7 December 2014 § 2 Comments
do your self a favor: be aware that your actions and every shred of your energy are yours alone: manage them well. be careful and dignified within. seek counsel from the wise, and be slow to accept advice. your energy is sacred; giving it away frivolously will only harm you. some will try to help themselves to it: you must decrease the interval between the present moment and your highest response. use all of your senses during interactions, and know that what is being communicated is seldom with words at all, but with the subtleties of body language and intention. how you carry yourself will determine how you are treated.
that which you found yesterday has been you all along. welcome to yourself. welcome to how you show up in the world, and relate to others. intellectualize it, avoid it, and you will never be satisfied. fear is a series of obstacles between you, and the outcome of your desires.
you are the sole proprietor of your fear. own it, take responsibility for it; no one else can, or will. as with your creativity, forgive and thank those whom inspire it.
what is within begs to be without. so let it out, and let it be. you cannot unring the bell.
congratulations. you have arrived at the beginning, and everyone is watching. no – they are aware. they react to your energy, as you react to theirs. these ripples ebb and flow only with your awareness. only in authentic action can we truly serve another.
16 March 2014 § Leave a comment
Tonight, a relatively famous woman who writes riddles on her van asked me, where does the name ‘Structured Roots’ come from?
It was nighttime, and the parking lot was slowly emptying. Through huge, open garage doors, one could see young people scaling the chalk-covered walls of The Circuit. Muffled hip-hop beat down the chatter. Tiffany Hensley let the question hang in the air as she pulled out her smartphone to check the website. I did not seem to lose her attention.
“That’s kind of a story,” I replied, as I do when I don’t know an answer, or to stall for time as I make one up.
“Made you think,” she said. That’s her purpose in life. The reason for the riddles on the van, penned in permanent marker, is “to get more people to think more.” Across the whiteboard of the Sprinter van, in a slew of handwriting styles: a list of Amazing Facts, a chess board, a misquoted riddle from The Hobbit that still begs the right answer.
“Well, it ended up on the back of a notebook about 11 years ago…” I started.
Yeah, what? Tell the story right, Sean.
“When he was 16, my best friend killed himself,” I started again, watching her face. She didn’t respond. “Months later, I was writing in a spiral notebook in the living room of his mother, and sketched the words on the back, in wavy, root-like letters.”
None of this answered her question. In sooth, the words meant nothing to me, the ramblings of a young poet. She perused a beading website called Structured Roots. “Is this your site?”
“I guess I have neither,” I said abruptly.
She looked up. “Oh, is that it?”
I stared past the white fluorescent street lamps, mouth agape, into Portland’s sepia-toned sky. For years the title was just something on the back of a notebook that later entitled a Google Pages site whose link I rarely shared. For lack of something better. Ask my first editor – I was never good at titling anything.
And now, my first day back in Portland, the only place besides Alaska I’ve felt homesick for, friends’ Welcome Home messages unread in my inbox, home no longer a moldy hotel in India but a cozy basement lit warmly by rope lights and Buddha’s calm half-smile, and I realized that my life had neither structure nor roots; in fact, I’d consciously avoided both, tore them up and apart when I detected them, packed up and tramped off when they threatened my nomadism.
Tiffany had just taught a workshop in the climbing gym aimed toward climbers who “want to have stronger minds” – Concentrate and repeat positive thoughts; Mind over Body; What you think directs reality. In the climbing world, which is driven more by ego and physical accomplishment than meditation and strength of will, these ideas seem novel. Simultaneously, it’s Hippietalk 101, the mental art work of yogis, circus performers, festivalers and many people with whom I consort. I said none of this, because although I know some of these typical law-of-attraction tenets as truth, I don’t necessarily integrate or apply them.
As we spoke, one of her students approached Tiffany in the same dreamy, I-want-more-from-you-but-don’t-know-to-say way I have hung around teachers, workshop facilitators, and beautiful women after they said I can definitely change my world – for me, the fanfare represents only partial gratitude. It says loudly, often sans reciprocation, what else can you offer me?
The beauty of having a blog for me is multi-layered: first, it’s not a notebook – there’s less risk of losing what I write, and it does not weigh me down. When I write something, I publish it to the interwebs, and have little control who or what reads it or where it ends up – a constant lesson in letting go. The blog is in itself a structure of expression, where I am my own artist, editor and accountability officer, typist, secretary. Purer, perhaps, that I am not paid, receive little feedback, no deadlines. As for my roots, they are “in the cloud,” as the saying goes, their rightful place, accessible from anywhere and limitless in potential.
