Monday, May 16, 2011

Love and the Painful Body

"Eternal Martial Law," Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2010 by Urska Sterle, the woman standing by the door. From Lepa: On the wall above Natasa, another famous lesbian feminist activist from Ljubljana, in black jacket, the graffiti reads," Death to Faggots." This is the morning after the Molotov cocktail attack on the lesbian cafe when the women returned to their public place, refusing to give in to national hatreds.

London: Jude, Colin, Luke, Di
Jude's response to "The Ridge Runners"
Geroge, Luke, Jude, Colin and Di

the work, Jude and Joan

On this four month journey, I have learned over and over, the wonder of affection, of appreciation for friendships, old and new, of the power of generous hearts to open quickly to touch, in the face of pending departures, in the knowledge of good-bys that may last a life line. Yesterday we ate our Sunday roast in the Primrose Hill  section of London with Colin, Jude, Luke and George. Our visit started in the small living room of Colin's and Jude's basement flat, her paintings covering every wall and there I saw for the first time in full size the painting Jude had based on her reading of "The Ridge Runners." How can a writer thank an artist who takes in her words so deeply they are translated into another form.

This grandness of the human heart, felt in the full body embraces of the divas of Belgrade, in so many in Belgrade who sat, with our heads touching, bringing worlds to each other, in the moments shared with Maureen and Mike, a reunion after so many years. Maureen, whom I met in my early years of teaching in the SEEK Program, now a woman of 60, and her husband, Mike, gentle and generous, their dreams and actions for a progressive America never having dimmed in all these years, sharing our flat together, the Seder we had telling stories of our lives and then playing pinochle, laughing and comfortable, the years falling away.

our Seder table in our London flat

with Georgia and Paula

Paula, who walked with me through New York streets, who stayed after others had left and held me when I was so tired. The students of the GALAS of Queens College who baked a welcome home cake even though we had never met before, who understood how histories could meet in a place of learning, in the struggle for social change, my student from so many years ago, Dee Colon, who lost a day of work to see her "old teacher," all who without reserve, in acts of emotional courage, welcomed me into a myriad of homes, who gave me gifts of life, remembered or created in the moment of our meetings. Georgia in her regal dignity clothed in her loved fabrics, greenness growing all around her, my old friend, always pushing towards life.
Paula, Dee at GLASA event, Queens College
the students' welcome, GLASA
the talk, back in my old teaching and learning world of Queens College
the students who put on the event and Dee Colon, a student from the past and a friend

Gifts of life through the exchange of love, that is what has made it possible for me to make this journey, in pain, in moments of bodily failure, Di doing the intimate work that keeps me going, pain and the need for bed, but then our hands touched, all of you, or when I would fall asleep on Dawn's and Linda's couch because I felt so safe, so worn out and yet so safe,

Dawn, Linda--Paris

Jacquie, with whom I had my first reunion in New York

or Deb making the time to see me once a week in those five weeks in New York without La Professoressa, or and all of you, Jacquie, Liz, Bobbi, Lisa and Lisa, Andrea, Saskia, Katherine and the children, Jeanine, Stephanie, Naomi, Eve, Leni, Cache, Lee, the LHA retreat women, all of you, and more, for the moments I was with you, in diners or cars, in living rooms or meeting rooms, on the streets and in buses, quieted the pain, softened its grasp on me, almost as if it too knew that so much depends in this human way of ours on these grand moments of the human heart, that refuses the severity of borders, that knows all will happen in its time, but first these moments of our solidarity, our gifts of living memory and the deep knowledge of how wondrous we can make life for each other.

Perhaps the biggest thank you of all is to Jane and Ann back in Spottswood who have looked after our dear Cello for all these months. Without this generosity all the other wonders would not have been possible.

the offerings of life

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Majestic cafe, Lepa and us
 Wonderful women
part of the night gathering in the lesbian owned cafe
speaking with students in the night
The Queen

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Journeys Within Journeys

Where the Sava meets the Danube, behind the Kalemegdan Fortress
Our dear new friend, Nela 

Only four days it was in Belgrade, but the women we met, the histories we saw, the courage of resistances in the face of economic and political despair, the laughter we shared, the work we did together in the day and in the night, the witnessing of Queen Latifah's struggles to find a place to live, to have a decent life with her partner while she zoomed around the streets of Belgrade in her taxi, our gate keeper, bringing us into Belgrade and taking us out again, Lepa's never ending wave, her hand reaching for the sky, gave us great surges of hopeful life. The journey that started with the wonderful women of the Brighton Conference, sitting around our little outdoor table, telling life stories, and brought us to Belgrade, is coming to an end. London has become a home to us now, but as I thought, it is not New York or Paris or even London that took us into needed new territories, it was Belgrade.   

