Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Icaros, Rock 'n Roll and There I Am, Sobbing

It's not often that I'll be writing about music. I'll leave that for the experts, like my friend Steve Bloom--his blog is on the main page, check him out--but every now and then....
Today I was coming home from a meeting at the Fort Worth Weekly, my steadiest gig. It's our local alternative paper and run by a great gal, Gayle Reaves, whose won not only a Polk Award in journalism but a Pulitzer too. We're a good paper.
So I finish the weekly meeting and am headed home down I-35 from Fort Worth to Joshua. I start singing Icaros, ayahuasca songs. A new one started to come out of me but I got distracted by failing brakes on a busy highway and I couldn't get it back. So I turned on the radio to a local rock station and just then they're starting Free Bird. Wasn't a song I found fabulous in the day--I was just a little too old for it, having been weaned on Dylan, The Spencer Davis Group, The Blues Project (a brilliant NYC group that I often saw at the Cafe Au GoGo as a 15-16 year old), The Yardbirds and later Cream (whom I also saw in concert at The Cafe Au GoGo in NY's Village), BB King and so forth. But lately I've come to appreciate that the guitar solo in Free Bird is not only possibly the greatest guitar solo ever done but very moving.
So it came on today while I was upset over losing a new icaro and there I was, singing along, and then suddenly there I was, sobbing. And I mean sobbing. I was sobbing for my frind Julio, my ayahuasca maestro and friend for nearly 25 years who just died; for my friend Chuck who just had a heart attack; for who knows what else. But if anyone was looking into my 94 Ford Ranger extended cab open window they would have seen me singing and sobbing for sure. And the dj followed that up with Living in the Free World, and Neil Young's lyrics were searing and I kept sobbing for the next several miles.
When that finished I turned the radio off and went back to ayahuasca icaros and kept sobbing. Ayahuasca is good medicine. Very deep. It needed to clean something out of me today. And when the modern world got in the way of the spirit world, well, rock 'n roll lent a hand. Between them they cleaned out something that I'd been holding in and needed to let go.
What a freaking wonderful ride home that was. I feel like I took a shower from the inside out.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Texas: I Moved Here?

