Travel Log: Budapest/Borders

A few years back when I was still in Europe, people were persuading me not to go to Budapest since we’d heard news that the city was flooded with refugees seeking asylum from war-torn Syria.  But I had roots there and I’d never been as to close to it as I was then.  It was only a 7-hour train ride from Prague, so I decided to go. 

The roots I’m talking about are through my grandfather on my mother’s side.  Though I never met him, I feel like I’ve known him all my life through the stories I’ve heard and through the music–the Hungarian violin and the old gypsy csárdás, which are a type of folk dance native to Hungary made popular long ago by the Romani gypsies.

Whether it takes me to Castilla or Budapest, it seems I’m guided by that music and the unrelenting thirst for movement and experience it seems to inspire. Here I was now, years later, paying homage to my own gypsy blood, riding a train and vagabonding through Europe for close to a month already, finally making my way to a place–much like Castilla–that felt like my homeland in more ways than one.   

When the train pulled in to the station I looked out the window and caught my first sights of the city. I’ll admit, I half-expected to see angry mobs raising all sorts of hell like it was the Bastille at the start of the Revolution.

Yet as I looked out, I saw nothing particularly remarkable. The station was quiet. Nearly empty.  I stepped outside and saw fellow passengers leaving the train, some being greeted by friends and loved ones. I saw a few kids hanging out by the cafe and a few more outside, skateboarding around the courtyard. Whatever chaos had been unfolding in the preceding days and weeks had gone now.

I thought for a moment about the media and it’s tendency toward sensationalism, as it sometimes ignores other news for the sake of news that will keep us interested or drive up their ratings. I do worry whether it might become the boy who cried wolf, if it hasn’t already; as today I consider those who still have trouble grasping the urgency of climate change, or COVID-19 for that matter.

In any case, however things went down here, it appeared the refugees had either moved on or disappeared into the city blending in with everyone else. They were only people with the same essential needs and aspirations as the rest of us. And the more I recognized that, the more I thought about those qualities that truly defined a country.

Was it borders, or something less tangible? Maybe something not quite set in stone but in constant motion, rooted in history but still vulnerable to change by the passage of time, or by the influence of an outside world–one that can never be kept outside for too long.

If the latter was true, then I figured countries were a macrocosm of the individual human experience, which would ultimately make borders something of an illusion.

I hoisted my bag over my shoulder and stepped out onto the streets, the sky turning a bright pink as the sun set behind the hills and day faded into evening. The air had grown cool.  I could hear a violin somewhere not too far away.

a capella #1

I am not exactly a conventional musician, you know…
I couldn’t tell you anything about theory.
I can’t even read music. No,
I’m just like this wild man of the woods
born of the swamp, singing
if not screaming to the heavens
and sometimes to my people
and I’m gonna use whatever
I have on me to be able to do it.  

Though all I really need is my voice.

mantra #1

an exercise for clearing
out the cobwebs in your head…

for if we are truly
to get to writing then
we must have no fear (and)
keep the lids off the pens
things will get messy
as we paint the towns red.

as we write and we
write, see we write, write on
all excited once again when we
finally get to bed
as our body shakes and trembles
as we arrive outside our head

before the morning and late evening
when we do it all again

In-Brief: On Parks and Wildness

Save Our Home, Save Ourselves

I recently applied to a job that asked me to select the best pic of myself in the outdoors. It sounds like it could be an exciting one, a job where I’d be spending time in some of my favorite places, or one place depending on how you look at it. That is, the National Parks or in the broader sense, in nature.

To that point, I’ve come to see them less as individual places and it more as one larger whole.  Our planet.  I like that approach more.    

It’s hard to say which picture could ever be the best, but this is the one I felt like posting–taken almost exactly four years ago.

Ren Michael - South Kaibob Trail - Grand Canyon - Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona - National Park - Quinby & Co.
Ren Michael on the South Kaibob Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Much has happened since then both in my life and throughout the world, and I’ve been fortunate to have gone on many adventures in the time in between. Hopefully I’m a strong sum of those experiences, as each was its own unique reminder of my connection to both land and people.

I’m not unique in that respect, since I know many who have turned to the outdoors and felt a similar way. Restored, replenished, readjusted to the point that their day-to-day ambitions either suddenly feel silly, or are just given renewed purpose in light of the bigger realization that they are a part of something bigger than themselves and their possessions.

While I can only hope it’s enough to help us recognize the importance of preserving these places—since all of us deserve to experience the land in equal measure—above all, I hope we each begin doing our part in preserving the integrity of our environment, for the health of our planet, our one true home, for our physical health, and ultimately for our sanity.

