A Bitch Dreams of Buddha Hillary

After twelve days of bouncing around between and among numbness, outrage, horror, and sorrow, I had a dream last night that took me close to something like hope and happiness for the first time since election night. I share the details with you because I welcome your interpretive assistance and because I figure maybe you could use a glimpse of something like hope and happiness, too.

On the surface, the dream seems mostly to be about missed connections and lost opportunities. My partner and I are at Hillary Clinton’s inauguration. (See what I mean?) In one scene, I am trying to secure space for us to stand and watch the speech. She takes off with other friends. I don’t remember where they were headed, but I wasn’t upset about their leaving. They’ll be back. I have to do some negotiating with folks around me to save enough space, but that works out. I don’t think I dreamed the part where my partner returns and we listen to the speech. There’s a gap in the dream. In the next scene, we’re standing in line in a shop or cafe to get some kind of inauguration cake. It’s very crowded. We finally get up to the counter and the guy says, “Sorry, we’re not giving out anymore cake.” I can see they still have some. “Why not?” I ask. He shakes his head no. “We’re just not.”

So, yeah: Missed connections, lost opportunities, disappointment. The hopeful part actually came before everything I’ve just described, and I love it because it’s the goofy, wonderful, only-in-a-dream part.

In this earlier scene, my partner and I are together. I may be embellishing a bit here, but it seems to me we are on the steps of the Capitol, which is, of course, where presidential inaugurations take place. We are standing very close to the action, which (and this is the goofy, dreamy part) is taking place in a big beautiful pool – something like the Capitol’s reflecting pool only much deeper. The colors of this scene are gorgeous – the whiteness of the Capitol, the blueness of the pool and sky, the crystal clarity of the water as a bright yellow sun shines upon it. We are transfixed by what is happening in the pool, because Hillary Clinton is in it, riding a porpoise. (I swear I’m not embellishing that part.) We watch as she and the porpoise dive down into the water and then pop back up. She’s in a cerulean blue suit and wearing goggles, but when she comes to the surface her hair is still perfectly coiffed and her suit looks dry and ready for primetime. What I love most about the dream is the look on her face as she sits there astride the porpoise. She must have pulled off the goggles, because she gazes out at the crowd with a look of utter, head-to-soul delight. She smiles broadly and lets out a little whoop that recalls the brilliant “Woo, okay!” she uncorked with a shoulder shimmy in the first presidential debate. It is a Buddha’s smile of kindness, composure, and understanding. It is a smile that fully embraced the moment and all who stood with her in it. It is a smile to love, honor, trust, and emulate.

The dream was so vivid to me that I shared it with my partner as soon as I woke up, wanting to cement the details in my mind. A couple of hours later, I shared it with my yoga class because the election has been a preoccupation of ours for months, and we are all working through the heartbreak of Clinton’s Electoral College defeat. As it turned out, my teacher’s theme for this morning’s class was equanimity – as in, how to recover one’s sense of calmness and even-temperedness in the wake of something as unsettling as Clinton’s defeat and #NotMyPresident’s victory. (No, I will not use his name. You are safe from that here.) My dream and Natalie’s theme work beautifully together in a delightful instance of serendipity, for smiling Hillary astride her porpoise is a compelling image of equanimity. The porpoise carries her safely on a watery journey that transforms and prepares her for what lies ahead. At journey’s end, she is serene, happy, calm, and ready to face whatever comes.

Now, you could say I have falsified or done violence to my dream in rearranging the order of the parts I recall so that it ends in happiness rather than the disappointment of all those missed connections in the other scenes. Narratively, that may be true, though I’m not a hundred percent sure about the sequencing of the various scenes. Such details are always fuzzy in Dreamland. In any case, I would argue that my telling of it captures and emphasizes what is for me the emotional truth of the dream, which is all about resilience, equanimity, and the wisdom to be discovered through play (porpoises are playful, right?). I needed to glimpse that truth after nearly two weeks of feeling paralyzed by grief and uncertainty. I needed to be reminded that I have within me great reservoirs of strength and the skills I will need to navigate my own and my country’s future. I needed to bask in the light of that kind smile in order to reconnect with my compassion toward myself and all of the flawed, hurt, vulnerable beings with whom I share space and time.

