Category: 1 – Professional Writing

Columns and essays for Utne Reader, music and book reviews, and interviews/podcasts I’ve produced.

What a Difference a Smile Makes

This summer has been a rough one for a lot of people. From terrorism at home and abroad, to violence by and against police officers, to a never-ending presidential campaign that will undoubtedly leave millions of Americans feeling alienated by the result, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the suffering, frustration, and hopelessness. So what can any of us do about it? Here’s one idea:

My friend Teri and I were talking recently about how being bombarded with bad news on a near daily basis was wearing us down. We noted that the easiest thing to do would be to stop paying attention to the news and remain blissfully ignorant, but we both understand that’s not the solution. Instead, Teri has decided to do something brilliantly simple to bring some balance into her life—she’s smiling more.

smile

The idea came to her after a friend described a profound experience she recently had with a stranger. The friend said she was driving when she passed an African American man who was walking on the sidewalk. It was a really hot day and he was sweating profusely so she felt compelled to pull over and ask him if he needed a ride. He was confused by the offer but happily accepted. They got to talking and he said he was surprised because in his experience, young white women driving around by themselves don’t normally stop to ask if a black man needs help. She soon found out that the man was walking to the hospital to meet his recently born godson. When she arrived at the hospital, he relayed how
appreciative he was of her kind act because it just meant a lot to him to be acknowledged. She responded by giving the man a hug.

The story moved Teri to tears and got her thinking about what she could do to simply acknowledge the many strangers she crosses paths with on a daily basis. So she decided that the next time she passed someone while walking down the street, she’d push herself out of her comfort zone by making eye contact and smiling. The first time she tried it, an older woman stopped in her tracks, thanked her and complimented Teri on how nice she looked. The brief interaction made Teri’s day and she decided to pay it forward later on when she walked past a well-dressed man, smiled and complimented him on how nice he looked. He was as appreciative of the comment as Teri had been earlier. And just like that, Teri had interacted on a lasting and profound level with two complete strangers simply by smiling and acknowledging that they exist.

My conversation with Teri made me realize that hopelessness is a chosen perspective. When we allow the troubles of the world to weigh us down, we become blind to the real, everyday opportunities we have to actually make a difference in someone’s life. Wouldn’t it be something if the key to solving the world’s problems was as simple as a smile? I think Teri might be on to something.

Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Utne Reader

Photo courtesy Juozas Salna, licensed under Creative Commons.

No Photos Necessary

It’s amazing how certain memories from childhood can stick with you and continue to shape your adult life. I’m still learning from a memory I have of a particular moment during a high school history class trip to Washington, D.C. and other sites related to the Civil War.

On a cloudy and chilly morning, we were walking around Gettysburg National Battlefield near the intersection of two stone walls called The Angle that was the site of the Confederacy’s last gasp in the fierce and bloody three-day battle. Aware of the historical significance of the site, I thought a photograph was in order, so I took a seat on the wall. As I sat there waiting for a friend to snap the photo, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and the emotional weight of the place bear down on me. It’s the closest experience I’ve had to paranormal, but it wasn’t scary. Rather, I found it fascinating that a physical place was capable of conveying so much emotional energy, and the experience sparked a love for history and mystery that I still enjoy today.

This past September, I had the opportunity to revisit Gettysburg for the first time since that pivotal moment in my life nearly 20 years ago. The weather was similarly chilly and dismal as I walked through the battlefield toward The Angle. My plan was to walk back to the old stone wall and see if I would feel what I felt that first time.

As I walked along the wall and looked up at a particularly poignant old tree that sits at the heart of The Angle, I contemplated that previous moment and began to feel in tune with the vibrations of that place once again. But this time, as I pulled out my phone to take a photo of the tree, I felt the goosebumps disappear. I soon realized that my effort to preserve a profound moment was precisely what caused me to lose one.

The experience made me wonder how many profound moments I’ve missed whenever I’ve stopped to record them with a photo, video, or social media post. I do these things because I think they’ll help me remember the moment, but I’ve discovered that what makes those moments special to me can’t be preserved through physical or digital artifacts.

