Interview: Diane Emerson

Your business card says “Global Volunteer.” When did you decide on this job title and life path? What was the spark?

I had been looking after my father for over 2 years. He was in a good place and it was time for me to begin a new life. I wanted to travel more, but no longer wanted to travel as a tourist. My travel had to have meaning in it. I considered teaching English and traveling, or finding a job that involved travel, but neither of those options appealed to me. Having been a small business consultant for 10 years, I thought about consulting and traveling. But a consultant needs time to establish credibility, and time is what a traveler does not have.   And then I realized that I had just enough money in savings that if some organization would give me a place to pitch my tent, or a roof over my head, that I could afford to just travel and volunteer.  I could indulge myself in helping people with no thought of charging for my services. I could help animals. I could work in organic gardens and farms. I could do marketing and communications for small nonprofits who didn’t have the skills to do these things on their own, or funds to hire someone to do it for them. I could go to a monastery and serve the holy people who live there, and maybe some of their peace would make its way to me.  A wonderful new world opened up to me, and I was energized to my core just thinking about it. Once I decided to do this, it took about 6 months to finish my teaching commitments and sell the apartment building I had been renovating, and then I was off.

What has this path looked like so far? What are some of your favorite places you have traveled and things you have done?

Some of the favorite places I have traveled – places I would happily return and volunteer work I would do all over again, include:

Helping to create Couchsurfing at the Nelson New Zealand Couchsurfing Collective in 2007. Living collectively with twenty young people met my needs for challenge, growth, community, partnership, connection, and contribution to the well-being of others.  I became a vegetarian during this time, and discovered NVC and Free Hugs because of the Couchsurfing collective.

Bicycling through France for 3 months in 2011, guerrilla gardening and picking up trash along the roads all summer, on my own.  I connected deeply with myself and my reasons for living a life of service. I also made dear friends and improved my French, meeting my needs for autonomy, beauty, mental and physical challenge, contributing to the well-being of others,  exercise, growth, and connection.

Taking care of the composting toilets and recycling and trash for the NVC Family camp on Vashon Island this summer.  I have never felt such unconditional acceptance as during these two weeks.  I can understand why people return again and again.  It was hard physical work, but I was encouraged (and took time for) self-care, daily empathy sessions, and a good night’s sleep. This experience met my needs for inspiration, community, care, love, acceptance, challenge, growth, connection, and exercise, as well as contributing to the well-being of others.

What fears did you have to overcome to get where you are today, walking this particular path? How did you overcome them?

I had to overcome the fear of getting ill, and having nowhere to go.  Because I left the US in 1996, my ties with my family and friends here weakened, and I did not stay in one place long enough to form deep connections in New Zealand. So by the time I decided to become a nomad, there was no one I knew who would joyfully care for me if I became ill. That was scary for me.  I had a deep unmet need to be cared for early in my nomadic volunteering life.   As the years have passed and I have remained healthy, and made friends who have offered me a place to stay if I ever needed it, this fear has departed. My trust in the universe has also increased greatly, and I know I would be cared for willingly, even by strangers, if I became ill.

I have had a fear of being attacked while alone on the road in 2008, and also while being alone in Kashmir, India during great unrest in the fall of 2010.  I looked long and hard at my options during these times, and decided that my best course of action was to befriend my attackers. So that is now my strategy if I am ever in danger of attack.  Knowing I have a clear strategy gives me peace and I can remain calm in situations others might find unnerving.

There is one other fear I have, and have not overcome. This is the fear of being tortured.  It is the only thing that I fear in life. I do not fear being penniless, homeless, friendless, reviled, ancient, ugly, cancer, mental or physical disability, death or sickness,  pain, violence against me, nor accidents.  I know it is highly unlikely that I would be tortured, but having resolved my other fears, this is the only one which remains for me.

Besides fears, what other obstacles have you had to overcome? How did you get past them?

I have a heart murmur, and have had it since birth. This is an obstacle to me because I cannot do aerobic activities without quickly running out of breath: running, jumping, cycling up hill, strenuous dancing, fast walking, etc.  But I get around by bicycling, and carry all my possessions on my bike, over mountains, including the Swiss Alps in 2001 and the French Pyrenees, as recently as last year.  I have learned to never stand up on my bike to get up a hill, to pull off the road at the nearest driveway and catch my breath when climbing a steep hill, and to make sure my bicycle has a really low gearing on it.

When I committed to volunteer in Kashmir for a year for the Hope Disability Centre, one of the many obstacles during that time was living and working in the Himalaya mountains with no heat during winter. No heat at work, no heat at home.  All winter.  Other people had heat – they carried wicker baskets with live coals in them under their cloaks. And they slept together with other family members at night.   I decided to get by without using the wicker basket strategy, as it seemed dangerous for me.  So during the day at work, I bundled up with all my thermal layers, cloak, and fingerless gloves.  At night I sometimes wore all my clothes and even my cloak to bed. It was the two hot water bottles, one at my feet, and one hugged to my chest, that kept me warm at night.  I learned to wash only half of me at time, on the few occasions when I chose to wash myself. If you never sweat, and are constantly covered in layers of clothes, there is little body odor generated.

