August 7, 2015

What's Next

Hi everyone,
Obviously I haven't written posts here for a bit.

My design firm Shelter& has morphed and grown larger. I'm using collaborative design in the service of the affordable housing that we so desperately need, for aging-in-place in the neighborhoods we love, and as a counter to displacement happening all around us. Living in shared well-designed places allows us to be more connected, resilient, and lets us live more lightly on this planet with authenticity and intention.

So my work as ZOdwellings has grown to include advising cities and Bay Area agencies about collaborative living policy, and advocating for broader definitons of  the "family household" for down payment assistance programs.

And, and and.... 

Right now, I'm trying to develop a PILOT program where homeowners who want these benefits can have your city foot the bulk of the design/building costs to rework your home for collaborative living. In return  you'd commit to keeping the rents you ask modest. Have distinct privacy, wonderful collaborative kitchens and functional Commons. Small homes. Large homes. Any household that wants to share can reap the rewards.

In the end, our cities get housing faster, and for less dollars than in large housing projects. They can appear in one's, two's and three's in every neighborhood, giving our small more nimble remodeling companies work, and making our neighborhoods hubs of local reinvestment.  By us and for us, you know?

And those of us who have ventured into collaborative living get some rental income, and possibly co-ownership with its shared costs if we find that right couple or family. And of course the gifts of collaborative ownership.

Because I'm focused on the pilot program and evolving it with my non-profit and public partners, I'm relying on my Linkedin website for now. Find my website goings-on here:

Sound interesting? 

Then I want to hear from you! Would you want to be a part of the pilot if it comes to your city? Are you a homeowner, or a family looking to share? Tell me your circumstances.

Also, if you're a space designer wanting to learn the art of strong collaborative design, let me hear from you. Tell me about what you're doing and why this interests you.

Our Cities need to know the new faces of collaborative dwelling and how we want to redefine HOME.

Tell me your stories...I'm listening.


December 24, 2013

Christmas Musing 2013: The Stones Speak

It was well past midnight when Gehrtrood, our local contact, settled Marilyn and me into a small white bed together on the 5th floor of a Viennese pensione that she’d found for us... at last.

But the sound of a horse-drawn milk truck on the gray cobblestones woke us just before 4 am the next morning.  
Without a word to one another, we both leapt from the sheets to run to the window, peering over the flower boxes at the amazing early dawning light, the colors and bits of European life coming awake on the street below. It was the seventies, my first European city, and I felt like I'd stepped back through centuries as an invisible guest. 
On Sundays during the Viennese Summer Music Festival, the residents dressed up in antique, ornately beaded gowns with trains, and 19th Century tailored suits…and top hats. They walked through the parks arm in arm; parasols and slow saunterings. Seurat come alive!
Rats skittered along the edges of the cobblestone streets, adding to my disorientation of time and place. 

At the Bier Garten, I got to dress up as well, and dance! Aaaah. "Ich spreche kein Deutsch," but there were enough who spoke English, including a tall, soft blond 20-something. Hmmm.

Still, after all these years, it is the sounds of these Austrian experiences that stay most clear. I do remember the impression of the clothing and his face vaguely, but I can clearly hear how the air carried the horse's steps on the cobblestones, how laughter reflected off the hard stone of the streets and buildings, and the swish of beaded fabrics sounded in the grass. Even the sploosh of a rat diving into a park fountain. After growing up in a wooden framed suburban house, these new sounds of stone linger decades later.

We traveled to Greece next. It was too old for me to feel transported to another century as I had in Vienna. I wandered the Parthenon and for the first time discovered that timeworn was really sensual to touch. My hands responded to the wear my eyes sometimes could not see, and the subtle uneven textures felt as if they had a life of their own. Unlike my 20-year-old Levitt home, these steps carried something of those who had come before. And I came to understand back then, on some level, that when people inhabit places with great materials, something of their lives penetrates, becomes resident. Their stories stay. 

I would love to wander and see other places, and when my eyes tired, I know that my ears would take it all in as well… and remember.

