Joey L. is a fine art photographer and documentary film director from Canada based in Brooklyn. He can frequently be found in remote places the outside world knows nothing of, and seems equally at ease working with celebrities and corporate brands.
His work with tribal peoples and ethnic groups is what intrigues me. Joey says he tends to go back to the same places. In doing so, he’s able to get a deeper and deeper sense of the people, their lifeways and environment—a real connection. I understand this because I’ve done the same over nearly 30 years. You create relationships that wouldn’t happen with the quick dash that satisfies the mainstream tourist. You see and experience things you couldn’t have imagined. Doors open. You are invited in.
Another thing happens that, for me, is heartbreaking to witness. Over time, invariably there’s loss of tradition. In his new documentary The Crocodile Hunters of Ethiopia, Joey talks about the hard life and difficult circumstances many Indigenous peoples endure. You can’t blame them for wanting an easier life. I’ve wrestled with these same thoughts. Would that their sacred practices and lifeways be maintained and, at the same time, they’re lifted out of poverty.
Joey has been working on a book about Ethiopian cultural history for 12 years. Some Ethiopian tribes have maintained their traditions over centuries. The Dassanach tribe is one. Some of the things he photographed 12 years ago are gone, lost to climate change and modernization. His mission is underscored with a sense of urgency.
His obsession started as an 18-year-old when he first went to a Dassanach village. During his visit, there was a tragic occurrence. A child was eaten by a crocodile, which are a ready danger in the region. They can grow 4 times as big as a human and retain gargantuan strength. They’re man eaters. Joey heard rumors of a nomadic caste called Dies whose specialty is killing crocodiles—not with guns but in the old way…with handmade harpoons. For years, he wanted to photograph them. But they are few and elusive. To complicate matters, croc hunting only occurs for a limited time during the rainy season.
Finally, the time was now. He was afraid if he waited longer the crocodile hunters would be a thing of the past. The film covers the search, preparation, tribulations, all the way through the complete hunt, which takes place at night. Joey and his team are among the few outsiders ever to see the hunt. Now you can, too.
This documentary merges uncommon, extraordinary footage of landscapes, tribal peoples, ceremonial blessings, along with what it means to be a working photographer and the importance of respect. Joey talks about the roles passion, curiosity, persistence and risk play relative to his photography. He shows you what happens behind the scenes. But also, what drives him to dedicate his life to pursuing the unusual and cultural truth. He has been in demand since he was a teenager with commissions from celebrities and brands. His work takes him into war zones, remote villages, dense jungles, urban areas, and commercial shoots. Joey L. is a rare breed.
I began following Joey L. a few years ago. I’m particularly taken with the Mentawai collection and his ongoing portrait series of Holy Men. To view more documentaries on the Dassanach and the lower Oma Valley see People of the Delta with accompanying shorts.
The closer I got to the departure date the louder the demands became—if you can relate kinesthetic response to pitch. I do. It started with a niggling feeling at the back of my skull that progressed to sensations of instability in my solar plexus, which I can only describe as shifting sands. It finally felt as though the world was falling away. The accompanying pitch was relative, increasingly louder in my head until I couldn’t ignore it. I found myself taken aback…as it was meant to do.
This I know…
Alchemy can be defined as elements recombined to create new forms. When beliefs are re-formed, arising out of what was, rebirthing takes place.
Resistance is necessary as a form of progression. In order to resist, the mind has to consider something new. Otherwise, resistance wouldn’t happen. Imagining something new begins to create substance. The greater the level of resistance, the more potentially profound the new creation may be—and out of the comfort zone. The more rigid we are in our own thinking, the more inertia we will experience against moving forward.
To create, we must push through the membrane that separates what we’ve preserved as real from the newly imagined reality…
I also knew, and had many times experienced, the closer to profound movement we are, the stronger the impulse to go unconscious at the threshold and allow the status quo to pull us back. If we give in to backward movement, we remain tethered…contained.
Recognize that hesitation, feeling torn, or paralyzed are a natural part of the evolutionary process. Even external blocks can strangely present themselves, colluding with the internal part attempting to hold us back. It’s necessary to acknowledge any level of fear. Honor that part. Check in with intent, and then allow its resident purity to guide you.
But I was curious. I’m usually one of the first in my circle of friends and acquaintances to venture zealously into parts unknown. What made this time somehow different for me?
In late 2020, I received a formal invitation to visit the Matsigenka village of Shipetiari to bring a spiritual travel group to their home located in a remote, pristine rainforest area, the buffer zone to Manu National Park and Biosphere Preserve. This particular Matsigenka community is one of the remaining few who live most traditionally. I considered this an incredible honor. They’ve had few travelers and none like the spiritual travel groups I sponsor.
Of course, the pandemic intervened. At that time, there was no vaccine. The Matsigenka, being so isolated, had no exposure or immunity. Finally, fully vaccinated, boosted, September flight set and COVID rapid test taken a day ahead, I set off for my personal journey to Shipetiari where I would meet the villagers and their jungle home for the first time.
I noticed that, once I turned my attention toward travels and thoughts informed by the larger intent of the time ahead, any objections by that part who’d raised them become quieter until they dissipated altogether.
It occurred to me the pandemic itself had generated my internal objections. Not because I was fearful of infection but for another reason. Like most all of us, my usual world came to a halt. In all that continued expanse of time, I reflected strongly on those aspects most important to me, sorting through how I would live into the future.
