The Lockdown Mode of Transcendental Transformation

 

I wonder what it is like for someone not in lockdown to read my posts.
A while ago I skimmed through some of my writings and wailings over the last year and it was fascinating looking at the shifts from manic productivity and elation to despair to long spaces of nothing in particular before rebounding back to a bleak introversion.

The sun is shining today and I have been granted the government sanctioned ability to meet a friend outdoors. I’ve taken advantage of this a few times and it’s actually an intense experience that continues after the initial emotional impact of reconnecting has passed. Without time constraints and the need to rush off as I used to do in my high achiever, pack as much in as possible, pre lockdown life, I can spend hours with people I care for. Realising the depths and comforts of friendships built over many years, is simply beautiful.

Time itself has become incredibly odd. There should be more of it  but somehow it seems less, and it moves much more slowly and  in an amorphous manner like oil in a lava lamp or the sea on a calm day. I  suspect it has always been like that but humanity pummels it into a shape that mirrors our own attitudes.
I admit the common disorientation as to days and dates, which daylight saving time just made much, much worse.
My present Easter break from university threw me completely into this directionless void where I’ve floated around trying to anchor myself into a routine lit with neon headings such as ‘work on primate infanticide essay’ or ‘supermarket’ or (and this is a huge one) ‘haircut’!
I wondered if time is gobbled and forever lost by social networking where I don’t participate and just scroll blankly, or am I just getting older and more slow.
I feel akin to a monk in a cell breathing deeply and deliberately, slowing their metabolic rate as they slip into another reality.

A few weeks ago I felt anxious about the upcoming relaxations of restrictions and was freaking out about how I would cope with resuming schedules and plans and getting things done when I am so sluggish. I thought I was becoming asthmatic when I found myself getting breathless when I left the house, but realised it was just a shallow breathing anxiety about moving back into the deadlines and the groove of a faster pace.
I woke one morning and realised I had shifted into being very chilled out about plans and appointments and no longer felt resentments or hang ups about the ways of others. This was intensely liberating, although who knows if it is just another weird but necessary layer of the lockdown mode of transcendental transformation.

Two days until the shops and bars and hairdressers open but a longer wait for art galleries and museums; an odd sort of countdown and I wonder how a world where such a large proportion of people have simultaneously undergone such a similar immersive process, will find itself changed when it emerges.

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The Resurfacing of a Round, Furry and Feral Deepwater Dweller

I have struggled with depressive interludes for over 40 years now, and in that time I’ve learned a lot about myself. I can recognise the very clear sign posts that indicate my going ‘down’  and have developed coping mechanisms that allow me to live  a happy and fulfilled life where I rarely have a need to medicate.
Okay I have been indoctrinated at points (some of that by my own doing), and at one stage I was very institutionalised, but a balance was eventually achieved where a rigid adherence to things I felt created safety could be loosened so I could take risks.
However I always held onto a few things that represented stability as well as a series of routines that created a feeling of ballast.
The below blog I wrote a few days ago after several weeks of fighting feelings of a steadily overwhelming emotional pain.
Whenever obsessive suicide thoughts start to inveigle their way into my head, I know it’s time to go to a doctor for help, but this time around I started to write and walk things out, trying to figure out what the hell was going on as I knew I wasn’t depressed.
There is a new age maxim, ‘act as if’ and lockdown for me, has been acting as if I was in a depression or as if I was drinking/using addictively.
The first 10 months or so of lockdown I was able to roll with it, using the aforementioned techniques and routines that I’ve learned;  however the last few months when the winter greyness rolled in and my last bastion of stability, university, finished for the Christmas break, I started falling apart.
I realise that a lot of people who know me well perhaps think I am a bit of a control freak in some respects but these controls have kept me clean/sober and mentally well for 25 years.
Leaving the house everyday, regularly meeting people, not watching television, using lists to structure my day and create achievable goals, and keeping my weight stable whilst all pleasurable were also ways to stop me plunging too much into my darker side.
Well that all has gone to shit says she after swapping sofa cushions as the corner of the couch that I’ve been sitting on for the past year, has been completely flattened by me in my tracksuit bottoms with my plate of crackers and cheese and my laptop.
University has been great, however it is cerebral, and when I started the course in October I switched off my creative side, during a time when I most needed that form of expression.
The realisation that I need to flip the ‘act as if’ analogy (combined with switching the memory foam cushion) has pulled my head above these dark waters, however the below few paragraphs I am still going to publish so I can keep this Covid diary complete. 

I don’t like who I am anymore and am struggling to find a way forward. I’ll eschew doing my study for evolutionary biology (I can’t concentrate anyway) and write this, then go for a walk, and hope things lift and I can grasp onto a feeling of hope.
Aside from feeling as if a year of social isolation combined with the angst of the natural ageing process have eroded my identity, sense of self and any power I may have felt over life directions; my ability to connect and communicate with people seems to have also slipped away and when I do have the occasional conversation I afterwards analyse it and intensely dislike the person I am clumsily conveying.
I suspect part of the harshness of this self criticism lies in my retained memory of my awkward social self when I was young, desperately flailing around trying to be understood and to learn the rules of engagement.
Then of course there is the awareness that I am alone, a situation caused not only the natural sequence of time, but also by my sometimes unaware choices and behaviour.
The realisation that suicide is not necessarily a by product of depression but is a logical and peaceable solution to a life that has been fully lived and has reached its impasse, doesn’t disturb me as much as it should.
Perhaps what does disturb me is the fact that if I do act on these predilections I will need to make provisions so my body is found, and that saddens me.
A lot of my blogs as the lockdown has progressed, have been put up as a record rather than an aspect of creative expression.
On occasion I have felt that what I am writing is too self indulgent, too self obsessed, too dark…but if that is what I feel why shouldn’t I express it?

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DIAGENESIS

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How I Put My Brain on a Plate and Gave it to the Zombies

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I have never been into television and over the years have engaged in a myriad of battles with the T.V Licensing Police as they have been unable to comprehend that I neither own nor watch the bloody thing.

There have been various reasons for this; partially control issues as I don’t like being what I perceive to be as lost and out of control in someone else’s generally homogenous imaginative constructions, and partially because I simply enough, don’t have time.