 And I would hope that I would add to the stones in return, a little.

November 3, 2013

ABOUT PRIVACY: Part I: Making a Basic Bedroom More - a Suite of Spaces

Melissa has the smallest bedroom in our home, 11 x 15 feet. Not bad actually. Still it's just a basic rectangle-shaped bedroom. But as you'll see, it can be made into something more. 
(Click on any of the pictures for a larger view.)

It has lovely northern and western light. Melissa's moved her bed to the outer corner of the room so it's framed by the two large 4-foot-wide windows, and is farthest from the bathroom she shares with Stephen. They tend to use the bathroom about the same time in the mornings, so it doesn't disturb her sleep, but she likes the outer space for her bed.

She prefers a removed feel for her work area, so I suggested she place her desk  in the corner where it's also flooded diagonally by natural light, which happens to be northern light. The best. 

Below and in the plan, you see that the wall her door opens onto also leads to her closet and its door, so major furniture tends to be placed on the window side, making the room feel overly-weighted on the far end. But as is, if her door is ajar, you can see directly into her room from anywhere on the landing. So most people using this room will do exactly that. There's no sense of privacy if she wants her door open, which in our house is an invitation to say hello.

Essentially, you can add privacy to a box of a bedroom like this by creating an entry into the room. There are several ways to do this, and you get a bonus when you do - more activity niches for yourself!

You can create these spaces as easy temporary DIY additions which you'll see here. I'll talk about more permanent options in Part II.


The simplest, most flexible fix can be done in any room (rented or owned) by creating an entry alcove with something vertical that acts as a visual divider. Be as creative as fits your soul! I'll work the principle here with a shelf-unit, but you could use ceiling-hung fabric, an art panel, a textural wood piece, or anything that appeals. I like shelves or cabinets because they offer additional storage.  So here's what happens if you use one 6-foot shelf:

Placing just one tall shelf facing the entrance just inches beyond the entry door's full open swing creates a new path of entry that requires a turn before they see into your room. (Also notice that since this is earthquake country, I have anchored the end of the shelf to the wall with a piano hinge. This secures the shelf, but allows it to be easily rotated against the wall for moving larger furnishings in and out.)

Interestingly enough, an open-backed shelving or a divider works just as well; either draws the eye as someone approaches, so the onlooker's vision is foreshortened. It depends on how private a feel you need, and how much light you'd like passing through this "wall" you've created.

Now decide if you want the stuff on the shelves facing the entry as decor to intrigue, or facing the space you've created behind the unit. (You can hang a picture on the back for visitors to see as they pass or enter.) Maybe find or make a unit that has some of each?

Plus, you have this new niche behind the shelf. There's enough space for a small upholstered chair where you might read by all the natural light of that large window. Maybe with a tiny ottoman. You also have balanced the room's furnishing better as well. 

People will tend to walk into the room straight towards the desk unless they plan to sit on the bed. If you're reading my posts, you'll note right now there's "wasted square footage," that could be put to use along that wall. We placed Melissa's hot water kettle and tea set-up on a small, low carved table just behind her within easy reach, with her favorite books on a series of wall-mounted shelves above. It creates a vertical element that's very special to her, and it feels quite delicate and intimate. She likes her space spare, and only wants a picture on the wall. So for her, that space is where she kneels to prepare tea as she works, or stands to scan her treasured books.

Okay, if creating a sitting niche right by your closet isn't appealing, you can move the shelf or divider further back as you see in this second iteration, to allow the space for a second shelf perpendicular to the entry door. See what this does:

These units should be just high enough to cover what you want covered. You do not need to go high on both, and want light moving easy around these walls you create. So you might make one 6-foot tall, while another is 3 or 4-foot  high. 

You now have a protected entry. Hang some pictures along the left wall? Put a changing display on the shelf? A photo montage or collection you own? You are drawing your visitor deeper into the room before they turn to see where you are. While doing so, you get to choose what they see along the way. There's also a nice feeling of entry here and waiting to be invited in.