11 March 2014 § 4 Comments
My last supper in India: the upper room of a tattoo studio, King Circle, Mumbai. Fish curry and homemade chapatti – and two new dishes I’ve not heard of, even after two months in this country – a sign of only just landing. A mother’s steel food containers sit on a rolling office chair, three young men hunched over them, eating with our fingers. Yogesh the artist smiles humbly at my excitement.
“You like the food,” he asks, or says. In India, I can rarely detect a tonal difference between statements, demands, questions. The artist intern, I’ve forgotten his name three times and am now embarrassed to ask, leans over me to dip chapatti in the veg. “And the piece?”
I’m radiating happiness. Mumbai has been only good to me, this shop a sweet icing spread by getting lost in a district of colonial manors, technology institutes, and modern apartment buildings carved like Pharaohs’ tombs. I have no idea where I am, which is at least consistent with the rest of the trip.
And it doesn’t matter. The tattoo was perfect, a realization of a year and a half of touring mediocre or wildly egotistical ink factories when I wanted little more than a good font and an artist who was stoked on it, too.
It figures I’d get my first piece abroad. In India, no less, hours before boarding a plane to Singapore. The next afternoon, Bali.
“No seawater for 15 days,” Yogesh says. This is a definitive statement, I can tell, but argue anyway: But I’m going to Bali!
“Ten days then. You don’t want it infected. Believe me.”
Humility and art illuminate this man’s smile. He’s six months older than I, a motorcycle adventurer and successful business owner. His art style sings graffiti blues, peacock feather filigree and abstract shadows that could be trumpets or a woman’s hands – simple, elegant, as close to the poetic images in my mind as I’ve seen.
I came in on a hunch. Leo Tattoos lives between the humid dinge and grime of Mumbai’s metropolitan sprawl. I was lost, blocks from my last reference point, when I looked through a glass door at the bald head of Moses. Something, perhaps the oppressive heat, told me to go inside.
Moses had one-inch plugs in his ears, a thick black beard, and a head tattoo of an ancient warrior’s bone blade. He was a miniature version of two different men I’ve known, and when I think of the trio, I see uncanny resemblances across bloodlines and nations, native and diaspora. Moses, a kind man set to be married to a Swiss girl, made me a pair of rosewood earrings from scratch – cut the pieces from a ruler-sized slab of Indian rosewood, sat on the floor and filed the wood LEGOs down to smooth plugs.
While he whittled, Yogesh and I talked art. The studio emanated inspiration. A bike wheel, axled to the computer desk, spun nonchalantly as he cruised the web for photos. The black cupboard doors are covered in childish carvings, a cub scout with a pocket knife. On the walls, art within plywood frames; silent bells hang above hand-carved chairs. Vibrations of sandpaper static and tattoo gun buzz and a woman’s voice from the speakers collide mildly in the air-conditioned space. I feel grounded and welcome here. For a while, the four of us explore our respective channels, quiet and gathered, drawing and carving and writing ourselves with wood and ink. In each of our hands, a new self-portrait births every hour. Inspirations comes to procreate here, in search of willing students, mates, mediums of men of art and blood, music, expression the priority. I am honored to create amongst them.
Yogesh doesn’t have many tattoos himself. “I just haven’t found the right artist,” he says. He showed me his work. Everything custom, except for some Americans who want a photocopy of Ganesha on the shoulder. Most of his style comprises lines and shadows with words and eyes and filigree, accentuated with jazz notes, a simple fusion.
“What can you do with a five-letter word?” I ask.
He wrote my word – trust. – complete with the period, on a blank sheet of paper. “It’s a perfect design,” he says, tilting his head to look at it sideways. “What is your definition?”
That, I think, I’ve got a lifetime to figure out.
21 February 2014 § 2 Comments
The other day, I learned to ride a motorcycle from a beautiful woman on LSD.
