The New American Dream (it's not about the stuff)

Lily in the Grand Forest

Lily in the Grand Forest

When I first moved to Missoula as a young woman, I learned that Montana had a fierce spirit. And that spirit taught me what I needed to live in what one of our best American writers called the last best place.

         You learn during your first winter in Missoula that, really, you are very, very small indeed, and if you have any notion that you are in control, it vanishes when temperatures drop to -10F and three feet of snow blows across the hills. Arêtes, glacial lakes glowing bright, giddy turquoise. Snow in August. Bears looking silently at you across escarpments or down from glaciers. Montana taught me wild. And it was the right time to learn it in the company of some of the best writers alive today. We were all young and wild back then. And it was the richest community I had ever known.

          Now I live in a different kind of wild. Bainbridge Island, WA. Bainbridge has a strong spirit, too. I felt it the first time I stepped off the ferry.

          Bainbridge has many grand forests, and all kinds of trees everywhere you go. My favorites are the cedars. Especially this fall as many fronds turn from green to copper. A stiff breeze and they fall soft and steady. It’s a lulling, dreamy sight.

          A drive around the Island quickly teaches you that sweet natural beauty is the face of Bainbridge. The island is about two miles wide (at its most narrow point), and nine miles long. Its only connection to the mainland is over an old bridge across Agate Pass, which connects the Island to the mainland on this side of Puget Sound. Most people get here via ferry from downtown Seattle.

          Many non-locals take the ferry just because of the scenery (including Mt. Rainier who can shine like a Buddha on a sunny day or who vanishes completely in rain). And, I think, because breathing sea air eases and expands the soul. Because there is something about making a crossing that makes you feel all new, as if some sort of magic is sparking.

           Locals call Bainbridge Island (BI) The Rock. An odd moniker for a soft, soft spirit.

          Sometimes, people will ask me which place I prefer – the wilds of Montana or the gentleness of the Island. I tell them this is: When you live in Missoula, you feel like you’re living with Harry Potter. When you live on Bainbridge, you feel like you are living with Beatrix Potter.  I often describe Bainbridge as a sweet, green womb.

          Decades ago, Bainbridge was something of an artist’s town – in part because of cheap rents, but also because of its spirit, I think. Then rich folks figured out the ferry ride was a nice way to commute, and lots and lots of money invaded the Island. Property values and rents went so high that the many artists moved away as the privileged moved in.

          When we moved here just six years ago, we were escaping the insanely high rents in Seattle. We had ended up back in Seattle after losing our home – named the Nation of Fish – in Monroe, WA. We were weary Seattle nomads for the first three years after losing our home – two moves to two different neighborhoods. 

         We were happy to leave the Emerald City because we are really about the country. We didn’t want to move north (that would remind us of our old home). We didn’t want to move east; already, the traffic from the eastside into Seattle was awful, and my Mom lives in the city so an easy commute was important. We are not fans of environs south, and so we hopped on the ferry with our dogs, and came to revisit and investigate Bainbridge Island.

          It had been 15 years since we had last visited, and it took exactly one minute to decide we wanted to move here. All the beauty was here without the isolation we experienced in Monroe. Downtown Winslow was a very cool town. And I think the Island wanted us because we found a wonderful rental within a day, and in those days, that was quite a feat.

          I came to the Island searching for home, and within three weeks I was in a crushing depression that took years to abate. It had been a long time coming, and rose from grief too large to hold after losing our home and being financially ruined after family illness. I did grieve, but it was not enough to stop the tsunami depression that flooded in only three weeks after our move. Maybe my body allowed the crash because I felt so safe here.

            Bainbridge had a reputation for being snooty. I never felt that. I’d go to the supermarket, step outside and always feel the grace and gentleness of the place. As I am a sucker for natural beauty, I always felt the Trees were really in charge. A mother cedar in the backyard of our rental stood sentry over me as I languished. Eight bird feeders, and flocks (from the nuthatches to finches to PIGEONS who would grab hold with their claws and ride the feeders like swings) came from morning until night, and I would spend much of my time watching them.

