Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Strike, Strike..."

La Professoressa calls me early in the mornings here, not every morning but enough so I know she is still there in the flat in Tavistock Place and I am still here in New York City, standing on cold corners to connect with old friends taking time off from work or from looking for work. My hosts here are wonderful, not flinching in the face of five weeks of Joan spilling over into their smallish upper West Side apartment. I have fetched and eaten more bagels in these two weeks then I do in a year in Melbourne, but that is part of why I come to New York, to taste the lox and cream cheese, the cucumber health salad of my early years in the Bronx with my mother and brother. Not the butter fish or sable, however; they are too expensive now.

I am still feeling the effects of the gastric infection I picked up in Paris, a much more complicated place than its shiny  tourist streets would have you believe and this too keeps me tethered to what is so lovely called the conveniences. But still, I have visited with Naomi, shared her poems and tea; caught up with my old young room mate Jeanine, brave and big with thick straw colored hair falling out of its rubber band, as she tells me of her art performances in the old city of Puerto Rico where the old texts of who is human are blared from a battered car, a newly imagined interrigation of the assumptions of colonialisms; with Saskia, who long ago left her Holland to make her way in New York and has devoted years to working with the Lesbian Herstory archives; my old friend Paula who carries me off to an evening of commemoration for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in the old great hall of Cooper Union, an evening of Italian, Yiddish songs singing of the lives of women in the "dolar land," an evening of solidarity with women garment workers from Bangladesh and China and Mexico, the hall packed with shouts of "Strike, Strike," as the words of the original organizers of those early strikes are recreated by younger women workers and in all our heads and hearts are these times, our own, where teachers and public workers of all kinds are being demonized by the so-called fiscal conservatives. No matter what city streets I walk I cannot escape the tensions that now spill into the streets of so many cities and towns, East and West. Yesterday, La Professoressa told me of the huge protest march forming all around her in London, the students coming from our Russell Square area, forming one huge river, to meet up with the river of trade unionists coming from the east side of London, all over London tributaries of citizens marking the streets once again as public sites of discontent, the only possession many can count on--the right to walk the streets.

I do long for Cello and my red head. I do long for the comfort of her arms around me and Cello's bright eyes sparking me into the belief that I can rise to yet another occasion. This journey I am on is not an easy one.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Skylines and Facelines

the view from Dawn's and Linda's apt on 90th street, NYC
Naomi working on ms
The rain has stopped and the East Side Central Park skyline is filling the 21st story bedroom window of Dawn and Linda's apartment. The glass sheen of the Reservoir Lake lays between the other high risers, a new view of my old city for me. My old apartment on the 13th floor looked out on Broadway, and if I leaned out of my window, like Molly Goldberg, I could follow the endless flow of taxis, buses and just plain folk up this worn avenue. Now New York is city scape to me, to join the others I have come to know: Melbourne, of course, with its still becoming city sky curve, new glass buildings rising everywhere, with the Yarra River in their midst and the 19th century Flinder's Street Station anchoring the city center in its near past. Oldness finds its safe homes in blue stone alley ways, in wood frame one floor houses dating from the turn of the century, oldness hoping the youthful eyes of a new time will overlook it in its pursuit of higher up. From the balcony of our flat in London, we watch the endless flow of students up and down Tavistock Place, their wheeled suitcases when I am not looking sounding like the hoofs of prancing steeds on the cobblestones. Old has not gone into hiding in London, but near the Tate Modern luxury high risers are claiming the new time and the banks of the Thames beckons young professionals to claim their own spot of glass and river. Touch the old stones wherever you find them, touch the histories they carry, and leave them be, overlooked and enduring.

I have been away from New York for over two years, the longest time since I started my life with La Professoressa, and I will spend this time here sitting with old friends and just looking and talking, sometimes with the sites of New York in the background but they are not the feature. What I am visiting are the faceliness of those whom distance has kept from me, the faces of old friends who are old, some young old and others, whom time has not yet shaped. Naomi, in her 90s, welcomes me to her door. She is a gleam of spirit. I have interrupted her at breakfast, she sits in her chair, slightly at a slant, the New York Times propped up on a table easel. We talk about her collected works soon to be published, we laugh at the audacious spirit of the women of OWN (Older Women's Network) that she and her partner, Eva, founded a decade ago, rebels all with bones that hurt and bodies that fall. No denials just egging each other on to keep snatching the sting of that good martini or essence of that poem or flight of the just seen bird before it disappears in thicker stuff. Naomi, laughter in her eyes, mischievousness living in her narrowed house, her body, her house. Each year we pledge to stay alive until we can make it together down Broadway for our ritual hamburger, the good joints, without pretension, getting harder and harder to find. We did it, Naomi, we did it.

