She Is Still Burning 11 (December 2001)

Re-formatting this instalment from 2001, I’m struck by the fury against the American Empire that fills my own essay, “Arundhati’s List.” Nearly sixteen years have gone by since I wrote it, and now the remnants of that empire’s influence lie all around us, but the machine itself is direction-less, moving in fits and starts, like a robot whose programming has gone haywire.

I have no notion what the berserk robot will do next, but I am relatively clear about the past. So I invite you to hop in my little time machine and head for the final month of 2001, when the writing was on the wall and several Cassandras were busy reading it.


SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment # 11
21 December 2001

“Some say cavalry and others claim
Infantry or a fleet of long oars
Is the supreme sight on the black earth.
I say it is
The one you love. And easily proved.”
– Sappho

Dear Friends,

On the domestic front, it’s been a tumultuous six weeks since the last installment of Burning. While US war planes continued to pound Afghanistan, tragedy struck at home: Pookie, beloved feline companion with the startling intelligence, martial temperament and ballet legs, had one of those legs amputated, owing to bone cancer. She came through the operation with flying colours, but then succumbed to a week-long temper tantrum after discovering that she’d been reduced from speed, elegance and great hunterly feats to hopping around on three legs. By the time the stitches were out, however, she’d concluded that hopping was the new normal, and regained her dignity, if not all her playfulness.

Small things are emblematic of big things. Or, as Jane Picard reminded me two weeks ago, everything is a metaphor. I’d rented a car for the weekend to visit her at her niece’s house in southern Maine, where we took up again those long, spinning and magical conversations of fifteen years before. Renewing my somewhat dented faith in the restorative powers of the universe.

And, in the midst of travels and travail, the Harriet-and-Bear think tank rolled on. I’d been urging Bert (the aforementioned “Bear”) to continue his intelligence briefings for the non-establishment (i.e., us), but he became so angry over current events that he quit writing, saying he’d just like everyone to ponder the ramifications of this sentence: “We in the West have been hoodwinked into submission.”

Meantime, unbeknownst to each other, Lise Weil and I were writing parallel essays on America as viewed by girls who don’t live there anymore. Which is why this installment is double-long: the essays are written from two different perspectives and hit separate points, but they illuminate each other. Special thanks goes to Verena Stefan, who gave each one a thoughtful reading and suggested clarifications.

Camille Norton suggested that she’d love to read more letters in Burning, so this time we have two: one from Suzanne Cox, the other an excerpt from a letter that Lynn Martin sent as a “December wishes” e-mail to friends. Which reminds me to add that letters from readers are always welcome, and that excerpts from back-and-forth letters between friends are a new hot genre, as Camille points out. So if you’ve got some of those, consider submitting them, as well as stories, poems, essays, whatever. (We are nothing if not flexible.)

Finally, in my quest for news and views from outside the war-propaganda media machine, I ran across an e-zine Feminista! It’s good, very good. And its collection of  articles on the 9/11 crisis led me to a more general site called Common Dreams, which led to still more alternative news and analysis sites. I thereby discovered, years behind the times, that there’s a wealth of provocative writing out there, but you have to own a computer or use public library computers to locate most of it.

At this winter solstice, may we all find renewed energy and inspiration … and may Lady Luck come out of hiding.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

• Lise Weil: “On Being American”
• Suzanne Cox: letter
• Lynn Martin: “To All the Musicians I Know”
• Harriet Ellenberger: “Arundhati’s List”


ON BEING AMERICAN
              by Lise Weil

Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself has said “this is my own, my native land, this is my native land.” (first line of “This is My Country,” a popular American national anthem)

I am an American, born and bred in the USA. My parents were not typical Americans: my father, though born in Chicago, styled himself a cosmopolite, an internationalist; my mother is Norwegian. They spoke French and German at home and entertained mostly foreign guests. I’ve often thought this is how I ended up in Montreal, a city where I never presume anyone will speak to me in my native tongue, a city where I feel more at home than I ever did in any American city.

When I moved here I was vaguely aware of wanting to get out of my country; it was 1990, Bush senior was in office, we were gearing up for the Gulf War, and when the war finally broke out, it was a relief to watch it being waged from the other side of the border. But there were personal reasons for my move which overrode the political. And my politics at the time were mainly radical feminist. When I went down to Washington to demonstrate against the war in the spring, my banner read “don’t let the dickheads screw up our planet.”

Notice my use of “we” back there. “We were gearing up for the Gulf War.” This is what has begun to change now, I see, after ten years of living on foreign soil. That “we” jumps out at me now. It gives me away, betrays a sense of national identity I thought I’d long since discarded. And now, after Sept. 11, I notice, that “we” repels me.

In a way this makes no sense. My country has been deeply wounded; I should feel sympathy, I should feel some sort of solidarity. Yet as people in countries all over the world (even here in Quebec) display the stars and stripes in sympathy and solidarity, I find myself responding to that icon with mounting embarrassment and distaste.

Partly this can be attributed to the crash course in US foreign policy in the Middle East I’ve been receiving ever since the attacks, almost entirely via the internet. Like any counter-culturally inclined person who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, for most of my life I have been vaguely “anti-American.” I’ve been aware that the US is the most powerful nation in the world, that it sees itself as the world’s policeman, that it’s propped up dictators around the world, that it’s the planet’s major polluter and takes no responsibility for this fact. Nothing about Bush junior’s response to this crisis has surprised me: not his good vs. evil, you’re either with us or against us rhetoric, not his crass manipulation of humanist and now yes even feminist sympathies to further US economic interests.

And yet in some ways it seems to me I am now seeing my country for the very first time. I did not know, for example, about the CIA’s arming and bankrolling of the Taliban with full knowledge of their atrocities towards women. I did not know Madeleine Albright, when told about the 500,000 infant deaths resulting from six years of US sanctions on Iraq, said “all things considered, we think the price is worth it.” And somehow though I knew about the staggering loss of life caused around the world by our policies, it took these thousands of deaths on New York soil for me to start thinking concretely about those hundreds of thousands of foreign deaths—to start feeling them. So maybe what I’m saying is in some ways since Sept. 11, I’ve been seeing myself for the very first time. To this extent, and to the extent there are others like me, the terrorists, whether or not this was their intention, have accomplished something positive.

Meanwhile, down there in my country, the flags multiply epidemically. Crossing the border you start to see them right away crowning the antennas of pickup trucks. As you approach New York it seems they wave from every other car. In the city they are everywhere. Huge banners adorn the entrances to the wealthiest apartment buildings on Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue. Down at ground zero the walls are plastered with tributes to God and country and firemen. Oh yes, and photos of people who have come to show their support. “Hi we’re Ted and Lois, we came all the way from California to let you know we care.” No personal jottings of grief or rage. No lines of poetry. No reflections. As if all thought and feeling has been channeled into sentimental cliche. Flag vendors raking in money hand over fist.

