This is part 2 of the first in our "At a Glance" series of interviews with members of Chatwin's creative community, by Ariel Herman. Photos by Candace Doyal.
Looking into a mine shaft
A rock tossed in.
I am that rock
falling through utter night
waiting for an impact
that never comes.
Excerpt from "Bottoming Out" by Ron Ellison
Ron Ellison At A Glance, Part 2
During our talks, Ellison's anecdotes wove around and through the events of his life, from his time in in the army, to his work as a logger, commercial fisherman, livestock handler, briefly dredging for gold, and eventually to his becoming an LPN. And yet his real story is nothing like a career resume.
To get off the streets and find some structure in his life, Ron joined the army, serving in Frankfurt, Germany as a psychiatric technician. During those years, he was known as “Mad Dog.” Among the patients he worked with were hundreds of violent combat veterans of the US Army with severe psychiatric issues. It was not a safe job, requiring that Ron be hyper-vigilant at all times.. Once, he and several others were attacked by a patient with a razor, and he received 36 stitches. This dangerous and stressful work environment had its own consequences, as Ron would sneak to the attic and smoke hash with co-workers, before returning to their job treating patients dealing with the scars of service in Vietnam.
After the army, Ron became a commercial fisherman to clear his head. It was a dangerous, adrenaline-fortifying job – the kind he liked. In the depths of night, the sea might surge over the 38-foot fishing vessel, pulling it nearer to the rocks; then the power would go out, leaving him to the Fates. Ron is not the man he used to be. For most of his adult life, it was common for people to be intimidated by what he describes as a “speed-freak” demeanor.
His life path dealing with insanity in his home situation, years of living on the streets, and then Army service dealing with extreme psychiatric cases, groomed Ron with the ability to deal with very violent personalities. Ron physically restrained dangerous people. He later became a full-time LPN. Occasionally, friends from his acid years would show up in the hospital where he worked. As an older man, it became necessary to control those violent personalities with his words, “vibing them down,” as he put it. He'd softened his approach to unstable patients by speaking them down as equals.
One man, bound face down on a gurney, looked up to see Ellison standing over him. With more astonishment than chagrin, he asked, “Ron! What are you doing here?”
“You're my patient,” Ron replied, “I’m just like you. I just took a different path.”
It would be an exaggeration to say I feel like Ron's restrained patient. And yet, while reading poem after poem, the clarity of his writing is such that I become quieted in my thoughts. Emergent in a life of chaos, Ellison's work grounds him, and by extension, us.
Ron retired three years ago from his job as an LPN for health reasons. More specifically, he was let go, after he defied a hospital administrator's orders to release a homeless man going through withdrawal on a rainy Seattle night. Afterwards, Ron’s health worsened. He spent a year fighting for air with a broken valve in his heart. Then, one evening, his long-time friend and 18-years housemate, Budd, came to visit him in the hospital. Budd, a former minister now in his 70s, is as Ron calls him, a “one percenter” of the bike world. Budd put on his religious garb to get past hospital security to deliver a message, “Ron, please don't die – I love you – I've got used to you being around.” Ron fought harder, and after several heart surgeries, found his way back to a functional life. In that time, he worked with Chatwin Books to release his poetry collection Illusions of Permanence.
Though he had long desired to share himself, it took some time to find a place and community that would welcome him. Fifteen years ago, Ron became involved in Seattle’s ecstatic dance community. He didn't discover a way to become vulnerable enough to be seen until he was almost 50, through dance. In our conversation, he reflects with a warm laugh, now “I live for dance.”
Ron is not the man he used to be. Between childhood trauma and his aversive demeanor as an adult, he had hardly ever felt seen or loved; As an outsider looking in, this struck me as his greater quest. In our next installment, join us as Ron shares his experiences finding acceptance through dance and spoken word poetry.