008 Aboriginal Skills and the Path to Undistractable Attention - Jim Robertson

I always go back to square one: Where am I coming from? What is my intention here? My intention is to come from the best place possible, which is coming from my heart, from that pure place; that place that as I choose to see it, we all have.... And the choice, the big choice in life, is: Do we want to listen to this, do we want to pay attention to this, do we want to feed this, do we want to nurture this? Or do we want to ignore it?
— Jim Robertson

In our world of endless consumerist and technological distraction, “undistractable attention” is about more than just shutting off the social media; it’s about tuning into the guiding voice that’s inside each and every one of us. One pathway to that voice may be meditation or yoga, but our most fundamental route—as I learned in this life-changing conversation with Jim Robertson, an aboriginal skills instructor and naturalist based in Santa Monica, California, who coined that term—is via our eons-old home in the natural world. As Jim explains here, the absence of that connection in our modern-day lives has led to an epidemic of physical and mental illness, and left us struggling to fill that void with one mind-numbing addiction after another.

Jim has worked as a naturalist for the Santa Monica Mountains and taught aboriginal skills and wilderness survival training to nature-bereft urbanites for over a decade. But remarkably, Jim didn’t come to the world of aboriginal skills until he was well into his fifties. It isn’t often in our modern world and culture that we have the opportunity to sit and absorb the wisdom of our elders, and Jim, 78 years young, held me rapt as he unfolded his captivating life history over the course of this conversation, including a moving look at his struggles with physical and emotional pain that brought him to his current path. Whether you want to learn more about plants and the fun of primitive campouts, seek inspiration on how to live more deeply and fully every day, or simply want to be enthralled by the wisdom of one of the most delightful human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing, check out this episode! 

Here’s the path of our conversation:

  • Innate “primitive skills” and Jim’s childhood spent outdoors in 1940s California
  • How Jim discovered aboriginal skills in his fifties
  • The health challenge (and the psychic!) that led Jim to become a naturalist for the Santa Monica Mountains
  • Immersion in the outdoors as the ultimate medicine
  • Jim’s earlier decade-long struggle with profound emotional and physical pain, and how he ultimately came to the other side
  • The practice of what Jim calls “undistractable attention” (or "indistractable [sic] attention," as we refer to it a few times in the episode!)
  • Gail Sheehy’s book Passages
  • “I don’t think there’s anything better than being as sensitive as we can possibly be; because we want to feel deeply, we want to see deeply, we want to hear deeply, we want to live deeply and more fully”
  • The Shawshank Redemption and the place within that cannot be harmed
  • Playing pre-professional baseball, surfing and spearfishing at the beach as a teenager in 1950s Santa Monica
  • Discovering yoga while working in insurance in the late 1960s: “Here I was a business guy, with my styled hair [and] a tie”
  • Personal transformation in a time of monumental social upheaval (both then and now)
  • Trump
  • The necessary role of aboriginal and indigenous skills in the age of materialism
  • What it means to co-create with Mother Nature: Plant identifying, basket making, bow and arrow making, fire making
  • Jim’s aboriginal skills classes
  • “Full primitive” camping
  • Shooting a bison with a handmade bow and arrow (and “making everything imaginable” from that bison -- “from the hair to the bones to the intestines”) at Utah’s Boulder Outdoor Survival School
  • Jim’s thoughts on hunting and his day-to-day diet
  • The acronym Jim lives by (in the wilderness and everywhere)
  • A recent campout gone awry in the eastern Sierras
  • The deficit of nature in modern life and its connection to our epidemic of addiction
  • How to tap in to undistractable attention in your everyday life  

You can learn more about Jim and his classes via his website, Meetup group, and on Facebook. Have a question for Jim? Reach out to him directly: jimrobertson[at]aboriginalskills[dot]com.

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Learn more:

Naturalist Training in the Santa Monica Mountains
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Boulder Outdoor Survival School

007 Motherhood Without a Motherland - Sarah Menkedick

Photos: Jorge Santiago 

Photos: Jorge Santiago 

I had always had this perspective that I’m not from anywhere, I don’t feel a connection to anywhere; I’ve lived in all these different places. And finally, when I was pregnant and I was living in Ohio in a little cabin, I really did feel like for better or worse, this is where I’m from. And it deeply shaped me.
— Sarah Menkedick

For thousands of years, new generations -- and new mothers, in particular -- had the wisdom of their elders, of their culture, of their sense of place to guide them. Today in 21st-century America, where so many of us can only trace our ancestry back to one immigrant grandparent and what family we have is scattered across the continent (or the globe), modern motherhood can be a crushingly isolated existence. Add in the the demands of our go-go-go technologized life and an economically obsessed patriarchal society that doesn’t value motherhood as a meaningful pursuit, and it’s no wonder I often wish I could toss myself, my husband and our two little girls in a time machine and head back to a simple Little House on the Prairie-like homestead somewhere in my past. Except like so many modern displaced people of lost ancestry, I wouldn’t actually know where to point the time machine to go home.