I’ve heard a lot of different arguments about the flags. “It’s their/our way of showing solidarity.” “A way to feel united in a time of grief.” “It doesn’t mean they/we agree with Bush’s policies.” It’s become a sensitive subject, a litmus test. I see a flag decal on the back of a friend’s car, I rib her about it, assuming it came with the car, which she just bought. She points to the words beneath the flag which I hadn’t seen: “forever in peace may you wave.” I think: what’s wrong with me that that doesn’t make it okay. And after awhile I think: what’s wrong with her that she thinks it does. And it comes between us. I don’t want it to but it does.

You’re a grand old flag you’re a high flying flag, and forever in peace may you wave . . . Suddenly I realize how many flag-waving songs I know by heart, beyond the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

This is my country, land of my birth! This is my country, grandest on earth!
I pledge thee my allegiance, America the bold!
My country tis of thee sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing . . .

I understand that Bush has recently asked the movie industry to do its part in the war effort by relaying patriotic messages. As one who has been watching US TV almost compulsively these last months, I can attest to the fact that Hollywood has been sending virtually no other message since Sept. 11. Beginning with the celebrity telethon in the week after the attacks that culminated with Celine Dion singing “God Bless America, land that I love” against the backdrop of a gigantic flag and all the stars joining Willie Nelson for a final round of “America America God shed his grace on thee.”

How many national anthems does one country need?

As for major network news broadcasts, at this moment there is little to distinguish them from Defense Department communiques.

Of course I am aware there are many Americans who want no part of this patriotic orgy, who have thought deeply about the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath and who have voiced absolute opposition to the war. Their voices, most of which I am aware of only thanks to the internet and those few alternative publications which remain in print, give me sanity and hope.

But theirs is not the face that America is offering to the world. And, even among thinking people in the US, some of them friends of mine, I often hear a tentativeness about our foreign policy, a qualified critique: “I’m not for the war, but we have to do something.” What they mean is: we need to stop the terrorists. But what I always hear behind this is: we need to preserve our way of life, what we stand for as a nation.

Deep in the souls of most of my fellow Americans, even the thinking ones—this is what I’m starting to see—there dwells a national pride that’s been wounded by the attacks on our country and is now on the offensive. Deep down, I sense, most of them identify—proudly—as American, and if asked how they’ve been changed by the attacks might offer some version of what I heard Brad Pitt say recently on TV, with tears in his eyes: “It’s made me appreciate our way of life. Our freedoms.” (Though they might be horrified by what came next: “We need to rebuild those towers, make them bigger, taller. We’ll just leave the floors where the planes hit empty, as a memorial.” )

Most of my fellow Americans, in other words, do not see what I see. A country so swollen with hubris, so bloated with its wealth, so in love with itself that its only response to this unprecedented threat to its power its ideology its very identity is to gird its loins, ram its greatness down the world’s throat, and order its citizens to do the same.

A country that just might end up sleeping through the grandest wake-up call it’s ever had.

So I have to wonder: is it because I’ve left my country that I’m able to see what I see? Ten years of learning to operate without the assumptions that govern life on the other side of the border. Ten years of not presuming I will be spoken to in my native tongue, ten years of making myself as small as possible in stores because the aisles are narrow here. Ten years of watching news on CBC and BBC and RDI, ten years of seeing my country through the eyes of Quebecers, of Haitians, Syrians, Egyptians, Brazilians, Hungarians, Algerians. Ten years of slowly taking in that though the US may be the most powerful country in the world, the one everybody has to watch, it is most certainly not the center of the world.

The flag, they say, is a way for Americans to feel we’re united, we’re together. A way for us to feel we’re a community. God knows we all need more community in our lives. But a community in the name of what? In what ways will this togetherness be manipulated in order to trash other parts of the world? Isn’t this feel-good moment for America even now translating into thousands of corpses, widespread famine, mass destruction, and millions of displaced people in Afghanistan, into anti-terrorist measures that threaten to wipe out years of efforts to stem the tide of corporate globalization, into a mandate to this president who withdrew his country from the Kyoto protocol to drill in the Arctic oil fields?

It’s a Saturday night some two months after the attacks. I decide to check out Saturday Night Live just to take the country’s humor pulse. Since TV comedians have dutifully abstained from making fun of our eminently laughable president since the attacks, I am delighted to tune in to the very first skit of the evening and see George W. Bush updating the country on the latest advances in the war effort. His jaw is clenched in an “I mean business” look, but behind it he’s gloating as he announces: “We’ve frozen Bin Laden’s assets. He won’t be able to use his ATM card now anywhere in Afghanistan, not even in Kabul.” The audience roars with laughter.

And I feel such relief! The taboo has been lifted. The blinders are coming down now, I think, maybe people in the USA are starting to see. Then the camera pans to the show’s host as he emerges from behind the curtain, some aspiring actor who prances to center stage in a red and blue t-shirt sprinkled with white stars. Written on the front of his shirt in big block letters: AMERICA RULES. As the audience takes in the words on his chest it sends up a huge roar of applause. In a matter of seconds, my delight is replaced by horror, disbelief.

AMERICA RULES. I’ve enjoyed enormous privilege as an American. As a woman, being born in the USA has made it possible for me to live a life of freedom unheard of fifty years ago and still unheard of in most other countries in the world. I don’t want to deny the benefits I’ve derived from “our way of life.” I don’t want to deny this “we,” this “our,” that trails me wherever I go, that I’m apparently unable to shake, that will no doubt stay with me for the rest of my life.

The fact is, living outside my country has made me appreciate that privilege and those benefits as never before, for it has thrown them into relief. At the same time it has forced me to ask: at whose expense were they won? Freedom if it’s only for Americans is not true freedom. And freedom is meaningless if you don’t have the means to enjoy it. In this sense there are far too many people within the borders of the US who are not living “the American way of life.” So much for this funhouse image of America being shaped and wielded in our names, this fake unity being cobbled together in the name of “enduring freedom.”

So what am I going to do with this “we” that sticks to me like velcro? That sits in my blood and bones and my TV preferences too? That was as shaken by the collapse of the towers as anyone on that side of the border and is still hungrily devouring anything written about the victims, almost all of whom led lives more like mine than the people I encounter on the streets of this city where I live. I have to grieve, of course, and to take in the unimaginable grief of the many thousands more who loved them. But as a genuinely privileged citizen of the USA, I also have to ask myself what I can do, how I can take responsibility for its actions throughout the world. Because it’s clear to me by now that as long as America rules, this planet doesn’t stand a chance.


LETTER FROM SUZANNE COX, NOVEMBER 11, 2001

Dearest thouest of the power of words,

Tis true I keep thinking the pen is mightier than the sword. Maybe this is why I stopped writing so much—I have few war words. Maybe this is why the government hired an ad campaign person to do the war PR. She was a coca-cola woman I think. Or she said something like “this won’t be about cokes—we’ll be using athletes and movie stars.”

Anyway, I’d rather read your words and SISB. I soak this up like sunshine, which seems so limited in our gray November days and also in the world’s spinning away from anything warm.

