Tuesday, October 23, 2012

For the Women of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, 2012

Last week a young friend, Maddy, wrote to tell me that somehow I had ended up as the gay icon of the day on the Huffington Post and while I appreciate this honor, more like the taste of the day I hope, I am moved to make some things clear. While for the first twenty-five or so years of LHA's life, I breathed it every day, and all the wonderful and sometimes exhausting life it brought with it, for the last 13 years, since my bout with breast cancer and the need to relocate to Melbourne, Australia, to be with La Professoressa, my involvement with the archives has been mostly through e-mail, keeping in touch with old friends and offering what might be seen, from to time, my intrusive opinions about LHA issues. In the past when we were in New York on long visits, I gave a few tours, sat around the table and gazed upon the dedicated faces that were engaged on a daily basis with keeping the archives the flourishing and ever- growing rich cultural and historical grassroots project that it is.

But where the real honor lies now is in the daily dedication of the women who sit around that old farmer's table on a weekly basis, who welcome visitors, plan the special events, face the financial challenges, extend the availability of the collection, maintain the website, welcome the student groups, researchers, visitors just dropping in and keep that wonderful old Brooklyn sand stone building standing strong. Yes, the archives is in my blood, it flows through all my work, but now I am far removed from its every day life. I want to name, to give all honors to Deb Edel, who started it all with me, and still sits at the table; Paula Grant who always traveled the longest to staff and attend meetings for all these years, who makes our traveling exhibits live in new places;Teddy Minucci, Deb's partner, who as she says, is LHA's step -mom and dedicated periodicals carer; Saskia Scheffer, a most wonderful photographer who works on all things visual and makes LHA's images available on the web; Maxine Wolf, organizer extraordinaire who brings her long time activist visions to the table, Desiree Yael Vester, who care-takes the building, not an easy task, and plans the best LHA Valentine parties; Leni Goodman who keeps our volunteer contacts growing; Devin Lindow, all around staffer who welcomes, files, plans; Shawnta Smith, writer, cultural worker, bringing a new generations' energies and insights to LHA; Gabrielle Korn, all around staffer; Flavia Rando who spans many years of lesbian feminist culture, now La Professoressa of LHA with her ever- growing- in- popularity Lesbian History classes; Heather, who keeps the website alive. These descriptive phrases are only to give a sense of the wide world of activities and responsibilities that are at the heart of LHA.

 To coordinators, volunteers, near and far, old and new, over the years, in 13A and at 484, you are at the heart of LHA's vision, you have delineated it, supported, expanded it, for close to forty years and hopefully for many many more.  To Judith Schwarz, to Gerogia Brooks, Morgan Gwenwald, Beth Haskill, Linda McKinney, to Amy Beth, Polly Thistlewaite, to Sabrina,  Lucinda Zoe, to so many more whose names live in the collections that they worked on, to Rota Silverstrini, who lives in our memory. To the thousands of visitors over all these years, it was the delight in your faces, the cultural products you produced, the at- homes you attended, the stories you told, the cups of tea, the boxes and bags of documents, the books, the buttons, the t-shirts you either hand delivered or mailed in, the words of support and the donations you dropped in the glass bottle or sent in, that makes this project of lesbian remembering glow with meaning.

On November 17th, the Lesbian Herstory Archives "is celebrating the lives and contributions of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich with a marathon reading of their work," from 12noon to 12:00midnight. Surrounded by their special collections, their books and articles, photographs, their taped voices reading and talking of their passions, a marathon of dedicated rememberance and connections to activism, where you are welcome to tell your stories of what the work of these two women meant in your lives. "Items from the life and work of both Lorde and Rich will be on display throughout the day," and light refreshment will be served. Suggested donations will be collected at the door ($5-10, more if less if) No One Will Be Turned Away. Here with this event, you have all the moments of LHA's vision, created by the dedication of the women I have mentioned and more I do not know of. Both Adrienne and Audre had belief in LHA's project in its so early years, both understood. How I wish I could be there for this day-night celebration, to see all your faces, to hear the old words and see how they live in lives today. I can't but perhaps you can. All that LHA has to offer, our collective past, our complex present, and our unknown future, will be in those rooms.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

It Is Such a Simple Thing

La Professoressa, my returned darling, stood with the late afternoon sun behind her, her hennaed hair lit up by the sun's radiance, the long branches of the silver gum falling around her shoulders, she faced us vibrant with life, our two younger lesbian friends and me, leaning on the railing of the backyard ramp. That moment of welcome, time to time, that moment of light and love, is really such a simple thing, a moment rich with the possibilities of pleasure. As simple as a family's decades old olive trees fruiting in the desert sun but and such a but, not when the trees and their cultivators live and work in the West Bank. How can sunlight penetrate such words as these: "Two weeks in the West Bank's annual olive harvest, Israeli settlers have destroyed hundreds of trees and attacked Palestinian farmers...Settlers uprooted 300 trees in al-Mughir and Turmusaya villages, cut down 120 trees in Nablus, destroyed 100 olive saplings and 60 vine trees in al-Khader village, uprooted 40 trees in Ras Karkar and assaulted at least four Palestinian farmers." (The Age) All that was wanted was a harvest, a gathering in of the fruits of labor, a simple thing, but the withering heart of the settler movement, blots out the sun of common joy. Here my moment of lesbian love and here the stricken ground of national hatreds. I live in the heat of both.

