Why isn’t Jane Jacobs a household name? How many people think of Robert Moses as a towering figure in our city’s history, but have no clue that Jane Jacobs was our savior? I had no idea either, until I saw the documentary Citizen, which is not a very good film, but managed in spite of itself to tell the story we should all already know.
Washington Square Park would have been a sprawling expressway and most of Manhattan would be a thruway from Westchester to Long Island if it hadn’t been for Jane Jacobs.
And if she had been a big fat man who smoked cigars and intimidated other not so big, just as fat men, we might have had far fewer large, desolate housing projects and many more mixed income communities throughout the city.
She was never accorded the true avenger status she deserved—in fact, the press treated her like a novelty: a cute little middle-aged housewife making noise and wielding protest signs. But she taught herself to be a first-class organizer and masterfully manipulated the media to shed light on Moses’ systematic destruction of New York.
Jane Jacobs wrote The Life and Death of American Cities at the same time that Rachel Carson published The Silent Spring and Betty Friedan unleashed The Feminine Mystique.
We have been doing this work— this shifting of entrenched paradigms, dismantling of male power structures, organizing of badass women to save our cities, our planet, and ourselves—for centuries. Sometimes it seems like there is no progress at all; sometimes it seems like two steps forward, one step back. So when I think about what Jane, Rachel and Betty accomplished through their words and actions, and what our world might look like without them, I get re-inspired. I’m taking my middle aged, grey-haired, tire- around-the-tummy self and jumping into the fray. I’m all in. Thanks, Jane.
I’m reading the newly released A Grace Paley Reader, which was just released by FSG. Wow.
You know how you think you know a lot about an author you admire, and then you find out you didn’t really know jack? Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and Little Disturbances of Man hit me hard in my 20s. I can’t remember a single plot line, but I still carry those books in my heart. Through her characters’ every day lives, she reached out to say, yes—I know how you are feeling. You are not alone. This is just a part of what it means to be human. You will be scarred, but not broken.
I knew she was a fierce West Village activist in her day. I pictured a little old grey haired lady handing out flyers on the corner of 6th Avenue and Waverly.
But now that I have read (maybe re-read? Signs of my own grey haired lady-ness creeping in) her essays, I realize how profound and powerful her voice was at the time. She was a brilliant, badass woman who saw the world through a clear, fierce, feminist lens, and forever changed the world for the rest of us.
In Illegal Days, she shares her own experience of getting an illegal abortion. It’s one of the best essays I have ever read about abortion. She puts the fight to control our lives, our bodies, and our sexual choices into historical context and makes an eloquent, irrefutable case for abortion rights.
If you want to read about some of the women whose shoulders we stand on, read Six Days: Some Remembering, The Seneca Stories: Tales from the Women’s Peace Encampment, and Of Poetry and Women in the World.
Grace Paley’s work reminds us that while the Women’s March was a great day, the real work happens every day—in poetry, in essays, in jail cells, on courthouse steps, and on corners like 6th Avenue and Waverly Place.
Thanks to Myfirstgirlfriend. com for publishing my coming out story to my kids:
The first person I came out to was myself. It was a surprise, even though it had been a 35-year process, if you start the clock at age 15 when I was wearing men’s military pants and pining for my camp counselors. The next person I came out to was my best friend. He didn’t seem surprised. “Great. Glad you know. Now let’s not tell anyone else until your divorce is final.” Yes, somehow, I’d gotten through 17 years of marriage and two-thirds of a divorce without knowing. But that’s a whole other story.
After the divorce was final, I started dating women—a terrifying prospect at 40, after almost 20 years of being in a relationship and identifying as straight. It took me a while to read clues that would have set off alarm bells for LTLs (long-time lesbians). Like, for example, when a woman you are dating organizes her whole life around feeding her cat three hot meals a day. Then there’s the U-Haul that overstays its welcome. That’s when your girlfriend still co-owns her house with her ex-partner—and the ex lives on the top floor while your girlfriend lives on the bottom. Think Downton Abbey without the starched pinafores. Granted, it makes shuttling the golden retriever between households a lot easier. But it also starts to feel like you are in a relationship with your girlfriend and a mysterious woman who lives in the attic…. Mrs. Rochester, anyone?