Another lazy tropical night approached, its inevitable roar beginning. The sun fell through flimsy clouds like a meteor anxious to rest, and the frogs and crickets called in mates for supper. The deteriorated one-and-a-half lane road gave way to buses, rickshaws, motorbikes and the occasional BMW of wealthy Indian families on holiday. There were no rules on these asphalt paths, only unspoken recommendations to drive generally on the left side, and avoid hitting what may stand in the way: cows, water buffalo, stray children. Especially the cows.
“Wait, you don’t know anything about bikes?” Sasha asked.
“Let’s just start from the beginning.”
A Spanish teacher of mine once said she hated to teach intermediate students – they think they know it all because they can order food at a fancy restaurant! I didn’t want to tarnish the lesson because I thought I knew where the clutch and throttle lived.
“Okay,” she began, “This is the clutch!” She squeezed the lever.
“Right. Clutch,” I said.
“But the clutch on the left side.”
Laughter burst from her.
Aaron, Sasha’s boyfriend, left us to study motorcyclically while he ran to the top of the Monkey Temple for sunset. Apparently Hanuman was born up there, on Kishkinda Mountain, a pilgrimage site atop thousands of boulders inexplicably, irrationally stacked, collapsed, erect, broken, beautiful. Reflections of India herself.
Sasha, a 22-year-old German traveler, learned from her father at seven. He owns bikes from every decade since the thirties, including the little 60cc on which his daughter learned to ride. Besides that, I knew that she’d ridden a motorbike through North India for six months, and had been on this trip for one year and a half.
Despite her altered state, Sasha’s CV seemed legit. The basics: Throttle. Kick start. Clutch. Gears. Brake. I delegated tasks per limb. Brake, kickstart? No, clutch, kick, throttle. Throttle, Kick! She laughed and stumbled through the explanation. At one point, a local man from the coconut and soda stand came over.
“Something wrong? What happen?”
First lesson: humility.
“Nothing,” I said. “First time.”
I practiced accelerating in first gear half a dozen times down the driveway before she let me on the road. Ten feet forward, walk it back, start again. Where does the key go? Neutral, Throttle, Kick start.
Sasha ran behind me, long white legs and cleavage a silver screen on the Indian sunset landscape: in tourist hubs like Hampi, local men stared more subtly, but still. I might have looked myself, had I not just discovered a new variety of freedom.
I pulled over, and grinned. Got off the bike and jumped up and down, arms in the air. I was a kid who’d just uncovered a great secret, accomplished a far-off dream. Like, OMG happiness squared.
Sasha arrived, breathless. “That was great – you did it!”
Female Approval! The child Sean ran in gleeful circles cheering, hands waving, oblivious to traffic; I smiled.
We stopped again for sunset. The fiery meteor shamed street lamps with purest lavalight, fell farther between a giant V of harmless blue-grey clouds, and settled somewhere else, in a faraway West I didn’t know, but could.
Aaron returned from the monkey temple; Sasha bid me take it out one last time.
The wind was intoxicating. Jungle bugs smashed into my face. No doors, no seatbelt, no cabin walls. No windshield. No anything. Just a little engine, two wheels, me, and the road.
Suddenly it made sense. Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels; the cultish love for motorcycles; special hand signals bikers made to one another below the handlebars; bikers-only bars in the American West; the leather, long hair, and fuck-the-system attitude.
Puzzle pieces I’d been missing pinged on the radar. The point was to let go. To think outside the box was one thing, but to live outside it was entirely another. To travel. To write. To eat. To sense.
Some moments cause great rifts, shifts, shuffles. Gulfs are created, oceans form. Eventually, it takes great effort to reach the other side, which just a minute ago seemed close, and listening. Sometimes those moments take away that which we thought immovable. How to cope with loss?
The great boulder hills of Hampi appear to me as fistfuls of stone, crushed by a giant and poured from his hand, a great hourglass. The piles of broken rocks built castles of delicately balanced stones, its fissures and cracks not weaknesses but passageways: opportunities for thorny plants to thrive; challenges to climbers, clamberers, scramblers, adventurers of every sort.
Mountains become what we like them to be – sleeping giants, birthplaces of gods, home – yet remain mountains, infinite stillness that morphs and grows and breaks and builds over millennia, and all at once. Likewise, people are simultaneously themselves and the perceptions, ideals, expectations, dreams and loves of others. And, sometimes, we are mountains.
