Joseph Grady shares a story about sitting drunk in a field full of ramshackle abandoned, decaying buildings and the conversation he has with a crow that changes his life.
Joseph Grady studied acting at the University of Montana before landing a role in Winter in the Blood in 2013. He continues putting his heart into all that he does and works hard at building community whenever he can.
This episode of Tell Us Something was recorded in front of a live audience on October 1st, 2015, at The Roxy Theater in Missoula, MT at the opening event of the first annual Montana Film Festival. 6 storytellers shared their story based upon the theme “Reel Stories”.
Today’s story comes to us from Joseph Grady and is titled "Conversation With Crow". Thank you for listening.
Amazing to be in such company. I'll start by saying that. I want to tell you a story about a crow. It's kind of a transformative story as well.
I'm a drunk and a horse thief. Wait, it gets better. That's actually how a lot of people in the sober community refer to themselves when they straighten up, fly right.
I started drinking when I was 21 years old, by the way, this is not an AA meeting. I started drinking when I was 21, and that first experience I blacked out. Which should've told me something, but I really took to it, or rather it took to me. However you want to look at it, and off I went.
Let me back up real quick. I was born in Browning Montana. I'm an enrolled Blackfeet Nation member. My parents died when I was very young, just a baby, and I was adopted off of the reservation by an Irishman and a woman who was Swedish German. Beautiful people, some of the most beautiful people that I know. I grew up in Catholic school and public school, like many many people in the United States. The suburban central Arizona, Indiana, Washington. Parts of Montana. My father's a professor of electrical engineering dragged us around the country. Very smart man.
To get back to the story, after taking those first drinks I drank for the next 17 years. I started my day with a jug of wine, and that was my lunch, my dinner, my dessert, that was actually my life. There's a son in there as well, who was born at the beginning of this downward spiral. And the downward spiral started very, very quickly, much to my chagrin. I was homeless throughout most of that, disconnected from my kid. We didn't connect with each other until much later on in life.
Public school did a deplorable job of informing me about Native American people. I was a little bitter about that. I don't have as long an acting career as many of the people here. My first role was the Native American in the Thanksgiving pageant as a child and subsequently every Thanksgiving after that. That being said, by the time I was out of high school and had graduated, I was over mascots, the Bellingham high school Red Raiders. I was over the Thanksgivings, I was over the Columbus days. I was so freaking sick and tired of it, because I had no idea who I was.
The only person that I had ever connected to, who was Blackfoot, in my life, was James Welch. It was a book that I had found when I was a child called the earth, Riding the Earthboy, Riding the Earthboy 40. It was a book of poetry, and there was one poem in particular that stood out to me. I won't share it with you tonight. Suffice to say, that was kind of a huge role model for me. Something I was very disconnected from.
Moving forward, I went on from high school, to this lengthy homeless tirade. Where I went through friends, I went through women, I went through jobs like they were going out of style. The last job I lost was right here in Missoula, Montana. A little restaurant that had just opened up.
Subsequently, I had been fired for being drunk on the job. I had been kicked out of the home I was at. I had lost connection with my son again. I hadn't eaten in three days I was sort of lost. A couple bottles of wine in my bag, my backpack. That's where I lived, was used to living there.
So at the end of this, I was sitting in a field, in a little place that's now known as the Old Mill District, I think that's what it's called. It used to be an open field with nothing but crumbling concrete, weeds, refuse, old broken buildings. Quite appropriate for how I was feeling. Felt right at home.
As I sat there that day, drinking my breakfast of wine, feeling like I'm going to go back home to Washington with my tail between my legs and my kid off somewhere. I don't know what's going to happen. After a short while, this kind of fog lifted, if you will. It's like the booze wasn't working. It's like it was just very clear, and situated to my right, on this concrete piling, this old sort of slanted broken piece sticking up out of the ground.
There was a crow, there were several others around. They were flying around, but this one was a little bit different. It spoke to me. I didn't know what to do with that. So I continued, I had this conversation if you will. Talk about an existential crisis. There I stood, or sat rather, with this bird, and it was telling me things.
As it spoke something became very clear to me. I was thinking about Native American history. Thousands of years of Native American history. Suddenly, just hit me like a fist, like a memory almost. There was a clarity to it, a deep fulfilling breath. I asked the bird, "What about all of this religion stuff, and stuff I grew up in? I'm lost and I don't know what to do." "Give it up. Put it on the ground and leave it. Leave it for the spirits."
Well, I kind of went on. I listened a little longer and after a while, I was just sitting there alone. I was drunk, felt like I had just come out of a blackout. Which I had done many, many, many times in my life. Except for I never remembered any of the blackouts. That stuff was just sort of lost to the world, but this was crystalline in my head, what had happened. It was clear, and the thing I realized in that moment is that I don't have to do this anymore.
So, I stood up and I went across the river and I checked into this hotel. I had a couple hundred bucks in my pocket, and I rented a room. I detoxed in that room. I spent about a week in there convulsing, seizing, throwing up. By the time I could keep a glass of water down, and a little bit of food, my time was up in the room.
And what I realized at that moment was that it doesn't matter if I'm homeless, penniless, jobless, no prospects. I'm going to stay here, and I'm going to be with my kid. I'm going to figure it out, because I'm going to listen to that bird.
I moved on, of course, and I haven't, that was October 11th, 2006, and I haven't had a drink since. Thank you. Turns out this is an AA meeting. Alright, this doesn't have to stay here by the way.
Alright, so, I have this experience and I've every moment since that point, I take that with me. I wake with it, and I say thank you. I think about that bird. I go to bed I thank that bird. I've been through school, I've acted. I've been around amazing people. The first role I was cast in was Winter in the Blood, a James Welch story. It was a bucket list moment, full circle.
The thing I've come to learn throughout all of this, aside from being an actor, not being an actor, telling stories etc. is that the Blackfeet are storytellers. That's who we are. We share with community, and that's the thing I took away that day with that bird. Ever since that moment, all of that disconnect, and loss is completely gone. I feel like I'm part of a community. It's unbelievable, for a guy who was looking at the possibility of just checking out.
I'm going to end with this real quickly. I was invited to the home of Lois Welch, where James used to sit and think, and I sat for a moment, out by this, on this wood carved seat. And it wasn't like everything had started to make sense. That feeling of being part of something actually became real. I felt inspired. I wanted to help my friends. I wanted to be a part of something much larger, and it was the most humbling experience of my life. To be in that place in that moment. So I thank that crow for all of these experiences, whatever comes next. I'm going to capitalize on it. I'm going to make the most of it. Life is really juicy now, I really love that.
Anyway, that's all I have.