Hello, I Am Still Queer

In honor of National Coming Out Day, I present below an essay I first published on my site about 20 years ago. Sexuality and identity run on a spectrum. Today I tend to identify as a queer femme. I like the word queer because it is all-encompassing, placing me in solidarity not only with socially-acceptable gay, lesbian, and bisexual monogamous couples, but with all the rest of us: gender rebels, transfolks, bisexuals, straight supporters, heteroflexibles, kinksters, and others with complicated identities. We all deserve a place in the world and we all have something to contribute.

Because I present visually as gender-typical and my partner is a man, my queer identity is largely invisible today. It doesn’t change the fact that I feel passionately about issues of gender equality in all its forms, and about the ways that gender issues intersect with issues of race, national origin, class, and disability. I’m proud of the way that the queer liberation movement has evolved over the last couple of decades, not only in terms of legal protections for same-sex couples, but also for the new awareness and advocacy for trans folks and for femmes of all genders.

On the Definition of a Lesbian Continue reading “Hello, I Am Still Queer”

Interview with Alexandra Delancey, Author of Lesbian Romance Always Her

Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy
Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy

Alexandra Delancey’s novellas Always Her and Me and Her chronicle the love story between newly-out Elise and ultra-cool tomboy Jack. I caught up with Alexandra recently to talk with her about her characters, her craft, and the business of publishing in the age of e-books.

Your characters are well-drawn and idiosyncratic, especially some of the more minor ones like Tatiana, Christie, and Alyssa. How did your own experience of the lesbian scene inform these characters?
That’s really nice to hear. I didn’t base any of them on individual people that I know, but I wanted to reflect the experience of being in your early twenties and being gay, or thinking that you might be gay, and the insecurities and preconceptions that sometimes accompany it. I spent my twenties discovering the lesbian scenes of several countries, and they all have their own norms and cliques. They can be frustrating at times, but they’re a lot of fun too. What I’ve always loved about the scene is that it gives you an opportunity to meet a much broader cross section of people than you otherwise might, so I tried to make my characters diverse in order to reflect that.

Tell me more about how the characters of Jack and Elise evolved.
I like writing tomboyish characters. Continue reading “Interview with Alexandra Delancey, Author of Lesbian Romance Always Her”

Bisexual Visibility Week: On the Definition of a Lesbian

In honor of Bisexual Visibility Week, I present to you an essay I first posted to the Garden in my early twenties. It’s gone through many iterations since then. Over the decades, the details of my love life have changed, but the fact of my bisexuality — or my queerness, if you reject the binary gender model — remains constant.

On the Definition of a Lesbian

Depending on who you talk to, I am or am not a lesbian. If you define a lesbian as someone who resides on a small island off the coast of Greece, then I am not a lesbian. If you define a lesbian as a woman who is exclusively attracted to women, then I am not a lesbian. If you define a lesbian as a woman who emotionally, sexually, and spiritually centers her life around women, then I am a lesbian. [Editor’s Note: These days, I have a male partner. So I guess I have to give my toaster back and stop calling myself a lesbian.]

I’m much more comfortable with the term “bisexual” than I was when I was a young, confused baby dyke in the early 90s. I shied away from the term partly because of my own internalized biphobia, but mainly because the GL part of GLBT has always been the more respectable side of the rainbow. It can be difficult for people to accept bisexuality as a bona fide identity rather than some phase I’m going through. Lesbians don’t trust us, and men usually get glassy-eyed and say “I’ll be in my bunk.” Or if they’re particularly clueless, they might ask the following questions:

  • “Can I watch?”
  • “Did you ever do it with both at the same time?”
  • “Will you do it with me and my girlfriend?”
  • “Can I watch?”

Depending on how polite they are, they may or may not ask these questions outright. In the past, the ones who did usually got these responses: No, Yes, Probably Not, No.

I suppose there are any number of reasons why many straight men are so fascinated with lesbians. My favorite explanation is that they’re threatened by any situation in which they’re irrelevant, and that colonizing the lesbian experience through voyeurism somehow soothes their fragile egos. Hence the large volume of by-men-for-men “lesbian” porn. Pro tip: most dykes don’t have long nails. It’s hard to get your hands in the right places if you do. Even femme dykes usually keep the first two nails on their dominant hands short for just this reason. Unless they’re total pillow queens. Or prefer… well, there’s infinite variety to human sexual behavior. But this essay is about identity politics more than sex. So let’s talk about identity, and the labels we use to define our sexuality. Or better yet, let me just tell you about mine.