I am not a religious person, but this dream came from a place so deep within myself that I might as well call it my soul, that place beneath or beyond rational thought that Emily Dickinson described as “Where the Meanings, are.” I will call it my Buddha Hillary dream, and I will think of it whenever I need to calm and refresh myself in the challenging days that lie ahead. I offer it to you, for whatever good it may do you as you travel along on your journey. May you also be accompanied by a helpful porpoise, and may Buddha Hillary smile on you, always.

Namaste, Bitches.

Hillary Rodham Clinton

Nobody’s Wives, Together

Or, Thirty Years of Queer Delight

Facebook already knows how this story ends, so I might as well tell you right up front: Reader, I married her.

blackberry pineapple mojitoIt was an impulse move thirty years in the making, one made possible by the voters of Maryland and finally irresistible because of a ballsy woman named Edith Windsor. We billed it as a celebration of our thirtieth anniversary and, “by the way, a wedding,” which was our way of saying that what mattered most to us was not the change in our legal status but the three decades of shared life and love that had preceded it. It was a small, elegant, impromptu affair, which we planned and executed in three weeks in the middle of an already insanely busy semester. (How busy? The night before the wedding, I took a job candidate out to dinner while relatives and out-of-towners were gathering at the house.) We were able to pull it off because a trusted caterer happened to be available and a dear friend is an interwebz-certified secular officiant. My advice? If you’re going to get married, don’t spend more than three weeks planning and executing it. Ignore the whole marriage industrial complex. I got married in a ten-year-old suit and never got around to buying new shoes for the occasion. The suit looked great and I kicked off my old shoes an hour after the ceremony. The world didn’t end. Also: Serve mojitos. And shrimp with dry ice wafting off the platter. No one will notice your shoes if there are festive cocktails and a dry-ice haze hanging pleasantly in the air.

Fine, Madwoman, I hear you muttering. You’ve told us the how of your wedding. What about the why?

What, you can’t just congratulate me? I’m not sure I owe you an explanation, but, having publicly proclaimed myself a marriage resister, I suppose I can understand why you might expect one. It’s simple, really. I stand by everything I’ve ever said against marriage: It’s not necessarily the best way to organize intimacy, it’s a terrible way to distribute benefits and protections that all citizens should have, and it’s an obscene (and probably unconstitutional) way for states to enforce judgments about who and how people love. At the same time, it is, at the moment, the best way to secure a relationship legally and financially. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose and I have already been together for thirty years. We are not getting any younger. We’ve reached a point in our lives where such security feels both appealing and necessary. As I explained to a friend, I may be ambivalent about marriage, but I’m not ambivalent about my relationship. It’s my future. I want to protect it. Besides, I’ve been working to create change from inside institutions my entire career. I’ll treat marriage the same way I’ve treated academia: I’ll resist and subvert it from within. And I’ll continue to argue against compulsory marriage and for the full range of queer intimacies. I’ve always been a firm believer in the value of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time or, as a more eloquent pal put it on Facebook, of being able to balance the both/and.

The_trouble_with_normal_(book_cover)To the queer purists who would dismiss such talk as a load of self-justifying bourgeois crap, I say, fine. You win the cool contest. I understand the romance of precarity and marginalization in queer culture, the veneration for all things anti-normative. I enjoyed my outlaw status and have mixed feelings about giving up my strongest claim to it. I was and am proud of the sturdy, resilient alternative to legal marriage that WFKG and I lovingly built and sustained. On the other hand, I also experienced the terrible insecurity of that alternative one day in 1994, when my partner nearly bled to death on an operating table in a Catholic hospital. I sat for nine excruciating hours in a surgical waiting room, not knowing what was happening to her and not at all sure that the medical power of attorney she had given me would be respected. A volunteer at the desk had shaken my confidence when I asked her to call the OR to try to find out why the surgery was taking so much longer than expected. “You’re not family?” she said in the course of our exchange. “Well, I don’t know if the doctor will talk to you at all.” Live through a moment like that and then tell me you wouldn’t do everything you possibly could to assure you’d be able to care for the person you love in a medical crisis.

