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Quitter #7

Quitter #7

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the first in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).”

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I wish I could say that it was surreal the first time I butchered an animal.

It was not; it was rote, mechanical, genetic, practical. A rabbit wedged in the crotch of a tree branch, my five fingers prehensile around a knife, pulling the innards out slowly, rather unsure yet determined. I made no prehistoric grunts, just internal nods at the recognition of biology, that we beings are surely all built the same way, one long branching tube from mouth to asshole providing the physical and chemical mechanics of life; the chicken the same as the ox only smaller, the ape the same as the roach but larger.

It was early Winter. I was panting from running and following the screaming beagles as they chased on the dispersing scent of the rabbit. The dogs howled as they ran on and on, continuously circling away from me then toward me, a sloppy swing of quick cuts and almost undetectable stops, their cold galloping feet tracing lines in the snow throughout the low forest. I fired once at the rabbit as it crossed to my side, bird-shot screeching from the gun barrel and through some brambles. The ear ringing mark of a single shotgun shell echoed among the striped maples and red oaks, long cleared of leaves. I ejected the shell from the gun and took in the sweet metallic whisper of it. I was ten years old, sniffling from the cold air cracking my mouth and nostrils, looking quietly at a lump of brownish gray fur that no longer moved. My step-father stood over me pointing and pushing instructions on me.

The fur of the rabbit came off quickly, small fibers of connective tissue making a wet noise not unlike the crinkling cellophane of a return envelope. I cut small rings around each foot, first through the fur and then through the joints joining the bones, snapping each paw off and letting them dangle like grapes on a vine. The final cut severed the head from the body. All but the meat was left in a pile on the ground, the heat of the guts melting a small riddle of ridges in the snow allowing the heap to sink at different speeds to the frozen earth below. The guts and tiny head – with its dark, half closed eyes – looked like a mask resting on pink and brown snakes, unmoving as the curtain dropped on a macabre play performed for the crows.

I didn’t say any prayers at the butchering. I didn’t offer any thanks to the rabbit. I didn’t think I needed to, really. It was just a rabbit, simply a rabbit, only a rabbit, as I was told by my step-father that it was just and simply and only a rabbit. I would come to realize, far in the future and away from this gray forest, that he was always incapable of sympathy or thinking beyond his own skull.

He was a crowing man, given to expanding himself into where he never was, claiming credit for things he barely understood. He was also a cruel man, a barbarian in a yawning sense of the word, ready to raise his voice and hands against anyone smaller or weaker than himself. This is the same man who kicked my brother in the stomach for forgetting to flush the toilet; the same man who threw me up the set of concrete steps outside our home for raking the leaves incorrectly; the same man who left bruises the size of oranges just below my mother’s elbows from where he would grab her and force her to listen to every. last. word.

At dinner, my mother would ruin the rabbit. She would bake it in cheap, overly sweet tomato sauce. There was always too much onion. The result was an acidic, chewy meat served without additions no potatoes, no bread and certainly no rice. There would be periodic murmured exclamations around the table as someone would bite into a pellet from the killing shell.

The only talking came from the tinny speaker of the thirteen inch television perched on the kitchen counter. The television was always on at dinner, providing context and detail of a world outside the door of our double wide. It was on that television that I followed the Reagan presidency, learned of school closings due to snow and heard that Stevie Ray Vaughan had died in a helicopter accident.

The silence around the table was built by my step-father. If he wasn’t talking then there is no way you were. And that was the end of it. There was never any discussion about what was learned in school or how work went or what we might do over the weekend. There was nothing to indicate an existence as a family beyond all of us sitting around a table wishing we never brought this rabbit home.

One Hundred Dollars of Virtue

 Ben Franklin

 Why is Benjamin Franklin honored on the one hundred dollar bill?   Franklin wasn’t even a president, yet the “Benjamin” is the highest denomination of common money.  Franklin’s adage, “a penny saved is a penny earned,” distinguishes him among those honored with their likeness on our nation’s money. 

A founding father, Franklin led Americans two-hundred-forty years ago; his words on virtues still work today. He turned away from acquiring wealth and considered his productivity to be of service and benefit for fellow citizens.  In fact, he refused to take patents on his inventions, including the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, any of which would have generated great financial wealth.  The most valuable image on paper money is what Franklin stands for—virtue.

However, there is a vast difference between the value of money as currency for goods and services and the face value of wealth, above all, the size of corporate wealth schemes are open-ended—unchecked capitalism purely for money’s sake.  This version of wealth is dangled in our faces everyday by corporations promoting “consumerism” as a bond of greed.

It’s the nature of corporate law, lacking virtue, that creates the competitive game of lobbying for special interests and tax breaks to increase wealth, leaving behind a government that has no revenue to serve the civic good—completely in opposition to the goals of a government “by the people and for the people,” i.e. to serve civic interests and pay for it with taxes.  Today a government has emerged that accommodates corporate greed at the expense of the common good and future generations; this we notice as we awaken from the “American Dream.”