After learning the kind of relationship lessons most dykes had learned decades earlier, I started dating a woman who I met through one of my closest friends. It began as one of those exciting, charged friendships laced with the possibilities that dance just below the surface. Then one day she drove down to Brooklyn from her New England farmhouse and swooped me off my feet.
This one was the real deal. It also meant that the real coming out moment had finally arrived. It was time to tell the kids. My daughter was fourteen; my son was eleven. Since they were still reeling from the aftermath of the divorce—an unnatural disaster they would be recovering from the rest of their lives—I had kept my previous ill-fated experiments under wraps. But now, it had become a secret too big to keep—and I wanted to introduce them to my new love.
Talk about terror. It wasn’t the fact that I was gay, but the questions behind it. When did you know? Is this why you got divorced? Why did you marry Dad? How can you have been married for 17 years and not know? Is our whole family a sham? I was terrified that they would blame me for the wreckage, and that the bonds we had—the love that defined my world—would be forever broken.
From the moment each of them was born, I loved them with a fierceness that will forever be my anchor on this earth. The joy of small moments, like holding those little hands on the walk to school, was greater than anything else that had come before. And, conversely, the first time they experienced heartbreak, mine broke a thousand times harder. I’m sure that the fear of damaging that love is what kept my own heart– and self-awareness– cloaked in darkness for many years.
The first conversation was a strange, awkward affair. “I loved your father for years, and then we got divorced, and now I’m dating a woman.” They stared at me and seemed to take it in stride. Years later I found out that I had not avoided setting off those parental landmines that leave lasting scars. Like when my son asked why our marriage had ended, and apparently I had answered, “Sometimes love just runs out.” Wow. What a great way to comfort an eleven year-old searching for security.
I never quite managed to feel comfortable around my kids with my new partner. She’s now my ex-partner and definitely doesn’t live upstairs. It’s taken a good ten years to feel comfortable around myself with the new me. But my children and I have forged a new family dynamic—one that is stronger, closer, and more honest than ever before. It turns out that risking the loss of love by sharing the truth can have the opposite effect.
My son, now twenty, came out last summer. I am watching him wrestle with all that entails—no matter how supportive the environment, it is still a road filled with treacherous turns. I hope that he feels both of his parents’ unconditional love, and that maybe my own journey to find and live the truth can make his a little easier. At the very least, I can warn him about the cat food situation.
At the tender age of 54, I went to my first dyke march this year. As my BFF would say, it was heaven on a biscuit. For starters, you'll note this pic is from Eileen Myles's Instagram. In real life, I was standing right next to the lovely lady wearing this t-shirt, looking at Eileen Myles as she took this pic and thinking, damn--she looks even better in person than she did when she was hanging out with Cherry Jones on Transparent. That was right after Cherry Jones hung out with the 20 year olds in the hot tub...but I digress.
I went to the march with my friends Nancy and Kate (of the purple protest shirt). This was old hat for them—a yearly protest/celebration with dear old friends, mini-reunions, and war stories. For me, it was an initiation ceremony—another rite of passage along the late blooming path. There I was, smack in the middle of a big, messy dyke bazaar--grey-haired hippies, young studs (with studs), dapper dons, lipstick wonders, babes in Toyland. In between chatting with folks, I walked silently, taking it in. I thought about what the protest meant when it started and what it still means today for the many women brutalized by hatred and discrimination because they've been brave enough to live out loud.
Once again I find myself grateful to all of the dykes who made it possible to walk in a joyous, peaceful protest. Thank you, women warriors.