More recently, I ran into an old friend in the grocery store, someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. We chatted in the produce aisle, catching up and kvetching about the winter storm we were both preparing for. She told me she and her partner had sold their sweet bungalow and moved into a condo near the store in which we stood. “That sounds like a great idea,” I said. “I love our house, but there are days when I’m sick of taking care of it.” She smiled and nodded, then paused briefly before saying quietly, “Well, I got this diagnosis a couple of years ago.” “Oh, no!” I said, and to my quizzical look she matter-of-factly replied, “I have Alzheimer’s.” I was astonished by the news and pained for my friend, who is probably in her mid-60s and has lived as healthy and mindful a life as anyone I know. She’s a Buddhist, a vegetarian, a yoga teacher, for heaven’s sake! The encounter forcefully reminded me of things we all know but generally avoid acknowledging: That virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded, that life is a crap shoot, that the bottom can suddenly and inexplicably drop out of everything, re-arranging the world and one’s way of moving through it. That chance encounter had a lot to do with my decision to say to WFKG, “Let’s do this. Anything can happen. We need to put ourselves in the best possible position to manage the worst possible circumstances.” She agreed.

The ceremony was simple and sweet, performed in front of the fireplace in our great room thirty years to the day after we spent our first night together. We reaffirmed vows we made in our 1989 commitment ceremony while the rings we have worn since that day were passed around in a small silk bag and lovingly re-warmed by each guest. As part of my vows, I surprised WFKG by singing to her, John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me,” which is based on a poem by Robert Browning and is one of the last songs ever written by my beloved’s favorite Beatle. I hadn’t sung in public since my killer performance as Mona Kent in Dames at Sea in high school, but the song’s tender lyric so eloquently expresses what love and commitment feel like in the middle of life that I was willing to risk humiliating myself in front of a group that included a number of professional singers and musicians. By obsessively studying Mary Chapin Carpenter’s beautiful rendition of the song I managed a creditable performance, but I did have to make one key, queer revision to Lennon’s lyric. Where he writes, “Spending our lives together,/Man and wife together,” etc., I sang

Spending our lives together,

Nobody’s wives together

World without end

World without end

In last year’s anniversary post, I wrote that the term “wife” is for me beyond reclamation, rooted in and saturated by gender-based inequalities that persist in custom if not in law. “I don’t need it,” I declared. “I don’t want it. I don’t like the feel of it in my mouth or the sound of it in my ears. It grates. It simpers. It titters and totters, uncertain of itself, as Emily Dickinson brilliantly, devastatingly shows” in her poem “I’m ‘wife’–.” A year later and newly arrived in the state of matrimony, I can state emphatically that my feelings toward the W-word have not changed one iota. I reject it. I will not use it, and I don’t want it used in reference to me or the person to whom I am legally married. (Note to the Associated Press: Partner, please. Even “spouse” feels weird to me, though WFKG and I have been trying it out this week.) I continue to believe that same-sex couples can and will queer the institution of marriage simply by occupying it. We can heighten the queering by refusing traditional roles and terms and by calling out marital privilege for what it is, which is perhaps why I can’t resist making jokes about only marrying WFKG for her money. The sentimentalists may cringe, but the truth is that, while my marriage may be legally meaningful, the change in status means little to me personally. It doesn’t change how I think or feel about myself or my relationship. It has no bearing on my sense of worth, belonging, or responsibility. To pretend otherwise would be to buy into the hierarchy of values that so troubles the speaker in Dickinson’s poem, as she looks back on a “Girl’s life” that is supposed to look “odd” from the comforting “soft Eclipse” of marriage. “Why compare?” asks the speaker, unable to bear or bridge the gap between what she feels and what heteropatriarchy tells her she is supposed to feel. “I’m ‘Wife!’ Stop there!” she frantically concludes.

