Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interview: Erica Mooney

I think I first met Erica Mooney about four years ago. If I recall correctly, she’d written to me through the blog and asked if I’d meet up with her to talk about Ypsilanti. My sense was that she was talking with a lot of folks around town, trying to figure out how best she could engage in a meaningful way and put her talents to use for the good of the community. I remember being impressed, and thinking how cool it would be if every young EMU student shared her desire to contribute in a substantive way, instead of just passing through without making a mark… Well, it looks like she’s now getting ready to leave the nest and make beautiful and wonderful things happen somewhere else… at a yoga retreat outside of Vanderbilt, Michigan. Please join me in wishing her well.

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MARK: So, I hear that you’re going to be giving away almost everything you own and leaving Ypsi.

ERICA: That’s the general idea, yup. I’ve wanted to go for a long time, and I’ve got a window now, so I’m taking it!

MARK: Why is it that you’ve wanted to go for a long time?

ERICA: I’ve never not lived in Washtenaw County! The longest I’ve been away was for a little more than a month, when I went to Telluride, Colorado to work for my dad last summer. And I also traveled to Brazil for about a month in 2011. (I went for a school trip and then did some solo travel to Rio de Janiero.) But, other than that, I’ve just traveled for short periods of time.

I’ve always had a love of travel, though, and an urge to get away… I was blessed to grow up in a family that was able to travel a couple times a year. We took a lot of road trips. We’d go up north in summer, and to grandma’s for the holidays. Everyone in my family likes to travel. Maybe it’s inherited. My older sisters and my parents take a lot of trips (for work and pleasure) to far off continents… I just love to learn, and discover, and explore.

MARK: So you grew up around here?

ERICA: I grew up in the same house, in Scio Township, from birth until I moved to Ypsilanti. I consider myself a citizen of the Huron River Watershed as I’ve never lived further than a quarter mile from the river.

MARK: And what did you think of Ypsi at first?

ERICA: When I first moved here, I didn’t want to stay.

MARK: So why did you?

ERICA: I fell in love with the city, and the community. And I came to realize that, for me to feel content, I needed to expand and learn from other places… I’d moved to Ypsi by default, and only fell in love once I let go of all the toxic things tying me to the black hole that Ann Arbor can be… Once I started working at the Ypsi Food Co-op, I fell deeply in love with the community of local foodies, which led me to many other opportunities, projects, artists, and local connections. I also started walking everywhere… By the end of 2010, I’d quit my job in Ann Arbor, and pretty much started spending all of my time in Ypsi. [I quit my last job in Ann Arbor about a year after I moved to Ypsi.]

MARK: Why do you refer to Ann Arbor as being a black hole?

ERICA: Like any idyllic, pseudo-progressive university bubble town, or place where you’re from, or place where you’re comfortable – it can trap and kill. I know that’s a jaded and bitter statement, but there’s truth to it. And, for what it’s worth, it didn’t originate from me. I picked it up from friends who, like me, had seen the pattern of people getting stuck… people who could have expanded and contributed more with their lives, but instead fell into the ease and privilege of coasting. It’s hard to leave and grow wings, and Ann Arbor’s a great place to be, so it sucks a lot of people in with its sweet, hypnotic goodness… And, then, of course, there’s also the fact that it keeps getting more and more gentrified and greenwashed… That being said, there are some great townies that stay and work hard toward making things better. [below: Erica in 2010, inside her first Ypsilanti apartment. Photo by Samir Webster.

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MARK: So, are you happy to have grown up in Ann Arbor?

ERICA: Yes, I’m very very grateful to have grown up there. There are so many benefits that we get in Ann Arbor from the proximity to the University of Michigan. It’s a very cosmopolitan, big-city feeling, smallish town. I had an amazing philosophy class my senior semester at Pioneer High School that I can’t imagine you’d be able to find in many other public school systems. It was more of a personal worldview expansion course than just a lesson in the thoughts of dead men. There’s some amazing documentary footage that was shot during that class, and, for me, it pretty much summarizes the gist of being a kid in Ann Arbor… very positive memories.

Even though I grew up in the country, later in high school I had friends that lived on the Old West Side of Ann Arbor (Water Hill) and we’d party at the UM co-op houses and walk across town to crash… So I feel as though I got to experience many facets of the city as a young person, and I got a lot of rebellion out of my system. So, when I came to Ypsi, I was ready to create and nourish. Some people are able to stay in Ann Arbor and do that, but I feel as though I needed to leave.

MARK: Is the film about your class available online?

ERICA: Yes, It’s called “Council: A Senior Passage.” And you can find it on Vimeo.

