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Kitchen Witches Are Brewing Lube for the Bedroom

This article originally appeared in VICE Broadly.

In the intersection of kitchen witchery and kink, magical women are brewing balms, ointments, potions, and lotions, which they bring into the bedroom for BDSM purposes and in lieu of mainstream oils and lubes. While Judeo-Christian traditions carry shame around sex, pagan traditions celebrate it, as many view sexuality and spirituality as one of the same.

“Sexual intimacy can be used as a ritual representation of the fertility of Earth and Goddess when celebrating the cycles of seasons; as a spontaneous reaction to psychic energy either during ritual, meditation, or spell work; or a consenting form of kink as energy play between two or more people,” says Arwen, a 23-year-old Neo-Druid from Orange, California.

Considering the overlap between sexuality and spirituality, it makes sense that self-identified witches are combining nature with their sex lives. “My work with salves is a big part of my life,” says Gg Irkalla, a 29-year-old artist from Olympia, Washington. “A few years ago, I was part of a sacred whore temple wherein there were bowls of coconut oil. It’s terrible for toys and condoms, but amazing for everything else—especially massages, healing work, and skin health.” She defines witchcraft as “not tidy maypole ceremonies in someone’s backyard in the suburbs, while Enya plays timidly in the background. It’s hashish, opium, Adderall, cocaine, anal sex, BDSM, sex work, sorcery, ordeal, and holy rage.”

Stepping outside of the magical lens, kinky people use plants through figging, the act of placing of piece of ginger in an orifice. “[Figging is] often used in D/S [dominance and submission] dynamics and as part of other aspects of intense sensation play, as it creates burning sensation,” explains Dr. Michael Aaron, a NYC-based sex therapist and author of the upcoming book Modern Sexuality. “Some folks’ fetish involves molding it into butt plug shape; it’s important to have some form of handle to retrieve it.” (He advises keeping figging confined to ass play due to the vagina’s particular pH balance.)

When using any essential oil that can cause burning sensations, it’s important to dilute the oil to prevent skin damage. “You definitely need some sort of carrier oil. It could be a sweet almond oil, or a fractionated coconut oil, whatever kind of scent draws you in. There are good things like sesame oil, grape seed oil, wheat germ oil—the list goes on,” says Sheeba, a 31-year-old energy healer from Portland, Oregon.

While drugstore brands such as KY sell warming oils, many women are more interested in a natural and homemade concoction. Sheeba recommends cinnamon oil, which creates a burning sensation and holds an association with the goddessesVenus and Aphrodite. In her own BDSM scenes, Sheeba often uses thieves oil, a blend of clove, lemon, rosemary, cinnamon, and eucalyptus, as part of CBT, a.k.a. cock and ball torture.

“We used thieves oil on the top of [one of my sex partners’] penis and around the head. I have this really mean clip that fit all the way around the tip of his penis,” Sheeba says. “Some of where his extreme pleasure comes from was from that extra sensitivity from the oils and that constriction.”

For cooling oils to soothe oneself after BDSM play, Arwen enjoys a concoction of Calendula, a healing oil associated with love, blended with olive oil for both aftercare and massage. “Steeping Calendula in olive oil in the light of the sun imbues the chemical compounds and energy of the plant to create a healing oil to anoint during ritual or to soothe the body after impact play,” Arwen explains to Broadly.

Other magical women, such as crystal healer Katie Manzella, turn to aloe, coconut, and CBD oil for sex. “When I make love, I find the aloe vera plant to serve as a wonderful way to enhance the experience. Usually I don’t need its assistance, but it’s always fun to work with plants to make life more magical and healthy,” Manzella says. “Coconut and CBD oil is wonderful too!”

Lube has other important mystical uses as well: It’s important to remember it when integrating stone magic into your sex life. Vanessa Cuccia, the creator of Chakrubs, a line of sexual wellness products made from 100 percent mother crystal, recommends using coconut oil when using a rose quartz dildo. “Especially when somebody is making it themselves, I think that makes it more special,” Cuccia says. “When you’re making it yourself—that work that’s going into it, that you’re going to appreciate so much more.”

Coconut oil comes with one downside, however. As Irkalla mentioned, the oil is not latex friendly. If you’re looking for an organic lube to use with condoms, stick with something like Good Clean Love.

Simply creating your own massage oil or BDSM tool from plant ingredients found in your home can make you feel like a crafty kitchen witch, but the true magic is the power and healing that takes place when sex and spirituality meet. “Whatever you are doing can be seen as spiritual no matter how kinky it is, as long as you’re understanding that what you are doing is sacred,” Cuccia says.

When consulting with clients interested in Chakrubs, she will work individually to find the right crystal catered to individual healing. “Bodies carry a lot of hurt, trauma, and loneliness,” Irkalla says. “Sacred sex is a vital tool for addressing these issues.”

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ROLLACOASTER: DEV HYNES’ UTOPIA

I profiled Dev Hynes of Blood Orange for the cover of the 20th edition of Rollacoaster Magazine. Photo by Michael Bailey-Gates.

