I hear his footsteps going down, down, down the stairs. The front door opens and closes, and I'm alone. Holy crap. I can't do this, but I can't do that either. It was 2010, and I had just asked my husband for a divorce. I thought I'd feel free once I told him. In reality, I was freaking terrified because I had never been alone. Instead, I had spent my life building my cage and squeezing myself inside of it. I had hushed the whispers that said, "This isn't it. You don't fit. You're made for something more." And when I ignited the affair that burned down my marriage, I thought I'd burnt down the cage with it. I thought my time in the cage is done, but I couldn't have been more wrong. And I tumbled into the next relationship. And once again, the cage appeared, and that cycle repeated over and over because, I'm just gonna be real right now, I was not a fast learner. And with every relationship, that cage was getting smaller and tighter and more impossible to exist within until a pivotal relationship born out of a swipe right on Tinder.
We fell instantly in love. I loved him. He loved me. We were each other's one. We declared our love to everybody that we knew. Got Facebook official. And six weeks later, it was me that was being asked to walk down those stairs and out that door. And that was the pain that saw me bawling my eyes out on a table after a chi energy release massage, where all the ghosts of my relationships past had revealed themselves to me in a vision. I realized, "It's me. I'm doing this to myself. I'm trying to play all these roles, and they're not working out for me. And I'm just the good girl. And I'm trying so hard to look good enough, to feel good enough, to be good enough."
My healer friend, who essentially is my Yoda, was holding me in her arms, and the pain was so much. It was the lowest point of my life. And I was desperate to get out of that cage. I want to ask you something. Have you ever been presented with something that in the past, you just would've said "Absolutely hell no, no way" to, but right now feels like the perfect solution? Yeah. That's where I was at. So when my Yoda mentioned ayahuasca, I didn't ask too many questions. I just said yes. And what opened up for me in that moment was my rebel side. What if I did something that back in 2014 would be a radical action for a regular person to take? What if I took on that ayahuasca journey?
What if I decided that all of that societal conditioning was just a bunch of BS and that trying to live an appropriate life is just the cage that we put ourselves in? Because really, I mean, who really wants to live an appropriate life, right? Like, ugh! And yet, we're all so busy trying to be appropriate. So I really only had the very vaguest of ideas of what I was getting myself into. I had heard that you needed to dress all in white. And as the taxi pulled up to the ceremonial space, I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, I'm gonna be with my people. Finally, I'm gonna feel like I belong. And I walked into that space in all my new whites, and everybody else was just dressed in normal clothes. And I realized in that moment, here I am again, just trying to fit in, just trying to be appropriate.
Well, I just had that one outfit, and it was a weekend-long thing. So I really just had to style it out. And that was Rebel Initiation Round One. But the ayahuasca journey? That was pure love. I was a baby held in my mother's arms, and I felt so safe, and I felt so beautiful. And I felt so connected. And I cried for all the parts of myself that had forgotten how to love. And I knew what I had to do. Over the next eight months, I gave up my addiction to people-pleasing. I let go of being the good girl.
I stopped laying myself out on the sacrificial altar of somebody else's desires. And I gathered all the fractured parts of myself back together and loved them into feeling worthy. And then, as Yoda's do, my Yoda reappeared to help me unlock the last door to the last cage. She showed me that I needed to stop being a servant to a corporate agenda. That I needed to become the queen and put on my freaking crown. And I needed to leave my old job and my old life behind. Through all of this, I have learned, or I have created, in fact, some personal truths. I am here to be a rebel. I am here to be a queen. I did not come here to live in a cage and be dulled down. I came here to command, and we have all been fed a lie that if we play by the rules, we'll be taken care of. But in my experience, it's when I don't play by the rules that love, passion, vibrancy, and luxury become available to me. Thank you.
I was born in a small village about one hour west from here in the shadow of Batukaru Mountain. There were no cars, no electricity, and one transistor radio. I'm not one hundred years old. You know that! I'm still young. Every day I would sit around in the morning when my mom cooked. I just loved it, you know, because I knew she was gonna need something from me. Sure enough, "Hey Made, can you take the salt and then get some eggs from the neighbor." This is the moment that I was waiting for. I ran out the door and came back with the eggs. This is the barter system that we have in Bali. You know, I just love that feeling. You barter for something, and everybody in a whole village knows what we have.
At twelve years old, my dad called me in. Wow, this is a little bit serious, I thought, you know. And then I sat next to him, and he said, "Made, if you wanna be somebody, you need to get out from this village, and then come back again when the wind blows in this direction." I was confused. You know life in the village was so damn good. Why does he want me to go out? Well, I followed his directions literally.
In 1996, I found myself halfway around the world in San Francisco—the city I only saw when I was watching Hollywood movies. I was in awe. Oh my God, you know. This could not be more different than where I grew up. It was such a contrast. I'll just give you an example. My friend told me, "If you get in an accident, do not admit it's your fault because you will be libeled for it." What? In Bali, if you fall in somebody's house, you would find the host and say, "Oh, I'm sorry. That was my fault. I didn't see the hole." It was so different, but hey, I needed to learn. And the other thing is that I needed to call my friends to see them, and I needed to come on time. That was a new concept. In Bali, you just show up in somebody else's house, and they have all the time for you. And they even give you coffee.
Well, life is not black and white like that. You know, in Bali, we call it robineda, which is the duality. And I got lucky when I was in the United States. I worked for Outward Bound. I worked at a lot of different things. I just learned everything. I even skied. Can you believe a Balinese skier?! In the United States? I was telemarketing. People said, "That person is from Bali." But I'm not a dancer, sorry.
So I got lucky to meet two of my mentors in the United States. The first one was Yvon Chouinard at the company that I worked at for nine years. What I learned from him was, "Hold your vision and your mission." Up to this date, the most profitable company in the United States, and still owned privately.
The second mentor that I met was Richard Strozzi-Heckler, and I had the privilege to be uchi deshi, meaning that I lived with him like an intern. So he taught me aikido and somatics. From aikido, I really learned how to take care of others with dignity. From aikido, I learned how to fall, get up, move on, roll, get up, move on. From somatics, I learned how to really know myself. From somatics, I learned really just knowing myself that I didn't know before. And from both of those, Richard always said, "If you wanna change yourself, change your practice." This is what he said . . . "To remember, move one hundred times. To get it in your muscle memory, one thousand times. To embody it, ten thousand times." So think about it, one, two, three, four, and so on.
