Celebrating the Autumn Equinox

September 23, 2019

One thing I love about living in Santa Rosa is seasons! Our garden still flourishes and flowers bloom, but one day in August, we could suddenly see that the height of summer was over and summertime had begun falling down. And now it’s the autumn equinox. Called Mabon by the Wiccans, the fall equinox marked the second harvest festival to the Celts. Day and night are of equal length and now dark will lengthen till the winter solstice when the light will start to gain again.

The big squash in the foreground came from last year’s Heirloom Expo

I don’t know exactly what the Celts harvested at the second harvest but here in Sonoma County September is the month of grapes and figs, and of course cannabis. Last year at the Heirloom Expo we drooled over a slew of fig tree species. I had grown figs in San Francisco but the one time a lovely Mission fig finally ripened a raccoon got to it before I could harvest, and broke the whole branch off in the process. That was it for me. That winter I dug out the entire plant. San Francisco’s foggy cool summers just don’t go with figs, although I did see some happy trees there, just not in my backyard. But figs love it here! So this spring we planted one. It’s called a Celestial, a small, rosy sweet fig, and we ate the first one in August. Also our neighbors T and JJ have a mature fig tree and I’ve been making myself sick on them. There’s nothing like a ripe fig perhaps eaten with a slice of local sheep’s milk cheese.

This is not an indictment of San Francisco weather (except when you’re freezing your ass off in the cold wind and fog waiting in line at the gay film festival in June!). I gardened in the same Bernal Heights yard for 38 years. There are some plants that thrive there. Nasturtiums! One year they took over the whole yard. I bought local gardener Pam Peirce’s books, learned about micro climates and the secret season that we didn’t have in my hometown of Yakima, Washington. I became friends with Pam and visited her abundant Excelsior back yard garden. But early on I gave up tomatoes and embraced flowers. Bernal Heights is just up the hill from the Alemany Farmers’ Market where every Saturday I could find seasonal organic produce. Why kill myself fighting shade and fog to grow some tortured veggies?

Zinnias! Love Santa Rosa, hate San Francisco

But tomatoes love the hot summers here. We are still harvesting tomatoes but it wasn’t like last year when we had to give bagsful away to neighbors. One plant suddenly died and gardener friends suggested gophers were eating the roots. Yikes! We had been happily gopher free. But I figured out the problem. I had watered the plant with a hose that had been sitting out in the hundred degree heat. I boiled the roots to death!

I didn’t make it to the climate march September 20. But I did eschew the car and take public transportation to Tradeswomen Inc.’s 40th anniversary celebration in Oakland where I got to commune with 400 tradeswomen. Then on Saturday night I took the Lamplight Tour of Santa Rosa’s historic rural cemetery. It’s a phenomenal production requiring the work of 120 volunteers who wrote, performed and organized eight vignettes about local history. We learned about the influence of the KKK in Sonoma County in the 1920s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Jack London’s story about a local miner and more. Something tells me I’ll get sucked into working with this group of citizens interested in local history.

Naked ladies bloom at the Rural Cemetery

And next week I’ll travel to Minneapolis for the Women Build Nations national tradeswomen conference where history will also be a focus of discussion. A lot of us old timers realize we need to be recording it now before dementia sets in. Along with Brigid O’Farrell I’ll be leading the writers workshop. Methinks a book is in the offing.

Wishing all an auspicious autumn season.

 

 

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The Palace of Fine Ants

San Francisco, 1966

By Eric Johnson

At ten o’clock they called us all down from the scaffolds where we were finishing the tops of the columns of the Pantheon. All was ready for the next stage–arches and the first valance of the great dome. To duplicate in concrete the shapes of the original Maybeck design, a crew of plasterers & carpenters had worked for months on the huge forms.

We gathered in the covered building that is now the Exploratorium, to help get the first form out into the yard where the crane could attach & lift it. It weighed many tons, in an awkward, trapezoidal shape.  No combination of forklifts or dollies was thought possible to make a safe carry, so…they took us back to a time before tools.  Fifty of us ranged evenly around the form, waiting for commands–dusty men in ragged white overalls, hard-hatted in the old style resembling World War One helmets. Putting on gloves, testing the grip edge, preparing as if it were a track & field event. The initial swagger of the field carpenters damping down to admiration for what the ‘inside’ crew has built.

Howard, the Foreman, got our attention. On my say-so, you’ll all lift at once. If we get it up to our waists, then let’s set it back down slowly. This is just to get the feel of it.   Then he said LIFT–everyone grunted and strained…and nothing happened.  It felt as if you could never budge it.  Howard said to keep an even strain, not a jerk, and after a few seconds we felt it slowly rising.  An eerie thing. It seemed to take all one’s strength, everyone’s, to break the inertia. But once it began to rise, it felt light enough to throw.  Howard asked us how we were doing. Everyone said fine. Said let’s go! And he thought and then agreed: All right! So… you have to walk at the same pace…take small steps.