          As I lay in bed month after month, fighting depression and the isolation it births, I was only hooked up to people online. It was then I learned that Moms ran the Island. The Island Mom’s. Which is a pretty tight community of BI mothers. Eventually, I learned non-mothers could join the group, too, and I did because it offered much information and access to resources. I used to joke, “there should be a child rental service on Bainbridge so the rest of us can build community.” 

          I understood why the Mom’s here were so well organized and so enthusiastic. Money Magazine named BI the “second best place to live” in 2005. It is a kid’s paradise in regards to safety and beauty.

            I never really found my people. While my work (shamanism) may sound woo-woo, I am NOT woo-woo and don’t exactly hang out with those who choose the woo. And I’m sure not a lawyer. And we sure aren’t rich. So between the depression, and the fact that we didn’t find a niche, we lived in isolation.

            Then the financial crash came. By then, I had recovered, but the crash demolished Bainbridge in its unique way as it did other parts of the country. Just as this happened, my father died after a very long illness, and left us some money. This perfect storm of circumstances  -- far beyond our control -- meant we had the resources to put a sizable down (for us) on a small house that was perfect. It was a miracle because we thought we would never own a home again.

            But, of course, our good fortune in finding our home was a great misfortune for many, and it became normal to see signs that the rich, almost rich and some of the middle class had abandoned their homes, many so under-water that they might have sat plunk in the middle of Eagle Harbor. Others sold for what they could. Rentals were available everywhere, but in the beginning, not necessarily easy to score because of the complex rental agreements. They made you jump through a lot of hoops, and the easy, conversational, trust-on-sight spirit that landed us our first rental vanished. Those who could afford it clamped down and held on until they could sell (many are still waiting, and they may be waiting until their last penny has been swallowed).  Property managers cropped up everywhere as did the “for sale” and “for rent” signs. The town felt different – there was fear around

            So – very slowly -- people who were struggling financially began to change the demographics of the Island.

            My own particular life course was decided years before when my first footprint landed on the Island. I wanted to develop a strong shamanic community on our side of the Puget pond.

           So after the depression and the purchase of our home, I focused hard on my work, and we continued to live quietly in isolation. Occasionally, we’d meet some cool folks, but ongoing tenuous health made me miss bunches of opportunities for bonding and for fun.

           My used-to-be-extroverted-self began to change. Finding my closest kin with words when I wrote, and keeping up long distance friendships finally became my small, and non-local, community. I knew it was incomplete, but I had no clues on how to find my local heart community. I was not even sure that one existed.

            Only a few months ago, that changed. Radically. Permanently. And all because two women who live on the Island had an idea.

            Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark started a Facebook group called “Buy Nothing Bainbridge” (BNB). I think I heard about it in its second or third week. I joined with few – if any – expectations, but with both skepticism and curiosity. The skepticism came because I thought,  “Oh, it’s another version of Freecyle,” which I never liked because of its curious impersonal feel and because is it really IS about stuff. The curiosity arose because the woman, who recommended it, while not a very close friend, was witty and smart. And she was a ZEALOT about BNB. Not her usual style, so I wanted to see what was feeding all that passion.

            My erroneous thought about the groups’ intention – it’s like Freecycle – came from the name BUY NOTHING BAINBRIDGE.  The name makes you think it IS about stuff.

            And, yes, BNB is about reusing, repurposing and recycling things you don’t need, and, in part, exists so less will be consumed and wasted. It’s about gifting things locally. And it’s about asking for things you need. But that still doesn’t get at its true value or its integral spirit. It takes a while to really understand and feel that.

            The site exploded after only one month. They did a story about it on KING 5 News, a Seattle TV station. And I began looking at Facebook throughout the day, checking the posts. 

          Every day, amazing stuff – from pianos to old, mismatched plastic tub covers to things too weird to mention – was “freely given.” And everybody kept it “civil” as the rules required. But the humor and wit in the conversations around the “stuff” became a chief (and free) form of entertainment as well as a way to begin to understand that many cool people lived here. People I would like to meet and could relate to. And I began to know some of them through their posts and comments, if not through many actual meets.