After a few years in the United States, I felt not lonely, but just felt a kind of loneliness. You know, I grew up with such a different way of life. And for the first time, I saw Bali from a different perspective. The community, the dancing, the ceremonies that I took for granted when I was in Bali. I missed them so much. And I told myself, One day when I'm back in Bali, when that wind blows me back to Bali, I will take care of you, Bali.
Of course, at the beginning of 2010, I found myself back in Bali. My experiences in the United States proved to be valuable. I ended up with job here as a guest liaison, as a somatic coach, and teaching aikido in one of the healing centers here in Bali.
In those four years that I worked over there, I met one of the most talented plant-based chefs in Bali or probably in Indonesia, chef Made Runatha. One day he asked me, "Hey, Janur, do you wanna open a restaurant with me?" And I said, "A restaurant?" I'd never run a restaurant before, you know, and I Googled it. It has an 80% failure, you know. Do I wanna put myself though that? But I remember when I was working at Howard Bond, one of my mentors said, "When you do something, think about these four things—learning, earning, sharing, and fun." Hmm. I'd never done this before. Well, I guess I can learn it. So I said, "Sure. Why not?" So then Moksa Plant-Based Permaculture Garden was born. I knew nothing about restaurants, knew nothing about permaculture, but what I learned from permaculture is that inside of a problem, there is a solution. That's one of the principles from permaculture that I really took to heart. Moksa was thriving until COVID-19 hit.
I sat in my home. My wife Hilary was in the United States at the time. (Hi, hon, love you long time!) So she was stuck in the United States with my kids. I found myself sipping a glass of wine. What should I do? I want to help my family in my village. And then I remembered inside of the crisis, there is an opportunity. What is the crisis that we are facing right now? Number one is COVID-19. Because of COVID-19 in Bali, we need rice. If we have rice, salt, and pepper, we live forever. Yeah. That's Bali. The second one. Plastic, plastic, plastic. That's the environment. The third one is like this. When there is a disaster, people bring what we call disaster relief—one hand on the bottom and one hand on the top. I really wanna bring this hand together. In Bollywood, we call it tatvamasi. You as me, me as you. The giver becomes a receiver. The receiver becomes a giver. So we all have an equal feeling what I call dignity.
So I thought to myself, I'm just gonna go to the village. I called the village leader and the youth leader. And I talked, and I presented my idea of exchanging plastic for rice. And then they loved it. And they said, "When should we start?" I said, "Tomorrow." "What?" "Hey, we are not waiting for an auspicious day to pick up plastic. Tomorrow is a good day," I said. "We don't need to wait for the full moon or the new moon. Tomorrow. If there is plastic tomorrow, there is rice tomorrow," I said. "Oh, Janur is crazy. He's been Americanized." But hey, it's good to be crazy.
So the next day, they picked up the plastic in two days. In my village there's only sixty households, which is two hundred and forty people. We collected five hundred kilos of plastic—a half-ton. I was so happy. Oh, my program is great. You know, I got all of this and then, Oh no. If in my village, this small village, I can pick up this much plastic, what about a bigger village? What about around Bali? If this thing works in my village, it's got to work in a different village. And I started the system. How I'm gonna bring it out and all of that, with the help of volunteers—dedicated volunteers—with me, and my wife's support which was really just relentless. Now the plastic exchange is spreading like wildfire. Two hundred villages. One hundred and thirty tons of plastic has been collected.
Thirty-five tons of rice has been distributed, and about four thousand five hundred households have been helped. So really, the core of Plastic Exchange is three—dignity, prosperity, environment. The mission is to empower Balinese people to prosper through the barter system by collecting non-organic stuff. And we give them rice. Assisting them for now.
I remember Richard said, "To get it in your muscle memory, one thousand times, to make it embodied, ten thousand times." I want my people here in Bali, stop doing this, but do this now. One, two . . . sooner or later, it's gonna be ten thousand times, and it'll become embodied. That's my hope. We can do this. All of you here have been donating to Plastic Exchange, supporting me. Now, here, we can do this for our self-worth, for our dignity, prosperity, and the environment.
In Bali, we believe in reincarnation. We're born again because we have work to do. Moksartham Jagadhita ya ca iti Dharma. It means There is liberation in this world when you do your work, when you do Dharma, and you wanna be one with the creation, and then you're not born again. This place we call Maya Pada—the place of illusion. We do our work to reach Moksha.
My dad is my hero. He pushed me out of my comfort zone. "Get out and come back," he said. Dad, I'll stay here in the world to do my work until I see you in heaven.
It's March 2014, and I'm standing in the middle of Sanur Bypass. It's Bali's busiest road. And I'm praying that a truck runs me down. I've lost seven members of my family, and the recent deaths of my niece and my sister have devastated me. I've been suicidal for six months, unable to eat or sleep. And I just snapped.
But nobody would guess that to look at my life now. I've had a really charmed life. And I think most people just assume that I've breezed through it, sort of leaving a trail of golden bubbles in my wake. Some of you know I'm a jeweler, but the truth is, and I'm taking a risk to say this, I've struggled with the label of mental illness all my life. And I say label for a very important reason, which you will find out. Society has stigmatized and shamed us by saying we're crazy. We're bipolar. You've heard it all. It's still a really scary thing, as you can see, to say this just in front of this small group. At twenty, I was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. That spells SAD, and that must be some kind of cruel joke, right?
About half of every year, I looked good on the outside, but I was dying on the inside. On a depressive scale of 1 to 10, I was a suicidal 10, but only in the fall and the winter. In the spring and summer, I was carefree, happy-go-lucky, energetic, very creative, very productive. A psychiatrist blamed repressed trauma and genetics because all my family was also depressed. When it came on every fall, it felt like someone was injecting me with a feel-bad drug. And I told the psychiatrist that, but their answer was always medicine, prescribe. They were incentivized to do that. So they dosed me with pharmaceuticals to dull the pain rather than investigate possible causes and perhaps even find a cure. I'm just gonna take a moment and ask how many of you in this room have been affected by somebody's mental illness, yours or anybody you know, depression, anything? That's all but one person.
I'm just gonna give you a few statistics. Here's a reality check. Globally depression is epidemic. In January 2020, the WHO claimed that 17 percent of Americans are clinically depressed. And that was before the lockdown. Imagine what it is now. Economic losses are $210 billion annually. That's more than Jeff Bezos is worth. While the medical mafia reaps the profits, which have doubled from 14 billion last year - let this sink in - to 28 billion in the first eight months of 2020. Yet, there's no discussion about the cause. And there's no talk of any cure. Why do they say it's incurable? Sorry. I digressed. Back to my suicide attempt. Obviously, I was not killed. The cars went around me as the Balinese do - very good drivers. Nobody even honked - seriously. I stood there for five minutes, waiting. Didn't happen, thank God. That winter of 2014 was a total blur.