In addition, you have created a large alcove behind the perpendicular shelf. If it wasn't against the bathroom wall, you could put your bed against that low shelf using it as a headboard,or make it a seating nook with a comfy chair, or a creative task area. Music listening/making corner and collection? Up to you.

If you draw a plan of your room on graph paper to scale, you can play with the width of these two pieces to find more alcove variations. The shelves or dividers are creating circulation paths into your room. Directing these paths lets you add an activity area, and their heights and transparency lets you choose how much visibility you want that activity to have.

So if, for example, you're comfortable letting someone see over the perpendicular unit, keep it low. Try shortening it to about half the length that I show above. Doing so moves your "entry" more into the room's center allowing you to push the larger unit facing the door closer in. That allows you to fit a hamper right next to the closet, hidden from view.  As long as you leave 36 inches as your entry opening, it should flow nicely. Play.

And what you choose to use, and put on any shelves becomes another expression of you. Nice.

August 18, 2013

PART II –Thinking Beyond: Becoming a Local Asset

In Part I, Thinking Beyond, I spoke about first steps. The personally driven ones that come from my most inner Ring of Resilience - myself. I’ve got to decide what I can do. Want to do. Then I commit to those things by anchoring the activities in my home.This gives those pursuits the respect of a real space to do them, and gives me the ability to grow the habit of folding them into my regular life - so important with new, or renewed transition skills! 

But something more happens when we anchor in place: Together, we and our house now offer our community that skill. We become a Local Asset, a gift to our neighborhood and town. 

I love that my abilities, inclinations, passions,and quirky loves make my community more unique and resilient. In fact, I see the goal of a Transition Town as coaxing all these individuals' skills and “making passions” out of as many of us as possible so they are alive and available. To get the full breadth and depth of what our town's resources really can be.  

There’s a man who bought a lovely home in the hilly streets of my City a few years ago. When I walk my dog past his home in the afternoons, the garage door is usually up and he has moved some woodworking project out to his driveway into the natural light. For the longest time, I just smiled at him as I walked by. But TJ told me to look into his garage next time. Yesterday I finally did. 

He has broken through the back of the garage and incorporated all the house space behind it into what is his labor of love. And what a  workspace he’d created: Clean pegboards with every woodworking hand tool I’ve ever heard about, including those fine Japanese blades. His work table is ringed with the table, band and scroll saws and a long table holds his rip saw. The drill press lives just next to that so he could easily move around from one to the other and back to his worktable for assembly and finish. It is beautifully thought out, and amazingly professional. Hmm, perhaps a bit too neat to be an everyday business. But now I understand the man in a new way when he stands there lovingly planing a door. Intent, and content, I’ll bet.

On one level, it matters little if it is a business or just this man’s beloved hobby. He does it with attention and care.That’s a good energy to put into his home and my town. Thank you. I will introduce myself next time and get to know this man who smells of wood shavings! (And yes, it harkens back to my wonderful husband who did as well. So first, it’s a new connection.)

On another level, knowing he’s there also means he can possibly be my and TJ’s local woodworker if we need something turned or crafted beyond our own skills. I’ve got a master walking distance from my door. He can expand what I can have done. What a gift to me.

On yet another level, as transitional needs become more acute, his skill could become a local business right in our town. His space is large enough to hire a “coupla” journey people. Anchoring and folding his love into his home gives him options as the world changes and possibly offer a few others jobs the town can really use.

Lastly, if teaching is his bent, he could choose to take on a young apprentice or two to help our community keep the skill local and grow it beyond himself now and then after him. Succession is so much a part of Transition Town-ing. Ahhh, all that from commiting a space to the abilities of our hands and hearts!

This is what it means to become a Local Asset.

So what are your loves? Quilting, playing piano, storytelling, teaching, woodworking, reading, bread-making? It need not be a craft. Can you bring culture, offer economic opportunity, education, encourage social cohesion. How do you DO resilience?

