Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Let There Be Wetness and Wilderness Yet..."

La Professoressa after a hard day's work, resting by the Isis, Oxford, 2012

As a summer heat falls over Oxford, for the first time in our four week stay here, the canal waters have fallen below the level of the weir, the overflow into its companion river now a gentle surge. Every day and sometimes two times a day, I make the walk along our canal road, emerge into Lower Fisherman Walk, meet the Hythe Bridge and join the foot traffic into the heart of the town. Traveling with La Professoressa has taught me the art of settling down for a month or two and sometimes six in new territories, where as the days go by, I find my own markers of daily life. The walk to the News Agency in Gloucester Green to get my daily Guardian, sitting in the square reading, thinking, watching the transit traffic. I have discovered I like the unpretentiousness of bus and coach stations, the open space of the "Green" where on Wednesdays and Thursdays, market stalls spring up, I join the students and old women who do their vegetable and bread shopping here and then on Thursdays, the old stuff market where Ross, a new old friend sells old tin toys, amidst his stock of tin soldiers I find his tray of solid tiny tin horses, cows, sheep, chooks, a few of which will come home with us, for my own imagined farm when we get home.

When La Professoressa gets home from work, puts down her satchel heavy with journal articles, our favorite place to go is to the watery wonders of Port Meadow which truly is a common green bordered by the Thames-Ises, a gentle clean river here, just beginning its life as a major world waterway. We park the car, and sometimes the cows, huge black and white animals that roam freely over the green, have chosen to take the shade under the full trees just a few steps away, some rubbing their massive heads on the handles of the bikes left leaning against the parking areas fence. We pass through the old weighted wooden gate, and there we are on the same green sward as the herd, as the huge flocks of geese and ducks, horses roaming free and walkers making their way to their favorite swimming paths into the old Ises. Halfway across the green, I just stand and take in the landscape, the big sky, the tree lines, the grazing animals, the river a shining border and feel as if I have entered a 17th century painted landscape. My favorite place in Oxford, Port Meadow, with its students, now free of the stone citadels of  learning, lounging in their bathing suits on small blankets or shouting their joy from the cold flow of the river, all up and down this side of Port Meadow, the river becomes a friend, still needing care as Nature's creations do, its currents flowing inexorably to the great city of the South. The freshness of it all, the comraderie of youth some freed for a short while from their burdens of fully adult life, others, workers from the town freed from their toil, the nearness of the free roaming animals, the swans quietly, the ducks and geese more loudly, proclaiming their final ownership of this shared green wet world.

Like so many others before us, we make our way over the green on its well worn walker's footpath, cross steeply rising wooden bridges, through two old styles and end up in the Perch, a much loved pub tucked away from the waters, a small wooden sign attached to the final gate, a local saying, "first the church, then the Perch."

Our New York friend Leni is staying with us and while La Professoressa leads her New College students through the thickets of gender, sex and human rights, I show her my Oxford. To the south, the roar of the Olympics peters out as it reaches the narrow stone streets of the University town, but I who love the leap, the jump, the run of atheletes watch what I can. They two are moments of green. Most moved I was to see Castor, the South African runner who suffered so much for her suspected gender difference, leading the South African team into the Olympic arena. And now always, I am thinking of the book, of 13A and your voices, all needed.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Canal Thinking

The waters of canals run to their own soft lives. I just got back from a long walk along the Oxford canal path heading out to Jericho and the ever longed for Port Meadow gleaming so cool on these hot days. The barges and their inhabitants had come to life after the long rain weeks; resident dogs lounged on the grass banks with their water dishes within reach, two women sat at opposite ends of their shared home, reading their books on little seats fore and aft, paperback curled back in their hands for closer absorption; I thought how lovely it is to see people reading by a quiet canal, a waterway all hung in weeping willows  happy to have their feet so close to wetness; wild flowers sparkling along the banks, every one observing the barge dwellers right to privacy, even the ducks, cleaning themselves on the sunny banks, throwing off white puffs of down. For the first time, I saw the fish that make this waterway home--slim long fellows darting quickly, coming to the surface for something only they can understand. I wonder if sometimes they do not find themselves washed out through the weir into the stream that runs parallel, catching the canal's run off, wondering at a new kind of current.

New currents--this is what I thought. What matters now is what Oxford and its graduates do with their privilege, what new currents of equity will they bring into the world, what new currents of just and ethical economics will they make possible, what new scientific discoveries will they make and what ways will they find for making all in the world find their health in these wonders, not just drug companies. This is what saddens me about Israel--its people and others like myself know what it means to have one's history trod upon and yet, no new current flows through the Israeli state. I read of how the IDF are demolishing Palestinian towns so their troops have more room to train. Think of the pain of this displacement--the taunt inherent in this, your home is to be destroyed so we can train to destroy more of your homes. This national spitefulness, this cruel national heart for that is what it is is no new current. The graveyards of the past flow right into the graveyards of the present and the survivors of those who were washed away in the past now flood the histories of another people. Around and around goes Addison's Walk, and only stone will remain in the end.

