Yes, I know this Spring Equinox missive is late. I was in Warwick, Rhode Island at “Sharing the Fire,” the New England region’s annual storytelling conference, when the moment of transformation (1:32 EDT) arrived. In what has been a long, dark winter of sorrow and loss, spring could not have come too soon.
In fact, at 1:32 EDT I was 20 minutes into my workshop on “Framing Stories as Advocacy” and quite possibly at the very moment where the woman said, “I didn’t know this was going to be political!” and walked out of the room. Perhaps she did not read the description which began with “The Axiom that “He who frames the issue, controls the issue” or did not think I meant it literally. I did. But just as the Vernal Equinox signifies the overthrow of winter in favor of the hope and new growth, this workshop which I had also done at the beginning of the month at the “Nurturing Stories” conference in Milwaukee, is about the importance of stories in moving political and social issues from the realm of polemic and data to that of shared understanding. It is the experience I want folks to have after they have done the “Stories of the Other: A Dialogue on Race, Sex and Class” workshop that approaches prejudice and diversity from our own lives. That workshop gives us a chance to tell our story and be heard in a nonjudgmental context. “Framing Stories” gives us useful tools for shaping those stories and the stories that are imbedded in issues we are passionate about into artful and meaningful messages.
Here is what I understand: that yesterday after a full weekend of sharing, listening, learning, good conversations, and bad New England driving, after the flight back from Boston, after the unpacking, after a little grilled chicken with crisp skin and moist meat, cooked on the bar-b-que and served on a fresh tortilla with avocado; I laid down on my bed and slept from 7:30 to 7:30, a full twelve hours. It was an act of rebalancing. It was a response to the joy of too little time with a community I love and too much stress getting to and from. It was the longest uninterrupted sleep I’ve had since the end of Daylight Savings time.
It was mostly a dreamless sleep or perhaps more accurately, one in which the nightly replaying of images, values, actions, relationships that are mostly “what if” and alternative explorations of our lives was innocuous enough to be unremembered. Which is more than I can say about the dream I had the night before the Vernal Equinox. That dream was and is vivid.
I dreamt I was at a conference, not unlike the one I was at, except that it also seemed to have the long haired “let my freak flag fly” elements of a Rainbow Family gathering mixed with the long-ago days with the Circle of Water Circus feel. People from almost every stage of my life were coming in and out of a large tent. Melisande and Marceline from the work with the Minneapolis Arts Commission. Kris Nelson, with his lean frame and unkempt beard, looking like he did on the trip we took through the Indiana of his boyhood, which in stories I call, the Purgatory Vacation. A laughing white bearded Gregory and my spiritual doppelganger, Mad Donald, were there from my years with the Christian Brothers.
It seemed that if I were to look out of the tent I would see the familiar landscape of Winona from the Novitiate from that time or when I lived the “back to the land” farm life. The great river seemed to be just out of view but I could feel the call of it’s sweeping current.
There was a moment in the dream when I was sure that I was still with the Circus. Spirit Kevin, Marie and Maj Britt appearing as Swedish acrobats, and Loren “red beard” Kellen, were there for the meal and the performance. They were carrying me on their shoulders past the tables set with bar-b-que, headed towards an arched stage that actually seemed like another version of the Balls/Southern Theater space.
In the dream I was dying and I knew it. Everyone knew it. So there was going to be a celebration, a great wake before I passed, with food and performances. Strangely, I cannot remember any storytellers or any of my significant others (ex-wives or girlfriends) being in this dream. (The morning after I dreamt this, Michael Parent asked if he could have a chance “to influence the missive.” Yes, Michael you can but according to the illogic of dreams, not in this section.) Storytellers and significant others should have populated this dream but perhaps I had unconsciously left them to the necessary stories and performances after I was actually dead.
Those phantoms of my long, strange trip through this life in this luminal space were drumming and dancing, juggling and calling for me to tell the story of my life; the story of my death. So I stood up and told a story; the story of MItterand’s last meal.
