pulitzer prize-luminary commended author
Note: Ash Faith passed away on June 8, 2018.
THE CYBER-PUNK YOGI:
THE FAITH OF ASH FAITH
The Cyber-Punk Yogi is Ash Faith. The Cyber-Punk Yogi was once Luis-Rafael.
I first met Ash at one of my book readings. Struck by this young, wiry guy with a cane and speech impairment, I felt an immediate camaraderie. In his twenties, not only did he look like he had waltzed through flames with sunglasses on -- in other words, too-cool-for-school -- but his face showed a steely determination only survivor-warriors could have. Plus, I had also thought he was another Indian American, which was great, as I had yet to meet someone of my own race placed in the situation of finding life past death. It was only later I found out that he was not an Indian American, but the son of Peruvian immigrants. Still, at that moment of my survival process, I was stuck in a suffocating world of whiteness, so this mattered. We became friends, and the more I knew him, the more impressed I became.
Ash, I subsequently discovered, was born with the name Luis-Rafael. And, after defining himself as a "Cyber-Punk Yogi," he is now the emerging underground author behind the upcoming book Laddie Stardust, as well as an artist, poet, and model in New York City.
He is also a survivor of extreme, physically-debilitating brain injury and has battled a genetic neurological disorder throughout his entire life.
After successfully having a brain tumor removed a little while ago, he has nonetheless just been diagnosed with brain cancer, and is fighting it with the same strength and determination he has fought all of his other challenges.
The following is the interview in which I learned about the definition of a “Cyber-Punk Yogi”, the battleground of a brain injury soldier, spirituality, art, punkdom, and, ultimately, what made a boy named Luis-Rafael turn into a man named Ash Faith.
AR: Please let us know how, and when, you got your brain injury. What was the extent of it? The aftermath?
AF: Well for starters, I had experienced Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs) at a super young age. The earliest episode I remember was at age 11. I had a spur of 2-3 episodes one weekend and funny enough, they’ve only been diagnosed as ‘Hypotonia’—a mere symptom of the bigger picture. TIAs are basically mini strokes that appear & disappear, with the grueling snap of a finger. In my experience, body parts would go numb and I would start speaking like a flounder with no sense of vocabulary or coherency.
In between 2009 and 2010, I was simultaneously diagnosed with PTSD and a neurological condition called CMT (Charcot Marie Tooth) AKA HSMN (Hereditary Sensory Motor Neuropathy. I had no idea what neuropathy even was at the time, but what I did know was that smoking weed before exercising could strengthen me more physically while stabilizing any PTSD adrenaline responses.
Then weeks after graduating from college in 2010, after a road trip to Vermont, I just knew that I needed an upgrade—not realizing what would ensue.
The day after returning, my bestbud Supergirl, and this guy we knew, decided to go to a free show in Randall’s Island. I don’t remember much of that day except being at an annoying Starbucks line, and later on drifting off with my sister Marisol, to bond with some soul talk while chilling against a glistening fountain. She asked me if I wanted to go back home with her to the Bronx, but I just thought that napping in the backseat of this guys’ car was the right way to go.
AR: Obviously it wasn’t.
AF: (Laughing) That’s an understatement. Yes, by the time I woke up from my ‘post midnight-minivan power nap’, Supergirl was in the front seat next to the driver, whom was getting stubborn about driving safely. Before I knew it, he crashed into a pole in the pouring rain, and me being bundled up in the backseat, went through the window; sheering both my brain & skull while flying out of sight into the woods. Supergirl was a bit injured and shaken up, yet somehow got out of the car to search the woods for me. The cops and power medics arrived and word on the street was that I flew into Westchester Medical, were I then entered a trippy 2 month coma that was kinda ethereal like a Switchblade Symphony song, with my first words coming into consciousness and life, being:
“FUCK! I’m late to work!”
By then, I was in Helen Hayes hospital, where after being only conscious for 2 weeks, I was transferred to a rehab called Park Terrace for 3 months. The next step was getting out... and deciding to pave a path beyond disability.
AR: Upon awaking from the coma what were the brain injury changes you felt?
AF: Well ,aside from thinking I overslept and was late to work, my speech and mobility felt STRANGE to me. Even though I had been diagnosed with neuropathy beforehand, I just could couldn't rationalize why I was now having a brace wrapped around my chest and why on earth I was now in diapers and being tube fed -- wondering if I'd be able to workout again; and why the fuck I sounded so funny!
