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Into The Wild: 2010 to 2020

It was August of 2010. I saw the lights of Anchorage from the seat of my plane as we prepared for landing at Ted Stevens International Airport. My family had lived in Anchorage for a few years when I was very young but at age 32, this was my first time back in Alaska, as an adult.

This trip had begun in my imagination, about a year before, as I walked around the Indianapolis Zoo. I was fascinated by a placard about grizzly bears, located nearby to a rather sad looking, caged Griz. The placard told of how a woman was attacked by a grizzly bear, in the city of Anchorage no less, while out for a jog in the park. For some reason that resonated with me. It wasn’t a sadistic thing, I don’t take pleasure in the suffering of joggers. I was just completely enchanted by the idea of a state like Alaska, where bears and moose made their presence felt, even in the biggest of cities.

It was strange, that moment, but I felt a strong intuition, that this State was home. Reading the placard aroused a desire to live in a place where wilderness is the norm and civilization is the exception. In many ways, this desire summarized my decade. I was landing in Anchorage, soon to be flying to Kodiak, heading into the wild, in ways both literal and metaphorical.

Into The Wild

Tamie was my partner at the time, and was with me at the Zoo in Indianapolis that day. As it so happened, Tamie’s family owned a fishing company in Kodiak Alaska. We talked about going to Alaska, hashed out all the pros and cons, evaluated our budgets, and made our plans. We would visit for three weeks, in August of 2010. We would visit, scope it out and go from there.

Kodiak, Alaska. Summer, circa 2010

I needed to leave Indiana and the Midwest, to put the Bible Belt behind me. I knew inside of my bones that it was a time of transition. I didn’t know where I was going, I only knew that I needed to go. I needed to expand my horizons. I also felt more than a little lost.

Up to that point I had been an earnest and highly dedicated Evangelical Christian, but my single-pointed investment in the Evangelical world had limited my exposure and understanding of the wider world. (I had grown up in an excessively sheltered life, in the home of a fundamentalist Evangelical minister.)

Uyak Bay, summer 2011. Flew in on this little bush plane, and the idiot, over-caffeinated pilot dropped one of my bags into the ocean water. The bag was retrieved. Wet, along with the contents.

This was 2010, and the conservatives I knew had dug in their heels, politically and religiously, in lieu of a perceived threat from Barrack Obama whose mere Presidential presence seemed to trigger panic among those in my conservative circles. This intransigence demoralized me, on many levels. It was discouraging that the Obama Presidency was dead on arrival, but in a deeper and wider sense it far reaching scope, I knew. There was a blind faith and willful ignorance that meant I would have no place within the Evangelical movement to which I had hitherto devoted the entirety of my energies.

I’m an iconoclast. At my best I can see things people don’t see. At my worst I come across as combative, an unpleasant killjoy, or a prophet of doom issuing shrill jeremiads.

Yet I’m also a creative type, meaning that I find that my take on things tends to be a little weird and typically unorthodox. I once had my friend Nicole paint a quote across a white wall in the bedroom of my former home in Winona Lake, Indiana, using black paint to make it pop. It’s a Miles Davis quote:

Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.

In the polarized milieu of the Obama Presidency, I knew that I wouldn’t have the space to breathe, or engage in any intellectual creativity, and I knew that I would be dismissed, out of hand, whether I was talking theology or politics. It was not a matter of what you knew or whether it was true, it was a matter of whose side you were on. George W. Bush seemed to have said it best when he proclaimed, “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” This mindset has only entrenched itself deeper, since the 2000s.

Remote cabin in Uyak Bay, Kodiak Archipelago, Alaska, 2010

So Tamie and I were heading to Kodiak to scope out the scene. When the day arrived, we drove three hours to the airport, spent most of the day en route to Anchorage, and late that night the city came into view, from the window of the plane.

When I saw Alaska, something inside of me seemed to rise up as I watched the city lights flickering below, at first just a few, and then as the plane drew close to the city there was a whole field of lights, blanketing the ground below like stars. Something resonated inside of me, it was a feeling I didn’t recall having, up to that point.

“Shore chores,” mending net on Bear Island, Uyak Bay, 2011, Kodiak Archipelago

I felt the plane shift and begin to slow and circle the city, awaiting clearance for landing. I felt myself shifting too. The impression only grew stronger, seemingly, as the plane approached Alaskan soil.

Something clicked. It felt right to be there, just like it feels right when you’re coming home.

In retrospect, the flight to Alaska also represented the beginning of a quest to figure out who I was, now, now that I’d left the Midwest behind, now that I’d become disenchanted with Evangelical Christianity, disenchanted also with America itself.

Photo courtesy of Tamie Parker Song at http://hardscrabblelight.blogspot.com/

To recall the 2000s, in brief. We in the U.S. had just been through two failed wars and an economic crash caused by the greed and avarice of a corporate and financial elite who were so wealthy and so well-connected that instead of prosecuting them, the political actors in Washington declared that they were too powerful and hence “too big to fail.” We (the people/public) were supposed to bail them, like it or not. Meanwhile, people suffered. Humans suffered, and the non-human world was being destroyed and decimated, almost without mercy.

Back in 2010 I was experiencing something like cognitive dissonance, wrestling with the contradiction inherent in the beliefs, values, and ideas held by my culture. The values that had been taught me were not being practiced. This was as true for America as it was for the Evangelical bubble/sub-culture that had been my home.

Working out this cognitive dissonance would be definitive for me and for my journey and for my decade.

No rest for the weary, commercial fishing is a 24/7 sort of thing. Summer 2011, Uyak Bay, Fields & Sons

2010 through 2019 would be a decade of me coming to grips, trying to understand why things were so fucked up and how they got that way — and why as a nation we seemed so keen to not deal with it. But more significantly, I carried the question of what it would mean for me, to live in this world of lies, self-deception and willful ignorance.

In the Evangelical world we used the phrase “How should we then live?” given the state of the culture. It was a guiding phrase that I carried with me, even as I knew that staying within the Evangelical faith was no longer an option for me.

Commercial fishing, low tide, Bear Island, in Uyak Bay, summer 2011. Photo by Tamie Parker Song.

Tamie and I had come to Alaska for a three week visit, but we ended up staying for the winter. We would marry in the spring, return to commercial fishing in the summer, then we would separate and divorce in the fall. As such, much of the decade, for me, would be a solo trek.

The solitude was necessary. Necessary but hard.

2012: Los Angeles | Restless Wanderer

Occupy L.A.

“How can we create alternatives that are so beautiful that they just naturally are in conflict with a collapsing, broken system.”

~ Pancho Ramos-Stierle, Occupy Oakland

Solitude often took the shape of lonliness. In the winter and spring of early 2012, I found myself trying to make a go of it in Los Angeles, renting a small room and sleeping atop blankets on a hardwood floor in the sprawling, impersonal city of Los Angeles: wealthy but deeply corrupted by that wealth. For the poor residents of the residents of the city, it seemed to me as though their experience of Los Angeles was of a virtual police state.

The pointless suffering was disturbing to see, in a city with so much wealth, but in many ways this was simply a reflection of America, which meant that it was what I was dealing with, coming to grips with. And it wasn’t simply the presence of the suffering but the inability to acknowledge it, in any meaningful sense, and a willful ignorance of its causes.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt so lonely in my life, sleeping on the bare floor in a city where I didn’t know a single soul. I was still recovering from my breakup with Tamie, still sorting out what it would feel like to navigate the world alone, like the biblical Cain, a “restless wanderer on the earth,” no place, no people.

