Season Changes

Ice forming on the surface of the pond yesterday, like wrinkles over the water. You can see stones around the water in a ring.
Ice was forming on the surface of the pond yesterday.

Yesterday felt like the true turning of the seasons, from warm autumn 70 degree days to a chilly, almost winter, high of 40 degrees. We had a freeze overnight and the pond surface was wrinkled with ice forming. I went around the yard putting away the last garden hose, the five-gallon buckets, the little tables we use in the back next to chairs. I turned over the wheelbarrows behind the garage. I covered our patio table and chairs with a tarp, and I plugged in the bird bath so it will keep water thawed during frozen weather. I got out the snow shovel and sand mixture to put on the back porch. I left 4 chairs around the fire circle–maybe we’ll get outside around a fire–it could happen!

Last Thursday was my last time lying in the hammock for the season. I could see two frogs still hanging out in the pond, the color of mud, not the green of summer. While I was lying there, suddenly I saw a huge bird flying nearby, up to the pine trees at the back near our yard. Looking closer, I recognized the characteristic shape of a turkey! It was dusk and the light was turning all black and white and shades of gray. We’ve had a little trio wandering in the yard during the last few weeks, so I am guessing this was one of them. I had to put the hammock away the next day.

Turkey in a pine tree at dusk, mostly black and white silhouette.
Turkey in a pine tree at dusk

This morning, we had a bit of snow, mixed with rain, so here we are. The gardening work, whether fully complete or not, is done for the season. And I was inspired to get back to my winter project–going through boxes of old papers in the basement. I am proud of myself for diving into it today!

Last winter, I went through 11 boxes from my years in Boston, organized, winnowed, and reduced them to four. I had just started on some boxes from the time before I moved there. This winter, I will go through papers from my time at the Women’s Peace Camp, and in Chicago, and in Grand Rapids. I went to Chicago from Grand Rapids in 1983 to attend Chicago Theological Seminary, from which I graduated in 1986. I visited the Peace Camp in the summer of 1983, and then lived there in the summer of 1985, and winter/summer 1986. These places were the scenes of my coming out as a lesbian, and my trying to figure out what ministry might look like for someone like me. At the time I had left the Catholic church, and was part of the emerging feminist spirituality movement. I experienced so much transformation during those years, and I am fascinated to read what I wrote about it. It was a season of profound personal change.

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The Mystery Seed

On March 14th, at 1 p.m. Queer Spirit will broadcast an interview with me, done by Revs. Marvin Ellison and Tamara Torres McGovern. Queer Spirit is a regular feature of OUT Cast, a forum for LGBTQ+ issues broadcast on community radio every Monday. WMPG 90.9 FM from 1:00 – 1:30 p.m. (Livestream: WMPG.org) One of the questions they asked: “What do you think has been your generation’s unique struggle with sexuality and spiritualty – and what would you say is your generation’s contribution to these matters?” I thought about what I had written in my book, Finding Our Way Home, in a chapter called “The Mystery Seed.” I want to share an excerpt with you today.

Bean seeds

Do you remember the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk? When he and his mother are in desperate straits, Jack trades their cow for some magical bean seeds. The bean seeds grow overnight into a vine that reaches up to the sky. He climbs the vine and encounters an evil giant, who eats human beings, but Jack is able to escape with a magical hen that lays golden eggs, and a golden harp that plays by itself. He learns from a fairy that the giant’s castle is actually his very own—he is really a prince whose father was killed by the giant. In the end, he kills the giant, and recovers his hidden inheritance.

So what does this have to do with us? The bean seeds enable Jack to connect with who he truly is, and with a larger reality beyond the small cabin he shares with his mother. Within each one of us is something like those magical bean seeds. We are so much more than we can imagine. We might say inside each of us is a Mystery seed, a seed of what we might become. This Mystery seed is our potential to connect with the larger Mystery of which we are a part; it is the Divine within us that connects to the Divine beyond us, it is the fractal pattern of life and love and creativity. This seed is not only in some of us, not only in fairy tales or kings or saints, but in every one of us.

What evidence do I have for this seed of divinity within each human being? How have I personally experienced this might be so? Ironically, it has been illuminated when I faced situations where people were treated as if they had no dignity or value at all. But something within and between people transpired to bring forth a light that could not be extinguished.