I mentioned early in my post about Toadhall, that this very unique space in our home was my Local Asset, a space I got to use and offer my neighborhood. I told you how Toadhall broadened all the ideas about what I could do, and did, in my house and with my community. That is true. 

But in the end, it is not the space alone. It will always spring from who I am, and what TJ and I love and want in our lives. That is what drives how each of us ultimately use our home. We ourselves are the essential kernel of value to our town. I ask you to dig deeply into yourself and pull it up into life and into your dwellings. Together we can create a uniquely designed tapestry of Local Assets whose threads are composed of our own character and what we grow to be.

August 11, 2013

Part I: Thinking Beyond: How do I DO Resilience?

As our house moves through the rest of our remodel and redesign, TJ and I jump in at points to prime, paint and move furniture out. Then we back out so our contractor can assemble and install. Then it's back in again with our old and new mix of furniture and personal goods in new arrangements, places and configurations.

It means three things: We're slightly crazed, as the mix of old places and new places keeps shifting like sand between our toes. "Where did we put my coat rack that we want to hang here now?"  It also means I'm not ready with AFTER pictures and plans to show you what we've accomplished. Lastly, between the chunks of intense activity, there are chunks of mulling time. (And that mulling helps me escape the feeling of invasion, since all the work is in our private quarters at this point!)

While doing all this furniture shifting, we assembled our new clothing wardrobes in a temporary place - sigh! our sitting area, the catchall for the time being - so we can completely clear out the former master suite upstairs and rent our final suite.

This time, we are specifically  advertising for "Transition-minded housemates" and "people wanting to move toward resilience."  I'm excited. Finally I'm saying that I want people living with us who also need to take steps towards self-reliance. But doing so means I have to define what resilience is in very concrete terms for day-to-day living.

What does resilience mean to me? How do I do resilience? 'Til now I've just thought about it as gaining security and control over my life. Yes, that is the goal, but it does not articulate the actions.  As I mentioned in my post Gift to the Group, I realized that I want to do very specific, personally satisfying things that make me feel secure and empowered. Resilience begins with who I am. Who we each distinctly are. Our inner most Ring of Resilience is ourself. To my mind that's exactly as it should be. First we must ask, "What do I know, love to do and feel is a valuable skill to possess (as well as offer to my community and neighbors)? What is my unique mix of passions and mastery?"

As we decide what we wish to do with our time, it becomes a commitment to ourselves to create a place for that in our homes. Rather than just think, "My home houses what I do.", it should turn into more concrete questions:
"How will I do it?" "Where will I do it?"  What will I need?" " With whom will I share this activity?"

That then drives the layout (or the redesign) of the space so we can easily "do."  This facilitate those acts. This makes a commitment to them that makes them real. This helps us develop a rhythm of acts we want our life to include. Anchoring them in place is the important step that respects both who we are and how we intend to live moment to moment.

So when I start by asking "What do I wish to do here?", I rightly bring myself, my skills and my intentions to that answer. That may and should require me to think beyond expected or usual uses in my rooms, but I think it's important that it puts my activities as the top priority that I anchor there. I expand a room to meet my requirements and style of doing.

Take a great utilitarian space like the laundry room:
For me having been in costume and set design years ago, and home space planning now, I love to manipulate textiles. It is natural for me to expand that space into a place that encourages making with material. And that extends to anyone who shares my house with me. So a utility sink for dying and washing materials, sewing machine, cutting tables, and threads fill my small laundry area, with shelves and drawers for fabric, buttons,  tapes, and patterns, like these pictures of laundry sewing spaces. Mine is an invitation to me, but also to my housemates  to explore fabric, ...and making.

There are all levels of polished or utilitarian finishes. Different levels of "put away" or "leave out and readily accessible." And all kinds of inclusions and exclusions. It can be planned for one, ....or like me, would you make yours for a group to use occasionally?