It would be a short stint in L.A. After all, who was I kidding, trying to live in a major metropolitan city? It was especially impossible after spending two summers in Alaska. And so I would return to Kodiak that spring, after only a few months in the City of Angels, but before I left I would see the first seeds of resistance begin to take root in the minds and hearts and imaginations of not only L.A. residents but of people across the nation.

L.A. 2012

The Occupy movement was the first nation-wide demonstration of the power of the people, at least in my lifetime. It was significant because mass activism sprang up across the U.S. This activism would no longer be restricted to some sort of underground activity, it could go mainstream, something that I had not seen in my lifetime, up to that point. As the decade progressed, so would activism, leading to Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the rise of socialism.

Occupy protest, circa 2011-12

Occupy happened organically. It was like a magnet drawing out those who had reached their proverbial fuck-it factor. It was a definitive moment, when the nation realized that the voice of the people didn’t matter, but it was the culmination of many political decisions that had been made over many decades, stretching back to Jimmy Carter: corporations and the wealthy elite were running the show, without accountability, without conscience and without consequences. And activists and progressives along with weirdos and freaks of all kinds joined together to protest.

I was rubbing shoulders with activists, anarchists, socialists, communists, progressives, as well as non-ideological citizens who were all ready to mobilize. It was thrilling and energizing, for the period of time that I was in L.A.

Freedom School, Occupy L.A., 2012, Winston Street
Art display, Winston Street, Occupy L.A. 2012
Occupy Art exhibit, Winston Street, Occupy L.A. 2012
Poster on display at Occupy Art exhibit, Winston Street, Occupy L.A. 2012
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” ~ Jesus

The reason I was in L.A., specifically, was for James Finley, one of the most influential spiritual teachers in my life. I attended a retreat with Finley as well as his meditation group, and I also had a daily meditation practice which often consisted of a contemplative walk down to the largely vacant winter beaches of Santa Monica. It was all helpful, and it was all healing.

Even so, I had embarked on a life of exploration. A quest was taking shape, but loneliness was the price of admission. I felt deeply rootless, all of a sudden, disconnected from the only culture I’d known, I felt alienated from my family and from America itself. So my first impressions of this new life, while I slept on the hard floor in Los Angeles, were of intense loneliness, but this, for me, was the solitude I would need, a solitude that I would need to harness as a catalyst for healing and greater understanding.

Santa Monica, 2012. Ridge overlooking the ocean.
Sunset, Los Angeles, 2012
Santa Monica, 2012

2012-2013: Glacier Bay, Alaska | Enchantment & Epiphany

meditation and water are wedded forever ~ Herman Melville

By March of 2012 I was back in Alaska, in Kodiak. Come summer I had taken a seasonal job in Glacier Bay National Park, working at a small lodge owned by the multinational corporation Aramark. Ugh. But even working for Aramark couldn’t dampen, so to speak, my enthusiasm for Glacier Bay. It would be an amazing time of reflection, both that summer and the next.

Taking a break, kayak camping trip, Glacier Bay National Park, 2012

I was reading a good deal of Derrick Jensen, a writer and also a radical environmental activist. In his approach to activism, Jensen reminded me a good deal of reading Malcolm X or listening to Malcolm’s speeches. There was a fierce and rock solid commitment to those who are oppressed or who experience the blunt, brutal force of injustice. This, in a nutshell, makes anyone in the U.S. a “radical,” by default. Like Malcolm, Jensen was committed to bringing about liberation by any means possible.

Hiking in Gustavus, near Glacier Bay National Park, 2012

working the tour boat in 2013

At the time, many serious-minded environmental activists like Jensen had simply concluded that we were toast. Industrial civilization would consume and destroy the world, aided by the ideology of capitalism. Environmental activists like Jensen had watched for decades as corporations successfully deflected any responsibility toward the non-human world, they watched as carbon built up in the atmosphere, they watched as polar ice caps melted and forests were destroyed, they watched as we entered a period of a mass extinction of species (that will eventually decimate the delicate balances of our ecosystems), and they watched as the American public ignored it all and as corporations successfully deflected any interest in addressing these issues by what amounted to waving shiny objects in front of American consumers.

Nicole, my bff came to visit me in Glacier Bay and we spent a few hours hanging out with the huskies, sled dogs. They dressed us up like this and we mushed the dogs around in a sled…in the middle of a warm summer day…
Glacier Bay National Park, 2012

And like my time in L.A., I was spending time in the natural world, this time in Alaska. I was back in the wilderness, I had returned to the bears and the eagles and the whales whose home is the wild world, that same wilderness that we are systematically decimating.

The impact of Glacier Bay was deep. I don’t know if I’ve encountered wilderness that enchants me quite as much as my experience in Glacier Bay.

One trip was particularly significant. It was a kayak trip with Scott, a dude about my age who worked as a deckhand on the Glacier Bay tour boat, a position that I would hold the next year. Scott was kind of an uptight dude, probably with some sort of OCD disorder, potentially with something of a twist of Tourette’s. Scott made me nervous, as we prepared for the trip, but as soon as our kayaks hit the water Scott was a different person.

I wrote about this in 2015 in a Writer’s Workshop, a humor piece entitled “Ham or Turkey?!”

I felt the transformation, too. Everyone I know who took trips like that felt it, in some way.

I journaled about the trip, trying to capture some of what I felt:

For three days, I absorbed the beauty of the spaces. One stroke at a time, rocky beaches with brush and lines of trees. Dipping the paddle into the ocean water, at times as calm as a lazy lake. Surrounded by the damp, luscious air, clean and pure. 

Rocky cliffs to the left, we paddle through aqua blue water. There is silt in the water, giving the ocean this rich and unique color. I sense I am paddling through the mystical set of one of the Lord of the Rings films. We arrive at Riggs Glacier, it reaches up, vertically, high, it twists and turns. Magnificent. A force that shapes and changes, grinding away at the landscape, taking its time. All things are so magnificently transformed, given time. It is a patient glacier, like so much in the natural world, it finds its place and does its job within the beautiful, sacred world.

Day three is wet and foggy. We paddle and paddle. Though I don’t consciously realize it, I am become patient, just doing my job. One stroke at a time. My heart and mind settle into a rhythm. It is quite amazing that in such a short period of time, I can feel like I find a place and settle into the sacred world around me.

All of this, I have experienced before. ….

I had experienced the beauty of wilderness. I had experienced the serenity of scenes like these, but something was different this time, at least it felt different when I woke up on the fourth day. I was having a little time to myself in the morning as Scott broke down the camp, as was usually the case. He always insisted on doing it all himself, of breaking down his tent and the campsite so that he could get it just right, a process that seemed to stretch for hours, but it gave me time to reflect.

When your rain gear is this good, you can stand under a waterfall in an ice cave and stay dry, kayaking in Glacier Bay National Park
Scott and Me, 2012 Kayak camping trip

Here’s more from my journal, from the morning of that fourth day:

I realize that I want to live and move and find my being within the natural world. I do not want the natural world to be a deviation from my normal existence–a hike here and there, a beautiful space to run or bicycle, a conducive space for spiritual retreat–I want nature to be existence itself. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the earth proclaims her handiwork. Day after day they pour forth speech.”

I want to listen more deeply.

On the morning of the fourth day, I survey the open bay. Our campsite is on a small island not far from where a boat will come to pick us up. We will load our kayak and supplies onto the boat, which will then cruise through the west arm of Glacier Bay. We’ve been kayaking up and down the more remote east arm.

The day is foggy and damp. It is beautiful because I can see the bay in several directions.