Ironically enough, I wasn't at peace with my TBI phonics until 5 years later-- after getting Brain Surgery.
I still can't believe I was 23 when the entire event happened.
AR: What a terrifying experience for anyone to have, let alone at 23! And as you mentioned, in addition to the brain injury, you were also born with CMT or HMSN (Hereditary Sensory Motor Neuropathy). What do you feel is the difference between having a biological ailment versus a behavioral one?
AF: Biologically, it’s still a mystery. Physically, the condition was realized yet unlabeled and left a mystery, until 2010. If it weren’t for the ongoing expansion of the information age, I wonder if I would’ve even been officially diagnosed. Behaviorally, always being referred to as a femme/fag/or pansy with zip strength since childhood, fueled me to challenge social norms by challenging the status quo.
AR: You’ve recently been diagnosed with brain cancer. Please tell us the process in which you were told.
AF: To begin with, I was told literally after getting out of the bathroom. My Neuro-surgeon Dr. Jafar, stood right in front of me, asking: “Where’s your Mom?”
I may be brain injured, and obviously loopy after Brain Surgery, but I sure as shit replied with a sensible coherency of “HUH!?...She’s at work…what’s up?
He then throws the words ‘biopsy’, ’aggressive’, ‘Oncologist’, ‘Chemo’, ‘Radiation’, ‘GLIOBLASTOMA (triggering a flashback of an old school favorite Industrial album by Velvet Acid Christ’ called, Neuroblastoma), to the word mix, only to introduce me to a Dad and Daughter Doctor Duo with the last name Gerber, who are giving me nothing more than a wide smile before I can even sit down on my bed.
My boyfriend was literally looking on from right outside my room, just as confused.
With everything happening, the Doctors did NOT even have the decency to say that what I have is Cancer, but simply emphasized on ‘ CHEMO’ and ‘RADIATION’. So after zoning out and daydreaming of Atomic Bomb Attacks, I looked at each and every one of them straight in the eye and said:
“Where’s the Weed?”
AR: Sounds like your doctors had little to no bedside manners. I can relate; I remember that the inhumanity of the doctors often eclipsed the pain of my illness itself. So after the plea for mary jane, what happened?
AF: Dr. Jafar just told me that before I got crazy with weed I’d need chemo and radiation. The Gerber docs just smiled again, wishing me a good day, before they all left.
Then after breaking the news to my boyfriend, the paramedics randomly arrived, leaving us FURTHER confused. The P-squad brought us to the NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases, were I would be staying for the next couple of weeks.
I didn’t even find out what ‘Glioblastoma’ was until my speech therapist there helped me look it up in a basic about.com article, as well as helping me develop questions about it.
After meeting again with Daughter Doctor Gerber and her assistant, in a meeting that included both my parents & nurse at the hospital I was in-- I was basically told that I’d have to ingest Chemo pills like Tylenol for a few weeks, IN ADDITION to 30 Radiation sessions.
Doctor Gerber excused herself to connect me with an NYU Radiologist, a few floors above. By the time I returned after using the bathroom, Dr. Gerbers’ assistant was gone leaving just Mom and me alone in the room. In a very gracefully objective way, my own mother looked at me straight in the eye to say that while I was gone, the assistant informed her of the prognosis that my time on earth had been shortened greatly.
Fully empathizing with her for even imagining the horrors of sharing such news to her first-born son, no less, I respond with:
“Okay. Where’s the Coffee?”
AR: Asking for a nice cup of Joe must have really hit the spot then, I suppose. Did your experience get any better after your request for caffeine?
AF: No way! We got to the waiting room, where she brewed me a Hazelnut coffee with graham cracker cookies. I got “Parateam” placed onto a stretcher to meet the radiation doctor; realizing his presence as a more enjoyable experience since he had enough bedside manners to give anyone confidence.
I asked questions which I voiced in the meeting earlier.
He answered each as eloquently as possible, keeping it both real with the prognosis yet also assuring me that he’s also met survivors.
AR: How are you handling cancer so far?
AF: I know what I’m up against and I can only choose to progress rather than be devoured by it. My gratitude has never soared so high. I intend to live each moment to its fullest and not bow down to bullshit.
