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
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