"13A:The Story of an Apartment, a Community and an Idea"

One of the gifts our friend Karin left me with was a push to redress a regret. One night over dinner, I said, one of the things I am most sorry about is that I did not keep a journal about the life of LHA in my apartment, 13A before it moved to its now permanent home in Brooklyn. So Joan, she said, in that forthright way, why don't you do a book and call it 13A. Karin is a social historian and always finds the most wonderful books about daily life in whatever country she is visiting us in--like the history of the flush toilet in Great Britain or the role of bars in the Soviet Union. I thought and thought and now, dear friends, old and new, I announce to you my perhaps final book project--"13A: The Story of an Apartment, a Community and an Idea." Karin exemplified her point to me by telling us stories she remembered from her years visiting and working at the archvies in the old apartment-- from the time Squinch the cat fell behind one of the filing cabinets--saved by Karin with a lowered basket and a bit of tuna--to how she witnessed women coming to visit the archives for a work or at home night, they came dressed in their work clothes, blouses and skirts, and how I would greet them and say, if you would like to change--and lead them to my bedroom. Karin acted out how transformed the women were as they changed from their proper work drag into their butch clothes. These were moments I had forgotten. And so I now turn to you; this will not be a book about me but about all that happened in that apartment as you remember it, all of you who ever worked there, visited, the stories of why you came, what kind of searches were you on, who you met there, did you come form Womanbooks on the corner to that stange apartment on the other corner? Were you a volunteer, a coordinator, Judith, I am thinking of you and Beth and so many more, Sabrina, Morgan--hundreds of you--this will be your story. And it will be the story of the apartment itself, its material reality, what was happening in New York housing culture that such a site became part of our communal life. If you have a story to tell of any sort, they don't have to be glowing, if you remember any details of your visit--please write to me, I have a facebook page as well--don't worry about the style of writing, scraps of thoughts, of details will be wonderful, taped memories will be wonderful--and tell friends--contributions in all language will be wonderful for so many of you visited from around the world--and all will be recogonized in the book--the years covered will be 1974 to 1992--and I can see in my mind's eye, the afternoon, the lesbian playwright, Jane Chambers came to visit, the archives just beginning in that back little room, all coffee cans and wooden planks, Jane's valient struggle to live marking her body as she gave us a copy of her play, Blue Fish Cove. All will be honored. Thank you, Joan

This Year, This Year

By the time the blackberries come to fruit along the canal, we will be gone. I am sure those who make their daily way out of these flats on the wrong side of town to their academic or town jobs, will, from time to time, stop to pluck a few. The other day I made my way down High Street with its tour groups, young people mostly, chattering in Chinese, French, Spanish, to the stone citadel known as Magdelene College with its famous alternate pronounciation, that sounds like Maudelin, knowing that at 2 :00 those heavy gates are thrown open for non affliated people like myself to get a chance to walk the College's immense grounds. Huge courtyards surrounded by 16th century stone buildings with their spires reaching high into the now blue skies, cloistered courtyards, their enclosed stone walks cool and close to empty, which when you take the  right turn into a narrow alley throws you out into another courtyard path that takes you to the famous gates of Addison's Walk, a lengthy circular walk over slightly graveled paths around a water meadow, followed for a while in its beginning stretches by the gentle river Chardwell and its resident swans.

And so I walked, past the deer park where the whiteness of distant flickering tails flashed in the sun, around and around, almost alone, thinking of where I walked, the wonder of how I found myself in such a place, hushed by hundreds of years of thinkers, working out their idea passions and perhaps other kinds, on this same walk, around and around. I had broken their silence with my womanness, my lesbianness, my working class self and one more self, that accompanied almost more then all the others as I took my not lithe 72 year old body around the borders of the water meadow--for I was walking on what had been the old Jewish cemetary, I was walking on the bones of history, on one people's exile from importance while another built its cherished and well preserved unto this day hold on history. The Jews who survived this take over had been offered, as I have told you, a "piece of wasteland" to bury their dead as the towers of Magdelene rose above them. I walked and walked, the gravel making its soft hard sound under my feet. Nothing slightly elegant about me, round and gray haired, tapping my way around the path where the greats of English literature enjoyed their leisure. I wonder if they thought too about what they had trod upon.

At the first turn in Addison's Walk, one comes to a circular wall plaque with a poem by C.S. Lewis, one of the important men who educated here. I found it moving in many unexpected ways, beyond, perhaps the cultural vision of its creator.

                                          What the Birds Said Early in the Year
I heard in Addison's Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true.
This year, this year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple tree,
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time's nature will no more defeat you.
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape to circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick, the gates are drawn apart.
                                                        C.S. Lewis, perhaps 1931, published after his death 

This year, this year La Professoressa walked every day down these Oxford streets to meet her students of New College, stirring up their thinking about gender, sexuality and human rights, retracing her steps in the afternoon, where I would await her return over Hythe Bridge, the green waters of the canal running under us, and escort her back, carrying her heavy bag when she would allow me,  back to our flat on Rewely Road. This year, this year again and again as I read Guardian and looked around me, as the Olympics took shape in the big city to the south, histories old and in the making, called for my attention. Friends have visited and left their gifts with us, gifts of projects and of touch, of dinners in quaint pubs and cream teas on the terraces of Palaces, never forgetting our friends back home, just adding to the pattina of affection that makes one truly lucky in life.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Karin, the Cotswolds, Palaces, Ponies and Libraries

Yesterday, I stood mid morning in the worn bus station looking up at the black windows of the large commuter bus that was carrying our friend Karin back to London so she could catch her plane on to Copenhagen. We had adventured together, the three of us, continuing our pledge to somehow be in each other's company at least every two years--with all of Europe and the Pacific endless sea between us. I know some time this pledge will be broken, but for these five days, it held.
Karin in a Cottswaldian moment, 2012

My friendship with Karin began when she made her way to 13A to work at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in 1982; New York City so beloved by Karin was usually the backdrop for our friendship with our traditional shopping trips to Chinatown for gold leaf papers, to the side streets of mid town so Karin could wonder into fabric and novelty stores, looking for material for her home made clothes and in the beginning I would wait for her to come home from her beloved operas and her beloved singer, Tatanya, for whom she waited like a stage door Johnny with a single red rose.  Now La Professoressa is part of this girl gang, the two academics chatting away as I shepherd them through the throngs of Broadway, Copenhagen, Melbourne, London and now Oxford.

