Floating Suburbia: My journey to the River

houseAfter years of living in Austin, seeking ways to shield myself from the arrogant people and the blazing, constant heat, I decided it was time to move (For those thinking of moving to Austin: Don’t. Or call me before you do so I can tell you why you shouldn’t.). Given that it would most likely be my last move (You begin thinking that way when you’re old. Sort of creeps up on you.), I had to figure out the criteria I needed to have for the living style I wanted to espouse for the rest of my life.

After much deliberation, I ended up with these criteria: community, proximity to cultural choices, a 1500 book library AND a library ladder (This is true. Number 3 criteria.), open plan (no walls) with interesting features I could play with, room for office (open plan if possible), 2 bathrooms, someplace to sleep and eat, and no lawn to care for. Hah, you say?

First I had to decide where I wanted to live. Since I didn’t need to limit my choices in any way, I began whittling down my options using my number one criteria: community. I’ve been to 63 countries and countless hundreds of cities, but I’ve only felt deeply comfortable in a handful, so started considering those first. After coming up with a short list, I decided to live in my favorite village in Peru for a month, and then live in Portland OR for a month, which I’d never spent any real time in, but had heard is the nicest city in the world. “Oh. You’d love Portland. You’re kinda town,” I heard hundreds of times. How could I not try it?

I went to live for a month in Pisaq, Peru, where I had travelled several times over the years. There’s this amazing Waldorf School (Kusi Kawsay) that the local people built out of clay from the mountain (and is totally sustainable), got national funding to get 10 indigenous teachers trained in Lima, and taught classes through to high school, sending kids on to U.S colleges. This was no easy feat: the students had to walk 2.5 hours through the mountains to get to school, and 2.5 hours back. And they came. I helped this amazing school get online, create a website, use Facebook, design ways to raise money, and find and connect with local experts to maximize their sustainable agriculture practices.

During my visits, I’d become friendly with the fun, kind teachers and became the butt of their soft teasing. They, and the village, called me La Gringa Loca (literally, The Crazy White Woman), but were there for me when I needed them. I was in a café one day when a young woman – a tourist – came in with the tightest, shortest shorts I’ve seen since outside of Venice Beach. Since this village was still steeped in history, and their religious values were quite Christian, tourists were usually culturally sensitive and dressed appropriately; this young woman was most likely offending many of the locals. As is my wont, I walked near her table and said, “Tomorrow you might want to rethink your clothing choices to be a bit more culturally sensitive. You look adorable, but it’s not quite right for this community.” She stood up, flexed her bicep, and said, “You b**ch wh**e. I’m going to get you. Mind your f-ing business or I’ll hurt you.” I stood there, having no idea who else was in the café or who was behind me, and I pointed blindly behind me and said, “I think these people might have something to say about that.” She looked behind me, then magically sat down. I turned around, and all of the other inhabitants of the café had gotten up to stand behind me. The village wouldn’t let anyone hurt me. I belonged.

What a pleasure to live there. Like walking around in cotton candy. Fresh mountain air. Beautiful mountains and rivers. And the stars! Have you ever been up high in the mountains – really high in a pitch black night, with every star in the sky sparkling? I cried regularly at the beauty.

Every morning I ate breakfast at the market: some sort of broth with a bit of goat, and a vegetable and yucca. The local women brought their yummy soups down from the mountains, cooked early in the morning, and carried for 2.5 hours, to make enough money to buy food for the family, and then walk back another 2.5 hours in the dark, at 13,000 feet. And charged 30 cents a bowl.

I got to know many of the villagers: the people in the market – the flower vendors and weavers, the tourists; the group of Americans of all ages who came for a year or two and frequently partied  – bonfires with great music and everyone dancing together, large pot luck dinners with 100 people; the locals who invited me to their Andean ceremonies; the teachers who invited me to school functions with parents and kids. The mix of people was always exciting, with easy laughter and a profound sense of community. I was happy happy.

But – you’re waiting for the ‘but’, right? – I forgot to put a few basics on my original list. Like electricity when you need it, ditto water. To get clothes washed, there was a woman about two miles away who had a washing machine and dryer; I had to take the tuk-tuk each time I needed to wash clothes and had to make sure EVERYTHING had my name written on it because I never knew what I was going to lose. [More than once I noticed someone in town with a familiar T-shirt that I had somehow lost at the laundry. And I always got surprises back as well. I suppose it ended up even.] But the hardest to handle was the inconsistency of internet connections. There would be no way to be in touch with the world. Sadly, I decided I couldn’t live there.