When I went to college, one of my best friends slowly revealed to a few of us that he was homosexual. This was a great torment for him and for all of us who loved him, because we were very devoted Catholics. According to Catholic teaching, homosexuality was against the laws of nature. Tom would try hard to live celibately, and then crash, and go out and “get debauched.” He was depressed and often despaired of his life. I felt a painful contradiction in all of this—I knew he was a deeply spiritual person, so why should he suffer in this way? But I didn’t have an answer at that time.

Before I met Tom, in the reality of my youth, it was as if gay people did not exist. When I was growing up, during the 1950s and 60s, I never even heard the word lesbian, and gay only meant happy. I never saw gay people on TV, read about them in a book or newspaper, or learned about them in school. As a girl in a Catholic family there were two possibilities for my life path: I could become a wife and mother, or I could become a nun. I never even imagined the possibility of lesbian.

Tom’s dilemma introduced to me a whole category of people who were considered unworthy of sacredness. Gay people were not supposed to exist. And if they did exist, they were identified as unnatural, disordered, a mistake, a problem. African American lesbian poet Audre Lorde writes, “We were never meant to survive.”[i]

At that time it never even occurred to me I might have something in common with that group of people. I didn’t come out as a lesbian until years later, at the age of thirty-one, after a five-year process of struggle and transformation… Gays and lesbians have often been excluded or disparaged even by those who are closest to us. After I came out, one of my sisters refused to let me stay in her home because she didn’t want her children to know about gay people. I received a letter from another sister. She wrote, “I pray for you night after night… Homosexuality is wrong! And as your sister I don’t want to lose you to the devil.” Her words were those many of us have heard from parents or siblings, or from the institutions of our society.

How much guilt, despair, and shame have gay people carried in our hearts because we were not welcome in the reality defined by our culture and religion? Because we could not see the sacredness within? How many gay people have killed themselves in the pain of that reality? How many gay people have been killed, through the violence and hate of a society that has refused to include us in their definition of reality?

But so much has changed. Now it is hard to imagine I didn’t know about the existence of lesbians or gay men. Now gay people are in prime-time television. There are supportive high school groups for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Straight youth. My friend Tom eventually was able to embrace his sexuality, and share his life with a long-time partner. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to allow same sex couples to be legally married, and in the years since, marriage has been won throughout the whole country.

Even language became transformed. Words like lesbian, or queer—once painful putdowns—were reclaimed as words of honor. I remember we young activists marching and shouting, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

So much has changed. For me, it seems like a miracle—in fact, two miracles. First, I still can be amazed I exist as a lesbian at all. How did I cross over into a whole new reality? It is as fantastical as Jack climbing a bean stalk into a castle in the sky. Second, it is remarkable that we who are queer can celebrate being queer. How did we go from being outcasts, to celebrating and believing in ourselves? How did we go from being outcasts, to demanding that reality make a place for us? To celebrate ourselves as queer we often have had to risk every other valuable thing in our lives. We’ve risked family, friends, jobs, safety. Yet this thing which was considered a problem became the “pearl of great price,”[ii] as the gospel says. This heavy burden became the hen that laid golden eggs. And it has been incredible to see!

What happens within people that they can claim the power to celebrate themselves? …What happens inside people when they refuse the rejection of society, and claim the right to name themselves valuable. When people who have been told all their lives “You are no good,” find within themselves a different voice that says, “You are sacred.” To me, this is powerful evidence of the divinity within us. And this is the premise of the work of those of us who call ourselves Liberation Theologians: the Divine is revealed in the struggle of oppressed people for liberation.[iii] It is the Mystery seed within us growing like a vine into the sky.

…That is what happened for me, too. Within a community of women, I experienced a new reality coming into being. With women who were celebrating lesbian existence, I encountered the Divine in a new way. Sometimes we called it the Goddess. Sometimes we had no name to describe it. But we felt a sacred and holy power when we seized the courage to embrace the body of another woman. Everything shifted. It no longer mattered whether we were welcome at the table of the society that excluded us. We were in a new reality and could no longer be denied.

Me and Rev. Marvin Ellison, back in 2009, as co-leaders of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, getting ready for the public hearing.

[i] Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival,” The Black Unicorn: Poems (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1978), 31.

[ii] Matthew 13:45-46.

[iii] Liberation Theology was first articulated in 1971 by the Catholic Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, in his book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (1971 in Spanish, English edition Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973).

