Professional Storyteller

Share a Story - Change the World

Friends, 12/21/09 - 11:47 CST

“How blue the darkening sky, bruised to plum and then to the black of old stage curtains.” That’s how some of you have suggested I start this one. And so I will. It is appropriate as this moment finds me considering the sadness that has welled up these last weeks. Family. Work. Politics. Call it what it is. The bad news outweighs the good and hope becomes a rare commodity. The words of comfort, plentiful and heartfelt as they are, feel false... Not that I don’t appreciate the effort of friends to offer consolation, hope or a shoulder to cry on but in the realm of our sorrow they feel more shadow than substance. This becomes the winter of our discontent, the dark and cold time. As the old story goes, "this too will pass" but I hear myself saying, not soon enough

Before you abandon this missive for something more festive and sugar plum give me another sentence or two. Before I detail the shadow of heart that is this moment (assuming there is a value in naming the demons in hopes to having power over them) let me say that this is not being written as self-pity or complaint. This is the reporting of the map of my aggrieved heart in the fallow season.

I have been here before. Felt the unrelenting and seemingly unbearable press of depression and sadness, grief and fear. In the moment when it was blackest; when I considered criminal acts and rage a reasonable response, I was lucky and able to restrain myself or be restrained by others with more perspective. Would it be the case for all of us in our hour of need, I did not kill or die. Had the terrible moment pass and came out scarred and perhaps surprised to find some sense of faith, hope and charity still present. Came to a fragile accommodation with grief, depression, and loss that let me find that necessary dollop of love, comfort, enough money or work to sustain me/us. Often it began with a moment of joy that would expand and fill the dark void.

The examples that come to mind begin in Winter’s cold.

Back in the days on the farm when the truck blew a rod after the blizzard dropped 18 inches of snow. Gregory, Michael and I were living on food stamps and holiday party hors derives. The temp was -20 and though we were contentiously feeding wood into the stove we could not heat anything more than the kitchen. Week after week of cold prompted the mice to complain as they huddled beneath the stove. It settled in the bones, and yet, we found time to laugh, to stand bundled in army surplus parkas in the snowdrift looking at the Winter stars, savored a cup of coffee laced with whiskey, filled the kitchen with the aroma of good soup on the stove and good bread in the oven (even if it could not properly rise in the cold). They don’t make winters like that anymore.

Back in the days of illegal living in the downtown loft when the boiler kicked off I would have to take the freight elevator down to the basement to start it up again. Push that lever (sans engineer’s license or instructions) and hope for the hiss of the gas flame, the clank of steam rising up seven floors of pipes without blowing anything up. My starter marriage to Lori (before she changed her name to Lauren) was in the same state, matching good intentions and sheer luck to the faltering economics of too many expenses and not enough work. Still we bought a “too big for any normal house” very crooked 16 foot Christmas tree on the cheap. We hoisted it up the alley side of the building and through the double window to stand proudly once we got the tie lines affixed. We decorated the tree with Polaroid’s of friends and family and tinsel cut from torn Mylar reflectors. We might have had a night of sitting at the kitchen table in our coats as the wind rattled the windows but the sight of the tinsel moving in that breeze was beautiful.

Speaking of Christmas trees, back in the days of grief after my daughter Hannah’s death, Nicole and I went to NYC on a Christmas PR junket and stayed in one of those 5th Avenue 4 star hotels whose dark wood and gloomy halls matched our mood. We wandered the frosty decorated blocks inured to the city’s joy until we found a discarded pine bough on the street. Once it was put into a vase and decorated with earrings made a lovely fragrant marker for the season. We took our Christmas Eve meal with my dear friend, Melisande, in Kenneth’s narrow SoHo loft. Wine and conversation flowed freely before the night ended with a long cab ride across Manhattan and an Iranian at the wheel telling us he hoped to pick up (a) Santa before the night was over. On Christmas day we ate in a Chinese restaurant with a handful of Israeli tourists and foreign students before crossing snowy Central Park to attend the Big Apple Circus. The tent was warm, semi-dark, filled with the smell of apple cider and freshly made popcorn. It was comfort enough.

That was 20 years ago. There were no presents that year except to be with each other and our heartbroken silences. We cried a lot that trip at the thought of Hannah, at the hearing of her name on some passing stranger’s lips as he called to his child, in every candle light church or the sitting in the crowd of parents with happy children presented us. I imagined that I would let that sadness go someday but I can call it up now as real and tearful as it was then. Now I expect that it will always be with me and joined to or by the grief of other deaths past, present, and future. Death comes frequently and still we pretend it will not come at all. What has changed is the recognition that grief is but a piece of my life, intertwined with the blessings, joys, the splendid pleasures of the flesh that are the other half of human emotion.