And then last night, dinner with Deborah and breathing deep sighs of relief at how well she looks, how precious these facelines are, these scapes of friendships and loveships, how one rushes in to say to time, please be careful with this one, touch it yes, let your calligraphy run deep but let me see again and again the precious visage gleaming with the touch of life.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Planet Has Shifted

I sit now in the 90th street bedroom of Dawn and Linda, my old and dear New York friends who will so generously share their home with me for these five weeks. Paris and all that poured in from its marble facades and gold tipped arches, from its fortress of one kind first, the Louvre, now an all embracing arch of a fortress of another kind, the bastion of French national culture or at least one past version of it, the other Paris where the non nationally idealized live, the stern elegance of its national centers--all beauty, all permanent, all confirming the Grand Nation-  history in edifice, pride of monument--I realize I write from little real knowledge and I am still foggy from all the traveling, so I best talk less and think more. La Professoressa will live as a bachelor back in the London flat for these five weeks, a young red head again, striding down the cobblestones of Bloomsbury.

It was on the morning that we were leaving our small room in the Hotel of Balconies on a side street of the Odeon Metro stop in the St Germain du Pres district, our bags packed, that I first saw the tongue of ocean that swallowed up the low lying towns of Northern Japan. Outside I could hear some early morning footsteps of Parisians starting their day, every thing seemed to still, and yet I was watching something so huge, so terrible that the position of our planet will never be the same. And in another besieged part of our human world, Qaddafi turned his guns, our guns, loosed his planes, our planes, dropped his bombs, our bombs, on the young revolutionaries who were still thinking that the countries of the west who had supplied the killer with his arsenal would stand with them, would be their final shield between a psychotic leader --and now, the victors sweep the bloodied signs of their murders from off the sand strewn streets, hang banners of victory--much like Bush's vain glorious slogan splashed across the gun turrets of an American war ship on the brink of Iraq's terrible years of suffering, saying it had all been a national delusion. So quick to sell our weapons, to garnish favors with the killers to feed our appetite for oil, and yet so slow in our paralyzing deliberations, so trite in our speeches about Democracy as the great gift of these "backward" peoples, to  whisper in the ear of a dying youth--your comrades will live and so will your dream of another kind of nation, we are here now.

Arms dealers and democracy--some scams blot out the ethical face of whole nations, some national hypocrisies are as huge as that engorged tongue of debris that relentlessly swept away the fragile monuments to the daily lives of Japanese farmers, homes and children, elders dreaming of their bench in the sun. The planet has shifted.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Off Again, but First...

London will fade into the distance tomorrow as we board the EroStar to Paris. Dawn and Linda have arrived, bringing all their New York moxie and the warmth of our long friendship. I waited for them outside the Russell Street tube station yesterday morning, watching embraces on departures and arrivals, men and women simply happy to welcome another back or sad to see them go and around all this travel drama the daily rush of city life, workers, students, getting on with their day in London. La Professoressa has finished marking the latest batch of her students' papers that follow her where ever she goes and this morning we had to repack every thing because others will be living in the flat for the next 12 days. After Paris, I will be returning to New York with Dawn and Linda for a five week stay in my first city. Never have I been so mobile and never have I been so old.

Before I leave this wonderful privilege of writing to you every morning, I have to say some things. You know I write often about the government failings of Israel, about the suffering its policies cause the Palestinian people under its subjection and how ultimately, this way of being in the region is and will be a terrible blight on Israel's national soul. I have written about my need as a Jew to speak up in the face of a unjust state that calls itself a Jewish homeland and my belief that this urgency comes from my deepest Jewish self, not from Jew self hatred. On the other side of my watchful concern with Israel is my own monitoring of growing anti-Jewish sentiment that comes bubbling to the surface in times of personal or national crises. I am thinking of the drunken torrents of hatred that poured out of Mel Gibson in 2006, the more recent rantings of John Galliano whose queerness both in the old and the new sense of the word, make his verbal assaults disturbing on many levels, the accusations of freedom- of- information hero, Assange who believes he is the victim of a Jewish conspiracy, if how he is being quoted is correct, the rantings of Glen Beck who piles Jewish names on his list of the most dangerous people of America and shouts it to the Fox audience, flapping his hand in that mock sincere way he has, a baby face run amok

Perhaps when already Jew-haters read criticisms of Israel, they feel that rush  of relief that now it is alright to say all that they have muttered to friends: "I told you Jews were arrogant, money hungry people, dead set on controlling the world starting with the banks and then the movies and now all of media. They are every where." Yes, I know there is much free floating anxiety about Jews n the air, that broken people find some kind of release in spouting killing words and words about  mass killings, I also know that the West's seemingly seamless backing of Israel, a paradox of power, is in its own way, an anti-Semitic gesture. As some have said of the Arab uprisings, we treated the Arab people as if they were not capable of desiring Democracy; in a sense we trapped them in a history of our own making but now they are creating their own history--in the face of American and British supplied weapons turned against them. Perhaps Israel too has been treated as a kind of child, a nation state born of abuse that cannot trust  languages of reconciliation, negotiation or public empathy and so gorges itself on the apparatus of security, of weaponry, of expulsions and monoculturalism. Weaponry pours in year after year but the national emotional skills of co-existence remain undeveloped--Israel needs to be ineffective that way to serve the security needs of the others, its so-called friends.

