Dec. 10, 2020

Plan Be: embracing "radical hospitality" with Mike Gray

Plan Be: embracing "radical hospitality" with Mike Gray

Is Santa real? You bet. These days he goes by the name Mike Gray, a retired jack of all trades who lives not at the North Pole, but in a recycled house in the Arizona desert—when he’s not with the Lakota on Pine Ridge or the Seri people in Mexico. He's given up the red suit for a work shirt, jeans and a straw hat. And he's stopped making toys in favor of making gardens, building houses and furnishing clinics for people who need them. The sleigh filled with gifts? He traded it in for a van full of tools he also uses to carry people and art—and he is the gift.


You can watch the film on the Seri (Comcaac) people that Mike mentions in the podcast
on YouTube. It's called Seri-People Live by the Desert and Sea

And while I wouldn't normally reference Wikipedia, the entry on the Seri people has some basic information for the mildly curious as well as a lot of resources for anyone interested in a deeper dive.

Theme music: Fragilistic by Ketsa; licensed under CC BY NC ND 4.0

Other music in this episode by Podington Bear from the albums Meet Podington Bear and  Liquid Gold; Licensed under CC BY-NC



Transcript

[Transcript of the full interview, not the shorter podcast version]

Mike Gray:

When someone asks you for something you can't say, no. You can't say, well, no, that's mine. I like it. You can't say no, I can't afford it. Or you can't say no, you don't deserve it. Or no , you didn't earn it. Or, you know, you just, you just give.

Kelley Lynch:

Hi, I'm Kelly Lynch. Welcome to A New Normal, a podcast about re-imagining a future that starts with each one of us. Radical giving it's the theme of the season and describes in two words, the life of our guests this week, Mike Gray. It's not at all a stretch to say that Mike has a lot in common with that other giver we think of at this time of the year, Santa Claus . Now, given that this is an auditory and not a visual medium, I need to paint a picture of Mike for you. Imagine Santa, his big white beard, longish locks, laughing eyes, a little soft around the middle. Skip the red suit. Mike has on shirt and jeans, a straw cap, and a bandana, some beads around his neck. Mike lives, not at the North pole, but in a recycled house in the Arizona desert. That is when he's not with the Lakota on Pine Ridge or the Siri people in Mexico. And instead of a sl eigh f illed with gifts, Mike drives a van full of tools and sometimes people, and art. And he is the gift. There's real wisdom here and deep humanity. This is one of those conversations that will walk alongside me for the rest of my life. Mike Gray, it is a fantastic pleasure to have you on the podcast. We met, gosh, it was like eight years ago, now in McDowell County, West Virginia. We were kind of chaperones, I suppose.

Mike Gray:

I was an assistant director of work, I guess. That was my job title and you were the official official photographer.

Kelley Lynch:

And low-level chaperone . Even at that time, I don't think I ever really known exactly what it is that you do. I mean, I have this kind of vague idea. So when people ask you, what do you do? Do you have an answer?

Mike Gray:

My answer is always contextual. It kind of depends on where I am. You know , this is America. Everybody asks you what you do because that defines them quickly. And so, you know, some days I'm an art dealer. Some days I'm a junk dealer. It's just kind of depends. But what I basically do is a concept of radical hospitality, where I have sort of given up my time, my life to help other people wherever they are. And that has led me down the road to many places. But usually when I go looking for the poorest people, the people with most need, they're usually indigenous people at the end of the road who are underserved. And so I've spent most of my time now working with two tribes in North America, one in Mexico and one in South Dakota in the United States. So Pine Ridge, one of the poorest per capita counties in the country, since I started taking censuses of these things and a small isolated tribe on the coast of Mexico, on the Gulf of California, known as the Comcaac, who have their own homeland, but like the Lakota, it has been severely restricted and they were nomadic peoples originally. And so they have had to learn a new way of adapting to circumstances that forced them to change the way they live. And so I focused on them just because you can't help everybody that has continues to lead me down. Many different avenues of helping because I get asked for many different things on different days because the community decides what they want. And part of the problem with a lot of help given to communities, the givers determine what they need and just set about doing that without ever asking the community, what they need or what they want. And whether those two things are realistic for the community. And so say some days I'm drilling water wells. Some days I'm planting gardens. Some days I'm selling art at some of the biggest Native American Indian art shows in the US in the West.

Kelley Lynch:

Those are really different skills and really different abilities. And I mean, when I saw you, you were propping up the foundation of someone's house and kind of making sure that was stable and rebuilding. These are not skills that everybody has. I mean, how do you do all of these things?

Mike Gray:

You know , as I'm sitting here thinking now what I'm thinking is when people ask me what I do, I want to reply with the nuts and bolts answer. Yeah, you know, we replaced foundations and floors in houses where they've rotted away, or, you know, I build houses for people who don't have them. Sometimes they're log cabins. Sometimes they're straw houses, you know. But these are the nuts and bolts issues. And the real answer to that is people have been building houses without rulers and hammers and electrical tools forever, since they came out of the caves. And even the caves, they added onto and built rock walls on ledges in front of them and built doors and had ladders and , you know, to get up to them. And so, you know, all of this stuff is within reach. If one just takes the time to ask some questions. And now I do internet research when I have to do something, you know. So the nuts and bolts is really just, you learn how to learn and just whatever people ask you to do, you go talk to an expert, you read a book, you look for help and try and do that one thing. Many of the things I do in these days is things I never thought about doing before, didn't study in school, thought I had no aptitude for, but my philosophy has always been to do it to local community standards. Don't expect perfection, unless there's a building inspector coming and, you know , just help make it better than it was . And in doing that, we learn how to make it better. The next time we make it or what we may need to add to it. And so I'm really not afraid to try anything that I'm asked to do, but I won't say they've all been successes. Sometimes you fail and that's life, but it doesn't hold you back. You just say, well, what do we do next time? How can we do it better? Or was this a bad idea to begin with? And sometimes that is a thing too. Let me tell a story and it may explain things. On one of my earliest projects with the Comcaac people in Mexico, I partnered with a science class at a charter school in Vail Arizona, where the woman teacher was real excited about composting toilets. She had just read a book and I had had some experience with composting toilets when I did some projects in Nicaragua. The Seris don't have running water. Seris is the common name of the Comcaac. And there are two villages and we were working in the Southern village of Punta Chuceca w here I talked to people there. We kind of set it up. I got a family to let me build a composting toilet at their house and be an example that other people could look at and see how it worked out. And so all of the students had to read this book and we all studied and all learned all about it, all the science we could on it. And went there and built just a deluxe little outhouse with a composting toilet, a bucket toilet option. We built a nice plywood box to sit over the bucket. So the bucket was hidden and had a seat on it and did a concrete floor so people could also use it as a bath house. You can go in there, carry some hot water, get naked, take a bath. And you know, it had a sliding window on it, door, air vents , you know. Just made as nice a thing as we could. And everybody came in the village and they looked at it and said Oh, that's nice. That's nice. And then I kept going back to that village because one of the things I do when I introduce a project into a village, I make a commitment to a long-term connection. We're not just going to like parachute in and do a project and you'll never hear from us again. I'd try to partner with a community. So I was sitting one day on a little hill outside the village and watching the sun come up with a local guy. And what I saw was people would come out of their houses one or a woman leading kids, or, you know , a couple of people at a time. And then they come out of the house, go down the road, go out in the desert, in the bush. And so all of the area around the village was covered with used toilet paper and messes. And this is where we kind of first hit upon this idea of trying composting toilets. So people wouldn't be trashing the desert like this, and it would be more convenient. Anyway, we had made this commitment and we decided to do it and continuing to go back and following up, everybody was coming to me and asking for us to come and build an outhouse at their house. And I was like, that's cool. You know , we could, we could build a lot of them, but it was a village of about 600 people that we're talking a lot outhouses. We're talking a lot of weeks. We're talking a lot of time. And , and so I sort of simplified this into just building the box that sits over the bucket, giving them a bucket out of box with a toilet lid on it. And then I can put this in the corner of their house and, you know , put it out in the yard, behind a tree, you know, put it anywhere they wanted to. And people were really happy with that. And we got more requests for more of these. And at the time I was already noticing we had two problems in the desert things don't compost. Well, you have to add water. You have to tend to carefully. You have to add green stuff and brown stuff and a series we're really working at this composting thing very well. It wasn't really wasn't doing well. We couldn't find local material to cover it with. So we tried chopped up seaweed and all kinds of things. And there's just not that much green material around there. And so I started following up this project and other houses just kind of seeing how it was going for other people. And I was finding they'd started using the box for a side table and they were using the buckets to haul water. Except for some very old people who really love the bucket because their knees were bad and they were having trouble squatting in the bushes. And so they just dug a hole under the box and used it that way. And then I had a chance to go up to the Northern village of Desemboque, which is more rural, more traditional, t he harder to get to. And I found there, that the state had come in and given everyone a composting toilet kit. These were custom built fiberglass outhouse that sat on two big tubs that you'd dig a hole and you'd set the tubs in. You screwed down the house on top of one, use it until it was full and then you picked up the house and put it on top of the other one, composted the first one while you use the second one. And I'm thinking, well, you know, if the government's going to give everybody one of these, why am I building them? And so I went around asking people, you know, how do you like this? Is this is a good thing? They said yes one of the best things the government ever gave me and I said, well, how's it working out? Are you guys composting? What do you use for green materials? And they showed me that they took the part that's supposed to go underground that you're supposed to poop in and they set them in front of their house. And so when the water truck came by, they filled them with water and they were using them for water containers. And that was why it was an important thing to find out. They really just wanted the buckets all along. They just wanted the plastic buckets. I could have went around handing out $5 buckets to everybody and they would have been thrilled. We didn't have to go to all that work. It was a language thing we weren't communicating well when we were talking about what they needed and what they got. And so I learned a whole lot on that. It completely changed the way we worked after that. What came to me is I really had to spend more time with the people to understand them better. Both of us were speaking in a second language as we were communicating, and that's hard enough to begin with. And I had to make it more experiential for myself so I could experience their life. What it's like to go haul water, to go out in the bushes to use the bathroom to live. How do they cook? What do they eat? Where does their food come from? How do they come about it? What are the economics of the village? And just do a lot of hanging out, getting to know them experientially and just sort of forget everything I knew in a book or everything people told me that they thought that they needed. Or it'd be great if you did a project like this, or, you know. We were looking at things that really weren't that important to them in their everyday life - really weren't that useful. Not that big a deal. No matter what it meant for the environment or the big picture, it had to be more personal.