So imagine my delight when I discovered writer Sarah Menkedick, who lived out my actual fantasy (minus an actual time machine). Four years ago, she ditched the modern world and her modern existence literary writing and trekking around the globe (teaching English to teenagers on far-flung Réunion Island, camping on the Mongolian grasslands) to start her family, offline, in a tiny 19th-century cabin on her family’s Ohio farm. The result was her beautiful daughter, and a magnificent memoir in which she explores the existential nature of modern motherhood and the meaning of home (but so much more): Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm, which was released by Pantheon earlier this year.

I was so excited to have the opportunity to interview the brilliantly talented Sarah about her book and other writings (she’s a writer’s writer: bylines in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, Oxford American, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times and a Fulbright fellow, to boot), as well as how she’s taking lessons learned from a simpler existence into her life and home now, post-cabin. 

Here’s what we talked about:

  • Introducing Sarah and her book Homing Instincts
  • “We were perhaps a little naïve”: Pregnancy and early motherhood in a 19th-century cabin in rural Ohio
  • The constant pressure to be productive versus being in the world in a simpler way
  • Homing Instincts as “the anti-travel book"
  • Sarah’s life now in Pittsburgh
  • The experience of pregnancy and moving beyond always seeking “a better place"
  • Finding home in an age of lost ancestral homelands
  • “I have a people”: Her husband Jorge’s deep roots in Oaxaca, Mexico
  • How Sarah changed her perspective on homeland
  • Raising her daughter between two different cultures
  • “Why don’t people take writing about motherhood seriously? Because women do it”: The story behind Sarah’s op-ed in the LA Times
  • “It’s not just about mothers; it’s about birth being a pretty important experience for everybody. Just the fact that that’s a radical point is kind of crazy”
  • The two camps of modern motherhood: Motherhood as transformation or motherhood as a prison?
  • Food, raising children, and the cultural vacuum of America
  • Building a tribe of mothers in Pittsburgh (or not)
  • “It felt more natural there”: Family-friendly social life in Mexico
  • Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School
  • What’s next for Sarah: Exploring the cultural history of anxiety and motherhood

You can read more about Sarah and her writings on her website as well as connect with her on Twitter and Instagram. And be sure to check out Vela, her must-read online magazine of remarkable nonfiction writing by women. 

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Sarah's book:


006 Let Nature Be Thy Medicine - Dr. Michelle Gerber

Upper left: The restorative waiting room at Dr. Gerber's office at GraceFull in Los Angeles (via GraceFull.com)

Upper left: The restorative waiting room at Dr. Gerber's office at GraceFull in Los Angeles (via GraceFull.com)

What makes a naturopathic doctor is not so much which tools we use, but our principles…[it] amounts to having a different perspective on health and disease [that looks] at the body as a system that’s constantly trying to heal itself.
— Dr. Michelle Gerber

Groundbreaking physician Dr. Michelle Gerber joins the podcast this week to discuss naturopathic medicine -- a radically different approach to health and disease that is urgently needed in a modern world besieged by skyrocketing rates of chronic illness, and where few answers exist in modern medicine for those suffering, save for a disease name and a pill to treat the symptoms. I know few more qualified to dive into this topic: As a licensed naturopathic doctor, board-certified naturopathic pediatrician (the only in Los Angeles), and a certified professional midwife, Michelle is a triple threat primary-care physician perhaps unequaled even in the mainstream medical world. And as such, she not only has the holistic perspective of caring for patients from birth through adulthood, but through naturopathic medicine is able to draw on a breadth of traditional medical systems and knowledge (including Western medicine) to both support long-term health and uncover the underlying physiology of chronic disease.

Yet remarkably, naturopathic medicine is still well outside the mainstream, even though the roots of naturopathic medicine extend back thousands of years. Indeed, naturopathic physicians have practiced in America for over a century (naturopathic doctors attend four years of medical school and must pass extensive board exams just like conventional medical doctors; they are currently licensed to practice in 21 states). In our conversation, Michelle delves into why that’s so, and also lifts the curtain on everything you ever wanted to know about this timeless (and now, timely) branch of medicine: how a naturopathic doctor works to treats patients; naturopathic medicine's comprehensive and synergistic approach to uncovering the root of disease; the naturopathic doctor's critical role as patient educator; plus Michelle's wisdom on the modern dilemma of biological dissonance, nutrition and the microbiome, preconception care and more. Whether you or a family member are struggling with a chronic illness and are frustrated by the confines of conventional medical care, or you're simply curious about a medical paradigm that can promote wellness in an ever more uncertain future, you won't want to miss this episode! 