These days we spent wandering through the narrow Oxford streets, where the difference in our physical abilities became clear, and soon I would give Karin the go ahead, we will met again back on Rewely Road. One day, we took a bus to Blenheim Palace, oh do I know what it is to be a commmoner now--a huge edifice dating unchanged from the 1700s, with grounds that are states, with lakes and waterfalls--and an 84 year old Duke and his fourth wife living behind closed doors in the East wing while we the public contributed to the upkeep of his massive inheritance. We began the tour of the red, green and writing rooms with their huge tapestries in smaller rooms filled with an exhibit on the life of Winston Churchill who was born here. I found myself overcome when his taped voice spoke those words that had held a nation together, all his privilege became something else when he promised no surrender to the Nazi forces. How sentimental I become in a place so antagonistic to all I know of class life. One small note next to a picture of a cute long curled boy said in neat typed words, Winston loved riding his ponies over the green fields of Blenheim, his home. Of course the world was his to save.

In the warming evenings, the three of us would take off in our hired car to out of Oxford pubs like The Trout along the rushing Ises, where we sat in the bar and ate our dinner under a low wooden roof, talking, talking, taking in as well the sheer beauty of our setting, the sun glinting off the greens of the Port Meadow. Three women, now two starting their 6th decade, and one in her 7th, still discovering things about why we are the women we are, still wondering how our life travels had brought us all together again. Another night found us in Burford, a stone 18th century town, typical of the Cottswolds, eating in the Golden Pheasant, but the most eccentric evening meal was had at the Black Prince, with its all dogs welcome sign, the Prince's suit of armor along side the fire place, the bar fronted by several older men with their working dogs and in the garden, a group of younger,strong armed men throwing thick pegs at a target attached to a pole, Knocking off Aunt Sally's Head, was the name of the game we were told by a good natured round faced man with thick glasses, a favorite pastime of Oxfordshire, not knowing he was speaking to three feminists from three different countries. And always, the river flowing past the wooden tables, the wild flowers growing rich, the hedge rows, a peaceful beauty.

We finished our time together with a two day trip through the Northern Cottswolds, through the stone towns with their purple, red flowered baskets setting of the richness of the gray stone and then through the breaks in the hedges, those rolling green hills, those straight lined trees--we all had a different name for them, I called them yew, La Professoressa said laurel, Karin said poplar--marking boundaries, the sheep white moments of peace in the green and those little wooden signs along the old stys, announcing the wonders of public footpaths. How I wished we had more time to just get out and take off into those lush perspectives, walking we were told all the way to Bath if we so wished. At every pub, we saw groups of young men and women wearing thick socks and heavy soled walking boots, taking in sustenance before they stepped out again. Stow-on-the Wold, Chipping Camden, Ebbington, Shipston-on-Stour--Karin begged for cream tea stops, we spent the night in small stepped, low roofed old hotel, with creaking floors and drapped beds and always we talked, talked of events, of aging, of ideas and loves. Beautiful it all was--and the green vistas of rolling fields I will take with me--and then back home, a home for now, I say good-bye to my old friend, humbled by the thought I might not see Karin again in her wonderful body. I have her laugh, her cool and loving looks, her calm acceptness of life's complexities, and those times when she looks me straight in the eye and tells me where I need to think more carefully. An honest, brave woman who claims with great penache the category of spinister, giving it more self reliant and loving life, more glamour and physical joy then ever imagined.

In the hours after Karin's leaving, I sit in the coolness of our home here and read Zadie Smith's article, "North West London Blues," published in this month's New York Review of Books and gain a deeper focus on the world in which we now reside. Smith tells of a community's need for their local gathering places like the weekend market square, Willesden Green, in her mother's neighborhood of London and of the community library, a run down 1894 turreted building which gives so much focus to the neighborhood, which makes so many kinds of gatherings and knowledges possible, but because of greed, once again, not of the poor but those who already have so much, the library and an essential bookshop are planned to be demolished to make way for luxury housing. Smith writes, "minimal consultation, bully-boy tactics, secrecy, outright deceit" are the hall marks of how this decision and so many others are enforced on the economically powerless. The state, she goes on to say, "is complicit in this new, shared, global reality in which states deregulate to privatize gain and reregulate to nationalize loss." In disbelief, writing from her teaching time in New York, she writes, "I can't tell whether the news coming out of my home is really as bad as it appears to be, or whether objects perceived from three thousand from three thousands miles away are subject to to exaggerations of size and color. Did a labour-run council really send heavies into Kensal Rise Library, in a dawn raid, to strip the place of books and Mark Twain's wall plaque?" I continue reading, thinking how she has gotten it all so right, with the green fields of the idyllic Cottswolds still in my mind, and then come these words, "Kensal Rise Library is being closed not because it is unpopular but because it is unprofitable, this despite the fact that the friends of Kensal Rise Library are willing to run their library themselves (if All Souls College, Oxford, which owns the library, will let them) and I sit so still. On all the tour buses that constantly ring the walls of Oxford, we are told of the exclusiveness of All Souls College, off limits to all but the very best, only one or two new members picked every year, Old Souls which represents the pinnacle of Oxford traditions, one of the wealthiest colleges here amidst very wealthy colleges, its gates closed solidly against the passing throngs--and it holds in its cold hands the fate of a gathering place for the workers, the students, the mothers, the children, the tired laborers and aspiring smart young ones without family dynasties behind them, no ponies to ride on ocean wide green lawns, a simple every day library begging to be allowed to serve its community, but the bully boys and the empty eyes of the most powerful College in this stone place have determined otherwise. How even more beautiful then those small market towns on the their rivers would be another kind of heart in Oxford and in all our centers of power.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Friends, Our Loves in Oxford and Beyond

As history so often shows, it is another perspective that unravels the mystery. After reporting to La Professoressa that I had no luck in finding the reincarnated site of Oxford Jewish life, she took an extra long walk-jog the following morning, down canals and over bridges, past morning barge dwellers tucking into their breakfasts, past high floating river fowl and did not return home until she found what I had not: the Jericho synagogue, down a street off Walton, with its slanted blue roof and tightly locked gate and surveillance camera. Nothing in all of Oxford seemed so tightly locked and secured as that small, modern looking place of worship--always the locked gates, as it was in Belgrade. More of this another time.

