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:

Battling fears: I unsheathe my sword and fight

I’ve never fought in a real war, but I imagine that if I were a warrior in battle, I wouldn’t want to back down just because I felt suddenly stricken with fear. I imagine that fear would act as a driving force to propel me to stand tall and fight with all the courage I could muster.

I’m a woman, and I don’t fight in real wars, yet my battlefield spreads before me far and wide. I fight battles every day of my life, as I imagine most people do. Inner and outer battles. Especially women.

As women, we live in a patriarchal society dominated by men who enjoy far more privileges than we do: Men can get paid more in their jobs; men can walk around shirtless on a hot day; men can get us pregnant in one second and then abandon us for life with only a financial burden to carry; men can take a piss standing up; men can go walking alone at night with far fewer risks of bodily harm than we can; et cetera, et cetera.

It’s tough to be a woman in a proverbial “man’s world”.

It’s even tougher to be a strong-willed, stubborn, “manly” woman in a man’s world. And I’m not referring to a manly appearance.

Many people tell me I’m more like a man than a woman, in terms of how I behave and show up in the world. I stand up for myself and insist on getting paid well in my job. I take my shirt off on hot days (whenever there are no cops around to arrest me). I have a man’s libido and would much prefer to have male anatomy than the complicated, intricate female reproductive organs. (No, I don’t want a sex change. I make the most of being a woman). I piss on the grass. Sometimes standing up. (Who cares? I live in the jungle). I go walking at night alone. Because I live alone.

Generally, I tend to stir things up wherever I go, because I challenge myself. I take calculated risks. I therefore challenge the people around me. Because I’m different. I’m open to new experiences, people and places. Nobody can figure out which category to fit me into. I don’t fit into anyone’s mold. I’m an anomaly. I prefer solitude and remote places surrounded by nature. As Aristotle quoted, I must be a wild beast.

A friend of mine once told me that “I have to wear the pants” because I have no husband. I suppose that’s true, but not because I have no husband. I wear pants because it’s practical and more comfortable. Especially as a farmer.

I own an acre of land in a rural area of southern Belize where I’m growing a small vegetable garden and gradually building my own off-grid, thatch roof bungalow. I’ve joined the “tiny house” movement, but I’m doing it south of the border on my own land, and I’m doing it all with my own hard-earned money, not with a bank loan. I’m not financed by an investor or cashing in any retirement check, like most American and Canadian expats living in Central America. I came here in my mid-thirties and over the past five years, I’ve successfully managed to diversify my many talents and skills, thereby cobbling together a decent income to support myself.

The last time I visited my grandmother, she said, “What happened to you? You used to be so sweet.”

I had flown back up to the States to visit my family for a few weeks. It was the last time I ever saw my grandmother before she died months later. She was 93 years old. I hadn’t seen her in almost five years. I’d been living, traveling and working in Central America, and it was too difficult for me to save enough money for airfare to visit family.

I didn’t know what to say. I agreed with her. I wasn’t as sweet as I used to be when I was growing up as a privileged, upper middle-class white girl. I chuckled at my grandmother’s comment, thinking that old people don’t mince their words because they don’t care about offending people anymore. They’ve been through it all, and they know they’re going to die soon.

“I’m still sweet,” I told her. “I just don’t show it as much.”

I’d masked my sweetness for much the same reason old people tend to stop acting nice. Facing death has a way of making you more honest with yourself and others. Because there’s no time left to make up stories that simply aren’t true.

Over the course of my life, I’ve faced my own death on numerous occasions. In the past year, I’ve accepted that I could die any day, at any moment. Most recently, I’ve committed to a one-year vow of celibacy, during which I intend to practice yoga and meditate daily on my imminent death. Because I want to be ready for that moment. I don’t want to die with any regrets. I want to live fully every day until I die. And I’m willing to die for what I believe in. I’m preparing to die, living the way I want to live.

At the time, I didn’t know how to explain to my grandmother that living as a single woman in a Third World country had made me grown a tough skin. I’d acquired a rough exterior to hide and protect a vulnerable, young woman with a tender beating heart still very much alive on the inside, despite having defied death on numerous occasions.

I would like to think I have a choice in life, but I’m not convinced that this is the case. I’m not certain that I really have a “free will” in anything I do. I would side with quantum physicists whose research indicates that everything is interconnected and therefore inextricably intertwined. The “vibration” of what I think about today immediately affects how my life will be in one… five… ten years.

I’m really not in control, so I might as well give up trying and just enjoy living. It is each moment that matters. Right here, right now. How I react to the goings on is my constant “Lord and savior”…. I am redeemed by how I live in the moment, because (as the latest scientific research points out), everything is right here. Right now.

I don’t think life is complicated. I think it’s simple. Just be. See. Do. Everything I need is always right here. Right now. I am empowered by everything. Every situation. Every interaction. Each moment is salvation. The eternal promise of reality.

While I muse existentially, I co-exist with other humans, animals and plants that originate in a country that is still mostly foreign to me. I live in Belize, a tiny country with more biodiversity—and cultural diversity—than most places its size on Earth. A tropical country with coastline along the Caribbean Sea, Belize is a hot cauldron and crucible for strong-willed women like me who want to take on the challenge of living close to the earth, sweating profusely from sunrise to sunset, and hacking away at relentless jungle habitat with a sharpened machete.

When I harvest food from my garden or walk around outside in the tropical jungle where I live, I generally stick to the tried-and-true way of the local people: I carry a sharpened machete, which is essentially a big, long knife with a hilt and a blade that I have to sharpen every couple weeks, otherwise the blade rusts and gets dull. Last year during my travels I purchased a leather sheath, a scabbard with embossed letters that say “Guatemala” to encase my machete, a gleaming metal sword that I use for a variety of purposes here in the tropics, including self-defense.

When I’m not working on my house and garden, I am teaching yoga classes in a riverside bungalow at a charming eco-lodge nestled deep in the jungle. This morning I had the privilege of teaching yoga to a family of four, including two young boys who showed up with eager, smiling faces at sunrise, ready for their yoga lesson. I happily spread out five mats and one of the boys announced, “I brought my dad. He’s never done yoga. But I told him it’s awesome and he had to try it.”

I guided them through an hour-long journey through the jungle, where we wriggled like snakes in the grass, gathered fruits and flowers into our imaginary baskets, roared like howler monkeys, flew like a little tourist hopper airplane, and fought in battle like warriors armed with a sword.

I imagined I was holding my machete as I modeled “Warrior Pose”, a yoga posture in which the two legs separate into a standing lunge with the front knee bent and the back leg strong and straight.

“Feel your legs holding you up, strong and stable on the earth,” I said to the family. I tailored my delivery for the young boys. “You’re a brave warrior going into battle. Make sure you have your feet firm on the ground, so nobody can knock you over.”

I made some suggestions for proper body alignment and mechanics. I offered hands-on adjustments to legs, hips and arms.

“Are you breathing?” I asked them.

I heard them breathe. They all started to sweat. It was only 7:15 AM, yet the tropical heat and humidity had already set in. “Welcome to hot yoga in the jungle!” I said.

