“The presence of his absence is everywhere”.
~Edna St Vincent Millay
Three years can feel like a lifetime and still be as fresh as yesterday in our emotions. April 23rd, 2013 Norbert Blei left this earth and all of us and all we loved and all he loved. Three years this month since our last morning together, since last waking to see his face next to mine … leaving all of us an emptier world without his rumbling voice and incomparable laughter.
Many people who loved Norbert Blei have come together in ways that honor him and carry on his legacy of stewardship for the life of writers.
After the shock of his loss settled into our being with a private service for him, a fittingly grand Memorial was planned for June, 2013. Set in the theatre of Peninsula Players near Fish Creek, Norb’s friends and relatives from all over the midwest and beyond came to say goodbye and to hear his words set free in the open air.
Norb’s special friend, pastor Michael Brecke welcomed those attending, and introduced the folk singers, musicians and writers who sang and read for him: Julian Hagen, Pete Thelen, Jay Whitney; Jeanne Kuhns gifted us with an original song composed for Norb. Writers Marty Robinson, Marianne Ritzer, Robert Zoschke, Alice D’Alessio and Al DeGenova read passages from Norb’s work; Annika Johnson brought goats and family memories of her father and Norb’s friendship, to everyone’s delight. Tim Stone shared his deep feelings for Norb gained through many years of working and advocating for him at The Clearing, a place Norb loved dearly.
At the conclusion of this amazing afternoon, Norbert’s beloved son and daughter, Christopher and Bridget invited all to gather at the Edgewood Orchard Gallery for gnoshing and a final toast to their Father. It was as grand a time as anyone could wish for, honoring this unique person in our lives.
But it didn’t stop there.
Wanting to preserve Norbert’s infamous chicken coop, his writing “studio” for posterity, Bridget and Chris donated the building to the Write On Door County! center for writers at Juddville. After an anxiety ridden year of fund raising, moving plans and a successful ride down Highway 42 – the infamous Blei Coop now stands proudly in the sun where the loving hands and inspired efforts of Anne Emerson, Jerod Santek and many others stand watch over his precious legacy.
There exists for Norb a core of students who attended his summer workshops at The Clearing year after year, some continuously over 25 years. I lovingly refer to them as the Blei-Tribe. Within days after his death, many of us began sharing essays written which Norb had requested from a number of us; these were to focus on the meaning writing had in our lives and the impact of The Clearing. Norb’s intent was to gather these into a chapbook dedicated to The Clearing.
We soon discovered that central in all of them was also the impact of having had Norb as teacher. As we read each other’s work, the mission became clear to go forward with the chapbook he had intended. “The Professor’s Quarters” came into being early in 2014. This same Blei-Tribe then raised the funds to get it to publication, proudly donating cases of the book to The Clearing, the proceeds to go to their “Norbert Blei Scholarship Fund”. It can be found there at the book store.
In the winter of 2013, the Board of the Council for Wisconsin Writers renamed its Nonfiction Book Award the Norbert Blei/August Derleth Nonfiction Book Award, to recognize Norb’s significant contribution to the Wisconsin literary archive. This wonderful honor was the start of others that continue to bring Norb’s work to our attention.
Norb’s blues-belting friend Pete Thelan originated an idea for a local scholarship to be awarded to promising young writers from the Gibraltar high school. Funded by ten of Norb’s family members and friends, this spring 2016 will mark the third year that $1,000 scholarship will be given in Norb’s honor to a graduating senior.
The intensive efforts of Norbert’s former publisher, friend Dave Pichaske, archiving Norb’s extensive body of work and making contact with UW Madison Library officials, resulted in the UW accepting Norb’s work into the hallowed halls in summer of 2014. Eventually his historical work, and much which was never published will be available to all on-line, thanks to Pichaske’s exhaustive efforts.
A chilly but festive afternoon in May 2015 brought more reading and memories of Norbert as the Write On! Board of Directors hosted an Open House to dedicate the Coop to its new life of service. John Nelson presided over nearly a full day of music and voices honoring Norbert: Susan O’Leary, Pete Thelan, Jay Whitney, Al DeGenova, Charlie Rossiter, Jeanne Kuhns Mark Raddatz, Lars and Rolf Johnson, Charles Peterson, Kaaren Weiss, Tim Stone and the poets of Door County all united in music, in poetry and in love, for Norbert Blei.
It continues: Susan O’Leary and Al DeGenova, former teaching partners of Norb’s, have each stepped up to carry on the tradition, offering their own flights of word wizardry at workshops in the holy grounds of The Clearing.
