She Is Still Burning 17-18

The following remembrance and celebration of Mary Meigs’ life and friendships was also the final instalment of She Is Still Burning, a fitting ending to a project that I’d begun simply because Michèle Causse sent me an e-mail saying, “Harriet, do something.” I don’t always rush to comply with the wishes of friends, but in this case, because it was Michèle issuing the order, I swung into action, and am glad of it. Thank you, Michèle. Thank you, Mary. And thank you to everyone who contributed to the brief fiery life of She Is Still Burning.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #17-18
21 June 2003

Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.” (Mary Meigs, 21 March 2002)

Dear Friends,

This installment is a dual tribute: to Mary Meigs and to the powers of friendship. In it, you will hear her voice in the last year of her life, accompanied by the voices of friends grieving the loss of her and conjuring her presence back among us through their words.

There are many ways to know someone, even when it’s too late to phone her, send her a fax, mail her a letter or land on her doorstep. I hope you will enjoy coming to know Mary through these words and images, or coming to know aspects of her that you might not have known before.

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

note: Painter and writer Mary Meigs (1917–2002) was born in Philadelphia, but lived the latter part of her life in Montreal. Talon Books in Vancouver published all five of her books: Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait (1981), The Medusa Head (1983), The Box Closet (1987), In the Company of Strangers (1991) and The Time Being (1997).

Those who never had the chance to meet her in person can still see her on film, playing herself at age 70—the witty, compassionate, outspoken lesbian artist who is the driving force in Cynthia Scott’s film In the Company of Strangers (NFB, 1990). The film is available on DVD or video as part of the “Modern Day Classics” series, under the title Strangers in Good Company.

“Who She Was,” a charming comic-strip story by Eve Corbel about her friendship with Mary, appears in the Winter 2002 issue of Geist magazine (Vancouver).


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

1) Betsy Warland: “A Remembering of Mary Meigs”
2) Suniti Namjoshi: “Mary’s Dream” and an extract from “The Good Witch Sycorax”
3) Claire Saint Aubin: “À bientôt Mary”
4) Sylvie Sainte-Marie: “Elle est apparue dans ma vie” and “Soledad”
5) Verena Stefan: “Agitation on a Brick Wall”
6) Cynthia Rich: “Seeing Mary”
7) Lise Weil: “Freewriting with Mary”
8) “Feathers”: correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger
9) Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”


A REMEMBERING OF MARY MEIGS

by Betsy Warland

(based on a talk given at the Memorial Service for Mary Meigs, December 7th, 2002, Montreal)

The night Mary died she “visited” me. As we have been hearing here today at this memorial service, Mary has been visiting a number of us since she died. And, happily, she seems to be fine indeed.

The evening she died, I was utterly preoccupied with preparations for a dinner party celebrating my partner Susan’s birthday. I had been working all day on the meal and had just begun to set the table when a voice spoke to me: “Put Mary’s bird on the table.” It seemed a bit strange but I have learned to listen to such voices over the years.

I went to my writing study where the bird sits on my writing table. Mary had sent it to me almost two years ago when I was in the midst of a life-threatening illness. She had carved it. It has a natural wood finish and an early American, Brancusi look and feel. I picked it up. Held it to my chest as I always do. Mary felt very close and I smiled. Then I realized it didn’t make sense to put it on an already crowded dinner party table and that my holding it was likely what was really meant to happen. I placed it back on my writing table and continued on with the evening’s preparations.

A day and a half later, my friend Lise Weil phoned to tell me that Mary had died. As we spoke it dawned on me that it was just around the time of Mary’s death that I had heard the voice telling me to go to her wooden bird. It was of deep comfort to know that the feeling I had had when holding her bird that night was so very gentle and calm.

Mary has been an inspiration and a precious writing companion to me. She has also been a very dear friend—a friend who fully engaged with me and who was remarkably loyal. I will always be grateful for our friendship. It is through Mary’s devotion to friendship that I am beginning to understand that it is friendship that is at the core of every kind of vibrant relationship: lover, parent and child, professional relationships, relatives, care givers and those who need their help, animals and those who love them. The forms of relationship vary but what comprises the core does not. It is the quality of friendship that makes it a nourishing or disappointing relationship.

I would like to read the final poem from a suite entitled “sight unseen” [from What Holds Us Here, 1998, BuschekBooks, Ottawa]. This suite interacts with a number of Vincent van Gogh paintings. I had “sketched” these poems out while staying in Amsterdam prior to the International Feminist Book Fair held in Amsterdam in 1992. During the Book Fair, Mary and I spent an elating afternoon encountering the major collection of van Gogh paintings in the Vincent van Gogh museum. Afterwards, Mary continued to follow the poems in this suite through my endless revisions and then later in a review she wrote of the book in which they were published.

I had trained as a visual artist in my early writing years but then shifted my focus to writing: Mary and I had this wonderfully charged and sometimes perplexing relationship between writing and visual art in common. No doubt you will recognize this well-known van Gogh painting. Vincent van Gogh and Mary Meigs both understood the power of friendship: van Gogh suffered from a lack of friends; Mary thrived in an array of them.

Boats on the Beach

Colour    memory
Memory    colour

The simple happiness
Of those four boats

No human figures; no destinations,
Just their boatness

While the four off-shore recede
Into a wave into a cloud

Foreground, center,
A yellow box
Washed up on shore
Robin’s-egg-sky arching land and sea
There are two words,

Is this your note?

On one boat, “Amitié”
On the box, “Vincent”

– Betsy Warland

 


MARY’S DREAM and extract from “THE GOOD WITCH SYCORAX”

by Suniti Namjoshi

(To be read at Mary’s Memorial Service 7 Dec. 2002 for her friends)

Mary’s Dream

From a fax from Mary dated 14 Feb. 2002: I dreamt last night that an elephant running freely with a group of young people up from a beach started angrily pursuing me. I said, “O mighty elephant!” and he stopped with a funny little drawing up of his lip.

You were one step ahead or two or three,
like an older sister, who being born first,
is first – that’s how it is. And as though
we were children on a grand adventure
you would whisper to me, “Shhh, I’ll go first
and tell you what happens; then you’ll know
and needn’t be worried.”
That always made me smile.
I never was worried. What you talked about
was being alive. Your blue sky
was an accurate blue. And when a leaf fell,
it turned and turned even while falling
in just the way you said it did.
You spoke sometimes
of what you had dreamed:
that elephant on the beach
who played with the young.
When he charged at you,
you knew who he was and had sense enough
to be polite.
“O mighty elephant!”
The elephant stopped – sneered? sniggered? – turned
away and strolled down the beach.
That’s the one thing
you’ve told me about, that elephant’s expression,
that I’ve never been able to see clearly.

– Suniti Namjoshi

 

from “The Good Witch Sycorax”

Like anyone else old women metamorphose
at night. They drift like owls not knowing what
dreams they might light upon, nor whom they might
meet. Sometimes they sleep like kingfishers
on the charmèd wave and wake so refreshed
that when they look about them, they truly believe
that they have the power to control themselves
and the sea. Or they slip like seals through black
water from island to island and choose their dreams:
they’re rich and powerful, or, sometimes, merely happy.
Old Women do not desire desire. Behind
their eyes the sky burns a ferocious blue
and their skulls are lit by the sun’s energy.

– Suniti Namjoshi

note from Suniti: “The Good Witch Sycorax” is a work in progress. I had wanted to finish this section of the long poem in time to show Mary, but couldn’t.


À BIENTÔT, MARY

Claire Saint Aubin

La bourrasque est passée, l’humidité est tombée sur les arbres. La jungle fourmille d’insectes très affairés, les girafes, les hyènes, les zèbres, les lions, les papillons.

Une éléphante enroule sa trompe autour d’une branche et en arrache les feuilles. Ses soeurs vont partager le repas qu’elles ne pouvaient atteindre. Plus tôt, au lever du jour, elles ont recouvert de branches et de terre le corps de l’une des leur qui est morte dans la nuit. A l’étang, tout le monde s’amusera d’un frôlement de trompe sur la peau. Après avoir aspiré de l’eau, elles la font gicler de leurs bouches, se couchent dans la boue et en mettent partout. En plein soleil.

Un peu plus loin dans la grande plaine découverte où l’herbe est plus courte, de nombreuses gazelles paissent ensemble. Il y a aussi les autriches, les babouins, les zèbres et les rhinocéros.

Soudain plane une girafe comme au ralenti. C’est une illusion, elle est si grande et elle court sans toucher le sol.

La plaine est brûlante. En fin de journée, toute la bande se mettra en route vers des collines inconnues, lointaines, chercher de nouveaux territoires pour se nourrir. Hyènes, lions, léopards et antilopes.

La bourrasque est passée et nous sommes là, perdues tout à coup. J’aime imaginer que tu joues dan la boue Mary, que tu planes comme une girafe au dessus de la terre aride.

Rejoins mes déesses Mary. Un jour, je ferai le voyage aussi. Et tu la reconnaîtras, elle qui vociférait dans la nuit des villes comme une louve assoiffée. Celle qui souffrait encore de lucidité aigüe et qui pourtant était toujours la première à entamer la danse.

Au bal des animales, ta voix la calmera. Elle saura vivre autrement. Elle s’y applique déjà. Très fort. Très doucement. A superposer ses images sur le réel.

A bientôt Mary …

16 décembre 02


ELLE EST APPARUE DANS MA VIE

Sylvie Sainte-Marie

Elle est apparue dans ma vie. Regard bleu, halo de cheveux blancs, sourire inespéré. Nous avons parlé. D’art, de jardins, de livres, d’animaux, de relations amoureuses, de musique, de solitude. Et de ce monde à moitié détruit qui l’attristait tant. Nous avons ri aussi. Parfois timidement, parfois aux éclats. Son rire m’enchantait, m’enveloppait d’une joie qui m’étonnait. J’oubliais le temps, tout ce temps qui nous séparait. Un lien étincelant m’attachait à elle. Je posais ma main sur son épaule, je ne voulais plus jamais la quitter. J’étais un petit être atterri par hasard sur la fin de sa vie, un petit être amoureux et entêté qui avait décidé que la vie n’avait pas de fin.

Maintenant je marche dans la campagne avec acharnement, implorant les montagnes, le ciel, les nuages de m’arracher cette douleur. Mary, chère, chère, querida Mary, mon ange si fatiguée, je vous aime et je sais que vous me voyez pleurer.

Je voulais lui offrir un oiseau, une pierre, un arbre, quelque chose d’essentiel et de radieux qu’elle aurait contemplé avec une tendresse attentive.

Tout est devenu obscur, hostile brusquement. L’absence vertigineuse. Les gestes, les paroles, les pensées en suspens. La joie emportée. Loin. N’importe où. Nulle part.

Je ferme les yeux.

Je la vois s’avancer doucement vers moi. Je la vois penchée sur un livre. Je la vois écrire, calme, concentrée. Je la vois parler, manger, rire. Je la vois regarder par la fenêtre, pensive, redoutant l’hiver, espérant déjà le printemps, le jardin qui revit, les nouvelles fleurs que nous allons planter. Tout ce qui n’aura pas lieu. Matières fragiles et précieuses qui tournoient dans ma tête, ne savent où se poser.

Chère, chère Mary.

 

Soledad
“Soledad,” artwork by Sylvie Sainte-Marie, photograph by Maric Boudreau

 


AGITATION ON A BRICK WALL
(in memory of Mary Meigs)

by Verena Stefan

It is such a relief, she confesses when I visit her the first time after the stroke. It finally happened. Her face looks relaxed, different from the previous weeks when she was haunted by pre-stroke symptoms which she observed adamantly: high blood pressure, extreme pallor, shattered vision with fragmented patterns all of a sudden moving through the room.

She had been waiting for it, preparing for it, anxious and tense for weeks during that summer. How would the stroke hit her? As it had her mother and one of her brothers? From them she knew how a person looks after a left-brain stroke, how speech and language skills might be affected as well as the right hand, walking, balance. She was prepared for all of it, and she was lucky. Hers was a right-brain stroke that didn’t touch the language centre nor her writing and drawing hand. …

II

She would be sitting at the far end of her dining room table when the helper of the day arrived at eleven o’clock in the morning, inevitably interrupting her writing hours—her precious alone time for which she fought ferociously after each of her numerous falls and the hip replacement surgery and the pacemaker surgery. At times we would all hover over her, driving her mad with worries about her next fall and even more with the threat to shrink her alone time, expanding the helper’s presence instead.

I heard her raise her voice only once: So what if I fall! she exclaimed. If I fall, I fall. Either I’ll fall on a seat or on the floor. Either I’ll break something or I won’t. It is just there, worst-case scenarios included.

She fought for writing hours like a wild animal who has to go back into the cage for the rest of the day.

All day long now there would be somebody working in her rooms, crossing to and fro in front of her table, talking, maybe laughing loudly, singing loudly, turning the radio on, destroying the arrangement of her kitchen, removing items from places they had kept for decades and establishing an order of her own. She could do nothing but watch.

How is it? I asked once. It was very hard at the beginning, she said. I always thought I knew the perfect way of housekeeping and felt the urge to teach everybody. She looked at me. I got used to it, she said. After all, I depend on helpers now.

My mind is seeping out, she said. I dream of prisons and confinement. I am confined, that’s a fact.

The helpers walked in the door, each one of us, always hoping that everything would be fine, that Mary would sit near the window and write. And there she was. She was always there. She had to be there. This was her bitter pill, to be confined to the house, to observe her mobility shrink to smaller and smaller loops, even indoors.

Not to go out anymore to concerts, art shows, book launches, to the movies. Not to drive. And shopping. How I miss shopping! she said. And birds. She always wanted to know what birds there were, when I came back from a trip to the country. Mary, I saw a cardinal, I would say. A cardinal! she would exclaim, clutching her heart. Doesn’t it have the loveliest song in the whole world!