So five years ago my wife left New York for Texas. Left me as well. The issue I had with that, other then the fact that I thought we had this great marriage, was that she also left our two boys with me and took our daughter with her. In her Amazon basin upbringing mentality that was okay: The woman took the girl, left the boys with the man. What's the problem?
None, except that that's not how it works in my working class Irish-American mindset. You want to quit the family, you quit the family. But you don't get to take one of my children along with you.
That said, when she didn't return after a couple of months my boys told me that if we wanted to get Madeleina back we'd have to move to Texas. So we did, and sure enough, mom had no problem letting Madeleina live with us so long as we were near Fort Worth, where she'd settled to be near her three sisters, also from the Amazon.
It's complicated but in that matriarchial culture, that's the most important thing: That the women live near one another. Going back three generations, to indigenous life, the sisters would likely all be wives of the same man.
That's another story, although an interesting one. Today I just want to note something about Texas that I find insane but seem to be taken for granted by the locals. Maybe thats because I'm from New York where most minor infractions are overlooked by most cops most of the time. Here in Texas it's a different story.
For instance: My son Marco, 18-years-old and a senior at the local high, has been late to school 11 times since August 17. Some of that's just being a teenager, most of it relates to his mom and me being separated and her having a new baby and him living at her house recently and him having to help her out and get the baby to one of her sister's homes, or my home, after she's gone to work and before he goes to school. No big deal. When he's late he's averaging less than 10 minutes late. So all told, in the last seven months he's been late less than two hours, and most of that comes from helping his mom or me.
Nonetheless, Texas law proscribes him having a 3rd degree misdemeanor charged against him. So he and I received notices that we had a Feb. 26 court date. So we went. The local judge, Judge X, is a former policeman who for four years worked undercover with the local multi-county narcotics squad. He's also an actor, and when he enters the courtroom he announces as much. "I'm in a new show over in so and so, so forgive my long hair."
And then he begins to talk to the roomful of kids and parents--all of whom are there because of lateness or absences from school--about how he used to be in the Narc squad. "I used to cut school. My parents would leave me off at the front door and I was the first one out the back. And I hung out with a crowd that did things, bad things. You should know the things I used to do. I should have been dead or in jail before I was 18, so don't think you've done anything I didn't used to do..."
He goes on a while, proud of himself. I sit there thinking that I too used to do those things. I too was lucky that I didn't wind up in jail or dead. We all are. But we all didn't become narcs and turn around and spend years trying to land our former friends in jail. Or land people who did what our friends did in jail. We didn't become judges and tell kids we were taking their driver's licenses away because they were late for school one day more than was allowed this year. We didn't threaten 12 and 13 year old school kids' parents with $500 dollar fines--I was fined $190 last year by the same judge--or order random drug tests on youngsters--as he did today, threatening to take kids from their parents if cocaine or meth was found in their systems.
And then, we didn't all charge each parent a $78 dollar court cost on top of the fines. More than 30 kids were called today for the 1:30 PM docket. That's $2,340 in court costs for an hour and a half court time. Add that much again in fines (we were lucky to get away with a $50 fine this time) and that sub-courthouse is bringing in $5,000 every Monday at Truancy court. Plus the costs of the drug tests. That's just for kids being late to school, most of whom, like my son Marco, have quite legitimate family obligations that are causing their lateness or absences.
Can you imagine: unprovoked drug tests handed out by a local truancy judge at will; court costs for truancy notices so high that more than pay for the entire courthouse monthly, fines that assure the county can hold gala dinners and buy unmarked police cars so that the local constabulatory can hand out more fines.
Personally, I don't think the drug test thing is legal, and I'm not sure the law on being late is legal. The rest is just immoral. And that it's being meted out by this handsome actor who brags on all the bad things he got away with that the rest of the world will not get away with is simply cause for nausea.
But this is Texas. Sometimes it's hard to believe I moved here.
This is not the America I was brought up to believe in.

Ayahuasca and Pregnancy

Someone recently brought a question up regarding the use of ayahuasca and pregnancy. My feeling, based on experience, is that pregnant women should not drink ayahuasca. The physical purging could be difficult or disastrous for a fetus. I wouldn't recommend taking the chance.
The person posing the question went further to ask whether husbands of pregnant women were allowed to drink ayahuasca. Again from my experience, though different traditions have different guidelines, this was never an issue with Julio, my teacher of nearly 25 years. My own wife was pregnant when one of our sons got terribly sick. While he was in the intensive care unit in Lima--after he'd been stabilized--I went to Iquitos and took a boat out to see Julio to see what long-range curing he could do for Marco. And Julio had no issue with the idea that Chepa, my wife, was pregnant at the time. So I don't think, at least in some places, that it is taboo for the husband of a pregnant woman to drink.
On the other hand, some curanderos have a real issue with pregnant women being present or close by during ceremony, even when not drinking. It's felt by some that spirits can too easily enter into either the pregnant woman or the fetus, both of whom are very vulnerable during that period. Knowing how easily spirits enter into humans who are not as vulnerable, I'd go along with this one, just to be on the side of safety. A spirit tagging along with your body is not always easy to toss off and could, I imagine, be very frightening to some. I wouldn't want my pregant wife being in that position if it was avoidable.
The other part of the question, though I wasn't specifically asked, regards women who are menstruating being at ceremony. In my experience, this is sometimes verboten, sometimes frowned upon, and sometimes not an issue. With Julio, he didn't mind, but both he and I knew that if one of my guests were having her period there was a very good possibility that only she would have any effect from the medicine. Julio would explain it as though she were wide open compared to the rest of us, and the spirits would naturally gravitate to the most available human. And the scenario mostly played out that way: the bleeding woman would have profound, even life-changing experiences, while others would feel nothing at all. (I've heard some curanderos say they believe a menstruating woman will bring evil spirits but I've never witnessed that myself.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Sister's Birthday