At a certain point, I began to wonder when or if I would be able to transition back into the world with my new realizations. I noticed a hint of complacency, lethargy really. Or was it the work of actually wading back into “life” after a long period of contemplation?
Recently, I came across a definition of the fundamental natures of Shiva—the drive being equilibrium—and Shakti—drawn to the “stuff of the world” and change. To illustrate, there was an image of Shiva deep in meditation with Shakti attempting to bring him into the dance. I don’t claim to be a knowledgeable student of Hinduism, but in that moment the teaching reached out and grabbed me…two sides of the same coin. Elements familiar to me inserted themselves in a deeper way.
I had barely arrived in Cusco a few hours when I went to meet with Jack Wheeler. That’s when I learned we would be leaving early next morning for the jungle, barely breaking daylight. Jack is the founder of Xapiri Ground, based in Cusco. We met a few years ago. I discovered our nonprofits had similar missions toward preservation of Indigenous traditions. His work rests specifically with ethnic groups of the Peruvian Amazon. Xapiri Ground is working with the Matsigenka to document their cosmology, held and passed on through traditional songs and storytelling…now becoming lost.
The Storytelling Project was one reason Jack and I were going then. We, Kenosis Spirit Keepers, are helping to support that undertaking.The other was for me to respond to the invitation I’d originally received, begin to develop relationships and make arrangements to return with a small group of travelers respectful of the spiritual landscape and open to learning.
The next morning as I waited for Jack to collect me, I noticed my pervading sense of expectancy for what this journey may hold, what intent may open wide. None of it imaginable really at this juncture, and I never choose to put a box around such things. I had traveled these roads from Cusco to the rainforest many times up to a point. But how useful is it to consider every new time to be divergent from the last time, experiencing all with fresh eyes, attentive ears and otherwise open? Then finally there came the point of departure from what was familiar to me, the last leg of waters and jungle to our geographic destination.
It was clear to me we’d set out on a pilgrimage. Metaphors would arise and accompany us. But I may not consciously make their acquaintance until after the fact. It’s often like that for me. It’s how I save myself so my intellect doesn’t get involved and spoil it all.
The Matsigenka were welcoming. Over the week we spent hours visiting with people happy to engage us with the way they live, in concert with their jungle home, plants, animals and each other. They did so, not by telling us, but by being what comes naturally to them. In their way, all is sacred and there’s no separation between them and the ground underfoot, the trees towering above or the birds or monkeys that fly through the trees…the waterways, frogs, insects and other inhabitants. To be otherwise is not within their reality. I have been with other Indigenous communities who live close to land. Somehow, this was different in a way I don’t quite have the words to express but will begin to write of it soon. They’ve left a mark on me and so has the jungle. There being no way to separate what is integral.
This is the story I want to tell now. One afternoon I decided to stay behind. We’d had an eventful morning, and I just wanted to be still. No matter where we went, the jungle was ever-present. My small bungalow was elevated a few feet with one side open, tall trees and dense foliage began maybe fifteen feet in front of where I sat on the stoop. No one else was around and the village was a twenty minute walk by trail.
I just sat. Not too much flitted through my mind. I did realize how completely relaxed my body felt, how deeply and long I slept each night. Those thoughts vacated and I sat. I watched. Training my eyes up toward the canopy, I saw two macaws fly by. A woodpecker landed on a high branch. Movement at the edge of the brush and a huge lizard slipped by. I listened to the calls of birds, some melodious, others somewhat harsh. Insects made a continuous chorus.
Then I began to feel. Energy. Everywhere. The more I opened that channel, the more there was. So much life. So very much vibration. It seemed to me the world fell away—or I fell into it. I was permeated.
I was in a state of wonderment through the last bit of our stay, all the way back to Cusco and carried all the way home. Something had happened, and I had no words for it. Only now after three months can I begin to speak of it with any coherence.
There’s a sacred Vibration, the constant that holds existence. And there are places where everything readily resonates with that frequency, each expressing it in their own way.
Now I’m left wondering if that resonance is what I sensed in the Matsigenka people, the land and all that inhabit it…
Words are often inadequate to convey an experience or feeling of great depth. The language just doesn’t exist until someone invents it, and it gains use as part of the vernacular. Such is the case with werifesteria, “to wander longingly in the forest in search of the Mystery.”
Once its meaning is learned there must be instant relief for those attuned to it. If the word is in use then there must be others traveling along that pathway as well. The forest can take whatever form you choose to give it—inner or outer landscape, seen or unseen. It’s not linear or logical for sure. By its very nature werifesteria attracts the strong intent it delivers ahead. We need only hold rapt attention, gathering cues that unfold the deeper path.
I must be a werifesterian. It feeds my soul for what may be revealed.
For more information on our August 21-31, 2022 spiritual travel program to Peru, go here.
I first heard of Ocean Vuong through Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being. There was so much to absorb, I couldn’t do it in one listen, and repeated it a few days later. Here was a young man, brought to the US from Vietnam at the age of two by his family. His father left them and, as Ocean says, he was raised by women — his mother, grandmother, and an aunt. He suffered the consequences of their PTSD, the inheritance from war, and all were illiterate.
Ocean was the first in his family who learned to read — at age eleven. In 2019, he was awarded the “Genius Grant” by the MacArthur Foundation. Other prestigious poetry and fiction awards preceded that one, beginning in 2014. At age thirty-three, he has racked up serious outside praise few can claim.
