Eli Marienthal

On Taking Young Men into The Wilderness

Eli is the co-director of Back to Earth and the founding faculty of W.I.L.D., a wilderness guiding, outdoor education organization that works with young men to develop practices of personal development and self care through a culture of peacemaking and thanksgiving. He is trained through The Tracking Project in Corrales, New Mexico, a non-profit led by John Stokes devoted to peacemaking, nature awareness and cross cultural respect. He is a NOLS alumnus and a certified Wilderness First Responder. In addition to his work at Back to Earth, Eli was a PhD candidate in Geography at UC Berkeley, working on a dissertation about public space and the politics of belonging in Oakland. He has previously conducted research in Haiti and India, and holds a double bachelor's degree and a master's degree in international development studies from Brown University. Eli is also a poet, dancer, songwriter and spoken-word performer. He was a first generation Youth Speaks poet, and was the youngest member of a winning Brave New Voices National Slam Team, as well as the youngest to win the Bay Area Slam. A former actor, Eli is known for his role as Stifler's little brother on American Pie, which I think makes him especially equipped to pontificate on teenage boys and the cultural messaging they receive around sex!

 

Check out Eli's work with adolescents in the wilderness here: www.backtoearth.org

"When we are confronted with something that does not have a neat answer, that does not allow us to stand for or against, that involves us in all of the complexity of creation as simultaneously liberated, reverent, ecstatic, in grief, implicated, colonized, colonizer, all of it, we are ourselves. Not despite, but because of, the web in which we are woven."

~ Eli

Reflections...

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Listen:

I feel deeply indebted to Eli for sharing such vital insights and perspective on how our shared cultural conditioning around sex affects young men. Much of my work around healthy sexuality is rooted in my personal experience as a cis woman and fueled by personal outrage at the socio-historical suppression and vilification of female sexuality in particular. But I have come to understand the extent to which the same systems of oppression have also cut men off from their authentic sexuality, causing them tremendous suffering, shame, confusion, alienation, and self-doubt.  

 

The wounding and confusion that men experience during adolescence often results in sexual misconduct and assault later in life. This is something that is not being sufficiently addressed in the wake of the #MeToo movement. I have been scouring the internet for details about Harvey Weinstein as a teenager—what was his relationship to sex growing up? Did he experience pivotal moments of shame, rejection or emasculation that he spent his adult life trying to overcompensate for? I am by no means excusing his actions—they make me sick—but my general disposition towards most wrongdoing in our society is: Why? What sociological & psychological factors were at play to enable such pathologically immoral behavior? And how might these same factors be affecting millions of other people? 

 

Peggy Orenstein’s recent publication of Boys and Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity (a follow up to her revelatory Girls and Sex, which I credit in this episode for partially inspiring this podcast) reveals the pressures, fears, and conditioning that young men must navigate when it comes to sex. 

 

Any discourse around sexual liberation that implicitly shames or vilifies men is in fact perpetuating a harmful and reductive dichotomy. We have all been compromised in our sexuality by our culture’s toxic programming. 

 

Eli speaks beautifully on the topic. He points out that implicit in the messaging that young men receive is “the suggestion that their own sex is something really trifling. Women's job is to preserve and protect it as something beautiful and precious, but men’s job is to throw it away as quickly as someone else will pick it up.” I have to admit I have never thought about this before. I have thought ad nauseam about the corrosive effects of commodifying or objectifying female sexuality, but never about how the message to get laid, as often as possible, with whomever you can, trivializes and cheapens male sexuality. The messaging is so pervasive that, as Eli points out, “it is enough make one think that if their internal voice says differently than theres something wrong with their internal voice.” 

 

This, to me, is at the heart of it. Our cultural messaging, about many topics but especially when it comes to sex, is so powerful that it leads us to question or even override our internal voice. The implications of this are profound, as our internal voice is the compass of our live--if we cannot rely on it, then we are prone to chronic self-doubt. Eli shares openly and vulnerably about his own experience as a young man when he forced himself to override his internal voice and felt "defective, ashamed, and out of basic integrity" as a result. Similarly, when I was younger, I was uncomfortable with hookup culture and casual sex, but I believed there was no alternative, that I had no choice but to subscribe to it, and that there was something wrong with my internal wiring when I found myself unable to enjoy it. I am only beginning to understand the ripple effect of this in other areas of my life. It leads to a loss of faith in the self. 

 

In order for us to be in authentic connection with our sexuality—and, by that same token, our lives—we must hone our inner voice. It is indeed a lifelong practice. We can hone it through Qi Gong, as Nikesha Breeze spoke about earlier on the podcast, through judicious listening, as Camila Celin shared in last week’s episode, and through prolonged immersion in nature, which Eli discusses. It goes both ways. Just as honing our inner voice can help us to become more authentic in our sexuality, deepening and refining our connection to our sexuality can help us hone our inner voice. Hence Eve Bradford’s assertion that we are less susceptible to manipulation when we are in touch with our true desire. 

Eli addresses these themes in his vital work with young men: 

 

“In all of this work, when it comes to this subject, what I most want for the young men is to know that it is the information out there that is totally nuts and that their inner voice is good. If they hone it.” 

Resources

Transcription

 

Eli: When we are confronted with something that does not have a neat answer, that does not allow us to stand for or against, that involves us in all of the complexity of creation as simultaneously liberated, reverent, ecstatic, in grief, implicated, colonized, colonizer, all of it, we are ourselves. Not despite, but because of, the web in which we are woven. 

 

In all of this work, when it comes to this subject, what I most want for the young men is to know that it is the information out there, that is totally nuts, and that their inner voice is good. If they hone it.

 

Lianne: I’m Lianne. Welcome to Strippers and Sages.

 

Eli is the co-founder of Back to Earth, a wilderness guiding outdoor education organization based in Oakland, California that offers wilderness immersion and leadership development for teenage boys. Eli is a lifelong learner and educator. He is trained through The Tracking Project in Corrales, New Mexico, a nonprofit led by John Stokes devoted to peacemaking, nature awareness and cross cultural respect. He is a Knowles alumnus and a certified wilderness first responder. Eli holds a double bachelor's degree and a master's degree in International Studies from Brown University, and was a PhD candidate in Geography at UC Berkeley, with research conducted in Haiti and India. He is also a poet, dancer, songwriter, and spoken word performer. He was a First Generation Youth Speaks poet, and the youngest member of a winning Brave New Voices national slam team. He continues to perform original work in a wide variety of venues, and as a special treat, at the end of this episode, he reads some new work of his. 

 

This was really such an enriching conversation. Eli is an incredible mind. The work he's doing with adolescent boys is rather remarkable. I learned so much in this sweeping conversation,

and I hope you will, too.

 

Lianne: Hi, Eli. 

 

Eli: Hi, Lianne. 

 

Lianne: Thanks so much for joining me today.

 

Eli: My pleasure. Yeah, thanks for having me.

