As the air grew crisper, the leaves and I let go. Falling softly. In a way, still falling. Not sure yet where to land. Just stretching our arms towards the earth, trusting that somehow, it will catch us.
I met Manitonquat, Medicine Story, or simply Story, as he likes to be called, at my first Circle Way Camp at Mundekulla in 2013. At eighty-seven, the Wampanoag elder is still writing books and travelling the world with his wife Ellika, to share the wisdom of his ancestors and teach the art of listening.
In the middle of July, I take a week off from my volunteering duties to participate in my third Circle Way Camp. The camp revolves around the Native American tradition of talking circles, where we practice the simple but powerful tool of listening. Every morning, we meet in smaller groups or ‘clans’, where everyone gets an equal amount of time to share what is on their mind and in their heart that morning. The rest of the group listens, without interrupting, questioning or giving advice. After just a few days, my clan feels as close as a family. Each camp, I am reminded that it is safe to cry, to feel, to share even the deepest, darkest fears, and that I’m not alone in dreaming of a different world.
A few days after the end of the camp, I take a day trip to Ellika’s little summer cottage in the north of Öland, an island off the east coast of Sweden, to visit her and Story before they leave Sweden. After a stressful summer and an emotional week, I can barely shape my thoughts into sentences. But once Story and I sit down outside the cottage for an interview, I only need to ask “Who are you?” before he brings me on a near-century-long journey so absorbing that I lose my mental list of questions along the way and realize that the only thing I have to do is listen.
The Early Story
A storyteller in many senses, Story began his journey in the world of arts. When he was a child, everyone thought he would be an artist, because he was constantly drawing.
‘I loved it. I knew a couple of wonderful artists who helped me a lot, and I just illustrated my way through life. Then I fell in love with music. I had a best friend in boarding school, Fred, and we would talk about music and philosophy and poetry and art and the world. We talked about everything, except girls and sex and stuff like that, which was too weird. I would get a new piece of music and drag him down to the basement of the chapel, and put it on their really good machine for the time. And we would just sit in the dark and listen.’
He taught himself to play the piano before high school, where he started to write poetry, largely inspired by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Mid-interview, Story launches into a recital:
In my craft or sullen art
exercised in the still night
when only the moon rages
and the lovers lie abed
with all their griefs in their arms
‘Oh,’ he sighs. ‘I was in love with the music of that Welsh bard. I didn’t think of myself as a poet back then, but I loved the craft of poetry, the craft of putting words out that sang.’
Story recalls the romantic poems he wrote for his first girlfriend, who, after a two-year relationship, suddenly told him it was over and turned his world upside down. In a desperate attempt to save his grades, Story signed up for the army.
‘With my last scrap of practicality, I went to the draft board and said “Please, take me”, and that way, I got an “incomplete” instead of a “failure”, so I could come back and get my degree after the army.’
He ended up in an office in Salzburg, Austria, at a safe distance from the war in Korea. In their free time, he and a friend developed a comedy act that became so popular that everyone encouraged them to bring it out of the army. When they left the army, his friend got engaged to a girl who thought her fiancé had no business in show business, but by then, Story had developed a true passion for acting.
‘My friend told me there was a part in a play that was me. So I went and bought this play, an old play by Christopher Fry called The Lady’s not for Burning. And I read it through and I saw the part, and he was right. It was me.’
He went back to college to finish his degree and took all his courses in theatre, from playwriting, acting and directing to stage management and theories of dramatic production. He took part in every production, in every way he could, to really immerse himself in the world of theatre.
‘It so happened that the last play that would be done before I left Cornell was The Lady’s Not for Burning. Talk about a coincidence! I walked into the try-outs and picked up the script, but I didn’t even look at it. I had it all memorized. I didn’t give them a reading – I gave them a performance. Then I threw the script on the table and said “Call me.” Which of course they did. It’s a little bit tragic to understand that the best part I ever had, I played as a farewell to college.’
From Broadway to the Rainbow
Story went on to work in the theatre, but his acting career came to an abrupt end when he was called to the last reading for a big part in a new Broadway production. He had married a woman that he met through the theatre, and when he realized how wildly jealous she was, he decided to give up the part to the other actor.
‘I think the play flopped, but that actor very soon got the part of a lifetime in the movie of a lifetime that skyrocketed him into the world of stardom. That movie was Sound of Music and I have followed Christopher Plummer’s career ever since. He’s an excellent actor and I look at him as my doppelganger, leading the life I might have had.’
At this point, Story made a shift from acting to playwriting. He was involved in an Off-Off-Broadway group in New York City and one day, he got a phone call from a friend who had rented a basement that he would turn into a café and a bar. Upstairs was an old art studio, which was included in the rental, and he asked if Story would be interested in putting up a play there.