Kelley Lynch:

You've had 25 years hanging out. How does it work? Because you live in Arizona, but you travel down there. How often?

Mike Gray:

This has been a crazy year for everybody, but I left there tending to go right back and COVID happened. And they closed the border and the tribe closed off their territory and did not allow people to come in. Same thing happened on Pine Ridge and they're still closed down. One of the things I do, I mean, this is the first thing. Any outsider who wants to help does is to start bringing secondhand goods in for people who need clothes and dishes and pots and pans and all of this stuff. And so one of the things we had done, working with Prescott college, primarily, they were the head of this and Laura Monti , who was a doctor, specializing community health had organized a clinic and each village and was set aside, remodeled them. So whether there was places to isolate people from the village and treat them and got oxygen generators, so people could be treated and not have to go to the hospitals in the big city where most of the people never came back. I had sheets and bedding and pillows and things that the clinic needed to set up for people. So they just helped themselves to my store. And that was my contribution to that helping load the trucks here in Patagonia to go down. But that's still one of the things I do is bring things from the US that are unavailable at Mexico. And things for the fishermen. There are really two ways to make a living in Desemboque. I kind of settled on the more traditional, harder to get to village because I thought they needed more help because they're smaller and more isolated. But, in hanging out with the fishermen, I found that fish finders can make them more productive. GPS's can make them more productive. VHF radios and antennas can make them safer when they're out on the water. And some boat doesn't come back or they're looking for somebody or to make connections. And so fishing tackle and things for hunters. Some of these things are just on available or unaffordable in Mexico. Right now, big horn, sheep hunts are the biggest income line for the Seri tribe. They sell big horn sheep permits to big game hunters who come from out of the country and pay lots of money for this. And when this first started, the guides were happy with like old army camouflage clothes, but now to look more professional and to be more respected by the outside hunters, they want higher-end clothing and good binoculars, and rangefinders and portable radios and just a lot of stuff. So this is another sideline that we've developed i s just infrastructure stuff. Y ou k now, t here's pots and pans for those who need them frying pans, but if you need it, w e've got higher end stuff t oo.

Kelley Lynch:

Let's go back to that idea. You mentioned earlier about radical hospitality. Tell me what that means in your mind. What is radical hospitality?

Mike Gray:

I guess I would just be able to define it as when someone asks you for something you can't say, no, You can't say, well, no, that's mine. I like it. You can't say no, I can't afford it. Or you can't say, no, you don't deserve it. Or no, you didn't earn it. Or, you know, you just, just give. It doesn't matter what people have done, what people have done to you, whether you think people are trying to take advantage of you or are asking for things that they shouldn't be asking for. You just try and give them an opportunity to better themselves and move beyond where they are. And so, you'd have drug addicts come in and ask for money and you give it to them. You didn't know if they're g oing t o buy food or drugs but they asked you had it. You gave it to them. This is culturally appropriate historically i n tribes. And this w as another area where I've learned a lot from them, for the Lakota or the Northwest tribes. Y ou practice giveaways. The Lakota practice giveaways. You w ere respected by how much you gave away, not by how much you had. And people who had more than they could use or more than they needed were not liked. And so it was sort of okay to steal a television from somebody who had two of them, cause he couldn't watch them both anyway. And so this frustrated me a lot in the beginning until I kind of learned to let go of this some and understand this better. You have to be willing to give away everything. My backstory is I was an alcoholic and drug user. And when I quit, I was hanging around with a Catholic priest and a lot of Quakers. And this Catholic priest told me, he says , are you really ready to be a Christian? Because that means you lose all control of your life. If God comes and asks you to do this, you can't say, No. You're not a Christian if you say, No. You gotta be willing to do it. And that may take you places you don't want to go. So that was a big decision that I made a long time ago. Okaym, if God wants me to do this, and it seems right, and I test this. With Quakers, they have what they call a Clearness Committee, where you sit down in worshipful silence and consider this question of, is this a real leading or is it just something you want to do? You know, where did this come from? Is it really God asking you to do this? Or just your ego? But you kind of tests these leadings with your community. And if they seem realistic and some people could say, they sound crazy, but you know , if it's a real leading, you have to trust that God is taking you there for a reason and it's going to be okay. But for us in America, our culture makes it so difficult sometimes to let go of those things and not buy into that money measurement of success. I don't want to get mean about it, but you know , just selfishness, the greed, the meritocracy. You know , why should I give you some of my money when you don't work as hard as I do, or you don't work or won't work, or whatever reason we come up with. Why does one person merit more than another person?

Kelley Lynch:

So how do you think about those things? I mean, because you think about it obviously in a very different way, right ?

Mike Gray:

Well, I still do it in a guarded way because if they want my van, if I give them my van, then I'm out of business, you know? I can't do the other helping things. And so I've just sort of couched it in a way of, you know, I'm using this right now and it's important to me and no, you can't have it. Or, I have other plans for this thing rather than giving it to you I think it would be more useful to someone else or more people will benefit if I give it to this person rather than giving it to you. And so some of this stuff is self rationalized, but it's that survival instinct. If I give it all away, then I'm not worth anything to anybody else. Or I feel like I have purpose for having these things, or I wouldn't have them. And I just kind of set it up so when I die, it's all, you know, you guys could have it all then, but right now I'm using it. It's a struggle. I mean, it is a struggle.