And then, another sensation of the Many Tons.  At first we could not move. I tried to step but the Form was staying put. I had to step back again, then strain against it as if shoving an elephant into her stall. But then there was that Shift as the current of our strain woke the monster…and we each managed to take a first step, in extreme slow motion. Now the Form seemed to wantto move. It accelerated a little, and one felt as if one had no choice now about the speed. Howard yelled out to keep an even strain.Men in front were pulling, and on the sides they were walking in an angled fashion…and it seemed all at once like the most exhilarating thing that ever happened to you! Like being gods, or dreamers in unison!  A nervy camaraderie pulsed around the rim in our grip. For me, a moment of reverie: this is something to always remember. What people can do in union! The Shakers, the Egyptians, harvests….

I think everyone was euphoric like that for a bit, and our momentum had increased until it was that of a serious hiker. Howard warned us that the turn coming up would mean the pivoting side should slow down. We all tried to gauge what that would mean for our own effort…but there was no way to command it, and we were having that same problem of inertia…we could not make the thing slow down orturn. It was going too far in the original track; we could see that the radius of the turn because of the great size of the form was already being exceeded.

I was straining with all my heart against the direction with no effect. Then there were some frightened yells as the men closer to the doorway began to think they might be crushed. Howard ran along the left side urging us to push harder. Someone on the far side had fallen as the speed changed, and then there was a near panic as that edge began to dip down…until some slid over to cover.

At last, the turn achieved its own momentum. The edge farthest from the pivoting zone was really picking up speed. The pivoters were almost standing still and the outer edge was moving as fast as a man could run…and run they did, one leaping clear as the form’s edge grazed the door walls, and all of us had a rush of dread as if seeing the iceberg scrape alongside our Titanic. The magical communal energy had ‘gone too far’; some of us were about to get mangled. Our fate was sealed as a team…abandoning the Form meant a lurching crash.The last ones holding on would die….I already felt the test coming over me; I was nearing the end of my stamina at this intensity of strain. It felt like my muscles would pop or rip and they were screaming at me to stop.

There was a staccato din of shouts to HOLDON! And…we did in fact hold on…the turn finally slowed itself, we passed out into daylight, and Howard ordered us to come to a full stop. Helpers came to arrange the lagging under the form, and we stood speechless, grinning across at each other in the exhilaration and relief. The barehanded, natural childbirth mass movement…had made it out the gate. We set it down and floated up to the scaffolds of the Pantheon…and back to work.

Eric Johnson, the author of this story, is a letterpress printer and founder of Iota Press and also North Bay Letterpress Arts in Sebastopol now with a dozen active printers. We met because I was researching the life of his mother, Miriam Dinkin Johnson, a daughter of one of the iconic Communist chicken farmer families of Petaluma. I was delighted to learn that Eric is a carpenter and storyteller too.

Carol Toliver: “My skills never got a chance to launch”

Interviewed by Molly Martin

Photographs by Vicky Hamlin

Tradeswomen organizers like to focus on our success stories. We want to show that women can do it and we want to encourage young women to get into the trades. But we often wonder to each other whether we send women into the hostile environment of construction with too little information about what it’s really like out there. We know that until women reach a critical mass in the industry we still face widespread harassment and discrimination on the job. One of the ways we’ve experienced discrimination is lack of training. Women have been complaining for decades about reaching the end of their apprenticeships and still not having the requisite skills to “turn out” as journeymen in their trades.

This is the story of one woman who tried every way she knew how to make it in construction and never received the on-the-job training she needed to become a top-notch journey level electrician.  Carol Toliver completed the apprenticeship in IBEW Local 595 and worked as a journeyman for years, but she never felt she acquired the skills she needed to become the skilled craftswoman she aspired to be.

Carol grew up in a small town on the Hudson River in Westchester County, NY. She says she got an excellent education there and went on to college at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, TN. At Fisk she participated in a student exchange program in 1978 that took her to Mills College in Oakland for a year. She met her future husband on her way to a rare book exhibit. She loved Oakland weather so much that she returned there for good after completing her last semester at Fisk.

She started working at banks and offices but two different companies she worked for moved out of town and so she ended up in a displaced workers program. That’s how she found out about the electrical apprenticeship. As part of the pre-apprenticeship program, students signed up for an apprenticeship.  She chose electrical, took the entrance exam, and forgot all about it.

Carol was working as a teacher’s aide and planning to go into education when her husband suffered a career-ending injury at his work as a butcher. He fell on a slippery floor while carrying a pallet of chickens from the freezer.

Within days of his accident she learned she had passed the test necessary to get a teaching credential and also had been admitted into the electrical apprenticeship. She realized she had to become the family’s main breadwinner to support her disabled husband and two children.  So she put her plans of going to school on the back burner and opted to accept the apprenticeship, with on-the-job-training and immediate income.

Carol was excited to be an electrician. Her apprenticeship class started on-the-job training even before school classes began. It was 1997.

When she got on the job she was surprised to find an atmosphere of chaos. It seemed like everyone was yelling all the time. She came from a teaching environment where, she says, there is a lot of support and repetition to help you on your journey.  In construction, she quickly learned, it was “jump in and make it happen.”

