(Holly Near singing "Two Good Arms" at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1987)
In 1977, Charlie King wrote a song about Sacco and Vanzetti called "Two Good Arms". The chorus uses lines from letters they wrote trying to prove their innocence, and the title comes from a phrase in one of those letters. Holly Near eventually recorded this song on one of her albums, but before that she sang it at concerts. As a teenager, I had read "Justice Denied in Massachusetts", the very famous poem about Sacco and Vanzetti by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who used her influence as a poet and Nobel Prize winner to try to keep these innocent men from being executed. I was devastated by this wrong which had been done before I was born.
Later, when as an adult I heard Holly's rendition of "Two Good Arms", I felt the same emotions of grief and outrage come up in me. I was singing along one day when my daughter, still very young, came into the room. I had tears on my cheeks and my voice was pulsating with feeling. She asked me what the song was about. I hesitated, but I told her. She begged me to say Sacco and Vanzetti had not been killed, that no one would have coldbloodedly sent them to their death. I saw, in that moment, the reality of capital punishment land in her consciousness, the immorality of killing to punish murder. I wanted to take it back, to give her a chance at living in a world where we had other methods of dealing with extremely damaged people.
(Photograph of a protest against the Briggs Initiative organized by the Metropolitan Community Church, located in their "In Our Own Words" History Project -- date, location, and photographer unknown, but likely 1978 and Bay Area)
When I moved to San Francisco in March of 1978, I immediately plunged into radical political organizing. There was a lot to choose from, but most of the lesbians I knew or wanted to know were focused on two main issues at that time: Defeat of the Briggs Initiative (Proposition 6), and defeat of expanding the death penalty (Prop 7).
The Briggs Initiative would have removed gays and lesbians from school teaching. The way it was written, it was also a club that could have been used against straight teachers, and that angle was successfully exploited by the grassroots work of Lesbian Schoolworkers (the group which got my attention) and BACABI (Bay Area Coalition Against The Briggs Initiative). The mainstream gay organizations (predominantly white, male, non-working-class) put everything they had into defeating the Briggs Initiative. But when it came to the death penalty effort, I found myself surrounded by working folks, people of color, and/or political dykes.
The preceding June, two-thirds of California's electorate had passed Prop 13, which began the decline in California's school funding that continues today. For the past few years, measures against lesbian and gay rights had been passing in state after state. These were the first lapping wavelets of conservative rise to power, portending a tsunami (Ronnie Raygun) on its way. It's important to remember they were trying out several planks: Hate queers. End public funding of essential community services. Build more prisons and kill more prisoners. This is an interrelated ideology, and taking on only one of their toxic tentacles made no sense to me.
On the evening of 7 November, 1978, I and my friends were part of a huge crowd on Castro Street listening to the election results come in. When it was clear Prop 6 had gone down, a massive party began. But I didn't join the celebration. Prop 7 had vastly expanded the death penalty in this newly adopted state of mine, golden California, the land of freedom and promise. I went home, crawled into bed, and wept.
Prop 6 was defeated by 58% of the electorate. An almost identical percentage voted for the death penalty expansion. I had a lot to think about.
On the morning of Sunday, October 18, 1998, I attended Meeting For Worship at the Friends' Meeting House in Austin, as I did most Sundays. Worship was silent for the first half hour that morning, with no one rising to speak. I was sitting on the south side of the room so I could see the trees out the high windows on the north wall. But I was also in a perfect position to see the face of a young man I'll call Sullivan (to protect his confidentiality) when he rose from his chair opposite me to speak during the second half of worship.
His standing created an immediate air of anticipation in the room. Sullivan was openly gay, partnered with Antonio, another man in meeting; they were both admired for their hard work. I had never seen Sullivan speak in Meeting; indeed, I'd seldom heard him speak anywhere. He clasped his hands that morning, but I could see they were shaking. He stared at the floor for a minute, gathering himself.
Six days earlier, Matthew Shepard had been murdered.
I'll do my best to repeat exactly what I heard Sullivan eventually say, in a strained, halting voice:
"It's been a hard week...When I heard the news, I wished Antonio were home. I had trouble waiting for him to come home, so we could talk. Finally, I did what I often do when I need help. I opened the Midrash and began reading.
"I turned to a section about when the Israelites fled Egypt in search of freedom. When they fled across the Sea of Reeds, in a way opened by Yahweh, the Midrash tells of how the angels in heaven were gathered around G*d, watching the events unfold. They were filled with fear as Pharaoh's army came after the Israelites, chasing them into the gap, closing on them. But when the Israelites reached dry ground and the waters behind them closed over the chasing soldiers, all the angels broke into gleeful celebration. As they cheered and danced, one of them noticed that G*d was sitting slumped, tremendous sorrow on his face. The angel asked 'Why are you not happy that Your people reached safety?'
"G*d replied, 'How can I be happy, when My people are drowning?'"
Sullivan stood a few seconds more, as shock reverberated around the room, then sat down, twisting his hands together. More than one of us burst into tears.