Devonté “Dev” Hynes is one of pop music’s most important figures. The songwriting mus- cle behind Sky Ferreira’s breakthrough banger “Everything Is Embarrassing” and Solange’s equally mesmerising “Losing You” (as well as songs by everyone from Skepta to FKA twigs), he’s spent the last decade moulding his very own perfect-pop utopia, and surrounding him- self in New York’s scintillating, underground creative forces. This summer, as Blood Orange, Dev returns with his most honest, bravest long-player to date, Freetown Sound. Rollacoaster was invited into Dev’s brave new world for an exclusive, up-close-and-personal preview of it.

From the US to the UK, political upheaval is Trumping creativity. At least the artists have their messiah in the enigmatic form of Dev Hynes, who this summer returns with his solo project, Blood Orange.

The London-born musician, who has resided in New York City since 2007, along with releasing an upcoming beautiful and bold album, Freetown Sound, maintains a community of artists, musicians, models, and performers in New York like (previous Rollacoaster star) Whitney Vangrin. In his support of others, Hynes manages to come across completely unpretentious, a difficult feat for a celebrity of his status. “Everything I do is really how I want to be treated,” he tells me. “That’s the only way I base anything. I’m also still just a big fan-boy of things, so if I’m a fan of something, and it’s something I know or am in a proximity with, then if there’s anything I could possibly do to help them in some way, then I will do it. I just want them to create as much as they can.”

Hynes sits in his Manhattan studio bathed in je-ne-sais-quoi spirit, his red bucket hat tilted skywards to reveal passionate eyes. In July, Freetown Sound, his third album, the follow-up to 2013’s acclaimed Cupid Deluxe, comes out. Like a beautiful natural disaster, a thunderstorm collecting weight before pouring down on parched land, his creative process involves the collection of ideas and sudden appearance of arrival. “With each album, I’ll be working — just always making music, and it’s scattered and everywhere. It’s what happened with this one, it’s what happened with Cupid Deluxe. One day someone could talk to me and say: ‘What’s up with the album?’ and I’ll be like: ‘God knows, it’s like a million songs. I can’t imagine.’ And then the next day it can just click.”

What came together with Freetown Sound is an expansive, immersive, and glorious album. 17 tracks long, it’s being praised as Blood Orange’s most personal album to date, although Hynes says that maybe we just know him better now. Or perhaps we’re just paying more attention. “The last record was completely my viewpoint, too. Maybe it’s that people know me more. So they can really see that’s it’s personal. It’s personal in a different way, because it’s more explorative of myself. This one is kind of going back in even deeper than myself and looking at my parents and before that. It’s trying to understand roots of things, musically and lyrically.”

The title derives its name from his father’s birthplace, the capital of Sierra Leone. His family is also referenced in the record’s lyrics.“My father was a young man, my mother off the boat, my eyes were fresh at 21, bruised but still afloat,” he sings sleekly in a track titled “Augustine”. It’s an earth-shattering song, laced with sorrow that calls to Saint Augustine over the death of Trayvon Martin. Along with religion, race, sexism, Hynes’ heritage is a recurrent theme of the expansive album. He tells me that his family’s role as muse on the record is the simply the result of passing time. “I’m just getting older, and I have more questions and thoughts,” says the songwriter. “I’ve been very aware lately of age. It’s always hard to discuss it without sounding incredibly morbid.”

Despite how Planet Pop, where remaining fuckable is part of the deal, wants its stars to remain growing older, Hynes has his own agenda. “I love age. I always have. I think it’s because I grew up with classical and jazz [music], where age is very different than in popular music. If I was to look at the career of a composer that I love and if I saw things he wrote in his 30s, I would view that as before he found his voice,” he explains. “As I’ve got older, I’ve realised that people that have been huge influences on me were really young when they died. I’m not talking 27, of like drug overdoses and shit like that. John Lennon, John Coltrane, Arthur Russell, all died at 40. Bob Marley died at 36. Shit is so crazy to me. So it’s been very heavy on my mind lately, and I’m trying to understand a lot of things to do with myself and my family, because I feel it’s important to know this stuff and try to work through it for my own benefit.”

Christianity and an “album of the year” may seem unrelated, but it’s an unlikely union made flesh by Hynes, who scrapes away at his own history with the observational curiosity of a scientist.“There’s a lot of looking at Christian upbringing and then rebelling against it. There’s different moments on the album that are looking at those periods, Roman-era Christianity and then even colonial Christianity in West Africa. It’s not in a sense of condemning or preaching, it’s just in the case of questioning. It’s very interesting to me.” What he’s getting at is bigger than religion: it’s the promise of hope. “Christianity was so strong in black households because of slave times, and it was always seen as this beacon of hope. Even if it was this Christianity that was handed down, the ideology was still seen as a beacon of hope. Like: ‘We’ll get through this shit, there’s a bigger plan, you know?’”

Later this summer, he’ll take on Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee, too.“I like to let the album breathe and [go] from there, because I don’t do many shows. I like the shows to be really fun and entertaining for people that know the music. I love the idea of playing music no one’s heard; I would do it in situations where I just use my name. I love the idea of making music for a live situation, [but] I’ll never do that with Blood Orange because I think it’s a bad vibe when artists just play a bunch of new songs for people. When it comes to Blood Orange, I want to play it for people who have listened and want to hear it.” As summer rolls into fall, Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound will be our anthem album. For now, Dev will be enjoying the splendour of his self-made utopia.

