I'm in the desert, scantily clad and a beautiful piece of cloth wrapped around me, adorned in jewels and bindis. Now, mind you, this isn't my usual attire. You'd usually find me in a business suit, walking into offices of CEOs as a management consultant, giving them advice on what to do. But this isn't any desert. It's Burning Man. And it's the first night of my first burn, and I've lost my friends. And I'm in this world of strangers and lights who are practicing these rules of radical self-expressionism and radical acceptance.
And in that place, I'm just lost with how at home I feel. And I feel this urge, both a physical urge and an emotional urge, to push the edge. You see, I had to pee, but I don't wanna go and find a bathroom and leave this behind. I'm almost wondering if this is a place for radical self-acceptance. "I should just pee right here." And I begin to think, What if someone points at me or tackles me, or the cops come out, or a helicopter comes out with a spotlight on me. And I begin to think, I wanna know how much me can I be here, and still be accepted. So I pull over a little piece of this loin cloth that I'm wearing, raise my hands up to the air, yell out a loud scream and just begin to pee right there in the middle of the playa.
And courage was born inside me again. You see, I lost my courage very early in life. You can say it was yelled and beaten out of me by my parents. You can say it was strangled out of me by cultural expectations, religion, and society. You can say it was washed from me slowly from eighteen years of school. And I found myself as an adult without much courage, living a very mediocre life. Of course, it didn't look that way to others. I had a beautiful high-paying six-figure job and a condo in downtown that was part of the Parade of Homes and my dream car. And everyone said, "You're doing it," but I knew it was mediocre. I had also succumbed so much to being the good boy, to doing all of the things that lacked courage, that I had actually taken a vow of celibacy blocking out those things which today I use so much—love, connection, pleasure, bliss—all so I could be the perfect virgin husband for my perfect virgin wife that my family would arrange a perfect marriage for me to be in.
But it didn't turn out that way. I'm in bed in a room in the dark with a naked man beside me. And in this moment, I'm feeling more free than I've ever felt before. And I feel so much energy moving through me, through the room, through us, and something comes over me. You see, I met Corey in Cleveland, Ohio. He's a twenty-two-year-old white boy from Texas that I met on a night out with my coworkers at work who wanted to go out to the gay bars. And I said, "Sure, let's do it." And at first, I didn't think much of him, but as the night went on, something happened that I felt this deep desire to take care of this man. Maybe be taken care of by him as well, but to love him and to just be there for him.
And inextricably, not knowing what was pulling me, I found myself knocking on his door to borrow a drill just so I can hang out with him. And over time, our connection got deeper and deeper. We began spending so much of our time together. We even began traveling together, and it was in Peru where everything came to a head, and he said to me, "Jaymin, I want you to be my boyfriend."I could just feel the looming dooming feeling of judgment and finger-pointing and all of this. I don't know. Ugh. It's too much to think about. But another part of me felt really brave, and some courage lit up, and I felt more alive in me than ever before. And without worrying about what this meant about me and who I was or what all this is, I just said yes to him. And so we're here in bed in the dark, laying together. And before I can even think fully, some of the most truest words I've ever said just fall outta my mouth into this dark void. And I say to him, "I love you, man." And in this timelessness, I heard a voice come back from the other side of the universe, and from within me, and from his mouth all simultaneously saying, "I love you too, dude."
And I felt more free and alive in that moment. You could feel the courage break apart all the walls around my heart that held me back to all the things I wanted most. And in this brave moment, I let it all in, and it changed my life. I've had many choice points throughout my beautiful life that I'm so grateful for, which have asked me to be courageous. I left my corporate job and started to become an entrepreneur that led me to incredible success beyond anything that I could imagine for myself. I had the courage to marry the woman of my dreams, even though it meant my mom not talking to me for five years and never meeting her grandchildren. It gave me the courage to show up when my second son was being born in an emergency situation where no one could get to us, and we couldn't get to anyone. And I had to look at my wife and just say, "Baby, push," and catch this baby as it came into this world. It gave me the courage to leave behind everything that was keeping me in mediocre shackles and come here to Bali, halfway around the world, where I live with my wife and my kids and our dog. And we live courageously every day.