I raised my arms straight overhead as my legs stretched and held me in a stable lunge position.

“Hold your sword firm and point it with focused intention at the sky,” I said. “We’re getting ready to lunge forward and strike with our sword.”

The boys smiled. They were really into it. I think they had transformed the yoga bungalow into a raging battlefield with enemies surrounding us.

I pitched myself forward onto my front foot, now balancing on one leg. I held my back leg up high and straight with my toes pointed, and I extended my two arms in front with my hands together.

“Hold your sword tight. Don’t drop it. Point your sword in front of you. Don’t lose your balance!”

The boys giggled and teetered on one leg as they stretched their arms out in front of them.

Dad sweated and took deep breaths. He actually seemed to be enjoying himself, in spite of his obvious reluctance when he’d entered the room, groggy, holding a cup of coffee. Mom was busying herself snapping photos to post later on Instagram. She appeared to be enjoying the class, too. As long as her two boys were happy and entertained, Momma was happy.

We practiced “Warrior III” posture on the other side. As we all struggled to balance on one leg and hold our arms out straight at the same time, it struck me that this was one of those pivotal moments in the life of a yoga teacher where I could sneak in a little bit of yoga philosophy into my class. I lunged at the opportunity.

“Sometimes life is a balance challenge. When life presents us with a lot of things at once, we have to try to stay balanced. We have to stand strong. We can’t back down. We have to hold ourselves up firm and strong, with our feet firmly planted to the earth.”

In that moment, I heard myself talking and realized I was lecturing to myself. I just happened to be sharing the room with four other eager students, including two young boys. Apparently, I needed the reminder.

“A warrior in battle must hold his head up high and be ready to strike with his sword at any moment. Are you ready? Are you breathing?”

The youngest boy, ten years old, nodded and smiled. He was ready.

During the final few minutes of class, I encouraged the boys to pretend they were frozen popsicles getting a deep freeze in a dark, cool freezer. “Imagine what color you are. Let’s breathe in all the colors of the rainbow.” We started with red and ended with violet. The youngest boy said that green tasted sour like a lime.

Refreshing. (“Ya put da lime in da coconut…”)

After the hour-long class, Dad said, wiping the sweat from his forehead, “That felt really good.” Mom’s smile beamed from ear to ear. She had accomplished what she’d imagined to be an impossible mission: She got her two kids and husband up out of bed first thing in the morning to practice yoga together. To exercise. While on vacation. To take deep breaths. To laugh. To make animal noises in the jungle.

I love my job. I love what I do. I love being alive. I love myself.

Most of the time, I try to emulate the dog I’m caring for, an adult German shepherd named Tucker. He loves me unconditionally. Tucker is a faithful and loyal companion. He looks, listens and notices with zeal what’s surrounding him. Dogs just want the good things in life: companionship, a back scratch, good food, a cool place to relax, and water. It ain’t complicated. Life’s simple… when you’re a dog.

Life is simple, slow and rich here in the tropical jungle. It teems with life. I am learning to co-exist with everything the jungle has to offer. Even so, it isn’t easy. I come from a very different culture and climate. It’s a good thing I have a dog to remind me of the simple joys in life and my yoga practice to keep me strong.

Like our classic hero Dorothy on her yellow brick road, I’m not “in Kansas” anymore. When Dorothy ventured away from home, she was forced to face terrifying people, places and situations. She learned to summon her inner strength and to stand up for herself. In the end, she realized that her true home was inside of her all along…. As a kid, I played the lead part of Dorothy in my sixth-grade musical. I sang a solo rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and got a standing ovation. I’m still Dorothy. Like Dorothy, I now live in a foreign country, and I’m a sweet, single woman. As Dorothy learned, being “sweet” and “nice” doesn’t always work very well. Sometimes, it’s necessary to behave more like a manly warrior. Strong. Self-assured. Stubborn and determined.

Like the epic story of Arjuna on the battlefield in the ancient Vedic scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, I must go into battle and fight without being attached to the results. I must go into battle without trying to be in control, because the reality is that I’m not in control of the show. I must don my armor, pull out my sword from my scabbard and defend myself and my right to live. That’s the role I’m acting out, for now.

I’m prepared to die. After all, what’ve I got to lose? My life? Do I “own” my life?

I accept that my life can be taken away from me at any moment. Every day, I practice for the moment of my death, because I’ve been preparing for it my whole life. My body—a suit of skin and bones—is just my costume. My life is a dress rehearsal for the moment of my death. Like a courageous warrior firmly rooted to the earth, I’m strong. I’ll fight to the end and I’ll end up somewhere over the rainbow. I’m ready.

Goodbye to people and places I’ve loved

Since moving to Central America over five years ago, I’ve voluntarily and happily accepted many different roles for which I otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to volunteer: Over the past five years, I’ve been an English teacher, yoga teacher, dish washer, house sitter, dog walker, among other volunteer positions for which I’ve gladly stepped up to the plate.

I spend most of my days surrounded by people who are from a different cultural background. They are not my blood family, but, given my circumstances, I now consider them my family. Humans are animals, after all, and since I’m human, I default to wanting the safety and comfort of other humans around me. Kind of like monkeys, I imagine. We don’t really like to be alone for very long.

Now that I am living in Belize, a tiny country with rudimentary infrastructure, I no longer enjoy the privilege of being surrounded by modern conveniences like Walmart, McDonald’s and strip malls replete with fast food chains and trash cans. People burn their trash where I live. Or bury it. Literally. I’m in a very different part of the world now, where most people get by fairly well on $10 or less per day. Seriously.

In the past five years since I’ve moved here, I’ve grown to appreciate having and doing less. I’ve actually grown to appreciate it. I no longer crave McDonald’s fries. I no longer miss going to movie theaters. I no longer search for the nearest trash can, because I know it probably won’t be there. I’ve learned to be more responsible and accountable to myself. That includes my trash.

I’ve learned to be more self-reliant and self-sufficient. Kind of like Thoreau, I suppose. I am from Massachusetts originally, where the transcendentalists first penned their missives on self-reliance while living sort of like I am now, in a remote area surrounded by nature and few humans.

Here in Belize, I’ve benefited from having a lot of time to myself to reflect on what’s important to me. I’ve had the privilege of being surrounded by pristine nature, virtually untouched by human hands, and therefore in a natural state of balance, for now. I’d like to think that by living close to nature in a balanced state, I too am becoming more balanced. I’d like to think that I can better weigh what I need versus what I want. I’d like to think that I am better at discerning what’s good for me versus what’s not so good for me. But time will tell whether or not that’s the case.

One among many things I’ve given up by moving to Central America is the convenience of hopping in a car and visiting friends and family. I live simply and frugally. Currently, I use public transportation. I can no longer indulge in the habit of spending time with people out of some kind of obligation to fulfill my duty as a sister, a daughter, a friend from college, or whatever. I don’t have that privilege anymore, because I’ve given it up in exchange for being where my heart calls me to be, to do what my heart calls me to do, out of some kind of obligation to fulfill my duty to live a life of service to humanity. Because it seems like a good idea, to me.

