably accused of being “overly emotional”…. Here, I’d like to reiterate the masterful Krishnamurti’s incisive observation on this topic:

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Do I need to convince my readers how and why our society has become profoundly sick? I think not. I surmise that the latest news media can make the case convincingly enough without further commentary. This, incidentally, is why I live the way I do.

I practice “non-participation”, at least politically speaking. I don’t bother keeping up with the news. I make my own news. Every day.

I believe that I make a powerful statement by living the way I do and being who I am.

Since I am living within a profoundly sick society replete with sociopaths all over the world, I realize and accept that I could die any day, at any moment. I could be intentionally or inadvertently killed by a wild animal or, more likely, a member of my own species.

I am proud to be “overly emotional”…. I make a sincere effort to cry and wail as often as possible: Not only is it cathartic, but I believe that it is spiritually uplifting and therefore necessary for anyone who wishes to be honest with themselves about who they are, especially living within a profoundly sick society. Most people can’t handle a woman wailing. It’s easier to simply call her “crazy”… when in actuality, she is the sanest one of all for shedding heartfelt tears.

We women have good reasons to cry and wail. We need to. We ought to. We must express our heartfelt emotion and not suppress our emotion. Perhaps this would serve men, too, but in order to do so, men would need to overcome significant social constructs that limit men from being openly vulnerable and emotionally expressive. Here, I digress.

Proverbially speaking, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m honest with myself and therefore I make it possible for other people to be honest with me and maybe with themselves too.

It appears to be my role to hold myself and others accountable to their actions—actions that they otherwise wouldn’t be accountable to, were it not for their happenstance interactions with me. Consider my history: I have played a pivotal role in landing five men in jail and having two men reported to the local police and/or FBI for their unlawful activities. Over the course of my life, I’ve noticed that when people get close to me, whether physically or emotionally, I catalyze some kind of transformation for them, whether it be physical, emotional, mental, and/or spiritual. I suppose it has something to do with my role as what could be called a “healer”: I fervently hold a clear intention, which I put out to the universe in prayer every morning, to be of utmost service to my fellow humans and to myself.

I remind myself of the female protagonist in Terry Goodkind’s fantasy novel, Wizard’s First Rule. “The Confessor” is the woman from whom anyone can receive redemption by revealing and confessing their most egregious sins. I don’t claim to be a “confessor”, though my history would demonstrate that I’ve played a similar role in the lives of people too numerous to keep count. When I interact with people to any significant degree, I always manage to be some sort of influence in making them accountable to themselves and to the world. I’d like to think this means that I hold myself accountable, but I’m not certain. I think I’m still learning.

An experienced Mayan astrologer once explained to me that my day and time of birth designates me as “Toj”, which means that I am instrumental in rebalancing what would otherwise remain imbalanced. This implies that wherever I show up, everyone’s dirty laundry is bound to come to the surface, be scrubbed clean and aired out. Including my own transgressions. It’s not an easy or envious job, and it’s certainly not glamorous.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that I seem to have no choice in the matter. I catalyze transformation, wherever I go, no matter how hard I try not to. It just … happens. It makes for challenging relationships. It’s an unpopular role. Who wants to hang out with the lady who makes you confess your most embarrassing sins? It’s a lonely job, but I suppose somebody’s got to do it. Apparently, somewhere along the way, I volunteered for the job. Since it appears I have no choice in the matter, I might as well make the most of it.

My friend, a fellow therapist, once described her perception of me thus: “You are challenging. You bring stuff up.”

What I assume she meant by this comment is that I have a way of bringing hidden “stuff” to the surface to be looked at. Examined. Questioned. Transformed into something different. I incite change. I know others who seem to do the same, though we are few in number, and we’re not sought out for Saturday night parties. After all, we’re… challenging.

