Normally, an “About the author” is a fairly objective presentational thumbnail sketch. But I like this interview, done years ago by a web magazine in Washington D.C. It’s personal, and I take my personal relationship with you, my readers, very seriously. So I’ve decided to offer this more intimate glimpse in lieu of a standard author sketch.
This is only part of the interview, and I’ve edited it for relevance and updated it a bit to reflect changes in my life. If you want more information about me, at the end of the interview I’m listing three sources that I find interesting and revelatory in their respective ways.
Sometimes multiple points of view offer the clearest picture. Enjoy.
I was born and raised near Minneapolis. Perhaps the most formative experience of my childhood was going out with my father, who worked for the Red Cross, when he went to help victims of fires and floods who had lost their homes, their possessions, and, sometimes, their families. He would get the same calls as the fire department, and we would often arrive simultaneously, often in the deepest night, and confront the same tragedies the police and firemen confronted, only our responsibility was to provide aid and comfort. These experiences gave me a profound understanding of human suffering and hope, and left me with an indelible belief in a life of service. They also taught me how fragile our good fortune is, and how lucky and blessed I have been to live the life I’ve lived.
After high school I went to the University of Minnesota in American Studies, then to Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities, then to Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where I received a Ph.D. in conjunction with the University of California at Berkeley. My doctorate was in Religious Studies and Art. For many years I devoted my life to creating over-life sized sculptures from tree trunks. My heroes and mentors were Michelangelo, Donatello, and Rodin, all of whose works I had the good fortune to study in person while living for a time in Europe.
After returning to Minnesota, I moved north to the pine and lake country near the Canadian border, where my wife and I got married and lived for twenty five years.
For several years I worked on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation helping students collect the memories of the tribal elders. This changed my life and introduced me to the native spiritual traditions that have become so central to the message in my writings, and that I think are so important for us as a dominant culture to learn and integrate into our ways of living and understanding.
So important did I think this was that I gave up sculpture to pursue writing full time. I am at heart a teacher and it was by sculpting books that I felt I could touch the minds and hearts of the most people.
When asked to characterize my work, I often say that it has been a constant search, from various perspectives, for an authentic American spirituality that integrates our western Judeo-Christian tradition with the other traditions of the world, especially the indigenous spirituality of the people who first inhabited this continent. All spirituality, whether inside of established traditions or residing in the privacy of the individual human heart, is essentially a recognition that our presence on this earth is just part of a vast mystery that we must recognize and honor. How we choose to do this is a personal matter, but is must be done if we are to be fully human and fulfill our responsibility as children of the earth.
Someone once called me a “guerilla theologian,” and I think that is fairly accurate. I am deeply concerned with the human condition and our responsibility to the earth, the people on it, and the generations to come. I believe that we are, at heart, spiritual beings seeking spiritual meaning, and I try to honor this search wherever I discover it in the course of my daily life.
My wife and I currently live just outside of Portland, Oregon, where we moved after her retirement from Bemidji State University, partly to be near grandchildren and partly because I figured that continuing to climb on roofs to pull down snow in our northern Minnesota winters was going to bring me to a bad end. Nonetheless, we do miss our lives amid the great powerful forces of the Minnesota north, where the winter winds blew unstopped from the vast Manitoba prairies, and on beautiful summer nights we were serenaded to sleep by the songs of loons and the lapping of waters on the lake outside our window. But times change and the seasons of life turn. The Pacific Northwest with its lush beauty and proximity to the monumental presences of oceans and mountains has been a wonderful revelation and has allowed us to see life through new eyes. But the gales of November remember, and the pull of the north often calls us home.
We have four children – three who came in the “package deal” with my wife, and one of our own — each now well into adulthood and fascinating characters in their own rights. The apples may fall close to the tree, but they roll where they will.
We have three grandchildren, and find that all the clichés about grandparenting are real. What a joy and gift they are.
Perhaps what is most on my mind these days is how best to take on the responsibilities of being an elder. The sun is at my back and I’ve seen the world turn many times. And what I am seeing is that these are hard times and getting harder. With new challenges comes the need for new ideas and new thinking. Sadly, my generation is not graciously handing over power, and the generation behind us needs us to mentor them, not dominate them. I want to do my part to share the wisdom I’ve gained from long experience. Trying to find the voice and the vehicle to do this is the challenge of the hour.
If you’d like to know more, take a look at these three interviews. Sometimes multiple perspectives offer the clearest view.
Thanks for reading this and my works. I count you as my friends and always hope to be worthy of your time and trust.
Sculpting in Wood and Words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFgCJQAfFyI
Coffee and Biscotti with Mel Bellissimo: https://www.twitch.tv/claritycoachmel