           But by this description, it still sounds more like it’s about stuff, right? I thought so, too, and began give things away. I’ve always LOVED gift giving – this was the fun part. Especially when I saw how even small gifts bring huge pleasure, and sometimes relief.

           But, like most of us, I was not as good at receiving.  By watching clients in my work over the past 20 years, I have learned empirically that receiving is not native to anyone in our culture – a culture that turns and flourishes on accomplishment and monetization. When we are in need, we can feel less than. Vulnerability is not necessarily highly valued or cultivated in our culture, and it can be scary.

            So I bumbled along, feeling good about giving, and feeling soft bonds begin with other BNBers.

            Then it happened.

            “It” was what I call an AFGO (translated as another f*ing growth opportunity).

            About six weeks ago, I awoke to find my husband bent in half, sweating profusely, frozen in intractable pain. For the first time in my life when I said, “I am calling the ambulance,” he said “YES. DO IT NOW!”

           A few minutes later, there was a siren-screaming ambulance at the house, and four strong guys came in to evaluate my husband. I herded the dogs out of the room. As I shooed them into another part of the house, our very old dog Ariel, who had been ill for a week, started collapsing as she walked. I had no time to do anyhting but rush off behind the ambulance to be with Don. The biggest fire had to be put out first.

            I went to the hospital where we spent 8 hours in the ER before Don was admitted. He was getting Delaudid shots like they were M&Ms. And still the pain did not abate. As I sat with him, I got online and wrote requests to every shamanic circle I belonged to, and asked for a cure. I wrote everyone else I knew, too, including BNB to also ask for good thoughts. Prayers, Reiki – whatever succor they could offer.

            I wrote my friend and shamanic assistant Sheila Sokhol to ask her to check on Ariel, and give her the meds she needed that night. Ariel does NOT take meds without a struggle, but Sheila, being the soul of kindness and determination, got the job done.

           So I went home that first night from the hospital, and I was exhausted. I tended both our 18-month-old puppy Lily and Ariel. It was very clear to me then that I could not care for Ariel or follow her intricate med schedule while I spent my days and nights at the hospital; she would be in jeopardy. And so made a tough decision.

           The next morning I called our vet – Winslow Animal Clinic -- and asked if they could take in Ariel while the family was in crisis. I love Winslow Animal Clinic, and Lisa Barfeld – Ariel’s vet.  I trust the Clinic completely, but Ariel never does well at the vets. When she was a puppy, she was attacked while she was in the waiting room at a vet office, and she has never quite recovered from that.

           I was afraid she would die if she was left there (a real possibility at 15 years, 9 months, which is ANCIENT for a bearded collie), and dropping her off with manufactured calm was quite an acting feat. Watching her aged, ill body struggle at the leash, listening to her desperate barks – which were her way of saying “OH MY GOD! DO NOT LEAVE ME HERE OR I WILL DIE!” – prompted a crying jag the minute I got outside the building. I climbed in the car, gave myself exactly two minutes to cry, and then drove the 50 minutes to the hospital. I was sure I would never see her alive again.

           I arrived at Harrison Hospital, and Don was still in terrible pain. An ultra-sound showed colitis, but they didn’t know what kind he had. All that could be done that day and the next was pain management.

           I got back on the computer as I sat in his room while he tried to rest, and sent out more specific requests for cures for both Don and Ariel to all my shamanic pals. And I updated BNB.

            I went home late that night to a dark, dirty, freezing house, and a crazed puppy.

            Lily and Ariel are both bearded collies, and as lovers of the breed say, beardies are not for the house-proud. Their fur magnetizes mud and dirt – any and all schmutz clings to coat, and then magically releases of its own accord all over your house in the hours that follow. So my house, when it is cleaned, remains really clean for maybe 22 seconds before the forest litter, dirt and whatever starts to accumulate again. Once the rainy season starts, its schmutz and mud.

            Grabbing a god-knows-what to eat after feeding Lily, I was so exhausted I could do no more than collapse into my bed, and go online to check in. Lots of people were working shamanically for Don and Ariel, and were sending reports that gave me some solace. I knew all was being done that could be done in that regard. And then I read something on the BNB Facebook page that made me exclaim a very loud  “HOLY SHIT.” Lily gave a start, squinted her eyes and gave me a wary look that we call the fish eye before she trotted into another room.

