When I was in first grade, I found myself falling in love with Annie Freestone. As a six year-old, it was new territory. I knew that I didn’t feel towards her like I did my parents or siblings. I was excited to see her and hear her voice and watch her. It was better than playing with the boys or eating ice cream. So it must’ve been love.
In the midst of my admiration for Annie, I learned to love watching her. I watched her in class and on the playground. She was a goddess to me. One afternoon at recess, I was solicited by a friend of hers to join in a clandestine game of kissing tag, beyond the view of the watchful eyes of any adults. I feared the idea of being kissed by anyone but Annie. But the prospect of her kiss was too enticing to not play the odds.
I soon found myself being hotly pursued by the girl of my dreams. She smiled and beamed with joy. She laughed and gave me chase. Driven in part by a competitive desire to win, and in part by fear of actually sharing the intimacy of a kiss with Annie, I ran until she gave up. I never played coy and feigned being the captor, so as to allow a kiss.
It would seem that this pattern of running from intimacy has repeated well into my adult life. And while I’ve had satisfying dating experiences, and others still that have taught me a great deal, the story of running from love has been played out repeatedly by one side or the other in my relationships.
But this year has been different. I’ve found moments where I’ve felt the same discomfort at being intimate that I felt as a six year-old and could never articulate until recently. But in dating Kate, I have found a proverbial Annie Freestone whom I have begun to allow moments of catching me in our ongoing game of kissing tag.
It had been my intent during the month of December to slowly put together an episode using clips from conversations with a few homeless men to address the issue of homelessness. However, the vision for that episode was quickly changed as I joined many of you in witnessing through media the events going on in Syria. Now, I know the video below has caused some partisan arguments, but when my sister and I were hanging out in December and came across this, the human element of it struck me to the core.
After seeing that and reflecting on the dark side of humanity a bit with my sister and with myself, I felt it was important to extend the subject of this episode to address the idea of remembering the downtrodden among us and in distant places.
As you listen to the podcast, I spend time quoting from news stories about the war in Syria and refugee camps. There are also a few thoughts from a first hand observer who spent time in Greece this last year, working with refugees. The latter part of the episode transitions to hearing from a few homeless men in the U.S. and hearing about how they got to where they are, what life looks like as a homeless person and what they want in life.
You can listen to the embedded media below for the podcast, or find it on iTunes or SoundCloud, just look for episode 12.
I truly hope that when ever we individually and collectively confront human tragedy in our own countries or through media that we spend time reflecting on why those people are in a position of being downtrodden. I hope that reflection brings compassion and in that compassion, I hope we find ourselves moved to action.
The letter written to the BBC about conditions in Aleppo that was read in the podcast can be found here.
The Nick Miller article in the Sydney Morning Herald, also read in the podcast can be found here.
The episode image includes an image taken from the below tweet in addition to photos I personally took.
While I was in Montana, I had one of my favorite experiences of my travels. Dave from a previous episode connected me with a few friends of his in Montana that were setting up their river camp for hosting a few students that they would be teaching some primitive skills to. A man named Barnes was who I got in contact with and as we exchanged texts and a couple brief phone calls, he determined they were comfortable with having me come and spend a night or two with them.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I camp, but I’m no mountain man, like what these folks sounded like to me. Barnes indicated that he wouldn’t be around when I arrived, but the others in camp were aware of me coming, so I could just settle in when I got there. Figuring I’d be out of cell phone service, I had written down a few directions to get me to the location. I got there without issue and pulled into the property. A great earth lodge was near the entrance. Driving down the dirt road a bit, there were two men out in a pasture, kicking a soccer ball at a makeshift wooden goal. I got out of my car and they looked at me and without a word kicked the ball in my direction. We made introductions and I got comfortable with Neil and Chris as we kicked a soccer ball around.
After a while, Neil decided throwing a frisbee around might be a little more low-key than soccer. So he ran and got his frisbee while I went to my car and changed into some shorts. We converged at the other end of the pasture that had been our playing field. A brown mound that had been at a distance earlier was now close enough for me to notice it was a rotting dear carcass. It seemed quite natural to them. The circle of life happening around them.