But I suspect that, had he not personally gone through heartbreaking trials and tragedies, and somehow digested them, Ocean would not have been able to translate, at the level he has, what it means to be an immigrant merged with a gay coming-of-age story. When I read his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I listened to the audiobook first. It was narrated by the author. I wanted to take it in through the voice I heard in the interview — compassionate, vulnerable, and distinctly observant — fragility imbued with strength. Then I read it. I wanted to linger over the words of wisdom that emerged from one so young and his accurate criticisms of our culture.
I was also reading Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge at the time, which had the same pull on me Ocean’s did. Both were clearly framed from the authors’ own lives. The only question remained: how little was fiction.
Ocean’s main character is known as Little Dog, the name representing something subhuman and insignificant, an old leftover practice from the village, meant out of love. In this way, it’s hoped he will not stand out and instead will be protected. Every morning his mother reminds him before he ventures out of his home, now in Hartford, “Don’t draw attention to yourself. You’re already Vietnamese.”
Reading that line truly distressed me. It makes a sad but unignorable statement on the resident bias running through American culture. I’m ashamed of it. In an interview, Ocean spoke about first-generation immigrants coming from war or extreme violence who sought to be invisible. Every day opens framed through fear. While he said, the second generation wants to be visible and express their freedom.
Pay attention and notice the compassion and astute understanding set into dialogue in his writing. Little Dog and his grandmother Lan are watching a nature show where a whole herd of buffalo, each following the one immediately in front of them, ultimately leap off a cliff. Lan exclaims, “Why do they die themselves like that?” Little Dog replies, “They don’t mean to, Grandma. They’re just following their family. That’s all. They don’t know it’s a cliff.”
It’s often said that Ocean focuses on violence and tragedy. But he also has the gift of transmuting it into elements of beauty. This, too, is a form of moving beyond mere survivorship. Little Dog and his mother Rose had just come back to their dingy hotel from the Saigon cemetery, having laid Lan’s burial urn to rest. They’d carried it all the way from Hartford. Rose is disoriented. Little Dog says her name.
“Only when I utter the word do I realize that rose is also the past tense of rise. That in calling your name I am also telling you to get up. I say it as if it is the only answer to your question — as if a name is also a sound we can be found in. Where am I? Where am I? You’re Rose, Ma. You have risen.”
I haven’t been so taken by a novel in quite some time. The book was named one of the top ten books of 2019 by the Washington Post and retains a long list of awards. A film adaptation is in the works.
Many of you know I recently returned from a personal journey – immersion in the little known Matsigenka way of life and time in deep jungle…profoundly transformational for me. The community has graciously invited me to bring a small group.
– Carla Woody
It is a privilege to sponsor this special program focusing on sacred traditions linking the Q’ero and Quechua peoples of the Andes and the Matsigenka of the jungle. I offer you an intimate opportunity, unlikely to be found on your own — with the intent that we are all transformed and carry the beauty home.
We begin in areas outside Cusco wiith Doña Vilma Pinedo and Q’ero paq’os — traditional Wisdom Keepers and mystics — who usher us into the world of the Andes, an alternate reality of life-affirming choices.
Then we transition deep into the rainforest to the pristine, wild surroundings of Matsigenka homelands. We experience how it is tolive harmoniously attuned to the environment, creating natural medicines and traditional arts, consuming foods provided by the rainforest, and taking in oral history informing the Matsigenka world view.
This is a journey of ayni — sacred reciprocity. We sit in ceremony of all these traditions, become an allyu — spiritual community — honoring all that sustains the planet and our own wellbeing. We come together with blessings, prayers and share the daily activities of all pilgrims.
We will be a smaller group than usual with respect to the Matsigenka village capacities. Though small, their hearts are open and wish to receive us in generosity just as our Q’ero friends and Dona Vilma Pinedo do.
Detailed information including itinerary, tuition, bios, and how to register is on the program page. I’m truly honored to bring you this rare opportunity.
I am privileged to bring you such a special opportunity. Join me and accept my invitation for this Adventure of the Spirit…and know that you are supporting continuation of the invisible, sacred threads that hold the world together.
In a time of global movement away from our origins, disintegration of family and disconnection from the natural elements, Spirit Keepers are the true warriors of today. In diminishing pockets throughout the world, in many ways disrespected, they still maintain the invisible threads that connect us to our roots.
We help preserve Indigenous traditions threatened with decimation.
Spirit Keepers are the stewards of our future. The ancient, Indigenous ways instill appreciation for the Mother Earth and all beings. When Spirit Keepers are honored and come together to share their sacred practices, we are all nourished. Our common foundation is strengthened.
We honor traditional Indigenous spiritual leaders, healers and communities who hold the fragile threads of their sacred ways.
We fully believe: If these traditions continue to die, we all lose.
I founded Kenosis Spirit Keepers as the nonprofit extension of Kenosis. I’m pleased to say that we’re now in our 14th year. We continue our work against all odds.
A side note: Although I’ve explored various media in my artwork across decades, the intent of the content remains … those elements most sacred.
First, let me say this isn’t goodbye. I’d mentioned in a post back in May that I’d been going through a process—perhaps you have as well—made convenient by the pandemic. In a certain way, with all pretty much coming to a standstill, the space and time demanded it. The call for sorting was strong: the recapitulation of a life, what really matters, and the future laid open to be taken up in an even deeper way. I can’t say this track is complete. Messages still come winging in as I’m easing back into the loosening future that is now.