Hear ye, hear ye,  good citizen

Comparing the legal distinction between “corporate persons” and sole proprietors, a major loophole is that owners of a corporation are NOT RESPOSIBLE for its misdeeds and nobody goes to jail, whereas a sole proprietor is held accountable in business.  Whom may we point to as the instigator of incorporation vs. common people—or is it a universal genetic lack of virtues and civic responsibility?  Did you see the Devil in the mirror today—or was the Devil flying overhead in a Lear jet?

Let’s add up today’s situation: a government that hesitates to represent civic needs + corporations with plutocratic and oligopolistic wealth schemes = a similar situation, in 1776, when Franklin and others found it necessary to declare independence from a monarchy that promoted indentured servitude via a one-way trip across the Atlantic Ocean.  Now let’s add up Franklin’s $100 of virtue: you earn a living wage that sustains your household and pays taxes + a government with revenue to provide schools, transportation, police and fire departments, health care and welfare = a productive, egalitarian, culture.  

How could you afford to create and maintain a household today?  You’d be industrious enough to build your own home and it would cost less than $50,000.  You would save for a few years and build it in a few more years’ time.  You can cover future expenses because you’re debt free, earning a living wage, and because you made up your mind that wealth is not a virtue.  Fair warning if instead you “finance” the same home, the market price would be about $150,000 and you would owe $450,000 on a mortgage—it’s not a win-win situation when you are playing for goods and services and “they” are playing for wealth

International corporations found they can get even more profitable servitude by “outsourcing,” adding to their wealth, and at the same time foreclosing for the inflated price that must be paid by the people left behind without jobs, and then aggrandize the homes separated from the once-owners to generate even more wealth.  MUST WE PAY?  Did you ever hear about the Boston Tea Party event?    A citizen might not be a criminal for being in debt, but you are outcast.  Franklin dealt with prejudiced sentiment by taking civic action, which ultimately resulted in the American Revolution.

The backbone of America is citizens with living wage jobs and affordable housing, two things that myopic corporate greed has taken from us.  How do we, the ninety-nine percent today, tolerate servitude and loss of habitat?  What are your choices if you opt-out of corporate consumerism?  While some may free themselves of the wealth game by choosing to join the Gypsies, be an “Occupier,” or go “Off-Grid,” the majority wants to hear a neo-Franklin say loudly, WEALTH IS NOT A VIRTUE, and show us the way to civic action, ending this creeping glitch of corporate tyranny.

Christopher James Marshall is the author of the do-it-yourself small house book Hut-Topia and is a modern-day off-grid mountain man. After weathering recessions and lay-offs every decade since the 70s through the “Great Recession,” he became semi-retired by making plans to live sustainably and then built his 500-square-foot off-grid home.

My House: Out of Fashion and Running Out of Time

Estate sale

Amidst rumors of possible demolition, one woman wonders what will become of her childhood home and the memories created there.

It is springtime, a Sunday afternoon, and I am seated with friends in lawn chairs in the front yard of my family home, where people come and go and pay small money for furniture, ladders and silly things like buttons, all displayed on tables inside and out. The consensus after nearly two days is that this is a fantastic house, this 90-year old white brick cottage with a yard that circles out way farther than any other on the block.

Has it sold already, they wonder? These customers stay and talk, suburban neighbors I will never know who wish they’d seen the listing. Me too, I think.

Between chats, I lie back and view the world through the woven branches of our petite dogwood, where sky breaks through in cut-out shapes, a habit from childhood. My parents planted this tree once the old apple trees dotting our property toppled one by one, even overtaking our yard a few times and blocking the front door.

The dogwood now told the story of the apple trees, where I once sat and read in high-up branches. And those were reminders of the orchards that thrived here before that. Would the dogwood even remain after the sale?

After a while we simply need to laugh and invent Hallmark cards marking this strange milestone:

Rest in Peace, house that was worth more dead than alive.

There is no place like home - soon, there really won’t be!

Our thoughts are with you, though, seriously, in this economy? The place didn’t stand a chance. Just saying!

Remember, when one door closes, you order more!

Since my father’s death 14 months earlier the house had been unoccupied, save my periodic visits. The builder who’d bought it after no one else would wasn’t showing his hand. But a quick Google search found he’d eliminated the past few he’d bought and constructed replacements, “nice ones,” our agent assured us.

And ours perfectly fit the profile of a tear-down: located on a large lot, in an expensive New York suburb – and up for sale in a notoriously poor economy. Add to that the out of date fixtures and wall paper and obvious need of new paint. And, our reluctance to spend thousands of dollars to convert the house into the specimen shoppers apparently wanted.

My certainty that the house would soon be history was tempered by my arrogance. After all, wouldn’t even one family see the place, admire its cottage style windows and sunken living room and the dormers upstairs?

Built in the 1926, it was white brick punctuated by a pair of slightly crooked white brick lamp posts at the street. Linking posts and house was a slate path flanked by my mother’s flower beds. The setback gave the house a more stately air than its compact size really warranted. We guessed that it had once belonged to the estate up the road of tabloid journalist Walter Winchell.