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Heroin Addicts Are Turning to Tumblr to Tell Their Stories — And Save Lives

Originally published in Mic.

“One and done is the rule for using needles,” Nicole*, an 18-year-old from Long Island, New York, writes on her Tumblr, nicolethedopefiendqueen. “After you use it once, dispose of it (capped, in a sharps or other container); you really shouldn’t be reusing needles if you can help it. A fresh, new needle is always better than a used one, even if it’s been sterilized.”

Nicole is an active heroin user. In an email interview, she said she began using at 14 after coming across her terminally ill father’s OxyContin prescription, which eventually evolved into heroin use. On her Tumblr, she posts selfies and re-blogs moody screengrabs from drug movies like Trainspotting, as well as close-up shots of spoons, lighters and syringes.

But to hear Nicole tell it, she doesn’t just use Tumblr as a platform for blogging about her heroin use. She also teaches other users how to do heroin safely. Her blog contains information about what to do if an overdose occurs, as well as how to administer Narcan (naloxone), an emergency antidote to treat opiate overdose.

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“I decided that if I’m going to have a drug addiction blog with lots of followers, I must spread harm reduction information, because addicts deserve to be healthy and to live,” Nicole said in an email interview. “I advocate for safe intravenous drug use, especially to help prevent infection and overdoses.”

Heroin addiction is a rapidly growing epidemic in the United States. The Harm Reduction Coalition reports that overdose is the leading cause of preventable accidental death in the United States, second only to car accidents. Since 2000, opiate overdoses have increased by 200%, in large part as a result of an increase of pain medication prescription, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Because pills and heroin are sold on the black market, opiate use can be difficult to track, but a 2014 report estimates there are 1.5 million “chronic” heroin users in the United States.

Nicole’s blog is one of many on Tumblr that track the lives of regular opiate users. Many of such blogs’ posts feature the hashtag #nodsquad, a community that curates images of drug paraphernalia as well as information and resources promoting safe drug use.

Such blogs are based on the principles of harm reduction, which aims to reduce harm associated with drug use, such as overdose and spread of diseases like hepatitis C or HIV, through counseling, opiate substitution programs like methadone and safer injection facilities, or legal, supervised injection facilities where people can use heroin under medical supervision. (There are currently no supervised injection sites in the United States, but some cities and states like New York have toyed with the idea of introducing them.)

As Nicole explains it, “harm reduction is about reducing the damage and harm done from using. It’s not about stopping use, it’s about safety, which is the realistic approach to saving addicts in this epidemic.”

It’s a strategy distinct from abstinence-only programs such as traditional 12-step recovery methods, as harm reduction psychotherapist Eddie Einbinder said in a phone interview. “Harm reduction is not anti-abstinence,” Einbinder stressed. “Harm reduction is pro-choice.”

Susan E. Collins, co-director of the Harm Reduction Research and Treatment Center, thinks Tumblr blogs like Nicole’s can help to reduce harm caused by heroin use.

“[Nicole] is a person who appears to really care about her community, and is trying to help people use safer,” Collins said in a phone interview. “She is trying to reduce harm, and is being honest about where she’s at and her recovery. Personally, I think all of that is really admirable.”

Social media has created a space that didn’t previously exist for active users to connect with others and share information about how to use drugs safely, such as how to sterilize a needleafter use.

“A core concept of harm reduction is meeting people where they are, and I feel like most people don’t spend their spare time reading up on harm reduction techniques. But people spend time on social media like Tumblr,” Caroline, who keeps her own harm reduction blog, fuckyeah-harmreduction, told Mic in an email.

“Having a resource for harm reduction information on a platform that people are already using is a great idea.”

Caroline is not a user, but she became involved in the movement through a harm reduction organization she volunteers at in Washington, D.C., most often doing needle exchange or distributing safer sex supplies.

That said, some of the information being shared on Tumblr, such as user videos on how to shoot up safely, can be shocking to watch for those unfamiliar with intravenous drug use. Such videos, as well as artily lit images of spoons and stashes, has prompted debate as to whether such blogs glamorize drug use. It’s also worth noting that some users visit the blogs as a way to find drugs, if asks from users looking to score in a new town or city are any indication.

“Could it glamorize the use? I think yes,” Einbinder said in a phone interview. “It is hard to create a completely objective vision when you’re creating different forms of reality.”

Other professionals agree that the Tumblr community has potential for both help and harm.

“On the one hand, users are often the experts of their experiences and their own needs. If a user is generating content which is informed, safe, promotes hygiene, and teaches people how to reduce risks, then it can be powerful and helpful in a way that resonates with other users,” Sheila Vakharia, a coordinator of a substance abuse counseling concentration for students at Long Island University, Brooklyn, said via email interview.

“However, if user-generated content is full of people doing things in risky, unhygienic ways or if they are sharing false, mixed, or un-researched information, it can be just as harmful as any other problematic content on the web.”