Everything seems still. I can somehow feel as though this were home. I feel at home, like I am a Native to this land, long before the encroachment of civilization, and today I have things to do in this primitive and pristine world: nets to mend, fish to catch, shelters to repair, boats that need attention.

I feel caught up, carried away. I am one of a small tribe or clan, living in harmony with the land.

I gradually come back to myself, after a time, and as I stand gazing out at the smoke-like fog of the mountains at our pick-up point, I wonder what life was like. What could life be like, here in the wild, here in the natural world, if I could hear the voice of God speaking every day, in this way, if I were immersed in the mystery and the patient rhythm of the sounds of the spheres and the beauty of the earth, as a way of life, as a way of being?

I have a question that has been posted on my wall in my room here at Glacier Bay National Park:

What calls us out of ourselves? Seduces us? Shocks us? Woos us? Carries us? Caresses us? Enchants us? Beckons–what beckons? Who beckons?

In retrospect, I think of that moment as an epiphany. It was almost like a vision, in the sense that I felt myself transported to some other time period, before machines and modernity, and I longed for that other world. I was nostalgic for a way of life that I had never known, for a way of being interconnected with the natural world, and I wondered what that meant for my own life’s course.

I had been called out of myself. I had been seduced and carried and enchanted.

Post-trip, exhausted from paddling for days on end, tired but happy. Glacier Bay National Park, 2012.

I’ve always felt a sense of purpose, in terms of making some sort of positive impact on the world, which requires (or seems to require) engaging the world from the inside, from within. But in Glacier Bay I felt called out of that world.

What is more, my experience in Glacier Bay brought home a fundamental point: that my heart was not of this world.

We talked about this a good deal, in my Evangelical circles. For the first twenty-something years of my life it had been a common refrain: be in the world but not of the world. The prior decade (2000 to 2010) had been a decade where I realized that this was more or less bullshit. In fact, the opposite was true, at least so far as my own observations and experiences went, and this was the source of the cognitive dissonance.

Summer in Glacier Bay National Park 2013, Bartlett Cove

Evangelicals were as much “of the world” as anyone else, what with their fierce commitment to capitalism and the uncanny ability that so many had to ignore the root conditions of poverty, inequality and global suffering. Yet at the same time it was also true that most Evangelicals were not actually “in the world,” in any meaningful or significant sense. This had been particularly true for me growing up.

Growing up Evangelical, I had experienced an incredible emphasis on not being polluted by the world, that young people like myself had to maintain a safe distance least we be led astray. At the same time issues of justice were almost entirely ignored. So as a teenager and college student, for example, I heard sermons and pleas to maintain my virginity and sexual purity, but nothing about Martin Luther King Jr. and the way in which the church had mobilized, in his time, as a massive protest against the cruelty of the capitalist system. Personal purity completely dominated the spiritual focus of Evangelicals, a true case of “straining a gnat and swallowing a camel.”

Moments of serenity, summer in Glacier Bay National Park 2013

In response, in 2010, I had said, “fuck it” and had left Evangelicalism. So now I was “in the world” but my experiences from the past decade, and particularly those in Glacier Bay, left me with a deep and abiding sense of homelessness, of not feeling like I was not meant for this new post-Evangelical world I inhabited.

Tlingit carving, southeast Alaska, summer in Glacier Bay National Park 2013

I could have gone one step further and just said “fuck it, I’m building a cabin in the wilderness” and spent the rest of my life there. Not a bad option for me, honestly, but at the same time I couldn’t do it. I felt a call to remain in the world, which was confusing because I didn’t feel like I fit.

I wasn’t quite sure what the hell to do in the world. And in many ways, I’m still not.

Stunning colors captured in Glacier Bay, 2012, #unfiltered because back in 2012 you really didn’t have photo filters, unless you had the fancy software programs of the professional photographers

2013-2014: Africa and India

Kids of Arusha! Tanzania, circa 2014

“Colour prejudice is not our original fault, but only one aspect of the atrophy of the imagination that prevents us from seeing ourselves in every creature that breathes under the sun.

Doris Lessing, African Stories; cited by James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son

It was late July. We seasonal workers were nearing the end of a second summer in Glacier Bay, looking forward to what might be next, scheming and plotting. Most of my seasonal friends in Glacier Bay lived a gypsy life, like me, so the end of a summer often meant that we had some cash saved and the freedom to use it.

It had been a busy summer and physically exhausting, as my sore and tired back was reminding me of, as I took a load off in Aramark’s Employee Dining Hall after another long day. I was still dressed in black, the uniform that we deckhands wore in the summer of 2013. I had eaten something and had settled in to check email and Facebook. Had it really been almost a week since the last time I was online?

Um. Hi….How are you?

I assumed I would be heading back down to the Bay Area, after the summer ended, and that was the plan, but I had a message waiting for me that would change all that. My sister in law, Kelly, sent me a link to a posting for a volunteer, a Finance Manager position with a small NGO located just outside of Arusha, Tanzania.

I sat for a while, just staring at it. I knew I’d do it, almost from the moment I saw the posting, but I also felt more than a little anxious about spending seven months on another continent. Would my summer savings stretch that far? Could I navigate internationally? What kinds of shots do I get? And would I have enough time to line this all up and get the necessary Visas and other travel necessities? I would only have a few weeks, after the summer ended.

Feeling good in the wild, open spaces, 2014.

But at the same time, I knew that this was also one of the advantages of living a life on the outskirts of conventional culture. If your shit is in storage and you don’t have a mortgage or a monthly rent payment, then you can pick up and fly across the globe, for seven months.

So I resolved to give it a go. If it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

In just two short months I had finished my summer job in Alaska, packed up all of my stuff, transitioned back to the lower 48, and then made all the preparations to spend seven months in Africa. Things all fell into place, and after a whirlwind of activity, my plane lifted off and carried me over the Atlantic Ocean.

At the school run by the NGO I volunteered at, 2013-2014, Sinoni, near Arusha, Tanzania

When I arrived at the Arusha airport in Tanzania, however, my ride didn’t show, and when the airport closed, I was left standing outside, to wait out the rest of the dark night, and to hope that the morning brought better tidings.

There were a few other guys there, hanging out with me in the middle of the night, at least for a while. They were taxi drivers, mostly, and one of them let me use his cell phone to call Mudi, the dude who was supposed to pick me up. No answer.

Then it was just me, alone in the night, with my blue backpack stuffed with stuff. Just me, exhausted but with too much adrenaline and nervous energy to get any rest. Just me, sitting, standing, and slouching — waiting for the day to break.

Tarangire safari, 2014: my nieces have their pink packs and sparkle shirts and are ready for the adventure. My brother and sister in law had just taken a position with an NGO that took the to Tanzania, in 2014.

Eventually Mudi arrived. He was one of the project managers and a local Tanzanian. He apologized profusely, but it wasn’t really necessary. I was just relieved that he was here, and he had an incredible amount of positive energy, which was extremely contagious. Soon I was back in “OMG I’m actually here!” mode.

With relief, I deposited my travel bags into the Land Rover, and Mudi began to drive. He pulled out of the airport and into the highway and hammered the accelerator. He hugged the bumpers of cars in front of him, then passed at the first opportunity. He darted in and out of the lanes like we were being chased by the cops.

Mudi navigated Arusha traffic, which slowed us down. Once we were through Arusha, we slowed further still. We were suddenly in rural Tanzania, navigating narrow dirt roads with deep divots and the most hellacious holes. 