(Curved Corridor, Island No. 3, Ellis Island 1998, gelatin silver print by Stephen Wilkes)
Last June, a divided Supreme Court ruled out use of the death penalty in this country for anything except first-degree murder, even child rape. The New York Times article reporting the decision stated it was "the third in the last six years to place a categorical limitation on capital punishment. In 2002, the court barred the execution of mentally retarded defendants. In 2005, it ruled that the Constitution bars the death penalty for crimes committed before the age of 18." The article went on to insist "there was no suggestion from the majority that the court was moving toward the abolition of capital punishment." Not from this Supreme Court, no, I wouldn't expect a movement toward joining most of the rest of the world in re-examining the meaning of justice and punishment.
We are, for the time being, still held sway by John Walsh notions of retribution, of seeking some amorphous definition of "closure" when violence intrudes into our personal lives and takes away something irreplaceable. When I hear family members claiming they want the death of someone who murdered one of their own because it will bring them "peace", I always suspect they are mistaking closure for denial. If a murderer is dead, it's easier to shut away the emotions and thoughts attached to the murder. The problem is, capital punishment not only doesn't work as a deterrent, not for most of the people who commit murder -- it actually, over time, creates a culture where we are desensitized to the value of human life.
I know what it is to live with this kind of loss. I myself have felt homicidal in response to seeing irreparable damage and death of those I love, administered by the hands of people who need to be stopped. But I hold myself to a different standard, and I'd like to live in a society where our highest goals are perhaps beyond our everyday reach, yet we do not abandon them as goals.
(Hammer and Nails glass sculpture by Hans Godo Frabel)
Several years ago, I was close friends with a couple of dykes who were building their own house on 70 acres near Hamilton Pool, west of Austin. They lived hand to mouth and were in dire need of other carpentry-skilled hands to help them, so they created a series of weekend workshops to teach women the basic trade, in exchange for a small fee and the chance to camp out on their land. I signed up for one weekend, driving back and forth each day because it was hotter'n'hell and I liked to sleep without fireants around.
Also, to be honest, it was a vegetarian weekend, with one woman attending whom the rest of us called The Vegan Cop behind her back because she was so militant about trying to govern the eating habits of others. Friday afternoon, on the way out there, I'd passed by a favorite barbecue joint and stopped to buy two chopped meat sandwiches with a big RC and a side of slaw -- eating my dinner in advance so I could fore go the uncertain potluck later. After I'd eaten, I got worried about my breath smelling like carne, and had brushed my teeth beside my car, drawing the stares of cowboys in pickups.
Each workshop involved a special project, and our weekend task was to build a large deck on a rocky ridge overlying the Pedernales River valley. Late afternoon on Sunday, we were to the point of nailing down the plywood decking, having completed the frame, steps, and railings. Laney, the main carpenter, had instructed us to drive the nails fast and hard, with the intention of making the nail head bite down into the wood on the final blow, leaving nothing to stick up above the level surface. There were about a dozen of us spread out over the large deck, whaling away with great volume and vigor, an exhilarating end to a hard-working weekend. I had started a nail and kept my spread hand on the wood next to it, a couple of inches away for safety. But I allowed myself to become distracted by the conversation of a couple nearby, whose incessant bickering made it fairly certain they were in the throes of breaking up. My brain, without my direct guidance, decided what I really wanted to do with my right-handed hammer swing was connect to my left hand instead of that measly nail. The blow came down on my left index finger with all the force my biceps could muster. The end of my finger burst like a ripe tomato.
It didn't hurt for a few seconds. The shock was in the appearance. I held up my finger stupidly and said to the nearest woman, "What happened?"
She was a clipped-of-speech butch who worked as a prison guard. She said "Put something cold on it" and went back to hammering. When I didn't move -- her sentence didn't really make sense to me, I was in such shock -- she got up irritably and went to the nearby cooler. But all the ice had melted, and the only thing left was a Pepsi in a can. She brought that back to me and said "This is still cold, hold it again your finger."
As if sleepwalking, I did what she said. It didn't help, and contact with the ruptured flesh finally registered as pain. I cried out "Oh my god, oh my fucking god." This got the attention of others, and Laney rushed over, her back and breasts covered in sweat, her workpants stiff with sawdust.
"Come on" she said. "Let's walk you back to the house." She helped me stand and led me gently through the mesquite, a direct path instead of by the dirt road, so we'd get there faster. Once we were out of sight of the work crew, she stopped and lifted my chin, looking kindly into my eyes.
"That must hurt like the end of the world" she said. "You don't have to pretend to be all tough with me, and those other butch wanna-bees can't see you now, you can let go."
I did. I promptly dropped to the ground and began wailing as if I was three years old. She was startled, but squatted beside me and rubbed my neck as I cried my heart out. When I was done, I felt better and worse -- I wasn't in shock any more, but the throbbing in my finger was all-consuming.