This week we had visits from old friends, again a gift of histories. For me now, I must leave that floating island that is our home to be in the company, in the embrace of dear friends where I can feel their hearts beating and see the touches of time upon their cheeks. First was Di's friend of over thirty years, Colin, and his wife, Jude, and their gay son, Luke, and his partner, George. Colin and Di had worked together in the 1970s as youth workers in St Kilda, back in Melbourne, trying to bring some relief to homeless teenagers. Now so many years later, we have met each time our lives take us to London and its environs. We all huddled under one of Oxford's oldest pub's wooden roofs, a long table of laughing, catching up, entering into each other's future plans, and then Di took us on a tour of her Oxford home, New College, where we walked in appropriate awe on 18th century stone paths, ducking into hidden doorways and as happens on these kind of extended walks, changing places with each other and thus with histories. One time with George and his gentle dreams of the future, another with Jude, marveling in the growing depth of her love for Colin, after so many years, and so on, like a dance of now here tell me what I need to know to get through and over another year, or years, of distance as high as the Himalyas. I remember our last walk home, holding on to Colin's arm, his tall and solid self a warm support, talking of how writers read and then write to find out what kind of journey they have been given. "I just felt the need to read Dante," Colin talks as his presence shelters me from the rain, and I loved this independent imaginer who asked only for the time to take his journeys.

And even this mention of the Italian cosmographer inspires another vision, the added circle of hell for those who broke all rules for their own greed, the bank managers of HSBC, of Barclay's, of J.P. Morgan, the Mr Diamonds and the Mr Buckles, head of the non functioning global security firm that runs the prisons of our world, who profits from our orchestrated terrors by promising to protect in a privatized kind of way, and then refuses to take responsibility when it all collapses--give me the millions--they all say as they are forced to bow out, their sweating foreheads wreathed in million dollar golden parachute payments, rather then shame. Austerity, cries the world bank, to the firemen and teachers, to the railroad workers and the postmen, to those who try to feed their loved ones without grandiose plans, austerity to those so far removed from the violence of unfettered greed, while the obscene moral failures of bank heads and financial big shots, leave taken care of for life. Oh, Dante, we need you now; tell us where on the map of Hell will these operators taste their ever lasting true pay--what will hang above their heads and what will writhe beneath their well -clad feet for all eternity. Oh, never before I did so feel the need for so a medieval vision of retribution--as Romeny approaches the hights of American power. States feeling the rage of their own struggling workers and those bereft of work turn their police forces on the already saddened ones, while the Operators sail away to the safe coves where millionaires play and plan and the best of countries turn to dust.

Oh I have been too long in Oxford. Our next visitors were Christine, a human rights colleague of Di's and her husband Paul, both of whom had spent years working in Oxford's environs. Amidst talk of the Hague and UN conventions, they took us to Port Meadow on the outer boundaries of Jericho. In one sparkling moment, the sun shone on us. We stood in the edge of a marsh land along a small river with the sun glinting on all, the green grasses, the cattle grazing on this old common, distant bridges, a oh so human sight of pleasing nature. Then in a sudden another kind of drama. We had noticed a mother duck and her two duckling paddling gently in the stream to our side. A group of young parents came onto the scene, with two dogs, one a hunting spaniel type running free. Within a second all changed. The young dog, joyfully lunged himself into the stream going for the ducks, the little ones flew along the water surface to get away but they would have had no chance if not for the evasive actions of their mother. Flinging herself at the dog, she caught his attention and he enthusiatically leaped for her, turning his attention from the little ones. By now we were yelling at the beaming human parents to control their dog, to do something, but they seemed taken with their young dog's antics, his joy at his freedom and his ability to capture prey. While we humans remained frozen, the mother duck led the spaniel into the larger field, flying low enough to tempt him away from her ducklings. It worked. The human tablou came to life, the parents pushed their baby carriages ahead, continuing their walk, their dogs following, we sang hosannahs to the mother duck and returned to the car.

Dangers in the sunlight.

And finally, three days ago, our dear Karin flew into London from Copenhagen to join us here in Oxford, fresh from her walking tour of Greenland. Karin, whom I met over 30 years ago when she came to work at the archives in my old home and with whom I have remained good friends, now a good friend of us both. So much more to tell you of the wonders dear Karin brings with her.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Alfred the Obscure: Walking towards Jericho