Laundry Room, sewing area, storage, drop down ironing board, 
washer and dryer, pole to dry clothes

But if I was a gardener what then? If I loved aromatic herbs, what might I expand the laundry room to be instead? Instead of a hanger bar over the heat register to naturally dry dyed fabric and clothes, would there be hooks for drying herbs, and flowers?

Would the work tables and shelves house tincture supplies and let me work the leaves and inhale the pungent aromas?

If I defined myself as a foodie, would lovely glass bottles in playful shapes be waiting on those shelves to be filled with herbal homemade vinegars and springs of lavender or rosemary?

It's the same room. Who are you, and what do you wish to make of it?

Martha O'Hara Interiors.

As someone reaching to grow resilient, this is what transition doing is about. For me, it is a taking back a right of making in a proper space to do it well.

It is an expression of self into beautifully functional things.

But then there is another important part to transitioning. Having found this expression, call, or talent within ourselves and having anchored them in place, we now amplify it. We share what we're doing in all sorts of ways with our immediate community, making ourselves a Local Asset. 


August 8, 2013

I have a Black Thumb, but a Green Hammer

The whole question of becoming more resilient always seems to start with growing our own food. With good reason, since without water and food, everything else is eventually moot.

But I am not a gardener. And no matter how many times I have tried, I have not learned to enjoy growing plants, or gotten any better at it.

I often believe in a natural division of labor. It certainly worked for my late wife Trish and I: I built her gardens, she grew stuff in them, I cooked the stuff, and together we ate it. (And evaluated my experimental recipes for disposing of the inevitable garden excess, such as the Twenty Pounds of Green Tomatoes Salsa.)

We were both seriously satisfied, and grateful to each other. I still can see Trish bent over in between her rows of plants, happy, involved and grounded in a way I never understood. I enjoyed helping her harvest, but she was nourished by all the parts of gardening.

(So much so that I got Trish her own chipper shredder for an anniversary present, and she was deeply pleased. Now she could make her own mulch!)

Well, I am not nourished by gardening. It actually drives me a little crazy. Which is why it will not be one of my contributions to resilience.


Because I have realized that I work best in a 1:1 ratio of physical work and result. When I lift up a big rock and carry it across the yard, I am happy that it stays put until I choose to move it again. When I cut a board and nail it to another board, I am truly pleased that they stay together, unless I screwed up and need to redo the joint. When I demolish a wall, I am so satisfied that the drywall and lathe and plaster stay in the debris bags and don’t climb back onto the walls overnight.

My experience of gardening is that crook neck squash that you spend weeks growing, that look so healthy and perfect for picking tomorrow, can become shriveled gray blobs by dawn. That when you (naturally) fertilize and feed your soil, oxalis invites itself to the feast, turning your garden green--but not in a fun way.  That your hours of weeding are rendered useless as soon as you water your garden again, given the regenerative capabilities of oxalis. And that basically, nature loves a stockpile, so the more you grow, the more bugs and slugs and invader plants and fungus and deer and not-so-cute-bunnies come to eat it and undo all your work.

Please believe me. I know we need to grow our own food, and that gardening is a challenging, essential task for resilience.

But it isn’t going to be my challenging, essential task.


So as part of this project, I will be blogging about my search for how my passions and skills can be as effective and useful as growing food.

Because I can’t be the only terminally non-gardening person concerned about self-reliance and resilience.


July 24, 2013

The Water Test - Part II

Tim calls me this morning at 8:10. "Inspector said a man called in sick this morning,so now they're two men short, and he's trying to cover that guy's appointments today too. So there's no way to get over to your house today. He told me to call tomorrow at 8am again.There's really no point in me coming out there today."

"Yeah, okay Tim." Call us tomorrow. 

Damn! TJ and I need to feel productive today. Let's do something, please! We set up a painting area to strip doors we're reusing, and then after lunch we'll do the last bits of shopping -get the under-counter fridge and the last kitchen cabinet, right after lunch. Getting those doors and cabinet prepped and ready will make this day feel less wasted.


At 1:40 the Inspector calls Tim:  "Can you be ready for the vent water test and inspection in 45 minutes? I can swing by."

