Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Confessions of a Bottle-Sick Novelist

Bottlesickness. "A temporary condition (often caused by shaking a bottle) that interferes with a wine's fruit flavors,...alleviated with a few days rest.Wine.com
Dateline: Taos, New Mexico.

One week from completing my six-week fellowship at Wurlitzer Foundation, I woke assailed by doubts and confronted by a severely bottle-sick novel.

And hadn't I been so cocky, just days earlier, burning all the drafts of the manuscript I had brought with me, the husks of friends' readings of my manuscript, their comments in blue and red ink.  My fellows and I had decided to celebrate the void of the moon, in the fashion of Taosenos in this season, by lining our adobe wall with farolitos (luminaria to the Anglo world) and roasting a lamb. Feeding backcopies of the manuscript to the sacrificial fires seemed right.


Six or seven years had passed in writing this novel.  (Who's counting?  A beloved nephew, grown from eight to fourteen years old, had stopped asking how it was coming.) To my dismay, I found that I write novels like a painter, adding layers with each successive revision, slowly building up setting, character development, plot and theme. Very slowly...by contrast with my expository writing, which flies off my first longhand drafts into the computer, and after a couple revisions, to publication.  Surely a six week fellowship would be sufficient to complete a novel this long in gestation?

To my astonishment, at the end of the first week, under the heady influence of the powerhouse Taos Mountain, I had completed the novel.  I announced it to my fellows, to writer friends and family.  Of course there was still a lot of cleaning up and revision to do, and yet the novel was complete: dramatic arc, complex characters, beginning, middle and finally, a fitting ending.

Perhaps you can glimpse my own brand of hubris.  A self-avowed ritual junky, I am given to the dramatic moment.  "Overreaching." Words straight out of Sophocles.


                ***

Shortly before Halloween, I had driven from Berkeley to this six week Taos fellowship, making my way through Navajo and Hopi homelands enlivened by daily ingestion of majoom, an invention from the 60's with authentic antecedents in Central Asia. The lightly sauteed sinsemilla, mixed with chopped nuts and fruit comfit and stuffed into medjool dates, produces a sense of euphoria and a momentous certainty of being synchronous. On time.


Leaving the Grand Canyon in the middle of the night, I drove through forest fires flickering on each side of the road. Stopping at an overlook in a moonless night, I leaned out to feel that yawning space. On the rocks above Moenkopi on the Hopi First Mesa at dawn, I sat looking down at the peaceful village and orderly fields, chimneys sending up fragrant pinon smoke. Everywhere I travelled, local native women fed me chile verde wrapped in fry bread doled out from the back of their cars. 

"Where are you going?"
"To Taos, to finish my book."

Clusters of cottonwood marked places where water can be found, their autumn leaves bright as marigold juice, oases laid against this naked landscape, bones of mountains and ruddy skin of mesas exposed to the eye.  Can I sustain this charged yet simple existence, I asked myself, translate it into the body of my novel?

                    ***

I carried my manuscript with me, together with comments from my first editor, Lois Gilbert, who lives in Santa Fe. After interviewing three editors from the back of Poets and Writers, I had chosen Lois for the same mixed bag of reasons one might choose a horse at the races: at $3 a page, her price was right. And intuition. Reviewing her comments after her first read, I knew that my hunch had found me a winner.

After arriving in Taos, and with the keys to my casita in hand, I thanked Michael Knight, director of Wurlitzer Foundation, which owns eighteen acres just blocks from the plaza.  Surrounded by eight casitas filled with other writers, composers, and artists, I locked myself up in my little adobe house to write.


The main room of my casita was dominated by a baby grand and a  corner fireplace. My candelabra of five candles which burn while I write from the middle of the night through the morning, images of The Mother on my hearth, strings of chilis swinging from my portico--all my writing fetishes were settled into their places. Ready to work, I hefted my worktable over to the generous window facing north, toward Taos Mountain.

I picked uncomfortably at the first thread, the judgment of a fellow writer who had found my male characters sufficiently flawed and compelling and my female characters relatively featureless. My editor Lois Gilbert concurred: my protagonist Catherine Duladier, an earthy woman drawing on her devotion to the Black Madonna and her work in the silk, was too good to be true.  Go back to first principles of creating protagonists, she advised, urging me to make Catherine seduce her best friend Regina, an attraction I had toyed with. "Let them be bad," Lois opined.  "Let them stray from husbands and vows.  Let all this subterranean sexual tension erupt into action."

Compelling characters must yearn for something out of reach; desire can define a character. Yes, the advice that Lois distilled rang true to me: Catherine must "be spurred into action by her desire, even if it's self-destructive action." I knew it must be done, but how?--I was as much of a coward as my protagonist Catherine!  In this emotional minefield, I chose the time-honored retreat: I announced that the two women had become lovers, offstage, Euripedes'-style.


Drawing on her quaking heart as well as her superior store of millennial silk wisdom, Catherine laid down rules for her new lover. They must observe the taboo against sexual congress during their month working together in the pressurecooker of the new silkworm operation.

Within days of their beginning work, the magnanerie (the place where silkworms are raised) becomes a hell on earth, as the Black Madonna tests her new maitresse  with nightmares, with unbounded lust, with the violent death of part of her brood of silkworms. This trying condition--I reassured my readers--was not occasioned by Catherine and Regina's illicit lovemaking, which honored their earthy if sometimes destructive patroness, the Black Madonna, but from an imbalance. Disharmony sourcing from...what?

Ask the universe a question; get an answer. During that first week of my fellowship, Pax Christi hosted a talk by Daniel Berrigan's wife Liz McAllister, during which she handed me my character development tool: "Love and truth must go together; love without truth is violence." Within hours, I had Regina confront Catherine with the revelation that she couldn't thrive while lying about their love. They wrestled with it and with each other.  Conveniently, as the worms spun themselves into their cocoons, Regina died, neatly sidestepping their moment of truth.  I really didn't want to complete my book in the aftermath of their revealing themselves as lovers to their nineteenth century community!

 With my protagonist's tragic flaw firmly in hand-- a coward in love, she lies to herself first about everything that matters--I flew through the revision, bolstered by the energy from the mountain that makes Taos a power center. I sent off my crowing email: I've completed the novel.  After one week.

Do we hear the faint strains of a parallel between the author and her protagonist, that breath of hubris?  Avoiding the recognition of emotional cowardice with trumpeting fanfare?
                         ***
Thanksgiving and I sent off another check for a second read along with my revised manuscript to Lois before boarding a plane back to Berkeley. We were aligned: Lois would hand off her comments on the manuscript to me in Santa Fe, on my way back to Taos and the final two weeks of my fellowship.  Plenty of time to polish the novel, before sending out letters to prospective agents.