The morning light came through the curtains and as if my whole body had been waiting for such a moment, light!, light!, I was immediately awake. Next to me, her lovely face turned deeply into her pillow, La Professoressa slept on, still exhausted from her teaching week.
I had determined that every day I would discover something new about this Oxford place and so I flattened out our street map and looked for my morning's destination and there it was, not far from our home on Rewley Road or so I thought. Nestled into one of the park's behind Ruskin College, there was a strange looking symbol on the map. Looking closer I saw it was a menorah and sure enough the little letters spelled out, "Oxford Synagogue," far from the maddening crowds and even farther from Magdalen College which occupied the green space at the other end of the map.
I picked my route, first my usual path, going through the gate entrance to the canal path, nodding to the duck community that like to squeeze through the bent railing and dry their feet on the usually quiet Old Fisherman's Road, up to Hythe Bridge Street and then the new territory, turning left down Worcester Street which eventually changed its name to Walton. In short, I was walking towards Jericho, the communities of North Oxford where spires were mostly absent. One of the last signs of historical opulence I was to see was the palatial home of The Oxford Press, a huge old stone structure with pillars and grand gates and miles of green beyond it seemed. I nodded in respect and continued down the much more common feeling Walton street, lined with once worker's homes, fronted by small gardens, past small shops. I asked two passerbys and one postal worker where the Synagogue was, but no one seemed to have heard of it, not even the proprietor of the Oxford Ceramic Gallery--sorry, I can't help you on that one. I started to look for those helpful corner lamppost signs that are all over Oxford, pointing you in the direction of the nearest place of interest--the Covered Market, the Carfax Tower, the Tourist Information Center. Nope, but I did find several signs pointing out the direction of St Barnabas Church, cemetery and creche. I walked and walked, past the Jude the Obscure pub, and on until I realized how late it had grown and I needed to, in the well worn language of all travelers, retrace my steps. I never found the synagogue floating somewhere in its well hidden pocket of green.
I was walking slowly along back up Walton Street, my cane tapping its helpful rhythm, my third leg for good now, when I came upon a man, not young and not too old, sitting on stone ledge outside a small news shop. I first noticed his dog, tied to a railing, a black and white mix, patient and respectful but the rain had been falling on all for some time now and he looked a little forlorn, as did the man who sat with his cap just slightly held out. I stopped, took out a pound and dropped into his hat. "Thank you, miss, for me and my dog," he said; I continued walking but I had not taken three steps when I heard a very chirping as- if- the- sun- was- shining voice say behind me, "we caught you red-handed this time, Alfred, " and I turned to see two young police people, fit and dry in their street gear, with its yellow neon stripes making their power oh so visible, standing in front of Alfred. 
"Let's see what you've got there," the woman officer said, her blond hair drawn tightly back in a neat bun under her jaunty white cap, and she took Alfred's ragged looking excuse for a hat and emptied his gathered coins into her hand, I could hear their sparse jingle from where I stood. She laughed and said, "Just enough to buy my lunch," and jangled the coins into her pocket. It is her laugh that haunts me still. I had turned away for what seemed like a second to see if I was the only one who had witnessed this moment and in the time it took for me to turn back to Alfred, the police people had walked by me and Alfred and his dog were gone. Like all the Alfred's of the world, he had the knack of disappearing when given a moment of reprieve from official power. Somehow he had managed to untie his dog and slip away before I had fully taken in all that had happened.
The thin older man holding out his cap, his black and white sheep dog, like the kind in Babe tied to the fence, the gray day, the mist of rain falling on us all, my fateful dropping of a coin in the man’s cap, his thank you and then in the instant I have turned my back to keep walking back to La Professoressa, the cheerful piping woman’s voice say, we caught you red handed this time Alfred—I turn to see two police people, young, one a dark haired man and the woman, blond, and well built both in their neon striped uniforms, well protected from the weather, she continues, taking the cap out of Alfred’s hand—lets see how much you got in there—oh good—just enough for my lunch and she laughs, pocketing the few coins I heard clink into her hand—they glance at me standing silent witness and walk past me, I turn to say something to the man, but like the Alfreds of the world he has disappeared in the seconds it took for me to move my gaze from the the jaunty police folk back to the quiet beggar, he was  gone. I continued walking home wanting to catch up with the law enforcers, but they out walked me and turned a corner. All my way home I thought—it was her taunting, all their taunting, it was the clean up the streets before the Olympics routine, it was Donald Trump shouting about his moneyed right to block regular people’s homes with sand dunes and cypress trees on his newly build golf course for millionaires, the bully clown of capitalism, crowing over the world, I can do what I want, I own the land, it is good to buy land! hailing his creed of heartless greed over the Scottish hills. I went out to find the Synagogue, to walk a new street, to make another part of the map come alive with its human ways but I found something so old, so sad, so enraging; Jude, this town and so many others like it, are still beyond your reach, the taunts of power over those they judge less then fully human bounce off the spires of so- called ancient wisdom and pour scorn on a poor man's head. The map will not show me this, only my eyes witnessing the longing and the abuse will truly people the new geographies I walk in. I write to pull you into the streets with me.
Later in the day, a most wonderful reunion with Colin, Jude, Luke and George, our once a year if we are lucky love affair continuing, their love for each other, their embracing of us and us of them pouring warmth into the cold gray day.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Oxford: Disturbing Histories amidst the Golden Spires

Oxford, 2012
This is writing done on the run and I haven't figured out how to download photographs yet, but I did not want to lose you.

