Sajjad Mahmud: out of retirement, and into the fire
On September 11, 2015, Sajjad Mahmud had been enjoying a peaceful, contemplative retirement for eight months. The next day, as fire consumed his home and most of the resort he had been so instrumental in building, Sajjad went back to work. And he has been working every day since.
Sajjad’s Harbin tenure began in 1981, following a series of Buddhist meditation retreats. He had been looking for a home where he could live his practice, and thought Harbin offered the right fit. Sajjad worked for a year in the garden; then he moved into building and construction, where he worked for the next 12 years, gaining broad and extensive practical experience. Then, in 1994, Ishvara asked him to become a Managing Director, responsible for construction and Harbin’s finances. Sajjad filled these roles for the next 20 years – guiding Harbin through a period of intense growth – until his retirement in 2014. “At that time, I really felt I had stopped for good,“ Sajjad recalled. “But the fire was such a devastating and catastrophic event; and given that I had so much experience with Harbin’s construction and finances, I felt strongly that I had to come back and help out.”
Sajjad comes across as a calm and classy man, radiating a quiet assuredness. Often, as I asked him questions, he paused and gave thoughtful, detailed answers.
“What I’d like everyone to know about the fire,” he told me, “is the level of destruction, and the complexity of the rebuilding process. Part of Harbin was built 80-90 years ago, but was redone or built piece by piece, over the last 40+ years. We lost 95% of those buildings, and most of the supporting infrastructure as well. All of that was destroyed (though the pools and springs were spared, kind of). So not only did we have to clean up and clear away all the fire debris and dead biomass, we also faced the need to rebuild virtually everything entirely from scratch. And doing that – especially the planning, permitting, and approvals processes – has been significantly more complex and time consuming than it was in the past.
“There are new County, State, and Federal building, accessibility, fire, and environmental codes to comply with,” Sajjad explained. “And our overall plan as a whole, as well as every individual building, structure and system, must be conceptualized, designed, engineered in multiple ways, submitted to the appropriate agencies, reviewed, revised, approved… and only then can they be constructed, inspected, and permitted. It is a long process with many disparate parts to coordinate. And all of it has been significantly complicated by the fact that our mainside is quite a steep and hilly area, which is a factor for ADA compliance. And then there have been the rains. At this point, most of our rebuild has been happening outside; and to work outside, excavate, contour the land, and build, you need a reasonable amount of dryness. We haven’t had much of that. So it has all taken a lot more time and been a lot more complex than I had expected.”
I asked Sajjad if he enjoyed that kind of complexity. “I have in the past,” he said, “when I was living my life and any construction project was just one part of it.” He paused, allowing some of his tiredness to show. “But now the focus is much more acute: I’m not thinking about anything other than this rebuild. The interest is in getting Harbin up and running as quickly as possible. And I’m finding that all the complexity is a challenge.”
Like so many Harbin residents, Sajjad lost not only Harbin in the fire, but his personal dwelling burned to the ground as well. Losing home and community are traumatic psychological events in anyone’s life, and Sajjad confided that he hadn’t yet had a time to consciously process that and work through it. “I haven’t had that luxury.” He said he wondered how “this whole thing” is processing out for himself, and hopes it’s getting done on a more subconscious level. “Time will tell,” he said.
As for the other Harbin residents and locals who lost so much in the fire, he clearly has compassion for them – perhaps even more than he allows for himself. “It’s so difficult, “ he described, “I feel for everybody. Overnight, so many people’s lives were disrupted; and the basic structures that kept us together are gone. I hope people have adjusted to the best of their ability. But really, so much has changed. It’s devastating.”
Time, though, and hard work, has certainly healed some things. Sajjad described that “all the evidence of the fire at Harbin has been pretty much removed. Immediately after the fire it was terrible, with burned trees all around, and the debris. We went through a lot, getting rid of it, and then beginning to rebuild. But if you go to Harbin now, it’s so much better.”
And what of Sajjad’s postponed retirement? “My plan, when I retired in 2014, was to be more in a meditative space. Not to follow any hardcore ideology, or dogma; but informally, to live a here-and-now life. I needed to decompress after those 21 years of very intense Harbin management experience. I wanted to smell the flowers and take walks.” And after the added intensity and stresses of the fire and rebuild, with Phase 1 of Harbin’s reopening now scheduled for October: had the time come for Sajjad Mahmud to step back once again, and stroll the garden path?
“I don’t know,” he smiled. “I’m taking it one day at a time.”
Julie Adams has been a key thread in Harbin’s fabric for more than 30 years. And no one is more surprised than her.
When she first came to Harbin in 1984, something unexpected (but not uncommon) happened: she fell in love with a Harbin resident. His name was Pete, and like Julie’s then-recently-deceased husband, it turned out Pete was dying. Unlike her husband, who had been in a hospital bed where she couldn’t give him the tender, gentle care she knew he longed for, Pete was here in this community. And he, and the community, welcomed Julie and her big hurting heart into their lives. For weeks, Julie mostly just sat with Pete and the other community members who loved him.
When Pete died on Valentine’s day (“heart consciousness day”) she had planned to go back to her job teaching in Colorado. But she had been profoundly affected both by her experiences with Pete, and by the other friendships she had found in this remarkable community. And after some time training with hospice and integrating her experiences, Julie found herself back at Harbin.
She started sweeping Stonefront, painting signs, driving residents to the local grocery store in town, Hardester’s, and on errands, and just generally helping out. She still expected to return to teaching. Until one day Ishvara, who had come to know and appreciate Julie during their time being together with Pete, offered her the job of a “Managing Director”. She didn’t have a clue what that actually meant. But in the ensuing 30 years, she has learned.
Today, Julie’s primary responsibilities are aesthetic and administrative. Julie is an artist, and it is her whimsical eye for color, form, and texture that gave Harbin its distinctive style as it grew – and that will shape Harbin’s appearance as it grows again. “The inspiration will be the touchstone structures that people loved from our past, like the gazebo and the gate, as well as the Arts & Crafts designs from around 1910,” she says. “Modest structures, with real wood, stone, and glass. Warm, inviting. Nothing grandiose.” For Phase 1, she’s especially looking forward to the roofs planned for the hot pool and sauna: standing seam copper that will weather to a soft verdigris.
As for her administrative duties, Julie sighs and takes a long pause. “When I first got here, Harbin was basic. People here had very little, and were living in very rustic conditions. We as managers had to figure out from scratch how to make enough money to give our people a better standard of living – and over the years, we have been working continually to do that.” She also cites the interpersonal challenges of being a manager. “I had no idea how hard it would be. It’s different being a manager – a different role, a different relationship with people, and them with you.” Julie hopes that she has matured into her manager’s role, become wiser, and mellowed a bit with time and age.
She also hopes to retire from that role once the rebuild is complete. Her plan is to move back onto the property, “into a tiny house that I get to design!”, she giggles, “and just be like every other Harbin resident. Enjoying the smell of wet grass, the pools, and that hive-like hum of everyday life on mainside. That’s what I miss the most.”