As a single woman at forty years of age, I’ve made a deliberate choice to remain free of children and to therefore slough off the obligation I see most women my age beholden to; namely, suckling and raising a miniature version (or multiple versions) of themselves. I don’t think this makes me better or more intelligent than other women; it just gives me more freedom: I have more time, money, energy and other resources that I can dedicate to other endeavors.

Since I’ve voluntarily become a self-proclaimed “nun” with no religious affiliation in my last days on this earth, I figure now would be a good time to say goodbye to the people and places I’ve loved. Because I might never get another chance. I might die today, at any moment, at any time. You could too, for that matter.

There’s not only therapeutic value in saying goodbye; there’s some kind of liberation gained from expressing gratitude for stuff and memories, identifying what I like about the person and generally attempting to bring some closure to what might otherwise be an incomplete relationship where a lot could be left unsaid.

I don’t want to die leaving a bunch of stuff unsaid. I’d rather go out with a clear conscience and a sense of inner peace that I’ve said what I needed to say to the people who matter most.

First, I’ll make a list of all the people and places I’d like to say goodbye to, in the order they spontaneously come to mind…. Then, I can launch into writing letters to each person and place, which I’ll do anonymously, since anonymity matters to people who think they have stuff to hide from the world.

Dear —

I miss your oatmeal cookies. I miss the way you would stand at the door and smile and wave goodbye when I drove away. I miss being a kid and looking forward to sleepovers and talking about what we’d make for breakfast the next day while snuggling in bed.

Thank you for always encouraging me. You gave me strength to keep on going. I always knew you loved me. I always knew you were proud of me. I’m sorry that maybe I didn’t become the successful doctor or whatever you thought I was capable of becoming. I probably could have gone on to have a more lucrative profession, but I doubt that would have made me any happier. I understand your desire to see me become the best you thought I could be.

Dear —

What happened? I guess I was hoping we could at least be friends, but I suppose we both screwed that up, didn’t we, with our self-destructive tendency to give more to others than what is healthy for us. I know we met at the right time, because we were both ready to start the arduous healing process of coming to terms with the pattern of trying to be the savior for everybody but ourselves.

I miss everything about you. Your voice. How you only said the most important things that needed to be said. Your poetry. Your music. I wanted to see more of your smile. Maybe I never will. I guess I wanted to save you, too. But now I know you can only do that for yourself. And I can only do that for myself. So I’m doing it, damn it. With or without you.

I really fell for you, hard and fast. I think you lured me in: You showed up out of nowhere offering me everything I ever dreamed of, I had a taste of all of it, then Poof! you were gone. Like a dragon with a secret den of hidden jewels. Now you live in my dreams.

I suppose it makes sense to apologize for the pain. I can’t say for sure who’s responsible for the pain. I think we both are. But I don’t ever expect you to say you’re sorry to me. I guess there’s really nothing to forgive. I guess there’s really nothing more to say.

Dear —

I’m sorry I didn’t play with you more often. I’m sorry I kicked you out of my room and ignored you when I should have spent more time with you. I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me. If there is anything I regret most in my life, it’s definitely that.

Some of the best memories I have are with you. Watching MTV in the basement to escape the hot days of summer. Playing Nintendo. Watching “The Princess Bride” over and over again until we could recite all the lines from memory. Riding bicycles down the street and back again. Eating popsicles. I always wanted the red ones and you the purple ones. Good thing.

It kind of sucks that we live so far away from each other now. Of all my friends and family, you are the one I can tell pretty much anything to and I know you will listen and understand because you’ve been through it, too. You know what it’s like to live in a foreign country and to be scared every day for your life that you could die or be killed. You know what it feels like to be far away from everything and everyone familiar.

I’m thankful that I can get on Facebook anytime and vent about whatever is going on, and since you live with your cell phone at your hip and it chimes whenever you get a message, I know you will be there to answer me in an emergency or whatever. Nobody else can do that for me.

I would like to think I was a good — to you. But I know mostly I wasn’t. I feel bad that I wasn’t. I hope you can forgive me. I feel bad that we probably won’t spend much time together ever again, because we live so far away from each other and it’s hard to get together. I feel sad about that. But at least we got to grow up and learn how to survive together. At least we have that in common, and that’s kind of a big deal.

Dear —

You were great while you lasted. I got the most I could out of you, like an excellent education, good dental care and access to the best hospitals and universities in the world. I will miss going into your art museums, theaters and labyrinthine libraries stocked full with books that smell like the earth: dirt and mildew and sweet raindrops.

I’m pissed that you wrested most of my hard-earned money from my pocket with your usurious economic system and service to a small percentage of ruling elite whose agenda is planetary destruction. How could you let that happen?

It was unfair that even though I worked fulltime and paid my taxes and student loans on time every month, I still could only dream of owning land and a house. I mean, what kind of f*@#ed up system you have, to obligate everyone to work their asses off at jobs they mostly hate, to never have time for themselves or their families, leaving them just enough money and time to take a shit in their tiny apartments and go to the drive-through for fast food because they don’t have time or money to cook a decent meal. Plus, all the food’s adulterated. How could you?

I left you because you betrayed me. You insulted me. You abused me. I’m glad I left you when I had the chance, before our relationship got even crazier. I truly don’t miss you since you’ve been gone. All I miss are a few good hiking trails and a few good men I left behind there. For all I care, you can go away forever, and the world would be better off.

Dear —

Bummer that you had to crash and burn because some idiot forgot to put out his campfire. Glad it wasn’t me. Back when we had our love affair, I fantasized about making a campfire and sleeping all night against your chest, well-endowed with the magnificence of a thousand redwood trees, now charred and abandoned. Especially you—the tall, handsome one I loved to embrace.

I’m sorry I abandoned you. I left you alone but I never forgot about you. I can still close my eyes and smell you. Feel you. Imagine myself on top of you. You were my favorite place in the whole wide world. I doubt that will ever change. Thank you for giving me solace and solitude when I needed it most.

Why I’m practicing celibacy for one year

I’m going through divorce. Again. The “again” part is the main reason why I’m taking a break from relationships—and sex—for a while. For a year.

Either I haven’t been making good decisions about my partners, or there is something inherently flawed in my character. Judging from how my intimate relationships have gone over the past decade (starting out with raging, fiery passion and gradually petering out to a dying ember), the latter is most likely the case: There’s something in me that’s gone awry, and I’m the only one who can fix it. I suppose it’s about time I try to fix myself, before it’s too late.

I’m not mentally handicapped, and no professional has declared me to be mentally ill. Even so, I admit that I have my issues, as I suppose we all do. For one, I admit that I’ve been somewhat confused in the arena of relationships: how to make relationships work; how to have healthy relationships; how to avoid the most common pitfalls; et cetera, et cetera…. It appears I keep falling face first into the deepest ditches, in spite of being reasonably intelligent and accomplished in other aspects of my life.

