The day started off like any other pandemic day might, rifling through an old Burning Man box to see if I had any spare N95 masks to donate to our sparsely stocked hospital. I didn’t find any masks, but I did find a small envelope mysteriously labeled “Unicorn Candy”, which contained a solitary pink tablet. I seemed to remember that it had been a gift from a delightful fairy who’d fluttered into my life during a brief spell the previous year. What kind of candy did unicorns eat exactly? I wondered. I hadn’t asked what it was at the time, or if I had, I’d long since forgotten, but I was guessing their favorite snack was probably something pretty magical. Incidentally, earlier that morning I’d seen a Vice article that asked the question “You’re Socially Isolating. Is Now a Good Time to Trip on Psychedelics?”. Well, it’s Saturday, I thought. I don’t have any children, all my work for the foreseeable future has vanished, and there’s five thousand acres of wilderness behind my cabin. I never actually read the Vice article, instead I decided to open the envelope, pop the pill into my mouth, and find out the answer for myself. The Unicorn Candy quickly dissolved on my tongue, leaving the faintest hint of strawberry cotton candy.
After breakfast I loaded up a backpack and left my cabin, weaving up the valley into the vast swaths of BLM land behind our communal property. As I moved through the rugged landscape I recorded my thoughts using a voice recording app on my phone. I’d been doing this for years, my own version of a poor man’s talk therapy, and now, after weeks of watching this international crisis unfold in the news, some good old psychedelic-assisted talk therapy sounded like a fantastic plan. I would talk for a while and then ask myself how I felt about what I’d just talked about. I’d pause the recording when I felt that I was getting too heady and then spend some time feeling the movement in my body and listening to the sounds of nature. When I felt inspired again, I would talk some more. And so on and so forth, I meandered into the forest.
I’d walked this trail countless times before, each season offering its own unique beauty. It was now late March and early spring was beginning to take hold, bright greens and purples poking through the drab hues of winter. The leaves were damp under my feet. The skies were clear and blue, and birds celebrated the warmth of the sunny morning with sweet birdsong and the occasionally flustered territorial display. However an invisible cloud hung in the air. For weeks now, a novel virus had the world in its grips; originally discovered in China, it had now spread to almost every country. Some nations dealt with it swiftly, while others, like the United States unfortunately, less so. As of this morning our country had taken the lead in the number of cases, rising well above 100k infected people, with no signs of slowing down, at least not for the next few weeks, and more likely not for a month or more. The fact that the virus was highly contagious even before symptoms were noticeable had meant that it spread far and wide before people began to take it seriously, but by then it was already too late to avoid disaster. People were now beginning to learn what the term ‘exponential growth’ meant as hospitals began to be overrun, without enough protective gear to go around for the doctors and nurses, and not enough respirators for those with weaker immune systems who were suffering from a severe, lung choking form of pneumonia. With few options left, medics around the world were being left with the grisly choice of who to save, and who to allow to slowly choke to death, alone in their makeshift cots.
It had been a couple of weeks since Oregonians had been told that we should stay home and socially distance ourselves, and it had been a couple of days since being told that if we didn’t, we’d be charged with a misdemeanor. My first reaction had been one of detached disbelief. After all, I was far away from the unfolding chaos and I’d been voluntarily socially distancing myself for three years now, out here in the wilderness. This should be easy, I thought. But despite that, and even before putting any mythical creature’s candy into my mouth, my emotions had been pinballing from bleak sadness to dark humor, from personal frustrations to far flung despair, and today was no different.
A few days earlier a meme, those humorous little images that the internet seemed to run on, had appear in my feed: “Jan 1st 2020: “The is going to be my year!”” and the next line read: “March 18th: *wiping my ass with a coffee filter”, and while things hadn’t yet gotten that bad, it still felt strangely accurate. Without getting into the details, New Year’s Eve 2019 had been an unparalleled celebration. On the morning of January 1st as I made pancakes for two beautiful women, I smiled to myself. The night had gone even better than expected. And the year’s forecast also looked fantastic. I’d lined up a good amount of work and I was wrapping up a book that I’d soon start to promote through a series of book tours in the coming spring. 2020 was truly going to be my year. It didn’t last long though and by mid March the coronavirus, as it was known, was sweeping the globe, people were fearfully wearing masks in public and hoarding supplies, and all events and public gatherings had been forbidden for who knows how long. My events business was suddenly dead in the water as sponsors bailed, and not only would no one be coming to a book reading any time soon, few people seemed to care that I’d even written a book. I’d started to promote it but immediately felt disheartened. Who wants to hear about a mischievous motorcycle adventure when reality was in meltdown mode? Everything that had felt so important, now felt trite by comparison.
