(Self portrait by Liza Cowan, copyright hers 2007)
This night one year ago, I wrote my first e-mail to Liza Cowan.
I knew of her for at 30+ years, and her influence on my life had been intense. As one of the founding voices of Lesbian-feminism, her courage and clarity had helped bring me to similar attributes. And, I'd written her decades earlier, when she and Penny House were co-editing DYKE: A Quarterly. I was living in a Lesbian land collective that subscribed to DYKE, and we'd noticed their publishing name was Tomato Publications. We'd had discussions about why that name -- it certainly wasn't from the sexist term for women, because Liza was one of the language pioneers helped us unravel gender role conditioning.
Eventually, I sat down and wrote her (circa 1978), posing the question: "Why Tomato Publications?" She wrote me a postcard back that began "Why not?" A familiar humor, now. Then she explained they'd read a national study which said that men's favorite vegetable was cucumbers, while women's was tomatoes.
Somehow our physical paths never crossed in all that time, although they could have more than once. She remained an influence across a distance. I often wondered what she was doing now.
In June of 2006, I began writing what Liza has called the Great American Lesbian Novel. Since the main character was based on me, I gave her the same connection to Liza that I had, and you can't write a novel about politically-active and culturally-revolutionary 70's dykes without mentioning Liza Cowan more than once. Some time during that summer, I found out that Alison Bechdel was having an art show at a gallery in her town of Burlington, and when I investigated it, I discovered the gallery was owned by none other than Liza. Now I knew what she was doing. I found the Pine Street Art Works website and munched my way through it, then went on to Liza's personal website and discovered her art.
Which blew me out of the water.
In August, partly as an antidote to extreme isolation and personal difficulty, I did something I never had before: I posted a comment to a blog. It was in response to attacks on Lesbian cultural institutions and to some really shitty thinking about children, both of which I found impossible to ignore. I was attacked, then defended, then found a small but growing online voice. In the course of that thread, Liza posted -- not about the main topic, about something else, but it was clearly her. Kinda cool.
I've been a leader since I was a teenager, and an artist (writer) for longer than that. I really despise the American cult of celebrity, how people fawn on those who have fame and a certain kind of ability. I find it self-disempowering and just plain icky, especially if I'm on the receiving end. If you want a relationship with me, ask for it, and accept my no if that's what you hear. If you want to fantasize about me, I don't give my consent. And if you don't have a personal relationship with me, trust me, you don't know me through my poetry, my other writing, or my activism. You know only those aspects of me.
I have demons and damage. I also pretty much like myself just fine, but the reasons I like myself are not necessarily what you'll see from my public persona. So I don't indulge in being star-struck, and I don't let others aim it at me. It's really easy to discourage, if you're honest and not passive-aggressive out it. And, of course, if you don't secretly crave it.
So I was reluctant to write Liza what I wanted to write her, which was basically, how the hell are you? How's it been for you the last couple of decades, as we've seen our movement revised, reviled, lied about in every possible way, and still they can't shut us up or kill us off? Mostly, I wanted to know if she was happy, what she was thinking about, and how she was expressing herself. It mattered to me.
I also wanted to tell her how much her work had meant to me and my life, because I think every artist and leader deserves to hear that in a non-adulatory way. But I had to make sure I wasn't coming from a place where there were any strings attached. Just a "thanks" was appropriate, I felt.
(Photograph by Liza Cowan, copyright hers)
So, it took me until October 13th. I had gone back to her website often, to look at the art again -- great art is something I never quite get enough of. And finally I wrote down what the art sparked in me, read it over, decided it was "clean", and posted it to her website.
Only it wouldn't go through. I tried three times and I kept getting rejected. I remember laughing out loud, thinking, "Well, either this is a sign or you're just not geek enough to figure out what's wrong." I let it go and went back to work.
A couple of hours later, though, I remembered there was another e-mail address listed somewhere on the website -- I'd noticed it because she'd used her real name, something few people did with their e-mail addresses any more. I went back, found it, and fired off my thanks. I returned to work.
Fifteen minutes later, she answered.
She knew who I was, had noticed and appreciated my comments on the thread, and we began talking. It's been a year of serious conversation. A completely cyber life, but I consider her a friend, a sister (in the 70's sense), and one of my most crucial supporters of my writing. She has a major gift for fostering the art of others, as well as her own -- as long as you work with her as an equal, she's not charmed by either self-abasement or self-absorption. She's hilarious. She can express herself as well as I can -- and, not to be immodest, that's the highest compliment I can pay somebody. She's an extraordinary mother; we bond a lot around mothering. She's generous and self-maintaining. She knows how to have reciprocal relationships where that's appropriate. She's loyal and she honors confidences. Her intellect includes Jewish irreverence, deep pragmatism, pop culture, academic, anti-academic and Buddhist ways of thinking. She's happy being a woman, and she defines that her own way. She's an extraordinary ally around class -- I trust her as much as I trust most working-class people, because she's worked her ass off to sort through the shit we get about class in this culture.
(Self-portrait by Liza, after a day of painting, showing necklace made for her by her oldest daughter Willa)
In other words, she's just fine, and better than ever.
So, thanks for the year, Liza. Hope there's many more to come. I've written two novels and started this blog, all with your support. I was online with you when I got the call about my father's death, and you were a rock to me throughout that. You are unsentimental about the hardships of my childhood -- you're very clear that I've done a great job getting past it, AND I'd be better off if I hadn't had to waste so much time on healing. (I think so, too.) You've opened up to me slowly, honestly, and intelligently. I think you're swell. I'm so glad I had the good sense to write you, and just as glad you had the good sense to write me back.
You go, girl. Eat your tomatoes and never let them shut you up. I promise to do the same. Love, Mags
Saturday, October 13, 2007
(Self portrait by Liza Cowan, copyright hers 2007)