THE TALKING STICK
I lost someone recently, someone I tried in my way to support, to help, to convince. I believe that his life tells us something about how we exclude ourselves. I want to share some of his life with you. I want you to know that his life had meaning.
I met Brian in college. He was a theatre major like me. A peer, and a friend.
He had a deep rolling velvet voice, resonant and strong. He had that strange dichotomy you sometimes find in the theater, an individual with great talent and presence on stage, but quiet, depressive and shy everywhere else.
Brian saw himself as a beggar at the gates of life. There is a boy, face pressed against a huge iron gate wrapped in chains, held with a giant padlock. This boy was Brian. To the sorrow and frustration of everyone around him, he never stepped back far enough to notice that the lock was open. The way in was waiting for him.
I directed a lot in school and I found a way of casting Brian, as often as I could. Thereafter I would cast him at the Sterling Renaissance Festival where I am Artistic Director whenever he asked, and even when he didn’t. I’ve done so since 1980. In short, he was brilliant. His characters were funny and quaint, open-hearted, and paradoxically very inclusive.
He would come early to the site, before the company arrived for rehearsals, and clean the actors’ kitchen. He would do it every year. I long thought it was because he was a kind person and a helper. I later realized it was his way of offering something in return for what he felt he didn’t deserve.
Not everyone in the company understood him, but those who did had a great admiration for his talent, his compassion, humility, and kindness. Some cast members, confused by his outward shows of self-deprecation called him Eeyore, from Whinny the Poo fame. It was an insensitive moniker, but apt. It wasn’t uncommon during Festival rehearsals to turn and notice Brian lying flat as a plank, face down, nose in the gravel aside the stage. We would just turn back and continue our work. “Mental note: Brian is feeling down today, must have a talk with him.”
In the late 80’s I gave Brian the first book on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The next season he was in excellent spirits and told me that the book had changed his life. It did, for a while. But the demons returned.
Brian was a true kinesthetic personality. This means that his main modality of perception was feeling. Kinesthetics generally speak very slowly, because they feel each word as it passes through their mind and lips. Brian was a very very slow talker. He spoke as if another voice inside him was always trying to talk him out of saying anything at all. It was slow, distracted, stuttering, and convoluted. At times it required enormous patience to hear him out. So most people did not, further feeding his sense of being an unworthy outsider. Those who did hear him out were rewarded by the most creative and insightful things, beautiful thoughts, and grand ideas.
He was a very funny man when he wanted to be, the rest of the time he was mostly solitary and sad. He would effortlessly waive off all compliments and encouragements as if they were intended for someone else, or that the giver mistook him for another more worthy recipient.
After a girl he was sweet on in college turned him down as gently as she could, I watched him calmly buy a can of soda from a machine by the theatre door, pop the tab and quietly pour the entire contents over his head and walk away. It was the last time to my knowledge that he ever asked a girl out.
But so many women adored him!
One in particular was Barbara “Baj” Burinski. Baj was an actress who portrayed Queen Elizabeth I at the Festival for many years, and was a dear friend of mine. Baj was arguably the most compassionate human being on the planet. Those who knew her would not argue the point. Baj was also a huge believer in Brian. On her death bed she asked me specifically, and made me promise, to “look after Brian.”
Numerous times over the years Brian would pull me aside at the end of a festival run and say that I didn’t have to worry about having him back to Sterling, that he was done with it and didn’t want me to feel obligated to hire him. Then a few years would go by and he’d be back. He surprised me one time by saying, “I know you promised Baj that you would look after me. I want to let you know that you don’t have to do that anymore. I want to release you from that promise.” I said, “She never had to ask me Brian, I’ve had your back since college and I don’t intend to stop now, but as for that promise, consider it released.”
In those days we had a wonderful habit as a company to go to the shore of Lake Ontario, and in a hidden cove enjoy a campfire and beers. We also had a habit of conducting a sort of witnessing ritual mirroring an ancient American Indian practice of passing a Talking Stick.
Whoever holds the talking stick has within their hands the sacred power of words—only the one who holds the stick may speak, but must speak the truth about personal understanding and experience.
Brian was the self-proclaimed keeper of the Talking Stick. It was always him who would suggest it. Always him to bring out the stick and explain the tradition. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the contradictions of Brian than this, that a man who could barely speak and constantly counted himself out in life, would be the one to willingly stand before his peers and bare his soul, then pass it on for others.
Whether it was by nature, circumstance, choice, or something he brought here with him, he could never completely get over the strange burden he carried. Brian carried this burden his whole life. It would crush him to the ground, but he’d get up again, his entire life he did that. He’d just get up again. He had such value, but he could never accept that. The hardest people to reach are the ones who don’t believe they deserve love. Self-exclusion is the very worst poison.
The note that Brian left asked of his mother not to have a public service, and that there be no public announcement of his death. His mother is respecting his wishes. It’s fitting I guess, and so unfair, that he chooses to leave so unacknowledged. But what an intelligent, kind, compassionate, silly, entertaining, and endearing mystery he was.
Brian was a lost soul. No one should be lost. Everyone deserves to belong…somewhere. I did what I could, offered what I had, since we were 19. The truth is, some never find their way. And now we’re supposed to let him just back away into the darkness and be forgotten? I am sorry my friend, I don‘t know if I can do that. Final request or not.
My friend Brian Pringle has passed on from this world. He was an amazing man! I and those who really knew him will miss him terribly.
The last time I saw Brian, I was walking through the festival site with my daughter, before this past season began. We encountered him raking leaves along the path, helping the pre-season volunteers. He looked old and beaten. I asked him how he was, told him how glad I was to see him, and hoped I would see him visit this summer. As we parted my daughter asked, “Who is that guy?” I told her, that he was an old actor at the faire, and long time friend of mine.
“Oh,” she said.
Then I turned to her and said, “He is also the bravest man I ever met.”