We tossed the frisbee a bit and then Neil joked that we ought to throw dried cow and horse manure at the frisbee as it glided through the air, to test our accuracy. Then somehow, we found ourselves actually throwing dried manure at the frisbee. The real challenge ended up being the task of catching the frisbee while dodging the flying manure. I joked that this seemed like a natural alternative to using meth, as there were a multitude of anti-meth billboards throughout Montana.
Soon Barnes arrived with another friend and we all converged, along with Chris’s partner, Bartle, on their hangout hut/kitchen. We ate and gathered around their wood burning stove, and started to chat. Often I find there can be some reluctance on the part of those that I record. But these good folks just carried on as usual. They talked about themselves, some for my benefit, but we joked and laughed and just enjoyed each other.
As we chatted, Barnes opened up and I was struck by how profoundly authentic he is. There is nothing contrived about who he is. He lives as he wants to. He is educated and chooses to live a somewhat isolated life in Montana and understands that life is a process and he’s learning just like everyone else. The beautiful thing in the whole experience was that he didn’t take himself too seriously. None of them did.
Here’s the clipisode with Barnes. You can also find it on iTunes and SoundCloud. Be sure to scroll down, because there’s a bonus clipisode.
The bonus below is the group chatting about dumpster diving. I was interested to get onto the subject, because when we first converged in their hangout hut, Neil went to a corner and walked back with a handful of unwrapped chocolate and handed it to me while he sucked on a bit of chocolate himself. I happily partook, being a man with an ever-present sweet-tooth. As I savored this delightful chocolate, the discussion illuminated the fact that the chocolate had been found in a dumpster, during a dumpstering adventure. I would’ve felt sick, but for the fact that I felt like the chocolate was vetted, as they were eating it too. Neil proudly displayed the large sack of reject chocolate after the revelation it was from a dumpster.
My time with these wild folks was sublime. Seldom have I felt like I was in the presence of such authentic people. And that authenticity made it feel so natural that it barely seemed weird to throw manure and eat chocolate from a dumpster.
A little confession here: this project is hard. I set out at the beginning of October hoping to get a bunch of interviews with people, talking about their lives and the stories that make them who they are. It’s incredibly fulfilling to hear about people’s lives. However, I quickly discovered that finding the right circumstances to talk to someone about their life is hard. Finding someone willing to talk about their life can be hard. Finding someone willing to let me record that conversation is even more difficult. And probably the most difficult thing is finding the courage to face all of the above and just do it. It truly is a courage first AND circumstances type of endeavor. And to be honest, mostly I get lucky that someone connects me with someone to talk to, or someone just needed to talk so badly and I happened to be there. But when the stars don’t align, or the courage isn’t quite there, I don’t get audio to share with you, and then I tend to get frustrated.
When I get frustrated I find myself counting the number of people I’ve recorded. I find myself counting the number of people that I’ve talked to and not recorded. I think about the moments that I got scared of asking someone that I was eyeing as an approachable person, and beat myself up for not asking. I start to feel guilty that I’m having fun when I haven’t done as much as I tell myself I should have.
This whole thing is exemplified by how things have been as I’ve gotten to the Eastern part of the US. I had some good conversations in Chicago. I met great people and loved my time there. I went to Western Michigan where I spent some time with an old friend and just basked in her energy and familiarity and kindness. I found myself, in Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. In each of those places I was there only briefly but tried to place myself in positions and locations that have allowed me to get recorded conversations. I went to public libraries, beautiful parks, and I couch surfed. Weather, people being focused on election day, and shy people made it so I didn’t ever get to record.
Next I found myself in New York City. I was positive that I’d get multiple chats with people that I could record. So I did a few things for my own enjoyment. I went to The Strand bookstore when I got to town and took in the smell of the beautiful books. I felt the energy of people there browsing for the next volume that would take their minds to a different world. I went and checked in to my hostel in Queens. Then I found a local corner diner and chowed down on some greasy food and topped it off with a slice of chocolate layer cake. I headed to Brooklyn to watch a lineup of small time bands in a tiny indie venue. The people were weird, the music even weirder. We danced, we sang along, and hugged. There was talk of sadness about Trump. There was hope expressed that we’d unify in our humanity. All in all, I had an absolutely Kyle kind of day. And I felt good about it, because I had a blast and the next day would be spent in Central Park collecting stories.
