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  • Loren Niemi

A Year Passes


For many years, proximity to the Spring Equinox meant I was on the road.


Touring the East Coast or Midwest, Hanging with my extended community in NYC. Performances and workshops at festivals and conferences. Tejas, Sharing the Fire, Rocky Mountain in March, Northlands at the end of April. It was a joy to drive or fly somewhere to be with the gathered storyteller community. It was a joy to eat in ethnic restaurants and diners, to sip a little something in dive bars and indulge my fondness for museums and art galleries.


In the years when my parents we alive and going to Arizona for a portion of the snowy season, I’d see them there before they returned to MN for Easter. They were pretty sedentary, dedicated to paying cards and going to movies, but I appreciated the heat and dragging them to Mexican places that they would not have found on their own.


From 2016 - 2019 I was in New Mexico some part of the snowy season or early spring. I had a notion that I would move there as a “retirement” option. Returning to the emotional cultural ground that dominated my grade school years as it were. I found a lively arts scene, a community of poets and storytellers who said, come on down. Last year that did not happen.


March 13, 2020 when the City of Denton, Texas, closed down the Tejas Festival the day it began in response to the rising and still unknown extent of Covid-19, that all came to a halt. The last performance before a live audience. The last (careful) hugs until who knows when. The Christine and I returned to Minneapolis and began sheltering in place. The last plane. The first of many months of working from a desk with periodic breaks to take a socially distanced walk outside or a masked trip to the grocery store.


This is the shared story of the pandemic. Waiting.


In this past year there has been a learning to function on Zoom or other platforms, but the truth is that while it expands access to whomever has internet anywhere in the world, it is (at least for me) not as satisfying as being in the room with an audience. So as much as I am cautiously wading into teaching and performing in the digital space I'm not entirely comfortable there yet..


Yesterday (3/20/21) I performed a modification of one of my oldest performance pieces: “Moby Dick, Tonight!”. Jim May has been appreciatively reading Melville’s “Moby Dick” and remembered seeing me perform it in 1988 at the Northlands Storytelling conference in Elkadir, Ia. He asked if I would do a version entitled “What is Your Whale?” with any political insights that I might offer for his Spoken Word Café series. Happy to do so though it meant rewriting a chunk of the story,.


It also required modification as in performance it uses props and though I am wading into this digital life, I felt that the props required more space / staging / lighting and multiple cameras than I have available in my little office to satisfy my concepts. That can all be done somewhere / sometime down the line.

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Here is the text more or less as I preformed it:

I begin as the Melville does:


"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."


But what does the watery part of the world hold?


I went to sea in search of adventure, looking for billowing white sails before the wind, the creak and groan of the mast and the rigging, an old salt bathed in Old Spice, my sea legs dancing upon the deck. What I found was the monotony of endless work, cramped quarters and bad food. A life of salty tears strewn on storm washed decks. Together they leave the ship, my tears and the ocean's salty embrace, sweeping ever onward, towards the fondly remembered shore. That great longing becomes a wave, curls upon itself and gathers strength. It crashes upon the rocks.

When I perform this on stage, there is a bit of physical business at this point with a suitcase, a bed and “mattress” small enough to sit on top of it that when turned on its side becomes a rudimentary boat and sail. I’m going to skip that in this telling and instead focus on other elements of the story - the ways Moby Dick is a metaphor for the political and cultural.


We might think of the ship as quarantine and the whale as Covid. Or think of the hunt for the whale as a kind of political theater in which media chases the story – a lust for scandal - lives to jab pointed commentaries, trying to wound or bring down their quarry. Or consider of the energy we put into the mechanism of profit – Capitalism – as a domed enterprise, unsustainable, and at its core is extractive, reductive and self-defeating. Melville saw it and presents it ironically as the manifest condition and cost of the whaler’s obsession.


"Meanwhile, (Melville reports) the spade man stands upon a sheet of flesh, perpendicularly chopping it into pieces. His spade is as sharp as hone can make it. The spade man's feet are shoeless, the better to grip the whale's slippery geography. Though his will is strong, the thing he stands on sometimes slides irresistibly away... Toes are scarce among veteran blubber room men."


