Solitude for the Mind

An article in The Atlantic found me just when I needed it this week. As I lingered in a moment where I longed for little but the opportunity to retreat into myself and build walls to barricade me from the rest of the world, where the over-stimulation of our modern age feels to be crushing upon my very soul, The Case for Solitude amalgamates an insightful compilation of reflections on solitude – it’s merits, it’s pitfalls, it’s creative potential.

From Thoreau to Emerson the article dissects what solitude means in our increasingly interconnected societies and begs the question: how do we strike a balance between engaging with the newly fabricated fabric of human connection and communication and giving ourselves space to turn inward and observe how our unique minds fit within the human experience?

The moment I found myself reached it’s breaking point two nights ago, when I fumbled over forum after forum for tech support to try to revive my Pioneer DDJ-SB2 controllers that Serato DJ no longer recognized. Sitting there, brain swimming with creative potential to blend sounds into sets and compilations to perform for the dancing masses of Afrikaburn next month, I was confined to a seemingly endless battle with technical difficulties, following a week where my iPod broke, my iTunes wouldn’t let me edit my music library in the way my O.C.D. needed to format it, and where planning for the coming desert adventure required me to drive home through a chaotic city after a long day of sitting in front of a computer, and once again sit in front of a computer screen and a phone screen to coordinate plans for my festival family. I reached my limit: I closed the computer, buried the decks in my closet, and shunned the opportunity to hold the woman I love in my arms to instead sit in my living room alone, with nothing by the flickering light of a candle and my ceaselessly swimming thoughts.

Over-stimulation. This is the word that has been hanging over my head of late, and the word that swirled around it as I sat in the rare silence that the nighttime can afford. I felt like I had no choice but to plug myself into this system of gadgets and devices in order to be a part of the modern world. At every turn in any given day, I find myself tangled in wires and cords and straining my eyes to focus on the artificial light one of several screens radiates in my direction. I feel this black mirror burning a hole in my pocket, weighing on me like Frodo’s ring bearing the weight of an ever-watchful eye, conjuring apocalyptic images from The Matrix of human beings being grown by machines, plugged into a Panopticon network whereby we can all be watched, preserved, harvested. Slavery to corporate influence and technological advancement has become the new global religion – we worship the dollar and the latest iteration of the iPhone on scales rivaled only by age-old adherence to the dogma of Abrahamic faiths. I look at our education systems valuing HTML coding over foreign languages, at books slowly becoming a thing of the past, at the tech industry convincing us that we need every piece of conflict-mineral ridden crap they churn out.

In an age of false, perpetually-obsolete idols, where does our humanity end and our imprisonment begin? And how long has the line been so blurred?

Most importantly, how do we disconnect, while remaining accountable to the social (and arguably moral) universal imperative to connect with one another, to exchange new ideas, to uncover new innovations, to work together to eradicate social injustice, to stand side-by-side in the face of tyranny and environmental degradation and global annihilation.

How do we unplug ourselves from the system without denying our basic human needs for belonging, for safety, for love? Do we intentionally cast ourselves aside like the Christopher McCandlesses and other hermits before us, wandering through what is left of the great unknown before our ultimate destinies find us frozen and alone? Or do we develop wholly new ways to coexist in a chaotic modern world that allow us to maintain our innate symbiotic relationship with the natural world around us?

I sat there wanting to walk away from it all, in the way that I always fantasize, living off the land and abandoning capitalist systems, fending for myself, ideally with one or more people that I truly love. At the end of the day, that connection is critical – when you live 10,000 miles from most of the people you care about most, modern technologies are invaluable, and can add to life rather than detract from it if used properly. Sometimes it just gets to be too much.

I eventually opted for connection. When I made it back to bed, I curled up safely next to the woman I love, the final moments of the glorious revival of Planet Earth flickering light over her sleepy face. There, as I closed my eyes, shutting out the glow of yet another technological gadget in front of me, the words of Sir David Attenborough gazing out at a cloudy London skyline guided me into my night’s sleep:

“Looking down on this great metropolis, the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking. But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet, it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And it is, surely, our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.”