In 2015, John and Karen Yancey created the first annual “Norbert Blei Literary Award” to be announced during the Washington Island Literary Fest on Washington Island. One of Norb’s former students herself, Karen contributed her time and efforts in establishing the event, and the Yanceys donated the funds to award winners Catherine Jagoe (Poetry) and Sue Wentz (Short Story) each a $250 check for their winning work.
We are not yet finished.
These events form a continuing legacy honoring Norbert, even as new ones spring into being. In October 2016, the Sister Bay Unitarian Universalist Fellowship will host a showing of Norb’s prolific, but lesser known work in water color painting. There will be a reading of his work at the opening, with his paintings available for viewing throughout the month of October. Many will be surprised to learn that he was a talented artist as well as writer. As Norbert would say: the beat goes on …
For all of this, and for all of you who’ve made these significant events happen: I can hardly express how deeply grateful I am as I hear in my heart, Norbert’s proud chuckle.
Shantih ~ Jude
“The Bible says we are dust and shall return to dust.
But we are much more than dust.
We are energy which is interchangeable with light.
We are fire and water and earth.
We are air and atoms and quarks.
We are dreams and hopes and fears
held together by wisdom
and driven apart by folly.
So much more than dust.
What the Bible should say is:
… You were a miracle and we return you to
the mystery from which you came”.
~ Rev. Phil Sweet
It has been said before that the highest form of art is life itself—the art of life. The idea being that a life well-lived, a human being who has sculpted not simply clay or marble, but their world view and inner essence, shines forth more brilliantly than any ordinary work of art. Walking paintings, breathing sculptures, symphonies that write and rewrite themselves each second; these are the highest strivings of the artist—to become what Henry Miller would call a “living book:” a man or woman who has shaped him or herself into a verifiable work of art.
Norbert Blei was one of these living books. For my grandfather, it was not enough that the books be written. The books are, of course, wonderful and immensely important, but I have always felt that they were part of the bigger work: the life, the man himself. Norbert Blei embodied every book he had ever written, every book he had ever read. And at the same time, he realized that helping other artists along the way, laughing, giving gifts, and any other single action was worth just as much as a book or painting, especially when added up over the course of a lifetime. More simply put, it is both the big and the small things that count.
I don’t think I need to talk about the big things—the books. This is certainly not to undermine them, or what my grandfather achieved in their pages. Rather, it is simply that the books need no one to speak for them. They are there, waiting, and—all deities willing—always will be. And I do highly recommend you read them, if you haven’t already. But although my grandfather’s epitaph does in fact read “find me in my books,” I thought I might try to provide another way of finding Norbert Blei, particularly for anyone reading this who did not have the pleasure of meeting or interacting with him beyond the books. I think a portrait of my grandfather can be glimpsed through his actions; in this case the ones that stand out in my memory.
I mentioned earlier the idea of helping others, artists or not, along the way. I can personally testify that few calls for guidance that came Norbert Blei’s way were left unanswered. Indeed, I still have email after email of his, all written with patience, full of advice for the stuff I myself was writing in my preteen years. No work, however bad or unpolished, was deemed underserving of his attention—even my bizarre, amorphous hybrid poems, which at that point were some strange fusion of Robert Frost’s verse and the lyrics of the Grateful Dead. (I was later informed, somewhat to my chagrin, that he printed out and saved these now embarrassing experiments of my past… That’s how much they meant to him)
I believe I mentioned gifts earlier as well, and anyone who had a good relationship with Norbert Blei knows that he had a gift for giving gifts. For each Christmas and birthday, us grandchildren were given books, and, thanks to my grandfather, they always suited the reader perfectly. Although Norbert was obviously a “literary” writer/reader, he did not force his preferences on you. I suppose the idea was that if one fell in love with reading, they would be led to the “great books” soon enough on their own. I’m currently trying to read my way through the entirety of Kenneth Rexroth’s written work, but one does not start with such stuff. It would hardly interest a 10, 11, 12, 13-year-old, and my grandfather was aware of this. Science-fiction/fantasy books like Eragon or The Rangers Apprentice (gifts of Grandpa’s) are the reason I fell in love with reading as a younger kid. “Love is easy,” as they say, and now reading anything (well—almost anything) is an easy and joyful experience. I owe that to my grandfather.
There were smaller gifts, too, like the gift of food. One of his favorite meals, both to make and to take others out for, was cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Being very chubby when I was younger, I can hardly say I disagreed with his taste. One of the saddest things I remember from my grandfather’s later years was seeing him lose his appetite. This was somewhat odd, as he never lost the love for cooking. My mother always joked that when she was growing up, Norbert used to make 10x more breakfast than anyone could eat, and things were no different when he visited us grandchildren. One of my favorite memories is of him working very hard at night on these Czech dumplings, which we ended up having for dinner. He saw that I liked them so much that he got up with me at 5:30 a.m. the next day and scrambled them into this massive hodgepodge of eggs, dumplings, and bacon. All before I had to leave for school.
