The last year has been one of my most difficult. Not emotionally – I’ve survived far worse in regards to seasons of heartache and loss during times of transition – (divorce/moving/family squabbles, oh my!). This particular year was difficult because of the sheer effort I put out to achieve a goal that never quite manifested. Hard work can’t begin to describe the risk and sweat equity David and I heaped onto our plate as we followed opportunity and instinct to turn our retreat center into a wedding venue. It was never a conscientious choice, but rather something that unfolded piece by piece, beginning with our wedding a year ago, and escalating like a snowball rolling downhill as others came forward wanting to tie the knot on what has become a remarkable, beautiful and inspirational property. It wasn’t that we wanted a wedding venue, but we are still both recovering from our lives imploding through divorce and financial devastation a few short years ago, and when you are our age (56-62) you have to embrace opportunity when it comes if you ever hope to get on your feet again and/or retire.
We originally hoped to schedule a dozen weddings a year or so to support the retreat center and provide wiggle room financially to continue doing some of the free programs we feel are important to the community. But as more and more brides contacted us, we were seduced into making our little sideline activity into a full-fledged second business. Heartwood Weddings was born, and this vision demanded a full year of planning and hard work, because what we couldn’t afford to hire out we did ourselves. Inspired by a strong business plan and guarantees from the county that we would indeed be permitted to expand our retreat center to include weddings if we did everything they asked, we scrambled to raise funds. I sold my dance school at a loss, David sold his house at a loss, we took family loans and emptied his retirement account to invest 6 figures to upgrade the property, get permits, work with the SBA to arrange a loan, and hire designers and contractors to property design, expand and build a new building to house the weddings so as not to be intrusive to our neighbors. Meanwhile, my natural gift for marketing and managing a business led to our creating a new business model for a garden wedding venue that made weddings very affordable with all the elegand costly extras included, and I created films, a website, marketing plan to establish our place in the industry. It became a full time job in addition to my running the yoga center. David left his job and devoted a full year to his involvement in the project, and he became a wedding celebrant, writing original ceremonies for couples. He loves marrying people more than either of us every imagined he would.
But as luck would have it, a very nasty neighbor decided he wanted to put a stop to our activities, and he began a slanderous campaign designed to interfere with our permit process . It began with a forum he posted on a boating forum that grew to over a hundred pages of people discussing ways to take us down. A letter writing campaign to authorities and neighbors, and urging people to help him cause us distress worked. We were attacked personally and professionally, and not just in regards to weddings, but at my yoga studio in town. Since he offered personal information about me to his audience, people we didn’t even know began calling our home and my studio to leave nasty messages. My facebook pages were overrun with negative reviews, including my yoga center – all from people who never did business with us. I had personal e-mails and posts on my Facebook page calling me all kinds of horrible things with ugly accusations.
Meanwhile, each time we met with county authorities to iron out the problems suddenly blowing up in our face, our representative told us that the neighbor, Chris, calls officials every single day and even they were getting angry that their words were being twisted on his forum. “There is something wrong with that man,” one official told me. “He really has a problem.”
I could go on and on about the financial and emotional damage done to us, and the unfairness of it all. I could go on and on about how the county gave us inaccurate information and suddenly back peddled due to this neighbor’s interference. I could go on and on about Florida cyber bullying statues and karma and payback and whatnot. I could rant about the neighbors lies that he posted and the way he twisted facts and subtly (and not so subtly) manipulated others to do his dirty work. I could go on and on about the history of this man that we learned as others contacted us to show support and disgust over his behavior, and how we learned he has done this to others, how he often uses the internet to bully others to get what he wants. Yes, I could go on and on . . . But really, what is the point, other than to vent? I rather not devote my private writing time to hashing over the gross misdeeds of a very sad neighbor.
So I will not address any of these emotional issues here. It is 6 days before Christmas, and we have not had any wedding activity for over a month at Heartwood, and my neighbor has no clue of what we are doing or why, yet he continues to write on his forum, telling tales, acting out, drawing out the issue as if he would be lost without this to talk about. It is sad. My neighbor may have nothing to do with his time other than talk on and on to strangers in a forum as if they were friends, making up stories and portraying a different image of himself to feel connected or important, but others of us have real connections and real issues to deal with. And our time is much better spent doing things that are positive and productive rather than stir up discord for entertainment.
Life is hard enough. If you have to make up drama to amuse yourself, it is time to rethink your life.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all the time Chris has spent on the internet, writing on the forum. Since he achieved what he set out to achieve in the beginning, why is he still there every day ? Habit? Boredom? Loneliness? Fear that we might survive his attack and be awarded the permit in the end – which would really leave him with egg on his face after all the tales he spun. As a writer who has blogged for over 10 years, I understand that people, when feeling isolated or lonely, often turn to an imaginary community online in a desperate need to find an audience for his or her voice. The more our world becomes once removed from intimate, personal relationships, the more we live vicariously through made up identities on Facebook or forums. Chris is a big man on his forum. Important. And he has lots of friends there. Otherwise, his house is rather set apart from the world and he is there often alone. No wonder he can’t seem to let things go in the other world he created.
I pondered his motivation for continuing his forum a great deal, until I could no longer think of my neighbor as a villain, but as a very lonely, sad individual whose life lacks substance, or he certainly wouldn’t have hours and hours available each week to hash about an issue that has long since dissolved (for him, not for us, of course, since we are the ones reeling from the damage he created.) I now watch his surly wife come and go, never smiling, always complaining that she can’t get enough sleep because she works long hours as a nurse. I’m told she has shared her measure of nasty commentary on the forum too (I actually don’t’ read the forum and never have, but my employee and friends tell me what transpires when they are too furious to keep it to themselves). Meanwhile, I watch Chris amuse himself shooting guns and puttering with his boat, taking it out on weekends without his tired wife. He goes about his life, and she hers, and that too seems really sad to me. So, instead of anger, I feel sorry for my neighbors. Granted, I don’t savor living next door to people like this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel empathy for them too.
The interesting thing is, David and I had been soul searching our wedding endeavor before this happened. We’d begun a series of long talks about our quality of life and our age and if this was the right path, because the weddings were so successful that it was pushing yoga out of our lives. And we feared something very special about our life was being lost. But we were in too far financially to reconsider the choice and as we wrestled with that reality we discussed selling our beloved retreat center and moving. Perhaps Chris’s horrible campaign was in a way a gift – a painful gift to be sure, but a gift nevertheless because it realigns our path. But I will never get over the ugliness turned toward us and the smallness of his methods.
Frankly if he took one thing from me, it isn’t weddings, but my belief that people are inherently good. I’m left with an awful feeling every time I think of the lengths one person will go, and the underhanded ways a man like him will behave to get what he wants. I don’t like bullies. I especially have a distaste for short, unremarkable men who act out in a desperate need to feel powerful.
The other day one of our brides, (we found another venue to move brides to but we still help with these weddings and David marries the couples as a friend, so we have a good relationship with most of them.) said to us “We are not done with that neighbor of yours yet!” And she went on to tell me about actions she planned to take to give a little back at him. Yes, we have been inundated with people plotting revenge because we seem unwilling to do so ourselves. But in every case, while it is fun to hear them postulate about ways to take karma into their own hands and make him sorry, I leave feeling unsettled.
Life is short. Each of us has enough enemies to face in a lifetime – cancer, disease, abuse, loved ones dying or leaving, financial woes, natural disasters, war, famine, etc…. etc… We certainly don’t need to make enemies out of neighbors.