It's February 20, my sister Peg's birthday. Two years older than me, and I just turned 56, so we're not kids anymore. But I still wanted to take a moment to say that when we used to be kids she was quite an influence. She was the third of six; I was the fourth. Coming right after her I'm sure there was some resentment==though she probably didn't know it--for me. I mean, she went from being the baby to being the sister who had to help with the new baby by the time she could talk. She'd sometimes take out that resentment by biting me on the head. She didn't just bite, though. She sort of collected scalp between her fingers and squeezed it so that she could get a really good bite going. Man, I'll never forget those. On the other hand, she was an immense talent. By the time she was ten and my other older sister, Pat, was 12, they had the best baton troop in Whitestone. They were good enough that they were invited to march in all the local parades and I think they were invited to the New York City St. Paddy's Day Parade a couple of times as well. That's saying something. And both individually and as a team Peg and Pat seemed to win baton championships at will.
And by the time she was in high school our mom had become a teacher so Peg picked up the slack and cooked for all of us several times a week. And she was a great cook.
When she finished high school she went to work at a major law firm and in no time was running the office. Her typing skills were brilliant: I think she did a legitimate 135 words a minute on the old IBM electric--that's a no-mistake 135 words per minute. She was also gorgeous: I once visited the office to find one of her bosses literally running around his desk trying to catch her to give her a lecherous hug--not really a criminal offence in those pre-women's rights days. No problem: Peg simply outran him till he ran out of steam and gave up.
She married her high school sweetheart, George Lehman and they raised three beautiful girls: Jennifer, Christine and Allison, all of whom are now married themselves with two of them, Jen and Chris, having kids of their own.
So what I'm getting at is this: my sister Peg helped make me tough, taught me about hard work, cooked for me, helped show me how to be a good dad by being such a good mom, and she's even lent me money when the house was going to be taken out from under us.
So thanks, Peg. I love you and I'm glad you're my sister.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Julio Jerena, My Friend and Teacher, Has Passed