I can't imagine a life without courage because of these moments that have cultivated the courage inside me even though it was my normal for so long. I can't imagine a life that I'm living that other people think is great, but I know is mediocre. After cultivating this courage inside and committing to living it every day, I can only live a life that is fully lived. A life where I allow miracles to happen every day, and I have the courage and the audacity to believe that everything is possible.
I love this Janet Jackson mic.
So I gotta be honest with you all. I'm not the best storyteller. It's probably funny to be telling this in a storytelling event, but that's the truth. I'm Ray, and I'm a writer/poet. And the pandemic really made me think about a lot of things. It questioned why I do what I do, and whether or not I'm any good at it, you know? Also, the pandemic really put things in perspective as it's pretty funny for me to be acting like Carrie Bradshaw with my little MacBook at home while there's so much adversity and challenges in the world. So yeah, I'm just writing about heartbreaks or being queer or being queer in a third-world country. And honestly, I don't even queer that much. I don't wear heavy makeup. I mean, I don't wear dresses. Well, this is pretty dressy. I put a special one on tonight.
But yeah. I don't challenge society in any in-your-face kind of way. But I know I'm sad a lot. I sad more than I queer. But nobody ever introduced me as that sad writer. 'Cause to be fair, that'd be generalizing. A lot of writers are pretty sad. My friends anyway. But I think it's healthy to reassess things cos I had my Saturn return last year, and the pandemic happens. Yeah, it's nice to be able to pause, and take a little bit of a breather, and sit. Like what have I been doing all this time? What have I been even writing about? And I've realized I've made my literary career out of my own pain, as a lot of people do.
And my friend told me really great advice—that as a writer, you should really look for clarity. And that's what I try to do. I try to be honest every time in service of the work, and hopefully, in turn, the work will then pinpoint things in my life about what I need to focus on or what I need to highlight or underline or fix.
My first book was about me entering my core life crisis. It was kind of anxiety written. I was writing about this collective experience that me and my peers had. So I wrote about marriage, getting a job, moving out of apartments, getting your heart broken, making a CV, and stuff like that. And as time moves on, my anxiety for adulthood becomes less and less apparent because I was participating in life. I was doing the brunches. I was getting a job. I was partying up a little bit—too hard sometimes. It took me about one and a half years after that to figure out what would be my sophomore book. I thought I was gonna do a book of essays, but I think I'm so glad I didn't do that one 'cause I need to clock in more decades to share my life wisdom, I guess. And then I discovered that "Oh, my second book would be a poetry book."
And when I discovered that "Oh, my second book is gonna be a poetry book," the words would just start flowing, and the book would magically (it's not magic) finish itself. And it was done about the first week when coronavirus hit Indonesia. So I scrapped my plans to release it last year and kind of just sat with it, chilled with it a little bit, edited it, and perfected it. And what I realized during the months I was editing the book, I was so sad. I was so sad writing that book, and it didn't make sense to me cos I was so happy writing it. You know like, "Oh this ranks with this—cool. Okay. Put that in." But it doesn't make sense to me how incongruent everything was because how was I experiencing so much joy but so much pain as I was reading it back to me? It doesn't make sense.
And that's when I start to feel like I betrayed myself. This is why I don't think I'm a particularly good storyteller because my own first and only audience was me, and I didn't get it. That's kind of weird. And I began writing poetry when I was sixteen, and the truth is anything is anything. You can make up your own form. You have a story, a context, and imagery, and you can pair it up with a beautiful stanza, put a rhyme here and there. There's a structure to it. A no-structure structure, at least. But then an actual story would have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that's when I realized I've been telling my pain in a janky, rickety, abstract, metaphorical, with dragons and didn't have any closure in it.
But you know, I love poetry because I think it served me at times because it's a way for me to express myself, but also to hide on any given day. You wouldn't know how boring that thing I was writing about because I filled it with many colors inside. And whether it happens or not, that's kind of beside the point. At least it's out of me. I like being able to tell people that I used to cut when I was younger, whenever I feel lonely. Or my first sexual experience was I was drugged and abused or how two other times, two other different people tried to beat me up for me saying no to them.