Kelley Lynch:

One of the things that we've been, I have this, this group of people that as part of my own kind of idea of being the change that you would like to see. I mean, one of the changes I want to see is to see people talking to each other who don't necessarily agree with each other, because I think there's a lot of value in that. And we can learn a lot from other people, this idea of radical hospitality, even just sharing in the form of taxes often comes up and your point of view is just so it's so radically different.

Mike Gray:

Well , this is another thing that hanging out with the people has helped me to understand better. There are lots of reasons why I ended up settling on the Lakota and the Comcaac as people to hang out with. But one of the reasons is they're both nomadic peoples historically nomadic peoples who ranged long distances annually, who are now forced to live on a very small parcel of land in a way that just totally destroyed their old traditions, lifestyles, food ways, just everything that they ever knew, except their thinking. They continue to think in the old ways. This set me to try and understand this better, because these are things that work for nomadic peoples, but don't work for settled peoples and economic systems is one of the big ones that doesn't work for nomadic peoples. When a people are used to going along and for the Comcaac they were known as the sea turtle hunters. They would follow the seasonal migration of the sea turtles up and down the coast. And they were so plentiful at that time, you could just kind of spot one, jump in the water, wrestle it to the sea and build a fire and you'd have meat for everybody for days, you could dry some for later. And like the Lakota, you know , they would have a buffalo hunt. Buffalo feed a lot of people and dry a lot of meat for later. And so your value was determined somewhat by how skilled you were as a hunter or food preparer, maybe as a hide preparer. But you know , there was really no economy. People didn't give, buy, trade things much, except for the few things values that they made bows and arrows knives. You know, this stuff just didn't happen for either of these people until colonialism. The guy named McGee and anthropologists went out toward the Smithsonian to study the Seris in around in the early 1890s. And he came back in his report. He said he saw no evidence of steel, iron, metal use among the Seris in the 1890s while we're chasing Geronimo around the border with repeating rifles and machine guns. We've had the Civil War and the Seris they're in the Stone Age still, at this time. And so I have run across old artifacts in the desert, like there's a bone awl. The knee bone, leg bone of a deer or a big horn sheep is what they use for an awl to make baskets with. And I've found these, which were inscribed with a mark. Before Seris started to write they could still make a mark. And so they had figured out how to mark the tools that were theirs to eliminate these disputes. And so it could be on their knife or their Bow or their awl or whatever. They did have things that they owned the individual owned, and it was theirs and they had rights to keep it, but these were essential items that they needed to work with, but they made things that were beneficial to other people because a woman made a basket and you could haul seeds around or cactus fruit and so it was useful for everybody. And so nobody messed with her awl. So, the way we live now is just completely opposite of that. Everything that comes down the road is owned by someone, either the maker, the wholesaler, the retailer, or the ultimate buyer or consumer, you know? It's got somebody's mark on it, which changes, but somebody has got a Mark all the way down the line from beginning to end until it hits the trash and then nobody wants it. But it's a different way of living that one has set aside, what is community property? What should be community property? And what do I have a right to own apart from the community that's mine. And why do I have the right to own that rather than make it available to the community or someone who might use it better or to more good use.

Kelley Lynch:

And so this is not necessarily changed, even though they are definitely more settled. I mean, settled now?

Mike Gray:

They are more settled. And so they can't do this in the same way or don't because they get no reinforcement from it. But still their thinking is in the old ways. I see this more with the Lakota than the Comcaac maybe because I haven't had the same kind of geek conversations because of the language barrier. But where I see it most is where societies have always depended on people like me - go betweens, people who go back and forth. But one of the things we've seen in particularly amongst the Comcaac people were Mexicans from outside, who came in and married into the tribe and how that changed the economy. I think more than anything i s because they come in and Mexicans are very good about family and connections. And so these fishermen came in with money to invest in boats and houses, and they married Indian women. So they could have rights to live in the village and fish. And suddenly they k ind o f jumped up to the top of the, you know, the elite moneymakers. But without that old idea of sharing fish with everybody who needed a fish, these fish were t here. These fish were going to a market because they had to sell the fish because they had to have cash because they had to buy gas and radios and GPS's and fish finders, so they can get more fish. And so that they could get a truck. And so that they could start a middleman business. And so they could buy fish from everybody and take one trip to town and sell it all. And on one tank of gas. And so they brought this different way of thinking about the economy into their village, to compete with people who are still thinking in the old ways. And even now when the boats come in, the Mexican boats come in and they pay somebody to come down to the water and clean and gut the fish and prepare them to go to market. And they pay the women a little bit and a lot of women, that's how they make their daily spending and money. And in the Seri boats, the families come down and they just help. Everybody's kin and everybody takes a couple of fish home for the family to eat. It's kind of the same thing in one way, but it's more a generosity and a recognition of who needs it. And that they're important and not just a wage earner, but they're their family. Both tribes have a very distinct Clan system based on an extended family. And that's good in some ways it's bad in some other ways. A person's first loyalty is to their clan or extended family. And this creates problems for getting everybody on board for the same idea. And I think this is part of the problem in America is we're seeing people who are more, their affiliation is more with Republicans or Democrats than it is with America. And so as we sort of break up into these clan and warring factions and sort of lose sight of the big picture that may help us out in the short run, but in the long run, it just leads to trouble. And so I have to kind of dance around this a little bit in the village, as we do every day here, you know, Mexico is kind of the near extreme libertarian country. It has democracy. It has a functioning democracy. People can vote. People have power. But if you have enough money, none of that matters. Presidents are assassinated. Cartels takeover. If you've got enough money and guns, you can pretty much run your world that you can control in the way you want to do it. And that trickles down through society.

