C: I’m pretty amazed at how you’re able to so consistently think positively about them. It’s really inspiring, I think.
Get to Know a Farm/Garden Apprentice: Isabelle Ellingson
August 23, 2016 by ccmasters93
I’ve been interested for a while in interviewing some of the Farm and Garden Apprentices for this blog, so that everybody could get to know them better. I decided to start with Isabelle, a lovely, thoughtful, brave, beautiful, strong, elegant lady who I admire very much. I lived with Isabelle in the yurt for the first few months we lived here, and she just recently started working in the garden with me as well. Our friend Jo helped me with the interview. Read below to get to know more about the wonderful sweet-pea Miss Isabelle 🙂
Catherine: Hello, Isabelle
C: Hi, Jo
*giggles all around*
C: So, Isabelle…oh, are you ok with me using your last name?
C: Ok, Isabelle Ellingson, hi
C: So…what’s your job here at Green Gulch?
I: I work as a farm apprentice…and I guess I can also say I’m a garden apprentice
I: I’m doing both, and my job is to do whatever Qayyum tells me to do *giggles* But we’re basically taking care of the Green Gulch farm and garden, and also, I’m a zen student, so that includes waking up really early in the morning, meditating, following a really strict schedule, and then working on the garden and the farm.
C: Where are you from?
I: I’m actually just from Mill Valley, which is over the hill from where we are now, Muir Beach, and that’s about 10 minutes away.
C: And have you lived there your whole life?
I: Yeah, pretty much my whole life. I was actually born in Utah
C: Hmm, I didn’t know that *giggles*
J: I’m learning things already! *giggles*
I: Yeah, I was born in Utah and I lived there until I was 3 months old, and then I moved here, and I’ve lived here ever since…well, I went to school in North Carolina and lived in New York for a year last year, but lived and grew up in Mill Valley
C: What school did you go to in North Carolina?
I: I went to University of North Carolina School of the Arts
C: And what did you study there?
I: I studied acting
C: And have you acted since?
*knocking on the door*
I: Come in!
Laura (Isabelle’s next-door neighbor in Stillwater Hall): Are you guys recording?
L: Oh, ok I was going to move my furniture, but I won’t now
*giggles all around*
I: I think it will be ok! *giggles*
J: Hear a lot of scraping sounds…*giggles*
C: Um…yeah, so how much acting have you done since you graduated?
I: That’s a funny question, actually, because in school it was a very intensive program… So it was conservatory training, a Bachelor of Fine Arts, where basically they say 3/4 of your training are arts classes, and 1/4 of them are academic classes, but really my whole schedule was just arts classes. Everything from acting to movement to Shakespeare to clowning to mask-making…
J: Clowning? *giggles*
I; Yeah, this crazy thing…
J: What is clowning?
*giggles all around*
J: I mean I’m imagining huge feet and a red nose
I: Right, exactly! You imagine like circus clowns…ummm….clowning…it’s starts out very basic, and it’s really aimed at getting you tuned into your physical impulses, and finding your truth as an actor. It’s finding an authentic place to behave from. Exploring almost child-like play…we would start out the class–and most of the class is actually non verbal–and the teacher would just do hand signals and motions and would do things and we’d mimic him, and it’s actually a very innocent and pure sort of practice. You know like kids playing on a play ground, making mistakes, and you develop a persona based on–well you go through all of these different stages–the final stage is mask clowning. So there’s this mask that’s been made, and the teacher made all of these very intricate and different masks that express different emotions. You get the mask and you put it on, and you let the mask transform you. So you’re looking in a mirror, and then you’re seeing how the mask moves your body and then you’re basically working the character from the outside-in. So you’re just looking at the face—and I don’t know if i’m explaining this well, but like you’re letting the mask move your body instead of intellectually developing a character from the inside and then putting it outwards. It’s just another way into character work.