At the house, I washed the wound myself and bit onto a towel while Laney poured peroxide over it. I should have gone to an ER and gotten stitches -- the scar is still very visible and utterly numb -- but I didn't want to do it by myself and no one else was available. She wrapped a thick bandage around it and recommended I hold my hand in the air, to keep the swelling down. When the others arrived for dinner, I sat a little apart, afraid someone would jostle me, while I picked at my tofu pasta salad. Before it got inky dark, I left, determined to drive home. I don't remember the trip. In particular, I don't remember negotiating the two bob-wire-and-post cattle fences I had to get out and open, drive through, and loop shut again before reaching the main road.
The next day I tried to work but could not type, of course. My supervisor, a buddy, sent me home but first he explained to me about the concept of closure: How if you don't tell the brain what to while you are in motion, and if it does not have muscle memory to direct it, the brain will search for closure on its own. What it knew best was where my other hand was, so it closed the circuit for me. He said this is why when you stub a toe, you'll often keep stubbing that same toe: Your mind is now hyper aware of an injured part and if you don't pay attention while you're walking, closure will involve making contact with that wounded part of the body again.
It was a great lesson. Ever since, when I've begun doing something new with my body, I've reminded myself "closure" which means "pay attention, or else some other part of you will be making the decisions".
(Homecoming by Herlinda Spahr)
When one becomes a pacifist, an opponent to the taking of human life under any circumstances, it's not a final destination you reach and set up a comfortable home. It requires constant thought and work to stop wearing your sword.
The airwaves are now filled with stories related to the US Airways story: 150 passengers, 3 flight attendants, and 2 pilots walking away from a controlled crash landing in the Hudson River. It's pre-empting everything right now, including (and seemingly especially) Bush's departure. More than one blogger has pointed out it's a return of the wheel, with implicit redemption offered, i.e., fratboy fuckup allows terrorists to fly planes into New York's most vigorous symbols and never catches the perpetrator behind it, instead using all his power and influence to dismantle the economy, military, and culture whose best qualities were what the terrorists objected to in the first place. (Like he forced hugs on all those Katrina victims.) But now, with hope standing in the wings, we return to what us most proud about being American: Competence, genuine compassion (not the mealymouthed judgement-poisoned kind of conservatism), and community response.
I agree, we're responding as a culture to the symbolism. One literary/arts blog (Dykes To Watch Out For) has a fascinating thread about how many of us are weeping over this story without clear comprehension. But I think the relief and catharsis we're experiencing has its roots much farther in time. I'm remembering the jeering campaign slogan Reagan used for re-election: Are you better off than than you were four years ago?
It was shocking to hear this coming out of the TV screen. It was a dogwhistle for the middle class (and those who aspired to it), who wanted to claim moral superiority over dirty working people whose obvious failings (not being white, not being married, not being Christian) were what was keeping them/us from individual financial prosperity. It was permission to begin the polarizing hatred that is the ultimate conservative weapon against dismantling pluralism, tolerance, and shared prosperity -- which the fundies hate every bit as much as Osama Bin Laden does, and for the same reason (terror of modernity).
[In a related vein, I recommend you read Sara Robinson's essay at Campaign for America's Future on how Their use of the phrase "moral clarity" does not mean what we mean when we say it, found here.]
After catharsis, we have an opportunity to think freshly about the nature of the world and our place in it, as those passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 are undoubtedly doing this weekend. What will justice and closure mean for us, as we click shut the door on Bush? I for one make a distinction between punishment (tempting as that is) and accountability. I'm willing to give up on holding accountable all those of you who voted for Bush, once or twice. You're already being punished for your mistake, and though it is likely whatever you're suffering is not as severe as those in other parts of the world because of his having been granted the power to shit on the planet, still, I'm hoping for more learning to come out of this nearly incomprehensible mess. For me and for you.
I'm not willing to relinquish accountability for those who sought public office, however, and claimed our trust. When I separate out the feelings that push me toward wanting vengeance -- when I assert my intellect and deny my lizard brain the right to make decisions (beware your fingers) -- then I'm clear: Only those who still dream of a place in the system as it was would be deluded by the "hope" that perhaps we can leave the culprits free to go on doing more of what they've already done. I believe in rehabilitation, but it must be demonstrated, not declared as an intention. Or, as we say in 12-step circles, action not words. And, since we're dealing with the spree of a dry drunk, that is especially apt.
Real hope resides in a vision which steps outside of the system as it has existed and seeks complete disclosure of all that has remained concealed, with a belief that we'll know how to respond when we have that information. Restore transparency, fully empower investigation, and trust our process (our once and future process) to set us back on the path of being a force for good in this world. I do believe everything else will follow, if we begin there. The wheel will turn again without a jarring lurch, because for me, closure is remembering all which has happened without letting pain determine my future place on the spinning rim.
[Cross-posted at Group News Blog.]
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Thursday, January 15, 2009
(Ana Sisnett, photo from Austin American-Statesman 14 January 2009 obituary, photographer not named)
Oh my gentle friends, we've lost Ana Sisnett.
Way too early. And cruelly before she could see Barack Obama assume the office of the Presidency.