…I fully recognize what’s ahead to be a different personal landscape than the one I’d been traveling—and have come to realize I don’t regret it. In fact, I welcome it. There’s a point when what was once off the beaten path becomes a well-traveled road.
…I’m not ready to slip my physical body as yet. But who knows what the future holds? However, I have a body of work that spans about 30 years, and experiences older than that. A lot of it has been documented through books, essays, a mentoring program and audio teachings. Some have yet to be written down. I’ve been fortunate to have engaged with a good number of people who let me know they’ve benefitted through the programs I’ve sponsored, private work and writings.
To fully review how guidance presented itself, read From the Archives: A Life Experienced. For me, these promptings are rarely linear but alert me to certain cues that string together decisions.
That said, I’ve archived two of my three books and my mentoring program so that they’re available for free on Medium in serial chapter format. Soon I’ll upload my third book as well. All are about conscious living and the spiritual journey. I hope you find them of benefit.
Link through the writing platform Medium. For each book or program chapter, scroll to the bottom for the table of contents with links to continue.
Anyone may read three free Medium articles a month without creating an account. If you create a free account, you may comment and/or show appreciation by “clapping” on the three free articles a month. However, there are ways to gain unlimited free access and circumvent a pay wall, which you can read about here.
A friend recommended A Pilgrimage to Eternity knowing how much the Camino de Santiago meant to me—my walk and the aftermath, what I learned about myself. I confess I thought I’d be wading through a lot of historical minutiae reading this book. But I was pleasantly surprised, moved and entertained.
Timothy Egan’s mother was a progressive but devout Catholic. After her passing, he decided to make the pilgrimage on the Via Francigena, an ancient route actually older than the Camino de Santiago by about two hundred years. It begins in Canterbury and ends in Rome. The Via passes through England, France, Switzerland and Italy, a length of 1100 miles.
Egan self-identified as a “lapsed” Catholic. One reason for his undertaking such an incredibly testing journey was the sheer physicality of it. But there were two other reasons. He really wanted to get to the bottom of how early Christianity—whose tenets were love, gender equality, charity and little dogma—transitioned to what it is today. He also wanted to reactivate his own spirituality, and see if he could find those original core precepts in action in the present-day Catholic Church.
This is Egan’s account of his own personal pilgrimage. By his very reasons, it included a fine examination and accounting of where the Catholic Church fell from its early grace. The Inquisition, murders, sexual abuse, bias and politics are already commonly known. But this writer fills in the gaps and pinpoints specific immoral deeds, contradictions, greed and subterfuge— often told with wickedly irreverent, biting humor. He doesn’t cut them any slack.
He came into the pilgrimage already carrying his own personal grief and strikes against the Church, which are relayed in the book. One had to do with Father Patrick O’Donnell who lived across the street from his childhood home, back then a 31-year-old priest. Egan’s mother welcomed him, a frequently invited guest. The priest was charismatic and considered a Pied Piper with kids. We know this familiar story. In 2002, a Spokane paper broke the story of dozens of accusations against the priest for sexually abusing boys across his priestly career, and how he’d just been moved by from one parish to another when things got too dicey. When Egan’s grown friend read the news, trauma came flooding back…what he’d kept secret. He subsequently took his own life.
Egan takes the Church to task about their fear of women’s power and sexuality: “Sex got stuck, just like those clerics who were never able to move beyond the boyhood trauma of arousal. The best women—Mary the mother of God, Joan the Maid, and Brigid of Ireland—were [made] virgins. The best men—Augustine, Jerome, and Benedict—renounced sex.”
He goes on to talk about Pope Gregory VII’s edict in the 11th century against clerical marriage. This when nearly half the clerics had wives or mistresses. There’s a lot more on that subject. But you’ve got a taste.
Here’s an accounting of high shenanigans I hadn’t known. When in Geneva, Egan sought out the repository of a special, preserved document issued by the pope—a “passport to paradise” of which who knew how many were sold. The purpose was protection from hell. The cost of the document depended on how many years the buyer wanted to reduce their time in purgatory. They could do so for themselves or a deceased relative. The fee lined the pope’s and clerics’ pockets. Thus were palaces built and feasts laid out…while peasants gave what money they had to the Church and their families went without enough food. The practice came to a halt after Martin Luther made a public exposé of this and a plethora of other instances of vast indulgences and greed by the Catholic Church. So began the advancement of Protestantism.
Along with informing us of the Church’s misdeeds, the author shares his experiences. This one is quite remarkable. He visited the crypt of Saint Lucia Filipini located in Montesiascone Cathedral in the town of Montefiascone, Italy. She died in 1732 at 6o. Her body remains incorruptible. On his visit, Egan looked closely. Her eyes were half open. Shooting a number of photos, he zoomed in and observed “a slow but discernible movement. The eyes are opening wider, to a half oval.” It jolted him with a sense of direct connection to the saint, the body. The next day he returned to the crypt. The eyes were completely closed.
He introduces us to the Abbey of Saint-Maurice along the Great St-Bernard Pass. Yes, the one with the rescue dogs. Perpetual prayer and chanting has endured 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for centuries. These days the monks who perform this duty are known as the Sleepless Ones. A site for contemplatives, there’s a draw for retreat.
