Eric Richardson: bringing people together
Since the fire, Harbin’s Managing Directors have spent the majority of their time concentrating on the physical. How to protect the springs and repair the pools. How to clean up the land and restore the ecosystem. What the new buildings should be, where they should go, how they should be built, and what they should look like. These are the infrastructure questions and projects that have been management’s priority, and received the most public attention. But since the fire and in fact well before it, MD Eric Richardson has had a somewhat different focus. “I’ve always cared less about Harbin’s buildings, than I care about what goes on inside them,” he explained.
Eric is an intelligent, thoughtful, creative, and kindhearted man who has been a Harbin resident since 1999, and a Managing Director since June of 2016. At the time of the fire, he had been co-managing Harbin’s Human Resources department for three years, and was an MD trainee. Prior to that, he served in a variety of Harbin roles, including dishwasher and breakfast cook, reception/front gate attendant, and electrician. And all throughout his Harbin life, Eric has been an increasingly discerning student of human nature and social dynamics – and has contributed in significant ways to bringing Harbin’s community more consciously and harmoniously together.
Eric came to Harbin after earning a BA in English from Allegheny College, teaching for two years on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, and becoming certified in and practicing massage. At Harbin, he realized he had a latent talent for comedy, and it was here that this talent flowered: he performed standup comedy, and became an inaugural member of Harbin’s comedy improv troupe. Most significantly, for many years, Eric conceived, wrote, directed, and produced Harbin’s very funny annual holiday shows and bi-monthly skit nights for residents.
In all these comedic iterations, Eric had two intentions. First, he wanted to bring Harbin’s people together in ways that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. Generally, Harbin’s residential community has been loosely organized, with few formal group processes and gatherings. But through these shows, Eric brought many residents together at the same time in the same place and for the same purpose – as he also did with the myriad of other events he supported or created, including the annual dance festival, monthly drum circles, various sporting events and outings, the improv classes he taught, and the tremendously popular weekly resident dinners that he co-organized, hosted, and often cooked for. All these activities helped to bring different combinations of Harbin’s residents together in shared experience; and the shows specifically gave him the opportunity to hold a thoughtful, loving, and effective comedic mirror up to our community’s most idiosyncratic behaviors and foibles – a complex and delicate task, to say the least. The result of all these events was that many individual residents came to feel comfortable enjoying new experiences, activities, and ways of relating; and the community as a whole came into a more open and sharing space, gaining more common ground for considering and talking about what we were doing, how we were doing it, and how we could grow as individuals, a community, and an organization.
When Eric was invited to begin working in HR, his perspective on life and comedy both shifted and matured. He became witness to and involved with more and more of people’s most difficult life situations. As he described it, “I began seeing and feeling the tragedy inherent in life more acutely than the comedy.” This is when he stopped doing comedy shows, and instead began hosting resident dinners. Like the shows, these dinners also brought new groups of people together; and they were nourishing, nurturing, delicious, and a springboard for conversations, relationship-building, parties, and celebrations even beyond what Eric had originally envisioned. And it was these very tangible results that kept him motivated to continue putting so much time, effort, and love into activities far beyond his workday responsibilities: they were effective community-building in action.
The fire and subsequent dispersal of the community, and becoming an MD after that, have only deepened Eric’s awareness of the individual and group struggles of Harbin’s residents, its guests, and so many others. As ever, he continues to try to bring some measure of lightness to even the most challenging of interactions; but he continues to feel and contemplate the ramifications of how the fire affected the lives of all the residents. And he has found himself thinking more and more about Harbin’s purpose, its programming, the social aspects and psychology of both Harbin residency and the guest experience, and Harbin’s future as a retreat center and an organization.
As an MD, Eric’s formal portfolio of responsibilities includes overseeing Harbin’s HR, Security, and Reception departments, and its public relations and fundraising. He has other, less-defined though no-less-important roles within the MD circle as well. For example, Eric is often the one to whom other managers, staff, and residents come for perspective on their most challenging situations. Eric is also the MD who currently has his eye – and his radar – most consistently on Harbin’s future.