Next was Portland. By the time I arrived at my BnB, I knew I was home. The air seemed to fit my lungs. And the norm of living matched my identity.  I felt an acceptance, an embrace. And everyone extended it to one another. In fact, it was so different from anywhere I’d ever been that it took me a week or so to ‘get the rules.’ I was walking around a few days after Halloween one evening and noticed a young man in a fabulously strange costume. “Excuse me,” I went out of my way to say to him, “Why are you still dressed up for Halloween? I adore your costume. Did you make it yourself?” to which my friend grabbed my arm and pulled me away. “This is Portland,” he whispered. What did that mean? “People just wear whatever they want to.  Here everyone just expresses themselves the way they want to, and everyone accepts each other.” And Portland immediately became choice #1.

So I began a search for a place that had the rest of my criteria. I chose an area of Portland (Portland is broken up into very specific neighborhoods with their own personalities and demographics.) and began hunting – lofts, co-ops. Nowhere could I find room to take care of my #3 criteria and I became annoying. My constant question became: “But Kevin, where am I going to put my 1500 book library and library ladder?” In the bathroom?? Shelves along hallways? Were they wide enough? (Seriously. Who does this!?). Just before going back to Austin, and wondering if I’d consider changing my criteria for the next time I came back to look, Kevin called. He had the keys to a houseboat that he was told was ‘really cool’ but he hadn’t seen pictures of it. A houseboat? As a ‘mountain person’, I have no affinity to water. What? OK. Show me the house.

Surprisingly, the drive from downtown to this neighborhood (Bridgeton, on the Columbia River in North Portland) took 8 minutes. When we arrived, I saw a mile-long community of unique floating homes. But the biggest surprise came when we walked into the house. There, before my eyes, was a huge 3 story open space and balcony, no walls, with 6 foot windows all over, and on the left, into the middle of the room, a spiral staircase went up to a – wait for it – a 1500 book library with a library ladder!

And that’s how I got to this floating suburbia of eleven home owners who are all, in their own unique way, nuts, but with a very strong bond of community. People may not like each other, but help each other out. One day I went out to my deck and one of my outside dining room chairs was right in front of my door instead of at the table. As I began wondering how it travelled there, my neighbor yelled out, “Get your chair? We saw it floating down the river and decided you probably wanted it, so we got into the boat and chased it down.” Who does that!

But what is really insane is living on a river. My desk is in front of a huge window that looks on to the water. I’ve learned to notice when the water is high or low and why (usually it’s the dam). Neighbors discuss the state of the water all the time: “Looks like we got some water last night.” I still ask a lot of questions to learn about this strange environment. Why would the dam give us water now? (The salmon are running.) Why is the water getting lower if it’s been raining so much? (The dam took some back. Or something with Montana [I never understood that one.]). I’ve even grown to appreciate the occasional gentle rocking I feel when the water is running fast and my house is sort of going along for the ride (not really).

I’ve watched sea lions honking down river, geese and their families of au-pairs train the goslings to swim and manage the current. I wait each spring for the Osprey to come back to their annual nest, wait for the eggs to hatch, and then watch them feed their babies. We even have our own heron. He’s The General. He comes for several days, then disappears for a few. He’s very old, with lacey, wispy feathers. One of the neighbors, now dead, used to feed him, and so he returns regularly. Lately, a new, young one started showing up. She’s tall and proud and sleek and dainty. I began calling her Dorothy. And now the name has stuck! Yay!

So here I am, with my own green kayak (Kermit), and friends to join for the full moon ceremony when we all paddle downriver, hold onto each other’s boats to form a line across the river and watch the full moon rise.

The river is soothing and gentle, strong and fast and always surprising. I get up in the mornings and sit outside, even in the rain, and feel part of something bigger. I’m more creative than I’ve ever been, carry a softer heart, and am terrifically happy. Not a bad place to live for the rest of my life.


Sharon-Drew Morgen is a Change Facilitator, enabling buy-in, congruent decision making, and collaboration for sales (Buying Facilitation®), coaching, leadership,communication, and management. She is the author of 9 books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and the Amazon best sellers Dirty Little Secrets, why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell, and What? did you really say what I think I heard?  Sharon-Drew works largely in banking, healthcare, technology, and fund raising. She is the thought leader in facilitating buy-in for buyers, and enabling coaches to facilitate permanent change, using her unique facilitation model that enables people to discover their own excellence. Sharon-Drew lives on a houseboat in Portland, OR.

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