I can't even tell you how I survived it, but I am so glad I did. That April, like clockwork, my depression lifted. And I got back on social media and found messages from friends. Some who were in my childhood neighborhood saying how sorry they were that I'd lost my family. And that a large part of their family had died too. And also, almost all the neighbors on the street had had cancer. And I started thinking, "That's weird." It was really rural and beautiful agricultural land in the San Fernando Valley, outside of Los Angeles in the fifties and sixties. What happened? Was there a pesticide dump or something? So I just went on Google, and I typed in San Fernando Valley cancer clusters. And up came dozens of stories that shocked me to my core. Six miles from my family home, there was America's first nuclear plant, which had been kept secret from the public. From 1959 to 1969, it had three partial meltdowns. The first one was the worst. It totaled more radiation than Three Mile Island by 450 times. They didn't have any containment facility. They just opened the doors and let it all out over the population.
Sorry. It's really emotional for me. So I just sat there cold and shaking. I now understood the mystery deaths of my parents, my sister, her daughter, my grandparents, and why my only remaining family member had had cancer, including thyroid cancer, when she was twelve, three times. The next day I went down to a holistic doctor, and I got a provoked heavy metal test. We had to use a binding agent called a chelator to pull out the toxins to get an accurate reading. Our bodies are so smart. They encapsulate toxins that we can't eliminate in specialized fat cells. And they store them there to protect our vital organs. My tests showed cesium, strontium, plutonium, many other radioactive nuclides, and glyphosate, on and on, you know the list - mercury, lead. But the mystery thing was my manganese levels were completely off the chart. There's a red column, which indicates really bad levels - danger danger. My manganese levels were in the margin of the paper. They were literally outside of that. The doctor said, "Well, this only comes from mining or welding." I said, "I assure you I've done neither." He said, "Well, there's no other cause so . . . it doesn't come from nuclear accidents." We got online. I said, "There has to be another cause." We scoured the internet. Didn't come up with anything but mining and welding.
The five things that happen when you're manganese poisoned are Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, seizure disorder, autoimmune disease, and guess what? Chronic depression. So there was my poisoning that I'd always felt I'd had, and I'd told the psychiatrist, "I feel like I've been poisoned." And I was, but now the mystery was how. For months I didn't give up. I scoured the internet. I asked every doctor, every medical professional. I followed rabbit holes of scientific journals. I couldn't find an answer. And then, in 2016, a fateful trip to Bangkok where I met an American man who was also a victim of conspiracy. His name was Brian Dardzinski, and he owned a little clinic there next to Bumrungrad Hospital.
He was a vaccine researcher, and he'd been drummed out of America. But that's another story. He said to me, "I do know one other source of manganese poisoning. Did you live in Arizona or New Mexico?" I said, "No. Why?" He said, "Because rocket testing produces manganese in the fuel particulate that people can breathe." I got chills again. I said, "I lived in the San Fernando Valley where there was Rocketdyne, which was right next to the secret nuclear plant." And he said, "That's it. How long did you live there?" I said, "Twenty years. And I remember as a kid, every night the sky looked like opals." He said, "Those colors represented all the toxins that were floating down on you."
He said, "The good news is we can get those toxins out of you. And you'll likely be cured of your depression. But the bad news is it'll take two to five years to do that." So off I went back to Bali with my detox kit, and I own a far-infrared sauna, which is the single most important detox item a person can have. I highly recommend it. I knew that sweating was a way to eliminate toxins. So I added two sessions a day of infrared sauna. And I also added twenty minutes on my rebounder jumping up and down for twenty minutes, which works your lymphatic system and cleanses your tissues that way. So guess what? In seven months, I went back to that clinic. I had a friend who was going through some cancer therapy, and I said, "Brian, I feel great. I think I'm done." And he said, "No, no, come back in fifteen months. You're not done yet. No way." "Please take my test." He wouldn't. So I went to my friend's clinic. They took my test. All clean. Everything, clean, clean, clean. I went back to Brian. He said, "How'd you do that?"
I told him how I did it. So he said, "Congratulations. Now you can get yourself off your meds." In one month, I weaned myself off medication I'd been taking for forty years. This month is my five year ‘sanity-versary.’ No meds, no depression, five years. Thank you. So I'd like to inspire all of you into action today to become an advocate for your own health and your own sovereignty. Even if you feel perfectly fine, you can enhance the quality of your life, your energy levels, your stamina. I'm sixty-four now. I feel like I'm twenty-four. I have never felt better in my life. Especially the strength of your immune system. It's super important right now with COVID-19 to strengthen your immune system. And that can happen when you rid yourself of the toxins that you acquire from life and hidden poisons that we can't even see. So my message is twofold. Listen to your intuition and never ever, ever give up looking for the truth. I'm actually grateful for my . . .oh, God, I just got chills all over. I'm actually grateful for my experience with the nuclear accident, which led to my new purpose in life. I'm currently creating awareness with activism and satire - humorous songs, but I'm also building a detox and wellness center in Ubud called Lumina. I want to help other people achieve optimum health. Thank you so much for listening.
So there I am, leaning over the glass counter at the deli section of the grocery store, and it hits me—my first contraction. A tornado begins to spiral in my womb and a pain I can only describe as being trampled by wild animals in a stampede. I am hit with a wave of orgasmic energy, and I look up, and I can see and hear and smell and sense everything. I am like a psychic mama deer in a tornado, in a stampede on ecstasy.
And as I look through the crowd, I see this one woman. She comes right towards me. She's present, she's clear, she's bright, vibrant. And she walks right up to me, and she says, "Are you gonna have a baby?" I say, "Yes." She says, "When?" "Now!" "Can I touch you for good luck?" "Of course." We grab hands, and I look in her deep, rich, dark eyes—cornrow hair, dark chocolate skin. And she holds my pale white hand. Two conscious present women just marveling at the experience or the miracle really of birth. Life. "Good luck," she says. Yeah, I was gonna need some of that because, you see, this was not the plan. I was not supposed to be going into labor a month early at the grocery store while my girlfriend is buying sandwiches. My husband is not supposed to be at a job interview in New York City. My midwife is supposed to be delivering a home birth in the canyon—canyon views, nature, birthing tub on the patio, crackling fire.
