Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Found Letter from my Mother; GLASA of Queens, College and the Glory of Intergenerationality, April 6, 2011

Lee, once a lover with whom I shared ten passionate years, the best times being our life in that part of the Catskills' valley that I named  Black Slip Hollow, my lover from the American midlands of Kansas and Texas, who roamed our 20 acres with her chain saw looking for fallen wood to heat the cabin, and whom I visit with when I am in New York, called to tell me that she had found a letter from my mother, Regina, tucked away in a folder in an old unopened box. Lee and I have had rough times and there is still much pain on both sides, but  I will always be grateful for her discovery of this letter. I had said that I would use this site as an archives at times--the preserving of old documents. Written on two sheets of unlined paper in my mother's bookkeeping hand writing that comes back to me as if I had seen it every day are these words:

Joan Dear
We received your card-It is quite difficult to communicate at the time-Somehow, when I permit myself to remember beautiful happenings I live the Christmas 2 years ago--I think it was then, when Mabel and Lilllian, I, you, Valerie had that fantastic day--so real, so beautiful, so complete--How strange, one can't live on past feasts, and it is impossible [?] to reconstruct the past to the present--If I sound maudlin or depressed, that could be the gift I give myself to be truly emotional for all the beauty that one one has experienced--Possibly in the future, I will recall the beauty that exists now--I don't know--I shall hope I can salvage and create my own myths--Do I sound despondent--not so, just feeling all emotional ties, and longing for the sight and feel of you. I love you so much--
I am enclosing a check for $20--Have a feast or a drink on me--Also am enclosing a $10 dollar bill--send it to Mabel and Lillian for their wine or whatever--I salute all of you, your beauty and your love-

Regards to Debbie, Valerie, all

I received this letter in the evening after the day of fullness I had shared with the young people of GLASA of Queens--never has my life been so full of gifts.

My days here in New York are marked by generosities that will never come again, generosities of friendships that creak a little in the first moments of reconnecting and then slip into full gear as if we had never stopped talking, our bodies touching. Every Tuesday night, I sit across from Deb, eating sometimes bad diner food, but always a feast, of shared memories, of the joys of aging--joys with slightly frayed edges--our gray hairs meeting over her eggs and my Greek salad, the archives, our partners, Broadway settling in to its early spring night when Deb and I take leave of each other, friends for over 30 years, knowing one more weekly dinner and then the tyranny of distance and life choices descend again. It is the sparkle in her eyes that will stay with me. Always life in the face of life.

April started with a visit from Liz and Bobbi who had flown in from Tucson. Friends do such things when one travels 23,000 miles to be in their country. My dear friends are struggling with health problems; often when we reunite, there is a crises that seems to wait until we are gathered in the ample living room of Liz's brother's apartment. Once it was visa problems with the threat of my not being allowed back into Australia and Di not being able to stay in the United States. The four of us cried through the day, eating, talking, trying to find some hope. Without Liz and Bobbi, that day and its worries would have been unbearable. Now I sit in the room, looking up at Liz as she tries to work out all she has to do to solve a medical challenge, holding her, trying to be a good friend to Bobbi. It is a privilege of timing to be in New York when dear dear friends are facing very hard things. I stand on the street as their car service pulls away beginning their return journey, Liz waves, and they are gone back into their lives in another desert far from mine. Now the waiting begins.

My weekend with Liz and Bobbi is interrupted by a two day LHA retreat in Lucinda's home in the Catskills to work on fund raising. Billie Potts leads us in intense discussions of what needs to be done, Lucinda cooks beautifully her collard greens with vinegar sauce, her black eyed peas and rice, her grits, her vegetable fritatas, her bourbon cake. Lucinda in the home she shared with Connie, being true to her Kentucky roots. Amy Beth, Paula, Deb, Teddy, Saskia, me--joined by Morgan and a friend in the evening. A brief interlude in the hot tub embedded in the back deck, with the Catskill stars bright in the night sky, the steam and lovely bodies of my friends billowing up into the darkness.