O sure I have had my binge watching experiences over the years of ‘The Wire’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ but these have been rare excursions and far and few between.
Then we come to lockdown where I find I am not reading, creating art or doing much aside from my university work and that is an inordinate effort as my concentration span is very limited (probably due in part, to the fact that I insist on trying to keep up with global media developments, something that is bound to fuddle the brain). However I am streaming and binge watching zombie movies and series.

I can joke about this as being relevant in terms of its topical commentary on consumerism, presentation of positive fitness goals and how it makes me feel that lockdown isn’t that bad; but truth to tell I have become more and more uncomfortable with the situation.
I have found myself obsessively watching various scenarios where people have been put in a situation where they either have to kill (and eventually become almost comedic in their consequent creative, sociopathic mass murdering ) or be killed themselves.

I actually don’t like violence or horror so what the hell has happened to me?

On New Years day I went to bed at 6 in the morning after watching one of these series for 12 hours.
I woke up as I have often done lately, foggy and unfocused and drifting through the day until it was time for my next dose of pustular gore and head shots.

I thought back to my flatmate, mid depression, watching television late at night (although he was focused on shows such as ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and ‘The Voice’, as he perceived them as holding a message of hope, which perhaps reflects badly on my own frame of mind in regard to my present viewing choices) and I also remembered a technique I have used for many years for harnessing my creative and learning abilities, where as my brain slows in the evening I will seed it before I go to bed with relevant thoughts or imagery, and wake up intermittently to write notes on how said seeding develops.
I also used to do this before I had exams as my brain would continue to examine information as I rested and with my filter switched off I would find blockages would dissolve as my brain would become a free floating entity with limitless viewing and no allegiance to barriers or conditionings.
So what I have been doing more recently is going to bed (eventually) with various  zombie related scenarios on my mind which I obsessively develop, explore and examine as I drift (so I am not really sleeping); neglecting my own imaginative explorations and feeding one in which my only real interest is akin to feeding an addiction that negates me. True zombie stuff eh?

O I have no doubt some of my thoughts on this are over analysis and conjecture and of course thoughts on television (and related screen control) being a controlling entity are no revelation, however for me this is has been a disturbing, new, experiential paradigm.

So it’s been a few days since my last Zombie immersion and whilst the books I read before bed are perhaps not of the highest calibre, my dream life is my own again, and the worlds I create as I drift into sleep are places where things are being created rather than violently destroyed.

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Survival is Habitual Practice

Today I started sobbing. No reason, it just started, a sobbing that emanated from the belly and shook me inside out.
This is first time I have cried in the 9 months or so that the world has been changing and falling away from us all, without any clarity as to what will be replacing it.
I mean sure, I have had tearful moments, often in the face of a trite ad or a traumatic moment whilst watching something on my computer (prior to this year I never even had a tv set – there wasn’t time for such things- now there seems to be so much more time, that conversely, goes so much more quickly).
This whole process of reinventing myself and going to university has given me a self obsessed distraction as I tried to rearrange myself to a new structure and intellectual obsession. I will not deny however, that recently, especially in the most recent lockdown, I have found myself falling into a despair of sorts trying to work out what this new world was about and whether I could ever find a place in it, as I finally had done in the last one.
At the beginning of the pandemic I wrote about grief, letting go of what was and in those few sobbing moments this evening, it hit again, the realisation of loss of everything that I thought mattered.

The self identification with what one does rather than who one is, was particularly prevalent in the 1990’s, and it’s only recently that I realised how closely I related to my role as an artist, writer and creative person.

Adrift at university (which is mostly just a row of switched off screens and microphones on zoom) I have found myself fighting the impulse to name and identify myself, tell my stories and make myself three dimensional; struggling against becoming a caricature of an older person, stirring ashes and telling of adventures’ past.
I suspect that most students are in a process of early formation and I keep wanting to say but I had found my place, this is who and why I am.

However all my exhibitions and conferences are now cancelled until the end of 2021 and I have had to come to terms with the fact that, yes, I do have a performative side that needs feeding and hasn’t been receiving that nurturing attention, and that creates this reactive loud declarative ME! ME! ME!
The artist’s tantrum.
I worry about being too old to start a new life and not having enough resources or energy and am then startled to realise how indoctrinated I am, how in need of rules and guidance and structure.

Crying has helped.

I have course work to do today, and as we head towards another lockdown, another flurry of media hysteria, and another festive landmark that will leave people feeling lonelier even if Christmas isn’t relevant to their own belief system (as it isn’t with me) I find myself gravitating back to my art again and realising that perhaps it’s okay to identify with what I do, as art is not only about what I create and how I express, but it is also how I find my freedom.

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Dystopian Celebrations and Other Dark Rites

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TAKING MY BRAIN FOR A WALK ON A VERY LONG LEAD

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S: So writing a essay wasn’t covered in today’s seminar? I need that! I haven’t written an essay since March!
Me: I haven’t written an academic essay since 1982.
Undergraduate WhatsApp Group October 2020

In the course of this year I left my job of 22 years and moved on to manage a Charity Shop for 10 months then, three weeks ago, I started an undergraduate degree after being away from the education system for 40 years.
In some ways the timing is perfect as studying in an academic institution is infinitely preferable to working with the public during a pandemic.
Anxiety is creating erratic and sometimes aggressive behaviour, and economic stress is causing many businesses to view staff as commodities that need to be utilised to the greatest, sometimes humanly impossible, level.
I have many friends at the moment who are employed in areas where there are major cuts in personnel and they are expected to take on the extra workload of one or two others, often on less wages and under more complex conditions, but they just knuckle down muttering the mantra ‘at least I still have a job’.
I must admit I am relieved to no longer be in an environment where I need to tread carefully around people’s reactions, break up fights when customers aggressively confront someone for not wearing a mask or for trying clothes on, and patiently explain to someone else as they dump a mountain of dead relatives possessions on the floor in front of the till as they want to take the bag home to recycle it, that we need donations to be sealed and when they ask why, answer that there is a global pandemic