Central park did not go as expected. I got caught in crowds that made me nervous about asking people to chat with me. I asked people that were about to get up and leave. I asked people that weren’t interested. A few people turned away as I sat close to them—body language seeming to tell me not to bother them. I chickened out from asking others. I had walked 8 miles by the time the sun was fading and I had nothing on my recorder. This would be frustrating normally, but this is the point in the trip that should be my climax. I’m trying to wind down. I’m ready to spend time with family over a few more stops, but I’m also ready to just get back to Arizona and rest for a while. So I wasn’t just frustrated, I felt like I was failing at this whole thing of trying to collect stories and share them with others.
May I just say, I have so much more respect for what Humans of New York is. I’ve always thought it was a well-executed piece of media, but what Brandon Stanton must do behind the scenes to make it happen must be incredible.
Anyhow, feeling as I did, I looked up Cambodian restaurants. Having spent two years of my life in Cambodia, I always want to find Cambodian restaurants when I’m in a city that has them, eat familiar food, and go chat in Khmer for a few minutes. So I hopped on the subway and made my way to one a little further downtown. I walked in and was greeted. I spoke Khmer to the host and she smiled and giggled a little at hearing the tall, bearded, white guy that I am speak to her in her native tongue. She said I spoke so clearly and then seated me at my table.
I ordered a familiar dish and asked for some tea. She came back from the kitchen with my tea and asked curiously about my background that brought me to being able to speak Khmer. We chatted and exchanged back stories. She left and then came back with my food and left me alone to eat the delightful fare. As I wrapped up my meal, she reappeared to ask how it was. I told her it was good, but we mused that it wasn’t quite like being back in Cambodia.
After the check had been brought, another Cambodian waitress appeared and probed to see how good my Khmer was. We chatted for a bit about her journey to America and the education she has received and the continued studies she’s engaged in that brought her to New York. We talked about how amazing an opportunity it is for her to get an education in the States and how she wants to go back and help her small country. She too was amazed at my ability to speak, noting most Westerners lose their ability to speak when they get to their home countries. We wished each other luck and I headed back out into the concrete jungle, leaving behind that momentary safe haven. But I left feeling grounded. Moments like that are why I’m doing this.
This all may sound like me finding something like my ability to speak a somewhat rare language to prop myself up in the face of failure. And maybe it is. But as I walked towards the closest subway station, I realized that more than anything what I’m doing is between me and the people I meet. Ideally, I want to be able to get material to share with others, so that more can feel like there’s purpose and substance in our lives and experiences. I hope for all of us to feel a need to connect more with others and that we can see ourselves in the stories of other people of all walks of life. But when it comes down to it, the most valuable thing is what has been happening pretty much every day between me and the people that chat with me, whether recorded or not. And often times, just being around other people, seeing them, smiling at them, listening to them talk to others is such a boon. It’s all a great gift. I love being a part of humanity.
In that light, re-counting the unrecorded chats becomes a lot more meaningful. I didn’t record the guy at the beach in San Diego, the disc golfer in La Mirada, the Cambodians in Long Beach or New York, my hosts in Ukiah, the Germans at the cheap motel in Crescent City, the couple that hosted me in Portland, the drunk Filipino in Portland, the girl at the laundromat in Butte, the girl that gave me extra breadsticks in Bismarck, the park walker in Minneapolis, the studier in Toledo, the couple that hosted me in Cleveland, the guy that hosted me and his friends in Pittsburgh, the woman that hosted me in Princeton. There have been the intimate conversations with my friend in Eugene, my sister and her husband in Ames, my mission friend in Iowa City, my friend in Holland. Yet each of those conversations happened. Each of those people touched my life either for just a moment, or as part of an ongoing influence that they have and continue to have on my life.