What other birds were there? She fixed me with her eyes, and I squirmed, trapped between unfamiliar French and English names for birds and a scarce bird-knowledge to begin with.

Cut off from her studio in the country from one day to the next, from whole summers in the country. Cut off from her luminous writing office upstairs in her Westmount home too, and from her small drawing room. The inspiration is in the upstairs rooms, she said.

She lived downstairs now, in the semi-light behind milky curtains. …

During the last year of her life, she was in the company of artists and friends who would stay with her eight hours a day. Intense ephemeral states of co-habitation. The helpers were witnesses of her changing states of being, high soaring moments and what she called her collapsed state of mind. Since she could not go out anymore, the world and cultural life had to come to her house. Colleagues, friends, writers, artists, editors, with their buzzing lives and busy daybooks, kept streaming in, all of them with little time, though some of them would stay beyond Mary’s point of exhaustion.

We are not used to somebody staying at home all the time. To find a friend at the same place at every hour of the day, day after day, month after month, even in July and August. To be guaranteed that she will be there whenever we show up at the doorstep. It is a feeling we may know from our childhood if there was a mother, a father or a grandparent who stayed home. Other than that, it is an odd thing that is related to temporary or chronic illness, or to very old age. …

III

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship,” writes Susan Sontag at the beginning of her essay “Illness as Metaphor,” and she continues: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Mary adds another aspect to the image: “In old age we are forced to speak another language,” she has written in her last notebook. “We are people who are forbidden to speak our mother tongue. The process of deterioration is made easy for us by memory loss, the accidental breaking of bones, the dimming eyes; each body selects its own way of inflicting damage willy-nilly … ”

The mother tongue of colour remained the salient one in her life. Whenever I came to visit her in yet another hospital room I found depressingly ugly, she would make a comment on the play of light and shadow on a wall outside the window, sunlight that hit a tin decoration on a roof, the hourly changes in the leaves of a tree, the setup of a therapy room. “The whole place a visual joy,” she writes. “Yesterday saw something purple and yellow juxtaposed.”

There was a brick wall behind the neighbour’s garden at Grosvenor Avenue that served her as a screen until the end of her life. “The shadows of branches and a few blowing maple leaves on the brick wall today,” says one of her notebook entries, or “Agitation of shadows on the wall—a squirrel has run along a thin branch.” Those sentences are scattered on the pages of her notebooks like the small agitations she caught from the angle of her eye behind the window where she would write. She perceived life entirely with a painter’s eye, and being an avid searcher for colour and shape she found them everywhere.


SEEING MARY

by Cynthia Rich

I met Mary Meigs just once, last August, and I knew then it was the only time. For many years my partner—Barbara Macdonald—and I hoped to meet her, and we corresponded from time to time. As she said in one letter, writers feel we know each other from our writing. The Time Being showed the possible hazards of that presumption; still, in short order, sitting on her balcony, we were exploring illness and shame and aging. (Barbara had died of Alzheimer’s two years earlier.)

Mary’s writing amazes me by the ease with which it moves between lush, romantic, voracious love of beauty and uncompromising, unsentimental honesty. On that day in August I could feast for the first time on exactly such dazzling movement in the rich variety of paintings on her walls and the sketchbook of watercolors she shared with me.

I fell in love with three of the watercolors. One was a huge bouquet of spring flowers, exuberant in its joyous sensuality. Another—a series really—was her painting of her cats, profoundly loving yet entirely unsentimental, because the kind of love that does not project its own needs but can truly see the spirit within.

Mary told me I could choose one painting. The one I decided on was very different from the other two I loved—a self-portrait of Mary painting.

At first she disapproved my choice, she thought it ugly, until Marie Claire said, “But that’s just how you look when you’re working!”

In the painting, she holds her brush down, in a kind of firm discipline, not indulging that hand until she sees what is really there. Her eyes are fiercely determined to find out that truth, whether or not it is what she hoped for.

I feel lucky to see Mary every day, draw energy from her. Those eyes, looking down at my desk unsparingly, make demands on me. They insist that, if I can’t recreate the world’s beauty as Mary did, I can at least—or at most—celebrate her by working to tell the truth.

December 2002


FREEWRITING WITH MARY

by Lise Weil (with freewritings by Mary Meigs)

About two years ago, I talked Mary into freewriting with me. The cardinal rule of freewriting is that you keep your pen moving–you don’t stop to edit or correct. Mary had never tried writing this way before–which considering she’d written five books and tried her hand at every other kind of writing was mind-boggling to me–but once she got started she was hooked. We freewrote regularly together after that. We’d start with a line from a book of poetry and then just go . . . for five minutes.

If the samples of Mary’s freewriting that follow seem brief for five-minute exercises, it’s not because I’ve edited them down. Mary—anyone who knew her knew this about her—was not one to go on. Mary was dry, she was pithy, she was minimalist. In this respect her freewriting was like Mary herself. Indeed, it must be confessed that sometimes in the middle of a freewrite I would look over and see that Mary’s pen had stopped moving, that she’d lifted it from the page. Looking up I would find her deep in thought, evidently contemplating her next line. I scolded her for cheating but it never made any difference. What issued from Mary’s pen when it did contact the page was always so fresh and bracing that I finally stopped calling her on it at all.

March 21, 2002 (prompts drawn from M.S. Merwin’s The Lice):

Encouragement meant nothing. How I’ve struggled to feel joy but lo and behold I’m in a joyless state. Warm encouragement strikes like a dead pancake. This is called a negative state, it is called ingratitude or tepid indifference. It’s another form of hopelessness which is the eleventh deadly sin, for I know people who are saving the world. They have signed a peace pact with salmon, they have set them all free.

Do not come down. I’m living an incoherent day because I came down, obeyed gravity and hit my head. Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.”

The following samples were written two days before Mary’s death. She’d just gotten back from the hospital and was not getting around very well. I came over to visit, expecting to find her in bed. But as soon as I entered the house I heard her calling from the dining room–“Leeza”?– and walked in to see her sitting up and waiting for me at her very cluttered writing table. “Mary!” I said “There you are!” “Here I am,” she said, with that irony, that pithiness, that never deserted her. With that slightly open “a” that betrayed her mainline origins. “Mary, do you think you’re well enough to write today?” “Well my brain feels a little foggy, but I want to try,” she said. And write we did. Since I hadn’t brought any poems to write to we chose lines from the book I happened to have in my bag, Helen Cixous’ Book of Promethea (in translation).

November 13, 2002:

I realize that this is an impure desire of mine. The question is what makes it impure. Is there an alchemy in each of us that works at refining desire or do dreams alter desires by changing their images? Last night I dreamt that twelve pairs of coal-black horses passed me, drawing a small carriage (black) along a railroad track.

Our history has a bumpy geography. We are reduced to translating time into landscape. But perhaps rocks are more eloquent than cries of pain. In a hospital sound speaks volumes but I would rather be on a beach, a dictionary of pain. Today I found a polished grey pebble that said ouch.


FEATHERS

Excerpts from correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger

28 July 2002

Dear Mary,

Suzanne Boisvert and Verena Stefan have given me news of you, so I feel as if I am a little bit in touch still. And then, a few months ago I started rereading back issues of Trivia and found the piece you wrote for issue #13, “Memories of Age.” I loved that essay when it was first printed, and it feels even more resonant now than it did then. I would like to ask your permission to reprint it in the Internet magazine I publish, She Is Still Burning.

Last nite we watched again a public-library video copy of “The Company of Strangers.” It was astonishing to see you on the small television screen, moving and speaking exactly as I’d remembered you. That film is like nothing else …

I remember that years ago you gave me the excellent advice to join the Canadian Writers’ Union, which I still haven’t done. But it’s on my list of things I ought to do. I keep on writing and not publishing; this is a weird form of writer’s block. But at least She Is Still Burning forces me to put something of my own out on the cyberwaves, and it gives me pleasure to publish and republish friends’ writings too.

Bert, my partner who spent 30 years in the Canadian military and is a big fan of “The Company of Strangers,” says to tell you that the old flyboy sends you his greetings.

And I send mine!

Most affectionately,
Harriet

****

02 August 2002

Dear Harriet,

It was wonderful to get your letter today and of course I give my permission to reprint “Memories of Age” and it makes me happy. I’m probably one of the few people in North America who doesn’t have a computer or failed to learn how to use one. By the way, there’s a lovely French translation of In the Company of Strangers by Marie-Josée Thériault. She’s the daughter of my first translator, Michelle Thériault, who did Lily Briscoe, which is a nice coincidence. The French editor is Anne-Marie Alonzo, whom I’m sure you know … The French title is Femmes dans un Paysage.

Thank you for the exquisite feather. Do you know what it is? I used to collect feathers, I had a wild turkey feather or a great black backed gull and lots of partridge striped like the one you sent but not so yellowish or soft. Then I realized that they were being devoured by moths, the scourge of this house, so had to throw them away. I’ve been thinking with piercing nostalgia about the birds in Wellfleet …

Give my greetings, too, to “the old flyboy” —

and love and thanks to you,
Mary

***

02 October 2002

Dear Mary,

I think the feather I sent you before was a breast feather from a wild turkey. In 1986, I was living on Ann Stokes’ land in New Hampshire & she came to tell me one morning that a fox had caught a wild turkey — I’ve been carrying the feathers around with me ever since.

In this letter is a wing feather and breast feathers from the yellow-shafted flicker. (They have little hearts on their breast feathers & Native Americans say they bring joyfulness.)
Also enclosed a printed copy of SISB 15, which will go up on the website this week. …

Sending love to you along with the feathers,
Harriet

***

10 October 2002

Dear Harriet,

Thanks so much for sending me a copy of your website paper, with mine. SISB is like a voice in the wilderness and I’m so proud of being in it (or on it) and having some relevance now.

The flicker feathers are in front of me all the time. The little hearts are beautifully visible on the breast feathers; I’m sending you a very inaccurate watercolor I did of a dead bird I found — the little hearts aren’t there and the wings are much too short — but at least I give some idea of the astounding gold that blazes from it. I was glad to read that the sexes are identical. I think that little thing sticking out of its mouth turned out to be a tongue. I miss terribly seeing birds in this quartier; we’re going to do some serious luring next spring. Too many cats!

I get news of SISB from Lise Weil and it sounds as if there’s lots of interest in it —

Love,
Mary

***

note: An hour after I put the following letter in the mailbox, I received an e-mail from Lise Weil, saying that Mary Meigs had died three days earlier. The unopened envelope was returned to me a week later with a sticker placed over the address that read “moved / unknown / démenagé / inconnu.” Mary may have moved, but she is definitely not unknown. Therefore, I re-post the letter in cyberspace, in the hope that somehow she’ll receive it. Or that somehow I’ll feel less forlorn.

19 November 2002

Dear Mary,

Going to start calling myself “Turtle Girl” because it takes me so long to carry out my intentions. Ann Stokes once told me that I’d slow down after 50, but I had no idea she meant “slow down to a crawl.”

I was so excited to receive the watercolour of the flicker that you made, and I don’t think it’s inaccurate because it looks just like the flicker whose feathers I sent you. This was a bird who’d been hit by a car on the highway, and Ann brought me its body because she knew I was collecting feathers for some mysterious purpose. I plucked the bird and buried its body beneath a pine tree and sang a made-up song to console its spirit (this last inspired by guilt and by having read an account of a woman shaman in Manitoba, who always sang to the spirit of a deer that she had hunted for food). Anyway, maybe their wings sort of contract when they die. For sure, I know that you can only see that the black splotches on the breast feathers are heart-shaped if you hold a feather in your hand. On the bird, the splotches just look like splotches.

I seem to be going into too much detail here, but it truly did seem a magical event to me, that you sent that watercolour. It brought back a whole afternoon to me, sitting in sun-dappled woods with the flicker …

Last week, I finished rereading your first book — it was new all over again to me. This writing lasts; it is always relevant. I don’t know why exactly — but it feels as if you’re completely present in your voice. To me, it is like the voice of birds, and always makes me glad, no matter what you’re writing about at the moment.

Received very enthusiastic response to reprinting your piece on the website — Michèle Causse, among others, wrote an e-mail saying it was beautiful and timely.

The flicker is in a frame and under glass now, in the hallway. It looks quite wonderful, I think.

The enclosed feather this time is an “urban feather” — I found it on a sidestreet running parallel to St-Denis, in the early 90s sometime. I liked it, but can’t figure out its source. It looks like something that fell off a lady’s hat, circa 1930. Maybe it time-travelled.

Love from Harriet


Dead Flicker 1985
Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”

NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS

Betsy Warland was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1946, and immigrated to Canada in 1973. A writer, editor and teacher, she has published nine books of poetry and prose, the most recent being Bloodroot: Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (Sumach/Second Story Press, 2000).

Suniti Namjoshi was born in Bombay in 1941, later taught in Canada and now lives in England. Among her many books of poetry and prose are The Bedside Book of Nightmares, Feminist Fables, Flesh and Paper (with Gillian Hanscombe), Conversations with Cow, and Goja: An Autobiographical Myth. Building Babel, her most recent book published by Spinifex, is a novel with an electronic chapter to which readers can add.

Claire Saint Aubin is one of the group of women who took care of Mary Meigs in the last year of her life. Thanks to Lise Weil for persuading Claire to send in this tribute to Mary.

Sylvie Sainte-Marie is a visual artist. She was taking care of Mary Meigs the day that Mary died.

Verena Stefan, poet and prose writer, translator and creative-writing teacher, was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1947. Her first book, Haütungen (Shedding), was published in Germany in 1975, and later translated into eight languages. Since the year 2000, she has lived in Montreal, and now writes in both German and English. Her most recent publication, “Learning Winter,” appears in Geist (Winter 2002).