 

Lianne: So just to start off, I'd love for you to just talk a little bit about your company, Back to the Earth, and how you started it, and what its mission is.

 

Eli: Sure. Back to Earth is a wilderness guiding and outdoor education company that I run with my best friend since high school, Jesse Sacks. And we started doing trips together in the summer of 2015. We had arrived at this rather remarkable little juncture in our lives, having been friends for a long time, then gone in quite separate directions, always, always keeping connected. But he went off to art school and became a permaculturist. And I was in graduate school in geography at Berkeley, and we were just leading very different lives. And then we found ourselves, by a quite sudden set of circumstances, with wide open horizons. And he had started guiding a few trips the summer before just with a friend, pretty casually. And he said, “What if we put it out to the world that we wanted to do backpacking trips with teenage boys? We've always talked about it.” And we had always talked about it. We started backpacking together in high school and stuff, where I learned how to backpack and learned my love of the mountains and the way that I carry it now. And he'd grown up with a family that did that all the time. I did not. And from that time, we had said, “Man, what if this was our work? What if this was our job? Wow, this is so good for us. What if we could do this for a living?” And it was a long way around to that moment in the fall of 2014. Looking at the open expanse of the years ahead, and we said, why not? We’ll throw it out there, see if anybody goes for it. And people really went for it. 

 

And so it's been five seasons that we've been doing a program called WILD which is an acronym for Wilderness Immersion and Leadership Development. Those are 10 day trips with teenage boys, 13- and 14-year-olds, as well as 15- to 19-year-olds, and they are ceremony-based, skill-building backcountry trips in the Sierra Nevadas. And increasingly over the last four years, we have also offered nature connection and culture building programming for schools. So we work with a variety of schools in San Francisco, and the East Bay, where we really develop programming that's very particular for every school. Every school is... has its own goals, its own way that it divides its student body up, things that wants, the places it feels weak, its own beliefs and values. And so we really work with schools to develop programs that get their kids outdoors for pretty extended periods of time and allow everything there is to be found out in the natural world to kind of merge with the culture of the school. 

 

Lianne: Beautiful. So what does the typical trip look like? The structure of it, how many boys, what ages?

 

Eli: In our backpacking program?

 

Lianne: Yeah.

 

Eli: Most backpacking programs are 10 days, with about 10 participants and two instructors. We run a lot of our trips in Yosemite, in the wilderness. You know, it's an amazing thing about going to a national park like that. There could be 100,000 people in Yosemite Valley, and four miles into the trail, you might not see anybody for a week. So we're in the wilderness in Yosemite, we also operate in in other parts of the Sierras, all through the Sierras in Kings Canyon, Sequoia, John Muir Wilderness and we basically spend three or four days backpacking, pretty deep in until we get to base camp and and then we hunker down and we offer a ceremony. It's our own ceremony. It makes use of technologies of reverence, technologies of prayer that have been passed down to us through various teachers and lineages. But it is also very much a ceremony that we have conjured out of our own experience and that is particular to the boys we work with. And they basically spend a day making preparations for their ceremony. And then before dawn, they hike out to their spot, which is at quite a distance from our fire. Jesse and I make a fire and keep the fire for about 28 hours, until well after sunrise. The following day, they sit in their spot. And they have an experience of themselves. Often it's really expansive, joyful, life-changing. They weep, they laugh, they feel extraordinarily bored. They think up all of the reasons why they should leave and come back to the fire, they resist. Sometimes they do come back to the fire. All kinds of amazing human being things transpire in those 28 hours for us, too. We sit and we do our part in that ceremony, which is to keep the fire and sing the songs and hold the center for them, and love up on them, and ask that they be well. And when they come back, we integrate out of that and unfold ourselves out of our ceremony spot. And we hike the three, four days back out. That's a journey.

 

Lianne: Wow. Wow, what a beautiful experience. What age are these teenagers?

 

Eli: 15 to 19.

 

Lianne: 15 to 19. And I would imagine, for many of them, this idea of ceremony is a new thing, or is a new concept, right? It's not something that we, in our dominant culture, are just raised with. So how do you explain the concept of what ceremony is going into that experience? And how do you contextualize even the experience of solitude in the wilderness? Do you just send them on? Or is there some sort of initiation even into that process? What does preparation look like?

 

Eli: Pretty much from the moment that we link up with them in the parking lot and start heading to Yosemite, we are laying the groundwork for that ceremony. And the way we talk about it is that we are passing through concentric rings of ceremonial timespace. That we are always in this process of crossing through thresholds. And we sort of frame it that we're moving towards a center, a center of our time, the center of our point furthest from the parking lot, and the center of our internal exploration. So you get in the car, you know, you get in the van in the parking lot and start driving to Yosemite and it’s like, okay, bam, that's the threshold, you know? And then we pile out of the van, make camp our first night, in the backpackers camp in the valley. All right, here we are, you know, sleeping on the ground, there's a threshold. And then we hit the trail. And then we wake up and our first morning out there and do our morning practice, do our thanksgiving address and our morning workout. You know, okay, deeper and deeper and deeper. And as we go, the routines that are the bedrock of how we spend time together, you know, the parts of the culture that Jesse and I tend, that are pretty organic reflections of just the ways we have come to enjoy spending time with each other and things that we found meaningful. It really settles through the group in pretty remarkable ways. You know, ceremony may strike some as a kind of foreign concept, or as a word that raises certain alarm bells. But what I find is that a couple of days spent together, that as, as the guys we're with, develop a sense of, of how we talk. Of how we like to be, that it actually turns out to feel like an exceedingly natural part of their human program. That there's this… there is a desire, sometimes explicit and sometimes latent in -- I don't know, I know I'm always loath to say all people and what do I know about all people -- but many, many people to know themselves differently, to step up to the edge of something that is really scary and ask themselves genuinely, am I scared in a way that should make me turn back? Or am I scared in a way that I should step through? And the way that we hold this ceremony, I feel, offers to a wide range of young people. People who are doing really well in school and kids who are failing out of school, kids who have their act totally together and kids who were just released from other, you know, punitive wilderness therapy programs or have just been arrested, or just got their ankle monitors off. You know, it's like we work with a lot of different kids. And for all of them, what I think we offer is the edge of something that feels scary, but which is ultimately very safe to step into.

 

Lianne: And so what are the demographics that you bring? I mean, you just mentioned some of their backgrounds. How do parents find you? Yeah, what's the... do you seek out a certain level of diversity? And does that, I mean, you just mentioned such a range of young adolescent boys where I think those differences can be very divisive. So how do you see those divisions actually potentially dissolve, or come into friction in these experiences?

 

Eli: Well, it is one of my favorite observations about these trips, is that, you know, kids who come from wildly different backgrounds think of themselves in very different ways, are dealing with very different challenges in their lives. You put them out in the wilderness together for a couple of days, I'm not saying everybody becomes best friends. But there is a settling, there is a leveling process. And I like to think that so much of what we're doing is holding a container, modeling a culture, of being kind. Of listening well, of treating each other really well as a whole. In a vast number of ways, looking out for each other in very tangible ways. Hoping to share the way to do the chores that keep life running, and also holding space for each other when we sit at the fire when we get real.

