A personal essay written while living in San Francisco.
Growing up in rural America, I imagined San Francisco as a far off fairytale land with sacred Meccas such as the City Lights bookstore, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Castro – all as mythical as the television show, “Full House.” In college, my girlfriends and I fantasized about a pilgrimage to a place where our futures didn’t depend on hiding our identities. But, when I arrived in 2014, my image of a Gay Promise Land shattered.
I first noticed not the architecture, nor the blending of cultures I envisioned in collegiate daydreams. In all directions, advertisements or billboards smacked me upside the brain with some internet meme derived slogan or, yet another iPhone advertisement. Then, the overwhelming smell of burning marijuana stole a close second, with the thousands of homeless, suffering daily from police brutality visible through the smoke.
Now here, I watch humans drown in advertisements screaming memes from once-trending YouTube videos specific to the ages of the targeted audiences. Municipal transit lives and breathes what once resided within the confines of magazines and television. To survive, I wear my indifference like scuba gear. Yet, the materialism and the artificial state of California seeps through my protective barriers. Classic business attire implies age because physical appearance cannot be trusted here. Saving money exists as a hobby-like pastime for those wealthy enough to have any part of their paycheck left after paying the costs of living. At the ripe old age of 24, someone assumes I’m in my 30s because I wear east coast style business attire when instructed to dress “business casual” instead of seasonal fast fashion trends business-appropriate enough to pass.
In San Francisco, I learn that to be a member of my community I have to choose: be a walking advertisement and suffer the professional consequences, or be myself and exist just under the calibrated range for Gay-dar. San Francisco redefines Pride for me as between two communities, unable to belong to either – hated by both.
While trying to eat my lunch at work, I listen to a group of San Franciscans talk about how they “totally judge” every single person they meet by their shoes. I try to tune out, but their voices echo in the open floor plan. Tevas, Chacos, Vibram 5-fingers, and Birkenstocks are on their “this person is not worth my time” list – each person shares their particular nuances. I try not to listen and shove my face with Safeway Alaska Roll, hoping the chewing will drown them out. It doesn’t.
According to these white, San Franciscan women, the first offense by anyone wearing these shoes is their lack of fashion sense. Mortal sin if they combine these shoes with socks. The second offense? The price paid for these shoes. Why? Don’t worry. They share that too. Apparently, “anyone choosing to wear any of these brands should be spending their money on much nicer looking shoes” that don’t make them look like “wanna-be outdoorsy people who can’t stand to be in the office.”
One woman, her Brazilian blowout blonde hair quivering, charges into a rant about a man she sat next to at a conference in Seattle. He wore Vibram 5-finger toes that, without saying anything, conveyed the message, “I shouldn’t be here. I’m too good to be here.”
I look down at my feet. Having owned a nice pair of black nylon-strap Teva sandals, I listen as these women continue voicing their prejudices against those that prefer durable, comfortable footwear. But this is normal. In San Francisco, I don’t know if the consistency helps. Perhaps I should take comfort in knowing that I can expect strangers will always be judging me based on the appearance of my feet and not on any other qualities of my existence – they are literally looking down on me even when I’m at a shared eye level.
On the train home, I gaze out at this fallen Mecca with its urine-soaked streets and drug numbed population. How did I get it so wrong? “That’s just wrong,” someone echoes. Finding a spot along the seawall overlooking the Bay Bridge, I sit at the Embarcadero. The bay glistens, dancing blues absent of humans. Others find happiness here. Why not me?
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post today. If it speaks to you, please let me know by liking, commenting, or sharing this post. This helps me know which posts my readers like best.
I wrote the following essay in 2016 while living in San Francisco. At the time I did not own a car and used SFMTA as my primary mode of transportation. As a result, I saw a lot of advertisements. The following was an actual advertisement appearing on MUNI during the 2016 Super Bowl. Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Advertising And Elephant Pants
On my way home I stare at an advertisement on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s L train. A man with crooked eye teeth smiles and poses with hands relaxing on his hips. “Sasha” declares in the poster’s bold white block lettering that he is at peace with who he is and his HIV status. Everything about the ad is well done. I applaud the San Francisco AIDS Foundation for exemplifying Sasha C. both as a non-white HIV positive man and a passionate activist without overplayed stereotypes that may distract the oblivious straight person. Even the maroon henley shirt is buttoned at the perfectly ambiguous level between those stereotypes so often played up in the Castro where the train stops. Yet, his pants’ pockets catch me off guard.