Friday, May 6, 2011

Images from Belgrade--2

In a street behind the Majestic, behind high walls, is the surviving synagoge of Belgrade. Still in use for the small surviving Jewish community there, it also houses Jewish families. Histories within histories, walls behind walls.

Images From Belgrade--1

within the Majestic, after talk
looking down from our hotel window at some of the women taking part in the weekend
The dear Majestic
a city hanging on

Thursday, May 5, 2011

How Can this Be: The Failure of CUNY'S Seat of Power

Trying so hard to hold on to the wonders of the progressive communities represented in Belgrade, lesbians, feminists, queers, I receive from Shebar the news about the trustees of CUNY refusing Tony Kushner an honorary PHD because of his writings about Israel. As a queer Jew, as a graduate of CUNY, as a teacher in its SEEK Program for almost 30 years, as a writer who uses public space to look at misuses of power, I am enraged, disappointed beyond words at this betrayal of what I thought CUNY represented. Now I know the Board of Trustees does not represent the students, the faculty, the other wonders of brave thinking of this New York much loved and needed institution, it does represent the heart of power that stands for the institution.  As an American Jewish queer, I see how indirectly Israel's call for loyalty above all else is having an impact on our democracy. Tony Kushner is America's, perhaps the world's, greatest living playwright. As his latest play shows, he makes us ask uncomfortable questions about both our personal and public lives as Americans, he does the work of an artist. I cannot go on; I know many others will take this all on, this moment of what I call Jewish McCarythism and the cowards who supported it. Ironically, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, uses the gay word in his censuring of Kushner: "Especially when the State of Israel, which is our sole democratic ally in the area, sits in the neighborhood which is almost universally dominated by administrations which are almost universally misogynist, anti-gay, anti-Christian,"; here is the false appeal to gay nationalisms. No word of how America has supported, encouraged, paid for, given overwhelming arms to these same flourishing dictatorships, no word of the Arab Spring where against all the odds, women and men within these countries are taking on with so little all the powers of the up to now American supported regimes. Do not ever speak for me, Mr Wiesenfeld, this queer woman Jew. Not all your power can change what more and more of us are saying, within Israel and without, Jews and non-Jews: Israel is losing its soul with every day of the Occupation, with every checkpoint, with every punishing barrier to hope for a future for young Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank, with every racist decree of a xenophobic government.

Over ten years ago, I was given an Honorary PhD by the Graduate Center of CUNY. Up to now, I treasured this moment as I treasured the working class, progressive traditions of the university system. Now I am ashamed--not of the students and vast majority of teachers--but at the university's hollow heart of power.

Please note that these words and opinions are mine, not Tony's. He has and will express his own far better then I can.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Lepa, Lepa, Lepa Mladjenovic--who Makes it All Possible

Lepa, smiling, with Italian love songs in her heart
On our way to lunch with Nela
Lepa between sessions during Lesbian Week in Belgrade

Lepa working with us, with our translators, Tanja and Nina, in the big meeting at the Hotel Majestic
Lepa and Queen Latifa saying good-bye
Lepa and a little part of me, of us

The Books, The Books

from Belgium, by Ann David and Mips Meyntjens
the yellow poetry collection by Stefa Markunova
Lesbian Resistances, by Urska Sterle, from Slovenia

At our gatherings in Belgrade, books were given to me, hand to hand, precious handing overs, which I will pass on to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Booklyn, but first I hold them dear. "Oud=Out" was given to me by Ria as we sat at Lepa's kitchen table, a history of lesbian and bisexual women in Belgium, "Ervaringen van lesbische en bisekuele vrouwen, geborne voor 1945," written by Ann David and Mips Meyntjens. Along with this gift, Ria handed me an envelope filled with the wonderful photographs of Lieve Snellings, another Women in Black comrade from Belgium whose images can be found at  We ate our pasta, talked of shared pasts, moved our bodies in little dances taught to us by other women at other gatherings for change, and gave gifts of creation.

