The muted sounds of avant-garde jazz and party chatter bleed through the walls of an empty performance hall. Jon Lurie sits alone, away from the action, preparing to read from his memoir.
The University of Minnesota alumnus and author is frequently interrupted by friends and family who poke their heads in the hall, looking for him.
After all, this is his party.
Lurie, 45, is awaiting a heart transplant after a three-year battle with a rare autoimmune disorder. His publisher, Milkweed Editions, hosted a benefit for Lurie at the Loft Literary Center on Saturday night.
Proceeds from the ticketed event — which included a silent auction, youth circus performers and readings from other local authors — will go to Lurie and his family to help pay for medical bills.
Lurie said he was thankful for the opportunity to hear the positive effect he’s had on others throughout his life.
“A lot of people only ever get the opportunity when they can’t hear it,” he said. “People come together for a funeral, and you hear a lot of nice things, but [this] is one of the rare opportunities I’ve had in my lifetime to have people tell me what I’ve meant to them.”
A former journalist, Lurie earned his MFA from the University and teaches creative writing at Macalester College part time. He said his four weekly doctor appointments and semi-frequent hospitalizations have kept him from accepting a full-time position.
“It means I can’t work enough to do anything but really scrape by,” he said.
Lurie keeps himself in good shape, but his condition is not inconspicuous. Until recently, Lurie has had to wear a backpack full of IV-administered medication at all times.
His illness has allowed him to create stronger bonds with his students, he said.
“It opens people up to the idea that we’re not just screwing around,” he said, “and I wouldn’t be wasting their time because I would be wasting my own.”
Former students said Lurie’s condition rarely affected his teaching, even when he suffered a heart attack midway through the semester in 2010.
“He’s just so dedicated,” said Melanie Kern, a Macalester junior and one of Lurie’s first students. “Even if he’s not feeling good that day, he’ll still come in and leave it all at the door.”
Madisen Stoler, Kern’s classmate, is an anthropology student but said she’s organizing an internship through the school’s English department so she can have Lurie as her adviser.
“I think most of his students feel a really personal connection with him,” Kern said. “I know a number who have cried in his office, myself included.”
Lurie is close to finishing his first book, “Canoeing with Jose,” which he read from Saturday. Lurie said the memoir has taken more than twice as long to write since he was diagnosed with his disorder.
In the book, he physically retraces the canoe trip taken by Eric Sevareid, former CBS broadcaster and University alumnus, for his memoir, “Canoeing with the Cree.”
It seemed natural, Lurie said, to bring an at-risk youth from St. Paul on the 1,000-mile trip to Hudson Bay he took for his book.
Lurie has lead youth canoe trips his whole life. He said he takes all of his creative writing classes canoeing on Lake Calhoun, and although he has no formal training, Lurie teaches a youth development course at the University.
Also joining them for the first leg of the trip was Chris Koch, Lurie’s best friend and one of his first campers on a canoe trip almost 30 years ago.
“He taught me all about canoeing and even more about life,” Koch said. “We’ve had a lot of amazing adventures.”