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.”