Warmth and Substance

A couple of years ago, I was the guest star at one of the only (okay, the only) book signing events for my first novel, Ojibway Valley.  The event was held at the Toad House bakery and art gallery in the small northwestern Wisconsin town of Ladysmith, the brain child of two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, Tony and Eileen Ziesler.

Tony and Eileen have been dear friends to my Aunt Phyllis for years now.  It was this connection through which my first public appearance as an author was scheduled, and as I sat in the John Stevenson gallery, named for my late Uncle (“Uncle Steve” as we called him), beneath his paintings and facing the crowd that was slowly filling in, I felt honored and nervous.

The crowd settled in and I think someone introduced me and then it was time for me to do my bit.  I had planned a few introductory remarks, then a reading from the book, and then some time for questions and answers and maybe, if I got lucky, finally squeeze in the time to sell and sign a couple of books.

I’d just started my presentation when the door swung open and two elderly men entered.  One of them walked with a cane and wore several colorful scarves. He was stooped over and walked very slowly, the sound of his cane echoing loudly on the wood floor.  Although I’d never met the man before, I instantly recognized him, and waited patiently for him to make his way to the table where he’d be seated. The room was suddenly more substantial, and heavy with the respect that Barry Lynn’s presence commanded.

Here’s what I knew about Barry Lynn. I knew he staged modern dance performances at his north woods studio, in a landscape where dance is usually defined as polka. I could only imagine the incredible courage and resolve it must have required for him to simply be who he was, stubbornly and unapologetically, an island of nonconformity in a sea of like-mindedness. And I knew he was old, approaching one hundred years at the time.

I was certainly more nervous than before he entered, but I was also more focused, and I delivered my spiel and my reading feeling surprisingly comfortable. The crowd was bigger than I expected, and the questions were good, and I answered them with confidence and without hesitation.  Afterwards, the crowd mingled, and Michael Doran, Barry’s life partner, came up and introduced himself to me.  We talked about the selection I read and how he reacted. It meant a great deal to me to be talking to another adult, a real artist at that, about my work.

At the end of the evening, I’d sold only two or three books, but that couldn’t have mattered less. For one evening, at least, I was a bona-fide author.

A couple of days ago, I learned that Barry Lynn passed away, at the age of 103.  I’d meet him two more times, once at his Chalice Stream studio, near the headwaters of the Deer Tail Creek, where Michael was hosting a show examining some of my Uncle’s work, and one other time at the Toad House, where we had the closest thing to a conversation that we’d ever have. It was about a year after my book event. Michael and my aunt were engaged in a philosophical discussion when Barry turned to me and made some small talk, about the weather or something. Feeling the need to introduce myself, I started by saying, “I don’t know if you remember …”

“I remember you,” he said, glancing over to my aunt. “You’re her nephew.”

I think of that tonight, and I think of Uncle Steve, and Aunt Phyllis, who is still alive, almost 93 years old now. I am warmed by their memories and grateful for the impact they’ve had on my life, and by how much it means to know that you were remembered, if only for a short time, by someone of substance.


Abandoned World

aw spooky car

(Inspired by the Facebook page “Abandoned Wisconsin” that I stumbled upon earlier tonight. The photos I’ve attached are from that page and are so hauntingly beautiful that I had to share – they were taken by a number of gifted photographers (none of them me) – there are plenty more if  you go there.­­)

Back then, they didn’t tear things down. They’d let them stand until they couldn’t anymore, until they’d collapse broken-backed from under their own weight. These days, as soon as a building goes empty, there’s somebody there to tear down the “eyesore,” the safety hazard, the unsightly blemish to the antiseptic fantasy world we try to convince ourselves we live in. It’s a world where only the present exists. It’s a world where things don’t die and decay, and we strive to remove all traces of the past in the acknowledgement of the fear that time really exists, that what once was and what is to be matters. It’s the inability to see the beauty in decay. It’s the denial that others proceeded us and lived lives here, of the work they did, of the things they built with their hands, with their sweat, the work that kept their hearts pumping, that kept them alive.  And then one day, when the last of their flesh was loaded into an ambulance never to return, there was still a place for them to come back to, a place of heartbreaking beauty, a place as empty and silent as a grave. There they’d be visited by frightened children, ancestral descendants, historians and poets. They’d speak to these visitors in the clues they chose to leave behind, and if the visitors were willing and ready to listen, they’d hear everything they could ever want to know about not just their lives and times, but about everything.  All you could ever want to know about life, about death, about love, about the entire flipping universe, is within the reach of the sagging floor boards and peeling paint of an abandoned farm house or in the dry dust of a collapsing barn. Listen closely and you will hear the answers to questions you were unaware you’d asked, whispered in the cold midday breeze that flutters the torn and tattered shreds of curtains hung against pane-less windows.