Julio Jerena, My Friend and Teacher, Has Passed


My friend and teacher, Don Julio Jerena Pineda, passed on January 19 at about 10 PM while in the Regional Hospital in Iquitos, Peru. He was 91 and his death wasn't unexpected: to me the only surprise was that he physically died rather than simply vanished. He was a walking light stick who glowed brighter each year I knew him since we met in 1985, and I always joked that he was becoming more and more see-through and that when his physical end finally came he would simply vanish in a blink of light.
Julio was an ayahuasca curandero. To say he was from the old traditions isn't quite right. He wasn't born until the rubber boom was well underway in northwest Amazonia, and the boom had brought slavery and intermarriage to many, if not most, of the tribes of the region. So the old tradition, in his mestizo world, never really existed that he'd known. But in the modern era he was certainly an elder. True to his own tradition, he was the local doctor on the river on which he lived. For him, that was the Auchyacu, situated between Genaro Herrera and Requena on the Ucayali, just 100 km upriver from where the Ucayali is joined by the Maranon to become the Amazon. Auchyacu means Indian Water, and the river was periodically inhabited by the indigenous Matses, most of whom live further east, on several rivers near the Brazilian border. But they, like everyone else who lived on the Auchyacu, and many from further away, trusted Julio to fix their babies' tummies, mend broken legs, eliminate the venom from poisonous snake bites, find their lost souls, repair their broken marriages, clean ugliness and hatred from their hearts...sort of a general practitioner of the mind, body and spirit.
And what a practitioner he was. If there is such a thing as bedside manners, Julio helped define the word. He was as gentle as a feather with children, but as tough as granite with adults who didn't follow his recommendations. He could tell a joke with anyone but a simple glare could stop me cold.
One of the testimonies to him and the life he led is that he was still surrounded by his children and grandchildren to the end, and they are all wonderful people. Simple in the sense that they're not city sophisticates, but all are generous, honest, decent and full of good humor.
The life Julio led began in Pucallpa, Peru. At the time he was born, in 1916, Pucallpa was little more than a jungle town, so he grew up traveling the river in dugout canoes, hunting, fishing and keeping chacras--the little farms people on the river in Peru keep. Wounded in a war with Ecuador, doctors wanted to cut off one of his legs from the knee down. He opted instead to visit a vegetalista curandero in Pulcallpa.
"At first he started to heal me," Julio said last year; "but then he began to poison me and my leg got worse, so I left him and took a boat to Iquitos."
There, he visited an ayahuasca curandero. It was his first experience with ayahuasca and he found it exceptionally healing. Unfortunately, the healer disappeared, leaving Julio to learn about ayahuasca on his own. To that end, he built a little house in the jungle outside of Iquitos and tried to remember the plants the man had used to make the medicines. "I was there for a long time. First I learned how to make ayahuasca. Then I learned about the spirits in the trees and began to make tea from their barks and roots. I made friends with lupuna and catawa and chiric sanango and a lot of others. It took months, but it was the only way I knew because I had no teacher, no maestro teaching me."
His leg finally healed and the war over, he moved to the Auchyacu and started a family. He had eight children that I know of; perhaps more I’m unaware of. He raised them all on the river, catching fish daily from his dugout canoe and keeping his chacras filled with yucca, plantain, corn and other jungle foods.
For those lucky enough to have drunk ayahuasca with him, and those of us—and there are many—even luckier to have studied under his guidance, Julio was a marvel. He loved the deep woods and the river; he joked with the genios—spirit allies—he had; he worked on us deeply and compassionately. He taught us to take the medicine seriously but not ourselves.
The capacity he had to work with ayahuasca was always a surprise. Years ago when I was drinking with him one night I got into a space where I realized how small and meaningless I was. And I realized that if I could see that meanness, so could Julio and my friend Larry who was drinking with me that night. I was so horrified at being seen for the useless being I was that I began to entertain the idea of killing them both and tossing their bodies in the river, then returning to Iquitos and saying they’d drowned and their bodies had been eaten by predators. And just when I was thinking that wretched thought, I felt hot breath and mapacho smoke on my face. I opened my eyes to see Julio’s face just inches from mine.
"We don’t have to act on everything we see on ayahuasca," he chuckled. "Still, I think I’ll put the machetes away."
Another night, years later, my friend Lynn was drinking for the first time. I had a few other guests at Julio’s as well, nearly all of them women. After the ceremony Lynn said that at some point he realized he was feeling nothing at all and silently asked Julio to show him "something, anything to show this isn’t just a waste of time." And at that point, Lynn said, "Julio stood up and was 14 feet tall. His head almost touched the roof of the house. And his chakras began to glow, then spin, and then they began to throw off lights and the light fell all around me and on me. And then Julio, in English, asked: ‘Now can I go back to the work I was doing on the women?’"
I also saw Julio as a giant. Often. But one night in particular I saw him bigger than at other times. I’d been lain on my back by the medicine. I couldn’t feel my body much less move it. Wind began to howl. From every direction. Not just howl, but howl like the wind at the four corners of the universe howls. And I realized that that’s where I was, at the place where the wind begin. And in order not to be blown out of the universe I grabbed a coattail and held on for dear life. And I realized the coattail was worn by someone so large I couldn’t see their knees. But I held on and let the wind rush through me, tearing me to glorious pieces. And then the sky opened up like a curtain being pulled back, and there was Julio, riding a bicycle as big as the sky. Attached to its rear wheel were two flaps that were being powered by the motion of the wheel. And the flaps were making the wind that was blowing through me, the wind that was at the beginning of all wind. And Julio was pedaling fast, keeping the wind blowing, and laughing the most gentle and giving of laughs.
And in the morning he laughed when he asked if I liked his bicycle. I said I found it the most amazing thing.
His laughter, generally a chuckle, was simply a part of him. One night I had two guests drinking with him, a couple, and while the wife had the most fantastic and visionary experience, the husband was reduced to vomiting, shitting and moaning for three or four hours. He had the most unbearable time and in the morning asked me to ask Julio how it was possible that his wife had visions while he had nothing but purging.
Julio and I didn’t talk much, but I agreed to ask and when I did Julio just chuckled. "Tell your friend that I was going to paint him with the colors of ayahuasca, but that when I got inside him he was like a livingroom filled with garbage and broken furniture and peeling paint. Who could paint in a room like that? Now that I’ve got him ready, I’ll paint him next time."
To me, he was an extraordinary curandero. Perhaps the best testament I ever heard regarding his work--and I have heard hundreds--was a guest of mine who drank with Julio twice and wrote me six months later something to this effect: "How can I quantify the experience? Before the trip every day I woke up and wondered if this was the right day to put a pistol in my mouth and pull the trigger. Since drinking with Julio, I wake every day and think 'this is a great day to be alive.'"
That's healing on a very deep level.
It was my privilege to know him, to work with him, and at the end, to work on him to take away some of his pain.
He’s already missed.