And when people tell me I should disappear, I like to be able to express that sometimes I would like to follow suit. In the midst of all that, I kind of lost myself and let things kind of just happen to me. I mean, I don't really matter. So who gives a shit, you know? And what I realized is I made a book for my pain to heal from my trauma and to change from my past. But it was this beautiful, but seemingly useless effort on my part because you can't ever change the past that way, no matter how many books I've written, poetry I've read, or stages I take. It was an epic disappointment at my heart that sends me chain-smoking all day, thinking I should probably cut again because I cannot ever change the past that way.
And potentially, I did all those self-sabotaging things because I grew up feeling like I shouldn't exist. I made a book about trying to fix myself in my past and in the middle of it, I realized I couldn't do it, and I kind of gave up.
I'm not telling you so you think I'm a sad person. Honestly, I don't know where I'm going with this, but I know my story has value. And I have friends that tell me my story has value, but I just can't hold it alone any longer. I mean, I made those books, right? And then I hear stories from other people. And I just realize how many people are trying to fix the one they love or move on from their past or are trying to fix themselves. And I have to detach and unlearn the way I would self-sabotage in order to feel better and be better. My friends would remind me of glimpses of myself. And I just felt for the last ten years I was so angry and asleep, and my friends would have to slap me silly and remind me, "Look at how many good things that you did? Look what you have," you know?
That's the thing that kind of brought me back, I guess. I learned to lean into my strengths and just get on with it and push through. With this second book that I did recently, I didn't get what I expected, but I got something else instead. I was trying to reclaim my narrative and changing the past. And I love the way that I did it—that I did poetry, and that's pretty dope. And now icing that thing, trying to change things about myself is still with me, but I'm celebrating them instead of trying to shove it, and change it, and celebrate them. And I realize that my story is not gonna be only defined by pain.
I now feel blessed that I have so much more and realize that I have so much more. With my books, now I realize I can't be taking care of my own story alone, and I need to share it with people. And then, hopefully, they can see not only through my journey and my pain, but validate their own. And that's maybe how we all can be better storytellers.
Faced with the probability of my own death. Your face did not graze the stew of memories I needed to recollect in search of something greater than myself. No words or feelings or last goodbyes to be turned into lines of a memoir.
Sunday 9th of August 2020. I'm frantically riding my Honda C70 toward my last hope—the one person that can tell me if I'm going to die soon or not. Twenty-four hours prior, my friend said to me, "There's a tsunami coming in the next week. It's heading towards Canggu. I'm packing my bags now. I'm going to Ubud. We have to go.”
My mind is trying to wrap itself around the news that I'm now hearing through the mouth of my best friend. Where I come from, I do not take these things lightly. I come from a half-Japanese family, and I grew up with old magic. So unexplainable occurrences like this does not come as a surprise anymore. Growing up with old magic means when I was a kid, I wouldn't go to the doctor's. My dad would just get an energy scan on my back and tell me what's up. He'd put his hand on my shoulder and heal me.
For a dinnertime topic, the one thing I've always asked my dad to repeat over and over again is his old ghost-busting stories from when he was still in university. When other kids would go up to their parents and tell them about the ghost under their bed, they would normally get "Ghosts aren't real, kid." But when I do that, I get, "Oh yeah, yeah. There's a couple in your room." Please don't ever say that. It's terrifying.
And history lessons weren't as fun because on family vacations, my dad would like to take us to these old historical sites around Indonesia, and there are many. He would touch the broken stone temples and tell us of the visions he sees from days long past. Now that is a history lesson. So anyways, warning calls —they're just naturally part of my life.
So my friend continued. "Daniel saw it happen." Daniel is our newly gifted friend. "He saw a giant wave crash over Canggu. It destroyed everything. And it's not just him. A couple of other Balinese girls saw it as well. They're packing their bags as we speak. Aziza, I don't think this is a drill." The next twenty-four hours was filled with turmoil. Am I gonna die? Am I gonna die? Am I gonna die? The question kept repeating itself in my head.
Fate does not need to make sense for it to happen through the cracks. Even if their words mean nothing to your ears, prophecies aren't made to be easy.
That evening I typed up the most ridiculous message in my family group chat. It went, "Hey guys, I might be dead in a couple of days. Something about a tsunami—11th, 15th. Okay, I need answers. Dad, do you see anything?" A couple of minutes later, my dad replies, "Nope." All Dad can see was a fire on the 11th. No tsunami, no earthquake. I'm not satisfied.