What’s more, my romantic relationship was up in the air. My girlfriend, who previously had shared her seven year old son with his father half the time, now had him at her small house, twenty four seven, and now all schools looked like they’d remain closed for the rest of the school year. Any paternal desires I’d held had already been slowly eroding over the previous few years as I witnessed the lifestyle of various parent friends, a lifestyle which didn’t feel very attractive to me, at least not anytime soon. After a couple of weeks of him being with my girlfriend full time, any remaining paternal desire had largely dissolved amidst a new reality which left my girlfriend with little time or energy for much else. Look, before you think poorly of me, I one hundred percent understand that her first duty would always lie with her child and I’d never want that to be any different. But whereas before the virus we’d managed to balance our lives well enough, with each of us more or less having our shit together, it was now starkly apparent that we suddenly really didn’t, and were both struggling. At the end of exhausted days, she had little time left for me, and with other things on my mind I had little patience left for him. So I had pulled back, and she did the same. Luckily we don’t live together so we resolved the situation by saying, “look, we’ve had a good run and the world is pretty fucked up right now, let’s not make any large sweeping decisions, instead let’s just give each other some space” or something along those lines. I said if things got really dire they could come out to where I lived, something I’d considered before but to be honest now the thought of the three of us in my tiny cabin actually filled me with dread. Maybe a better man would have stepped up and saved the day, but my life felt like a construction zone and I’d never really signed up for all of that. Besides, I’m probably too selfish and self absorbed to make a good parent anyway, I thought darkly. Yep, there was nothing like a good pandemic to bring all our edges and insecurities to the surface.
This foray out into nature made one thing perfectly clear: I was not my usual self. My self talk was more fearful and resentful, my humor more dark and cynical. For the past couple of weeks, my entire nervous system felt like it was on constant high alert, a background frequency that had me on guard for the next danger to rear its head. It was a feeling I had grown accustomed to since childhood. Historically, this underlying anxiety enabled me to hurl myself compulsively into projects but also made it hard for me to fully relax or to develop deep, trusting relationships. Despite knowing that I was in a safe place and having my basic needs met, I still felt a deep unease simmering just beneath each moment. It had grown less over the years but this pandemic had reawakened it. Fear for my family and friends in the big cities, fear for where my income was going to now come from, fear for my social and romantic relationships, fear about what life was going to be like afterward, fear whether I was doing enough, or not doing enough, and fear that maybe I was just a complete asshole; fears reverberated through me in waves. As I walked deeper into the woods I weighed how many of these fears were for my own situation, and how many were actually for others. You see, despite being removed physically from others, we can never be fully removed. When you’re empathetic, their suffering is our suffering too. I was feeling even more unfocused, angry and worthless than usual and was on my second box of wine in two weeks to try to numb my feelings.
It’s already a rare occurrence when as individuals we suddenly have such a sweeping opportunity for pause, but it’s even more rare of an opportunity when the entire globe is on hold. Another meme had summed it up pretty well: “Mother Earth has sent us to our rooms to think about what we’ve done!”. And it was true, humans have not been on their best behavior for sometime, so maybe we were well overdue for a time out. And now we were all feeling a little uncomfortable. Personally, I had let my healthy practices slip as of late. Instead of yoga and meditation each morning I had been seduced by the news and social media, and soon found myself pouring over the bleak headlines. And how was this new morning practice making me feel? Well, pretty damn terrible apparently! While it’s important to stay connected and informed, there comes a point where we’re just like rubber-neckers at the scene of a car crash, a dark side of us perversely hoping to catch a glimpse of some carnage. I’d been feeling a little disappointed with myself, but getting my circulation moving, and breathing the fresh morning air was reminding me of the importance of prioritizing my mental and physical health. As I felt my body moving through the forest, I reminded myself to express gratitude for all the things that were not fucked up. I’d had my fair share of challenging times and now at the ripe old age of forty I realize that they all come with an opportunity for transformation, but there’s one catch: it doesn’t just happen by itself. It has to start within each of us, as our thoughts directly influence our words and actions. Well, luckily we’ve got some time on our hands to figure our shit out, because unfortunately, the real struggles are likely still yet to come. We must pace ourselves, support our loved ones, and think long term, because life after this pandemic will be forever altered.