I keep thinking about when the women lose heart. I lost heart for my own words with images of the women who taught girls about books—being killed by Taliban in the stadium; of people going to work in the WTC one morning and they were gone—never had the chance to know it was their last moments. I am thankful I can still paint the watercolours. They delight my heart. So I keep hope somewhere, which has been a struggle.

Did I tell you my niece wrote to ask for my advice about going to a protest. This gives much more hope. Young women and men who are awake to how things are going. I call my mother. I ask, “How are you?” “Living,” she says, “that’s about all I can say. Come home as soon as you can.” I can hear the catch in both of our throats.

Last night I went to the movie Himalayas. The Tibetan people move their yaks and bags of salt across the mountains so they can get grain to live on. It is one of those haunting, breathtaking movies that takes your emotions to the height of the mountains and drops them, like life only more so because you fall in love with the people. I said to my friends who were there, “I shan’t complain ever again … ” What a rich, stupid life I have. How ridiculous for one person to have so much junk. One bag of grain for a bag of salt. My life for all these bags of stupid absurdity.

Tomorrow I shall print SISB at work and take it to lunch with me. I like all the different perspectives very much—from all sides of the war and peace stories. Thank all the writers for me please. I like thinking about each piece—the long treks of everyone’s life and memory in shared story.

I have a tiny perfect pumpkin I like to look at. It has an unusual twisted stem as if it had danced while growing on the vine. Every night I turn off the news after supper and dance for awhile. Eat, drink, and be merry may be some of the greatest words ever written.

Thank you for yours and for sending it to me.

Love,
Poetkin [Suzanne Cox]


TO ALL THE SINGERS I KNOW
        by Lynn Martin

Birds dart around continually and flash such explosions of color. They have been trying to get our attention for centuries. Listen, they say, it’s all in the song.

Song, the ornithologists say, is a bird’s way of marking out its territory.

The air outside my window is awash with squares, rectangles, circles, pentagons laid out on a grid and fenced in with musical notes. The borders are noted and delineated by song hung from a bush, a berry, a towering hemlock. I can, on one spring morning, hear as many as 50 different birds singing around the house.

I am drawn to them on a primitive level. Like the Greeks I see birds as divine messengers. And their ability to fly is as awesome to me today as it must have been to the ancients. As a child I believed I could talk to the birds. A cousin teased me out of this. But I wonder if I did understand the language of the birds when I was a child? Even today when I hear them calling it feels just on the edge of a language I know. Observing them over the years, it is obvious different species have worked out a way to live together and share the earth. And song is what they share.

That’s why I think humans should investigate more closely. We could do away with Summits and International Conferences, and, maybe, even war. Each nation could mark their own national borders with song. If each soldier sang, then you could hear an army coming for miles. Tanks could provide the bass; jets the soprano; infantry the alto. Generals, admirals, dictators and war lords would be named Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. The “war” would be a concert, and the winner the side with the most original composition. Each of us would have our own variation on a theme learned in childhood.

Singing takes incredible energy. You can’t sing and fight at the same time. Let’s work out a way to live together and share the earth. Let’s start right now.


ARUNDHATI’S LIST
          by Harriet Ellenberger

4 December 2001: A few nights ago I watched on CBC television an Afghan refugee father being interviewed with his son in a makeshift hospital in Quetta, Pakistan. One of the son’s legs had been blown off by a US bomb (pinpoint targeting is not possible when you’re flying at 50,000 feet). The son said, now I can’t work, I’m useless. The father said, I don’t believe the Americans are after terrorists, I believe they want to kill innocent people.

Whoever that man was (either the interviewer didn’t mention his name, or I missed it), he was saying out loud what I’d been thinking privately. By a massive bombing campaign that, among other things, cut off food aid at a critical moment, the US government has just committed mass murder in Afghanistan. I think they did it on purpose. I believe they wanted to send a message: this is what we can do; this is what we will do.

It’s the same message they were sending to Stalin when they dropped nuclear bombs on two cities in Japan, a country that was already defeated, already trying to negotiate a surrender. This is what we can do; this is what we will do.

Reportedly (but the US media is now filled with misreporting as well as the usual nonreporting), some 90 percent of US adults surveyed supported Bush’s bomb-them-to-hell campaign.

It’s times like these that I feel lucky to have left the States in 1987, lucky to have been accepted as a citizen by Canada—however controlled it may be by its big brother to the south. But personal good-fortune aside, the whole business makes me feel violently ill, and guilty by way of origin.

How could they do this? How could the US government keep on doing this, my entire lifetime? How could US citizens (not “Americans”—a name that belongs to all the inhabitants of North, Central and South America) allow their government to do this, yet again? And call it patriotism.

The rhetoric currently thundering forth from the States doesn’t sound like patriotism to me. Lust for revenge, lust for power, lust for dominance, yes. Love of country, no.

If you retain even the slightest shred of common sense and concern for your people, you do not lead them on their very own high-tech suicide mission. Yet that is what Bush-and-advisors have done. Bombarding the most war-ravaged place on earth: what a brilliant way to turn the world irrevocably against you. What a superb ploy to ensure that every person in the US remains a walking target.

I could spit nails, I’m so upset. Nothing seems to calm me these days. I can say to myself, well, what empire in history didn’t destroy itself by biting off more than it could chew? I can say to myself, well, if people insist on having an empire while at the same time refusing to admit that they have one, what do they expect—wise governance? I can say, none of this is new news; all of this is old news, more of the same, more men-on-men and war-on-war, and so it goes to the weary and whimpering end of the world. I can say whatever I please, but what’s really getting me down is that words—in particular, words of sanity and moderation—don’t seem to make a dent in events.

To echo Jeanette Winterson’s October 30th essay “Life on Planet Earth,” published in the London Guardian, it looks as if the inmates have taken over the asylum. And she names the malady they’re suffering from as a specifically “male madness”: “Everywhere I look, men are talking about nuclear capacity, about germ warfare, about dedicating 50 years to wiping out terrorism. The Bush administration is delighted not to have to worry about tedious environmentalists and Kyoto protocols and world trade protestors. This is a war—and the ‘big trousers’ are back in charge.”

In London, apparently, you can still write what you think as vividly as you’re able. If, like Madeleine Bunting writing for the Guardian, you’re a British woman commentator opposed to the “war on terrorism,” you may receive e-mail messages from US readers advising you to “get laid, get pregnant, shut your fat legs, shut up.” But that’s a long-distance response, from the far side of a very large body of water, and less personally endangering than, for example, the tongue-lashing in the Canadian Parliament and press followed by anonymous death threats that Sunera Thobani experienced after her anti-war speech to a women’s conference in Ottawa, or the death threats Susan Sontag received for her comments in the New Yorker about the September 11th attack. In North America it’s put-on-the-kid-gloves time for writers. And, interestingly, the taboo subject appears to be US foreign policy since World War II.