The long ago history of the region had involved the Indians who sold Manhattan island, a Dutch aristocrat who owned just about the whole region and, later, Revolutionary War troops marching through. Our own history involved a dozen or so kids on the dead end block, the manhole cover that marked home plate and the woods we ran through to our elementary school one street over.

My parents first laid eyes on the house in 1960, after my mother found a New York Times listing for a “Dutch Cottage with apple trees and charm” and my dad learned they were house hunting.

Father and daughter 

But this was now. Our bedroom community had escalated in status as its school system moved to the top of “best” lists. The real estate market had all but collapsed, prices plunged and there were many, many homes to choose from. House hunters, were, well, specific in their wants and, our agent gently told us, they were not interested in ours.

For starters, the front door opened to a large central room, not an introductory vestibule. Then there was the eat-in kitchen. A simple rectangle between living room and dining room, it was perfect for our family of four and perfectly situated for my parents’ frequent parties. But it was small, enclosed space, not the family room-dining room-kitchen combo now in demand.

Then there was the airy master bedroom on the first floor – not, the agent said “a master suite,” and not “upstairs with the other bedrooms,” where master suites apparently belonged. I didn’t bother asking about the shed and garage, a separate barn-like building we had loved for its rafters and hiding places.

What today’s shoppers were looking for, our agent said, was “Pottery Barn.” This was the first I’d heard of the retailer as a design style. Even so, wasn’t ours the real thing? This house even had the sash windows, ceiling beams and plank flooring splashed through that store’s catalogues.

Not that it was frozen in time. The windows had recently been re-glazed. Over nearly five decades my parents had replaced a patio with a deck and hot tub, installed central air conditioning, garage door opener, burglar alarm, custom shelves and cabinets. They’d replaced a back porch with a bright living room and filled it with my mother’s Deco furnishings. My parents’ first-floor master bedroom, an add-on by a previous owner, was a sanctuary with windows on three sides.

Now, people close to me had died, many of them, in a small space of time. The family home was a hedge against the endings; a protection from obscurity. Wouldn’t the next owners want to know about us and glimpse a time when rooms were small and yards were big?

Not even a little bit. It turns out that in towns like this one, houses were regularly cleared away like the breakfast dishes so newcomers could arrange a neighborhood rather than join it. I began seeing listings for suburban “development sites;” expendable domiciles located on juicy real estate.

My own father was appalled by this brazen activity, once even forcing me to walk up the street with him as a large home was being replaced by a giant one – which he railed against loudly as we trespassed on the offender’s front lawn. A retired executive turned stringer for the local newspaper, he photographed such acts of real estate upscaling, his disdain not apparent in the captions I am guessing his editors toned down.

Now I contemplated the likely demolition of his own beloved home, the place where he’d insisted on living out his days and where he ultimately died.  And for the first time I appreciated the architectural story offered up by the 12 houses on the block. Brick, vinyl, stucco, split-level, Spanish, stone and modular, they spanned time from a single phone jack in the kitchen to wifi in every room. If they had been phased out with each new trend, I realized, our street would no longer have a yesterday.

At a high school reunion, talk of teardowns joined updates on children, careers and deaths. By then, a classmate had begun posting a sort of house death watch on Facebook. “Ok, who lived at 300 Glendale?” read one entry, above a photo of rubble. “It’s gone.”

A friend from elementary school said she actually hoped for such an end to her house now that her parents had died. Others, though, were moved by the poor prognosis for my house, recalling the center staircase and generous yard.

Months had passed with no offers. My sister and I had dropped the price. We had paid taxes that were not a lot less than my annual income. We’d paid a cleaning person, someone to cut the lawn and plow the snow. A super storm turned the basement into a bathtub that wrecked photo albums and mired my father’s WWII Purple Heart in mildew. FEMA declined to help with clean-up costs because we did not actually “live” there – a logic that did not apply to our expenses.

So, we spent several thousand dollars having the back yard virtually excavated so a drainage system could be installed. We bought a remote storm alarm. Now I got phone calls at home upstate when wind and rain pummeled the house downstate. Visits there had more to do with fixing things than gathering with friends. I developed asthma, then eczema, as the prime summer months came and went and our high-maintenance relationship – the house’s and mine – plodded on.

In the fall a builder materialized, offering less than our asking price and no details about his plans. We tried for more money and he walked, prompting us to acquiesce. I looked at a few houses he’d built in place of others I had probably seen hundreds of times. All memory of the originals was wiped clean by these multi-floored upstarts with three-bay garages and driveways as wide as a traffic lane.

Talk about awkward.  How do you tell neighbors who ask about the buyer that a construction site and not human beings would probably follow soon? You don’t. You walk a little faster as you haul junk from house to rented Dumpster, signal you are running low on time and try for answers that are not out and out lies. Things like “I don’t really know them,” and “I hear the daughter plays basketball.”

This went on until the day I broke down and tearfully told the truth to the beloved woman across the street who had moved to the block even before my family had. She said she understood, and guessed that her house would be also leveled someday soon.