Cynthia Rich is an activist and writer living in California. Her book Desert Years: Undreaming the American Dream was published in 1989 by Spinsters Ink. With Barbara Macdonald, she co-authored Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism (reprinted by Spinsters Ink in 1991).

Lise Weil lives in Montreal and teaches at Goddard College in Vermont. From 1982 through 1991, she edited the radical feminist journal Trivia: A Journal of Ideas. Her essays and reviews, as well as her translations of French and German writers, have appeared in several feminist journals.

 

 

 

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She Is Still Burning 16

Republishing this early 2003 instalment of She Is Still Burning, I notice most the opening quotation from a speech that Arundhati Roy had just given in Brazil. I love her words even more now than when she wrote them.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #16
10 March 2003

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
– Arundhati Roy, “Confronting Empire,” Porto Alegre, Brazil, 27 January 2003

Dear Friends,

The last full installment of Burning came out in October 2002, which feels like a lifetime ago. In the intervening months, I travelled to North Carolina to visit friends, just in time for the ice storm that brought down a multitude of valiant old trees along with the power grid; then I made an unexpected trip to Iowa to see my family while my father was still alive. Both he and my aunt Hazel, his sister, died quickly at the end of January, within a week of each other. And the rest of us, relieved that they were no longer suffering but missing them already, carried on, sort of.

Just before leaving for Iowa, I had impulsively confided in a local convenience-store owner that I was nervous about crossing the border into the States again because I thought we were facing a full-blown fascist regime down there. To my surprise he agreed at once, adding that it wasn’t a Nazi regime, but it was fascist.

Now I look at the conspirators in Washington, with their aggressive plans for multiple massacres abroad and a police state at home, and I think … does the word fascism even begin to describe what they’re doing? Sure, they fuse corporate and state power (Benito Mussolini’s definition of fascism); sure, they manipulate their own people through terror, distraction and dis-information; sure, they glorify war and promote a robotic brand of patriotism; sure, they scapegoat easily identifiable minorities. Sure, they are busily constructing a totalitarian (total-control) system characterized by the Big Lie,* and incapable of moderating itself or altering direction. But there’s more. The last wave of fascists didn’t have the capacity to exterminate most of the world’s population. These people do. It seems evident that they regard the rest of us as a herd to be culled. And some of them sincerely believe that their “God” would back them in such an endeavour.

No wonder I’m having trouble thinking and writing these days. As Helen Keller said, “thinking can lead to unpleasant conclusions.”

On the other hand, I’ve been happily falling in love with the millions of persons across the globe who are demonstrating for peace. I think they’re awake and beautiful. And their courage is contagious.

In closing, I’d like to apologize to the writers in this installment whose work I’ve been holding onto since last fall. My apologies also to those who’ve been waiting for the installment in memory of Mary Meigs—it’s coming, soon.

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

*The Big Lie, in this case, is that the 9-11 attacks were solely the work of Islamic fundamentalists. For a boatload of indications that they were planned–or at the very least deliberately allowed to succeed—by a hard-right faction within the US government itself, see the Centre for Research on Globalization website.


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”One Naturalist’s Reflection” by Sara Wright
•”At Eight” by Marjorie Larney
•”The Yoga Sutras’ Corner” by Ilit Rosenblum
•”on the chronicle discussion page” by Susan Cox


ONE NATURALIST’S REFLECTION

by Sara Wright

written September 5, 2002 (bear-killing season in Maine)

Early this morning I wandered through the damp mist along a lowland trail to a place I call the deep woods spring. Water bubbles out of the ground here, and disappears into the marsh grasses that hide the sliver of stream as it snakes its way down to the swamp below. Hazelwood boughs arc gracefully over the spot. Their slender finger-like branches seem to be calling the waters up from the deep.

When I noticed that the nearby sedge grasses had been flattened by some large animal I began looking around for further clues. A large black-seed-filled scat and an overturned log helped me to fill in the possible identity of the creature. A bear had visited here not long ago.

There is something about the black bears inhabiting these mountains that has captured my imagination. Bears seem to evoke in me a sense of Wilderness in a way that deer and moose do not. I recall that bear skulls discovered in mountain caves date back to 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. According to some sources these bear skulls were objects of veneration and were used in ceremonies created by humans. Maybe humans have always associated the bear with some kind of call to the wild.

Many people fear these shadowy woodland creatures, and when I first came to these mountains fifteen years ago I was no exception. I recall how much I wanted to see a bear and how nervous I was when I first walked through these hills looking for bear sign. Imagine my astonishment when a yearling finally visited my bird feeder one spring, only to crash into the thick underbrush and disappear the moment my twelve-pound dog barked just once! I still managed to get pictures, and something in me felt graced by this bear presence.

Since then I’ve learned that our black bears are very shy, and have a complex social structure. The females stay within a relatively small five-mile range while the males wander over an area up to a hundred miles or more. Mother bears share their home ranges with their daughters or other females, but the male offspring must learn to forage in a new territory. Bears love to eat jewelweed, jack in the pulpit corms, flower twigs and buds, green and ripe berries of all kinds, wild lettuce and poplar leaves, to name just a few ursine delicacies. A female bear will often adopt wild cubs that are left motherless. As soon as the cubs emerge from the den in the early spring, the mother teaches them to climb the highest trees in the area for safety. Males do not participate in the rearing of cubs, but because they are on the move all the time, neither do they compete with the mother bear and her offspring for food. Late spring is probably the best time to see bears because this is the season when the mother bears will abandon their yearlings in order to mate again. Both young and adult males live on the outer edges of a female’s home range.

It is probably these wandering male adolescents that are most likely to turn up at back yard feeders, irritating and sometimes scaring the occupants of the house. One way to avoid having a bear visit is simply to take in your bird feeder. Sunflower seeds have a much higher caloric value than the natural seeds and nuts (like beechnuts or acorns) that bears eat in the wild. This nutritional differential is what makes the sunflower seed such an irresistible treat for an opportunistic youngster. It is important to realize that black bears have no history of unprovoked attacks on humans, and even when a bear huffs or false-charges, s/he is communicating a need to have more personal space and not a desire to fight. Of course, unlike the black bear, both polar bears and grizzlies can be dangerous.

Benjamin Kilham, a naturalist who raises and rehabilitates black bear cubs in New Hampshire wrote a fascinating book about these animals. His naturalist’s approach, which is based on his observation, and involves developing a personal relationship with each of his bear cubs, allowed him, he believes to discover things about bears that the experts have missed.

For example, he observed the bears gently mouthing plants with their jaws before eating them. Once he gave one of his cubs a deadly amanita mushroom, and the cub, after mouthing the fungus, refused to eat it. Kilham already knew that bears have one organ in the roof of their mouth that helps them locate and dig for roots. But when he dissected a road-killed bear, he discovered yet another organ in the roof of the bear’s mouth. Kilham believes that this second organ may help the bear determine whether or not a plant is edible. It is even possible, he thinks, that black bears are using plants for medicinal purposes.

In many indigenous cultures black bears are still revered as great healers. For example, the Lakota Sioux Indians believe that the bear will assist any person who needs to develop a sense of his or her own personal power. For the Pawnee Indians a girl born with a bear spirit has the power to heal. In India bears are believed to prevent disease. I am struck by the parallel between what indigenous people have believed for millenia, Kilham’s observations, and the possible conclusion he is drawing about bears in the wild. I’d like to believe that bears heal people who are broken.

Just a few weeks ago I went to the Wildlife Festival in Errol, New Hampshire. I was disturbed when I saw the snarling stuffed black bear heads that were for sale. I found myself wondering why anyone would choose to portray the shy and non-threatening black bear in such a ferocious manner. I don’t even understand why anyone would want to kill one of these gentle creatures in the first place.

I had a similar experience when researching books on black bears on the Internet. The first books that came up concentrated on the bear as a “man-killer” and offered information on how best to slaughter the animal. The ones that came next seemed to focus on bears in a sentimental way. Only a very small percentage of the books that finally appeared on the screen were about the natural history and the lives of the wild bears themselves. This portrayal of the black bear as a man-killer worries me, because I think a chance encounter with a black bear is a glimpse into the mystery of our vanishing wilderness.


AT EIGHT
(St. Dominic’s Convent, Long Island)

A high, white-concrete garden wall, sharp-edged, broken
shards of clear, blue, brown, and green glass stuck on top.
Inside the wall, two rows of twelve apple trees teemed with red-ripe fruit.

The midday Indian summer sun dazzled above, and beneath
outlined coarse shadows of leaf, fruit, on the packed, sandy earth
in the nuns’ silent contemplative sanctuary, territory
verboten to the forty-eight boarders and orphans, girls and boys.

Apples, stock still, scattered singly or touching under the trees,
huddled together in groups of five and six, their skins split open, juices bursting.
A feast offering to the buzzing blue-green flies and hordes of golden brown ants.

Tall, kind Sister Hortensia, second-grade teacher of the town’s Holy Ghost
Elementary School, Mother Superior to the ten resident Dominican sisters,
said in a guttural German accent:

“For the making of the children’s applesauce, you gather, every day,
only the fruit off the ground, none from the trees.”

– Marjorie Larney


THE YOGA SUTRAS’ CORNER

by Ilit Rosenblum
(written summer 2002)

may all the suffering bring love
may it dispel ignorance
may it bring justice to fruition

Mid-July I track back to Jerusalem after a 5 days’ yoga seminar in a Zen Center in farm country in Sweden. Vibrant shades of greens all around. In contrast West Jerusalem seems bleak, stripped of colors. My friends do not return my calls; overwhelmed, they are not taking anything more on. Life on the streets is tentative, no less so than in my mind. Shall I go sit in this cafe? Take this bus? Go down this road?

I walk around listening to Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist teacher, talking about going to The Places That Scare You.

It is all scary. My personal history is rapidly changing. My mother is losing her grip on everything beyond the very moment. She is confused, in pain and is suffering. The house I grew up in is torn down. The family business is closed. I stay in a flat that before served as an office for the business amidst mounds of boxes, and furniture.

Friday, at the end of my first week, I join the Women in Black vigil, right outside the apartment. After 15 years even the abuse hurled at us is routine. Across the street counter-demonstrators of the Settlers’ Movement hang large banners saying “Transfer Now!” Preparing public opinion for mass expulsion of Palestinians. I shudder. Again I think “standing here is not enough.” I break the silent vigil and yell “How can you? You are using Nazi terminology! Shame on you!” I cross the street and stand in front of the banners with my small “end the occupation” sign.

Early Monday morning I go with a friend to an international Solidarity Movement training in East Jerusalem. Young and old activists arrive from different countries to participate in “Freedom Summer” in the occupied and re-occupied Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. We train to deal with the Israeli occupation army, shootings, sound bombs, tear gas, tanks, roadblocks, curfew, house demolitions, Jewish settlers and other daily brutal items of life under occupation. I feel awed by the organization and by everyone’s energy, courage, and vital presence.

I look for members of “Ta’ayush” (Arab-Jewish Partnership) at an Arab-Jewish demonstration against racism in Haifa. The demonstration is disappointingly small. Among Israeli peace activists one sees very young college students and gray-haired old-timers well over 60. A whole middle-age group is missing. In contrast, fliers about “Ta’ayush” actions are inspiring. “Ta’ayush” (Coexistence) carries out humanitarian and political actions in the occupied territories and in Israel. Since October 2000 they organize food and medical supplies caravans, demonstrations against home demolitions and land seizure, and work camps in Palestinian villages.

Another day I join the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. We are a group of over 30, mostly young, Israelis and internationals, somewhere on the Jerusalem hills on the way to the Dead Sea, helping to rebuild a Palestinian home that has been demolished three times already. We get quite a lot done and it feels good. Doing anything feels good, better than succumbing to the sense of hopelessness and inertia.

In a “Peace Now” rally in front of the Prime Minister Sharon’s residence in Jerusalem, a group of army-clad men march and chant about the deadly consequences of following Sharon policies. Their statement pamphlet is a clear and scathing document against the crimes of occupation, calling to soldiers to refuse service. I savor the document; such a relief to read these pages, my heart strengthens. From the building across the street a group of young orthodox jews yell “death to the lefties!”

In New York we continue our weekly public support for the Palestinian people every Saturday 3–5 pm at Union Square.


 

on the chronicle discussion page
you can say whether poets should talk politics
(after being banned from the white house of “democracy”)-
in the gallery there are photographs by Fazal Sheikh
of exiled people from the Sudan and Ethiopia;
they stare back at me as if no camera existed
between us
and all the greediness of white houses
perpetuated on them comes through my tears;
one little girl poses with her father
she has gone mute after soldiers invaded her village
her mother gone…missing…forever?
Refugees all living in tents
their beautiful faces etched with history’s horrors;
I feel like such a pig
to be part of this suffering anymore. My greedy feet in new sneakers, my car full of gas.
The world needs us. Needs our poetry.
Not for war.
Not for oppressing.
But for all the truth we can muster.

– Susan Cox, 7 March 2003

 

Editor’s note: Since late January 2003, Poets Against the War have published 12,996 anti-war poems on their new website.

 

 

 

 

 

She Is Still Burning 15

This October 2002 She Is Still Burning passes on a lot of deep knowledge that might come in handy at some point …

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #15
01 October 2002

One doctor reached on a crackly line inside Iraq said: ‘I can cope with anything now, patients who die for want of simple treatment, operating without anesthetics. What I cannot cope with is the children’s fear. When the bombing starts I swear that I can hear the cries of every child, in every house in every street in the entire neighborhood.’

– Felicity Arbuthnot, “Slide from the Impossible to the Apocalyptic,” Sunday Herald (Scotland), 1 September 2002

Dear Friends,

Some fifteen years ago, I turned on the radio late at night for no particular reason and heard Madeleine L’Engle explain to an interviewer that she wrote for children because children are the serious thinkers. The interviewer seemed a little offended by this statement, but I thought Madeleine L’Engle was right-on.