Early in my twenties, I generally identified as a lesbian, even though I continued to be attracted to both sexes. Sometimes I said I was a lesbian. Sometimes I said I was gay. Sometimes I would ironically (but not really ironically) say that I was a traitor to my own kind. Sometimes I said I liked girls and boys. And if I was feeling the need to be really, really exact, I’d say I was a lesbian-identified bisexual. In fact, that’s still the term I prefer today. Why do I use it even though my partner is a man? For the same reason I used it when my partner was a woman: just to piss you off.

Bi community? What’s that?

When I moved from upstate New York to Connecticut in 1996, I found a thriving gay and lesbian community. But I got this vibe off the lesbians I met that bisexuality was not an option. This kind of attitude was not uncommon. And considering the struggle for lesbian identity that went on in the 1970s and 1980s, it was understandable. I myself had fallen prey to the ol’ stereotype of the bi-curious female who just wants to experiment a little but isn’t really gay and oh look, I just dropped my towel but I’m not really gay, I just like toying with your affections. I never mentioned my relationships with men to these friends for fear of being cast out of a community it had taken me so long to find.

Then I discovered a group of people who didn’t have any trouble at all calling themselves bisexual. I went to a Bi Net USA conference in August of 1997, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to play the pronoun game. In fact, very little I said shocked them. It was through that organization that I connected with members of Conn Bi Nation, an activist and social support group based in Hartford. This group was an important part of my own coming-out process, and it gave me a feeling of community in a time and place where gay-ness of any kind was not generally accepted.

For a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, I’m no longer much connected with the bi movement (or with queer activist groups, which tend to cater to young, single people with plenty of energy). It appears to be alive and well, though. Bi Net USA has a nationwide listing of groups on its website. I’ve found a number of groups on Facebook and am sure they exist elsewhere on the Tubes as well. Boston — my current home — is also home to the Bisexual Resource Center, a wonderful organization spearheaded by Robyn Ochs, a Harvard professor and long-time bi activist. Robyn is the editor of a number of great books and newsletters, including Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World and the recently published Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men. The BBWN’s Bi Women Quarterly is one of the few ways I connect with a larger community of bi and queer women. We’re easily mis-identified — even by our own — and especially when we’re paired up.

Some queers have said to me, “I’ve come out once. I don’t want to do it again.” But for me, the whole point of coming out was about being true to myself and my sexuality. In America, it’s easier to be one or the other, and it’s still not very easy to be gay in many parts of the country. But I’ve never been one to do things the easy way. And at the end of the day, living a lie is way more difficult than embracing the truth about your sexual needs and desires, whatever they may be.

What Lokito’s Death Reminded Me About the Gifts of Being Present During Painful Moments

My relationship with Quick was far from perfect. On one of the multiple occasions when she kicked me out of the house, I packed up our cat Loki in a carrier and took him with me. She cried over Loki’s departure, not mine. More than ten years after our breakup, we came together to be with him — and with with each other — in his final hours.

photograph of a cat and a kitten on a suburban lawn
Old man Walter and young pup Loki

I was visiting a good friend in Hartford, CT on a fine spring day in 1998 when a passel of kittens tumbled across her neighbor’s driveway and onto the grass, mewing and scratching and generally working their kitten magic. From that litter I adopted Loki, a tiger/calico mix with kohl-like markings around his eyes. It seemed appropriate to name a kitten after the Norse god of mischief.

He lived up to his name. On Saturday mornings he would skitter over the hardwood floors of my apartment and under my futon, scratching the underside of it and then running away again. He and Leo, the cat who adopted my mom while she was loading newspapers into her car in the dead of night, would roughhouse in that apartment, jumping three feet or higher at moths, flies, and — in one case — a bat who flew in through the chimney. Other times he would sit and stare at a blank wall for hours. At night he would plop his soft body down next to mine and purr and rub his forehead against my face.

When I moved to Boston to live with Quick in 1999, Loki began sleeping on her side of the bed. She would nudge me and say, “Look at this little animal.” I would grumble that he used to be my little animal.

My relationship with Quick was far from perfect. On one of the multiple occasions when she kicked me out of the house — or when I tried to leave her — I packed up Loki in a carrier and took him with me. She cried over Loki’s departure, not mine. I finally succeeded in breaking away in 2003, just a few months before gay marriage became the law of the land in Massachusetts. When I did, I left him with her. A lawyer, she used to say (more than half seriously) that we had joint custody, but she had physical custody.

