Terra Mysterium has performed some of those most engaging and unforgettable shows I’ve ever seen. Sometimes immersive, sometimes provocative, often playful, and always fantastic, Terra Mysterium draws upon an ancient tradition of ritual theater. They are fantastic in all senses of the word.
You may recall the Gene Wolfe Gala from last year, a celebration of Gene’s incredible body of work and his contribution to the literary landscape of Chicago. Terra Mysterium performed an audio play adapted by Lawrence Santoro of one of Gene Wolfe’s stories, “The Toy Theatre.”
Well, Terra Mysterium has released their first music video, “In the Observarium,” which was screened at the open screening night at Chicago Filmmakers last month.
The haunting video is set in one of the most unusually decorated apartments in Chicago and has been getting rave reviews.
I asked my friend Pat Prather, a talented photographer for 8 Eyes Photography and a brilliant artist, to create a memory board that I could mount in my kitchen. It would be a place to put precious photographs and mementos so that I could see them every day.
Pat created not just a work of art, but a story told through the steampunk sculpture that surrounds the handcrafted frame, a story about a fairy who breaks time so that the memories can remain alive forever. (You can read about his process here.)
I’m nostalgic, increasingly so as I get older. I often think back fondly to people I’ve loved, places I’ve called home, adventures and conversations that have had an impact on me. I’m grateful for them, really grateful for these experiences. They are treasures, and even as I look forward to the future, I am gratitude for everything and everyone who has brought me to this point.
“The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
― Milan Kundera, Ignorance
I wanted the memory board to be a place to mount those sentimental treasures, and they are frozen there, snapshots into important moments. I’m slowly printing out photographs to affix to the board. Some are obvious choices: the dearest of family and friends. Others inspire, challenge or remind me, like the photograph of Gene Wolfe and me that I added last week.
On May 7th, I met Gene for lunch to celebrate his 82nd birthday. Each time we meet, we chat about our lives and works in progress. I always enjoy Gene’s stories about writers he’s known, places he’s traveled, stories he’s read–so many memories, so much history. On the drive back to Chicago, I’m often lost in some Gene-inspired reverie or creative provocation.
This time, Gene mentioned an exercise attributed to Benjamin Franklin called “Imitating the Style of the Spectator.” The idea is that a writer should choose a piece of writing by an author he/she admires. After reading it over many times, the writer should hide the original text away and attempt to write the story from memory. Once it’s completed, the writer should refer back to the original and note the differences: the places where he or she forgot a detail, or did not capture the same mood or character, or had trouble with dialogue, and so on.
Gene did the exercise early on in his writing career with one of his favorite Lord Dunsany stories, The Assignation. He explained that there is much to be learned by studying the craft of the masters.
He’s right, of course. Gene Wolfe is a Master. This weekend,Gene Wolfe will be honored by the SFWA with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Awardfor his contribution to the literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy. I am grateful for lessons I’ve learned not just from his writing, but from his friendship.
Just below the photo of Gene and me is a photograph taken from last year’s Fuller Awards to honor Gene Wolfe. That one has a group of people who are both dear and an inspiration. They each inspire me in their own way: to keep writing, to strive for excellence, to learn from the examples of the past, to connect with others. That night was one of those important moments in my life, a night to remember.
Unlike Pat’s fairy, we cannot break time (except in stories). Time will continue with or without us.
But I find that nostalgia can work like a touchstone. Memory and nostalgia motivate me to reach for the stars, to step into the chaos of creativity, knowing that I am grounded in the past and am part of a continuum that stretches backward and forward in time. Just like Gene’s exercise about writing from memory, there’s much to be learned from the intersection of what is and what is remembered.
I became involved with the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame because I believe that Chicago has an important literary legacy deserving of attention. After two induction ceremonies where we celebrated historical writers, it was time to look at the contribution of writers living and working in Chicago.
There was no question in my mind that Gene Wolfe should be the person to receive the first Fuller Award.
His work is rich, innovative fiction worthy to stand beside many of the literary giants that have shaped not only Chicago’s literature, but modern literature as a whole.
There was briefly a question of “genre writing,” but if we take a look at the literary landscape, the fantastic is an important part of it. Homer, the greatest epic poet of Ancient Greece wrote about Odysseus’ adventures among gods and men. Dante’s La Divina Commedia drew upon medieval Christian mythology in a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Shakespeare incorporated folklore and fairies into his plays. Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oscar Wilde all introduced elements of the supernatural in their works.
Considered to be some of literature’s greatest writers, many of their stories would likely be considered Fantasy and Science Fiction by today’s genre classification. Somewhere along the way, mainstream literature became aligned with realism, but if we look back on the literary spectrum, we see that much of it is saturated with the unknown, the mysterious—the fantastic.
Gene’s work is like that—fantastic and significant.
