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  • Loren Niemi

The Measure of Myself (Solstice 2019)

Friends

In lieu of cataract surgery, which the doctor said I am not in need of (yet); I got new glasses that have gone a long way towards improving my view of the world. Raymond the hippster eyewear consultant could not talk me into pink frames or even a retro-horn rimmed black pair. We did however agree on a sleek titanium frame in gray that would match the color of my hair if I let it grow out.


“You’re not quite a new man,” he said, “but then you aren’t the old one either.”


On this Solstice morning I am thinking about that. Who am I this Solstice? Who was I in Solstices past? What has fallen or been put aside? What remains? Shall I take a measure of myself?


Fifty years ago, in ’69 I was a Christian Brother. That’s old news and the source of the joke I tell that I was a member of a Catholic religious order – You know, poverty, celibacy, and obedience. I was good at one of them. It was the one that got me kicked out. I was a “radical Catholic” who was protesting the war, the draft and the Church’s support for both. At the summer Solstice, my fellow brother, K. Basil O’Leary had already participated in the burning of draft files with the Milwaukee 14, gone to trial, been found guilty and was in prison. My fellow brother, David Darst had already participated in the burning of draft files with the Catonsville 9, gone to trial, been found guilty, was out on appeal and still living precious months from his death.


More specifically in the summer of ’69 I was living on Nicollet Island, going to the U of M by day and driving taxi by night. It ws the summer of my printing lithographs in the old West Bank Studio Arts building, a famously overheated former factory, with Zigmund Prede’s not always helpful suggestions for how to make them better. It was the summer I sat in on John Berryman’s poetry class one morning and drove his intoxicated self home in my cab that same evening. It was the summer America went to the moon, though at the Solstice we had not yet lifted off.


In ’79, I was living in the Nauhaka Flats, spacious and elegant if slightly run down apartments on Grant Street, fighting to keep them from being demolished by the City in the name of urban renewal. My friend and former Christian Brother, Don Byrne was living in the back bedroom. Candy Kuehn had moved out. We would loose that fight to save the Flats but the wrecking ball was a year away.


I was the lab assistant for Jeff Millikan’s photography class in the old McPhail Center. It was the Solstice or close enough when, as I tell the story, Miss Julie was printing a photograph and while washing the image, her loose fitting t-shirt slipped to show that she was not wearing a bra. Seeing me looking, she laughed, and shook her shoulders to give me a better view. It would be another 6 months before we started dating but in the heat of the darkroom, the spark of imagination had been struck.

By then I had been out of the storytelling closet for a year. Between the summer Solstice and Autumnal Equinox, I would attend the Mythos conference where I would meet and be recognized by Ken Feit, Reuven Gold, (both of whom I had worked with before then) Diane Wolkstein, Joan Bodger, Bob Wilhelm, Gioia Timpanelli, and the also new to storytelling, Mike Cotter. In that moment the realization of my decision for storytelling as liffe work, as what I was meant to do, was confirmed.


In ’89 I was married. Nicole and I were expecting our first child in less than a month. She was writing travel and lifestyle articles. I was the Associate Director of Development at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, responsible for foundation grant requests and reporting. We were on our way to the kind of life my parents or hers wanted us to have. On the side I was still storytelling, still teaching workshops on my own and when I could with Elizabeth Ellis, making joyfully subversive art with Michael Sommers and Kevin Kling as Bad Jazz.


It felt right. I had time enough and money enough. Sweet summer was coming. As the song suggested the Future was so bright we had to wear shades. That Solstice I could not see, or even imagine, that in a month I would swim the seas of grief, one of the legions of parents whose child had died. That it was an accident woud not help. The dark would descend and not even the State Fair could brighten the days.


Sometimes we reinvent ourselves not by choice but by circumstance. A decade of grief and needing to make a difference brought me to a very different state of mind. Someone characterized this as my “Buddha and the Devil” period. I’ll accept that as the fact of it. I was alternatively, or perhaps paradoxically, emotionally open and callous, generous and cruel at the same time. My midlife crisis was enjoying being the Devil but Buddha kept offering me the compassion I needed.


The Solstice of ’99 found me in Chicago living in two rooms on the third floor of a house in Rogers Park. I was at the end of my first year as a Bush Leadership Fellow, doing research on the role of stories in community development and consulting around the country. I was partnered with David Hunt for some projects, Megan Wells and Nancy Donoval for others. My marriage to Nicole had ended in ’96 and I was open to but not committed to any particular long-term relationship, opting for a series of long distance intimatcies instead. I was driving the metallic blue Jaguar I had bought myself for my 50th birthday. Once again I had time enough and money enough though this time I did not expect it to last.


Are you still with me? A decade ago, Solstice came with the Great Recession having already begun or looming depending on when you were devastated. I was in year nine of a decade of public policy work with James Trice that was (at its core) about helping tell the stories of communities and marginalized groups via civic engagement, message framing, advocacy training and actual lobbying. The MN Legislature had finished another long and contentious session under Tim Pawlenty’s Governorship. I was a little “crispy” after too many days at the Capitol but the work was worth the stress.


What was emerging was my writing life. I had returned to poetry and was working on the manuscript for The New Book of Plots. What would also blossom that summer was my performing partnership with Howard Lieberman and the first of our many performances of 55 Minutes of Sex, Drugs and Audience Participation. That partnership still flousishes.


In my ’09 missive I said, “I do not camp anymore. It has been years since I slept in a tent and literally decades since I canoed in the wilds. I do not live on the land anymore. The years I occupied the rented farmhouse within sight of Sugarloaf and overlooking the Mississippi valley are half a lifetime ago. Those days live in stories, but the fact of it is hardly present. My body and habit are urban. City lights and sushi, airports and city streets, a comfortable bed in a decent hotel room are a portion of this life. The smell of corn growing in the fields is replaced with the smell of the neighbor’s bar-b-que on a warm afternoon. The sight of the sun rising over a snarl of cars headed towards the office substitutes for dawn peeking through the pines beside a mist-coated lake. The comforting sound of splitting wood for the woodstove has become the sound of the espresso machine making me a 12 oz cappuccino.”


True then and still true now.


Who am I now? Still here. In the decade after the ’09 Solstice, my mother and father have both passed trough the veil. My youngest sister, Bobbie suffered an aneurism and left five siblings and five children to carry on. Aunts, uncles, close friends and casual associates have died. I am at an age where that might be expected but that doesn’t make the loss any easier. I am not certain that I have time enough or money enough, so to say that on this Solstice I am still here and in relatively good health is an acknowledgement of the gift every day is.


I am still telling stories, with more skill and ease than ever before. Those 41 years of practice count for something. I am still making poems. Some are illuminated by an understanding of the world that can only come from challenges and changes. I am still writing. I am proud of having What Haunts Us come out in February. That Devil I was wrestling with in ’99 now resides in “Then”, one of the stories in that collection. And Buddha? Well the compassion I have come to value is also there in “Tongue of Angels” and “An Inquiry Into the Life of the Count St. Germain”. Have you read it yet? You should.


I still call you friends whether you are near or far. Whether I saw you yesterday or a year ago, I value your being in the world. Even if this is too sentimental a close, I bless your love and your art. I bless your friendship and hospitality when I am traveling On this Solstice, I wish you well. May the light shine for you, on you and within you.