‘I took a look at it and said: “I’ll have a play on in three weeks”. We went on to steal lights and a lighting board and all the stuff we needed. Little pilfers from theatres all over town. We stole concrete platforms and built a stage. We stole sixty-five seats from somewhere and I designed a setting which could be swung on hinges. Three weeks later we opened our new theatre with The Dock Brief by John Mortimer.’
From that on they did two plays at a time, one by a big name, and one by Story or one of his friends. It attracted all kinds of audiences and they kept the theatre running for about a year and a half before they could no longer afford it and had to give it up.
‘I went into some slight depression at that point’, Story said. ‘I used to leave the café after the theatre and go upstairs and turn the stage lights on. Then I would just sit in the dark and visualize a play. Populate it. Make things happen in my mind. I wrote a lot of plays that way.’
In 1967, Story’s life took an unexpected turn when four of his friends died within a year.
‘Two of them consciously killed themselves. The third was high on LSD and went out the window. The fourth one, well, he was an electrician and he electrocuted himself. Four friends in one year. And I said: “Wait a minute, what is all this about? What are we doing here? What am I doing here?” I was not addressing myself to the needs of the world, which were vast, and I was only beginning to understand how vast. So I went to San Francisco with flowers in my hair to figure it all out.’
In 1972, Story got involved in organizing the first Rainbow Gathering, where over 20,000 people came together in Granby, Colorado, to manifest a vision of a more peaceful society, free from consumerism and capitalism.
‘We had only planned for one gathering, but everybody knew that it couldn’t be the end. It had to be the beginning. After the second gathering we bought an old school bus that was lying around rusting in a ghost town. We got it running and me and another artist named Gypsy painted it. I took one side and Gypsy took the other side, and on the front we wrote Rainbow Rider. And so, eight of us took off from there. Every time we pulled into a place where there were hitchhikers, we said “Come on!” and everyone piled in. We were carrying hippies all over the place, spreading the word of the rainbow.’
‘How is the interview going?’
We look up to find Ellika carrying bowls of freshly picked blueberries from the cottage.
‘Well,’ Story says. ‘I have to talk a lot to get down to what I really want to say. I’m peeling away all the layers.’
‘Like a sculpture?’ Ellika asks.
‘Yeah, right, exactly. I see the thing in there somewhere, but I can’t think about it until I work my way in.’
And so, we dive back into the past, one layer deeper.
Starting All Over
‘When I first went west, I had gone off and found all these elders,’ he continues. ‘I had found out what was wrong with the world. The elders made that clear to me, and they said: “Now you know. You go out and go wherever people invite you. Don’t go unless they invite you. If people want to know, you go tell them.”’
‘And what was wrong?’ I ask.
‘It’s apparent to me that this entire civilization, in the course of its history, is corrupted. It is so badly corrupted, through and through, that there is no fixing it. Nobody’s going to do any good out there because they’re all up against the massive corruption of the entire civilization, which is that money rules everything. Marx had these ideas about having a revolution and overturning the capitalist society, but that doesn’t work. Every bit of force applied creates a counterforce, and the people who are controlling the resources have the better force. We have to start all over again. And I’m trying to make people see that.’
Story shows me a well-thumbed and heavily underlined copy of Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight For Life, where the American biologist Edward O Wilson proposes a plan to save the biosphere by designating half of the earth and half of the ocean to be wilderness, completely untouched by human harm.
‘Look at what’s happening. Follow the destruction of the biosphere, that thin little skin of life around the earth, and see it unravelling, coming apart and being destroyed. Edward Wilson’s solution is one that actually seems hopeful and doable. It’s a start. It’s a way to keep the slow moving evolutionary healing going amongst enough of the species of the earth that they don’t die out. Meanwhile, for us poor humans, we need more than that. We need to live in a sustainable way with each other.’
Another book that has inspired Story is The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible by Charles Eisenstein.
‘The old story, as Charles Eisenstein says, is a story of separation’, Story explains. ‘Everybody isolated, everybody in competition. Beat the other guy down before you get beat down. It creates fear. So, we started making the new story. A story of coming together again. And really being together.’
Changing the World
In 2005, Story shared his own vision in a short book called Changing the World, in which we follow a visitor on a guided tour through an imaginary Circle Way village. This village is only one in a large network of Circle Way villages that have developed across the world, which differ from our society in many aspects. School is non-compulsory; learning comes from curiosity rather than the need to turn every child into an economically productive adult. There is a local economy and a trading network and the village is largely self-sufficient. Art and creativity is at the core of this particular village, and just like at the camp in Mundekulla, people live in a closely-knit community based on clans.