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The blogs also raise the question as to whether Tumblr has any obligation to monitor content that promotes drug use on the platform.  (Mic has reached out to Tumblr for comment, and have not received a response at the time of publication.)

“I don’t necessarily think that platforms have a responsibility to monitor drug use content because it seems like a slippery slope,” Vakharia said. “I also understand that sales or advertisements of illicit drugs are in violation of laws. However, instructional videos from the health professions show doctors/nurses injecting patients all the time. Should a video of a person doing it to themselves be censored because the vial is filled with a substance that we think is illegal?”

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The Sad Story of the Ted Cruz Lookalike Who’s Shooting Porn

I covered the Ted Cruz porn lookalike for Playboy.

Presidential hopeful and banner of dildos Ted Cruz is not doing porn. However, 21-year-old Searcy Hayes from Natchez, Miss., who happens to resemble Ted Cruz, is. And while plenty of folks have had a good laugh about this, her story is anything but funny.

Like so many women who face the decision of whether to do sex work, she’s doing it because she needs the money. Hayes, who lives with her family in a trailer park, told Playboy she currently makes $100-$200 a month cleaning houses. Her fiancé and soon-to-be adult costar brings in $733 a month from disability payments.

Hayes went viral after appearing on Maury to prove her fiancé, 25-year-old Freddie Green, was the father of her three-month-old-child. (He is). Hayes has another son who is nearly three in the care of her mother. After she appeared on Maury, a meme posted on Redditcirculated comparing her appearance to Cruz. The viral image caught the eyes of xHampster.com publicist Mike Kulich, who offered her $10,000 for a six-minute adult film, which will be available to view for free on the website. Hayes will shoot the video at home with her fiancé. “[Kulich] just told us do as many [sexual positions] as we can in six minutes,” says Hayes.

Kulich says he has seen the film, and viewers should expect “lots of hardcore BBW action between two people who truly love each other.” However, when I asked Hayes that same day, she said she has not yet shot the film but was planning to in the next few days.

No doubt there is an audience of people who to want to see a female version of “Lucifer in the Flesh” Cruz (a comparison Satanists have protested) getting nailed.

“I think Cruz is horrible, and I’d really like to get him out of the race. It’s fun controlling the internet conversation,” says Kulich.

However, for the trolls and commenters, the laughs have shifted from Cruz to Hayes, who may be the butt of a joke she doesn’t entirely get.

“I wasn’t really familiar with him,” she says of Cruz.

As a promotion for the upcoming film, Hayes has appeared in photos and videos posted to Kulich’s Facebook endorsing Trump. When I asked if she supported Trump, she responded, “I mean, not really.”

Hayes says she’s hearing from folks in Mississippi about her decision to make the film. “All of my friends are telling me that it would ruin my child’s life,” says Hayes, who says it’s the other way around. “The reason I (am) doing it is so my son would have a roof over his head and didn’t have to worry about losing our trailer. I don’t see where we’re ruining our child’s life.”

With the $10,000, Hayes plans to pay off $2,000 of $3,000 owed on her trailer, buy a new truck and make additional purchases to take care of her 3-month-old. “We’re going to buy a walker, buy a high chair, stock up on his diapers, his wipes, buy him clothes.” Hayes says that buying a newer model of a truck is for her son as well, as their current vehicle, a 1997 Mercury Sable, has no heat, no air conditioner and is unsuitable to drive with children. “[With] the car that we have now, I can’t really take him with me. It hurts my feelings because I have to leave him at home.” Like her child, over one-third of Mississippi children live in poverty.

Sydney Leathers, who rose to adult fame from her texting scandal with Anthony Weiner, knows a thing or two about the intersection of porn and politics, and she hopes Hayes has thought this all the way through.

“She should think about her future before actually doing it. It will impact future employment. Everyone she’s ever known will find out. It’s a tough thing to prepare for,” Leathers said. “It sucks, but sex workers are still discriminated against so much. She has no idea what she’s signing up for.”

While $10,000 to screw somebody you already screw may seem like a no-brainer, others are critical of the figure, pointing out that Mama June of Here Comes Honey Boo Boofame was offered $1 million by Vivid for an adult film.

Kulich says the offer is fair. “When you look at the regular adult performer they’re making about $1,000 for a 30-minute scene; $10,000 for a six-minute scene is a very generous offer.”

His figures match up with a CNBC rundown of porn salaries. However, her earnings may not be sustainable. It’s very likely this is a one-time gig.

“It’s generally not a smart financial move to do it if you’re only planning to do one. Money goes fast, so if you’re not committed to making this your career path, it’s a mistake,” says Leathers.

Hayes says she’s open to doing more porn and has even picked up a laptop for the possibility of cam work for additional income.

Ultimately, Hayes is an adult, capable of making her own decisions about sex work, ones that should be respected. “Everybody is still going to sit there and give me bad mouth because of what I’m doing, but it’s not what everybody else thinks, it’s what I think about it,” she said.