My brother Brian, a lifetime editor in journalism, advised me to write jacket copy, an exercise he recommends before pitching agents. Channeling Lois, I shot this email back to him: "I can't write jacket copy or a letter to agents, until I know what my novel is about."

I've completed the novel but I don't know yet what it's about? I know a lot!...Catherine, silvery cool and slender, bites her nails and obsesses about details while missing the big picture: she is slightly nearsighted. Regina, red-haired and voluptuous, passionate about abetting escaping slaves, has a deep belly laugh that can be heard across an acre of pasture. Catherine smokes a clay pipe, sighs a little too loudly when her husband plays the fiddle, and tosses in bed at night, thinking about Regina.

Naturally people ask me what the novel is about; I'm becoming confounded. Is it really about a group of Huguenot silkworkers who come to Bucks County in the late l830's to transplant their reputation for producing fine silk to the new world? I mulled over the questions that inspired me to start this book. Can I dramatize how the women of both native American and native European cultures lose power they previously possessed, a loss that will persist for a century and a half?  How can I anatomize this nursery of highminded ideals and unbridled greed that will come to characterize our grown-up nation? Can I pull these themes through the scaffolding of story without becoming a haranguing fishwife?

Lois and I met on Canyon Road, a road of galleries and restaurants that was still unpaved when I lived here with my Jules-and-Jim menage in l968. Lois, a slender woman in her early fifties, is chiefly notable for a certain glint in her eye.  Lois socked it to me: she sees no scar in Catherine, no loss, no initiation in pain at the beginning of the book. I have to wound my protagonist while she's young and innocent: she has to suffer.  Bad things have to happen that haunt her through the book, so she can be healed.

Further, she easily persuaded me, the seduction between Regina and Catherine has to be written, in detail on the page, to parallel a sex scene with that "touch of the barnyard" that Lois admired, one between Catherine and her husband Philip towards the end of the book.

                         ***

Returning to my casita, I wrote the seduction scene, ending Catherine and Regina's prolonged flirtation. Now I had to admit something profoundly embarrassing for a writer who fancies herself a woman of the world.  Aside from some girls' school adolescent fantasy-fumbles and some heartbreaking crushes on camp counsellors, I had never made love with a woman. Well, I reasoned, I have made love to myself.

Thus armed against charges of fraud, I turned to face the challenge of giving my young protagonist a serious sexual wound.  I couldn't see the maiden Catherine willingly submitting to sex with two men from the prestigious parfumerie in Grasse, who had engaged her to help them pursue the early science of pheromones. Lois and I concurred: it would have to involve drugs.  This is her first sexual experience, after all; though she's self-described as "overripe," she's not loose. Yet.

After enjoying her, the two fragrance scientists should dismiss her with contempt. A double wounding. Moreover, wouldn't she enjoy much of it herself? She has not been raped and victimized as much as initiated sexually, a gift from the bloody Black Madonna. A violent and ritualized initiation, yes, but she has been awakened and set on the path of the hero's quest for self-discovery. The cost to her has been high, creating the opportunity for a triple wounding. The family's investor has lost significant money as a consequence of her time in Grasse.  Word goes out of the "appearance of impropriety."

                ***
Life goes on, as it does: her family stands behind her, and several years later, with Catherine at the helm, the family immigrates to launch their new venture. And yet her reputation is "besmirched", her spirit shamed and humiliated.  Feeling that "she brought it on herself," she hides the wound and lives the lie. Until Regina arrives to heal her.

That night, as I lay in a light sleep, turning over the possibilities of inflicting this wound on my eighteen year old protagonist, I am jolted awake repeatedly by sharp violent orgasms, the natural result of this or that scene I am imagining, a night that does nothing to relieve the growing lust that continues to build during my long sessions concocting this brew.

"December 4, 2005," my journal reads.  "I rise at three o'clock this morning and write the "wounding" scene in longhand, then coax myself back to sleep the only way possible at this point--with my vibrator.  All this writing, writing about sex, about wounds. I can't wait to be done with this book; it's making me sick...getting up at 3 or 4 am, writing until 8 or 9 at night, with one break during the day for a walk, some socializing, a meal."

Reluctantly, I concur with Lois: too many subplots distract from the central thrust of the novel. I slash many vibrant well-written scenes, ruthless with my body/my self, ruthless with the manuscript.

"It hurts," I write. "This stuff is important to me.  What about all the fine writing I worked over, honing the language with the tools of poetry?  My cursor and delete button run over pages of scenes cutting, cutting.  The novel is bottlesick; I am bottlesick.  So much of it torn and blasted...introductions to characters lost, text disjointed. And so much of the writing raw and new, another overlay on the body of my novel. I'm close to exhausted with it.  And fearful of what people--my family!--will think. I can't give interviews," I rave to myself.  "If I do, I'll have to refuse to talk about the sex scenes or let anyone get personal."

Where would we be, trapped in a purgatory of our devising, without our journals? "I finish my writing day, after reviewing and revising the sex, the yearning, the wounding, and I am ill and agitated and horny in such a base way, I have to take myself to bed and make love to myself yet again, and hope that I can be gentle when I am feeling so savage. The writing is pulling things out of me that sicken and exhaust me.

"I'm too old for this," I tell myself.
"No, you're not," I answer.
I turn to put out the light, perchance to sleep.  "What are those two carrots doing on my bedstand?" I ask.
"What do you think?" I answer, one eyebrow cocked.
With a sigh, I take the carrots one by one and stroke them with Astrolube. Jerking my casita curtains closed, I shake my head and settle back on the pillows, while the writer--ever the voyeur--clocks each sensation for tomorrow's session with the computer.

My youngest daughter calls me. I tell her what Lois has said, Lois the imperious leatherclad editor.  "Are you sure what you're doing is right?" my daughter, also a writer, asks.   "Yes." We both agree: it does feel right.  "You're killing your darlings," she observes soberly.

I write Lois a short email report.
"The novel is so bottle-sick right now I don't think I can work on it anymore. (What if I've killed it?) "

Lois shoots back:
"Over and over on the way home from Canyon Road I wailed at myself, 'Why couldn't you keep your mouth shut??!!'"

"Because your manuscript is so good I fall in love with my own hunches about how it should be, that's why, and the characters come alive in me and I want to steer them around and make them talk and do terrible things to each other and then wake from their own miseries and find forgiveness, and new life.

You make me trespass all my editorial boundaries, and I'm deeply apologetic about that and yet the whole process made me feel energized, too, so I'm not really sorry at all."

"As for the book," she prophesizes, "it's amazing, how UN-effortful writing can be, and how the most knotty problems can be resolved when we leave them alone.  You haven't killed it.  It will clarify.  All it needs is rest, and time."
                         ***

The cottonwood leaves are down, crunching underfoot, as I stuff my hands into my full-length red coat and stride towards Taos Mountain. The sky is a marvel of filtered light and depth of atmosphere, the brightness of the day belying the freezing temperature. Taos Mountain, She of the Uncompromising Stare, is dusted with snow. The tang of pinon smoke curling up from the chimneys sharpens my senses.

