My (Tardy) Self-Introduction
James Taylor was on Good Morning America live at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts today. He sang "Sweet Baby James" and drew a roar from the crowd at the line you can all guess. I once got to sing that same line on a visit to two dear friends while we were on "the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston". He talked about how he had written "Fire and Rain" within a few hundred yards of where he was sitting 40 years ago almost exactly.
"Fire and Rain" is possibly the most important song of my adolescence. When I was 14, I wrote my first book, an extremely bad sci-fi effort called "The Invasion". My second book, at 15, was an attempt to combine The Catcher in the Rye with S.E. Hinton, and I named it "Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines" after a line from "Fire and Rain". (In pieces on the ground...) It was also an atrocious piece of writing, although it would probably be successful as a "pretty white kids with problems" series on the CW, and I can see in it subtle hints of what would become my real voice decades later.
James Taylor and Carole King were the songwriters I listened to every day. Aside from them, there were the three J's (Joni, Judy, and Joan), Linda Ronstadt, the Supremes, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Janis Ian, and Aretha Franklin. Mostly I gravitated toward what was called, in the sexism of the times, "girl with guitar", although there was the occasional guy with guitar. Like James. Because I ran around with a group of teenaged boys, I of course heard Steppenwolf and The Doors on our 8-tracks, and my little brother was a complete head-banger. But I preferred lyrics and melody over noise.
As I watched sweet baby James sing this morning, filled with the unrequited yearning of a 14-year-old, the camera panned the crowd -- mostly grey-hairs like me. But one of them held a sign up to the lens: Alaskans for Obama. And the decades fused a complete circuit, the tail of the lizard found its mouth, and I felt a jolt of energy.
Jesse asked us newcomers to GNB to write an introductory post, telling you who we are. I'm very late in fulfilling this request. Mostly I didn't know where to begin, where to find ground not already covered elsewhere. Almost all the writing I do is autobiographical. I can't seem to create without memoir and elegy folded into the process. I think that is my poor white Southern legacy infiltrated with lesbian-feminist honesty: Speak for yourself, own where you are coming from, but make a good story out of it.
Here are some pieces: I've never once voted for an increase in police or prison spending. I've never once voted against a tax increase. I voted for Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, making this the third time I will cast my vote for an African-American for President. I never believed a single word Ronald Reagan uttered. I was not taken in by Bill Clinton's rhetoric, either, but I did believe he would more liberal than he turned out to be, which left me with a permanent cynicism, exhorting me to value action over speechifying. (Well, I also learned that from recovery programs: Action, not words.)
I am not an addict but a lot of the people I've loved the most have been and I think addiction governs our culture.
I am the only member of the family I was born into who is still alive.
I began writing poetry at age nine, the same season that I came out to myself as a lesbian (in 1965). I kept both identities to myself until I was a teenager, when the writings of lesbian-feminists reached even my extremely rural North Texas county and gave me a reason to keep from killing myself. I have never had sex with a male. I've had a lot of good, often extraordinary sex; when I went into recovery from being an incest survivor, I overcame sexual compulsion and learned trust, which made sex simultaneously much better and no longer a driving force in my life.
From the age of eight or nine months until four years, I lived in Kolkata, India. I began speaking English (with a slight British accent) and Hindi at nine months. I spent my days on the streets of Kolkata with Nilmoni, the woman hired by my parents as my ayah (nanny). Nilmoni had gone to school with and remained close friends with girls who became sisters in the Missionaries of Charity order during those mid 1950's years. We followed them around as they (including Mother Teresa) fed the poorest people on earth, bathed them, tended lepers, and lived among them as human beings. It shaped me in ways I cannot describe.
When I was four, my parents gave up their overseas job to return to deeply racist 1959 Southern Louisiana, where I discovered who my real people were supposed to be. As we slowly sank back into poverty (though not Kolkata style poverty), I decided saving my family would be my life's work. I was badly misinformed about my own resources, but in many respects it was still a good decision. I failed at it, of course -- you cannot save anyone but yourself. They are all dead now, and I have myself to save still, which I do with joy and anticipation on a daily basis. It turns out that saving myself involves loving the world, so I'm back to square one.