The ocean drained from this place long ago, its massive highway currents (remember Finding Nemo? Imagine if he had a motorcycle!) caused the great piles, most likely: I imagine the psychedelic, alien colors of coral reefs decorating the tropical desert landscape – fish darting between stones, the worn curves in rock that only water over dozens of thousands of years can achieve. I wonder when will the sea return. In an afternoon, a violent tsunami (not rare in this part of the world), or slowly, like a rising tide?
I am free of myself, and lost again. Quiet, but not silent. The little Honda between my legs purrs, a 150cc feline, leans with me, goes where I will it, the risk in our symbiosis ever a reason to straighten my posture, and keep my eyes on the road.
8 February 2014 § 2 Comments
Days pass in Udaipur, like beggars indifferent to rejection. The desert winter sun shimmers on Lake Pichola. This morning there is a record three clouds in the sky. Across the street, a blind man stands upon a speed bump, white cane in hand. Dark skin and cataracts. A sign hangs from his neck, half-Hindi, half-Hinglish, painted blue on white, an old traffic sign:
My Eyes Opration.
Please Help Me.
He holds a receipt book in his left hand, a record of those who do not ignore him. It is open to the second page. He’s got a five o’ clock shadow from last Saturday, and wears leather trainers, dirt-ridden and worn like the hands of the motorcycle mechanic who works next to Daiji footbridge.
Does this man know the yellow glow of the gold chain fitted to his neck? Does he remember the eyes of the young artist who walks by silently, a Western woman on his arm, who as a child brought the blind man food from his mother?
Can the man with the sign around his neck hear my steady eyes upon his, or the traces of my guilt for staring into a face of India which cannot, for once, stare back? In my ears, these are raucous, electric hums; my heartbeat amplified like the temple bells ringing in a nearby alley. We both turn our heads toward the clangor.
A group of boys line up at the metal railing outside Café Edelwiess; one, then three, then seven, holding metal bowls like topless kettles. Inside the bowls, sculpted men sit upon beasts, like Shiva Linga, covered in black oil and petals of marigold.
Kana, pani, one ragged boy says, over and over again. Food, water. He can’t be nine years old. He points to his mouth, then to the chocolate on my plate.
“Chapatis, sir, chapatis,” says an older boy, 12 or so, in clothes as dirty, and barefoot. They stand one meter away from our table, behind a chain hung like a velvet rope in a cinema queue line. There are no chapatis on screen; only Westerners and chocolate. My table is on the front line: other Westerners talk and eat behind me, deeper in the cave of the wall-less cafe.
I cannot use the Hindi phrase for sending away touts – nahi chaiye, I do not want. These children offer me nothing, want only my food. “Hello, sir, chapatis.” A hoarse, intimate whisper from the old beggar within the barefoot pre-teen: “Please.”
I’ve seen him squatting near a street fire of burning plastic at night to keep warm. Huddled in circles: community, empathy, and friendship. Things I cannot, and do not, offer him. So I ignore him, all of them and their pleas for kana; hello, please, sir, chapatis. Sir, please. Hello?
My book-wise glare renders me into another deaf Westerner, and they leave. I cannot, will not, eat in front of them, nor can justify teasing them with two sandwiches on my table, heaping with eggs and bacon. I pretend the sandwiches are not there. I write instead, holding the tears back because maybe they’ll think I’ll break, and then they’ll have full stomachs for the day, and return tomorrow – with hope.
I am an awful, selfish voyeur. Another white invader whose economic contributions profit hotels that shun locals as a cultural norm. A hotelier in Bikaner said, any unmarried Indian couple cannot, by Indian law, stay the night in a tourist hotel.
If, by chance, a foreigner befriends a local, the latter is typically not allowed in the foreigner’s hotel. The receptionists and owners of Dream Heaven in Udaipur, in the case of a British woman who invited a local restauranteur to have dinner with her, said the local was “a good Indian man, and is welcome here!” For others, they fear rape, or robbery, or some other sin for which we do not have a word.
After twenty minutes, the boy beggars give up on me, and walk away, determined as when they arrived. Hope is dangerous.
Or is it?
Who am I, exactly, that I would deny a child food, at the word of a rich man who said it would do them no good? How can one who has not known true hunger say such a thing? My friend, American activist Kokayi Nosakhere would be appalled, ashamed, dash our friendship to the dogs. His mission is to end child hunger, and in the past, I have said, with words and action, that I support him.