And so I cleaned out every corner of the house and obsessed over things I found. We had the tag sale and reveled in the many people who loved the place, who walked out with my grandfather’s watercolors under their arms, the faded Oriental rugs and the chairs with loose legs they planned to repair.

These were not the not the people who said the house had bad bones. And they brought scraps of our family history to live with them. A neighbor I’d never met even came by to say she’d always liked our cedar tree. Who knew?

When the last day came I frantically yanked things out; scraps of wallpaper, glass shelves and shrubs packed in rich soil. I turned the key one last time. But not before I left the new owners a note asking them to consider that lives had been lived here and suggesting how nice it would be to add a room here or there rather than eliminate the place. This, I saw was operatic even by my standards.

How many other people at this moment had been only too happy to “unload a white elephant” and deposit the check? How many, like me, saw the moment as the one that separated “then” and “now?”(Hallmark,take note.)

Our house bore witness to our younger and older selves, and, with our help, lived on to mark our place in time. Houses didn’t need to die of old age, doing us humans one better. And when we moved out, successive owners might call to ask about how to turn something on or off or maybe report finding a treasure.

It had happened to my uncle. A young mother who lived in his childhood home tracked him down to tell him that during a renovation she had found his parents’ love letters and his sister’s porcelain dolls stashed in a wall. This prompted an emotional visit, a celebration of continuity. HGTV devoted hours to such stories.

My own story was shaping up more like a round of Grand Theft Auto.  After the house sold, friends did surveillance and for months reported no change. Then, they reported that the new owner’s son moved in, raising hopes the house might be spared.

But ultimately came word that the yard had been cordoned off with plastic orange fencing. Soon, our high school house death-watch reporter put out the word: “Anyone live at 154 Highland or 123 Ferndale?” he wrote, over a pair of photos of flat nothingness. “Both houses are teardowns.” I identified the wreckage on Ferndale.

I called the beloved neighbor across the street for the details. She described how she’d pulled up a chair to her living room window that day and watched a big yellow rig do its work. First, she said the roof and chimney were lifted like a jaw, then the back came down and, last, the front door tumbled as she silently voiced profanities.

“A giant dinosaur ate up this cute little house,” she said. “That was how it looked to me. And in an afternoon it was gone.”

And after looking across the street at our white house for more than 50 years, she suddenly had a view of a faded blue one on the next street that startled her at night when the lights were on. But this would not be for long, as trucks were already busy digging out a foundation for the house that would replace ours.

I had cinematic and harsh dreams, one after another, for a few weeks: The house was pristine, freshly painted and, most important, upright. Or, it was tarnished, the furnishings crumbled and family members sat around, waiting for something.

Could it have been the pumpkin-colored faux Colonial affair that went up in less than two months? (My parents and grandparents always had been a rather judgmental lot). They might have railed at the size of the new house, perhaps twice as large as ours. There was now a driveway that nearly lashed the house to the left. There was no longer a dogwood to the right. The cedar tree, the hedges: also gone.

The only point of reference was telephone pole with our house number out front.

In truth the pumpkin-colored thing wasn’t so bad. But it didn’t register as any place I’d ever been. The piano lessons, Thanksgiving dinners, adolescent angst, the visits home after breakups and visits back with new boyfriends, and, eventually, children, and then the protracted period of time dominated by my parents’ illnesses. Where was the record now?

In one last punch to the sentimental gut I found it not long ago among boxes of my father’s things. As if speaking from the grave, he furnished an account of the home’s heritage, a product he hoped to sell called “This House: A Journal.”

Created in 1987 on his IBM Selectric, it was an attractive notebook filled with lined paper, which he asked homeowners to use to document the continuous story of a house.

“When it is no longer yours, whoever comes next will be grateful for your jottings,” he explained in an introduction titled “Come on In!”

Ever the journalist, he had gone to the courthouse to get the story. He used the Journal to furnish a floor plan, the names of the builder, the previous two owners and what they’d paid. My father filled a few dozen pages with details about our family, the color scheme they’d inherited - pink and yellow! – and the updates he made alongside his father in-law. “I still recall the quiet joy of waking up those first few days in our own house,” my dad recalled on these pages 30 years after the fact.

Well, at least the acid-free pages were perfectly preserved. It would have been something to see him take out his pen and camera as the place was tumbling down. The conversation through the ages he had hoped for had been abruptly stilled.

But he might be heartened to know that another use for This House: A Journal had been born: an intrinsically precious and appreciated record of our family in its time. Corian countertops and master suites had not been nearly as important back then.

And even if I could not alter the swing of this particular pendulum, I had just one request. Could we at least retire the house number, like we do in tribute to our prized athletes?  I was sure the new owners would have no objection. And I heard Pottery Barn makes nice ones.

Jane Gottlieb is a freelance journalist who has lived and worked in New York's Hudson Valley for many years.

The All-Star Shaman Ayahuasca Massacree

Photo by Russ Quackenbush

A night of intense psychedelic healing and journeying work in the Peruvian Amazon.