One year we went to California to visit our aunt and uncle and grandmother for Christmas. Grandpa was there too. On the kitchen table of my aunt/uncle’s house was an elegant display of nuts and other snacks, where I would return constantly to consume every last cashew that had been put out, thinking that no one ever saw. Later though, when we got home to Pennsylvania, there was a box waiting in the mail for me from Norbert Blei. Weird, I thought. I had already received my customary birthday gift of books. What could it be? The box was opened to reveal a large can of salted cashews and a note: “Happy Birthday, Corb. Love, Grandpa Blei.”
I could go on and on with stories like this, but you hopefully get the idea. I just think it’s very important we all remember Norbert Blei the man, the father, the grandfather, the gift-giver, the cook and the food-lover, as much as we remember Norbert Blei the writer. I was fortunate to be close enough to him to witness all these multitudes, and thus consider myself lucky and blessed to be influenced by my grandfather not just in the sphere of writing and literature, but in my entire way of life. I hope the anecdotes I shared bring forth memories of your own time with Norbert, and shine light on who he was as a person for those of you not fortunate enough to have met him. — Corbin Buff
I had a long correspondence going with Norb. But we never met face to face. He wrote and drew from a chicken coop near Ellison Bay in Door County WI for over 40 years after living in hometown Chicago. — D. Zep Dix
Please click the images to enlarge…
More than 150 of Door County’s most esteemed writers and poets turned out on a cold Saturday afternoon last week to dedicate the refurbished chicken coop that the late Door County author Norbert Blei used as his writing studio.
The coop had been moved from his Ellison Bay home to the site of Write On, Door County in Juddville last year following Blei’s death in 2013.
“Every day for almost 45 years, energy crackled from a little spot near Europe Lake,” wrote his longtime partner Jude Genereaux for the text at the entrance to the coop. “Now only a small footprint remains where an old cedar-shingle chicken coop once stood. Converted into a tiny writing studio – the humble, creative cove was where Door County’s best-known writer, Norb Blei penned his novels, short stories, essays and poems.”
The three-hour event featured many of Blei’s contemporaries and students reading tributes to the author, as well as musicians honoring his work in song and instrumental music.
“The day and range of speakers really paid good service to Norb,” said Ralph Murre, Door County’s poet laureate and a former student of Blei’s. “We owe him a debt of gratitude for his leadership in writing in this county.”
Blei wrote about Door County in many of his 17 books, as well as advocated for preservation of the county’s natural environment. Write On, Door County, which promotes writing in the county and offers classes and writing space for writers, restored the coop after moving it to its 40-acre site at 4177 Juddville Road. The organization plans to allow writers to work in the studio, which overlooks a meadow behind an existing building on the site.
“It is important to us that the literary and cultural history of Door County not be lost,” said Jerod Santek, executive director of Write On, Door County. “Having the coop here, as a place where writers can work, preserves that history without making it a museum piece.”
The first Norbert Blei Scholarship awards were presented at the event to two Gibraltar High School students: Makenna Ash of Ellison Bay and Evan Board of Egg Harbor.
The event also featured the introduction of a new poetry book, “Soundings: Door County in Poetry,” published by the Door County Poetry Collective. The collective includes several poets who were Blei’s students.
The anthology includes poems by more than 50 poets reflecting their visions of Door County.
“The day was a celebration of writing and the inspiration for writing in Door County,” Santek said.
“Sounds: Door County in Poetry” will be on sale at The Peninsula Bookman in Fish Creek and other bookstores throughout the county this summer. — Karen Ebert Yancey
Norbert Blei came daily for more than forty years to this coop to write, to follow his passions and to change lives. Stop there. Because if students who now use Norb’s coop find their ground in any of those, they will have done exactly what they were to do in entering Norb’s space. This is where through the written word he found, and explored, and clarified who he was. In his personal life, in becoming the advocate of Door’s heritage and land, and in reaching out over continents, opening new lives to questioning through his blogs. He wrote to an American soldier in Afghanistan who found Norb through his blogs and held onto them in his daily life. There was the African writer (I wish I knew more), who grew into considering himself more a writer in corresponding with Norb. Here, seated in front of this window, he kept in touch with longtime friends and encouraged new writers. Got annoyed as hell at further development in Door. Wrote scores of books and articles, crafted decades of writing classes at The Clearing, and shepherded new writers into print through his Cross+Roads Press.