AR: What have been the challenges in your Radiation and Chemo treatments?
AF: Thankfully I’m able to participate in a research study at Sloan Kettering, where they administer FDA-approved Chemo to me two times a month while researching its effects on my immune system.
Radiation therapy is a 5-minute process, yet the daily process of getting there door to door was close to 3 hours. Luckily, my therapists allowed me to brew a ‘Ride’, ‘Pantera’, & Alcest station at Pandora, upon treatment. I also thought it best to receive my home therapies (occupational, physical, and speech), while applying Rock & Roll and Heavy Metal shows as a recipe for recovery. I’m glad to say that as of this new week, I’ve graduated most of the above!
I was also totally blessed to be given a ticket to the Dalai Lama’s birthday party, courtesy of The Interdependence Project, where I then realized that radiation CAN help eradicate shame, even when some of your hair falls out overnight.
AR: You’re an artist and writer. Please describe your art and writings.
AF: Artistically, I’m a poet that chooses to be unbound by lived experience. I’m REALLY grateful that one of my earliest memories was learning how to read and, also, the innate drive to write. Currently, I’m on a hiatus from Art Modeling, which is something I’ve been doing for a decade. I LOVE making collages, scoping surreal art, and writing 5 books at once by handwriting, transcribing, and/or transforming into shared substance.
My first 3 books are called ‘Laddie Stardust’, ‘Freeze’, and ‘Jay Gaze’. They’re each “functional fictions” that are sources of lived experiences that tackle themes of daring innocence, renegade intellect, and boundless blossoming.
The other 2 books are narratives that stem from lived experience, while keeping it as real & raw as possible, via critiquing, ethnography, and epistemology---poetically. They’ll be called ‘Indust’ & ‘Cult Shock’.
Both works explore coming of age at the turn of the century, while also being captivated by various perspectives and bounded beliefs via Post Modern Society.
AR: How have your treatments affected your art?
AF: They charged my lived experience, both literally and figuratively. The only difference between the injury itself and the brain surgery that took place is a tumor invading my brain. Thankfully it’s been taken out and I bear no hostility that it held me both, physically and mentally hostage--even when it took me 5 minutes to say a line about anything. During the last days of its growth (which I directly felt during a power nap after screening 'Poltergeist 2: The Other Side'), I sent an email to my mentors & loved ones, telling them I’ve chosen to adopt a sense of "Tumor Compassion", hoping anyone could muster a shred of it on my behalf.
AR: What are your spiritual beliefs?
AF: Keep it sky wide, wise, and REAL. I’ve been studying Buddhism for the past three years and connect with Zen through Zip Regrets. I’ve also been a Catholic School kid and Altar Boy until I was 12. I can’t say that’s always been a piece of ‘Holy cake’…but thankfully, I grew alongside it and can just honor it from a distance with zip animosity, aside from any obvious corruption.
AR: How has Eastern spirituality affected you? Do you feel this has been a healing process?
AF: Meditation and yoga have been an anchoring expansion for me.
I officially got into it in the Fall of ’07, when I started practicing Kundalini yoga with a Highland Falls local and a couple of friends who lived in the nearby area. Of course, we smoked a bunch each time we met, anchoring our meditations with sensation over substance.
’08 was cool and then the craziness that was 2009 and 2010 kicked in, leaving me under wraps for a minute. Thankfully, I got my ass back up and started outpatient rehab at NYU between 2011-2012. Since cognitive therapy consisted of the doctor showing his face once a month anyway, I realized I’d rather meet with his students at a nearby Starbucks & call it ‘Cognitive’ therapy instead, before deciding to drop it. After realizing Health insurance at 25 and 26 as OBSCENE, by taking away all the other therapies actually needed, I luckily connected with an NYU Physical Therapist, who taught me Tai-Chi during all of this where I then had a driving epiphany:
Fuck being a disabled scapegoat, I’m just going to meditate into recovery and not be bound by nonsense.
AR: So one could say this was the creation of Ash the yogi. Where did you go from there?
AF: I dropped out and started the next chapter of my life by practicing meditation with the help of disciples for a guru named Sri Chinmoy. I was able to take the subways again because I dared myself to after being ditched by both Access-a-Ride and other Ambulette services, and by choosing to meditate in motion by going up and down some stairs, if there was no elevator. Then when I got the blunt reality check that meditating with someone’s ‘disciples’ meant becoming one, I was dismissed as a non-believer.