When power is being wielded by utterly irresponsible adults, it may be time to check out children’s literature for inspiration and insight. And so I’ve had my nose stuck in the Harry Potter books all summer, figuring that the young readers who transformed J.K. Rowling from a single mother on welfare into a wildly successful international author were probably exercising good sense.

Harry Potter and schoolmates Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley are up against the most powerful wizard-gone-bad of all time, Voldemort (break up Voldemort’s name into syllables, as Bert points out to me, and it spells “Flight of Death” in French). Voldemort wastes no emotion on those he kills, and his philosophy is simple: there is only power, and those too weak to seek it. (For a geopolitical application of the Voldemort philosophy, see the new U.S. National Security Strategy Policy.)

Through a combination of bravery, brains (supplied in great part by the studious Hermione) and true friendship, the children, along with their adult allies, keep Voldemort at bay throughout the first four volumes of the series. But by the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Voldemort is reuniting his followers and preparing a major offensive. Hagrid, the half-giant/half-human Care-of-Magical-Creatures instructor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, says to his three young friends, “No good sittin’ worryin’ abou’ it. What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.” Sensible advice for the times, I’d say.

This past summer I’ve also been reading e-mail messages from “the psychic children” (real-world children this time, not fictional). These are children who are particularly gifted in thought transference, some of whom are acquainted with musician James Twyman, who passes on their messages by e-mail. And what are they saying to the world of adults? The children say that the problem is not in the air or earth or water; the problem is in our minds. The children say that we already have everything we need to be happy and to create a world of peace, but the time we must act is now. And they offer themselves, along with the whales and dolphins and “our friends from beyond this solar system,” as helpers and allies.

To my way of thinking, adults who want to stop war need all the friends we can get. And if that circle of friends now includes telepathic children, telepathic ocean mammals and telepathic extra-terrestrials, well … imagine the possibilities.

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


IN THIS ISSUE
1)  Letters from Jack Dempsey, Lynn Martin and Kathryn T. Ellenberger
2) “Firebird’s Song” by Sara Wright
2) “Memories of Age” by Mary Meigs


12 May 2002

Dear Ms. Ellenberger,

Hello — My name is Jack Dempsey, I’m a long-time friend of Barbara Mor (who referred me to your terrific website), and I wanted to applaud your work(s) there, as in reading from it I had that rare experience of feeling as though someone were perfectly expressing where “we” are and what I feel/think about it. We are indeed ruled by a monster called patriarchy and despite all the dispiritedness I do find myself daring to imagine that there is hope, after this “system” for extinction has run its course and found
nothing but a total-bankruptcy statement in its bloody hands.

Barbara’s works have always looked our realities straight in the eye, found language for them; and more, they’ve returned to us places and times whose rigorous refreshment in our knowledge can provide reference-points for recovery from this “mere” 4000 years of mental illness. I would like to offer your readers these well-researched and well-reviewed reference-points too, wanting as a writer myself to do the same. Given that patriarchy must deny almost everything that really is, my approach is to “outflank” it with rigorous facts whose beauty and healing qualities “refer us back” to that larger reality that, I believe, most people really are starving for. Over the decades I’ve searched for the crucial turning-points when choices were made, so that they can be un-made. I do believe Barbara would well agree with what follows. So, if you’ll consider listing them, here’s some basic info:

Ariadne’s Brother: A Novel on the Fall of Bronze Age Crete (Athens, Greece: Kalendis 1996, ISBN 9602190620, 679 pp.; Greek trans. by Vicky Chatzopoulou 1998, available and reviewed at Amazon.com and via Cosmos Publishing, NJ).

This is the “answer” to Mary Renault’s patriarchal portrait of “Minoan” Crete, based in 15 years’ research and 2 years’ residence there, and it tells of the Minoan (woman-centered) world from “its own point of view.” Ariadne, new young queen of that world, struggles to guide her people(s) through the natural disasters and foreign invasions that, in archaeological fact, changed “The West” from a cosmopolitan garden to the desert we inhabit today.

New English Canaan by Thomas Morton of ‘Merrymount’: Text, Notes, Biography and Criticism (Scituate MA: Digital Scanning Inc. 2000, ISBN 1582181519; 700 pp., 50 Illustrations; available/reviewed at Amazon.com, available also in separate editions of Canaan [i58218206X] and biography ‘Thomas Morton’ [1582182094]).

Morton was an English West Country gentleman who came to New England at the same 1620s time as “The Pilgrims”; but Morton, a trained outdoorsman, attorney and Renaissance man of letters, actually liked the American “wilderness,” admired Native American cultures, and launched a multicultural and very successful trading-post on Mass. Bay until arrested and exiled by the Puritans (who instantly moved to establish programmatic racism and other “necessities” by law). But Morton, whose infamous 1627 May Day Revels with Native and other peoples made him America’s First Poet in English (by his poetic addresses to his Indian hosts and friends), won the day at last with his outrageously honest and funny book about the needless fear and violence that marked the beginnings of Christian colonization. (Canaan is three books, on the Indians, the living continent, and on the foolish arrogance of Puritan/Christian colonists.) Meticulously footnoted and documented, this is the definitive Canaan and Morton biography; and if you want to see where, how and why the worst aspects of “American culture” came to control this continent’s fundamental assumptions, this is the place to begin.

Good News from New England and Other Writings on the Killings at Weymouth Colony (Scituate MA: Digital Scanning Inc., ISBN 1582187061, 245 pp., Illustrations; available/reviewed at Amazon.com).

England’s “Pilgrims” arrived in America in 1620. They survived only with Native New Englanders’ help; and yet by March 1623, their and other offenses against the Indians resulted in Plimoth’s launching a “preemptive strike” at Wessagusset/Weymouth that killed up to 12 Native people including a woman and baby born of transatlantic- English contact; and in honor of their own violence, the Plimothers then decorated their church and fortress with a sheet soaked in the slain Indians’ blood—America’s first flag. Why did this happen? What did “The Pilgrims” have to say about it, what do we know today, and is there a way out of America’s constant repetitions of this violently-monological scenario? This is a new edition of Plimother Edward Winslow’s “Good News” (1624) and includes other accounts by other colonists as well as later historians. The collection’s Introduction helps readers find their way toward understanding the monological departures from fact that still dominate the writing of American history.

Please let me know if I can perhaps do/write etc. anything to be part of the efforts you represent. (I’ve also produced two documentary films on Native/Colonial subjects and hope to see Morton’s story a feature film, there’s been some interest that way; give lots of public talks and produce educational events much like the above written works; and meanwhile am writing a sequel to Ariadne based in the true migrations of “Minoan” peoples into the Middle East; whence began the Israelite conquests of yet another magnificent world of woman-valuing cultures.)

Most of all, again, I truly want to praise the courageous clarity of your Website and to contribute toward spreading the knowledge that all is not lost if, as you say so well, we refuse to be extinguished but fight instead with love, with facts, with memory …

Wishing you (and us!) all success—
Jack Dempsey


“Maybe SISB could have a column where people dialogue on what feminism means to them, what it has been, what is happening now” (suggestion from Lynn Martin, 25 June 2002, a suggestion seconded by the editor—you write it, I’ll publish it).


15 July 2002

Dear Harriet:

She Is Still Burning #14 arrived. Interesting and well written. How I wish I had kept some of those Golden Books. I purchased them at the grocery store for twenty-five cents each. I am not ignoring the worrisome situation we are in. It leaves me feeling helpless and not knowing what to do. Nobody knows but the old black crows.

Love,
Dad and Mom


FIREBIRD’S SONG

She came on the wings of the Owl
Flew out of the crack of our imagining
Swooped low over the underground forest
hooing, hooing, hooing

screeching and clacking
Haunting the night with her song.

I almost didn’t recognize her
Inside the feathery brown cape with bars.

On Starry nights while the white moon sleeps
the cloak falls away and behold!
She steps out
in all her Firebird splendor.
Burning, crimson, gold, she crackles — turns blue
white light torching
the fire turned star.
Beaming second sight
she rises out of Earthen ashes

and soars …

To the edge
of the Universe

to the crack between worlds.

– Sara Wright


MEMORIES OF AGE

by Mary Meigs

The original version of this essay was a paper I wrote for the International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal [June 1988] on memory and age and what I call “memorycide.” After the Fair I began working in a Canadian National Film Board semi-documentary, “The Company of Strangers,” in which eight old women, ranging in age from 68 to 88, are stranded together in deep country with a young (female) bus driver. What is comically evident in this film is that the day-to-day process of bonding off-camera has affected us on-camera. “You’re too nice!” says the director despairingly. “Can’t you think of anything to quarrel about?” No, we can’t, or rather we wouldn’t. It seems to me that this state of harmony, and the delight we feel in each other’s presence, has everything to do with my original thoughts about memory—its fragility and its power.

As a woman of seventy-one, I have lived the slow process of deprivation which has spread over our earth, the gradual reduction of all the elements essential to life: arable land, forests, hundreds of species of animals and birds, pure water, and, slowly but surely, the air we breathe. At the same time, I have seen us slowly deprived of hope—which is reduced, until we gasp for hope, as we gasp in our polluted air. As women, though, I believe we have to recognize that our power does not lie in hope (we can learn to live without it), but in our invincible power to remember and to warn.

I remember, for instance, how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was greeted with derision and scepticism by male scientists who said it was unscientific and unduly alarmist. The agents of destruction, those I call the “enemies of life,” have seen the danger to them both of women’s memories and of our clear vision of the future—and they are perfecting methods of altering and destroying them (memorycide). But they cannot slow women’s awakening to the sickness of the earth and the causes of it. This global sickness, says Dr. Rosalie Bertell in No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth [Toronto: The Women’s Press, 1985] (a book which I recommend to every human being who can read), is violence. “It thrives on feats of extraordinary power, mega-projects and other technological ego-trips and requires the passive cooperation of the weak and ignorant. It is unable to survive in the face of truth, human solidarity, compassion and non-violent action” [p. 313].

Dr. Bertell looks without flinching at what she calls “the brutalization of the world.” All of us, I believe, must hold in our memories the details of this brutalization in order to act against it. The enemies of life have practised genocide on a global scale; they have wiped out entire races and countries, set fire to the earth and its vegetation and forced whole populations into exile. They are all those human beings who make inhuman decisions—sometimes in the name of conquest, sometimes in the name of “development,” that word with its cruel irony. Their victims are other human beings, the animals, fish, birds, forests that stand in their way. Also cities and temples, ancient traditions and myths, music and dance and theatre.

The byproduct of genocide is memorycide. The enemy of life, if he does not kill, tortures memories out of shape and replaces them with false memories; he takes children, teaches them contempt for their own culture and admiration for his, turns them against their people and sends them home where they now themselves become enemies of life. Children who carry their own and their parents’ and grandparents’ memories in their heads are kidnapped, imprisoned, beaten, tortured. Sometimes the enemy carries out his plans deliberately, burning crops, killing livestock, sometimes inadvertently as at Chernobyl or Three Mile Island and other nuclear disaster ares where cities and farmland have become uninhabitable.

U.S. government scientists are now working to find ways of ridding Bikini—site of early U.S. nuclear testing—of the radioactive cesium which poisoned Bikinians who had been told in 1968 that it was safe to return. The most dramatic method would entail removing the top 16 to 20 inches of soil from the entire island of Bikini. … What would be done with the 16 to 20 inches of topsoil removed from an entire island? Where would it be dumped to release its deadly cesium for 80 years? The memory of the poisoning of an island is stored in the soil, in the minds and bodies of the islanders, in the shapeless forms of their “jelly-babies,” born without brains or limbs, and it cannot be silenced. In the same way, memories of other nuclear disasters still speak in contaminated milk and vegetables, in the aborted fetuses of livestock, and the cancers growing in the human survivors.

Who remains to piece together the mutilated memories of the countries that have been and still are being destroyed?

Memory is the secret power of old women; we are living years when our accumulated memories can resonate like a prolonged “Ommmm.” I hear this sound, deep and melodious, whenever Alice Diabo speaks the Mohawk language. Alice, in her late 70’s, is one of the cast of nine women in “The Company of Strangers” and lives on the Kanawake reserve near Montreal. The music of her language is beautiful and when she speaks or sings, I think “This is the real Alice, and the Alice who speaks English is reduced by an imposed language that thwarts her spirit.” The intention (whether they knew it or not) of white men who forced native Americans to speak only English was to destroy the memories that can only live fully in the mother-tongue.

Memory is an ecosystem. It is much like the ecosystem of the rainforests and the oceans on which the lives of all species depend. In the Amazon Valley experiments are being made to determine how many acres of forest land are needed to preserve the thousands of forms of life they support. This predetermined acreage will be left as an island; the rest will be (or already has been) logged. Already, the resident creatures have fled from islands that were too small, and the deserts around them created by logging are eating away at their boundaries. Already hundreds of species have been lost and can never be recovered, and hundreds of life-giving plants have been destroyed forever. It is lobotomy on a huge scale, the cutting away of millions of genetic memories.

Speaking of her mother’s shock treatments, the daughter in Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic says, “They erased whole parts of you, shocked them out, overloaded the circuits so you couldn’t bear to remember, re-member … It wasn’t just your memory they took. They took your imagination, your will to create things differently.” The process of breaking in a female human child begins so quietly that she is scarcely aware of constraints. In an amazingly short time she has learned to trot around at the end of a long rein and to stand quietly while a bridle is slipped over her head and a bit placed over her tongue. A rebellious young woman, or one who is perceived as mentally unstable, has always been subjected to severe punishment: confinement, shock treatments, lobotomy, clitoridectomy. In every case, the object of the treatment is to destroy every obstacle to the breaking-in process, and particularly all memory of creative life and of sexuality.