I walk, as if through an invisible labyrinth, not-thinking, the rhythm of the cold air going in and out of my lungs, the crunch of the hard dirt under my feet, the rasp of a raven rowing through the sky above my head. 

After sunset, I sink into the blessing of being in Taos, eat chili rellenos, munch biscochitos, join the throng around bonfires at the lighting of Le Doux street. I run into old friends I had been hoping to see, their dear faces lit by ferolitos, luminous lines punctuating walls and curbs, celebrating the coming Winter Solstice.

Bouyant as a bubble, rising up from the sediment and yeast inside me that's been stirred, comes clarity.  Though this novel may not be the one I thought I was writing, I am ready to write that jacket copy.

Finally, I know: I'm writing a novel about a woman who draws on the power of the feminine divine, to forgive herself for the wounds of her past in the balm of a healing love.  And more: Burning Silk is not only a book about the healing power of the Black Madonna or lesbian love but also a more unconventional story. In the same fires that test the women, Catherine's husband Philip has grown, becoming their equal in emotional honesty and capacity to love.

On the threshold of leaving Taos and the hermetic seal of my writing fellowship, I comb through the manuscript, sunk into that final meditation I've heard other novelists describe: reading scenes aloud to hear the resonance of each word, tightening characterizations, recalibrating dialogue to "true."

I have earned being the author of Burning Silk, submitting myself to the same forge and anvil that have made my characters' hearts malleable. We walk together at a human pace, breath and heartbeat, pulse and drum.





Monday, February 17, 2014

On Shapeshifting

On Shapeshifting:
cost/benefit and peril

In 1976, I got divorced, left the Digger community I had lived and worked among, abandoned my life in Aspen Colorado, and took my girls home to southern Ohio where my mother lived.

Those condensed facts hold volumes of history.  We often laugh at how every quarter of a year held an intense chapter of living during our twenties, one of the humorous aspects of aging together with a group of cohorts.

For those of you who don't know, "Digger" was the name people who lived in the Haight-Ashbury in the mid-60's called ourselves.  Digger meant a host of wildly intangible things like being anarchists and leaderless, but it also meant some very specific approaches to the practicalities of life: free food was not only served in the parks but was also delivered from the produce markets to certain households of people living in community.

Together with being from Buffalo NY, famous for its spicy chicken wings, living in the Haight-Ashbury gave me my lifelong fondness for the architecture of a plate of wings.  The airlines wouldn't send them into the air--that would have been in such poor taste!--thus squid at 25 cents a pound from Chinatown and wings formed an important part of my daily diet.  Habits like these don't die easily.

At Digger Free stores, people could find clothing for themselves and their children or simply a costume for the next Human Be-In.  Of immense value was the Free Clinic where an actual MD could diagnose and prescribe medicine for an unfortunate case of the clap or a child's croup.

Although a ceremonial Death of the Digger held as a parade down the middle of the streets marked a watershed, other key events like the National Guard's occupation of the Haight-Ashbury and Time Magazine's discovery of the new lifestyle--call it hippy, Digger, flower child, biker, or countercultural, it wasn't homogenized--the end of living in the Haight Ashbury had arrived.

The leaders of this leaderless group restyled themselves as The Free Family and either moved out of the Haight into farflung communes...or took to house trucks visiting settled communes and reporting their progress to the entire network of folks living the countercultural life.

And what did that mean?  We learned to do the essential things for ourselves.  Had our babies at home.  Grew our own food.  Continued to view the world through a lens of political analysis.  Learned herbal medicine. Through a lot of painful trial and error, we began to mature.  I recall a moment when I went to bed with my then-husband on my thirtieth birthday and he STILL hadn't discovered that I had a clitoris.  We would be married today in spite of the drugs and alcohol, philandering, and sexism--all ubiquitous among activist groups in the Sixties--if he hadn't also been violent.  Violence at home I could not abide for either my two daughters or myself, and so, in debt from having to hire three lawyers in three states to defend my right to shared custody, I took stock of my prospects from the safe house of my mother's home.

I did a hard analysis of what talents I had at 33 to build a career that would support the girls as a single mom. I came up with only one: I was a writer.

Meditating on beginning a career straight out of my countercultural life, I realized I had nurtured a longstanding attraction to shapeshifting. 

The life of a shapeshifter was spelled out in a book I had read while living in the Haight Ashbury.  A shapeshifter, more than a simple quick-change artist, could walk into any group she pleased and subvert or defend it, without anyone really noticing. A shapeshifter could be invisible even while present. A natural saboteur/life actor, I realized then that the most important goal in my life--aside from being a good mother and sharpening my skills as a writer--was to explore the chemical industry and see if I could discover how to pull the plug.

Through some tenuous family connections, I got an interview with an established regional advertising agency. When the owner asked me how much I wanted, I said I thought I would need $1000/month to live.  Before I could say "after tax dollars", he hired me at $12,000/year, condemning me and the girls to a life of poverty before I even started. I was on the "fast track" only because I said so.

I worked at Alberto Culver in Chicago for a year, home of products based on chemicals.  Think FDS, Feminine Deodorant Spray. Hair products that only changed their positioning rather than the product formulation.  Last year's Thicker Fuller Hair became this year's Shiny Hair. Static Guard.  Artificial Sweeteners like saccharine. A colleague said, "A year at Alberto Culver is worth ten years anywhere else." I took the measure of the Enemy; they all played golf together every Wednesday afternoon, had drinks at the Water Tower after work. I couldn't complain, much; in one year, they gave me my first real packaged goods experience, the gold standard in product management.


When I finally landed a job in the food industry, working as a product manager in the heart of my family's  western New York homeland with Welch Foods, in their soft drinks department, I felt like a pig in a wallow.  "If you wanted to live in western New York where your family is, why didn't you just call us and ask for a job, instead of making us pay a headhunter's fee," my bosses exclaimed in frustration when they discovered that I had landed on my feet in my own homeland.

I had the privilege of introducing the first 10% juice soft drink to the market.  I should have been forewarned when--after spending a small fortune with Landor Package design, developing advertising to introduce the product, and investing in groundbreaking product development--top management cancelled our 10% juice product for fear of bringing down the wrath of the FDA.  'Let some others introduce this product; being the first brings down fire from the FDA, attention we don't want,'  they said. They gave me high marks for classic product management in bringing the first 10% Juice Drink to the brink of introduction, then turned their attention to a situation in Texas, a big market, where soft drinks had been banned from schools. Two weeks later, they fired me.