I looked at the forest on either side of the trail. It was the typically messy scene, fallen branches and vines strewn on top of years of dead leaves. At one point, I passed an old tree that had fallen onto a younger tree and was now propped up against it. I laughed, thinking about how annoyed I’d be if I had been that young tree. But of course, if that young tree felt anything at all, it was less likely annoyance and moreso a willingness to work with what it had been dealt, to turn its new reality into an opportunity from which more life could emerge. It was just another scene from nature’s great improv show; what appeared to be messy was actually a perfectly balanced system in motion. So now humans have been dealt a challenging hand. We can think about how we’ve been screwed over, who’s fault this all was as blame gets tossed around, or we can move on to solutions and into action, whatever that looks like for you. That might mean being on the frontlines or being a rockstar parent; it may mean entertaining people or helping them through this time in other ways; and it may just mean to stay-the-fuck home while you figure your life out. We all have the power to make a difference, if only in the story each one of us is telling. Each moment can be the moment that makes us, or breaks us, it’s all in how we tell the story. We are sowing the seeds for our collective tomorrow in every story we tell today, with every choice we make.
All of a sudden I was quite aware that I was tripping pretty hard. Well, it turns out that the Unicorn Candy was a hit of splendidly high quality acid. My body felt alive and my thoughts raced from one idea to the next. I wondered about the historic social impact of adverse conditions like pandemics. So far I’d witnessed a rousing display of connection and collaboration, as people seemed to be coming together more than ever. Not physically of course, but online, for dance parties, cook offs and all other types of interactions that used to take place in physical proximity. Even remote sex technologies were experiencing a new hay day. This swift impulse to connect is no doubt a natural tendency during chaos. But something in me didn’t fully believe it would last. How long might the sweet afterglow of gratitude and connectedness remain until humans go back to acting like selfish little bastards? Will this pandemic create a true, lasting shift in consciousness or are we destined to repeat this pendulum swing forever?
I was feeling a little cynical. Let’s face it, while some of us might exist in happy little bubbles of brightness, most of the seven billion humans on Earth treat other forms of life, the planet included, terribly. Most humans treat other humans terribly. In fact, most humans treat themselves terribly; it’s a systemic problem. We might easily be classified to an outside observer as a planetary cancer that is rapidly destroying its host; and now we’re facing what every parasite struggles with: our growth vs. our survival. Will we be able to evolve swiftly enough before we wipe ourselves out?
Personally, I’m not sure if humans are capable of such sweeping transformation without a serious upgrade to our old primate brains and limited sensory faculty. Yes, if everyone started meditating and healed their personal trauma with therapy and plant medicine it’d be a great world. But that’s slow and not likely to happen any time soon; besides we’re far too lazy, distrusting and distractible. Religion or other forms of top down control… sorry, nope we’ve tried those approaches ad nauseum and while they might work for a while, they tend to go astray, and eventually only serve to exacerbate the problem. Unfortunately I think it’s going to take more than a pandemic to truly transform us; it’s going to take something that psychologically changes us as a species. Forever.
In that moment, high as a kite and deep in the woods, it seemed perfectly clear that the only logical answer would be to use cutting edge brain computer interface technologies to augment our intelligence and upgrade our perceptive abilities. Surely, when we can understand our impact on systems and each other in deeper, more objective ways, it will no doubt be easier for us to alter our behavior for good? Until we solve this basic error in our biological programming, it’ll be more of the same: tragedies like pandemics and war might create some change for a while, but before long, in any anonymous system, the nodes, in this case subjective and fallible humans, fall back to their old sociopathic behavior. It’s not our fault that we’re so fearful and selfish, these are hardwired survival traits, artifacts instilled in us by our ancestors over the ages, brought to the surface only too clearly as displayed by consumerist brawls over toilet paper and hand sanitizer. We’re little more than monkeys in fucking sweatpants, I grimly thought.