Over the years, when it comes to relationships, I’ve gotten some good advice from friends and some not-so-good advice from so-called friends. All the advice has been pretty much useless. Because humans do what they want to do, no matter what. We always seem to find a way to fulfill our appetites for whatever it is we think we need: food, sex, money, cars, … faster, bigger, better … more, more, more…. While this formula might provide some instant gratification or at least some short-term satisfaction, look where it’s gotten us, hmmm?

I once attended a sacred ceremony led by an indigenous Mayan elder I met in the mountains of southern Mexico. He held the bowl of copal incense in his hands and gazed thoughtfully at the smoke as it curled up toward the sky, carrying our prayers. “The best things in life are free,” he said, and then he told a story about how his ancestors lived—and thrived—before we started slapping price tags and bar codes on everything.

One thing I’ve learned is that people are stupid. That includes me. We only believe what we want to believe. We only see what we want to see. We only hear what we want to hear. Et cetera, et cetera. I suppose that’s why we benefit from attempting to refine our intellect by reading books, writing poetry and doing crossword puzzles. Humans without lofty pursuits default to behaving like monkeys. I repeat: That includes me.

For what it’s worth, I’ve made a commitment to myself to practice celibacy for one year. This means I’m currently in a “state of abstaining from marriage and sexual relations”… for one year. I think I need at least that much time just to get used to the idea.

For most of my adult life, I’ve had an impressively diverse range of experience in terms of partnership and everything that comes along with it, including sex. I live for experiences.

Every experience enriches me, builds my character, teaches me something and changes me. That’s why I travel and work in different places with different people. That’s why I change my environment frequently. I seek experiences, and these have included experimentation with sex and drugs. Wait… sex is a drug. For me, it has been somewhat of an addiction.

Recently, I’ve summoned the inner strength to be honest enough with myself to recognize my addiction and to make a more concerted effort to slay the dragon, lest it kill me first.

I’m multi-talented, multi-variegated and multi-layered, somewhat like Neapolitan ice cream. When you take a bite, you can never be sure what flavor you’ll get. I would like to blend my flavors into something more … consistent. When it comes to food, consistency matters. When it comes to partners, consistency matters. It makes for better relationships. Less complicated ones, anyway.

 

Why I’m Practicing Celibacy

I like challenges. Throughout my life, I’ve enjoyed taking on more than I thought I could. I graduated valedictorian of my class in both high school and college. I like to challenge myself to improve, to excel, and to grow in ways that matter.

I’m practicing celibacy for one year, because so far, I’ve never been able to remain celibate for more than a few months. I’ve tried it before, but as I mentioned in a previous blog post, I was too swayed by my thirty-something-year-old hormones and too dismayed by loneliness.

I think I’ve reached a point in my life when I’m ready for this challenge. It’s a realistic one for me to take on, so I’m willing to make the commitment to myself.

A skilled astrologer once analyzed my natal chart (a visual display of how the planets aligned on the day and hour of my birth). He placed the chart on the table, removed his spectacles and looked quizzically at me until I felt uncomfortable.

“What?” I asked him.

He cleared his throat. He was a gray-haired, somewhat gruff man. “I feel sorry for you,” he said.

“Why?” I asked him.

He proceeded to explain that I am a “quintuple Scorpio”, which apparently means that there are five planets in the sign of Scorpio on my chart.

“What’s that mean?” I asked him.

Again, he said, “I feel sorry for you.”

He continued with his explanation. I listened carefully and took scrupulous notes on the subject. At the time, I didn’t really believe in astrology, nor did I know much about it, but since that day, I’ve done some research to see if other sources corroborate with what the astrologer told me.

Indeed, I agree with the no-nonsense astrologer. I feel sorry for myself and anybody else who’s a quintuple Scorpio. Life is cursed with an incessant drive to dig oneself as deeply into as many caves and holes and ditches as possible, just to find what’s buried underneath the layers. And just for the thrill of it. My five planets in Scorpio compel me to seek thrills and to therefore experience the passion and cascade of emotions that come along with thrill-seeking.

A person with five planets in Scorpio is likely to be intensely passionate and inclined toward excessive sexual activity due to a raging libido, a high degree of creativity and intuition, and a desire and ability to connect deeply on many levels with self and others. Along with all of this comes a tremendous capacity for healing. Because we go deep.

Check.

Yep. That describes me.

I think it’s worthwhile to at least try to transcend astrology and, for that matter, any other “-ism” or “-ology” that would otherwise limit myself to behaving a certain way.

I’m practicing celibacy because it challenges me to go against what my biological tendency would have me do (namely, f*ck like a bonobo). I’m attempting to do the opposite (namely, sublimate my biological urges). To use a monkey-like analogy, it’s kind of like ignoring an itch instead of scratching.

I believe a geeky scientist friend of mine whose research has convinced me that the human species doesn’t have very long left to enjoy living on this planet, because we’ve screwed it up enough for Mother Earth to start shaking us off like parasitic fleas. Whether or not my scientist friend’s hypothesis is correct, I could realistically die any day, at any moment. I don’t want to die full of regrets. Now is the time to start making amends, forgiving myself and others, and generally trying to be the best person I can possibly be.

I regret some of the choices I’ve made in the arena of my sexual relationship with life. My choices haven’t all been the most empowering or wise. Taking a break from sex will give me time to reflect and forgive myself for being stupid. I’ve hurt some people in ways I regret.

I hereby dedicate my year of celibacy to making amends with the people I’ve hurt, with a solemn wish for healing and empowerment on all levels (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) for all of us.

 

Why I’m Not Practicing Celibacy

I’m not choosing celibacy because anyone is telling me to do it, or because I’m following some kind of religious dogma. I’m practicing celibacy because my spirit is calling me to do it, because I know it is good for me.

I’m not practicing a one-year vow of celibacy because it will please my Momma or because it will “please God”: I don’t even know what that means….

Although I consider myself a Christian, I don’t believe in the dogma. I believe in Jesus Christ as my guru, my teacher, someone whose life and teachings are worth aspiring to (what we know of Jesus’ life, anyway).

I believe that Jesus mastered the art of yoga and as a fully self-realized individual, he was imbued with miraculous healing powers and fully empowered by the universe (“God”) to do what the bible says he did, which probably should include a lot of stuff that has since been cast aside and/or adulterated by religious authorities whose vested interests were more sociopolitical than spiritual.

Suffice it to say that I don’t give a damn about religion. I’m interested in living an authentic life in alignment with my highest potential as a spiritual being temporarily stuck in a human body.

 

Why I Think Celibacy is a Worth My Effort

Since I’ve moved to Central America and traveled extensively in Mexico, Guatemala, and most recently, Belize, I’ve had the privilege of learning a thing or two from indigenous people who’ve studied traditional healing for their entire lives.

A friend of mine who carries the wisdom of healing with plants is a Mayan elder whose native tongue is Kek’chi. We often sit together in my riverside bungalow in the tropical jungle and talk about a lot of things, because we are both interested in spirituality (whatever that means).

Exactly one year ago, we had a conversation that has impacted me deeply but it wasn’t until now that I could take his advice seriously.

“If you want to learn how to use prayers for healing,” he said, “You will really have to concentrate. You will have to be celibate, at least for a while,” he told me.