Yeah. And now that I'm a month early, legally, she can't do that. So we call my backup doctor at the hospital, and he says, "Okay, keep her somewhere close in town for the early labor. And when she's dilated, bring her in." So on the way to my girlfriend's apartment, as I am tornado-ing and moaning in the car, I remember the words of my midwife in birthing school. "Having a conscious birth is your birthright. To choose how to bring in life from the immaterial to the material. But remember," she said, "man makes plans, God laughs. Trust and surrender." This was surrender time.
We get to the apartment. I drop on all fours. My midwife comes in. Three girlfriends. I look up, and I'm surrounded by a circle of women. They put me in a warm bathtub, and my midwife says, "Okay, Amara, this is the part where you open. So I want you to focus on your baby. And when the pain comes instead of pulling back, lean in instead." Okay. So I'm in the tub, and a sort of life review begins—a sort of inner schooling. I remember moments from my childhood. I begin to make amends, accept apologies. Yes, yes. And I prepare myself to be the mother that I need and I want to be.
And as I embrace that openness and become one with the vortex, forty minutes later, I feel my son's head make contact with my pelvic bones. Boom. I look at my midwife, and I say, "Well, you told me to open." She feels me and says, "Oh my God, she's crowning. Get her to the hospital now." I just wanna stay in the tub, but she could lose her license. So we gotta go. They pull me up out of the tub, throw me in a pair of pjs that my girlfriend had worn two years earlier when she was giving birth to her baby. They grab a bag of groceries or handbags, a boombox, and into the car we go.
Driving down the road. Five minutes flat to the hospital. We open the door. The emergency room. They get a wheelchair. Put me in it. I enter the field of the hospital. Bright lights, nurses coming at me, trying to get me to fill out forms, registration. Wounded people in the emergency room looking at me in horror. "What happened to her?" says one guy. "She's having a baby." "Good God!"
They wheel me into the elevator. I get into a quiet room. And now I am a psychic mama deer in a tornado, in the epicenter of the stampede, on ecstasy, and now on fire. I'm like 300 degrees. My girlfriends are sweating. How can anyone even be this hot? And I rip off my shirt. I squat down, and I let out a lion's roar. Waaaaaa! I think I can deliver this baby myself. The nurse comes in, and she says, "You'll have to wait. Your doctor's not here." "Wait? I'm crowning. I can't. I can't. I can't." They put me on a table. They strap me with a heart monitor, and I hear the sound of medical clinking metal equipment coming into the room. An intern walks in, sits down between my legs. She's like thirteen years old. And I look at the nurse, and I say, "I want my doctor." She says, "He's not here yet." "Then I want my midwife." "She's not allowed." "I want my husband." "I don't know where he is." "I want drugs." "It's too late for that." And all I can think is I can't. I can't. I can't. And I begin to wail. I am inconsolable. I don't know if I'm breathing or birthing. I'm confused. I'm lost. I'm panicking. I'm afraid.
My doctor walks in ten minutes later, pushes the intern aside, sits down. He looks at me. He looks at the heart monitor. He looks at everyone in the room, and he says, "Amara, the baby's stuck. His heart rate's dropping. If you don't get him out on the next contraction, I'm gonna pull him out by force." I think. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I know what this means. Metal forceps coming in and grabbing a hold of my child's head. Pulling on his little neck and spine. No. Cutting my perineum. Blood. Stitches. No, no, no, no. My midwife leans in and whispers in my ear, "Amara. This is it. Be present and focus on your child. You can do this."
And so I tune in with my son, and I'm saying, "Okay, okay honey, this is it. This is it." I can feel him. He's cramped. He's squished. He's hot. He's thirsty. He just wants out. "Are we doing this or not? What's happening?" "Yes, this is it. We're doing it. We're doing it. I'm sorry about the . . . it's confusing. It's complicated. "We're going. We're going now." Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. And as the next wave comes, the room suddenly fills with thousands and thousands of little golden Buddhas. Ahhh! And as I bear down to give birth to my child, all the little golden Buddhas they go like this ......
The universe was with me, birthing with me. Out my baby comes onto my chest. I look at him, and I am looking into the eyes of Source. Source is looking back at me. This is what we are. My girlfriends cut the cord. Placenta comes out. Everything's cool. And the nurse comes over to take my son. And I know what she's thinking because I'm psychic. She wants to take him away to do unthinkable things in this moment of trust, at this most profound moment in our lives. To cut him and inject him and leave him abandoned, looking at the fluorescent lighting. I reach over. I grab her hand, and I say, "Take your hand off my baby." Mama deer becomes tiger mama. I step up off the table. I'm naked with my child. And everyone in the room gasps. I walk over to the boombox. Background music my girlfriend had been playing, and I turn it up. And the song that happens to be on is Hare Krishna by Krishna Das. And so I begin to dance around the room with my son. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare. Everyone backs up.
And I am so happy. One of the nurses in the corner, she grabs the phone. "Yeah, she's doing that bonding thing. Yeah. We're not gonna be able to take him. No, no, no. It's not gonna happen." My girlfriend from the grocery store, she pulls out a bottle of champagne and chocolate cake, and we have a party. The nurses eventually warm up. They come over to me, and they ask, "What was it like?" They had never seen a natural unassisted birth in their career. Never. Not one. I told them about the psychic mama deer and the vortex and the stampede and the ecstasy. And my doctor comes over. He looks at my child. Five pounds, five ounces perfectly healthy. Legs off the charts.
"He's small. You're small. Your husband's small. It's okay. He's fine." I'm alone in a room resting. And I'm looking at my precious son, his little head fitting in the palm of my hand. He's waiting for something, and I know what it is. And then his head just turns towards the door, and in walks Daddy. Yeah, he's psychic too. Daddy picks him up. And in these last moments before he falls asleep, Source meeting Source, they bond, connect. And he takes him in his arms as he falls asleep. My husband looks at me, and he says, "Honey, you look great. How was it?"
That day, behind the fear and the doubt and the story that says, I can't, I can't do this, I can't, I found my I can. And I'll tell you this. Man makes plans, God doesn't laugh. God smiles.
