Wednesday, October 19, 2011

3 weeks in the woods

I have spent the last 3 weeks working for a Wilderness Therapy Program in Northern Minnesota.  Because I am not allowed to take identifiable pictures of the students, my photos have  been carefully selected and filtered.  I took over 300 photos during the 3 weeks, but am only sharing 50.  The only faces you will see are mine and those of my co-instructors, Frank and Danyelle.


I am back in it. The bicycle trip now feels like it is what I am supposed to be doing with my life, and this other stuff, this “work” stuff, is just a distraction. When every day is a discovery, a new horizon, a thousand unknown possibilities and unseen images from a world never before experienced, how do you leave that behind? How do you go back to what you were doing before? In my case, I had a good job with great people in interesting places, which would sound good to most people, I realize. But this journey is changing me. I no longer want a good job in an interesting place. I want the world to be different. I want everyone to enjoy what they are doing and where they are. I want to learn more and do more and see more and experience it all first-hand. In order to truly make my life as good as I know it can be, I need to help everyone else have a good life too. How can I be happy when others are suffering, starving, oppressed, living in fear and devastating poverty? How can I sit back and enjoy my cozy little lifestyle when I know that I have the capability to do so much more?
     There is very little from a sedentary lifestyle that I find myself in desire of. I miss my family. I miss many of my friends and co-workers, but also know that many of them are not tied to any one place, and certainly not all to the places that I've been calling “home” over the last several years. My community is the world.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been in the woods with 2 co-instructors and a group of 8 teenage boys in the Minnesota Corrections system. 5 of the  boys were locked up for drug and alcohol related offenses, and 3 for other criminal acts. They come from various cities and counties of Minnesota, and share a few things in common. Most of them have had poor guidance, lack of guidance, or simply horrible guidance from their parents as to how to go about living in this world. Stories of physical and sexual abuse, drug use and law-breaking practices from a young age seem commonplace for these kids. A few of them simply don't know any other way to operate. One struggled particularly hard on an assignment to write about a positive role model that they knew personally, because he couldn't think of one. I felt needed by these kids. They have a hard time trusting anyone, but when I was speaking from the heart, they listened and thanked me for it. Most of them wear a shell of anger and defensiveness that goes up quickly at the first sign of disrespect. But at some point, all of them shared openly and honestly about their lives, their desires for the future, their knowledge of the need to change and find something better. I did my best to be a good listener and offer compassionate advice.
It seems strange to me to find myself in a place of work again after not working for a full 2.5 months. My bike trip was certainly not like any vacation that I've had before. It was plain hard work at times, but always with the most satisfying reward at the end of the day: a feeling of accomplishment. I have been thinking a lot lately about money, my relationship to it, and its effects on the world. Most of the time, I don't give it much thought at all, because I live a very inexpensive lifestyle, don't invest much, and have a chunk of cash sitting in an account that I've never let get too low. My only fixed expenses for the last several months have been a cell phone bill and my personal health insurance, both of which charge to my credit card automatically. When I'm working, I don't pay for food or lodging, and while on the bike, I paid only for food.
     I know that part of the money that I have sitting in a bank account is being used as leverage for loans to individuals and companies over which I have no control, and I'm not sure that's OK with me. My checking account earns 0.5% interest, which is much slower than the rate of inflation, so the buying power of the money that sits there actually shrinks with each passing day. The overwhelming flood of news stories about corruption in big banks makes me want to put my money somewhere else entirely.
     I have been thinking about trying to live without money for a year. Removing myself from a system of debt, labor and inequality which I would like to stop supporting. Is anyone interested in making a documentary about a guy trying to live a year in the USA without money? Instead, I would simply trade my labor and/or knowledge and skills directly for the resources that I need to survive. Or I would broker deals between people, work for one who then provided a service or good to another on my behalf. I think this would start people thinking about whether or not money actually does them any good. With the current state of the economy, money seems to be just as much of a headache as it is a convenience. If we had a form of currency which was not tied to a banking system of loans, debt and profits, but was purely a means of exchanging goods and services, things would be very different.
     I think that after this bike trip, I will finally be able to travel internationally on my own and be truly successful socially. I can no longer let fear isolate me from the conversations that I want to have, the people I want to hear, the knowledge that I want to obtain from someone, somewhere. I want to be more a part of the places that I go. Couchsurfing helps with this in a big way. I really enjoy meeting open-minded people who value the stories and opinions of others.


