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Bett Williams Walks Between Worlds

Bett Williams Walks Between Worlds

When Bett Williams, clad in her signature Stetson hat and cowboy boots, spoke in 2018 at Horizons, the annual “Psychedelics in Perspective” conference in New York City, she read a few tantalizing excerpts from her memoir-in-progress. Williams shared openly about her life in New Mexico as a queer aficionado of psilocybin mushrooms. She also spoke of her experience being invited to visit an Afrofuturist psychonaut community in Cleveland and Detroit spearheaded by Kai Wingo and her mentor Master Kilindi Iyi, proponents of high-dose mushroom journeys for transformational purposes. Williams’ language and live storytelling were as compelling as her new book The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey, published by Dottir Press.

The Wild Kindness does that thing that great books do:  gives the reader a peek into a world they would never otherwise have known. Come for the psychedelic trip tales, stay for the lesbian domestic drama. Tag along on excursions to specialized communities like what remains of Maria Sabina’s ceremonial adherents in Oaxaca, and marvel at the author’s knowledge of, and fierce respect for, Indigenous populations. Williams’s prose offers a world of gender fluidity and mycelial meandering mixed with  sharp political commentary and a biting critique of the mainstream psychedelic movement. This book excites and stimulates in a way that conjures Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, another beautifully written and hard-to-categorize text that took mundane descriptions of a highly specific personal life as a springboard for deep dives into a surprising array of smart and evocative philosophical considerations.

Although she has explored psychedelics, especially mushrooms, with a scholarly thoroughness, Williams presents herself as an adventurer more than an academic. Williams runs a center for arts and literature gatherings in New Mexico with her partner Beth Hill, and the two of them co-host the podcast called “No Cures, Only Alchemy.”  Verbal snapshots from their daily life form a grounded throughline to the book, including a few hair-raising scenes from legal battles with a crazy ex-girlfriend. She’s open about good and bad experiences tripping, and she casually offers perceptions that novice journeyers will eat up, such as what follows.

There’s nothing I can compare to the span of time between when a mushroom is ingested and when it starts to take effect. This is when we are the most vulnerable. It always feels like this part of the trip might be hugely important, like our attitude could make or break the entire night, but trying too hard can cause incredible anxiety. To fill this space with any sort of grandiose intent is just asking for the mushrooms to bitch-slap you.

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         Just sit back and wait.

         This.

         All your tender hearts who have ever sat like this, sacred and excited, waiting for the entity to arrive. This is real courage.

She’s a serious student of plant medicine but not precious about it, and she’s far from a rah-rah psychedelic cheerleader. In passages like the following, she draws awareness to the larger scope of things:

You know what we all need more than psychedelic mushrooms? Clean water for everyone is what we need, and a good sense of humor, collective hard work, and an ability to chill and appreciate the moment, even when things are hard. Substances, no matter how powerful, can’t compare to basic awareness and an ethical worldview. It’s not the substance but how we employ the substance in service to an ethic that gets results.

Her pilgrimage to North Dakota to stand with the Water Protectors during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016-17 inspired a long blog post (reprinted in the book) called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being at Standing Rock,” which contains instructions for white people attending Indigenous ceremonies. Her non-linear account reflects how the personal and the political intertwine, especially in the ambivalent realm of social media:

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Nothing speaks love and fixes things like going oceanic…Occupy was a brief moment in time when we could collectively set aside what divided us in favor of a utopian spirit that permeated our spaces. Then Occupy was defeated. The new reality was impossible student loans; call-out culture; Abilify and Adderall; trigger warnings; PTSD; GoFundMes; safe spaces; paying rent in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York; Tinder; and MFA or Die. It was years past the time when we found each other on personal blogs. Now anything we wrote on the internet just fed the monster that was Google and we couldn’t pretend otherwise. We said we would quit Facebook, but none of us ever did. No one was equipped to go oceanic anymore, not in real time, not in actual rooms.

Williams’ book questions a lot of social norms emerging from the psychedelic renaissance with plain-spoken self-awareness and sophisticated analysis.  

This is a book that travels intrepidly among the worlds of literature, pop culture, public life, and diaristic self-examination. Williams’ admiration for Joan Didion shows up directly and indirectly. She offers reading lists and YouTube recommendations. She attends a concert by West Texas art icon Terry Allen and is so starstruck she can’t speak. When she meets Kathleen Harrison, psychedelic authority and ex-wife of Terrence McKenna, she at least summons the nerve to ask one question and not be crushed by the answer. 

The Wild Kindness joins a growing bookshelf of smart, well-written personal accounts of psychedelic venturing, up there with James Oroc’s Tryptamine Palace and Matthew Pallamary’s Spirit Matters. I predict that neuroatypical psychedelic queer fans are going to be carrying this book around as a cultural touchstone for years to come. (The pocket-sized paperback is perfectly designed for that purpose.) It’s a totally fun read that lots of people are going to enjoy.

The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Journey
By Bett Williams
317 pp. Dottir Press. $19.95.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Williams runs a center for arts and literature gatherings in New Mexico, not a healing center.

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