On November 24th, Reuters ran a brief interview by Stephanie Holmes with Gore Vidal. One of the essays in his forthcoming book The End of Liberty: Toward a New Totalitarianism (forthcoming in Italy, not in the States) was originally commissioned by a US magazine (probably Vanity Fair) following the September 11th attacks. Once the editors read the essay, however, they refused to print it. (And who is Gore Vidal? Only one of the States’ best writers, a fifty-year stellar career as novelist and essayist, knows US history like the palm of his hand, born into the old-line ruling elite, the gadfly they loved to tolerate.) “I’ve listed in this little book,” Vidal says, “about four hundred strikes that the government has made on other countries. War, undeclared. Generally with the excuse that they were harboring communists. You keep attacking people for such a long time, one of them is going to get you back.”

And then there’s the other male éminence grise famous for knowing US policy inside and out: Noam Chomsky. On the Media Education Foundation website I find him described as “America’s leading dissident” and “the most-quoted writer in the world.” But try to find him quoted in the mainstream North American press. I figured he’d have something illuminating to say about the September 11th attacks, and so he did—in an interview with a Belgrade radio station and a speech at MIT, excerpts of which were published in Cairo’s Al Ahram. For centuries, he says, Europe practiced terror on the peoples it subjugated. Then an offshoot of Europe, the USA, took over the job. September 11th marked the first time the guns had been pointed the other way round.

A third writer who’s done her homework on the subject is Arundhati Roy—screenwriter, novelist, essayist, practitioner of an astonishing fusion of analytic, emotional and spiritual intelligence (falling under the spell of her novel The God of Small Things, I wished the book never to end). In Outlook India (October 18), she writes:

When he announced the air strikes, President George Bush said, ‘We’re a peaceful nation.’ America’s favourite ambassador, Tony Blair (who also holds the portfolio of Prime Minister of the UK), echoed him: ‘We’re a peaceful people.’ So now we know. Pigs are horses. Girls are boys. War is Peace. …

Here is a list of the countries that America has been at war with—and bombed—since World War II: China (1945–46, 1950–53); Korea (1950–53); Guatemala (1954, 1967–69); Indonesia (1958); Cuba (1959–60); the Belgian Congo (1964); Peru (1965); Laos (1964–73); Vietnam (1961–73); Cambodia (1969–70); Grenada (1983); Libya (1986); El Salvador (1980s); Nicaragua (1980s); Panama (1989), Iraq (1991–99), Bosnia (1995), Sudan (1998); Yugoslavia (1999). And now Afghanistan.

So now we do know. By the time we’ve reached the end of Arundhati’s long list, we know perfectly well why references to relevant US history are being greeted with hysterics and silencing. And we have a good notion of why the US government, in response to the September 11th attacks, cobbled together a strange-bedfellows coalition, rather than working through—and thereby strengthening—the United Nations. And we can make an excellent guess as to why, rather than recognize existing instruments of international law by using them to punish those who planned the attacks, US leaders preferred to launch an undefined, unlimited and self-destructive war against “terrorism” (terrorism being, as Kanin Makiya points out, a tactic, not a side).

Just put yourself in their boots. You’ve been head outlaw for a long time, and suddenly you’re under siege by rival outlaws. Do you call on the sheriff for assistance? No outlaw worth his salt would do a girly thing like that (and, besides, when it was all over, the sheriff might be wanting to take a look at your own checkered past). You don’t call in the law, you shoot it out. You make one long last stand.

And to hell with humans who get caught in the crossfire.

 

 

She Is Still Burning 7 (April 2001)

Note, 16 May 2017 BE: The April 2001 instalment of “She Is Still Burning” below focuses on France and the work of Michèle Causse. I was just getting ready to post it when France held their presidential election, the results of which led me to imagine Jeanne d’Arc saying to her disembodied self: “Well, old girl, only a fool walks into a fire, and I  had been wondering why we thought it was such a brilliant idea to liberate France. But now it’s May 2017, and the French just threw a massive monkey-wrench into the onrushing wheels of fascism. Not bad. Not bad at all. Vive la République! Vive la France!

A few days later, South Korea did France one better, electing in a landslide a new president who was born the child of refugee parents from the North, grew up in poverty, and became a human-rights lawyer. Vive la South Korea! For showing how to do democracy under conditions of extreme duress.

And now back to the past …


SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #7
29 April 2001

“Put on your old jacket. We’ll fill our pockets with sugar drops, set off wherever the heart desires, without any plan at all, through quarters overgrown with camomile … ”
– Irina Ratushinskaya

Dear Friends,

After a winter onslaught that lasted until mid-April (there’s still snow in the New Brunswick woods), purple and yellow crocuses are now blooming; the robins are singing “cheer up, chérie.” Every time life renews itself, it catches me by surprise. What! You mean there’s hope at the bottom of that box?

Some day I’m going to learn not to let world events, as well as the weather, drag me into the slough of despond. But that day hasn’t come yet. And so I just have to say with regard to His Junior Bushness … my god, how reckless is this goofball front for the fundamentalists. First he gives the thumbs-up, green-light, go-right-ahead sign to Ariel Sharon (and speaking of Sharon, how did a child with a name that sounds like roses and true-love grow up to become the architect of a new “Final Solution”?). Then — after scraping through the international incident resulting from a Chinese fighter pilot’s urge to play chicken with a US spy plane — Bush intimates that he will not hesitate to re-arm Taiwan. Oh brilliant. A rerun of the Cold War together with a sure-fire recipe for hot war in the Mideast.

In mid-April, however, along with warmer weather, came the people’s summit in Quebec City and the 30,000-strong peaceful protest march (against the kind of “free trade” that has so far been governed by rules chiefly benefitting corporate investors), along with some cheering news from the south of France that you will likely not have found in your local newspaper. Read all about it in this installment of She Is Still Burning!

You may notice that, though this installment ranges over two continents and mixes together two languages, it’s still uni-voiced: I wrote almost everything in it. To remedy this lack of variety in authorship, why not send me something to publish in the next installment? The form can be anything you wish: letters, reflections on personal experience, poetry, stories, essays, reviews or a hybrid-sort-of-thing you invent. I publish excerpts from the letters I receive only if the writer explicitly gives me permission, so please let me know if I’m free to share the comments you send me.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Glimpses of Lesbian Politics and Culture, Stage II, in France” (text and translations by Harriet Ellenberger)
•”To the Beautiful Contradictions of Ariane” (a bilingual poem written for the birthday of a bilingual friend) by Harriet Ellenberger
•”Thunderer, Perfect Mind” (a poem with a title stolen from the Gnostic Gospels) by Harriet Ellenberger


GLIMPSES OF LESBIAN POLITICS AND CULTURE, STAGE II, IN FRANCE

text and translations by Harriet Ellenberger

“In French everything sounds like a poem,
in English it sounds like the bus doors opening above a sewer
and yet
one must go where these things meet.”
— Suzanne Cox

In 1993, shortly after her political fable Voyages de la Grande Naine en Androssie was published, Michèle Causse wrote to two friends, saying she was so stressed by the rise of fundamentalist movements that, if her health had allowed it, she would have begun a crusade and given to every woman she found a new “dictionary/bible.” That brief remark in a personal letter evidently signalled the beginning of a furious creative process because she did go ahead, despite medical crises, to write a new “dictionary/bible.” Originally titled “Bréviare de Gorgones” [“Book of the Gorgons”], it was published last spring in France under the title Contre le sexage [“Against Sexdom”] (Paris: Éditions Balland, 2000).

