Getting to Rhode Island from NY was a piece of cake. I didn’t hit a lick of traffic. My Uncle had slipped me an ancient token for the Throgs Neck Bridge so I didn’t have to pay any tolls and I had all my snacks at-the-ready in the passenger seat next to me so I only had to stop for bio breaks. It took a little less than the four hours that Google Maps had predicted and when I finally rolled up to the work site that was to become my home for the next week; I just kept right on driving. Not because I didn’t want to stop, but because I had to see the ocean. I had to see the Atlantic from a place I’d never been before and also I wanted to center myself before walking into what was to be ten times more intense than anything I had even dreamed of. I’m really happy I kept on driving that afternoon. The beach was beautiful. Windy, and pretty damn cold, but beautiful all the same. The light was perfect and I could tell that with the right conditions, this could be a pretty sweet surf spot. Then I noticed this tower on the hill that seemed completely out of place and yet perfectly situated at the same time. It was so interesting to me that I decided to go drive up there and see what it was. Turned out to be a prep school called St. George’s School with this beautiful old chapel on the grounds. I wandered around and took some photos but I didn’t stay too long. I knew it was time to show up for Strawbale.
It was a strange sensation to pull into the driveway and see the ‘Welcome Strawbalers’ sign on the front door. I was a complete stranger here and yet I was being openly welcomed into this space at the same time. I knocked lightly and walked into an immense, light-filled space that was to become the epicenter of our communal life during the workshop. I should take a moment here to fill you all in on the fact that this workshop was taking place at The Healing Co-Op. The Healing Co-Op’s mission is “to provide women and their families with a safe, supportive space where they may begin their own individual healing process through and beyond cancer.” (You can read more about it at the link above and show your support there as well) I think it’s important to share this fact because it might help you feel what the energy was like there. This was a space where healing, support and community was designed to grow and be fostered. Beautiful murals were painted on the walls and the Common room, that light-filled space where the kitchen, dining, and living spaces were, functioned as the heart of the house. Every other room opened into this space, and while we were there, it was the heart of the workshop.
I met Linda (the workshop host, whose house we’d be working on) and Andrew (the workshop leader and strawbale guru) and was introduced around the room to everyone else who was there. Linda let me know that my bed was going to be in the trailer outside and that I was welcome to unpack my stuff there. I did just that and picked out what I thought would be the best bed in the trailer and made myself at home there. All set-up, I headed back to the main house and joined a crew of folks who were going to pick up Martin at his hotel and grab some dinner in the process. Andrew rode with me and Cal, Kim, and Kim’s daughter Jenny Lyn hopped in their Sequoia. We followed them to the hotel and found out that it was a very good thing that I had come along. Martin had a fair amount of luggage and Cal’s ride was still full with all their stuff. We put Martin’s luggage in the truck and he hopped in with them and off we went to the restaurant. Anthony’s Seafood was the name of the place and the food was awesome. I got to try a Stuffed Quahog (noticed mainly for it’s connection to the Family Guy cartoon), Little Neck Oysters and Fish & Chips along with a delicious Narragansett Lager tall-boy beer (which cost a whopping $2.50. That’s right $2.50 AMERICAN for a can of beer! This *does not* happen in LA). It was nice to get to know this smaller group of people a little more intimately before being thrown into the deep end of the pool the next day. That night everyone who was there gathered in the living room to talk a have a few beers. As newcomers arrived they were welcomed into the circle and introduced all around. It was turning out to be quite an interesting crew.
The first day was an all-classroom day. We made a big sitting area out of the living room of the Healing Co-Op and Andrew gave his lecture there. That first day was when we all really connected. The few of us that had been there the night before had a head-start, but once the complete crew was present you could see the connections beginning to happen all around. We started with a big circle outside on the lawn where Andrew went over some logistics with the group and then we tossed around a ball to try and learn each others’ names. Say the name of someone and toss the ball to them and then they do the same thing. At first there were a lot of long pauses while people tried to remember names, and someone even tried just throwing the ball back to Andrew, but after about 10 minutes it was clear that we were starting to at least learn a few more names than when we’d started. Back in the house Andrew began with the different options for foundations when used in conjunction with strawbale and then we kind of moved up from there. Floors, walls, windows, roofing, plastering, etc. There was a ton of questions, of course, and sometimes we’d get *way* off topic. At one point we even found ourselves discussing whether the wire mesh that covers the strawbales of the house could create an electrical field that would disconnect you from the Earth’s energy. Like I said; *way* off topic. I found it hard enough just to keep my eyes open. A long classroom day like that is super tough for an experiential learner like myself. The meals were our lovely little breaks and a chance for me to get some photos in. Again, I must digress for a moment and speak of these meals. They were totally, totally amazing and I’m in no way exaggerating. Rosemary, Linda’s sister from Toronto, cooked breakfast and lunch for us every day, and Linda handled dinner. Every meal had dairy free, egg free, and vegan options for myself, Andrew, and Shlomy and nearly all the deserts were vegan so we could all enjoy them. I haven’t eaten that well for a week straight in my entire life! Desert EVERY DAY! I was totally in heaven. And I still managed to loose weight with all the hard work we were doing! Once we were done with the classroom details for the day and dinner was consumed a beer run was made so we could again have liquid refreshment to relax with that evening.