Truthfully, my endeavor at collecting stories to share with others is an amateur one. But it is teaching me so much. I’m glad there are moments that ground me in that reality and remind me that I’m so blessed to be experiencing beautiful people every day. Frustration is momentary, but the beauty of humanity is before me every day.
Travel and meeting new people has been a remarkable journey for me. Truly I see a reflection of myself in the people I meet and talk to. A theme that often manifests itself as I talk to people is that we as humans are wounded. There is a pain that most of us carry. There is a longing that emerges in most my conversations. There is a desire to connect and a frustration that occupies the same ground as a deep hope that we can be better connected. I often find myself thinking about this desire to connect and I am in awe as I see that same desire painted by the conversations I have with others.
And so with that emerges the question: what are we doing about that need to change something? What are we doing to heal our souls and reconnect to one another? As I traveled through Sandpoint, Idaho, I got to meet Dave. He and his wife have been on a journey of getting back to the basics. Former vegetarians and then vegans, they started to explore what Dave noted some call primitive skills. They started to learn about plants and seeds, animals and more. They learned how to find, harvest, and preserve food. They have been working to minimize their impact on the earth and more than that, live in sync with the earth as they feel—and I feel—we are meant to live. There is a spiritual element to all of this. Dave shared a journal entry about this awakening and beautifully suggested that we could, “sow the ancient seed, long lying dormant waiting for the living water to spring forth.”
In sharing Dave’s story and thoughts, I want to make sure that those who listen and read this podcast and blog understand that I’m not here to impose any specific view. However, if any of us feel like there is something more to life than what we are getting from it, I hope you’ll hear the beauty of Dave’s awakening that he shares. To me, his thoughts are sacred. His awakening is ours. It is for us, as his human brothers and sisters. His path is a call to each of us to travel the path to our own individual awakenings.
For those listening to the clipisode, you can use the embedded media below, or check out Ep9 on SoundCloud or iTunes.
I’ve transcribed Dave’s reading of his journal entry that he shared, for those that would like a written version. It gave me chills! Here’s the transcription:
We have forgotten how to be human. Like other animals that humans domesticate and corrupt and who no longer act according to nature. We no longer act according to our best interest in terms of health, mental well-being, social connection, nature connection or evolution. We think we are evolving as a species, somehow improving, bettering ourselves. But I think we have taken a fork in the road, left the good path and are lost wandering in the wilderness. Not the wilderness of nature, which would be good for us, and probably help heal almost all our sicknesses, but the wilderness of the soul.
We took the bait, fell right into the trap rather jumped in with both feet. The industrial revolution it was called, and that it was. A revolution that rot decay, sickness of mind, pollution of body and the earth. With promises of a better life we were lured from our birthright, our forest home. We lost our connection to the sacred, becoming stagnant pools isolated from the regenerating stream. The promise was always more time to enjoy your life, the idea of leisure time being the highest and best to be gained. Little knowing that we would so miss the work of our own hands. That in creating, providing, harvesting, hunting, weaving, carving, tanning and countless other expressions is the tapestry of life. Web of connection to place, one’s self, to nature, to one another, a belonging that we all long for. We lost the medicine of the wheel and wander, now lost inside our own minds, bearing grievous wounds which we know not how to heal, we wound one another.
The container is shattered, the shards, brittle fragments of a lost art. The once eternal cedar now hewn and fallen. And yet, seeds a thousand years old taken from the Hopi dwellings sprouted anew. Can we find the path back, turn our backs on the now all too obvious lies of mother culture, returning to our true mother, leaving the patriarchal father to find our birthright of old? It is not enough that some of us return, though all things start small and with time become the sequoias of majesty. There must be a great turning. What person knows at the beginning what will grow out of the seed they plant? Sow the ancient seed, long lying dormant waiting for the living water to spring forth. Sow it in your heart, sow it in your mind, sow it in your body, sow it in your soul.
May we all find our way back to our individual living waters. Drink up. Be renewed. Let’s connect and live.