I’m proud of who I am, but, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s not an easy job. I need breaks, which is why I prefer solitude and remote places surrounded by nature. In isolation, I can turn my shit-stirring penchant inward and focus on myself. But in due time, I need other people to act as my mirror. After all, they’re all me, anyway. Where do I end and you begin? If I can see it in you, then I must have it somewhere inside of myself. Ultimately, I’m responsible for myself, which implies that I am responsible for everything I experience, including whatever I observe in others.

I once related these insights to a dear friend of mine who is the author of a historical romance in which the goddess-like female protagonist is imbued with superhuman powers of intuition, beauty, and far-reaching influence.

“I keep sending guys to court and putting them in jail,” I told him, expressing my dismay.

He replied, tongue-in-cheek, “Callin’ court, Queenie?” referring to what he perceives as my “larger-than-self” role as an empowered woman, holding men accountable to their actions within an otherwise imbalanced, patriarchal society. The Confessor.

It’s no wonder that many men—and women who side with them—would prefer to call me “crazy”: It’s easier to invalidate the person who is holding up the mirror than it is to take a good, long, honest look. I know, because I’m guilty of it, too. I confess. And I don’t need a priest to make my confession. I confess of my own accord, within my own heart, which I believe is precisely what “The Confessor” character symbolizes: She is the goddess within all of us; the unconditionally loving female who listens, nurtures and loves us, no matter what. We all need a good dose of her medicine on a daily basis.

I suppose I am capable of offering this kind of medicine, to the extent I’m empowered to do so, with specific people under specific circumstances. I’ve put out my proverbial shingle to wit, and it appears that the universe colludes to support me in my intention to be available as a catalyst for peoples’ inner and outer transformation. My client testimonials speak for themselves.

I don’t say this to boast; on the contrary, I point this out as a testament to my own courageous journey, which has taken me deep down into my own rabbit hole, through countless wormholes, up into nameless galaxies, and back down again, where I must integrate all I’ve learned along the way. And I keep learning.

Call me crazy; I don’t care. I consider it a compliment. In a society gone terribly awry, I am proud to be an anomaly.

In addition to holding a Master of Arts in Education, I am a Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist with over 1,000 hours of formal training and years of experience. Over the past twenty years of my professional practice, I have seen thousands of clients, most of whom I’ve had the privilege to impact in a significant way beyond the physical. As soon as I placed my hands on one client’s shoulders, she sighed and remarked, “My God, you have such a healing touch. Where does that come from? What is that?”

I appreciated her forthright, sincere feedback.

Without thinking, my first reply was, “Well, I don’t know. If I knew, I don’t think I’d be able to do whatever it is you’re feeling.”

A hollow reed. An empty vessel. I’m just a channel.

I prefer to stay out of my own way. I just… show up and breathe. I just… am who I am, like it or not.

 

On a daily basis, starting with my 4:00 AM meditation, I attempt to examine, observe and empower myself through personal, transformational practices that I believe have served to engender a tremendous amount of inner strength and willpower. The long-term effect is that my influence on the world seems to be… impactful.

I conscientiously and deliberately swim against the stream. I do so because I don’t want to be well adjusted to a society that I believe has gone terribly awry. For me, my spiritual life is purposeful. Practical. Powerful. In my case, a lifesaver.

I consider myself a strong-willed, successful, highly intelligent woman who’s accomplished mostly everything I want to in this lifetime, except for publishing my novel and living in a house of my own, the latter of which appears to be imminent, once I nail together a ladder to climb upstairs into my bedroom loft.

My curriculum vitae attest to the fact that I’m highly intelligent. Even so, in the past twenty years of my adult life, I’ve been accused of not only being crazy, but being mentally ill and generally being ostracized because of how I think differently than most people, and I seem to have the capacity to strongly influence the people around me on an energetic and spiritual level, thereby challenging myself and others.