She's been fighting ovarian cancer for three years. She died at home, in loving care, on Tuesday afternoon, at 56 years of age. She is survived by her partner, Priscilla Hale; her daughter Meredith Sisnett, age 36; her son Ghamal Webb, age 31; and two adored grandchildren. She is also survived by a vast community who knew her as an artist, writer, poet, community activist, builder of bridges, and friend.
(Ana Sisnett featured at Hello, Austin)
I first met Ana in 1995 when I began volunteering at WATER House (Women's Access To Electronic Resources). Ana was part of the Foundation for a Compassionate Society, which funded WATER, and she had set up WATER's training program in computer technology for underserved women and girls. At around that same time, she began working with Sue Beckwith at Austin Free-Net, a non-profit organization that offers free Internet access and classes in over forty sites in Austin, many in neighborhoods with large African American and Latino populations. It is because of my training at WATER, mostly done by the very patient Amanda Johnston, that I came to the online world and eventually to blogging.
Ana eventually became Executive Director of Austin Free-Net. Her obituary at that organization's website states:
'Ana and Austin Free-Net were featured on the cover of the Austin Chronicle’s 2003 Best of Austin issue, when AFN was voted "Best Internet Safety Net and Digital Divide Bridge." She was also among community technology leaders in the U.S. given the Education Technology Think Tank (ET3) 2003 Technology to Empower Communities (TEC) Champion Award. In 2000, Texas Monthly Biz cited her as one “The 25 Most Powerful Texans in High Tech,” and she was the recipient of the City of Austin’s 2001 Susan G. Hadden Telecommunity Award.
(Ana Sisnett from 2003 Austin Chronicle's Best of Austin edition)
'Ana was often called upon by media, researchers, and policymakers to provide expert testimony for Austin and Texas e-government initiatives, and to participate in conferences, town halls, and other gatherings focused on equitable access to the technology and training. She was an invited panelist at the Barbara Jordan National Forum on Public Policy, Goodwill International Industries annual conference, keynote speaker at the St. Louis Brown Bag Technology Collaborative, and mentor during the 2002 Community Technology Centers Network Leadership Institute. She served on the KLRU Public Square and Digital Divide brain trusts, and was a member of the River City Youth Foundation's Community Advisory Board.
"Her local, national and international volunteer and paid activism included community media and cultural productions, anti-oppression workshops, AIDS/HIV awareness initiatives, and community technology training, access, policies and issues. As a co-"Technomama" during the '90s, Ana provided Internet trainings in English, Spanish and Portuguese in Europe, Latin America, and throughout the US for non-governmental organizations working on the UN Human Rights and Women's conferences in the mid-90s."
[An interview with Ana concerning her work with Austin Free-Net can be found here.]
Despite this geeky resume, Ana in person was passionate, funny, and projected more of an artistic persona. I saw her most often at poetry readings, where her work was enormously popular, both because of its accessible, eloquent content and her sizzling delivery. Her voice was deep, full of humor, and carried delicious flavor from her birthplace of Panama plus childhood years in Barbados and Jamaica. The poem that everyone always wanted to hear, no matter what else was on the bill, was the one she'd written about mangoes. A paean to her upbringing, to sensuality, and to the unique beauty of mangoes themselves, her reading of it filled us with ache and joy simultaneously. I particularly remember a reading at the Tillery Street Theater where Carole Metellus, another island woman poet and good friend of Ana's, stood up and devoured a mango while Ana read the poem, ripping open the rind with her teeth and reducing us all to goo by the time she was done.
In 2005, when several thousand New Orleaneans stranded first by Hurricane Katrina and then by our government arrived at the Austin Convention Center, Ana was instrumental in getting computer access set up for these folks, and later helped with the oral history project collecting their stories.
I have a strong memory of the reading at BookWoman in early 2002 launching the publication of Affirming Flame: Writings by Progressive Texas Poets in the Aftermath of September 11th by Evelyn Street Press. I had two pieces in that anthology, and performed them both. But Ana's poem is what I remember as the room-shifter, giving us all permission to feel more than a single emotion, insisting we make connections between ourselves and other parts of the world. That poem is here (I have tears in my eyes that we/you will never get to hear how it lived in her voice):
Illegal Haikus: Not for Purists
Insecurity lands home
Leaves me to wonder
Where is home?
Multinational mass control
700 dead under the
rubble of "trillions of dollars
handled each day"
back to work with teary eyes--
Such is the arithmetic of grief
Rising sums of human capital,
Fodder for the New World Order.
Declare a state of high alert
Each time a black man's body
Sweeps a country road
or stops bullets on city streets.
During times of endless wars.
© Ana Sisnett, 2001
(Granny Jus' Come by Ana Sisnett)
In contrast to her razor-keen political poetry and her heart-skipping erotic verse, Ana was also nationally known as a children's book author for Granny Jus' Come and Two Mrs. Gibsons. I gave away copies of Granny Jus' Come to every family I knew with small children. Written in the dialect of Ana's childhood, it's the joyful story of a little girl's love for her grandmother who is coming for a visit. When I got to hear her read this aloud, I thought about her being a grandmother, how she stood with those strong legs and powerful posture at the center of five generations, immortalizing the love she had for her granny and certain of a matching love from her lucky grandchildren.