Oh, Wolf, she said, let me bite you.
Bite me? Really? Sniff for sniff? Nuzzle for nuzzle? Lick for lick? Bite for bite? Down to the flesh? Down to the bone?
Yes, she said I am very hungry.
I was driving from Minneapolis to Chicago, or the other way around, on one of those snowy days when the flakes come down singular, white, silver-dollar flakes falling with a soft plop against the windshield. It was not a heavy snow but it was messy and the car was already skidding across the surface of the road at 55 - 60 miles an hour. In the rearview mirror I could see an 18 wheeler coming up behind me fast, 70 - 80 miles an hour, its lights wildly careening through the storm and as it passed it sprayed the windshield with the heavy black slush. In that moment, as the windshield wipers struggled to clear a view and the car slid sideways, I was catapulted to another time, to another moment when I had stopped in Milwaukee to see my lover; to tell her that it was over.
We were having lunch in a German restaurant when she began weeping into her borscht. I had not yet spoken a word but her tears fell in profusion as she lamented the death of her favorite aunt. The woman who had inspired her was gone and there was no consolation. I held her hand and bit my tongue as she wept. Later when the pretense of a meal was over I drove aimlessly around until she was ready to be left her at her office, never once having heard the words I had intended to speak.
Driving away I turned on the radio. It was "This American Life" with Ira Glass. It was the "Poultry Show". Not much caught my attention until they came to the story of Mitterrand's last meal. Francois Mitterrand, the President of France, was dying of cancer when he called together thirty-two of his closest friends for a last dinner. They sat at one table eating the courses of oysters, rich pate foi gras, drinking the fine wines followed by pastel colored sorbets to cleanse the palate. All working towards the penultimate course.
Mitterrand sat at a table by himself, would eat a bite or two, sip a little then pass out. They let him sleep until the next course was served. Finally it was the last course, the serving of roast Ortolan, a small French songbird. It is illegal to prepare and eat. This is the traditional provenance of kings that had been banned since the Revolution. By custom, when this forbidden meal is eaten, it is consumed with a napkin over one's head so that "God and France may not see your shame".
The bird itself is small, about the size of your thumb. It is captured live, force fed and then drowned in cognac before in this plucked and baked whole. It is customary to eat the bird in entirety, organs, bones and all.
Ira Glass is interviewing a writer who described Mitterrand's last meal for Esquire magazine and who later tried it to duplicate it. He had to call hundred chefs before he would find one who would agree to cook it but placed the stipulation on it that the writer could not eat the head; that he had to put it back on the plate as the chef still had some scruples
Ira asks what was it like and the writer said it was white. “My entire field of vision was concentrated, surrounded by the white napkin, the plate came to me, also white, and on that plate, under the napkin, the small brown speck emanating the intense aroma of the roasted Ortolan.
I picked the bird up, bite off the head, which I spit back onto the plate and began to chew. The first taste was of meat so sweet and delicate I had never experienced anything like it before. Suddenly there was the burst of hot liqueur from inside the bird, scalding the back of my throat. Then it got harder. There was the bitter taste of the organs but I continued to chew. Finally I was chewing the bones and I had to decide whether or not I should swallow or spit them out, but I had come this far and did not want to be shamed, so I swallowed.”
The writer went on to say that if every meal had to be eaten with as much consciousness as that one we would starve to death. It certainly was the case for Mitterrand who ate the Ortolan and then let nothing else pass his lips. He died three days later. At his funeral, his wife stood on one side of his casket and his mistress and his daughter by her on the other.
It is raining as I'm listening to this. I roll the window down and the late November smell of Lake Michigan fills the car. There is a potent mix of dead fish, seaweed, wet concrete, diesel, the decay of autumn at the very moment a semi comes by; sprays the windshield with gray water obscuring my vision. The windshield wipers struggle to keep up. The car shudders.