She was alone. “A lot of electricians have family members in the trade. I knew no one. It was a whole different world.I was a young Black woman, venturing into an environment that was predominately white men who, it seemed, all had some kind of connections,” she said.

The electrical apprenticeship is five years and consists of 8000 hours of classroom training and on-the-job training. There were two other women in Carol’s class of 25. “One dropped out and the other wouldn’t associate with me. I never knew why,” she said.

On the job Carol was often relegated to getting materials the first two years of her apprenticeship. She quickly recognized she wasn’t getting the same training as the men in her class. That’s when she started looking for help.

“I talked to everyone I thought could help–coworkers, apprenticeship directors, union officers,” she said. During her training she met with three different apprenticeship coordinators, trying to get help with her education. They each made her feel like it was her fault.

“My first program coordinator sat down in front of me with his pen and paper, crossed his legs and said, ‘Well young lady what seems to be YOUR problem?’ And I pulled out my piece of paper and pen and said, ‘this is my problem. I’m not getting the skills I need. I want to be a good journeyman. That’s my whole point of being here.’

“He said, ‘Well I don’t see what the problem is. You just have to apply yourself.’

“So I thought, ok I just have to try harder and I continued to ask people for help. I learned in the construction industry there’s a certain mindset that I didn’t have. Everybody just kept making the assumption that I wasn’t present and committed. I was. Maybe I needed a little more hands-on attention. But I think that was fair because most of the guys had worked on mechanical stuff. I had none of that experience as a female.

“When I talked to my second program coordinator I was very emotional. I was so distraught. I wanted to be a success. I wasn’t getting the training. I didn’t know who else to reach out to. Maybe he didn’t know what to do with me or how to handle it. After I expressed my concerns he just said, ‘You’re in the apprenticeship, you’re on a job aren’t you?’ He literally threw me out of his office. I was just devastated. I just said to myself I’m gonna keep trying.

“Then a new program coordinator appeared to be much more progressive. When I spoke to him his response was not as vocal but was essentially the same. He came on the job and talked to the foreman who put me with another journeyman. All we were doing was lifting heavy boards. So then I just realized that the help I thought was there for me was not there.”

Carol said her whole career was one of fear and frustration—fear of being laid off and not being able to support her family, and frustration that she was not learning the trade.

By the third year of the apprenticeship she had reached the “point of no return.” Her husband advised her to quit. “I was too stubborn and had put in too much time to consider that,” she said.

One journeyman she worked with, Marta Schultz, told her about Tradeswomen Inc., a non-profit dedicated to bringing women into the building trades. Marta, besides being an electrician, is a composer, playwright and singer. She wrote “595 The Musical” and skits about women in construction. Her theater group, the Sparkettes, performed at tradeswomen conferences.

“Marta is an experienced union hand and a feminist committed to supporting women in the electrical trade. She made sure that I learned under her watch, unlike many of my union brothers and foremen,” said Carol.

Life on the job didn’t get any easier after Marta, Carol and four other female electricians sued a contractor for discrimination and won.

Carol says the women of Tradeswomen helped her keep her sanity though tough times. She served on the Tradeswomen Inc. board of directors for many years, a place where her positive outlook and organizing skills were welcome.

During that time her kids were leaving home and her marriage foundered, not least because of changed roles and old expectations. “I did a lot of crying, a lot of self-medicating,” she said.

But she decided she had to stick it out, with the ongoing expectation that things would get better. They never did. When Carol turned out of the apprenticeship in 2002 she still did not think of herself as a capable journeyman. “My skills never got a chance to launch,” she said.

Fear of being laid off held her back. “The first couple of times when I told my foreman that I wanted to do different things (related to my craft) that week or the next week, I would find myself laid off.  I was terrified of being laid off and missing a paycheck. We had all this debt. I didn’t see anyone willing to help me and I got to the point where I stopped asking.

“Some of the contractors would give me a basic task I could handle which I appreciated, but I wasn’t moving forward in my experience.  Instead of saying ‘Let her try it,’ they would eventually lay me off.  Even when I was on a job where I became good at something, I would be put on another job and it was back to square one. Then they would send me on to the next contractor who would try to keep me on by giving me menial or not electrical-related tasks.”

After 17 years of working as an electrician, Carol made the decision to quit the trade and move on with her life. I saw her soon after and she was smiling. She finally felt free from the burden of fear and frustration. For a time she worked at computer repair and later she returned to a job in banking. She recently moved into a new senior housing complex in the East Bay.

Carol with a painting of her by Vicky Hamlin

Asked what she would tell women who find they are being denied training, Carol retained her natural optimism. “I would tell them to not be afraid to ask for help and keep asking until you get it.  You can do it, you just have to stand your ground and not let them get away with not training you.  Work hard, and remember your reason for being there.  Look for allies on the job.  There are some good brothers out there and women too. Seek them out early and often in your career. Be determined to succeed and you will.”