Another point of exchange was after the large group meeting in the Hotel Majestic: one from the hands of a younger activist from Slovenia, Urska Sterle, and the other, a collection of poems, from the hand of a woman of my age, Stefa Markunova, "Zene Na Ribarskom Ostrvu." After our translated conversation, a young woman sitting on the window ledge in the back of the room, asked is there still room for the lesbian monster in our thinking. We had been talking of the lesbian yearnings for respectability in Western countries--her words brought me back instantly to the middle 70s--to a southern lesbian writer who wrote of the lesbian monster, here I mourn the loss of the archives living in my daily life--I would have been able to find her work, her name, right off the shelves--and now memory escapes me but not the power of her work. I understood what Urska was calling for, I said perhaps it is the work of the artists to keep that space of rebellion, that rich space on the margins where so much can be imagined, alive.After we talked, and she put in my hand her book, "Vecno Vojno Stanje," carefully drawing my attention to the cover image. A group of dykes and their dogs sitting outside their cafe which had been bombed the day before, "You see here," Urska said, "here are the signs of the Molotov cocktail that had been thrown at the club," with the words "Death to Lesbians" scrawled on the wall. "We were back the next day, when this picture was taken, we refused to stay away." Urska is the woman standing by the door. As I looked down at this image and heard her words, I felt a hugeness in me. This was for me one of the most important lesbian images of the last century and of this one so far, the persistence of those bodies considered national deviants, refusing to give up their public space, stretching out their legs, hanging their hand bags over the backs of chairs, their dogs' firm bodies almost on vigil, the women sit with worried faces, a hand worries short hair, their faces strained, words of hate above their heads, but not giving an inch of that narrow street. This legacy, this gift of resistance I give to you.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Which World will Stand for Us?

"It's payback! I am hoping the fish and the crabs are having a good meal on his eyeballs."..."Rot in hell!"..."Justice is just a politician's word. It is all about revenge for me."...The Statue of Liberty clutching Bin Laden's severed and bloody head," "USA USA"..."Triumphalism and unapologetic patriotism are in order. We got the son of a bitch," USA USA

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars, Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." Martin Luther King Jr sent to me by Paula.

How can we respect all the lives, in all countries, all the families, in all countries, touched by this madness we have all been part of--endless war in the name of our national certainties, our national needs, national vanities and national fears--the children blown apart, all the children, the parents living unwanted lives so much has been lost, all the human hearts twisted by so much pain, so much loss--all the hearts, not one country's over another, all the loss to our collective human selves.

statue of Ghandi in the peace garden of Tavistock Place

What is left of us?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Our Lunch in Skadarlija

In Lepa's kitchen with Ria, a Women in Black peace activist from Belgium and her partner and Nela. Lepa is taking the picture.
Walking to the restaurant with Nela

We came out of our hotel, the Majestic, built in 1934, into its street cafe, clusters of small white tables that we could see from our room's window, so often I would be looking down at the lesbians who had gathered for the weekend discussions in the hotel --smoking, drinking coffee, the little dog Kiki, the constant companion of one of the activists from Croatia, winding herself around the legs of the relaxed women, seeing the tops of the heads of women who had already become dear to us. This day it was late morning and we were meeting Lepa and Nela to go for lunch together in the old Turkish district. (Lepa, please tell me all my mistakes or wrong memories of names and place.)Di brought with us a letter from our Bosnia-Herzegovina-Australian friend, Oli, "You should eat some nice food in one of my favorite restaurants in Skadarlija called 'Tri sesira' and have some strong Turkish coffee while there," so in a way, Oli was with us too.

The day was touched by sun and a light early summer breeze, the women ice cream and pop corn sellers were already sitting at their little carts, the cafes lining the pedestrian walkways were already filling up with their clientele, the fountains throwing their waters into the air, the shops opening, the trams clattering at the end of the square; we were coming to know this part of Belgrade very well, and best of all, was the sight of Nela and Lepa appearing out of the swirl of people. I was still wondering at the miracle of being able to see Lepa every day--this woman who had stayed in touch with us since 2002; I have shared her writings, her experiences as history flooded her countries over and over, with you on this journal so you have some idea what it meant to walk beside her on the cobblestone streets of her city, to sit in her famous in the region and elsewhere kitchen where women from around the world speak of their dreams of peace and plans for lesbian actions while her two sinuous cats leap for life all around us.