My mother Jo as a teenager during World War II fell in love with another girl, her best friend, and intended to spend her life with Mary Nell. When Mary Nell succumbed to lesbian panic, Mama decided to stick with men because "they couldn't break my heart". She was wrong about that -- there are more ways to break someone than through heartstrings, and my father found them all. She warned me against lesbianism when I was 17 and about to persuade my high school history teacher to leave her husband for me. I ignored Mama, embarked on a five-year relationship with the woman who was the mother of my daughter, and became a parent at age 17. The parenting decision was one of the smartest things I ever did.
During the 30's, I found out that Mama's mother, Hettie, had also been in love with a woman, Nora, who was a distant cousin. Nora moved away from the same county where Mama and I went to high school, went to the city and found a job in an office during 1918. Hettie couldn't find the courage to follow, and instead eventually married Bill, my grandfather, because he was a decent guy who made her laugh. She died when Mama was not quite a year old, and Bill died a few years later. Mama was orphaned at the beginning of the Depression, but found a good home with her aunt and uncle. Her siblings were not so lucky, and landed in terrible situations.
Thus, I am third generation lesbian. I do not, however, believe this is genetic. I absolutely do not believe sexual preference is in our DNA (not ANY version of sexual preference). I believe culture shapes us, and not only reconfigures our brains as we go along, but also rewires our DNA in a single generation -- a belief being born out by epigenetics. I find tremendous hope and political power in this reality.
Likewise, I believe gender is a construct, just as race. For every behavior or tendency we in our view claim is "masculine" or "feminine", you can find a culture in the world where, at some point in time, those things were identified as the opposite on the gender binary. This either means that those other people were not "real human beings" or that what we think as gender-linked traits are entirely mutable. The latter is what makes sense to me, given that the history of humanity has been tinkering with identity expression in every way possible. I believe biological determinism is a viewpoint born of despair, and it arises during times of severe repression as a popular excuse for giving up on radical (at the roots) change.
I think America was founded on institutional racism and classism, as well as gender exploitation, and in order to create a genuinely free society, we have to be willing to examine and alter every single truth we hold most self-evident.
My people arrived at Jamestown in 1609. Since then, every generation in my lineage has been Southern, and most of them have been poor. (I am a genealogist, I've dug deep.) I claim my mother's worst fear, poor white trash, with humor and pride. In every one of the 12 generations we've been invaders and eventually children of this soil, I've located ancestors who had visions of liberty and peace, who did whatever they could to improve the world around them. Their efforts created me, and I don't think I'm unique. I speak for my people, and hope to lead them to redemption.
During my early 20s, living in San Francisco, I carried a gun with me in my pocket most places. I expected the revolution to break out at any point, and I intended to be a footsoldier in it. Within a few years, however, the Quakers got their hands on me, and I slowly became a pacifist. I trained myself to listen. I came to understand, in a new way, the meaning of Che Guevara's statement "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." I stopped being a separatist, I returned to Texas in order to work among my people, and I returned to deism after three decades of atheism (although I keep complete respect for all those former states of being and have no desire to "convert" others.)
I also became slowly, increasingly disabled, poor, and isolated as a result. But my voice as a writer expanded.
There's volumes more about my story available at my blog or in my poetry, if you're interested. I'll close with the event that pushed me over the edge into pacifism, a possibly apocryphal story told in Quaker circles: George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, was approached by William Penn, who helped bring Quakerism to the United States. Many of the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas (among whom were my ancestors, including the Boones) were increasingly finding themselves wanting to join the armed struggle which would soon become the American Revolution. The cause was so right, so necessary, they felt it overwhelmed their pacifist beliefs. Penn wondered what to tell these people. Fox's reply was that they should "wear your sword as long as you are able". The meaning in this was that if you are still able to be seduced by a cause into taking up arms, you might as well admit it and be true to that part of yourself, rather than assume a false pacifism. Genuine pacifism alters you so completely that you are unable to wear a sword under any circumstances.
To live by any ideal, including pacifism, means thinking far ahead and anticipating what challenges will come at you, what structures and beliefs you must put into place now so you will have the resource to deal with those challenges. It means building from the ground up and living as best you can in the new structure. When I lay down my sword, I entered a new vulnerability which has informed all my decisions since. To quote Terry Galloway, "It's a good life if you can stand it."