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How to show up: slow down & stay home

There’s a big thing happening in the world around COVID-19. Some people know more than others. I am in the latter category. I have read a little here and there. I felt the first personal impacts ten days ago, when a client called to cancel the finish carpentry job I was supposed to start in their home this past Monday. For me, it was a significant job representing two months of income at a time when I don’t have much savings. I’ve also been to two airports twice in the last two weeks.

The slow-ish pace at which I am learning and accepting our current shared reality surprises me. I imagine that like many people out there, I find myself thinking and talking about the “end of the world,” which has been depicted for me in the media for my entire life, from Meteor to Armageddon, Dawn of the Dead to World War Z, Resident Evil to The Rain. The post-apocalyptic worlds of ‘The Road,’ The Book of Eli, and, most recently, Karen Russell’s short story ‘The Gondoliers’, was even more interesting to me, because I believed that I would not only survive the end times, but would need to continue to find ways to connect to my purpose, my self, my joy. The things that make me me.

I am thirty-three years old, and in some ways I have been practicing for this COVID-19 moment since I was born. I think of Tommy Lee Jones’ Men in Black character talking to Will Smith in 1997: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky and stupid and you know it.”

It’s fun to think of myself as a person who is smart and able to sort truth from untruth, stay calm in unprecedented situations, stay connected to the things that are most important. It may not always be true, of course: an inclination I had yesterday was to go buy all the rice and beans and nut butter and energy bars I could. It turned out to be a pretty normal grocery trip with a few more impulse buys than usual, like multiple bottles of hand soap.

What prevails through all of this is that I don’t know. What I’m coming to realize for myself is that I don’t have to know. It is my ability and willingness to be with the uncertainty that I want to cultivate. I want to be fully present in this moment – because if and when shit hits the fan, as they say, I want to be able to be fully present in that moment, whatever it looks like, however it feels.

I feel the gravity of all of this in my bones. As my source of income evaporated, I relished in the ease of being able to tend to my personal projects. I continued work on the tiny house, a three-and-a-half year project which is now just a few touches from completion. Alas, that required trips to the hardware store. I found myself on vacation.

This is how it begins for me. The systems on which I rely begin to shift. Stock market and bitcoin prices drop. I imagine the people on the other end of my loans and credit cards going through similar experiences. The things which are truly important start to clarify themselves again. They’ve been there all along, of course, waiting for me to pay closer attention.

As the reality of self-quarantine sets in, I notice that I wash dishes more often, take care of the laundry, vacuum our Siberian Husky’s fur off everything. I re-organized my sock drawer, folded my wife’s laundered underwear, and alphabetized my book shelves by author and genre. While some of my anxiety shows up during these tasks, I also love the opportunity to reflect on who I am and how I want to be in the world. I want to be connected to my closest loved ones, who are some of the most amazing humans on the planet.

It turns out that what is being asked of me is extraordinarily difficult for me: stay home. don’t gather with people. don’t go to work. It feels like a meditation retreat has been all but forced upon me in my own home, with no real end date. The best way that I can show up for myself, my loved ones, my community, and the planet right now is to slow down and stay home. Nothing is more clear to me than that right now.

It’s as if I suddenly have the time to read books I’ve been wanting to read. I have time to learn to draw, cook, and organize business receipts. I can pull weeds in the garden, call up my friends and loved ones to talk. And watch movies (I can only imagine how loaded down the Netflix servers are going to be over the next couple of weeks).

There’s a lot of weird stuff happening out there in the world. The world might be ending, whatever that means. What I do know is that I’m not the hero in the story of how humanity is saved from COVID-19. I’m just an out-of-frame extra, out walking my dog while society crumbles, because that beautiful husky needs her exercise.

Hunger Action Month and A Progressive RVTV Show in Oregon

The following piece details another phase of Kokayi Nosakhere’s death-defying quest to end child hunger in the United States, now in Oregon’s Rogue Valley.

We met eight years ago in Anchorage, Alaska. I was a young poet looking for my way in the world, a path to becoming a better person. Kokayi introduced me to the very idea of ‘community’ as a self-supporting system, as a mode of connection and collaboration. His thoughts and perspectives blew my world wide open.

Kokayi has inspired me time and time again with his soul-moving efforts to raise awareness around child hunger: walking hundreds of consecutive miles across the South, practically starving himself outside the office of an Alaska State Legislator, and being willing to teach radically, learn constantly, and express himself wholly against the pounding waves of institutional racism and relentless capitalism.

I continue to learn from and be challenged by Kokayi in ways that help me grow into the person I want to become. I love this man and honor his work in the world.

Thank you, Kokayi.

In Search of Magnificent Minds

I am an activist. In the face of any societal ill, I do not shy away from the challenge. I seek to act. I confront the problem. My problem is finding those who resonate at the same passion level as I do.

When the co-hosts of RVTV’s Tending the Threshold asked me, “Kokayi, would you like to be on our show and what would you want to talk about?”, my response was almost instant. “Yes and child hunger,” I said.

Tuhlar embraced the subject and Wanda Borland, who produces the show, was quick to co-sign.

“We haven’t even thought of that issue,” Borland said in her soft voice.

Rogue Valley TV

Because I am still new to Ashland, I am not yet aware of RVTV or it’s influence in the area. This weekend, I learned the recording studios are on Southern Oregon University campus. There exists a green room and…

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More talking. Less violence.

“In any real city, you walk, you brush past people, and people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
Crash, 2004

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Recently, on Portland’s MAX train, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, Rick Best, and Micah Fletcher stood up to interrupt hate speech spewing from the mouth of a white supremacist. Each put themselves unknowingly in harm’s way in service to two young women none of them knew. Namkai-Meche and Best paid with their lives. All are now called heroes.

After that, the Portland Tribune ran a story about whether it was “safe” to ride Trimet, Portland’s public transportation provider. It noted that despite Trimet’s efforts over the years: bolstering security, eliminating free fare zones, and announcing that these programs “solved” safety issues, hundreds of crimes are reported each year on the bus and rail lines, “many of them serious.”

“Trimet is safe,” Neil MacFarlane, Trimet’s General Manager, said. “but we want our customers to perceive it as safe.”

Translation: We want riders to treat each other better.

The question of whether a bus or train is safe is, in this case, irrelevant. An empty train is perfectly safe. People are the wildcards, the variables, the unknown factors for which we feel we must account. This should go without saying, but the conversation around how to stop violence continues to invite more oppression and suppression in the form of increased police enforcement, a band-aid that cannot cover the oceanic wound between how we hope and expect people will act and how we actually relate with one another in real time.

Safety does not result from force.

At some point, we may understand that “safe spaces” exist only in the fleeting perceptions of individuals, and that these constantly shifting notions cannot be controlled by increasing security. In many cases, police presence raises the tension in a space, not least because police officers are trained to profile, a tactic which has killed more Americans in the last thirty years than a small war.

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The most present question for me right now is, how do we create a culture where disagreement is welcome, invited, and explored? Or, on a more practical level, how do we create equitable public spaces? That is, free, physical public spaces whose purpose is for people from different backgrounds to talk, connect, debate, dialogue, and *gasp* disagree?

That’s a tall order, given a culture driven by real estate prices and corporate profits. Imagine: if we redesigned the physical aspects of how we convene in public spaces, how might we interact differently? If the seats on a bus were formed in a circle instead of in rows, where people faced one another out of circumstance, would they remain glued to their smartphones? Maybe. But maybe they’d make eye contact, and maybe, a conversation would emerge.

Barring the internet’s digital plane, and next to city parks, the most equitable public spaces we have are the transit and road systems. Public transport equates people in some ways—most everyone pays fare, occupies the same physical space. But buses and rail lines are built for efficiency and transportation but lack the intention of gathering people for a greater purpose than (at best!) a peaceful commute.

And for drivers, the road system requires that we follow the same rules, regardless of whether we drive a clunker Ford or a Maserati, but the walls of glass, metal, and wind barricade us from accessing each others’ personal worlds.

If the only spaces where people of different backgrounds and viewpoints interact with one another are those in which we’re traveling from one destination to another, one calendar event to the next, from one insulated and exclusionary space to the next, our conversations and interactions will follow that pattern.

What might happen in a space where a white supremacist and those he fears can gather, at least in theory, and both be heard, seen, and understood for who they are, as opposed to the current dynamic of fear and anxiety creating conflict and avoidance?

My guess: More talking. Less violence.

When I saw Christian’s mugshot in the paper, I did not see a Murderer. I saw a man with great internal pain, a boy who experienced unfathomable trauma, whose models for how to be a good person probably did not exist.

These are my judgments and projections; I know nothing of the man but that which the media has portrayed of him. Which is a colossal problem, because he has been portrayed an a detestable and unforgivable monster – and maybe he is – but if we as a society do not effectively address that which made him and others like him, we cannot create spaces where people even have the opportunity to feel safe, let alone connect.

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One last thing: it’s time that we get to know our neighbors. You never know when they might save your life. Here are a few ways that people in Portland are working toward healthy community:

Multnomah County, in the vein of Seattle’s Facing Homelessness tiny house project, seek to integrate houseless individuals into tiny houses built in the community’s backyards. We need each other to treat each other better in these turbulent times. Not just on TriMet, but everywhere. We must relearn how to convene, converse, and how to be in disagreement. We need to create more equitable public spaces, and more intentional opportunities to interact with each other. One great example of this is Oregon Humanities’ Conversation Project, where local leaders facilitate topic-specific discussions with local communities around the state.

The City Repair Project and the Village Building Convergence, which is happening this week, seek to reclaim and repurpose neighborhood intersections into equitable public spaces by facilitating neighbors’ collaboration and connection in painting street murals, building self-serve tea stations, playgrounds, and creating a sense of community around a space where previously people might have needed to crash into one another in order to meet their neighbors.

new portland

In the three years since I arrived, Portland, Oregon has transformed from an awkward adolescent growth spurt to a fit, bearded bovine, free of GMOs and a stable home.

Daily talk amongst my friends right now is about babies and gentrification. My wife and I go for walks in the SE almost nightly: last week we nearly fell into a hole where our favorite art gallery used to be. Yesterday we drove by Stark and 12th as a crew was finishing up the clearcut of St. Francis Park. The adjacent church bought the private tract to build condominiums. To their credit, the development is intended to be affordable housing, presumably for the hordes of homeless who occupied the park daily. But I didn’t know that as I put down my window and thrust my middle finger in the air, angry and ignorant that yet another Portland staple was destroyed to make way for more condos.

franklin stumps

In living rooms and conference rooms across the city, the gentrification conversation often spirals into nostalgia pits, echoes into contempt for rich developers, the 1%, or whoever is up there making decisions and money. It doesn’t matter who, really. The middle class is disappearing like a line of sailors walking the plank into a sea of kind-of-blurry, SNAP-financed poverty, and so far the only person with clout who seems to be paying attention is Bernie Sanders.

Last night, that conversation landed itself, once again, in our Southeast basement, where my wife and I have lived relatively cheaply for three years. Our visitor, a great friend, has been renting the same Southwest house since the late 90’s. Her family’s backyard is open to the three yards beyond it, and with the neighbors, they’ve created a beautiful shared space that features gardens, a clubhouse (with a community refrigerator!), fire pits, and slacklining. In summer, way up in a cedar, my best friend, her husband, sets up a port-a-ledge that overlooks the Tryon woods toward the river, and you can see all the way to Mount Hood. And, it’s a rental. Theirs just went up. Again.

Should we leave? she asked. Portland’s home. 

If they go find a new home, a new town, where their family can thrive, she argued, they would leave behind one of the most important aspects of home: community.

The relationships I’ve developed in Portland (including and certainly not limited to my marriage) keep me here – or at least, keep me coming back every autumn after commercial fishing in Alaska. I love this place immensely, and I know too well how to leave. These three years in Portland compose the longest stint I’ve lived anywhere in my life – even if I’ve spent almost as much time traveling and working elsewhere as I have actually being present. My behavior and thought patterns whisper old nothings in my ear: if it’s too expensive or stressful, go somewhere else. If Trump gets elected, definitely go somewhere else.

But I don’t want to. I’m happy here. Now and then, I even call Portland home, a rare word in my vocabulary. My wife is happy here. She’s developing a career in relationship coaching, and it’s quickly become obvious that she’s needed here. We might have kids soon. We’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, I’m sick of the gentrification conversation. I’m tired of complaining that such-and-such establishment is gone, or that I wish I experienced more cultural diversity in my daily path. I’m on a quest for inner peace; for the sense that I belong in body, mind, spirit, and place. That last one’s the hardest – more than a few times in my nomadism, I’ve been assured in no uncertain terms that my complexion, nationality, or privilege was not welcome where I had brought them.

Fair enough.

In Portland, for the first time in my life, I feel welcome to be me. When I ride my furry Burning Man bike down the Springwater Corridor, the hardcore cyclists give me thumbs-ups and speed off, muscles pumping.

We all know what it is to feel unsafe, whether judged by lifestyle choices, DNA, or some other whimsical provocation for hate. Maybe it’s a tall order: I want everyone to be safe in the place I live, and that shouldn’t require paying astronomical prices for rent.

Ever short of enlightenment, my goals now are multiple and interconnected: To own and accept the space that I take up in the world; to love where I’m at, mentally and physically; to respect those around me, regardless of class, especially. If I blindly believe that a man who possesses millions of dollars is therefore somehow better, smarter, more powerful, or indeed richer than I, I’m doing us both a disservice.

Inspired by the rapid influx of power and privilege into this city, this project – Stumptown Lives – will explore what Portland has been, and is now, through the eyes of its denizens – old, new, rich, poor, whatever. We’ll talk about real things: the grief of watching a bulldozer take down a childhood home; the rise and fall of small businesses; the city’s complicated, racist history. We’ll also look at the overplayed elements that make Portland the most unique city in the United States: food carts, tiny homes, rivers of craft beer – and how they’ve helped turn artsy Portland into PDX, the Promised Land. Why is this new renaissance happening here? Why now? Is it all the fault of Fred Armisen? What are the power dynamics in our new economy? What are the rules? Are there any rules?

Through interviews, profiles, photographs, and more, together, we’ll catch a glimpse of Portland as home, even if it’s just a moment of a lightning bug buzzing in a jar.

There is no end to this story, but here is one beginning.

Stay tuned for the adventure.