While my bosses were on the road, the product development team called me down to test the drink that management was planning on putting in vending machines in Texas schools.  These product development guys were my fans and allies; I couldn't figure out why marketing treated them like natural enemies.  We stood in a circle, tasting cups in hand and sipped. I couldn't hide my expression; the product was pure chemicals.    We all nodded.  What could I say? I agreed to send around a memo saying that the product would be ruinous for the Welch brand.

When my bosses returned, I was called into their office on April Fools Day, 1980, and given the sack.  No appeal.  "You've been warned," the chief executive told me when I went in to say goodbye.  I had been? Warned of what?  They had sniffed me out.

Being fired was inarguably one of the worst times of my life. 
There would be no court of appeal for the first woman executive Welch had ever hired. 
I would be treated just like a man, they had asserted.
I had failed to see the flaw in that line of reasoning at the time.
Other companies hiring their first women promised to protect them from the male majority with mediators and mentors.

No one in Chautauqua County had heard of whistleblowing at that time. It was widely assumed that--since the corporation had not given a reason for firing me--it had to be for sexual misconduct. The corporate wives were the worst. Oddly, I had been chaste as a priest during this tenure in the corporate world (yes we can all smile at that simile now.) But it was painful.  The corporate lawyer told me that if I blew the whistle, I would never work in the industry again.

I lay on my couch for a month or more, grieving.
Until my hash settled, my younger daughter would go to live with her father in the New Jersey suburbs. my older daughter, who had been to three high schools while I was on the fast track,  got a scholarship to a boarding school north of New York City on the Hudson.
My family life was over, just like that.

My heart was broken but I was too young to know that it's precisely this kind of event that can signal the most creative part of your career.  By now, just four years out of Aspen and my divorce, I had the start of a career.

And so I took myself to New York City where, on a bulletin board in the e.s.t. office--remember Werner Ehrhard and est?) I saw an ad for a senior position at a market research firm run by two women Carol Hyatt and June Esserman. Thus began the most fascinating part of my career as a shapeshifter.  The means of operating as "who I was" rather than having to dissemble was handed to me.

It was during this period of time, on a warm Saint Patrick's Day on Madison and 48th in New York City, that two Digger friends, Peter Berg who had just founded the bioregional organization Planet Drum and George Tukel, one of the earliest applications specialists of GPS (global positioning systems) to environmental planning, paid a visit to my office.

Berg and Tukel put their feet up on my desk, lit a joint and held forth, swinging beer bottles, declaiming, as co-workers slid by my door staring in with fascination.  The fumes of the corned beef and cabbage I had brought in for the office party color the scene with their fragrance in retrospect. The sound of bands playing in the St. Paddy's Day Parade, cymbals and tubas, drift in the window. 

I was almost all the way out now, like a snail and her soft horns.  June Esserman, former partner of Daniel Yankelovitch, decided she wanted to focus on segmentation systems to sell to the big consumer goods companies.  She brought in SRI from Stanford who wanted to introduce their Values and Lifestyle System to the corporate world. I had cut my teeth in graduate school on multivariate analysis and--closeted data jock as well as shapeshifter--loved what I heard from the SRI group. 

Our generation, the academics told us, had spawned a new value system, one qualitatively different from our parents.  SRI had the data to prove to the corporations that this market--now only 20% of the market--was destined to grow and prosper, equalling their parents' buying power inside of a decade.  My SRI colleagues boldly lit up joints after lunch in fancy New York restaurants while I seriously considered risking  bolder behavior, not being such a little chickenshit, the byproduct of a lifetime of shapeshifting.

But first the corporate new product development teams of the packaged goods giants
-Coke, GM, General Foods, Polaroid--had to understand a few things about this new market and I had been chosen to deliver the message and sign them up. The "Inner-Directed" SRI dubbed us, as opposed to our parents, the Outer Directed.  We--this new market opportunity--were skeptical of the big corporations, with good reason.  We didn't buy their claims, scrutinized labels.  Wanted natural products, no harmful chemicals.

So we put SRI's algorithm together with a company's product usage data and other demographic information and voila!--a powerhouse that drove dramatic changes on every supermarket aisle.  That was the late 80's and the 90's.  We take that world for granted today.

After, I was asked to do a private study on the longevity of the claim "natural."  I called two dozen heads of product development at the big fragrance and flavor companies.
The findings?  No one could see an end to the "natural" trend.  It looked big, possibly endless.

Later, I was asked to do a study for a group who were building a fermentation machine, which would take stock like whey and turn it into any chemical under the sun.  Calcium propionate, the preservative to "retard spoilage" could be listed on the bread package as "whey."

Just short of 40, I fell in love and married for the third and final time in my life.
After bucking my parents wish that I marry a doctor or at least a prominent man,
running from that ignominious fate, insisting on my rights to determine my own destiny by dropping out and doing my own thing in the 60's and 70's, I fell in love with a song-and-dance man in the 80's...who also happened to be a doctor. 

I folded up my marketing consultancy when we moved to the country, three hours from New York City, on the NY/PA border, on the Susquehanna River, just south of the Finger Lakes.  As we moved into the recession of 1989-90, I realized it was time to begin my career as a creative writer, something I had always known I would do.

It was gradually dawning on me that I could give up my shapeshifting and be myself again.

I got rid of all my business clothing except for one black suit, held in reserve for meetings with bankers and mortgage brokers.  Twenty five years later, I have never worn it once. Now I could dress as an artist, be a writer again. Colors, head scarves, pants under dresses--these all came out of the baskets.  Like a muscle that had been unused for a long time, I began flexing my creativity as a writer.  My mother-in-law offered to pay for my MFA at the avant-garde Bennington College.

I fought the MFA like a wild mustang but I recognized--even if ruefully--that I simply didn't write well enough to write the kinds of books I read and respected.  Thus they pruned and even espaliered me, to carry the metaphor further. I went to work on a trilogy of novels with female protagonists, an exploration of the nineteenth century inspired by hero Milan Kundera, who observed that our culture had left critical values behind in the past, "in that vast cemetery of forgetting" which could be retrieved, rehydrated, reinhabited. Hadn't we found ourselves at the end of the  Petroleum Age, with a world that had been entirely shaped by Petroleum including the chemicals that were killing us and our planet?

How did we leave behind our guilds, our lifestyles that had us feeding and clothing ourselves in harmony with our watershed?  Why couldn't we have listened to our own prophets who asked us to consider stopping short, to consciously halt at the sustainable rather than flinging ourselves headlong at the illusion of progress, the pact with technology, with petroleum and all that has spun out of it?  How did we wed ourselves to the factory and the soul-killing mass production line, turn away from the trolley and embrace the private automobile?  Turn away from friendship with the native people whose homelands we invaded, out of greed disguised as high-mindedness, progress the natural course of history?