One of the side benefits of having a kick-ass 22-year-old poet for a daughter is that she introduces me to badass writers like Eileen Myles. I just finished Chelsea Girls, Myles’ first novel which was republished recently alongside a collection of her poems. It felt a little like reading Patti Smith’s Just Us Kids—both books chronicle their early days as broke, starving artists in NYC in the 70s. And they are both fabulous reads, but for different reasons. Among her virtues—or vices, depending on who’s doing the telling—are Myles’ descriptions of her many sexual exploits. Steamy, tender, drunken, passionate and light-hearted, she describes each one with an irresistible honesty and fierce energy. And, if well-written hot-as-hell sex scenes aren’t enough, Myles also gifted me with a revelation about three-ways. I’ve never been in one—um, or been invited, let me just admit—but the idea always made me queasy. First of all, it’s taken till my 50s to shed a lot of the prudish, self-hating, sex-fearing crap I absorbed from my upbringing. But even with most of that gone (o.k. some of it gone), whenever I thought about it, I wondered whether it would immediately lead to jealousy—what if your partner was more into the other person than you, etc. But it never occurred to me to think about being the third!! There’s Myles, jumping into bed as the new play thing for an adventurous, open-hearted, sexy couple, and on top of that, hanging out with the kids making breakfast and watching cartoons (well, I could skip that part). And getting free dinners—which might have been her primary motivation; hard to tell. Anyway, if you haven’t already gotten the message, run, do not walk, to get a copy, and then get ready to steam up your windows….
Wow. These three women were already rock stars: a SCOTUS Girl Group who could kick Destiny's Child to the curb with their bad-ass legal arguments, white silk pants suits and kitten heels (yes, Edie, that would be you) and love story that conquered all. Now it turns out they were destined to change the world together--and it all started at the same place: women reaching out to help other women get to the other side.
Read this blog post from a mom who put her son first, by staying quiet about his two moms while he worked on becoming an Eagle Scout, and then wrote a brilliant letter to the troop revealing all. And by all, I mean how lucky they were to have that family as a part of their community. Go Carol, Karol, and Zachary!! what-i-did-about-openly-gay-leaders-in-my-boy-scout-troop
Just purchased: 3 men's blazers from UNIQLO (on sale; hurry ). This is another small triumph in the dare-to-be-a-dyke department. If you've been following the Examining the Closet series, you'll know that my high school wardrobe featured wallabees, military pants, and men's gym shorts. Then during the phase commonly known as adult straight woman, I tried to wear "appropriate," i.e. women's, clothes. With disasterous results. If I had not burned most of the pictures from that period I might post one here. How great to be filling the empty closet (meaning, I'm not in it anymore) with men's blazers, oxfords, tailored pants and yes, many pairs of men's gym shorts.
Next challenge: orthopedic shoes that don't scream "I've escaped from the nursing home!"
Do you remember "Soup?" "Art?" "Soup?" "Art?"
She's a goddess, a comedic genius, a wise woman, and one red hot sexy septuagenarian!
If you have not seen Grandma,her new film, run, sprint, fly to the nearest theater.
Thanks, Lily--if only someday Laverne Cox would give you a tattoo with my initials......
My mother died in October. She didn’t know I was gay. Let me rephrase that: I never told her I was gay. When I first came out, in my forties, she was just beginning to show serious signs of Alzheimer’s. I told myself it wasn’t necessary—why bring it up now, when she won’t remember it anyway.
The truth was, I didn’t want to make myself that vulnerable with my mother—we had a bad history, and this was just the kind of landmine that could explode in an instant. I didn’t have enough armor on this particular issue to go into battle.
As she descended into confusion, it was hard to tell what she understood and what she didn’t. Ironically, the disease caused her to become friendly and nice for the first time in her life—my kids and I were shocked when the nurses would say, “oh, your mother is so sweet.” This was a woman who could knock you out cold with one sentence and a single glare.