Here’s what we talk about:

  • What is naturopathic medicine? Michelle dispels the myths
  • How naturopathic medicine examines the underlying biochemistry and physiology of illness to help the body heal itself
  • Naturopathic medical school training and Michelle’s early work with underserved populations
  • A “naturopathic doctor” versus a “naturopath”
  • The amazing perspective of being both pediatrician and midwife
  • Michelle’s ’80s Midwest upbringing, and her journey to becoming a naturopathic doctor
  • The plethora of naturopathic doctors in the Pacific Northwest versus LA: “Most people don’t know what it is that I am or what it is that I do”
  • The types of patients Michelle sees
  • Seeing health preventively versus “waiting until something bad happens”
  • Navigating the minefield of America’s medical system
  • The affordability of naturopathic and midwifery care
  • Hormonal issues, and the problem with the conventional one-Pill-fits-all approach
  • The myriad traditional systems naturopathic medicine draws on
  • The importance of the doctor-patient therapeutic relationship
  • Michelle’s synergistic treatment approach: “We’re complex people. We don’t usually have one thing that caused ‘the’ problem or ‘the problems’”
  • Epigenetics and the importance of preconception care
  • Biological dissonance and our modern-day epidemic of chronic health issues
  • Michelle’s nutritional philosophy
  • Sugar, vaccines and antibiotics
  • Naturopathic medicine as adjunct to conventional medicine: It’s not either-or
  • Michelle’s approach to balance in her own life, and her fixer-upper cabin in the woods
  • The dream: teaching as a naturopathic doctor in a mainstream medical school

You can connect with Michelle and learn more about her work and local class offerings (the latter for my Los Angeles listeners) via her website. Her naturopathic medical practice in LA is at GraceFull and her midwifery practice is at TLC Midwifery Care. Understandably, her schedule is a bit too packed these days for social media, but you can follow Michelle's work and mission via GraceFull on Facebook and on Instagram

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Learn more about naturopathic medicine: 

Bastyr University - About Naturopathic Medicine
National University of Natural Medicine - History of Naturopathic Medicine
American Association of Naturopathic Physicians
Naturopathic Doctor News and Review

005 Changing the Culture of Throwaway Living - Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff

Photo (bottom left): vberger / Wikimedia Commons

Photo (bottom left): vberger / Wikimedia Commons

In the last 50 years, our habits have shifted to this culture of convenience, and that makes sense; we’re moving really fast, life has sped up, people are concerned about not having enough time to do things and so they want to make things easier and quicker. And one of those conveniences in terms of easy and quick, is plastic. But I think what we have to realize is that there are huge implications with using so much plastic — and that single-use plastic is actually really, really easy to shift away from.
— Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff

When plastic made its foray into daily life in the 1950s, it was billed as the liberation to an existence constrained by household drudgery. Plates could be tossed instead of washed; coffee could be chugged on the go and then chucked into a rubbish bin; and frozen TV dinners could be stripped of their plastic wrap and popped in the oven at a moment’s notice. Life Magazine touted the disposable revolution in an article entitled ‘Throwaway Living’; a mere half-century later, every piece of plastic modern mankind ever made is still with us. Indeed, 8 million metric tons of these metamorphosed fossil fuels continue to enter our oceans each year, choking all life in the pervasive plastic path of its micro-pieces, and ultimately working its way up the food chain, into us.

We’ve been taught that we can use plastics so long as we recycle, but that system, is in fact, grievously broken, and perhaps never should have been the answer all along, as I learned in this thought-provoking conversation with Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, the ocean conservation non-profit that first discovered plastic microbeads in 2012 and campaigned for a successful federal ban in 2015. But how can we even begin to tackle the 5.25 trillion particles of “plastic smog” (that’s 270,000 tons) polluting our oceans worldwide? How can we reverse the seemingly inescapable grasp of a now entrenched throwaway society? Rachel is an awe-inspiring former journalist and mom of three (as well as my friend and neighbor, lucky me!), and she digs deep in this interview -- unraveling not only the history of plastic and the roots of our throwaway society, but channeling the save-everything mentality of her great-grandmother to inspire all of us toward a post-plastic revolution through doable change.   

Here's the run-down of our conversation:

  • "The year that the concept of plastic pollution reached critical mass”: the work of 5 Gyres and the #foamfree campaign 
  • Single-use plastics and the pervasiveness of toxic polystyrene 
  • Our modern-day culture of convenience
  • Learn to take it with you: The bamboo utensil set, metal straw and reusable cup and bag Rachel brings with her everywhere 
  • “It’s like a betrayal”: The real problem with recycling
  • How the fossil fuel market fuels disposable plastics
  • Outsourcing our plastic waste to the third world and China’s Green Sword
  • The myth of the plastic island and the truth about the five gyres
  • Turning our oceans into a plastic smog
  • “All of the plastic we’ve made since the 1950s is still with us”
  • The human health implications of plastic pollution
  • What Rachel learned from her great-grandmother
  • Women in the workforce and women’s liberation: the birth of our throwaway society
  • “It’s less about a whole shift, and more about one thing”: How to shift away from single-use plastics
  • Mushroom-based polystyrene and the challenge of compostable plastic
  • “It’s just about asking”: How Rachel preempts plastic in her daily life
  • How 5 Gyres changed WeWork
  • Reusables as a means to build community
  • Taking action at the governmental level
  • Rachel’s upcoming plastic-free holiday (plus how to shift the mindset of gift-loving grandparents!)