Where we are going is not far from the Square, but the streets become more uneven, cobblestones jumbled by time and passage, lead us down a hill into a street that seems from decades ago. Open air Turkish restaurants line one side, the pale new green of saplings, trees made young again by the sunlight, a lovely street. We join arms, steadying ourselves on the uneven stones, and continue down the slope until we find the restaurant we want, Tri sisira. Lepa is half groaning her displeasure, she hates all things that smack of tourism, but Nela charms her out of it--see, Lepa, not crowded, a beautiful morning. We sit on the raised wooden platform, hanging baskets of flowers bring the early summer in. Our waiter appears and soon he is taken with our different nationalities. He is a tall solid man, perhaps in his forties or early fifties, and he jokes with Di about Australia; then he hears Nela speak and finds out that she is now living in Zagreb. He turns his full attention to her, a very easy thing to do, and says something in another tone of voice. When he leaves, Lepa with tears in her eyes, explains that once he learned that Nela was living in Zagreb, he turned to her and asked with yearning in his voice, if a certain restaurant was still there. "I haven't been there in ten years." Nela translates and says, I do not think he will ever go back. So many exiles, so many yearnings for what used to be, places now seemingly beyond reach but once united. Lepa is our translator in so many ways, in the wounds of the heart that surround us.

As our lunch continues, our tomato soup, our cheese and spinach pie, our Greek salad,our drinks, three musicians arrive for their afternoon work: one smiling bass player, a short and round accordionist and a tall graying man strumming the guitar. We laugh at Lepa's grimace. The first thing I notice is the age of their instruments, the guitar is battered with its wood worn thin in places but still making lovely sounds, the men are worn too, missing teeth and anxious to please--the guitarist is also the vocalist and he sings Italian love songs. They move closer to us and even Lepa can't control herself, she knows Italian love songs. We exchange translated words, now another country's history in the mix. I am looking up at their worn instruments, the accordion is close to my ears, and I think of the other places in Europe I have heard this people's instrument--particularly in the late night streets of Mont Marte in Paris in 1961--sweet and sad and an aging man's hard work. Perhaps it is the guitarist who asks Nela about that lost restaurant--it is all possible, this conversation of what streets do you walk now and lost histories.

After a while, the musicians take a break, disappearing through the wooden doors of the restaurant. We talk, Nela sits quietly, dressed in her elegant black, her long hair streaming down her shoulders, but no airs about her, just a stillness, this activist from Zagreb. Then another moment--a man in his thirties, perhaps or twenties, carrying a sack of books jumps up onto the wooden platform and from his back throws a book on our table in front of Lepa, I am just watching, seeing the cover, it seems to be about history, Serbian history, Lepa shakes her head no and then he quickly replaces the book with another, Lepa opens it and her whole demeanor changes, she speaks in angry Serbian, I can hear the word lesbian--the young strong looking man steps back, Lepa continues and he jumps down from the platform with his books back on his back. I see that Lepa is crying again, this time with rage. She explains that the book was about one of the Serbian perpetuators of war crimes, a book that ennobled him as a true nationalist. I told him not to take another step towards me, to step back, that I wanted nothing to do with this history--and Nela adds, she also said she is a lesbian feminist, that he was speaking to the wrong woman. I thought how much Lepa had risked in that almost hidden exchange, I thought of the gay people beaten in the streets of Belgrade and Poland when they tried to march by nationalist forces as I thought of the evangelical Christian American nationalists who spread their gay hatred around the world. There we sat, in the early summer sunlight, four lesbian women, contending histories all around us, speaking many languages of loss, of beauty and of the refusal to accept national hatreds. Olds songs, new ones.

Updated on May 11, 2011
Lepa writes:
I can give you a few comments. One is that the man, the waiter, who did not go to Zagreb, hadn't been there for at least 20 years, given that the war started in 1991, when the borders closed down, the telephone to Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina also closed down and usually this is the year when they have no more connections to parts of their former loved homeland. The question he asked was, "Is the Hotel Esplanada there where it once was?" The Hotel Esplanada is a very old and famous one in Zagreb, where Nela lives.

The book that the man put in front of me was "The One," about Ratko Mladic, the one who started the genocide in Srebrenica, the one who imagined it and orchestrated it, and ended up with 8,000 people killed and 30,000 displaced forever. He is Bin Laden of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a man I suspect they will never find as he will never turn himself over to the police or the FBI or USA forces, just like Hitler never did. These men would rather kill themselves then stand in the International Criminal Court where he is wanted and expected.