He would be honored, and pleased, and also shaking his head in some Blei disbelief (still honored and pleased), that after his death people imagined the idea of the coop coming to find its home here at Write On!, and that those same people and then others gave the money and time to actually move the coop, and that now, his place, is here for you. And the yous who don’t even know they are coming here yet. Who are maybe just in their last weeks of fifth grade now, but who will in a decade or more find their way here, and enter their own and its silence, and in the consideration it fosters, open their laptop, or pull out their pencil and paper, and….. write. I knew Norb as a close friend for almost fifty years and I can tell you that he would be mightily pleased that his work will continue in this place (place was essential to Norb), here in a sanctuary that nurtures the work of writers and believes everyone has a story to tell. Because that, exactly, was Norb.
I was one of the lucky ones who was taught by Norb at Lyons Township High School in a western suburb of Chicago before he moved up to Door in 1968, when Mr. Blei commuted to us every day from his home in Cicero. I was 15 when I met him, and from that day, my life was changed.
I was asked to talk about that, and that is why I am here.
Mr. Blei taught the love and awe and embrace of books and writers. He introduced you to writers that as a 15 year old in the 1960’s suburbs were far too difficult for you to read, and you read them. Not excerpts, but books. James Joyce. Richard Wright. Albert Camus. Gwendolyn Brooks. He asked you to think beyond what you thought, and because by now you loved him, you did. We were the Honors class, and he would flunk us on assignments if he thought we weren’t really thinking. That was actually one of my favorite parts of Mr. Blei, that Zen whack on the head if he thought you were relying on succeeding rather than thinking – those of you who knew Norb as the Coyote might recognize some early seeds there. In the winter of 1966, he took our class to the high school library, spent part of that period showing us how to do library research and then told us, “We’re going to study existentialism. In a month, tell me what it is.” That was it. No other instruction. And in a month, with a fifteen or now sixteen year old’s understanding, we did. I had never before had the experience of a teacher so believing in me. Believing in me more than maybe I knew how to. That was Norbert Blei.
I have never met anyone, too, as well read as Norb. To enter his home, or the coop was to see bookshelves and stacks and piles of books. A writer’s organized clutter that allowed him to reach for the book he wanted to share with you. The author he thought you should know about. When I was 16, the year after Norb taught me, I went through a difficult passage with dark days. I waited for Norb after school one day, and tentatively described to him how ungrounded I had become. I found out a few months later when the column he then wrote for Chicago magazine appeared, that after our talk that afternoon he had stayed up that night, going through his books, searching for something for me to hold onto. He found Nikos Kazantzakis and Zorba the Greek. Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Gift from the Sea, and gave them to me that next day as he taught on no sleep. And I found with him how much the words and care of a mentor can become haven. This particular time was in Chicago, before Norb moved up to Door. But right here, in this coop, seated at his desk, looking out his window, decade after decade, Norb was that same haven for others. He wrote letters by hand, and typed them, and still at his desk years later, emailed friend after friend, writer after writer, offering belief. Changing their lives. That is a part of what this coop is.
You’ve heard some of the stories Norb told in Door Way. He could write so well because he listened so well. I taught for years with Norb at The Clearing, and I would look forward to Thursdays each year as he shifted who people were as writers by teaching the art of the interview. Norb listened for voice and gesture and tone. He quietly watched for when someone leaned forward or back; honored when a voice became quieter, and posed his next question or simply paused in listening based on the deeper meaning he was hearing in people’s words. Or silence. He taught that story contains its own stories and that it is the weaving together of story on story that creates a book. As exactly in Door Way. I learned from Norb to look for the smallest way a story is. How one sentence can convey character, setting and plot. As in Gretl Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. (another author Norb introduced me to.)
Nineteen seventy-eight turned out to be the third worst Wyoming winter on record. After an extreme of sixty below zero, the thermometer rose to ten below and the air felt balmy.
Now here’s the sentence:
One cowboy lit a fire under his pickup to thaw out the antifreeze, then drove over the Continental Divide wrapped in horse blankets because his heater fan had snapped and he had 120 horses to feed in the valley below.
There is a whole novel in that one sentence.
Or this story of the Japanese Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi talking to American students:
You have a saying, “To kill two birds with one stone. But our way is to kill just one bird with one stone.”
In those two sentences is culture, perception, path in life. Norb taught me to look for and notice that. He nurtured the writer. Taught that everyone has a story to tell.
Norb’s curiosity about people was astounding. So go out and be curious. Question convention. Be generous in your friendship. Hear the story. And write. — Susan O’Leary
Click the images to enlarge…