 

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THE EMOTIVE AND IMPOSSIBLE TASK OF THE MUSIC OF DAVID BOWIE AT RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL

I reviewed the David Bowie tribute show at Radio City Hall for Noisey.

The blackstar tattoo on my chest, which I’d gotten hours after learning of his death, smeared with glitter for the occasion, glared as a security guard scanned me with a metal detector. A crippling wave of anxiety passed over. He is gone, I am here. Bowie, his music, and his unfathomable legacy occupied a massive room in my psyche, in all of ours. When I closed my eyes and envisioned a Bowie tribute I saw bodies pressed together in a dark and messy venue, the type of scene where it was appropriate to kiss a stranger on the mouth just to taste their tears and lipstick. For that dark glamour was what Bowie meant to me. One version of what a Bowie tribute should look like for every fan left behind. At Radio City Music Hall, this was a classy affair. Time to sit up straight and act like I’m allowed in public. With the formal posture of a funeral, we were all here to pay our respects.

It was the second day of memorial following a concert at Carnegie Hall, the original show announced coincidentally on the same day of his death, featuring many of the same performers. Debbie Harry, Pixies, Mumford & Sons, the Flaming Lips and a thorough list of additional “all-stars” were here to pay tribute to David Bowie, the star who was given a constellation as he left this world. Tickets to attend both nights were being sold for $3,000. Proceeds of the concerts benefit organizations such as Little Kids Rock and Grammy in the Schools. Less charitably, vendors outside Radio City capitalized by selling crookedly printed Bowie photos for $5.

The audience was an older crowd. I was seated among other journalists, based on the lack of enthusiasm and frantic pen scribbling. Right before one of the first acts, jazz artist Esperanza Spalding performing “If You Can See Me,” the hall’s magnificent silence was interrupted. Someone very original shouted “Free Bird!” Once the lid had been cracked, a few others would later on join in the fun by adding “Feel the Bern!”, which lead to other audience members loudly requesting they shut the fuck up.

It wasn’t until saxophonist Donny McCaslin performed “Lazarus,” with Mark Guiliana, Jason Lindner, and Tony Visconti, that the mood began to form. They had helped create Blackstar. Visconti has been involved with Bowie since his self-titled and second in 1969. It was clear I would cry tonight. Despite the decades of memories and cultural currency that come with Bowie’s classics, it was songs from Blackstar that took the night. Perhaps the rationalization of why we were all there was best told through his final album, released just two days before his death.

One of the most powerful moments of the night came from Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff, and Anna Calvi with the Kronos Quartet who performed the title track “Blackstar.” Palmer and company created Strung Out In Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute shortly after learning the news of his death. It was a perfect performance, their bodies forming a star. My anxiety broke to tears. The audience collectively stood in ovation. Through the beauty of their performance they had demonstrated the weight of what Bowie had done with Blackstar – he gave us an internal gift, and the monumental task of doing it justice. Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff, Anna Calvi and the Kronos Quartet did.

Along with Palmer, Michael Stipe was one of the strongest performances of the night. In beautifully depressive Stipe fashion, before he began, he asked the needed question into the microphone: “Why are we here?”

An enormous pause, enough to make anyone decent in attendance ponder the real price of their ticket. “A celebration,” is the answer Stipe gave. A few more words for Bowie, and then came the performance. “Ashes to Ashes” has been played an unfathomable number of times, but never like this. He stripped it down to the bones, whispering the lyrics, and perhaps the first time in a million listens I was hit with the weight of the demons Bowie felt:

“Time and again I tell myself
I’ll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me
Oh, no, not again”

Stipe stole the show with his brutally honest performance. And after we had his blessing, no, orders to celebrate, both audience and performers did just that. Perry Farrell gave a lively rendition of “Rebel Rebel” full of repeated hat lifts and cheesing grins, during which everyone was up and dancing (an act requested by Rickie Lee Jones, who asked everyone to get on their feet and join her in “All the Young Dudes”), but there was a disconnect. Even Debbie Harry, a goddess that can do no wrong, left an itch unscratched in her rendition of “Heroes,” but she, and the others, had an impossible assignment. No one can be Bowie, we’re all chasing a ghost.

Other highlights of the night included The Pixies covering Bowie covering the Pixies with “Cactus” (spelling out B-O-W-I-E), which was throw-up-in-your mouth cool. The Polyphonic Spree in their glorious Kool-Aid robes reminded that “the sun machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.” During their introduction we learned that Bowie affectionately referred to them as “the pretty polies,” a tidbit of newly discovered Bowie trivia that tickled my brain, imagining our hero coming up with the alliteration in his brilliant voice. Cat Power covered one of the greatest album openers of all time, the epic “Five Years.”

The show was well-orchestrated and ran right on time. When the end was near the Flaming Lips played their favorite, “Life on Mars?”, Wayne Coyne was projection-mapped while singing sitting on top of Chewbacca. Massive karaoke screens came down for the closing number, an enormous sing-a-long to “Space Oddity” lead by The New York City Children’s Chorus. The thousands of voices, from the little punks on the stage to those in the nosebleed seats pronouncing “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do…” summed it up. He’s dead. We’re still here, struggling to make with peace with the blackstar left in our souls.