MARK: What is it that you’re giving away, and why is it that you’re wanting to move away with as little as possible?

ERICA: I don’t have a crazy amount of stuff, but I have a lot of boring stuff, like clothes and kitchen things. I have lots of books and magazines too, and random things, like little Michigan flags, cigar boxes, beads and ribbons, and art…

I’m wanting to move away with as little as possible because stuff ends up owning you. And I’m going to a place where they have what’s needed.

I’m grateful to have much more than what I need, and I like sharing. I also like having the opportunity to focus that comes with having with less solid matter to deal with/see/remember/hold on to.

MARK: So, what will you be keeping?

ERICA: I’m taking my car, my seed library and garden tools, my sleeping bag/pillow/blankets, my hiking backpacks full of clothes and shoes, some food, pantry and canning supplies, plus some personal effects (an Ugly Doll from my friend Rita, some art made by my friends and family). Oh, and I’ll be bringing few special items for my altar. And some office/art/stationery supplies, because I’m a letter writer and like creating things. That’s already a lot for my little Honda… And I’ll also have a couple milk crates of books, most of which will be donated to the free libraries/bookshelves where I’m headed.

And, when I get there, I’ll get rid of more at the free store during Yoga Fest.

And I’ll also be stashing a suitcase of professional clothes, kitchen essentials, a few art pieces, personal ephemera, and some books at my sisters’ houses… Baby steps… Things accumulate easily!

MARK: So, what is it that you’ll be doing when you leave?

ERICA: I’ll be joining the staff of Song of the Morning (SOTM), a yoga retreat center of excellence! It’s just outside of Vanderbilt, about 30 minutes north of Gaylord. It’s on about 800 acres of mostly woods, in the middle of the Pigeon River State Forest. The river runs right through the retreat campus, past the main house and the three domes… There are a few other structures, and many trails. There are also some houses in the community, just before you reach the retreat center, many belonging to people who have been a part of SOTM since its founding about 40 years ago… It was founded by a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. There’s no spiritual leader anymore, but it’s a great welcoming space for any kind of connection and practice. Paramahansa Yogananda, if you don’t recognize his name, is the guy who wrote Autobiography of a Yogi… The center is sort of in it’s adolescence now that the founder has passed, and there are so many people coming and going.

MARK: And what will you be doing there?

ERICA: I’ll be joining primarily as garden lead – maintaining, and hopefully expanding, their kitchen garden, which is well-loved. Right now, they have a hoophouse and some perennials. We’ll also be looking into ways to creatively engage the surrounding community. We hope to be vending at the Gaylord farmers’ market, selling preserves, baked goods and other cottage food products. I’d love to make a Song of the Morning medicinal balm, and I’ve got some skills built up from my time spent working with Lisa Bashert and Heather Wysor in Ypsi.

I hope to be able to expand the garden with more berry bushes, fruit and nut trees, utilizing permaculture design – think food forests. The hope is that, over time, they’ll produce more with less work. And I’m sure I’ll end up doing more; helping out in the kitchen, cleaning, and helping with other projects on the grounds. The winters up there are a bit worse than what I’m used to, but, during the winters, I’ll be planning for the next growing season and doing some season extension work, using permaculture techniques and the hoophouse. And I’m sure I’ll end up helping out with social media and other outreach as needed.

MARK: It sounds like a good fit for you.

ERICA: Yeah, I’m very excited to be able to live in a community dedicated to spiritual practice, in which people support the diversity of each other’s paths. And I’m looking forward to doing good work with good people, and learning to listen more closely to myself, and finding out where that leads me next.

MARK: Do you have personal projects you’d like to work on while you’re there?

ERICA: I hope I’ll be able to make time to compile my archive of dreams, spend more time on my thesis resarch and the Climate Action Plan that I worked on as a volunteer while a student at EMU, and come up with a business plan for Ypsi Surthrival… somthing that’s been escaping my focus since the idea emerged.

MARK: And what’s Surthrival?

ERICA: Surthrival is the synthesis and transition to systems thinking… an organizational/institutional shift toward coalition and the integration of issue-focused organizing. It’s a way, for instance, that we can align our common needs for clean water, good food, and healthy ecosystems as common ground to work together. It’s also a way that we can adapt to climate change and thrive. It involves entrepreneurship, social innovation, creative enterprise and a whole lot of other buzzwords and pattern language. It involves empowering ourselves to build skills, and support each other, and ourselves, in creating hubs of sustainable livelihood networks.

MARK: What are you the most proud of having accomplished during your stay in Ypsi?