All the while I'm thinking about what it is to eat the bird. Thinking what it is to swallow, to taste life complete, -- the sweet flesh, the bitter organs and bone. I taste my own desire and in that moment all I can do is think to myself, how good it is to be alive/
Oh, Wolf, she said, let me bite you.
Bite me? Really? Sniff for sniff? Nuzzle for nuzzle? Lick for lick? Down to flesh? Down to bone?
Yes, she said I am very hungry.
And even in the dream state, as I was telling it, I understood its meaning in a way that I have never understood before. It was the story of my life precisely because it is a story of acknowledging death; of swallowing the bitter after the sweet. Down to the flesh. Down to the bone.
When I woke up I retraced the dream, image and feeling, knowing that I would want to share it with you.
Because the truth of dreams carries over into the truth of waking and as I said it has been a hard winter. For many of us, a winter of death; of mothers, fathers, sisters-in-law, friends, students, fellow workers lost and mourned while we labor to make this world a better place. Many a tear has been shed. Loves lost are mourned and missed as we see the chair where they used to set or find the photograph we had forgotten.
Many a hope postponed in the face of the political intransigency, fear and rumor. We continue on as we can and as we must, amid the carnage of this stubborn recession and month after difficult month of unemployment. We look for work knowing that there will be a hundred or more applications for every opening. The bank balances creep towards nothing. There is still food to be put on the table and gas in the tank of cars we cannot afford to live with or without.
Our grief is universal and personal.
My grief is the loss of a mother who tried to be for her children what she had never known as an orphan. Whose faith let her see angels and welcoming saints in her final days and let me see crows bowing to the casket as it was brought into the church for the final time. My grief is for not enough work and not enough money for the work I do have. But that is an old complaint shared by every artist and low wealth person I know.
Spring is come and within a day of it’s arrival 219 votes. Hope returns with the first step towards health care as a right and not a privilege. Hooray! Spring is come and with it the first greening of the grass, the opening of the windows, or the alignment of the wheels after one too many rough rides over pothole strewn streets. Spring has come and the heavy parka is put away. For the brave or the foolish, the shorts and sandals come out. March Madness brings Tennessee orange to the hotel where we are staying for “Sharing the Fire.” They are giddy on Friday and sullen on Saturday after Ohio sends them home. Spring training begins and we, who live in the Twin Cities, look to a new stadium and Joe Mauer’s eight-year contract as a sign that all might be right with the world.
It does not take much to lighten the spirit. I look at Michael Parent’s bald pink head flanked by a white tonsure (as they monks might call it) and beard. His eyes twinkle as he asks, if he can influence the missive. Yes, you can. So can Bill Harley as he quotes someone English woodworker whose name I’ve forgot but whose idea that we should support a “workmanship of risk” strikes me as a very worthy notion. I’m all for a craft that is specific and carries with it the tender balance between the nuanced touch that makes it art or a lesson in what should have, could have, would have been a better choice. I’m all for the elegantly and elementally beautiful mica clay cooking pots that Mary Stewart makes by hand and fires in her wood stove. It is precisely the kind of craft that Bill was speaking of. I’m all for the risk of MassMouth’s creating wildly successful story slams being rewarded with the recognition of the Brother Blue and Ruth Hill award. Hooray!
On Sunday after Sharing the Fire was done, Mare and I went to Mills Tavern in Providence. Sitting at the bar we had twelve briney, almost sweet in their aftertaste, oysters; a tower of fresh crab salad with rutabagah (as they spelled it) and succulent sweetbreads with braised cauliflower. Hooray! A martini and some local culture conversation with Marsha, the recently unemployed but cheerful food industry worker brightened our spirit. Hard as the winter has been, we cherish these moments when sun and warmth pierce the day and the unexpected gift of good food or conversation or 219 votes for the sake of the least of our brethren are at hand. It is enough.
All my best to you... May you green and grow, shedding the dead skin of the longing for the fecund time of becoming and being renewed again.