Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Where the light lets in: For my friend and mentor

Mystical Mike never seemed quite of this world. 
Not because he’d actually died once as a toddler, seen the ‘light’ of the other side and come back – or maybe it was. I didn’t know that story then. 
It was his eyes.
The first time I met Mike I was set up by a mutual friend to give him a ride from Victoria to Cortes Island for a social change conference. All I knew about Mike was that he was older (like 50s), a cultural mythologist, had back problems and would be in my car for at least six hours.
When he crouched into my front seat and held me with a smile and sparkling eyes, shamanic and childlike, I knew he was good. Otherworldly good.
Mike made many kindred spirits that way. Physicists, Jungians, activists, waitresses and academics – whomever he met and made that connection with stuck. He could see the heart of things and people. He could name it. He could help you name it too. He called it the sweet spot.
A few months ago a friend and I were having coffee with Mike and we got on to the subject of the Proust questionnaire on the last page of Vanity Fair magazine. We decided to ask each other some of the questions.
Mike was asked: “What is the most overrated virtue?”
“Intelligence,” he said.
Coming from a guy who casually debated physics and mathematical systems with the brightest academics, who was sought out to help advise the Obama and Earth Day campaigns on messaging and who could quote many histories, Joseph Campbell and the last book he’d read verbatim, we just rolled our eyes.
He explained: “If you are intelligent and you don’t have integrity you are incredibly dangerous to this world. “
Mike and I drove from his studio apartment in James Bay to Fairfield to pick up the next passenger on our journey: Another Mike. This one was a twenty-something beat-boxing youth worker, living in a commune-like dilapidated mansion, where nearly a dozen mountain bikes hung on racks outside the front door.
Mystical Mike loved this. He was fascinated by the bikes and the promise of personalities and connected lives they represented. He and Young Mike immediately bonded, two open souls full of enthusiasm and ideas.
Later, when it was just the two of us, Mystical Mike and I would imagine everyone we’d met at the conference as characters in an Odyssian journey. He said Young Mike was a Magi Type: A rare specimen capable of bringing great powers of good-heartedness to the many Warriors we’d met in activist documentarians, journalists and community leaders.
I asked Mike what my Type was.
“You need to find that out yourself. That’s your journey,” he said. He was so obviously a Teacher.
When I went to visit him in the hospice a year later he asked me again. “Have you found yourself? Don’t give up. The answer is right there.”
We continued north along the Island highway, bypassing the small communities along the waterfront scenic route until turning off into Courtenay. Our final passenger, Hans, was waiting outside his small house – black beret, leather bag and soul patch in tow.
The forty-something single dad was a native of the area, an avid writer, photographer, foodie and ballroom dancer. Like the rest of us, he was looking for comrades in work – like-minded people to change the world with, and hopefully make a little bit of a living at it.
As I drove, I mostly listened to three of the most gracious and lovely men I’ve ever met get to know each other. When I think back to the moment that Hans got into the car and joined in on a conversation and journey that bonded and changed us all I feel so grateful.
“I’ve never met someone who isn’t a storyteller,” Mike told us. “And it isn’t limited to our species.”
You don’t tell your story, you tell their story. This was Mike’s mantra and the premise for how he believed narrative could change the world.
He told us about helping a small city council change its attitude towards a growing homeless population by using “our homeless” instead of “the homeless” in all its discussions of the subject.
He quoted Campbell: “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths,” and said our job as storytellers is to mobilize the waking dream of a culture.
He quoted Hemingway, “Life breaks everyone but some are stronger at the broken places.”
It wasn’t until the ride home with just the two of us that I discovered some of Mike’s broken places.
Growing up in Idaho, his life’s passion had been to fly fighter jets in the war. But his eyesight wasn’t good enough. He became a war historian and expert model-maker instead.
In his late teens he moved to Ontario to go to university. There he met the love of his life, a South American woman named Judy.
Judy had been married and recently left her husband – against her family’s wishes. She and Mike planned to move to Victoria, where he’d study physics and she’d have a chance to start fresh.
“I’d gone ahead to find a place for us and found this great little apartment in a house on Amelia Street,” he said. “Judy’s plan was to finish the semester and come meet me right after.”
Mike and Judy wrote letters back and forth to each other daily in what was supposed to be a few months apart.
“Then the letters stopped coming,” Mike told me. He continued to write, asking Judy if she’d changed her mind – his heart breaking with each unrequited letter.