I look back on recent years and I think about people marching against gun violence, or against corporate greed on Wall Street.  I think about people marching for Black lives and for our government’s full recognition of their humanity. 

And I think about two weeks ago, when everyday I stepped out and saw a smoke-filled sky blotting out the sun due to devastating regional wildfires.  In the back of my mind, the fire’s reach had far exceeded the limits of the west coast where I make my home.  Indeed, the larger symbolism was hard to miss.      

The issues of violence, racial justice, environmental justice and economic inequality are, I believe, inter-related.  The dangers of climate change for example pose the most immediate threat to Black and Brown communities, a disproportionate number of which fall below the poverty line in the United States and throughout the world–a reality most clearly demonstrated in food and water shortages not just in third-world countries, but here at home.  

Tackling the threat of climate change will not automatically close the gap on income inequality or accomplish comprehensive racial justice.  Still you cannot adequately address problems in your house when your house is, quite literally, on fire; and truly, the fight for a healthy planet has the power to bring people of different backgrounds and beliefs together, likely more so than any movement we’ve ever witnessed.  More to the point, it’s the understanding of our interconnectedness that will ultimately save us in virtually every domestic and global conflict we experience; and nowhere is that realization more critical than in the necessary global effort to mitigate climate change by cultivating a cleaner and more sustainable world for all people.  

The act of getting outdoors, spending time in our public lands and in the broader wilderness of the world has the unique power to reinforce the fundamental reality of our interdependence and dependence on the land.  It’s just one of many reasons why it’s so important they stay preserved and protected.    

I often reflect on whether it will just be an ongoing battle for every generation between people committed to preserving our wilderness for the public benefit, and the people who seek to exploit the land for their own profit. 

I hope that it won’t.  Maybe the dual threats of climate change and a global pandemic will convince people of their stake in each other’s health and the health of our planet, and the influence will carry over through generations to come.      

I only know that the need for such a realization has never been so urgent.      

As for our wilderness, and it’s unmatched beauty and healing power, for now there’s little more I can say, other than to simply go, as soon as you can, and experience it for yourself.

Let’s please take care of our home.  I am committed to doing my part and I hope you will join me.  The Sierra Club is one of our nation’s most enduring and influential forces for environmental action and awareness.  I’ve been a member for a couple years now and I urge you to consider joining and lending your support as well. 

Let’s get to work.   

 

*Take Action –> www.sierraclub.org

Friends of the Earth Action https://foeaction.org/

Natural Resources Defense Council https://www.nrdc.org/

National Parks Foundation https://www.nationalparks.org/

A personal statement

In recent years, as a rising number of voices far more qualified than my own began speaking out on racism from the standpoint of their personal experience, in movements like Black Lives Matter, I thought it more appropriate to speak less and listen more.

While it was mainly an act of deference, it also partly came from a fear that my own voice might further add to what I viewed as a dangerously monotonous chorus perpetuated by social media, a superficial facade of allegiance rooted less in justice and more in fashion, something I saw as alarmingly characteristic among people–particularly in the white community–in this rising technological and social media age.

While this point of view had some merit, it’s one I can no longer fully practice. I’ve had the opportunity to educate myself more deeply over the last few years, and while that experience certainly continues, my silence has reached it’s end.

I am a musician. I play American music. I often play what some people call Roots music. The term is typically used to group together folk music, jazz and the blues—art forms unique to America that shaped the music we enjoy today, an enduring tradition through which we continually express ourselves.

As such, it’s a useful conduit to understanding the broader history and dynamic character of this country. While all communities have shaped and continue to shape that character, it is critical to understand that Black people specifically laid down this country’s foundations—both literally and to a large extent, culturally. For me, a great part of understanding that foundation has been through the music they’ve given to America, and to the world.

This wasn’t an act of mere patronage on my part. It wasn’t done out of pity or wanting to better understand a community that I viewed as separate from my own, much less from me. It was an act of studying my country and by extension, myself. It’s been an intensely personal, at times painful, and ultimately gratifying experience.

Still, as I continue along this road, which often feels cyclical as well as linear, I’ve returned to one specific realization over the past few weeks. It’s simply impossible for me to continue playing American music without actively speaking out against racism. To do so would be a betrayal of my personal and artistic roots and to the generations of people who profoundly shaped our country and way of life, one that I celebrate every time I sing, or strum the guitar.

I recognize that they aren’t my ancestors, but without question, they are my musical forbearers; and I cannot, I will not turn my back on them. To do so would be to turn away from myself.

So while this is just a brief summary of my own personal experience as an artist and American citizen, my ultimate intention is that is serves as a call to action for anyone still ambivalent about their stake in this country, in something bigger than themselves.