 

And I think there are a lot of young people who don't have the experience very often in their lives that they can be, frankly themselves. Whether it's around people who are really different, or whether it's around their best friends. But they can really be themselves and no one's gonna tease them about it. No one's gonna make a joke of it or laugh at them, or call them weird. And there's something very liberating that happens on these trips because the intention is so strongly that what we are doing, it's not it's not ancillary to the curriculum. It's like, it's the thing itself. We are going out here to have the experience of being a group of human beings, and of young men in particular, together, doing something hard, and treating each other very well. And they really do it. As for this other question of our demographics, you know, frankly it is a challenge. You know, the extent to which outdoor activities, wilderness, backpacking are coded as extremely white, and are in fact demographically extremely white activities, I see as a symptom, one symptom of many of deep processes of alienation and colonization that have, you know, created both material, as well as psychological boundaries around who can, who does feel safe. Who does feel like they belong in those places. 

 

You know, it's like it is, it's no small thing that the history of conservation in this country is a racialized and and in many ways dispossessive history. You know, it's like, it's a long history in this country of making wilderness spaces, of making outdoor spaces, of preserving, quote unquote, “recreational spaces” by dispossessing other people of those lands. And I think that that history rings through in all kinds of profound ways. And you know, and and shows up as, you know, backpacking being hella white. And we have always talked, Jesse and I, from the very first day, you know, when we sat down and sort of put down: what's our mission? And one of our missions is to redistribute access to wild places as a part of our birthright. And in doing that, we run up against all kinds of very practical challenges, like, you know, people like: “I can't pay for that.” And we really try to work with folks, whatever that looks like, and however that looks like. And I think we do a pretty good job, and we can talk more about that later. And it's also just really meeting people where they're at. Because you have some kids who show up to us and they're like: “My dad takes me fly fishing in Montana every single summer and I just, I love backpacking!” It's like: “What kind of stove do you use? Oh, you have an MSR! I love them!” You know? And then we get other kids who show up and you know, we're like, in the parking lot next to the reservoir on the highway on the way to Yosemite and people are like: “Damn! wilderness!” You know? And again, the beauty of it is the leveling that happens so quickly. It's like those kids who come out with all the gear and they know all the things it's like, they don't actually know any more about it. And they're not actually any more connected to it than kids who are having their first experience of sleeping on the ground, seeing their first snow, swimming in a mountain lake for the first time. It evens out very quickly. And that's really one of the beautiful things about the work.

 

Lianne: In what way do some of the issues that you're speaking about in terms of dispossession and colonization, enter into the discourse that you are having with these students, if at al? Students, students of the wilderness.

 

Eli: Participants?

 

Lianne: Yeah. 

 

Eli: Our guys. 

 

Pretty explicitly. You know, it is our ethic and our style to be quite transparent with them. I think it's one of the real opportunities of doing work with adolescents is to, you know, find out what happens when you treat them like full-fledged human beings, and offer them a real opportunity to rise to the occasion as it were. And so, we're really interested in including them in all of the conversations that are happening internally for us, because that's how we hold the program. And we are, of course, the instructors, and we are the imaginations that have brought it into being in a certain kind of way. But we mean it that we are co-creating these adventures with them. That we're not, you know, running them through our program. We are slightly older young men who are interested in spending a lot of time in the wilderness, because it is so vital to our own healing and liberation. Because it helps us to feel more human. And because we love to go into the deep woods and do ceremonies that are big prayers for our lives.

 

And so all of the conversations that surround that, we want to welcome them in. You know, one of the places this gets very tangible is, you know, some of the technologies of prayer that we make use of in these ceremonies have been passed down from Native people of this continent, and from Lakota people in particular. And that's a complicated thing. You know, we're white guys out there, often working with a lot of white kids or, you know, a lot of all kids, but not Native kids. And, and we're making use of sacraments, and, and technologies that have been held so dear, for thousands of years, passed down at incredible peril. You know, the sacrifices that people have made, that these ways should survive into the present day are unimaginable. And so very understandably, there are a lot of people out there who have all kinds of thoughts and feelings about white people making use of them, you know, and, and I don't begrudge any of them, any of their views on it. I'm actually quite, quite open to it and quite open to having the conversation. I also really trust the relationship that I tend to them. And I really trust the good way that it came down to me. And I really trust that what we are doing, and the way that we offer it is, is aligned with the greater healing that is unfolding on this planet. And that is our, our collective true human being prayer. And so I want the boys to know all of that. I want them to know, you know, where the prayer ties came from. And how we learned it, and how the people we learned it from learned it, and all of the complicated ways that people feel about it. And just to be absolutely as explicit because -- and this is crucial -- it's not a disclaimer. It's not like: “We're gonna do it, but I just want you to know, some people might feel some kind of way about it. And so I just want you to… want you to know that!” It's actually from the belief that wrestling with the unanswerable questions is so much a part of what makes us fully human. That when we, when we are confronted with something that does not have a neat answer, that does not allow us to stand simply for or against, that involves us in all of the complexity of creation as simultaneously you know, liberated, reverent, ecstatic, in grief, implicated, colonized, colonizer all of it. And, and to find that we are ourselves not despite, but because of the web in which we are woven. You know, that's what I want for them. 

 

So it's like, if we're sitting around and we're in the woods, and you know, it's like, we're 12 guys and 10 of us are white guys. It's like, yeah, there is mention. You know, there is mention, and often we're not the ones even who mention it. And that's when I think we're really doing good work. It's like, often it's, it's guys in the circle who will be like: “You know, I just want to say. This is a real edge for me. And this is really uncomfortable for me. And I've never been around so many white people before, and certainly not in the wilderness. And, you know, I feel some kind of way when I hear some of you talking about, you know, flying on your grandpa's plane, etcetera, etcetera.” And then really, like, sharing where they're coming from, what they've seen, what their lives are, like, from a really mature, loving place of speaking their truth. It's like, that's the deal.

 

Lianne: Mmm.

 

Eli: You know, you have to really have an appetite for, for the, for the complexity. It has to be an authentic part of what... You know, let me say, it is an authentic part of what I want to be talking about with my guys. Because it moves me. It's not a part of a programmatic checklist. You know, as I said before, and so there's kind of two questions there. It's like: One, is anybody else having the conversations? I don't know, you know, I'd like to meet them if they are. You know, we started doing this the way we started doing it, in part because we had done other wilderness programs and found out, you know, what we garnered in terms of technical competencies was immense, but what it offered us spiritually was, you know, pretty non existent, and in terms of being stimulating to our minds, intellectually, philosophically, and actually not dividing that up as like a little part of the curriculum, but a fully interwoven cultural process. You know, we didn't encounter that anywhere else. We don't see that anywhere else. It's part of the inspiration for the way that we do things.