PostScript: Financial insecurity, inadequate on-the-job training and hostile work environment are major reasons given for dropping out of apprenticeship. Nonunion programs have a higher cancellation rate than union programs. Women and minorities tend to have higher apprenticeship drop out rates than white men, but all are close to 50 percent. However, apprenticeship completion rates compare favorably with college completion rates of 22 percent. *

 *Apprenticeship Completion and Cancellation in the Building Trades, The Aspen Institute, 2013

 

 

Celebrating Lughnasa in NoCa

The noises started in late spring, sort of an irregular popping sound, occasionally loud enough to wake us at night. It sounded like someone was bouncing tennis balls off the fence in back. What were the raccoons up to? It couldn’t be the opossums. One lumbered along the fence every evening as night fell. But she was quiet as she moved to another yard. 

My T-shirt reads: Polytheism. Why have just one imaginary friend

It took a few weeks before we figured out the noise was made by apples falling from our side yard neighbor’s tree. It just got louder as the little green apples grew larger, thudding onto the garden pavers, banging onto the metal shed roof.
When the tree leafed out last spring, Holly was delighted to find it’s a Gravenstein, the apple of her youth. Grandpa warned Holly and her sister not to eat the unripe apples. “They’ll make you sick.” But they just couldn’t wait. They ate them and liked them and never got sick. Grandma would make apple sauce for every dinner during apple season.

I come from apple country too, in Yakima, Washington. But we didn’t grow Gravensteins, which ripen earlier and don’t require the cold nights up north. Our Macintoshes and Red Delicious apples ripened in October and in my day school was let out so kids could help their families with the harvest. To me there is nothing like the taste of a ripe Red Delicious picked right off the tree. I never tasted a Gravenstein until I moved to California.

The iconic apple of Sonoma County was brought to the continent by Russian fur traders. It is said they planted the first tree in 1811 at Fort Ross on the Sonoma coast. Gravensteins ripen in July and August here. The tart fruit doesn’t last long and must be processed or eaten quickly. This year we had a bumper crop. Branches grew far over into our yard so that we had to duck under on our way to the recycling bins. 

By the third week of July the emerging red stripes on the green fruit told us they were ripe. Fortuitously Holly’s cousin Kerri is an apple aficionado. She lives in Roseville and travels to Santa Rosa annually to buy a lug of Gravensteins for pies. Her method is to process them all at once, coring, slicing, sugaring enough for each pie (seven cups of apples) and then freezing in plastic bags for the making of pies and crisps all year long.

Holly, Kerri and Diana on the disassembly line

Just as the apples ripened we were lucky to be visited by Kerri and her apple coring machine. She came with all the ingredients for making pies—sugar, cinnamon, flour, crisco. Holly’s sister Diana was here too, from San Diego.

Our first chore was to pick the fruit, reliving our childhoods. We gingerly climbed the six-foot ladder, each taking a turn and being especially careful. We were sobered by the recent death of a friend, Chris Jones, who fell from a ladder while hanging a gay pride flag in his yard in San Francisco.

Then we set up an assembly line, coring, slicing and sugaring. What music goes with apples? We chose Lady Gaga. You can dance and core at the same time. Then Kerri made three pies. One we gave to the neighbor, whose apple tree it is. The two others we ate with gusto. And we still have ingredients for many more pies in the freezer. Then Holly and I cut up the remaining small apples and made four quarts of apple sauce. 

And that’s how we celebrated the cross-quarter pagan harvest festival. Called Lughnasa by the Celts and Lammas by the Anglo-Saxons, it’s one pagan festival not appropriated by christians. The first of three Celtic harvest fests, Lughnasa is celebrated on August 1 or 2, about mid-way between summer solstice and autumn equinox. But, as with the other pagan holidays, we extend festivities for as long as we like. We will continue to celebrate the apple harvest at the Gravenstein Apple Fair this year in August 17 and 18 in Sebastopol.

Good harvest to you!

Fire Survivors Rebuild

Judy (L) and Pam

As Pam Bates and Judy Helfand celebrate their 40thyear together they marvel that they are still alive to do so. They nearly perished in the fire that destroyed their Sonoma County home in 2017 and killed 44 people.

A fire sculpture hangs from a blackened walnut tree. The farm was once a walnut orchard

“We were in bed hard asleep when a neighbor called to tell us fire was coming over the ridge. Then the electricity went off. Where we live that means you have no lights andno water,” said Pam. They barely had time to dress and throw a few things in the car. Judy grabbed photo albums. They gathered up the two dogs and the one cat they could find, let the goats and horses out of the barn, leaving the chickens locked in to protect them from predators.

Pam distracts a hen while she gathers eggs

Pam remembered, “It was really windy that night. As I was on my way down to the barn I looked up and saw undulating red-hot embers floating over my head. That was really scary. I could see an orange glow coming over the hill moving very fast.”

They drove out through flames; smoke so thick they couldn’t see the road in front of them. “I’ll never get over that experience,” said Pam. “We got through it but I’ll never get over it.”

Path of the fire

The fires burned for a week and when Judy and Pam were finally able to sneak back to their 20-acre property they found their house, barn and outbuildings had burned to the ground. The horses and goats were singed but still alive. They had lost only one cat, their parrot and the chickens. “And everything else,” added Pam.