It’s sort of complicated, and it’s a little bit hard to verbalize because it’s not a verbal practice, but it’s really complimentary when you’re learning how to act because you follow physical impulses rather than over-analyzing or over-thinking. And it’s actually interesting…it really compliments what we’re doing here, because both (Zen and clowning) have a strong root in psychology and human nature, and why we do the things we do…like stuff we’re trying to understand here, like the truth of why we behave the way we do as human beings, and just trying to discern reality, like “What is real? What is really happening in this moment?” And that’s the basis of acting as well, trying to connect authenticity with other human beings, and trying to create something, together. Create something beautiful, hopefully
J & C: Mmmhmmm
I: Maybe beautiful isn’t the right word…but create something tragic or…Shakespeare….the whole gamut of emotions of being. Yeah, I feel really grateful…when I had a practice discussion with Fu–or dokusan with Fu for the first time–she was like, “See! You’re already so many steps ahead! You’ve been to acting training. You know how our human minds work!” *giggles all around* Yeah! I guess in a way I don’t feel that way all the time.
J: But that relationship between authenticity and acting, which is sometimes seen as “being fake,” but really, you know, you can tell when a really talented actor gets up, that nothing about it seems fake.
J: It seems even more authentic.
I: Right! Yeah! Well, humans are bullshit detectors
I: They’re like…if you get up on stage you can’t lie, the audience will know
I: It’s kind of the same thing…we get to choose how we want to be in each and every situation. It still has to come from a place of truth.
C & J: Mmhmm
I: Well, Fu says that, don’t take my word for it!
*giggles all around*
C: Well she knows a thing or two, i think
J: That Fu…she knows a thing or two
C: So you acted a lot in school…
I: Acted a lot in school, yes, to answer your question, I acted mostly in school. We were doing mostly classical theater training…Shakespeare, Chekov, Strindburg…The theory of the Dean was, if you could act the classics you can act anything, and I graduated having done a ton of classical work, and then was thrown into this really modern world where I was just going out for, like, ABC pilots and Showtime dramas, and just stuff I hadn’t really worked on before. And doing a lot of auditioning, so a lot of work on my own, but not a lot of performance like I was used to…but after a couple months my friends and I were like, “Wait, we can just make our own art!” So we did some smaller scale stuff…my friend did a play that we put on in Brooklyn, I did some performance art things…I don’t know if you’d call it performance art, I guess it was theater. Some theater things, kind of out in public with friends…a lot of comedy.
C: Oh, really?
I: Yeah, I love comedy. It’s actually, I think, harder than drama…and then I acted in a play when I moved back to Mill Valley, “The Little Prince”
C: What were you in “The Little Prince”?
I: I was the rose and snake!
*giggles all around*
C: That’s so cute!
I: *giggles* Yeah…
C: Do you have a favorite character or play to perform?
I: Hmm…ugh! That’s such a tough question *giggles* ummm….yeah, I’m forgetting the author, right ow, but “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea”. “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” is a play from New York, actually set in New York, in the 1970s, I guess…It’s a love story, but its about…maybe I’ll have to look up what its about and then tell you, give you a better synopsis at some point, it’s hard to remember…but yeah, she’s just like this kind of rough character…she’s just very opposite of who I am, which is I guess why I like to play her. She has a New York accent, she grew up in the Bronx, and is in love with this guy…but he’s…it’s just kind of a pretty rough play, and I grew up doing ballet, and in Marin County, so it’s just things that I’m just not. So I really enjoy pushing myself to do better…It’s also fun to be Juliet. I’m a big sucker for romance.
J: Who isn’t?
C: Yeah! Would you describe yourself as a romantic?
I: Hmm…maybe a skeptical romantic.
*giggles all around*
C: What does that mean?
I: Just like, I like the idea of it, but then the reality of it…I’m a tad bit cynical.
I: Yeah! *giggles*
C: Do you have certain qualities you find yourself falling in love with in a person over and over again?
J: That’s a hard one! *everybody giggles* That went straight to it
I: Ahh yeah, I mean, honesty is a big one for me. I mean, if somebody shows up and is their full, straightforward, direct self with me, then it’s not only refreshing, but I feel like I’m challenged by them, and I’m challenged to then be honest and meet them 100% of the time. It’s scary, but it’s fun. I also like to laugh…and spontaneity too, like “Let’s go on an adventure,” “Ok, let’s go!” And, yeah, smart
C: Yeah! *giggles*
I: Good brains.