However entering university studies has its own challenges not least because the institutions themselves are needing to restructure their classes and reformat the way they teach, so to an extent I am navigating my way around a system that is being rewritten as I explore it.
As I fumble though the course and try to retrain my mind, I must admit I get a lot of pleasure finding that it’s still possible to discover things about myself.
I’ve always been aware that I have an innate curiosity and enjoy learning but I had forgotten that this caused me to love school (well, perhaps not the social aspects) and that the world of academia brings out in me a passion and obsession that makes me want to crawl into it and create a lovely safe space, surrounded by information filled, book lined walls and an archaic, hermetically sealed door.
When I was very young my mother had calls from my teachers, worried that I was TOO absorbed in my studies and she was always trying to drag me away from my reading to go into the outside world, which I viewed as a decidedly unsafe place.
Of course my later use of drink and drugs was the ultimate propellant into a humanly populated reality and whilst I never lost my love of ideas, a structured way of assembling them gradually eroded and when I found my place in a more creative environment, freeform arrangement of information become part of the job description so to speak.
I have worried how the learning of this new language will affect my art (and whether I will have time to create anyway)but all my exhibitions and conferences are cancelled well into 2021 and already I have found myself drifting into my studio on occasion and playing with beads, bones and making so I suspect that my need to express creatively will not be disappearing.
Initially I thought that I was going to be embarking on something that will be humbling, damaging my self esteem and wounding my pride as I make messes and mistakes.
Interestingly enough, making mistakes hasn’t bothered me though. Perhaps this is an ‘age thing’? O I am a perfectionist there is no doubt about that, but as I have aged, making mistakes have led me to insight. There have been many occasions say, when I have messed up giving a talk or presentation and after analysing where I went wrong, eventually emerged exhilarated, with the feeling of having discovered a better approach or technique.

Of course this is still very early on in the course.

My age doesn’t really create problems for me, although I mull over appropriate contact with the other students whom I suppose I am old enough to be a grandmother of. I am friendly enough but have no desire to socialise outside the faculty with either them or the mature students (whom I am also older than) although socialising is not really an option at the moment.
I did have a strange moment during a discussion about eugenics when I found myself on the same wavelength as a skinny skateboard welding 19 year old with dirty hair, but that was more a revelation about the way my mind works (like a teenage boy) spurred on by memories of me at 16 hanging out with a group of friends in a Space Invader Gaming Parlour in New Zealand, listening to Joy Division, discussing Escher, Hesse and CIA mind control experiments and going to skateboard parks.
Anyway.
Now it is time to try and train my brain to concentrate and see if I can force it into new configurations.

It’s all change and whilst I cannot presently catch a plane to somewhere different or go to a concert or exhibition or film I can still take my brain on a walk through unknown realms.

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Migration

Fragment of the Berlin Wall outside The Imperial War Museum, London.

At the end of last year, for the first time in my life, I made plans for my future. At 54 years old this is perhaps slightly late in the day  to make such decisions, but it seemed the right thing to do. I was finally ready to commit to certain changes that challenged the way I lived; the main one being my lack of education and a dissatisfaction with working in retail, which whilst it keep things ticking over financially as I focused on my creative endeavours, kept me stuck in a low paid, slightly servile mentality that perpetuated various ongoing self esteem issues.
So I took the leap, left my workplace of 24 years and found a better paid job until I was able to start at university.
2020 was to have been a transitional year for me, however Covid has made everything more complex and decision making in this time easily becomes reactive rather than rational (if rational can be seen to exist anymore).

The husband of a dear friend whom I used to see regularly, died just before lockdown and I was unable to communicate with her except by phone (the use of which I am notoriously bad with).
A few weeks ago we finally met, and automatically hugged, and the intimacy and warmth of the contact, took my breath away.
I realised that we have been making these tweaks and adjustments to our lives on one level, but emotionally and internally we are damaged and in pain because part of us is not being nurtured in the way we need to be.
Like animals in a zoo.

A few weeks later I went to London and notwithstanding the night partying that was going on at Leicester Square (very end of days, I was in a flat overlooking Charing X Road and it was like listening to characters in some sort of crazed enactment from a Bosch painting). I did things that involved close friends and communal meals and seeing exhibitions and performance and truly, I felt as if there was a bloom of beauty unfurling inside me in a space that I hadn’t even noticed had become empty.

So now I am back and negotiating my home run; the transition from my present work to being a full time university student, whilst in the background the possibility of another lockdown is beckoning.
I am stressed to hell trying to negotiate my way through financing and timetables and resignations and pensions, when none of the structures really work and these systems are being changed and reformatted by the moment.

The charity shop I have been managing has been a microcosm of the shifting sands of the old regime and I see people frantic, anxious and stressed, trying to follow routes of right behaviour and find solace and joy and safety but also being angry, reactive and aggressive.
Everyone is trying to clear…clear out excess from their consumer lifestyle, trying to clear out possessions after the death of family members, trying to recycle, to ‘make do and mend’.

Last week the lover of an artist I knew came in at the end of the day with several huge bags to donate, as he was about to move house.
I asked him how my friend, his long term partner, was.
He told me she had died of cancer at the end of last year, and the bags he was donating were her clothes.
I was stunned, and we talked for a while before he left and I started to sort through her things.

I feel as if there are no shades of grey in this reality at the moment, and it would be so easy to be a realist and see everything in dark terms, or alternatively just switch off and get on with it gaining stability (and a lot of stress) by hanging onto old structures and not worry about art or creative projects or new directions, but I keep getting reminders of the potential for joy and beauty life holds if I simply push outside my comfort zone, so that is what I will continue to do.

I can hear the barking of migrating geese outside my window.

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Chewing on Bones and Contemplating Change

 

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I have written blogs recently that I decided not to publish as by and large, they were negative to the point of despair.

Truth to tell it’s possible that this one may be perceived as being slightly dark but I would prefer to think it is simply reflective of the necessary introspection that occurs as we move into Autumn.

I believe that despite quarantine madnesses and difficulties there was a balance of gifts received to liberty seemingly taken, in the beautiful spring and summer we have had. A connection with nature was established that many had never previously experienced, and a showing of a softer side of humanity resulted from that.

However lockdown eased and anxiety set in as people tried to step once more into the fast lane, albeit one that now had no road signs (or roads for that matter) and an emotional darkness seeped back to parallel the lessening of light as we approached winter.