In the present here is the geography of life’s inequities needing to be offset with blessings, joys and small pleasures:

My mother has not died yet. She is still in the hospital with a load of morphine to manage her pain. She has a fractured disk, pneumonia and an infection being managed with antibiotics. She goes in and out of the present, sometimes recognizing her children, sometimes not, seeing angels and spirits that passed over long ago. She is somewhere along the long curve of oblivion that is dying. My father was wearing down trying to take care of her and now is wearing down trying to keep her in this world.

Hospice care at home and the slow comfort of a pain managed morphine death is yet to come… (it did come on Christmas Eve) The hard conversations about the future that we have had before and backed away from came back on the table and were decided. Not whether she will live and with what kind of quality of life, but where will she die and with what quality of death. After that: a casket not cremation; burial at Fort Snelling not Hibbing.

The circumstance of hard decisions and the family struggling to do what is right is not mine alone, but is replicated in variations on a theme for many of you.

You, who wrote me notes of condolence and offered prayers. You, who have parents, siblings, relatives and friends who have passed and offer your witness and your sorrow. You, who have parents struggling to pierce the veil of consciousness or struggling to stay in this world. We all share the anger and fear, the worry and wonder of what dreaded decisions must be made when and by whom out of love or compassion.

Mare’s is in the 58th week of unemployment. In that time she has interviewed for a half dozen jobs, her hopes for a paycheck and health benefits rising with each one only to be crushed when someone else is hired. While she continues to look savings and self-esteem shrink; a low-grade malaise laced with the fear that the money will be gone before there is a paycheck settles in. What next, she asks, what next?

Her brother is in the hospital suffering a mixture of acute depression and suicidal intention. He is in acute emotional pain and she is as well at the thought that he is suffering. “What did he do to deserve this?” she asks. No answer satisfies because if you say “He doesn’t deserve this” or “Life is unfair” while it might be true it will not change the circumstances of his suffering or the fact of that unfairness. That circumstance is not hers alone, but is replicated is all you who know the pain of depression, mental illness, addiction, the panic that follows falling off your meds, the fear and postponement of treatment that is mark of not having health insurance, or the callousness of judgment that comes from being the wrong race, class, gender, sexual orientation or religion that lets the few prosper and the many suffer in our America.

I posted this a while ago: “As of 2006, 400 Americans had as much wealth as the bottom 57 million. To put that in perspective, the amount of people you could fit in one small auditorium have as much wealth as the population of the bottom 28 states. Not only is this wealth inequity obscene, it is not good for the country.” The fact of it drives my politics. I am not a Republican, a Libertarian, or a Democrat. I am a Progressive in the spirit of Paul Wellstone who said, “Politics is about the improvement of people's lives. It's about advancing the cause of peace and justice in our country and the world. Politics is about doing well for the people.”

That work of improving people lives is necessary. I watch the frustration and depression that comes as real health care reform is held hostage to a Senator’s ego or being bought and paid for by the Insurance lobby or a Republican party that is as bereft of ideas and moral responsibility for the crisis their war tax cut policies wrought as they are of any demonstrable concern for the nearly 45,000 Americans who will die this year, in whole or in part, because they have no health insurance. I talk with people who say Obama has failed to deliver on hope. I can understand that feeling but what I see is a Congress where there are two banking lobbyists for every elected member. What I see is the pressing need to elect another 10 Paul Wellstone/Al Franken styled Progressives to the Senate and a few more to the House while we’re at it who will put health, education, housing, and living wage jobs front and center, pressing for change that truly “raises all boats.”

I have spent my adult life between the polarities of art and politics. The work is always about the building of community, not losing sight of what can be done for the least of us; remembering what Dorothy Day said: “We need always to be thinking and writing about poverty, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.” For those who want or need the Jesus quote, it really is as simple as (Matthew 25:40) “What you have done to the least of my brethren, you have done to me.” Not what you did for the Wall Street bankers or big Pharma, but what you did for the single mother, the homeless vet, the gay couple wanting to marry, the immigrant student negotiating public school with English as a 2nd language, or the guy working two minimum wage jobs in a time of recession to pay the rent.