           I reread the post.

           A woman I had never met, who goes by the fb moniker of V-Cubed, was cheerfully organizing a cleaning party of volunteers to come to my house. Lots of people were signing up to help. And bring food. And flowers.

            I overwhelmed by the generosity, and I was stunned. And nervous. I grew up with parents who would SCOUR every inch of our house (including the garage as well as the closets) for a WEEK before anyone came to dinner. And dinner was always days and days in the making – five courses minimum (we weren’t rich; they were compulsive). It was NEVER fun to have people over because you got so stressed about making sure everything was PERFECT. It was ALWAYS perfect. We had white rugs, for God’s sake, and we lived in the woods and had a dog. My childhood home was as clean as any military barrack. Spotless. And it was definitely NOT OK to be messy, let alone have dirt lying around ANYWHERE if someone was coming over for any reason.

            For me, letting go of perfectionism is life work. I name it this because it will probably take the rest of my life to make true peace with my imperfection, and I actually DO value imperfection in others. After 62 years, I’ve made a lot of progress, but it's a two-steps forward, 1.5 steps back kind of thing for me.

           So when I read all of these people I had NEVER met said they were going to come into the chaos and dirt and SEE it, let alone CLEAN it, I really had to work HARD at receiving the gift.

           But finally, I realized a few things -- Don could NOT come home to the cold chaos AND I couldn’t afford a house cleaner. And, on a personal level, this was one of those chances to try something scary and see how it felt afterward. Ten years ago, I probably would have refused without thinking.

           So I agreed.

           The morning the Angelic Cleaning Crew was due to arrive, I put a note on the front door, and didn’t lock it when I set off for the hospital. Leaving the house open for them was a true act of vulnerability for me.

           At the end of that day in the hospital, I knew Don would come home the next day. I did feel a small WOW THIS IS GREAT feeling when I drove home that night, knowing that, my GOD, my house would be clean and I could cuddle with my Lily to my hearts content.

            Like I said, Lily is our puppy, a sugar-sweet and hilarious bearded collie puppy. At 19 months, she has lived the perfect beardie life – in some ways. Beardies want to be with their people 24/7. Don and I are self-employed, and while ancient Ariel did not exactly adore Lily, they had their own ways of getting along.

            As Ariel had disappeared, and Don had disappeared, and I was with Don in the hospital every day for many hours, Lily had seen her pack vanish in a matter of days. Of course, I knew she was stressed, but didn’t know how stressed. On the drive home from the hospital that night, I was really looking forward to just hanging out with her in our lovely, clean house.

            So I was both tired and excited as I pulled into our dark driveway that night. I got out of the car, and as I made my way to the front door, I saw the screen to the front window was in the bushes. There was a note on the front door from the Angelic Cleaning Crew and V.

           It said Lily had gotten so strangely freaked out when the BNB group of six entered the house that she jumped out the screened window and ran away. The note explained that V jumped in her car to look for her. And when V returned to the house an hour later, she found Lily waiting outside the front door. Oh, how I wish the adventure had ended there.

            In the note I had left for the Angels, I had said to NOT let Lily out in the backyard without supervision because beardies can be escape artists. And she didn’t HAVE to be an artist at this point because she was the Bainbridge equivalent of Danny the Tunnel King in The Great Escape. Somewhere along the fence line, she had dug a hole in her too-much alone time the day before. I had not been able to find the hole that morning before I left, and so it was essential she not be left outside alone.

            But that was on the BACK of my note, and I guess it was a pretty badly written one because the Angels did not see that part of the missive until later. The cleaning went on, the homemade food was stashed in the fridge, the flowers adorned the house. One woman fell in love with Lily and spent as much time as Lily would allow petting her. Later, two little BNB kids who had come with their moms, went into the backyard to play with Lily for a while, and then the kids came back in leaving her outside.