All roughed in and ready for sheetrock

A year and a half later the couple has nearly finished rebuilding the farm they’ve called home for four decades. They bought a used motor home, parked it on the land and got to work, employing a contractor to build two yurts and a chicken house first, then the house and a garage/shop. Judy has planted a flourishing garden. The 25 new chickens are laying; many of the trees are recovering. Pam estimates construction will be finished by November. “And we’re still speaking to each other,” added Pam.

Pam and Judy’s temporary home

They met at a Women Against Rape meeting. “Judy was married to a man and seven months pregnant. I saw her across the room and thought she was beautiful,” remembered Pam.

The new garage/shop takes shape

Pam is a phenomenon in the tradeswomen community. She retired at 60 after 30 years as a union pipe fitter, one of few women to hang in through harassment and sexism till retirement from the trade. Judy is active with Racial Justice Allies of Sonoma County. She retired after teaching at Santa Rosa Junior College for many years. They have two kids, and grandkids who visit often.

The new house will have fire-resistant siding and roof.

Now green hills and blooming flowers mask the immense pain and suffering the fires inflicted on Northern California. For this old lesbian couple they symbolize renewal and a new chapter in life.

Searching for Cures

contentReading Cures by Martin Duberman was painful. Duberman details his fraught decades of searching for a cure for homosexuality through psychotherapy. The book thankfully ends with self-actualization and the blossoming of the gay liberation movement. But for chapter after chapter Duberman is bludgeoned with pronouncements by homophobic smugly complacent therapists that just made me want to bludgeon them. I know that therapy can be helpful (not conversion therapy!), especially since the gay and feminist movements mounted a successful critique over many years, but I’ve always distrusted the psycho industry. I wrote this essay in the mid-nineties. The theme was polyamory. It’s not a critique of psychotherapy but, reading it again after a couple of decades, my disdain is clear. I felt I’d been harmed more than helped. 

A Boomer’s View of Nonmonogamy

Like many of my generation of radical feminists who came of age during the 60s, I railed against the institution of marriage and practiced non-monogamy zealously. In that era of free love, opportunities for sex were plentiful. My subset of radical iconoclasts in college hosted organized and not-so-organized orgies, sex parties and porn viewings. Gay sex was acceptable and even avant guarde.  In the 60s and early 70s, when I was straight, non-monogamy was easy. I never fell in love with men.

Twenty-some years in the San Francisco lesbian subculture served as an excellent apprenticeship in the world of open relationships. Experience has tempered my early enthusiasm. Today lesbian polyamory—the loving of many women at one time—has for me more associations with community than with lust.

In the mid-70s, after a decade as a practicing heterosexual, the prospect of becoming a lesbian appealed to me for all sorts of reasons besides great sex. Without the constraints of het sex roles and family expectations, I reasoned, we lesbians were free to invent our own culture. Well, theoretically. With parents as our main role models, we tend to draw from the dominant culture. Then there was all that guilt about sex that females of my generation were stuck with. Still, we had more freedom than any previous generation of women to experiment with love and lifestyle. And we did.

Open relationships and casual sex were not unusual among San Francisco dykes I knew in the 1970s. Contrary to currently fashionable revisionist lesbian history which paints 70s lesbian-feminists as self-righteous Puritans, much sex was had by many. Perhaps the dykes partial to penetration were not the same ones who were writing theoretical diatribes, but I can testify we were not lonesome. As with many liberation movements, a whole subset of the lesbian community was committed to experimenting with nontraditional models of loving. Non-monogamy was politically correct.

I was a staunch believer in open relationships in 1977 when I got involved with a lesbian who already had a primary lover and a job that required waking at 4 AM. It took a year of crying jags and bedside bottles of bourbon to shatter my idealism, then two more years of break ups, hot secret rendezvous, and re-negotiations with the other woman to get free.

            She: OK, you can have her Friday, but I get her Saturday night.

            Me: What a rip! She’s always asleep by nine on Friday.

            She: Yeah, well, she can’t stay awake on Saturday either.

At one point, the other woman and I even resorted to sleeping together to get our lover’s attention.

Non-monogamy might work, I decided, if sections of the triangle were exactly equivalent or if relationships were all we had to devote our lives to. But for wage slaves like me with more to do than process relationships, having one lover at a time was the only practical option.  Besides, I’d fallen madly in love with a new woman.

Many years of serial monogamy followed. A five-year relationship with a perfectly wonderful woman ended when my commitment to monogamy failed. My lover had made it clear that the relationship would end as soon as I slept with another. She defined the boundaries, but I agreed that the intimacy we felt would not survive non-monogamy. She was the supersensitive type who knew what I was feeling even before I felt it.

            She:  Something’s going on and I want you to tell me what it is.

            Me:  Going on? What do you mean by going on? If it stays in my head is it going on then?

The contradiction:  I wanted to stay in the relationship, and I didn’t want to hurt my lover. But I developed obsessive attractions to other women and worried constantly about my ability to stay faithful. By then I knew better than to end our relationship by running off with another or lying and I never had an actual affair while we were together. Finally, though, I found the monogamous vow to be one I wasn’t able to live with any longer. Our parting was not without trauma, and healing took time, but my ex is now a dear friend.

