Thursday, July 3, 2008

AN ODE TO MARTHA SHELLEY

(Sunol Regional Wilderness Park, photo by Sunil Veluvali)

During the early 1980s, I coped with the dual stress of living in the most population-dense urban area in the U.S. plus plotting social revolution by leaving the confines of San Francisco whenever I could. I fled north to the Golden Gate Recreation Area, south to Highway 1 along the coast, or across the bay to the linked East Bay Regional Park areas. My favorite outdoor spot then, and still, was Sunol Regional Wilderness Area.

Sunol had been, for time out of mind, a good living for Ohlone first nations and whoever preceded them. With white theft of California, it became ranchland and then part of the watershed for San Francisco itself. It thus escaped being plowed or built upon. Steep hills bisected by Alameda Creek, sere and golden in the summer, emerald green in the winter, Sunol's valleys and gentler slopes are wooded by alder, willow, sycamore, coast live oak, valley oak, blue oak, elderberry, grey pine, and my beloved red-barked madrone. In spring the meadows are choked with vivid California poppies. Many bands of coyote sing from the hilltops at dusk, and magpies strut around as if looking for a fight.


(Alameda Creek, Sunol Regional Wilderness Area, CA)

It was about an hour's drive from the Mission District where I lived. It had a lot of hiking trails not for the casual stroller, and back country camping. It also had four primitive creekside campsites near the green barn visitor center, but these were separated from the parking lot by a 30 foot hill, which meant all gear had to be grunted in by manual haul. There was a single spread-fed tap in the center, two outhouses up the hill, and no electricity. Thus, these four campsites were avoided by families and serious campers alike, who went either to the back country camp or to an RV area in one of the other parks. I often had the entire campground to myself.

It wasn't just, or even mostly, the physical beauty of Sunol that drew me back endlessly. It was also sacred space. Here and there in boulders near the creek were mortars which had been used for thousands of years to grind acorns into meal. I had more than one unexplainable incident there, including hearing the voices and singing from what I believe were ancient peoples by the creek at night.

Sunol also allowed dogs. Thus, I began hosting an annual Dykes and Dogs Campout at Sunol in July, drawing anywhere from six to 20 lesbians plus their canine familiars. The women tended to be urban, earnest, and serious. The dogs were usually a bit uncomfortable with all that open nature, and never wandered from our enclave. My dog, in fact, refused to sit on the ground after dusk, demanding either a lap or a place on the picnic bench. If these could not be had, she would crawl into my tent and huddle in my sleeping bag until I came to bed.

The campsites nestled under a rocky hill, and huge old trees kept the entire expanse shaded. I could, and did, leave my tent flap to walk three feet to water's edge. I got into the habit of toting along a massive jar we used in our pantry at home to store grains. I'd wash it out, wade into the middle of Alameda Creek, scoop up some bottom mud and vegetation, then fill the jar with creek water, creating an instant habitat which sat on the picnic table all day, full of fascinating life. At dark, I'd return my mini-pond back to the creek.

Upstream and down were bigger pools where we could swim naked if no one was around -- and few people ever were, in those days. At night, the park staff left and locked the gate; then we really had the place to ourselves. We'd keep our fire going all night, women sitting up to talk and sing, citified dogs leaning against us trying to inform us that murderous raccoons were lurking in the nearby boulders.

At one Dykes and Dogs campout, my dear friend Annie brought her older sister Susan, also a lesbian (or at least bi). They were hard-core New England working class, with strong accents and unfamiliar humor. Annie and I were, in a month, going to progress our friendship into sex for a while, on our way back from the Michigan Women's Music Festival. Something was in the air already, and I had a glorious time sitting up with her and Susan around the fire, not talking much because some women were actually trying to sleep. Right before dawn, the dew broke around us, and I felt it transmogrify, instantly soaking my hair, back, rump, any part of me not facing the fire. I was two organisms in one at that moment, drenched and baked dry. Then Annie said "We have to see the sunrise! Let's go, we can make it up Flag Hill before the sun gets over the horizon!"

(Flag Hill, Sunol Regional Wilderness Area, CA)

We broke into a run, the three of us, across the creek and up the trail to Flag Hill -- which is a difficult climb, even for healthy young bodies. By the time we reached the top, I was desperately out of breath, and we missed the sunrise after all. But we lay on the crest, gasping and laughing hysterically, before returning to make pancakes for the others just getting up. A priceless memory.

At another campout there (not a Dykes and Dogs event), the seven of us who became the Pleiades spent a weekend deciding to move our support group into activism. We began planning how to share our theory, our ideology, and offer the world what is now commonplace comprehension about the reality of child sexual abuse. At that time, every word we said was indescribably original and brave. We came up with the name for ourselves there, too, when we took a night hike up along a tiny creeklet and I told everyone the story of how the Seven Sisters were hunted by their incestuous uncle Orion until they at last gave up life on earth and became a cluster of stars.