            The Angels didn’t realize that Lily was no longer in the yard until it was time to go. That’s when they saw the back of my note. I can imagine the panic they felt. I know they called and called her name. They walked the neighborhood, but could not find her.

            The time on the note they left me was 4 p.m. I walked in at 9 p.m. That meant she had been missing for 5 hours.

            And that was the moment that I really lost it. I fell to my knees. I just couldn’t handle it. Don was due to come back home the next day, and I KNEW he couldn’t find out about this. In tears (again), I called the hospital and talked to the doctor. He agreed that Don could NOT be subjected to this much stress. The doctor decided he would find some plausible excuse to keep Don there for another day. The conversation ended with a clipped instruction: “Find that dog.”

            As if I needed to hear that. Lily is a not car-wise puppy. She is never off-leash ANYWHERE that isn’t safe. All of her previous escapes had only gone as far as the next-door neighbors. She liked to visit them at cocktail hour and always begged for, and received, olives.

            The neighbor would call, we’d go over with a leash, bring her home, find the hole and plug it with cement blocks. And we learned to routinely patrol the fence for fresh evidence of a new escape route. 

            She had not tunneled out in a long time until that week. And I suddenly realized how little I had understood the intensity of her panic when she was alone day after day. I cannot say that what I felt was anything as piddly as self-criticism. It was self-flagellation even though I knew I had done the best I could. I was keening.

            I went on the BNB page and told everyone what had happened and asked if anyone had seen her anywhere. Then I called V, who had left her number. She was a wreck. She was horrified to hear Lily hadn’t returned on her own, and started calling all the people you call when you have a lost dog. It’s a long list.

            My computer started pinging with fb posts. About 20 minutes later, a car drove into the driveway. This elegant woman whom I had never seen before came to the door. Her name was Patricia, and she had read about the disappearance on the BNB page, and she thought I should not be driving around alone to look for Lily. I was stunned by her kindness. When we left, I did not close the door, and every light in the house was on.

            By now, it was 10:00 p.m. Bainbridge Island is a quiet place, and at that hour, usually the roads are empty. As we drove our haphazard route around our corner of the Rock, guided only by my gut instincts, Patricia kept it to 15 mph as I mournfully screamed over and over, “Lily, it’s mama. YOU ARE SAFE. Come.”

           And as we searched the dark streets, all lined by woods as all streets are on BI, we started running into all kinds of people. Some were driving slowly and calling for Lily. Some people came out of their homes when we drove by to offer comfort or to tell us where they had seen her. Some had tried to catch her with both food and kindness, but Beardies are very wily and quick, and they cannot tricked or captured easily.

            As we drove, I heard other faint calls of “Lily” from people in far-away cars, and still more echoes from other folks who were out walking with their flashlights trying to find her.

            After Patricia and I had been driving for 40 minutes, she said – with sweet regret – she had to get home to let her own dogs into the house. As we pulled up to my driveway, another BNB pal, Anahata Little, and her son Garrett, were waiting for me. Garrett offered to stay and keep an eye out as Anahata and I drove around, but at that point, I felt I should wait at the house. They took off to search.

            Even though it was now after 11 p.m., I called my friend Amy Aspell who is a Science of Mind minister, and asked her to come over and sit with me. She and I sat together, and I cleared the fear as best I could and put out the intention for Lily to be guided home – fast. Amy left at 11:30 or so. Then I got back on fb and was ASTOUNDED at all my BNB people had done.

           Marijane Milton, who is the moderator for the fb Bainbridge Island 911 page had written: this may not seem like an emergency for some people, but for this family it is. And she wrote all about how important it was for people to get up, go out and look.

           Someone else wrote to tell me she had contacted the police, and they were looking for Lily.

           And another wrote to say she had called the taxi company, and all of the drivers were cruising around looking for Lily.

            In short, BNB mobilized the entire Island that night to find her.

            Anahata and Garrett came by around midnight having had no luck. At 1 a.m. I wrote the group, thanked them with all my heart, and suggested everyone stop until morning. I was far too upset to even lie down. All the lights were still on, and the door was still wide open.