The Million Me's in Me

Woke up frantically this morning at 4 AM. I'd been dreaming and in the dream I saw myself sectionalized on a series of shelves. There was me, the baby, looking for love from mom; there was another me, my father's son, looking for approval. There was me, the guy who tells tall tales to get attention; there was me, my brother's brother. Then there was me, the guy who has to apologize for the guy who tells the tall tales; then there was me, the dad, who is hoping he is doing the dad stuff right; then there was me, my dad's son, looking to him to see if I was doing the dad stuff right; then me, the man who feels invincible and next to that me was the me who is small and scared all the time. And there were a million me's and ayahuasca began to take some off the shelf to work on some of the me's I don't need anymore and I panicked because I knew that the overall me was constructed very carefully from all of those million me's, the me's who succeeded, the me's married to my failures; the me's who forgive me for being me; the me's who hate me.....and when I woke and realized that I was afraid of having any of the me's tampered with because I would never be put back together as me if any of the me's were moved or removed.
So I bolted from bed before the work could be done. But then, in a more rational moment, if that's what this is, I realize that at any given moment, doing any given action, there are thousands of those me's engaged. Some are encouraging me, some are embarrassed for me, some are in conflict with me. Like smoking: the biggest me's want to copy my father, who smoked. Other me's see the smoking me as a cool me. But other me's see me smoking as a chicken, and as a me who still is looking for approval for smoking from a father who died from smoking. And another me is a nasty boy who gets a kick out of making Chepa constantly repeat: You shouldn't be smoking in the house," a million times a month....
And that's just smoking. Imagine what I and you and all of us go through in terms of dealing with a million mes on a million little decisions daily???? No wonder I sometimes find myself unable to act decisively!!!!!
Probably not a great big insight but it sure seemed like one, seems like one, this second...Of course, a bigger issue lies underneath all of this: that's that ayahuasca wanted to eliminate some of the me's I no longer need. That's the real work that needs doing and the real work of vomiting while under the influence of ayahuasca. The elimination of the bile of our lives, the me's and us's we no longer need to carry around. But that always, which is why I am so afraid of it, forces a reconstruction of ourselves, and we're never the same afterwards. And the million me's of me very jealously guard the overall me. And it should, as it's taken a lifetime to construct me. Still, until some of the me's I no longer need are removed, I inhibit the growth of the overall me. But knowing that is a long way from permitting it to happen.