Ex-military man Richard from New York joined the team at New Life Foundation recently. He’s leading the new earthbag dome project, facilitating our Wednesday speakers’ meetings, and sharing his extensive knowledge of natural building in workshops and seminars. He also introduced the Men’s Circle to the New Life community, which participants have described as intensely powerful. In this interview, we talk to him about the journey that brought him here, his many contributions to the community, and the joys and challenges of being at New Life.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I came to New Life during a round-the-world journey after leaving a 20 year career with the U.S. military. I invested 10 years with the U. S. Navy as a sailor and 10 more years with the U.S. Army as a civilian. I have lived many places in Europe and the U.S. but, never felt quite at home anywhere, especially in my own skin. During my last tour overseas I really felt a strong calling to leave the military. That calling came in the form of burnout and depression where I began to ask some serious questions about my life and how I wanted it to be. In my career I had all the money that I needed, yet did not feel free to enjoy it. I had lots of security working a government job with the nice pay check, insurance, and the promise of a pension, but I felt like that security didn’t bring me true happiness, in fact it felt more like a prison. I was “doing time”, watching the clock. So after some years of struggling with my inner promptings, I finally jumped, I sold everything and bought a backpack and a round-the-world ticket and have been travelling ever since.
How long ago was that?
That was December 2010, three years ago. I went to the Cook Islands which was amazing, and then New Zealand for several months, and then Australia, and then Thailand. I learned about natural building in California and ever since have been telling people I meet about it everywhere I go. I’ve worked on several earth building projects, throughout my travels which eventually brought me to Thailand.
How did you hear about the foundation?
As I was travelling I got involved with Help Exchange (Help X), it was on their website I saw New Life Foundation looking for volunteers. I knew right away it was the place for me. I was very impressed by everything that was happening here. Yet, it took me a long time to get here because of various projects I was working on at the time. I followed New Life’s blog and Facebook posts for 2 more years. I finally came in October, 2013. I stayed for three weeks as a resident. I had a wonderful time and did a lot of wonderfully deep work on myself through life coaching and workshops. My three weeks went very quickly and when they were up I knew I wanted to be here longer. I knew I needed more time for my own process. So I went back to where I was living and quit my job to come back to New Life.
You’ve become really immersed in the community, and you’ve been facilitating earthen building workshops, sharing your knowledge. Where did that interest come from?
As I was searching, one particular area of my search was how to have a home that I really enjoyed and loved, and not spend forty, fifty more years trying to pay for it. So I did all kinds of research on alternative housing, from shipping containers to mobile housing, and then I found a method that simply used the earth, and you can build yourself a beautiful house that’s relatively inexpensive using the simplest of materials and the simplest of skills. It really piqued my interest so much, when I decided to get out of the military and take a new direction, I went to a course in California, and learned the method for myself, and then I was so enthusiastic about it I would just tell people as I was travelling. Eventually I put together a presentation and held a seminar, there a man approached me wanted a building done in Australia, in the Byron Bay area. We built him an underground sauna, which was really interesting, with coloured glass walls, it was really beautiful. For me, earth building is really about a return to simplicity, it’s a return to the earth.
What about our earth building project here, the hut that you’re helping to build at the moment?
We’re currently working on a small house. It’s made of mud bricks mixed with rice hulls, very simple, yet very beautiful. The entire community participated in building the walls. It’s got a roof on it now, and we’re cutting channels into the walls to lay electricity and plumbing and things like that. It’s coming along very nicely, it’s very enjoyable.
Any differences between earth building here and your previous projects?
More similarities, actually. It’s a different method but a similar application. With mud bricks you have to make the bricks manually, by putting mud in forms, then drying them, and that process takes weeks. Earthbag is a faster process at the beginning. By taking bags, and filling them with a clay/ soil mixture and laying them down to become your walls. It can be done in a circular configuration when building a dome, or in a square like a traditional house. It’s very flexible, as well as user friendly. It doesn’t require precision measurements or professional tradesmen, it’s very organic. One thing that is significant is that earthbag building is very labor intensive, so you need many hands to do the job. But, what I find even in that, is a great way to build community. As people work together on a project they feel a special bond when they see its beautiful completion.
And will you be trying this method out here, or do you have any new projects planned?
Yes, we are currently planning to build an earthbag dome, a housing unit for one of our staff. Domes are very beautiful and come in natural shapes so I’m very much looking forward to that.
We’re looking forward to seeing it! You recently introduced the Men’s Meeting to the community, which has been really popular. It’s been described as powerful. Can you tell us a bit about where the idea came from?
The idea came from when I lived in New York City. There I attended a men’s circle, men would gather every Wednesday night. There were eighty of us that came together for the purpose of listening to each other, supporting each other and learning from each other, a very new concept to all of us. As we became vulnerable to each other, we found amazing things that we never knew existed, that we never knew could exist between men.
What is it about being in a group with only men that makes it easier for them to open up to one another?
In the Western world men are left on our own to discover how to be male. There is little guidance anymore from past generations. Our role models have gone off to war or off to work and left their sons at home to be raised by television. In many ways we get hurt along the way, trying to figure it out. We tend to get our messages from media, movies, and TV, we live vicariously through celebrities and sports stars, none of which is any help in relating to the real world. When we discover that we can relate so deeply to each other, that we can talk about our fears and feelings with each other, we find a powerful support and new meaning to being male.
A lot of people have been very appreciative.
Yes, definitely. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and it’s very encouraging to me. I’m looking for ways to further that this community where men can relate to one another on a deep level.
And the final question – what are some of your joys and challenges of being part of the New Life community?
Well, there’s a long list of joys. I’m really able to take advantage of the life coaching, that has enabled me to do deep work on myself in a community environment that is supportive. I enjoy the many conversations that I have each day with all the members. Of course working on natural building is a real highlight for me. I also enjoy walks around the lake and visits to the Mama’s ever evolving massage, acupuncture, laundry service and smoothie bar. I love the yoga classes in the morning. The sunrises are amazing or just walking down to the forest hall for meditation. I can hear happy ducks quacking and cows mooing from my room. Of course there are challenges, but there will always be challenges. I find those to be my inner work that needs constant attention. But I have to say that I have never before found a place where I can experience challenges and so quickly and easily apply tools to grow through them. In short, I’ve never felt more at home anywhere, I’m even beginning to enjoy living in my own skin.