‘There is a closeness, a bond, that forms as people begin to abandon their protective masks and armour and get glimpses of the innocent, loving, joyful children that is our unchanging essence’, the guide explains in the book. ‘This bond with others is often the strongest, dearest and most hopeful relationship that people have ever known.’
In the first chapter of Changing the World, Story writes that the visit took place in 2012. Four years later and a few days after his eighty-seventh birthday, the vision is still just a vision, and Story is growing impatient.
‘I know you’re supposed to learn patience when you get old, but I think I might have been too patient. I want to pin everybody down and say: “What are you doing?” People keep saying: “Well, I have to do this, I have to do that.” Oh, how can I convince you that you don’t have to do it all – that you are just putting off paradise, where you could be now? I feel like the guy in the old Kris Kristofferson song, who is broke and steps inside a bar …’
Story puts his spoon down and sings.
If you waste your time a-talking to the people who don’t listen
to the things that you are saying, who do you think’s going to hear?
And if you should die explaining how the things that they complain about
are things they could be changing, who d’you think’s goin’ to care?
There were other lonely singers in a world turned deaf and blind who
were crucified for what they tried to show,
and their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time,
’cause the truth remains that no-one wants to know.
He falls silent. At the other end of the garden, Ellika is playing with her sister’s granddaughter. Their laughter cushions the words that linger in the air like drowsy bees. Story sighs.
‘Doing more of the same is not making any change’, he says at last. ‘That’s just crazy making. We have to start all over. Whatever exists and whatever we’re doing right now is part of a corrupt system that won’t be uncorrupted. But we can roll back the opposition by listening more than we’re trying to promote something.’
Story’s next publication will be a collection of essays titled Permaculture of the Heart, in which he has identified a list of needs among human beings – we need to be recognized, heard, listened to, understood, appreciated and valued – that he thinks we could all agree to cater to.
‘If I want you to hear me and appreciate me and understand me and value me, I can give that gift to you. When we’re doing that together, we’re creating a solid relationship system, one that we can actually live with. And if everybody thought it was a great idea to be listened to and could see the importance of feeding it back, then we could develop a very different civilization.’
On my way home from Öland, I think about little Story, illustrating his way through life, and the sadness in grown-up Story’s eyes when he told me that his greatest concern right now is his personal creative time and whether he has any left. Then I think about the last thing he said before I switched the microphone off:
‘Well, I’m going back to full strength again, there’s no doubt about that. Nothing’s going to stop me.’
And I know that he is right. The things that they complain about are things they could be changing. This is not a time for giving up, but a time for lighting the fire in each other’s eyes again. It is a time for us all to sneak into the darkness of his old theatre with a blank script. To fill the stolen seats, turn the stage lights on and write a new story together.
Going through a bag of old notebooks in search for spare sheets of paper for a journal that I will bind, I found the travel journal that I made at a bookbinding workshop in Chiang Mai back in February. It holds so many memories and makes me long for another adventure. Some of the pages were watercolour paper, and below are a few moments I captured during my first days in Japan.
Today I hosted a tiny release party for my translation of The Gift of Looking Closely by Al Brookes in my new home, my grandmother’s old house, the very place where I first read about the novel almost two years ago. A magical afternoon and evening of steaming tea cups and woollen socks, a video message all the way from Brighton and the October sun shining right into my heart.
This October, I am joining my friend Veronica Setterhall’s Creative October Challenge. The rules are simple: Focus on creating things in whichever way you choose, while buying nothing that isn’t absolutely essential. It’s a great chance to save money while putting some crafts material to use that might otherwise just collect dust in a drawer, and really give some thought into what we actually need and what we may just as well do without.
I’m kickstarting the month by turning part of my release party for Det som andra inte ser on the 1st of October into a crafts workshop, and instead of selling books, I will trade them for old books or plants that need some love. Today, I also did a cupboard inventory and planned meals for the whole month to save both money and time by cooking large batches and using groceries I already have.
When it comes to creating, I only have loose plans. I need to get a lot of translation work done, but I’m slowly getting better at not working in the evenings and would love to use this newly-found free time to bind some books and paint and write. The third weekend of October, I am going to Öland for a writer’s retreat. I have been there twice before, and both times I got terribly stuck while everyone else wrote a tonne, but I am hoping this time will be different. I will be following one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman’s, advice: to only allow myself to either write or stare out of the window. Not do other work. Not check social media. Not roll around on the floor in frustration. Just write or stare. I will let you know how that goes.
If you want to take part in the Creative October Challenge you can join Veronica’s Facebook group. Hope to see you there!