Taped to the wall above my writing desk is the announcement for the April 2000 book launching in Paris. It shows a colour photo of Afghani women after the Taliban takeover, sitting in a group. They’re shrouded in orange or white or grey fabric, with no opening for the eyes. Through a small piece of loosely woven material inset into the more tightly woven fabric draped over them, they look at each other or stare into space. Below the photo are Michèle’s words, “Et même Kaboul, la malheureuse, s’efforce parfois de rêver que les interdits s’assoupliront”… [“And even Kabul, the wretched, dares sometimes to dream that the prohibitions will be eased”].

The Shroud of Language

“It is hardly surprising that those who hold power should
attempt to control the words and language people use.”
— John Ralston Saul

“dictionary: summary of the production, development and
classification of ideological monstrosities”
— Michèle Causse (from the glossary of Contre le sexage)

You might (and I would) call Contre le sexage the closing argument for the prosecution in the case of Life vs. the Global Sex-Class System. The book is a tour de force, and the philosophical culmination of Michèle’s lifework as novelist, essayist, translator, editor and teacher/activist. Its argument hinges on the political nature of language, making clear the distinction between the “androlect” (a word created by Michèle to name languages in which the sex-class hierarchy is both embedded and concealed) and “alpha language” (a name invented by her last-minute collaborator Éliane Pons, to signify languages freed from their sex-class straitjacket).

Anyone who has tried to think, speak or write clearly about overcoming oppression knows that when you start using words like “man,” “woman,” “heterosexual,” “homosexual” — words everyone supposedly understands — you sooner or later tumble into a conceptual pit and the fog rolls in. Why? It’s that ol’ devil androlect again — you’ve been trying to use a primary instrument of sexdom to demolish sexdom, an effort which has certain inherent limitations. But, given that the androlect is also our common tongue, what are we to do?

What Michèle has done is to create “radical-lesbian” theory [“lesbienne radicale” is a political term used primarily in Quebec and in France; probably the nearest relative to Michèle’s book available in English is Monique Wittig’s The Straight Mind], and she does this entirely without reliance on the words “woman,” “lesbian” or, for that matter, “human.” Instead, she invents a plethora of words to name states of embodied consciousness in varying degrees of submission to or revolt against the sex-class hierarchy. Below are a few examples from the glossary, to give you a sense of the direction she’s headed in:

a) Diviseur [the dominant who arrogates to himself the power to classify those similar to him, arranging them in a hierarchy according to the sole criterion he judges pertinent — their sexual organs]

b) dividue [she who who has been divided — that is, appropriated, named and spoken for]

c) dividuelle [dividue in the process of evolving towards individuality]

d) Individue [one who, having recognized the confiscation of the symbolic order by the Diviseur, does not allow the division to be exercised on her, and annuls the effects of it by making appear in and through language her own naming and her own representation]

e) Gorgones [Individues originating the Sapiens conception of the human world. Having denounced the unilateral point of view that organizes the rapport between beings, Gorgones have withdrawn their bodies from the exchanges dictated by the Diviseurs, and found in their face-to-face relationships the necessary and sufficient condition for the elaboration of an unprecedented symbolic order.]

f) Sapiens [reorganization of the human species, taking into account the totality of speaking beings, whatever the reality of their bodies, without arbitrarily privileging a discriminatory criterion].

Exodus from the Androlect:
Conversation, Friendship and Love in the Alpha Tongue

While Part I of Contre le sexage — abstract, dense, constructed almost like a legal brief — may prove slow going even for readers whose first language is French, it lays a solid foundation for the more lyrical and example-filled Part II, which centers on conversation, friendship and love in the alpha tongue: that is, the creation of egalitarian culture by conscious female rebels against the sex-class system. Rebels who, in fact, have constituted a transnational group-in-the-process-of-becoming since the 1970s, emerging in a few countries with the beginning of feminism’s “second wave,” flourishing briefly, dying back, re-emerging in new forms, and continually spreading across every sort of boundary. The reality of their intertwined lives and culture-making brings us to our second and very brief (but hopefully instructive) glimpse of lesbian politics and culture in France.

The 6th Lesbian Spring in the South of France

In the same year (2000) that Contre le sexage was published by Éditions Balland in Paris, Espace lesbien [“Lesbian Space”] was published in Toulouse by Bagdam Espace lesbien (an association whose name was originally inspired by the film “Baghdad Café”). Mid-April 2001 marked this group’s sixth year of organizing a 3-1/2 day spring celebration of lesbian politics and culture. The 2001 programme included, not only films, book-signings, concerts, dinners and parties, even a guided tour of the city, but also a European symposium on lesbian studies titled “La grande Dissidence et le grand Effroi” [“The Great Dissidence and the Great Dread”]. Among the speakers listed were activists, writers and scholars from France, Belgium, Quebec, Algeria, Italy, Germany and Spain: Marian Lens, Chantal Bigot, Michèle Causse, Danièle Charest, Éliane Pons, Dominique Bourque, Anne Legal, Groupe du 6 novembre, Giovanna Olivieri, Valeria Santini, Daniela Danna, Fefa Vila Nuñez, Traude Bürhrmann, and others.

What is the significance of Toulouse? It seems to me, judging solely from descriptions in the pre-conference publicity, that the breadth, depth, seriousness and sophistication of the presentations constitute clear and startling evidence that a freedom-and-justice movement which many have been strenuously attempting to consign to the dustbin of history did not die at the hands of the backlash, but rather came of age. And that is what I call good news. Since the fate of one liberation movement is inevitably linked to the fate of the others, April in Toulouse 2001 marks a hopeful sign of spring for us all.


POÈME SPONTANÉ AUX BELLES CONTRADICTIONS
D’ARIANE,
 POUR FÊTER L’ANNIVERSAIRE DE SA NAISSANCE

Elle est tendre pooh-bear
with impressive teeth,
home-body and visionnaire …
Who can comprehend her in a single phrase?
She doubles the image.

You can only follow her eccentric progress
across the night sky —
late-rising, inevitable star,
paradoxically dreaming roots in the soft brown earth,
I wash my hands of this, she says,
but the imprint of destiny remains.

A friend advises her to be glad
she is not like the one-dimensional others.

— Harriet Ellenberger


THUNDERER, PERFECT MIND

Purple clouds mass along the horizon,
Sheet lightning crackles.
Black winds cut,
keen as obsidian knife.

Out of the dark west she rides.
From the yellowing east she comes.
Her white flags fly to the north.
In the south her red fires are lit.

She speaks.
The rock peaks split.

She speaks
and the past is laid open.

She speaks.
A light rain falls.