I counted myself lucky and recognized how grateful I was to be able to leave the city when I need to (not as much as I would like), and to have a lovely garden and yard space to stare out at and pretend I’m away from all the hustle of the modern world. These moments away from it all are critical for our minds to process our human experience without incessant distraction and needless noise.

But at this rate, where are we heading next? And what will be left of our minds when we get there?

A pause…

I began writing again late in 2016 in an effort to work through a lot of unpacked learnings from the last few years…maybe the last few decades. I’ve taken a break. One thing I’ve learned is that reflective processes have to remain dynamic and fluid, and what guides our spirit in one instance may suddenly cease to be our guide in the next.

So I’m going to try guiding myself.

Thank you for the outpouring of support this year, you are all beautiful human beings. Have a blessed turning of the new year, hold your loved ones close, and try not to push those you do not too far away. You never know what people are going through.

Reach out, reach in, reach higher, and above all, LOVE.

Thanks.

I’m thankful for rainy days…they make tea and coffee taste incredible.

I’m thankful for all the girls who have broken my heart…they freed up space for someone better.

I’m thankful for every cut, scratch, burn, bruise and break…they taught me not to do stupid shit (or showed me that I must have had a good time).

I’m thankful for traffic jams…they always inspire me to listen to more Bob Marley.

I’m thankful for growing up poor…it taught me to appreciate more important things than money.

I’m thankful that my uncle passed away when he did…Y2K would have scared him to death anyway, and his soul went into my sisters and me and made us cooler.

I’m thankful everyone sold out and Disney bought Star Wars…George Lucas wasn’t doing it any favors and J.J. Abrams is a boss.

I’m thankful for the obnoxious, never-ending construction on the road outside my house…this is development in action and it’s allowing Kampala to grow and thrive.

I’m thankful that my phone screen broke last week and new screens still have not made their way here…the horrendous cracks are a great conversation starter.

I’m thankful for boda-boda crashes…they taught me to wear my helmet more.

I’m thankful for my violent, sociopathic father…he showed me exactly who I didn’t want to be, and I’m a more compassionate man because of it.

I’m thankful for my depression…it allows me to deeply understand other people’s pain.

I’m thankful for all the tears I’ve cried…my ability to release them is rare for my gender and I count it as a gift.

I’m thankful for the darkness…it makes the light so much brighter when it comes.

Awakening. Forgiveness. Release. Love

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I celebrated my 29th birthday this year in the deserts of South Africa’s Tankwa Karoo National Park, uniting with over 10,000 other lovers, dreamers, connectors, artists, visionaries, dancers, performers, and just plain good human beings to create Africa’s annual regional Burning Man event, Afrikaburn.

I regard my birthday as my own personal New Years Day, and while I seldom utilize NYE to craft resolutions for the following calendar year, I take the commemoration of my birth into this world quite seriously, and spend weeks at a time contemplating my intentions for the coming year. Leading up to the desert festivities this past April, I was emerging from a series of less-than-pleasant realities and experiences, scrambling to reassert my place in the world, and the words “forgiveness” and “awakening” were already burned into my mind (no pun intended…unless you like puns). At the same time, I was rapidly tumbling into love with an unfathomably remarkable human being, but the concept of romantic love still frightened me to no end. I entered the Afrikaburn experience with the intention to find my intentions and assert my completed dedication of what would be my 30th year on this planet.

On my birthday, we wandered through the wooden (and soon to be burned) art installations that decorated an already stunning landscape. At the center of the Binnekring (the inner ring around which all theme camps and goings-ons of the Burner community were situated), was the temple – the most sacred of all installations at any Burn – which took the shape of an unfolding lotus flower. It was simply titled: Awakening. These temples are intended to “provide sanctuary for you to release, and ultimately burn, all that no longer serves you. And so Awakening is intended to be somewhere you can meditate, contemplate, rejoice, mourn, release and celebrate. A place for ceremonies of love, commitment, farewell and friendship. The lotus, an ancient symbol of rebirth and awakening, invites you to consider what you want to awaken in yourself…” And it was here that I discovered my intentions for my New Year.

Scrawled upon the apex of each of Awakening’s four surrounding leaves were four simple words: Awakening. Forgiveness. Release. Love.

I had found my mantra, my guiding principles, my intentions.