Sharing a drink with volunteers and two friends. The beverage I’m drinking is Poa, which I think was a banana beer and was definitely of questionable drinkability, hence the dubious look of Alec (far right), fellow volunteer

At last, we pulled into the Volunteer Village. Calling it “Volunteer Village” makes it sound as though it were inhabited by a few hundred people, perhaps a thousand. In truth the population of this village was four.

It was more like a compound. It was all closed off from the world, cement walls running around a couple of acres of land. Yet even the hideous walls couldn’t change the serenity of the place. It was a beautiful setting that felt calm. The weather was moderate. When I left the States winter was on the way, here in Tanzania it was turning to summer. And it was quiet.

I would learn that, yes, the walls were a bit of overkill, and it was something of a statement, a statement of separation but also one of that labeled the people and culture outside of the wall as “dangerous,” because the NGO had erected the barrier because a white person was murdered here, on this compound, and the barricade was there to keep us safe. It was a physical barrier but it symbolized so much more and would be but one of many barriers that I would encounter, some were physical and material barriers, some not.

Mudi showed me to my room, and soon left, and it was then that I met Jenny, a fellow volunteer — and Jenny’s energy was in stark contrast to Mudi’s. She was small but strong, a short, wiry older woman who had been volunteering for a while. The exact number of years that Jenny had volunteered has now escaped my memory, but it’s not important. Here’s what’s important: whether measured in months or years, Jenny had been volunteering one too many. 

Arusha public transportation: The “dala dala’s” are privately run vans that pack as many folks in as can be packed

Jenny took ownership of my initiation, from the very beginning, and so we embarked on a tour of the facilities. The actual site of our organization’s work was elsewhere, so we exited the Volunteer Village, using the main gate, the only gate, where two guards sat, relaxed and chatting, greeting us with friendly salutations.

Jenny walked me along the narrow dirt roads in the warm summer-like sun and we walked a good mile or more, from the Volunteer Village where the volunteers lived, to the project site, which included a permaculture farm, an elementary school, and housing for a few vulnerable women and their children.

It all still felt so surreal, to be in Africa for the first time. We were walking in the mild mid-day, and we passed some huts made of mud and straw, and we passed yet others that were made of concrete, all of them small structures, by American standards. There were little fruit stands, as well. These stands, themselves, were something to look at. They were skillfully crafted, often using only local, ready-to-hand materials like tree limbs, sticks and branches. 

Helping out with a recreation day at a school in Sinoni, near Arusha

We walked through small groves of banana trees, and as we passed through the little grove, I saw a fruit I’d never seen. I craned my head as we walked, looking back and up at a very large and very mysterious fruit, that I would later learn was the jack fruit. At the time, I didn’t ask what it was, because I found that the less Jenny talked, the better. If she spoke more than a few sentences, it was bound to become very negative, very fast.

Jenny told me all about our organization, the board members, the area, and the locals, with all of the authority of a seasoned military general, battle-weary and cynical. No matter the subject, it was rare to hear a positive word pass her lips. She rarely made eye-contact with me, and she spoke in short definitive statements. 

Jenny passed judgment on all things, great and small, presumably all for the sake of giving me the real scoop on how things worked. She spoke of the deficiencies of the board members, and she spoke in detail of the flaws of each of the volunteers, some of whom were no longer in Tanzania or working with the organization.

While on safari, we spotted a lion, panting hard and digesting a meal

Her judgments were final, leaving no opportunity for discussion, no room for debate. She sort of bit off her words at the end of each sentence, pressing her lips together and looking away, never looking at me. She also talked a good deal about the shortcomings of the locals, which made me feel more than a little uncomfortable.

This, I realized, was the reason Jenny had been so eager to give me the tour. She wanted to be the one who explained the place and set the narrative.

We toured. The project was small but impressive. There was cows and goats and a large organic permaculture garden that provided for the folks onsite as well as providing income. A few dozen cheerful children attended the school, and the housing that they had for “the Mamas” had the feel of a real community.

Wide wooden walkways and porches circled the facility. One expansive balcony provided a serene 180 degree view of the rural countryside. I took a moment to soak it in, because a view like this is just the sort of thing to make it real. The plain was spread out before me, fields and farm lands gently rolling for miles, a gradual downward slope that opened the view up even more, to see farther. And from that view, the land looked peaceful, and the place was quiet.

After the tour, we made our way back from the Village, and as we were approaching the Volunteer Village, we came upon a local woman, bent over, working in the field. When she saw us, the woman stood up and smiled, using her hand to shade her face from the sun. 

She greeted Jenny using a phrase I didn’t understand. To me the woman’s voice sounded tired but genuinely cheerful.

Jenny returned the salutation.

From there, the two went back and forth, exchanging a series of greetings. 

“Mambo!”

“Mambo vipi!”

“Vipi safi!”

And on it went.

There, I thought, Jenny’s not so bad. Sure, she may be a little bitter, but she’s made real connections.

It was great, and I was impressed. Jenny’s just been here a little too long, I told myself, that’s all.

It was quite fascinating to watch the interaction, almost inspirational. It gave me hope that I might be able to communicate like this, and I soon found myself lost in admiration for Jenny’s bad-ass Swahili skills. It was my own dream to have such skills and to be able to connect with some of the locals in conversations just like this. 

I wouldn’t be just another white volunteer, I had repeatedly told myself in the weeks leading up to my trip. No, I would make authentic connections, real friends. 

I wasn’t just here to “do my part.” On the contrary, I imagined scenes of comradery, of spending late nights sitting on the ground around a fire, really learning the culture, first hand. I would learn the language, better than most, enough to have genuine conversations and make friends, on their own terms, in their own tongue. 

I would make the effort to really bridge the gap. That’s what I told myself.

“You really know your Swahili,” I said, as Jenny and I continued to walk.

She just snorted in reply. I looked at her, surprised, and quickly realized that Jenny was pissed off. Like, really pissed.

I was confused.

What could she possibly be angry about? I wondered.

I didn’t have to wonder for long.

“She was just trying to humiliate me,” Jenny said, unsolicited.

I suddenly realized that I was walking faster to keep up with Jenny’s pace. We were almost back to the Volunteer Village, but she had suddenly begun walking fast and it now felt like a sprint to the finish. 

“Oh they just go back and forth with their greetings,” Jenny continued, her words taking the same quick, choppy pace as her legs. “On and on until you don’t know what to say anymore, and then they’re happy because they’ve shown you that you don’t really know their language.”

I kept quiet and walked on, studying her scowl, set on her face, a face fixed forward. 

“They just want to put you in your place,” she concluded.

At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. “When the Europeans came, they had the Bible and we had the land. Now we have the Bible, and they have our land.” This struck quite profoundly.

We would talk about Jenny, the three of us, myself and the other two younger volunteers. What was her deal? we would ask ourselves, rhetorically, not so much to understand where Jenny was coming from so much as to just deal with the negativity. Jenny’s cynical perspective quickly became a running joke among us. I was the one to give the whole thing the comic edge because that’s kind of how I deal with this sort of thing, make it funny, take the edge off.

And it would all be pretty light-hearted at first. It was a joke that went strong for a month or so, but it then gradually started to become less and less funny. By the time Christmas came around, and I flew to India for a few weeks’ break, the Jenny jokes had stopped. 

I had begun to better understand Jenny. We all did.

My vision of bridging gaps and creating meaningful connections was about as far from the reality I experienced as it could be. And the root of this experience can be summed up in one word: money.