A Tree of Life Anchored in a Cambodian Temple, through La Professoressa's Eyes, October 2012

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"Io Sono Li" and "Terra Firma;" Oceans, Rivers, Hope and Despair

It seems I have lived most of my life on islands, though my beginnings were on the terra firma of the 1940s Bronx, shaky in its own way but not because of the ever presence of shifting water ways--the Grotton Reservoir was disappointingly staid--and then for many years on the isle of Manhattan; every time I accompanied international visitors on the Circle Line Ferry trip and saw the wilderness at the tip of the northern reaches of the island, saw the bridges, the soaring workers' paths of connection, to New Jersey, to Brooklyn, to the Bronx, to Queens, with the belly of the bay swelling out at the Southern end, I lived again in Whitman's Manhatta, a project of the imagination, what humans do with water.

For the last twelve years I have lived on an island continent, where the oceans, Indian, Southern, Pacific, form a blue endless horizon, in one sense a country without a border if one believes that seas, like the air we breath, belong to no one but the history of this earth. At first I was frightened of this disconnection, and the coziness of Europe called to me, so many cultural moments touching, like turning over in bed and feeling the warmth of all those bodies, but now it is the call of the waters that interest me, the journeys that so many must make to reach the terra firma of their dreams, the waters of enforced destinies. I think of the "tragic riddle in the waters" as the Cuban-African poet Nicholas Guillen called the Middle Passage, the final journey of so many enslaved Africans who were forced to leave their histories in the depth of the Atlantic, a number too large to count, like stars in the sky, the holocaust before all others. Racism and oceans have a long history.  

For the past two weeks I have been taking the Monee Ponds--Westgarth number 506 bus, so different from the 86th street crosstown of my old world, through working class neighborhoods of wooden homes and small front gardens, crossing over the environs of Merri Creek until the bus, filled mostly with pensioners like myself and at the right times, school children, until we pull into the last stop, a short walk from the Westgarth Palace Cinema where I meet my old friend Pattie, and we settle into the deep red seats of the 1950s cinema
to take in the offerings of the Italian Film Fesitval which here is like a family affair. In the back rows sit the Italian speaking matrons who have lived in the neighbohood for decades, most emigrating from Southern Italy in the 50s and 60s, so their husbands could help to build the Snowy River Dam and they themselves often worked as seamtresses in the rag trade, as it is callled here. In chosing which films I wanted to see, I looked for the other Italian stories, not the romantic comedies, but the attempts of independent Italian film makers to explore the issues tearing at Italy's heart, immigration and the economic crises.

Along with this cinematic journey, I have been pursuing my own Italian studies program, with books leading to books--"The Pursuit of Italy" by David Gilmour, Penguin, 2012 for history,"Venice: The Pure City" by Peter Ackroyd, Vintage, 2010; "Elements of Italy," edited by Lisa St Aubin De Teran, Virago Press, 2001; following leads in these books and from a new friend who lives in Italy for a part of ever year, the Henry James Italian-based or influenced writings, "The Aspern Papers," and the "Wings of the Dove," and now on top of the pile, Stendahl's "The Charter House of Parma," (1839) dictated in the dying days of the author, a book I had carried all the way from NewYork those 12 years ago and only when I saw a reference to its author in the Gilmour book, did I think to check my shelves to see if by any chance I had a copy and there it was. Finally, I am deep in the language, translating in my own slow and dictionary and grammar- bound way, Giuseppe Berto's "Le Opere di Dio," a portrait of life in a Sicilian town written by the author during his interment in an American prsioner of war camp, in Texas, from 1943-46.

