heroes come from communities, live through struggle, take life and action up a notch
It’s a modest apartment in Newport where I sit with Susan Swift to go over “quite the life” as any listener might say about this feisty, spiritual and articulate, world-traveling woman.
The hitching post Susan and I tie our respective philosophical steeds on is “philosophy” and “fate,” although we could have brought in a whole team of other steeds to pull the conversation toward all spiritual directions.
“I know what is mine to do,” the 73-year-old Swift states early on in our talk. Since her life here on the coast — Five Rivers first — not only started in 1972 as a search for environmental justice, she also fell into a what would be a life-long walkabout as a student of karma, Dharma and the meaning of interconnected “souls.”
Before the Central Coast mountains, Waldport, Seal Rock and Newport, Susan was living the Southern California lifestyle in Compton.
The Alsea basin seems worlds away from her birthplace of Inglewood. Quickly, though, she and her husband and a whole slew of residents became embroiled in cloak and dagger drama, rising to the level of the US Forest Service spraying chemicals on their land, Dow Chemical and their lawyers attempting to wear down citizens’ groups, bugged telephones, and various sundry nefarious things unfolding in a seemingly isolated rural community.
One of Susan’s cohorts has already been featured in my column Deep Dive — Carol Van Strum. For more information on those battles with toxics, bad science and broken promises by officials breaking the rule of protecting public health, safety and welfare, read Oregon Coast TODAY, “A Real-Life Toxic Avenger.”
Sometimes a young life lived produces an amazingly detailed and complex life, for sure. However, in the end, when a journalist runs into a person like Swift, with seven-plus decades under her belt, a series of floodgates open up.
Toxins, Dirty Water, Building Family
Sure, Citizens Against Toxic Sprays is a big part of her foundation, 45 years ago when she was living in the woods, in a teepee and a small shack with Calvin Parker, husband number two (one of three, but who’s counting), and her son Joe Lund from a previous marriage.
C.A.T.S. was created with the organizing skills of Susan and others in the rural community, propelled by fear — the debilitating, permanent and deadly harm being perpetrated by officials and for-profit companies upon adults, children, pets, penned animals, wildlife and drinking water through herbicide spraying.
There’s plenty of newspaper copy and radio clips on Susan’s life out here, her singing, putting on events for the legal battle against the chemical companies and their spraying ways; her work on the Lincoln County Planning Commission and other issues tied to public health. She’s been featured in a Nov. 23, 1980 article in Salem’s Statesman Journal.
What anchors much of what I see while talking with Susan (and in reporting on the people of this area) is best captured in one short passage from that article about Susan written by Kristine Rosemary with the Statesman Journal:
Now, to make any sense of the art of diplomacy as practiced in the hidden rural valleys and insulated towns of the Oregon Coast Range, you must consider this: It is a place of overlapping generations of emigrants, each with its own notions of how to live with the land. Rain and shards of Chinese-looking mists blow into those hollows in a thrashing wind. And writhing vines of domestic blackberry gone feral make a slow triumph of thorns. The children of homesteaders who came to farm these fertile valleys were joined 50 years after, by a second wave of urban exiles.
An emblematic quote and a microcosm of what this Oregon Coast now faces with population influxes, lack of affordable housing, more pollution to contend with, climate change and shifting economic, cultural and generational baselines. What is left out even in this Statesman Journal’s prescient description is what’s not included so many times in countless articles — who was here first.
The Siuslaw and Kuitsh people began settling the coast more than 9,000 years ago. They have probably lived in the same locations for hundreds of generations.
Who knows if that paper mill, hotel or housing development was built on an ancient significant site? Or on top of sacred burial grounds, or over summer root-picking fields or a shaman’s spiritual place?
Coast as Healing Center
Susan Swift, RN, formerly known as Mrs. Parker, Swedish massage therapist, is keenly aware of Native American history as her daughter, Autumn Rayne, is part Cheyenne. What has been germinated from those early days in Five Rivers, then in Waldport, and then to the Valley and even Portland, is a determined septuagenarian who has lived on a wildlife refuge in India, ended up in Egypt on a spiritual journey and has met the Dali Lama.
There are stories layered onto life lessons, like shoots on an old fig tree. Her past, Susan says, is her journey forward. She’s helped Mo and her husband (of the Oregon Coast’s famed seafood and chowder restaurants, Mo’s) get through the last days of their lives as their in-home certified care taker. She’s played guitar and sang with husband number three — musician and instrument maker, and she’s chased elephants out of her garden of succulents.