 

Lianne: Yeah, it's just, it's just really beautiful. I'm thinking about the name, Back to Earth, and how, you know, it all happened, it all took place on this earth, right? Everything, all of our human history. And so to go back to her, and have her hold, and create the container for this deeper work, you know, I think it's just a really beautiful and intelligent way to be in relationship with her that you're providing. 

 

Can you speak a little bit about the lineage that you carry? And how you came into carrying that work, who your teachers, are what your initiation into holding some of these technologies was?

 

Eli: Sure. Initiation is such a funny word. And I always think of my first teacher in this way, whenever anybody says the word, so I'm actually gonna get to see him later today. His name is John Stokes, and he runs something called The Tracking Project. He's based out of Corrales in New Mexico, and he's been doing really amazing bridge building work. peacemaking work for 40 years now. He's worked with a lot of people all over the world. And his first, say, teachers, benefactors, people who really first identified him as some kind of special and started teaching him, were Aboriginal guys out in Australia. That’s where he learned to track. And, you know, those guys, when they say initiation, it's like a real thing. You know, it's not like “I went on a 10-day backpacking trip with these guys and sat out for 24 hours, you know, now initiated.” It's like, you know, you cut there, cut there, and knock out that tooth and you know, it's like, it's a real deal. And so, John always jokes that over the years, lots of people have come to him and asked him, “Hey, my son is turning 14. I'm wondering, could you initiate him?” And although he's exceedingly well-trained, he always says, “I'm not an initiated man. No, I'm not an initiated man. I know a lot. I've been shown a lot. I've been welcomed into some pretty powerful inner sanctum business. Got a pretty good, you know, line to Creator. I have seen and participated in things that have no earthly explanation. But I'm not an initiated man, I can't initiate your son.” And I feel the same way about it. You know, we get that word. And I just take a direct cue from my teacher there. I think of him today, as you're asking this, also because the, you know, the baseline rule for everything is ask permission and give credit. It's not a cover-all, it doesn't absolve one of any responsibility, duty, you know, complexity, but it's a really good start. And so, at the very core of every day that we do with every group, whether it's a school group, whether we're in the backcountry, whether there's five of us, or 50 of us, we start every day with the thanksgiving address. The thanksgiving address, also known as the words we say before all else. And it came to me through John Stokes, John Stokes carries it out into the world on behalf of and with the permission of the Haudenosaunee ,or the Iroquois Confederacy. And the Tracking Project, many years ago, was tasked with a rather remarkable goal of putting into a written form, to a book form, this oral tradition that has stood at the center of Iroquois culture for... I wouldn't even speculate how long. And it is a way of greeting and thanking all of creation. You know, from the circle of human beings, to the earth, to the water, and so on and so on, all the way up to Creator. And that's how we start every day. That is the center of the work. And I have also spent quite a lot of time with a.... I call my dad, my adopted dad, my medicine dad, George Bertelstein who is based in Berkeley, California. He came into my life at a really pivotal moment and adopted me in and gave me a lot to work with. And when we were, when Jesse and I were getting ready to go out and do our first year, you know, we went and talked to George. We just wanted to chat, you know, we weren’t asking anything in particular and he was saying: “So you're gonna sit these guys out, huh?” “No, I don't really feel like we're…. not us? Like we're but we're so young!” And George is a Chanunpa carrier and a Chanunpa maker. For those who don't know, the Chanunpa is the sacred pipe that comes from Lakota people. Many people all over the world have a pipe, and the Chanunpa is particular to people from that part of the world. You know, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Upper Plains, and he was like: “No, no, no, it's good. It's good. Here's what you can do, you know, you go out, you're gonna like, take the Chanunpa and everything and it’s gonna be good. You know, it’s gonna be good.” And we took it, and trusted it, and it has been really good.

 

Lianne: So paint me a picture of Eli ages 14 to 18, and then after that, and again to like how... what, then, led you to these teachers, and to have such an interest and a relationship with these technologies? Let's say age 12, however early, you know, like... adolescent Eli, so wise now, leading these trips, you know? Like where, what was your adolescence like, and your journey?

 

Eli: I was an actor, and a poet. That’s how I spent my time, and in my early and middle adolescence. I had a, you know, a pretty decent little film and television career.

 

Lianne: We’ll link to your IMDB.

 

Eli: Yeah, please don't, you know? No, it's funny it's actually, at this point I'm as amused by it as anybody else. When I was in high school I hated it. You know, I’d like, walk around Berkeley high, people would be like “Ah, it’s Stifler’s little brother!” Like please, please don't don't say it. I just was so desperate…

 

Lianne: What's that a reference to?

 

Eli: Stifler’s little brother? It was, it was American Pie.

 

Lianne: Ah, and you were in that show.

 

Eli: I was. 

 

Lianne: Okay. 

 

Eli: I was.

 

Lianne: That was a movie.

 

Eli: And, you know, I really didn't want to be identified like that. You know, I was making such interesting work, I thought, as a poet, I felt so much more identified with that writing, that I thought these movies were just... I just didn't want to be known like that. Although at this point I'm just so grateful the whole thing happened. It gave me my life in a really beautiful way. And I spent, I spent most of high school, I went to Berkeley High in Berkeley, which was an awesome place to go to high school, and got linked up with an organization called Youth Speaks when I was 12 or 13. Youth Speaks has since become the leading national arts education, literacy, and youth spoken word programmer in the world, really, probably. They produce the National Poetry Slam, Youth Poetry Slam, the Q-tip, you know, emceed at the Lincoln Center. I mean, that's like how it is now. But when I started, it was just, it was just the founder with his Subaru and some, you know, printouts, like doing writing workshops, and I got super involved. And I think it bears directly on the work that I do now, because I had the experience of getting to spend time with my peers in this very particular creative way. Where we really listened to each other, and applauded each other, and supported each other, and also competed. But it was a way of spending time in high school that kept me out of a fair bit of trouble, I would say, and certainly kept me creatively engaged. 

 

Lianne: Mmhmm.

 

Eli: Both literally through the writing of poetry, but also in the kinds of relationships that emerge from young people being engaged so deeply in a creative process together. And, I mean, while I was starting to backpack.

 

Lianne: Mm hmm.

 

Eli: Jesse and I were discovering that we could get in the car, and drive to the mountains, and be so free. You know, and we did it in our own, whatever, knucklehead 16-year-old way of going and being in the mountains. But the experience of the vastness. Of being outside of the orbit of our parents’ surveillance, which was minimal, I mean, my mother would shake her head if she heard the word surveillance applied. Which she would be right to do. But nonetheless, you know, when you're a teenager in a city, your options are limited. And we just found something so vast. And we found again this other way to be together, which was being ecstatic about the beauty of the world. I think I probably still had a real, you know, chip on my shoulder about the word God at the time. I have thoroughly gotten over it. You know, that's, it was a process. Now I just, I don't mind the word. You know, it means what it means to me. It means what it means to everybody else, but I feel like a God freak, I love God. You know, it's like, I have no supposition about what it is or should mean to anybody else, but it just like, means what it means to me, and it works for me. I wouldn't have at 16. But there was a reverence that came into our relationship at that time. It's actually just how we started to spend time, to walk around. “Wow! Wow! Oh my god! You know, look at that. Do you want to go there? We can just walk there! Let's just walk there. Look at that tree! Look at that animal! Get in this water! Have you ever seen anything?” So you just come to find that that's actually a way of being with your friends. 