So I'm thinking about getting a nose job. I just wanna look more Jewish. I'm gonna make it bigger. I had a breakup, and my grandma called. I was crying. She was like, "Honey, it's time we get you a nose job. "What?" "Find you a husband." "What?" "I mean, it's not very attractive to wake up next to a giant schnoz like that, Alicia? Hmmm?" "Grandma, ouch. I mean, if a husband is what we're going for, wouldn't a boob job be more effective? Or a blow job or a day job—that'd be less invasive." So it's 2015. And I'm about to perform these opening lines for my brand new standup comedy show, The Oy of Sex, at the Hollywood French festival. And something weird is happening. They're delaying the show because it's so sold out. They're actually lining the stage with audience members. As I get on, they cue the music. I do my show. "Hi. So I'm thinking about getting a nose job . . ." And it goes amazing. I kill it. People leave having grown and laughed and cried. And I have an amazing time afterward. This woman pushes through the crowd. She's got cat-eye glasses, and she says, "Phenomenal show, Alicia. I'm a producer, and I'm taking you off Broadway."
I go home. I get into my ritual postshow bath, and I am riding high. I'm thinking, you know, sure. I've performed around the world. Sure. I've won a bunch of awards, but now I think it's finally happening. Like I think, this is it.
And I flash back to a few months before. I'm on the operating table. I am having my eggs harvested and frozen—pushing snooze on my biological clock. Just hoping that my career takes off before I have a family. And this anaesthesiologist says, "Okay, Alicia." He hooks me up with morphine, and he says, "Can you count back from ten for me?" "Okay. Ten, nine, eight, you're cute. . ."
Flash forward. Four, three, two, one . . . Happy New Year. It's December. I'm in Big Sur, California. I am floating nude in a hot tub, overlooking a cliff, watching shooting stars fall into the Pacific Ocean. And this painfully handsome British man leans over, and says, "Happy New Year. I'm Colin." "Colin?" "Colin." "Colin, ha ha ha ha!" And for the next like several hours, we just start to banter back and forth—very high-level witty banter. And we're giggling, and we're sharing stories of life-altering medicine journeys, and Advaita gurus, and world travel. And oh! Colin just says, "I'm very impressed you're taking a show off Broadway. What's it about?” "Um . . .Inner peace. Love. Sex." . . . "Really?"
That's when he leans in. He caresses my face. He kisses me, and Korea just starts to rumble up my spine as his hands sweep through the water toward my yoni. And I just give in to the absolute bliss of Esalen Institute. Thank you. This is what I came here for. For the next week, Colin and I are just being totally inappropriate in the tubs every night. One night at dinner, we're eating spaghetti, and he just in like the best possible move of comedy and romance in combination, he takes one long piece of spaghetti. He places one end in his mouth and one end in mine, and just bit by bit, we go full lady and the tramp, and my heart is a flutter. I can't believe this is happening. Is this really happening? Like, can I actually have this?
I dunno if I can have this. I freeze. And that old fear of loss just starts to haunt me. And I just breathe through the fear because it's so good. I don't wanna miss this. And I just say, "Yes, I can have this. Yes, I can." And Colin, oh my God, he's amazing. He's a massage therapist in Argentina. And he says that he actually just got a job offer in California. Like he might move here. So two days later, he flies back to Buenos Aires. I fly to New York for my show, and we're sending love notes across the globe.
And then our calls start to taper off. And I realize I was just a post-divorce fling. And I have by this point in my life done mountains of therapy, meditation, healing my inner child work. I have traveled solo throughout India. I have tasted moments of nondual awakening but, no matter what I try, nothing works, and it just hurts. And I'm single again.
Flash forward to New York. It's opening night. We have the premier. They cue the music. I come out. I kill it. People laugh and cry and grow. All of our hard work has paid off, and it feels really good. Afterward, I take the train uptown to 72nd street. I'm missing Colin. That's mainly what I'm thinking about. I get in the postshow ritual tub.
And I check my belly in the mirror, and I'm carrying into the tub like literally a bucket of chocolate malt balls with me. I flip on the music and, of course, it's this song “I'm so tired of being alone. I'm so tired of on my own. Won't you help me?” And I just start bawling. And then I spiral further into the rumination, into the misery around my career. And I think, you know, people get really excited when they hear I'm a comedian. They go, "Oh my God, you know what you should do? You should do a show about . . . mmm . . . spirituality." "Oh, you know, you should talk about white fragility." "Oh, you know, you should talk about the pandemic, you know, tell the truth, you know, the truth." Whatever that is! "The truth."
And whenever people say, "Oh my God, you know what'd be so funny . . ." or they wanna pay me to write a script or a show, like on the outside I'm like, "Oh yeah, that would be totally fun. That's awesome." And on the inside, I just cringe. And I’m just like, oh no, I can't. I can't. I just can't be funny on command. Can't do it. I don't know why, but it's really frustrating to watch all the people I started with get on TV and just not have the kind of conventional success that I dreamt of as a kid.
And after eighteen shows in New York, nothing comes of it. No new booker, no new manager, no agent, no Netflix special. And I just start to wonder, like, Maybe I'm not good enough. And some part of me just gives up, which in a way is really freeing. A year later, I'm doing the show for some friends in Bali, and we have a lot of fun, and I'm just doing it for fun. That night I go home alone. Again, I get into the postshow bath. I'm missing whoever I'm missing when there's a knock at the door.
Two people who were at the show saw me leave alone. I don't really know them, but they bust the door open. They sweep me onto the couch, and they hold me in a tight embrace for the next hour. Robin and Ben are sharing love, and appreciations, and care. And their wisdom just breaks my big tender heart open. And Robin looks me straight in the eye. And she says, "Alicia, you know, you're not just a comedian, right? You're also a priestess. You're like a badass comedy tantrika. I see the goddess moving through you and awakening that entire audience. I see it. You know, after the goddess performs her magic, she needs to return to the temple for replenishment." "You know, I'd really like to be replenished with some money and success." "Alicia, just go talk to the goddess."
So after they leave, I climb back in the tub. I light the requisite candles and incense. I play the requisite flute music, and I speak to the invisible comedy goddess in the air. And I plead with her. "Goddess. I have not been honoring who I am, what I provide, and what is flowing through me. Please show me your will for me."
Just then the candles flicker. The music stops. And the goddess of comedy speaks to me . . .like in my head. A . . . LI . . .CIA! Ha ha. Just kidding. I'm the god of the comedy. Come on! "Write this down, so you can speak it. Alicia, other comedians may use me as a means to an end. But for you, that's a betrayal cos you're here to wake up. That's what you get to do. You don't get to control how your career goes. You just get to enjoy the ride." I don't wanna be forced. I wanna be invited, discovered, savored, known.