Rather than stop there, I will use this occasion to say that perhaps it’s time to begin imagining a post-marriage LGBT politics. Many of us never wanted marriage to be the primary goal of LGBT activism and aspiration. We had more radical dreams for our relationships, our movement, and our world. We entered into the marriage struggle reluctantly if we entered it at all only because it became a fight to assure that discrimination against non-heterosexuals didn’t get enshrined not only in state laws but in the Constitution itself. In this extraordinary moment when we seem on the brink of full marriage equality nationwide, we should be thinking about how to mobilize support for, for example, economic justice, queer elder care, and protections for non-marital relationships. Some of us will be saying, “I do,” but all of us need to be asking, “What’s next?” There’s still plenty of work left to do, kids. The party was swell, but it’s time to get back into our comfortable shoes and put our queer shoulders to the wheel.

These gals made their first appearance on top of the cake at our "Practically a Wedding" in 1989. Being committed enviros, we reused them for last weekend's legal marriage ceremony. 3/8/14.

These gals made their first appearance on top of the cake at our “Practically a Wedding” in 1989. Being committed enviros, we reused them for last weekend’s legal marriage ceremony. 3/8/14.

Twenty-Nine Years as Nobody’s Wife

roxie valentineOver on the old blog, we had a tradition of anniversary posts in which an aging — and then dead — dog waxed sentimental over a couple of cranky English profs who had managed to keep company quite happily for an impressive number of years. The first of those posts ran on March 8, 2008 and was titled “Twenty-Four Years of Queer Delight.” It was followed, because the old dog was lacking in imagination and clung to a theme as fiercely as she had ever clung to any bone, by “Twenty-Five Years of Queer Delight,” “Twenty-Six Years of Queer Delight,” and “Twenty-Seven Years of Queer Delight.” We cheated a bit in 2012 and merely acknowledged the twenty-eighth year of queer delight in a post celebrating the March 12 anniversary of the blog. March involves a lot of celebrating in our household!

This year, with a new blog and a new persona, it felt weird to drag the old tradition over here, so I celebrated on Facebook instead with a mash note to the Woman Formerly Known as Goose and a recent ridiculously adorable snapshot of the two of us. It got lots of “likes” and heartwarming comments and reminded me of why I still hang out on Facebook, despite its many flaws. I like public feelings, or the nice ones anyway, and Facebook works well for making nice feelings public. I think it works less well for the airing of not nice feelings, but that is another story.

Here, though, having not written a post called “Twenty-Nine Years of Queer Delight,” I want to reflect on this anniversary within the dramatically shifting context of marriage equality in the United States. This year, for the first time, WFKG and I commemorated our durable and genuinely delightful partnership in a state that issues marriage licenses to both same- and opposite-sex couples. That felt . . . strange. Not only that, but the Supreme Court is about to take up two cases that could restore the right to same-sex marriage in California and begin chipping away at the marital apartheid that exists at the federal level because of the odious Defense of Marriage Act. It is entirely possible that by next year, when I don’t write a post called “Thirty Years of Queer Delight,” WFKG and I will be free to enter into a marriage that would be legally identical to any opposite-sex marriage in the eyes of both our state and the federal government. That would be . . . something well beyond strange.

ice cream sundaeIn one of those anniversary posts over on the old blog, I asked readers to imagine that they were prohibited from having something that the vast majority of people were permitted to have, something that was generally available and widely thought to be good. Let’s say that something is ice cream, I said, and that you are enjoined from eating it “not because you are lactose-intolerant or diabetic or anything else that would make eating ice cream hazardous to your health. You are told you can’t eat it because you don’t deserve it. You are not good enough for ice cream. Indeed, you are so unfit for ice cream that the mere thought of your tasting it poses a threat to the goodness of ice cream. Stay away, the Committee to Protect the Deliciousness of Ice Cream screams, or the rest of us won’t be able to enjoy ice cream anymore!” Time passes. You construct a perfectly satisfying life in the shadow of this bizarre prohibition. You become, perhaps, a committed hater of ice cream, heaping scorn on those who eat it as dupes of the ice cream industrial complex. And then, one day, the prohibition is lifted! Suddenly you are permitted — nay, expected! — to become an eater of ice cream. Suddenly everyone wants to know what flavor you’d like and how many scoops and whether you’ll have it in a cup or a cone (waffle or sugar).