I also have a strong memory of how angry I was when I heard that during routine oral surgery, a mishap had cut a nerve and damaged both facial control and speech. This, in such a stunningly beautiful woman whose voice was essential to so many -- I found it an injustice hard to bear. But Ana faced it head-on, calm, smart, and fearless. She worked through the damage and returned to her public readings in due time.
(Visual art by Ana Sisnett, title not known)
Ana had moved into visual arts, where of course she quickly displayed expertise and profound connection. It really seemed there wasn't anything she could not do. Her Austin American-Statesman obituary reminds me that she was a volunteer and organizer for ALLGO (Austin Latino/a Lesbian Gay Organization) and for Alma de Mujer, an indigenous women's retreat and arts center. It also stated she moved to Los Angeles at age 13, and obtained her degree in Spanish and Communications from the University of California at San Diego.
But what come into my mind, when I think of her, is how gold flashed in her mouth when she laughed -- I remember her as laughing and grinning, not serious as she is in online photos. I remember her stunning hair, with veins of pure white among the black. I remember her dancing. I remember how, when she was about to speak, everybody around her shut up with anticipation. I remember her unshakable kindness, her self-confidence, how you could absolutely rely on her to not dampen her own intelligence or skirt the holy need for making connections where none were immediately evident. Mostly, in a tight community where small-town values (and gossip) do exist, I remember that I never once heard anyone speak of her except with gladness and respect. She was a passionate artist and activist who did intensely important work but made no enemies along the way, whose name when uttered instantly lit up the face of anybody who'd ever met her. She was a Big Woman. Her passage leaves a gaping hole in our fabric.
(Texas Lesbian Conference 2000, Houston Texas; L-R: Standing -- Priscilla Hale, Carole Metellus, unknown; Sitting -- Dawn Surratt, Ana Sisnett, Maggie Jochild, Harper)
Ana's friend Carole Metellus had organized a daily meditative reflection for Ana during her recent life transformation. Her request states: "I am asking, that wherever we may be at 3 p.m. CST daily, that we cease our activities for 5-10 minutes to hold Ana on her journey and support Priscilla in hers. If you are able, it would be valuable to light a WHITE candle to initiate the moment as we collectively offer them our good energies." Carole has asked that we continue this practice until we can partake in a more formal farewell.
ALLGO now has this notice up:
Join us Saturday, January 24, at 1:00 PM
as we honor Ana Sisnett’s life and spirit
Trinity United Methodist Church
600 E 50th St, Austin, TX"
[Excerpts of a KUT Radio (90.5 FM) interview with Ana's friend Kate X Messer on her passing can be listened to here.]
Ken Jennings, superstar from Jeopardy, has his own blog and published the map above, which was created in 1999, probably appearing in Newsweek, and "purports to show Jeopardy! popularity regionally in the U.S".
Daily Routines: How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days. Fascinating details about how Emily Dickinson, Charles Darwin, Fred Rogers, James Thurber, and Joseph Campbell, among others, brought order to their hours.
(Screen capture from 1969-70 television show "My World and Welcome To It", based on life and work of James Thurber.)
For "news junkies and media mavens", Media Bloodhound has created a 2008 Fact or Fiction Challenge, a compilation of quotes and headlines culled from this past year at their blog. The trick is to tell which ones are real and which are satire.
An article by Fred Pearce in Conservation Magazine points out that bananas are "sterile, sexless mutants" which " has been at an evolutionary standstill ever since humans first propagated it in the jungles of Southeast Asia at the end of the last ice age". This means that almost all of us eat only one, massively sprayed variety, the Cavendish. And, as the article points out, it brings to bananas the same mono-crop risk that hit potatoes in Ireland in the 1840s. This plant may be on the verge of extinction. Read more at The Sterile Banana. Also at this site, an article on how the total number of natural disasters has quadrupled in the past two decades at Environmental Refugee Crisis.
(Banana flower before fruit; photo from Beechwell House Garden.)
A study conducted by Freedom to Marry "unequivocally shows" that "voting to support the freedom to marry and opposing anti-marriage measures helps rather than hurts politicians". A review of 1100 legislators' votes from 2005 to the present on laws concerning same-sex marriage and family protection demonstrated they are consistently re-elected. "In fact, these legislators are re-elected no matter what party they represent or if they changed their vote from opposing to supporting marriage equality. Even better, legislators who run for higher office win after voting in favor of marriage for same-sex couples." The study can be downloaded (as a PDF file) here or read online here.
(Card from Stella Marrs.)