Funny enough, when I was invited to their last Meditation session, I was the only one left interested in meditating with them, to show up.
I pregamed my frustrations by going to a cafe. When all of a sudden, next to the brown sugar was a flyer for a meditation group called The Interdependence Project.
I just remember thinking “YUSH! I don’t have to wear all white, claim celibacy, or argue with a disciple for wearing cute skull and cross bones socks, having a sex drive at 25, and they’re also a block from the coffee shop!”
I saw that their next class was only a few days later, so I walked up a steep leviathan of stairs to get to the 2nd floor entrance with a cane, finally introducing myself:
“Hey guys. My name is Ash, nice to meet you.”
AR: How did your family react to your unofficial conversion from a born-and-bred Catholic into an urban yogi entrenched in the philosophies of Hinduism and Buddhism?
AF: Honestly, my family was either fascinated or scared by me watching horror movies, blasting Heavy Metal, and not being ‘athletic’ at such a young age, than they were concerned for me not following “rules” while attending Catholic School/rocking Altar Boy stats. They were more focused on my education, so when they feared for me to stray and embrace a hellish drug addicted gay dark side, they were relieved that I just embraced studying Buddhist or Hindu light philosophy in my 20’s. They mainly just struggled accepting my sexuality for a little bit, however I think that just ended up being a cultural chip more than anything. I also associate Heavy Metal with a sense of divinity.
AR: Tell us why, and how, Luis-Rafael became Ash Faith. Why that specific name?
AF: In honor of both my grandfathers, my official name is Luis-Rafael Baglietto. However, family and friends growing up always called me ‘Rafael’, plus I loved the name taste of it for as long as I could remember.
My peers nicknamed me 'Raf', around 3rd or 4th grade and that name still sticks within circles of family and friends.
After going back home, I adopted this weird complex of anonymity and privacy--adding both a sense of burden to both my name and being. I guess we can call it an 'existential crisis'. Whatever. Thankfully I'm totally over it.
I chose the name ‘Ash Faith’ to honor my roots rather than dampening them with darkness. I created the name while meditating at a flower garden, in the former NYU Rusk location. By that point, I was meditating at the garden very frequently while discovering a sense of mindful survivorship & coping. All I remember is that after insurance companies proving to be far from any candy fused joyride, I chose to just meditate over it when –BAM! I just spoke the words ‘Ash Faith’, able to embody it in a matter of days.
AR: And now, on to the inquiry we’ve all been waiting for! You call yourself a “Cyber-Punk Yogi.” Can you please explain what it means?
AF: I began to learn about the Transhumanism movement (composed of Cyborg, Zombie, Punk, & Post-human theories) in college. As a budding poet and sociologist, I deeply identified with its concepts, as a metaphor for existing within any landscape while defying numerous conditions.
As a way to cope, I would disguise my disability by just telling some folks that " I guess this means I'm nothing more than a “cyborg zombie". With my growing connection to spirituality and meditation, I then became aware of daydreaming the name 'Cyber-Punk Yogi.’
Part of the spiritual essence, regardless of whatever side you choose to lean towards, is having a sense of compassionate respect for both, self and other. That’s it! Everyone's entitled to their opinion whether or not they choose to practice anything or drift to discover something. I feel that as a human being, some of us can be so lucky to experience any sense of ' variety' or ‘disbelief’; however I've also learned that being attached to any ideal is just fucking dangerous. So whether you’re a Cyborg, Yogi, or Punk Rocker influenced by timeless renegades of all sorts—you become the one that sets your own score.
AR: Thanks for the delightful interview, Ash. You definitely fill the title of “Renegade Survivor”. We'll end with perhaps the most important question: What, do you feel, is your Karma?
AF: Shifting my perspective from Warriorship to Mastery and Transcending Trauma through Awareness for the Moment. Honestly, I don’t really know what my karma is, except that I feel truly blessed for being both human and boundless at 28, while having gone through so much.
I used to think of Karma as a concept accessory, that either originates from recent actions or generations of family. Whatever the case is, Karma is what you make of it.
In retrospect, being traumatically brain Injured with cancer, disabled, rocking out at concerts, embracing quality heavy metal and other eclectic flavors, and choosing to honor a sense of drive until the end... this feels divine. This is my karma.