I know that many people like documenting special moments with photos and videos and I appreciate why that’s valuable to them. But, speaking for myself, I’ve realized that I glean the most from a special moment when I focus on contemplation rather than collection. I see now that contemplation slows me down and helps the important aspects of an experience reach and nourish me—something that can only happen when I put my phone away and let my heart and mind occupy the moment so fully that I’m able to receive whatever the moment is trying to teach me.

Truth be told, I still enjoy looking at that photo of a gangly 17-year-old me huddled on the old stone wall, but not because it helps me recall a formative moment from my youth. I keep it because it’s a reminder that I never needed it in the first place.

Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Utne Reader

A Time for Being Sick

Part of my morning routine includes reading a chapter or two of the Tao Te Ching—the ancient book of Taoist wisdom attributed to the mythical Chinese sage Lao-tzu. I particularly like Stephen Mitchell’s modern translation from 1998 and find something in it to meditate on nearly every day.

5443584614_a340a53e72_o

Recently, the following lines from Chapter 29 came in handy when I caught a particularly nasty virus:

There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted;

A stupid source of pride for me has always been defiance in the face of illness; to keep working and pushing myself as if I’m healthy. If I feel like I’m getting sick, I’ll prepare for it by taking extra work home just in case I’m not able to make it into the office the next day, and then work just as hard from home when I should be resting. This time was different, though.

In the past, the “wasted” time of a day spent in bed would have gnawed at me as I’d think about all of the work left undone. But this time, the lines from Chapter 29 came to mind, specifically: “a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted.” One of the many benefits I’ve gained from studying the Tao Te Ching is a profound respect for the polarity of this existence. In order to truly appreciate being healthy, I recognize that I must also know what it means to be sick. And allowing myself to be sick involves accepting that it will take time for the illness to run its course and for my body to return to health. Even though I didn’t turn on my laptop, I don’t remember ever having a more productive sick day. My job that day was simply to be sick and I did it well.

Along with giving my body and mind an overdue day of rest, I caught a glimpse of something else that day: contentment. While ambition and desire can be great motivators for success, I’ve found they are also the sources of disappointment and dissatisfaction when we fail to balance them. They train us to view every moment as an opportunity for advancement, but chide us when we hesitate or fall short. They keep our eyes on the future at the expense of appreciating the here and now. When you’re always thinking about what’s next, contentment becomes an illusion that’s just around the corner instead of a reality that’s right in front of your face.

It seems strange to find contentment in being sick, but that’s what happened when I switched off my ambition and desire for a bit. For me, it’s just another example of what’s possible when I slow down and allow myself to experience the present moment. Being sick obviously isn’t as fun as being healthy, but it’s still a reminder that I’m alive.

Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Utne Reader.

Meditating on a More Meaningful Life

The ability to multitask is considered an asset in the workplace. I’ve often found myself drafting an email, reading incoming messages, editing an article, and browsing art for a layout, all seemingly at once. I thought this meant I was pretty close to being as efficient and productive as possible; imagine my surprise when meditation showed me otherwise.

Is Ayahuasca Right for You?

Chris-Kilham-Palo-santo-Jef jpg

January 9, 2015 – Book review of The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook by Chris Kilham, a backpack guide to the healing powers of the sacred Amazonian plant brew. Includes an interview with the author. 

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with ayahuasca was through William S. Burroughs. That is to say, several years ago I read The Yage Letters, which was Burroughs’ collected correspondence with poet Allen Ginsberg as he traveled to the Amazon in search of the elusive “final fix.”

Since then, I’ve learned a great deal more about the powerful and mysterious plant-derived brew that goes by many different names. And while all accounts verify that you will, indeed, find the high that Burroughs was looking for through ayahuasca, others suggest there’s much more to glean from the experience; that the plant offers one enhanced self-awareness and even spiritual enlightenment.