It was slowly dawning on me that writing was not going to be enough; I had to keep my hand in social action, community organizing, that I had started in graduate school with Johnson's War on Poverty, classic Saul Alinsky.

Somehow, miraculously, I had earned a karmic reprieve after decades as a single mom.  My husband's salary meant that I could devote my days and nights to working on my novels and community organizing in the not-for-profit and foundation worlds.  My need to make a living for my daughters and myself had built me a career and an enviable resume, together with some results I could be justifiably proud of.  I had not only supported my children as a single mom but I had also helped transform whole categories of consumer goods into healthier more natural products on the shelf.

But shapeshifting exacts payment.  Just as collecting welfare checks and grifting in my countercultural life exacted a price--we were coopted from our revolutionary goals and it took me a long time to get my finances into the black--so too had my years hiding out in the corporate world presented a bill that had to be paid.  The shadow begins to color the substance.

Although taking LSD had made me aware of chemicals and how they were invading our body tissue, my years both in the corporate world and as a high-paid consultant to the corporate powers-that-be did NOT afford me any insights into how to disentangle food, beverages and chemicals. I was beginning to conclude that only consumer education and enlightenment could begin to redress what Rachel Carson had brought to our attention with Silent Spring, then Karen Silkwood's death following Marie Curie's death from radiation, and finally the revelations of the Love Canal.  Our waterways, air, soil and flesh were colonized by chemicals.

My decade in the foundation world showed us GMO's early enough that we were able to call for the application of the precautionary principle before it was too late. But it was already too late: All the power behind the Ford Foundation and their ilk could not slow the dissemination of GMO's long enough to be tested.  Nothing was to stop that juggernaut, just as nothing will stop the development of any market that can produce billions of dollars, be it natural gas, fast fashion, drones...

We are a gullible, fearful and perhaps gluttonous people.  Easily manipulated.

Is this what made me think I had to disguise myself to infiltrate the corporate world, the straight world, the corridors of power?  Fear for my own survival if I were discovered?
I WAS discovered and survived it, narrowly.  I had found that working as a high paid consultant to say the unpopular thing, the thing no insider could say without offending the corporate culture, was a powerful place to be and to make a difference.

But the question remains: During my decade and a half of shapeshifting had I been co opted, bought?  Had I sold out? During my years in disguise, working inside the Belly of the Beast, hiding who I really am and what I really thought, did the habit become ingrained?

In fact it did: I am not terribly forthcoming about myself.  Perhaps a natural reserve; more likely the need for camophlage, the instinct for survival by becoming invisible.  Particularly now that I am an elder woman, I find that I have to be re-introduced to certain men--those who discount elder women--every time I meet them.  For this reason, I enjoy the company of matrilineal tribal people, most tribes in the east, because in their eyes, I hold the highest position in culture, being both a woman and an elder. 

A Digger girlfriend, Phyllis Wilner, sent me this benediction, this permission slip to be the person that I am (for no one else can be that person with my unique voice) by Dorothy Sayers:
"Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman,
but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force."

And so, did I sell out in my years of shapeshifting?  Apparently not.  I am still here thinking and writing and questioning and feeling fellowship with my fallible fellow inmates. At last, at long last, I am out of the closet as who I am, willing to speak up, to live my life out loud, to speak my truth.

Though it took me all my life to get here, I am grateful to be free.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Matrilineality

When you've grown up in a patrilineal tribe--where are family name comes from the father and ancestry is traced back through your father's fathers, it's difficult to imagine another way.  Before the progenitors of the sky gods of three major religions, Muslim, Christian and Jewish conquered the Druids throughout the Roman Empire, supplanting the ancient tribal modes that covered most of today's Europe, evidence shows that those people practiced a different form of counting ancestry resulting in a different relationship between the genders.

Matrilineality has been practiced by native Americans in the Eastern U.S. for millennia and still is practiced today. Many tribes on the rest of the continent still practice their ancestral matrilineal form of culture.

Matrilineality is NOT the reverse of patrilineality, where women rule and men are subservient.  In matrilineal cultures today and historically, the relationship between men and women is finely balanced, resulting in true gender equity.  Haudenausaunee/Iroquois and Lenape are two large nations of Original People who have lived a matrilineal culture for literally thousands of years.  And still do today.

It's difficult for those of us raised in a patrilineal tradition to imagine a tribal culture where one's ancestry is counted through generations of mothers, where not only your name comes from your maternal line, but also your clan, your property, your heirlooms, ceremonies and regalia, and stories.  This contemplation leads me to sympathize with friends who come from slavery and thus call themselves Miriam X and Malcolm X.  Sometime in the hoary past, before the Roman conquest cut down our sacred groves and drove our governance underground, those of us from European stock had clans.  We knew both our maternal and our paternal lines.  And no, I don't know how the Druids calculated family lines, whether through the paternal or maternal.  I only know that Celtic forms of governance gave women power that patrilineal systems do not. Do I need to state the obvious?: women have been chattel under those three religions named above.  One of my early poems begins: "I will never stand in public again and pray to He Who..."  Thus I have been a practicing pagan for decades, drawing on the worship of the Mother passed down through my maternal lines, after I tossed the dross of Catholicism aside.

I am struck by the courage of my native American friends in the west engaged in the process of restoring their language and cultural practices after near-term histories of loss and trauma through massacre, rape, disease, and bounties on renegades, and children being fostered in white institutions.  Those of us from European and continental traditions have to use inductive reasoning to discover cultural truths, like clans, lying buried in our genetic codes for so long.

Inductive reasoning moves from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories. This is sometimes called a “bottom up” approach. The researcher begins with specific observations and measures, begins to then detect patterns and regularities, formulate some tentative hypotheses to explore, and finally ends up developing some general conclusions or theories.

 Vision quests and a lifetime of inductive reasoning--working from results ("Here is what I have, what does this imply?"), sifting through assorted facts and pieces to work toward that a-ha moment: I know what my family clan used to be (still is) because I have done the work, collected evidence, and am arriving at certainty first about myself, and then about other family members.

"Do you know whether your people are matrilineal or patrilineal?" I asked one clanmother of a tribe from Northern California. (The term "clanmother" might not even be applicable to western tribes, for instance, being a term used among eastern native tribes.)She paused.  "I think matrilineal," she said.  Probably someone in the university knows.  Or an answer lies in anthropological recoreds.  When I look at the structure of the hunting and gathering tribes from the Bay Area, I see the hallmarks of gender equity: division of labor, shared decisionmaking. It is possible that a third alternative exists to patrilineality and matrilineality perfected by hunter-gathering tribes.

