Remembering Brenda Ueland’s Words

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Last January I received an email from a Minneapolis city planner informing me that a demolition permit has been submitted for the house of writer, feminist, and activist Brenda Ueland.

Brenda’s home, demolished!? How could they? Brenda was one of Minnesota’s best-known and most beloved writers. Tearing down her house, the place she lived and wrote for the last three decades of her life, (1954-1985), would be like tearing down her friend Upton Sinclair’s house in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house across the river in St. Paul. How could they even consider such a sacrilege?

For me, this was personal. Brenda was my step-grandmother. During the last couple years of Brenda’s life I turned time and again to her for advice and counsel about everything from how to be a good husband, a loving father, and a real man, to how to make a difference in the world. Brenda’s encouragement helped me start the Utne Reader.

The city planner’s message turned my world upside down. For the next 11 weeks I dived into a full-out effort to save Brenda’s house. My life was all Brenda, all the time — day, night, and in the middle of the night. I sent email alerts to the people on the neighborhood distribution lists where she lived, and wrote personal letters to writers, scholars, and historians around the world, asking them to testify as to Brenda’s historical significance. Scores did.

I joined a group of neighbors and Brenda fans to form the BUGS (Brenda Ueland’s Gang of Seven) to save the house. We created a Save Brenda’s House Facebook page. Two of the BUGS hired a preservation lawyer. Midnight phone calls, sidewalk demonstrations, letters to the media, backyard confrontations, and lobbying city hall all followed.

Mysterious interventions from “over Yonder” occurred. I consider them grace notes. I was frequently reminded of Brenda’s words:

You know much brighter souls than I say that when we die we are not dead. I cannot help but believe that. It is a certitude. Death is unbearably tragic and grievous because it is a kind of farewell. But it is not forever. Those who are Yonder, in a queer way — I have discovered this myself — are more puissant (more powerful) than ever. They are more befriending, more strengthening, more helpful….

I certainly felt befriended, strengthened, and helped throughout those 11 weeks. In the end, our efforts to save Brenda’s house failed. The house was demolished on April 4, 2017. But something marvelous came out of these efforts. Many people deepened their connection with Brenda’s writings. And I realized that Brenda has an important message for our times.

Brenda did for me what elders can do for young people, in fact, what each of us, no matter what our age, can do for everyone around us, especially in “hopeless” times — she had a way of listening to me that always made me feel seen and heard. Even if she did most of the talking, which was usually the case, I always came away from my sessions with her feeling good about myself, and clearer about whatever issue was at hand.

So … the next time the world feels too much with you, the next time global climate chaos, or the breakdown of civil discourse, or Islamophobia, or the attack on civil liberties, or the rolling back of social and environmental protections — the next time these and other outrages push you into genuine despair, remember these words from Brenda:

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force … When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand …[a] creative fountain inside us begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom …. This little creative fountain is in all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination — whatever you want to call it …”

And these, “Be bold! Be grand! Be mighty! We need you! The world needs you!”

And these, “The point is not to live long — we live forever anyway. The point is while you are alive, be ALIVE.”  

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader.

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