So I have decided to focus this blog on my magical creative reality, looking at a bigger picture and the way I see life beyond the patterns of human behaviour (something which has never failed to send me into a head spin).

I have written and spoken before of my belief that we are all born both magical and artistic beings, but our environment and the life we live affect how these qualities develop and of course the degree that these characteristics are inherent is variable.

I was a naturally reclusive child who lived in a chaotic family so I developed my observation skills in response to that to try and find viable reactions and survival methods.

I realised that the living natural world had a personality and series of patterns that made sense. Even when part of this fell apart or was inversely impacted, there was a very structured reaction.
Within this reality, everything had a place and there was no two ways about it, I was and am very much was part of this world.
As an adult who had just cleaned up from my various addictions, it gave me an immense feeling of strength, solace and sense of my own beauty and being when I allowed myself to experience this feeling of belonging.

Observing human behaviour is a very different experience from looking at the workings of the natural world in that with people, there is less logic. We are more reactive and there is a huge difference in the way we operate as individuals and as a mass. When humanity operates as a group we operate as animals, but often as animals in the most brutal and mindless sense, depending on the dictates of the pack leader.

Acknowledging all of the above gave me a set of operational base notes to work within my life, art and magic, all of which are about recognising components and patterns that can be arranged and rearranged to affect change.

During lockdown, as with everyone else, my observational skills were heightened and I started seeing things that made me wonder.
I was aware that we had an incredibly consistently hot and dry spring and summer for instance, but everything remained the most vivid green. I wondered if the lack of traffic helped enhance that intensity of colour as I remembered years ago commenting on how motorways often have very scorched looking trees and plant life alongside them, and was told that main roads and motorways are always a slightly higher temperature than their environs.

I saw a generation of animals that were born in spring and grew up in lockdown with no fear of humans or traffic.

As the social isolation policy eased the weather changed and I noticed the blights on various crops and the horse chestnut trees. I observed the most roadkill I have seen in many years, and see that people are caught up in an anxiety that overrides logic and creates rage and over reaction.

I find that art I created in early lockdown that was freeform, joyous and experimental has shifted to something more controlled and embodied in darker colours, inorganic materials and metal.

So where does the magic come into all this?

In order to create a new reality, whether the end result be a creative expression resulting in an object or a change on some level or other, there needs to be awareness and acknowledgement of self, environment and an ability to be open to possibilities. This can only be done if you also know what the probabilities are.

The only constant at the moment is that we are experiencing the natural seasonal shift that occurs at this time of the year, and in order to move forward we need to be flexible and not be over reliant upon any man made establishments or structures.

Some time ago I found a few old bones in a park in the town I lived in. The bones were not quite like any animal I could identify, and after some research I found that several 100 years before there had been a potters field graveyard in that area for some local almshouses.

I left the bones on a table in my garden to dry after washing them, and one morning I found one had been moved on my shed roof, then the day afterwards, onto a garden chair. Yesterday I saw a squirrel sharpening its teeth on it before placing it back on a garden bench.

I sat inside watching this young creature chewing on part of what could well have been one of my ancestors and strangely enough, it didn’t bother me at all.

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Survival, Power and Wisdom: An Interview with Eric K Lerner

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Eric K Lerner is a self taught artist who has exhibited and sold his work globally.
Author of The AIDS CRISIS in America (1998) he has been involved with a number of AIDS service providers including AIDS Research Information Centre, Health Education Resource Organisation, Maryland State Health Department, Visual AIDS, ACTUP, and the American Indian Centre.
Eric is a Santeria Priest who has also worked with the Tarot for more than 30 years.

http://www.threebonessociety.com
voiceofthoth@hotmail.com

I interviewed Eric Lerner many years ago for my book ‘The Bloody Sacrifice’, and recently have felt a pressing need to continue our dialogue. I believe that he has so much to contribute to the world at this crazed point in time and that his experiences during the last ‘plague’, the AIDS epidemic, is of huge contemporary relevance.
Eric was at the AIDS epicentre in New York and lost his life partner to AIDS, a virus which he also has.  He wrote ‘The AIDS Crisis in America’ and coauthored ‘Babalu Aye Santeria and the Lord of Pestilence’ and numerous related articles and essays.
As the corona virus has gained momentum I become more vociferous about my belief that Eric Lerner has things to say about where we are now that people would find interesting, helpful and supportive. Many years ago, when I discovered his article on Babalu Aye in ‘The Ashe Journal of Experimental Spirituality’ it was immense help for me in my struggles with my own virus, hepatitis C.

Then, while Eric and I were batting around thoughts on our possible discussion on the matter and were talking about the ACTUP movement, and a few days later Larry Kramer died, and we both knew it was time to do this!


Hi Eric, so so good to talk to you like this! I’ve some pretty intense questions so let’s throw ourselves into things immediately.
You are HIV positive and therefore immune compromised, and are more vulnerable than most during the present pandemic…how are you coping?