At first, I resisted the idea. Something in me rebelled. “Why?” I asked him.

“You will need to gather all your inner power. Your strength. It will take a lot of concentration. You need all the strength you can get.”

I listened carefully.

“Once you start learning, if you engage in sexual relations with another person, you could hurt yourself. You could hurt that person. You don’t want to do that.”

Yet, that’s precisely what I went ahead and did, regrettably. More than once. I didn’t listen to my teacher. Like a monkey, I only heard what I wanted to hear.

I rebelled. I defaulted to my shadow self (my quintuple Scorpio nature?) and did what I thought was okay at the time. Inevitably, there were consequences. Unpleasant ones. I’ve since healed, but I can’t say the same for the other people involved. I can only hope and pray that they learned something too.

Some people say there are no mistakes, only learning opportunities. If that’s true, then over the past year, I’ve learned a lot. At least, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot.

I’m grateful.

At this time in my life, living alone as a single woman in a third world country, the benefits of celibacy appear to far outweigh the benefits of playing the field. Consider my list of pros and cons:

PRO celibacy

PRO sex CON celibacy CON sex
health feels good loneliness risk of STDs
increased energy fear of being alone risk of pregnancy
safety risk of rape
better relationships negative reputation

hurt feelings

From a purely logical perspective, it appears most wise for me to be celibate, at least for now. I figure one year will give me enough time to not only get used to the idea, but maybe to learn to like it. At first, medicine might taste bitter, but over time, it might start to taste sweet. Who knows? I might be dead by the end of my one-year vow of celibacy. In that case, hopefully I will have died with a clear conscience and a more integrated sense of self. All in all, I think it’s worth my effort.

If I live beyond my one-year vow, hopefully I will have learned something about myself. I think I’m ready to learn something new, but first, I have to be willing to try something new.

 

 

 

Love is all that matters: Why I offer therapeutic massage and yoga

Originally from the U.S., I left my successful teaching career five years ago to purchase an acre of fertile land and build an off-grid homestead in a rural area of southern Belize, Central America, where I currently live and work. As a published author, I am an active blogger: I regularly reflect and write about my experiences, particularly focusing on themes related to international travel, sustainable tourism, living off-grid, homesteading, health, wellness and spirituality. You can read more about my personal story here.

About my educational background: I hold a Master of Arts in Education with a minor in Counseling Psychology from New Mexico State University. I also hold a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Spanish and Multidisciplinary Studies and a minor in Health Care Administration from Stonehill College in Massachusetts. I am fluent in English and Spanish and have taught adults and children of all ages in a variety of settings in five countries for the past 20 years.

As my friend Guy has expressed in his recent blog post, there appears to be some interest in exploring the emotional aspect of how we as a collective humanity can support one another to process the at-once devastating, sobering and drastic life-changing predicament from which none of us can be exempt. In the end, what at else is left to celebrate, enjoy and live fully, but love? Love for each other … love for the dying planet … love for the species with whom we’ve shared this earth … love for ourselves.

For those of us who may be receiving this message for the first time or find ourselves in the early stages of coming to terms with our inevitable death, we must necessarily undergo a deep inner process of discovery, where we may experience a cascade of emotional reactions, ranging from shock to denial to fear to depression to what some may call “spiritual enlightenment,” which, as Adyashanti says, “Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth…. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true”…. Through this process, we learn to be more honest, more real, and to live more fully today; because we understand, realize and accept that there may not be many more tomorrows left. The message of near-term human extinction can serve as an urgent wake-up call to embrace each moment, to live fully in the now and to awaken to our deepest yearnings, to inspire us to be the most excellent person we can possibly be.

For the past 10 years, in both my group workshops and my private therapeutic sessions, I endeavor to provide a safe, nurturing space in which my clients can open up to “feeling” their emotions on a psychosomatic level; where physical movement, therapeutic massage, breathing and music can become pathways to accessing our emotions, recognizing how we feel in response to the information, which then can open up a door to acceptance and, through mutual support, taking meaningful action in a way that is authentic for each one of us. And taking action will be different for each individual.

As a highly skilled therapist trained in a variety of modalities, I am honored to help individuals explore their unique “life mission” using a variety of tools and techniques to access the inner self, courageously exploring the important questions that we may have found many reasons to avoid or deflect, like “What do I love to do?… Who am I?… Why am I alive?… How can I live my life fully and passionately?”

As a dynamic educator and experienced workshop facilitator, I am a U.S.-Licensed/Certified Massage Therapist (License #MT-15237 from the state of Arizona, expiration November 2017) and Certified Yoga Teacher specializing in Thai Yoga Massage. I have completed over 1,000 hours of formal training in a variety of therapeutic modalities, including Swedish Massage, Deep Tissue, Sports Massage, Reflexology, Craniosacral Therapy, Pre- and Postnatal Massage, Hot Stone Massage, and Chair Massage.

For the past five years, I have lived and worked in Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala, where I have taught hundreds of classes and facilitated a variety of workshops on health and wellness; including yoga, live music, guided meditation, and therapeutic massage. Currently, I am the Manager of the Wellness Center and Spa at Cotton Tree Lodge, an ecolodge nestled deep in the tropical jungle of southern Belize, where I offer my services as a Certified Massage Therapist and daily yoga classes beside a pristine, emerald green river.

When I’m not busy working with clients at the ecolodge, I am cultivating a garden and building my thatch roof hut on an off-grid homestead located on the outskirts of the nearest town. As a single woman at forty years of age, I am blessed to be in robust health while I have made a conscious, deliberate choice to maintain this unconventional lifestyle of living as simply and frugally as possible in a third world country, where I can enjoy the privilege of owning my own land and growing my own food. As a full-time special education teacher in private and public schools for over a decade in the U.S., I could only dream of living with such freedom and simplicity.

As a published author, I have written over a dozen books (available here on Amazon). Two of these bestselling books describe “The Star Method” — a technique of therapeutic touch that I developed after publishing an article about stress management for educators in a peer-reviewed journal for my Master’s degree thesis. These books have been on the bestseller list in “Experimental Methods in Education” since their publication in 2015. The other books I’ve published include two poetry collections as well as a series of books featuring a unique form of personal coaching that I have offered to hundreds of clients to help them discover their life’s mission, passion and goals.

I have a contact list numbering over a thousand, including clients who have taken my yoga classes, workshops, and/or received my therapeutic services. I am dedicated to providing the highest quality service to my clients, as can be seen from the “Testimonials” page on my blog.

I’d like to include an excerpt from my most recent workshop in Belize, featuring live drumming to accompany yoga and dancing, where our motto is “Unwind, unplug and connect inward”:

In a capitalistic system that emphasizes productivity over personal integrity and authenticity, we can easily forget to value ourselves for just being alive — for simply breathing. We tend to focus instead on externally motivated goals that may not align with our true heart’s desires and dreams.

Together we will nurture, support and encourage each other to ask questions, reflect and “feel” what it is like to “just be”….