My partner at the time always came with me to see my mother—she got how toxic it could still be, even with the new, socially acceptable version of my mother. At the end of each visit, my mother would turn to me and say, “I love you.” Then she would turn to my partner and say, “I love you, too.” Did she know? Was she sending me a message that it was ok, and she was glad I had found love? Or was she just appreciating the fact that she was being taken care of?
My mother was proud to be a lefty—she raised me to believe that civil rights and equality for women were the most important issues of our day, and she fought for them. But I don’t think she would have been proud to have a gay daughter. I think it would have been a profound disappointment to her. And in spite of what I know in my head, in my heart I would have felt that I had failed her. Hearts are fickle like that.
Sometimes I wish I had had the courage to tell her when I was coming out. I was in my 40s for god sake—what could she have done to me? Even up until the very end, when she had lost almost all of her memories, she always knew who I was. I was with her for the week leading up to her death, and she died holding my hand. We had come a long way together to get to that peaceful end. I like to think that she knew, and that she had come to terms with it, just as I had come to terms with some of the things she had done and the reasons she did. On one of the final days, after she’d lost the ability to talk, I whispered to her: “we are both fierce, independent women,” and a tear ran down her cheek. She knew I was making peace. She did raise me to be a fierce, independent woman, with the strength to come out so late in life. And for that, I am grateful. Thanks, Felicia. May you rest in peace.
After seeing Les Mis last week, I thought back to those days (well, years really) of ambiguity when I knew I had feelings I didn't quite know what to do with.
Now, things have become much clearer. The minute she came on the screen, I did not covet Anne Hathaway's snappy blue bonnet. I did however, covet her.
In addition, it only took me twenty minutes into the film to realize that it was not Russell Crowe's body I was coveting, but in fact, his uniform....Ah, clarity
Edie Windsor is a gay activist, a tough broad, one-half of a 42-year love affair, and at age 83, a total sex kitten.
As plaintiff, she is leading the fight, to be heard this year in the Supreme Court against DOMA. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/31/edie-windsor-doma-plainti_n_2388292.html
I had the great fortune of hearing Edie speak at the Gay Film Fest this year. Then I watched the documentary "Edie and Thea: a Very Long Engagement." If you haven't seen it, run, don't walk (it's on netflix).
She and Thea had one of the great loves. You can see so clearly in the movie, it wasn't all "candy and roses," as Mary J. Blige would say. In fact, their dedication to each other was fueled--especially at the end--by incredible self-sacrifice and perpetual kindness in the face of adversity.
What a great lady--go Edie!
Happy 2013! Let's start the year with a late-blooming coming out story that proves once again that sometimes, silence equals distance; truth deepens love.
Until last year, my 50th, I had never come out to my father's big Irish Catholic family. My father's been dead for 12 years. Sadly I came out--to myself and the world--after he died. I think he would have been very happy for me; his life was always about journey, not judgement.
His family is a big, warm, loving group of folks who believe in service--they are teachers, nurses, EMTs and guidance counselors. They are also conservative, ranging from mostly moderate Republicans to one or two hard-core tea partiers and one case of mind-bending intolerance.
My kids and I see them once a year at the annual Christmas party so I gave myself all of the usual excuses--we only see them once a year, it will only cause conflict, etc. I showed up "single," year after year, and thought I was artfully deflecting any questions about my personal life.
Then Aunt Kay--one of my favorite people in the world--died. At her funeral my cousin came up to me and said she wanted to throw a big party for my daughter's high school graduation. "Tell Kate to bring her boyfriend....and you--isn't there someone special in your life?" "No..." I mumbled.
She took me by the shoulders and looked me straight in the eye:
"You know, don't you, that it doesn't matter whether they wear slacks or a skirt. We love you and we want you to be happy."
I hugged her, and choked out thanks. Since then, they all know I have found love. They have all (ok, except for the mind-bending intolerant one) expressed their great love, support and happiness for me.
At 51, I have come out to my extended family; they have embraced me with overwhelming love--not just for finding love, but for finding myself as well.
And I'm pretty sure, even if I chose to wear these slacks, they would still stand up and cheer.