We must fully recognize racial justice as a cause relevant to more than just one community, and recognize the necessity of it being no longer their fight, but our fight. What happens to one of us will and should affect the other. The riots in our cities are living proof of that universal reality, and while I don’t advocate violence, I implore everyone to communicate, openly and with respect, preferably face to face.

To abstain is to compromise not only the welfare and prosperity of one people, but the soul and lasting integrity of our country.

Until these virtues are fully realized, so long as people of color continue to suffer under the tyranny of systemic racism, persecution and oppression, we should–at the very least–expect people to kneel when we sing the national anthem.

____

Resources to Take Action

https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/

Quarantining Solo

We’re all in a similar situation right now regardless of where we are in the world. Stay at home orders are in place, we’re practicing social distancing and patiently waiting for the world to get back to some form of normalcy.

In the spirit of honesty and vulnerability, which can be scary and even physically difficult for me, I’m here to admit that, after seven weeks into self-isolation, when I thought I was totally fine and could handle it all alone, I had a debilitating panic attack. 

Let me preface by saying I’ve never had a panic attack or anything remotely close to one before.  I have even judged others for saying they’ve had one because I never understood the severity of it until now.  It was, by far, the scariest day of my life.  

I’ll spare you the play-by-play details of the experience and sum it up for you like this:

After beginning to feel out of breath while driving, I pulled over to try and slow it down. Then, all at once, I couldn’t control my breathing at all, my heart was pounding harder and faster than I’ve ever felt, my vision began to blur and I could barely feel my body.

For the first time in my life, I thought, “something is terribly wrong and I might be dying.” I began to think about my life, all the people I love the most, my dog waiting for me at home,  that this might be the end and that I was going to be found alone in my car on Vermont Ave. 

Clearly that was not the case, and I later understood the reality of what had happened. I suffered a panic attack.

Thankfully, my boss was nearby and was able to drive me home where I proceeded to stay on the couch for the rest of the day, feeling completely drained and weak. 

This is all difficult for me to admit, and I honestly didn’t really take time to process much of the experience until the next day, after some much needed rest.

For one thing, I’ve always considered myself the “strong friend.” The person my loved ones can seek out to fill their cup, to consult for advice, to whom they can vent whenever they’re going through a bad time.

Even now, with the stress of a global pandemic changing our lives, I’ve had friends and family tell me how “brave” and “strong” I am to be handling everything on my own, but I never really felt like it was that big of a deal.

“I’m fine,” I thought.  “I can handle this, I’m strong and independent and this is all temporary anyway.”

Though this whole experience was definitely a surprise for me, it’s not too hard to understand why it happened. I realize now that I’ve been overburdened and stretched so far thin that my body just broke down. I’ve been doing this whole quarantine alone for the last seven weeks, separated from my partner, my family and my closest friends.  In the midst of these uncertain times, I’m still working full-time, maintaining a home, taking care of my dog and still trying to take care of myself and my own mental health. Reality check, I DON’T GOT THIS LIKE I THOUGHT I DID.

It pains me to admit that I can’t handle it all, that I can’t be superwoman all the time, that maybe sometimes I have to say, “I need help, I need support.” Being in quarantine alone–that is, with no other person or people to be alone with–is really hard.  So now, I realize how essential human contact is for someone like me. I love to love on my people.  I love hugging and holding hands and being held and cuddling and affection and who knew that not touching a single person for over seven weeks for the first time in my 32 years of life would push me over the edge?! Definitely not me. 

Me in ‘Park Avenue’ at Arches National Park, Utah

So now what? What did I learn from this experience that might keep it from happening again?

Well first off, I had an extremely vulnerable conversation with my partner. I opened up to him emotionally in a way I’ve always been too afraid to do, and I immediately felt an immense weight lift from my shoulders.  As obvious as it may seem, I am not quite as infallible as I thought, and simply admitting this fear both to myself and to my loved ones has alleviated that self-inflicted judgmental pressure, the kind that says I need to have everything under control at all times. Ironically enough, admitting that is actually allowing me to take more control than before. I can look at my situation far more objectively, and give myself the break I didn’t know I needed. 

A key to self empowerment is admitting your weaknesses. When you face a fear or personal judgment head-on, you remove its power over you. I’m sure you’ve heard this before but, “what you resist, persists,” and if there’s one lesson I can take from this whole thing, it’s to quit the resistance, let go of expectations and learn to surrender. 

We’re all in this together, so ask for that help when you need it, set those boundaries that give you a break; and for goodness sake, listen to the cues your body is giving you. 

Going forward, I know I will.

 

Issue #4
Q&Co.