We’re doing something a little different today. You’ve got your choice of mediums! Below is a blog post you can read, but if you’d rather listen, you can listen to me read it from the embedded media below, SoundCloud, or iTunes (Ep8 from either of those locations).
As I’ve been traveling around the country, I’ve struggled with what to call myself. I often say I’m a traveler. But that’s so vague. It doesn’t really capture that I’m road tripping a giant loop around the country. Nor does it capture my primary objective of experiencing people. Sometimes I jokingly call myself homeless. To some I talk about my project of seeking out stories from people as I travel and make that the focus. To others I just note the ideas that capture what I’m doing, that I’m following my bliss, I’m sticking it to the man, I’m doing a passion project, I’m learning about people and myself. But what I’ve kinda been settling on calling myself is a privileged bum.
Privileged bum. That just so perfectly encapsulates how I feel. And I’m not trying to cast a negative light on myself, I just feel like I occupy a unique position and exploring that has been worthwhile. Yes, I’m technically homeless. I drift around the country with only a vague plan for what I’m doing day to day. I’ve camped. I’ve slept in my car. I’ve wondered on many nights where I was going to sleep.
Despite some of the characteristics of a homeless wanderer, a moment early in my travels perfectly illustrated that I am not that. While I was chatting with a homeless guy in California, we were sitting outside with each other and passers-by spoke to us as though we were the same. We appeared to be homeless, traveling nomads, sitting together. My long-ish beard, beanie, flannel and my sitting with a homeless man gave the impression I was like him. It was a strange experience for me, because I had never been assigned that label by someone else. I contemplated that label as this homeless man and I chatted.
As we were making an end to our conversation, this man asked me what my sleeping plans were for the night. I noted that I had some people a town over that my cousin had arranged to host me. I had a choice of a couch or air mattress to sleep on. This man had the prospect that he may not be warm, dry or comfortable that night. Reality hit me with all its force. I could look homeless, I could play like I’m homeless, and I could wander like someone that is homeless. But I will always be someone that most homeless people have no access to being. I have a network of people that will always make sure I have a place to sleep or live, and a bachelor’s degree and a good resume to ensure employment.
His network is more homeless people, drug addicts, and drug dealers, laced with a smattering of interactions with law enforcement and kindly strangers that offer him the likes of a can of mango juice from their grocery bags. He wanders out of necessity and simply because that’s all he can do. He’ll wander until he stumbles into the next thing that sustains him for the day or that numbs him until the next sustaining or numbing boon comes. I wander because I chose to for a season. He hops freight trains, hitches rides and walks. I drive my car and stop to soak in scenery and play disc golf. He’ll keep wandering. And when I choose to, I’ll go find a comfortable job, a comfortable home and all the sense of security and stability that my privilege can buy. I’ll never know this homeless man’s lot in life, because I am a privileged bum.
The characteristics of the privileged bum don’t stop at education and employability though. A friend of mine is currently traveling around Europe. She and I talk frequently, because in many ways our travels mirror each other’s. There are the complications of finding places to stay, the loneliness of extended travel, the changes of life that force one to face their inner self. So we talk about these experiences. She often expresses frustration at having her travel choices questioned. Whether it be the fact that she’s so unrooted and traveling with no particular plan, or the places she wants to go, or the way she chooses to spend her time. Another female friend who has been in Europe following a passion of hers in working with refugees wrote me upon my departure and excitedly gave me her support. She noted that I should be careful not to heed the nay-sayers who would question my choice to leave behind a stable job and home to do what I’m doing.
Here’s the odd thing: I have never been questioned to my face. There have certainly been expressions of hoping that I’d be safe and with that the questions about what precautions I’m taking. And there are those that are uncomfortable with imagining themselves doing what I’m doing and conclude they wouldn’t do it. I’m sure some actually do doubt the wisdom of what I’ve chosen to do. Maybe this is too harsh a judgment, but I’m inclined to believe that these wonderful women I know have been questioned, while I have not, because I am a man. They lack this gendered characteristic of the privileged bum, and thus cannot be one as I am.