So I tracked down all the other seers I knew in my life, which were actually plenty. That's when I realized that I'm a pretty odd child. That's a lie—I've known that forever. And I tried to gather up as much information as I can. So after hours and hours of frantic searching, the conclusion was inconclusive!
So again, I'm on my Honda driving to my gifted friend, the woman that I'm pretty sure has the answers that I'm looking for, which is, "Am I gonna die? Is everyone I know around gonna die? What's gonna happen?"
And in the midst of this frantic driving—not safe, by the way, don't do that. In the midst of this frantic driving, in the midst of my fear of my anxiety, and let's be honest, my mortality crisis, I started asking myself a couple of questions that I feel like everyone sort of does when the idea of death pops into your mind. And so I thought in the face of my death, what affairs do I need to get in order? Who do I need to call? What do I need to confess, and to whom?
And when the answers arose, the sense of, I guess, calm washed over me. 'Cause I realized the answer to those three questions were nothing, no one, and nothing again.
And it wasn't always this way. Backstory. As a child, I developed a problem with lying, as I think all kids do, but in my teens, it developed into something bigger cos at one point, I realized I was a full-blown compulsive liar. I think it was, in some sense, my own way of surviving my parents.
Aside from them being magic, they're also Asian. So growing up with Asian parents, being somewhat culturally rebellious, you could say, yeah, a rebellious kid requires a lot of fiction at play, and it would start with just the basic things like where I've been, who I was with. And then it slowly just progressed into more frequent unnecessary lies, like what I had for lunch. I don't know why I felt the need to lie about that. "I had a steak." With what money?
So I have a lot of anxiety, right? And as a person that has a lot of anxiety, trying to keep track and trying to constantly be accountable for these lies becomes just completely unbearable. I noticed a lot of my crippling anxiety stemmed from the web of lies that I've curated for absolutely no reason. And at one point, I just thought like it's enough. "I don't wanna do this anymore."
And by university, it was hindering my life. I'm eighteen at university. In a new city, living my own life. I'm a teenager. I'm trying to find out who I am as a person, but anxiety kept holding me down, and it would be honestly the absolutely stupidest things. I would tell different stories to different people. I would give different details to certain events and situations. I would retell the same events in a multitude of versions. And it would be the stupidest details ever. Like, "Oh yeah, I went to a party in a pink dress." The next day it's "Oh no, that party, I was in white." It just made no sense to me. In Indo, we call it boom boo. It's just little spices just to add to my stories. But at one point, I was like, "I don't know what the fuck I'm saying anymore." And nobody does either.
So anyways, all that was just completely hindering me. And I started working towards making small changes to fix it. I realized anxiety is the biggest thing right now. I need to like tone that down. What's the biggest thing? Lying. Okay. Lying was the first thing that had to go. And what that did was it took a while. But eventually, I stopped telling people what they wanted to hear. And even when it was uncomfortable, especially when it was uncomfortable. Like when my mom would call me up and ask me, "Why aren't you praying anymore? Why haven't you prayed for a while?" I would tell her what I think about Islam. When my friend calls me why I'm thirty minutes late to this meeting, instead of blaming the traffic, I tell her that I got lost on Instagram, which happens to the best of us.
The point of it is I stopped being a people pleaser. And I started expressing my desires, even though I know it may hurt others, and a lot of the time it does. But on the other hand, when I find someone attractive, I will go up and tell them even if it's across the street, across the bar, my neighbor. I'm gonna go up to them and tell them, "You're attractive. You're beautiful." Sometimes it would get me numbers. So that's great. That's a good tip. But other times, it just gets a smile, and that's all good too. And when I love someone, I would always make sure that they know it and they feel it, which I think is super important.
I guess I took the more tender textured road with honesty than the more comfortable one with lying. I realized I started becoming the woman I've always wanted to be. And it feels amazing. I've expressed everything I need to, to the people in my life. Like every conversation has been had. Every word has been said. Everyone I love knows that I love them. And in turn, everyone in my life knows me. Like the real me, not just some made-up version. I've been living my truth mostly—cos we all have our setbacks—for the past five years, and I have nothing to hide anymore.