She speaks
and the future rises,
vapor on her breath.

She speaks.
Death is real.

She speaks again
and death is not an end.

— Harriet Ellenberger

 

She Is Still Burning 4 (Jan 2001)

And the history continues … you may find a few parallels with the present …

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #4
6 January 2001

Dear Friends,

Responses to She Is Still Burning continue to flow in; they not only keep me writing, they are a form of life sustenance. For which, many thanks. You bring me joy. Not an exaggeration.

So far this winter the weather has been near-apocalyptic (and the newly non-elected US president believes that global warming, with its drastic alteration of weather patterns, is a hoax perpetrated by environmentalists intent on destroying the Texas oil industry, uh huh). The storms just before Christmas were the worst on record—nothing like them according to the native tribes’ oral histories either. The winds broke telephone poles in half. And in the bay two gargantuan oil tankers were ripped from their anchors, crashing into each other. The tanker most damaged had two hulls; the outer hull broke, but the inner hull didn’t, which is why there isn’t oil all over the Bay of Fundy.

Quite a few things seem to be hanging from a very narrow thread, and it is not, at least in the northern hemisphere, a time of high energy. Hence, I would like to urge all of us, especially where it is deadly cold, to remember the “winter sleepers” who showed up on a card Ann Stokes sent me in December: the raccoon, the black bear, the jumping mouse and the chipmunk. All these little and not-so-little darlings are curled up in safe places, hibernating. Ahh … role models. Stay safe; stay warm; take naps; dream of renewal.

But there is one Bear I would like now to bring out of obscurity, for a round of applause. My partner, Albert E.B. O’Brien, helps me keep body and soul together, but he also helps keep She Is Still Burning alive, by steady encouragement of its editor and steady maintenance of its technological base. For which, many thanks.

Bon courage,
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Lucile and the Power of Persistence” (a tribute to my aunt Lucile)
•”What Remains” (a collage-poem by Jane Picard)
•”To Cultivate Laziness” (winter advice I have trouble following)
•”Thick and Black” by Ann Stokes (a poem full of energy to revive flagging winter spirits)
•”Winter Dreaming” (a poem written in its original version about ten years ago)


LUCILE AND THE POWER OF PERSISTENCE

by Harriet Ellenberger

My brother called the morning after Christmas to say that Aunt Lucile had just died. I’d gone back to Iowa to see her the year before because my mother had said that she wouldn’t last long. Lucile was weak then, in a wheelchair when she wasn’t in bed, but still with her wits about her. We had a subdued but affectionate last visit, and I thought I was doing fine, not at all wild with grief, until I arrived back at my parents’ apartment minus my backpack, which contained travel cash, return plane ticket and my entire paper trail (passport, credit card, medical insurance card, Canadian citizenship card, driver’s license). A call to the nursing home confirmed that I’d left the backpack beside Lucile’s bed; a quick-thinking nurse had found it and locked it up with the medicines.

Lucile is one of my mother’s older sisters, and she worked as the principal of two elementary schools in Des Moines when I was growing up. She fought for the children in her schools; to me, that was her defining characteristic. She had a low opinion of most of the men who took over the system’s top administrative jobs from women, once those jobs had begun to pay well and acquire social prestige. And she had an even lower opinion of parents who neglected their children or tyrannized over them. But administrators and parents had power over her as well as over the children, so she fought them in a wily manner.

Her wiliness was at the crux of our differences. When I was a small girl, I relied on Lucile for a mutual exchange of truth-telling. She was independent, she was smart, and she didn’t mince words. At least with me. I could give her honest reports on my furious alienation at school, and she listened. She even agreed with my teacher evaluations, which were disrespectful in the extreme. I was so entranced with the effect her listening had on me (it made me feel sane) that I wanted more: more telling truth, more listening to truth, truth everywhere, truth at all times! Revolutionary truth! Truth to turn the world upside down! But Lucile would always add the proviso: Now, Harriet, you and I can know these things, but we can’t say these things.

What she meant was that the world is a cruel and unjust place, and she didn’t want to see me destroyed by it. I knew there was caring behind her caution, but the caution itself was a barricade set between me and a life I could not imagine in detail, but desperately longed for. I wanted more than anything in the world to say what I saw and felt and knew. I wanted to speak freely the way people crossing a desert want water.

Lucile had arrived at her stance of cautious resistance through personal encounters with cruelty and injustice. The story she told which most outraged me goes as follows: It’s the Depression. She’s one of the lucky few with a job, teaching children in Bloomfield, Iowa, for $900 a year, a salary which remains the same for ten years. On this salary, she supports herself, her mother and her grandmother. She also continues her quest for a college degree (it will take her more than twenty years to graduate). In the summers, she and a girlfriend go to Cedar Falls teachers’ college to take courses. But she does not have money enough to pay for the tuition and the meals, so she eats very little. One day she faints in class. The Dean of Women calls her in and grills her. Finally, Lucile admits she has no money for food. Does the Dean of Women ask her to supper, take up a collection, admire her for her persistence and courage and arrange a scholarship? No. The Dean of Women, mindful that the other students’ delicate sensibilities not be upset by the presence of the hungry among them, expells my aunt.

That Depression-era functionary and the societal values she represented (now once again in the ascendance) wounded Lucile’s pride and slowed her progress, but they didn’t stop her. After years of teaching on nothing but a high-school certificate, with a salary to match, she earned her bachelor’s degree. And then she travelled to Columbia teachers’ college in New York City every summer for ten years to earn her master’s degree. In her fifties and handling a job that was in fact two jobs, she was still going to school. But she found friends during her New York City summers, discovered the city, entered a new world. And she continued to be a life-giving, life-altering presence in the schools where she worked, according to the testimony of a legion of former students on Des Moines’ south side.

One Saturday morning when I was about thirteen, I helped Lucile prepare a brunch at her house (by then, she had a home of her own) for her friends, a group of single women, all in their fifties, all holding jobs as elementary-school principals. They called themselves “The Old Bags,” but they were the most sophisticated and irreverent women I’d ever run into. They were a revelation. And they treated me as if I were one of them. We drank champagne with orange juice. In the morning! Together!

Dear readers, will you do me a personal favour? Sometime soon, with friends, please lift your glass (it can be Perrier, peu n’importe) and propose a toast to Dorothy Lucile Truitt, as strong-minded a woman as ever walked the face of earth.


WHAT REMAINS

He was afraid to die.
Il avait peur de mourir
He yearned to eat
He yearned to speak
He yearned to drink
Crever to burst, to split, to die
as in I would die to be a singer.
Je crève de manger, je crève de boire
Je crève de dire.

Il crevait de danser. Il crevait de dire.
He was dying to eat.
He was dying to speak.
He was dying to dance.
He was dying to drink. —

“like light behind film strip, a ticking mutability in everything
left behind on the nightstand, and it was so little and it was
nothing in the way of effects
for he had nothing to leave us —

… when the scent of his shirts began to degrade
I could do nothing to stop it
though I must have thought I could follow it as if it were

a thread, a shining new umbilicus
leading to the other side of matter
where the problem of matter is repaired.”