ERICA: Picking one single thing is really hard… Perhaps something intangible, like cultivating someplace I feel called to return to. Being able to link up so many amazing community groups and organizations and events, and be part of the synthesis of art and social justice that still continues on as the annual Ecojustice & Activism conference (festival)… Maybe something even more intangible, like beginning to love myself and finding a purpose or a role to manifest the vision of a healthy and thriving future. Not sure if any of that makes any sense.

MARK: Will you have fond memories of Ypsi? If so, name three.

ERICA: 1) Walking everywhere, leading to serendipity of running into the exactly right people with the best insight at the right times. 2) So many shows and events both that I’ve coordinated and attended. 3) Temporary joy and permanent love of Water Street Commons as a personal sanctuary and community space.

Bonus: That one day we had 9 horses from the Unity Riders passing through stay in our backyard. Nathan still lives upstairs there and we were originally trying to get them to be able to stay in the park and have an event, but we needed fencing and it worked having them in our backyard! They turned an overgrown jungle of grass and weeds to a completely shorn yard in a matter of hours. Lots of families came by to say Hi… I think you came by with Arlo on your shoulders, and Clementine too…

MARK: Having grown up in the country outside of Ann Arbor, I’m curious as to your first memory of Ypsilanti?

ERICA: My sisters are 10 and 8 years older than me, and both went to EMU at one point or another, and so my first memories of Ypsilanti are of my sisters’ apartments. Walking around in a deep snow at night when Hailey lived on College Street, seeing campus and the student area covered in white… the and silence and street lights. (Remember I grew up in a fairly rural ‘neighborhood’.)

Heather lived for a while at a house on Washtenaw that’s now owned by Barnes & Barnes, and next door to recently renovated apartments. When she lived there, I remember loving the funky shapes of the old divided house, my belief that the hallway was haunted, and being told that the building next door was a “crack house.”

I also remember, as an adolescent, taking drivers ed and going down Washtenaw Avenue further than I’d ever gone before, and realizing how damn close Ypsi was. I also remember going to car shows and walking around the parks and Depot Town with some good friends in high school.

I graduated from Pioneer in January ‘09 and mostly hung out at home in the country, or at co-op house parties/haunts in old Ann Arbor. I remember once meeting my sister for breakfast at a new restaurant in Ypsi – Beezy’s! I had just resigned myself to the fact that my parent’s weren’t cooperating to let me move to Oregon and go to Portland State as I wanted. My mom had driven me to EMU admissions and I ended up there by default. That first meal at Beezy’s felt good. It felt like the Ann Arbor I grew up with that has rapidly disappeared. It felt like this place could be my home.

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If you’d like to find out more about why it is that people leave this place we call home, check our our Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interview archive.

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9 Comments

  1. Marissa
    Posted June 9, 2015 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    So long Erica! Ypsi misses you already, but go out there an learn and grow and come back (even if only to visit) soon! <3

  2. Anonymous
    Posted June 9, 2015 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    There’s something beautiful about young people who haven’t yet given up on life. I need to have more of them in my life.

  3. kjc
    Posted June 9, 2015 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    loved _Autobiography of a Yogi_. glad to hear his legacy continues.

    congrats Erica.

  4. Frog
    Posted June 9, 2015 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    A Water Street yoga retreat would rock.

  5. Posted June 9, 2015 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful article about Erica! She will be very missed while she is gone, but it is so exciting to have her energy upstate, learning amazing things, that she will hopefully bring back to Ypsi! Erica, thanks for all you have done in this town and all you will do when you return….. like open a free store! Mark, thanks for putting the spotlight on one of the most energetic, forward-thinking, healthy people I have ever met. I am so excited to hear about her life at Song of the Morning. Erica, YOU ROCK! (and thanks for that full length mirror… its just perfect to hang on my door!) love ya – Rae

  6. Sky
    Posted June 10, 2015 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Follow your dreams Erica! I’m happy to have known you.

  7. bee roll
    Posted June 11, 2015 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    oh Erica! I eagerly await your return to Ypsi and for all that you have to share with us and the world. You are missed!

  8. Posted June 11, 2015 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Erica! You will be greatly missed. I’m looking forward to seeing you again soon, and hearing all about your great work at SOTM. <3

  9. James Robert
    Posted September 27, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    My beautiful sister Erica, What a complete joy and pleasure to read this article and learn about your journey since leaving your philosophy class. There isn’t a time that I’ve shown that film when my connection to you hasn’t been renewed and remembered. This is my last semester teaching and you can be sure I will find my way north for some time in the woods with you and your new found home. I carry with me so many powerful an fond memories of you and the early part of your journey through this great mystery. I send you my best and I know you are going to continue that inward journey that is now so intimately connected to your outward path. Much love and peace, jr

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