I am close to being one of those guys. The recession has arrived at my doorstep. On the Public Policy Project side of the ledger, I am looking at income in 2010 that is half of what I earned this year. After eight years of training over 400 low-wealth individuals, immigrants and people of color what public policy is and how to engage the policy makers I can see the fruits of our labor. The poverty advocacy work we do resulted in a bipartisan supported modification to the state’s rent control statute that was vetoed by the Governor. The lobbying work we did helped pass the youth violence as a public health issue bill that the Governor signed. All to the good but James and I are frustrated that we are repeatedly told the work we do matters but there is no money to pay for it. We cannot survive by giving it away. We have to make decisions about whether we should go on and how.

I’m in a space where I am looking for “real” employment, you know, work with an Executive Director or Program Manager sort of job description, an office, salary and benefits so I can afford to continue doing the Public Policy work on the side.

I have no intention of giving up the telling of those stories of folks’ struggle and survival, of sustaining communities and change, though I may have to work them at the margins.

If I am going to note what else I do not want to give up its Two Chairs Telling at Open Eye Figure Theatre. In its current version, producing this iconic narrative experience costs $500 a performance. This year I had an average of 30 people providing $200 ticket income per show. That was supplemented by $800 in individual donations (you lovely generous souls) and $1200 of Metro Regional Arts Council support for which I am truly thankful but I still paid $400 out of my pocket to make it work. Gladly. TCT is the kind of spoken word performance that I want to see and am willing to pay for. I had six fabulous and two “close but no cigar” shows this year. But I fear if this long recession continues I will not be able produce the series without significantly more individual contributions and a steady increase in audience from one year to the next.

I did three Fringes this year – performing Moby Dick Tonight! in Phoenix and Minnesota and 55 Minutes of Sex, Drugs and Audience Participation with Howard Lieberman in Indianapolis. I loved doing Moby Dick Tonight! with its segmented narratives and shifting nuance but I loved the chemistry of working 55 Minutes… with Howard more. We have been on stage often enough to really “play” with and off each other. Every performance was energized by bringing those audience members on stage and our having to respond to them, to each other and the arc of getting three or four emotionally honest maybe funny, maybe not, stories told. It was good work that left us happy to be on stage and anxious to get on stage again.

Howard and I have applications in for four Fringes next year. 55 Minutes… in Cincinnati and Hollywood and depending on the luck of the lottery, maybe in Minnesota. And back to Indy for Another 55 Minutes with variations on a theme of sex, death and God. My hope and my intention is to not let a lack of financial resources keep me from the pleasure that is telling stories about what it means to be human, whether they have happy endings or not. At the core, this political and personal storytelling is my life’s work and the source of my joy.

Let me end this Solstice missive by quoting the one I wrote in 1999 (in anticipation of this decade?) while I was living in Chicago and all that has passed in the last 10 years was still to come. What I said then still rings true and perhaps is more apt now than I might have imagined when I wrote it.

“As my friend, Gregory used to say, we live in the present with an attitude of gratitude. But he never said it was easy living.

I am still very much in transition. That is as clear as this night sky where the sugar sprinkle stars promise wishes wished by dreaming children the season’s plenty. As to where I will be next year, not a clue. Minneapolis? Chicago? Why not Boston, Indianapolis or Washington? Why not L.A.?

My intention is to make story, to tell story, to live story abundantly. Even when the little voice of insecurity asks: Would you still welcome me as guest if there was nothing but story?

My intention is not dissolution or the mendicant’s beggar bowl. My intention is to simplicity, yes, but also to abundance. To the quality not quantity that is the mark of the good workman. Maybe that holds me here, maybe it doesn’t. I still believe I can do my work from any place the cell phone and the laptop can power up.

My intention is to continue teaching story wherever and whenever I can. I love teaching and it remains a process where the practice deepens and enriches the product. Workshops, classes, coaching, it is all good.

My intention is to remain open hearted, to practice that magic which is change of consciousness. My intention is to love well, to be emotionally honest, to be present which is to be in the moment, responsive to the moment, and to affirm possibility within myself, within yourself, within our common bonds and humanity.

Inevitably, the darkness retreats and the world turn’s its face once more to the light that is the source of all life.”

Embrace the light!

Blessings to all who might read these words. Blessings and my best wishes for you in this dark dreaming season, in the midst of our sorrows and grief, in the time of hunger, in the time or remembering and becoming, in time and out, in memory or promise and in the new year. Blessings and good night to each and every one of you.


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