I suppose that I am coping because I am still alive. I’d like to discuss the impact Covid has had on me in two parts: socio-economic and personal. Practically, I saw my business, a means to produce art and a part-time gig to keep the lights on, vanish simultaneously in the second week of March. Emotionally and financially that has been devastating, but I’m not alone in facing that. This Pandemic has disproportionally affected all of us who work in the arts. Like myself, many artists living in the U.S. fell through the cracks when it came to receiving either unemployment or stipend benefits because we did not have the consistent gig-economy history that would qualify us. Frankly, I see many performers and visual artists who I thought were doing well suddenly not knowing how they are going to pay for basic necessities. My initial response was to apply for exhibitions in reputable galleries, something I hadn’t done for awhile. Surprisingly, I got a lot of acceptances, but they were inevitably followed the next day by emails to this effect. “Please keep your accepted pieces on hand. Right now, we have had to indefinitely postpone exhibition plans and will inform you when we have the date in place.” So that is not likely to bring in any revenue. I have not had any success in applying for telecommuting jobs either. I realize that such employers are being overwhelmed with applications. For instance, I applied for one of 160 positions as a remote contact tracer. Within an hour of that job posting, they had more than 6,000 applicants. I’m not taking it personally that I didn’t hear back. If I may make a PSA here, I encourage anyone who has the means to buy art or hire someone for a remote position to please consider buying from or hiring someone who had worked in the arts. Frequently, such individuals are well educated and know how to work with little supervision. And there’s a real peril that they will fall through the cracks when it comes to being able to sustain themselves economically. I have changed my business model for ‘Three Bones Society’ by focusing on literary and arts publications and selling the work of other artists, particularly that of Thomas van der Krogt’s, and am planning on relaunching in the next week. I wish I had time to hammer out a more coherent business plan, but I am doing what I can to kickstart bringing in an income. We can talk more about what we are doing later.
As for the personal impact, it is especially frightening for someone who is a long-term AIDS survivor. Just due to age and comorbidities, we are likely to do very poorly if we contract Covid. Frankly, every mature HIV patient I know of who has contracted Covid has died within two weeks. That really does place an extra concern and burden on me, because it makes all forms of social contact dangerous. Now I’ve dealt with AIDS for like four decades. For the first two decades, a good doctor’s visit meant being told that I had a 6 month to one year life expectancy. And I was never a long term non-progressor, and certainly dealt with a lot of surprise diagnoses and medical crises. I never felt as threatened as I do now. It seems with AIDS I have much more freedom than I do with Covid. For instance, in the early 1980’s I had a cat. Great cat by the way. However, it became quickly evident in the AIDS pandemic that cats posed mortal threats to anyone living with HIV because they were a major conduit for toxoplasmosis, one of the more dangerous opportunistic infections killing HIV’ers. So I gave my cat to my mother who lived a couple of hundred miles away. I could make behavioral choices that minimized risk. Socially, I knew I was infected. I knew what types of sexual and drug-use choices were especially dangerous, and I could take responsibility for the choices I made and with whom I had contact. With Covid, I don’t have those choices. It takes one person with no outward signs of infection to get physically close and effectively kill me by passing it on. Covid feels much more like an invisible threat than HIV. And every trip to the store feels like venturing into a war zone. I really wonder under what circumstances I can even have a meal with someone again. I’m holed up here with Destiny, my dog, and that’s the extent of my companionship. I can’t even visit my mother or have friends over. At any point in time, I don’t know whether or not I’m already infected and could transmit Covid. The situation in the U.S. is especially bad, and I live in a state that has been led more effectively than most during the crisis.With AIDS, you had denial and non action for a good decade. No good ole Reagan days for me. But now, you have national leadership that seems invested in the virus’s success, which even during the worst of the AIDS pandemic you did not have. Were I living in Germany, I think I might feel very differently about my personal threat level.
My coping mechanism lately has been to focus on publishing my zine ‘The Biscuit’ and planning its promotion. One thing I discovered living with AIDS for so long was that part of the survival strategy I developed was to always focus on the next thing to do. I’m trying to do that here.

Do you feel emotionally and practically better equipped to deal with the coronavirus pandemic as you have already survived one virus that could be seen to predominantly target a specific sector of society?

Having AIDS certainly changed my fundamental concept of reality. Ultimately, I learned to perceive Babaluaye as being the spiritual source of both the HIV virus and the means of coping with it. Likewise, I see the world as being home to effective deities called orisha who profoundly engage us and are practically evident. I still draw on them in trying to come to terms with what’s happening. I largely attribute my ability to survive to them. But I recognize also that I have and had a very good doctor, advice from Cabell and a lot of fight within myself. Those factors do give me back bone to say I can give myself a good shot now. Although part of me thinks, “Really Babalu, again?”
A virus enjoys no political stripe, moral or ethnic identity. It is not a traditional life form because it needs a host’s DNA in order to reproduce, unlike a bacteria, vegetable or animal. You cannot rationally expect it to play by logical rules, so you have to accept some things lie beyond our control. Now, with HIV, I learned that it is a way in which Babalu manifests himself, and I learned some really terrible direct lessons from him. To detail the most intimate ones would greatly stretch most folks credulity. I think one of the biggest lessons was AIDS provided the trigger for many who were profoundly alienated, those regarded as society’s dregs, to realize their lives mattered and were worth fighting for. Win or lose, that’s an empowering truth. I don’t see how Covid offers that. It kills you quickly, unlike HIV, and doesn’t leave time for reflection. Like HIV it disproportionately affects people of color in the U.S. which is largely do to the various ills of poverty. Covid victims are disenfranchised by the responses to their infection. They are immediately isolated. Those who are sickest lose any decision making control over their lives because they are placed in drug induced comas. They are stigmatized by being isolated from loved ones by medical dictate. People with AIDS were isolated through social and moral prerogatives. People could make a choice to reach out to those living and dying from AIDS with little to no physical risk to themselves. Obviously, with Covid, the risk is extreme.
Sometimes, I wonder if Covid is indeed a manifestation of Babalu. The most obvious incarnations of Covid are hopelessly evil politicians, not a demigod. Babalu is not warm and cuddly when he decimates a nation through the sweep of his broom. Historically, there have been lessons derived from his seemingly indifferent wrath. Perhaps as as an earth deity he is letting us know that the earth is severely burdened by human overpopulation or that our political leadership is beneath contempt. Maybe he’s saying I am rightful King, not this alleged homonid with a fake tan who will stoke up the flames of hell to thus stoke his ego. I guess those could be valid interpretations. Perhaps, at least in the US, Jesus Christ himself just decided he need a break and to die, since his followers here have replaced him with the aforementioned alleged hominid. Random thought, maybe Pata en Llaga sees an opportunity to fill Christ’s void here with those who can see…
Maybe I am qualified to cope better because I have had to learn to delineate a devastating health crisis for a long time, and am at least prepared to give this current situation some serious attention. With AIDS, at times it reverberated like the old punk song, “Everybody is HIV positive,” especially when confronted with days when you saw four friends or peers drop dead. That type of experience was limited to very specific and unique groups. With Covid the list of victims is much more universalized, and this Pandemic irrevocably changes the world as we know it. What will it become? I don’t know. Humankind is a remarkably resilient animal species that has adapted to war, plague and famine before. Some of it will survive. Whether they will inhabit a world we could recognize is up for grabs.