I fixate on this baffling criticism: his pants pockets. I admit a relationship between this and his crotch’s positioning at my exact eye level. These khaki pants have flaps over the front pockets – already unusual. In Sasha’s picture, he has snapped the pockets’ flaps for open-pocket accessibility. This seems logical because why would anyone snap and close the front pocket flaps of cargo-style khaki pants in the first place? Oh sure, it might deter the novice sleight-of-hand thief, but front pockets rarely experience the joys of anything beyond pocket change or keys. But the flaps could also snap to close these front pockets giving his crotch its very own pair of dumbo ears. How appropriate for an awkward glance in an exceptionally reflective urinal when one needs to take a leak. I’m sure the unused snaps to hold the flaps open make delightful eyes! But, with the flaps snapped open the fabric pulls taut across his lap, giving him anatomy that competes with Ken dolls. Sasha is now an innovator in using khakis to demasculinize himself in one fell, two-snap swoop.
Perhaps the photographer figured lacking anatomy aided in the goal to subvert stereotypes. These missing stereotypes are the ones that when present seem to inspire the “straight” community’s assault, murder, and abuse of the LGBTQA+ community across the United States. Even in San Francisco, we must try not to play up the stereotypes attached to us if we are to be seen outside of our designated neighborhoods, such as Bernal Heights or the Castro. Within the safety of the Castro, a few men walk around in nothing but fully sequined socks of silver and gold tying it all together as a prominent display that draws the eye. This behavior emerged after San Francisco outlawed full nudity except during events such as San Francisco Pride and the Castro Street Fair. I prefer full nudity – at least then the neighborly nudists do not draw eyes away from the charismatic faces I adore so much.
This caters to tourists, and subversive efforts are necessary since the city keeps asking the Castro to “gay the place up” in its capitalist efforts. With a confusing mix of pride and profit, our neighborhoods comply. Now, the Castro has rainbow crosswalks, flashing rainbow signs, and even a string of rainbow lights on the light rail station’s escalators, yet fewer than 55% of newcomers to the neighborhood identify as members of the LGBTQA+ community as of 2015 according to Castro & Upper Market Retail Strategy. Even during the 2016 Super Bowl signs in the light rail stations lure unsuspecting tourists away from Fisherman’s Wharf to the melodic, dancing tones of the Midnight Sun where Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. These signs ask why they could possibly want to stare at sea lions when they could pet real bears? But the tourists don’t see what I see. Every morning I wake up to go running, dodging the used needles littering the side streets until needle exchange volunteers pick them up and help the homeless find somewhere else to spend their days before the police arrive to do the same. Why is it that it’s on our shrinking neighborhood community to do anything to help each other with compassion while the city and landlords profit?
Now, besides having differing unsympathetic fashion taste to Sasha’s utilitarian khaki needs, the pockets of these pants distract me from the beautiful purpose of this advertisement. Instead, I spend a twenty-minute train ride mesmerized by the horrific potential of the pants for impromptu inappropriate puppeteering. These pockets of penile peek-a-boo are at eye level to an SFMTA patron seated on the train. When Sasha says “at peace with who he is”, does this mean he is at peace with his love of odd fashion statements? His love of elephants? Maybe he loves snap closure pockets. All I can do is smile at the advertisement – one of the few representing a member of my community without trying to sell a thing.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post today. If it speaks to you, please let me know by liking, commenting, or sharing this post. This helps me know which posts my readers like best.
Well, that’s a loaded title! In this post I will be answering some questions that have come up during discussions on writing techniques I use and my own personal practices. I promise this is less scary than it sounds to those that are already nervous. With each question I am going to discuss how the topic influences my writing and how it is all part of the tools that are useful in writing, meditation, and introspection.
What Is A Hedge Witch?
A hedge witch is a solitary individual practicing Hedge Witchcraft. If you want to be silly about it, think of someone that really likes playing with rocks, trees, sticks, and plants while practicing mindfulness in everything they do. Let’s emphasize the intense, solitary study of plants and their unique properties. The image conjured is meant to pay tribute to the wise woman that lived as a hermit on the edge of a village or “beyond the hedge”. The idea being that they found “magical intent” in everyday routine and the natural world. Like a fine wine, they age uniquely into the perfect storybook character: my life goal.
That said, I’ve always been someone that has trouble with anything that could possibly be defined as “magical thinking”. I have concepts of what is and is not ethical, and prefer to break something down into its smallest part – understanding the systems that govern it from the inside out, or bottom up depending on who you’re talking to. I want everything to be evidence based and peer reviewed and it turns out that a lot of what I consider to be magic has very little to do with what many would consider religion. Nothing in this practice has anything to do with worship, rather it is devoted to the study and understanding of a natural world.
