Embracing Experiences and Investing in Relationships

A spotlight on Parvati Sara Fisher (’98) by Haley Campbell (’02).

Across from the garden at Mount Madonna Center (MMC), there is a little cottage in a grove of redwood trees, with a deck that wraps around the front, and a prickly pear cactus buttressing the front yard from the narrow lane that loops around the property. Parvati Sara Fisher grew up in this house, built by her father and made magical by her mother.

I grew up on the mountain alongside Parvati’s younger brother, Rajiv (‘02). Their mother Devaki would visit our classroom and tell us the story of King Alexander and our adventures in his kingdom, which we accessed through a secret portal at the back of the garden shed. Each visit she would start the story where she’d left off, and the tales were woven throughout our childhood in such a way that I still get tingles when I walk past that garden shed, and I still wonder if some of my memories on this mountain are real or if they were part of Devaki’s story.

Theirs was a childhood full of animals and adventures. Cats, rats, chickens, ducks, one goose, sheep, goats, and a white horse named Wigidy, who always appeared to me to be a unicorn. “A Mount Madonna childhood is such a special thing,” Parvati said. “That safety, running to people’s houses, getting to eat dinner with your friends. More and more so as I age, I’m appreciative of that time of real security and freedom at the same time.”

While Parvati was the second child born in the community, she was the first to be born and raised here, so she acquired the nickname Miss Mount Madonna, which earned her a sweatshirt with the name from Rashmi Cole, a longtime community member.

As a child, Parvati was drawn to the artistic and creative world. She loved performing arts, dance, art, and yoga. In a small community, your life is so public, and there are so many people willing to invest in you and your future, if you are open to their support. During the college application process, Parvati remembers Jivanti Rutansky, MMS’s previous high school director, and former MMS Principal Sarada Diffenbaugh’s time and dedication. She spent many evenings at Sarada’s house honing her essays. On waiting to hear from colleges, she said, “It felt like everyone knew what was going on. I would walk through the CB, and I wanted to wear a T-shirt that said, ‘I haven’t heard. Please don’t ask me.’ It was at times overwhelming, but mostly wonderful, the amount of people who were invested and cared about how things went for me.”

After graduating from MMS in 1998, Parvati attended Amherst College in Massachusetts where she double majored in fine arts and psychology. “I went to Amherst and did really well. I felt like I had been given a really good foundation. I also arrived feeling like I hadn’t been super sheltered. I had been exposed to other things in the world. Whereas some people got to college and thought, ‘I’m finally away from my parents, let me go wild,’ I never felt like there was anything I had to rebel against. Overall, the breadth of classes, the range of experiences, I felt very prepared.”

After college Parvati traveled to Italy for a summer internship at the Guggenheim Museum in Venice. From Italy, she traveled to Dublin where she spent four months on a work visa waitressing at the Queen of Tarts, a café and patisserie in the heart of the city. At a pub one night her friend from South Africa was talking about his upcoming travel with an Around the World ticket, a flight package that allows you to visit multiple destinations around the world at one price within a year. Parvati was intrigued. “Any kid coming out of Mount Madonna has so much of that already. Having those unusual experiences, whether they be travel or anything like that, to set you apart. I come from a family that really, really advocates travel, and I feel very lucky for that. It’s a bug that I definitely inherited. I was so lucky that when I wanted to do that exploration, my parents were like, sure, use that little bit of money. Go do it.” Parvati met with a travel agent who specialized in round-the-world trips and mapped out her itinerary based on where she knew people. In ten months she traveled to thirteen countries, she spent one month at the Sri Ram Ashram in India, and the only continent she didn’t visit on that trip was South America.

When she returned to the States, Parvati settled back at MMC to plan her next steps. She knew she wanted to eventually live on the East Coast, so in February, 2004, she flew to New York City with $1,000, which felt like a lot of money, and she temporarily moved in with her friend’s family in Brooklyn.

Fascinated by art, culture, and media, Parvati got an internship through a college friend at a French publishing company that specialized in art and style and had an internal creative agency for luxury goods. She was initially responsible for photo research, organizing, and other general tasks, but soon she hit it off with the Creative Director, Richard, and started to work on his projects. “What initially bonded me with Richard was all the travel I’d done,” Parvati explained. When her internship ended, Richard offered Parvati a position as Art and Photo Coordinator at a startup fashion magazine. Time Inc. shut down the project after ten months, and so Parvati went with Richard to a new magazine called, Radar, and after that, Richard started his own advertising agency, Chandelier. Parvati freelanced with People magazine while Richard built up his company enough to hire her. When she started working full-time at Chandelier in 2005, there were three people on staff; when she left twelve years later, there were over forty.

During those years at Chandelier, Parvati found that her skills and interests were sparked in production—she liked to be part of the execution of projects. She worked as Executive Producer and Head of Accounts for Old Navy, among others. “That was always a world I was drawn to,” Parvati said. “Magazines and advertising provided a way for me to commission and work with a lot of really amazing (artists). My role was always very creative in working closely with both the art directors and creative directors on the advertising or magazine side, but also with all the amazing photographers and illustrators that we hired. In that industry, creativity is very present in my job, even though sometimes I’m working with numbers and arguing with clients.”