I’d come to the top of the hike, to a place I call Inspiration Point, and I decided to lie down in the sunshine for a while. Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing if we could learn how to live more abundantly with our lives. I didn’t just mean this as a hippie catchphrase, but literally how can we create more energy than the energy we consume. Alright, even if that’s a long shot at least we first need to understand the systems that support us, to live more locally, and become less reliant on distant and dwindling resources. Beyond just living sustainably though, how can we begin to look toward a regenerative way of life, in other words, how can we create more opportunities for life and growth, by way of our actions. And no, I don’t mean by having more kids. In fact, to all the people saying that this virus is going to create a new baby boom of coronakids, Jesus Christ people, please think very carefully before bringing more kids on to this planet. Seriously, if you think you have some stellar genetics and/or that you’re going to be an award winning parent and produce amazing warrior children that will be part of the solution, and not just additional parasites feeding off an already packed, exhausted planet, then please, go right ahead. If you’re just horny, or want a project that will bring you and your partner closer together, use a condom and maybe think about getting a pet, growing a garden or creating a socially beneficial business together. Personally, I hope we see a big decrease in pregnancy and big increase in voluntary sterilization. Perhaps when we’re not so busy popping out so many new consumers we will start taking better care of ourselves, the planet and the billions of humans that are already on it. But maybe I’m missing something?
I got up and stretched for a while, and attempted to take some photos to capture the beauty of the day before I began to make my way back down the mountain, into the river valley below. Deep in the wilderness of southern Oregon, it was hard to imagine the suffering happening simultaneously across the world. As we separated ourselves from nature, we lost a great ally. Nature became a resource for us to use, rather than a system that we were part of. I believe it’s our very disconnection to nature that has led to so much of our suffering, and so it makes sense that our reconnection to nature will be a big part of our healing. At least I hope this is the case, and that this virus doesn’t make people even more afraid of the great outdoors. I looked out over the valley below. Yes, there might be some poison oak and things that sting and poke you, so you shouldn’t just go running off naked into the forest without preparation, but if you behave mindfully, you don’t have to be scared of it. As an event producer, or more accurately former event producer, it is somewhat humorous that almost every solution I think of involves bringing people together, which is the exact thing we’re being told NOT to do right now. Before the virus I hosted retreats and led hikes into the backcountry, but I obviously hadn’t organized any recently. However maybe a low key, socially close but physically distant activity in nature could be a perfect way to support those in the community who felt alone or stuck in their houses. I made a note to arrange a group hike when I got back home.
I thought about the conversation I’d had with my girlfriend the previous night. After expressing our needs and opting to take a little space for ourselves, we had instantly been able to take the pressure off each other. Almost immediately the energy between us had transformed from feeling like a drain, into something that felt more energized and inspiring, a fact which gave me more hope for the future of our relationship. I imagined how all my relationships could benefit if I was able to be as honest about my feelings and desires as I had been with her. Still, a part of me thought I should be this hero that swoops in to save the day, but I just didn’t have my life or head together enough for that. Maybe one day I’ll feel like I can support a family. Maybe one day I might feel like I can parent myself enough that I’d be able to decently parent a child. For now I’m a moody, struggling writer, out of work with a bunch of credit card debt who lives in a small, solar powered cabin and showers under a tree. So yeah, one step at a time.
Like I said before, the world was on pause, and it’s not all that often we get a chance to completely rethink our lives so it is certainly a worthwhile activity when we do. Was I happy with how I was living before? Was it sustainable? Did I enjoy working on the projects I was working on and with whom I was spending time? If not, this global pandemic offered the perfect opportunity to change, well, pretty much any of it. It was the kind of get-out-of-anything card that comes along only rarely, so it’s useful to take full advantage of it. What might a complete post-virus life overhaul look like? I wondered. Was it a true love of the wilderness that had brought me out here years earlier, or had it been some fear or scarcity mindedness that had led me here? Over the years prior to moving out here I had certainly lost trust in people, decided that the world was a harsh place and that people are ultimately out for themselves so I should probably get what I could, while I could. Of course being more of an empathetic person, this never really felt fully true deep in my heart, but my stories from the past decade or two, full of nasty business partners and other selfish humans seemed to enforce that. Had I given up prematurely when I moved to the wilderness? After all, the only way to expunge these deeply entrenched stories is to remain open and to let people in, albeit perhaps in a more discerning way, and continue to practice better collaboration. Luckily I wasn’t alone out here, as I had moved into a community which was dedicated to honing our communication skills, healing our personal wounds and becoming the best people we could be. So I at least remained hopeful that so far I’d managed to avoid becoming too much of that weird man from the woods.