In this workshop, explore what you really want in your life, for you… What is true for you at this time in your life? What makes your heart burst with passion and excitement? What are the fears and limitations that hold you back from taking a leap into the unknown — into something new and exciting in your life?

Unwind, unplug and connect inward.

Now is the time to live fully and love passionately. I believe that as we collectively experience the drastic changes now upon us, we can all feel it and know it deep inside: Love is all that matters.

Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase an acre of fertile land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off-grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally.

Check out my latest published books here.

A personal reflection: grieving losses, letting go and loving self

Over two years ago, I separated from my beloved husband of five years while we were living in a remote, mountainous region in southern Mexico. Devastated and suddenly left to travel alone in a notoriously dangerous country, I was faced with terrifying choices, all of which I knew would be painful, no matter which choice I made: stay put in Central America and continue what we’d started (building a tiny house on an acre of land), commit suicide, find a rebound relationship so I wouldn’t have to be alone, or return to the U.S. (the country of my birth)…. Although I thought at the time that I had a choice, I really didn’t.

The universe had its own way of making my path clear, and I had the sense enough to follow the path laid out before me, kind of like Dorothy following the yellow brick road.

A few months before my husband left me, I had arranged to facilitate an intensive, month-long workshop at a local healing center for a group of 15 people who were from Mexico; therefore, I would lead the workshop in Spanish. The workshop, “21-Day Personal Yoga Challenge” gave everyone the opportunity to attend 21 days of daily morning meditation followed by a rigorous yoga practice while maintaining a personal journal with reflections and insights and to keep track of personal goals.

At the end of the 21 days, we would climb up to the top of the nearest mountain, where we would participate in an intensive, day-long workshop with live music that concluded with a special ceremony in which we would “let go” of whatever we were ready to let go of.

I was apparently ready to let go of my marriage of five years.

When I turned to friends and asked for advice about what I should do: Should I stay or should I go? … The most commonly suggested solution to my situation was to pack my bags, forget about my unconventional life south of the border and go live with my family back up in the states. I spent many days hiking by myself, crying out to the birds and the trees, asking the universe, “What do you want me to do?”

Thankfully, the right path was clearly revealed by reality, and I “chose” to stay put, to continue what I’d started and to follow through on my offer to facilitate the workshop. Despite being devastated. Despite being all alone for the first time in seven years. Despite having limited resources.

One thing I learned about myself through this experience is that I have tremendous inner strength, willpower and capacity to overcome challenges. I suppose that’s why it was appropriate for me to lead a workshop entitled “21-Day Personal Challenge” … The timing, at least in my own life, couldn’t have been more perfect.

Instead of spending my days crying, moping around, pining for my long-lost partner and generally feeling sorry for myself, I was called to meaningful service and invited to step up to the plate, to access my own strength and assist others in discovering their own inner strength.

I am proud of everyone who participated: All 15 of us, plus myself, courageously completed our 21-day challenge. I fulfilled my role as a facilitator, showing up on time every morning to guide, to share, and to lead … despite all the odds against my success. I think I learned more from everyone else than they learned from me. I can confidently say that all of us let go of something significant that had been holding us back from moving forward meaningfully in our lives. I know I certainly did.

The timing of this blog entry couldn’t be more perfect. As I am faced with a similar set of challenges at this time in my life, now living in a remote area of southern Belize, I must make some difficult decisions. I have access to more resources now than I did when I lived in Mexico, but the loneliness and isolation are still palpable and sometimes debilitating. I long for the companionship of a loving partner.

Even so, I question whether or not a partner is what is best for me at this time. I am building my house. I am writing my novel. I am working and earning my own money. I am taking care of a wonderful dog who relies on me for food, water and companionship. For the most part, I enjoy myself and my alone time immensely. I ask myself and reflect, Why do I think I need a partner?

Aristotle said, “Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.” I would put myself in the category of wild beast. After all, I live in a tropical jungle and awaken every day to the resounding, guttural call of howler monkeys.

When I was feeling most devastated while living alone in Chiapas, Mexico, I consulted with a psychotherapist who became a dear friend and confidant during my year-long residency there. She is a talented painter, humanitarian and overall a delightful, generous woman who is well-loved and respected in the community. Beside the door to her psychotherapy office hangs a picture she painted with the caption, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

At the time, suddenly abandoned by my partner and feeling the pain of our separation, reading this message on a weekly basis filled me with renewed strength to forge ahead. To know that I am whole. I am complete. I am strong. Maybe I don’t need a man to be okay.

Maybe it’s okay for me to be alone for a while. For a long while. While I finish my novel. While I earn money and support myself. While I build my house. While I have a wonderful dog to take on long walks.

There was a time in the past when I attempted to practice celibacy, but I was too swayed by my raging 30-something-year-old hormones and dismayed by loneliness to persevere in doing so.

Now might be a good time to reconsider the option of being celibate for a while. After all, engaging in sexual relations with people who are not committed partners only seems to complicate my life, lead to hurt feelings, and put myself at risk for diseases that I otherwise wouldn’t be exposing myself to. The benefits of self-imposed celibacy appear to far outweigh the fleeting pleasure of an occasional orgasm culled from a one-night stand or a weekend fling.

Perhaps now might be an appropriate time in my life to experiment with being celibate— and following through on it—instead of experimenting with sex and all its thrills and consequences.

At forty years of age, I may be single, available, attractive and in robust health, but what I want even more than sex is a companion who loves me for who I am and wants to share a life with me. I’m not interested in compromising what I really want. Despite being lonely. Despite all the odds against finding a suitable mate (besides a howler monkey) while living in a remote tropical jungle.

I’m not living in a third world country to enjoy some kind of vacation or to have an easy life. Every day is downright challenging and at times frightening. Every day I’ve got to pull myself up by my bootstraps, grab a machete and go foraging in the jungle for whatever I would like to eat. Yes, I have friends and neighbors who help me, but at the end of the day, I’m alone out here, braving a world that’s foreign to me, unfamiliar and always dangerous. It’s a path I’m consciously choosing because I see no better alternative, at least not right now.

I don’t like to socialize because it usually involves spending money, listening to bad music and tolerating conversations I’d rather not participate in. I prefer the company of like-minded weirdos who are a rare breed in this world. I prefer to fly my freak flag high and deal with the reality of having a few quality friends who can join me in what I most love to do.

I’m not interested in a dull, conventional life. There are plenty of other people living mediocre lives and wishing they could do something more interesting. I think I have the strength and tenacity to try something unprecedented. I think I’ve proven that to myself time and time again. I’ve no doubt that I have the willpower and determination.

I hereby declare to myself that I am practicing one year of celibacy as of the date of this publication. Who knows? We might all be dead by then, anyway…. What better way to go out of this world than blazing my own trail of impassioned determination and conviction?

Besides, disciplining myself to want less from others and to expect more from myself seems like a good idea, to me.

I’m making the declaration of my one-year vow of celibacy publicly in this blog for the same reason that couples get married in a public ceremony: I want witnesses. I know at times it won’t be easy. I can look back at this publication and remind myself. I hereby hold myself accountable, knowing that I’ve failed before.