And then, and then, just yesterday, Mark picks me up at 8 to start a long day at Queens College, the place where I entered the world of more complex ideas about human culture, the city college, free and open, in 1958 and to where I returned to teach in the SEEK Program in 1964 until 1995. For a while I had been in contact with Deb, the student who headed GLASA, Queens, (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Alliance) and with Jenna and Penny from the civil rights archival project that Mark, a veteran of the Mississippi Freedom summer, had been working on for the last two years. My day started in the archival conference room of the Rosenthal Library, the new building that had replaced my old haunt of the 60s, the Paul Klapper Library, the old library where in 1959 I and my comrades of SANE refused to take cover when the siren rang out over the campus, promising the false security of shelter drills, standing equally spaced apart like lonely sentinels on the steps of Klapper while other students ran into the basements of old buildings now long gone. The FBI representative on campus collecting our ID cards when we refused the President's demand that we take shelter, this was the real education of my college days.

But on this gray and windy day in April of 2011, I am in the replacement library to speak about my involvement in the civil rights struggle as a Queens College student and as a queer student in the late 1950s. Waiting for me at the Library door is the first of the many unforgettable student activists I will meet this day, Jenna and the representative of the QC archival program, Penny. What lies ahead is an 8 hour day of wonders, of speaking to and with the students of GLASA, and others who come to join me in the Presidential Lounge at 12:15. Jenna, jaunty and sensitive, smart and brave and determined, with her suspenders and cap, tells me of an amazing action the students had taken the day before--spilling out of the ever present steel fence that encages the Queen College campus in their protest against school cuts, spilling out into the busy highway. I will speak more about the civil rights interview another time, but now as my time here ticks away before I have to go out to speak at a fund raiser for OutHistory on the CLAGS website, I want to tell you more of that afternoon. The students had baked a huge chocolate cake, these young people whom I had never met before, with the words, "Welcome Back, Joan." They, over 50 of them, of all genders, understood from my writings what connected us and I, standing before them, saw once again, what I would see as I swung through the early morning doors of my SEEK classroom: youth, perplexed, open, hungry, brave. Here now so many years later, it was precisely my age and their youth, my past and their present and both our concerns for the future in this right-crazed country, that pulled out hearts into our words. "We need the older generation," Jenna said, "there are so few opportunities for the young and the old to speak together about their activism." Two and half hours of their questions, their statements of defiance against the politics of present America that was stripping them of hope, their understandings of the need for coalitions as were in this room. Paula, my dear friend of over 30 years and a graduate of Queens, had come to join me as she has throughout my present sojourn here, and it was her eyes I turned to as the afternoon became more and more life giving, as they and I poured all we had into giving each other strength for the future, understanding of the past--Is this really happening, Paula, I was asking her. Is this wonder of human caring, of queer connection in all senses of the word, taking shape like a loving genie? I recognize the beautiful face of Dee, though I did not immediately remember her name, I did remember that hair, those eyes, one of my students in the mid 90s, an open transexual student  who was determined to live her life fully in all the worlds she chose, Dee taking off from work to see her old teacher. Paula said later it was as if you could not, all of us, let each other go. I will always be in your lives, I say, my words, my help if I can. One of the last students to speak to me is a young woman dressed like a conservative secretary, she comes to me from her seat in the back of the room but she was always in my line of vision. By the time she reaches me she is weeping, quietly. Joan, she says, and I look again, sensing something huge in her voice, "I am an illegal," she says. I have never seen so close up the chilling nature of those words. "I am trying so hard to be a good student, to do all I can, but I am so frightened...they arrested two of my friends." I hold her, drawing in the others, who know the plight of students like her, who have protested on the big lawn, recreating detention camps, I hold her knowing I have heard the coming out statement of the 21st century, the one that opens up the speaker to all the forces of a fear mongering State. I hold here, we hold her, she still clutching her notebook where she so dutifully took notes like any other good college student.

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