“The snow lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

— a collage by Jane Picard (stanzas 1-2, Jane Picard; stanzas 3-5, from a poem by Camille Norton for her late father; stanza 6, from James Joyce’s “The Dead” in The Dubliners)


TO CULTIVATE LAZINESS

by Harriet Ellenberger

Eat when you’re hungry, lie down when you’re tired, sleep all you want to.

Designate one day of the week as your “day of rest.” “Rest” may include lollygagging around the apartment in your pajamas, not answering the phone, not brushing your teeth.

When you’re not sure what to do, do nothing.

Try not to read anything for five whole days.

Remember water. It follows the path of least resistance, thereby eroding mountains.


THICK AND BLACK

Into the alley she swooped her skirts
a flowing through the sun the
set the roses were yellow and
green touched white she was tight
lipped and her tears flew into the sky
to shape the rim of a cloud all blue and
grey the beak of the heron hit her
knee she was all aglow
she wore a red sweater there was
no forgetting her voice
the night was thick she was black she
yelled fell through and swept
into bed.

— Ann Stokes


WINTER DREAMING

I am still forming,
I am not yet myself,
but I dream a lover to come —
someone who will know me
from the left side,
someone who will remember my eyes
from a place where people spoke differently,
someone who will call me
white moon and lotus,
the one who dances in my heart.

People now say what I do is dreaming,
and useless.
But I say winter dreaming keeps me on earth.

We ourselves are a dream of the earth.
She filled us with her mind.
And I am dreaming a life to come
as she once dreamt mine.

— Harriet Ellenberger

 

She Is Still Burning 2 (Nov 2000)

The history continues, with a reminder of context: in November 2000, you could get on an airplane without taking off your shoes first, and no one put their hands on your body; you could travel between Canada and the US without a passport; there was no Patriot Act passed by a Congress that didn’t read it, and no Homeland Security.  No “War on Terror”  either. Iraq was still an intact country, as was Syria.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #2
11 November 2000

Dear Friends,

What were the responses to the first installment? They ranged from the funny to the profound, but they all gave me what Jeannette Muzima refers to as “a jolt of hope.” Below is a sampling:

Suzanne Cox: “I feel very lucky to be getting it in today’s world of market, piggies go to market. I cannot believe it is free.” (This was in response to her suggesting that I should at least charge $5, and my replying IT HAS TO BE FREE. Maybe I am being stubbornly impractical with this project, but the greenback god from hell rules our collective life to a degree that was unimaginable when I was growing up—and I purely hate calculating my every move in terms of money. She Is Still Burning will remain what it was conceived to be: a gift, to myself as much as to anyone else.)

Jeannette Muzima: “Thank you for creating this. I look forward to reading, contributing, laughing, raging, and re-igniting.”

Rawi Hage: “I know many shes with eternal fires in them.”

Madelaine Marin: “Et BRAVO! pour le lancement de SHE IS STILL BURNING! FEU dont le besoin se fait si grandement sentir tant la chaleur est absente de nos isolements respectifs.” (rough translation: And bravo! for the making of SHE IS STILL BURNING—a fire we feel need of to the degree that warmth is missing from our respective solitudes.)

My thanks to all who responded. “Every woman deserves her own hallelujah chorus,” says Clarissa Pinkola Estès—and so does She Is Still Burning.

This installment appears three weeks after the first one, which feels to me like a pretty good rhythm. I do She Is Still Burning in between working on contracts for my editing/translation business, so the installments happen when they happen. If it’s more than a month between installments, that doesn’t mean the project is dead. It means I’m up against a deadline.

All this said, welcome to the continuation of She Is Still Burning!

Bon courage (keep your spirits up),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

1) “Love Prints” by Jeannette Muzima (a love poem is about the world)
2) “The Castle” by Rawi Hage (a childhood memory of war)
3) “Who Really Did Write Don Quixote?” (a question for readers)
4) “Faye’s Notebook, Part I: The Most Terrifying Thing I Ever Heard” by Harriet Ellenberger (Faye is a less restrained and more playful version of myself. Excerpts from her notebook may appear regularly … or they may not.)


Continue reading She Is Still Burning 2 (Nov 2000)

She Is Still Burning (intro)

In “Kung Fu Panda,” my favourite animated feature, the old turtle says, “The past is history, the future is mystery, the present is a gift—that’s why it’s called the present.” What follows is the past, a history of exact feeling as many of my friends and I faced politics and life/death/life in the years 2000 to 2004, from just before the tainted election of George W. Bush to the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq.

In October 2000, I sent an e-mail to friends, inviting them to subscribe and contribute to a new free publication. Its title would be She Is Still Burning: An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers, and I wrote the essay below to give them a sense of its founding vision:

THE FIRE THIS TIME
A Brief Assessment of Situation, and a Declaration of Intent

Here we are—Terminal Patriarchy. I personally didn’t think I’d make it this far, and I keep expecting the whole shebang to blow sky-high or grind to an ignominious halt. But it continues.

Never underestimate the strength, tenacity, and tactical brilliance of evil. That much I’ve learned.

Adult experience and reflection on that experience have reinforced my childhood impression that it is madmen who are running the world. Over the years, I participated in successive movements to end oppression, but those movements seem to me, in retrospect, to have incompletely comprehended the source of the problem (which may explain why they were defused and diverted—“Give them a little bit of what they think they want, but keep control,” say men-in-power, aided and abetted by industrious female accomplices).

Patriarchy is not what it appears on the surface: a rational if mean-spirited system of exploitation and control. At its core, patriarchy is an accelerating drive toward extinction. And extinction does not carry the same meaning or consequence as death—death being individual, natural, necessary, the soil out of which new life springs. Extinction means unnecessarily and unnaturally extinguishing the life of a whole (a whole species, a whole tribe, a whole ecosystem, a whole culture, a whole nation, a whole race, a whole sex, a whole planet), with no possibility of renewal. Extinction is not, to my way of thinking, the consciously or unconsciously conceived project of sane persons.

Extinction is where we have been, where we are, where we’re headed, and it’s madmen who are driving the train. At an ever-increasing speed. I know this with my mind and in my bones, but unfortunately I don’t know how to derail the train. Even more unfortunately, I don’t know of anyone else who knows how either. The nuclear physicist who presented the petition signed by fifty Nobel Prize winners (a petition asking the U.S. government not to continue with its new anti-missile defense system, on grounds that it made inevitable a second cold war), after being met with polite obliviousness, put it this way: “For mad people, there is no cure.”

And still I want to live—even though there is no uncontaminated water to drink, no uncontaminated air to breathe, no uncontaminated food to eat, no uncontaminated thought to think, no uncontaminated feeling to feel. Everyone else I know wants, most of the time, to keep on living too—as long as they can. And they want the children and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren to live.

If we don’t yet know how to stop the extinction-train, we need to find a way, imagine a way, invent a way. Otherwise, despair hardens into resignation and the soul departs, leaving the body to bumble on direction-less.