Kelley Lynch:

And so you find yourself in the midst of all of this and people just say to you, "Hey Mike, we," I mean, do they call you Mike?

Mike Gray:

I've had a lot of Seri names over the years, and they've changed over the years as people have changed their opinion of me, but , um,

Kelley Lynch:

I hate to imagine what they might have been

Mike Gray:

It takes a long time to get people to accept you and trust you that you are not like the last guy who came by. And the Seris, like the Lakota, have been so exploited by so many outsiders who've come in and all of them were there to help. None of them last. And so I had to overcome that. I honestly, I worked in Punta Chuceca, I did projects there for maybe four years, one or two a year regularly before anybody invited me into their home and offered me a cup of coffee. We were always were outside. There are very outside people for me. I felt out a huge deal. So I weathered that, but you know, it takes a while to get people to work up to that, but I think I've gained it . You know , it may not all be respect, but at least they respect my ability to get things done and fulfill my promises. When I make one.

Kelley Lynch:

It would be great to understand how you got from, you know, you said you were with the Catholic priest and you were former alcoholic. And can you talk about that journey, the journey until today? Glossing over whichever parts you feel appropriate to gloss over.

Mike Gray:

It's just that it was a long time ago, but I was an alcoholic and drug addict. And my wife left me, my job left me and you know, that typical story. And I ended up in AA and I thought it would get my wife back, but it didn't, but that was okay in the end. But there's a step in there that says where we seek through prayer and meditation to find a conscious contact with God. And so I was church hopping. I was raised in a Pentecostal church, which drove me out at about age 11 when every thought I had was sinful. And I didn't want much to do with that. And so I was church hopping and everybody was telling me how to pray, that's what I can do that. And I got pretty good at that. But nobody understood this meditation thing. And I started reading a lot of Zen , Alan Watson , Suzuki, and some folks. And that was all really making sense to me. I mean, I could really feel their words. And then I remembered that I had worked with a woman in a ranch dude ranch setting who was a Quaker. And she took me to a Quaker meeting in Santa Fe and it was summer and it was outside in their garden. And it was very quiet and still, and beautiful and , you know , flowers , hummingbirds and stuff. And , and it was a very nice feeling, but this was like in the seventies, early seventies, I was nowhere near ready to stop doing what I was doing, but I wanted to try and reclaim that. And so I looked for a Quaker meeting to start going to, and just found one in the next town over. And so went to my first Quaker meeting and recovered that first feeling of just total acceptance of, yeah, you're an alcoholic and, you know, we'll be glad to help you. It's like, you're okay. You know, we're glad you're here. You're, you're just who you are and why you are. And you're okay, just the way you are and you're here. And so I took up with Quakers, but still, you know, I hung out with a lot of people who were doing peace and justice work because that's where I was drawn. You know, alcoholics, they miss excitement in their lives. And so I sort of got involved with the American Friends Service Committee who was organizing against the Central American Wars in the eighties and sanctuary people. And that's where radical hospitality really started to take hold. I was helping central Americans get out of town and , and sometimes get to Canada sometimes to get underground in the US. So this is where I started hanging around with Catholics and , you know, a lot of different people. And Quakers, aren't big about passing the plate and raising money or tithing. And so what I decided to do was I would give one fifth of my week. I figured out of five days a week, one day a week I volunteered my time to somebody. So I started working with neighborhood organizations and always lots of social workers to hang out with and learn from.

Kelley Lynch:

What kinds of neighborhood organizations?

Mike Gray:

In Midland, Texas I mostly worked with Mexican Americans or immigrant people. I spent some time with , AIDS was just popping up. They had a house where AIDS patients were literally, it was hospice work. And so I spent some time with that. I experienced a lot of different communities of need during that time and a lot of different ways that those needs could manifest. You know, not everybody needs the same thing. So I was already getting an understanding of that. And so I continued that practice of giving one fifth, a fifth of my time to away to somebody using it. You know , it's sort of until I retired and I could do what I'm doing all the time. And even during that time, when the Quakers were paying me full-time to do work, I could still give away a portion of my time for free to be some justice organizations or organizations that worked against the Bantex nuclear weapons plant in Amarillo, Texas, against the B2 bombers when they started showing up in Abilene, Texas; did activist work. I got to the Nevada test site occasionally. So this kind of organizing got some of that volunteer time. I learned a lot through all of that time and all of those experiences. I think volunteering is great for anybody. No matter it's kind of like camping. I mean , you can show up somewhere that you've never thought you'd ever be in your life and learn something about other people's lives by doing that. It was pretty valuable experience for me. I had not done much college. And so I gave it back to college part-time. So I studied things as they interested me. I took journalism classes to try and learn, to write a better letter to the editor and ended up writing a weekly column in the community college newspaper and doing journalism. I did some freelance journalism for a while . You learn a lot. I mean, that's why I really like what you do. I mean, I kind of like to do it. I mean, the ability to just go update somebody that you don't know or haven't heard about and start asking them, you know what , so what do you have for breakfast? What's your life? Like? That's a pretty interesting way to go through life.