By ten in the evening, the casualties came hard and fast; even seasoned pasajeros were losing their caca in the moonless Amazon night, the buzzing of cicadas like power drills boring holes into our heads. I could hear others heaving and moaning in the dark. The five shamans hadn’t gotten around to singing, though we’d finished drinking by half past eight. You could cut the tension in the maloca with a bush knife.

Yo dudes, where are the icaros? Where are the healing songs that pour the medicine into the ceremonial space and ferry the travelers to parts beyond and back? From my mat I observed a dense crowd of gauzy, spectral forms milling about in the middle of the ceremonial space, a spirit equivalent of Japan’s busy Shibuya crossing. All the duppies, forest spirits, cosmic drop-ins, and head medicine spirits of master plants were in there, waiting for the band to play.

When we first assembled in the maloca for the night’s ayahuasca ceremony, an apocalyptic rain howled out of the jungle, pounding the palm-leaf roof of the building hard, rendering conversation impossible. The rain fell in sheets of bullets, hard and fast, almost shocking in its intensity. Dogs in surrounding villages went completely nuts, howling and barking. The downpour lasted for over an hour, full metal jacket.

Earlier in the day I’d spoken with Gilbert, who makes the ayahuasca at Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual outside of Llamchama, in the Peruvian Amazon. He’s a proud, cheerful, hard-working Shipibo native with a muscular physique and a winning smile. We hung out by a huge bubbling pot over a fire at the medicine shed where he cooks the brew, and chatted. Gilbert pointed at the batch that he was evaporating down to its final molasses consistency. He stirred it with a stick, offered me some fresh hot drops. Muis concentrado.

“It’s strong today, because we have this very fresh chakruna.” Gilbert hands me some pliable green leaves, and I agree with him. Chakruna, or P. viridis, brings DMT to ayahuasca, and promotes visions. In his style, Gilbert densely packed the pot with them, to assure that for the evening’s ceremony, our group would have the el supremo stuff. “Strong visions tonight,” he informs me with a smile. Strong visions, indeed, Gilbert. You have no idea.

Chris Kilham

Didn’t anybody get the memo? We are supposed to have icaros, the healing songs tonight. Where are you guys? The shamans, five of them, remain silent as stumps, reeling in the medicine, facing the yawning abyss of super-strong ayahuasca, assembling their own strands, bits and pieces into cogent assembly for the night of intense psychedelic healing and journeying work. This maloca, this ceremonial space is their office, but tonight they are starting out with an extended coffee break. We have an inharmonic convergence here, anxiety in the space, no songs, intense ayahuasca, many pasajeros who have drunk especially big, bugs droning ever louder, spirits agitated. Meanwhile I am looking around for that big red wall button, the one that says Man Overboard.

Visions indeed, dark ones. I see, with painful detail, the anguish and suffering caused by my father’s sickness upon our whole family, his depression, alcoholism, psychiatric drug dependence, closet homosexuality, failed psychiatry, Type 1 diabetes, shame, guilt, and suicide. I witness this as a web of a thousand fractures, the way a stone breaks a glass windshield, shattering outward from the point of impact, jagged shards everywhere. The destruction is vast, an entire group of family members devastated when he took his hasty and messy leave.. I have long ago forgiven him, but variations of this come up again and again in ayahuasca. He could never accept the lavish love that was so freely offered by so many. We poured our hearts out to him, but much of that goodness ran off like rain on hard clay. The direct line I share with my father feels corrupt, a bad program. I feel toxic, nauseated. La purga, la purga, the purge. In a flash I am gripping my stupid little plastic puke bucket as though it were a life preserver, and I, adrift on stormy and roiling seas, must hang on tightly to save my life, heaving in baritone.

Earlier when I had gone up to drink, Joe Tafur, medical doctor turned shaman poured the brew. Joe and I first drank together around 2007 back in the heady days of another center. He has been training with shaman Ricardo Amaringo for several years now. We discussed the merits of the evening’s dose, arriving at the mutual conclusion that a big, healthy gulp was the ticket.

“You may have a caramelo in there,” he said with some excitement, an eyebrow raised, pointing to the glass. Caramelos, globular balls of especially concentrated ayahuasca, sometimes occur in Gilbert’s brew. With a consistency of phlegm balls, they hide submerged in the dark brown medicine. They go down like slippery agar, and they go off like depth charges in the body, sending concussive waves of energy and a Doppler effect of visions and phenomena as they explode. I admit a fondness for caramelos, though there wasn’t one in my dose after all. Still, I drank big, wanting a strong night.

My wife Zoe lies to my left, her own hi-energy suffering broadcasts from the still space around her, a palpable field of dense, psychedelic intensity. She is curled up, blanket tight against the scirocco blowing off the deserts of the spirit landscape.

Up front in the orchestra section, the maestros remain mute – when will they start? From my left to right we have an all-Shipibo lineup. First there is Matilde’ along with her husband Pancho-Francisco. They are talented and sweet, and snuggle on the same mat prior to ceremonies. Next there is Miguel, trained by his son in law Ricardo Amaringo. Ricardo, the main shaman of Nihue Rao, occupies a couple of mats in the center of the lineup. To his right, the bear-like Rolando, Ricardo’s first teacher twenty-seven years ago. These are all-stars, highly talented, veterans of thousands of ayahuasca ceremonies performed along the Ucayali river corridor in the Peruvian Amazon.

