Born in Superior, Wisconsin, USA in 1953, I grew up in a busy house with 5 sisters, mom and dad. I am daughter number 4 of 6. My favorite toy was Noah's Ark, and I never played with dolls. I loved animals, and was always bringing home stray cats when I was young. I remember going to a place to be tested to see if I could go to school early. I passed, and started kindergarten when I was 4 years old. Finally, mom had the house to herself for a few hours a day, before the next baby came along. We attended the Presbyterian church when I was very little, and were close to our cousins and grandparents Emerson. Mom was from a small town in Ohio, and was far from her family. We all moved to Pine City, Minnesota when I was around 8. We lived in a house very close to the public swimming beach, and in the summer all the girls would spend nearly every day at the beach, coming home only for meals. I learned to swim and love the water. One early spring, when the ice was melting around the shores of the lake, I made a raft out of a section of wooden dock at the public beach. I pushed myself off shore with a stick, and soon found myself out beyond the reach of my stick. I had gotten myself into a bit of a jam! Being early spring, there were no people around, and no one to call to for help. I don't recall how long I was out there, but a neighbor who lived on the lake looked out their window and saw my predicament, and came to my rescue. I was probably 9 or 10 at the time. I broke my tailbone when tobogganing down a hill onto this same lake. It was my first ride. I didn't know enough to bail out when it got going too fast over the bumps down to the lake, and rode it all the way. I couldn't sit comfortably in a car for years.
I loved reading, but I was not interested in typical children's books. I recall going to the school library for the first time, when I was 8. Over all the books on one wall was the word: Fiction. Over another wall of books was Non Fiction. I asked the librarian what those big signs meant. She kindly explained to me that the fiction section was made-up stories, and the non-fiction section was for books based on true stories. Well, I knew enough not to fill my young head with things that weren't true, so I never once took a book from the Fiction section. I didn't have a lot to choose from as a 3rd grader in the non-fiction section. Thankfully, Marguerite Henry's wonderful books about horses and Brighty of the Grand Canyon were in the NonFiction section, as were a few other books on animals. At the public library in town, they didn't have such a separation of books, and I ended up reading some fiction books. My favorites were Black Beauty, and anything by Jack London.
I stopped going to church when we lived in Pine City. Once our parents stopped going, it didn't take long before I refused to go on my own. I stayed away from the church (except to marry) for the next 40 years or so. I found it difficult to conceive of a loving father-god.
Difficult Middle Years
The family moved to Blaine, Minnesota when I was 12. This was a distant northern suburb of Minneapolis. Nothing much for a troubled teen to do when left on her own in an empty suburb. Everything was too far away for me to walk or ride my bike to. No library, no church, no lake, no river, no forest, no fields, no community center, no grandparents, no aunts or uncles, no cousins, no friends nearby. Just a strip mall and acres of houses and lawns. I was easy pickings for "the wrong crowd". People think of suburbs as safe, wholesome environments to raise their children. But for me, it was like being stuck on a desert island. I won't go into the details here (big sigh of relief from my family), but you may ask me about them when I am with you. I was an excellent student, and enjoyed school.
Working for a Living
My first employment was babysitting, and shoveling snow for neighbors when we lived in Pine City. Earlier I had a short-lived attempt at selling wildflowers to neighbors when I was 4. I was told it was illegal to pick the state flower (the wild violet), so had to stop!
When in Blaine, I started raising redworms and sold them on occasion to people for fishing. I subscribed to Organic Gardening magazine when I was 15, and ordered the worms from them. I raised them in the basement, and had an old refrigerator to keep them in once they were boxed up to be sold. I read that they were good for houseplants, but when I put them in my mother's pot plants, they all crawled out and died on the countertops, tables, and floors. They obviously did not like the soil conditions!
At 16, I got a job working for Minnesota Dragways, selling entry tickets. One of the perks of working there was that once the racing started, the employees were allowed to come over and enter their own cars for free to race! So I did. I had a beat up1966 Mercury Comet, and raced it one whole summer. I disconnected the power steering to get more horsepower, and put in racing spark plugs, and a racing air filter, and took out the back seat to lighten it - everything I was allowed to do to it and keep it in its category of "Pure Stock". I won several trophies, both in my class (I raced against other vehicles like VW minivans). and in Powder Puff. In Powder Puff I was always given a big head start against much faster cars - the common factor was that only women could race in this class. Hence the name.