I had a very distinct sense about myself, as I walked the streets of Arusha, on the days when I went into the city, which usually required walking a few miles to catch a bus, or to splurge on a piki piki, the Swahili word for a taxi that takes the form of a small motorcycle which then darts between cars, races along pothole-infested roads, and gives the passenger such a general state of heightened anxiety and arouses such an intense sense of one’s own mortality, that my sister in law forbid any member of her family from ever taking a piki piki.

Zebras, somewhere near Arusha, Tanzania

I fucking loved riding the piki pikis.

I had way more anxiety about being in Arusha than I did fear of riding a piki piki, but it wasn’t because I didn’t feel safe in Arusha. I felt safe, I just became depressingly aware of the fact that I was white, and that being white carried a stigma, and this stigma opened up a chasm that I would never cross. It was a barrier, it was far more of a barricade than the walls around our Volunteer Village.

Walking the streets of Arusha, I had the distinct sense of myself as being a walking ATM. This is what it meant for me to be white, here in this place. This was my identity.

And it was the truth. After all, I had access to the ATM machines that dispensed cash. Americans held the wealth of the world. People who looked like me owned the capital, while most of the people of the world did not.

Traveling around Tanzania I bought a snack, enticed by the Obama celebrity. Tanzania is just south of Kenya, where Obama’s father was from.

It intrigued me to draw foreign cash from the ATMs in Arusha and in various other African cities. The currency in each country is different, the colors differ, the shapes and sizes might change from country to country, some bills have watermarks, some have compelling designs, like the Tanzania T-Shillings, and the quality of the paper is better or worse. What it has in common, though, is that it’s all paper, and that it all is merely a symbol to represent value.

But to the people in Tanzania that symbolic piece of paper was the difference between getting an education or not, it was the difference between being able to start a business or not, it could mean medical care — or not — and so it could be the difference between life or death. This is true for all of us, but it was less obvious to me, in my day to day life in the States, because there’s lots of money in the States.

By the time the Christmas holiday came around, my romanticized visions of solidarity were only fading memories, a mere memorial to my inexperience and idealism. We didn’t really do much to celebrate Christmas in the Volunteer Village. I don’t think many of us felt holiday cheer.

Hello there, cutie. A poor man’s zoom lense: I only had a smartphone camera but found that if I aimed my smartphone through a set of binoculars — and held it juuuuust right — that I could get a few close-ups
Safari park near Arusha

As the months wore on, my perspective began to be shaped by my skin color. I was white, and my skin color dominated the nature of my experiences in Arusha. I was the walking ATM, and that was my primary function for being there: to transfer funds. But I didn’t want to be the walking ATM, I wanted to just be me, like I was used to. I wanted to engage people and get to know them, not whatever facade they put on — and I never knew if they had a facade or not. That was really the most difficult thing. I’m sure that with more time, I could have navigated things with more skill, maybe had a better grasp of what relationships were genuine and which were not, but I was only on the continent for seven months.

I wanted people to engage me, not my skin color.

It felt surreal to be transformed in this way, into a Walking ATM.

Another way to look at it comes from a novel that deeply impressed me, a novel that I read a few years later, Americanah by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The main protagonist in Adichie’s novel is Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who comes to the United States and discovers that in America, she is black.

“I discovered race in America and it fascinated me,” says Ifemelu. So she blogs about it in a post entitled “To My Fellow Non-American Blacks, in America, You are Black, Baby.”

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t black in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the society of former negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad, when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up.”

This reflects the author’s own experiences. Adichie’s character reflects her own life, as a Nigerian navigating race in America. In an NPR interview with Terry Gross, Adichie talks more about her own personal experiences of coming to America and learning what it means to be black in America:

“I remember when I first came to the U.S., I really didn’t consciously think of myself as black because I didn’t have to. I thought of myself as Igbo, which is my ethnicity. And then in the U.S., there’s a moment when I had just arrived, and I was in Brooklyn, and this African-American man called me sister.

“And I remember reacting almost viscerally and thinking no, I am not your sister. And then I think also at the time I had very quickly absorbed all the negative stereotypes of blackness in America, and so I didn’t want to associate myself with that. And I also remember in undergrad, when a professor of mine came into class and said who is Adichie because this person called Adichie..had written the best essay in class.

“And I remember raising my hand, and for a fleeting moment, there was surprise on his face. And I realized that the person who wrote the best essay wasn’t supposed to look like me….

“…race is such a strange construct because you learn – you have to learn what it means to be black in America…”

It’s not that I didn’t know my own skin color, in the technical sense, but when I first arrived in Tanzania, my skin color didn’t matter to me, and because it didn’t matter my whiteness was irrelevant and hence unrealized. It is a form of privilege afforded those who are white in America — you don’t have to think about skin color. Others do.

One has inherited privilege from being white, then on top of that there’s the privilege of ignoring this very same white privilege.

But while volunteering in Tanzania, I quickly learned to become aware of the color of my skin, or more to the point, I learned that I couldn’t escape the color of my skin. My skin color was economic, my whiteness meant something: I either had money or else I had access to money. My whiteness defined the nature of my experiences with other people and shaped my whole being.

I wasn’t prepared for this — not at all. My experience of being white became far more important and definitive than who I was as a person. My subjectivity didn’t matter so much as the objective fact that I was white. Consequently, I would feel myself losing touch with who I was, pulled away from just being me, absorbed into a way of thinking about myself that almost always came back to being white. And it was in this way that I realized, for the first time, that I was white.

In America, I’d been in groups where I was a minority, but that wasn’t quite the same. It was always temporary, and more to the point, it didn’t define my entire existence, day after day after day. It wasn’t my identity and I didn’t feel compelled to live in a certain reality that was determined by my skin color. I didn’t have to be “white,” I could ignore my skin color, and this ignorance was/is a privilege.

In Tanzania, by contrast, I was defined, thoroughly and entirely, by my skin color. It was the Walking ATM thing. My whiteness meant money, which for some meant a better life and for others, well, for others it meant shear survival because for the cost of a month’s rent in the States, I could bankroll a new business for someone in Tanzania.

Safari, 2014, near Arusha, Tanzania

My skin color thus set the terms of engagement for all of my interactions. For the first time in my life, I was learning what it meant to have my skin color define my day-to-day existence. I would always be pressed for donations, or my white skin would make me a target for a hustle, or I would be charged five times (or more) the price of an item in the market. 

It wasn’t long before I was second guessing everything, not just my transactions at the market but any relationship and encounter I had. I would never quite know for certain if my friends were just my friends because of the money and prestige I might give them, or if it was an authentic relationship.

I learned how it tasted, that bitterness of Jenny’s, and while I knew too much about the economics of capitalism to succumb to the kind of anger that Jenny carried, I could feel the same frustration at running into an impenetrable barrier. It was the barrier of my own skin.

This dynamic worked something in and through me. I became more and more suspicious. I felt loneliness and isolation. The whole trip began to feel futile, pointless, and by the time I left, the idea of having made any kind of positive difference seemed absurd and ridiculous to me. 

I knew that my money had made a difference to individual lives. The money I gave to people had an impact, and the money that our organization brought to the community was important.

On safari in Tarangire, temporarily held up by an elephant crossing

One of my fellow volunteers, a teacher, told us a story about how the teachers were helping kids learn to process emotions and feelings. They were talking, on that particular day, about the feeling of sadness.

What makes you feel sad?

“I feel sad,” one child responded, “when I find out that we have nothing to eat for dinner.”

What was more telling, though, was the fact that one of the local teachers, a local Tanzanian, laughed. She wasn’t being cruel or insensitive. She was chuckling out of understanding, because such feelings of disappointment, of not being able to eat, are so common place.