C: Do you have any sort of good adventures, spontaneous adventures, that you’ve been on that come to mind?
C: Sometimes those are hard to remember, i think
I: Yeah!…Just like ever, in the history of my life?
I: Oh! Yeah, I guess so! So it was my 21st birthday…
C: Alright! *giggles* Good start!
J:…and we went to Las Vegas…
I: Sort of, my version of Las Vegas *giggles all around* So it was my 21st birthday, and I guess it was kind of more of a surprise, but it’s still an adventure, a bunch of things ended up happening that I didn’t expect. We were in North Carolina, Winston-Salem North Carolina, where my school was, and I was dating a guy at the time…I was dating my best friend at the time…and we were just kind of planning on having a really mellow night, or at least that’s what I thought, and we got out of rehearsal that evening at like 5:30 or something, and were like, “Let’s go grab dinner,” and I was like “Ok,” you know, casual, not thinking about it, and he’s driving, and we get on the highway, heading towards the Blue Ridge Mountains…just this beautiful mountain range in North Carolina, and we don’t really know anybody who lived there, other than this one guy we went to school with who graduated, and he had this amazing, beautiful cabin in the woods that he would always tell us about that his parents built, that we had never been to before…And I was like “I think you’re going the wrong way,” and he was like “No, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it,” and we just kept talking on the road…and I’m not telling this story very well *giggles all around* Anyway, we ended up going on this amazing adventure. I knew there was a concert going on that night by my favorite band, The Punch Brothers, and he ended up surprising me by taking me to the concert…
J: Aw my god….
I:…and afterwards we went to this cabin, this amazing cabin in the mountains, and we hiked up…the concert was incredible, so amazing, and we went there and then we ended up going to this cabin which was just incredible. I want to live there forever…this log cabin his parents had built, and we ended up hiking to the top of this mountain and looking at the stars in the sky…
Yeah, I don’t know, that’s the only romantic adventure that stands out
C: That’s a good one! *giggles*
J: Yeah, pretty good *everybody giggles* What would you say has made you skeptical, or cynical?
I: Hmm…we’re really going into my love life! *everybody giggles* Can I read this before you publish it?
C: Yeah, yeah
J: This is going to Cosmo!
*so much giggling*
J: “Zen in Love”, “Love in Zen”
I: There are definitely some people I am not going to tell about this interview
C: I think it’s good, you know? It’s so much a part of who you are, and who we are as people, you know?
J & I: Yeah, that’s true.
I: You got me there…sorry, what was your question again?
J: It was just, you know, what would you say has made you more cynical about romance?
I: Ohhh….maybe “cynical” is the wrong word…maybe more like “realistic”….I think I always thought it was just like “Oh, I’m looking for just one person, just one wonderful person…” maybe that’s a kind of cliche answer, but realistically I’ve found myself attracted to multiple people, and just feeling sort of enchanted by multiple people…and appreciating that I can cultivate more of a universal love, than more just monogamous love…and that goes for my friendships as well, often times in high school or college, I’d find myself clinging to just one friend, but, yeah….maybe just more skeptical of the more traditional views of love
C: Disney princesses falling in love when they’re 16 and getting married 3 days later?
*giggles all around*
I: Yeah…it’s more like enjoying more of an open…openness….being open to more possibilities
J: I don’t think that’s cliche at all
I: No, maybe its not. Yeah, it’s just more…real. The way that society puts us in these little….humans, we like to label things, it helps us understand, and identify, and relate, but even relationships in the past for me, just classifying them, like “this is my boyfriend, this is my hook-up buddy”, or whatever, why do we have to define that? Limiting gender roles, limiting what you identify with, what you’re attracted to, which I think is really prevalent in our society right now, questions about “What does that even mean?” Why do we feel like if one person identifies as this, they can’t be that…and of course there’s this other thing…this feeling of fluidity in sexuality, this feeling of fluidity in gender, and giving everybody their freedom to find it as they want to.