Early on I observed that lesbians in my generation talked a lot about long-term monogamy, but few really practiced it. We acknowledged the two-and-a-half-year itch and the five-year itch, at which time it seemed natural to move on to a new love interest. The therapeutic community, watchdogs of lesbian culture and creators of relationship lexicon, did not disapprove as long as you were honest and made sure your lover understood your feelings (Don’t run off without telling her in couples therapy. That’ll be $40). Sometime in the mid-80s, in the wake of AIDS hysteria, therapists decided that we were not working hard enough at our relationships and that divorce was pretty uniformly a bad thing. No doubt lesbians broke up just as frequently thereafter, but our level of guilt rose dramatically.

While our subculture reflected the changes going on in popular culture at large, lesbians knew we were unique. That had become more apparent as we watched the gay men’s and women’s subcultures develop so divergently in the decades following Stonewall. In general, women shunned casual sex and valued emotional intimacy. Picking up a one-night stand was a tougher assignment than finding a gal who wanted to get married. Our interest in the intricacies of personal interaction made us highly evolved players in the realm of relationships. We talked endlessly about sex and love and all of our new discoveries, and we spent thousands on therapy.

In 1982, my lover of two and a half years dumped me, and then my mother died. My intense grief led to an existential epiphany. Suddenly I was hiking down the other side of that mountain of life, where the air is fresh and where the continuity of all our human connections creates a clear vision. Friends, girlfriends, ex-lovers and lovers—my established family—all assumed a much greater level of importance for me. Once they came into my life, I decided, they were permanent lifetime fixtures. Keeping them, maintaining relationships in whatever their changing forms, became my central focus. Instead of putting all my emotional eggs in one primary lover basket, I vowed to distribute them widely.

That web of constructed and nurtured relationships is, for me, polyamory. I love many women, and the boundaries of our relationships are not always clearly defined. Perhaps one problem is the dearth of available descriptive terms. To adequately represent the depth and breadth of our relationships in lesbianland requires many more categories than the two basics: lovers and friends.

Just as I began to feel a tinge of wisdom, an unexpected new pattern emerged in my forties. At the end of 1993, I wrote to my first woman lover:

Age has humbled me, especially in the realm of personal relationships. Remember when we broke up, I vowed I had done with nonmonogamy forever?  To my great surprise, I’ve spent the first half of my forties practicing something very like it, though not exactly. Now six years out of a relationship, I’ve always had lovers, but not in succession as lesbians usually do. These non-relationships seem to take place simultaneously and overlap each other. We move apart, then we might come back years or months later. The transitions tend not to be traumatic as they were years ago. We might break up as lovers, but it is always with the expectation of continuing a friendship or reconnecting as casual lovers in the future.

I’ve lived alone for the better part of the last decade rather arbitrarily, for it was never what I would have chosen for myself. I would prefer to live with people, though I’ve never aspired to live in a couple with a lover, which, to my dismay, remains our dominant model. Still the experimenter, I seek to invent new models, but there’s little support for that, at least among dykes in our age group. I do get lonesome for a daily presence in my life, but I don’t miss the “work” of relationships. Actually, I’ve come to believe that if it takes very much work, I’d rather not be in it. Still, I’m halfheartedly seeking Ms. Right, answering personal ads, and asking my friends to fix me up with single women. ….I find that I take affairs of the heart much less seriously than ever before. I’m seldom driven by the sexual obsessions that continually threatened to break up my 5-yr. relationship (is that a function of age or marriage?), and I’m much better at casual sex than ever, which I mostly think is good but sometimes makes me feel terribly jaded. Mostly I stand back and watch my own life with wonder and sometimes surprise (sometimes boredom), anticipating the next chapter.

            My specialty became distance. Not emotional distance, though some have argued this point. Rather, loving women who lived great distances away. The first lived in rural New Hampshire. We had been lovers briefly years before when she had lived in California. Our paths crossed again as tradeswomen organizers, and we kept meeting at the same conferences. The flame spontaneously rekindled when we began to work on organizing a national conference in 1988.

Fortunately, our affair coincided with a planned year’s leave from my work. I could stay with her for a month or two, then return home again before domestic strain or lesbian bed death began to set in. We had no expectation that our lover relationship would last forever, and in fact my returning to work in San Francisco was the beginning of the end. We couldn’t see each other often and the physical distance translated into emotional distance. It took another year for us to call it quits as lovers, with the full expectation that we might again become lovers in the future, since that had been our established pattern. Now solid friends, we’ve seen each other through many subsequent relationships. She has acknowledged her own pattern of serial monogamy and now tells lovers up front not to expect long-term commitment.

In the meantime, my sex partners included ex-lovers, old friends and new interests. All my relationships, even fuck buddies, required an emotional component, and I found I became disinterested in sex when the romance died. I allowed myself to be strung along for several years by a babe who maintained another primary relationship (hadn’t I learned this lesson?). I kept my head above water by telling myself I knew how to leave when it got too painful. She was one of those non-verbal types whose distaste for process eclipsed even my own.