Loki developed many health problems later in life. Quick’s obsessive tendencies proved a boon for Loki. She kept him alive through FLUTD, diabetes, lymphoma, IBD, and cancer. Loki was a faithful companion to her through all of it. His health really started to deteriorate in November. Quick kept him alive for six more months,.

Quick called me from Angell Memorial on a Friday night at about 5:30. When I arrived, he was panting in an oxygen tent, unable to raise his head. He’d lost about one-third of his body weight. I could see by his eyes the prison that his body had become. Quick and I had both wanted him to die at home, not on a metal slab surrounded by the cries of other sick animals. But he was so sick, there was no way for us to take him home without causing him even worse pain. Over the course of the next few hours, I helped Quick make the difficult decision to end his life rather than prolong his suffering. Sixteen years after I saw him tumble across my friend’s back garden, Quick and I said our goodbyes to him in that oxygen tent.

I used to say that lovers come and go, but that kitties are forever. They live shorter lives than us though, and it’s inevitable that we will be with them from birth to death. The inevitability doesn’t make the pain of their passing any easier though. Loki’s passing underscores the passing of my own youth — my maiden years. I’m happy to release some of the pain and bewilderment of those years, even as I become aware of my own life’s finite nature. I’m grateful that Quick allowed me to be there with her and Loki, to make those difficult decisions with her and for her, and to be his other mother again during his final hours.

Not everyone understands why I hold on to relationships with ex-lovers. I’ve always found the traditional “straight” approach to love relationhips rather troubling: here is someone you’ve spent most of your waking hours with, for years or even decades, and then you’re supposed to pretend like they don’t exist? I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a period of separation, but at some point in the future I think it’s healthy to remain on at least civil terms with an ex. It’s a way of validating the beauty and connection that happened between you, even if it didn’t result in shared property or kids or whatever else society tells us it means to win at love.

The world of lesbian and queer women is so small, there’s extra pressure to remain on civil terms with an ex. Otherwise, you’d very quickly run out of friends and hangout spots. But there’s another, deeper reason why I hold on to my relationship with Quick. We both know what it’s like to be a woman living alone in a city with no family nearby. Even though we’re no longer partners or lovers, even though we don’t see one another very often anymore, I still consider her to be my family. She’s shown up for me during some very trying times and I’ve done the same for her. I view maintaining the relationship as a way for me to make living amends for the ways in which I wasn’t able to be there for her when we were together. And as I get older and friends move away — or die — I value more and more the longevity of relationships.

When I was in my 20s, I was so full of my own suffering — and my own vision of how the world should be — I couldn’t really pay attention to the experience of other people. Since that time I’ve become more comfortable with ambiguity, more accepting of the world’s imperfections.

I’ve learned what a gift it can be to have someone witness your pain and suffering without trying to fix it, deny it, or appropriate it. Since experiencing that gift myself, there have been a few occasions where I’ve been able to pass it on. This time was particularly powerful. I felt that I could be present not just for Loki, not just for Quick, but also for all those younger versions of myself who fell in love with Loki, who raised him, who met and fell in love with Quick, who suffered through the breakup, and who came out the other side.

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path

A gentleman I’ve never met but would like to some day asked on Facebook, “What was your strangest job?”

It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.

At Vassar I worked in the Financial Aid Office, the Student Employment Office, the Summer Programs Office, the Powerhouse Theater Box Office, and the Bursar’s Office (student accounts) — those are the offices I can remember. And those were just my summer jobs.

During the school year, I worked the late shift for Campus Patrol because you got an extra 50 cents an hour if you took the after-midnight shift. Campus Patrol was the highest-paying job on campus that didn’t involve taking your clothes off, and I did it until a fellow English major busted me one rainy night for reading Henry James in my booth for longer than 10 minutes.

The highest-paying job on campus was working as an artist model for the studio art department. That paid $8 an hour. For my first gig, I stood up on a pedestal in thigh-length red stockings – which the instructor asked me to remove because they were too distracting — and nothing else. One student pulled his chair behind me, and I told him it cost extra to draw my ass. This was years before I understood the effect that my ass would have on some people — I was mostly just terribly nervous. I was a talkative and sassy mode, and probably lost work because of it. Working for the Vassar studio art program was just the beginning, though. I parlayed that experience into off-campus modeling gigs at Bartlett House (I was happy to see that this community-based arts education center in downtown Poughkeepsie, NY is still running strong), Dutchess Community College, and the home of a private art instructor who lived a few blocks off campus. I’ve carried a single nude sketch from that instructor’s basement across hundreds of miles and it’s taped to the wall of my study today. It’s occurred to me that I should frame it before it meets a terrible end.