After talking with Gene and receiving his gracious acceptance, I corresponded with Neil Gaiman. A long-time champion of Gene’s writing, he was my touchstone. After Neil, I contacted others: writers, editors, family, friends; and they responded with overwhelming enthusiasm.
Again and again they confirmed what I believed, that people love Gene Wolfe. Upon meeting Gene, a respect for the writer and his words evolves into a genuine affection for the man.
March 17, 2012 brought us a day of unseasonably warm weather and sunshine. We headed toward Barrington Hills, stopping for a delicious lunch at the Happy Buddha; and as I looked around the table during our meal, I was once again reminded how blessed I am to have these dear friends in my life. Many of them had been up late the night before, helping me to fold, cut, paste, and package. Even friends who couldn’t attend the event had pitched in to help in during the months before the event. (Thank you!)
A few quick errands, and we arrived at the Sanfilippo Estate for final touches and setup.
Soon after the guests arrived, and while I waited for Neil and Maria Dahvana Headley in the Carousel Pavilion, I received texts from the folks at the house with updates on guests’ arrivals and the progress of signings and check-in.
Others will surely do the same, and in many ways their perspective is better than mine because they entered into the evening as participants, stepping into the “container” that I helped to create with the assistance of talented friends. It’s like a magic trick, best enjoyed by the audience (but savored in a different way by those who know the trick).
The afternoon was a whirlwind of rehearsals, tours, photos, and the eventual start of the ceremony.
After Gary K. Wolfe’s inspired introduction, Neil’s reading of “A Solar Labyrinth,” and his heartfelt presentation of the Fuller, Gene took the stage.
His speech was so gracious and genuine, so smart and witty—so very Gene.
After Gene’s speech, I knew I could relax. I never doubted that Terra Mysterium’s performance of Gene Wolfe’s “The Toy Theater” (adapted by Lawrence Santoro) would be wonderful, and it was.
Once the organist R. Jelani Eddington took the stage, I slipped into the foyer where I could still hear the music.
A small group of us had gathered there: Neil, Peter Straub, Carl and Mark, Audrey, Kyle, and Maria, and 8 Eyes Photography.
Neil told me that Amanda had called at precisely the moment when one of the marionettes was singing “Coin-Operated Boy” during the audio-play. It made me smile. Neil had been such an invaluable ally, and I liked being able to slip in a little echo of Amanda into the evening; the song was a perfect addition to the story and the setting.
So much followed, from fun photos on the grand staircase to the Great Coat Closet Party of ’12, while in the adjoining music salon Jelani played Star Wars on the 8,000-pipe Wurlitzer.
I love this incredible circle of creative people in my life. They don’t all appear in the photos here, but I remember their contribution. I couldn’t have done it without them. The evening was proof that together we can make magic.
After the performance and more photos, we moved to the magnificent Carousel Pavilion which looked so lovely lit up in antique lights. Chef Jeramie Campana of Wild Asparagus and his team treated us to a delicious meal.
Peter Sagal was the perfect toastmaster, fabricating quirky biographical anecdotes for each speaker as he introduced them.
Each of the Special Guests who took to the podium offered his or her own perspective on Gene and his work, beginning with Gene’s daughter, Teri Goulding, who talked about how proud her mother, Rosemary, would have been.
Rosemary was not well enough to attend, and her absence was felt by all who loved Gene. In my own small way I had had tried to include her by attaching a few small sprigs of rosemary to Gene’s boutonniere.
Following the speeches, dinner, dessert, and cordials, Greg Leifel, the Foundation Director at Sanfilippo announced that guests could ride the antique carousel. The crowd cheered, loudly, then ran to stand in line. What followed is best expressed in a few photos:
Joy. Wonder. You can see it reflected on their faces in photos and in this video by Bill Shunn:
That carousel evoked such a joyful response. I could think of no better way to end an evening that honored a man whose stories delight so many people. To see his face lit up, to see him so happy—it was the perfect way to close the night.
Maura Henn, and Kyle and Trillian, were staying with us, and some of the guests met us back at our home. Joined by Peter Straub, Gary K. Wolfe and Stacie Hanes, Jennifer Stevenson, and others, we had cocktails, wine, and cheese, and sat around the living room relaxing in various stages of exhaustion and inspiration.
Then it was over.
When the house was quiet, Kyle, Maura, and Mark chatted while I fell asleep on the couch. In the morning it was like a fantastic dream.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting photos from the evening. Slowly they have begun to appear online.
The photos help to make it more concrete, just as writing this blog entry helps to tether it to reality, as if written words can keep An Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe from drifting off into that nebulous realm of dreams and memories.
In life, we are lucky to meet people who inspire us. Sometimes we encounter them through their work—stories and images that strike a chord. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have them for friends. This weekend was filled with both.
Thank you to everyone who helped to make it happen.