Is It Like A Hedgehog?
But I have heard of hedgehogs being tamed and kept as pets and the name comes from a similar etymology relating to “hedge”. Also, Jacob really likes hedgehogs.
Do You Make Magic Potions? How About Herbs, Plants, & Tea?
When I lived in the Castro of San Francisco, I worked as a clinical herbalist. This meant that I worked with a lot of terminally and chronically ill patients looking to regain their autonomy wherever they could by replacing supportive medications with herbal equivalents supported by peer reviewed research. I worked with pharmacists, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals to ensure everything these patients used was safe for them and no critical/essential medications were ever replaced. This was not *that* kind of place and we were absolutely not a dispensary. For clarification, at the time in the state of California clinical herbalists could not practice with medical cannabis products due to separate regulations, nor did I want to deal with the liability and legal grey area. This never stopped random people from stopping in and asking if we sold anything that could get them high, at which point I had to direct them to a sign that specifically said if they asked that question they were required to leave the store. If the individual had a medical card in the state of California, did not ask that question, and was simply confused, I could direct them to other businesses within the same neighborhood.
The active compounds in plants are sold in 3 primary ways: dried matter, distillation, and infusion. Dried matter is ground and prepared based on how the active compounds in the plants are best extracted: fat soluble vs. water soluble. This has to do with chemistry I don’t need to get into here. What it comes down to is that many patients elect to consume their medicine by drinking custom compounded tea.
Having worked in agricultural research and alongside herbal medicine practices culturally practiced throughout my life, I loved this job and was sad when the location I worked went out of business due to high rent prices in San Francisco and the low profit margins associated with these types of products. Where I worked was replaced with a high end shoe store that I doubt helped any AIDS or cancer patients.
I recently assisted a friend with an herbal combination and it reminded me how much I love this practice. People often forget how much control they have over their own symptom management when it comes to chronic conditions and it brings me joy when people take that back with something like using chamomile for the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder under the supervision of a trained medical professional (see peer-reviewed double-blind placebo controlled studies 1, 2, 3).
Plants are a major focus for pharmaceutical discovery. Some people forget that the majority of medications on the market are derived from natural products like plants, their endophytes (such as Taxol from yew trees and salicylic acid from willow bark) and molds. Through ethnobotanical studies, the study of how cultures around the world use plants, we gain insight into medicinal compounds derived from plants. The synthetic products we see on shelves are often based on these natural products that may even have been viewed previously as poisons. The dose makes the poison, after all.
While reading “The Moon Hunters” by Anya Pavelle, I immediately understood the significance of a character consuming copious amounts of parsley. For the same reason, I found a friend of mine’s lifelong infatuation with parsley mildly humorous. Let’s be honest – who doesn’t like parsley?
Though I no longer professionally work in this field, I enjoy plants as symbols in writing and I pay attention to how authors choose for plants to be used in their stories. I sometimes talk at great lengths about this to others if they make the mistake of asking. At least now you can make an informed risk!
Tarot Cards, Oracle Cards, And Rune Stones
I have always been fascinated with divination, but not for reasons beyond self reflection, meditation, and helping me see the world in a new way. I don’t believe that any of these tools can predict the future. Instead, I think they can help the viewer gain personal insight into potential outcomes of their own actions as well as new understanding of the past. There’s no “magic” to this beyond what someone creates within their own mind. Think of it like creating a structure or system your brain can map information onto.
I guess there is something magical about personal insight. That feeling of epiphany when you make a connection that you didn’t previously understand. I admit I may be addicted to that feeling to the point I constantly seek out new information and incorporate it into my world views so I can change and adapt. The personal insight gained from any 5 card spread or runic cross is not dependent on the actual cards or runes drawn though. It’s entirely dependent on the willingness to see the interpretation and how it is relevant to you. What pieces of your life in that position (distant past, near past, present, near future, distant future – or however you lay the cards) match this symbol? The beauty of this is that there are no situations where someone could fail to gain personal insight unless they choose not to.
I like to combine three methods because I think this provides the most input to think about and it’s the most helpful when it comes to helping me write. I’ll explain that more in a bit.
Crystals? Scientific Magic?
I love rocks. It’s a family trait. My sister has this amazing gigantic geode slab in my nephew’s bedroom and while I’m not a believer in crystal healing, I do love that before the age of one he’s already the fourth generation to love rocks. Our grandfather was a geophysicist and taught us geology. One of my favorite subjects tended to be how heat and pressure could cause crystalline structures to form. I’ve always been really into molecular structures and how these invisible forces govern the universe. When I look at shiny objects, that’s what my brain is reminded of: invisible forces governing the universe. That glitter.