The traveling contemporary art exhibition called Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet is a groundbreaking collaboration between museums, artists, and conservationists to bring attention and protection to eight World Heritage sites: Komodo National Park, Indonesia; El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, Mexico; Southeast Atlantic Forest Reserves, Brazil; Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, China; the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador; iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa; Mount Kenya National Park, Kenya; and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border. The five-year collaboration is between the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive, and the environmental organization Rare. Read about what the artists did at these sites at Human/Nature in Orion Magazine online.
(HDR photo of Devils Peak from WebEcoist.)
[Cross-posted at Group News Blog.]
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Here's another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.
Two nights later, after coming back from the campfire and showering off sand and smoke, Myra crawled into the king-size bed beside Ginny and, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dark, said softly “Happy other anniversary.”
“I wondered if you remembered” said Ginny sadly.
“I thought of it off and on all day, but we were always around other people” said Myra. “Ginny, I adore being your lover. I always have and I always will.”
“I don't think we can call ourselves lovers right at the moment. Can we, Myra?”
“Well, we're naked in a bed together. We've reclaimed most of our physical intimacy” said Myra.
“That's not making love. I'm not complaining, Myra, or trying to push you.”
“I believe you, Ginny. No...I guess it's not.” Myra lay thinking for a minute. She was glad to not sweat all night long, but she still missed not being able to hear surf, peepers, and wind from this beach house bedroom. Finally she said “I miss you. I miss our lovemaking.”
“Glad to hear it” sighed Ginny, rolling over to put her head on Myra's shoulder. There was another long interval before Ginny said “Well, maybe I want to push this much: Do you really believe we'll go back to being lovers, or will you decide to stay in this comfortable place? Lots of women do, especially women our age.”
“I can't imagine me settling, Ginny. Can you?”
She felt Ginny's body relax in ways she hadn't known Ginny was tense. “No” said Ginny. Myra heard Ginny slide into sleep.
The following morning, Margie and Frances drove into Galveston to meet Amy and her two sons, coming in for the day from Houston. After lunch, Myra was writing when Gillam came in the front door with Mimi by the arm. He said “Now go use the toilet. We're not dogs.”
Mimi stomped her bare feet across the tile floor and slammed the bathroom door shut. Gillam turned to Myra and said “We're all hanging out in the kiddie pool after a swim, and she stands up to pee in the water where we're soaking.” His exasperation was tinged with humor.
“I'm sure they've all done it” Myra commented.
“Yeah, well, the volume of liquid there to absorb it is much less than our pool at home” he said, looking down at his wet trunks. Mimi came out of the bathroom and stomped by him again, leaving the screen door open. He reached over to shut it and said “Time for a nap.” Instead of following her out, however, he poured himself a glass of lemonade and sat down at the table with Myra.
They almost never had time where it was just the two of them any more. No complaining she admonished herself. He lives next door, he vacations with you, he's entrusted his extraordinary children to you. She waited for the lecture to take.
“I'm getting a little tired of her treating me like the worst carnivore on the planet” Myra said. “I mean, she's still catching her share of fish with Allie and Edwina, only now she leaves before the slaughter begins. And I'm the one who's making sure she gets a complete set of amino acids with every meal.”
“That's her right, as center of the Mimiverse” said Gillam with a grin.
“Ginny eats as much seafood as I do other kinds of meat” continued Myra. Gillam raised his eyebrows and said “I'm on your side, Mom, but even I can't agree with that.”
“It's the snake thing, isn't it?” said Myra.
“Yeah. I'm sorry I didn't get them inside fast enough.” Gillam kept peeling skin from the sunburn he'd gotten the first day here, letting patches of it fall on the floor.
Myra said, with a grin, “I like you better unapologetic. Most of the time, anyhow. Jane's good for you.”
He smiled to himself. “Mimi's focused on blaming you because you can take it. And because she picks up a lot of her direction from Margie, you know.”
“You're right that Margie never blinked at taking me for granted” said Myra. “Her engagement was with Ginny, I was often simply furniture.”
“Not when it counted” said Gillam, pulling at a patch of skin that wasn't quite ready to be parted from him yet. A brief expression of pain crossed his face. Then he said quietly “You know, that guy lives somewhere in Texas now.”
Myra didn't have to ask Gillam which guy he meant, she knew instantly. “Where did you find that out?”
“From Margie.” Gillam met her eyes. “One of her old high school friends, so-called friends, calls periodically with an update, mostly to fish for Margie's reaction. She says he's not on parole on any more, and there's been no repeat offense.”
“That we know about” said Myra.
“Yes, exactly” said Gillam. “But Margie says he's cut all ties with his family. I told her I think that's a good sign.”
“Why?” Myra thought it could mean he was becoming a dangerous loner.
“Well, you did. You left behind a toxic family. Not that I'm comparing you to him -- “ Gillam looked suddenly worried.
“No, I've never slid over the line he did. But I agree with you, if he was still tight with that father of his, I'd be more inclined to see him as a continuing menace” said Myra. “Listen, Gillam...Is Margie all right? Does she have regrets about how we handled it?”