"YES, OF COURSE! Thanks!"
Tim calls TJ and I: "I'm way out in Concord. Can you get the water up to the roof and into the vent now?

."OF COURSE we can....uhm, which vents do we need to fill?"......the ones back there on the roof? You got it.  Get here!"

I run outside and start unscrewing the longest hoses from side hose bibs to link them together to use on the other side of the house. My hands and sleeves are getting wet as I release each hose and screw them to one another.

I drag what is now 30 ft of twisted hose around to the other side of the house, disentangling it as I pull. Then I thread it through the railings and across our front porch, run it over a 6-foot wooden fence into a small side garden. TJ has climbed up on the roof and throws down a cord. I make a loop around the neck of the hose so he can drag it up to that second floor.

He carries a 12-foot ladder up the stairs and out to a flat roof in back by the roof ridge. That ridge leads to the two vents we need access to. Tim arrives  just as TJ gets the ladder positioned. We're 8 minutes ahead of the Inspector. 

Tim runs inside and tells me to get on the phone so he can tell TJ if he's filling the right vent. He's got his hand on the pipe we need to fill. I've got my mobile landline live to TJ hitched up to my other ear with my shoulder so my hands can turn on spigots.
"Water on!" shouts.
"No!!! Water off, I'm not in place yet"...the other screams.

We get it coordinated...sort of. Water on ...filling. Inspector is running late. For once, a good thing. Tim finds he a small leak in air vent, no two- another one over here.

"Shut off the water!"
He cuts the new hole to release the water into a bucket in a swoosh that soaks his shirt.
He fixes the two leaks. He puts a new sleeve on the new joint.
"Run the water test again!" He commands. "Water on 'til I say stop!"
We coordinate the test again with phones and yelling. Tim's the
submarine captain yelling, "Load outer tubes!" that we repeat, echoing down the chain of command.

But everything is holding.
"Captain,he's holding still. He has not opened outer torpedo doors."

Looks good. and unlike us....dry.

Damn, wait! Tim forgot the inspector wants stainless screws on the toilet flange.

Quick get those in.


Inspector arrives not 2 minutes later. Three dripping, happy people... smile.

All good. The corrections are all signed off.

After he's signed the paperwork, I ask "Hey did you get a lunch today? Want a bowl of rice and ham? I know you're running short of men."

"Hmmm, that sounds good, I shouldn't tell you I gulped a lunch, but I did. Wow, that really sounds good." I offer again, but he shakes his head and thanks me.

"John, can we keep the Monday original appointment for our Sheetrock inspection instead then?" He smiles and nods as he rushes to the front door, and next appointment. He really did squeeze us in!

I love it...we jumped up the schedule. Yes, I do love all this. It's now 3:45.... And we'll go fridge shopping tomorrow. 

Ahhh, the vaudeville!

July 23, 2013

The Water Test - Part I

I'm back up and running, at last! ( A pinched cervical nerve knocked Phase II out of the contractor's queue because I couldn't draw the permit drawings - or any writing or drawing for that matter! Beyond the pain, as a designer, it was more than a little scary.)

Then the new job placed ahead of us ran overtime by 8 weeks until just 12 days ago. So, we've just started Phase II.

Now, onward with a vengeance!.... Seems the City Inspectors are running behind this month what with vacations and lean staffing. Still our contractor Tim grabbed back time by doing all three rough-in inspections at once - plumbing, construction and electrical. But rather than the usual next day appointment, when we called to schedule,we had to wait five days until today. And there are really only odds and ends he can do until these three "basic bones" inspections are done.

The inspector arrived this morning, and spent 28 minutes going through every single thing Tim did, permit card in hand. Unlike most inspectors, he crawled under the house. He got up on a ladder. He filled the new plumbing with water to check for leaks. "Thorough." Tim said. 