So it was real, the money that we invested in the community, and for some it would be the difference between getting an education or not, of being able to afford a doctor or hoping for the best, of eating or not eating.

There would be no authentic relationships with locals, no fires, no bridging of the gaps. There would be moments, moments of connection and some good times with locals, here and there, but there would be no great understanding. Not for me, not on this trip. Such was the global reach of capitalism, the bitter fruit that it bore, spanning the centuries. Like all power games, there were the winners and the losers, and here on the continent of Africa, they were the losers, yet like anyone else, they were determined to survive. Many were angry, knowing that the game was fixed. But it wasn’t personal. It was capitalism, the economics of power and privilege, the economics of control, the economics of injustice.

I had envisioned connecting with people, growing in my appreciation of diversity, expanding my perspective on cultures and the human race, and perhaps a sobering analysis of geopolitics. All of this happened, but not quite in the romanticized way that I’d anticipated.

It would get much worse.

I felt the barrier of my skin color, but in the last month on the continent I would see the wreckage of capitalism in Rwanda and South Africa as I walked among the Rwandan genocide memorial sites, learning of the ways in which white Europeans had intentionally introduced the idea of race as a means to control the Rwandans, to rule the territory, and to gain access to natural resources.

I would see the blood stains on the wall of a Sunday School room, where children were crushed, in the maniacal frenzy of the massacre.

At a genocide memorial site in Rwanda on the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide. The stain on the wall is from the little children whose skulls were crushed against the brick.

By the time I reached South Africa I couldn’t really process it anymore. I tried. I visited museums, talked about apartheid with the people I met. But by that time I was broken. I found myself crying, unprompted by anything or anyone. I would just be walking along the street or having a sandwich at a restaurant, and I’d be suddenly overwhelmed.

All of the wreckage that we had caused, that we still benefit from, it all felt so hopeless. I would return to the States, and then what? People in the States didn’t even want to give themselves decent healthcare, for fear of some possible violation of the laws of capitalism, so attached are we to the system that brings death and poverty to most people around the world.

I had been trying in my own ways to make change in the States. For years. It was futile. Things only got worse. Democrat, Republican. Red team or blue. It didn’t make a difference, not to me, at that moment. I only felt despair.

At a memorial site where Tutsis congregated in a church but were massacred within. The bloody clothing was left in the church, stacked on the pews.

There wasn’t anything I could do, I felt, despite whatever privilege and what little power I had. So as I left the continent to return to the States, I knew the truth of what I was and of what the trip was. I was just a tourist here.

My trip had been funded by the money that I had made on the tour boat in Glacier Bay, funded by the two-hundred dollar tickets purchased by the tourists and by whatever they left me in the form of tips. And I had used that tourist money to spend seven months in Africa. And it wouldn’t make any difference, because for all intents and purposes, I was only a tourist. The pain would continue, the economically strong would rule and dominate the economically weak. Then the economically strong would give, in the form of charity and donations, then pat themselves on the back for helping to alleviate poverty.

And I was just a tourist, funded by tourists, and returning to a tourist summer job where I could once again build up my bank account.

This was the darkest hour of the decade.

Cape Town, South Africa, 2014

2014-2019: McCarthy, Alaska and the Santa Cruz Mountains | Living in the wreckage

“I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least.”

~ Walt Whitman

things hoped for

I felt a sense of relief in returning to Alaska. Alaska had become my place to sit with this ongoing struggle that I was having, a struggle to understand the meaning of what I felt in relation to the suffering of the world and how to go about answering the question “How should we then live?”

My first two Alaskan summers were in Kodiak. My next two were in Glacier Bay. The summer of 2014 would find me in an entirely new and different Alaskan place. For the first time I would no longer be on the coast, by the ocean. I would be spending the summer in the interior of Alaska, in a little bush Alaskan town that lay, literally, at the end of the road, and the last 60 miles of this so-called “road,” the final stretch, was the infamous McCarthy Road, with ominous signs that said “drive at your own risk” and “watch out for loose railroad spikes.”

Within five minutes of my very first trip down the McCarthy Road, we broke down.

“Drive at your own risk!” The McCarthy Road is not for the faint of heart, though it’s been in pretty good shape in recent years, at least as compared to what it’s been like in the past.

Something else was different, too. I noticed that I wasn’t moved by the beauty of Alaska. I still felt numb. The landscapes in my new summer home were remarkable, and remote, the kind that had always moved me in the past. McCarthy lies within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest National Park in North America and also one of the least frequented. Yet I was virtually unmoved

This type of solitude would have eventually have its impact on me, but it took a while. I spent a good deal of time sitting by and walking beside McCarthy Creek, which wasn’t a “creek” so much as it was a wild river, feral and fierce.

Camping out, McCarthy Creek, circa fall 2014 when water levels are low in McCarthy Creek

I had been in McCarthy about ten days when my new boss Neil (owner of McCarthy Lodge where I was now employed) asked me what attracted me to Third World countries.

“Why do you travel to Third World countries?” he asked.

How to begin.

Neil had been in international sales prior to owning the Lodge and had traveled everywhere in the world, at least twice.

I had no idea how to answer.

Fireweed Mountain, across the glacier from Kennicott, four miles down the road from McCarthy, winter of 2015

Neil told me that he went for the joy, to see the joy of the people. I suppose that I may have had some sort of similar expectation, but there was more to unpack, more than I could articulate in that conversation.

I thought about that brief conversation, for the rest of the afternoon. I suppose I had hoped to see a place devoid of the wreckage of consumerism. Instead, I found the opposite. Rather than finding a relief from consumer capitalism, I saw capitalism in another form: desperate people who desperately wanted just a portion of our wealth, enough to survive or perhaps enough to start a business and lift their families out of poverty.

Fall of 2014, first summer in McCarthy. Day trip up to Bonanza Mine, one of my favorite spots, to this day.

My interaction with Neil stuck with me, and after I had finished my work for the day, I went back to my room to journal. Something important was starting to surface. I sat down to write, it felt like a promising time to process. I wrote about some of my experiences, my impressions, and I soon honed in on the feeling of despair and broken heartedness:

…..I was randomly feeling unprompted tears in my eyes even in public places, while I was in Rwanda and South Africa. I was simply overwhelmed.

I think this is why I feel something that feels like trauma, this is why my heart is broken. Yes, there was something akin to secondary PTSD, where my empathy traumatized me. There was sadness and pain at witnessing suffering. But in a greater sense, there was a metaphysical sense of despair. And it lingers.

My god is truly dead.

The god of capitalism is the one true god. Where is the hope in a world ruled by this evil?

Writing these words was therapeutic. There was something there, some truth that could bring relief, but before I could write it out any further, I suddenly felt that I needed to move, to walk. So I did. I went for a walk along the river, then returned later to my journal to continue:

My god is truly dead.

The god of capitalism is the one true god. Where is the hope in a world ruled by this evil?

This finally starts to make some sense of things. I wrote the above, then grabbed my red sleeveless jacket, left my room in the basement of the Ma Johnson Hotel, and went for a walk along the river that runs right beside McCarthy. Before I had walked 20 yards, I felt tears in my eyes.

I’ve always believed in some kind of god of good that at least was in the fight with evil. What now?

I’m not much of one for metaphysics. For years now, I could rightly pass for an agnostic. A “Christian agnostic” is a fairly accurate description of my belief in God’s metaphysical existence. It’s an odd term, but it captures my sense of things: maybe God exists or maybe not, but it’s not a big deal, one way or the other. I have nothing particularly important invested in God’s existence.

Or do I?