The whaling ship is 120-180 feet long. Three decks – top, blubber room and quarters, then the hold. The average Right whale is 40 – 50 feet long. A sperm whale, also average 50 feet. The whaling boat itself 15 – 30 feet long with four men rowing and one on each end. One to steer and the other the harpooner, with three or more harpoons each attached to 300 feet of rope coiled n a tub.


There is the chase, multiple harpoons lancing the great mammal, tiring it until the final blow. There is the death, there is the bringing the carcass back to the ship where it is lashed to the side. The blubber men then stand upon the body, cutting the flesh into long sheets which are hauled onto the deck, and down into the rendering room, where it is further chopped into pieces and rendered for oil. This in turn is put into barrels and is the profit of the hunt. The whale itself, when but bones and organs is left to sink into the watery grave.


In performance say, I’ve read Moby Dick four times (which is true) and once read it while working on a fishing trawler where I did not see the irony of my replicating the whaler’s labor in pursuit of profit. I was young and denial was easy.


We were cutting fish heads and emptying the innards. Hour after hour, the bright slicing knives would enter the soft white belly and make their way towards the tail, not in anger or sorrow, but in a peculiar rhythm repeated without guilt or pleasure. The smell was so strong you stopped thinking about it, dared not let your nose remind you of the rot death commands. It would crawl under your apron, under your sweater, under your hair, and sink into the muscle beneath the flesh. You could not scrub it out.


Hummmm, that's so visceral.


Sometimes, weeks later when caught in a rain, the smell of the rough soap would be overrun by the smell of the cutting room. In that moment we would be hurled back to the belly of the beast, the clank of the machinery, the harsh lights and us standing there up to the ankles of our rubber boots with guts covering the floor. Iridescent bubbles of mucus, translucent sheaths of green or black membranes with veins like colored thread. Sometimes the eye of a half-digested smaller fish would stare reproachfully through the lining of a stomach. This was how I paid for my education in the ways of the world.


"Thoroughly consumed by the hot fire of his purpose, Ahab in all his thoughts and actions ever had in view--Moby Dick."


Consider Ahab. He was nothing if not precise, organized. A place for everything and everything -- of use. Marked he was by a scar, both internal and external. His vacant eyes told no tale but were fixed upon the dream of a green and gold sea where the great fish play. Driven by a singular desire, he nails a gold coin to the mast as a reward for the man who will deliver him the news he requires for revenge. He is a man obsessed with that which seemingly he cannot have and yet is unwilling to let go of.


This is the central question of our times. What are we prepared for? The world as we would have it be or the world as it is? How do we know difference and more importantly, what is the price of our belief?


For those of you who at this moment have turned your thoughts to your high school experience of confusion while reading Moby Dick or been napping, let's review. We have the story with a magnificent tattooed dark-skinned harpooner, a naive adventurer discovering his homosexuality, a mad Captain and an albino fish. We are told this is a classic, though it was not thought of such when it was published in 1851. It is a huge book with multiple themes and dry humor for those who have an eye for it - a definitive epic that ends with Ahab tangled in fish line. The essential story is "man fights whale, whale wins".


"From his mighty bulk the whale affords a most congenial theme to enlarge and amplify--would you, you could not encompass him."


Ahab had a personal stake in his obsession. Revenge. “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee…” The whale took his leg, and as Melville tactfully put it, “unmanned” him. But in our time, our obsession, our fixation on the unseen in dreaded deeps tends to be more abstract – beginning with the cultural, or more specifically, the tribal identities of left or right, church, gender, class, ethnic origin, etc.


We self-identify as this or that and categorize all that is not as we are as “other” which must be destroyed to make the world, our world, safe. For Progressives it is Fascism. For Conservatives it is liberals, or worse, Socialism. For White Supremacists it is People of Color. For Evangelicals, everyone who is not. The nuance is gone, the distinctions of who, what, where and when are but shadows …


"What whale is this?"


Facts? Truth? Science? What? Can't you see a connection? They're all very big. They've been around for a long time. These concepts agree with our tribal identity, with our story of meaning and worth or not. When it is yes, it is taken for granted as right and obvious. When it is no, we will spin a convenient enchantment to make it so or to cast an even larger shadow of villainy. We all have our white whales, sometimes glimpsed but always suspected of ill will, just out of sight. Socialism. Fascism. They’re coming for your guns. Freedom. Masks for some. Microchips in the vaccine for others. MAGA. Trump.