 I simply can't wait any more time to publish this inquiry; my first acquaintance with the term came from a graduate school reading of Frederich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State with its chapter on the Iroquois matrilineal system.  It hit me in the solar plexus; I have been collecting evidence since then and I turned 70 this year.  Let this statement attract more information.
How does matrilineality work in terms of governance? The influence of white men and the chauvinism of patrilineality has shifted the original structures somewhat. I suspect both men and women among the Lenape and Haudenausaunee have had to defend and fortify their ancestral ways against the corporate influence of the BIA and Federal Government.

I know that wellmeaning Quaker men in the nineteenth century did a world of harm to the matrilineal Lenape and Haudenausaunee when they tried to make these people over into their own likeness, to make them more acceptable to the powers in Washington who held both the purse strings and treaties. As a condition of being liaisons to Washington, they insisted that native men farm, when the entire system of matrilineality is based on women's relationship to the land.  That is to say, both farming and wildcrafting were entirely women's province.  The farming that was done was as noninvasive a way as tradition had long prescribed, with mounds for growing the Three Sisters of corn, beans and squash.  They tended the wild to harvest nuts, herbs, roots and berries. They carefuly managed the material world for optimal sustainable results for basketmaking and pottery. Artifacts like decorated fancy dress regalia and moccasins for dances and ceremony as well as cradle boards are handed down through the generations through the maternal line.

The Quakers used their influence and power to insist that men do the actual farming in straight rows and with iron plows and thus, unintentionally broke the culture at its very source, violating women's elemental relationship to the land and men's role within that as Chiefs and hunters.
If our European ancestors thought they were adapting the Iroquois Confederacy for framing the US Constitution, as we were taught in elementary school, they had it wrong too.  All women and men are created equal in a matrilineal society.

Chiefs represent the interests of the tribe to the outside world.  Chiefs are elected and removed from office by the Women's Council elders, the clanmothers.  Men sit in their Council and Women in theirs.  Each Council deliberates until consensus is reached...which can take a long time, but if you are planning for eight generations out, time is relative.  "We discuss an issue three times," my friend Hitakonanolax says. "If we still can't come to consensus after the third time, we bury it."

You don't have to imagine European women's chagrin on understanding the lofty position of respect and power women hold in a matrilineal society.  In her book Sisters in Spirit, my friend Sally Roesch-Wagner has documented the influence Haudenausaunee clanmothers had on early feminists which lead directly to The Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls.  European women may have hoped for more independence when they crossed the ocean with their husbands and worked beside them to create a new life of opportunity, at considerable cost to them: the loss of their homeland, ancestral ties, identity, language.

European women could be beaten by their husbands with impunity.  They couldn't own land.  If a man died or divorced his wife, she had no rights to their children. Wealth a woman brought into the family from her family became her husband's.

Today, a native woman can divorce her husband by putting his shoes outside the door.  A man who would beat, abuse or humiliate a woman would be severely reprimanded or--in the case of recidivism--put out of the tribe or in older days, put to death.  If he were a chief (and this still happens today) he would be removed from office by the clanmothers, the matrons, and possibly the Grand Council of Chiefs as a mark of their support for the Women's Council decision, though--so far as I know--the Councils of Chiefs have no veto power over the Women's Council and the clanmothers.

"Why is this so important to you?" a friend of mine who is both native American and Hispanic asked.

By mindlessly adopting a partrilineal model of tribalism in the 1960's, radicals with their sights set on social change doomed their outcomes from the beginning. In the Black Power movement, Digger and other anarchistic movements, and the American Indian Movement (depending on whether the tribes involved were matrilineal or patrilineal!)-each of which invested in communal living and shared dcisionmaking--women's memoirs of those time record similar results: men spoke with the loudest voices, men who were abusive of girls and women were not brought into line, women were rarely given positions of power, even AFTER the gender equity of SDS, and women were often subtly silenced, all the air being sucked out the room when they rose to speak.

Native groups who came from a matrilineal tradition fared better in the Sixties; men and women worked together on the barricades in Akwesasne/Mohawk battles and, I am told, at Pine Ridge for instance.

I love being in the company of my Lenape tribesmen and women.  As an elder woman, I am among the most honored people in the tribe or band.  Young men jump to their feet to offer me a seat.  They listen carefully to what I have to say.  I am among the company of my elder sisters to be first in the food line. Contrast that to the value of a woman past childbearing age in a western patrilineal culture where I am the least valued member of the community, so nearly invisible that I have to reintroduce myself repeatedly to men in my age group everytime we meet, and identify myself as the mother of one of my daughters, for instance, or the wife of my husband, though I have advanced degrees, books and credits to my own name.

Recent research into the "grandmother factor" which shows that children around the world raised in a household with the close proximity of a maternal (not paternal, interestingly) grandmother are more likely to survive their childhood has brought this question of the value of a woman elder back into public discourse in the mainstream culture.

But I don't want to have to argue my rights and value at this point in my life.  Why should I?  It's been a couple decades since I was adopted into the Big Horn Lenape Band.  Using inductive reasoning, I am concluding that I cannot say whether I carry native American bloodlines: the focus of my intellectual curiosity and comfort level with my native brothers and sisters, the subject of my books, my value system, the proximity of my own homelands and roots in European countries where my families are still the aboriginal people, the inductive way I came to conclude that I have Jewish bloodlines.  All these lines of inquiry lead me to assert that anyone who has a family tree in this country from before the US Civil War must be agnostic on this question whether one has native American bloodlines.  The frequency of European men marrying native women, the long  history of those alliance particularly between the French and Dutch with the Eastern tribes, the propensity of families to "bury" their knowledge of native women in the family tree, and finally our patrilineal way of accounting for lineage, all lead me to be agnostic on the question of whether I have native American blood.  Finally, even if I never find the entrypoint of native bloodlines into my family tree, I refuse to dishonor that (possibly) woman who enriched my bloodlines with hers by categorically denying that I have native blood.



Thursday, January 30, 2014

Humanifesto #3

"Misinterpretation of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar was the basis for a popular belief that a cataclysm would take place on December 21, 2012. December 21, 2012 was simply the day that the calendar went to the next b'ak'tun, at Long Count 13.0.0.0.0. The date on which the calendar will go to the next piktun (a complete series of 20 b'ak'tuns), at Long Count 1.0.0.0.0.0, will be on October 13, 4772."  Wikipedia 
The next b'ak'tun will be complete in 134 years on 2146 when our great great grandchildren will be elders.

Doing the math: Destiny Kinal


The redistribution of wealth--or rebalancing of abundance--happens best at the local level.  Each planning and action group has to decide for themselves what their area of influence is.  This geography or sphere usually defines itself: local, regional, watershed, or common ground, the "fit" has to be right, with a commonality of mutual identification that makes sense to all those in the group, along a spectrum from those who resist sharing, through those who have more than enough and are willing to share, to those who don't have enough, to those who are barely surviving.