J: Yeah…it also creates hierarchies. Like, “Oh, you’re the spouse? We’ll treat you very differently than the best friend”, meanwhile, many people have beautiful intimate relationships with the best friend, equal with the spouse, but it’s seen so differently
I: Mmhmm, yeah.
C: This is sort of related, and sort of not…I’m just curious if you have any sort of insights into the ways you’ve seen yourself develop as a person since you’ve moved here, to Green Gulch? If there are any? I imagine there are *giggles*
I: There are a few, yeah. i’ve been noticing more that I put up barriers for myself, complicate things, to make it harder for myself to succeed. Like, I like to dream really big, and then find all of these reasons why like, “Oh, there’s no way I can do that! There’s x and x and x–these reasons–stopping me from being able to accomplish that goal.” So, I’m noticing the habits of my own self-criticism, and self-doubt. I’ve become much more aware of the ways that I criticize myself and communicate with myself, and much more aware of how I communicate with others. I want to be more intentional with that. Before it wasn’t very intentional…I thought I was thinking about what I was saying before I’d speak, but…*mumbling* Yeah, that’s a tough question, I’m finding a lot of things are coming up for me, I just don’t know if I have fully formed ways of talking about them yet…Like little bits and pieces, I think one thing that I’m really happy about is that my perspective of the world has been widened greatly, and how before I was really considering myself like there’s this one part of myself and that’s who I am, but now I’m becoming aware that there are all these other parts to who I am, and that they can all kind-of live together. Like before I was like “I’m in New York, I’m a professional actress, this is my path, this is what I’m doing”…But taking a step back from that and looking at “Wait, I have all of these other passions!” I love to dance, I love to write, I love science, I love learning about the body, I love working on the farm, understanding how food as medicine can affect my body and shape my health for the rest of my life, my psychological health. Yeah, there are so many things I am interested in doing with my life. This place is a refuge and in some ways has allowed me to drop outside responsibilities, and get to the core of what things really speak to your heart, what aids you…I feel nourished, but also feel challenged and motivated. Yeah, it’s given me a lot of energy.
J: Was that a conscious choice, to go from acting in New York to farming in California? Do people ask you about that? Because it’s kind of a big leap.
*giggles all around*
I: Yeah people say, “wow, that’s 180 degrees” *everybody giggles*
J: Yeah, like seeing you yesterday covered in pond scum *everybody giggles* You could have been in a movie…you kind of looked like an actor
I: I just have a craving for a variety of experiences in my life. I’m always wanting to do a lot of different things at once, but I think that when I was in New York I realized how connected I am to the land that I grew up on, and how much nature is a part of who I am, and part of my happiness, and coming back here just felt very natural. I mean I’ve been coming back to Green Gulch since I was 3 months old, with my grandmother, and every Sunday we’d come. I spent my first Mother’s Day in the Peace Garden just down the road, and my mom fed me raw chard from the farm as a baby, and that was kind of like…it’s just in my blood, it’s in my bones to come back to the land that cultivated me. So, maybe there wasn’t one big moment or decision made when I’d come back.
I have a deep interest, I’ve already mentioned, in food as medicine, and how we can heal people…just how food can be medicine. Yeah I was also getting really extreme migraine headaches in New York, and they were so debilitating that I would have to stay in bed for weeks at a time. I was sustaining myself, I was supporting myself, working, but the headaches were so bad. Just being in a city where I was really overstimulated all of the time, surrounded by people, by fumes, and bright lights, and loud noises, my body started to reject the environment, saying something was wrong. So, rather than looking at my migraines as a disease, I looked at them as a blessing, like “Wow, this is really telling me something, I really need to make a change.” And so, I came back here to heal, and to restart, and to reevaluate, “Ok, what choices are you making, how can you take better care of yourself?” Not to say that my headaches have gone away completely, but I’m lucky that my body is the one that tells me when I’m doing something wrong. It immediately responds, like “You’re not getting enough sleep” or “You’re not feeding yourself the right food.” Yeah, that’s a really big part of who I am, the headaches, but I’m not identifying it as a disability. I’m just like “Yeah, this is a thing that happens, a thing I have to deal with.”