Iterations of her life include head of the Lincoln County Planning Commission, nursing school, working at a mental health unit in Portland, and now writing, which she’s recently pursued in a memoir workshop at the senior center.
The coast is the healing breath she takes with her wherever she ventures. Susan believes she has past lives (that we all do) to account for and to make amends with, as well as to understand in order to carry forth on a pathway to enlightenment. Ironically, Susan Swift says her gift of energy empathy and nursing came at a young age: “I first learned my hands could take away pain when I was 10 years old.”
Every thought you produce, anything you say, any action you do, it bears your signature.
— Thích Nh?t H?nh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist
Do what you love because the universe will support you. Speak and say what you want.
Be specific. Then get out of the way and let the universe take care of the details.
— Susan Swift, July 8, 2019
She laughs because her prayers for a partner were answered, but she wasn’t specific enough — “I didn’t mention that partner should be on the same continent.” That spiritual partner was living in India.
She went to India for a workshop with 45 people from 15 countries. That’s where she met this tall, dark handsome Reiki master. “He was raised Muslim, and I was raised Christian, and we came to the same spiritual place, looking for the same spiritual answers.” That was in 2005. She returned to the USA and had a spiritual awakening with him over the years — sharing emails, letters, phone calls.
“In 2010, I retired, closed up the Vancouver house, put everything I owned into my son’s house in Covington, Washington.” She spent a total of four years in India, on a wildlife refuge: Mudamalli Wildlife Refuge in Tamil Nadu. Her partner was Nijamudeen. Susan was “totally embraced by this huge Muslim family.”
Her travails get complicated as Susan courses back and forth through her own chronological history and these many points of enlightenment in her 73 years. She has a thousand stories floating around her cranium. I fill pages and pages of notes.
How she got to India, with her healing touch on a dog that had been attacked by a black panther, covers all levels of spiritual and geographical ground. She went to Egypt in 2003 on a prayer for peace journey with 250 people from 25 nations. She talks excitedly about going down the Nile and to a resort on the Red Sea. She talks about the guides and hotel charges playing the song, “Imagine” by John Lennon, wherever they went since the tour’s theme was taken from the songwriter’s famous piece.
The trip was part of a far-reaching international push to get George W. Bush and his administration to hold off on a violent attack on Iraq, to instead follow international players’ plans to get Saddam Hussein to agree to step down with loads of money.
“I told an Egyptian woman that this was my first use of a passport as an American, and I was ashamed and told her I couldn’t handle it. She held me and told me calmly: ‘America is the world’s great hope for democracy and freedoms. We understand that your president was appointed by the court and wasn’t elected by the people of your country.’”
The Enlightened Being is Really Inside Our “self”
Now rewind to 1982, and Susan Parker is headed for Seaside, to catch a talk by the Dali Llama concerning China’s latest offer to return Tibet to China. “It was quite an entourage. I was at the greeting line. Oh my gosh, there I was telling the Dali Llama I was so honored and most joyful about his visit, with my sandalwood mala in my hand. He leaned in and bonked third eyes with me.”
A life is not always marked out with milestones set forth in an organized and clear path, but for the sake of brevity, it might be wise to follow our Central Coast resident using a timeline to get through some of her dynamic, compelling life chapters.
She grew up in a working-class family in Compton, and as stated earlier, she knew she had healing hands as a youngster placing them on her mom’s two ruptured spinal discs. The young Susan wanted to be outside playing baseball, “but my hands seemed to know what to do with the muscle spasms the size of my fists.”
Those healing hands more than five decades later would take care of a large tumor on Nami (Namaste), the Basenji dog in India she adopted, and used her healing words to help Gemmee, who has his shoulder gashed after it had outrun a black panther. “Nami never barked, just commented about everything in this yodeling song.”
Back to the Land on the Lam
Back to how she ended up in Five Rivers — she was with Calvin Parker, a Northern Montana Cheyenne she met in Pasadena. He was a sergeant in the US Army, about to be sent to Vietnam. He ended up AWOL, and the couple moved to Five Rivers where his sister was living in an old school house.
They lived in a 15-by-30, cold-water shack heated by a wood-burning-stove. “During this time, I was dreaming of a dark-haired, light-eyed girl.” (which eventually was their daughter, Autumn Rayne)
Susan ended up taking minutes for the local school committee. She found an old mimeograph machine and put together the Five Rivers Run-off Community Newsletter, stuffing flyers into mailboxes. That’s when she took notice of the herbicides issue popping up in editorials inside the Newport News Times.
