Thursday, December 2, 2010


When I went to see The Hours, I barely made it back to my van before I began weeping torrentially. The Gen-Xer who had accompanied me wanted to know what had upset me, and I don't think she completely understood that most of what I was feeling was gratitude: I had been born in a time and place where I have been able to live as an adult free of the imposed will of individual males. I left my father's house at 18, never to return; I never married or even dated men; I have chosen my own life path as freely as any woman ever has under the dome of patriarchy. And this is a freedom that only my generation was able to access in large numbers since -- well, whenever the patriarchy infected human social organization.

I have been so incredibly lucky.

My mother loved a woman but when her heart was broken by Mary Nell, she had no place to go "find another", as Judy Grahn wrote. She told me when I was 17 that her advice was to stick with men because they would never get close enough to hurt you the way a woman could. I wonder how many straight women secretly feel that way. She could not have guessed that at the age I was, her assessment was no warning, instead was like adding Coleman fluid to embers. Whoosh!

My generation constructed an identity from the materials we had been handed, often as a contradiction to what we had been handed. Where our construct was a rejection to upbringing, the meaning of such identity is fading as that which shaped us has altered. So it is with every new generation. What felt like immutable truth discovered by us in heady group exploration has turned out to be a chosen narrative, and without a larger culture helping to hand on that narrative (often via oppressive means, unfortunately), it will turn out to be our own private pride and pleasure. I can (just barely) accept that.

I do get irked by arrogance among those who have come after, who have in their academic boltholes and urban exile created a shiny new immutable truth, often in juvenile contradiction to ours, which they insist (as we did) could remake the world if only we would abandon our narrative and don ourselves in theirs. In fact, our very disagreement is invariably called oppressive, a neat trick they learned from the Neocons of Reagan, although many of them are too young and unread to recognize its source.

However, they will be dinosaurs soon enough. The patriarchy pits each new generation seeking reform against the one which preceded it, and their lovely theories will not only be ridiculed but attacked and "disproven" by those seeking PhDs and boy approval as the wheel moves on. And no doubt that will somehow be my generation's fault as well.

Which makes me stop and re-examine my own gratitude at having had the opportunity for defining woman without all the re-enacted limits I see the newer generations suffering beneath. I want to unrestrainedly honor those who came before me -- my mother's cohort who were drowned in the quicksand of a new definition of post-war nuke fam (a brief experiment the Right wants to pretend was how "things always were"), my grandmother Hettie's generation who were the first to get the vote, and my great-grandmother Sarah Lee's age grade who watched industrialization and modernism sweep forward everything in its path except human rights for women and people of color. I want to understand where and how they found happiness, love, hope, community.

I remind myself of the Linda Shear song:

I know you get discouraged, til your faith is about to break
Seems like what we're trying to do is just a big mistake
And I know mistakes can happen, but it's just as well they do
My Mama says I was one and most likely so were you

I think about the quilters of Gee's Bend, making world-shaking art from scraps of cloth, doing it with never-quite-full bellies and a third-class citizenship, and I am certain they felt joy as they pieced together color with other women. Joy and pride.

If I learn first
I will come back and teach you
If you learn first
I must believe
You will come back and teach me

The antidote to despair is talking and listening without limits, ignoring urgency, nature and cooking and art and the soft brush of human skin against your own. You have all the time in the world. Trust yourself.

The poem quoted above is "eat rice have faith in wimmin" by Fran Winant.
The quilt shown is by Annie Mae Young, born 1928, strips, corduroy, ca. 1975. Others from the Gee's Bend quilters can be seen here.
This piece came about from a written conversation with Nancy Whittier, whose upcoming book The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Emotion, Social Movements, and the State is a ten-years-in-the-making gift to us all.)

1 comment:

Cardamom said...

Wonderful post!