“You could ask her yourself” said Gillam. “She has no trouble talking about it.” Which answered Myra's question, she decided. He had drained his glass. He stood and said “I'm going to hose off the urine marinade urchins and force them down for a rest.” He left his glass full of ice on the table. Myra pulled it over, filled it with more lemonade from the pitcher and took a drink as the sound of shouting children came in the open door.
The next month, a week after Charlie's first birthday, the Golden Horde streamed to Myra and Ginny's house on Sunday afternoon for Heroic Quest day. Myra met them in the dining room, looking serious, and said “Instead of our usual adventure, we have a dangerous problem to solve.”
“For real?” asked David, pushing back his hair to look at Myra's face closely.
“I'm afraid so. We had a visitor last night, in our yard. Stick to the brick walkway, and don't step on the clues. See if you can figure out what it was.” She led them outside. Charlie reached for Ginny, who picked him up to carry him.
At the point where the waterfall rocks rose up, the head of the pond, as Myra thought of it, there was always a muddy patch. Today an enormous three-toed track sunk deep into the mud. Smeared impressions of the same tracks led around the pond and even appeared on top of the bench: Whatever made them had perched there for a bit. In the leaf litter and mulch underneath David's pear tree by the meditation bench and Charlie's new plum tree, set into a bed between the waterfall and the side bench, were drag marks where something heavy had disturbed the soil. On the brickwork beside the barbecue pit was a patch of blackened scorch. The final piece of evidence were various greeny-black shards of metal, all the same irregularly rounded triangle, with a sticky roughness underneath at the corner as if they had been ripped from organic tissue.
“Let me tell you straight off, nothing came through the gates. I checked the security log. And I investigated the entire perimeter: Nothing climbed the fence anywhere.” Myra's eyes were somber.
“How could it get in, then?” said David, almost whispering.
Leah pointed to the overcast cast with a single small finger.
“A bird?” said Charlie.
“Well...what flies, has wings big enough to push away the mulch this much, leaves shards of metal behind, and – I shudder to say it – belches fire after drinking?” Myra was avoiding looking at Ginny's face, because she'd start laughing. Her money was on Mimi, and sure enough, it was Mimi who said “A dragon. A dragon?”
When Myra nodded slowly, each pair of wide eyes looked down at the scales Ginny and Annie Gagliardi had carefully constructed a few days before, now horrific talismans resting in small palms. Charlie stopped trying to put his in his mouth.
“A dragon landed in your yard?” repeated David, begging for contradiction.
“I guess this pond looked like a wonderful place to take a long drink” mused Myra. “I've heard there are colonies of enormous dragons who live on uninhabited islands in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. I think they migrate back and forth between there and the lava fields around Mount Lassen in California, which is a part of a volcanic range, you know. There are unexplored lava tubes going down to regions where magma is just an earth rumble away. I bet they spend the winters there, restoking their fuel, and summers up in the islands where no one dares intrude. This house would be on the flight path between the two. I can show you on a map when we go inside.”
Leah looked as if she thought going indoors would be an immediately preferable action. Myra added “I don't think they fly around during the daytime. If they did, we'd have seen dragons, wouldn't we?”
“So could we stay with you tonight and watch for them through the window?” asked Mimi.
Myra heard Ginny giggle. Any pretext at all for spending the night...
“Well, no. The reason why I need your help is to figure out how to keep the dragon from returning. You see – sometimes we're out here after dark. Me and Bubbe. And dragons are known to eat people. As well as kitties and doggies.”
Leah's worst fears were verified. She edged closer to the house, scanning the clouds above. Myra said “What could we do to keep this yard, all our yards, safe from a visiting dragon?”
“Kill it” said Leah easily. Mimi wheeled on her with violent intent. Myra said swiftly “Absolutely not. No killing of dragons, and no putting them in a zoo. We have to come up with another way.”
Mimi was distracted from launching herself at Leah by this emphatic statement. She squinted at Myra, readjusting her opinion, Myra hoped.
“We could ask it to stay away” said David. “Like the children talked to the Warrum Arsenica.”
“Ah, the Warrum Arsenica was a different kind of creature. Dragons are not known for cooperating with humans. Besides, I don't speak Dragonish, do you?”
David considered lying and inventing his own version of Dragonish, Myra saw the urge on his face. She intercepted with “Listen, we need to brainstorm about this. Bubbe has the blackboard set up, let's go inside and have a snack while we put our heads together around the dining table. Bring your dragon scales, we can put them in your treasure boxes if you want.”
Each child had their own wide drawer in the cupboard array opposite the kitchen, and these were referred to as treasure boxes. Myra assembled peanut butter on apple slices while Ginny got scales stowed and hands washed. Ginny stood by the portable blackboard to take notes with colored chalk, in both letters and pictographs. Ginny's notes were lovely to behold.
