Badass Middle Age Women, Part One: Grace Paley

Grace Paley

 

 1922-2007

 

 

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. 

 

Beware the Cat Food

Thanks to Myfirstgirlfriend. com for publishing my coming out story to my kids:

https://myfirstunacknowledgedgirlfriend.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/a-late-bloomer-comes-out/

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.

Examining the Closet: Les Mis Costumes

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

Go Edie!

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!

Slacks or Skirt Optional

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.

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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.

Lateblooming on Martha's Vineyard

The view from my rocking chair tonight.... Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard is one of my very favorite places on this planet.

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.

The Kate Clinton Epiphany

I have a feeling we could start a club: the Kate Clinton Epiphany Club. Mine happened on a Saturday afternoon, about six months after my divorce. It was a non-kid weekend, and I was still feeling the acute despair of  not seeing  my children for two days.  It's not something you get over, by the way, but you learn how to keep busy to keep it at bay.

I had just watched Kate Clinton MC an ACT UP fundraiser at the Brookyn Academy of Music, and was, of course, in love.  She is the bomb: hilarious, satirical, silly, searingly intelligent and sexy (in that middle-aged way that is so heartening to those of us who fear obesity and oversized denim shirts are right around the corner).

I flopped down on the couch with a collection of her essays, Don't Get Me Started. If you haven't read it, get it immediately and save it for that bad, bad day that requires massive doses of  escapism, laughter, chocolate, carbohydrates, and diet coke.

Now, let's be clear. I am reading the book NOT because I myself am gay, but merely because I find Kate Clinton hilarious and want to know more about her. Right.

So I'm halfway through the book,  and have just finished reading about one of her ill-fated early relationships gone horribly wrong, when I get to a story about a young college student who is inspired by Clinton to come out of the closet. Something happens--is it lightening bolt? Sappho's ghost arriving for a brief visit? Or the deft hand of Kate Clinton pausing lightly on my shoulder....

I sit bolt upright, close the book, and say to myself, "I'm gay."

Obviously, this was not  a Moses and his tablet moment. There had been lots and lots of subtle shifts and signs along the way. But even though they were welling up, coming closer and closer to the surface, it was something about the way Kate Clinton wrote about the experience of coming out that broke through the final layer of denial.

Therein begins the journey that has led me, six years later, to this lateblooming blog.

Thank you, Kate Clinton.  You are the bomb.