What do you say? What do you do? What do you want, and how is the condition of your wanting or not wanting changed by the lifting of the prohibition? It is, after all, one thing to say you don’t want ice cream when you are legally prevented from having it, quite another to step up to the counter, take a close look at all thirty-one flavors, and then say, “Thanks, but I think I will stick with the cheesecake. It’s really delicious.” Or perhaps you say, “By golly, I would like a triple scoop of butter pecan with hot fudge sauce and a cherry on top. And sprinkles, please, a whole bunch of rainbow-colored sprinkles.”

Three years later, that analogy seems more apt than ever. I stand at the counter, hesitant, slightly bewildered, trying to figure out what I want and why I want it, while a crowd of mostly younger people waits impatiently behind me. They can hardly wait to get their ice cream, and I am holding up the line. What the hell is the matter with me?

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press was widely criticized for seeming to ban the terms “husband” and “wife” to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages. Those terms would only be used “with attribution” — i.e., in quotations from one of the parties involved. A followup seeking to clarify the style policy indicated that “husband” and “wife” “could be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms (‘Smith is survived by his husband, John Jones’) or in quotes attributed to them.” The clarification wasn’t sufficient to mollify some of the policy’s critics, including law scholar Nathaniel Frank, who argued that the AP’s stance “creates the perception that it is taking sides — and the losing side — in a culture war issue.” Frank goes on to explain:

[T]hose who get married have already decided about terminology. They have chosen to become a husband or wife, and that’s what they deserve to be called. Failing to recognize this means failing to recognize what the gay marriage battle has been about: achieving equal dignity by accessing the same institutions and occupying the same symbolic spaces as everyone else.

Being “married” is, after all, a collective identity, in the same way “citizen” is. Both terms connote certain responsibilities, obligations and protections, as well as a sense of dignity and belonging for which there is no substitute. They confer equality on all those who occupy them. Using such a term fairly matters in the same way the front of the bus mattered to those banned from sitting there for no other reason than to designate them as second-class citizens.

With all due respect to Frank and the many married queers I know who toss the words “husband” and “wife” around as happily as if they were indeed the rainbow-colored sprinkles on top of an ice cream sundae, I don’t think the question of terminology is nearly as settled as this critique asserts, even among same-sex couples who have hopped on the marriage bandwagon. I also don’t think the AP’s style policy is necessarily discriminatory. (Jeffrey Bloomer also takes this position in a piece he did in Salon.) One could argue that the policy acknowledges and respects the social and linguistic variety, complexity, and creativity of the alternatives to marriage that developed in LGBT communities over the years. One could also argue that the refusal to slap the label of “husband” or “wife” on everyone who marries is an indication of progress, a sign that broadening access to marriage might actually transform the institution into something more flexible and egalitarian than it has historically been. For many of us, after all, the words “husband” and “wife” don’t confer or connote equality, as Frank implies, though what he means is equality with other married people. Those terms are rooted in and saturated by gender-based inequalities that persist in custom if not in law, and some of us want nothing to do with them. There is no dignity for me in the idea of becoming somebody’s wife, and I for one am glad the Associated Press will not automatically label me that if WFKG and I ever decide to tie the knot. (Tie the knot? Good grief, people, after twenty-nine years, could it really get any tighter?)

LGBT people know well that we don’t always get to choose the names we are called, and we’ve done an impressive job of resignifying many of the terms that have been used to wound and stigmatize us. I delight in calling myself dyke and queer and admire the courage and ingenuity of those who have fought to wrest those words away from the haters and the hurters. For me, though, the term wife is beyond reclamation. I don’t need it. I don’t want it. I don’t like the feel of it in my mouth or the sound of it in my ears. It grates. It simpers. It titters and totters, uncertain of itself, as Emily Dickinson brilliantly, devastatingly shows:

I’m “wife” — I’ve finished that —
That other state —
I’m Czar — I’m “Woman” now —
It’s safer so —

How odd the Girl’s life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse —
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven — now —

This being comfort — then
That other kind — was pain —
But why compare?
I’m “Wife”! Stop there!