Everything Tim did was spot on, but damn if the inspector wants us to take a few more steps towards closing air holes (in the leakiest old house I've every lived in), and asked us to change out the screws that came with the toilet flange in the floor to stainless steel or brass screws instead. I appreciate that he insisted that I make my home more fire-safe even if it's in just this one inner room, but I admit I hate wasting another day, for another inspection to check these off. Plus, the inspector also insisted on seeing a second water test: our water line test passed with no leaks today, but he wants us to do a vent pipe water test too. (You know, the vents up from fixtures so the gases escape.) They will only have gases, and air in them.

Tim spent some time conjuring how to do that water test for him. Oh, it's easy enough getting water into a vent. You carefully climb up on the roof with a garden hose- or several, depending where the water bib is versus the vent--and fill the vent line. But how to get the water out of the vents once the test was done with the redirected lines in our 1908 old house? Hmm. Seems like our only option is to cut apart a major pipe after the test.

 "So..." I said slowly, "We have to cut a pipe to make a new joint after the test to prove that all the joints in the vent line don't leak?" But hey, inspector says, we do.

We just had to schedule a recheck for these "corrections." I actually jumped onto the computer seconds after he left, and damn if the next available day wasn't Monday the 29th, a week away. No!!!

But Tim has a plan: He told me to holler at him at 4 o'clock, and at that point he called the inspector and pleaded for time tomorrow:
"We got all your corrections completed today. Is there any way you could swing by tomorrow to just sign off on them, so we can move forward?"

"Got a man on vacation this week. Call me tomorrow, 8am. Dunno, but I' ll try."
As Tim headed out the door a few minutes ago, he promised he'd call right at 8 to get any slot possible..

Let you know how it goes tomorrow...

June 28, 2013

I am the Perfect Crash Test Dummy - Part 3

Moenkopi Hopi Wash and Lower Village, my home for two years.

For you to have an accurate picture of what this project feels like from the inside, I need to include my experiences of living powered down and more self-reliantly.

I spent two years living in a Hopi village that had no running water, no sewers, and no electricity. The old Mennonite mission buildings where we were housed had electricity and slowly running water, siphoned from the spring at the edge of the lower village and then stored in a water tank above the mission. (I used to say we had walking, not running, water.)  Heat was by woodstove. For my two years there, I split most of the wood, often with an old coughing chainsaw, but frequently by hand.

Living at the mission meant constant work on its systems, such as the roof, our water supply, our septic system and finishing out enough of the stone barn to house a thrift shop downstairs, and me upstairs. All the work was DIY, although sometimes a retired contractor and his sons came to work on our buildings as their way of supporting the unit. Until a brave entrepreneur built a mini-strip mall two miles away in Tuba City, the nearest useful hardware store was in Flagstaff. Flag was an hour-and-a-half drive when there were no sandstorms, thunderstorms, or blizzards. So if something was broken at the mission, we usually had to find a way to fix it with what was on hand.

Some people who came to the mission found this mode of living too challenging. But I loved it. I had no romantic visions of pioneer or rural life; I happen to relish the kind of mental and physical engagement this way of life requires.

For example, the mission was built into the rocky slope of the wash, and it was held in place by a series of terraces with high stone walls. We used to let lower village families garden in the terraces to help them grow extra food. But one night a village man went off drinking instead of turning off the crude irrigation system we had rigged for the gardens. We didn’t notice it running, because it was in the first terrace above the mission. But we certainly noticed a few nights later when fifty feet of stone retaining wall collapsed , just missing the main mission building.

Me, left, and an occasional helping hand.

I spent weeks rebuilding that wall using mud and the mound of rocks now conveniently close at hand. At first it was overwhelming—so many tumbled rocks, so much sandy earth spilling down from the terrace, and after one day of help from a friend, just me and a shovel and a wheelbarrow. And this on top of my regular daily work, too. 

Figuring out the most efficient process of rebuilding the wall started out as self-defense, but I came to really enjoy the problem solving challenge; how much water with how much earth makes the strongest mortar? The rocks that used to be at the base of the wall are now covered by all the higher rocks that fell onto them—how can I get at and use the heavy bottom rocks without moving every rock twice?

