Erik F. Storlie, PhD, teaches meditation and mindfulness for The Center for Spirituality and Healing at The University of Minnesota. Here he offers us an excerpt from his memoir Go Deep and Take Plenty of Root: A Prairie-Norwegian Father, Rebellion in Minneapolis, Basement Zen, Growing Old, Growing Tender which touches on his friendship with the poet James Wright and his connection with Robert Bly. On this occasion he recounts being supported at a poignant turning by what we have come to call a small group. ~ mark gardiner
“He Was Our Father”
(from Erik Storlie’s memoir Go Deep & Take Plenty of Root)
My father died in the autumn of 1992. The following spring a dozen men sat on my living room floor in a half circle about the fireplace. Oak and birch blazed, and candles reflected on window shades drawn against the street and night sky. This group, organized a few years earlier by Robert Bly, gathered weekly for drumming, poetry, and song. Duncan and I had asked them to help us do an ashes ceremony. When I’d first met Robert at the Minnesota Men’s Conferences, I’d learned how close he and Jim Wright had become during Jim’s Minnesota years — and that Robert, like Jim, brought poetry alive in the spoken voice. Duncan and I wanted our shy father, for once, to join us. His ashes sat on the hearth next to sweet grass and sage. Robert cleared his throat and spoke over the hiss of the fire. “This man and I were born thirty miles apart on the Norwegian prairie. So we know he never danced enough.” He paused. “But maybe he danced more than my father! Madison was dry. Revillo was the wicked town. We could drive across into South Dakota and buy liquor there.” I chuckled. “Your father might have bought a bottle from our grandfather at his general store. But our dad considered dancing a throwback to the primitive.” Robert snorted. “Well, we’ve got him now! “You know, Robert, when I was a tiny boy, it was as if I didn’t exist for him. He was a darkness, a void. I was afraid.”
Robert looked around the room. “Ya, many of us knew that void. And that empty father space fills with demons. America’s full of men carrying those demons.” I threw another log on the fire. “And now there’s so much I wished I’d asked him years ago. And didn’t. Most of all I’d like to know what it was for him, a fresh-faced blond and blue-eyed farm boy straight from the prairies, to find himself in grad school. At the University of Chicago — the great citadel of learning.” Robert nodded. “It’s hard. I got into Harvard after one year at St. Olaf. They wanted hayseeds, and I guess Chicago wanted some too. I figured I was ready for the big time, but for a while it left me empty — depressed. And maybe your father as well.” I took in the room. Faces glowed in the firelight. Robert was sixty-six; I was fifty-two. Everyone else was younger, some in their twenties. “You know, our uncles cursed the goddamn Yankees. They came out here with money to buy up everything — timber, railroads, the iron range, the mills, the good farms, you name it. They considered the Scandahoovians little better than blacks.” Robert fell silent, then gazed into each of our faces. “How should we do this?” We looked at each other. None of us had done anything like this before. He drew in a breath. “I think each man, cradling the ashes, should dance them inside the circle of men. And, after dancing, what if each man takes up some ashes to throw into the fire with a prayer?” He hesitated, staring into the fire, making little humming sounds, his wild, white hair glistening. Etched in firelight, I saw features of an old Norse god — Thor, or Odin, who sacrificed one eye for wisdom. I saw our assembly a thousand years ago listening by firelight as the warrior-king, the ringgiver, spoke in camp on some rocky shore, the long boat’s arching dragon’s head bathed in moonlight.
Robert mused. “I’ve never touched human ashes.” He glanced at each of us. No one else had either. Duncan and I nodded assent. Robert smiled. “Ya, I think it’s good — touching with the fingers — almost touching the other side.” As each man danced with Hjalmar’s ashes, we sang a dirge to Kali Ma, the Dark Goddess of dissolution and death. I had the last dance, clutching the cheap plastic box to my breast, whirling, dizzy, faces spinning by, candle flames leaving trails of light behind my eyelids, my heart full as I remembered my young son Scott twirling his Grandpa’s ashes in a circle before carrying them into the house. Slowing, stopping, I set the box on the bricks of the hearth. I scooped a fistful of gritty shards and squeezed them tight. They dug, sharp, into my palm. Releasing, I let them scatter into the coals, sparking tiny puffs of flame. I returned to my seat. As Duncan burned another round of sage and sweet grass on the hearth, we sat in silence. After a time, Robert cleared his throat. “Let’s settle into the body for a meditation. Let’s shut our eyes and imagine a tiny house in the very center of the heart. The house has a little door, but it’s shut. We don’t know what’s inside. A vine with green leaves and flowers winds all around that house. But remember, we don’t know what’s inside.” Minutes went by. The fire crackled and occasional cars whooshed down the darkened street outside. Robert spoke again. “Now, open the little door. Peek in. And someone tell me what he saw.” Duncan spoke, his eyes moist. “Hjalmar and Fran were in there. Like little tiny people. They were dancing. With each other. It’s the first time I ever saw them dance.” The room was quiet for a time. Then Robert asked, “Erik, what did you see?” “I saw them too. They were paddling in the kayak. Duncan and I were little, sitting in between them. It was a lake surrounded by pine and rocky cliffs. We were happy.”
Robert nodded. “You know, after my father died, I felt a shield that had protected my body my whole life suddenly dropped away. Do you feel it?” I nodded back. We had been hurt by hurt fathers — hurt in the transplantation of Norwegian folk into the North American prairie. Fathers, nevertheless, whose stubborn strength gave shelter. The ceremony ended in toasts of whisky, and, at three in the morning, with calls from worried wives. After everyone had gone, I walked out into the front yard, a pinch of ashes in my palm. Dew drenched my bare feet. A soft glow spread from the streetlight. I stood on my father’s buffalo grass, the sod we’d dug years ago when he’d taken me out to the home farm, going deep for plenty of root. He’d transplanted it first to Drew, then carried plugs here. Year after year, decade after decade, I’d watched it creep slowly, stubbornly, irresistibly over our scorched and droughty lawns — remnants of his prairie. The ash left my fingers and fell. His transplanting was complete.
~ Erik Storlie
Erik and Duncan Storlie
Meditating In Wilderness
The Center for Spirituality and Healing
Secular Buddhism Audio Interview with Erik Storlie