            As memory serves, it was a bout 2 a.m. when she came home. Covered with mud and brambles, I was walking down the hall to our bathroom when I heard her thundering in, as loud as a buffalo, and as I turned, she leaped into my arms. We fell over. Oh, it was a JOYFUL reunion.

           I stayed up with her for a hours after I called the amazing V (who had said she would not sleep, but would hold vigil until Lily came home). And I wrote BNB to let them know she was home; so many people responded with much cheering and much relief. And I called the hospital to let them know Don could return home the next day. Then I noticed how beautiful the house was. How it gleamed. And dug into homemade kale salad and pasta salad and chocolate chip cookies. And finally took a breath again while looking at the flowers.         

            So the next day, Don came home. And the day after Don came home, I picked up Ariel. Who was so much better. I went to arrange for a payment plan, and spoke with someone who also was a member of BNB. I was scared of that bill; we were broke. But the Clinic did not charge us at all for the room and board. They gifted that to us.

            The result of all the shamanic work done for Don and Ariel was miraculous. Don’s bleeding and pain VANISHED the night he was prepping for his colonoscopy. Which (I researched) usually will intensify colitis by ten fold, and can cause a real crisis, one that can delay healing for months. The contrast fluid you have to drink to prep for the procedure can dramatically increase bleeding and pain, too.

            But when Don took his first sip of the foul stuff, the pain completely stopped as did the bleeding. It never came back. The doctors could not understand it.

            I understood ALL of it. I always marvel at shamanic cures, but they do not shock me anymore.

            Once the family was home, I took stock. With such immense gratitude. I realized that my life had been unalterably changed for good. The profound kindness from strangers who were now a part of me. Strangers who gathered to clean the house of a couple in need because they wanted to gift that and got real pleasure from doing it. From an Island of strangers mobilizing to find a lost dog. By realizing that I was not judged for being a slovenly person or a lazy person because of my dirty house (and, trust me, there was enough dirt in the dining area floor to grow CORN). In fact, one sweet woman wrote me privately to say she honestly did not think my house was ANY dirtier than hers on any given day (she has a lot of kids AND dogs).

            So it felt downright magical. Two weeks before, I would have said, I really don’t know many people on Bainbridge. After that night, I knew I had a family here.

            Finally, what we are all gaining from the culture’s collapse is seen in the Buy Nothing Project. My story is only one out of hundreds. The movement is now spreading to many communities in Washington, and into other states. Liesl and Rebecca are constantly training new people all over the country to help them set up Buy Nothing Groups where they live.  

           It’s important to understand that neither of these women have a lot of time, but devote every waking hour to tending this baby as well as working and raising their kids. Thousands of people now owe a great and wonderful debt to, and feel tremendous gratitude for Rebecca and Liesl.

            No, BNB is not about the stuff. It’s about the sheer bliss of trusting, of sharing, and of the joy that naturally rises from living in a gifting community of neighbors. Of understanding that being in need is a human condition, and one we all experience. That offering homemade soap or jam or bounty from your garden can serve the hungry and delight the tired. That strangers in your community are only strangers because of the way we have lived for the past 50 years. And that we really don’t want to be strangers. We just haven’t known how to find each other.

            Now that the old American dream is dying, a new dream is birthing a new culture. I am 62, and went to Woodstock. And what we dreamed then is what I am seeing happen in BNB.  Living this way, from the heart of giving and receiving, cuts across all divisions of economics and race, religion and political persuasion.

            This is the way to live in resonance as One Tribe. Not because it sounds good, although it is good. And not because it sounds harmonious, although it is that, too. But because this the way it’s intended to work. It calls on the art of being human.

           And this is how we can serve the next generation. With a brand new, and much better, American dream.


This is dedicated to all the members of Buy Nothing Bainbridge, and the Rock entire -- all the named and unnamed souls that loved us through crisis, but especially to Rebecca and Liesl who dare to dream, and who have taught us how to really show up.

Contact them through Buy Nothing Bainbridge on Facebook if you want to set up a like community in your town.


Please feel free to share this article, but respect the words. No edits, please. All the typos are mine! © Lora Jansson, November 12, 2013.