I gave up my racing career when it became clear to me that it was not a good thing to do for the environment.
I saved enough money, and got a couple of scholarships, so I could attend college at the University of Minnesota. I quit when I ran out of funds, and got a job at HB Fuller Company, the largest adhesives company in the world. I had a man's job, in the factory. I mixed up tanks of adhesive, moved 600 pound drums of solvents around, and wore work uniforms and steel toed shoes. I loved it, and the company was very good to me. I got the idea to buy a duplex apartment building from one of my co-workers, and began to work 2 jobs to save the money for a down payment. My night job was selling houseplants to people on the party plan, like Tupperware is sold. When the ladies learned that I was working two jobs (at age 20) to save money to buy a house, their purses opened up. I was the top salesperson for the company.
The Career Years
The neighborhoods of Prospect Park and St. Anthony Park appealed to me the most, so I would ride my bicycle around them on weekends and ask people if they knew of any houses for sale. I found one, and bought it when I was 22. A three story dilapidated Victorian house that had been turned into a rental property a number of years previously, and not cared for very well. But it was mine! And the rent from the two occupied apartments helped me pay the bills, and I lived in the third apartment with a roommate. I lived in that house from 1974 to 1996. I met and married Brad while living there. We were married 20 years, and both focused our lives on our careers, and renovating the house and garden of the St. Anthony Park property I had bought. During those years I worked primarily for HB Fuller, and Brad helped me finish my education. I finished my bachelor's degree, and was advised to get an MBA if I really wanted to succeed. So I did. It was a very good investment, and helped me advance in my career at HB Fuller Company. I was Director of Marketing for the core US business by the time I quit in 1996. I got close enough to my goal of Vice President to see that I really didn't want it after all.
The Big Split and World Tour
Brad and I parted amicably in 1996. the same year my mother passed. This was also the year I quit HB Fuller to go travel the world. With Dominique, my French boyfriend. We traveled the world for 18 months without working. We traveled 3 months in North America, 3 months in Central and South America, 6 months in Asia and the Pacific, 6 months in Europe, and a couple of weeks in Africa. While in Europe, we traveled by bicycle. This was the first time either of us had traveled by bicycle. It was difficult, challenging, and well worth it. At the end of this amazing 18 month adventure, we decided to live in New Zealand. It was the most beautiful country we saw in our travels, had mild winters (I could tell because palm trees grew there!), and they spoke English.
When we arrived in New Zealand to end our travels, I remember asking myself if I could have kept on traveling. The answer was Yes. That was how I knew I could spend years traveling as a nomadic volunteer, when the time came. New Zealand was my first experience living in a foreign country. Dominique and I applied for permanent residency, and Dominique was able to get a work permit, because of his training as a chef. I could not, because in New Zealand, there were so few MBAs that management ads in the paper did not ask for them! And Immigration took that to mean that MBAs were not desired in New Zealand. Or at least not needed. But eventually the residency applications were approved, and I began work as a business consultant with an Auckland firm. Within a year, I had begun my own independent practice. For the next 10 years, I advised mostly small businesses in New Zealand and the US. I helped them with sales, marketing, team building, strategic planning, and whatever else they most needed. Dominique and I parted amicably in 2000. The next year I traveled through Europe for 4 months by bicycle with my friend Karine. This time I was the lead person on our tour. Karine lived in Canada, so we met in London and went from there. We flew to Madrid, and cycled from there. We rode through Spain, Portugal, France, (including Corsica), Italy, crossed over the alps to Switzerland, (the Nufenen Pass), then headed back into France, then to Ireland, Scotland, and back to England. It was an amazing trip. I was dancing tango at the time, and carried my dress and dancing shoes with me in my bicycle trailer. When we would stop in a city, I would look in my global tango guidebook to see if there were any places to dance tango in that city. I was able to dance tango in London, Madrid, Lisbon, Rome, on the steps of a cathedral in Venice, and on the banks of the Seine in Paris, among a few other places. It was such a contrast at times to be dancing in my high heels and dance dress, with make up and jewelry, and then return to sleep in a small tent and climb on a bike the next day to travel on.