“I figured she’d either gone back to her husband or changed her mind about us. Either way I had to accept her wishes,” he said. “It was the darkest time of my life.”
Mike dove into his physics studies with intensity, barely leaving the apartment.
A house fire forced him out, scrambling to find a new place to live.
It wasn’t until several months later that the true story of what happened to Judy would slowly unravel.
“My landlord called and said she had a bunch of mail for me,” Mike said. The fire damage to his old residence was only on the interior. Because the exterior looked fine, mail had continued to be delivered to residents there despite it being abandoned for months.
All of Mike’s letters to Judy had been returned with an apology from the Ontario Postal Service. Because of a mail strike, his letters sat in the post office for months. When the strike was over, the recipient, Judy, appeared to have moved with no forwarding address. She never got his letters.
But now, from his landlord, he finally got hers. Months worth of letters detailing her excited anticipation of their new life together, her worry at not hearing from him, her anger, her sadness, her fear, her frustration and her final resolve to give up and go back to her ex-husband.
This was the part of the story at which I pulled the car over off a dusty strip of the Malahat Highway and said, “Tell me you found her. Tell me you set things straight.”
He didn’t. And this is the precise point where my understanding of men and women differs. Mike didn’t want to bring any more pain to Judy. She’d made her choice and suffered enough so he let her go.
“You have to find her. You have to tell what happened. She has to know you loved her,” I told him.
“What good would that do now? It’s better this way,” he said.
The drive was silent for several minutes before Mike turned the subject back to my broken places and me. He had a way of doing that, deflecting his own suffering to delight in the possibility of healing another’s.
I noticed this throughout our relationship. He’d squint and smile through excruciating back pain to spend hours drinking coffee and talking at his office, the Days Inn restaurant.
Even when the back pain turned out to be cancer, a terminal tumour, he held court in the hospital hospice. Family, friends and cohorts came to offer him comfort and still he offered mentorship.
“Do good things. You have a lot of power you know,” he told me. My warm hands rubbed his back as he sat on the edge of his bed in a hospital gown drinking a McDonald’s milkshake. “There’s someone I want you to meet. He’s doing really interesting stuff in Africa. It would make a great story.”
His memorial was held a few days ago at the Days Inn, a frosty, bright October morning just a few days before what would have been Mike’s 62nd birthday.
Our ragtag group took over the bar and told stories of Mike’s brilliance and generosity: How he captivated the Secretary General of the United Nations with his thoughts on narrative, how he often babysat and tutored the children of the single-mother waitresses he befriended at Pagliacci’s restaurant 20 years ago and how he listened to everyone with respect and interest regardless of status.
He died a bachelor but had an immense network of family and friends just as close. I worked up the courage to ask his sister Barbara about Judy.
“Yes, he told me about her,” she said. No, he never contacted her. “I never knew her last name… But their souls will meet again. That I’m sure.”
I hope to meet Mike again on some other plain someday. I know I’ll continue to find him in the wisdom he shared. Despite being the biggest Luddite in the very tech-savvy bunch at the social change conference, Mike was the star. The stories he told and questions he asked, and asked us to ask each other reverberated in a soul-shaking way that changes lives, careers and builds bonds. Here are just a few tidbits from my notes at his talk:

On the characteristics of an effective storyteller:

“Everyone is a storyteller but a truly effective storyteller possesses three things: A natural ability, a mentor and someone who knows your true face.”

“Link common knowledge with your narrative with a new emergent story. This is where change happens.”

“Leadership, learning, health, sustenance and defense. The Ojibwa learned these are the most important elements to society. A good politician has learned this too.”

Sutton’s Law: A lesson in clear storytelling:
“Willie Sutton was a world-class bank robber and escape artist. He evaded the authorities for years and became a notorious celebrity despite very little being known about him as a person. On one occasion when he was caught, a reporter managed to get in a question as he was being taken away. ‘Willie, why do you keep robbing banks?’ she asked. To which Willie replied, ‘That’s where they keep the money.’”

Five questions you need to be asked:

1. Who are you?
2. What do you want?
3. What are you doing about it?
4. Are you satisfied?
5. If not, what are you willing to sacrifice?


Anonymous said...

Lovely story about a great storyteller. Thanks, Sarah

S. Boisvert said...

Wonderful story, Sar! I was captivated and moved. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Looks like you have what it takes to be an amazing storyteller yourself. Wonderful story Sarah, Nadine.