WILL AND THE MERMAID

When I first met the man who became my husband, he had a very odd friend in tow.

The friend was Will Shipee, a homeless man who lived on the streets of Ann Arbor Michigan in the late 70’s. He was a small man, lean and tan, energetic yet quiet, with sparkling blue eyes.

He was the first guy I knew who wore earrings. They gave him a friendly pirate look.

He was an incredibly spiritual person and spoke of God’s presence in his life often. He was a vegetarian. He didn’t drink or smoke. (Well. He smoked something, but it was a $5 fine in those days.)

He was intelligent and articulate. He was peaceful, graceful, self-sufficient, wise. He’d walked away from many things in his former life–a high-paying corporate job, a marriage, a mistress, expensive cars–to live and pray in India. He returned to live in the streets of America, determined to live a holy life, free from the chains of money and ambition.

I was a little nervous around him at first. But he never asked for money or took advantage. He was there if we needed odd jobs done, asking only for food in exchange.

He sometimes moved among more dangerous people, which made me uneasy. But he kept them separate, always careful to make sure they never encroached very far into our lives.

He had a way of dealing with everyone that was quiet, peace-making, grounded. Everyone respected him. No one harmed him.

My (future) husband and I spent many, many hours talking, listening, laughing, eating with Will. (He was always hungry!)

Will was an artist, a woodcarver. He would work on a wood carving for a year, usually for a specific patron, and sell it when it was finished for a nice price. He lived very simply and frugally, but he needed the occasional chunk of money so he could get to a warm place for winter.

His carving project during that magical summer was a mermaid. A praying mermaid.

We have pictures of her, but I can clearly see her even now. About 20″ tall, carved out of a solid chunk of mahogany. Upright, with her tail curled and curved up behind her, each scale carefully and skillfully incised. Her face as serene as a Botticelli Venus, eyes closed, lips slightly parted. And her hands folded gently but fervently in prayer.

He carried her wrapped in a blanket, with his carving tools, in a sling on his back. He took her everywhere.

And people were drawn to her.

We all wanted to hold her. To look at her. When she was brought forth, our hands all reached for her, to touch the silky smoothness of her face, to feel the intricately carved hair and scales. For the first time, I understood the power and mystery of an icon.

Will didn’t brag, but you could tell he was gratified by our response. He wanted to show that even the mythical beings who supposedly had no soul, could feel and celebrate the presence of God.

Pretty heady stuff for a young woman who was in love, and who’d just left her own corporate job to shovel horse manure in a riding stable.

He had a buyer for her, a guy in Texas who would pay him a huge sum of money for her–several thousand dollars. It would be enough to find a house and feed himself for the winter.

I thought the person who owned her would be blessed. I envied him as I yearned for her myself. I could imagine her in my life forever.

Will left at the end of the summer, dreaming of a winter in warmer climes.

But the deal fell through, and Will returned.

And he kept carrying the mermaid.

He looked in vain for other buyers. And he kept working away at her, unable to stop. Til finally, he carved away at her eyes, and “opened” them.

She no longer seemed innocent and dreaming. Now she looked lascivious

He offered her to me for $300. I didn’t have it. But I wasn’t sure I even yearned for her anymore.

I wondered what it meant.

His art carried too long, went from “finished” to overworked. And in the process, changed into something….less? Certainly different.

His art became all about the money as he desperately kept working to make her what he thought a buyer would want.

I think he finally gave her away to someone for a pittance of his original price. Perhaps just enough to buy him a bus ticket out of town.

His carefree life was more grounded in his art than he realized. And when he left that connected space, even though it was for a good reason, he always seemed a little more lost and uprooted to me. I think he felt that way, too, for he disappeared soon after that.

We never saw him again.

Will taught us many things that year, beautiful things.

I often think of him. I hope he is safe, and well, and loved.

I wonder what happened to the mermaid.

I wonder where she is now. I wonder if the person who owns her has any idea what her origins were, or what she meant so so many people that summer in Ann Arbor, so many years ago?

And as my thoughts turn over in my mind–What’s next for me and my art? Where do I go from here?–I can’t help wondering…

What do we open ourselves to, when money is the only coin of the realm? What do we gain? What is lost?

Is it the smart thing to do? Is it right, or wrong?

Is it worth it?

Yes. No. Maybe. Sometimes. Who can say?

Unusual thoughts on this cold, cold day in New England, so far away in distance and time from that heady summer days of new love and wonder.

p.s. As I reread this, I hasten to add that I don’t criticize my friend’s desire to have enough money to eat, and travel and stay warm. But something changed when the deal fell through, something that was painful to watch. Something made visible even in the change of the mermaid’s expression.

And that’s what I’m trying to figure out.