"I wanna trick you into seeing every painful truth, feeling every sensation and emotion, and then transcending it all. I want all of you from the broken down, cracked out miserable parts to the dancing night rainbow parts. Baby, I wanna make you rich in spirit, but only, only after I have tied you up and teased you and knocked you down on your knees, so you are begging me to chop off your head to slay every last thought of disconnection, untruth, and disease till you are worshiping me with uncontrollable orgasmic laughter. So fuck your little Instagram following, fuck your childish attempts to impress and seduce with your cleverness because what's on offer is so much bigger.
And guess what? You don't even need to be healed to be funny. You just need to welcome everything as it is right here now cos this is it. And welcome all of these people—these miraculous precious beings—into your temple. Nothing to fix, nothing to prove, nothing to become. This is it. And I hope you enjoy the shit out of it right here now."
Can I ask everybody, put your hands on your heart for a second. I just want you to take a second and ask yourself, Who loves Julia Roberts? Yeah? Yeah? Guys, do you wanna hear a story about how Julia Robert saved my life? All right. We'll get to that in a second. First, we'll go back to twelve-year-old me.
Now, believe it or not, I didn't always look like a Bollywood villain. You see it, right? You could see it. I could be a fucking Bollywood villain, I promise. It's a dream of mine. Twelve-year-old me wasn't this guy. Twelve-year-old me was fat. He had braces. He had glasses. He had asthma. He had a gap in his teeth from the braces. Did any of you ever have the wrench that made your teeth gap? You know what I'm talking about here? It was bullshit. Twelve-year-old me had all that. I was the slowest runner in my entire grade. Everybody would be waiting for me on the other end, and I'd be jiggling along cos I had boy boobs, not man boobs—I was twelve. I'd be wheezing cos I had asthma, and I'd be whistling coz of the gap in my teeth. It's not like I needed any more attention, but I got it.
Now my dad. He was born in Vancouver, but he's brown. He's a coconut. He's brown on the outside, white on the inside. And his name's Paul. He was born named Paul. Paul was an angry dad. He'd be there yelling all the time. Mainly at any of my sporting events. I used to hate going to baseball. Baseball's a high-pressure sport. I could catch. I could hit. But the running part wasn't my jam. That was the hard part for me, you know? And Paul would be yelling from the sidelines. And every time I'd hit almost a fucking home run, he'd be going. "YEAH, run, Aren, RUN." And I'd be running as slow as possible or as fast as I possibly could like an underwater slow-motion hippo going, "Fuck you, Dad." And the coaches would be like, "Paul, can you wait in the car?" cos he was just too much.
Now I grew up in East Vancouver, the rough part of town. My school was known for gang violence, machete attacks, and recruitment into local drug dealing trafficking operations. It wasn't the best place for the kid with the whistle. It wasn't the best place for the kid with the boy boobs. I used to get called Bitch Tits Bahia. Don't you fucking repeat that. (That's my housemate.)
So my best friend at the time, his name was Ricardo. He was from El Salvador, and he had abs at eleven years old. It was fucking bullshit. I was the fat friend. He got all the girls, and I was sitting there whistling. Ricardo had an older cousin named Nelson, and Nelson was a gangster, and everybody loved Nelson. Everybody gave Nelson respect. And when I was with Nelson, people were nicer to me. I didn't get bullied when I was with Nelson. So me and Ricardo wanted to be just like Nelson.
It wasn't long before I started dealing drugs because that was the thing to do in my neighborhood. If you wanted girls, you wanted respect, and you didn't wanna get fucked with, sell some dope. So I started off selling weed, then MDMA, and then this and that and this and that. Before you knew it, I was running a nationwide drug dealing operation.
I thought it was like a rap music video. My life was cool at the time, you know, for a couple of years, and the distance between me and my father grew and grew and grew. I wasn't exactly making Pops proud, but it didn't matter to me. I had money. I had women. I had a white Mercedes with a tan-colored interior. Inside fish sticks, outside tartar sauce—it was the paint job. So I used to pull up that Benz next to my dad's old truck like Fuck you, Dad thinking I was all cool. And it wasn't until I came home, crying to my folks at twenty-three years old. And I was a drug addict. The stress and trauma of that life had gotten to me. Once the Mexican cartel started getting into the picture, things were just a little too scary for me. Once my friends started getting kidnapped, things were a little too scary for me, and I was popping pills just to stay okay with everything happening, but I wasn't okay.
It was the rock bottom part of my life. I needed to do something to change. The drugs really gotta hold of me, as Eminem would say. So I found this counselor, and he told me to do something called iboga. Anybody heard of iboga before? It's an African plant root from Gabon. I didn't know where Gabon was either, don't worry. It's like ayahuasca from Africa, except it's horrible. It's like your stern, angry dad telling you how much of a fuckup you are over and over and over. And if you move, you'll throw up. So you just gotta sit there and take it.
I did this for a week straight and, on the third day of an eight-hour journey, I saw my entire life flash before my eyes. I saw how did this guy become a drug dealer? How did little fat Aren whistling along go to becoming adult boy? I saw all the choices. I saw how I was that guy. But I also saw that I could make some changes. I saw that I could take responsibility for my future. And I saw that I needed to make a big leap. I needed to do something different.
Now the mornings after you take iboga, you sit there shivering in a blanket, contemplating your life. And they told me, "Yeah, you could watch Netflix." I was like, "Okay." So I'm sitting there, and they're like, "Don't watch anything violent. Don't watch anything scary. Positive, happy things only. It'll come up later in your journeys." I was like, "Okay." Already a strange situation. So I flip on Netflix, and that's when my world changed. That's when I saw a miracle. I was taken to a new scene. I was taken to somewhere completely different than anything I've ever witnessed before. I saw the magic of Bali. I saw an offering, devotional prayer. I saw beautiful Balinese people. It was different than anything I'd ever experienced. I knew whatever that was, I needed it in my life. That's when the movie Eat, Pray, Love changed my life. Who would've thought?
So I'm sitting there shivering, and I go, "I need to get there. Where is this movie?" Tap, tap, tap, Google, Google, Google. Bali. Dope. Book a ticket to Bali. "Where's Bali?" Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, Indonesia. Awesome. "Where's Indonesia?" Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. "Really? Fuck. It's there?" I swear I thought it was near Japan or some shit. So two days later, I land in Ubud, Bali. I mean, I get there, and I'm still adult boy. I rock up in a Louis Vuitton shirt and diamond earrings to Yoga Barn! Like, "What's up?" I'm just like, Whoa. It's a completely different world to me, but I know I need to get engaged in this community somehow, some way, and quick.