Kelley Lynch:

It's a nice way you get to be nosy for a living and people actually, you know, answer your questions and yeah, it annoys other parts of other members of my family. It annoys them no end, but , um, I feel like God, we cannot get her out of anywhere, but , um, she wants to talk to everybody.

Mike Gray:

I had to take an anthropology class Intro to anthro. And I learned I was probably an anthropologist, but I didn't want to be an anthropologist because I didn't like the way they did things. And so that's, I'm a cultural anthropologist amateur.

Kelley Lynch:

I'm with you there a hundred percent

Mike Gray:

That work by volunteering, I volunteered a lot with Quaker organizations working with their youth. And it was a way for me to keep in touch with my son , who I lost in the divorce. I could take him to the larger Quaker gatherings and integrate him into the crowd so it wouldn't always just be a one-on-one thing. And so working as a volunteer, working with youth a lot led me to this job with the American Friends Service Committee, inner mountain, yearly meeting joint service project, coordinating , service projects, primarily for youth, but intergenerational. So there were some adults sprinkled in for grounding. They ended my project, defunded it. William Penn house picked it up for a few years briefly, but we could not fill projects. They needed to make overhead money out of it and I would always try to charge as little as I could. And so they found it not worth doing as far as paying staff time and organizing time and the expense of flying staff out to Pine Ridge. And it was also around at that time that the cartels in Mexico had made some of the places we go so dangerous that private school students that we had worked with prior their parents were reluctant to let their kids go to Mexico. And so most of my Mexican programs fell through. We were doing a lot of projects up in the Sierra Madres at the time. And so it was just a time of change.

Kelley Lynch:

So you retired, how long have you been retired from that?

Mike Gray:

Didn't actually retire at that time. So the deal was that I was actually at a Sundance on Pine Ridge. So , we were like early August and the word came that my program was being laid down in September. I would be unemployed in less than two months. Everything I'd done for the last 15 years was over. So I'm not a Sundancer , but I've been supporting a family Sundance for a long time up there. And what supporters do is you can still make your own prayers. I mean, this was, it's all about one big prayer being focused on the tree in the center. And so I'm under the Arbor and doing my own dance and praying for a vision for four days. The fourth night I slept and had a dream that was so powerful that it could only have been the vision. And I got my mentor on Pine Ridge and he connected me with a dream interpreter and we went through it and the vision was clear to all of us, that everything I had done, everything I had learned for the last 15 years was useless to me. I mean , I may get a job as a teacher and try and tell somebody, but I had no educational qualifications . You know , I could try and look around and try and find somebody else to partner with to pay me to do work camps. But that model was dying. All I could do was continue to do what I was doing with the people and give back to them all of the knowledge that they given to me. Use that to help them. I no longer had to go to them and make a deal. I'll help you do this if you help me do this. And you know , I used to have to go into a place and say, listen , I'm going to bring 20 kids in here. What can we do that'll be useful. Can you house us? You have to feed us . You have to take care of a shift. We have to use your outhouse , you know, make all these deals. Now . It's just , I go to the people and say, what do you want me to do? There are no more limits, no more budgets, no more constraints. You're just telling me what you want and I'll see how to do it. And again, it was back to that, that God's saying, don't worry about it. You don't need a paycheck. We'll take care of the people. We'll take care of you. You're given to them. They're going to give to you. It's all gonna work out. And so I just continue to do what I'd always done. Radical trust. That's, that's the radical part of it. You know, it's just accepting what God tells you to do is accepting that risk. And so I just sort of let go and went. I've worked with communities from the bayous of Louisiana, to the coast of California, to South Dakota and deep into Mexico. I really couldn't keep doing that, but I had to sort of narrow down my focus. And so it worked out well for me to work with this village in Mexico in the winter and with the Lakota on Pine Ridge in the summer, and have a house in between in Arizona, to rest and store stuff, and have a mailing address. And so it's been like that ever since. When I say retired, i t was still quite a w hile before I got that first social security check, which really freed me. I m ean, I was still having to, I d id a lot of carpenter work and building work to make money, to fund myself to do these for a while because the projects were not necessarily self-funding, but we had to learn how to make them self-funding, working with artists, cooperative artists a nd in a certain village. For instance, I kept the big van that I no longer needed, but started hauling groups of Comcaac artists up to the US to sell their wares at art markets, native American art shows. Before a lot of University of Arizona students put themselves through school, going down there and buying Ironwood and baskets and bringing them up here and selling them and traders, a number of traders made a living doing this wholesale, which means you buy stuff as cheap as you can. And then you sell it for as much as you can. And they were pretty mad at me initially, because the first thing that happened was the price of Surrey baskets doubled then tripled. And then people were seeing what their baskets were selling for on the other side and seeing how they had been taken advantage of for all those decades and our business model allowed them to set their own price, sell their own wares and, and get all of the money. The co-op part was that they each agreed to split the expenses of the journey. So to pay for gas and food and lodging, if we needed it, and I didn't have to pay everything. I put everything up front and then kept the receipts of the bills. And then we just kind of added it all up and looked at a percentage that was fair. And then the person who sold the least always got a piece of that action to make up for their less sales. The person who sold the most paid more, it seemed to make sense. And that until COVID hit us, we've been averaging about $35,000 a year in gross sales in a village of 300 people, just arts and crafts, carvings . I took a carver to Turkey with the international wood culture society. We got an invitation there after they heard about them and came down and did a video. So, I mean, we put Seri art on a world scale now. I took a native American art class in college, 101. And that's all I knew about art marketing, except galleries charged a lot of money. And I watched traders to work down there. They would c ome i n a nd b uy stuff and take it. But I made friends with the native community in the US a t markets and learned from them and made connections and just learned how to do it. The International Wood Culture society saw Ironwood carvings on a blog by a friend, an ethnobotanist friend I have in Southern California. And she sent them to me and they wanted to make a video about Seri art wood carving. And I said, if you want to make a movie about these people, I'll take you there. And they said, okay. And so I got t hem down there for the traditional new y ear celebration in the village of Desemboque.. And they spent a week, the guys were out of Taiwan. They spent a week filming and came out with an hour long video about the people and their culture through Enloe basketry, but they decided to promote them. And so we were invited to Turkey for the premiere of that video. You can google Seri, Ironwood carving video, and you can find it. And it was a well done professional video and told a lot about the people. I didn't know I was going to be chapter two, but that's, you can see some of my work there with that in some of the specifics. But it's just making connections with people that , you know, and again, having a good product and finding a way to sell it. If there's anything I've learned about art is that everybody's an artist. Artists are people who can sell their work and make a living at it. That's the true art form. The Seris have very unique art forms that no one else does or can do because of they don't have access to the materials, but you have to tell people. So that's made a huge, I mean, we put a lot of kids through college and through school and fed a lot of people doing this. And it's not limited to, these are people who have agreed to go to the US and actually do the sales, which is, is hard. You know, you leave your culture, leave your language leader or your people behind swimming in a strange country with strange customs and strange questions and relying on an interpretation for everything and trusting how money works. And , and almost all of the women I work with at first were functionally illiterate, mathematically illiterate. I mean, they could add and subtract, but divisions or percentages or multiplication, and that was all beyond them. So we spent a lot of time with that in the beginning then literally because they could all sign their names that some of them that's all we can do is sign their names. And so now showing them how to use the shower in a motel. And it was all a big adventure in the beginning, but now we have some seasoned pros. And so a lot of my winter is just taking them to shows particularly before Christmas. Then it kind of slows down. There's a little bit in the spring, but now we've extended that our last show now is in June. So I would kind of try and set them up kind of every other week. So I could go down, spend a week, take people back to a show, take them back, spend a week, take a different members . So different members of the co-op go to different shows at different times take turns. So it's worked out pretty well and we made it pay for itself except for a salary for me. I get food and gas and place to sleep and everything I need out of the deal. And it's made a huge, more impact than anything else I've done in the village. Just the day-to-day dollar for dollar.