The subsequent months have been an ongoing internal journey to unearth what these ideals mean to me and why they found me in the first place just as I was looking for them. I reflect on them every single day, particularly at the beginning of a meditation or a yoga practice, or under a Full or New Moon. Lately I have been checking in to see just how far I have come this year, and how far I have to go before I reach 30 next April, cocooned by the warm energies of my third Afrikaburn.

Emotions have been high lately, for me and for millions back home and around the world. For a while I thought it was for the same reason everyone else has been so upset (I almost let this post turn into an election rant, but I do not need to dedicate any more writing energy to that…everyone else in the world is). I have realized that in addition to my grief, my good wolf and bad wolf are just doing what they do best: battling for control of my heart, my mind, my identity. Global tides of late have made it hard to feed the right wolf, I’ll admit, but these same tides have been a powerful reminder of the power of Awakening, the power of Forgiveness, the power of Release, and the power of Love to heal our collective wounds, to bind us in collective action and to move forward together towards a more just and loving world.

But what of my progress towards my own intentions as they affect my direct human experience? I feel as my place in this beautiful country becomes a bit more blurred, it is easy to be lulled into a waking sleep, easy to harbor resentment towards those around me who bring me annoyance or pain, easy to hold on to negative emotion, and harder to spread love to those around me.

At yoga yesterday, we were asked to think of what we were thankful for and come up with a mantra. I felt grateful for all of the incredible souls in my life, both here in Uganda and across the planet, filling my list of Whatsapp conversations. My mantra was, again, simple:

I love deeply, and I am deeply loved. 

I’m not sure how far I’ve come to be honest. It’s hard to see when navigating the ups and downs of my emotional and mental states, when I find myself lulled into a waking sleep. But maybe Awakening isn’t a starting point? Maybe it’s the end goal? Or maybe it’s easier to mix up the order altogether? Maybe focusing on all the different forms of Love in my life will bring a sense of Release from the pain I carry, and maybe once that pain is released, I can more find more complete Forgiveness for those who have fed by bad wolf throughout my life. Perhaps the first intention, Awakening, hinges upon these three.

I suppose I have 5 more months to figure it all out, but as I sit in limbo between a “high” and a “low” state, I have to use every opportunity I have to reflect on what is important to me. I guess we all should. And maybe it’s not linear – maybe all these intentions work in some cosmic pattern that jumps around and makes absolutely no sense.

Or maybe it’s quite simple. Maybe it all starts – and ends – with Love. I guess all things should.

My favorite lyricist, Nahko Bear, reminds us all to “find your medicine and use it.” I personally believe that we do not need to wait for a New Year, a birthday, a yoga class, a meditation, a prayer, or really anything to set intentions. It is something we can do every single day when we wake up, or any moment thereafter. Reflection is critical to personal growth, and often these words and mantras can do wonders for the soul. I challenge you to find your intention, and use it.

Hopefully, we can all find space for Love in there somewhere. The world needs it.

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A Father’s Wisdom

The past week is the first time in my life that the prospect of having children has terrified me.

I’ve said countless times before that one of my purposes on this Earth is to make it a better, safer and more just place for my future daughters to live. After the increasingly dismal outlook for the future of this planet that has unfolded since November 8th, 2016, I have questioned my ability – and the ability of humankind as a whole – to bring that purpose to fruition. How am I supposed to explain this world to my future daughter, the young girl I have dreamed about since I was a teenager, the one who will hopefully look to me for guidance in navigating the sexist, racist and unforgiving reality into which I will ultimately bring her?

As with many other moments in the past 10 days, I found comfort in words spoken by President Barack Obama – not words to his fellow Americans, but words he spoke to his two daughters to explain what happened:

“Societies and cultures are really complicated. … This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding.

“And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. … You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

Thanks, Daddy-O. We all needed to hear that.

Stronger. Together.

I was wrong. A lot of us were wrong.

I was convinced that hope and basic human decency would prevail, that the voices of those who have been continuously barred from acceptance in American society would be offered a voice, or at least a nod of solidarity among other Americans that says “we do not support this man who has bombarded you with hateful rhetoric for the past year (and throughout his entire career), and we believe we are stronger together.”

I was wrong. So I began to grieve.