What does he see in that future? “For the short term, I imagine that Harbin will be reminiscent of how it was 40 years ago: basic structures, fewer services, and a simple, rustic quality to it all… with lots of construction and reforesting for the next several years.” In the longer term, he imagines that Harbin will always be a place for people to get away, relax, and rejuvenate. But he also believes that in an increasingly technological society, there will be a significant need for people to focus on and enhance their human interactions and relationships, and advance their emotional intelligence. He hopes that as it evolves, Harbin will become an even kinder, more supportive place where people can come to relax, yes, and also to learn about and safely explore the social aspects and deeper questions and practicalities of what it means to be human. He also hopes to see Harbin fully embrace sustainability, support the creation of new modalities of wellbeing and bodywork, and have significant outreach and impact beyond its gates into Middletown and the world.
If and how any of that develops remains an unknown. For now, Harbin management is, as a group, focused on the practical: the water, pools, land, structures, forests, funding… and getting the systems and staffing in place that will allow it to reopen as soon as possible. Eric Richardson is an important part of all of that. And with his personal interests in social dynamics and community building, and the part of his brain that quietly observes and creates, Eric is also focused on the fundamentally human aspects of Harbin Hot Springs as well. It’s a part of Harbin that is perhaps even more important than the structures; and the other MDs, and all of us, are so glad that Eric is here to help us look beyond the pressing practicalities of the moment, into the most beautiful possibilities of what Harbin and its various communities could someday become.
Deirdre Davis: get it done, naturally
Deirdre Davis believes in the healing power of nature. Whether it’s a forested landscape, a flower garden, or a hillside trail, she has learned that “nature itself can be just as healing as a soak or a massage.” And she is hoping, through her work as the Managing Director responsible for all of Harbin’s acreage and ecosystem, to continue bringing the healing power and peacefulness of nature into all aspects of the Harbin experience.
Deirdre is a smart, tuned-in, and intuitive woman with lots of energy, a quick wit, and a sarcastic sense of humor; and she is doing her day-by-day best to balance her roles as a mother, wife, gardener, and for the past year as a Harbin MD. “I was in shock for the first six months after the fire,” she recalled. “But I jumped into starting our reforesting project right away, and focusing on that work really helped keep me together. Then a year ago, when there was a shift in upper management and the MD circle asked me to step up and help more, I was ready for the opportunity.”
Deirdre was born in St. Helena and has lived hereabouts for most of her life. Her great-grandfather bought land and built a family ranch in north Napa County, “about 9 miles as the crow flies” from Harbin. As a kid, she spent summers swimming and hiking there, and hearing stories about her grandparents soaking in the many nearby springs. She first learned about Harbin specifically at the age of 16, when she saw an advertisement in the Mendocino County Grapevine for Harbin Hot Springs with a little map of Middletown, and had the thought, “Someday I’m going to work at Harbin Hot Springs and live at the family ranch!” At the time, she thought that seemed far-fetched; but it turned out to be exactly what happened. She and her husband, Neil Nelson (who is Harbin’s Vision Property Manager, and integral to our reforestation process), were living at the family ranch 17 years ago when they first began working at Harbin.
Over the course of her Harbin tenure, Deirdre has had first-hand experience in almost every Harbin department. Her first job was assisting in Human Resources, where she was an immediately welcome light; concurrently, she worked in housekeeping, scrubbing toilets. In the years that followed, she worked in the restaurant, the market, as a massage therapist, arranging flowers, giving palm readings, beekeeping, doing and managing Harbin’s landscaping, and in the community garden project. That’s where she and Neil learned about biodynamic practices from Lawrence Hirschman, and brought them to Harbin’s flower and vegetable growing. “The overall design of that garden”, Deirdre described, “was based on Julie Adams’ wonderful vision for all of Harbin: quirky, with little secret hidden areas and gardens within gardens. And it was built on the hard work and dedication of all the landscapers and gardeners who came before us, and included some really eclectic plants and trees they had put in. There is a little bit of magic to all of it.”
Fortunately – perhaps miraculously – most of that Harbin garden was among the few areas to survive the Valley Fire. So too was the Bar X ranch house, where Deirdre has been living and caretaking since 2012 with Neil, the youngest of their combined total of five children, Meirra, and their 29 animals, including “a lot of chickens!” She said, “It’s really because the fire spared our Harbin home that we chose to stay in Middletown, and I eventually felt able to take on more management responsibility. That, and the loving connections we had made within our Harbin community.”