I would stop at the education/resume status and gendered characteristics of the privileged bum, but I do believe that there is one more important aspect to this classification. I’m white. I can go virtually anywhere without question. I got a few unusual looks when I walked into a fancy Indian restaurant in Chicago looking as I often do: bearded, beanie, zipper hoodie, and backpack. But with the removal of my hat, a smile, and a statement laced with the confidence that I belong, “Table for one, please,” the hostess instantly smiled back. Her tense posture relaxed, she grabbed a menu and drink menu and guided me to a table as if there was never any question about whether I belonged. And maybe race had nothing to do with that situation. But I couldn’t help but feel like it helped. It was one less thing about me to question.
Our white washed society is built for me. While I was in Chicago, I had the chance to couch surf with a wonderful man of Sicilian descent. His education and interests have led him to deeply assess the racial and identity dynamics of various places. He noted that the United States for extended periods of time only allowed immigrants from white, western European countries. The government literally tried to design this society for people like me. And though the US is becoming much more diverse, that legacy of white privilege is still present. I can sense that there are places that I am welcome. It is astounding when you look at a racial dot map of the US. We segregate and divide to this day.
The old song goes “This land is your land, this land is my land.” But there seems to be fine print to that statement. This—as in this less desirable, boxed in piece of—land is your land, this—as in everything and anything that I want to deem as my—land is my land. Race has always been a touchy dynamic in the US and in most of the world. And while I don’t know all the problems or the answers, it is clear to me that my being white affords me some measure of privilege, making me the complete privileged bum.
As I mentioned to start, I don’t really want to self-deprecate here. But I do want to acknowledge what I’m witnessing in my experience and what is facilitating a lot of my experience. I don’t have to deal with the same problems as a truly homeless person, a woman, or a person of non-Anglo-European descent. I certainly have my own problems—and trust me, there are a multitude of them—but there are also privileges I have that allow more ease in a variety of situations. I love what I’m doing. I love that I am seeing the country in a non-traditional way. I love sleeping on couches in strangers’ homes, or with family in different places, or friends, or just in my car. I love driving every day and seeing beautiful, dynamic scenery. I love being alone with my thoughts regularly. I love chatting with people I wouldn’t normally have the courage or circumstances to talk to. I love solving problems that weren’t a consideration just a couple months ago. I love finding myself in non-tourist and tourist locations alike. I love how eye opening all of this is. Truly I am a privileged bum.
Most of us know someone that has dealt with an addiction to some substance. It can be incredibly challenging as family and friends to watch the lives of those loved ones revolve around their beloved substances. It becomes the priority. Dashed hopes, disappointment and sorrow seem to go hand-in-hand with drugs and alcohol.
In talking with Mike, he showed the sunny shores on the other side of addiction. It probably goes without saying that life would probably be a lot easier to not deal with an addiction, but what is so remarkable about Mike’s story is how many people he’s been able to help as a result of making the decision to get clean 14 years ago. It is his beautiful boon; his blessing that he can be a guide and example to others in his family as they’ve had to navigate the choppy waters of their own recoveries from addictions.
One of the goals of Reflection is to share with other people what many of us consider the dark corners of our lives. So often we hide our imperfections, afraid that it will diminish what others on the outside will think of us. Yet Mike profoundly demonstrates the power of being vulnerable about our weaknesses. How do we expect to help each other if we don’t share how we’ve each overcome difficult times in our lives? Mike’s story is one that we all need to hear. Life is about our imperfections and overcoming them. We are a better human community when we share our weakest moments and seek help in getting out of them or share how we did it.
What touched me is how powerful Mike felt to me as we sat around the dinner table and talked. I have had my life directly impacted by others with drug and alcohol addictions. To some degree, I understand that those addictions are not just simply overcome. Yet Mike’s life brought him a measure of strength needed to do such a tremendously difficult thing. But with that strength there was a deep sense of humility. So much of addiction recovery is faith based. Whatever the belief of anyone overcoming a challenge, the ability to look outside one’s self is paramount. New perspective and a fresh view empower us to change for the better.