 

Lianne: Yeah, I don't think about reverence as a state of mind that most teenagers have. I certainly did not. If anything, there was, for me, moodiness and resentment and narcissism. And I think, thinking about the role of reverence as, I don't want to say a remedy, but a tool for engaging differently with the world like you're speaking about, and the fact that you're offering that to this really ,at this really critical age is a very powerful thing. You mentioned the other day when we were talking more casually about this, hen you tell people that you do this work with young men, the response is often: “Oh, God, you know, thank God, they really need it.” Right? And so, what is that response about? And certainly, looking at that particular group in our society, you know, one of the things that started me on this podcast was reading a book by journalist Peggy Orenstein called “Girls and Sex,” and was looking at relationships, was looking at girls first, and early sexual experiences in high school and in college. And overwhelmingly the instances of those cases being either non-consensual, or under the influence and you know, even going to Ivy Leagues, and looking at these really powerful, intelligent, overachieving women, who then were giving up a lot of their power. But what that, the book really highlighted also was where the young men come into it, and the sort of expectations and where, where sex becomes, you know, so much of a thing about social status and power and conquering, and implications within that.  And so part of why I really wanted to have you on the show is since you're working with boys, young men at this age, I really wanted to get into a little bit. How you see that as a theme that they're wrestling with, what you, how what your own personal journey was, and how you see, particularly within the work that you're doing, you know, what, what is integral to our cultural healing around sexuality in particular, that maybe the program that you're doing or others could start to help lead us towards.

 

Eli: That is an awesome compound question. 

 

Lianne: I'll give you bullet points.

 

Eli: I think people have a response to the fact that we work with young men, that is rooted in, a belief, a knowing that in order to heal in the human family, the ways that masculinity has expressed itself, both at the level of the individual, interpersonally, in friendships, in sexual relationships and more broadly, in the ways that it congeals into patriarchal social formations.

And that there is something about “the man thing" to heal up. And it's not precisely defined. And I wouldn't even try to precisely define it because it's so, it's such a multiplicity of conditions. And now, what's the word I'm thinking, of complexes. And I don't think that most people, when they say, “Oh, wow, that's so great that you work with young men,” think that it has anything explicitly to do with sex. Although there is this vague, looming, off-stage sense that the intermingling of a certain kind of power dynamic, and the potential for violence that shows up especially in sex, is part of really what there is to heal up. So it's there. I think for everyone, the connection is implicit to some degree. But it's very often not talked about, and not what people mean, and not actually even what's necessarily on people's minds. You know, my own experience is hugely informative, the way that I approach this work. Because I am, and have always been, an extremely sensitive being. I feel things deeply. I care a lot about how it feels for other people. The ethic of not doing harm has been really alive for me for as long as I can remember. Which is not to say that I have not done harm in my life. You know, I certainly have hurt a lot of people's feelings over the years. But what stands out is that there was always, in my own experience, a real dissonance between the messaging around what I was “supposed to” want, and supposed to want to do, and what actually felt good. And it was so confusing. Because I was told in really explicit ways, and in myriad implicit ways as well, that what I should want would be to have sex with as many girls as would let me, and that that would be a sign that I was succeeding in self-actualizing as a young man. And it's just not ever how my being wanted to express itself. And the messaging about what we are supposed to want in all kinds of ways, not just that young men should want to, should be trying to have sex, but also who they should be wanting to try to have it with. And the implicit suggestion that their own sex is something really trifling, that it's sort of women's jobs to preserve it and protect it as something beautiful and precious. But that it's men's jobs to just kind of like throw it away as quickly as someone else will pick it up. You know, the messaging is so strong, it is enough to make one think that if their internal voice says different, that there's something wrong with their internal voice. And that's wacky. I mean, really. And so in all of this work, when it comes to this subject, what I most want for the young men is to know that it is the information out there that is totally nuts. And that their inner voice is good. Yeah, that their inner voice, if they hone it. You know, the inner voice is not the sort of confused repository of a whole bunch of other unconscious urges, drives, sort of like in a, in a Vitamix with a bunch of, you know, pornographic imagery, and like, music videos ,sort of like poured out on the high school blacktop. Like, that's not what I'm talking about. That there is an inner voice that requires tending to, and careful listening for. It's part of our instrumentation, we can learn to listen. It's the reason that a human being might want to go out and sit in the woods without distractions for a day, or two days, or four days, would be precisely to be able to quiet all the rest of the chatter, and start to hear that other voice inside that is full of really good information. 

Lianne: Yeah. 

 

Eli: And it's not even necessarily the voice that talks in the head. It's actually the voice that talks in the body. It's actually the voice that you don't even need to hear. Because sometimes the wordscape is, it's too far gone. You know, it's like, it's all so muddled. It's so messy, but you can just feel it in your body. And I know that as a 16-year old-boy, I thought the world was so cruel. You know the irony of my body not participating in whatever nonsense my brain had cooked up as like, Oh, this is a good idea. You know? And it would register in my body, you know, my body would like, shut down. I feel like, checked out. You know? And I think I did what a lot of young men do, which is train myself, train my body to be able to override its very good information. Which was like, No, you don't want this. This is not you. You don't want to be here. You don't want to drink that. You don't want to smoke that. You don't want to go home there. You don't want to drive with them. You know, there's a lot of like, training oneself out of being able to hear the body. And, yeah, we're just working backwards, trying to get back to the source, and to let young men know that their source is good. Their source information is really good, their source information is reliable and trustworthy. And to be able to tell the difference between the like, Blah, blah, blah, and their source information. You know, and to recover for them this sense, because for very understandable reasons, young men's sex has come to feel like something very dangerous, inherently predatory. Something that is a source of great damage and misery, something that not only young women, but they themselves need to be protected from. And there are good reasons, there are absolutely understandable reasons for all of the fear. And, and all of the caution and all of the efforts that have been made to, you know, create frameworks and boundaries and keep young people from. And I'm not actually, I don't have an opinion about it, you know, I don't have an opinion about the consent conversation per se, I don’t have an opinion about, you know… I have an opinion about abstinence-only education, but --

 

Lianne: I have an opinion about it.