Each of Harbin’s Managing Directors has a portfolio of primary responsibilities. Deirdre’s focus is on Harbin’s land. In addition to managing Harbin’s reforestation process, she oversees Harbin’s fire cleanup and prevention, ranchland management, trails, landscaping, waste and recycling, and wildlife management. She also researches, applies for, and coordinates Harbin’s participation in governmental programs that help fund these areas. And she is the MD responsible for Harbin’s events, yoga, and food services, including the restaurant, market, and coffee shop.
She characterized herself as “a total foodie” who currently grows a large garden with flowers and veggies. “I’m inspired by Esalen and Kalani Honua, where they grow their own food for their thriving kitchens. I would love to see that someday at Harbin.” And she confided that “after the fire, one of the things I missed most (in addition to so many of my friends) was the food at the market!” So she was both relieved and delighted when the County recently issued permits allowing Harbin to have a food trailer with Harbin-market-style prepared foods when it reopens. “We’ll have our signature Harbin gluten-free muffins and other breakfast delights, fruit, smoothies, green soups, and ethnic-themed vegan and vegetarian entrees for lunch – plus, of course, espresso coffee drinks and teas all day.”
Even more than her love for food, is Deirdre’s focus on responsible stewardship of the land, and especially restoring Harbin’s healthy, native beauty, so much of which was burned in the fire. Although daunted by the scope of the task, she is also highly energized by the challenge. “To a gardener,” she explained, “the next project is always your reason to live. Learning more about holistic forest management, rangeland ecology and watershed restoration is something that I – and all of us – are really diving into.”
Deirdre’s love for this land and her eagerness to do the hard work necessary to “get it done” continue to serve Harbin, and those who love Harbin, in more and more ways. “Last month, we introduced Harbin’s Project for the Land, Water and Trees, which we anticipate will be a coordinated, years-long project to clean up, restore, and sustainably manage the entirety of Harbin’s incredible natural resources. We started with the forests. Already we’ve planted 50,000 new trees – without any chemicals (which adds to our costs, but it’s worth it) – and we’re hoping that everyone will contribute something financially to the campaign, and help us double that number of newly planted trees as soon as possible. So please sponsor some trees – and help us spread the word by wearing one of our new Tree T-shirts!”
In addition to her active MD duties, and her spiritual contributions to Harbin’s various communities as a Harbin Minister, Deirdre is also now being mentored by Julie Adams. She will soon begin learning to paint (“pictures, not bathrooms”), and she’s learning about aesthetics, and how they are used throughout Harbin’s buildings and design. “Julie has extraordinary vision for pulling together the function and beauty of the buildings and the landscape. The way she brings art into everyday life is really a gift, and it’s an honor to learn from her. My plan is to spend the rest of my life planting and rebuilding Harbin to its original natural beauty.”
And that’s exactly what Deirdre Davis is doing. One challenge at a time, one tree at a time, one meal at a time… using her gifts and skills to help restore Harbin, and make it an ever more alive, beautiful, and peaceful place for us all.
Will Erme: both sides of the brain
Many visitors envision Harbin as a utopian dream: loving individuals living in community, freely enjoying the hot springs, nature, each other, and pursuing the new age ideals of health, spirituality, and holism. It’s a beautiful image, isn’t it? And in many ways, it’s what Harbin is all about. But it’s also not the whole story. Because what most visitors don’t see – and shouldn’t have to – is the amount of expertise, planning, diligence, and just plain hard work it takes to create and run (or to completely rebuild) an enterprise as large and multi-faceted as Harbin Hot Springs.
Fortunately for Harbin – and all the free spirits who are drawn to work and visit here – we have Will Erme among our Managing Directors.
Will is a skillful straight-shooter, with a kind demeanor and a beautiful smile. He began his career as a computer scientist at IBM, programming and managing there for 15 years. For a natural left-brainer like Will, it was a perfect fit… for a while. Eventually, though, the accumulated stresses of 60-hour weeks of coding, analytics, and corporate life left him feeling burned out and unfulfilled. So Will decided to nurture the more intuitive side of his being, by exploring that most paradigm-shifting of the human senses: touch. He enrolled in massage school with the idea of working on cruise ships and traveling the world. That particular fantasy didn’t pan out; but the decision to pursue massage and begin balancing his polarities proved life-changing for Will. He completed his massage therapist certificate, left IBM, and worked for three seasons as housing manager and in the massage office at the Omega Institute, in New York, where he was first exposed to living and working in community; then he moved to San Francisco, and eventually he came to Harbin.