I became a New Zealand citizen in 2002, and am very grateful that I am allowed to also retain my US citizenship. So now I carry two passports, and get to vote in two elections. If they ever go to war with each other, I would have to choose. Fortunately, this is quite unlikely, because New Zealand has few oil reserves.
In June 2004, I returned to the US to look after my father for a while, and began my spiritual quest. Shortly before I left New Zealand, I was meeting with my most important client, Kathy. She asked me: "What are you going to do now?" I told her I was going to take care of my father and work on my spirituality. She said to me: "Diane, don't overlook the obvious." I asked "What do you mean, Kathy?"
She said: "Go to church." It had never occurred to me.
I arrived in Algona, Iowa to look after my father. He had stopped attending church when I did, 40+ years earlier. But on that first Sunday morning, much to my surprise, he asked if I wanted to go to church with him. I remembered what Kathy had told me, and replied "Sure Dad, I'll go with you.". Well, the Presbyterian church had changed a lot in 40 years, and I got a lot out of it. I soon joined the singing choir, bell choir, and library committee. Dad was in worse shape than any of his six daughters had realized, and I really didn't expect him to live much longer. But once I started getting him to his doctor appointments, and taking care of his financial situation which was causing him great stress, he started to come right. By early 2006, he was well enough for me to begin thinking of moving on.
I had taken a break from the northern Iowa winter on the prairie, and headed to New Zealand's summer for a few weeks. I was camping on Lake Coleridge in the Southern Alps. I had the whole campground and lake all to myself, and spent my time reading Yogananda's book Autobiography of a Yogi, and becoming much closer to God. I was filled with the joy and love of His creation, and knew I had to do more of this - be outside, live in a tent, and be close to Him. It was during that week on Lake Coleridge that the idea of traveling and volunteering was born, and the decision to do it was made. I wasn't planning to travel by bicycle at first. That came a few months later.
I came down off that mountain, returned to Algona, and proceeded to tell Dad and my family about my decision. Then I put my plan in place. I gave away what I could, and stored what I couldn't (yet) bear to part with. I arranged to have all remaining bills paid online, all bank statements online, and all the other logistical details one needs to consider for the permanent nomadic life, while still paying taxes in two countries. It was a hectic year! I knew I could travel continuously because of my experience in 1996-97. I knew I could travel by bike and live out of a tent from my two cycle touring trips. And I knew I could do it all on $1000 per month because I had been living on roughly that amount for quite a while.
My blog picks up from that point in the story: www.diane-emerson.blogspot.com
My life as a nomadic cycling volunteer lasted nearly 8 years, from December 2006 to October 2014. I volunteered in New Zealand, India, France, and the US. My last big volunteer project was on Vashon Island, Washington, where I helped create a permaculture and Nonviolent Communication intentional community called Heartstad. While volunteering there, I met Michael Laurie, a sustainability consultant who lived nearby. We were meant for each other, and were married in December, 2014.
Empathy, Watershed and the Book
My nomadic volunteer life ended, and a new life has begun. Now I have a husband, a mortgage, a book to write about my time as a nomadic volunteer, and my own business, named simply Empathy.
Rather than return to business consulting, or teach classes on compassionate communication, I am offering one on one empathy to others in person or over the phone. I have experienced myself how difficult it is to receive high quality empathy from friends and family, and what a joy it is to be deeply heard, with accurate reflection back. With no unasked- for advice, and no moving of the focus to the other person's story. This is rare, and i want others to experience it. To help them see clearly for themselves what to do next. To help them find the pearl in the bottom of their own cup.
I am also assisting Michael in his business, Watershed LLC. Michael is an expert in water conservation, energy conservation, and green building techniques. He advises businesses and homeowners, and teaches classes. He is also an environmental activist, and it gives me great joy to work with him.
There is a book in me as well. I am writing a book about the seven+ years spent as a nomadic volunteer. It covers the amazing people I met and helped, the experience of traveling alone by bicycle, the danger and beauty of Kashmir, the earthquake in Christchurch, guerrilla gardening in France, and the many life lessons learned.