The first time I came here I was married with two small (ish) children. We were the poster family for the perfect vacation.
Ten years later, I'm back with my 14-year old son, while my 17-year old travels the globe and my ex-husband celebrates his recent marriage. A divorced, middle-aged mom, alone in her favorite vacation spot with her kid....seems like a potential Lifetime Movie one-hanky movie opening.
Instead, I feel free. One of the characters in August Wilson's play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," says that everyone has a song inside of them. At one point, he says "Something wasn't making my heart smooth and easy."
It might just be my son and me back here this year, but my heart is smooth and easy.
In 8th Grade I wore white bib painter overalls every other day. In my fantasy, here's what I looked like:
Yes. I really did want to look like him. Lateblooming clue #275
Here's what I really looked like:
Ahhh, Eleanor. Be still my heart. I first fell in love with Eleanor Roosevelt when I visited Val-kill, a stone cottage on a sweet patch of land in upstate New York. Here are just some of the reasons I fell in love with her that day:
--she built her serene oasis in Hyde Park, directly across the street from the Roosevelt residence, the command center of her bitchy, disapproving mother-in-law.
--she built it as a retreat for herself and her friends, the couple Marion Dickerson and Nancy Cook. The three of them started an experimental furniture factory on the premises, and hung out whenever possible--three fierce, independent women quietly carving out their own little utopia. Of course, they also happened to be human so the whole thing ended in bitter acrimony. I actually find it kind of comforting--they screwed up a beautiful thing just like the rest of us tend to do.
--as she transformed into a global diplomat, she frequently entertained guests like Nehru, John Kennedy, and Haile Selassie in her homespun living room, making them scrambled eggs on the cook's night off.
I went home and immediately read Blanche Wiesen's Cook's biography, followed by a bunch of Eleanor's original writing, including her amazing newspaper columns My Day where she talks about everyday life and outlines her passionate views on social justice.
Then I read her letters to and from Lorena Hicock, Empty Without You. Whoa. Reading their letters is like riding the waves of a wild ocean storm. The highs are so passionate, so expressive--they go from tender, sweet endearments to some seriously scorching desires. The lows are fiery and dark, filled with jealousy, hurt, anger. It makes sense when you realize that they had all of the challenges of a long-distance, clandestine relationship, and then there was the fact that Eleanor happened to be First Lady of the United States (and Lorena was an AP reporter, just because things weren't complicated enough).
If you are in the mood for a glimpse into a passionate, stormy relationship between two extraordinary women, I would definitely give it a try.
I have always loved reading women's love letters to each other (Lateblooming clue #256).
Virginia and Vita are, of course, the reigning queens of love letters. Whether or not they ever consummated their relationship quickly becomes irrelevant when you read their correspondence. Passion, tenderness, ecstasy and pain unfold in the exquisitely intimate letters they wrote to each other.
I read their letters in my early 20s. They had a profound effect on me--the letters imprinted themselves on my heart. How could these two fiercely independent women have touched each other so profoundly? How could they have reached the most vulnerable place in each other, and then cradled it in the words they mailed back and forth? It was the first time I understood what intimacy might look like. It was also a stunning realization of how far away I was from anything remotely like that. I was newly married, living a very straight, conventional life--focused on my marriage, my career, and eventually on having children. Woolf and Sackville-West lived in what seemed like a fairy tale world to me. The Bloomsbury group of the early 20s was an intensely intellectual circle of talented, courageous people living their lives by following their hearts. I was far too terrified of my heart to even acknowledge its existence.
It has taken me over 25 years since first reading those letters to begin to open up my heart. And while it remains to be seen whether I will find that kind of intimacy before I die, I have just begun to find the joy--and the pain--of opening to the possibilities of love.
Sometimes I think wistfully of all that I have missed by not hearing my heart all those years ago. But most of the time, I think about how lucky I am to have arrived here in my middle age--perhaps just old enough to realize how great this gift really is.