I: Thank you
I: Thank you so much
I: Every day is different, and if you wake up and you’re in pain, this is a question that really struck me, I think Fu might have said it, I’m pretty into Fu, if you guys can’t tell *everybody giggles* She was just like, “human pain, we look at it…but who’s pain is it? How am I identifying with this pain?” I can ask myself, “Is this my pain? Is this the self’s pain?” And really there I am identifying with the self, like “I am a person who’s experiencing this,” or “I am a self”, and that to me kind of takes a lot of the worry and the extra stuff that surrounds pain away. Like “Oh, poor me, hear I am sitting in bed while all of my friends are out in the sun having a wonderful time farming and gardening”…It kind of takes my identification with the pain out of the question. It helps me to accept that the pain has happened before, and it’s gone away before, so what’s to say that won’t happen again? I think I’m very grateful that I’m here right now too, because of the support and the unconditional, whole-hearted loving-kindness nature that comes from this community is so sustaining. I have not even felt this much generosity from my own family. Which is …they’re wonderful, I love my family! But there’s something about living in a community and the interdependence that we experience. I just am able to rely on so many different people at once when I really need them…and them knowing that when they really need you, you’ll be there for them too…it feels very natural. It just feels like this is the way that we’re supposed to be living.
J: Yeah, I like that a lot also. Do you think you would try and live communally elsewhere, or can you see this as maybe a longer-term living situation?
I: I’ve been thinking about both of those things a lot lately. And it’s hard to say that I have an answer to give, because, you know, I haven’t done a Practice Period yet, and I haven’t studied, you know, in an intense way here, yet. Maybe I’ll have a better answer after that, and then I’d probably also have a better answer to the communal question about a year into living in a situation like this, because it does have its challenges, too. I like to spend a lot of time alone, writing and listening to music, decompressing…luckily it’s very quiet here *everybody giggles* *mumbling*
J: *whispering* I have to go. It’s 9:20-something. I have tea class.
I: Well, thanks for coming Jo!
J: Yeah! This was so great!
I: Thanks for asking questions!
J: I like, can’t stop myself, once I start asking questions
C: No, it’s great!
J: I don’t mean to break up your party
C: I think i want to finish the time, we have like 15 minutes, is that okay?
I: Yeah, sure!
J: See you later!
J: Thanks for including me!
C: Do you identify more as an introvert or an extrovert?
I: Hmm…I’ve taken so many of those little personality tests to try and figure it out *both giggle* I say I’m sometimes extrovert, sometimes introvert. Semi-introvert. You know, like “Well, you’re an actor, you must be an extrovert!” But I’m also living at a Buddhist monastery, so I must be an introvert.
*both giggle* A little bit of both…different people bring out different parts of who I am and I say, you know, I don’t love to be in big social gatherings all of the time, but part of me thinks it really nurtures me too
C: Do you think your education in acting has influenced how you see the world on a larger scale, and how you interact with the world, and interact with Buddhism, and all of the teachings here?
I: Mmmm definitely. Definitely. Yeah. I just have an extreme curiosity about human beings, and I’m always sort of analyzing my social interactions. I don’t know if it’s because I was trained as an actor, but I’m curious about people’s intentions, about what drives them, what moves them to do the things that they do, in the way that their experiences in life have shaped who they are. Upon interacting with them I’m often distracted in conversation by the way someone talks, rather than what they’re talking about, not to say that people don’t have wonderfully interesting things to say, but fascinated by the way a person speaks, and how their voice sounds, and the way they’re moving their body and their body language. It’s been a huge shift for me coming to Zen Center, because so much of the teaching is through speaking…a more verbal, more intellectual, heady way of looking at things, and I’m more of…in the past I’ve been more of a bodily learner, like more tactile, more feelings moving from my gut rather than my brain. I mean I grew up dancing ballet, since I could walk, I went to San Francisco Ballet School training professionally there up until half-way through high school…I’ve been trained from my body first, from my core, when I interact with others. Now, I feel that Zen Center has really shaped me, even in these 4 months…I’m just so much more aware of language and how it can be used as a great tool to communicate so specifically and so intentionally. I’ve been trying to hold myself accountable to use words that I actually mean, rather than saying “That’s so crazy!” or “Wow! That’s interesting!” I mean Isabelle, what are you really trying to say? “I love the way this picture makes me feel” or “That talk you gave was inspiring and heartening”…Actually identify with words more. I don’t know, does that answer your question?