She Is Still Burning was created to encourage this finding, imagining, inventing. She, along with her editor, is devoted to clear-seeing in a confusing and deadly time, and to fanning the flames of our desire to live.

She says: Guard the fire within yourself. Tend it; keep it burning. Do not allow it to be extinguished.

–Harriet Ann Ellenberger, written August 2000

[The instalments of She Is Still Burning will follow in succeeding posts.]

 

 

Farewell For Now to a Beautiful Mother

Kathryn

On 19 May 2013, my mother died, four days after her hundredth birthday.

She’d been living for weeks on ice chips and low-dose morphine, regularly leaving her body to walk and talk with my father, then returning to report to my brother at her bedside and to me via long-distance phone. No one knew when she would leave and not return, but everyone believed that her departure was imminent.

Five days before her centennial, however, she suddenly said to my brother, “It’s only a week away; maybe I can make it.” And she revived, sending the nursing-home staff into a frenzy of last-minute party planning. When the morning of her birthday dawned sunny and warm, they came to dress her for a convertible ride around the small town of Reinbeck, Iowa, and she said, “Hallelujah, I thought I’d never get out of this place alive.”

The convertible was a bright yellow muscle car with the top down, and the route had been planned so that town residents could come out on the curb to sing “happy birthday” to her at various stops along the way. It all worked like a charm, and she made the driver stop three times in addition, to listen to the birds singing and to watch squirrels run up and down the tree trunks. After a half-hour ride, they returned to her room, which had been transformed into a festival of balloons and cakes and flowers and visitors with cameras.

The next morning, she slipped into a coma and was gone three days later. And the morning following her death, I woke with the realization that there was no one left but me who knew the stories of her early life. In a rush to send something to my brother before her grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered for her funeral, I wrote the following:

Some Things You May Not Know About the Young Kathryn Louise Truitt Ellenberger

When she was four years old, the family doctor told her parents that she would not live to grow up and all they could do was make sure that her childhood was happy. After that, her father stopped drowning the barn cats’ new litters, and soon she had over thirty kitten playmates.

She rode her own pony to school, trying to keep up with her older brother Keith’s horse.

When she was eight, her father died and their farm was sold, and her mother’s parents built a second story on their house in town to make room for their daughter and her children. The house was full of books, and there were large flowerbeds, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees.

She was an avid tennis player. When she was thirteen, her mother became alarmed at the amount of time she was spending with older boys on the town’s tennis court, and sent her to work for the summer as a hired girl on a relative’s farm. Kathryn did not like working in the kitchen from dawn until the supper dishes were washed, followed by a pile of mending until 10 p.m.

Kathryn thought she might like to be an interior decorator, but everyone assumed she would become a country schoolteacher, following in the footsteps of her older sisters Mabel and Lucile. She did not do this. After high school graduation, Lucile gave her the money to go to business school in Des Moines.

When she graduated from business school, she was offered a job in the Des Moines Public Library system. She worked in the downtown library and lived in the Brown Hotel with several roommates.

One of her roommates, Bunny, wanted to take the civil-service exam and asked Kathryn to take it at the same time, as moral support. Within a few days, Kathryn received a telegram offering her a job in the Navy Building in Washington, DC. She immediately sent a telegram back, accepting the job. Only then did she tell family and friends, and soon she was boarding a train for the East Coast.

Her boyfriend Carl Ellenberger was classified 4-F because he had lost the thumb on his right hand in a corncob-crusher accident. Kathryn’s boss, an admiral, waived a few bureaucratic rules and soon Carl was in Naval Intelligence.

When Kathryn delivered certain materials to other government departments in DC, she was driven in a chauffeured limousine and carried a revolver in her purse.

Kathryn was well-dressed in wartime Washington because she cut out magazine photos of the clothes she wanted to wear, and mailed them to her mother in Iowa. Her mother designed the pattern, found the fabric, sewed the outfit, and mailed it back to her.

Carl Ellenberger had first asked Kathryn to marry him when they were both seventeen. In 1942, when they were both twenty-nine, he told her it was the last time he’d ask and she believed him. She said yes.

The specifics of what Carl and Kathryn were doing for the Navy during World War II are known only to them. Kathryn and my partner had a tacit telephone understanding: she knew that he knew that she knew that … But I remain clue-less.

Postscript, October 2013

Despite over sixty years of conversation with my mother, it’s not only her wartime activities I’m in the dark about. We had a meeting of the minds on two things: the allure of good food and the beauty of Chopin’s waltz in C# minor, op. 64, no. 2, which she liked me to play for her. With most everything else — politics, religion, the nature of reality — we tended to be stationed on opposite sides of the barricades.

I couldn’t fathom what drove my mother, and she had the same difficulty with me. But we kept on talking. And — judging by the evidence of my dreams — the conversation, in some mysterious way, continues.

note: This essay was published first in Return to Mago on 28 October 2013.

Rising to the Occasion

On the June 2015 solstice (summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, winter solstice in the southern hemisphere), She Rises, the first offering from Mago Books, will be published. What began as a collective writing project on Facebook’s “Mago Circle” two years ago has transformed into an anthology of monumental proportions—470 pages of writing and artwork by 90 contributors from different continents and backgrounds.

To help celebrate the book launch, I’m posting the link to the new Mago Books website and reprinting below a slightly finessed version of my initial (quick & dirty & inflammatory) contribution to that first writing project.

A Personal Story

I got involved with women’s liberation in the early 1970s, so involved that it became my life for many years. During those beginnings of what is now called “the second wave of feminism,” everything was new to us and everything was mushed together—the political, the economic, the intellectual, the emotional, the spiritual. I liked that a lot; It felt as if all the parts of myself were coming together.

During that time, I learned something crucial: the imagery and concepts of patriarchal religion justify and are embedded in the material structures of oppression. I don’t know which came first, institutionalized oppression (of almost everyone; I’m not speaking here only of women) or the religious expression of that oppression. All I’m certain of is that patriarchal religion permeates, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary, which I use all the time in conjunction with Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, conjured by Mary Daly in cahoots with Jane Caputi.

I wouldn’t describe myself as an especially spiritual person; I don’t practice any spiritual discipline, unless you can call reading and writing spiritual. And I agree with Marx that religion is “the opium of the people,” “the heart of a heartless world,” that which keeps people alive within the iron cage of oppressive systems while it also discourages them from collectively opening the door of their prison.

Although I reject the rebellion-squashing function of father-god religions, at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, I look to the new Goddess writers, re-discovering and re-inventing the early religions of humankind, for inspiration. The earliest religions seem to have worked to bring people together, rather than to tread on some while lifting up others. That is attractive to me. The love of the earth and the stars and the mysterious invisible worlds that permeate Goddess spirituality also attracts me. Plus, the old and new Goddess images are beautiful, and there is something enticingly poetic about the ceremonies being created and re-created in the name of Goddess spirituality.

What’s not to like about all this?