Because I still feel the hopelessness when faced with the sheer impotence of the god of good and of the struggle against demonic consumerism. Still, even still, something inside of me remains saddened, retraumatized, and despairing at the knowledge that god is dead. That the god of justice has been so soundly defeated.

I want there to be a metaphysical being who will make this all good, or barring that, or maybe just make this all a draw, a tie. Or will at least put up a fight. But to be so roundly trounced and to have what is good be so soundly laid to waste? This is a hard reality. Is this what I have to deal with because I was raised Christian? Or do unbelievers feel the same way?

I wondered about this last question, especially. Why did I feel like this when most everyone else I knew (family, friends, Christians or not) didn’t seem to feel it at all? Sure, everybody was saddened by poverty and oppression and injustice, but for me it went deeper, it felt more personal, and I felt hopeless.

Things don’t have to be this way.

The simple answer was that I saw capitalism and extreme poverty as unnecessary, and because I believed that things didn’t have to be this way, the fact that I believed that another world was possible, a better world, a more beautiful and just world — because I knew things didn’t have to be this way, I despaired. If you believe that the state of things is more or less unchangeable, that the strong will always exploit the weak and that there is no real hope, then you can accept it, forget about it, and drive on.

But I knew a better world was possible. I saw examples in history replete with cooperation and respect for the earth. I had the sense of it when I was kayaking in Glacier Bay.

Things didn’t have to be this way. I knew this to be true, perhaps more true than anything else.

McCarthy Creek, Fall 2018

Most everyone else I knew accepted capitalism as the way things were and would be, like it or not. In the case of my boss Neil, he was a Ayn Rand libertarian and an ardent and staunch defender of capitalism. He cared about people and about justice, but saw capitalism as the hope of the world.

Similarly for Evangelicals. They were heavily invested in capitalism, both ideologically as well as financially. They viewed capitalism as something of a gift from God.

The truth was that capitalism was so totalitarian that many people didn’t (and still don’t) see any other possibility. Capitalism is the air we breathe. So the imagination was closed, on the subject. It was so closed in fact that there was no ability to engage with critical discussion.

Capitalism had led to power and wealth becoming concentrated in the hands of the few. This elite few then used this power and wealth to control governments, control markets, and to exploit people and planet for more and more profits, profits that would then be used in an ever-increasing power-grab.

Capitalism is/was totalitarian. It is the one true god, at least in our day and age, and that is what had broken me in Tanzania and in my tour of other countries and places in Africa and India.

God was dead to me, at least in terms of a God of justice, a personal God who would ultimately prevail.

McCarthy Alaska, fall 2018

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. MLK in my opinion is one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived, and I think that if they ever had a redo of Mount Rushmore, they ought to start with MLK’s face. Even so, I did not believe in imaginary arcs of morality. I believed in what I saw and knew to be the reality of people who were hungry despite the fact that we had enough food to feed everyone. I believed in what I knew to be true about the collapse of our ecosystems and the carbon in the atmosphere.

Somehow, in some weird way, processing things in this way was a relief.

Utah, 2018, Canyonlands National Park

Suffering was real. Capitalism was real. The American military was real. Violence was real. Domination and control was real. The system that perpetuated all of this suffering was real.

And our empathy was real.

Perhaps “God” existed, but if God’s existence were real then it was not as a God of justice but as a God whose existence was most manifest in this empathy.

Alaska Highway, May 2019 roadtrip, north to Alaska.

God was dead, for me, at least God as a fix-it sort of deity who could right our wrongs and triumph over evil. No one would ride in to save us from the consequences of cause-and-effect. There was no Savior to save us from ourselves, from the consequences of our own actions. There was such a thing as karma, where we must reap what we sow. Cause and effect. Or as Jesus put it, “you cannot serve both God and money.”

My time in remote spaces was starting to bring all this into focus. My time in meditation and my study of the teachings of the Buddha were also reinforcing this idea of cause and effect.

The world is wild.

Redwoods hike, 2019

This realization would continue to deepen, and it would evolve. It would evolve, slowly, into an appreciation for being one life, just one life, in a great world filled with life, wild and constantly shifting and changing. It would open my mind and soul in a way that brought about a shift, from the feeling of aloneness that I experienced in the early part of the decade. Less and less would I identify with the biblical Cain, as a restless wanderer.

I drove the Pride Float on the Fourth. My apparel is the patriotic red, white, and blue, but I’m also wearing my best socialist rose shirt. ‘Merica for me: the red is for equality, the white is the color of the canvass upon which we can celebrate our diversity and the blue is a cool color, so to me it stands for freedom because if you wanna be free ya gotta keep it cool, yo. Keep it chill.

I would shift in my perception, from feeling like I had no people and no place and no purpose, to feeling like the world was my home, that the people of the world were my people, that the places of the world were my places, and that the struggles and pain of the world were themselves the purpose of my own life. I had felt this before my trip to Tanzania, but this sense of purpose burrowed itself deeper into me.

The first lake @ Donoho Basin, McCarthy Alaska, Fall colors, 2017

It was that same summer, in 2014, that I began to take my writing seriously, in terms of looking at it as an art form, as a serious creative craft, a skill to be mastered. I’d been writing all my life, but I had always been intimidated by the idea of being a “real writer,” but I had been changed by my experiences in the first half of the decade.

I attended a Writer’s Workshop in McCarthy, at the Wrangell Mountain Center, an incredible locally-based non-profit organization dedicated to connecting people with wildlands through art, science, and, education in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains. The workshop gave me confidence to push forward as a writer, and my writing would become the primary focus of my attention and energy for the second half of the decade.

Writer’s Workshop, 2014. Frank Sous is speaking, while fellow teacher Tom Kizzia is seated on the far right. Tom is a now retired journalist and author of the acclaimed nonfiction work, Pilgrim’s Wilderness.

In the fall of 2015, I moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains, and as the decade wore on, I would settle in. I would settle into McCarthy, and I would settle into the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Central Coast California, Big Sur, 2019

In my life in McCarthy I was surrounded by wilderness as well as by a small bush-Alaskan community where folks had priorities remarkably similar to my own: people value their independence, they value the natural world, and they appreciate a lifestyle that requires them to be resourceful and creative. This appreciation for solitude and a remote wilderness lifestyle resonates deeply.

Living in the Santa Cruz Mountains meant that I was much closer to civilization, but it was a tolerable form: redwood forests and a very relaxed community vibe. The City of Santa Cruz’s unofficial motto is “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.” That’s right up my alley.

Bernie rally in San Francisco, spring 2019. That’s Bernie, waaaaaaaaaay at the front. See him??

I’m close enough to the city of Santa Cruz to work, enjoy some of that thick and salty ocean air, and engage with the activists in the community. DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) Santa Cruz Chapter and Santa Cruz for Bernie are my main jams. I was recently voted on as one of the co-Chairs of our Santa Cruz Mountains Branch, and if that weren’t enough, I also put myself on the ballot to run for a spot on the Democratic Central Committee of Santa Cruz County. This is part of an attempt by a good many activists to shift the sensibilities of the Democratic Party here in Santa Cruz County.

The Avengers and the changing face of power, Midterms 2018

And all that is in addition to my work for the Bernie campaign. It’s been a lot, but it’s good to burn off some of that energy, the energy that’s been building up over the entirety of my adult life, watching as our culture degenerates and our government becomes mired deeper in corruption. Despair and anger, as it turns out, are the kinds of energies that can be effectively directed toward activism, provided, of course, that they are guided in that direction by compassion.