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” ―Albert Einstein

Before I was married, during my marriage and during the two years since our separation, I’ve experienced enough sexual pleasure to last a lifetime. Many lifetimes. Like Eve in her garden of bliss, I continue to gather the succulent fruits from what my partners and I have sown together.

And, like Eve with her garden, I’ve been a playful nymph. I’ve tried everything. Believe me. All the positions. They’re overrated. Regardless of where some of my talents lie, I know that much deeper, longer-lasting satisfaction and fulfillment can be derived from other pursuits.

I will do what my spirit calls me to do. I will go where my heart calls me to go. I will live fully, in alignment with my highest potential. Regardless of the naysayers who think I may be incapable of reaching my lofty or otherwise worldly goals. I’ve learned it’s not worth worrying what other people think about me. Worrying about pleasing anyone other than myself has never gotten me anywhere I want to go. Besides, I consider everyone my teacher: this includes the people I am most challenged by.

I’m interested in living unconventionally. These days, it’s more unconventional to not have sex than to have sex, at least in the Americas. I’ve made a deliberate, conscious choice not to be a breeder in this lifetime, thereby placing me in the vast minority as a single woman at age forty. I’ve chosen this path for many reasons, one of which is to have time and freedom to travel, among other things.

When all is said and done, what I want most is to live a life of service—first and foremost, to myself—and what naturally follows is that I can truly be of service to others.

At this time, serving myself means asserting that my private parts are not open for business. They’re private. I don’t really need anyone else’s anatomy rubbing against mine to be okay with who I am. What I really want is loving companionship. My mind and my heart are open to share. Open to explore. Open to love.

I hereby declare to the universe my intention to love myself. To be happy. To smile every day. To dance. To sing. To live my life fully every day. And so it is. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At first I didn’t believe it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed. I guess he thought I was funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, I said, “I don’t know.”

Gary laughed. Apparently, he thought I was funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, he said, “Am I boring you?”

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

He laughed. I laughed too. We laughed together.

“I like to talk,” he said.

“I like to listen,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parama w students

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

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

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

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Cotton Tree Lodge in southern Belize

 

Fumbled attempts at building my off-grid homestead in Belize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Myth” by Delerium

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

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

I’m only a memory that comes through

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

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

Is it you or is it me?

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

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

Boat Pose: “Whatever floats your boat!”

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Tally ho, yogis and yoginis! Don’t we all love how a good Boat Pose (Navasana) feels from head …. to buttocks … to toes? What’s not to love about Boat Pose? Arr! Come on, let’s get stronger abs!

img_7832Boats have been a significant part of my life for the past five years, since I left the U.S. and moved to Belize, a tropical country just south of Mexico. I can hop on a motorboat and arrive at the northeastern shoreline of Guatemala in 45 minutes, after a pleasurable trip across warm Caribbean waters and occasional sightings of enormous, brown manta rays leaping into the air.

With easy access to ideal conditions for sailing on crystal blue waters, I’ve been invited to be a crew member on many memorable nautical adventures: I’ve driven a 40-foot sailboat up a winding river, swabbed the deck (while sipping piña colada), pulled up anchor (albeit with vociferous complaints about the weight of said anchor), driven a tugboat in tropical waters, and made passionate love on said tugboat….

I savor the freedom of being on an actual boat: the sensation of buoyancy, surveying a clear, expansive horizon of sea; the excitement of dolphin sightings, the rocking of the waves, and the pleasure of a good captain who knows how to expertly handle both the boat and me, the latter of which requires … special skill.

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As one experienced captain pointed out, “When you’re on a boat, your body is always working.” While on boats, I’ve experienced this to be true: The muscles must constantly adjust to the persistent rolling to and fro, back and forth of the boat; especially the abdominal, lower back and leg muscles — which is why every good sailor girl should regularly practice Boat Pose.

Here’s how this butt-balancing posture can benefit you:

  • Strengthens the abdomen, hip flexors, and spine
  • Stimulates the kidneys, thyroid, prostate glands and intestines
  • Relieves stress (now, who doesn’t need that?)
  • Improves digestion

Parama w clay body wrap 2I currently offer daily sunrise yoga classes at Cotton Tree Lodge, an ecolodge nestled deep in the rainforest of southern Belize alongside a magnificent, emerald green river. For centuries, this area has been home to the Mayan people, who live in off grid, thatch roof huts in tiny villages, where nearby ancient Mayan ruins can be explored. This is a remote, isolated area: I imagine there still remain many ruins deep in the jungle that have not yet been discovered.

I’m a spoiled yogini. I can’t imagine going back to teach or practice yoga in a climate-controlled yoga studio enclosed within four walls. Here, I practice yoga outside, surrounded by some of the purest, most pristine nature left in the world.

Suffice it to say that I am blessed to practice and teach yoga in a magical place, beside one of the last remaining rivers on the entire planet that has not been polluted by industrial inputs. Here, the Mayan people live simply and self-sufficiently. I have had the privilege to become friends with the local Mayans, whom I find to be hard-working people with strong will, tremendous patience, endurance and a mischievous sense of humor.

Living in the jungle has a way of teaching you to be patient and to honor the rhythms of nature: Here in the rainforest, nature will take over and kick your ass if you’re not … capable and willing to work in harmony with the land, the fertile soil, the animals, and the lush plant life. Not to mention harmonizing with the spirits who protect the land, but that’s another topic, perhaps worthy of a separate blog entry….

This morning I encouraged and guided my students to courageously hold Boat Pose for five full breaths, intentionally eliciting giggles when I exclaimed, “Whatever floats yer boat!”

For anyone who’s done Boat Pose, you know how it gives your abs a good, steady burn and makes your hip flexors work hard. But it’s so worth it…. You never know when an actual boat will show up in your life, at which time you’ll be better prepared for the adventure after having practiced your Boat Pose.

canoe-floatingThe unexpected arrival of a boat into my life is precisely what transpired after this morning’s yoga class: I was sitting at my desk overlooking the Moho River, when in the corner of my eye I spotted a large floating object that I thought at first must be a log* …. I stood up, got a closer look and realized it was actually a wooden canoe floating upside down, drifting slowly downstream, as if being delivered straight to my door. (Thanks, spirits of the river and the land!)

I dashed outside and called for Mr. Bo, my coworker and foreman at Cotton Tree Lodge. I found him knee-deep in mud beside the river, tending to the motorboat that we use to take guests out on snorkeling adventures — just a half-hour ride down the Moho River to where it meets the Caribbean, where crystal clear waters of offshore island cayes can be explored to your heart’s content. (Yes, I am reminded that I live and practice yoga daily in a veritable paradise. Thank you).

“Mr. Bo!” I said, catching my breath, “There’s a canoe coming our way! Will you help me get it out of the water onto shore?”

mr-bo-martin-lasso-canoeBeing the helpful, cooperative Mayan elder that he is, Mr. Bo immediately jumped to action: He retrieved a long rope, ran to meet the canoe just as it was passing by, waded through the water and lassoed it so that he could haul it up (with help from Martin, a fisherman who happened to be passing by in his own canoe) onto the nearby embankment while I stood by and watched, cheering the boys on.