 

Eli: But I actually want to talk to them from a place that precedes all of that. Yeah, from a place that is not about how they should engage with the social systems that have been devised to make their their desire less dangerous to themselves and others, but really to, to say you can, you can learn a lot more about what you want. And what you really want for yourself is, is good. What you really want for yourself is good, what you really want for yourself is not going to hurt anyone, what you really want for yourself. It's like, very important, I do not want to be misunderstood. You know, it is a philosophical distinction, because there are levels and levels of what we want, levels and levels of desire and drive and impulse. And I'm not in any way being cavalier about you know, the damage that is done from young men, ostensibly just like, following their drives or doing what they want. But it's like when you have the chance to be 10 days, with a guy in the backcountry, you can really start to talk at that level. You'd be like: “You can hear the difference in what I'm saying, right? You can hear what I mean when I'm saying what you really want?” And they can. And I just feel like having the conversation at that level is an expression of trust in them, a belief in them, a respect for them, you know, a way of honoring their sovereignty and their dignity as human beings that they really respond to. And that feels really good and true to me.

 

Lianne: Hmm. Wow, there's so much there. I mean, I love what you're saying about the body intelligence, and the wilderness awakening. And that's not something that I've ever heard in connection to this topic and work with young men. And you're right, you know, with the Me Too movement like, how do you not, there's a lot of villainization. And even how I was just talking about that book, right? What I recognize, it's not to say, Oh, so all of those young women are the victims of these young men's power power games with sex, right? It's that all of us, and all of them, are victims of this patriarchal system, and of a culture that has abandoned its youth in giving any sort of real education and sexuality. And that the response to then the inevitable turn of events around sexual assault, given the lack of education, is to further repress or suppress our very core, and villainize, for both sexes, our very core, most profound spiritual and vital life impulse.

 

Eli: Well, I do want to just say one thing, about the way these conversations have been unfolding in the current context. Because you mentioned the Me Too movement. And in some ways, what I've been talking about is kind of the higher level, we've really got the time, we're really going deep into the woods and we're going to be able to drop in. And sometimes we don't get there. Sometimes I'm with a group of high school guys for two days or three days, and we don't have the woods and we're at a retreat center. And so it really is important to also say, so much of what there is to do with young men right now is to get them to shut up and listen. And maybe it sounds contradictory to everything that I've been saying, but particularly around this question of, you know, I see a lot of guys who feel personally, really defensive, and go into this really unfortunate posture around: “That's not me, this is over the top.” This is, you know, I do hear a lot of young men sort of adopting a, yeah, a really defensive and resistant position to hearing about the ways that it might have something to do with them. Because they're so sure that it's not them. And so here's the kind of tricky little middle ground. Because on the one hand, you know, you want to want to say to them like, yeah, deep down, you're right. That’s not you. Absolutely. Thank you for knowing that. And then, or even before, or like before, and then again, after, you know, we're all mixed up at the same time. You're like, but it is. Yeah, but it is you. Yeah. But it does involve you. But you are implicated. But you have done it. But you've done it in ways that you didn't know. But you've done it in ways that you did know. But you've done it by knowing about it and not saying anything about it. But you've done it by laughing about it. But you've done it by wanting to get really defensive and resistant about the simple fact that somebody wants to be heard. Yeah, it's like your reaction right now is it. You know, that's the thing. “No, not me, not me! Doesn't, I don’t know, whatever. She's just not!” You know, it's like, bruh. That's it. You know, so I wanted to jump in to just make, make it clear, like, we are also really having those conversations. And just holding a space where young men can like get it straight, and be told, you know, and not have it sugar coated for them like, yeah. It is you. It involves you. 

 

Lianne: Definitely. Well, and and I'm thinking about that response then on a more massive cultural level, and in our systems of power, who, you know, as we saw with the whole Kavanaugh trial, who is now presiding over justice in the highest court in America. You know, someone who is trying these cases that we're seeing again and again, where the men are not being held accountable. And I think it's because it's, it's that same defensiveness even within our systems. Well, no, that can't be us. It can't be them. You know, like our systems of power are seeing the individual men as reflections of themselves and coming from a place of massive deniability. So in these conversations that you're holding, I mean, I'd love to hear also, to what extent you are directly addressing this issue. Are you having these conversations about sex on your retreats and in the wilderness? And what are some of the, when you do get these young men to kind of level up, or speak more vulnerably or with self-reflection in the way that you're speaking about earlier, what are some of the... what comes up for them? Around this topic. Other than defensiveness, so once they can drop that, because I think underneath it, also, of course, like we all have so much fear and vulnerability and insecurity around sex from the moment that we come into awareness of ourselves as sexual beings. And like you're saying, that internal voice, we start to override because we start... we immediately are doubting any sort of our impulses or desires and fumbling in the dark. Like no matter what, right? We never go into a sexual act, or your first encounter, knowing anything, and yet feeling like we have to already have known at all.

 

Eli: Yes, that is precisely the condition that most of us find ourselves in, sometimes, as you say, the first time, sometimes the first year or years or decade.

 

Lianne: Or always!

 

Eli: Or always We're not always, you know, at a certain point. You know, some of us get more comfortable about, you know, knowing how little we know about everything. And once you cast the net that wide then it really, really takes the pressure off, and allow yourself to, you know, not know. Um, you know.

 

Lianne: No, I'm just thinking about this always. And what that means, you know, it's also, it's a bit of a tangent, but thinking about, that we are dynamic beings, and our sexuality more than anything I think is, the more we can relate to it as something that is always evolving and always in flux. And that we always have curiosity about it, then the always is not necessarily, “Oh, I'm always insecure about this thing”, but rather, as you're saying, that there's always this mystery that I'm engaging in that requires a degree of humility and authenticity in how I show up in those realms.

 

Eli: In my work, I don't seek these conversations out very often. It's not something that I want to put anyone on the spot about. And I have no particular opinions about what people should or shouldn't be doing. And I am extremely cautious about not wanting to communicate to anybody that somehow they should be having sex if they're not, or shouldn't be if they are. I do sometimes welcome it as a possibility in the space, in the context of other conversations. You know, if we’re talking about what we're afraid of what, or what we're insecure about, or places that we, yeah, feel innocent, or lonely. or shy. To not allow that conversation to extend into sex would be ridiculous. Because for a lot of us, you know, most of us, it's the thing that we are the most insecure about. It's the place where our feelings of loneliness, or of feeling shy come out the strongest. It’s the places that we hold a lot of fear and a lot of tension, a lot of trauma. And so if the goal is to, you know, build culture, where the things that we hold in the shadows, lest they alienate us, or lest they make people like us less, or, you know, if the goal is to bring those things out so that they can just see the light, so that we can see them more clearly. So that we can be held in them collectively. Then talking about sex has to be one of the possibilities. And so sometimes, if I know a group of guys, and it feels right, I'll just let them know, hey, like we're gonna have a conversation about, about everything. You know, it's about everything, it’s about what's going on in our lives. But if that's part of what it is, you know, can we, as a group of men sitting here, can we make an agreement to like, listen to our brother here and not make a joke out of it? Whatever it is that's coming up, can we agree to like, listen and hold space in a good way for each other? It's part of the healing to get to say it, it's also part of the healing to get to, to hear it. It's part of the healing to get to hear it and to comport yourself in a dignified and respectful manner, or someone is sharing about what's real for them. And so, sometimes, what I find is that you just got to crack the door a little bit. And there's actually like, a ton that young men want to say. Like about the sex they are having, about sex they're not having, about the sex they had, but wish they hadn't. Go figure. Quite a lot of that. You know, I get quite a lot of young men talking about sex they've had that they wish they hadn't, which they've never said to anybody before. And everything in between. And, you know, I'm not guiding or prompting, I don't want them necessarily to talk about it. But I want them to talk about it if that's what's really going on for them. And, and so you just you just crack the door a little bit. Let them know, like, that's cool here. You know, this isn't a school exercise like, this is just people. This is just people being real. And, yeah. 