After a 23 hour flight from Melbourne, via Singapore, we arrived in a rain drenched London and quickly though sleep fog made our connection with the bus to Oxford. La Professoressa had me hold her huge container of black coffee while she settled herself in, her stimulant of choice, and then we just watched the green green swards pass by with their oh so white sheep almost hidden in the wild green growth. “Oh let there be wildness and wet,” begged the poet priest, in his most lesbian poem, and there was.
An hour later we pulled into Greenhouse Common, the bus depot, with the day just beginning to hit this literature- drenched town. We have four weeks ahead of us; our home is a small apartment on Rewley Road, along the Oxford Canal with its moored barges and pleased swans gliding softly by except on these mornings, nothing on the canal is really quiet because of the rush of the overflow through the weirs, the green waters almost overflowing their banks much to the delight of the duck families that see all becoming more roadways for them. Our street is set back from the main thoroughfares of the town which is a good thing because like Cambridge, Oxford in the summer holidays is like a theme park fitted inside a most guarded box, the Colleges with their gates and signs saying, no public allowed, but we pile up before the opened exclusions to oh and ah at the old stone facades drenched in tradition which is almost a tangible commodity here.
Before I proceed, with my Swinburne in my hand, more on that later, I have to put in context my slightly off putting first days in Oxford. The second day we were here, we fought against the urge to sleep, sleep, and took to the streets walking down George Street to the Information Center where amidst the mobs, we found the city street maps we needed and proceeded amidst rain showers to take the outlined walking tour. It was a lovely morning, in its own way, the soft mist, sandstone yellows, the gray stone fences surrounding the purples, yellows, reds, whites of humble field flowers with some hollyhocks thrown in, the perfect green lawns and soon we were in an early morning quiet walking away from Cornmarket Street, the town’s shopping mall, out past Christ Church College and Merton on the aptly named Broad Walk, heading towards the Botanic Garden that runs before Magdalen College. Long stone walls, and the massive structures of learning facing their green fields, the morning’s light grays part of the hush of the history we were walking past and then I stopped and looked up and there they were, the spires of dreams, the decorative towers of Christ Church and Magdalen, drawing the eye upward and the spirit also, if one shares the desires of Hardy’s Judd, if only, if only, the poor man’s son yearned, his Latin book stuffed in his carry bag pushing in its soft way against the sharp stone- working tools that earned him his bread. Even aspiration here is a literary figure and so is its rejection, as Shelley found out, when youthful imagination tested time-bound mores and he found himself on the street outside his College, forbidden entry evermore, until his fame raised him above his disgrace and we are told, a statue of the too young lost poet, stands in the courtyard of his now devoted College.
It reminds me always, stories like these, of the Smithsonian exhibit to honor Paul Robeson, the great African-American internationalist that I stood before sometime in the 80s, I think, the exhibit pretending that he was not an American native son forced into exile for unwanted political views, banished in ill health from his country of birth, but later rehabilitated back into the Smithsonian Hall of American Fame, far from the Poughkeepsie fields through which he and his fans had to flee for their lives from the bat wielding good Americans fueled by McCarthyism and racism. Wait for the sanctity of death and pluck the banished who have proven so much more than those who hated them into exile, pluck the now needed hero from their history and parade their ghosts in new clothes of national acceptance. I have left the map of Oxford behind a little in this digression, but walks through tradition-adored places do encourage other tellings, the insistence of the rememberer to complex the national story, to do the pillow talk of, “I will tell you what you need to know, what is mistold, so you too can walk off the official maps.” Perhaps this is just another way to say to the young ones, be patient with the words that seem to come pouring out of their own accord, so wanting to give you other versions, just listen a little longer to strange names and unknown places because some day in your journeys, you will witness or be an actor in an offered moment of betrayal or easy acceptance of a lie or a hatred or exclusion—even though I know you will travel in worlds I cannot even imagine now—my stories move toward you, like the currents of the River Cherwell, sometimes gentle and others, rushing into small river mountains, with their outrage.
Where is all this coming from, as I try to force my steps back onto the fold out map of the now of Oxford. I will tell you. After our two mile walk, the rains grew harder and so to finish the day, we boarded the city’s tour bus, dutifully plugging in our little red ear pieces and pushing English on the dial that made all intelligible. These two decker tour buses which I have met in many cities now all seem too thick for the streets they want to reveal and Oxford’s streets are narrower than most. All was going well, however, with all the other wheeled things giving way to our behemoth of income—the churches, the Colleges, the Castle mound all introduced to us, some with small jokes—like the anecdote about a post card mailed to Kirby College with the address “close to Rome,” because the voice explained, it was so high church. Then we turned towards the Botanic Garden and the voice said in the same half amused way, the Garden built on the grounds of the Jewish cemetery when in 1290, the king after borrowing all the money he needed to fight his war refused to pay back his debt, invoking his right to banish the money changers and so the Jews were banished from England, broke and unwanted and their cemetery turned into the Oxford gardens under the watchful eyes of the College Magdalene’s “spires of dreams.”
 I did not follow the rest of the history telling, so taken was I by this throw away story of the excluded from this city of dreams. I have found no other mention of this source of botanical richness in any of the material provided by the Tourist Information Center; after writing these words, I turned to the index in Jan Morris’ Oxford and found reference to a memorial plaque in Hebrew beside the entrance gate saying once Jews were buried here, her discussion focusing on the linguistic richness of this so- educated place;  I will soon make my way to the gates of this garden, pay my requested fee and pay homage to those who did one of the few things they were allowed to do, trade in coinage. This is always the dilemma for those of us who are not Zionists, to look hard- eyed at the history of those who had all the power to do better, to think differently, to open gates and refused to see the Jew as fully human. Here in Oxford, under the stone carvings, within the old cold stone walls, flowers grow from the centuries old flesh of the emptied- of- value.
Beneath this garden lies a medieval cemetery.
Around 1190, the Jews of Oxford purchased a water meadow outside the city wall to establish a burial ground. In 1231, that land, now occupied by Magdalen College was appropriated by the Hospital of St John and a small section of wasteland where this memorial lies was given to the Jews for a new cemetery.

An ancient footpath linked this cemetery with the medieval Jewish quarter along Great Jew Street, now St Judiates. For over 800 years this path has been called Deadman's Walk, a name that bears silent witness to a community that contributed to the growth of this city and early University throughout the 12th and 13th centuries.

In 1290 all the Jews were expelled from England by King Edward I. They were not permitted to return for over 350 years.
May their memory be blessed.