I’ve given up on being well liked. I’m okay with not fitting in anywhere. I seem to fit in more with the howler monkeys in the tropical jungle than with most humans. I realize that it comes with the territory. I’ve grown to be comfortable with solitude. I’ve actually grown to love and appreciate myself far more than I used to. I accept my role as a change agent. I own my power and I wield it as responsibly as possible. I’ve failed in the past, but hopefully I’ve learned.

I courageously ask myself, “Who am I” and “Why am I here?” as often as possible. I believe that these questions are becoming especially relevant and urgent, not only for myself, but for humanity as a whole: Who am I? Why am I here? What am I here to do, and why?

It appears most people would prefer not to ask these uncomfortable questions; at the very least, most people avoid or deflect them with any one of the myriad distractions available in our modern society.

As for society, I suppose you could say I’ve dropped out. I’ve become somewhat of a recluse, though I still welcome the opportunity to engage with people, as long as they are prepared for the highly probable outcome that something significant will change as a result of our interaction. It’s my honor to play this role.

I’m proud of who I am.

Call me crazy; I don’t care. I consider it a compliment.

Intercultural conflict: Is there a solution?

First and foremost, I am writing this essay for myself, because I wish to muse and reflect on relevant topics that I otherwise might have no opportunity to discuss openly with anyone willing or available to listen. I would like to thank those who take the time to read this essay and I would like to implore my readers to please not take my essay as a complaint, a criticism or a request for intervention on anyone’s part, as I would prefer that said intervention be motivated by a source other than me. Again, I am writing this to share my thoughts and nothing more. I welcome input, ideas or feedback in response.

To some extent, I am writing this essay for a secondary purpose. I would like to open an honest dialogue about intercultural conflict, because I think it’s a topic worth considering for people who live and work in a culturally diverse setting.

I’ve been traveling and working in many different places in Central America for the past five years. By choice, I’ve lived as a single woman in a variety of places under vastly different conditions; ranging from a dirt floor, tin roof hut in an isolated village to a high-rent apartment in the center of Guatemala City to shared housing with a family in their home in southern Mexico. Mostly, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity and privilege to be a part of different cultures that are not my own, and I’ve been fortunate to make many friends along the way.

I often find myself quipping to people I meet, “Yep, been there; done that.” I’ve been exposed to not only the joys of getting to know many pleasant, kind people, but I’ve also experienced the other end of the spectrum: I’ve received my share of hostility from local people who care not to invite a foreign “white girl” into their communities for their own personal and/or sociopolitical reasons.

I have grown accustomed to dealing with and being the brunt of other peoples’ hostility and, at worst, outright rejection due to the inevitable fact that I am from a different culture and therefore not accepted with open arms by local people. By choosing to live and work in a foreign country, I willingly expose myself to discrimination, ironically, because a white woman becomes a minority when living in a country where the majority are not white. While I may be more privileged than the local people in many ways, I do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as a local person with citizenship, social security, the ability to open a bank account without hassle, etc, etc…. No matter how hard I try to acculturate, I will always be perceived and treated as an outsider.

While this can be a lonely and sometimes terrifying position to be in, I am willing to courageously forge ahead knowing that I have enough friends who care and enough stubbornness and determination to continue doing what I’ve come here to do: work, save money, publish my novel and build my house. Unlike Peace Corps volunteers, however, I am here on my own dime, of my own accord, without being held accountable or beneath the protection of a volunteer organization. I fly no one’s banner but my own, and I realize that I do so with considerable risk.

Since November 2015, I’ve been living and working at a charming eco-lodge nestled deep in the tropical jungle where staff members come from a variety of cultural backgrounds in a country notorious for its cultural diversity, despite its relatively small size and population. Co-workers include native Mayan people, Creole people, as well as volunteers who come from the United States (myself included in the latter category). I would like to believe that cultural background is irrelevant and we can “all get along”, but in the Third World, the laws and company policies which protect “equal rights” and “non-discrimination” are not actively enforced or even observed in general.