Almost all the cast in “The Company of Strangers,” including Alice Diabo, have been and still are loyal members of the patriarchal order, that is, most have married, had children and grandchildren, and go to church. Alice is a Roman Catholic; Catherine is a Roman Catholic nun. Those who are no longer married have lost their husbands, and some of them have a wistful dream of finding a man to share the rest of their lives with. I, a lesbian artist, am the only “disloyal” member of the cast. But in that strange situation, suspended in film-time, removed from every familiar activity except eating, and isolated from the preoccupations of “normal” family life, each woman’s power is concentrated in herself—above all, in her memories. They are the memories of women who, in their own lives, sometimes feel invisible. “My grandchildren talk as if I weren’t there,” says Constance, 88, “and if I say something, they look at me with surprise and then go right on talking.” To me, each old woman in that state of magical isolation is a unique source of knowledge. When I listen I feel lifetimes of memories caged inside, ready at last to spring free, alternating with the conviction of having done nothing that matters. By nothing, they mean nothing creative; they are comparing themselves to me (“you’ve written books and painted pictures”) and this is odd because in the patriarchal context they have done everything that counts and have been honored for it. But I’ve noticed this before in mothers and grandmothers—a surprising envy (“you’ve done something with your life”) and regret for the use they could have made of the creative energy that stirred in them long ago and was buried or forgotten or abandoned.

I’d like to tell them about all the ways in which women, in the last twenty-five years, have been excavating our memories, how we have taken the fragments that remain and breathed life into them—passionate, angry life. Out of silence and ruined lives women novelists like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Sarah E. Wright, Leslie Marmon Silko and many others have recreated not only herstory but also theirstory, that of peoples and races deformed by history. It has never occurred to any of the women of “The Company of Strangers” that their life-experiences have enough value to be written down. That they might be their own scribes as Tillie Olsen was her own scribe in Tell Me a Riddle, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman in The Yellow Wallpaper. Olsen turned a woman’s “normal” life, of marriage, children and hard labor against the odds of poverty, into a rich source of creative power. In Tell Me a Riddle, Eva, an old woman dying of cancer, remembers and bears witness, and releases a flood of memories, her own and those of her family. “He [her husband] remembered that she had not always been isolated, had not always wanted to be alone (as he knew there had been a voice before this gossamer one; before the hoarse voice that broke from silence to lash, make incidents, shame him—a girl’s voice of eloquence that spoke their holiest dreams).” Eva’s silence and isolation have been in protest against the stunting of her growth. She mourns for herself and for humankind. “So strong for what? To rot not grow?”

We have, in the past two decades, been recovering the memories of those who have always been silenced by history: pioneer women, women of color, lesbians, old women, those who have been beaten and sexually abused, or shut up in mental institutions. It is as though the spark of Rosa Parks’ refusal had ignited acts of disobedience in millions of women all over the world. For it is clear that the breaking-in process is not necessarily permanent, that it can be reversed or defied. Was it not las abuelas in Argentina who started the movement to find their “disappeared,” whose power as grandmothers gave them leverage against the patriarchy? Was it not the women on one of the Marshall Islands who voted against selling their island to the U.S. government as a permanent underground testing ground? Marshallese women have long memories. The people of Bikini have a new flag with twenty-three stars, “one for each coral island in the Central Pacific atoll, and a symbolic gap for three missing stars, representing the three islands vaporized by nuclear blasts” [New York Times, April 10, 1988].

“They work to see how much can be lost, how much can be forgotten,” says Leslie Marmon Silko in Ceremony. “They” are those she calls “the destroyers.” Sometimes they are plundering the land and its resources; sometimes they are waging never-ending wars; often they are well-meaning planners in offices as remote from the damage they do as the commander of a submarine who orders the release of nuclear missiles. How simple it is by remote control to decimate groups that together shared memories of their life as a community, to scatter and dilute this life in places that never become home. The Canadian International Development Agency and the World Bank are financing huge dam projects worldwide which will flood millions of acres of land and drive thousands of people off their farmland and out of their flooded cities. The success of these projects depends on the fact that people driven off their ancestral land, out of their forests, away from their coasts, squeezed into barren “homelands” or fortified villages or refugee camps or shanty-towns will be too dazed and miserable to complain.

But displaced people cannot be prevented from remembering, and memories burn in their minds until they explode in violence. Governments are good at handling violence; it gives them a chance to test their latest hardware and torture devices and to place orders for more. What they cannot handle is the concerted non-violent action of threatened people before they are dispossessed. For ironically, the mass culture beamed by satellite into remote places, which homogenizes the people of the world and destroys traditional culture, has also had the effect of bringing isolated communities in touch with each other. These communities have learned that they share the same danger of being dispossessed without any consultation and that they can make their voices heard. “They learn they can sound the alarm worldwide when the surveyors arrive,” says Probe International. “As a result, we in Canada now sometimes get early warning signals from tribal groups in Malaysia, peasant farmers in Haiti, and refugees from Ethiopia, and a world-wide movement of citizens’ groups has emerged that is able to compare notes.”

Comparing notes. In India, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Ghana, Kenya, women have started environmental movements that attempt to combat the widespread damage caused in their countries by development projects that ignored their welfare. In India, for example, a grass-roots revolution to save the forests was begun by a group of village women who threw themselves between the woodsmen and the trees. “Chipko-Andolan”—literally, “the movement to embrace the trees”—has played a decisive role in shaping India’s conservation policies (International Wildlife, Jan-Feb 1984). Grass-roots movements like these in the Third World form a vital part of the feminist ecosystem, which is nurtured by the memories of women of every race who are either refusing to give up their land or trying to recover it.

Women in exile embody the history which has ignored herstory and invaded herland, which has tried to tame the darkness in her and to weaken her instinctive certainties about what is life-giving. Exile from creative life, or from the surreal mental state of “madness,” with its fantastic memories and febrile energy so close to an artist’s, has been exhaustively explored by white EuroAmerican writers: Gilman, Olsen, Jean Rhys, Doris Lessing among them. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys recreates the madwoman in Jane Eyre, shows how as a young woman she was exploited by her husband (the Rochester of Jane Eyre), driven to despair and, finally, wrenched from herland, Jamaica, and transported to England, the place of cold hearts. Jean Rhys had herself lived the same uprooting. All of them write of the shrinking, the deformation and the trembling cold they feel when they have been exiled from a place that throbs with life, or exiled from the life of their imagination.

Women who are write from exile are particularly alive to the remembered vision of how it was, and how it should be. They are survivors who grow old with a knowledge of how it is to have had their minds and bodies twisted into unnatural shapes and unnatural compromises. Their memories of crimes against them stretch back for centuries, and they recognize that memory can be an invincible power, and also a great danger to those who are brutalizing the world, to the enemies of life.

It would not occur to the women of “The Company of Strangers” to use the phrase “enemy of life,” much less to agree with me that the enemies of life are in the process of destroying our world. They would be instantly defensive of men (their men). “Why are you always fussing about men?” asked Michelle, the black singer, aged 28, who plays the part of bus driver. I had made the point that a poem she had circulated called “How do you know you’re old?” (one item: “You stop whistling at pretty girls”) was sexist. I try to talk about women’s place in the realm of male power and something clicks. She begins to muse on her life, her husband’s jealousy, the importance of his music and the lesser importance of hers. She adores men and sex (when we played the alphabet game, her double word for G was “gorgeous guy”) but her mind has started the process of breaking free, which is really the dispassionate examination of one’s memories.

Another time, Alice speaks of how the St. Lawrence Seaway was cut through the Kanawake reserve and how it changed the Mohawk way of life. Her people had fished, swum, done their washing in the river and now the river has become inaccessible. It had been a friend; now the Seaway, cold and deep and lifeless, polluted by the ships that pass through, is a dangerous enemy. It is an impersonal servant of power, like the huge dams, the pipelines, or the low-flying bombers that continuously break the sound barrier over Goose Bay, Labrador, causing Cree mothers to cower, children to burst into tears, caribou to stampede. Alice describes the damage by the Seaway to the Mohawk way of life without anger. Her way of life is intact deep inside her, like her voice in the Mohawk language. Perhaps the absence of anger is due to the parts of herself she has yielded to the enemy without letting herself be destroyed—the bit over the tongue.

As a young woman, I went through the same breaking-in process as my straight friends in “The Company of Strangers,” and became a tame lesbian without a voice. It took me a long time to understand to what extent lesbians had been forbidden by society to have memories, much less to honor them, that we were expected either to remain silent or to translate our memories into acceptable lies. In the last twenty years I have become part of the movement which has made us audible and legible and I have known the joy of writing about and living my life openly. But the forces of reaction are closing in again, as they always do, along with a determination to silence us once and for all. …

In “The Company of Strangers” I came out again—on-camera this time—to Cissy, who is small and bent, with a child’s candid smile and round blue eyes. (She is one of three Englishwomen in the cast who lived through the blitz in World War II.) “Live and let live is the way I feel,” she said cheerily. She lets me live. But letting live also means suspending judgment about men. It was Cissy who laughed when (also on-camera) one of us was demonstrating the use of a black cast-iron bootjack in the form of a buxom woman with her legs spread (supposedly found on the set). “You put one muddy boot on her face and jam the heel of the other one between her legs,” I said furiously. “Ow!” said Cissy, “That looks like fun!” She was delighted because the shoe had slipped off cleanly; the meaning of a foot on a woman’s face hadn’t registered.

She laughed and we laughed with her. Why not? What good is a lecture on the abuse of women to a woman who has seen the city of Manchester in flames, who has heard the buzzbombs pass overhead, with a terrible puttering sound that would suddenly stop just before a bomb found its target. Cissy has witnessed firsthand the abuse of women, of children, of human life, and still laughs as merrily as a child. As she recalls these things she rummages in her mind for more and more memories; we are listening! Perhaps no one has ever before listened as attentively as we do.

We are living what Christina Thürmer-Rohr calls “uncontaminated moments,” moments which are living organisms in the feminist ecosystem. They can exist in this space where eight old women have met in the eternity of film-time. “We ought now to hold on to what is certain,” writes Thürmer-Rohr [“From Deception to Un-Deception: On the Complicity of Women,” Trivia 12, Spring 1988]. What is certain here is the strange joy we feel in each others’ company, unconstrained by patriarchal presence and interference. Even this temporary separation from the patriarchy has given us the freedom to see each other with “uncontaminated” vision. We throw the artificial dignity of age to the wind; we laugh, sing and dance. With the power of our listening, we call forth each others’ remembering.

note: “Memories of Age” was first published in Trivia: A Journal of Ideas 13 (Fall 1988). This version has been shortened slightly.

Mary Meigs was born in Philadelphia in 1917. A painter and writer, she has had one-woman shows in Boston, New York, Paris and Montreal. When she was 60, she published her first book, Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait (1981), followed by The Medusa Head (1983), The Box Closet (1987), In the Company of Strangers (1991) and The Time Being (1997). Her book about the making of the film was translated into French as Femmes dans un paysage (Ville Laval, Québec: Trois) by Marie-Josée Thériault, the daughter of Michelle Thériault, who was her translator for Lily Briscoe. The film itself is available on DVD or video as part of the “Modern Day Classics” series, under the title “Strangers in Good Company.”
Mary Meigs lives in Montreal, on the same street as Cynthia Scott, the creator of the film.

 

 

 

She Is Still Burning 14

It’s easy to introduce this 2002 instalment: everything in it is still perfectly relevant.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #14
12 July 2002

“‘From death to life’ I seem to hear my crows say as they fly high above me and perch in the towering white pines, and I believe them.”   –Sara Wright

Dear Friends,

This installment has been delayed, owing to a recently developed addiction: reading through mountains of web-site news and analysis in an attempt to discern, through the fog of disinformation, what is being decided in Washington. They run the world, or try to; I want to know what they’re planning to hit us with next. A simple-enough desire, but you need your own intelligence agency to satisfy it …

In short, I have been ruining my eyesight in the pursuit of phantoms. I don’t know who they’re going to bomb next, and I’m not even clear who “they” are. The only certainty is that “they”—whoever the rotating cast of “they” is at the moment—will do whatever it takes to retain supremacy.

They may, however, have already bitten off more than they can chew. The U.S. currently has military personnel in 177 countries, and Bush is financing his “titanic war on terror” by signing IOUs and printing money. This is like using a credit card to pay the interest due on your other credit-card accounts. Not a sustainable maneuver.

I keep thinking about the fantasies of those in power and how fantasies lead to imperial over-reach and how over-reach can end in sudden collapse. More specifically, I think about how quickly the Soviet Union came apart when its economic machine could no longer support its military machine. One day the Soviet empire was a geopolitical fact, and the next day …

The U.S. government’s war machine may be a high-flying force straight out of science fiction, but it still sucks up resources like a giant vacuum cleaner. What happens when the American economy can no longer sustain the American military?

Nobody knows but the old black crows, she said mysteriously. (For more on crows, see below, an installment of SISB published in honour of black birds, the growing number of Women in Black with their peace vigils, and other perceptive and prescient beings.)

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


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Crowmothers, Come Home” by Sara Wright
•”The Crowmother Thread” by Sara Wright
•”Crossing Over” by Harriet Ellenberger
•”Crow” by Lynn Martin
• letter and “A Conversation with Fear” by ilit rosenblum


Crowmothers, Come Home

Quorking,
Steel black crows
Hop sideways
Dancing blue light.
Quorking,
Swirling shadows
Arching dipped wings
Feathered to bow.
Quorking,
Beady eyes shift with ease
Peruse rough bark and twig
Circle smooth stones.
Quorking,
Old Woman keening at the well
I listen with fierce attention
Thirsting for threefold vision
Of black winged women
Poised in flight.
Mend the silken silvery thread
Broken so long ago,
Ancient Mothers, rise up —
Shapeshifters! You —
Sing new flesh onto white bone
Craft sharpened beaks out of fish hooks from the deep
Carve all seeing sight
Out of the still nights
Of my imagining
Crow Mothers, please come home.