C: Yeah, yeah definitely. Do you have certain aspects of Buddhism that you identify with really strongly, or is there any specific teaching, or Dharma Talk, or reading that you identify with particularly?
I: Hmm….Bits and pieces, yeah. I mean the whole concept of mindfulness is challenging, but really a wonderful practice. Just cultivating a life that’s rooted in a mindfulness practice has been extremely beneficial for so many aspects of my life…Healing my headaches, deepening friendships, trying to be a more organized person, setting intentions about my future–rooted in that mindfulness of “Why am I doing this?” “What am I doing in this moment?” Paying attention…just waking up, seeing all the very basic principles, discerning the truth. and not being so afraid…I got really afraid when I moved to New York, really afraid of people…and I didn’t have the nicest encounters when I was there, and losing a little bit of faith and trust in humanity, really becoming jaded. I really did not like how I was engaging with others and engaging with the world…and engaging with myself, I wasn’t being very kind with myself. So, coming back to the path of the Bodhisattva, I think. I’m inspired by the loving-kindness and returning to the loving-kindness, just returning to that spirit of saving all beings. Also accepting that although you can trust people, knowing that there are bad things that happen, and people aren’t always their best selves.
So many things come to mind when you say that, trying to distinct that into a succinct answer….I think that’s why I appreciate honesty and straightforwardness in other people, because I’m having a hard time these days being efficient with my words, so when people are really articulate, I’m like “Yes!”*giggle*”Can I be like you? Help me!”
C: Do you enjoy sitting zazen? Or how do you feel about it, I guess. That should be a more open-ended question *both giggle* *Catherine’s watch alarm goes off*Oh I need to change watering, I can do that later I guess *both giggle*
I: Ugh, do I enjoy sitting zazen? Or, how do I feel about sitting zazen?
C: Yeah I probably shouldn’t direct you, how do you feel about sitting zazen?
I: How do I feel about sitting zazen…It’s great. I love sitting in a room in the morning with my friends, smelling the incense, listening to the birds waking up. Knowing that everyone came here for a reason, and being really inspired by that, being really sustained by that. Whoever else is around me, and whatever else I might have experienced, we all came here with this intention to be of service to ourselves and to others, and to heal in a way. Zazen I think is a lovely way of honoring that, together, and supporting each other. So, some mornings, I’m like really pissed-off *giggle* really sleepy, but somehow out of that frustration this kind of buoyant compassion arises. Not every morning, but some. And then also, it leaves this space for darkness in my life, that I don’t always create or allow to come up…Yeah, I tend to be more positive. I’m giving myself permission to think about scarier, darker things…I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately
C: Yeah, me too…*giggle*
I: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that, not trying to force any thoughts about it, but just seeing what comes up. Like “Oh, what is this thing? How do I feel about it? How does it move my body? What sensations are happening? What thoughts are arising?”
C: We have a minute-and-a-half left. I want to ask you quickly if you have any favorite things to grow on the farm? What are your favorite things to grow?
I: Lettuce, duh
C: Good! Perfect!
I: Our Hakurei turnips are insane. I’ve been loving tending the roses in the Kitchen Garden that came from Emila’s garden. It feels very much like honoring the ancestors, honoring the elders.
C: Good, I think we have 28 seconds left *both giggle* Well, that was lovely!
I: Thank you very much!
C: Yeah, thank you! I’m so glad this worked out so well!
I: Oh! Well I’m glad you think it worked out well!
I: I hope I gave some okay answers…
C: I think you did! I think you’re very poignant and very eloquent
I: Especially that section about my love life!