“I hadn’t gone to school at that point, but I created a health form survey, passing it out door to door, all the way from Highway 34 to the mill. So many miscarriages, tumors and cancers were reported.” That was 1974, and Susan Swift shakes her head as she tells me that a scientist from OSU still advocates there is nothing wrong with 2,4,5-T.
This community of mostly women fighting the forest service and prevailing conservative strains of science worked together to build their adopted family on many levels. Susan laughs again recalling she was living in a teepee with two kids before getting her first place in Waldport. She was a single mom with a three- and 11-year-old. “They were exposed to musicians and artists coming and going all the time.” Joseph Lund graduated from Waldport High in 1985, and did the first video yearbook for the school.
She became an EMT-in-training for the Waldport Ambulance, graduating as the first woman to drive the ambulance. She ended working at a spa in Yachats. In 1978 she was lecturing at Lane Community College teaching different classes on the health effects of herbicide exposure, chemical releases in forestry and the dioxin molecule, diagramming it on the board, showing students how it worked.
She moved into her first house in Seal Rock, and put out her first shingle, “Susan Parker, LMT,” above a Waldport barbershop. The place became a center for healing. Transpersonal healing, encounters with lives, and more would begin to charge her life and encompass her interests.
“No matter what you believe, doing things out of compassion for others is as healing as we can get.”
She moved to Newport in the 1980s, at this point managing the Ocean Food Co-op. She was one of the spearheads to create an Oceana board of directors, hire a paid bookkeeper and charge a $10 yearly fee.
She met Husband Number Three at an open mic session at a local bar and eatery in Waldport. He was a guitarist and “amazingly gifted instrument maker.”
“I bought a guitar for twenty-five dollars cash and twenty-five in food stamps. I taught myself guitar and sang the songs I wanted to sing . . . positive ones. That’s when he said, ‘I like your voice.’” The marriage lasted one and a half years, but they are still friends.
With a belief in past lives, Susan takes many things both in stride and contextualized through transpersonal psychology, but she also has both feet in the waters of transglobal spirituality and multiple contexts for enlightenment and “godliness.”
Healing & Being in the Right Place Spiritually
Fate, she calls it, or her life’s proscribed journey points. She even ended up getting the finances for nursing school after working hard to take care of Mo (Mohava Niemi) who she was with until Mo died in 1992, as well as taking care of Mo’s spouse, Dutch Niemi, until he too passed on.
Dutch (he was a Finnish fisherman) had always wanted to send a child in need to college, but instead after Susan’s healing ways and hearing all the people taking care of his medical needs tell Susan she was a born natural for RN school, Dutch came through. “Dutch said he wanted to help me. That $9,000 helped me pay off bills and made it possible to go to nursing school.”
She worked for Dutch on weekends while she was at Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis. That healing and spiritual medical caretaking continued after nursing school graduation. She worked for a Portland neurosurgeon for three years, and she worked with the Oregon State Mental Hospital Portland campus as the lead nurse for six.
Her first nursing job was at Corvallis Manor, but she also took her caring hands and gifted spirit of empathy to a group home for developmentally disabled adults, Portland’s Eliot House.
“I treated every patient as a precious soul.”
While there was a 20-year absence from Lincoln County between 1994 and 2014, the draw to this area has been strong. She has joined up with Lincoln County Community Rights which just celebrated the two-year anniversary of its successful effort to ban aerial spraying in Lincoln County.
She’s done some driving for Yaquina Cab, shuttling people to and from the hospital. In this interview, Susan and I gravitate back to her story and her natural gifts — her abilities to organize and to start things, and her deep well of beliefs around alternative healing, energy fields on the body, and reincarnation.
These are book-level ideas, sculpted around a life still in the making, but one lived complexly and with mindfulness: with the added hues and tones of adventure, unique healing and death and dying situations painted in. One can hope she will see the light and eventually put down in writing a life well-lived, one where young and old might learn new (or old) meditative and mediation practices.
In our vapid celebrity culture, which is obsessed with putting the limelight on the rich, famous, or infamous, an authentic woman’s gritty and universal story should be compelling, to say the least.
“We have a choice everyday how we think. What you focus on, expands. We can choose how to go through this life. We need to just get out of our own way and begin living.”