During my freshman year I worked as a research assistant for a cranky old philosophy professor who would leave me handwritten pages of citations (not uncommon for those days). I would look up the articles in the college library system and make copies of them for him. What’s now done digitally involved a fair amount of legwork back then. I thought I was pretty crafty when I learned how to log on to the library catalog system via VAX (older folk will nod their heads knowingly here) to see which items were in the stacks and which would require a special order before I left Rockefeller Hall to brave whatever craptastic weather upstate New York felt like throwing at us.

It was because of the work I did for him and for another professor named Uma Narayan that I found a place to stay that first summer after my freshman year. I’d been ready to leave home when I was a sophomore in high school and didn’t really want to spend a hot, sweaty summer in my hometown answering phones for a bunch of stuffed shirts. Professor Narayan quite graciously let me stay in her flat across the street from the main campus while she was away doing awesome professor things in the summer. It was the first time I’d had a quasi-place of my own. I used the futon in her study rather than sleep in her bedroom and with all the innocent clumsiness of youth moved all her carefully sorted papers off a set of iron shelves so I could store my clothing somewhere. It was such a wonderful revelation to have my own kitchen to prepare meals in. Looking back, the apartment wasn’t anything special, but to a 17-year-old raised in the projects, it was ultimate luxury.

I remember watching the 1992 Democratic National Convention in her living room, feeling like a grown-up for the first time. I’d just turned 18, and the ’92 election was the first time I ever voted. That was the first of three summers I spent on the Vassar Campus between terms, and the summers contain some of my favorite memories from those years.

I also transcribed interviews for professors in the Philosophy Department, and later for Professor Steven Moore, who was starting an English Department-sponsored literary magazine called the Vassar Review of Arts and Letters. The transcribing machine had a foot pedal you could use to play, pause, rewind, and fast-forward through the tape. With my foot on the pedal and my hands on the keyboard, I would imagine myself as a sort of living conduit between two machines. I did my best to keep up, and I’m sure it improved my typing skills a great deal.

My experience with Professor Moore and on the board of the student-run lit-mag Helicon led me to meeting and working with Jason Stern and Amara Prolansky at Chronogram. A the time, it was a fairly new monthly publication of cultural events in the Mid-Hudson Valley — mostly a calendar of events and ads. In 1995 — the year I graduated — Jason asked me to help Chronogram develop a literary section. I selected poetry and edited articles that went into that first issue. It was also the first time I ever telecommuted for work: Amara drove from New Paltz to my tiny apartment in Poughkeepsie with an AOL disk and set me up with my first non-college internet account. Nowadays, anyone with an AOL email address pretty much screams “not tech savvy,” but back then the choices were pretty much AOL and CompuServe (whose email addresses were always numbers) — if you were lucky, there was a local ISP in your area.

The year after I graduated from Vassar, I worked a variety of temporary secretarial positions — except that I insisted people call me an Administrative Assistant. By far the most bizarre was Blocksom & Company, a small manufacturer of mattress components with its home office somewhere in Indiana. The manufacturing process was fairly simple: bales of coconut fiber (that hairy stuff you see on the outside of a coconut) came by train to the factory. Forklift drivers unloaded it and placed it next to a giant machine. Workers cut open the bales, fed the fiber into the machine, and out the other end came flat mats sized for twin, full, queen, or king-size beds. These were then bundled together and set on the loading dock to be trucked to the mattress factories that ordered them. My most important job was to print the labels placed on the finished jobs. I also prepared the Bill of Ladings for the truck drivers. But mostly my job involved avoiding the wrath of my manager, a cranky, heavyset woman of Italian extraction whose misery and rage affected everyone in the front office.

The entire plant was surrounded in a cloud of brown dust, an unfortunate side effect of chopping open bales of coconut fiber all day. In addition, a good number of people who worked at the place — front office or back — smoked on the job. The vast majority of the men (and they were all men) who worked on the factory floor were African American. They earned minimum wage or just above it. White men occupied all the higher-paying jobs: foreman, forklift driver, plant manager, salesman — all white men. One of them, however, turned out to be a closeted drag queen. Every year on Halloween, he would go all out and dress like a woman. He took it very seriously, shaving and making himself up, so that I could tell he wasn’t doing it for a joke. He used to drive me to work every day, and once when we was visiting with me and April he asked us if we would help him “become a woman.” Neither April nor I were particularly enlightened about transgender issues at the time. I think of him from time to time now, regretting that I wasn’t a better ally and hoping that he’s found some love and support in a part of the country where queers are very isolated.