History keeps speaking. This morning, I sat in the market square reading the Guardian, enjoying a brief time of sunshine and came across this article:
Tycoon gives L75m for Oxford's poorest students
(by Jeevan Vasagar)
"It is common for altruistic billionaires to make their mark in brick, steel and glass on a university campus or to sponsor one of the more fashionable branches of research, but Michael Moritz will leave a legacy in flesh and blood. The venture capitalist, born in Wales and living in California, announces the biggest philanthropic gift for undergraduate financial support in European history yesterday....Moritz, who attended state school in Cardiff and graduated from Christ Church, Oxford, with a degree in history, said he was moved to help others by his father's escape from Nazism...He owed his existence to the 'generosity of strangers.'"
I have fallen into this conversation while walking along the gentle shores of the rivers that flow through this iconic spired town; I walk in the wake of exclusions, old ones and new.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Not How I Want to Leave You

My previous post was sad, I know, but all that I witnessed in my mother, in myself, in all the lives of struggle that I saw in private and in more national ways, produced an alchemy of hope. Here is one of the new joys that keep coming into my life in these years--Casper and Jem, two young lesbians who want to change things, who take to the streets to raise their voices, said at the demonstration to stop the enforced detention of refugees, "nice beads you got," and the code was broken. Now we are planning intergenerational collaborations, another archives of shared thinking for change in the making in our sun room at 4 Fitzgibbon, far away from 13A on 92nd street but oh so closely connected, the rainbow that the young women saw when they left our home stretching over continents and decades. Their courage and their stories now the future. Now no more words until we reach our destination, La Professoressa and I. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Part of My Lesbian Life, not Easy: a Letter to My Mother who Died in 1978

Regina Nestle, 1958

June 20, 2007

Dear Regina,
You will not believe where I am or who I am--but perhaps you would believe. I write to you from a reclaimed chicken coop--yes--in our backyard in a place called West Brunswick in Victoria, Australia. I am 67 now, just one year younger then you were when you died. Oh Regina, two cancers, breast and colon, one bashed leg from a truck run-over, now some heart problems, so I am finally someplace where your body was. We were never able to talk much when we were both alive--life meant such different things to us or perhaps for a long time, it meant little to us both. You know I lost you at least five years before you died. The time when we were both taking shelter from people who enjoyed beating us up--camping out in the empty two rooms of that apartment on 22nd Street, I think, on the East Side, near Lexington. You had a round cardboard table, sturdy enough to hold the tv I had bought and one bed in what was supposed to be the living room and I had a mattress on the floor and cardboard boxes to hold my clothes. Perhaps this was 1970--I was thirty--already teaching in the SEEK Program, trying to be a good teacher amidst the craziness of my life, your life. I had come to you for shelter; you had been living in a hotel, barely making the rent, but you took the apartment posing as a respectable woman, because I pleaded with you--that I had no place to live, I was on the run and you did, even though we both knew, we would not have it for long.

I remember one good time from that bare place. It was Christmas and Valerie, my lover at the time who had joined me in flight from Zulma, and I bought you a green soft bathrobe as well as some slippers. We all ate dinner around the cardboard table--I must have cooked a chicken--and then you wrapped yourself in the package ribbons, culminating with the red bow on top of your head. There you were, a short, gently rounded woman in her early 60s, dancing with us on the empty parquet floors. I can see your crooked smile and dyed brown hair.

A week-end later, you informed me that Arthur, the merchant sailor who had been your on again, off again boyfriend and your consistent batterer, was coming to the apartment and "You have to be nice to him." My rage died on my lips--you closed the door to my part of the apartment too soon to hear. Then the door bell rang. Knowing what was expected of me, I came out to see a large boy-like man with dirty blond hair and muscular arms towering over you. To this day, I can feel the sickness that rose in my throat as I politely shook his hand--the man who had knocked your teeth out, demanding your pay envelope. We were both mad, Regina. I went back into my room, nauseous with my anger and sat on the floor, waiting for him to leave. When I heard the door slam, I went to the window and waited for him to enter the street. As he crossed over 22nd street, his wide back to us, I made a gun of my fingers and shot him over and over.

A few moments later you opened my door, a silly smile on your face. "He's going to marry me, we're going west to open a string of motels." Regina, where were you--my smart bookkeeper of  a woman who had ruled over her bosses, who didn't know from travel or motels, my New York City wise Regina. You were gone to some other place in your head, some place where a man's arms swept away the real blood stained mouth and took you to the purple plains of your lonely, lonely longings. I do not think you even saw me. Never have I felt so motherless; the daughter that was me and the mother that was you disappeared on that day. Perhaps I am writing this now because from time to time I feel a rising panic of aloneness, of the disappearance of the world as I know it, my world with its few reference points of love.

Here in the chicken coop, I write to you weeping. Be whole someplace, Regina.

I do not know why I feel so compelled to share this in this place a short time before Di and I begin our travels again. Sometimes my feminist credentials have been challenged because of what I have written about, but as I read these words again, seeing what is laid bare here, I know in the deepest part of my being what a woman can suffer who looses herself. 

Oxford and Venezia Here We Come--but First

Before La Professoressa and I once again take Cello to his foster family in Spottswood who so generously expand their Skippergee family to include the male with a tail, thank you, Jane and Ann, preparing for our departure to Oxford where the red-head will be teaching a five week seminar on Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights and I will walk the Oxford canals, thinking, thinking--a little of the happenings here. Turns of the earth, literally, an earthquake that prompted Cello to flee out the door, that caused La Proessoressa to life her head from the student dissertion she was reading, and inquire, Darling, I think the earth just moved. Just a reminder that all the drama of our human ways is acted on the outer skin of a living creature. Here on this ancient continent, the below feels very close.