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What It’s Like to Be a Death Midwife

In a recent article for Mic, I spoke with death midwives about what they do, how America handles death, and their thoughts on grief. Image courtesy of Getty/Mic. 

It’s a fact we’re all reminded of whenever tragedy strikes, or when we’re lying awake at 3 a.m. after waking up from a nightmare: At some point, everyone we love will die. When that moment comes, be it the loss of an aging parent, a beloved celebrity or a friend gone too soon, we’re struck with grief and often we don’t know how to deal with it.

There are, however, some people who deal with death on a daily basis — as funeral workers, grief counselors, or postmortem investigators. Curious about how to deal with grief in today’s society, Mic spoke to death midwives, or those who help usher dying people into the final stage of life.

Often hospice workers trained in caring for the dying, death midwives work with the dying individual and their loved ones to aid in the dying process. (According to this death midwife’s website, costs vary between approximately $1500 and $3000.)

Also sometimes called an end-of-life guide, the role changes depending on a family’s desires and needs: A death midwife can help with mundane tasks from sorting out medical bills, to helping wash a body should a family opt for an at-home-funeral, a term used to describe the rare practice of skipping the funeral home altogether and saying goodbye to a loved one at home. Death midwives and end-of-life guides pride themselves on being more “heart oriented” than funeral directors, which have been criticized for being more corporate-owned and clinical.

In addition to providing compassionate care in the form of, say, helping the dying create photo albums to honor memories, or helping with such practical matters as offering advice on handling medical bills, those in death work often answer blunt questions about the dying process— a natural part of life they feel is not openly discussed enough.

“You know how people say ‘You need to process your grief?’ I call bullshit on that. Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘You need to process that joy you felt Christmas morning?'” death midwife Terry Skovronek told Mic. Skovronek has been a self-identified death midwife for 19 years, and considers the process of death comparable to the natural process of birth — just at the other end of the spectrum.

Skovronek got into death work after giving birth to her children. “I gave birth to my kids at home,” Skovronek told Mic. “If something went wrong, if they died at birth or were born dead, I wanted to know what my legal responsibilities were.”

Betsy Trapasso, who uses the title “end-of-life guide and advocate,” told Mic that a death midwife can help “provide the vigil and post-death care, help the family and help folks wake up to and reconcile the fact that they are dying.”

A death midwife “can take many shapes and forms, from helping someone who is dying face the issues they need to face, any work they want to get done before they die, any relationships they want to heal,” Trapasso added.

Before transitioning into private practice and advocacy for the dying, Trapasso started out working in a hospice after obtaining a master’s in social work. She’s also worked as a psychotherapist, and says the frequency with which her clients brought up the subject of death let her know there was a professional void that needed to be filled.

“Before I did the death work I was a psychotherapist, and people would want to talk about death all the time. They’d want to know about what death was like,” Trapasso told Mic.

What is death going to be like? It’s a morbid question, but as Skovronek said, it’s a natural one.

“[The dying] will say, ‘What do you think is going to happen when I die? Explain to me what my breathing is going to be like, and do you think I’ll start to see things?'” Skovronek told Mic. She compared the family members’ hesitation to speaking about the death process to people’s unwillingness to speak openly about sex.

“What’s shocking is how little folks know. I [compare it to] the Victorian era, where a 17-year-old girl is married off never having had anyone explain anything to her about sexuality, or penises…imagine the terror [of] not knowing anything of the biology they were about to encounter of the experience. That’s how most people are with death. They have no bloody idea.”

Beyond the physical dying process, many people are unsure how to speak about the grief experienced by loved ones after a friend or relative has passed. When witnessing a friend or colleague dealing with a loss, the living can often find themselves at a loss for words.

People who are trained in grief counseling, like Trapasso and Skovronek, are well-equipped to deal with someone who has just lost a loved one. If someone in your office experiences a major loss, for instance, “sometimes your fellow coworkers are like, ‘What do we say?’ How do we act?’ That’s a huge thing,” Trapasso told Mic. “What mostly everyone [families I’ve worked with] has told me is [to] just say, ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s what people want to hear.”

A kind, one-size-fits-all response of “I’m sorry” works so well because there’s no one way to grieve. “Grief comes in all shapes and sizes and forms. People grieve differently, and that’s what’s important for people to realize,” Trapasso added.

Some mourn outwardly, from sobs to an abundance of shared Facebook posts. Others are too hit with shock to respond in a visibly mournful fashion. Others need to keep themselves busy – and all of those reactions are healthy and OK. It’s not everyday that we are faced with death up close and personal – so what can we learn about grieving from those who do daily as a profession? “Just say, ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s what people want to hear.”

“The important thing for people to know is that it’s different for everyone. You just have to be supportive for the person and really just being there and being present and let them express what they need,” Trapasso told Mic.

Generally speaking, our impulse as a society is to push away ugly and unwanted experiences such as dying and death as a way to alleviate the mourning process. But the death midwives Mic spoke with said that when dealing with loss, it can often be healthier to give your grief space to breathe, rather than race toward an unseen end point.