People are caving in, falling by the wayside. I can feel psychic fractures all around. The immensity of the medicine hangs over us, an impenetrable slate sky, churning and roiling with black clouds. Plaintiff calls for help break the eerie, charged atmosphere of the maloca.  “I need help…” The spirits continue to mill about in a fidgety, expectant manner. Where’s the singing? Joe, Cvita, Martina, and other gringo helpers assist the devastated, blowing gusts of strong Amazonian mapacho tobacco smoke at them, useless in the face of the mounting psychic storm, still no sign of the cavalry. Time to put on the flak helmets.

Chris Kilham 

My nervous system is hot and frayed like burned electrical wiring, carbonized  strands of DNA smoking in my cells. I am in the psychedelic dark land, deep grave of dreams and memories, embodied in exquisite discomfort, ragged and hyper-amplified. My yogic discipline holds up well, enabling me to navigate  the surges of the medicine, breathe out the unwanted, pay attention to the present, let go of the endless tensions. But still the medicine is wholly overwhelming. All around the mysterium tremendum yawns in infinite indifference, an all-devouring vacuum into which entire galaxies are swallowed. Around me I hear moans and sobbing, vomiting and expressions of alarm, more calls for help in the moonless night.

Pasajeros troop and stagger out to the banos and back. They appear as ghosts as they drift in and out. One woman is singing a disembodied opera in a stall for the long haul, trapped in the toilet vortex. She will remain here for hours. I can hear tremendous heaving out there, and loud groans.

And just when the vast forest concert in its buggy cacophony had driven our group of pasajeros to the last fingernail’s grip on the edge of the howling abyss ….. Ricardo began to sing. Slow, evocative, serpentine in his sinewy sounds. Classic Ricardo, whose exceptional songs I have enjoyed for nine years now, on some intense ayahuasca nights. That is the sweet relief of the medicine, the spirit of the ayahuasca pouring into the space, flowing in through the song, gathering and filling the entire area. The icaros carry healing energy, washing through every cell.  Muchas gracias Ricardo, and seriously it’s about time, for this entire Titanic of nauseous travelers. And all the milling crowd of anxious spirits evaporates into diaphanous air and away, leaving the shiny dark wooden floor of the malocca open and cool in the night.

Francisco falls in next, working a rapid sequence of rhythmic and hypnotic Shipibo phrases. He is a trance master, summoning endlessly varied notes and tones and percussive consonants to weave a spell. Matilde’ adds sweet, uplifting texture with penetrating background notes that rise and fall in waves. Miguel sings softly, a light and enticing chant of melodic phrases, bringing in the medicine. Joe starts moving about the maloca, tending to the wounded one at a time, singing and blowing smoke. He is our Clooney in this ayahuasca ER.

* * *

We had set our hiking boots in the direction of Peru from various parts of North America, from LA to North Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, various ports of call, thirteen of us. Our ad hoc group The Ayahuasca Test Pilots re-constitutes about twice yearly, heading down to Peru to engage in ayahuasca ceremonies. You drink ayahuasca with me, and you get an ATP patch, all terribly unofficial. My wife Zoe’s Cosmic Sister grant funds women to write and otherwise share about their experiences with ayahuasca, the master Amazon rainforest medicine. Six of the women in our group were on Cosmic Sister grants. Our small tribe of pasajeros included a couple of photographers, two journalists, a nurse practitioner, a farmer, an elder care expert, a beverage and real estate entrepreneur, a superfood entrepreneur, a fashion model, a car dealer, an artist and wildlife advocate, a medicine hunter. Many were first-timers in the land of ayahuasca.

And boom, we arrive in funky, caustic, diesel-smogged Iquitos, with its ten thousand loud moto-taxis, estimated 370,000 people, equal numbers of road dogs, and provocative ass ads for everything from beer to car wax. We are sizzling on a searing Amazonian grille, and roar our way deep into the interior of the city, broiling in asphalt shimmer and taking road grit up the nose, zooming through gusting clouds of black exhaust smoke, to a recondite spot only a few blocks away from Plaza de Armas, Nativa Apartments, for our first phase of entry, involving conversation with Monica the lively proprietor, and scratching her love-hungry dogs.

Following a relaxed time on Monica’s patio with man’s best friends, we made de rigeur appearances at the Amazon Explorer’s Club where I said hello to Carlos Tanner of Ayahuasca Foundation, and sat for a long and leisurely lunch at Dawn On The Amazon Café’, catching up on fresh Iquitos gossip with the endlessly gracious Captain Bill Grimes, who knows everything. Two women on a scooter had been accosted at night by two men trying to rob them at gunpoint. Unbeknown to them all, two plain-clothes police officers were close at hand. One of the perps was shot dead. Hot off the press, only a couple of days old. Lemonades all around delivered enthusiastically by petite Lucero, plus tacu tacu with fried egg, Dorado fish sandwiches, and an Amazon Explorer’s Club special devil hot sauce that I ate in large, fiery blobs under the poaching sun, shaded by an awning on the promenade along the Rio Itaya and its grassy coast.