Do I support him now?
Who am I, again, to deny a request for a photo from a group of Indian men in a park, or from a family on holiday, or a few rupees to a woman in the park? Is it because I wish for a connection based less on currency, or prefer the barter economy of buskers or street artists, a penny for a song? And if these children have not even had the opportunity to learn an instrument, or how to use their voice but to beg to survive the day, or a mother’s callused hand?
What fucking right have I to project expectation or want upon a culture that asks so little of me? How audacious it seems to think, I want this experience to have such and such an impact on me; I need to see this or that; to feel the frustration, which leads me to write this. I harbor hatred for the roles we’re born into, the caste system to whom everyone here – not just locals – is subject to, inserted into a predetermined slot of economic import. I want to wriggle out, run away, and I want these children to know… what? That the grass is greener? That the law of attraction applies here, now?
What can I offer them? Freedom? Opportunity? The strength to climb an impossible ladder?
Oh, that I could offer them anything!
Already I deny the boys that which means virtually nothing to me, and could afford easily to buy each one of them a sandwich of protein and fresh-baked bread. I could likely pay for the eye opration [sic] of the blind man out-of-pocket. Not long ago, I wondered what gulf exists that would keep the “open-hearted” traveler in me from connecting with, interacting with, or relating to the people of my host country?
That gulf is wider than the Pacific Ocean. At the moment, for me, it is an uncrossable, unbearable feat. Airplanes and cargo ships could not bring me closer to the little boy three feet away, who has returned to the far side of the railing, outside this foreigner-owned café. He saw something in me, and came back for it. I fear for us both.
In the western, time-zoned, modernized first world, we live a day behind India’s each passing hour, where the beggars of the future ask help from travelers visiting from the past. How do we reply?
27 September 2013 § 2 Comments
“…I’ve decembered eastern european cities, and found graffiti rainbows muraled on the walls of bombed-out buildings, and all they were building there were churches.”
Krivo’s worn, upright bass and I grooved in the same Mississippi River eddy; Zach’s banjo twang rolled over rhymes which had been stuck in my throat for ages. Jazz and hip hop etched their spray can beats across the enraptured faces of our audience. A one-bulbed chandelier swung in small circles above my head, and my ephemeral kingdom reached to the far edges of Zigzag’s living room. The reign continued for a few seconds longer; I bowed and smiled, stalling to soak up the attention, then made sure to disappear to the kitchen while they were still applauding.
A couple of weeks ago, we went to the Portland Poetry Slam at Backspace. Now, I’ve been involved in Slam Poetry off and on for the last decade or so in that wherever I’ve moved, I’ve made it a point to find the local slams, lose at least five in a row, then resign to only reading during the open mic segments, energetically rejecting Slam’s competitive nature. It didn’t occur to me until that night at Backspace, a hip venue in Portland’s Pearl District, that one day I would grow out of Slam altogether – not just performing on its sidelines, but doing my own thing exclusive from its young and angsty passionstance.
Memorization has been a subtle enemy of mine for ages. To evolve the battle one night, I lay on the couch and plucked images from the air, hallucinations and dreams. Somewhere in my body they translated themselves into words, and journeyed into my throat and flew off my tongue and back into the atmosphere from which they came. They sounded like a raft drifting down the Mississippi at night, a woman swishing her feet in the water, decorated in filigree. Like a peacock feather birthed from the corner of her eye, spirals and vines in bluegreen violets swirling.
At the Poetry Jam Aural Pleasure #6, ZigZag and Susan’s lovechild, performers and listeners merged professionalism with infantile grace. I was honored to be amongst you. That inspiration flowed through me and into the microphone. The audience and musicians wrote my second poem; thank you. I choose to interact with poetry right now with a freestyle stream. My knees shake less; heart beats harder.
It snows sawdust in heaven when I cut down poetry to meter and rhyme. Thank you Roberto Bolaño, Saul Williams, and the mercilessly-loyal-to-form poets who thickened my skin to a clammy, callused tattoo. I’ve found a relationship with words that pleases me. Sometimes, it pleases others also: their faces glow, and air stops in their throats. The tempo of the music rises and falls like yogi rib cages on windy ridges. I’m glad to be on stage in those moments, with a mirror to show the audience the beauty I see.