“It’s like when you have a quarter in your pocket, this little thing that you rub up against, and maybe you twirl it in your fingers. Wouldn’t it suit us if grief was like that, this little thing that we can carry in a small way close to our bodies? [Something] that doesn’t dominate our experience, but we revisit it now and again?,” Skovronek said. “I’m not saying one should live in discomfort, but one should feel appropriate to have room for [grief] … we are denying ourselves a significant part of our humanity if we are tolerant of only half of the range of human experience.”

Technology is also changing our relationship with death. Facebook, for instance has become a place where we can share memories and mourn loved ones; often the deceased’s page turns into a memorial, a place to share memories and grieve. According to Trapasso, technology’s new role in the grieving process is ultimately a good thing, in that it provides a venue for people to share their grief with each other.

“With [the loss of] a friend, you can all share their story, and honor their life, because we always want to feel like we’re part of something. I love it, because for so long I saw people suffering alone,” Trapasso told Mic.

Nowhere was that grieving process brought into sharper relief than in the week following the death of David Bowie. During the week of Jan. 10, social media seemed to take a momentary pause from political posts and New Year’s resolutions, instead becoming flooded with Bowie hair GIFs, thinkpieces on the icon’s impact on gender roles and music videos from the star’s career.

Aside from allowing us to join in the shared mourning process over the death of an icon, the response to Bowie’s death suggests that collective mourning might fill a crucial void in our society, Skovronek said.

“I think we bond to these experiences so strongly because we are so eager to have a communal experience of death and we don’t have it anymore,” she said. “So it’s almost like…it’s a gift when one of these things happen.”

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BOWIE DOWN, BITCHES: HOW DAVID BOWIE BECAME AN ICON FOR SEXUAL LIBERATION

I wrote this for Noisey in honor of the release of “Blackstar.”

As a kid sitting cross-legged on my parent’s rug, hearing “Heroes” for the first time was the auditory equivalent of falling in love. That was it. I’d found The One, and millions of other sexually confused kids and self-proclaimed weirdos, from 1969 right until this second—and for the foreseeable future—had too. We share a love affair to last a lifetime with our hero of many masks, David Bowie.

Like me, and others around the age of 30, I put a moving image to the voice when I saw Labyrinth. The celestial star of the 1986 film was a mulleted Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, but it was his Lycra-ensconced bulge that snagged the gaze. “Mommy, who is this man with the spiky long blonde hair, sequined jacket, and elaborate eye makeup, and why do his tight pants make me feel things?” As a kid, Labyrinth was pleasurably scary for reasons other than all those monster hands grabbing for a young Jennifer Connelly. It was a moment of sexual awakening inspired not by a Backstreet Boys poster taped to the wall, but by an androgynous man far too old for me, who so confidently wailed about someone called “Queen Bitch” (and did so while wearing lashings of gold lipstick). The fantasy he inspired wasn’t one of handholding, red roses, and longing glances exchanged, but rather, with Bowie as Jareth, the kidnapper fantasy began to tease our nascent eroticism. Likely not what director Jim Henson was going for, but hey, that was my experience.

As I grew up, discovered masturbation, and then began boning, for someone whose boner didn’t always jive with the heteronormative standard of attraction, there was no more comforting mantra than: “If Bowie did it, it must be OK.” Exclusively watching lesbian porn with strap-on dildos as a 19-year-old college kid in conservative North Carolina sure seems a lot less odd when reminding yourself that Bowie’s infamous ex-wife Angie supposedly found him in bed with Mick Jagger. But as an icon for the sexually different, Bowie’s role went far beyond his alleged bisexuality. It wasn’t just about what he proclaimed, it was about he presented himself too. Bowie’s the type of guy that can dress in drag such as on 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World cover, coquettishly cocking his head draped in long blonde curls (let us never forget that the man of many hairstyles was, at 17, founder of The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men). He’s the kind of artist unafraid to adopt the soft focus Hollywood glamour of 30s starlets, just as he did on 1971’s Hunky Dory (a clear nod to the moody shots of Marlene Dietrich like this one). And yet, somehow this glam Martian was a performer who all Earthlings admired—from straight dudes in suits to glitter-eyed gay boys.

Bowie first announced himself to the world with his eponymous ’67 debut as the very British, very pretty David Jones. His sound at the time a decidedly jaunty brand of psych-folk—just don’t put his name in the same sentence as “hippie,” a word he grew to detest. But, it wasn’t until ’69 with “Space Oddity” that he made his break into the mainstream, and the surreality within him began to emerge, leaving the old guard media flummoxed. On one 1972 episode of the BBC’s long-running live music show, The Old Grey Whistle Test, Bowie was intro-ed with a bemused voiceover which ran thusly: “This is the face the public wants… an ex-art student from Brixton who has turned himself into a bizarre self-constructed freak.” The same year legendary photographer Mick Rock snapped an electric live shot of Bowie simulating fellatio/flossing his teeth with some guitar strings, English music newspaper Melody Maker asked about Bowie’s affinity for women’s dresses, to which he responded, “Oh dear, you must understand that it’s not a woman’s—it’s a man’s dress.” Later in that same interview the singer exclaimed, “I’m not outrageous, I’m David Bowie.”