One thing that has shocked me is that whilst there are drugs that can treat HIV and AIDS and it should not be a death sentence; due to social and economic factors the illness is still being spread and it is still killing people. This is something that also parallels the Coronavirus epidemic, the government sanctioned undercurrent that the primary target group are of no value. The pink triangle used by Nazis to denote homosexuals and related sexual ‘deviations’ was adopted by the LGBTQ community and repurposed for protest, and I must admit as the death toll contains to target people in a way that would make supporters of eugenics happy, perhaps the black triangle which the Nazis used to mark out the asocial, should also be adopted?

Culturally White America tends not to value the elderly. Folks are predisposed to not listen to the old and already seek to distance themselves from them. I see people putting their parents in nursing homes at the first sign of physical frailty. In Hispanic culture and others, that would be unthinkable. I also find that unconscionable. Now that I qualify as an old person myself, I see my work as a writer and artist is not greeted with the enthusiasm it was when I was younger, ever if a lot of the work is of better quality now. Largely, a lot of old people have already had their decision-making capacity taken away from them being placed in long-term care environments. So it is not surprising to see an attitude here that they’re expendable, and when 63 nursing home residents die of Covid there isn’t really a shock sense of horror. You see a lot of people not follow health precautions like wearing masks because it doesn’t register with them that even if they are unlikely to face the most extreme responses to Covid, they can spread it and kill grandma. People of color are also especially at risk largely due to the socio-economic circumstances of their situations. The risks they face are created in no small part by the power structure here that also subjects them to increased risk of facing violence from law enforcement. It’s no less of a tragedy to me when a black bus driver dies of Covid because he doesn’t have the option to quarantine that an affluent white person does, than it would be if he was murdered by a cop. That life matters just as much. So people most at risk here for dying of Covid share an affinity of being de-valued and oppressed much the same way as AIDS sufferers were during that pandemic. Maybe they are not as obviously hated.
The pink triangle was a powerful symbol for the AIDS activist movement and identified kindred. I don’t know if there is a unifying sense of outrage among potential Covid victims as there was with AIDS victims. Would adopting something like a black triangle help create a sense of urgency and identification like brandishing a pink triangle did for AIDS populations? I do not know in the current climate in here. Coherent federal government response would have dramatically reduced the number of deaths. That’s not likely to change anytime soon. However, organizing protests the way we did with AIDS is particularly challenging given the risks faced through being out in public. I suppose a lot of young people would have to be motivated. And I don’t really see the type of affinity dialogues taking place among the most endagered population that took place largely among the gay white male community around AIDS. I think that you would need both the protests and interaction to happen in order for a black triangle symbol to become a potent symbol. Of course the situation here is poised to get much worse, and perhaps that will motivate people to action.

In recent times I have felt for you as I’ve wondered if what is presently going on has bought back painful memories…your partner Cabell died of AIDS and seeing footage of New York empty streets brings to mind a conversation we once had where you described parts of 1980’s New York becoming ‘a ghost town’.
Something that occurred during the peak of the AIDS epidemic and is occurring on a global level during the coronavirus- many, many, lonely and fearful deaths. Due to the nature of the respective diseases and the way they are regarded and treated by society and the medical profession, people were and are, dying frightened and alone. Aside, if possible, from my obvious compassionate and horrified reaction to this, there is also the thought that those lost and dislocated spirits could be regarded as problematic on a spiritual level. (You also alluded to the fact that there are shortages of various traditional offerings to feed various of the orisha which could compound things). Do have any thoughts on this and its spiritual and social ramifications?

Obviously, a lot of things have changed for us in the Santeria community due to Covid. Essential gatherings have been largely suspended. Historically, AIDS disproportionately impacted the Santeria community. Back in the 80’s, there was a disproportionate representation of homosexuals in the priesthood. This was due to the fact that many lineage groups (although not all) did not have taboos on homosexuality. Joining a Santeria house gave many gay people in Afro-Hispanic culture a safe space that they could not find otherwise in their circumstances. That changed when many started dying of AIDS, and legitimate paranoia that set in the Santeria community. There were bad and good responses. I remember an incident in which a male AIDS patient was about to make santo. A dozen priests had been employed to assist in the crowning. The young man’s padrino announced to the group that he had AIDS. The padrino recommended the priests to employ face masks and latex gloves, which were provided during sensitive parts of the ritual to avoid any risk of exposure through contact with body fluids. Every priest simply walked out. Particularly among babalawos, there was a prohibition against giving anyone with AIDS santo. They said, “You can’t give santo to the dead.” Of course there were many in the community who fought against this. I remember a particularly poignant personal experience of this. When I made santo, a requisite life reading was performed. It was revealed during it that I would die in a short time if I did not receive Babalu immediately. I had exhausted my funds to pay for the santo, and there was no way I could raise the funds to pay for it. Panic over what to do ensued. At that time, a priestess of Yemaya showed up because she had some business with my padrino. He explained to her what was going on. As it turned out, she had paid in full to receive Babalu later that week. Immediately, she said to me, “Don’t worry. I’ve paid to receive Babalu this week. You need him more than I do. So you take my place. You owe me nothing. Just remember this in the future if you ever have the opportunity to do this for someone else.” I did not know her well. We were friendly when we met at gatherings, but that was all. I knew she would have paid at least $7,500, if not substantially more, so it was no small gesture. And there were many examples of santeros really going to the mat for people with AIDS. Some elders even turned their homes into virtual AIDS hospices. So while there was fear and some prejudicial behaviors, there was a lot of generosity and bravery exhibited by santeros in response to AIDS.
With Covid, I have seen houses and affinity groups set up funeral and medical expense funds for members of the community. I think we are all still grappling with how this changes things for us. Santeria pracititioners are likely to be part of the communities most at risk with Covid. As I said, a lot of things are being put on hold. But I believe we will figure this out. The orisha are very adaptable and so are their worshippers. Many are the tales of our ancestors stashing their religious fundamentals in their hair or even swallowing and re-swallowing them to carry the orisha across the middle passage. They hid the orisha behind the icons of the catholic church. We still identify ourselves to one another by coded gestures and the wearing of necklaces (that we can described to outsiders as mardis gras beads and the like if asked.) They had to adapt the ritual herbs used to what was available locally and find ways to conduct religious activity in an alien landscape. If they could do it, we can do it.
The spiritual lessons of this pandemic remain to be fully revealed. Right now, I’m struggling to figure out how to do a lot of stuff that I took for granted before the quarantine. I’m not comfortable with the notion of trying to do a shell reading for someone over the phone. I cannot locally obtain a lot of essential ingredients, including common food products, for offerings. I can’t have my godchildren over. Yet I still perceive the orisha as active presences and hope they understand and ask their counsel.
As for the negative spiritual energy generated by all the suffering from Covid, it’s going to take some time to come to terms with it, and I don’t think we can fully lift it. We are still feeling the spiritual ravages produced by the AIDS pandemic (which we must remember is still going on here in America.) For instance, there is a palpable void left in the continuity of queer art and literature due to the loss of so many. I like to believe a lot of them would have mentored the next generation. I see a lot of younger queer artists not having the value of personal insight into their histories due to the fact that they don’t have anyone living to share that with them.
The sites where tragedies happen often retain the signature of those events. This is slightly off topic but relevant to the type of spiritual dislocation of which you speak. I have in recent decades found it very difficult to go into Baltimore because it viscerally feels to me like a necropolis. There has been so much loss of life and hopelessness sparked by years of endemic poverty and senseless violence. I perceive the wandering dead whose identities have been lost to a magnitude of social ills. (Some of them died of AIDS.) When elders and I ask the orisha what would be necessary to lift this pall, they consistently recommend performing a ritual that has not been publicly enacted in over 70 years. It’s dubious if many elders have the instruction how to do it, but there is no community will to see it done. And many don’t want it ever done because it has political and economic ramifications. It saddens me to realize there may be a remedy that’s undoable. I’m sure that Covid is adding to the spiritual dissonance in those areas affected. How bad that weight is going to be remains to be seen. I hope Covid may also spark a spirit of resilience. I think that AIDS has.