Both "Terra Firma" and "Io Sono Li" are stories of water and the human dreams so often drowning in the sea--African workers trying desperately to survive their boat journeys to the coast of Southern islands that barely sustain themselves except in the height of summer when tourists rush with shouts of joy into those same seas from which exhausted Africans haul themselves out of. The scene of the rescued Sudanese mother standing with her new born child in her hands facing the Southern island Italian woman who helped deliver the baby, in the flickering light of the garage in which both families are living so Northern tourists can live in the house, has thousands of years of history in its lens. I read in Gilmour's book, in his chapter, "The Making of Italy,"--the year is 1860 and the unification, the Risorgimento is well under way--"Ten days after his arrival in October, he [Luigi Carlo Farini] concluded,'that the south was 'not Italy but Africa,'" a place from which nothing good was to be expected. The concluding image of the film is an unforgettable portrait of human compassion afloat on the immensity of the seas, of the frail absolute connection of our need for each other and our histories. "Io Sono Li," [I am Li], opens with a scene of Li, a Chinese contracted worker, floating a lit candle on the canal in a town outside of Venice in honor of her favorite Chinese poet who believed that in the waters and their continuous flow lay the pulse of our lives. Her friendship with an aging fisherman amateur poet as well as the love of her room mate, another indentured Chinese woman worker, and the waters that bound their time in Italy, the ancient connection of the fishermen both in China and in Venetian Italy to the sea, to the lagoons which refresh and entrap at the same time, are at the heart of the story. Water, oceans, rivers, the need to reach terra firma but the impossibility of living without the poetry of the sea, the flow of possibilities to destroy and carry life. And in both films, our living responsibility to act with care when faced with the rising waters of need. 

I know I have written much this morning which is now afternoon, but I needed to talk, to tell you of things. La Professoressa left for Cambodia yesterday morning, to be part of a Human Rights group listening to the testimonies of women victims of sexual violence in wartime in the region and to come up with plans of action. The house, my island home, always feels a little more empty when she gets into that taxi that so often draws up in front of our house, leaving Cello and me standing on the veranday, waving our hearts out.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Stephanie's Book

One of the gifts of my life is being able to bring attention to cultural works that I think are needed, that I have had some sense of the creative journey and courage that had to be found to bring the project into its final public form and all of this embedded in enduring friendship. Stephanie found me two decades ago and has stayed in my life no matter how far I traveled from our favorite delicatessen.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ai Weiwei and Jeanine Olsen: Your Likeness Came to Me Tonight

Jeanine Olsen in NYC, 2010
Ai Weiwei

I will jump back into this stream of thought, that has no beginning and will not end if you can see these words. Out of the darkness of this night into all the mornings and other nights where words fly off screens in the hope of touch. I read a small book, " Ai Weiwei Speaks," interviews with the Chinese artist done by Hans Ulrich Obrist and see the future in his blog, in small books, black ,white, gray done to commemorate the books his poet father was forced to destroy. "I think China is at a very interesting moment. Power and the centre have suddenly disappeared in the universal sense because of the Internet, global politics, and the economy. The techniques of the Internet have become a major way of liberating humans from old values and systems, something that has never been possible until today." The artist's words come to me in a small white book telling of his blog into which he poured his images of all that interested him, the mere act of keeping the flow of his spontaneous response to life a political act that endangered his life. "We had better not enjoy the moment," says the artist, but create the moment."

Interviewer: "You produce the moment?'

The artist: "Exactly. Because we're actually a part of reality and if we don't realize that we are totally irresponsible. We are a productive reality."

Productive realities and needing to be responsible, needing to keep saying what must be said, needing to keep pointing in the direction of the insanities, the  cruelties that we keep feeding, and for me it is deep deep failure of the Jewish diaspora to raise its voice against the colonization of the Palestinian people, against the poisoning of the wells, the emptying of homes, the on-going ceaseless brutilizations of families, of towns decreed destructible, of histories called myths.

All the time I was reading Weiwei's words, I kept thinking of my young artist friend, Jeanine Olsen, whom I first met in 1998 at the Art Institute of Chicago, the photographs of her swimming back into the primal ooze instead of escaping it, her body buried in the sand, only her strong head peering out, her prone construction of the earth, a woman's body on which all the expressions of natural life flared and flowed, the community of artists that she moves with, the times we lived together in 13A, her dog Mister and her caring for cat Fred so I could make my journeys. I think of the glorious moment when she and her friends were partying late into the night at 13A .I awoke and in my nightgown went out to join them and saw huger then life, Ms Divine in one of his first movies, sloping across the living room wall. I stood in wonder at the transformations these young creators had wrought as if I were in a dream. Often when we are with Jeanine in one of her artist happenings it is like a dream, dreams of other histories coming into New York, old old histories, the voices of those who spoke first in the vast lands known now as America. Productive Realities that first appear as strange dances, out of context gestures and now as books, those powerful quiet books that look like no others. Like Weiwei's black, white gray books, simply books to stand for the so many destroyed or not allowed ones. So here I am again, jumping into the flow of words that we send out, like drum beats of presence.

In 2009 the Chinese government shut down Weiwei's blog. "I always take action when it is needed." Productive reality.