– Sara Wright


THE CROWMOTHER THREAD

by Sara Wright

Every morning I put out chunks of dry dog food and bits of dried bread for my crows, and then sit with coffee and a pair of binoculars, watching the wily corvids commune with each other, display crow antics and engage in elaborate courtship rituals. A couple of days ago I was rewarded by seeing one crow strip the bark off a half-dead oak branch and fly back over the knoll to its chosen nest site in the woods. Later this same bird, or perhaps the mate, gathered so much deer hair in its beak that the crow looked as if it had grown whiskers! These birds fascinate me. When I found a dead squirrel, I placed it where I leave the other food and noticed that it was two days before any of the crows would get near the carcass. When the first one did, s/he hopped sideways, approaching the dead body from four directions before pecking at it. When I focus on their bead-like eyes, I am astonished. Is it an optical illusion that they seem to peer in all directions almost simultaneously? It feels good that these crows have befriended me. Usually they maintain a healthy distance from humans—with good reason, for they are much maligned.

Often as I watch crows, I think about how they expose the underlying bones of things, not just because they eat carrion, but because they uncover what’s normally hidden in the forest by creating, for example, a frenzy in the air as they circle an intruder, voicing their displeasure with loud raucous cries. Sometimes they mob a tired owl, and I follow their screeching to find the harassed day-sleeping raptor perched precariously on a limb and blinking its eyes in distress. More frequently, I see owls soaring low on silent wings through the trees to escape the crow taunting.

Although my grandmother died in 1974, I can still see her with a pea-green scarf wrapped around her head, walking out to the field with a pailful of scraps as a raucous black cloud hovered above her. Here she comes, the crows would screech with enthusiasm. I have no doubt that my grandmother’s crows were the best-fed corvids around. Although she was often teased about her fondness for crows, she fed them until she died, and I suspect there was more to that relationship than she ever let on.

Whenever I see crows, I also think about my mother because now she feeds her crows as my grandmother did before her. Sadly, my mother has a life history of keeping herself physically and emotionally distanced from me, which has left me filled with a peculiar longing. Perhaps that’s why I think of our crow connection as a kind of cosmic link—one that stretches across time, space, and my mother’s real need to remain separate from her daughter.

When I was in my thirties and early forties, my mother would sometimes refuse to talk to me because of an imagined slight or because I displeased her in some way. When she finally broke her silence, I would discover to my amazement that we had been growing exactly the same herbs or tomatoes or flowers, or that we had both discovered clay as a medium, in the two years since we had last had a conversation. I never spoke to anyone about this bizarre twist to our unstable relationship, but I always wondered what it meant.

Three years ago last winter, I developed a pain in my right breast, and I dreamed that my distressed and tearful mother came to me, and then refused to tell me what was wrong. I remember most from this period the baffling, mindless grief that washed over me repeatedly like an incoming tide. One night during a body meditation, I distinctly heard a French lullaby that my mother loved, being sung somewhere in the air around me. Soon afterwards my son called to tell me that my mother had been diagnosed and operated on for breast cancer during my three-month depression. I experienced her tight-lipped silence as a crushing betrayal. Breast cancer, as I told her later in a letter, is a woman’s disease. I was only vaguely aware at the time that my body had somehow known about the cancer, and had been carrying the burden of my mother’s grief and probably my own. The day my son called with the news, my birdfeeders were suddenly flooded with crows. Both Nature and my body (itself part of Nature) seem able to channel information in unusual ways.

My personal experience supports the ecofeminist idea that women and Nature are inextricably bound together. It also supports my own idea that Nature carries a kind of consciousness enabling living things to communicate with one another across species. All warm-blooded creatures share patterns of instinctual behavior, of course, and this instinctual connection between species is, I believe, the pathway that links us—bird to woman.

Although the crows themselves initiated the possibility of dialogue with me by appearing here last spring to munch on cracked corn that I had left for the wild turkeys, I was the one who encouraged them to stay. They did stay for a while and then drifted off after my brief absence. Now, though, they are taking up housekeeping in the lowland woods behind the house. Each morning when I feed them, I do so with a consciousness of the invisible but genuine connection between this daughter and her mother, a link the crows may be mediating. My intention this time is to keep the lines open and see what happens. I am trusting that the crows know something I don’t because they approached me first. I’ve also learned that it’s useless to turn my back on a Nature connection. Regardless of my personal views on the creature in question, if any animal attempts to enter into some kind of relationship with me, I know something is up!

I also believe that a live crow can be an incarnation of the archetype of the Great Mother in her crone aspect. If I’m right and crows can be Nature’s choice to express the archetypal reality of the venerable crone, then it makes perfect sense to me that crows can help keep the psychic lines open between my mother and me, because, like my mother, I too have become a crone. But what are these winsome corvids trying to tell me?

I believe that on one level my crows are reminding me of the ancient relationship between women and crows, one that has recently been hidden behind the veil of patriarchy. I think that if we develop our connection to them, the crows can help us reclaim our lost woman ground. Barbara Walker confirms this intuition when she says that crows represent the third form of the Triple Goddess (Great Mother), her death aspect. But why the death aspect? I think the answer can be found in crow behavior. This third aspect of the Triple Goddess is about seeing what’s hidden, and getting down to the bones of things, literally picking the bones clean, and preparing for new life. Crows have remarkable sight—a ground way of seeing; they peer beyond the obvious, just as old crones see what others miss. Crows ingest decaying matter and, by doing so, create space for the new; crones not only prepare for death, but assist others during the transition from death to new life. Crones have knowledge of the future, and crows prophesy. Both crows and crones inhabit the edge places: crows hang out at the edge of forests, and crones live on the boundaries of the known and unknown. Perhaps mediating this crow connection can help us as women to reweave the original powers of the Great Goddess, especially the powers of death, back into our Woman Psyche once and for all. To reclaim death is to reclaim the crone in ourselves and to reclaim our own woman ground. Can’t you almost see those three old women who not only spin and weave, but know when it is time to cut the threads?

On a more personal level, I believe that my crows may be trying to mend the broken link between my mother and me. Perhaps the crows are letting me know that underneath the apparent physical separation and emotional distance between this mother and her daughter, there exists an unbroken and ancient connection … and that by listening to my crows, I am able to reach through the veil to pick up that lost thread. My mother sent me a crow feather for my last birthday—maybe her crows have been talking to her too.

Crows are also said to be messengers of the gods, and this oracular or prophetic quality is another of my personal associations with the crow. In fact, I was wary of crows for years because it often happened that crows (or other black birds) appeared during times of painful transition, as they did the day I was told about my mother’s cancer. It doesn’t surprise me that the first stage in alchemical transformation—the nigredo—is often represented by the crow, since one of the bird’s trickster/creator-like characteristics is shapeshifting, and this nigredo is the first stage of change. “From death to life” I seem to hear my crows say as they fly high above me and perch in the towering white pines, and I believe them.

For the Pacific Coast Tlingit Indians, Crow is a central divinity figure, and in other Native American traditions Crow is a sky god associated with the winds (of change?). Jamie Sams, who created the Animal Medicine Cards, sees the crow as the shadow side of reality. For me, Crow embodies both light and dark, life and death aspects of the crone/Nature. In fact, it seems to me that Nature displays genius when she personifies herself in crow form to spin and mend the threads, to prophesy, or to expose the bones of things! Crows are also seen as soul guides, and my favorite crone, the Greek goddess Hecate, is sometimes depicted with a crow. Thinking of Hecate returns me to wondering about the hidden meaning of my own personal crow connection, which I suspect has a lot to do with learning surrender to the wisdom of the archetypal crone and her instinctual ways of knowing.

Today I continue feeding my crows to participate in the wonder that is Nature. I feed them because I feel psychically and physically linked through crows to my mother and to my grandmother, and because something about this woman connection goes beyond the veil that separates life and death. When I feed my crows, I am consciously putting my life in Her hands. It’s at this point that I let go, enter the “Great Mysteries,” pick the bones clean, create new beginnings, and cackle with those wily Crowmothers who are older than time.


CROSSING OVER

When I was little,
my mother bought me a Golden Book,
and each night we read the story
that repeated the words,
“Nobody knows
but the old black crows.”

Crows know everything
because they eat everything.

Crows bring good luck,
especially in travel.

I ask it be a world-wise crow
who calls me
to the other way.

– Harriet Ellenberger


CROW

carries on her back
all we don’t know.

Heavy winged
she cleaves the sky
into rough edged nuggets
even our blind palms can read.

Have you noticed
she feeds by the side of roads
in between arriving and departure,
her tongue harsh
as if the message she carries
has traveled from one soul to another?

Despite the infinite winds
of separation
she is our third eye
of connection.

She insists
on calling
until we look up
and listen.

– Lynn Martin


LETTER FROM ILIT ROSENBLUM, 9 MARCH 2002, NEW YORK CITY

Dear Harriet,

I found your letter and package of writing as I returned from a trip to Jerusalem & India in mid February. Finally I attempt to send a response.

I am completely mortified at the events storming around. Mostly I feel a stunned silence inside me. Fear.

I hear the news today and bow to my guardian angel. I was sitting in that same café in Jerusalem many times during my visits there. Just a few steps from where I stay. A contested square in Jerusalem by the Prime Minister’s walled residence. Where many hundreds of right-wing demonstrators arrive weekly by busloads to urge the minister to escalate his already unrestrained violence. And where several dozen women in black stand vigil every Friday afternoon, after which we would go to that same café and hang out.

How am I to conduct my life as these storm clouds are gathering? I think about us in the ’80s, knowing of the storm coming. Now here it is. I see Talibans everywhere. I saw them crash-land in New York, I saw news of them in India, and I see them all over Jerusalem. Always violently demanding more violence. Always cloaked in God and righteousness. Always welcomed!

Aside of this, I have my life here, a pretty monastic life. I teach yoga in my small apartment to about a dozen people, up to four persons at a time. I study and practice and go out dancing.

In Jerusalem my mother is slipping rapidly, and whenever I can, I go there to sit with her & witness the gradual dismantling of her life.

There is so much more, of course. Maybe we’ll get to meet and catch up.

Thank you for “She Is Still Burning.” I’ll send you something I wrote for my students during the months after 9/11 …

A CONVERSATION WITH FEAR

by ilit rosenblum

Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?”
Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face, then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me, but if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.”
– Pema Chödrön

Today we are all challenged by fear. Instead of escalating fear with speculations about the next strikes, we can stop and take a deep look at what is. How we feel. What we do. Our assumptions about our own safety in a world overrun with aggression and injustice. Looking into our collusion with this world-order by our actions and inaction.

As I look inside myself, I see my own response to fear. I see how I make a grab for some ground. I give in to old patterns that feel good only by their virtue of being old, familiar and unsuccessful. Even in that same old defeat I feel comforted that something does endure—old habits endure!

As these patterns operate inside me, I see around me the same debilitating cycle of fear and habitual responses. Nations are flexing their muscles, inflicting greater violence in response to violence, heaping suffering upon suffering. Everywhere aggression is raised a notch, fanning fires of hate, aggression and violence.

To soothe my spirit I take myself out to the beach. Even there fear follows me. On the horizon battleships and overhead planes landing and taking off every few minutes. Each time I see a plane overhead I fear it will fall out of the sky. And right away I think of those for whom the roar overhead brings inevitable explosions, fires, death and suffering, daily for weeks on end. Our suffering will not end by bringing suffering to others.

Fear stops me in my tracks, again, and I plummet, and the ground is shifting.

The good news is delivered by Pema Chödrön in her book When Things Fall Apart (Shambahala 1997). “The only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land” (p. 8). “Consider it a remarkable stroke of luck. We have no ground to stand on and at the same time it could soften us and inspire us. Finally, after all these years, we could truly grow up” (p. 117).

To have the rug pulled out from under our feet is a classic Buddhist call to mindfullness, to be present and to look deeply into what is. Where we encounter fear is where courage is found. The trick, says Pema Chödrön, “is to keep exploring and not bail out” (p. 5). This is a crucial and fruitful time when we can choose “to open up further to whatever we feel … rather than to shut down more” (p. 84).

Pema Chödrön’s advice is clear and practical: “the very instant of groundlessness … is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness” (p. 9). We do not set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.

“What truly heals is gratitude and tenderness” (p. 100).

I thank my teachers and their teachers and my students and their students.

Editor’s note: Ilit Rosenblum is an artist/writer with a background in environmental research and community work. She has been teaching yoga since 1997. After receiving her letter, I reread an essay she’d written on Rosa Luxemburg’s life and writings (I. Rose, “A Passion for Revolution: Rosa Luxemburg, 1871–1919,” Trivia: A Journal of Ideas 10, Spring 1987) and discovered that, in it, she had been as prophetic as the woman she was writing about.

 

 

She Is Still Burning 13 (May 2002)

The May 2002 instalment below shows its age mostly in the letter to readers, where you can see me attempting to dredge up a bit of hope where there wasn’t much (the invasion of Iraq hadn’t happened yet, but the attempts to stop it would fail). The two following pieces do last, and both are meant to be read aloud (Barbara Mor’s “Suicidal Girls” would’ve made a great podcast, with sound effects, and my piece is a speech, to be delivered to a conference I never got to).

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #13
10 May 2002 

We are against war and the sources of war.
We are for poetry and the sources of poetry.
(Muriel Rukeyser, 1949)

All humanity today lives under one global god: the God of War, who is continuously empowered and enlarged by the religion of money.
(Barbara Mor, 1987)

Peace is a place where no war is held.
(line from children’s poems circulating the internet, 2002)

Dear Friends,

I’ve begun this letter three times in the past six weeks, and then gotten submerged in translation contracts, while events raced ahead, outstripping my attempts to understand them. My first try began like this: “It’s March 31st as I begin writing this, and two old, ruthless and cynical men who despise each other (a description of Ariel Sharon and Yassar Arafat stolen from Robert Fisk, Mideast correspondent par excellence) head towards their final confrontation in the Land of the Patriarchs. … I hate it when men play chess with human pawns, particularly when they’re playing on a board that’s already soaked in blood. I hate it even more when nobody stops them.”