            Me: I’ve wrestled in my own mind with the other woman thing, the age difference thing, those awful shirts you insist on wearing. I think I’d like to continue seeing you. If we have a relationship, what would it look like for you?

            She: Wow, look at the time! I think I have a tennis match. Gotta go.

Relationship discourse was futile, but I felt compelled to try periodically to explain my feelings. For two un-drama queens, we generated our share of dyke drama. Today, as I watch her dramas continue with others, I’m relieved we’re no longer lovers, and glad to call her family.

Overlapping love interests presented unique challenges. I found I needed some time to decompress after one before going on to another, although I didn’t always heed my own advice. At least once I was compelled to see three in one day and more than once I was caught in flagrante delictowith one lover by another. A familiar scenario from my youth was repeated—of waking up in the morning to a head of short dark hair on the pillow next to me whose face might be one of several. Fortunately, I’m a morning person who usually wakes before my lovers, so I had the advantage of a few private moments to get my bearings before murmuring the wrong name. I soon learned to avoid the emotional yo-yo effect of moving too swiftly from one to another by taking some time to myself in between.

When I began an affair with a New Yorker I’d met river rafting, my friends and even casual acquaintances pointed out that long distance love affairs had become my pattern, and what did that mean about my inability to commit? The therapist suggested this “avoidance of intimacy” meant I’d suffered abuse as a child by my father. Repressed memories failed to reveal an explanation, so I decided to relax and enjoy the present.

My dalliance with Ms. New York continued for four years, and while it often left me longing for the kind of daily connection that a local lover provides, I still swoon with fond memories. Our cross-continental meetings every month or two were adventures in a luscious sea of sexual abandon. Always on vacation, we could strip off all our mundane work-a-day worries and have fun. Issues did arise, and were discussed by phone, but didn’t become the focus of our time together.

Our relationship did not fit into any common lesbian-accepted categories. We debated how long an affair can last before it must turn into something else. I contended that, under the right circumstances, it could go on indefinitely, although without living examples, the case was a hard one to argue. Everybody I knew who’d engaged in long-distance affairs had broken up before too long. My lover imagined a different scenario:  the relationship just continues to mature, toward greater commitment, toward greater closeness, the goal being a kind of lesbian nirvana–moving in together. I was having trouble visualizing the ultimate emotional goal. My hunch was that the hot sex and passion were directly related to that distance. Could we sustain them if we lived in the same city?

            She:  The sex will just get better as we get closer.   

            Me: Do we just get closer and closer until we implode?

The ending?  More like an explosion. Our relationship was open, we both dated others, and we’d acknowledged that one of us might get involved with someone else closer to home eventually. It happened to be me. Polyamory, it turned out, wasn’t a model Ms. New York could live with. Now that we’re no longer lovers, we’re trying to figure out how to build and sustain a long-distance friendship without our most compelling element—sex.

For three years now, I’ve remained happily monogamous with a lover who’s newly out. Again, it was she who set the parameters. Our continuing discussion:

            She:  Sleeping with anyone else is a divorceable offense.

            Me: How about only once?  How about having sex with someone else at a sex club when your lover is present?  How about in a three-way with your lover and someone else?

            She: How about getting over it? 

Remaining monogamous has been easier for me in my later-forties. Perhaps peri-menopause reduces the quantity of sexual energy, or perhaps there are just fewer temptations. Since my lover and I maintain separate homes and separate busy lives, the time that we do spend with each other is highly valued as is the time we each spend alone.

In retrospect, I’m glad I haven’t lived by a strict definition of the parameters of relationships. The rules have changed according to my life’s circumstances, the preferences of my partner at the time, and the compromises we’ve made to keep us both happy.

We boomers came of age in the 60s, that heady era of principled experimentation, with an ardent belief in our ability to construct a new world. Because the feminist movement–with our enthusiastic participation–did fundamentally change our own lives, many of us retain that idealism. I’m still committed to building relationships based on our own desires and needs rather than traditional patriarchal models. The next generation of dykes will have a fresh perspective and vision.

The lesbian culture we’re building continues to offer a critique of the dominant heterosexual culture, even as our own relationships are influenced by it. As we blur boundaries and redefine relationships, we’re sensitive to the connections we make with each other on all levels. Our freedom and willingness to experiment will result in lots of new models that hets can copy.

I don’t regret any of my relationship experiments–even the painful ones. My only regret is losing contact with friends and former lovers, because I expect them to stay in my life forever in some form—maybe one we have yet to invent.