Why truly would someone, and particularly the author, want to make such an arduous pilgrimage on the Via? “Wonder is a simple virtue. Like childhood, it’s grounded in innocence, taken for granted until it’s impossible to reclaim. One of the reasons I’m on the VF is to see whether I can maintain my wonder of what could be, while never forgetting what was.”
Now I’m dreaming of doing it myself. Well, maybe a truncated version at least.
How do I Iead into what I want to convey? Isn’t that always the underlying unconscious question? These days it’s not so much what I want to express but how. What is the conveyance that will provide the depth I seek…to the point…without rambling? But really, life is rarely to the point if you think about it. By necessity rambling is required for learning, isn’t it? For me, the circuitous route has proven to be the most interesting, serendipity the gift most enlivening, what’s off the beaten path most fruitful.
Now going into the second year of the pandemic, it’s fifteen months since my usual life came to a screeching halt—the same as nearly everyone’s on the planet. A force much greater than any of us took over. We’re left with how to mediate uncertain ground. I haven’t been home this long in more than twenty years. My lifework involves a lot of travel.
What I’ve noticed though is my rambling hasn’t gone away. I’m just covering other-than-physical ground more deeply than I have in quite a while. The space and silence provided the opportunity to do so. Hence, the questions and ruminations I mentioned. I fully recognize what’s ahead to be a different personal landscape than the one I’d been traveling—and have come to realize I don’t regret it. In fact, I welcome it. There’s a point when what was once off the beaten path becomes a well-traveled road.
Over this last year I’ve been through a conscious sorting process. The core elements I consider most important haven’t changed. The intent I hold remains solid. It’s more about opening to other or even wider, spacious ways to engage them. It’s the process of coming to comfort within uncertainty—knowing there was never any certainty anyway and all is transient. It’s possible whatever way I end up may not look outwardly different. Who knows at this point? However, I intend that inwardly it will hold spaciousness. I’m bringing my intent to ground by speaking it here. The process I’ve been undergoing is very much about the present and future.
A curious thing happened several weeks ago. In the middle of the night I awoke with a start. I rode into wakefulness with this thought: I’ve been on the planet for 67 years. Soon it will be 68. It’s not like I don’t know this. But I’ve never thought much about my own age. I’m fortunate to be healthy and, through long ago choices, living the kind of life I never could have dreamed up. I hold a lot of gratitude for that. I’m guessing most people think about their longevity, but I really hadn’t paid it much mind.
I have been holding the thought, borne through that middle-of-the-night prompting. Things going the way they do with me, this next piece happened a few days later. I can’t pinpoint how this occurred exactly, but a music video appeared in my social media feed. I actually watched it. Not typical for me. It was a song by the Avett Brothers called No Hard Feelings. I’d never heard of them. The lyrics, the way they sang it and the images in the video touched me so deeply, I listened to it several times in a row and have continued since.
When my body won’t hold me anymore And it finally lets me free Will I be ready? …Will my hands be steady when I lay down my fears, my hopes, and my doubts? The rings on my fingers, and the keys to my house With no hard feelings
…When the sun hangs low in the west …And it’s just hallelujah…
This poignantly beautiful song caused me to do something I urge the people I mentor to do but hadn’t done in some time.
Acknowledge yourself, where you’ve been that brought you to where you are now.
Recapitulation of a life, I looked back over time. I’ve been holding this process lightly for a few weeks now and imagine it will go on for at least a few more. I recognize that I’ve done a lot of wandering of various sorts over most of my life, and was never lost. Even though, there were times when it felt so. I couldn’t have told you what compelled me until a decade or so ago. Finally, I realized there’s an energy I follow that has not let me down when I’m faithful to it. I’ve experienced some things most people have not. Some I can’t explain. I’ve had great joy in my life, also devastation and deep loss. What I’ve come to is this: It’s all been perfect. Every bit has brought me to this point in time. I feel blessed by it all.
One of my favorite things to do is have a meal with friends and afterward linger, usually over a glass of red wine, and relay favorite stories of experiences past. That I’ve missed a lot through the pandemic. (Although it’s transferred to more writing and artwork as my narrative.)
Some years ago, I was doing this very thing with a few of the intrepid travelers who came with me to Chiapas on my Maya program. We’d been hanging out after dinner at Don Mucho’s, an open-air restaurant at the rainforest compound outside Palenque called El Panchan. (It holds so many of its own stories a book was written about it.) One of the women said to me, “You need to put all these stories together and call it Tales from Carla’s Table.” This memory came back to me during my life review, and I made a decision.
I’m not ready to slip my physical body as yet. But who knows what the future holds? However, I have a body of work that spans about 30 years, and experiences older than that. A lot of it has been documented through books, essays, a mentoring program and audio teachings. Some have yet to be written down. I’ve been fortunate to have engaged with a good number of people who let me know they’ve benefitted through the programs I’ve sponsored, private work and writings.
All this meandering narrative to come to this point—an announcement—and I appreciate your patience. I’ve already started to archive all of it in one place, including my book Standing Stark in serialized chapter form with the others to follow. I have Dr. Mehmet Yildiz to thank for his generous support. Dr. Yildiz is the founder and editor-in-chief of Illumination and related publications on the writing platform Medium. He took me on as a writer and welcomes my reprints. You can find my author page here.
All will be available to anyone who desires for as long as Medium remains online. I hope it may be of benefit.
Anyone may read three free Medium articles a month without creating an account. If you create a free account, you may comment and/or show appreciation by “clapping” on the three free articles a month. However, there are ways to gain unlimited free access and circumvent a pay wall, which you can read about here.