It's like this total weightless, unapologetic freedom. So let's go back to our story. I went to see this woman. I went to see my gifted friend, and the meeting went well. What does that even mean?! But yeah, the meeting went well. She explained to me what the prophecy meant with the tsunami that all these other people were seeing and the symbolisms behind it. And she told me that we are physically safe for now. There's more to it, but I don't have time to get into that whole story.
But what I realized at that point, after she said that, after that drive, I was, "You know what? It doesn't matter anymore because come what may I know who I am. I am proud of how I've lived my life, and I'm ready when the day comes.”
Suma: Hello all.
Suma: My name is Suma. I come from Ubud, but I grew up in Denpasar.
Devi: Hi, all. My name is Devi. I'm from Denpasar, but I really love the atmosphere here in Ubud.
Suma: I'm a man and Devi?
Devi: I'm a woman.
Suma: I'm sorry because I just speak a little English.
Devi: No need to worry about me. In my daily life, I'm an English teacher. I teach from home to primary school. I teach from one private lesson to another private lesson house-to-house from one private course to another private course. So for me in my journey as a teacher, the street played a very important role to express myself and my English.
Suma: I had learned English at school. However, I can only remember a bit. I learned English from my uncle, whose job was a tour guide. He picked up words from one street to the other street. Then he composed them into his own sentences at his will. Like I do now. The streets united my uncle and me with various languages to find words and use them as street English.
Devi: Every time I wanted to go out to the street, my mom would be very angry. She would say a girl shouldn't be on the street. A girl should be playing at home with a doll, cooking, playing anything that won't hurt because the street is a line that can draw scars to your body as a girl.
Suma: As a man, scars are fun. Line by line made of scars is a symbol of adventure. The streets serve us with so many scratches of adventure. Running to each other on the open street, playing hide and seek in the alleys and word games on the roadside. We could do everything on the street.
Devi: At the time, the street became a very strange thing to me. How could it not when I was never given a chance to sense the street with my own body? Whenever I went outside to the street, my mom would hold my hand tightly. She led my way as if her daughter would be gone somewhere unknown.
Suma: The streets I had been walking through were increasing in number as I grew older. The streets were getting longer and further. From southern Bali, I moved to northern Bali to study at university in Singaraja. And then the street flung out my future, as well as my vision, my ambition, and my hope.
Devi: On the street I found many encounters. Many farewells but, between the farewells and the encounters, the street always led me back home. Back home to my parents—to my mom and dad, to my beloved love, home to his mom and dad, where I was introduced. And I would call his house my home as well. And then, for women, the street would always be a way and a reason to go back home.
Suma: For a man, roads are the reason to leave.
Devi: A way back home.
Suma: A way to go.
Devi: To be brought home.
Suma: To live away.
Devi: Go back home, my dear daughter, because going out at night for a girl is a very bad idea.
Suma: Go, go away, my son. Bring home as many stories from wherever—everywhere.
Devi: A way back home.
Suma: A way to go.
Devi: Hmm, a man's road.
Suma: A woman's road.
Devi: Men and women on the road.
Suma: What's the difference?
Devi: What's the difference?
Suma: Can't the street be a place for everyone?
Devi: Can't the street be a place for everyone?
Suma: We feel the streets as an alliance.
Devi: That over secrets, miracles, and unpredictability?
Suma: Without taking into account which men and which women along the way.
Devi: Without taking into account which men and which women along the way.
Suma: Thank you.
In a modest office with no air conditioning, I sat behind the desk, and there he was walking into the room. He made no eye contact as I ushered him to a seat, but I noticed something on the other side of the desk, something familiar. It was pain, but with a mix of shame. "My name is Georges. I'm here to help and to talk about what happened." Like a punch in the gut. He couldn't breathe, and he grimaced out of an excruciating pain. He turned, and no words could come out. I took a deep breath just to give him time to recollect.
Well, he was twenty-five years old, and he had been sexually abused since he was seven years old for a period of ten years by a male missionary who was supposed to be his savior. He was not alone. There were another hundred children, male victims, who were hurt by the same man.