 

Lianne: That's not something that we hear about a lot, I think, young men, regretting sexual experiences they've had. It's something you hear women talk about a lot, right, and younger women as well. And that was something I wanted to ask you about. Because even for my... I was never a teenage boy. And so I am more well versed, I think, in the kinds of subtle trauma that can result from those kind of early experiences that, that lodge in female bodies in a way that can follow us really late, really into our adulthood. And I'm curious, you know, from the male perspective, from a teenage boy perspective, what are the sorts of… Trauma’s a really loaded word, but how are men being shaped by these experiences early on? And I want to just really appreciate this, that what you're saying, the space that you're created for that type of conversation is very rare, right? Again, never been a teenage boy, but from what I gather, the default way to talk about sex is not “Oh, this happened. This was difficult.” Right? It's just one of a lot of fronting or boasting about an experience or feigning more knowledge, etc, etc.

 

Eli: Or when it's coming from adults, it’s like, “We know what you guys want to do. We know that we, you know, we know what you want to do. We know you're going to be driven and we just want you to, you know, be really safe or we want you to really, you know, not do that.” 

 

Lianne: Right. 

 

Eli: There's a lot of like speaking to this compulsive drive in young men. And wanting to, you know, tame it. Rather than saying, you may not really have that kind of a compulsive drive outside of the sort of socialized, media frenzied way that you have been told that you have this insatiable drive, you know, it's like if you really check in with yourself, you may find that what is real for you is quite different. You know, I, I think of my own experience, you know, you mentioned something, where does that live in the male body? You know, I made a kind of an offhand reference to it earlier in our conversation of feeling, like, the cruel irony of, of my, of my body's revolt. Which is how I experienced, you know, being a teenager, an early teenager and, and trying to have sex and not being able to. I mean, I just couldn't do it, you know? And, and hating myself about it, and feeling so defective and then needing to lie about it. Obviously, I needed to lie about it because like, I mean, what was I going to do, tell the truth about it? Yeah, right! You know, and so then becoming like a liar to not only to myself,but like to my best friends. You know, people I told everything and the truth to about everything, but not that. It's like, definitely not about to tell my boys that like, I tried, but like, couldn't. And all of it because I did not have any framework to be able to look at the situation and be like, hold on. You're trying to do what with who? Where like you don't know this person. You don't want this. You don't feel any authentic desire. Your only desire insofar as you're even aware of it is that you want to not be a virgin anymore so that you can not be a liar with other men when that subject comes up. I mean, really! And so the fact that I was like, dissociated from my body, had no idea what was going on, and, of course, like, couldn't tell her, you know, this young woman that I like did not know, really. You know, I couldn't tell her like, hey, I've never done this. Like, I'm scared. Because I was just, I just assumed that I was supposed to, like, just really know. And I don't, “Yeah, I don't know, probably, you know, 10 or 15 you know, who's counting?” Really, I mean, like, whatever nonsense story I was wrapped up in. And the result of it was that for years, I felt really defective and ashamed and out of my basic integrity by not being able to be honest with myself or the people who were closest to me. I mean, that's a cold game. All for not knowing that it was okay to like, have come up against a situation that I thought I wanted. You know, what I would tell a young man in that situation is like, “Hey, maybe you think you want it and then when you realize that that's not what's happening. It's like, it's okay. Walk away. It's like, you're, you're allowed. You're allowed. You don't have to don't have anything here to prove to anyone.”

 

Lianne: Yeah, the consent conversation again, comes to mind. And it's so emphasized for, for females, right? It's like the kind of default assumption is, it's the women who need to, men need to respect, young men need to respect women's consent. And I think speaking about consent, not just about, you know, in relation to a partner, but really in relationship to yourself, which is what you're speaking about, and giving yourself permission always. And that brings us back to, you know, where being in the wilderness and strengthening that inner voice and one's relationship to that inner voice can be really instrumental to this healing process.

Eli: Precisely.

 

Lianne: What was healing… what was instrumental to your healing from those early experiences?

 

Eli: Well, it's been a long road, you know? And who is really to say why some people's souls just call them to keep working it out? I just, I have a soul like that, you know, I'm interested in the forward, and compelled by the refinement, I am moved by the prospect of not repeating the same cycles. And I can't say altogether why that's how it is for me. But that's how it is for me. And along the way, I've been blessed to meet good teachers. You know, John Stokes, who I mentioned, George in Berkeley. You and I know each other through working with Zhen Dao and MogaDao here in Santa Fe. I've been really blessed to get it from a lot of different people, a lot of different experience, a lot of different tool sets, to learn to trust myself, listen to myself, forgive myself, and move forward. What I hope our work is accomplishing is speeding up that process because that's what I feel like has happened in my life with my teachers, things that my teachers had to, you know, work out for the first 50 years. And stuff they were working out about, you know, coming back from war, or failed marriages, or addiction, or profound illness, and the generosity of encountering me in my 20s, my early 30s and saying in their own ways, hey, I would love to just save you a lot of time and trouble. Let me try. Let me try. You know, I see where you're going. I think you're gonna get there. But maybe I could save you a couple of decades. And that's how I feel about what we're doing too. It's like, we're in our early 30s. Okay, we had to muck around until whenever we were mucking around to, you know, whatever it was. 

 

I feel that same way when I, you know, get a lot of kids who smoke a lot of weed. That's just a part of being a teenager. It's like, I'm sorry, parents out there. I know you want that to not be the case. You want to save them. It's like, maybe you can maybe can't, it's out there. It's a serious thing. And I don't think that moralizing with teenagers about it is an effective anything. I don't think that yelling at teenagers, I don't think that, you know, trying to prohibit them from doing things that are so ingrained in the culture because, it's like, what else do I do with myself? How else are we going to spend time, like, I'm out here with these friends in this little town or in the suburb or in the city, or wherever you are, what are we doing with ourselves? And it's like, you got to find a way to be with your peers. It's deep, you know. It's like, I'm not  saying that it's, that it's a good idea, just to be clear. I am saying that in order to address it, it makes a lot more sense to me, and I think it is far more effective to talk about like, “Hey, man, I see where you're going. You could save yourself a lot of time, and energy. And here are some other ways you could be and spend your time.”

 

Lianne: Well smoking weed right, like fulfills or gives a similar experience, it can offer, as with many psychedelics, have that kind of transcendent or altered mind state or ecstasy or expansiveness that wilderness provides. 