The film opens with compelling footage, largely black and white, in first person perspective. We move swiftly, low to the ground, through sagebrush. Suddenly, the perspective alters and we observe a white wolf loping through tangled wilderness and scrubby, twisted trees. It’s then we realize we’d been seeing through wolf eyes. This shift occurs repeatedly, from first to third point of view, as the wolf tears through high grassland, bent on reaching a lone tree in the middle of a field. As she gets closer, strains of haunting music emanate from its luscious leaves.
Beneath the branches, slight movement, a hint of color, and we can almost make out a figure, obscured by shadow. Emerging now, it proves to be a slight, dark-haired girl, braids cascading to the waist. She scans the grasses seeming to know something or someone is out there. But the wolf is hunkered down hidden in tall grass, watching. A breeze finds its path. The sound of wood chimes, the fluttering of ephemera hung in the branches, hardly visible, set as they are against stillness, brings a moment of suspense.
Then the girl returns to her place under the tree. Facing its trunk, she takes up her violin and resumes the lament previously interrupted.
Soon we learn a strand of hair, handwritten petitions rolled into scrolls tied with ribbon, and other treasured things extend from the tree’s branches.
The entire tree is an altar and the violin music is a sacrament.
To give any more detail would intervene in the viewer’s experience. Just know it’s a multi-layered, touching film about loss, intergenerational trauma, hope, friendship—how one young First Nations girl finds her way through with the help of guides.
This German movie was filmed in British Colombia on Scw’exmx Nation land with members of the People of the Creek playing the characters, all first-time actors. Director Nino Jacusso is Swiss, and the film was drawn from the novel by Italian writer Federica de Cesco.
There is an English version available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video.
I had been listening to this young man for the past hour recounting significant aspects of his life’s story — a pilgrimage really — moving over the past decade. We were sitting in the upper level of Xapiri, his gallery a couple of blocks off Cusco’s main square, with Amazonian art all around us. He was winding down.
I’d been enthralled. “That’s incredible, you know.”
He offered a sardonic smile and said in decidedly Oxford English, “Yeah, that’s the brief story. There was a lot of randomness in-between.” Jack had a delightful way of laughing at himself that was attractive. But there were elements beyond his charm that spoke to greater substance and make-up.
Earlier that morning I was having breakfast in the tiny café of the family hotel El Balcón where I had long lodged my spiritual travel groups to Peru. A young North American woman, interning in hospitality services there, sat down across from me. We’d talked several times about what we were both doing in Cusco. This time she said, “I think you should meet Jack Wheeler. He’s got quite a story.” She gave me just enough to pique my interest and directions on where to find Xapiri. I took a chance that Jack would be there during my free time, and he’d be open to telling a complete stranger his personal history on a moment’s notice.
For a limited few, the trajectory of their life is laid out with certainty — and they’re quite satisfied with that. Satisfaction is key in this distinction, being bred in the bone to the extent they wouldn’t have it any other way. For the rest of us, conscious of it or not, we must seek our grounding. We know we’re not there when there’s an underlying feeling of discomfort, the rumblings of angst, a sense of just passing time, filling a slot, or waiting for something to happen. The tragedy of settling for the uneventful life is not discovering who you are. That’s not much of a legacy to pass down.
Jack had led into his tale, “When I left college, I wanted to follow one of the normal careers. I started working in a bank in my home city of Birmingham. It’s called the second city, London being the first. I’d worked there for two years. Although I was successful with promotions and really good money for my age, I definitely wasn’t happy. So, I started to travel. I took three months off and went to Peru, the first place I visited. I was twenty years old. At that point, I had no idea what I wanted. I was lost. I was traveling just because I wasn’t happy in England.
“But still I went back there. After a few years in the bank, I started a business with my older brother Tom. We worked hard, and it took off within six months. For many people it would appear to be a dream come true, creating something and being your own boss. But again, even though I was making money, I had no fulfillment — like it was at the bank. It wasn’t feeding my soul. So again, I decided to travel,” Jack punctuated his story with chuckles.
“That was about 6 years ago. I had a big, big trip where I traveled for a year…from New York all the way across the Americas…Central and South America, all the way to Patagonia. Big, big travel. Amazing travel. But looking back now, it was ticking boxes. I was going from place to place, spending a week in each place. It was enjoyable but not getting deep. It was more a standard backpacking trip.”
I pointed out to him a lot of people stuff their discontent instead of doing something about it. So much depends on outside influences and belief in what’s possible. There’s also the question of risk, stepping outside what’s familiar. Typically, if someone is going to answer what Joseph Campbell spoke of as a Calling, it’s after they’ve got more years on them, and the sacrifices have mounted up. I was speaking from experience.
“I think I was lucky to realize it at a young age. I put it all down to the traveling. At the beginning, the traveling wasn’t so deep. I wasn’t yet involved with Indigenous cultures. It still opened my eyes! When I came to Cusco the first time, I stayed in an orphanage volunteering for three months. I saw humanity, and it woke me up a little bit. The idea for Xapiri didn’t come at that point. I didn’t yet understand what I needed for fulfillment. It was a slow process. But I realized I couldn’t handle all the money and success back home.
“After the three months? I went back to England. Yeah, the story’s crazy!” With this last admission he produced a subdued bark, a commentary perhaps at the expense of his not-so-much younger self.