The quotation marks tell you everything you need to know. Access to the word “wife” is not comparable to access to the front of the bus. For many of us, indeed, it is very nearly the opposite, implying neither dignity nor liberation but, for women throughout much of American history, the loss of many rights and an independent legal existence. I participated in the battle to bring marriage equality to my home state and am proud that we were among the first states to affirm the right to same-sex marriage through a popular vote. I am also proud, however, that here in Turtle Country the attorney general issued an opinion making it clear that clerks and administrative judges who perform marriages should not assume that anyone who marries is interested in being pronounced a “husband” or a “wife.” Asked to resolve a number of questions around implementation of the Civil Marriage Protection Act, the AG recommended that all couples be offered “a choice of different terminologies or, better yet, the opportunity to choose exactly how they will be referred to in their vows. Leaving the nomenclatural decision to the parties themselves will ensure that all parties receive the ceremony they desire and, thus, remove any question of discriminatory effect.”

Gaining access to the same institutions to which others have access doesn’t mean we have to occupy them in exactly the same way, and using different terms to name the parties to a marriage needn’t diminish the dignity or stature of the marriage. Words matter, yes. And that’s why we should choose the words by which we are known as carefully as we can, understanding full well that our nomenclatural decisions are never entirely our own. Words are public property and marriages are public acts, but the terms we use can make a difference.

Happy anniversary, darling, from the aging girl who, married to you or not, will never be your wife nor call you a wife. I love you. Let’s go get ice cream. Or cheesecake. Here’s to twenty-nine and more years of queer delight, no matter what we call it.

Madwomen in the City


Karen Ball as Emily Dickinson in Emily & Sue: A Love Story in 5 Scenes and 4 Seizures, Fresh Fruit Festival, NYC. Photo by Martha Nell Smith, 7/26/12.

Road trip! The woman known on Roxie’s World  as Goose has spent her career studying the complex, intimate, generative relationship between Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson. (See, for example, this co-edited collection of letters beloved by Sisters of Sappho everywhere.) So, when you need an English prof to supply some steamy historical context for a cool, queer, one-woman play that dramatizes Dickinson’s passion for the girl next door, Goose is the gal you call to be the scholar on your talk-back. The play, Emily & Sue: A Love Story in 5 Scenes and 4 Seizures, was written by Carolyn Gage and Merry Gangemi and ran for two nights at New York’s Fresh Fruit Festival. Karen Ball plays Dickinson as the fierce, even volcanic, poet who said of the woman who inspired and edited her, “With the exception of Shakespeare you have told me of more knowledge than any one living.” The 30-minute monologue, which is composed entirely out of lines from Dickinson’s poems and letters, pushes hard against the myths of Dickinson as a dotty, white-clad, virgin recluse. Ball wears black for the role, and her dancer’s clothes call attention to the strong corporeality of a sexy woman who dreams of spending “Wild Nights” moored in the port of her beloved’s body. Her voice is strong and commanding, even in expressing the pain and vulnerability Dickinson at times experienced in relation to Sue. The seizures in the play’s title refer to the claim in Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds that Dickinson may have suffered from epilepsy. The claim has been controversial in Dickinson studies. The play hedges its bets on this point by projecting the seizures as jumpy videos on a screen at the rear of the stage. The “seizures” thus come across as metaphors for moments of heightened or fractured consciousness, when the poet’s brain crackles with perception. (One such moment is captured in the photo above.)

The Dickinson striding and prowling the stage in Emily & Sue is the Dickinson brought into public consciousness by a line of painstaking biographical and textual scholarship focused on sex and gender that goes all the way back to Rebecca Patterson’s The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, published in 1951. It’s good to see that forceful, fascinating figure brought to life in a taut production that does justice to both the intensity and the complexity of a relationship that endured for close to forty years. If Emily & Sue comes to your neck of the woods, you should see it. It will banish the timid ghost of the gingerbread-bearing Belle of Amherst from your memory banks forever.

And remind you that, before she had a Laptop, The Madwoman perhaps made do with a quill pen for recording her dazzling, divine sense.

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