Chris Kilham is a medical plant expert, author, and educator who has participated in more than 80 ayahuasca ceremonies over the past eight years. Over that span, he has become one of the foremost advocates for the healing benefits of the ayahuasca space, and has recently compiled a comprehensive introduction to the experience in The Ayahuasca Test Pilot’s Handbook. Kilham approaches ayahuasca from a perspective of ultimate respect, and often refers to the plant brew by its most reverential and descriptive name, La Medicina. For Kilham and many others, ayahuasca has been so positively life-changing, that he felt compelled to write the backpack guide so that others may also safely and effectively wade into the healing waters of the ayahuasca experience.

Kilham’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. Though knowledge of ayahuasca and its use as part of the South American shamanic tradition has been well-known in select circles for many years, it’s been a relatively recent development that the Sacred Vine has found a much wider and receptive audience. As public awareness grows, so has the ayahuasca tourism industry in places like Iquitos, Peru, and experienced ayahuasca journeyers like Kilham feel a responsibility to make sure that people know what they’re getting into. In the event that this is the first time you’ve read about ayahuasca, a recent Newsweek Q&A with Kilham is a good primer to what goes into the brew and what you might encounter—both physically and otherwise—when you enter the ayahuasca space.

Known as The Medicine Hunter, Kilham has made a career out of traveling the world investigating the medicinal qualities of plants. As he describes in the Handbook, Kilham has been familiar with ayahuasca since reading about it in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he drank his first cup after realizing that he was having a difficult time overcoming the grief related to the passing of his mother. The first set of ceremonies helped him not only overcome that grief, but replenished his emotional energy and allowed him to reconnect with himself and loved ones. More than 80 ceremonies later, Kilham approaches ayahuasca as a way to stay balanced, and now incorporates meditation into the ceremony, which he says has helped him navigate the unpredictable psychedelic waters of the ayahuasca space as well as gain him even deeper access to the consciousness-expanding qualities of the plant.

Kilham’s extensive first-hand experience and his affable nature make him the ideal spokesperson for ayahuasca. As he describes it, the topic compels people to talk and ask a lot of questions, and his many conversations over the years revealed some common questions that weren’t being answered by the literature on ayahuasca up to that point. While there have been plenty of great books written on the topic, Kilham couldn’t find any that presented the information people were looking for in an accessible format, and he recognized a need for the Handbook.

Taking readers step-by-step through the process of ceremony, from the botanical basics of the brew to an orientation of the ceremonial space to sharing some of his most memorable journeys, Kilham’s book offers everything short of the experience itself. He also offers invaluable advice on how to differentiate between good shamans and bad shamans, and—most importantly—the medical risks one should be aware of before embarking on a journey. As he notes, the negative stories surrounding ayahuasca often involve either shady shamans or journeyers who don’t fully disclose what medications they might already be taking. In this regard, Kilham demystifies the less understood aspects of ayahuasca, and his book serves as an antidote to some of the ignorance associated with the plant and its purpose. Kilham is also quick to point out that while he fully endorses the safe and reverent use of ayahuasca, anyone considering drinking it in the United States should be aware that the brew is currently classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. In addition to being illegal, Kilham emphasizes in the book that setting (specifically, in the Amazon under the guidance of a trained shaman) is a major factor in determining whether or not one has a beneficial experience. While he acknowledges that it is possible to reap the emotionally-cleansing benefits of ayahuasca without being in the Amazon, the brew seems to be its most effective when paired with the natural setting and traditional rituals of the shamanic ayahuasca ceremony.

Personally, reading Kilham’s book made me even more interested in experiencing ayahuasca first-hand. While the Handbook answered pretty much every question I had about the experience, I still realized I was trying to answer the question, “Is ayahuasca right for me?” To help me figure that out, I spoke with Chris at length about his spiritual approach to the plant as well as the logistics of traveling to the Amazon and making sure you’re in safe hands. I found Chris’ responses to my questions so helpful that I thought they might help others, too, so I decided to turn the transcript of our conversation into the first episode of the Abstract Notions podcast, which you can listen to and download above.

 

Everything in Moderation, Especially Facebook

In the month since we’ve been back she’s had little desire to log into Facebook. While I’ve noticed that she still pops in occasionally, she barely scrolls through her feed before quickly losing interest. A week away not only helped her realize how much of a daily distraction it had become, but also how unfulfilling a connection it is for keeping in touch with people.