Diggers in the Sixties had Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco as their immediate sphere of influence for action.  Everyone living in the Haight self-identified as a Digger.  In that overripe consumer culture coming out of the Fifties, Diggers found their mission moving food being thrown away as less-than-ideal in the Produce Markets at the docks to the parks adjacent to The Haight. These gratifying actions led easily to free stores, free medical clinics, job banks.  A flat leadership structure was idealized and realized, where leaders had no visibility (except among themselves).  Their hearing--perhaps made keen by political acumen (SDS, YSL, SNCC, Black Panthers, AIM)--was pitch perfect, their ears tuned to what was thought on the streets. Until Time Magazine commodified what was occurring, a melange of people--skewed to the young but including older politicos and beatniks, across socioeconomic and racial divides--converged to experience and invent the countercultural.

Perhaps too much is made of the fact that this was all bathed in the friendly light of psychedelics until the harder drugs of speed and heroin made inroads.  it was going to take quite a lot, it turns out, to unplug all the wiring of the industrial revolution  and the economic polarization that began to occur with the loss of common lands and the guilds, and the rise of pernicious entitled capitalism.

The U.S Civil War put paid to any decent alternatives that we had evolved as an agricultural craftspeople.  The real experiment in counterculturalism began in the later Sixties when people moved out of the cities into the countryside, organizing themselves in small clusters, or common points of reference flung across the country, usually around at-scale watersheds, to invent what came next.

Fast forward to the turn of the Millennium and--only recently--a new Mayan calendar cycle.  Pernicious capitalism has become toxic globalization, though this western value of limitless profit has always been toxic to indigenous people.

Forget the "precautionary principle," capital only needs to show the potential size of a market to get the green light on any number of destructive products, masquerading as necessary and desirable social contributions, from GMO's, to drones, to smart fabrics, to petroleum-based poisons, to continuous war, to interplanetary mining operations.  The exploitation of resources--including indigenous people and the minerals resting in the soil of their reservations--make anything and anyone fair game.

Luckily, countercultural principles are still operating in their yeasty semi-invisible way at the local, regional, food and fibershed grassroots level.

Take a group here in the East Bay across from San Francisco.  Planting Justice has trained themselves in permaculture, adapting ancient principles of gardening and growing food that are not very labor intensive once the structures are set in place.   Permaculturists bring fertile "food forests" and the commons back into our lives.  Planting Justice charges reasonable rates to plan and plant food forest in yards to people who can afford it, then use that money to teach inner-city kids how to plan, plant and maintain food forests in schools, social clubs, and community gardens.

Of course the Bay Area has been blessed with the vision of Alice Waters, the grandmere of the paradigm-tipping la nouvelle cuisine and more recently Edible School Yards. A scant decade after Alice's contributions of influence, capital, and hands-on involvement, every school in the greater Bay Area has both a school garden and a cooking curriculum.

Like articulating our ancient relationship to our watershed which defines us as a culture (Berg, Dasmann, House et al), bioregionalism spread quickly across the country and now across the world.  Alice Waters' rehydration of local seasonal food, simply prepared, and her message that spawned the Edible School Yard movement is sweeping our continent even in areas not blessed with California's twelve month growing season.

Now watch it happen with Fibersheds.  Taking back our millennial relationships to fiber, to cloth ourselves in a non-toxic way, Fibershed (Burgess, Kahn et al) is spreading across North America. 

When these movements meet those where the ancient strongholds of "homelands that feed and clothe us" are still indigenous, what will happen?  It's pleasurable to imagine an overflowing of spontaneous joy and celebration as indigenous populations from Lithuania to Ulan Bator, from Senegal to Lake Titicaca, find fellowship with us in resisting the forces of globalization that mean to unravel their cultures, "same as it ever was," since 1492 and before.

Back to Planting Justice and young people who resonate to their Robin-Hood ways to rebalance resources, shifting from those willing to share their abundance to the needy--how Diggerish!

Within the loose population of the now-aging Diggers, a movement has caught fire to redistribute resources among the group (in size anywhere from a couple hundred individuals, to associated groups numbering perhaps a thousand, and on out in circles of correspondence.)  Called Diggerbread, this group proposes to do at a small scale what is being increasingly called for in the larger population.

The redistribution of wealth is not a sly infiltration.  The term has brought Republican ire down on our seated president Barack Obama.  Capitalists everywhere, those feathering their lofty nests at the expense of an underclass and middle class, are reacting as one would expect a sleeping citizen to react when wakened by the cry of "Fire!  Fire!"

Softening the terms to "rebalancing abundance" removes the whiff of Marxist revolution from the necessary process.  Diggerbread willingly aggregates both cash and other resources from those who self-identify as having enough, to those in the community who don't have enough, a sharp, pointed, snowballing condition as one ages in poverty.

Among the loosely-defined DIgger population, somewhat atomized over the last thirty years of diaspora as everyone spread out to apply our core values in as many milieu, a lack of regard for money or material comforts too often has resulted in individuals finding themselves isolated and living off the threadbare social safety net: social security, no dental care, Medicare A but not B for hospitalization, perhaps food stamps.

In particular, men and women who have been called to lead large social changes in restoration, indigenous rights, quality of universal education, inner city regeneration, and a host of anti's: globalization, GMOS, nuclear
energy, for instance, have found themselves at the other end of dazzling careers, with books, accomplishments and awards aplenty, but no pension to make their elder years secure. Simply having been salaried for serving as an executive director, field project manager or social entrepreneur in the last quarter of the 20th century in many fields of social change was a mark of distinction.  Enough of a distinction to make your contribution, make a difference in your field, raised principled children and see one's life work flow into a society that values you in your elder years, yes?  Not necessarily so.

Hence Diggerbread.

It's my observation that while talent, brains and intellect are evenly distributed in the population--particularly in a population like the United State whose rich store of genetic material from all over the world, calls to those who myopically see only opportunity when they contemplate immigration--the laws of karma or chance (call fortune what you will,) are unevenly distributed.

I fell in love with a song-and-dance man who happened to be a radiologist. Others inherited family wealth or education.  Still others, with extremely fortunate blends of gifts and character traits, made careers that paid out
handsomely. Often women, particularly single women with children, made careers out of necessity.

Take away my doctor husband and I wouldn't have been able to write my novels without also having to teach.  I feel my novels are important examinations of what values and practices we left behind as a society in that "vast cemetery of forgetting" (MIlan Kundera.)  Take away my doctor husband and I wouldn't have been able to practice my community organizing skills learned in Johnson's War on Poverty and SDS' initiatives to stop the War in Vietnam and bring our soldiers home. I have applied these skills for the last thirty years in the poor rural area we live in on the NY/PA border.  Take away my doctor husband and I would be trying to live on less than $1000/month in social security, might become a burden on my daughters as my health deteriorated, given the capitalist-imposed fraying safety net for the poor, widowed, orphaned, returning vet, and undereducated and underemployed of all stripes. 