The bag I’ve carried with me most of the decade. It now sports a proud pink Bernie button in addition to the One Love patch that’s been on the bag since circa 2013. On the streets of Arusha, this rasta patch prompted some of the locals to call me “Mr. One Love.”

Here in Santa Cruz County we have the sorts of activists with whom this resonates. This, then, has been another community that I’ve been integrated into, the activist community. It’s been the kind of community experience that reminds me a lot of what I used to think would be ideal for a church, or faith community of some kind. It’s solidarity and a common aim of change, and this is a form of fellowship that carries with it the meaning and sense of urgency that I always believed was at the core of what I most wanted from the faith communities that I was a part of, over the years.

Socializing with socialists, staffing our DSA table at the 2019 Women’s March in Santa Cruz

And the world is changing. This decade has seen political tensions build. That’s good. We desperately need to engage issues that we’ve been ignoring, and the natural result of engaging with our problems is that the establishment will fight back, and the entrenched power interests will retaliate. They’re retaliating because people are getting mobilized on behalf of justice.

2018 Women’s March, downtown Santa Cruz

When the decade began, people were far less aware of the root of the problems that had led to such a disastrous prior decade. (Two very evil wars and a financial crash that rocked the world.) In response, this decade has seen the reincarnation and revival of the political left and also of populism more generally. With it have come cultural conflict, but this kind of conflict is actually more in line with the struggles that have always existed in America. It is part of the conflict, I think, that is inherent with a nation suffering from deep cognitive dissonance, saying we believe in freedom and justice but doing just the opposite.

Solidarity!

People are getting mobilized. Bernie has been slowly but steadily building a movement for a true political revolution. Women are beginning to challenge inequity and prejudice, which has led to a backlash on behalf of male superiority and white supremacy.

“I’ll be the bad guy” at House Committee hearing, February 2019

I don’t know that it will be enough to make the changes that we need to make before things really start to fall apart. America and the rest of the world are now settled into oligarchy, the rule by wealthy elites. It’s a new Gilded Age of drastic inequality of a kind rarely known in human history. We are seeing the results of a political neglect that’s been ongoing for nearly two generations now — but even so, movements are happening. People are getting active.

2019 Santa Cruz Women’s March
The Enso of Enlightenment

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the decade, on a personal level, was the one thing that created the least amount of noise, used the least amount of resources, yet left the deepest and most substantial change in me: my meditation practice.

It was a decade of sitting.

In celebration of making it through my first meditation retreat, I went to a tattoo artist in Pushkar, India and had some of the mantras from the retreat tatt’d on my arm

I maintained a daily meditation practice throughout the decade, and I also started doing meditation retreats. My first retreat was in India, squeezed in during my three-week holiday break while I was volunteering in Tanzania. It was pretty hard core, a ten-day retreat with 11 hours of meditation practice each day — and every meditation was sitting meditation, a major toll on the body.

This was my first retreat. It was tough, and to be perfectly honest the goal was mere survival, especially at the beginning. On the second or third day, things started to get really crazy, in the mind. After that things got settled but the first few days were absolute mental chaos. I can’t recall quite which day it was because things had started to get a good bit blurry, and my brain had begun to feel completely unfocused.

A weekend retreat with one of my favorite and most influential spiritual teachers, James Finley. 2012, Southern California.

The voice of the retreat leader resonated with me, at that point in the retreat, in one of the evening dharma talks. The voice was light, cheerful, and almost whimsical: “You might be asking yourself, at this point, what is this wild monkey mind that I have.”

I think everyone in the dharma hall laughed.

Meditation was an “into the wild” sort of experience all its own.

Perhaps there’s nothing quite so wild as the human mind.

Pushkar, India, 2014. Vipassana Retreat, my first long, 10-day mediation retreat. The retreat has just concluded and I’m simply happy that I made it.

It was a decade of reconciling myself to the feeling I had of not having a place in the world. At the beginning of the decade, I felt like the biblical Cain and I became a restless wanderer upon the earth, a gypsy free-spirited ride. By the close of the decade I had settled into two communities, but despite my semi-settled-in lifestyle, I remain an outlier.

I remain an incurable iconoclast. My brain seems wired to fixate on the things that most people would rather ignore altogether. I show no signs of becoming more conservative with age, but I think the world needs iconoclastic free-spirits.

10-day meditation retreat in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. Manzanita trees, controlled chaos, an apt metaphor for the mind.

During times of degeneration and chaos, during times of cultural corruption and social injustice, some of us are called to just be there, to be the outliers who are still in the world but know in the depths of their being that they are not of this world, because this world of oppression, destruction, death and injustice is not a world that will ever be a true home.

There will always be those of us who know that things don’t have to be this way, that another way of being is possible.

This is not cynicism, at least it doesn’t feel that way to me. I don’t feel like a cynic, at least not anymore. It doesn’t feel like defeatism or fatalism, either. I’m not saying things will never change for the better. Nor am I saying that capitalism can’t be abolished or overcome or made more bearable. We might find that it simply dissolves and gives way to networks of democracy and solidarity and self-reliance. The future we hope for is possible, and I choose to hope for this future, because hope itself, I believe, is a choice. It’s a lot like faith, in this regard.

But until that day comes, there will be those of us who carry this mentality with us will, the inability to ever be completely comfortable, a sense of feeling displaced, that we are not where we are supposed to be.

Yet there is an irony, an irony that in a very real sense we are right where we are supposed to be, because until that day comes, we have only the relentless refrain of hope, that things don’t have to be this way. The permanence of capitalism or of the American Empire is only an illusion, and the world needs people who are able to see and speak to the evil of the Powers that Be while holding out hope for a better way.

Until that day comes, we live in the wreckage, feeling as though we don’t belong and yet remaining here, still, right where we are meant to be, a part of the ever-unfolding, ever-changing journey of this world. Like it or not, we continue to evolve, together. And we remain just what we are, and what we are is wild.

3 Comments

  1. Very interesting, I feel several of the same feelings… A citizen of the world, not one country, belonging nowhere… The overwhelming empathy.
    My husband says he realised years and years ago he was here to bear witness. We both observe the craziness without getting involved but we do get really involved in our interactions with others, aiming to be a positive force to others and learning through our interactions. And we are anti consumerism as much as we can. Also just read Jung Memories Dreams and Reflections, in the chapter about The Tower he talks about cooking his own food, chopping the wood, making the fire, and having the sense that that was what his ancestors did. I think that is why I love living on a boat and having a wood burning stove.
    And we want to go back to India, maybe for another long trip….
    It was great to read your story. All the best

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Rachel. I appreciate that idea of bearing witness. I think that applies to my story, in many ways. It’s probably a good summary of the past decade, at least for me.

    Going forward into the new decade, though….wow….things are off to a crazy start, but it’s hard not to see the global pandemic as a foreshadowing of things to come this decade, and really for the remainder of the century. We’ve kicked the karmic can down the road for so long now that I fear the consequences of our actions will be greater than we can handle, given how weak and corrupted our institutions have become.

    So maybe we are shifting. Maybe those of us who have been bearing witness will by default become the ones with the best ability to network and create collaborative and cooperative communities.

    I’d be curious as to what you think about this, but my sense is that a focus on local communities and neighborhoods is our best shot for 1) surviving the calamities to come while also 2) starting to rebuild something new and 3) nurturing the core values that human communities will need in order to survive and thrive in the new world. That’s where I’m at, anyway.

    I feel hopeful, but not because I have any hope in existing institutions or leadership. I’ve kind of shifted toward what comes after we are forced to face the consequences of our actions.

    I’m curious to hear more from you, as to where you’re at, as you sort through some of this.

    Like

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