Throughout her twelve years in advertising, Parvati strengthened her expertise in the workplace, she nurtured the relationships that mattered so much to her, and she tended to her own passions with an admirable tenacity. She became skilled at striking a balance between deep professional dedication and hard work when she was in New York, and then, when needed, taking sabbaticals to travel and prioritize self-care. Research has shown that for our health and well-being we need to learn how to slow down and take time for ourselves—to remember that we have but one life to live and thus live it fully. Parvati embodies that balance. She is highly successful and sought-after in her field, and she takes time to pursue the passions that make her feel most alive: travel, horses, baking and cooking.

“Experiences are worth so much,” Parvati said. “In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking, is there a way to explore that, and what would that look like for me?” For Parvati it often looks like subletting her New York apartment and venturing to some far off place. “Between baking and horses, I’ve been able to visit a lot of different places.”

She fell in love with horses at her childhood summer camp in Vermont, and her love of horses became an activity that allowed her to travel independently because she could tap into riding groups. “I’ve always loved horses,” Parvati said. “Galloping on a horse in a big open field, there are few things that are more exciting than that. It’s also a wonderful way to see the world. It’s a way to see a new place from a totally different vantage point. You build that relationship with a horse and you have that trust—it’s thrilling.”

She worked on a ranch in Australia, she spent time with Icelandic ponies in Iceland, and she joined riding groups in Jordan, Greece, Mexico, and Wyoming. In Argentina, she completed Polo school and then became a riding guide at a ranch where she was partnered with a Spanish-speaking gaucho to lead guests on trail rides. “In terms of quality of horses,” Parvati said, “Argentina is really hard to beat.” Parvati’s current favorite horse lives at Zapata Ranch in the Great Dunes National Park in southern Colorado. “His name is Fred, and I keep going back to see him.”

Parvati’s other great passion is baking and cooking. She has taken cooking courses in Thailand and Italy, and she completed a six-month certificate pastry program at the French Culinary Institute in New York. “I’ve always been a bit of a foodie. Working in the kitchen was one of my jobs at Mount Madonna. Baking always appealed to me a little bit more I think because I happen to have a more precise personality, and I can follow instructions, and there’s a science behind it. I like that structure and organization and the creativity you have within it. It’s a great challenge, and I find it very satisfying. It gives a structure to trips I’m taking when I know there’s a certain restaurant or a certain cuisine that I want to explore.” Parvati’s favorite cuisines are Mexican (“It’s hard to find a cuisine that’s more varied with more interesting flavors.”) and Italian (“The way they live in Italy, it’s all about the pleasures.”)

In December 2017 on a trip to New York with a friend, I visited Parvati at her college friend’s family’s brownstone in Brooklyn Heights where she was staying because she was subletting her house. While we ate bagels she had baked that morning, she shared that nine months before she had quit her job at Chandelier after twelve years. Since then she had spent six weeks in North Carolina learning about wood fire baking and sourdough and spent the summer in Europe completing an executive education class on entrepreneurship at the London School of Economics. She was back in the city contemplating her next steps.

Five months later I was back in New York by myself. I had recently become obsessed with baking sourdough bread, and I wanted to pick Parvati’s brain on her process. She invited me to her home for brunch. I took the subway from Manhattan and walked through Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, a neighborhood both urban and quaint with streets lined with London Plane trees and balconies bursting with bougainvillea and jasmine. Parvati lives in a carriage house tucked down a quiet side street. The lower level still has horse stables used a hundred years ago, and the upper level is a beautiful one bedroom apartment with original dark hardwood. There were fresh flowers on the table, and books on art on shelves near the floor-to-ceiling windows. Parvati had started her sourdough process and showed me three different doughs—one plain, one speckled yellow with polenta, and one with chunks of chocolate. While we ate fresh raspberries and quiche with broccoli, mushrooms, and ricotta, I paged through her baking journal wherein her recipes and process were laid out in tiny meticulous script. Each recipe included the date and notations on each step of the 12-hour process—mixing levain, mixing dough, incorporating salt, each fold a half hour apart, pre-shaping, shaping, and finally baking. At the end of each recipe Parvati added qualitative notes, such as, “Great rise and flavor. Great taste. One of the best yet! Try with higher hydration and a longer proof to open up the crumb even more.”

That day with Parvati she taught me a lot about sourdough—a process I had come to love, but approached with a blundering intuition rather than learning the science—and I learned so much about life. Parvati spoke about her new journey, freelancing and conceptualizing her next career move. She wanted to find a way to bring together her passions. As an educator, I find myself urging students to follow their passions, but sometimes it comes across as more cliché than ardent belief. “What does that mean?” I asked Parvati, truth be told a bit desperately.

Parvati had discovered what was most important to her in a career—flexibility, fewer work hours, working from different places—and she knew what she was most passionate about—traveling, baking, horses… She works with a career coach, who encourages her to start doing! Parvati explained, “We talk a lot about ‘the right path.’ She helps people look at things in a new way, the importance of figuring out what you love, and advocates that there is definitely a way to make money doing that. Bringing your passions together to make a career.”