Now I used to teach kickboxing in Canada, and I thought, Well, there's a yoga teacher training starting next week. It's like the same thing, right? I could do this. It's like kickboxing teaching, just with better asses. Great. So I end up in this yoga teacher training with this teacher named Denise Payne. She's about that big. She's looking up at me, and she doesn't take any shit. And I still rock up with the same ego I had in Vancouver. I was still that same guy trying to make it in the world of green juice and quinoa. That yoga teacher training was tough. I didn't exactly do a good job. While I was trying to learn about chakras, I was partying on the weekends, going on Tinder dates, getting tattoos. I was still exhibiting the same patterns of East Van Aren in Ubud, Bali.
She didn't have any of it. She wasn't happy with how I showed up in that. And I didn't give a shit. I was still a drug dealer. The culmination of it was at the end at the graduation ceremony. And everyone's happy. It's a celebration. Except she comes to me, and she goes, "Hey, I can't pass you in this yoga teacher training. I can't put my name on your certificate." And I look at her. She's about that big to me, but I felt small. I think Am I the only person who's ever failed yoga teacher training? Shit. I give my best "I don't give a fuck" face. She goes, "Aren, when are you gonna give a shit about something? When are you actually gonna show up? You could be so great if you just got over your bullshit." No one ever talked to me like that, and it hurt. I tried not to cry. Tried to be tough. All the other yogis are happy, prancing around—fucking mala beads everywhere.
And I gotta go back to Vancouver. I failed the shanti shanti world, and I gotta go back to East Van, and I know it's waiting for me. I know I gotta get out of that life cos it's gonna swallow me up whole.
I'm flying back to Vancouver. My heart is in my stomach. I'm scared for my life. The next six months were the hardest six months of my entire life. I chose that I wanted to get out, but anytime you wanna make a leap to do something different, you're gonna meet resistance. It's like the universe asking you, "How bad do you want it?" And I had to go through it. I remember one moment that was a shift for me.
Now to get out, I needed an exit strategy, and to get out, I needed to make some cash, and I couldn't just leave like that. So I was still in the dope game, and I had to do this one drug deal. I was selling two kilos of coke to a couple of guys I didn't really know well. I was setting up for this drug deal, and I brought a big gun with me. It was a .40 cal. with a silencer on it. It was about that big. I was trying to figure out where to hide it just in case things went wrong so I could shoot these guys cos I wasn't trying to lose these two keys. I couldn't afford it. As I was trying to figure it out, I had a moment where I just stopped and collapsed. I was having a panic attack. I thought to myself, Is this what my world is right now? Am I trying to psych myself up to shoot a couple of guys over some blow? This is MY life?
It was a dangerous place to be on that ground. A broken boy with a loaded handgun and just then Denise Payne. "Aren, when you gonna give a shit about something? When are you actually gonna show up? When are you gonna get over your own bullshit?" And I sit there, and I'm like, Fuck Denise. She's right. She's right. I knew what I needed to do. I made a decision right there.
Six months later, I'm in prison. The prison's name is Hotel K—Kerobokan maximum security prison in Bali—an hour away from here. But I'm not a prisoner. I'm teaching yoga. Denise Payne had me finish my yoga teacher training by volunteering a hundred hours in prison to these prisoners. Being in jail was great because I could leave. It's like a low-pressure situation. Now, I wasn't a very good yoga teacher, but it's not like the students could go anywhere. It's not like they had anything better going on. I even made friends with the Balinese mafia. It's not like they took my classes or anything, but they'd crowd around watching me teach, smoking cigarettes, going, "Hey, bro, nice tattoos," and I'd be like, "Thanks, Maaray, cool."
That time in prison was important for me. I was clearing karma. I had to do my time. I had to go back and finish something that I fucked up and come back at it as a better man to show that I could change. I wasn't that guy that I showed up as. I could shift. I could make a decision. I could be a new man.
So I moved to Ubud, Bali and I chose that I wanted to be a good guy. I didn't wanna be a criminal anymore. I wanted to make my parents proud, but I knew I needed to do a lot of work right here. Cos, that guy that was buying everybody wheatgrass shots wasn't killing it. I was cheesy. For real. So I did a bunch of self-work. I did eight meditation retreats, three yoga teacher trainings, a bunch of tantra trainings, authentic relating. I saw psychiatrists, spiritual counselors. I saw shamans. I did ayahuasca. I did Kambo. I did cacao ceremonies. I danced ecstatically.
I did a bunch of shit that guys in my old neighborhood would question my sexuality for. Cos I was eye gazing with guys named Sheva, and I was crying with dudes named Lion. I would've gotten my ass kicked. These are important times for me. I had to do it. I had to shift. I had to put in the work, and I learned a lot during those years. It's been quite a journey. Since that time making those shifts, making those changes, and investing myself, I learned I could do anything I wanted.
In four years, I opened up four businesses, and all of them had a big impact on the island. I was done making money that didn't have something bigger than just me. I didn't wanna make another cent that didn't make my dad proud.
The first business still funds a school for mentally disabled Balinese children. And when I took Paul there, he was about to cry. He saw that I wasn't that gangster anymore. He saw that I was doing something better than who I was then. And I got to see my dad finally proud of me.
We're putting out online global vipassana, helping everybody meditate in the whole world, and I'm not selling coke anymore. I've been free of opiates for four years now. Completely clean. Thank you.
So my dad. He called me like a month ago, and he was, you know, catching up with me. We're cool now. And he goes, "Hey, I'm getting fat now." And I go, "Really? What's going on?" He's like, "Well, I just can't get motivated to run. I can't get motivated to do anything, you know. I'm just being lazy." And I'm like, "Well, Dad, I've been running every day." And he goes, "YOU'VE been running?" I'm like, "Yeah. All the time." He's like, "You used to hate running." And I'm like, "I know, but I'm not that kid anymore, you know. I revisited something that I wasn't good at back then. And I'm a different person now, and I love running." He's like, "Wow, that's inspiring. Do you have any advice for me?" And I was like, "YEAH, run, Paul, RUN."
I feel trapped. I can't breathe. My stomach!