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Something that I have always appreciated about your spirituality Eric, both as an individual and as a Santeria priest, is a containing of what I see as an inherent practicality.
I read once that during the 1980s in New York there was a surge in spiritual seeking, I think an interview I had with Ron Athey mentioned this also. Fear creates a greater need for support from another realm as this world, seemingly, has betrayed us.
Anyway, I read one account of a Louise Hayes Heal Yourself workshop in the ‘80’s where it was suggested that flaws in oneself were the cause of being HIV positive and if this could be corrected one would be cured.
Bloody offensive.
It is a revelation to compare the above approach to your description in ‘Ashe Journal of Experimental Spirituality’ of how your HIV positive status initiated an empowering relationship with Babalu Aye.
Can you talk me through what you articulated so beautifully and powerfully in this essay?

That piece is 25 years old, and honestly I hadn’t read it in years. So rereading it was a bit like going through a teenage diary recounting your first love. I don’t want to invite any hubris, but I am surprised at how well I think it holds up. I think that Babalu is a powerful and effective hero for anyone dealing with adversity, particularly of a viral nature. He is also a representative of the disenfranchised. Realistically, he is someone who was banished, crippled and hideously disfigured. Yet he found a means to be king. There are still cultural remnants of his lordship in Dahomey in popular postage stamps printed by the Government in Benin that depict cacti. Cactus is a traditional offering for him, and there is substantial evidence that they were incorporated into African Babalu altars. Historically, many of his secrets come from the Fon, even in Cuba where essential aspects of his worship were conveyed to the Lucumi (Yoruba descendant) by the Arara (Fon).
People in droves in Cuba venerate and petition him as is evidenced by the nationwide pilgrimage made to his shrine at El Ricon, a leprosarium and church dedicated to San Lazaro. People still chain cinder blocks to their feet and drag themselves miles to reenacted Babalu’s pilgrimage from Yorubaland to Dahomey. He is an eternal presence in the world.
For people with AIDS he is a means to recognize one’s own divinity. With AIDS you carried both a death and life bestowing presence with your own physical being. You could infect someone else and thus deal them death through intimate acquaintance with you. Or you could leave them alone and not engage them in your own pestilence. You had a clear choice, which was generally Babalu’s to make. So you realized that aspect of him in yourself. It’s not so easy with Covid because it kills so quickly. But maybe we can evidence Babalu in ourselves by following safety precautions like wearing masks and distancing ourselves lest we knowing or unknowingly kill others by infecting them. That is a god-like proclivity and a valid recognition of Babalu within ourselves!
I am thinking of offering the Babalu essay once more as a chapbook from Three Bones Society. I decided first to publish a chapbook from a diary entry from the late writer and AIDS activist, Cabell McLean with illustrations by Thomas van der Krogt called ‘I am Babalu’. In it, McLean poignantly recounts a dream in which he himself was Babalu. Hopefully, Cabell isn’t going to crawl out of the grave and kill me because it is just an unedited diary entry, and he was a perfectionist who thought nothing of rewriting and editing something a dozen times. But it’s something, along with Thomas van der Krogt’s original prints, for me and my business to pay tribute to the Babalu.

I am very aware that this is very much a time when Gurus of various levels of competence can gain a huge following. As a priest and also someone who has already lived through times where people have flailed around for meaning and succour, do you have any thoughts on this?