Living this way was certainly harder than using a contractor, or buying a pre-made solution. And there were many times when my reaction was more like, “Oh God, now what?” And I do remember the feeling of never being able to get ahead of anything. Because there was always something newly urgent that needed doing NOW, on top of my official job of running a daily rec center and rec program for the village kids, my unofficial jobs of co-hosting visiting travelers, grant writing, and helping run the weekly church activities.

But the truth is, I felt more alive. I’d spent my previous life in school,  reading and writing and studying, and playing music and working in commercial kitchens. So it was alternately daunting and exhilarating to have so much of my life now be in my own hands—if I could come up with a solution to a challenge with our buildings or with my work with the kids, I could just do it. And if I couldn’t, I’d better keep trying because there was usually no backup.

I’ve included as much self-reliance and simpler living as I could in my later life, from working on the houses I’ve owned—carpentry, roofing, electrical, and plumbing—to putting in gardens and even (God-forbid) gardening.

Now,  I don’t particularly want to have to split logs again, or build a fire an hour before I want the room to be warm.

But I do very much want to live more simply and robustly, so that I can directly engage whatever I need and make it work. This gives me a deep, deep satisfaction that I have never forgotten.

June 13, 2013

The Gift of the Group

I'm realizing that there's another layer of motivation to doing this project than just reaching for the companionship and energy that collective living offers me. Even beyond the delight of space designing my house. There's a layer under that, that is starting to bubble up to the surface. Because at last it can.

If I think about it honestly, sharing my home means having to do less. Less of the obligatory and the responsible, and more that is quite personal. And that's a healthy thing! It gives me time to find what must come from deep inside me and act upon it. How often do we have the time these days to do that?

Years ago, my beloved hubby and I tried doing it all ourselves. We did the tree-hugging, "back-to-the-land" lifestyle on10 acres in Washington. We were by ourselves because no other family lived in the state, and because my husband didn't trust strangers to hold true as a family would. We also had two young children. Even in our early 30's it was an huge task to create that from scratch on raw acreage. And, it became an overwhelming amount of work to maintain; ask anyone trying their own version of radical homemaking or urban homesteading. It is one of the reasons I do not have my husband anymore. We were trying to be supermom and dad and super global citizens all at once. 

I will also tell you that living all those values as just a nuclear family was very lonely at times. Everyone was a car ride away. Think about it. If you are trying not to get into that car until you have multiple errands and places to go, and if you are trying not to waste resources and conserve, then you do not hop into a vehicle every time you just ached to rub shoulders with a friend who is miles away. Nurturing yourself kinda settles to the bottom of barrel.  

So now, have those old priorities lost importance? Just the reverse. Those values are all the more dear to me, but I'm seeking another path to them now. One not so burdensome, or lonely, so I can achieve it.

Dunno if I'm wiser now that I'm older, but at least I've learned. I've learned that relying on someone else's muscles is okay. I've learned that reaping the benefit of their fascinations, inclinations, and strengths, enriches me. And now I am also realizing that their presence gives me breathing space.

And precious time. 

Time to relax, and exhale or walk to see a friend...just because. And even more to the point, living this way gives me time to explore all sorts of interests, some they've stimulated as well as my own. The time lets me delve into all those passions I discover I want to improve. To deepen. 

So if I look honestly at my own motivations, there's a real desire to use the collective as a gift for my own pursuits. But see then here's the thing: Being who I am, and still reaching for those values now means I get to focus on what skills I want to bring into the way I live. To train in skills that are important, and intensify my expertise. And that allows me to become more resilient, a deeper resilience that grows from the explore and the pursuit. (At least in the ways that I can, being who I am right now.)

Altogether then, I'm seeing that collective living, the intentional community impulse is in total harmony with transitioning into local resilience, and the Transition Town movement. They are interwoven for me, one fabric. Intertwined, they allow me, and anyone seeking that part of themselves, to seek and exploit my own resilient strengths.  

So now, what do I choose to make of this gift?