I was broke, deeply in love, and living in a defunct cult…and that is where my 10-year career of professional writing began.

7 minute read

Before agencies, before Wall Street, before ghost-writing books…there was an eco-village in New Zealand.

*written without bragging rights, proven ROI stats, or name dropping…because I’ve already spent a decade penning that ish. And c’mon, let’s be honest: broken hearts and cults are wayyy more interesting than “Top 10 ways to rank high on Yelp.”


Also: Everything I’m telling you? It did, in fact, actually happen.

Part I: Lost, Poor, and Sometimes Delirious.

“What will you do?” we were asked. Place: Senior Symposium for Poetry students. One by one, my curated classmates all had answers.

 
“I’ve got an internship at a publishing house in NYC”

“I’ll be staying at a highly-coveted writer’s residence for the summer”



“Uhhh….I’m not sure. I’m looking into spending the rest of my days on this commune in Pennsylvania.”

Friends, can you guess which one was me?

I had grand notions of escaping evil, evil capitalism by living communally and spinning poetry in meadows. But those dreams were not to be fulfilled.

Not yet, anyway.

I moved to Bushwick and lived in a restaurant-turned-candy-store-turned-anarchist bookstore-turned-sober-feminist-underground-performance-art space. I promise I won’t use that many hyphens in this story again. One day my roommates and I called the fire department because we thought we had a gas leak; we were told that the building code looked 50 years overdue.

My walls were painted turquoise and I scrawled poetry on them in charcoal. Underneath my mattress was the black floor, underneath the floor was the hot boiler that heated the entire building. In winter I would wake, sweltering, with my back burning.

I worked at a non-profit where my creepy boss kissed my head every time I did something he approved of. (Ahhh…just another dreadful #metoo moment with men in positions in power.) I cried. (Every. Single. Day.) I lived on cheap Chinese takeout and pizza.

(In case you were wondering if my daily breakdowns were the result of being a precious snowflake who had never held a job, please know that I’ve been working since age 12 [yup, 12], and have scrubbed stoves, changed diapers, polished boats, stuffed envelopes, cranked out lattes…the list is longer than either of us have time for. I digress.)

 

Cut scene: #ByeBrooklyn. I sold everything I owned, lived out of a 1983 Mercedes/campgrounds with my ex-lover (We’ll call her “S”) while traveling for 6 months across America. We drank with displaced Hurricane Katrina victims and Airforce kids who were en route to Iraq. We couchsurfed in the houses of drug addicts and nurses with pet parrots.

Also, we began fighting. Badly.

Then, our car set on fire while going 80 miles an hour near Austin, TX. We sold it for parts and drove up Rt.1 in a U-Haul. We lived in her Catholic brother’s Tiburon fancy closet pool house and kept our (gay gay gay) relationship hidden; we were meta before “meta” became a thing.

Part II: I got the hell outta San Francisco.

I fly to New Zealand from San Francisco with a drop of cash in my bank account. I broke “S”’s heart over Skype. I met a new lover. New lover and I (let’s call her “E”) spent 3 weeks falling absurdly in love and knocking over a lot furniture while screwing ahem I mean sleep walking ahem I mean both. Then we got sick of living in a gingerbread boarding house and moved to a cult-turned-eco-village.

The “government-dismantled-cult-turned-eco-village” (I promised no name dropping) was in one of the last old-growth rainforests outside of Auckland, with wooden swing bridges over waterfalls and Polynesian longhouses built on stilts up mossy hills. Its land held a visceral experience that was equal parts sparkly flora magic and a dark, sinister sensation that I can only describe as feeling like prey; a glade enjoyed in glittering afternoon light was not a place you’d venture off to at night.

The cast of characters who lived there were straight from a Murakami novel; I will briefly sketch a trifle of them for you.

The slender and beautiful German “philosopher” named Kris. His room had a single white bear rug; his diet consisted exclusively of Swiss Mövenpick chocolate ice-cream. Most days he perched on a fraying 1969 chair quoting Nietzsche.

The dark-haired pair of 20-something self-medicating introverts whose fractured hearts glowed through their leather jackets. They grew up in the horribly abusive, now-defunct cult and had nowhere else to go; they mostly skulked and made sarcastic remarks.

Sweet and polite German nationals donning flannels and dreads, poring over books for their Environmental Science doctorate degrees.

Often crying (sometimes wailing and throwing things through windows) fine-artists from Norway and Sweden.

Intense honey bee enthusiasts.

A legitimate gnome. Ok, not really. But Maximilian was extremely stout and short, his beard reached his navel, he wore a floppy red cap, and he lived in an actual hovel built into a glow-worm studded mountain. He was known by the group as the “longest over-stayer in New Zealand.” In America we’d call that an undocumented worker…except that Max never worked. His hobbies included puttering, complaining and clearing his throat of phlegm.

And me, and E.

Every Wednesday the eco-village would gather and discuss everything from “soup night ingredient lists” to “how are we going to fix these communal bathrooms from the 70’s” (yes, I’m talking about toilets without stalls). A few members would start slack-jawed snoring, because these meetings were known to be up to four hours long.

At my very first Wednesday night meeting, the community’s “Spin Doctor” (the trust-fund pothead Brit responsible for PR) was being held accountable for stealing money from the eco-village’s office. In short: he was being fired.

After the public dismissal occured, the question was posed:

“So, who wants to hold the title of Spin Doctor? They are the PR, Marketing & Branding department for the eco-village.”

I didn’t think too hard about it, otherwise I would have stopped myself. I raised my hand and stated:

“I’m a writer from New York.” my armpit sweat was seeped through my thin t-shirt. 

Despite my extremely newbie status, nobody voted against me. Thank God.

And this, friends, was my illustrious, Ivy-league, extremely fancy start as a professional writer. Tada.

The End.
Just Kidding. Here’s a quick post-script.

Part III: Spoiler! Laura’s heart gets broken…but her writing career burgeons.

You might think that my eco-village job was easy. But you try re-branding and promoting a once-known “cult” (an infamous mar on New Zealand’s squeaky-clean human rights reputation) whose founder served time for drugging his followers, committing child abuse, and a whole host of other ugly deeds. My job was to help transform it into a darling earthly paradise for compost lessons, multimedia art shows, and fresh eggs from skittish resident chickens.

Sidenote with perspective: I was too young and dumb to realize how presumptuous this whole endeavor was. The property needed a proper energetic cleansing and the remaining ex-cult members deserved true reconciliation. As a broke 24-year old expat in the 2008 recession, I was focused on survival and paying my rent. The events that happened on that land before me were unimaginably traumatic for many; I entered the space during a transitory time.

In any case, I had my work cut out for me. 

And, it worked, in part, for a time. That wasn’t just my doing, quite the opposite—much of our success was in public festivals, and those were a team-effort. I also had the immense opportunity to work on the bios, websites, and grant applications of several internationally-recognized artists, most notably, Vospertron. I entered that eco-village as a Poetry Major, and I left with a professional writing portfolio.

I will be forever grateful for that.

However, after a while…E and I started wilting under the weight of it all.

The both of us suffocated under a blanket of deep depression. Attempting to sell a new story of the land and the eco-village proved exhausting. The grounds there held pent-up sorrow, as though there were storm clouds under the earth. It was time to move on.

We packed our bags and moved south, I learned to surf and continued to write. About a year later, I left New Zealand penniless but returned to New York with a fat folder of writing samples (and I have to add…incredible abdominals). The eco-village was bought by a college for natural therapies.

In the midst of reverse culture shock (and to my utter devastation), E broke up with me on Skype. Which, let’s be honest, is probably sweet justice.