Chris Kilham 

Locals drift by, some expats gone to seed, drifting in the languid local current, making the daily rounds, to Ari’s, Karma Café’, Amazon Bistro, Mad Mike’s, along with preferred watering holes, and the occasional buggy outing to the snake-infested Amazon Golf Club, for a round of golf that will be a news feature in The Iquitos Times for a year. A whole parade of pasajeros comes in and out of ayahuasca centers. Stacey from Dreamglade sits nearby with his partner and child. A group of ten just finished up a twelve day stint at Temple Of The Way Of Light, and are levitating a few tables down. Another group just freshly polished and shiny is coming from a tour at Blue Morpho. I need sunglasses just to look at them.

While we are downtown people stop me on the sidewalk to say they’ve read my book The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook, or watched my ayahuasca monologues on YouTube. They come from everywhere, Croatia, Sweden, the UK, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, all over the US, Russia, Asia, broad and diverse places, converging in this most unlikely and least prepared of all crappy little tropical cities, where once verdant forests teemed with life and wild jaguars roamed the majestic woods as kings.

And yet here is the strange and curious rub. Thanks entirely to an influx of non-native pasajeros who troop to the Amazon to participate in various types of ceremonies involving medicinal and psychoactive plants, shamanism, a once fading cultural practice of immense importance to indigenous people, is now thriving instead of declining. And yes, the times are totally different, globalization means that the good old pre-colonial days really are vanished forever, and many aspects of traditional tribal shamanism will fade completely into the mists of time. But all traditions change and mutate. Current demand for ceremonies, many of them with ayahuasca, means that a shaman can earn a living carrying on a proud ancestral healing tradition. There’s plenty to criticize, but a lot of good healing is taking place in these ceremonies, and that is intrinsically worthwhile and good.

* * *

In the maloca, we have ratcheted cautiously back from DEFCON 2 to 3. But still I am suffering. The raw feeling throughout my nervous system is getting to me. La purga, La purga, the purge… I drift through a filamentous infinity tunnel out of the ceremonial space, across an expanse of sand to the banos, for ferocious evacuation ayahuasca style. If it were in a movie, you’d think it was overplayed. In the little toilet stalls it’s the Thunderdome, a place where violent intestinal events take place. I emerge drained, and drift twelve feet tall back to the maloca and my mat. I see that Zoe has changed position. Her head is now at the foot of her mat. She grips the plastic puke pail as if she is holding a vigil. Sitting down again it is all the same thing, the nasty raw feeling inside, a grimy sadness. I cover myself with a blanket, settle in for more foul weather.

The shamans fall silent as they sometimes do, allowing the effects of the icaros to settle with the group, smoke a few mapachos. The room hums with settling energy. And then amidst the quiet, Rollando starts to sing alone. There is a massive depth there, a huge energy and force of medicine. Rollando is immense in the ceremonial space. As he sings, I witness a stream issuing from him, flowing slow and steady. The stream widens and becomes a running river of medicine. It pools in the center of the ceremonial space and fills it. I seek refuge in the medicine, and dive in, swimming upstream toward the fountainhead. Earlier that day in conversation, Rollando said “If you can’t be the pencil that writes somebody’s happiness, be the eraser that wipes away their pain.” And here he is doing that, his icaro filling the maloca, kind and soulful, healing and tender.

Rollando’s song soothes me, washes over me. The frying sensation in my nervous system  subsides. Oh, yeah. Aahhhh, that’s how it works, the sweet and life-enhancing medicine easing suffering. In the brooding dark I see the head of a giant anaconda, recessed in shadows, staring at me with keen, coal-dark eyes. The anaconda watches dispassionately as I ride through the energetic currents. My mind is relieved, my heart less weary and sick. Steadily this is all smoothing out. But still very mareado, gobsmacked by ayahuasca, swimming in rogue waves deep at sea. Tripping my ass off.

These burdensome realizations, states, aggregations of feelings, lead somewhere. The medicine acts as spiritual WD-40, uncracking the seals of the bolts in the heart and mind. I see so very clearly the life-engendering difference between my father and me. He could not accept the lavish love given to him. I can, and I give love freely and openly. This is my way. I love Zoe, my family, my friends, so many of my work mates. This is a reminder that I am always happy to re-visit, that love alone is the only worthy path forward, and that all else is shabby and insubstantial. I seek refuge in love.

We are burning up the night. It is past one in the morning, and the shamans have not yet called people up to be sung to individually. I glide out to the banos again, and encounter Rollando along the way, who stands barefoot in the sand, smoking a glowing mapacho.

Chris Kilham

Hola amigo Chris,” he says in the still night. “Como esta la ceremonia para usted?”