Hamas, on the other side of the wall, refuses to allow its children to learn of the Holocaust, saying it would poison their souls--when only an empathetic reading of each other's history will allow a way forward. Israeli schools will not allow the words of the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, into its curriculum for fear he will soften the hearts of their children to those who must always be seen as the enemy. You know, I started writing this post first to say good-bye for the time we will be in Paris and knowing I had to say something about being a critic of a nation that calls itself the Jewish State in times of rising anti-semiticism and in the face of intractabilities on the other side, and now I find myself deep in a psychoanalytical view of disturbed nations. What I want to say is that what I and others are trying to do is keep all our eyes open, hear the dangers all around, and pick our way to doing the just thing, using our deepest instincts and social knowledges both as Jews and queers. To fall silent because these are dangerous times is the most dangerous thing of all.

Au revoir, con amore, for now.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Karin, Dear Karin

One of the most wonderful things about having the archives in my home for so many years was being a host to many interesting and often brave thinkers. This is my sedate way of telling you how hard it was to see Karin, whom I first met when she came to do research at LHA over 30 years ago, leave our flat to return home to Copenhagen. I am so seldom now in this part of the world, something that I wish was not true but is, that I am so grateful to those who break into the flow of their every day life and make their way to where ever we are just to renew old ties, to enable new reflections about all life has brought in the ensuing years. Liz and Bobbi, Dawn and Linda are other dear friends who have endured disruptions and long plane trips so that we, La Professoressa and I, may share more time with them.

For many years, Karin and my partner of the time, would have our reunions in New York City, but then it got harder. Still, we managed to meet almost every year--one year in Copenhagen where the three of us spent cozy nights watching the Danish Crown Prince marry the Tasmanian "commoner", with Karin translating particularly juicy parts and then during the more boring segments, switching to the Eurovision music spectacular. It was in Karin's darkened living room that I came to appreciate the wonder that is the Danish Queen, in her green puffy sleeved dress, tall and raw boned and very strong. The camera would focus in on her red nailed hands flicking her ever present cigarette into a royal ashtray, impatient with the hoop de lah one felt and when the newly married couple were slow to take to the dance floor for their first ceremonial flourish, the Queen seemed to physically shoulder them on to the floor to perform their national duties. She is definitely a woman of interest.

One afternoon we found ourselves in a packed cobblestone square facing a huge tv screen. The three of us stood watching the guests arrive for the youngsters' wedding. Only then did I begin to appreciate the depth of fascination so many commoners have for their royal families. Soon we were squashed against the barrier and as soon as the women on either side of me discovered I was new to such things as royal families, I had pouring into each ear, introductions to all the princes and princesses of Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. Stereophonic swoonings for the gowns, for the beauty of the wives and husbands--several soon to be divorced in the months after this celebration--and barbed criticisms of the unlucky royal socialites who simply did not make the grade. And there was Karin, dressed as she always is impeccably, in clothes she often makes herself, smiling as she watched her Bronx friend being introduced to Queens and dethroned Kings.

Herring dinners, boat rides through the old canals, visits to the Resistance Museum, a touch on the head of the much traveled mermaid, looks up into the palace balconies, train rides to digs where the bones of Viking ships had been unearthed and walks around the art museum where Karin pointed out to us a famous elderly conductor and his new mistress, one of his hands resting with great control on her rounded derriere. Karin speaks fluent French so I find myself lapsing into her second language when ever her perfume floats through my memory.

Karin and La Professoressa bounded immediately, their teaching concerns, their love of shaping fabric and thread into beautiful things, their industrial manner of doing what must be done and doing it well, and between them me, imperfect and round, and totally in love with them both. A heady femme fantasy mix. Two years after our Copenhagen experience, Karin made her way to our home on Fitzgibbon Avenue, a major accomplishment. I will always remember watching her emerge into a wet Melbourne night from the day liner from Sydney, picking her way carefully over the unfinished pavements of the new train station. From Danish Squares steeped in European oldness to an unfinished, still becoming skyline and street scape, our dear friend had made her way. With her, we saw the flying foxes leave their nesting trees on a soft Melbourne dusk and and like a fog with wings sail over the Yarra and us to find the botanic sweetnesses they needed to flourish.

I will not go on. Karin, author of a new book--she has written several on the life of her city and on Danish lesbian history--about her family discovery that her mother was Jewish and had lived her whole life in Denmark without sharing this secret with anyone, a story that Karin expands into questions of the stories families tell themselves about national identities and that has been a great success in Denmark and that I wish would be translated into English--has always been a source of great delight to me, to us and to so many of us scattered through out the world, entered the lnarrow lift and passed from our view. I do not know when again I will hold her in my arms or learn from her delights as we did in the Victoria and Albert Museum, when her Danish intakes of breath always take me by surprise, when we stand together in front of exhibitions in the Jewish museums of the world, an old Jew and a new one, when she will say, in that moderating voice, "but, Joan, you know you always..." I have to let go of my dear ones who live in other worlds, in other national histories, but how they have made my life so much richer, studding it with their expulsions of differently historied breaths, with their embraces spanning the years and cultures, Joan from the Bronx, such a lucky girl.

This morning, Karin e-mailed that she had arrived safely home and was already deep in her professorial duties. "What a lovely time we had, as always."