Here in Central America, I’ve observed that “anything goes,” as long as you can either get away with it or pretend it’s not a problem. To my own chagrin, I seem to be incapable of pretending that injustices, whether petty or monumental, are not a problem. Like the snowball effect, the small injustices tend to turn into the big ones. And when injustice becomes a big problem, people are bound to get hurt in one way or another.

Consider me the self-sacrificial whistle-blower who is willing to take a stand for injustice. I know that doing so implies that I will inevitably have to face the music, which is rarely pleasant. For one, I’m often accused of deliberately inciting drama. Maybe so. Or I simply call attention to what already exists and would otherwise remain under the surface. Over the course of my life, I notice that I often play a role of holding people–including myself–accountable to their actions. Believe me, it’s not an enjoyable role to play, but since I voluntarily live a life of service, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Based on my personal and professional observations as a licensed therapist and teacher at my workplace, there is a significant amount of hostility and disrespect present among staff members. The three cultures working daily in close contact with one another (Maya, Creole and white Americans) tend to form cliques and therefore “stick together” and gang up on the underprivileged minority who is outnumbered. In my case, as a volunteer foreigner, the outnumbered person happens to be me.

Unless I stand up for myself and assert my rights to food, a safe place to live, and other basic privileges of life, these privileges are often threatened to be taken away or, at the very least, made more difficult by people who are afflicted with any one or all of the following: (1) jealousy; (2) resentment due to one person earning more money than another; (3) hostility due to cultural differences and misunderstanding; etc, etc. As a white woman from the United States, it is an undeniable fact that I incite jealousy, hostility and resentment just by being who I am: I earn more money than the local people, I can get better jobs, I can go back any time to my uber-privileged country of birth, and I simply don’t fit into anyone’s cultural norms. Arguably, it is understandable why people would want to “beat up” on someone like me: I am, apparently, an easy target.

It appears that I will continue to be a target, unless and until I stand up for myself, roar like a lioness, and/or beat my hairy chest amidst my fellow beasts in the jungle.

There is considerable infighting amongst the ethnically diverse people I am privileged to know and work alongside. I am not writing this essay to condone or become a proponent of said infighting. On the contrary, this essay is my humble attempt to curtail what I sadly observe. On a daily basis, I notice jealousy, backbiting and vengeful behaviors that are sometimes subtle and sometimes overt. While many of these behaviors go unnoticed or ignored, I am writing this essay to call attention to what has become a significant enough issue to interfere with normal working operations, at least behind the scenes. On the surface, anyone visiting my place of work would probably feel welcome, well taken care of, and treated to a great time … thanks to the hard-working staff and our earnest attempts to do the best job possible.

For the purpose of this essay, I find it unnecessary and even counterproductive to qualify the specific scenarios, interactions and situations in which the aforementioned interpersonal and/or intercultural dramas play themselves out. Not only have there been too many for me to number or keep track of, but I am not sufficiently interested enough to remember them and much less to record them here. For the most part, I do not bother to discuss when such interactions take place, in the interest of “keeping the peace”: I am, after all, here as a volunteer foreigner and therefore outnumbered by far.

It can only be helpful and considerate for those who agree with me to stand up and assert our rights as human beings sharing the same space, where we all live and work. I assume it’s true that we all wish to live and work in a place that offers basic conditions of comfort and safety: (1) access to healthy food; (2) a safe place to live and work without sexual harassment; (3) a decent community of people who look out for each other’s best interests. It would appear, based on my observations and my experience living and working in Central America for the past five years, that the above three basic conditions of comfort and safety are not always present, and when they are not, it is countercultural and therefore problematic for me to insist that these basic conditions are provided with fairness and respect to all of us, regardless of cultural background or ethnicity.

I’d like to end my musings with a question for reflection: Is there a solution to intercultural conflict and misunderstanding between people of different cultural backgrounds? If you, dear reader, have a solution in mind, please leave your comments below.

The late Bob Marley had his own thoughts on the topic, inspired by his own personal views and beliefs. Let’s consider what he had to say: