Poetry & Fiction

It’s Not about Being Good—It’s about Being Bold

“It’s time to be bold, stand up, and share your art OUT LOUD.”

Thus reads the event description for the open mic night I’m organizing this week. Out Loud (En Voz Alta) is an opportunity for artists, performers, and secret creatives to take risks and share their art—out loud.

Here’s the thing. If I’m going to tell anyone else to be bold, I’d better start with myself.

That’s why, today, I made my first Facebook Live post (below). That’s why I’m beginning to share my songs with a wider audience than the monkeys outside my house (they think I’m pretty alright). That’s why I’ll be performing first this Thursday night.

I hope to set a tone for the evening. And the tone goes something like this:

If you were waiting for someone to give you permission to fail, this is it.

If you were waiting for someone to tell you it’s okay to suck, this is it.

If you were waiting for someone to promise that they’ll cheer you on regardless, this is it.

This isn’t a talent show.

An open mic night is an opportunity to stand up and take a risk. To share your art, your voice, your heart out loud.

If you were waiting for someone to give you permission to screw up, to be terrible, to fail—that’s happening right now.

So please, take the risk. Be bold.

I’ll be there cheering you on.

And so, here I am. Trying to make a point by singing… I didn’t sing much the first twenty-plus years of my life, because someone once told me I couldn’t, or shouldn’t. What a loss! We all carry around these incredible instruments all the time, we might as well use them, enjoy them. Who cares if they’re harsh or ugly or off key?

Then, in April of this year, I started to write songs.

Are they good songs? That’s not really the point.

I’m not trying to be famous. I’m trying to do something true.

And if someone reads this or sees me sing/perform/publish and decides to take their own risk, then it will be doubly worth it.

It’s easy to share the things we believe we’re good at. Harder to share when others (or our own brains) have told us we’re utter failures.

But the world doesn’t need more people who hide. It needs more artists. It needs not fearlessness, but boldness. It needs more people who will stand up and say,

“This is me. I don’t care if you like it. I don’t care if my hands shake. I have a voice, so I am going to use it. Because I am human.”

That’s why I’m here—organizing open mic nights, sharing my music with the big, scary internet. Not because I’ve overcome those deeply rooted insecurities, but because I’ve decided that this is more important. I believe art is meant to be shared. I do not believe life is always a talent show.

And, finally, it’s not enough for me to be bold; I want you to be bold too.

We have these amazing instruments—our voices, our hands, our bodies—that can sing, speak, write, play, and dance. Shouldn’t we use them?

Photo Credit: Halley McClure

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Poetry & Fiction

An Artist’s Statement, Kind of

In addition to the travel, culture, and adventure writing I focus on here, I also dabble in poetry, fiction, and other creative writing. Through these pursuits, I have come to collaborate with a wonderful artist named Paula Barkmeier.

We hope to make a book soon.

To that end, I have started thinking—and writing—about my creative process pretty much for the first time in my career. This is what I have so far…feedback is welcome!

On my Creative Process

I typically begin a piece of writing in one of two ways. Either I have a specific story I want to tell or article I want to write, and I do that—or I have a vague idea pushing at my fingertips, my tongue, my belly, a somewhat undefined urge to create bubbling to the surface, and I follow it.

I’d like to talk about the first one, very briefly. I know, it’s really not glamorous. I just decide to be creative and write something down? No blood, sweat, or tears? No agony or writer’s block? That goes against everything we’re told about creativity: You have to wait for inspiration. It’s a delicate process. Creativity can’t be forced.

I have a secret for you: It can.

You see, storytelling isn’t just a passion for me; it’s also my job. I write, I edit, I blog, I copywrite, I ghostwrite, I create marketing materials… I don’t always have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. Especially when I have a deadline. So I don’t wait. I just sit down and write.

A writing teacher once told our class of young, bushy-tailed university students: “Writing is a craft. You can force it—and you should.” It was some of the soundest advice I have ever received about writing. In the past few years, it has proved true for me time and time again. I think it’s an important thing for creative people, working in any medium, to remember.

This, whatever “this” is, is our craft, as well as our art. Inspiration will come and go—and we all know how it feels when it hits!—but we have to carry on regardless.

Poetry, for me, is the exception to that rule. Poetry falls into that second category I mentioned, of fluid, spontaneous, elusive creative impulse. I do not force it. It is not a craft for me. The pieces that emerge out of that hazy, insistent urge to create become some of my favorites—perhaps more so because when I look back on it weeks, months, or years later, I almost can’t recognize the writer behind the words. She is transfigured by the creative process. She became a conduit for words, rather than their source, and I almost suspect she is another person entirely because of it.

Poetry—and, let’s not be too strict, lyrical prose and some stories too—involves for me a semi-mystical process of creation. When I sit down to write, not because I have a story to tell that day, but simply because I feel I must, I enter into a different kind of creative space. This space is not always productive or focused, but it is inspired, intoxicating, and kind of magic.

At its best, I believe writing—or any art—can express the inexpressible: It can take the inarticulate, murky language of dreams, hopes, fear, or loss, and translate it into words, images, and form. This articulation of the formerly formless is at the essence of my broadest aspirations as a writer, an artist, a creator. I write to give wings to heartbreak, and thus allow it to take flight. I write to put words to my wandering heart, and thus allow it to sing. I write to give a voice to my spirit, and thus—I hope—allow it to speak to yours.

This process is both the most personal—drawing on the intimate details of my lived experience to imbue my work with raw truth—and the most universal—discovering the shared fears, joys, loves and losses at the core of every story. And so the archetype enters the scene. By its very definition the archetype is both universal and personal; the every man, the every woman, the every child speaks to the most profound depths of our souls.

My work centers on the following themes:

joy, adventure, fear, seeking, discovery, wildness, and transformation.

And it often draws on archetypal models almost by accident—such is the nature of the archetype, that we cannot wander far without stumbling across its path.

The hero’s journey. The goddess. The winged woman. The seeker. The gypsy. The lover. The masked man. The trickster. The vagabond. The wildling.

To call it an accident is perhaps to sell the archetype short, however. It is through the exploration of archetypal forms that we understand ourselves more fully—or, that is what I believe. These figures people my dreams and my poetry. Together, they create the thematic loom into which I weave my words.

But that is only the beginning. I write to express, it’s true, but lately that is only one layer. Lately, I also write to connect, to inspire, to, in the smallest of ways, engender change. I believe in the potential for stories, words, art to build understanding, teach joy, promote healing, and sustain peace. It is my hope that I have accomplished this with this collection. If my words encourage anyone to go out, explore and seek meaning in the world, I’ll consider my writing a great success.

Seriously, feedback welcome! (I already know it’s long.)

Photo Credit: Zen Monkey Photography

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Nomadism, Poetry & Fiction

Ah, The Life Of A Vagabond (Poetry)

It’s rare that I share poetry here (if you want more of that, check out my column on elephant journal). But I would like to share this piece with you, as I think it gets at the heart of something bittersweet and utterly beautiful, which I and my vagabonding friends sometimes struggle to express.

I hope it will speak to you.

Ah, the life of a vagabond—
We all say it with the same
self-mocking irony
and laughing-sad eyes.
The same funny mix
of melancholy
and mad joy.
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
We choose to be the mad ones,
don’t you think?
Must keep choosing it,
lest the madness
through our twirling hands
and leave us with
So we love
and leave
And dance
and believe
Seek ceaselessly—
and receive,
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
Do you ever wonder
why we don’t
I do, but then I remember
we are all following the same
dancing a rhythm only some can hear—
The call doesn’t stop,
and neither
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
Keep choosing it,
lest the madness
out of reach
like tears,
lest passion
settle back down
to the silt
at the depths of our eyes,
lest love become
a rarity.
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
They intone,
and I echo their prayer.
and response.
A psalm
for swirling, wandering
A litany so powerful
we must believe it,
An incantation writ on the horizon—
we go to it dancing.
we go to it dancing.
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Culture, Europe, Food

3 Macabre Stories that Capture the Essence of Napoli

Climbing hundreds of stairs for a good view, as per usual.
Thursday, 1 September, Napoli, Italy

The weather was a bit mercurial, and we took shelter from a sudden downpour in a nearby cafe. As the storm passed and we prepared to continue on our way, my friend (a Napoli native) informed me that we were about to cross an invisible boundary. 
The police don’t come to this part of the city. It’s controlled by a powerful family (think mafia). Recently, three young men from a different, neighboring family were shot dead as they walked down the street.
Suffice it to say, this was not a safe neighborhood. At least, unlike most tourists, I was acutely aware of the risk involved as we ambled onward on our quest for the best sfogliatelle in Napoli (and thus, seeing as it’s a Neapolitan specialty, the best sfogliatelle in the world).
Go fish! Can you find this famous Napolitano bakery? 🙂
Now, if you’re thinking it’s insane to risk your life for a pastry, you’ve never eaten sfogliatella.
Flaky layers of crisp pastry, artfully shaped to resemble a seashell, filled with sweet ricotta cream lightly flavored with local orange, and dusted with powdered sugar—one is already too much, too rich, and yet I bought four just in case.
Napoli has a bit of a reputation as the more dangerous, more sordid Southern cousin of the well-frequented tourist destinations to the North (Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan). And indeed, the crowded warren of twisting streets layered atop a cavernous subterranean void (in turn layered atop the lava fields that fuel Vesuvius) is not the Italy many tourists may imagine.
It may be better.
As we walked from one end of the city to the other on our quixotic pastry mission, my friend, uniquely knowledgeable about Napoli’s architecture, history, language and culture, regaled me with stories—many macabre—that endeared me to this dark gem of a city.
Here are three of them:

Rub a skull for good luck.
The Old Ladies and the Catacomb Skulls
Twenty years ago, the old ladies of Napoli still maintained this tradition, originating in the plague years, or perhaps the war years (regardless, years of extraordinarily high mortality rates). Each would “care for” a particular skull in the catacombs beneath the city, bringing it flowers, offering it prayers, and grieving the death of a stranger who perhaps had no family left to mourn their passing. Sometimes, vicious arguments would break out over a particular skull when more than one woman lay claim to it. Questa è la mia testa! No! È la mia! (This is my head! No! It’s mine!) Talk about macabre.
San Gennaro (Saint Januarius), Patron Saint of Napoli, and the Curious Affair of the Keys to the Church
San Gennaro is not officially a saint, but don’t try telling that to the citizens of Napoli, who are particularly dedicated to their patron. A vial of the saint’s blood purportedly resides in the main church of the city, and twice a year, the miracle of the liquefaction takes place, in which the dried remains turn to liquid once again. Interestingly, the remains of San Gennaro do not belong to the church, but rather to a mysterious ancient sect with a centuries-old history in Napoli. They allow the church to hold the remains in exchange for the keys to the building. If you’re picturing creepy Satanic rituals in the catacombs of the cathedral, yeah, I’m right there with you.

L’Ospedale delle Bambole (Doll Hospital)—a whole different kind of creepy.
The Hospital of the Incurable Ones
In medieval times, when pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a popular undertaking, Napoli occupied an important step along the journey. In plague years, and other times too, pilgrims would frequently fall ill and find themselves unable to complete their pilgrimage. Many of these stopped in Napoli, and the city became their final resting place. The Church built a thriving business around this occurrence, constructing buildings to house the sick and dying—partially out of Christian charity, surely, and partly because dying pilgrims, unable to reach Jerusalem, proved particularly disposed to leave everything to the Church instead. One of these, L’Ospedale deli Incurrabili (Hospital of the Incurables), still operates today, although I believe it is more concerned with saving lives than saving souls.

This dark and fascinating history lays a particular foundation for the vibrant crush of life filling Napoli today. Young people sporting dark 70s-style fashion, 80s-style hair, lots of attitude and even more tattoos loiter outside cafes, nightclubs, pizzerias and bars. Crowds line up outside the best gelateria, stroll along the waterfront and press into the narrow streets of the Old City. The Napoletano language is alive and well, spoken by many if not most locals, changing and adapting as any healthy, living language should. Musicians play tarantela in the streets, and motorcyclists and pedestrians weave past, seemingly unaware of one another, in a seething dance. 

There is life here. Tons of it. And maybe that’s the point of all the macabre underpinnings; they tell a story about all the living happening now.

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Culture, Middle East

Pillowcases in the Desert, Rainbows in the Forest, and Hippies in the Holy Land: Another Perspective on Israel

Tzukim, Arava, Israel
The whirring of the machine as I touch my foot to the pedal brings me back.
To my grandmother’s home and her ancient Singer. To the costume room in the basement of my middle school theater. To my projects on the kitchen table in my childhood home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
I haven’t used a sewing machine in a long time, and the rhythmic pull of needle on fabric is bringing me to a good meditative place.
The air is so dry that drinking water does nothing for my thirst—the liquid seems to evaporate on my tongue—and there’s a super-fine layer of desert dust beneath my bare feet. (Hardly had we swept the floors, cleaning house to usher in Passover, than the relentless winds brought the dust back.)
I’m staying with my brother’s friends and their five beautiful children in the mud house they built for themselves here in Tzukim; we (my brother and I) have been invited for Passover seder. They study and speak openly about Kabbalah, a central tenet of which is the concept of togetherness. And indeed, I feel more than welcomed here on my second stop of my second visit to Israel—I feel involved.
Tonight, I am helping to sew pillowcases to decorate the rounded, light-filled common area of their home. Deep green, vivid red, heavy, rough, intricate, beautiful textiles. I hum tunelessly as I work; it’s a new habit I’ve found myself adopting since the term, “humming tunelessly” caught my eye in a book.
The pillowcases are definitely of the wabi sabi variety—as is everything about the house. Perfectly imperfect. Made by hand with care and natural irregularity. Human. Filled with meaning.
My brother’s friend works beside me, and she smiles when she tells me that each person who has stayed in the house has left a part of themselves in it. The pillowcases will be my part.
After my last, particularly heavy post on Israel, I wanted to offer something lighter. A balancing perspective, if you will.
The question came to mind: How would one write about Israel if it were just a place, with no history, no complexities and no enigmas—just sun and desert and sandy beaches and olive groves—a beautiful spot on the map? How would one describe it?
Is such a thing possible? Of course not. Not for anywhere in the world. Total nonsense.

And, what’s more, maybe misguided. 

For, like my wabi sabi pillowcases, Israel is not beautiful—cannot be beautiful—in spite of its rough edges (rough edges is putting it mildly), but because of them. The same is true, I believe, for every spot on the map.
Somewhere near Modi’in, Israel
A man with one leg and no clothing flashes by, moving faster on crutches than I can usually manage to run.
As we traipse in with our camping gear a little before dusk, a crowd near the entrance shouts, “Welcome home!” as they always do at these gatherings. Participants spread out across the forested space to make camp, collecting in small population centers, or venturing further afield in search of silence and solitude.
The activity centers around the communal cooking area, and a large bonfire where most gather after the shared evening meal for drumming, singing and sometimes dancing. Gauzy dresses, dreadlocks and bare skin are as common here as head scarves and black hats in Jerusalem.
This is Rainbow Israel, and if you aren’t familiar with Rainbow Gatherings and you want to understand what they are (you do), you should go here.
We stay only one night, but I could have happily stayed a week. There’s something special about a community where anything goes, and (usually) nothing bad comes of it.

Tel Aviv, Israel
On my last night in Israel, I sit with an old friend on the steps of the big Synagogue, sipping a beer as we catch up on six or seven years of life. 

He describes his experiences with medicines in Peru (yes, others would call them drugs), his work with sound healing and his studies on homeopathy and Kabbalah. I describe my work with elephant journal, a publication focused on mindfulness, my yoga teaching and my nomadic lifestyle. I think the intervening years have brought us both a good deal closer to our life paths.

This last evening, along with other conversations, meetings and interactions like it, balances out my more complicated experiences of Israel, renders me more grounded in my time here. There’s violence and oppression in the Holy Land, but there are hippies too.
So, what do wabi sabi pillowcases, rainbow gatherings and hippies all have in common?
For starters, they’re all positive, forgiving, inclusive and somewhat alternative entities.
And, they all exist in Israel.
It would take many lifetimes to write enough to do justice to a single spot on a map. It would take a million voices, on a thousand days, to tell every facet of every side of every story cradling that spot.

For now, I’ll content myself with having told two facets of one story—my own—and I hope you’ll be wise enough and brave enough not to take my word for it. Make your own stories, wherever you may be called to do so!


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Making Art

I love when people ask me, “Are you an artist?”

These days, it happens often as guests and staff at the Distant Relatives Ecolodge in Kilifi pass by my public work spaces: an outdoor pizza oven and a formerly-blank wall in the communal kitchen. Someone will stop, watch me work for a while, and then ask: “Are you an artist?”

It strikes me as a particularly odd question in this context, since I am, quite obviously, making art.

Photo Credit: Ivan Ziccardi Brogna

And I don’t know how to answer. Only in the last year have I begun to identify as “A Writer,” and that is an occupation in which I have a lot more confidence. But artist? My grades in High School Art were middling, and I haven’t taken a class since. Maybe because of that, or maybe because I could never draw with the easy accuracy of my desk-mates, I have never thought of myself as a “Good Artist.”

Yet there I am, very clearly and very boldly creating massive pieces of art. Are we what we do and make, then, or are we only our self-professed identities?

Usually I answer evasively, saying, “Well, I’m creative, and I like to make things… no, not exactly, but if you give me a blank wall and free reign I will definitely paint on it…”

Maybe I should just say yes, though.

Look what happened when I started calling myself a writer. Nothing changed—I wrote before, and I continued to write after—but I began to identify more deeply with my work, and take more pride in it, too. My words are not merely something I produce; they are a part of me. I am a writer.

That is a powerful shift.

If I am what I create, and I find myself making art, then what stops me from calling myself an artist? High School? If I followed that logic, there are many things I would not be today.

So. Here I am, making art. I am an artist. The plums and ochres and teals and terracottas I mix are a part of me—as I am a part of them. The broken glass I piece together, too—bottle green and cobalt seeping into my thoughts. I stand for hours a day with my face inches from a bursting array of hues. I spend longer meditating on color than I do meditating on my mat, and with fuller concentration to boot! I am utterly absorbed in this work.

I am creating something that will remain here long after I have moved on. That feeling is immensely satisfying.

So. Here I am, a writer and an artist—and a dancer, too—inking my inner world on paper and canvas, by pen and brush and keyboard and broken glass.


Now that is a story for another day…

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