People say: give yourself more credit!  But life has a way of pulling us along on its tides, surprising us when we are marooned on the shores of being elder in a society that doesn't value its elders.

Oh yes, I likely would have found a way.  I have my education, the broadening experience of travel, my core values from radicalization in the early Sixties, fermented in a nutritious brew in the counterculture, values too strong to be coopted by my decade of making a living and building a resume while a single mom.

Diggerbread calls upon us to magnetize around those values which we have been practicing and refining all our adult lives.  We are proposing a Third Act for those of us who forged our common values in our youth as a First Act, who went out into the world and applied them in broader contexts as a Second Act.

For many, whose names we honor, the mere act of recognizing the immensity of what we had set ourselves "counter" to, required some pain relief to go on.  Deaths from overdoses of heroin in particular claimed many of our best and brightest, while the War in Vietnam and drive-by shootings in the inner city and wholesale incarceration claimed more. Alcoholism and despair on pitifully poor reservations, the privations of the elders reduced to witnessing the wholesale destruction of their sons and daughters...I could go on and on.

We have come through that Second Act in which we had to fight the Enemy toe-to-toe.  We have come out on the other side, with casualties.  We have to honor our dead, our wounded.  We have to work on restoring the health and wellbeing of those who have paid an unjust bill for their contributions in the Second Act.  (Treyvon's mother!) 

And then we have the privilege of contemplating what is left for our Third Act as our children and their children gather themselves for the next fifteen years, in which time, scientists say, the fate of our homelands, our planet, will have been decided.

We have time to rebalance resources, to take care of each other.

If the Mayans are among the ancient timekeepers we can trust because of their timepiece's duration, we are at the beginning of another b'ak'tun of 134 years.  Next piktun (20 b'ak'tun) will occur on October 13, 4772, by Long Calendar accounting, 2760 years into the future.  Are we capable of demonstrating that we can plan eight generations out like the indigenous peoples of this continent urge?

Neither we nor our children will be alive at the end of the next b'ak'tun in 2146.  But our great grandchildren will be, just as we are here as spokespersons for our great grandparents who struggled through the years of the Civil War and early Petroleum Age.

Calendars imply the possibility of improvement, of moving social change forward to the new dream that Thomas Berry has urged us to articulate.

In the next fifteen years, the potential energy of our coming together again, may have generated an evolved set of living principles as powerful as "free", as potent as watershed and fibershed ar proving to be as units of organizing.  We have to give ourselves permission to generate fresh philosophies for action in our perilous times, building on the old ones from the First Act...but not using the old ones as creeds to bind us from considering actions we experimented with and refined in the Second Act.  We are the products of both our First Acts and our Second Acts. 

Pharaoh!  (Our own hierophants living in our brains and our histories of ourselves, our critics, our fearful selves, our reptilian brains.)
Set us free!-- to discover the next thing, to become that thing and model it for the larger culture. 

The next fifteen years may be all we elders have of productive contribution to society in our own limited lifetimes.  Let's spend that largesse together, freely, without stint, without cropping our own momentum. Do we trust ourselves enough to continue forward together?



Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Textile & Dye Tour in Oaxaca on International Women's Day


I spent women's day evening in Tehuantepec, the capital of the infamous Tehuana women, among matrilineal  people who speak Zapotec.

The legendarily ballsy Tehuana women, from whom Frida Kahlo sprang, had several parades last night: one where hundreds of women dressed all in white marched for peace apropos of the violence against women in the world, in Mexico and here in the Isthmus.

The other--as the sun set over this town, making the huge gilt statue of an unnamed woman glow from the rooftop--brought women out in their traditional glamour, known all over the world through Frida's style, into the street carrying large painted papier mache stars on sticks, while their skirts flowed in the wind around them. Their hair braided with flowers and bright cloth, short bicolored huipils/blouses like the Zapotec state flag adorning their torsoes, they chatted excitedly among themselves, heading for an unknown destination, while a band led the way and insectlike open-framed personal vehicles brought up the rear.

At dinner, our group of eight women and one man discussed the state of women's rights and questioned our amiable and amused waiter about how gender equity in Tehuantepec has shifted over time.  In the market, Tehuana women--depicted in murals covering the restaurant walls, their arms and legs firmly planted akimbo--sell the produce.

Our guide asked him for us: what do the men do?

He said that up into the 18th century, men tended and harvested the garden and orchards.  Then, while large extended families covered child rearing, the forces of capital organized food production and distribution centrally, upsetting the balance. Studying what has eroded or obscured matrilineal practices in cultures close at hand, like the Haudenausaunee and Zapotec, gives our ongoing drive for full women's rights and gender equity with men definition and insight.

Uncovering the roots of matrilineality, which produces true gender equity where it is found (most notably among the Haudenausaunee/Iroquois in the US), allows us to connect with authentic equity practices that the macho marriage of church and capital have tried to obliterate.

Patrilineality has  produced one unified social form across the planet:  the enslavement of women, the loss of our rights.  It is time for women and men of conscience to call for the end of patrilineal practices--the real villain, globalization, capitalism, and colonialism being manifestations--with one unified voice.  As my husband says, patrilineality is just a way for men to keep the mothers of their sons under their thumbs, assuring their own paternity.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sic Transit Gloria: a eulogy for Peter Berg, the father of bioregionalism

Sic transit gloria: And so passes one of the most intriguing, profoundly influential men I have met in my life.

I first met Peter Berg in the spring of 1967 at the Digger's Free Store in the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco, where radical politics met the counterculture.

My daughter Gilian and I lived on the Panhandle on Oak. I was 24. I waited table nights at the Committee, a comedy club in North Beach. Days, I worked as an entry-level garmento at Alvin Duskin, which made mod-inspired dresses at affordable prices. Our working group was planning a free city event and I was assigned to line up some free bands. Those were the days when everyone knew everyone in San Francisco, at one or two degrees of separation at most.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Susquehanna flood, community organizing--underwater in East Sayre

photo: yournewsnow
My partner in Reinhabitory Institute, Judith Thomas, was visiting the Penn-York Valley from the San Francisco Bay Area. I had told her my valley was a bioregionalist’s dream: in two states and three counties, between the Susquehanna and the Chemung Rivers. this community refers to itself as “The Valley,” and has a culture everyone who lives here understands. Judith was visiting here for a handful of days to let me take her on a tour to help her understand this community where I have been organizing for the past 26 years. Our organization is in the earliest stages of starting Project GROW! to involve young people from both sides of the border to learn how to grow and process food, an art form that was widely practiced in East Sayre and throughout the Valley until just a decade ago.