I love the sciences and am a supporter of science education. I believe the sciences are forms of magic we can often see with our eyes. We can use the sciences to predict the weather, understand the universe around us, and transform matter from one state to another in the same sense that the original chemists called themselves alchemists. If ever there was a way to believe in magic it would be through the study of the scientific fields. Many forget that this is the origin of magic – a pure wonder and pursuit of understanding of the mystery that is our existence.
How Does This Help Break Writer’s Block?
I mentioned that I like to use tarot cards, oracle cards, and rune stones in writing. I find that it’s particularly helpful in cases of writer’s block and will use the results to outline a story. I’ve considered writing on this topic in depth with more examples, but I’m not sure how it will be interpreted by communities that take these practices as communication with a spirit realm, or a number of other more religious focused forms of these practices. I have no intention of conveying disrespect.
I spend a significant amount of time building the settings in which my stories will take place, so any “divination” for the multiple characters within those places helps to decide which of these characters are going to be involved. Sometimes this is more interesting and provides better direction for writing than pulling character names out of a hat.
One of the unique aspects of this practice is that the meditation and personal insight do not go away when I’m using a tarot spread. Instead, I am projecting the epiphanies I have into whatever I’m outlining and creating.
It’s important to note that this is all in the pre-writing, outlining, and drafting stages. I doubt anyone can actually tell I’ve done this when they read my writing because all references are removed and replaced with the insights that they provided – that’s the point.
Is This Appropriative?
This is a loaded question. I’ve read numerous arguments about the use of tarot cards, oracle cards, and rune stones by themselves as cultural appropriation or not being cultural appropriation. I have seen those that argue it is only appropriative if you wear the costume of another culture that is not your own, while others argue anything purchased from a new age store is appropriation and that all new age stores should be burned to the ground. That article was a bit on the scary extreme side and I’d rather not provide traffic to any blog actively calling for violence and/or arson.
Others argue that imitation is the grandest form of flattery and we should embrace multiculturalism, or else those of European descent are left with practices that are historically governed almost exclusively by that which survived the cultural slash and burn of European history written by the “winners” (aka Christians). These practices themselves are problematic in their own ways and are the same ones that were forced on many indigenous populations. While there are some out there working to revive and focus on the mysticism of early Europeans that generations of conquerers attempted to erase (Hi Sean!), be gentle – they’re working with limited historical information and nothing is that simple.
In regards to my spirituality, that is a very complex topic for me. Philosophically, I have been a practicing Buddhist for 15 years. I do not believe in reincarnation. I do not hang Tibetan prayer flags, nor do I plan to take any pilgrimages that end in a hammered Sanskrit tattoo. I do celebrate some of the holidays privately, though I do not apply for religious exemption from an employer for them. These are my personal decisions.
Keep in mind that there are entire religions founded on multiculturalism, such as Unitarian Universalism. You can see their official statement on appropriation here.
Does This Include Things Like The Age Of Aquarius And Wicca?
History time! The Age Of Aquarius refers to “the current or forthcoming astrological era” that follows The Age Of Pisces. According to some, The Age Of Aquarius started in 1844 with the founding or the religion of Babaism. I don’t put any stock in astrology. I know many have fun with it. I’m not judging those who do. I’m not someone who picks out the astrological signs for each of my characters. That said, this is an absolutely valid technique for character building.
In regards to Wicca, the phrasing is a little inside out. The set of practices used by a hedge witch, and the use of divination tools are included by some in their practices, but I am not Wiccan by many definitions. I am not a member of any organized group, nor do I seek out others. I am also not a writer on these topics. That said, if you are interested in reading about Wicca and spiritual awakening, I recommend checking out Jessica Baumgartner’s books, articles and essays!
Does This Have A Greater Meaning To Me Beyond Writing And Meditation Techniques?
I love plants, rocks, and the natural world. I love the magic that science reveals. My undergraduate major, after a few changes, settled on plant biology. I love ethnobotanical studies. And I love writing.
Beyond bringing together things in my life that bring me joy, no, it doesn’t have any greater meaning to me, but it’s all relative. Where and how do you rank introspection and meditation that reveals new connections and information?
But You Have A Black Cat?
I have a black cat because I like black cats. It’s that simple. No deeper meaning. Nyxie is my precious, talkative little house panther. That’s it.