You see, their story changed me, and it all began in Miami, Florida, where I worked for a great company as a psychotherapist. I worked in my downtown office in Miami with air conditioning, a beautiful desk. And I walked down the hall to meet her for the first time. She was fourteen years old, a beautiful young girl. Best practice recommends that I introduce myself. And this same uncomfortable question resurfaced. "Tell me what happened." But this time, there was a glacial silence in the room. I took time and asked the same question again, but no words would come out.
And that continued for three months until I decided to change the strategies and apply some of the techniques that I'd learned in my multiple trainings. I left the room. I took her to a more child-friendly environment. And at that time, I did not sit in front of her behind a desk. I sat next to her. I faced the wall, and I started to talk. "You don't need to say anything today. You don't need to speak at all. I just want you to know that I understand it's not your fault. You did not do anything wrong. I know that many people don't believe you, even your own mother, but I want you to know that I believe you. You are a brave and strong young girl, and I respect your strength."
While I was talking, I glanced at her from the corner of my eyes, and I noticed a tear running down her cheek. And she turned and said, "Can you help me?" In turn, I said, "Yes, if you let me." That was one of my most joyful moments as a professional. After this great breakthrough, intervention, I ran down the hall, and I started screaming. "She speaks, she speaks, she speaks" like I was crazy.
And at that moment, I knew her life had changed for the better, but I had no idea that mine was going to change forever. Well, she was not alone. My journey continued as they referred more and more children who had been sexually abused to me. Many of them have been hurt by people they've trusted. People they knew—a father, an uncle, a cousin, clergy, a friend of the family, et cetera. But there's one who stood alone. She was about to celebrate her fifteenth birthday. As she worked in the therapeutic room, I noticed that she might have something unusual to share with me today.
But the truth is I had something that I wanted to share with her, but before she started to talk. And I said, "I need to share something with you. See, today is one of our last sessions because I have to leave this agency. She looked at me. She was like, "Is that because of a Word and Action thing?” (Word and Action is the name of my organization). And I said, "Yes," perplexed. I said, "How do you know about that?" She said, "Well, I went on the internet, and I searched you. And I saw your picture and what you are doing for children in the community. When I grow up, I want to be just like you."
"Really? You want to study psychology and become a psychotherapist just like me?"
"Yes, but I want to give life to children."
That time I took another deep breath, but to hold my tears because you don't wanna cry in front of your clients, especially a young kid. "Well," I said, "thank you. I am honored to have been able to work with you, and you and the other children have inspired me. You guys are my heroes. Thank you."
She said, "Well, in that case, you could leave." There she gave me permission to speak on behalf of the children who were hurt, on behalf of those voiceless, those innocent, gentle souls. See, the gift that we shared is what fuels me to do what I do every day. That gift is what would take me back home to Haiti to evaluate those twenty-four young men. After ten years of being sexually abused, for the first time, they'll talk to a professional who validated their feelings. For the first time, they've learned that they were not at fault. For the first time, they know they are not alone. For the first time, they could share their story without fear. For the first time, they receive a hug, not out of deceit, but out of compassion and empathy.
Their stories is what moved me. After I've seen every single one of them for one hour, for a one-year period, the very last day of my intervention, I closed my door, sat on my desk, and cried like a baby. For the first time, I intervened and evaluated children in my own language. Those young men, they were all born close to the town that I was born in. I looked at them, I saw myself. I said, "God, that could have been me." I was inducted in the cases. I was emotionally and psychologically drained. And I've experienced all sorts of emotions—anger, pain, frustration. But at the same time, I felt relieved. I felt empowered. I felt grateful for being entrusted with such a truth.
Well, their stories have become mine. You see, I've never been sexually abused before, but all I have is the story of those children, and their story made me the person that I am in the quest of fighting against this disease. I hope, just like me, their stories have become yours because this is the story of millions of people out there. This is the story of your friend, your neighbor, your family member, your spouse, even yourself. You see, that story is not my story. It is a shared story.
And I hope this story has become yours as well because if that is true, now we have a shared story. The children are now feeling empowered. They know that they are not alone. They know that they don't have to go through this by themselves. If that's true, if that story has become yours, child sexual abuse has been defeated by the mere fact that you are listening to this tonight. If that's true, we are becoming victorious because you and I are saving lives, and all of the other victims out there are grateful for it.