There have been some very dangerous religious profiteering and false prophets to emerge from the AIDS Pandemic. One of the earliest and most notorious examples of this is the Nation of Islam. In the 1980s, they proclaimed they had a medication called Kemron which was described as the African cure for AIDS. They peddled this to the African-American community, and charged in excess of $5,000 for a dose with no protocol for compassionate distribution. I think it is highly dubious that anyone involved in marketing it believed it worked. It had already been scientifically disproven. I think those involved had no empathy for AIDS patients in the black community. Indeed since many of them were homosexuals or drug users, they were probably viewed as expendable and an acceptable source of profiteering. It was a really bad situation.
Since then, you have had the rise of AIDS denier’s basically saying HIV does not cause AIDS. This was exemplified by Dr. Peter Duesberg among others. Most of advocates of this theory cloaked themselves in the language of New Age metaphysics and alternative medicine. Their impact reached its pinnacle in the late nineties and early parts of this century when effective medications became available. There were a number of pop culture celebrities embraced by the gay community who preached to their audiences not to take anti-HIV medicines and to employ herbal remedies. How many people listened to them and died unnecessarily is uncounted. But it emphasizes the importance that we need to listen to science when it comes to catastrophic illness. It’s just common sense.
I am in the unusual position of someone who feels he has been saved by both religion and medicine. When I made the saint, I was in pretty dire health. I had failed AZT and its companion medications. Albeit gave you another 12 months or so by initially combating the virus before failing to do so and those twelve months proved valuable for a lot of patients, so let’s not vilify those medications. I was able to enjoy a miraculous return to immune competence I feel largely due to the orisha, because there was not any medical intervention that took place in my case at the time I made santo. I enjoyed that for some years. However, I eventually saw a surge in viral load, my immune system fail and severe health complications develop ten years later. The situation was dire. This time there was effective medicine, and I took it. I got additional Santeria initiations at that time. However, I feel the orisha are pragmatic. If there is a medical remedy available to you, they expect you to be self-interested enough to take advantage of it. If your situation is untreatable, I have witnessed them effectively intervene in many circumstances. I think they are able to help when necessary. They expect you to do what you can for yourself. Certainly, with HIV, if you are able to get the medicine, they expect you to take it. (By the way, santeros in general are not shy about telling someone to go see a doctor, whether or not they recommend religious remedies.)
I hope that people facing Covid may effectively petition orisha. I think it will take time to figure out what specific spiritual remedies may work. They will not take the place of medical treatment or a vaccine. As a santero, you learn to do what you can. It took the Santeria community a bit of trial and error to figure out that the combination of bestowing santo and Babalu could buy people with AIDS time until effective medical intervention became available. I know a lot of them were trying herbal remedies first that didn’t seem to work, so there was trial and error. A lot of the Santeria community is highly susceptible to diabetes. Now getting medical treatment for this is the way to go. However, in the US a lot of people can’t afford insulin. One of the first bits of herbal medicine that you are taught as a santero is the preparation of a tea with an herb sacred to Babalu that helps to regulate sugar. It frequently produces medical benefit. It’s an example of doing what you can when the situation warrants in. The state of herbal medicine in Santeria has declined in recent years. In 2000 it was estimated that less than a dozen Santerial herbal medicine men were alive in Cuba, and most had no heirs. So a lot of practical sacred knowledge has been lost and continues to be. It reminds me the loss of continuity in the development of queer cultural expression due to AIDS. As you get older you face the loss of what was and could have been if we acted differently.

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Aside from the divination you do as a Santeria priest Eric, you are also a very experienced Tarot reader who has designed decks of your own and contributed atu to group designed decks. As with the aforementioned rise in interest in Spiritual leaders, I believe there are also many people who are clamouring to know what the future holds, and willing to pay someone to tell them. In view of the depth of some of the above questions this may seem a little trite to ask, but as a Priest, an artist and a diviner you work with patterns of behaviour and life and hey, you’ve acquired a fair bit of life wisdom over the years. What do you think on the matter? I’ll leave you to interpret and answer this question in any way you see fit!

I believe that divination is still profoundly important for people to take advantage of, whether it is in a counseling or religious capacity.
I perform tarot, astrology and religious divination. Having experience of life and its patterns makes one a better diviner. I’ve read for three decades using these various means and seeing how patterns in reading actually play out in real life helps you interpret what the oracle reveals to you. For instance, when I interpret odu, the units of information revealed in a Santeria reading, I can often reflect on how a particular odu has played out for me in a reading or how it has worked in the life of a client. The same is true for tarot and astrology. A diviner uses his/her own research as well as that developed historically to interpret oracles.
Briefly, let me delineate what value I think each technique holds. Tarot is very good for analysing and strategizing response to immediate situations. I view it as secular on practical. I try to stay true to the information revealed by the cards themselves. They may have predictive value. When a tarot reader delivers predictions, they should be based on the cards and the reader’s intuition, the rule being that you should not say something that isn’t actually revealed in the cards. One of the weaknesses I see in younger readers is their inability to effectively predict. They simply do not have the experience to realistically appreciate what may happen next. I often see talented young reader accurately reveal intimate details of a client’s life at that time that has not rational explanation for the reader knowing such. However, when it comes to telling a client what is likely to transpire and how they may which to handle it, the reader may well be basing his/her understanding of life based on watching Game of Thrones rather than realistic experience. Most people’s lives do not play out at such a dramatic pitch. You have to have a little distance and realism in how you do that sort of counseling.
Astrology is more scientific for me. I principally practice Cosmobiology, the methodology developed by Reinhold Ebertin that was taken up in the U.S. directly by Eleanora Kimmel, who happened to be one of my mentors/teachers. Interpretations for planetary configurations are based on research. But an important tenant of Cosmobiology is that man’s destiny is not entirely written by the stars. You have to look at the native’s individual situation and historical circumstances as being relevant factors into how planetary influences are likely to effect him. I also practice a type of esoteric astrology developed in Russia that combines a birth chart with the Thoth Tarot and Tree of Life. It is an effective means of examining one’s spiritual and creative potential. It is a deep dialogue that simply not for everyone. I often practically integrate some aspects of Cosmobiology in my interpretations.
When it comes to dilogun, the divinatory tool principally employed in Santeria, it is a religious rite for me. Folks need to understand it. Whether or not a client is a Santeria practitioner, he must make a statement at the beginning of a reading that he joins himself with the will of the orisha of his own free will. It is an extraordinarily accurate predictive tool. But it entails contracts with the orisha and ancestors to promote good fortune or allay bad fortune revealed. At this point, I’m not on board with performing such a reading with the general public over the phone. Depending on how long the necessity to quarantine continues, that attitude may change. I’m interested in seeing how elders handle it and learning from them what they see as best practices.

Thank you! Talking to you Eric was as wonderful and multi layered as I knew it would be. Reading of the past and present experiences of a mass of humanity can never convey as many facets and as much depth as a conversation with one person with insight, experience and compassion who lived through those times. I look forward to talking further in a virtual format.

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I have put the links to Eric’s website ‘The Three Bones Society’ at the top of the this page, as well as his contact e mail if anyone is interested in a reading from him. It is also well worth checking out his work that is exhibited on the fantastic Visual AIDS site at
https://visualaids.org/artists/eric-lerner
All of the images used in the interview are by Eric K Lerner.

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