I’d always been afraid that if I had a tombstone, it would have my name, my dates and the simple epitaph: “Couldn’t Figure It Out”. I laughed as I realized that maybe I was trying to use my head too much to solve this whole thing, and needed to remember my heart. Yeah, I probably needed to read some Hafiz poetry, practice some gratitude and do some journaling to help move through these shadows. As my feet connected with the ground, I pledged to remember this moment, to stay on track, to continue to try to figure things by more deeply trusting my heart. I longed to be free of this neediness, fear and selfishness, to be able to use my gifts to be of best service to myself and others. “Please God, Universe and Mother Earth,” I said, hedging my bets and luring my dark cynicism into the bright light of day, “Let me be a vessel through which you work. Help me use my creativity so that I may be of service to the greater good.”
I followed the trail back down the mountain until it met the river. It meandered alongside a one-lane dirt road which I followed as it descended back down the valley toward our property. I was coming down from the day’s high, noticing that I felt stronger and more clear than I had before I left. The moment reminded me about something I’d explored in my recent book, which is that whenever we return from any type of big trip, be it a psychedelic hike, an international motorcycle adventure or a sweeping global crisis, our future is a little more malleable than it was before. Who were we when we left? How did the experience affect us? Who do we want to be upon our return?
As humans reach the next step in our evolution we are moving beyond the awkward adolescence of our species. Can we parent ourselves effectively through this transition? Can we be kind enough parents to allow for our innate spirits to remain free, yet be stern enough parents to make sure we don’t carry forth some of our more sociopathic tendencies? It’s up to each of us to become a healthy part of the whole, and as we do so we are each laying a piece of the foundation of what’s to come. There’s no shortcut to a peaceful, healthy and balanced future other than by learning to be peaceful, healthy and balanced in ourselves, in our families, and in all our relationships. We can’t help anyone else, at least not in any sustainable way, if we ourselves are struggling. We are amplifiers of whatever we’re made of, so if we’re doing well, others will feel it, and the opportunities for spreading that vibration will open up. If we’re not doing well, then should we really be promoting or advocating for our way of life? Many people haven’t ever even given themselves the time to think about how they’d been living, frenetically running around the globe, staying endlessly busy and relentlessly distracted by doing anything and everything they could. So maybe it’s good that we’ve been grounded by Mother Earth, quarantined by this epidemic, if only to force us to reconsider how we used to live, and how we want to live going forward. A new story is being born, and the labor is extremely challenging! This birth process is an opportunity for us each to practice some good cultural midwifery, as we help deliver what comes next.
Can we learn to survive ourselves? Something about the question made me laugh as I entered my cabin. And to be honest, I’m not really sure, but we’re humans and we’ll damn well try. Part of my job on Earth is to figure out how we can collectively slough off the things that hold us back, our fears, our shame, our limiting beliefs. How can I help lessen human suffering so that we may more easily reach our most expressive, fully embodied versions of ourselves. It felt like a big, daunting question, so for now I’ll just keep telling stories, I smiled. To avoid plunging into depression, dreamers have to learn to navigate between the world that we feel is possible, and the reality that we are actually faced with. It’s incredibly humbling when we realize that we may not be alive for long enough to see the world become what we believe it can be, but that we are just a piece of the puzzle along the way, a link in a long chain, playing our role to the best of our ability. Those of us who are alive now may not actually witness the final swing of this pendulum of forgetfulness, but you know what? Holding space for what we believe to be possible is more than noble enough of a life’s purpose. After all, deep transformation takes time, requiring the creation of new stories, new hopes and dreams, new systems and ways of thinking that help us evolve as a species and graduate to our full potential.
We’re in the midst of experiencing an unfolding global crisis, a traumatic ordeal on a grand scale, so it’s important to give ourselves time to feel it all, to laugh, to cry, to grieve, and to practice grace throughout this time of great transition. There will be roles for everyone during this time, from humor to prayer, activism to entrepreneurship. This is a wake up call, a stark slap in the face that our old ways of being were flawed, and that everything is now up for renewal. New solutions for how to live, work and play will come from this, in better balance with ourselves and the planet; deeper opportunities for collaboration will emerge. So figure out how you can help, if only by learning to love yourself (because that’s the first, unavoidable step), hold onto your hats and get ready for a wild ride, and if a delightful fairy ever offers YOU unicorn candy, I highly suggest you accept it, find yourself some peace and quiet and didn’t just think about the future, but feel about the future. I took a deep breath, laid out my yoga mat and sat down to meditate, clearing my mind and preparing myself for whatever is to come.