 

Eli: I’ll tell you, if I thought that that's what most kids were getting out of smoking weed, I would have a really different position about it. 

 

Lianne: Yeah.

 

Eli: I think it's the, again, this is not from a place of like, being down on anything or sort of thinking that anybody should be spared or prohibited or anything. It's just like, what I see is a lot of teenagers using it to check out from their lives. 

 

Lianne: Well, what I'm saying is because they aren't, they don't have access, they're not spending their time in the wilderness, that is feeding whatever that deeper drive is, that they're either numbing or fulfilling in a much less satisfactory way through substance use. 

 

Eli: I hear you. Yes. 

 

Lianne; Um, I have to get on the road. I could talk to you forever about this, and I hope we do a part two. I just want to end by asking you what do you see as being in an ideal world? Because I also imagine, you know, the parents, meanwhile, they can listen to this and say, “Oh, yeah, well, I want my kids to be healthy about sex”, and then also feel their own fear and conservatism about it. So in a world where you could craft a sex education program for young men, what would that look like?

 

Eli: I think for starters, I would begin to unravel the thinking that has placed sex education, in this silo, somewhere over, different from, separate from, all of the other things that would be useful for a young person to learn about. We get to see it as a part of their birthright, part of their humanity. A really particular and tender and sacred aspect of their humanity. And to want to

offer the possibility that just like we can learn, you know, we all have words, you know, we all use them all the time. But that doesn't, that's not the same thing as like learning about, you know, I'm a person of my word. You know, and I would say the same thing. It's like, anybody can go out there and have sex, but like, I am a person of my sex, in the way that a person can be of their word. You know, like this is a part of who I am, and I express my humanity through it, and I become my full human self through it. Not on anyone else's timetable. Not adhering to anyone else's ideas about what that really looks like, but learning that there is a way we can listen to ourselves, trust ourselves and become ourselves and, and it's all-inclusive.

 

Lianne: That’s beautiful.

 

Well, you mentioned your poetry earlier. And I've heard some, and you're quite phenomenal, and I wonder if you'd give the gifts to our listeners of sharing a piece before we close.

 

Eli: Okay, this is a brand new piece that I think is related to the conversation we're having. 

 

In line at the coffee shop, I see a man at the bar. And the look of him holds me. I pull out my phone and write some lines in the Notes app. Get my cup, pay my three bucks. I walk behind him, towards the cream. “Excuse me,” I say, putting a hand on his shoulder. He turns from what he's doing on his phone. He's friendly, but a little stiff, a little loud in the greeting. I can tell he's noticed me too. Now, extending his hand, his grip, a half-centimeter too firm. He's scanning the options for what some man in a coffee shop might want from him. I saw you from over there, I say. And you inspired me to write something, I thought you might like to hear it. 

 

Sure, he says, unsure. “He had a well groomed flow of smooth gray hair,” I read on my phone, “and a gray beard that hung soft and full and straight and gave the skin of his face the appearance of a polished river stone, emerging from a bright confusion of whitewater.” “That's beautiful,” he says, still unsure. But what are you going to do with that?” he asks, “make a poem or something?” I noticed an imperceptible tremor in my hand, a nanometre of disappointment, my invitation to strangeness 65, or maybe 70% received, or maybe not at all. “I'm not sure,” I say. I just thought you'd like to know that that's how you look to me. It's already not how he looks to me, though handsome as ever. I wonder if in some private moment, sitting in moving water, or astride a lover years from now, he'll think himself a river stone, become himself some river god. Sometimes, the strangeness takes the long way home.

 

Lianne: Wow. Thank you. Thank you so much for that. You write that here in Santa Fe?

 

Eli: I did. I had a nice little writing practice last week where I was going into a coffee shop. I had a lunch break. Yeah, go to the coffee shop. And I would write a poem during lunch start to finish. So I got to the coffee shop, saw that guy, wrote that, had that interaction with him, and then immediately went and sat down and wrote the poem. It all happened in about 40 minutes.

 

Lianne: And if I can say, so you've been in Santa Fe, doing, how would you describe the work that you've just been doing at MogaDao? And I guess my question is going to be if you can spare me the question, one more, of how that work has informed your creative practice, it seems, because I'm always interested in exploring this relationship between Eros and sexuality and our creativity and self expression.

 

Eli: Well, I got here to participate in this three month teacher training program. In the full range of practices that are part of the MogaDao tradition, which include the QiGong, the martial arts, yoga, post- Daoist philosophy, sexuality studies. It's really a beautiful and comprehensive practice tradition. And from the moment that I got here, I felt, in a way I don't always, you know, sometimes the poems feel pressing. I say something, but sometimes I can go a week or a month, or two months, you know, not write and not feel bad about it. And sometimes it's just like, Oh it wants to come out, God, something I have to say, and it wasn't coming. It wasn't coming. And in my second week, I found that the energy I had cultivated, it was really an amazing thing. I ended up writing five poems in six days. Bless the poets for whom that is nothing special. I envy you. 

 

Lianne: As do I.

 

Eli: For me five poems in six days is a lot. And I didn't have to think about the way that my own sort of cultivation of energy, being deep in my QiGong practice, eating well, sleeping a lot, being engaged in really rigorous martial arts and yoga practices in the morning, just doing everything

to tonify and build up that sort of creative life force energy, and then to just watch it spill out on the page. It was illuminating to me, it was illuminating to me and and a sign. You know, I take it as evidence like, oh, the practice is working. It's one of the ways I know that it's all working. Because it's coming through. I think this creative, our creative process is one of the primary ways that an abundance of life force energy shows up in our lives, if, if that's how we're made, you know, if that's how we're oriented. So, I'm thankfully oriented that way. I'm grateful to have had an art practice for so long and, you know, grateful just to have it handy so that I can know when the life force is moving, shows up as a poem and shows up as the willingness to approach a stranger and read them a little bit of poetry.

 

Lianne: Totally.

 

Eli: Equally. Then like, this is weird. This is strange, like, I don't know why or what comes of it. I don't want anything from this. I just want to extend a little bit, just a little bit, the boundaries of,

of how we can cross paths in this world.

 

Lianne: Well, Eros is being in relation, right, as is expression of any kind, so it makes sense.

 

Well, Eli, thank you so much for your eloquence and your candor and your insights and for the work you're doing. We'll definitely link to it on our website Strippers and Sages, and I highly encourage all of the parents listening to send your boys to Eli, he’ll straighten them out for you

 

Eli: Thanks so much, it's been a pleasure. 

 

Lianne: If this episode turns you on, please subscribe, rate, and review us, it makes a huge difference. Then head to strippersandsages.com to learn more about our guests, sign up for our mailing list, access special resources, and become a Patreon supporter which would be very sexy of you. Special thanks to Ben Newfrat for scoring and mixing these episodes, and to Lilia Tam and John Wolfstone for their production support. Stay sexy, folks.

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