Winter Winnowing

At work in the basement with shredded paper, photo by Margy Dowzer

Every couple days I go down into the basement, to sort through my old boxes. I cover up with an over-shirt and apron, cotton gloves and mask, to protect me somewhat against allergies to dust and old paper. I pull out a box and open it up to reveal treasures and trash, scribbled notes and carefully typed poetry, cherished memories and forgotten moments. I have no idea when I might finish, but it helps to think of this as my Winter Project.

Sometimes I think of it as death cleaning, as in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, a method of organizing and decluttering your home before you die to lessen the burden of your loved ones after you’ve passed. But I am not following any methods put forth in this book. What connects is that I am weighing everything against the question “What value might these things have, after I am gone?”

When I became a feminist in 1979, I became aware of how women were hidden from history, how most written history prioritized the deeds of white men in power. Wonderfully, feminist historians, and those of other marginalized communities, have been bringing to light these hidden histories/herstories for several decades. Along the way, I internalized the belief that our own lives are part of history, too. My life is part of history.

As a childless lesbian woman, I won’t have descendants that would value my writings. But that makes it feel even more important to preserve my stories, especially those of lesbian activism, lesbian community, lesbian spirit. And so I have been thinking about what might be valuable for an archive, and in fact, I have already communicated with an LGBTQ archive that expressed interest in my papers. So this becomes an important measure for what to save, and what to shred.

But beyond what value these papers might have after I die, it has also been so valuable for me as a method to reflect on my life as a whole, revealed in what was saved, deliberately or accidentally, during various parts of my life. So far I have been going through boxes from the time I lived in Boston, from 1986 to 1999. I guess I started in the center of my life. There is a lot of shredding-I reduced the first three boxes to just one. I think after I finish with Boston, I will likely go back to the earlier boxes, and only then return to the more recent ones. Perhaps then it will be easier to put it all in perspective.

I don’t know why it has taken so long to begin this project. I don’t know why now seems like the time to do it. But in the middle of winter, in the midst of a pandemic, in this liminal time after retiring, my spirit feels called to this remembering, this winnowing, and so I keep going down into the basement to see what I will find.

My Lesbian Book

Thirty years ago, I wrote a thesis about lesbian identities and lesbian spiritualities: a lesbian theology of liberation. I didn’t have the grounding and context to publish it beyond my academic program, and I have always regretted that it didn’t make it into a book. Recently, I have been asking myself, could I find a way to publish it now?

It seems in one sense a foolish idea, because so much has changed in thirty years. The realities of then are not the realities of now. But while much of the change has been empowering for lesbians and others on the LGBTQ continuum, some things have been lost as well. There was something amazing about the flowering of lesbian community I experienced during that time–joyful, life altering, transformative.

I first encountered lesbian community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of all places, and at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival in 1979. This was before my own coming out, and certainly an instrumental part of my coming out, though that process took several years. There was a fundamental intersection between lesbian and feminist communities that was happening then, that opened up this world to me. In 1983 I moved to Chicago to go back to school, and found more lesbian community there.

ADB jam, Women’s Peace Camp, 1985. Photo by hershe Michele. https://peacecampherstory.blogspot.com/2014/12/herstory-028-helen-friedman-aka-helen.html

In 1985 and 86, I lived at the Women’s Peace Encampment in upstate New York for several months of each year, and that was like crossing the border into Lesbian Nation. The photo above is from a musical jam session that was one of many I participated in, though I am not in that particular photo. In 1986 I moved to the Boston area. The feminist and lesbian communities there were large and diverse: they supported–and were supported by–two book stores, several lesbian bars, a women’s community center, a woman’s monthly periodical, and so much more. It was in 1990-91 that I wrote my thesis in the context of Episcopal Divinity School’s Feminist Liberation Theology and Ministry program.

When I left Boston in 1999, it was to venture into a career as a Unitarian Universalist minister, which brought me back into the more mainstream world. I was still out as a lesbian, I was still connected to other lesbians, but being a minister shaped my role and altered my relationship to community. That, and the fact of changing my location, first to Cape Cod and then to Portland, Maine, which were very different places from Boston. Somewhere along the way, it seemed like the lesbian community I knew disappeared. I might have thought this was just my personal experience, but then in 2016, Bonnie Morris published The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbians Spaces and Culture. I haven’t yet read her book, but it has been sitting on my bedside table waiting.