Kelley Lynch:

Your house, I mean, I looked at it on the map and you're kind of like way out of Tucson. Like , I mean, it just shows pictures of Solaro cactuses that are some desert. So you live in a cactus.

Mike Gray:

The house is built out of all recycled materials by the guy I bought it from. And I've been trying to make stuff better ever since, but you know, it's just a place I store stuff now. I really don't spend much time in it. I bought it in 2000. I've been here 20 years now. But you know, it's inexpensive. It's easy to pay off. My electric bill is minimal. Overhead is just, there's just really no overhead here to speak up. And so it's worked out well and I love the desert. And this year of, COVID not being able to go into Mexico, not being able to go to Pine Ridge, it sort of reminded me of all of the reasons I chose to be here in the first place that I don't get to experience every year. Summer, I've always been away on Pine Ridge and in the winter, I usually just come in for a few days at a time. The people are really the reason I came here more than the place to lots of great places. The people here are really the word these days of woke. Is that, is that a good word? The community organizers who have organized this community in a lot of ways that nobody would really understand from outside, but we have a community garden. We also have a community cattle herd, community owned land, a community center and all with an ethic of preservation for this place. It's a very special place along the San Pedro river. It's a major migratory path for probably 75% of migratory birds coming in and out of Mexico. And so bird watchers truly treasure it and developers really lust after it. And so we've fought for, well , they were doing this fight before I got here, but we've prevented the road from being paved which will be the first step for the realtors start getting ahold of some of the old ranches here and to kind of keep it the way it is. The last undammed river in Arizona.

Kelley Lynch:

I was thinking the other day, I actually thought, wow, wouldn't it be great to just be somebody who could, I mean, this is, this is a new thought for me, but somebody who just drops everything and just goes and helps people. And that's part of the reason I really wanted to talk to you because that's kind of what you've done and you've managed to make it work. Or God has managed to make it work. Or however you want to phrase that. I feel like over this past year, skilling around COVID and everything else, I've been thinking a lot, let's say about what matters. What are my priorities? You can't take it with you. You know, but t here's so many things that are kind of, u m, cultural constructs cultural ideas about what we should be doing and how we should be living our lives. And so it's been k ind o f nice to hang around in my own energy and try and parse through a lot of that. But you're somebody who's done that I would imagine your idea of what is success is a very different idea than what most people have. How do you think about those things?