One year we had 17 women at the Dykes and Dogs event, occupying three of the four creekside sites, when a pair of women with three children arrived and began setting up a tent in the last open site. It seemed obvious to me that at least one of the women was a dyke. The children were a girl around six, a boy around four, and an indeterminate-gender toddler still in very droopy diapers. As I watched them surreptitiously and eavesdropped, I figured out that the mother of the kids was from Israel -- she spoke Hebrew to them as she sharply commanded them to stay out of the dirt, out of the creek, put that down, don't suck on that stick. (I'm guessing at the actual phrases from the tone and context, I don't speak Hebrew.)

Over the next few hours, I decided the two women had not been together long -- likely, the mother was fresh from a marriage. This was still common to our community then. From 1970 until around 1975, when it seemed like all of us came out at the same instant, at least a third of these "new" lesbians came from heterosexual marriages which had produced children. Our dyke enclaves were crowded with kids in transition -- part of the reason why our lesbian-feminist values were so concentrated on custody rights, abortion and birth control, and the rights of children in general. If you were out then, sooner or later you became lovers with a woman who had a kid, whose ex-husband was behaving badly, who assumed you were (unlike men) going to do your fucking share of the childcare, or else.

One of the many radical aspects of the business model that Olivia Records established in the lesbian-feminist community (in addition to woman-only space, giving jobs to women instead of men, disabled access and signing guaranteed at all concerts -- values which have been abandoned in "queer" organizing) was that included in the ticket price to a concert was free childcare for whoever needed it. Children were assumed to be the responsibility of the entire community, not just the mothers.

I knew what this lesbian, going camping with a mother of three, was contending with: A new lover who might not be comfortable with PDA, a trio of children wondering what the fuck had happened to their family and fighting with her for their mother's affection, and the heavy expectation that she live up to ideals of equality and non-ownership. It was tough enough to do when you weren't camping. The mother's battle to keep these three little ones clean and out of peril was already consuming her peace of mind.

After talking it over with my roommate (who was also devoted to shared childcare), we strolled into their camp and introduced ourselves. I explained what was going on -- the dyke, trying to hold the complaining toddler in her arms, said "Well, I certainly wondered" with a grin. We invited them to join us, and the mother immediately said "No, thanks." I expounded a little further, promising her we loved children, some of us were parents, and then I added that at least a third of us were Jewish. She froze at that, probably wondering what kind of stereotype I was projecting onto her.

My roommate said "I'm Jewish" and added that she taught Israeli folk-dancing at the Women's Building. The mother did not unbend, but the dyke mother-wannabe began asking interested questions. At some point I said I was a poet, and she grinned hugely and said she was, too. She added her last name to her first: Martha Shelley.

I almost shit myself.

I babbled about how much I loved her work, how much it had meant to me. But the mother shrieked at one of the kids -- I don't know which one, the name was something like "Ahlahn" -- and Martha said she had to go help. We left, then, and they continued with their family weekend. Occasionally Martha would wave at us with a grin. Otherwise, we had no contact. I hope all went well with her and her new love. I hope a poet's heart enabled her to become the children's other mother. I hope the magic of Sunol seeped through.

When I was a teenager of 15 in 1970, out to myself and the girl I was messing around with but still unbelievably isolated, rural, poor, no way to go find the information for which I was ravenous, I went to Nocona, Texas one day with a couple of friends who had to shop for some kind of special attire not available by mail order (which is how we got most of our clothes, still.) Next door to the clothing shop was a drugstore, there on the main street of the square, and I said I was going in to buy myself a Coke float. I did, drinking it at the counter. Then I wandered back to the magazine area, and discovered rotating metal racks of pocketbooks. The farther into the shadows these racks were placed, the more pulpy or racy the books became, and I realized this must be the county's source for "adult" material. I began sweating, my face flushed, and tried to become invisible to the clerk who was, in fact, keeping a cold eye on me.

Near the bottom of a back rack I found a book whose cover was bland and whose title seemed to be The New Women. When I pulled it out, I discovered this title was preceded by An Anthology of Women's Liberation by… It was edited by Joanne Cooke, Charlotte Bunch-Weeks, and Robin Morgan, names I did not yet recognize. It promised to contain prose, poems and polemics by Cynthia Ozick, Diane DiPrima, Marge Piercy, W.I.T.C.H., Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Rita Mae Brown, and Frances M. Beal, among others.