A Letter to Nell

Dear Nell McCafferty,

When I read your autobiography, I felt I just had to write you. Your recounting of the Irish feminist movement and the time of the Troubles informed and affected me greatly. Then I realized every old feminist, and especially lesbians, must feel the same. Have you received tons of mail from us since the book came out in 2005?41hrp4q266l._sx307_bo1,204,203,200_

I confess that last month I had never heard of you, or at least I don’t remember if I did. Here’s how I got to your book. We have a little grrrl gang here in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California where I have just moved from San Francisco (about 60 miles away). We pass books around, and people in our neighborhoods have adopted the endearing custom of erecting mini-libraries, enclosures on posts rather like the old-style mailboxes only bigger and sometimes quite elaborate, painted bright colors with bells and birds and doors and windows. My block in this new-to-us neighborhood has such a library where anyone can leave a book or take a book to read. This is where we found a book by Nuala O’Faolain, the novel My Dream of You. I didn’t get far before I wikipedia’d her and found her life to be more interesting than her novel. So I ordered Are You Somebody? and read it. That’s when I discovered you. In the book she hardly mentions you and your 15-year relationship. What gives? So I wikipedia’d you and ordered your book Nell from the library. Funny thing, my library did not have it, nor did the San Francisco library. Had you been erased? Especially in San Francisco, a city with a large Irish population and some connections to IRA sympathizers, I would think your story would engage many readers. I can only guess at why your book may have been suppressed. Americans have a poor understanding of Irish history, or any history for that matter. Finally my wife, who does all the on-line ordering in our family, got your book. It is a used book with a lovely inscription on the flyleaf from one feminist to another.

Well, I should have heard of you! I’m an old lesbian feminist and a writer as well, though not famous by any means. But I’m a cog in that feminist wheel, as we all pulled together. As you were, I’ve been active in the struggle to legalize abortion, against sexual harassment and rape and all the other feminist issues, but my main focus has been to see to it that women can work at well-paying jobs. Paid work is the key to our independence and in the U.S. some of the best jobs are those reserved for men in the construction trades. I was a pioneer, one of the first women to get into the electrician trade, and I made a good career of it. I’m retired now and can look back on our decades of activism, our failures and successes with the hope of keeping the next generation from making the same mistakes. We call ourselves Tradeswomen.

At the moment, as you can imagine, I and my sisters are feeling pretty demoralized, though we are doing what we can to confront the ascent of what looks more and more like fascism. But reading your account of the Troubles and those hopeless years in Ireland helps me to imagine a light at the end of this tunnel. The images that stick in my head are of you standing next to and speaking to a lawmaker who is then assassinated, and of the woman, your neighbor, banging her garbage can in her yard—to warn of the cops—shot dead by them. I’ve never been good at remembering names but in my old age (I’m 69, born in 1949) I rely more than ever on visual images. 

That you are five years older made a world of difference at the time when we both came of age. Things were changing so fast in those days (not to say they aren’t now) but the progress of the feminist movement was a defining factor. And we come from very different cultures. In American schools we at least had some sex education. The Catholic church was not so powerful (I was brought up Presbyterian and didn’t take long to embrace atheism). My mother had worked as a stenographer, called herself a career girl and didn’t marry till in her mid-thirties. Unlike in Ireland, that was a choice American women in her generation could make, though they were paid less than men and were laid off when they married. My mother was born in 1913. I was devastated when she died at the age of 70, as you were when your mother died at 89, but I do know it doesn’t matter how long or well our mothers have lived for us daughters to experience deep grief.

Coming out as lesbian in my 20s was not nearly so hard as it was for you. I read in one of the obits for Nuala that the reason you were angry about her book  was that you didn’t want to come out as a lesbian to your mother. I was so glad you were finally able to come out to her before she died. I am the oldest of four and have a brother who is gay (one of three brothers). We had both come out to Mom before she died, but I wish I’d had more time to process with her. Her name was Florence, her parents were immigrants from Sweden and Norway. We discovered the feminist movement together and that and anti-war activism were central to our relationship in the decade before she died.

On my father’s side we are Irish. The Irish ancestor, Thomas Martin, is an enigma. He probably came over in the 1830s. We think he was from a Protestant family and likely illiterate. My wife Holly and I traveled to Ireland a couple of years ago with the American protest singer and radical Anne Feeney. I wasn’t able to discover more about my own Irish heritage but my brother is working at it and we may still learn where Thomas Martin came from.

 I was grateful that in the book you were so candid about sex and love. Some of the couples issues you describe, like the difference between one partner who wants quiet and alone time and the other who wants the company of others at home are all too familiar. And lesbian bed death, LBD we call it, we struggle to overcome. Also, all the changes we go through as we age. Menopause is different for each of us! I felt lucky to live through it with an older lover before I started, but that was in the early 80s when we were just starting to talk about it to each other and there were finally books we could read.

About Nuala—I realize both of you held back writing about the other and your relationship but from all I read it seems she was trying too hard not to be a lesbian. After I read Are You Somebody? I didn’t like her very much. I thought some parts of the book were just name dropping. When I compare it to Nell and wonder why it didn’t strike me the same way, I think it’s because your story supplies context. Or perhaps your context was just more interesting. No, I think your book is just better. And I’m writing to tell you how much I enjoyed it and how much I learned from you. It’s a shame your book was not distributed more widely but be assured that you are famous here in this little corner of Northern California among our lesbian grrrl gang. Thank you for writing it.

Slainte,

Molly Martin