It has only been in retirement, in older age, and perhaps in the isolation of this pandemic, that I have looked back at my lesbian thesis and wondered about it. From thirty years on, I can see how difficult it has been for us to pass on a “lesbian heritage” from one generation to the next. I notice how individuals of newer generations may sometimes find themselves lost and lonely as they try to grapple with sexual or gender identity. I also notice how newer generations re-invent themselves on their own, and in their own ways, very differently from those of us in earlier generations. So perhaps all of that is fine.

But perhaps there might be something valuable in resurrecting the voice of the me of thirty years ago, perhaps it might be useful to someone. After I did an oral history for a program at the University of Southern Maine, a student who listened to the recording was inspired to write a poem, “What if God were a lesbian?” And significantly, that was very like the original question that inspired my own book. What if?

Rainbow Visit

Rainbow in Cushing

Margy and I have been visiting with friends in a cabin on the water in Cushing, Maine. This was the view from the cabin the other day, as a rain shower passed through, quickly followed by bands of sunshine, creating a magnificent full rainbow.  It has also been a “rainbow” visit because we are lesbians of a certain age just hanging out and talking and laughing and sometimes bemoaning the state of the country.  While I would never want to lose the wealth that comes from loving friends of all ages and experiences, I have also been appreciating this time filled with the familiarity of shared life experiences.  It is a sense of being understood and understanding, that we “get” each other, from our coming out stories to the advertising jingles that got stuck in our brains long ago.

What is the role of identity in our social justice struggles?  Maybe too big a question to ponder while on this mini-vacation.  But we got talking about the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which was so empowering and life changing for so many women–including me–but has more recently been the subject of attacks from those who claim it excluded and oppressed Trans women.  And then I also happened to read an article posted yesterday by a friend on Facebook that raised this challenge:

Identity politics have made organizing in social movements almost impossible, as division and suspicion are increasingly encouraged and groups splinter as a result.

That article linked to another, by Lauren Oates, “How Identity Politics is Destroying the Left and Being Used By the ‘Alt-Right.”  I liked some of her points, but I couldn’t rest easy with her concluding question, which seemed to me to misunderstand our struggle to end racism:

It’s about whether you want the world to be perpetually hyper in tune to race — the position identity politics advocates — or whether you want the world to eventually be blind to race.

I don’t think the goal of ending racism is to eventually “be blind to race.”  However, she linked to another article from last year that offered a more nuanced and compelling analysis, Safety Pins and Swastikas by Shuja Haider.  I was particularly drawn in by his critique of the idea of cultural appropriation, since I have been deeply involved in raising that issue in regards to non-Native people’s use of Indigenous spiritual practices.  (In 1995, I first published the essay, Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft.)

He talks about how the Right has mocked it, “Among the many silly ideas of young leftists who want to appear good without the hassle of doing good, ‘cultural appropriation’ stands alone,” quoting the National Review.  But then, of more import, he points out that “the rhetoric of mainstream antiracism is itself susceptible to appropriation by the Right.”

The eligibility of people to make certain kinds of claims is dependent on the set of criteria that fall into the category of “identity.” Your right to political agency is determined by your description.  We’re left with a simple rubric for determining the truth-value of a statement. Who said it, what group do they belong to, and what are members of that group entitled to say?

…It should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable. The problem is that they are compatible.

I am pulling these quotes a bit out of context, and I encourage anyone concerned with the struggle for justice to check out the full articles.  I would be interested in your thoughts in response to them.  I am genuinely curious about the role of identity in liberation struggles–it has been a compelling question throughout my years as an activist.  Hierarchy, power, liberation, alliance…How do we acknowledge our location? How do we come together with those whose struggles are different from our own?

Forgive me for this meandering thought journey, in which I haven’t fully unpacked anything. But before I conclude for now, I want to come back to one of the most hopeful examples of people working together, both acknowledging and moving beyond “identities,” to face the crisis of our country, the moral fusion movement started in North Carolina by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.

Rev. Barber laid the groundwork for a state-by-state movement that unites black, white, and brown, rich and poor, employed and unemployed, gay and straight, documented and undocumented, religious and secular. Only such a diverse fusion movement, Rev. Barber argues, can heal our nation’s wounds and produce public policy that is morally defensible, constitutionally consistent, and economically sane.

This quote is from the description of Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction:  How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.  You can find out more about this movement at Repairers of the Breach.  Oh, let’s not forget that a rainbow is a sign of hope!