I grieved throughout my sleepless night on East Africa Time watching the results pour in from 3:30am to 11am. I grieved when Trump took the stage. I grieved when he said “This political stuff is tough!” I grieved when Rudy Giuliani compared Trump’s appeal to the people to that of Andrew Jackson, a man who fanned the flames of genocide and still wound up on the $20 bill. I grieved when both Putin and Duterte praised the election results and showed that they were both in his court. I grieved at the terror felt by Muslims feeling that “open season” on Islam in America is about to begin. I grieved at the terror felt by black Americans as they watched that brief glimmer of hope that white America was finally waking up to the fear in which they live on a daily basis suddenly vanish into oblivion, and I grieved at the idea that the fear many white Americans have of becoming the minority merited any collective action at all. And I grieved when it was announced that an outspoken alt-right white nationalist would soon hold one of the most powerful positions in the country as Trump’s Chief Strategist.

I grieved when I realized this is going to keep getting worse before it gets better.

And yes, of course, I was grateful for the immense support and solidarity I felt from my friends from all across the planet (one text message after another reading “I am so, so sorry. I have no words. Are you okay?”). I was grateful upon reflecting that my country has a (mostly) functional democracy, even if not everyone is always happy with the result. I was grateful for the ongoing progress of women in politics in my home state of California, where Nancy Pelosi has previously held the highest government position below President/VP, where Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein were re-elected so many times they arguably normalized women holding congressional seats, and where at least one woman that I voted for – Kamala Harris – just became 1) the newest female California Senator, 2) the first black California Senator, and 3) a potential hopeful for a future presidential run (the new Obama, some say). And I was grateful to watch the outpouring of protesters into streets across America, demonstrating that finally, people are waking up to the fact that this is not a game, this is not a joke, this is reality, and people’s lives, livelihoods and basic human freedoms are at stake. For some, maybe the wake up call was a bit too late.

And yet here we are, one week later. And I’m still grieving.

I’m not marching side by side with my fellow Americans to protest the election, or physically standing in solidarity with Standing Rock. I’m not participating in vigils mourning the devastation that is about to befall up to 11 million undocumented immigrants or any member of any minority group for that matter. Instead, I’m sitting at my desk in Uganda, watching as Americans here quickly return to normal, somehow able to hold their heads up high and move on.

In my mind, the ability to hold my head up high and move on is a privilege not shared by everyone. I’m a white male living across the planet – I’m much more shielded from the brunt of what Trump can accomplish in the next 4 years than many, many Americans and others around the world. But my moral conviction keeps telling me it’s just not time to move on and shake it off yet.

So when does the grieving stop? How does it stop?

I dedicate my professional life to fighting white patriarchy – a global paradigm that Trump proudly embodies. I do this through my work to prevent violence against women in Uganda, recognizing my place as an intersectional oppressor trying to bring change from within, to stay on the right side of history, and to support movements I believe in from behind the scenes rather than hijacking the front line. I know I’m doing my own part to battle the damage being done. And I know that the words I write and the hugs I give are healing for many people, and I have a responsibility to keep sharing my light with the world.

I want these things to help pull me out of this pit of despair that I feel for the future of my country and the world, but they haven’t yet. I took comfort in what President Barack Obama said in yesterday’s press conference: “I was telling my team you’re allowed to mope for week and a half, maybe two weeks if you really need it, but after that, we gotta brush ourselves off and get back to work.” Truth be told, Obama’s words have been my sole source of comfort in this time, and I commend him for continuously demonstrating his character and values through the way he is handling the transition. And I deeply appreciate how angry he must feel right now, and how he is staying strong for the rest of us. He has been a great leader, and has inspired us in our leadership through his integrity, his compassion, and his genuine belief in the good of humankind.

So I’m writing this to honor my commitment to self-care through writing. I am writing to give myself grace, and perhaps even another week to mourn. Then, I promise: I’ll brush it off as best I can and use all this as fuel to the fire that will ultimately burn white patriarchy to the ground. I’m writing this so people don’t get the idea that I’m good at being an optimist. Sometimes I let the darkness consume me, and allow it to run its course.

If you’re still mourning, feel free to reach out. Let’s figure out how to move past this and rebuild, stronger, together.