Hi, I'm Felicia. I'm a leader. I do not always feel like a leader, though. I was appointed to a leadership team within an organization, and it was so much fun getting there. I might know a couple things about success. I'm from an overachiever family. For example, keeping my focus, an eye on the ball. My father - pro ballplayer, being results-oriented and sticking the landing. Sister - gymnast - agility and strength. Brother - wrestler - discipline and dedication. Me - professional ballet dancer. Now we can't forget the most important person of all, the one that keeps us together with love and care—our chauffeur mom.
These fundamental values given to me at a young age are all a recipe for success. And all I wanted to do when I got to leadership was dance. But when all of the successes were off, there was this overwhelming force that came over me, and it all came tumbling down. "Oh my gosh. I'm so excited. I have so many ideas." "But Felicia, not too many ideas." "Oh my gosh. I'm so excited. I put my heart and soul into this, and I killed it." "Great, Felicia, but do you really want credit for that? Nobody else does. Why don't you just go do what all the other leaders are doing?" "Go be friends with this person, but not this one." "Go and do this, but not this." Is everyone telltale-ing on each other? I'm surrounded by fact-checkers. Do don't do don't everything.
It's getting dark. My light—it's dimming. My motivation gone. My creativity gone.
Now the catalyst. Let me set the stage. Multi-millionaire, big house, big desk, small me, small chair. I go to him with a problem about another leader's abusive behavior. "Felicia, I've known this person for a really long time. Are you sure you want to stay on leadership?" "What? Yeah, no. Yeah. He just threatened me." His desk just got bigger and my chair smaller. "Felicia, leaders. They don't create problems. They make them go away. "Huh?" I think he's . . . Yeah, he's showering me with semantics now. "Felicia, you need to learn how to fly above the fray and not let anything bother you." Wow.
That day I was in complete and utter astonishment that a guru in personal development, mind you, had no care for my thoughts and my feelings, let alone be in alignment with his teachings. Teachings that I spent hours upon hours on. I played a critical role in his organization. I sold his products. I vouched for him and the company. Whew.
It took courage to do what I was doing, and it was not acknowledged. I was angry. Was I being bamboozled? Was he a sham? Because if he was a sham, what does that make me? I'm a person of my word. I feel trapped. Every time I speak, the wind is taken outta me. I'm sick. I can't do this.
Shortly after I stepped down from leadership, I thought that I could still do the business and be successful, but that just was not the case. But only if I could push, and push, and push through the bullshit, it would all be okay. I felt completely and utterly loony. What was wrong with me? Why didn't I want it? But you know what I really wanted? To be in alignment with who and what I was—a good fricking person. So I left success and money behind me. And I did it by keeping my focus on my values, which is my end result with the strength to say, "Fuck you" to a multi-millionaire while driving through life with integrity—chauffeur smart. I found my power of choice. I found me. I feel grounded, at peace and in alignment.
I learned a great lesson. I learned that all I needed was right here inside me. My family values were more important to me, more valuable to me than anything a guru could ever teach me. I finally feel like a leader.
What moves faster than the speed of a flying bullet? New Delhi, India. It was the end of January 1948. Gandhi saw his assassin. He saw the gun and, as the bullet veered straight towards his chest, he threw out his arms in a sign of sweet surrender and murmured the words, "I forgive you." Gandhi epitomizes the power of the human spirit to forgive instantly faster than a moving bullet. I did not tell my story during the Me Too movement because my story is not about my abuse. My story is that of forgiveness. Forgiveness came to me in such an unlikely time and place. It was last July, and I was in my kitchen after a long day of work. And I was scrolling on my phone. I got a message, an anonymous message, but I knew who it was from. He said, "I'm sorry for what happened.
And I think about you often and pray that you have a good life." And for the first time in eight years, I've realized that it wasn't me who was suffering. It wasn't me who was the victim. I understood the meaning of compassion. And I had this visceral feeling in my body like all my pain just welled up and burped out of me. And I let go. I forgave. And I understood what they mean when they say, "A miracle is a shift in perception." So I went about telling my story on forgiveness on stages. And I could see in the audience people who were yearning to forgive. One time, I shared my story quite spontaneously in a public speaking group. And it wasn't rehearsed. And I ended up sharing more of what happened. And as the time ran out, I had to rush through about forgiveness. It felt so raw. And I felt so embarrassed. That wasn't really what I wanted to share. But that night, a woman in the audience tracked me down in the parking lot. And she looked me deeply into my eyes. And she said, "I have a story too.
I can't even imagine sharing it, but how, how did you forgive?" And I told her, "Don't be so hard on yourself. More than anything, it's a willingness. It'll come to you." For me, it's like that quote. They say, "Falling in love is like falling asleep." You resist it. Then it happens very slowly and then all at once. But that's the funny, ironic thing about life. Here I am, this champion of forgiveness. I had no idea what was around the corner. The truth is, very recently in my life, I found out that someone very close to me betrayed me and that our connection was built on a mountain of lies and deception.
This is not one of those surface level betrayals. This is not, you know, taking a steak knife in a dark alley, threatening to steal my Kate bed purse. This is one of those professional greed, Japanese butcher knife stabbing me in the back, almost showing up in my life with a perfect smile. But by the time that I finally turned around and saw the truth what was happening, I was stunned. You? It can't be you of all people. I trusted you. You know all my stories, all of my pain. I don't even know who I am without you, which made me realize that's the problem.
It was really ME who betrayed ME because it was ME who was looking for validation from another person and for permission and for guidance. It was me who was hurting me all along. And as I looked at my life and how to pick up the pieces and how to move on after such a betrayal, I would like to say that I went and asked my spiritual teacher or looked at the bava hu kita, but like many of us, I found my New Age advice on Instagram. Someone who I admire, who is wealthy and successful and competent, shared someone very close to her betrayed her. And she shared about how she could carry on with elegance and with dignity, with her life. And she said to not hide, to hold your head up high, which I knew was a message for me because that's the name of one of my brands, Hold Your Head Up High, which is my neck choker brand. And maybe there is a reason why I named it that. Maybe it was time for me to find out. This time I don't have eight years to hide, and I might not be Gandhi, but I will do my best. What if this knife is one of the greatest gifts of my life?
Because this pain cut me to my core and cut through all the illusions and my codependency. And you know, I could take this knife, and I could throw it back to that person, and I could share what happened, but in the end, I'm only hurting me. So I'm gonna take this knife and this pain, I'm gonna put it down, and I'm gonna let that go. Because this time I learned, that forgiveness means nothing outside of me can hurt me. And that it's my time to hold my head up high. And be me. Thank you.
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.