Detention for asylum seekers, many of whom reach these shores on ocean drenched wooden boats, is a growing issue here as hundreds continue to lose their lives in the oceans between Indonesia and Australia's so poorly named Christmas Island; for the survivors, their gifted new home is a barbed wire camp. Max, who works with the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) resurrected an old group here, Jews for Refugees, and so we gathered under the old banner, sadly, another generation protesting the same inhuman conditions of war-torn refugees. While I stood listening to the speakers, I thought of the men, women and children fleeing through the deserts of America's South West, the right wing campaign to build more walls, shoot more bullets, arrest more suspected "Others," the administrative detention policies of the Israeli government and in so many other countries, where those in disfavor, those who ask the wrong questions, those who put unarmed bodies before their to be destroyed homes, end up for months, perhaps years, without defense or charges. We were all strangers once, said the small sign. Many, many of the Jews who have called Melbourne home since the 1930s and 40s came on refugee boats, fleeing for their lives to a country they did not chose but was the one who would take them in. Now I have walked for peace, against detention, for Aboriginal rights, against war and occupation in these Melbourne streets that at these times seem like a continuation of the street I and so many others started walking when we protested the Vietnam War, the street that stretched over the George Washington Bridge, kept going to the Pentagon, took us down to Selma and back in time for the Gay pride marches and back to Washington time after time for Women's Reproductive Rights, Against Poverty, Against American Transgressions in Central America, one long street of comrades saying, there has to be another way, through the decades and still, yet while there is breath and a hip that pushes through...

A gray morning in the Royal Botanical Gardens where we La Professoressa, Cello and I joined the amateur astronomers who had set up their telescopes so mere mortals like us could for the briefest of seconds see that little black dot of a planet make its way before the fiery disc of our sun. And we saw! We saw! Again like the earthquake, the largest of things was for the briefest of times revealed to us.

Speaking of black dots, my beloved Black Caviar, the mare who is called a freak by the small minded sports writers here who only think in two genders carried her black dots on a salmon background to the land of the colonizer and though bruised, crossed the finished line by a nose, the beauty of a mare who has never lossed a race, those silly things, the people around her, push and pull her into spandex body suits and through ringing gates, making fun of her strength all the time--her rump is too big to be beautiful they say. Dear Black Caviar, for big rumped lesbians everywhere, I send words of appreciation and know you escape all the indignities in the largeness of your own dreamed of Victorian hills with your billy goat pal and that dear old pony, both friends of so many years, by your side. You have thrilled this Bronx girl.

All of it, in the skies, on the oceans, in the streets, all of my life here will now be left for a while, but before I go, I want to post a letter to my own past.

"Beyond Tribal Loyalties," So Frightening a Thought

I know my words have been missing for a while but I often write to you as I move through my life here, my friends from other places who know they can find some of me here and you who perhaps wander in. I will start with a tale of the eventual futility of censorship, usually done by those who need the silenced discussion the most, but while the shutting of the doors on challenging ideas is an impossible task, the insult still hurts. So nu, Joan, I can hear my mother saying, what are you talking about?

Two weeks ago, the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, representing the progressive Jewish community of Melbourne, informed its members that Monash University, the second largest university in Melbourne, in the midst of a conference on Jewish culture and education, had  refused to allow a scheduled panel discussion based on a new anthology, "Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists," edited by Avaigail Abarbanel, to take place. This is a major university, a site of learning that sees itself I am sure as a citadel of academic freedom, but like so many other educational institutions, it feared alienating an influential source of donors.

The censored panel was going to hold an unauthorized discussion of the book and its silencing on another campus on another day and so Di and I made our way over the river, one of the dividing lines of this city, on a rainy cold Sunday at three in the afternoon. As we peered out from under our umbrella trying to find Building B, we noticed other people looking a little lost like ourselves but heading in the same direction. They, like us, kept glancing down at a sheet of paper giving directions. Using my New York sense that no one is an island when they are in the street, I smiled at one elderly couple and said, " are you from AJDS by any chance" and several heads bobbed yes. Slowly our little band grew, and once we found the room, we saw it was packed. As Availgail, the editor, said, the university had done the panel a favor because of the over 50 people packed into the room, a larger audience the  panel would have had at the conferenct itself. I knew some of the contributors, particulary Sivan Barak, a member of our Women in Black monthly vigil and who works hard to help Palestinian families to resettle here. I will not summarize the discussion other then to say several of the contributors, like Aviagail, were born in Israel, served in the Israeli army and at some point found the history they were helping to enforce, unbearable. How does one move beyond decreed borders of belief, how does one risk loosing the comforts of home, of becoming a "traitor" to assumed geographies, how does one continue work that at times, itsolates and earns such anger; the writers tells us of their passages. That afternoon, not every one in the audience agreed with all that was said, but the authors were given the hearing they deserved and that we all needed. We were also told that some other scheduled speakers had written letters of protest about the attempted erasure of the panel. Now the book is in your hands, and all proceeds of its sale are being donated to a mental health center for Palistinian children in Gaza: "Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists," edited by Avigail Abarbanel: Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.
   Avigail Abarbanel's dedication: To my late grandmother Rivka, to Palestinian people everywhere, and to activists working for justice and human rights.

I just want to add the title of another anthology, "Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, NY, Grove Press, 2003.

Books of dissent are coming thick and fast, the doors of the archives are open and never can we say we did not know.

The telling of this moment of resistance was to be my task tonight, but as usual, my friend Hannah from Haifa, expanded the moment. She wrote me this morning to tell of the work of a friend, Khulud Khamis, a Palestinian feminist who is a citizen of Israel. Khulud writes her moments of life in a blog, "Life in Fragments," and as soon as I read her words, I knew you must know of her work. What happens when moving on is not an option, when movement itself is one of the freedoms you loose. Again words that were not supposed to be heard, words from the occupied terroritories within and about one one. Let the words come, the tellings of contestation, of injustice, of resistance.

A bull-dozed Bedoine home, the work of the Israeli Defense Force, 2010