“I first visited Harbin in 1997, and began coming several times a year,” Will recalled. “I loved the soaking, the freedom to wander Harbin’s miles of trails, the option of being either social or taking personal retreat time. I took yoga classes, went to events, attended workshops – and every time I left Harbin, a big part of me would think, ‘Why am I leaving? I should be living here!’” Finally, in 2005, Will applied for Harbin residency – but there were no openings. Instead, he accepted a job in the office at the School of Shiatsu and Massage, which was then a community unto itself at the Watsu Center (now the Harbin Domes); that job allowed Will to continue his bodywork studies, and eventually become a Watsu practitioner. For those who frequented the School at that time (as I did), Will’s grounded, intensely focused, and largely unflappable presence and organizational skills were immediately apparent. And the next year, when a job became available in Harbin’s Health Services office, Will applied, was accepted, and became a Harbin resident, assistant manager, and massage practitioner.
Over the ensuing three years, Will continued to nurture his intuitive side through the pleasures and challenges of Harbin resident life and his massage work; and bigger projects and more responsibilities soon came his way. • He became the IT department manager and was asked to lead a project to upgrade the Harbin IT system. • He helped to revise the Harbin trail map – a job he particularly enjoyed because it required hiking every Harbin trail at least three times, and allowed him to see and touch so much of Harbin’s multi-layered history. • When Harbin purchased the School of Shiatsu and Massage, it was Will who began its transition into the Harbin School of Healing Arts. • And when Sajjad decided in 2014 to retire at the end of the year, the MDs chose Will to be his successor as Managing Director responsible for Harbin’s buildings, maintenance, and infrastructure.
Will apprenticed under Sajjad for nine months. It was a steep learning curve at an intense time: California was in the midst of a severe and prolonged drought, and there had already been two major fires within 15 miles of Harbin. One project Will approved, when he stepped fully into Sajjad’s role, was to upgrade Boggs Springs Road, and bury about a mile of water line underneath. That work prevented the line from being destroyed several months later in the Valley Fire, and saved Harbin significant time and money. During the fire itself, Will helped to coordinate the team that safely evacuated nearly 600 Harbin guests and residents. And immediately after the fire, Will worked with Harbin’s IT manager and IT contractor to quickly recreate Harbin’s systems for payroll, accounting, and administration.
It’s these kind of anticipatory and in-the-background decisions and team projects that, Will said, he was the most proud of. “Seeing Harbin running, seeing the working systems that people under my responsibility had touched, knowing that all this was humming along and all these people and I were a part of it – that’s Harbin teamwork at its best, and it has given me a huge sense of satisfaction.” Eric Richardson, Will’s fellow MD, said of Will, “He brings a very clear perspective to all kinds of situations we face and problems we work on – especially the most difficult ones.”
The fire, and Sajjad’s return to work, changed Will’s personal situation and work responsibilities. Like so many others, Will lost his home, his possessions, and his immediate connection to the full Harbin community. And with Julie and Sajjad focusing on Harbin’s redesign and rebuild, Will and the three other MDs became responsible for Harbin’s day-to-day operations, and preparing for Harbin’s reopening and its future. When I asked Will how he felt about Harbin’s future, he told me “Hopeful!” And he recalled the poignancy during a post-fire meeting with the architect, when he spoke with other residents and they visualized soaking together in the warm pool, looking out over a newly rebuilt Harbin. “It’s humbling,” Will described, “knowing how many different incarnations of Harbin there have been through its history, and now being integral to this next one.”
The biggest challenge Will sees for himself, and for all the MDs moving forward, is “being OK with not knowing how it’s actually going to happen. We have broad outlines of what we’re going to build and how we’re going to run it – but there’s no straight-line path to where we’re going to get to. Harbin has always been a zig-zag of progress. We just have to keep moving forward, deal with new problems as they arise, and trust in everybody and the process.”
With Will Erme and his combination of intelligence and heart so involved in that process, Harbin and all of us are in caring and capable hands.
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.”