After half an hour, the following options were portrayed in Ginny's bold letters and clear doodles:
Buy a lion to guard the yard
Fill the pond with milk instead of water (“But what about the swimming pool?” asked Myra the killjoy)
Figure out which plants dragons hated and plant those in each yard
Cover the pond and pool with a giant mirror
Ask advice of Margie, who was deemed an expert in general by Mimi but also, David pointed out, had once ridden a dragon because Bubbe had painted it
Ask the advice of Sima and Annie Gagliardi, who worked with metals and this somehow made them likely to know about metal-scaled creatures
Myra began gathering empty sippy cups and said “Well, that's a good set of ideas. Now, much as I'd like to live with a lion, the fact is they're wild animals who don't tame, so having a lion in the back yard would be just as dangerous as the dragon. And the milk option, well, we can see that wouldn't be practical, can't we?” She appealed to Charlie, who'd wanted a milk pond very much. “Where would the leviathan and other fishies go to live?”
“I suggest we print out our photos of the tracks, grab the scales, and walk over to Aunt Margie's for a confab” said Ginny. Margie had been informed of the scheme, and sitting at her kitchen table were Sima, Chris, and Annie, waiting for the dragon conference.
It was a memorable day. Mimi was deathly earnest in her agenda to keep the dragon from harm, and the aunties turned out to have lots of interesting suggestions. Sima and Annie offered to make a dragonbane sculpture, a small magical shape which could be mounted on the top stone of the waterfall. Chris said she would sage it, to release its powers. While they were awaiting that foolproof talisman, Margie listed a few plants which she assured them were irritating to dragons. Ginny and Myra loaded the children into a car and they went to Ginny's favorite nursery, where the plants happened to be in stock. Back home, these were transplanted into large pots and arranged around the pond, while Moon and Gidg stood guard.
Before heading home for dinner, Ginny helped the little ones get filthy mixing plaster of Paris to make a cast of the dragon footprint. Leah became anxious during the latter stage of this task, as dark was beginning to fall. She asked to be carried for the walk home. Myra thanked them all formally for their assistance in “insuring a balance between human needs and those of the rest of nature”, a phrase she felt certain Mimi would memorize and aim back at her as soon as possible.
The day after Myra's 63rd birthday, at noon, Jane went into labor. Gillam called Myra and said "Her water's broke and after the last time, I'm getting her to the hospital as fast as possible, her baby canal is like a jetway now."
"We're coming to get the kids" said Myra and hung up. Gillam and an already strained-looking Jane waved at them from the front door as Myra and Ginny came in the back door. "Call everybody" yelled Gillam "except Carly, he's on his way there." He shut the door. The children turned as one and looked at their grandmas.
"A new baby!" crowed Ginny. "When they come back, they'll have a new baby brother or sister for you!"
"Can we name this one after me?" asked Leah.
"No, everybody gets a fresh name" said Myra, forgetting the fact that Leah was named after both her and Ginny. "Let's pack bags, you're going to stay overnight at our place."
The children began yelling and crawling upstairs, Myra behind them. Ginny sat down at the phone and started making calls.
But nobody else had a chance to get to the hospital after work. When Gillam called three hours later, he told Ginny "She's here. Born about 20 minutes ago. Everybody is fine, and she looks just like you."
"It's a girl!" Ginny turned and screamed to Myra. "Another sister!"
"Already?" said Myra. "Godamighty."
Leah repeated "Godamighty. What sister?"
Ginny said "What's her name?"
Gillam chuckled. "Well, she's the last, so we emptied out the store shelves for her. You ready? Lucia Christina Allene Rebekah Rose. Bates-Josong."
Ginny was laughing. "Good job. Lucia is for Jane's sister Lucy, I'm gathering. And the rest are self-evident except -- Rebekah?"
"It's the middle name of both Frances and Edwina -- and Sima's Hebrew name is Rivka" said Gillam.
"Oh, bless you son. Bless you both." Ginny's voice was thick with emotion. "Do I get to -- share the names?"
"You do. We'll be here overnight, maybe come home tomorrow. Eventually Jane's family will arrive, and we can get help from them. Carly and Eric are here, of course. And we know the kids are in good hands. I need to go, will you make the calls for me?"
"My honor and delight" said Ginny. "I love you so much, Gillam."
"Same here. I'm -- well, you know how happy I am at this moment. We have a full house."
"Take care, get rest. Call for anything."
When she got off the phone, she went to sit beside Myra and took her hands in her own. Myra shushed the children and gathered them around to listen.
"We have a new Bates-Josong girl -- a baby sister for you all. She'll be coming home tomorrow. She is doing great, and your mama is fine, and your daddy is beside himself. And -- her name is Lucia Christina Allene Rebeka Rose."
Mimi began chanting the name like a counting-out rhyme, and David joined her, holding up his hands so they could play patty-cake on each other's palms. Myra helped Leah and Charlie do the same, and the names bounced around the walls of the room. In the middle of the cacophony, Ginny walked to the kitchen phone to make a second round of calls.
© 2009 Maggie Jochild.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Here's the weekly best of what I've gleaned from I Can Has Cheezburger efforts. There are some really creative folks out there. As usual, those from little gator lead the pack.
Maru the Sliding Box Cat -- with Hot Slo-Mo Action