The price was 95 cents. Likely the only way I could have come up with that much money at that time would be to use every penny in my pockets. Despite my hammering heart, I dared to open the cover, see what it really had inside.

The table of contents showed an essay titled "The Realities of Lesbianism." Holy mother of god, there was that word, in clear print. The authors briefly confused me -- was Del Martin a guy? -- until I realized it must be short for some female name, like Delma. No way was I going to look at THAT article, not in public. I flipped through the book and saw a page with lots of white space -- a poem. Now that I could handle. I stopped and read it:

TO MY FRIEND MIRIAM

by Martha Shelley

She was never athletic,
yet by sitting still,
tensed for a shower of blows
her shoulders had secreted muscle.

Never the schoolgirl of unconscious grace,
not the fair-haired leader
most certainly not the sweetheart of Sigma Chi --
she had acquired a tough butch rep of late;
cross between a casanova and a hood --
and half believed in it herself.

So I was surprised,
but most of all she was surprised
to know that she had been beside a fire,
beside a woman, drinking wine,
talking, unable to reach for a waiting hand;
talking until it became absurdly late,
and they retired in polite dismay
to separate rooms.

The words scoured through me. I knew all of its meaning. This was the first poem I ever read about my identity, my true nature. I closed the book, somehow found the courage to carry it up to the counter and buy it, despite the scowl of the clerk. She put it in a brown paper bag, but that was not concealment enough for me. On the sidewalk, I shoved it under the waistband of my pants and walked carefully back to meet up with my friends.

I still have this book. It's here beside me, full of extraordinary information for such an early time. I've never lost my affection for women with tense, meaty shoulders who face the world defensively, because of Martha's explanation.

(Gay Liberation Front, NYC, circa 1969)

According to one online biography for Martha Shelley it reads ''Lesbians' marginalized position within the New York Gay Liberation Front had led Shelley, Rita Mae Brown and others to form a lesbian caucus, "GLF Women". Women from the GLF caucus, together with lesbians, form the women's liberation movement, then formed the "Lavender Menace" in 1970.

'This group is most famous for producing the first lesbian feminist manifesto, "The Woman-identified Woman", and for their "zap" of the Second Congress to Unite Women, held in New York (1970). The zap, in which "Lavender Menace" members disrupted the proceedings of the Congress, called for the women's movement to face its own homophobia and support lesbian rights.

'The pretext for this action was the National Organization for Women's recent purge of lesbian office holders, according the view that the presence of lesbians in the women's movement undermined its credibility and that the lesbian issues were a distraction from the legitimate concerns of feminists and feminism.

'In 1971, under increasing pressure from within and outside the women's and lesbian movements, the National Organization for Women included lesbian rights in its charter.

'Martha Shelley's influential writings in the late 1960s and early 1970s include "Notes of a Radical Lesbian", "Gay is Good", and "Lesbianism in the Women's Liberation Movement".'

Shelley also wrote Haggadah: A Celebration of Freedom (Aunt Lute Books, 1997). Her poems continued to appear in women's journals throughout the 70s and 80s, at least, a jewel every time I ran across one.

Her above-mentioned essay "Gay is Good" (from 1970) can be read online here, p. 391.

Her essay "Notes of a Radical Lesbian" can be read online in this compilation, p. 498. However, it appears in its original form as available Stepin Fetchit Woman in Come Out: A Liberation Forum for the Gay Community, p. 7. Come Out!, published 14 November 1969, was the first publication of the (post-Stonewall) Gay Liberation Movement. On page 6 of the same issue is this poem by Martha (along with others' poems):

(Come Out!, page 6 -- click on image to enlarge)

The introduction to the volume which reprinted "Notes of a Radical Lesbian" states: "Lesbian feminism is the most influential perspective among lesbians in the seventies. It encouraged the development of a separate women's culture and institutions such as coffee houses, bookstores, restaurants, and even automobile repair shops. Martha Shelley was one of the earliest, if not the earliest exponent of the lesbian feminist perspective. She had been a member of the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis in the early sixties, and after the Stonewall riots in 1969, Shelley became one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front, the first gay radical organization to grow out of the political unrest of the sixties. Lesbian feminism also articulated a new approach to sexuality that Shelley touches on in this essay."

One often-appearing quote by Shelley (from "Gay is Good") states We are women and men who, from the time of our earliest memories, have been in revolt against the sex-role structure and nuclear family structure." Another quote, from "Notes of a Radical Lesbian", declares "I have met many feminists who were not Lesbians but I have never met a Lesbian who was not a feminist." Ah, Martha -- that was then, this is now, eh?

In April 2004, Martha Shelley married her partner Sylvia Allen in the brief window such weddings were allowed in San Francisco. Here is an account by Sylvia of that event.

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