It’s seldom understood in the moment. But wandering is rarely aimless if we’re engaged, alert and open to possibility. A sorting process occurs beneath the surface, a recognition of what fits and what doesn’t. It takes putting ourselves into new, sometimes off the charts, experiences. In this way, we get hits over time, self-correcting so that when the full unveiling comes, it’s like we knew our passion all along. It’s no stranger to us. What at first may seem accidental, becomes the realization of personal destiny.
“My brother had relocated to Sweden. I went and spent the summer. I got back involved with the business in a different role with the idea I’d get more connected. But again…I didn’t. Yeah, I traveled again.
“This was a common theme. I was always traveling as an escape looking for something, I guess. It was on this travel when things began to click. I was in Venezuela and then Brazil where I had contact with the first Indigenous communities. I suddenly realized this is the work I wanted to do — to be involved with Indigenous people.
“At this point there were still no projects, no idea to work with the arts. Only later, I stumbled into this art gallery called CANOA in the town of Paraty. It was founded by Nina Taterka who was doing amazing work with over fifty ethnic groups in Brazil. A few months later I met her son Tui Anandi who became an important part of Xapiri from the beginning. He had all his experience having grown up surrounded by his mum’s work. Now Tui is a great friend, Xapiri partner and photographer for when we visit the communities.
“The moment I walked into Nina’s gallery, I knew I needed to be involved,” He nodded emphatically. “Somehow I persuaded her to listen to me. We had some meetings. The initial idea when meeting her was to show this Indigenous art to a European market. We made the shipments, sending the art work from Brazil to England…and that’s how Xapiri was born six years ago now.”
There’s an interesting thing that happens once the seeker finds life purpose. The traveler comes to rest in the comfort of self-knowledge. Seeking goes to the wayside, and they find solid ground, even if it’s invisible in the moment. Having sought outside the box, all manner of potentials will become apparent that heretofore were hidden. The more clarity existing within your intent, the more those elements will naturally come to fulfill it. Synchronicity becomes a common occurrence. It’s not that blocks don’t appear, but we recognize alternatives to skirt them, an important part of the learning process. In this initiation, a foundation is built.
I was curious how Jack gained entry into the Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon. I knew he had some help initially from Nina when he was in Brazil. Beyond that, he would definitely enter foreign territory where some remote ethnic communities would have had little to no contact with Westerners. It could be sketchy to just show up — without invitation. Even with an invite, it was a fearless move. Jack had to harbor such strong intent that he was on the right track. At any rate, a lot of people want to do things but don’t have the how-to, especially given the unusual path he had chosen.
“I can give a few examples. The way these relationships start are always different with each community. You’re right. In the beginning, I had this connection with Nina in Brazil. She was the first person to introduce me to some communities. The first expedition we went on was to visit the Asurini people of the Xingu river six years ago with Nina and her photographer friend, Alice Kohler. It was because of their relationships we had the invitation to go in.
“Since then it’s been Xapiri — the team and me — creating the connections in many different ways. The Matsés are the most remote community we work with, as an example. For sure, they had very little contact with outsiders coming into their territory. A number attempt to get into their land but don’t succeed. Once they get to the military outpost on the border of their lands, they get no farther. You really need to have connections and invitations. How it happened with the Matsés was through a nonprofit called Acaté Amazon Conservation. They’ve been working with the Matsés for about ten years and have created many amazing projects with them.
“Acaté is a nonprofit that does super work. Their cofounder Christopher Herndon sent me an email at the beginning of Xapiri five years ago saying we’ve had some meetings with the Matsés women, and they want help selling their arts. Chris and I connected on our first conversation, and we agreed to begin with sending a few bracelets created by the Matsés women to Xapiri. That’s how the relationship started — very slowly. I think we had ten bracelets in the beginning. They started to sell. We asked for fifty bracelets, a hundred bracelets and so on. I would say over the first year that we were building this trust, with both Acaté and the Matsés, from repeat orders. Soon, it developed by asking Matsés men to make many lances and arrows, to keep it fair with the women.”
“We started to hear stories. There were still some elder women making ceramics in the remote villages. Slowly, more of their arts appeared, their baskets, bags and so on. On that trip we also made direct contact ourselves. It became this beautiful project where we were selling through Acaté. After a year when this trust had been established, we had the invitation to go visit the Matsés. It was from the Matsés leaders and the nonprofit. The first time we went in was three years ago. We started having a direct relationship with the Matsés creating media documenting how they live, telling the stories of their lands. With the Matsés, it happened slowly with the help of the nonprofit. Now I’d say we’re really close with the Matsés. We were there again in 2019. Every time we go, we present our work to different villages and communicate what we’re doing.
“With other communities, we’ve made contact through recommendations from friends. Tui and I have done long expeditions into the jungle. We’ve gone exploring. Three years ago, we went from Manaus in Brazil to Peru to the Colombian border to Pucallpa. This was a three-month trip where we stopped off and visited different communities and made contact with different nonprofits. We were working out which nonprofits we could partner with on the ground to help us. That’s how we made contact with the Shipibo in Pucallpa through the nonprofit Alianza Arkana. On that trip we made contacts ourselves with the Ticuna on the border with Colombia. Along with that, a lot is happening in communities near Cusco through direct contact and through friends we meet in the gallery.
“Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the Madre de Dios region, is considered the entrance into the southern Amazon jungle. In this region, you have the Yine. By visiting that city, we’ve had contact with some of the leaders and had invitations to some of the villages. It’s lots of trial and error. Lots of the connections we make never materialize. The communications are very difficult. Lots of times there are no phone signals. It’s really face-to-face relationships and building trust in person before anything develops. We try to make many relationships and a few stick. So now we’re working with ten different ethnics. That’s how it is.”
When lifework comes together bit by bit over time, especially when focused on the everyday process, there can be a tendency to take the journey for granted. I asked, “Do you ever look back and wonder how in the world you got here?“
“Of course. There are often these moments in Matsés land, and you’re spending the whole day in the canoe. These are the times you reflect. I look at Tui. It’s five years ago we were just dreaming. We were just following our passion, and now we’re doing this really important work. We have to pinch ourselves! It’s emotional these moments. It really is — all this hard work coming together. Spending time with the communities, this is what it’s all about. Back from these expeditions you feel like different people. We’re ready to put all this energy into the work back in Cusco and what we do day-to-day. Waiting for the next expedition and time with the Indigenous… It’s the cycle. It’s beautiful.”
I wondered about the effect Xapiri has had on the Indigenous peoples within their focal point.
“The sheer number of people we’re supporting now is well over one hundred artists. These artists are normally the only people bringing money into their families. I can’t tell you how many phone calls Xapiri gets from Indigenous people asking us for support. For instance, someone is asking for two hundred Peruvian soles for medication because a family member is sick. We send this money and know within a month they’ll send art as a return. There are these examples where we’re supporting these individuals who have no other option when they get sick or want to send their grandson to university. Without Xapiri’s platform, it really wouldn’t be possible. They call on Xapiri as the trusted people they know who will help. On a very simple level, we’re supporting many people now.
“What’s so important now is engaging the Indigenous youth with our work. It’s the grandmother making her art and selling. Then it’s the granddaughter seeing this, and she wants to know how to make the basket or the bracelet. She gets connected again to her culture and this can bring a sense of restored pride. If we can keep doing this — getting the young people engaged in the culture — that’s the biggest thing Xapiri can do is connect with the youth.
“It’s proving to be one of the hardest things. But when it’s working, this is one of the most important things. These traditions will continue…the art, language, medicinal plant knowledge. It’s all connected. If the Indigenous are strong and connected to their culture, they will continue these aspects. That’s presently one of Xapiri’s biggest missions. It’s for these pieces of wisdom to continue. If we can help support that…that’s our mission.”
One of the important aspects of finding our place in the world has to do with recognizing resources and undertaking subsequent strategies as a result. Frequently, people overlook the most preeminent resource of all. Acknowledging their own capabilities, whether innate or learned, creates a stronger foundation. It’s something to count on. Self-acknowledgment builds baseline confidence to move ahead — even in the dark days.
I wanted to explore this with Jack. “I love your story. Also, I recognize there’s something within you. You possess capacities that allow you to put things in place and be so successful. Starting out, even when you were back in England, everything worked like clockwork for you. I think that’s an important point because some people will stay in a job because it’s lucrative, and they’re able to do it. For you, that wasn’t enough. You’re adept at creating relationships as well.”
Jack considered the past. “I agree. One of my greatest strengths is in relationship-building and the small steps we’ve taken to get to this point. Those first years in England where Xapiri was born, that was the foundation. I read book after book on history and different Indigenous matters. You’ve got to make connections with different activists, nonprofits and anthropologists. That was the base, doing my research. Without that time, Xapiri never would have taken off in Cusco. Throughout these past years, there have been these careful steps. Very slowly, but building it in a careful and really deep way. Every relationship we make is sincere. It’s aimed to be super long-term and sustainable. It’s not something we’re doing for a few years. I know it’s long-term because it’s such a passion. That’s why I’m happy to move slowly and do it right. I know that if I keep taking these steps for ten, twenty, thirty years…we can do some amazing things.”
In such a way spiritual identity is developed. It’s more than a public face. Like Indigenous peoples who maintain their traditions, connections to their communities and ancestral lands, roots run deep. Everyday life is lived through deeply held beliefs. There’s no compartmentalization. Any task or direction is reinforced through sacred threads they hold as generative. One thing is woven into the other, creating wholeness.
That morning I introduced myself to Jack, there was a specific prompting I received in my early morning conversation with the young woman who suggested I meet him. Not knowing his story exactly, I was quite familiar on a personal level of the elements it might contain. I was curious as to what compelled Jack specifically to undertake this venture. It could even be considered a holy one. Such rites of passage always involve risk, unfamiliar territory, uncertainties and potential failure.
All who submit to the journey will have their own details within the elements just as Jack did. One thing is certain. If the intrepid explorer follows their intent all the way through to its true and logical destination, they will experience a quickening. It will allow them to find — not merely footing — but grounding within their own finely tuned home in the world.
The Lifepath Dialogues offer an invitation toward embodiment of all that is life-affirming and the deeper meaning of sustainability. Themes are drawn from books "Calling Our Spirits Home" and "Standing Stark" and 20+ years as a conscious living mentor leading spiritual travel journeys with Indigenous Wisdom Keepers serving their communities, group and individual programs. Carla specializes in working with people who seek to live through their deeply held values. For more info see the “About” tab. The author may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow this blog by becoming a fan on the Kenosis Facebook page.
The Lifepath Dialogues Gatherings
Topics here are meant to open conversations and self-reflection. For more information, go to the "About" page.