Glam rock embraced and celebrated androgyny, flamboyance, button-pushing and liberally applied makeup, but what’s remarkable about Bowie is that he didn’t remain trapped in the glittering amber of the genre. With his ever-changing guises he gave us the green light to explore our secret facets. Straight men could sashay with Ziggy, gay men could put on a suit and out-masculine everyone as the Thin White Duke. It’s practically moot to point out that his playful toying with imagery wouldn’t have had a mere smidgen of the impact it has, if Bowie’s music wasn’t as catchy as it was mind-warpingly progressive and emotionally resonant. Just revisit the Berlin Trilogy: as much as Bowie liked to downplay his skills as a musician, with these records he gave the world a sprawling masterpiece. Songs like “Always Crashing in the Same Car” revealed inner turmoil, messages of mental struggle that sound almost suicidal, of repeating mistakes and searching for identity. Low, the first in this triumvirate, is a sonic snapshot of his skin-shedding that would result in coming into a space to create Heroes, which communicates a much calmer and cohesive exhilaration.

In 1976 he gave an interview with Playboy where he stated: “It’s true—I am a bisexual. But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Fun, too.” He absolutely used it—in the way Mad Men portrayed Don Draper using his big-dicked sexual energy to cut swathes through the ad industry (and the ladies in his path). Nevertheless, it’s worth noting the bisexual identity is one he’d flip-flop on: at times he’d refer to himself as gay, then in 1983, he told Rolling Stone that coming out as bi was “the biggest mistake I ever made,” before going on to describe himself as a “a closet heterosexual.”

Labels aside, most biographies can agree he was experimental—and regarding sexuality, his exploration wasn’t simply regarding orientation. His infamously open relationship with Angie allegedly included a threesome on their wedding night according to one biography released last year, “Angie and David used to have the most amazing orgies.” Apparently they had a vast bed of called “The Pit.” Love didn’t have to fit in any box: it was much more “You like me and I like it all.” It didn’t even have to be a unary or static experience—love could be part of the equation of finding oneself. Forget love—David Bowie taught how to consistently fall in love, the hardest dragon to chase. And yeah, sex was part of this: Everyone wanted to fuck David Bowie and David Bowie made it OK to want to fuck everyone. Except to honor him only as an early champion of sexual and gender fluidity short-circuits his all-encompassing fluidity. With his ever-changing, always evolving image he made it OK to experiment not just with your sexuality, but with who you are. “It’s OK that in college I crossed state lines to see Phish and got a peace sign tattoo on my ass and now I look like a Kat Von D wannabe; I’m not borderline, I’m like David Bowie!”

Through my awkward and wild first years in New York City, flashes of memory include a 4 AM cuddle pile with both bi girls and bi boys, which went from simply masturbating to actually eating pussy, and then there was that one Halloween spent dressed as Ziggy Stardust, wobbling down the Westside Highway in the early hours with a buzzed brain to match. That night I’d wind up alone in the fetal position—“Rebel rebel, your face is a mess”—but I’d repeat the mantra: “If Bowie did it, it must be OK.” And as Bowie knew far too well—shedding your skin can be painful. “It’s OK to have had mental breakdowns and not leave my apartment for a week curled up on the floor screaming; David Bowie pulled that shit all the time in 1976.” Apparently he even kept his piss, hair, and nail clippings in his manager’s fridge because he thought someone was going to curse him. I even got his Aladdin Sane lightning bolt tattooed on my back. The tattoo artist reminded me also looked like the Gatorade logo halfway through. Ah the impulsivity of youth can be awkward.

Bowie would dip back into the dark place for Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)—often regarded to be a collage of his various personas and sounds thus far. He’d appear oddly conventional with 1983’s “Let’s Dance,” and well, yeah, yeah, there was that yellow sweater and goatee, and no one even talks about Tin Machine, but Bowie would grow up and impress again with 2002’s Heathen. His musical aesthetic and over-arching philosophical DNA is traceable from Boy Gorge to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, and today, when he drops shit—like yesterday’s creepy 10 minute video for “Blackstar”—everyone still pays attention. David Bowie is the rock god who neither burnt out nor faded away. For all his experimentation, he never apologized. He could use different labels to describe himself and his sexuality because that was his muse at the moment: he leaned into his inclinations with his whole thin frame. The fact that he sobered up and settled down and married Iman shouldn’t be taken as Bowie losing his edge. Who wants to bet the 68-year-old’s had Iman dress up like Ziggy and enjoyed enacting some really fucked up fantasies like, this week? Perhaps he was always a “closeted heterosexual”—who knows?—but in a world where people are now adopting and inventing increasingly complex labels from “demi-girl who identifies with the female binary” or “a graysexual panromantic transman,” labels which at times need more explaining than acting as an explainer, Bowie appears even more forward thinking. He learned long ago that a label or alliance will eventually mutate or be shrugged off, and that his strength is just existing as it pleases him there and then. For those who’ve felt the pains of society’s razor sharp cookie-cutter, Bowie is a beacon. Try this mantra: “I’m not outrageous, I’m David Bowie.”