Speaking Kashmiri was an obstacle, and there were no Kashmiri dictionaries available anywhere. So I created my own dictionary word by word, from asking the few Kashmiris I knew who spoke English.  My efforts were warmly received, as were my reading of the Koran, participating in the Ramadan fasting, and learning to pray as a Muslim.

What is most rewarding to you so far?

Learning how to live out of memnoon energy – only doing things for others that bring me joy to do them. Never acting out of obligation or duty.

Living to give what I can give, rather than living to get what I can get.

Learning Vipassana meditation, Nonviolent Communication, Emotional Freedom Technique, and sharing these with others.

Giving away solar powered flashlights to people living on the streets of Portland

Buying nut trees for villages in Nepal, and other communities around the world.

What is, or has been, the hardest part for you?

The hardest part for me has been when my sisters and closest friends do not read my monthly blog, after I send them an e-mail with an update on my life.  It is then that I know how important it is to love yourself, and care for yourself, and trust yourself, and enjoy yourself and support yourself. Because no one cares about you like you do. No one.

What has been most surprising to you about it?

I am surprised at the amount of fear in people that keeps them stuck. That keeps them from reaching for their dreams, from changing those things in their life that continually trigger pain of many kinds.  They cannot understand my lack of fear, and I cannot understand their huge need for safety.

Without needing to share any specifics, of course, how are you feeling about the financial end of things? Do you feel comfortable, abundant? Are you hoping to feel more comfortable or abundant as time goes on, or are you exactly where you would like to be in that regard?

This year, living in a house with 11 others, and having as my bedroom a 3ft by 7ft closet, or a corner of the unfinished attic, I have felt wealthier than I have ever felt before, even when I was making a 6 figure income and had stock options, etc etc.   This has been a most interesting development.   I have reduced my expenses by trading one day a week cleaning/gardening for my sleeping space. I have further reduced my expenses by occasionally eating with Food Not Bombs, by growing a garden, by volunteering at the Alberta Food Co-Op and visiting their free food boxes when I volunteer, and by eating very simple food.  I further reduce expenses by riding my borrowed bicycle wherever I need to go. No bus or metro or car rental costs.  My clothes come mostly from the generous Portlanders who share their wealth in the many free piles on the streets.  Because of all of this, I have more disposable income than I have ever had before. I feel not a twinge at giving $20 to someone on the street, or $75 to a friend who had his backpack stolen. I feel wealthy enough to put a friend in Kashmir through his last year getting his master’s degree so he can help people with disabilities in India.  I regularly buy books and nut trees for others – friends and strangers alike.  When I was working, and making all that money, when an opportunity to help in these and other ways might have been presented to me, I felt constrained!  Constrained because I had a mortgage, house renovations, car repairs or replacements, vacation plans, Christmas, retirement savings, birthdays, wedding gifts to buy, all these things crowded into my head, until I felt I could not give in the moment. I would have to think about it, check the budget, confer with my husband.  Now I am coming to understand, at least in part,  why the poor are often so generous. Their needs are so minimal. Their wants are never more than their needs, so they have extra to give to others, and they trust that others will give to them in turn.  I am reminded of stories I have read of people who lived very simply, yet donated year after year huge amounts of money to charity, and were very very happy.  I always wondered how they did it. I think I know now, and it has been a wonderful life lesson for me.

As time goes on, and I enter more and more into the spirit of the gift, I look forward to converting my IRA into smiles of gratitude on the faces of many, many people. Talk about a return on investment!

What are your next challenges or adventures?

I have almost finished reading Charles Eisenstein’s book The Sacred Economy.  I am toying with the idea of living completely on a gift basis, and wondering how that would look.  Rather than arranging a work trade for a place to sleep, would it be possible to do such things on a purely gift basis? Would there be someone out there who would give me the gift of a place to lay my head for more than a night or two, without asking for anything in return?  I know I would shower them with gifts of many kinds, but they probably wouldn’t know that about me.  I am heading to New Zealand soon, and perhaps this will be part of the adventure of 2013 – living wholly in the gift economy. Why not? Someone needs to get the ball rolling!

Any words of wisdom or parting thoughts to readers who want to follow their dreams?

I would ask people to deeply look at their fears. Sit with them, do not run away from contemplating them. Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen, and then look at that, and decide what you would do to recover from it. Plan for the worst, and you no longer have to worry about it. After you have done that, you can go out and act in confidence, knowing that if the worst happens, you can deal with it.  In short; plan for the worst, and expect the best.

Because I cannot carry more than one or two books with me, I write down the best parts of the books I read, before passing them on. Here are some words of wisdom I have collected from others for people who want to follow their dreams:

Today we are asked to consider the power we have to write the story of the lives we want to experience. With the new dawn, finding ourselves unbounded by yesterday’s ideas, rules, habits and conditions, we find a fresh sheet upon which to record the intentions and desires of our souls … What served us in the past may need to be released for our future journey. We might be required to give up attachment to a certain outcome that keeps us tied to a narrow view of possibilities. For some, the new story today may involve taking power back from someone or something that we have allowed to dictate our choices. Others of us may need to flush out old, limiting ideas that keep us playing small. Some may have to give up self-talk that would have us convinced that we’re not good enough to live the lives of our dreams. – Diane Harmony, Jan 08 Science of Mind

Are you in earnest?  Then seize this very minute.  What you can do, or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power and magic in it; only engage then the mind grows heated; begin, and then the work will be completed.  – Goethe

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