Mike Gray:

My thoughts on success is to be able to look back and see if what I did was useful. Did I make a difference? This is why it took people so long to accept me as they couldn't figure me out. It's just, what do you want from us? And I would say "nothing." What do you want from me? And they looked at this with suspicion. And so it will be more interesting to see what the Seris say about me after I'm gone, because they talk about all of these people who used to come and don't come anymore. You know , some of them have died and gone on or moved onto something else or wrote their book about the Seris and moved on to the Yakis or, you know , whatever, I'm more interested in how my epitaph gets written, then we'll know whether I was successful or not. And say, I'm quick to admit some of the things I've done have been just total flops. Some of them have caused problems that we have experienced that - unintentionally caused bad relations in a village by violating a taboo that I didn't know about. These things happen . And so whenever anybody talks about wanting to help people, I say, do you know the movie Patch Adams or did you ever watch Patch Adams? Do you remember Robin Williams?

Kelley Lynch:

I remember the, I can see the cover, but I don't know if I've watched it.

Mike Gray:

The doctor with the red nose? I developed a workshop based on that movie on healthy ways to help. All of the lessons are in that movie if you can kind of understand them and pick them out and see what they're saying. But the basic thing is if you want to help, you have to have a skill that allows you to help. You know, if you're a doctor or a nurse, or just like Doctors without Borders. I mean , if you're a carpenter, there's all sorts of building programs. If you're a photographer or a writer, tell people's stories. There's just so many different ways of making a difference, but you have to understand how to help without hurting. And you have to do the homework necessary before you get there to prevent doing more harm when it's over, then, then you have left good in your wake . Ram Daas has an amazing book about how to help. That's a really good, good manual. I've seen so many people who have come to help and just left destruction and bad feelings in their wake and made it harder for the next person.

Kelley Lynch:

Right

Mike Gray:

And I wish more than anything that everybody took this approach. And if you did it in your everyday life, all around you, you wouldn't have to be going very far from home to help. And every community there is need, even in the wealthy communities. You just have to kind of look deep to find it sometimes. But it seems like everybody needs something. Sometimes it's just validation or love or friendship or respect or understanding. But you know , sometimes it's just fundamental. I need to eat or I need a coat. I'm cold. I always designed my work camps around Quaker testimonies. We don't have a lot of creeds and stuff. We have what we call t he testimonies, which are the things that are important and equality is one of them. And so it's something I've always worked toward knowing that it's a goal t hat is simply not achievable in my lifetime. But to do this to get anywhere near this equality, people in this country are going to have to lower their standards of living. We cannot raise everybody in the world up to our standard of living without this huge crash before w e ever get anywhere close. We will just wipe out the world's resources in no time if they all came anywhere close to living the way we do. And so we have to learn and we're, we're slowly, some people are getting it and doing it and living it, turning their front yards into gardens, but we have to do it on a big scale and not just recycle yesterday's newspapers.

Kelley Lynch:

So what's next for you?

Mike Gray:

All of the native American markets, we generally do are still closed. Everybody's going online. Everybody says I need a web page. And so I've been working on designing that and doing so putting together bios of my artists. And I'm trying to do that is kind of my homework project lately, because then that way we can, several museums here are doing, I do gallery talks with a slideshow , and then we give the link to sell baskets. And we've been fairly successful with one native seed search in Tucson. They sold several, they sold four out of the six baskets I put into their show. So it's working, but now, so now I have to start bringing some baskets up from Desemboque or getting them online, sort of establishing a way to get them up here because you really can't ship. COVID shut down shipping cross border too .

Kelley Lynch:

So that's what you'll be doing. When you go down there is picking up baskets and things like that?

Mike Gray:

Yeah, I sold a few online, has put up the pictures and gave , say, bring me that one. And I have to figure out how to get them up. I mean, Seris make big baskets. So how big , well size of a Volkswagen, but they're not all that big. It's called a SAP team and it has a whole ceremony around it . We don't sell very many of those.

Kelley Lynch:

Wow . I really appreciate you taking the time today and driving yourself down to the community center and having that wire hung on your hat the whole time so that it didn't rub in your beard.

Mike Gray:

No , don't use that for the advertising podcast.

Kelley Lynch:

I'll take your advice on that. I'm so grateful for the fact that you helped us at very short notice. You did your radical hospitality here helping me move house.

Mike Gray:

You're still in the same house, I trust?

Kelley Lynch:

I'm still in the same house. That was 2012. So I'm still grateful for that.

Mike Gray:

So next time I'll interview you and you can tell me stories.

Kelley Lynch:

That would , that would be great. That would be great. I would love to do that

Mike Gray:

I was always so jealous of your photography, you would look at your iPhone would take these, you know, Adam's pictures and mine, mine looks like a Kodak brownie.

Speaker 5:

I brought the special iPhone that does that for you actually. You didn't know that you just pushed the button, Mike. Thank you, so much.

Kelley Lynch:

Good. Nice to talk to you. Just catch up. Take care. Bye Thank you so much for investing a little over an hour and listening to this show. I hope it gave you a lot to think about, and if it did that, you'll share it around. You can always share it from our website, Anenormalpodcast.com. And while you're there, be sure to check out the show notes where I'll put more photos of Mike, as well as the video about the Seri that Mike mentioned in the podcast. Our website is also the place to rate and review the podcast. And we really do hope you'll take a couple of minutes to do that. Not because we get anything from it, but just because it helps other people to discover the show. And that is one way you can actually make a difference for us. And again, if you know of anyone who has an awesome story and you think we should talk with them for the podcast, please get in touch using the contact page. That's also on our website. We'll be back next week with another story until then take care.

Mike Gray Profile Photo

Mike Gray

Mr. "Radical Hospitality"