Six weeks later, the civilian infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority is wrecked and Arafat sidelined, and now it’s Sharon and his Likud party versus Hamas and Hezbollah. But these players are also mirror images of each other: both want the same land, all of it; both think they can take it by force; both believe their god backs them in this endeavour.

Personally, I think the opposing sides in all the battles spreading over the earth are serving the same god, the one Starhawk calls “The God of Force” (secular types worship him too, under names like “full-spectrum dominance”). This god may have ruled the earth for the last 4000-odd years, but these are strange times and I suspect that he might have finally shot himself in the foot.

Force doesn’t work anymore—it may be as simple as that. Here we have, for instance, George W. Bush, the most powerful man in the world and the least free, with his heart set on bringing down Saddam Hussein. Can he do it? Only if he’s willing to lose 10-30,000 troops, use low-yield nukes and crash the U.S. economy.

Checkmate.

I’m thinking, in other words, that there’s something resembling hope at the bottom of this wastebasket. And if you’ll grant me a few moments and a little poetic license, I’ll try to explain why.

First, let’s say that the “God of Force” is shorthand for “dominant human belief and behaviour patterns under patriarchy.” When this god collapses in a bloody stalemate with himself, who’s left standing? Well, it’s probably (to use another of Starhawk’s phrases) the “Goddess of Regeneration.” She’s also shorthand, a metaphoric image for human potential (if you think of human beings as one body, then she’d be the soul—or, in scientific terms, the quantum hologram—of humanity). But she’s also a metaphoric image for the unity-in-diversity of matter/energy—hence, the soul of a humanity in sync with the rest of the cosmos.

And if we want to locate her prophets, we don’t need to look much farther than the Women in Black, with their week-by-week, year-by-year street-corner vigils for peace. Are they unrealistic and politically naive, these women? I don’t think so.

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


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

1) “Suicidal Girls”: an Irish Crone rap by Barbara Mor, about which she writes, “i really want to bodily pick up women, in all this chaos, and set us back on the OldFeministRoad: Fuck Off, Stupids!”

2) “Some Reflections on Lesbian Culture, Feminist Thought, Jazz and Love” by Harriet Ellenberger (presentation written for the conference “Ruptures, Résistances et Utopies” to be held in Toulouse, France, September 2002)


SUICIDAL GIRLS

scream in my walls 4sex in a 4plex
their boys are crazy nightspliced wires
dance&fightdance&fight bellybutton
pliers glow in the dark
i live here numb
in rental skull bang bang bang they move in
redone stucco studio used to be a garage
cars lived there leaked oil on the rug
wall to wall rust atmosphere end of the
world plus heat  theyre not neat decorate
w/fists purplebluegreenpink hair tattoos
noserings amplifiers huge ashtrays of
noise on bad days it costs too much to
live here we’re on a one-way street wheels
roll west 24/7  nothing stops no rest dont
mess w/our trucks global politics some
say i wouldnt know  they dont sleep
like normal people could be aliens or
vampires no jobs blowjobs blowdriers or
they could be bald women hang out on the
moon stare at dead planet MTV no pots or
pans to speak of they eat boys skinny
skinny skinny
i feel sorry sometimes
spikehead genius corvair lurches around
town YouthGoingNowhere not much future in
punk music they yell at each other&they
yell back bi-chicks polydicks 6packs 8trax
up&down yr dreams all hell breaks loose
fuckfuckfuck you me anarchy murder wheres
the cop wheres the flag wheres the earplugs
wheres the preacher homedelivery tampax
brain apocalypse pizza just get married
and shut up
white&black scared persian
kitty hides under porch as party rages at
dawn new strange girl passed out on asphalt
terrible sad suitcase left behind on a
motel bed genitalrentalsingularexistence
month-to-month poetry in her head she plays
guitar voice like doomsday vomit moves in
now the sound is complete KILL EVERYTHING
DUMB THAT LOOKS AT THEM from farside of
mirrors what looks back isnt pretty on
purpose this is the gestalt  leave a bowl
of milk  thing pukes in the parkinglot
bulimic pussycat

***

the news is not good
plane crash into my mind
Fukuyama bloody mama clash of civilizations

bigger noise than girls  radio tv
world-in-trauma 24/7 hypnotic drama
Nostradamus on CNN a september month
HolyKing of Terror bangs LadyTowers on
way to Heaven they are nuts as foretold
osamabinMabus  rare avis  sirens cellphones
meltdown computers GogMagog angels plagues
smoke fire pain  confetti of bodyparts
stocks&bonds roasted sparrows  a trillion
Revelation pages flying around as
torn wings  end of world infomercial:
desert bibles neon tribals electropsycho
uber alles               2000 miles away my
glass eyes explode  the NationalEnquirer
on the spot  each Tower had its own
zipcode  zip zip  as earth says this
is how it feels
ragnarok girls   so
secular Tribecular just want to party &
be peculiar   History busts in w/guns
nasty as hormone problems zits condoms
revolution they rise to the occasion
plug-in fingers speed drums dirty throat
gutter drains&screams they wanna put a
sack  on  my  head bangbang somebody  wants
a bag over my head
its a catchy tune
groins crash&burn
man has a  Vision God hates women  is
religion  Headbanger thumps his brow on
the ground the more dull lumps on his
mind the more devoted he is the skull of
a mullah has many bumps submission to
Allah thumpthumpthump  if females do
this they expose their rumps so We must
be Invisible like Terror to scare the
children  the more you dont belong to yr
body the more you belong to God submission
to Love o yeah  they talk this shit to
BigZip 1440 minutes a day  the girls say
it sucks  if you cant evolve or dance or
read just fuckmybrainz&breed blackwrapt
toe to head bodybag of livingDead     over
the city the earth gasp for breath no
fists laughter thought libraries galleries
of stars a huge anoxiablue vinylplastic
drastic shroud yr dreams for worms  burqa
woman burqaAll FEARfashions necrophilia
HolyDicks gag yrmouth for aDeathSquad
cover my tits for the Inquisition

under rubble hear them scream IslamBamBam
thank you mam  piety humps the female
WildWest  war on our Holes  waronourHoles
they wanna put a bag on the Statue of
Liberty

***

400 years but nothing changes
a continent
they came to pillage&pray stayed to pay
rent grow roots build be fruitflies quiet
housewives but cant stop going crazy it must
be in the water psychedelic daughters dogs
drink their piss and freak out

it takes a lot of sex to get beyond sex
(V Solanas) so here we are and all the
virgins are psychotic  BornAgain fanatics
w/whips talkshows burning books Satan
out to get us Ignorance is Bliss God in
hiz bloodshot eyes kill on hiz hands God
in Hiz eyes bloodshot on Hiz hands death too
late to wake up go back to soap opera
RevelationsRevengeText on CDs   All
Natures Children on their knees just wait
til Jesus comes back just wait til yr Daddy
gets home
girls move out   inner
bitches throwback witches every step West
more sure lessPure this is a new world
for congenital Rebels progeny of misogyny
know whats happening T&A twitch&spin gyrate
on cablevision give Puritan fathers what
they want HOT SEX give thanks to whatever
made matches ropes paper documents money
jails and beer
and the poor girls have been
shaking for so long to advertise it was
coming to tell you look out look out
now who can eat
the world is starving barely breathe air
is so fat they discipline themselves to
meet the threat liberate origynal cunt
deworm the cat  their new hit on the list
of coming fatwas
PUT A SACK ON YR OWN FACE ASSHOLES

how did they cross the ocean how do i
cross the street daily life is everywhere
else the bodies are exploding in open
markets you must learn to separate human
parts from the fresh fruits & seasonal
vegetables even worse in fish&poultry
sections except the meat is raw on ice and
human parts usually cooked but look at it
this way everything is organic who cooks
anyway it takes too long i like things in
cans and plastic packets smaller than a
breadbox ziplock poptop too busy dancing
to eat worry shit my mommydaddy sunday
comix usedcarsalesman tv preacher promised
land parkinglots happiness so the world
is flat would they lie? if i fall off
the edge thats better than Afghanistan they
cant dance they dont eat they die in the
street in fever chewing grass delirious
like the Irish history repeats if you let
it or forget   humans not doomed by Nature
but by DumbIdeas    im starting to like
these loud girls   when they scream in the
daytime it must be serious

– Barbara Mor (February 13, 2002)

note: Barbara Mor is the author, with Monica Sjöö, of The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, a text which she completely rewrote and updated for the 500-page 1987 U.S. edition (Harper & Row).


SOME REFLECTIONS ON LESBIAN CULTURE, FEMINIST THOUGHT, JAZZ AND LOVE

by Harriet Ellenberger

When I first went to the University of Iowa, in 1966, I heard stories about the deaths of two women, stories that haunted me. Abortion was illegal then, and in an apartment building I walked by every day on my way to philosophy classes, a young student had bled to death alone, after having tried to abort herself with a coat hanger. Her body was discovered only after her blood seeped through the ceiling of the apartment below hers. The second woman who died alone was someone I knew by name—we’d been in the same high-school French class. When her new roommates at university had begun spreading the rumor that she was a lesbian, she slit open her throat with a razor blade.

In Iowa City, Iowa, USA, in 1966, there were no lesbians visibly creating with each other a way to live freely—1966, in fact, was the first time I’d ever heard the word lesbian spoken aloud—and there was no women’s liberation movement. There was no name for the system that had killed both these young women; there was no place to express outrage at what had driven them to die alone, in shame, of self-inflicted wounds; there was no way to honour their lives nor to mourn their deaths.

II

By the time I’d graduated from university in 1969, I thought I was a political sophisticate—literate in Marxist analyses, an activist in the U.S. civil rights and anti-Vietnam-war movements. The first consciousness-raising groups of women were beginning to form by then in Iowa City, but I didn’t find out about their existence until years after the fact. I was awarded a fellowship for Ph.D. work in philosophy at an elite East Coast university, and then gave it up to marry one of my professors, a man old enough to be my father, an intellectual who had been booted out of the US Communist Party for left-wing adventurism (I found this glamorous, for some reason). We moved to North Carolina with his three sons. The sons were 10, 11, and 12; I was 23, still in shock owing to my sudden self-inflicted fall from much-praised student to much-criticized wife and stepmother. And then the women’s liberation movement exploded spectacularly into existence, with out-of-the-closet lesbians many of its most daring writers, thinkers, and activists.

III

Fast forward to 1976, the year that Catherine Nicholson and I began publishing Sinister Wisdom. By that time I was 30 years old, had helped found and sustain the women’s center in Charlotte, North Carolina, trained as an auto mechanic and ended up with a job as a technical writer, gone through a dramatic and traumatic divorce, and come out publicly (in the newspapers) as a lesbian feminist. But the whirlwind of creation/destruction/creation was only beginning.

In the next five years, Catherine and I put out sixteen book-length issues of Sinister Wisdom, doing most of the production work ourselves and with volunteer help: years of intense work for no pay, years of travelling all over the States to meet other lesbian feminists, years of all-night conversations with strangers who became friends, years of exhilarating highs as the movement grew in ways we had never imagined, years of sickening lows as the arguments and splits multiplied in number and acrimony. By 1980, we were burned out and intent only on turning over Sinister Wisdom in good shape to Adrienne Rich and Michelle Cliff, who had promised to keep it going.

IV

In 1976, if you’d asked me the question “Is there a lesbian culture?”, I’d have answered, “Yes, of course, there’s a lesbian culture, and we’re making it up as we go along.” But I had lots of camarades then, and we were riding a wave—a near-ecstatic fusion of lesbian experience with radical feminist thought. It was like the birth of jazz, that fusion of African rhythm and European harmonic structure that swept the globe and left its enduring mark nearly everywhere musicians gather. You could feel the beat, the movement was real, the voicing was authentic, the soul-force profound.

Yet by 1980, the year Reagan was elected and the far right began its triumphal comeback, that fusion of lesbian experience and radical feminist philosophy, at least in the States, was starting to break apart—attacked, it seemed, from every side. For me, that coming-apart was marked by the loss of a subtitle. When Catherine and I had started Sinister Wisdom in 1976, we’d called it “a journal of words and pictures for the lesbian imagination in all women.” Shortly after the new editors took over the journal, the subtitle disappeared because, as Michelle explained to us, she and Adrienne thought that “it gave straight women too much.”

The phrase “for the lesbian imagination in all women” had been my particular invention, but that didn’t entirely account for the chill I felt on discovering that it had gone missing. To me, the missing subtitle was a sign that something more important was being lost, an idea that we’d assumed was so obvious it couldn’t be forgotten, a common-sense linkage which Susan Cavin had expressed in these simple words: “Women will not be liberated until lesbians are liberated, as lesbians will not be liberated until women are liberated. That is, women’s liberation cannot be achieved until female sexuality is free at last” (“Lesbian Origins Sex Ratio Theory” Sinister Wisdom 9, Spring 1979, p. 19).

V

The fusion of women’s liberation and lesbian culture that was the hallmark of Sinister Wisdom in its first five years had given me a philosophic home, firm ground on which to confront the past, the present, the future. It enabled me, for instance, to give a name, patriarchy, to the system that had driven those two young women to their deaths in 1966. It gave me a name for the belief system embedded in both right-wing and left-wing politics, a name for the institutions that underlay both the free-market and state-capitalist systems then terrorizing the earth with their hot and cold wars. It gave me a vantage point from which to make sense of the world around me and a group with which to influence that world.