I had never considered a career coach, and I told Parvati that. She laughed. “I get jokes from my friends that I have this huge stable of people—from my financial planner, my career coach, my acupuncturist, my naturopath.” But she has realized she doesn’t have to figure out everything alone. Building a network and investing in those relationships helps us to succeed.

“Growing up at Mount Madonna with parents who were there from the very beginning you have people in your life and your parents who have made very alternative choices compared to probably their parents or anyone else in their circle, so you have as role models a lot of people who made a very intentional choice to live a life that maybe wasn’t the norm, and I think what I always felt at Mount Madonna was that everyone would be happy for me and proud of me for anything I chose to try and be successful at. I think that’s because you have a huge community of people who are very accepting and have followed their own path, so I think there’s definitely that appreciation or acceptance or encouragement for people to figure out what works for them. If everyone walked away from a way that they’ve been raised to try something new, that’s kind of what so many of us were doing too, right? Moving out into the world to find what was the logical steps for us. I felt so much support to go out and figure out what was the best thing for me. I think a lot of that was my parents, but I think also the community at large.”

I was curious to see what Parvati would end up doing next. Would she move to Los Angeles to open a creative agency with a friend? Would she take an offer in London working at an ad agency specializing in fashion? Would she move to her father’s family’s hometown in Vermont and start a bakery? Would she continue freelancing in New York City and subletting her apartment while she traveled? Would she get a dog? She mentioned she was considering adopting.

The following October I saw a post on Instagram that Parvati had adopted a nine-week-old Blue Heeler puppy from Muddy Paws Rescue in New York City. She named her Billie. Billie was one of many dogs fortunate enough to be picked up at an overfilled shelter in Kentucky and brought north for better chances at adoption. Parvati had seen a photo of Billie online and fell in love. “She’s taken over my life,” Parvati said.

Now Billie is a year old. Parvati found out after adopting her that they share the same August 12th birthday. Last June Parvati wrapped up her most recent freelance job in New York and spent the first part of the summer in St. Lucia and Maine. Now she is settled in Vermont at her father’s home. She’s enjoyed visits from her brother, her parents, and other family members, and otherwise, she has spent time exploring the green hills with her dog Billie, baking in the outdoor pizza oven, and contemplating her next career move. She decided against moving to Los Angeles, she is traveling to London for a freelance gig this fall, but long term, she hopes to create something unique for herself that draws upon her specific skills and passions.

She explained to me the idea that has been mulling around after a conversation about sabbaticals with a friend at work. “She was saying how she’d never taken one and had always wanted to, but it felt so daunting. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m great at taking sabbaticals. I could take sabbaticals for a living. I’m really great at organizing them, and I have no problem giving myself the permission to take them. I’ll organize a sabbatical for you.’ And she said, ‘I’d hire you to do that! I actually think that could be a career.’”

The next time Parvati met with her career coach, she mentioned jokingly that maybe she could plan people’s sabbaticals, and her coach responded, “No, you could produce people’s sabbaticals. You are a producer; you are 100% qualified to do that.” With the help of her career coach, she has started to seriously explore this idea, which unites her passions and experiences. “So many people have companies where sabbaticals are paid—obviously tech is really big with that and universities, of course, and a lot of companies are getting more on the bandwagon. So some people have paid sabbaticals, but also people are just interested in taking the time even without an established program. So it could be a combination of one-on-one sessions with people to try to figure out what that looks like, but I think the ultimate goal would be to get put on retainer somewhere or multiple places that actually have sabbatical programs, so that my services could be a perk that was given to their employees to help them structure their sabbaticals and plan them and make the most of them. It really helps to give some kind of structure around something that is, even for me, who’s done it a lot, it can be a little daunting. That idea of giving yourself permission to take that time. There is so much research that shows that productivity increases when we take breaks. We return to the workforce rejuvenated.”

I have admired Parvati’s intellect and focus since we were small, but spending time with her and hearing her story in adulthood has been an amazing gift of inspiration. It is so much a part of our American culture to find a career and work hard at the expense of your personal health and well-being. Other countries have struck a balance wherein prioritizing personal happiness and time to rest allows for greater service to community. It seems that Parvati has found the secrets essential for living a life of meaning: taking the time to nourish her passions and gifts, leaning into experiences and opportunities, and investing in meaningful relationships. “If you give yourself that time and let yourself really question what the right thing is for you,” Parvati explained, “Then I think you can end up making decisions that long term will be better decisions. I don’t have it figured out at all, but I feel like what I’m trying to be is open and willing to take risks and have experiences. I think it’s so scary for so many people, myself included, but to be comfortable with some uncertainty is an important trait to develop. I think people come out of Mount Madonna very well-adjusted, social, and relationship-minded, and I think as you move out into the world, your ability to connect with people and develop relationships is so important. My most recent freelance job was acquired by an old client speaking so highly of me. You never know. I think that’s a really good reason to keep relationships as strong as you can because you never know where the next opportunity is going to come from.”