Now there is a “whale” that many of my tribe think needs be harpooned. The white bloated unpitying thing that would destroy all that stands before his ego and a dollar.


Melville said, “I’d rather sleep with a sober cannibal than drunken Christian” and I confess such when applied to those who bow before the malignancy Trump harbors as if it were cause for celebration. He hates who we hate. Wave the banner. Close the border. Take up the torch and proclaim your allegiance…


And while I’m at it, I despise the ones who are paid lavishly to craft that “us and them”. The Hannity’s and Limbaugh’s. They’ve had their fifteen minutes. Hell, in the grand scale of American history, some “bloatavators” have had at least an hour. When they came into a room, heads turned. They had lavish parties but were surprisingly poor conversationalists. Still, they managed to drink too much and got into fights. They liked the adulation and now are searching for another target to disparage. They're all gone now. Or should be. Zip. Finito.


In performance I end with a philosophical juxtaposition about whales, dinosaurs, and by association ourselves which I will modify as needs be.


On each side of the cultural and political divide, they see their world just like us - the norm. They think they are right, practice good citizenship and share family values. They know what to expect from life and are content to take what is offered, even if it means having to rig the rules and exclude in every way, at every turn the others. Historically it has been the effect of power, whether Ahab then or Donkey and Elephant now. Once you stride the storm washed deck, once you steer the ship of state, you want to keep the enterprise going.


Their world was the commonplace. The ordinary and familiar. And yet, for them, as for so many of us, the familiar is invisible. We do not see the whole, only the parts. This election-cycle. This policy or that monetary crisis. The rise and fall of the Stock Market as if that Stock market was the economy. That fire or flood, rather than the whole of climate collapse. The profit of robots replacing workers or the end of coal. We do not measure consequences or necessity of what must be two generations to come.


Once you're invisible, you might as well be extinct.

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As I said, it went pretty well but once again, it reminded me that I am waiting for the return of what I think of as “live” performance. I do not expect the digital to go away once we declare “herd immunity” as a result of vaccination, but I expect to welcome the restarting of performances and venues. Now that I’ve brought it out of mothballs, I’d like to rework the whole thing as a full on props and lighting performance where the exchange of breath and energy with the audience feeds the moment.


I suspect that I am not the only one. Looking for a return to together that is.


Maybe my anxiousness to get to it is because I have gotten vaccinated. After multiple notices that I am in the currently “qualified” age group, and after much scouring of provider websites, I secured an appointment at a Thrifty White facility in Mankato. Nothing was available in the Cities but it was a pleasant day for an hour and a half drive to a suburban shopping center where the vaccinations were taking place in what I swear will be a marijuana dispensary once the MN Legislature goes “fully medicinal and recreational legal”.


Walk in, give my name at the desk. Get handed a clipboard to check off and sign off. Get sent to a second desk to present my health insurance card. Get the nod and it's the first door on the left. Roll up your sleeve. Before I could even finish asking, how many shots she expected to give, it was a tiny pin prick, a swab of cotton and a Sesame Street bandage. The answer, by the way, was 250 shots from each of the four nurses giving them. Go back to the check-in space, sit in a folding chair for 10 minutes. How are you feeling? Fine. You’re good to go.


15 minutes from "in" to "out" and with my vaccination being the Johnson & Johnson single dose, I do not have to come back for a second one.


I am thankful that I got one, even as I wish that everyone who wants one can get theirs as soon as possible.


Even as I worry that those who won’t, because they still think Covid is a hoax, or that vaccinations are useless, or will slip a tracking microchip into you will keep some significant portion of us at risk for a third or fourth wave of infection. Like the anti-maskers, they do not seem to know or care, that their “freedom” puts others at risk and delays the “normal” that they so anxious to return to.


The Equinox has come and spring with it. The world while not quite in balance, moves towards next. Whatever eggs you were going to stand on end, have been stood, and are now back in the carton waiting to be decorated for Easter or made into an omelet. Trees are wanting to bud green, the ground to sprout the forgotten seeds, the birds sing a different tune now. Something about how good it is to mate. And as Kurt Vonnegut said, “so it goes.”