When the movement began coming apart, I became, in a sense, homeless. For the next 10 years, from 1980 to 1990, I would try repeatedly, alone or with others, to begin new projects that were both lesbian and feminist (writing projects, international theatre projects, a bilingual women’s bookstore in Montreal), but clearly I was a girl out of step with the times. The wave I’d been riding had crashed onto the beach. The music stopped. By 1990, I had become a kind of solitary wanderer.

VI

Now it’s the harsh winter of 2002, and I’m rereading, for the first time in a long time, those early issues of Sinister Wisdom. I laugh, I cry, I pick out the most prophetic passages, I notice how many of the women who wrote them have already died, I find again the poems that I loved. The words leap off the page; they seem more vividly true now than they did then.

Maybe this is because the unconscious global religion permeating every aspect of social life—what many feminists have called patriarchy, what Michèle Causse names viriocracy, what Mary Daly calls the sadostate or phallotechnocracy, and what I’m calling here simply the anti-culture—has become much more obviously a fast-track to extinction. When I was writing statements like “patriarchy is the funeral procession of the human species” for the first issue of Sinister Wisdom, I half-felt myself to be and was certainly regarded by others as a “doomsday lady,” a radical feminist who willfully exaggerated the common danger in order to justify her own political position. Now, in the twenty-first century, the sense of being driven to extinction by one’s own society is widely shared, for good reason, and not only among women.

These early lesbian feminist writings may also feel so vivid to me because many of them positively glow with a love for women. After the succeeding years of bitter internecine movement battles, many of us learned to dismiss that exultant love for women as naive, a kind of illusion. But clearly it was real. Love for women—both as individuals and as part of an awakened body of womankind—was the heartbeat of the lesbian feminist movement. In that fusion of lesbian experience with feminist thought, love played a role akin to the role played by African rhythms in the musical fusion known as jazz. Love, in other words, was the driving force.

VII

I count myself among those who find persuasive and significant the evidence suggesting that it was women who invented the fundamentals of human culture. It seems to me that the early patriarchs knew better than we know now the value of the female creativity they were attempting to tame and use for their own purposes. It also seems to me that the crushing of female genius which lies at the core of the anti-culture has led inexorably to the genocide and biocide we now confront. Female genius is precisely what humans need to unleash if we are to save ourselves from socially-induced extinction, and female genius is precisely what patriarchal loyalists keep targetting.

If I were to devise a one-sentence definition of lesbian culture it would be this: Lesbian culture is that which devotes itself to the unleashing of female genius. I can imagine no work more vital to the interests of continuing life on this planet.

To those of you doing this work, I say, May the fire of the stars illumine your pathway. May the lioness lend you her courage, and the eagle her wings and far-seeing vision. May the ant people teach you patience, and the grasses bending in the wind, flexibility. And may you survive; may you succeed; may you love and be loved in return.

– Harriet Ellenberger, 14 February 2002


	

She Is Still Burning 12 (March 2002)

8 August 2017: One thing I’m discovering from republishing these fifteen-year-old instalments of  She Is Still Burning: it’s the individual writer’s intensity, clarity of thought, attention to detail, that make a piece worth reading more than once. When they wrote it, and under what circumstances, matters much less.

I may be a little slow in coming to this realization—I think the rest of the world calls these things-worth-rereading “Literature.”

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment # 12
01 March 2002

“When my mornin’ comes around
From a new cup I’ll be drinkin’
And for once I won’t be thinkin’
There’s something wrong with me”
                                      – Iris Dement

Dear Friends,

Scientists have recently determined that the colour of space is turquoise. For reasons unclear to me, I was delighted with this announcement. And here’s another: last July, astronomers discovered a previously unknown planet on the edge of our solar system, eccentrically orbiting between and beyond Neptune and Pluto. The planet has not yet been named by an official committee of the International Astronomical Union (it’s currently referred to as “2001 KX76”), but the union will accept naming suggestions from anyone. Suzanne Cox submitted the name of the ancient Chinese goddess Nu Kua (because, after the universal holocaust, she repaired and restored the shattered columns that hold up heaven; she patched the torn heavens together, making the world whole again). I have kept wishing that something would repair the human-made hole in the ozone layer, so invoking Nu Kua by naming a newly discovered planet after her seems to me just the ticket. Why wait for an official committee to be similarly persuaded? Let’s all welcome Nu Kua to the planetary family, and hope she can do what she did before.

Invoking goddesses, ancient or otherwise, makes me feel slightly foolish, but I’ve reached the limits of patience with all these fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etcetera-etcetera who monopolize the naming of the mysterious, who, in effect, colonize the invisible. At the moment of their triumph, their time—as far as I’m concerned— is up. We will henceforth create our own religions, thank you very much. Based on kindness toward life forms (a novel idea when applied to the political/economic/military sphere).

Truth to tell, the political/economic/military sphere has become so lunatic that I’m finding it nearly impossible to write about clearly. Last night, Bert and I were watching a video of the film “Illuminata,” and we both latched onto the line, “In the name of all that is real, I’m going [away].” My sentiments exactly, but go away where? I used to relieve my frustrations by writing scathing commentary about Bush & Co., but, frankly, that doesn’t work anymore. How, for example, does one parody an “axis of evil” state-of-the-union address that is already a parody of itself?

Two days ago, on the excellent Montreal-based website Centre for Research on Globalisation, I ran onto the alarmingly titled article by John Stanton and Wayne Madsen “The Emergence of the Fascist American Theocratic State”. It has the virtue of compiling events from November 2000 through February 2002 into a coherent story, as told by future historians relating the demise of democracy in the U.S. The problem with the article is I couldn’t come up with much in the way of counter-arguments; the authors make too much sense. But read it for yourself, please, and let me know what you believe they may be exaggerating or omitting.

The question of what exactly the U.S. government has become in the last fifteen months seems to me crucial for those outside as well as inside its borders, since this is a state apparatus which has planted military bases throughout the world and which dominates the world economy, tracks global communications, and so forth. We need to know what’s being decided behind closed doors in Washington (as well as in those two fortified underground locations where the Associated Press today reports that a “shadow government” has been operating since “the first hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks”), and CNN isn’t telling us. So it’s a matter of putting together the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, seeing the picture that emerges.

Gertrude Stein reportedly once remarked that when there’s everything to fear, there is nothing to fear. Which makes a kind of psychological sense. When there is no security (no privacy either), what do we do? We do what it pleases us to do, simply that.

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


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•Sara Wright: letter with poems
•Ariane Brunet: letter
Lynn Martin: “Like an egg” (poem)


LETTER FROM SARA WRIGHT, 10 JANUARY 2002

Dear Harriet,

I am writing in response to the last issue (#11) of She Is Still Burning, but also because I want you to know how much I have appreciated your sending me each previous installment. … You’ll be pleased perhaps to know that a couple of the feathers you sent me ended up as part of a mask I created this fall called Shapeshifter, the Blue Voice of the Forest. I have been consistently moved by these ornithological offerings and wanted you to know …

I am hoping that your cat Pookie is mending still … I have special empathy for those of us whose relationships include non-humans …

In installment #11, I hungrily devoured those parallel letters that Lise and you wrote. You are so right—one certainly does illuminate the other. I don’t think I realized how truly isolated I have been here in this small mountain community, or how starved I have been for words from others of like mind. I do know how depressed I’ve felt. I also know that as a result of reading and re-reading those two letters I have made a decision to investigate the possibility of hooking up to the internet to help me tap into a couple of web sites (the ones you suggested) that might help to relieve my sense of isolation. This is a drastic step for one who dislikes machine chatter as much as I do.

After re-reading installment #11 one more time this morning, I also wrote a poem that is a first attempt to articulate my own distress, instead of giving into what has become pervasive fear and a terrifying sense of powerlessness. Most frightening is the realization that these powerful feelings have been present on some level just below the threshold of my own consciousness since the events of September 11th first occurred. My initial response to the bombing was one of rage towards the American people for believing that Americans could go on destroying human lives everywhere on earth but in this country without ever having to take the consequences. When I walked in the woods that first night, I wept with the trees.

Don’t for god’s sake feel you need to publish this poem. I’m sending it to show you that your words have moved me, and helped one person to break a silence too dangerous for words.

THE AMERICAN MASK

I am a woman without a country
Repelled by the iconic ribbons plastered on store windows—
That flap wildly from the phallic poles of speeding cars.
What new monstrosity does this American mask hide
Behind its horizontal slashes?
Beneath its two faced feigned unity?
I am a woman without a country.
How can I survive the paradox?
Living as a creature whose love for this land
Crosses every known boundary artificially created by man?
I am a woman without a country
Living on the threshold of a culture killing Wilderness
Who feels the Earth’s pulse drumming softly but persistently—
The song of the Universe pushing up from her feet.

What will become of this land and its woman

who keens with dark tree roots tangled in her hair

if her senses keep numbing

if her voice becomes mute?

It might interest you to know that on the morning of September 11th I was in the process of painting a watercolor called The Acorn Story when I suddenly felt compelled to paint a fiery orange sky on the left hand side. It was later that day that I received the news that the bombing had occurred. Instantly, I recalled my orange sky, understanding that I had inadvertently tapped into the collective without realizing it.

On the day we began to bomb Afghanistan I was attending a retreat and had just returned from a silent walk up Spruce Mountain when I had a very peculiar thought: namely that death and creativity were on the same edge. Feeling upset and curiously unsettled, I went into a quiet room and wrote the following poem without understanding the source of its imagery. It was noon on 10/7/01.

THE VOICE OF THE FOREST

Tree Woman
winds her way
around the bark.
Up and down
spiraling in both directions,
engraving her life in wormwood
Breathing tearful tree prayers.

In her wake
A wave breaks …
While slashed beech
and white pines burn,
An arid stench of death
Stunts the air.

A solitary presence
the barred owl takes flight,
her wide eyed vision piercing illusion.
Soaring on silent wings
she slices through the deeply troubled sky—
Marking this threshold passage
As her own
Crossing over into other worlds.

On a lighter note I am feeding the deer and wait with childlike anticipation for their arrival each night.

Blessings, Harriet, and warmest regards —
Sara (Wright)


LETTER FROM ARIANE BRUNET, 22 JANUARY 2002

[note: Ariane Brunet and I met by serendipitous accident on my first trip to Montreal, in 1984. Later, we were both part of a group that founded the women’s bookstore L’Essentielle in Montreal and began organizing for the 1988 Third International Feminist Bookfair. And much water under the bridge later, Ariane began working for the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, where she now coordinates their Women’s Rights Programme. The following letter is excerpted from correspondence between us when we reconnected, again by serendipitous accident, over the internet this past winter.]

From: Ariane Brunet
To: Harriet Ellenberger
Sent: Tuesday, January 22, 2002 6:33 PM
Subject: Re: happily satisfied …

Ah! I can only agree! You have no idea how good it feels to read you and to link with my literary radical friends! Good for the soul.

There is so much I would need to say about the human rights field … how women have learned to use it, but also how States have learned to use human rights as a post-colonial ideology. Yet my friends in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Columbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, etc. need to use the mechanisms that enable them to shame their country into changing a policy, acknowledging a violation from time to time. It doesn’t always work, of course, especially since Northern governments have used rights as a way to escape their own responsibility in the socio-economic domain. Yet, more aware then ever of the double-edged sword it has become, I keep trying to use this framework to make a dent here and there with other activists.

Right now, we would very much like to:

1) ensure that impunity for violence against women in war be a thing of the past (so we work on the International Criminal Court and the International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda and Ex-Yugoslavia; and develop strategies to engage Japan to apologize for the sexual military slavery of the 30s and 40s in Asia Pacific and, more importantly, to take legal responsibility for what they did to “comfort women”;

2) contribute to the work of Sima Samar and activists of Pakistan and Afghanistan to integrate women’s rights in the new constitution of Afghanistan;

3) establish an informal network of women activists to analyze the policies at the root of fundamentalism, be it Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist, nationalistic or cultural;

4) create an international coalition so Congolese women have a chance to sit at the peace negotiation table.

I write this, and on a good day I say to myself … yeah maybe we can get some of this done. Other days I feel we are fools. But fools are much needed these days. … Southern activists have certainly given me more than I will ever be able to express: their resolve, their endurance, their clear mind, political savvy, sense of humour, sense of joy, the way they share their vision …

Well, Harriet, reading all of your SISB made me realize that the writing women’s world also does that, and that I needed to get in touch again with that world as well. Sharing poems, reflections, ways of observing the world, transforming into quiet thoughts the noises of the world, is also essential in order to keep faith. So thank you, Harriet, for doing that. …

Amelia [Ariane’s cat] died two years ago after 23 years of life, 14 of which she lived with three legs. In fact, she used her tail as a rudder and could keep balance turning corners, running like no one else! So if cancer does not pursue its ravages, Pookie [Harriet and Bert’s cat, who recently had a leg amputated] will join the incredible agile ones!

love to you and a nice allo to your loved ones!
Ariane (Brunet)


LIKE AN EGG

I  crack  my  car  open
shatter  glazed  windows,  smash
a  mounded  roof, set  loose  a  buried  hood
rediscover and unblind headlights,
all the while caught between
fragility and imminent destruction,
as if I needed to be reminded
how thintheline,

the same as when I take pen to paper,
stubborn, no matter what goes down,
what computer winks out.
Gloved or huddled by candlelight
makes no difference, my soul
insists on release.

Emily, I can understand why
you sewedthosebooks together,
wrote the desired against
the freezing night. If that’s insanity
I choose it over pretense,  voices insisting
there’s nothing new under the sun.

If I  have  to  crack  cars  open
to get where I’m going,
wear crampons to grip the ground,
don a hard hat
        as
                      trees
                           come
                                  down
it’s no different than trying to shape
this poem, walk it firm
to meet the dawn of any new beginning.

Among tornadoes, volcanos, avalanches, nor’easters,
a hanging on, going on
with love a thin insulation
against the skin.

Lynn Martin