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Such Magnificent Ghosts

Back in January, Don Ness emailed me something like, “Hey, Anna. I’m hosting a party at the NorShor Theatre on March 3 and I’d like you to tell some stories. Would you do a reading?”

Ness, as you probably know, is the former mayor of Duluth and, as you might not know, a positive master of understatement. I figured he was inviting me to perform at a little reading party. You know, 50 people or so in the NorShor’s mezzanine. And then a friend of mine messaged me a poster for a Low concert in the NorShor’s 632-seat theater. I zoomed in to see the date, to see if I could go, and saw MY NAME ON THE BOTTOM OF THE POSTER — and I, embarrassed and panic stricken that my name had somehow gotten on the bottom of this poster, looked at the date, and was like, “And I can’t even do it then, because I’m gonna be at Don Ness’s party!” Took me like ten seconds to figure out this was the thing Don had invited me to. Lord.

The truth is, when Don asked, I responded that it meant a lot for me to be a part of such an event — and I knew he knew exactly what I meant by that. I was honored to do it. The following is a transcript of what I read to that 632-person crowd.

I moved to Duluth in 1998, and the NorShor was one of the first places I found. My sister and I stumbled in here one night, accepting the invitation of a golden light-bulb Marquis and the distant bass emerging from the clove-smoky interior of the club. It was summer, and we were already drunk when we got here. I think that probably made it awesomer, because in my memory, it’s like we wandered into a David Lynch theme park. It was the beginning of a beautiful thing.

People joked about the NorShor being a filthy dive, a hipster bar, a house of ill repute, and it’s been all of those things. But for me, it was also the confluence of all of the ley lines in the city. Every artist, weirdo, magical miscreant, and brilliant reject met here and inspired each other. We formed a rebel collective where everyone had a secret identity: telemarketers, short-order cooks, group-home managers, and servers were transformed under the blue-gold light of the NorShor into heavy metal gods, DJs, sculptors, writers, dancers, choreographers … artists. We passed secrets in darkened corners and whispered our plans like revolutionaries.

I changed, because of the relationships I had with the people, and the art here. I felt such shared intention and passion that it made me want to be better. I wanted to make art worthy of their attention. And I know they felt the same way — not about just me, in particular, but about us — and this thing we’d created.

Then it closed. We tried to raise money, to drink our way to solvency, but it closed anyway. I think after years of joking that it was going to happen, we were all shocked when it finally did. The NorShor had become the 100-year-old drunk uncle who smokes Pall Malls all day and sits in his recliner, stubbornly clinging to life. After a while, you start to believe he’ll never die.

I grieved it’s closing like it was the death of all we’d made. In my restricted thinking, I mistakenly believed just the place was magic. Or that we’d been the first ones to feel it. But this place is old magic. More than a 130 years of art has saturated the walls. So, when we stood together, transported by Amy Abst, Crazy Betty, Both, 2 Sleepy People, Bridget Riversmith’s paintings, Semblesque, Giljunko, or a hundred other artists, we were surrounded by such magnificent ghosts. Ghosts of people, maybe, but I’m talking about ghosts of art — the force of intent and belief in the importance of making something powerful, making something real, some audible and genuine transmission so potent and so focused that it itself would become manifest. We conjured them up, and poured them into this place. After 130 years of this, it must be so familiar to these walls, these rhythmic periods of inception like the rising of the sun warming the face of a mountain, over and over again.

What I didn’t realize was that although our time here was ephemeral, what we’d made was not. That some structures are beyond the confines of the purely physical world, built as much of creation as they are of timber. Artists rearrange the furniture of legends (and stories and music and art) in the psyches of their audiences, who in response, return the favor by changing the actual world around them. They construct entirely new rooms onto the palaces of myth and mystery.

We need this place, and its ghosts. It’s our job to change the world, all of us. Whether we change it with music, painting, writing stories, telling other people’s stories with our performance, or showing up to listen, to be changed, to carry that metamorphosis around in us like a contagion. It’s our job to let any of those beautiful things transform us, to re-enter our world as new people with broadened capacities for understanding, communicating, loving, and being.

Thank you Don, for inviting me to say this, in this place. I know you know exactly what I mean.

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