Fuerte’, Rollando. Intensa.” I put my hand to my heart. “Su icaro son como un rio de paz.” He nods, puffs the mapacho and offers a toothsome smile.

Near the toilets, one of our pasajeros stands barefoot wearing a sarong around his waste, and nothing else. He is glistening from a shower, the clothes he wore into ceremony are nowhere to be seen.  He is animated, shaking with excitement and energy, a ball of psychedelic fire in the jungle night. Ian, one of the center’s helpers, and another member of our little flock stand nearby shaking, staggered by the medicine. We are still just in the middle of this thing. We exchange brief words about how overwhelmingly strong it is tonight. Ian offers a perfect “Ooh Rah,” and we crack up. Semper Fi.

By two in the morning the shamans started to sing to people individually. And because of the intensity of the medicine, everyone was still good and mareado when they were sung to. The ceremony is an endurance course at this point, Tough Mudder on ayahuasca. Even though it’s very late, a few people are still heaving their guts out. There is steady whimpering from one of the women in our group just a few mats away. If you could capture the energy in the room, you could power a small town.

Near three in the morning I was called up to be sing to by Matilde’. She sang a sweet, beautiful song that penetrated my heart, relieved me, gave me great comfort, made me feel more cohesive and in balance. Her lilting tones, perfectly articulated, worked directly into my heart. Way to go Matilde’, and thank you for that.

Back on my mat, I understand that I have everything I need. What do I lack? Nothing at all. I have a loving wife, a lovely family, friends, work that I enjoy, comfort, enough means. The big payoff is love. If I remember to set love as my pole star on life’s path, I can never go too far astray. And if I pay even keener attention in ceremony, I can make this time, this strange and unusual time steeped in non-ordinary reality, an even better healing experience. I reach over and give Zoe’s hand a squeeze. She is way out there someplace, untethered in the ayahuasca bardo.

Chris Kilham 

After three, Ricardo launches off on one final epic icaro campaign. This is a very fine shaman, with meticulous skills honed over thousands of ceremonies. When Ricardo sings, he is precise, alert, focused. He exaggerates his sounds, moves his mouth in strange ways, alternates rhythms, goes fast, slow, high, low, covering a broad audio landscape. Ricardo sings half a dozen icaros in a row, channeling the medicine. My atoms seem to re-arrange in a more comfortable and harmonious way. The energy in my spine flows free and fast. The space in the malocca becomes more peaceful and clean. Ricardo pulls out all the stops, digging into his vast shamanic trick bag, going this way and that, fluid and magical. It is a spectacular demonstration of craft and skill. I want to cheer loudly and wave my Bic in the air.

Somewhere around quarter past four we finish up. There is little post-ceremony conversation. We look as though we have survived a savage foreign legion campaign. The pasajeros stream out into the night, flashlights piercing the gloomy dark, to their cabins and beds. Ooh Rah.

* * *

Not every ayahuasca ceremony offers a breezy ride. But the medicine always does offer insight and healing, if you can stay aware and navigate the strong currents in the ceremonial space. Our night was prodigious, a legendary event, branded into our psyches and loaded fully into our nervous systems. The medicine penetrated into the most sensitive, painful parts of almost everybody in the room. It’s not always elfin kingdoms, talking jaguars and the chakras in shimmering, anodized pastels. Sometimes, you get your face rubbed hard in the dirt. La Medicina. The Medicine.

Early in the afternoon the next day I relaxed on the veranda connecting the lounge area with the dining room, talking with Joe and Russ, a photographer and one of our group. Puppies prowled about our feet, pausing now and again to gnaw on sandal straps. A cloudy sky grew ominously darker, until with a great shattering crack of lightning, marble-sized rain began to drive down hard. Instantly a nearby downspout off the veranda roof became the hardest, fastest shower in the area. I tore off my shirt and stepped out under the flow, my skin alive with the cold water and the intense freshness of it all. I heard Russ say “I’ve got to shoot this.” The water pounded my head and back. I stayed under the downspout for a good five minutes, invigorated and happy, thoroughly alive.

When I finished with the torrential shower of Amazonian rainwater, I walked dripping wet over to Joe. “You really going to stand here?”

He looked at the fresh, rushing water and at me. “No man, I’m going in.” He did.

And we were washed clean, brilliantly clean.

Chris Kilham is a medical plant expert, author, and educator who has participated in more than 80 ayahuasca ceremonies. His latest book is The Ayahuasca Test Pilot's Handbook.

8 Colorful Irish Slang Terms


  1. Duck-house Door – a very thick slice of bread
  2. Duck’s meat – mucus found in the eyes during sleep
  3. Jook-Halter – one who has narrowly escaped hanging
  4. Potato trap – mouth
  5. Leather head – someone who is stupid
  6. Bumbee work- nonsense
  7. Read lead – lunchroom sausage
  8. Turnip-snagger – rural dweller

Terms and definition from Slanguage: A Dictionary of Slang and Colliquial English in Ireland by Bernard Share (Gill and Macmillan, 1997).

Appeared in The Word Lover’s Book of Lists compiled by Louis Phillips.