Again, I’m such a spoiled yogini. I have a whole crew of able-bodied men who do all the dirty work for me. I have to make a concerted effort to go out into “the bush”, as we call the jungle here, put on my boots and sweat while I swing a machete. The Mayan men–and women, for that matter–are much better at manual labor than I’ll probably ever be, though I do at least make the effort to learn basic survival skills.

img_0930When I’m not busy offering therapeutic massage and spa services here at the riverside Wellness Center and Spa at Cotton Tree Lodge, I am building my own off-grid, 16×16 foot thatch roof hut and cultivating a small garden on an acre of fertile land on the outskirts of the closest town. I had been picturing how cool it would be to make a couch out of a dugout canoe and put it in my living room, like the one we have in the main lodge here at the resort.

Well, my wish for a canoe couch came true. Within hours after this morning’s yoga class, the Moho River gifted me my very own handmade dugout canoe … and all it took was me holding Boat Pose for 5 focused, meditative breaths, and –bing!– there was my very own boat!

village-boy-in-cayucoLike all dedicated yoga practitioners, we must sometimes practice the art of “letting go” and “detachment” … Later that afternoon, two village boys paddled their canoe to shore and stopped to inspect mine, now drying out in the sun. I greeted them and asked if the canoe belonged to them.

“Yes,” they said, “We came to get it for our father.”

My heart sank (pun intended). “There goes my canoe couch,” I thought. I practiced deep yogic breaths and resolved in my mind to … let go.

I thought to myself, “If you love it, let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s meant for you.”

This maxim proved to be true for me today. After inspecting the sides and bottom of what I thought was my very own wooden dory, the boys abandoned it and headed back home, telling me that my boat was leaking from too many holes. In the end, it would make a perfect … couch.

village-boys-inspect-cayuco“Why do you want this dory?” Mr. Bo asked me. “It’s no good. You can’t use it for anything” (an astute observation from a self-sufficient, practical man of the jungle).

“I want you to deliver it in your truck to my house!” I replied. “It will make a great bench!”

My friend and coworker Mr. Jose Bo, a well-respected, lifelong resident of nearby San Felipe village, laughed at my proposed idea of turning the now useless canoe into anything other than a vehicle for doing work.

Then, he launched into what I thought was an interesting story, which I was careful to catch (again, puns intended)….

“I used to haul 200 bags of rice in my dory down the Moho River from the village of Boom Creek all the way to Punta Gorda town three times a week to sell rice at the market,” he told me.

“Each bag of rice weighed 100 pounds.”

Wow, that’s one sturdy dugout canoe!

I was impressed and interested in Mr. Bo’s story, so I asked him to tell me more (keeping his native Kekchi Maya dialect intact in his quotes)….

“I learned to be a dory maker when I was 20 years old. The full story, I make 40 feet in length and 4 feet wide. It took me one month to carve the dory with five guys to help me.”

Skilled at the art of canoe-making, Mr. Bo has taught his five sons how to make their own canoes from the logs of local hardwood trees (namely, Santa Maria and emery).

“It was my belief that if I could somehow pass this skill to the younger generation, they could also practice dory making.”

“Today, it is a tradition of Maya transportation for farmers to cross the rivers to work on their farms. We still use dories to haul materials from the jungle that we use to build our houses.”

Now, that’s what I call sustainable living with a minimal carbon footprint.

[A side note: We have a lot to learn from the indigenous people, if we privileged elites can get over our hubris long enough to let them teach us, instead of the other way around.]

The nearest town of Punta Gorda used to be a tiny, remote fishing village accessible only by a dirt road, until a highway was built within the past two decades. Three days a week, Punta Gorda hosts a bustling market where local farmers can sell fresh food grown and harvested from their own land; including rice, corn, beans, and plantains, as well as a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Before there was a dirt road connecting the surrounding villages to the marketplace in Punta Gorda, farmers like Mr. Bo traveled via dugout canoes via the Moho River and Caribbean Sea.

The market, which is still active to this day in Punta Gorda town, was one of the most compelling reasons why my used-to-be-husband and I chose to buy an acre of land and settle here 5 years ago, until he left me to revert back to a more civilized living arrangement (that’s another story).

Years later, I’m still thriving as a single woman, living as frugally and simply as possible, paying skilled workers like Mr. Bo to help me build my off-grid homestead and plant cash crops like coconut, cacao, and bananas. One day, I might be selling my organic produce in the local Punta Gorda market. I’ve gone from a successful, lucrative career in the U.S. to a much simpler, more enjoyable life in a third world country where I can own land and grow my own food: the culmination of my dream to be self-sufficient and walk lightly upon the earth. Living my yoga.

Mr. Bo continued to share more details about the art of canoe-making: “We used many different tools to build our dories: axe, adge and drill bit.

“The adge is used to fall the tree. The drill is used to maintain the thickness of the dory. You have to drill the dory carefully so it keeps the same thickness all around.”

“Do you still grow rice in Santa Ana village?” I asked Mr. Bo.

“Oh, yes, I’m still a rice farmer, along with many other villagers” he said. He paused to think about the details, then continued, “Land clearing starts in the month of February. That is slash and burn. The planting time is May 15th before the rain, and then the rice will be harvested in the month of September.

“We have to flog the rice and then bag it. You have to make sure it’s not too moist so you can get a good price.”

I asked him, “Do you notice climate changes in recent years? How is that affecting your rice yields?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “The climate changes are causing us to get a high yield sometimes and sometimes a low yield. There is a time when we get hurricane or flooding. It damages the crops. This year, we are getting a lot more rain than last year. A lot. It is flooding the crops. That will make us get less grain this year.”

For now, the Moho River area is virtually untouched and unadulterated by the impact of human civilization. Maybe I can help keep things in balance by practicing my butt-balancing Boat Pose regularly beside the river, deeply meditating on gratitude for the life I’ve been given. After all, if we can’t stop runaway climate change, as the science indicates, then at least we can practice yoga postures to get stronger abs and to stay calm, which makes for better, longer-lasting lovemaking and resilience in general.

Don’t miss the boat: Live fully! Laugh often! Love all of it (even the ab burn). After all, love makes life worth living.

I’m in love and always will be….

Thanks to Boat Pose and other core body strengthening yoga postures, I will surrender and go down (peacefully) with this ship.

*For readers who care (hey, thanks for reading!): There is both legal and illegal logging going on regularly in the Moho River area, for which the local Mayan people lament. When I brought up the topic of nearby logging in the jungle to my friend Mr. Jose Bo, a well-respected, lifelong resident of nearby San Felipe village, he commented, “Oh, we are so sad about that going on. It’s too much. They are cutting down all the old trees — the trees that our kids will need to build their houses. Soon there will be none left.” (Now, this is another topic, about which I probably won’t get the chance to write a blog entry. I don’t want to rock the boat too much).

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***

Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase an acre of fertile land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally.

Check out her latest published books here.

Join Parama on the next wellness retreat (March 11th, 2017) with live drumming, yoga and dance on a white sand beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea in tropical Belize!