Yesterday, I got on the internet for the first time in over 2 weeks. Through a phone call from a friend, I learned that Steve Jobs died, and that a huge, worldwide protest had started over the lack of action taken against the irresponsible banks which are largely responsible for the current economic recession. We had an economic stimulus package of $700 billion given out mostly to large banks and corporations, and what are the results of this? Why should these irresponsible and corrupt banks be saved, only to turn around and continue giving huge bonuses to their top executives, while the rest of the country suffers? Finally, I see some frustration from other people. My own rants at corporate greed and collusion with politicians seemed so lonely and off in outer space until I learned that hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are feeling the same way, and now doing something about it.
     My immediate response to the “Occupy Wall Street” news was excitement, affirmation and curiosity. Who are the people who are protesting? How much conviction to they have to make real change? America has not seen any real, large scale protests for some time, but our situation is such that many people now have nothing to lose. Young people in college are going deep into debt to pay for their schooling, and unable to get jobs upon graduation. Unemployment remains in the double digits, with no signs of improvement. The volatile stock market, which is really only a useful tool to those to dedicate all of their time and energy to its mysterious workings, is still unpredictable at best, and unreliable for most.
     The America that I've grown up in expected me to go to college, get a job, invest my money into stable, continuously growing retirement accounts, get married, buy a house and a car, raise a family and 45 years later, retire a wealthy man. With my safely managed nest egg, I would take vacations at golf resorts with day spas, tropical island resorts, and deserts irrigated with water from far away places. The American Dream of the present, as pushed by corporate advertising, is one of materialism and disconnection. What used to be a land of opportunity, founded by great adventurers and pioneers (who undoubtedly displaced and massacred the millions of natives already living here, but I'm trying to be romantic right now) has turned into a land of corruption, confusion and escapism. What group of people in America is now truly happy and healthy? Are the “1%” who are now being picked on without hesitation, really living a healthy, satisfying life? Or are they too busy making sure that no one is stealing, shifting, downgrading, laundering or losing their money? Where is the happy middle-ground?
     The teenagers I am working with now are generally obsessed with material goods. Upon meeting them for the first time, I was in charge of helping them inventory their clothing and personal belongings that would be placed in storage for the duration of their wilderness experience. All of them not only knew, but were proud of the brands and labels of their clothing, taking special care to make sure that I noted which brands they were wearing before shoving these items into a suitcase or a garbage bag, and putting them in a basement for safekeeping. Many of them are here at least partially because of robbery charges. As one kid put it, “I'm not addicted to stealing, I'm addicted to the money that I get from stealing.” They have been convinced, so early in life, that the stuff they buy, that they desire for one reason or another, is important enough to break the law. In the wilderness, they are issued the same clothing as everyone else, which serves a functional purpose, rather than aesthetic. I am wearing largely the same clothing they are, which is all issued by the state of Minnesota, in drab and earthy colors. I feel that this has an immediate, positive impact on helping the students relate to their own identity regardless of their clothing, and instead based upon their personalities, actions and behaviors. It is disappointing to realize that many of them will be caught back up in the desire to purchase particular items simply because they feel these items add value to their image amongst their peers. This phenomenon is a product which is at least partially blamable on advertising, and an issue that I remember as a kid causing serious distress when one kid was deemed not to be wearing the socially appropriate brand or style of clothing. It was a serious emotional trauma to be made fun of for what you were wearing.
I have a good friend who is a clothing designer, and struggles with her role in the fashion industry. Like me, she sees clothing design as an art form, a method of individual expression, which in modern times, in metropolitan areas especially, can be seen on every street corner. Unique expression of identity, feelings and desire, worn on the outside, for others to be inspired. Unfortunately, the corporate agenda has turned the fashion industry into just that, an industry. Fashion is something marketed by skinny models on runways and in TV commercials, touted as being the desirable physical forms, and therefore, if you wear the same clothing, you will be more desirable. Because people have found a way to make lots of money from the fashion industry, it is now very difficult to be in the art of fashion without being swept away by the industry. My friend is disappointed that many of the job opportunities available to her involve much less creative freedom than she would like, and much more pleasing a corporate boss in order to make money. Sadly, I think many forms of art and design have headed in the same direction. It is very difficult for an individual artist to compete in a market so saturated with hyper-marketed products that have corporate advertising dollars behind them.