The next day was our first official day on-site. This was when we learned of the incredible challenges we were up against. Linda, our host, had had a string of really bad luck before we got there and due to circumstances beyond her control, things were not exactly ready for us to begin. Firstly, the framing, which was normally done at this point, was not yet complete. Also, the roof had not been installed over the entire house which created a risk of wet bales if rain managed to reach them. These two issues created the need for the contractors to still be on-site with all 30 or so of us, hurriedly finishing their job so that we could take care of our part; getting the bales in and the walls plastered. It was a frenetic site to say the least, but we made due and did our best to get our work done. We also discovered that day that the bales we had were too loose to be used as-is. Every. Single. Bale. Had to be re-tied as tightly as possible before it could put into the walls. Then there was the case of the missing bale string. Then we had to figure out how to deal w/ the moat that had formed around the site from all the rain and snow that Spring. We definitely had our work cut out for us. I could go through all the days and construction steps in detail, but it would make this blog entry way too long and might prevent you, my dear reader, from attending a workshop yourself. That is something I would never wish to be a party to.
Each day thereafter began with breakfast @ 8am. Then working from 9 till about noon. Then lunch until 1pm. Then working until 6pm when dinner was served. At least, that was the plan. From the second day on, we delayed lunch most days until 1 or 1:30pm. Then delayed dinner accordingly, sometimes not eating until 7:30 or 8pm. We all really wanted to get the project back on schedule. Some very, very hard working individuals (read: Martin and Joshua) even went back to the site after dinner one night and worked until midnight under floodlights to try and finish a task. It was, in no uncertain terms, not a week for relaxing or vacationing. The funny thing is, working this hard actually made everyone really happy! Here were all these people, who (with only a few exceptions) had never met before this and had no connection to Linda, the Healing Co-Op, or Andrew and who were all working their butts off to get the job done. It was an incredibly inspiring thing to see. I remember one afternoon after lunch wanting to just walk around for a bit and take pictures but I barely made it 20 minutes. I just couldn’t stand to not be a part of the crew, working towards the completion of the project. I felt better after my camera was away and my hands were busy and dirty again.
That’s how it was for the whole week. But don’t get the wrong idea. We still had very fun, relaxing evenings. We had jam sessions with Rosemary, Andrew and Joshua on guitar. Ben on Ukulele and myself, Owen, and Ahe on percussion. It was the first time in my life that someone else had actually brought a box drum as well and we got to really jam together! Thanks Owen! Andrew, Ben, and Rosemary were the singers for the most part, though Joshua threw a few lyrics in here and there. There was even a bonfire on Friday night where everyone wound up singing the Piano Man by Billy Joel as if it were a drinking song! Taylor surprised us all that night by playing and singing a few tunes on the Ukulele, though it took a bit of prodding and friendly nagging to get her to not be afraid and to sing louder. We grilled Joshua in a similar fashion after he said he ‘knew a few tunes’ and played songs for a solid hour. Liar! But that’s how it was. We became the very best of friends in such a short time and we encouraged, cajoled, congratulated and ribbed each other as if we’d known each other for years. I’ve never had an experience like that before in my life.
By Friday morning a few people began leaving. It was just a handful, and it was sad, for sure, but it in no way prepared us for Sunday. On that very last day it became pretty clear that it was going to take a Biblical miracle for the entire house to get plastered on the outside. We all wanted it to happen, but people had travel plans, far away places to get home to, and long, sad goodbyes to have with their new family members. It was really sad to not be able to finish that plastering job. Even more sad was to have to leave the few, hard-working and able folks who were going to stay until the next morning and plaster as much as possible. I guess that’s the sensation that soldiers get when they say they can’t leave anyone behind. I had to literally force myself to say goodbye to those last few folks; Andrew, Martin, Joshua, Ben, and Pam. Props to you all for sticking it out ‘till the very, very last minute! For me, driving away from the site, knowing that the experience was over, and not knowing if and when I’d see these people again, I felt a huge emptiness inside. I was leaving behind a family that a week earlier, I didn’t even know I had and it really hurt. But already, in the two weeks since the workshop ended, I have visited and been visited by folks from the workshop! I stopped in Pittsburgh, PA on the way home and visited Jamie and Taylor. I got to sample incredible coffee (Commonplace Coffee) and beer (East End Brewing Company) where Jamie works and even took some home with me. I got to meet Taylor’s husband, Shawn, and I got to see the beautiful piece of land that all three of them are trying to buy from the city to start their own little strawbale / urban-farm project! Then just yesterday I got to have dinner with Tyler (one half of the famous Tyler and Tara duo from goingslowly.com) right here in Santa Monica while he was in town for work! Already there are all these connections that are continuing to grow and I feel certain that there are many, many more to come.
Cal said it best when he told me that first day as we were getting ready to go to dinner: “This workshop will change your life”. He was doing it for the third time and at the moment I thought he might be a little excited and perhaps over-exaggerating a tad. But he was totally, 100%, on-the-money. I met so many incredible people there. People from all walks of life, from all over the country and with all sorts of fascinating stories to tell. I worked hard every day, and connected and laughed and shared moments with every single person from that crew of 30-odd people. I would and will do it again in a heartbeat and I hope each and every one of you out there reading this considers doing it as well.
For more photos you can check out my complete album on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smallbloc/sets/72157644260401726/
And you absolutely must check out Tyler and Tara’s slideshow of the workshop, complete with musical accompaniment here: http://journal.goingslowly.com/2014/04/straw-bale-workshop