Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Trickster stories begin “coyote was going along . . .” because they are a road show. Trickster stories are the original picaresque, millenia-old and world-wide. This ever-moving journey takes trickster to one walled and guarded community after another. His song-poems get him through the gate to ruck up the locals with news of the outside world.

The chiarascuro of Tim Barrus’ life is drawn in the dazzle of spotlights and the dusk of backstage and back alley life. He travels by motorcycle cross-country with no headlight. The strangeness is that it is the spotlights that are deceptive and the shadows that are true. Moonlight reveals everything. But on the darkest moonless starless night the heart is felt. A decade into the 21st century, Tim has spent a half-century redrawing society from a counterculture and subversive point of view. He doesn’t try to overthrow the government. It is the culture priesthood he targets, those who sit in Manhattan skyscrapers planning to lunch, signaling “heels up” and “heels down” over the fate of lives they do not know, killing small furry animals with stilettos. The educated tweedy men are gone.

Tim is a trickster, determined to undermine, blast apart, even destroy the standing order of cultural institutions, including the family. He himself has been cut apart at his body’s hinges, his hips and shoulders replaced by surgery. He blew his own guts out. He’ll tell you about it. It’s no secret. These are circumpolar shaman markers, but he aspires to be a Meso-American nagual. He needs enough sun to maintain a tan. He likes to take his shirt off.

He survives only because he is a trickster, that world-wide pattern (coyote, Napi, raven, hare, B’rer Rabbit) that introduces the future by slipping through the gaps in the walls around the cities, charming the youth (the Pied Piper, Peter Pan, the Beatles), and then teaching them to speak their hearts anew. He’s not just San Francisco in the Eighties, he’s not just Key West or Santa Fe or the Village or even Paris and Amsterdam where he lived in the catacombs making poetry of bones.

Vilified for saying his mother was Navajo, Tim is not half-Navajo or Irish or Dutch or male or female or young or old. Neither is he everybody. He slides in and out of roles, like an actor who is always different and yet at the core is always the same, always recognizable, even in drag.

Mary Scriver is the opposite. Rosy-cheeked, once red-haired, always barrel-shaped, Stay Put Woman in a prairie village, she looks like someone’s granny. That is a disguise. No one notices grannies. They are everywhere, but they have no significance.

Her motto is Flaubert’s: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” People who take her for granted can be disconcerted. She is straight, celibate, dependable, abstinent, and interested in everything -- but she’s a lousy housekeeper. She is a person of place, the east slope of the Rockies on the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation, where the combed golden fields of grain bump up against the pine-cloaked wilderness of stone ramparts. She is rooted. Ordained in the UU denomination after the requisite training at the University of Chicago Divinity School she owns a small Minerva shield, emblazoned with the snakes of Medusa, but hangs it in the closet.

I’m interested in the scandalous Ulysses-type voyager that Tim is and not surprised to find that we like each other, understand each other, and can interpret each other to our constituencies. His Lewis Hyde trickster fits with my Thomas Kuhn paradigm shifts. Paradox, ambiguity, labyrinth. Don’t expect answers or recipes or rituals. But they might show up.

The natural milieu of Tim Barrus is a group. Many times when he begins a post that is a story, he starts out, “We see . . .” and then paints a word picture, because he is an artist. But sometimes it's a vid from Cinematheque, his group of boy artists, overlaid, paced to music.

He likes impromptu audiences on public steps, more formal audiences at a poetry reading, a party, a theatre company, a dance troupe, or a ship crew. His group of boys make a kind of shifting family, free but bonded to the protected intimacy of the group. They can go, but they return. Tim likes the art loft, the photography dark room, the library. Wherever he goes, he forms affinity groups.

The kinds of groups Tim does NOT like are the kinds I know best: church congregations, public school classrooms, school cafeterias, office cubicle floors, hotel conference rooms. At this point I don’t like them anymore, but I no longer like any groups. I’m happy in a restaurant only if I’m at a table with friends or a book, not in a banquet hall. Is the difference that I’m ten years older than Tim, that I’m aging? Or is there something else? Distrust of consensus, fear of mobs?

The larger world describes Tim as a kind of madman. In my smaller world I’m considered a “character,” which in Montana means an eccentric of whom one is fond but wary. Maybe troublesome. To each other we seem quite sane. Why is that? Is it about trust? Or is there something bigger? A cause, a life position?

Maybe it’s that I used to be coyote going along, living in a van like a hippie while serving four Montana UU fellowships of intelligent, funny, dedicated people who tried so hard to be inclusive and helpful but only succeeded a little because they knew so little about the truly outrageous. Now that I live in one place, I remember travel. Why don’t I go along anymore? I say it’s because the cats won’t let me. They watch for coyotes and growl at dogs. Danger, danger!

All yesterday afternoon the electricity was off. Big machines working everywhere to beat the weather had cut something. In the clear luminous day the first yellow leaves drifted softly down. This is generally a quiet place, except for the lawnmowers, but yesterday was truly silent. I stopped everything to sit watching, liminal. My guardian cats were sleeping, narcotized.

Where Tim was, he went to the walled and guarded airport to meet one of his boys because the kid is part of what keeps him alive. The kid is also a coyote, going along . . . When the electricity comes back on, I’ll get an email song-poem.


Lance Michael Foster said...

"first yellow leaves" - yep, Winter Man will be back before we know it, right after the Ghost Season

I think I knew more about Greek mythology than Christian mythology when I was real little and I knew it first too, through movies on TV and D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d'Aulaire and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire.

My favorite hero was not Heracles, unusual for a four-year old boy, but Odysseus...I really liked the part where Kirk Douglas as Odysseus tricked the Cyclops who imprisoned him and his men, getting him drunk and then blinded him. And my favorite god/goddess was Athena, who was smart, ethical, and a warrior.

Anonymous said...

I just want to tell you that I have really enjoyed your trickster/shaman theme. You inspired me to read Lewis Hyde's book. I do think you are onto something here. After reading the reports about Barris and his appropriation of a native persona makes me think about something Marion Woodman said that someone in North America who does not have a dream about a Native American is really not of the land. I suspect his grief (Barris) was profound about this child he adopted and could not help. I used to be a social worker and the grief I witnessed with both adoptive parents and the child when the adoption broke down was incredibly heart wrenching. That grief has to be expressed somehow. I may be way off here. In fact, I probably am, but still the white western mind has alot of atoning to do and it 'ain't easy'.