It was during the few months that I worked at the matress factor that I learned how much straight men like lesbians — and not in a “sure, I’ll help you move in with your girlfriend” kind of way, but in a “can I watch, and maybe join in?” kind of way.  It was also during that time that I learned the effect that my posterior — or, as my girlfriend called hers, “el hugamundo gluteus maximus” — had on men of African extraction. The attention was flattering, of course, but I was also hugely aware of the cultural and class differences that separated me from my coworkers there, regardless of race. Poughkeepsie was a lonely, lonely place to be a leftish lesbian in the mid 1990s. That was the only job that I ever had the satisfaction of quitting on impulse — and I have never regretted the decision.

As I write these words, more and more stories from that first year out of college rise in my memory:

  • The parolee who disappeared after he got his first paycheck, only to call three days later, saying “I can’t drink in safety.” I felt badly for him and remembered my own father who died of alcoholism before he was 40.
  • The large, well-made floor worker who made advances toward me, whom I later learned had nine different children by five different women. I had the satisfaction of filling out the paperwork that would ensure they received child support payments. Such enforcement mechanisms hadn’t been in place when my mother was raising two children three thousand miles away from her abusive ex-husband.
  • The man who accused me of trying to scare him away because I used the phrase “empirical evidence.” Later he tried to seduce my girlfriend away from me. He was sure I must have corrupted her but that he could lead her back into the fold of Jesus or something — this in spite of the fact that she’d been out of the closet years before me.
  • The man who called the office from the state mental hospital asking for his last paycheck (It never did materialize, and my boss was certain that he was trying to swindle us out of another one). By that time, I’d already seen the inside of psych hospitals three different times. I started to visit him, bringing him magazines and cigarettes and shampoo. He’d been put there for depression after his daughter died, and as an uninsured black man — and a big black man at that — he definitely received a very different kind of care than I had at the tender age of 15, covered by my mother’s health insurance. Months later, he saw me on the street and came running toward me, his face joyful and open. I didn’t recognize him, but he remembered me and thanked me profusely, gave me a terrific hug. After he left, April turned to me and said, “You never said he was so good-looking!” Honestly, I hadn’t noticed given the context in which we met. He had one time stolen a kiss from me, but I’d scolded him soundly about it and he never tried it again. I’d wanted to relate to him from a place of friendship and mutual experience, not in an erotic or romantic way. And we did. Seeing him come toward me with that open, happy face was one of the best rewards I’ve ever gotten from someone for being of service. We were able to connect across the cultural divides of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class because of our mutual experience of suffering. It’s an experience that’s stayed with me for two decades.

During that first year after college, I spent a lot of time and effort applying to publishing jobs in New York City. I did the two-hour train ride from one end of the Hudson Line to the other multiple times but never landed a job, and perhaps that was for the best. My life was imploding under pressure coming from many different directions: our joint income didn’t fit the federal definition of poverty, but it sure felt like poverty to me. Aside from friends we knew at Vassar — most of whom had left town after graduation — we had few queer friends. We were young and stupid and didn’t really know how to have a loving partnership with one another. I bounced from temp job to temp job, resenting the fact that April earned less money than me as a journalist while I subsidized our rent. Eventually, things went far enough south that I gave up and moved back to Connecticut. I’d expected to move in with my Mom, but she surprised me by giving me enough money to get my own apartment. I took over her paper routes in gratitude while I looked for a day job in Hartford.

Through a series of fortunate events, my job application at the Hartford Courant ended up in the hands of a former employee. She hired me as a writer and editor for this newfangled thing called a website. You can read a bit more about my writing chops on the About the Gardener page.

I hadn’t given up the hope of becoming a New Yorker, and there were lots of “content provider” jobs in the New Media industry at the time. I interviewed for a few, but my experience and salary requirements took me out of the running for most of the entry-level jobs, and I didn’t have the confidence (or, quite frankly, the chops) to apply for the more senior openings. Eventually, I set my sights on Boston. It seemed like a more manageable alternative. By happy coincidence, I met a woman in P-town who lived in Boston. While we were dating, a took a new job at a multimedia firm in Norwalk. It paid more, but boy did they get their money’s worth. My 40-hour work week ballooned to 60-70 hours, with an extra three hours of commuting on top of it. After about six months of that, it seemed like a no-brainer to move in with my girlfriend in Boston.

Unfortunately, content jobs — especially ones that don’t involve marketing copy writing — are a lot harder to come by in Boston than they are in NYC. My career took a right turn into web development. It’s much more lucrative than writing, but money isn’t everything. After 20 years in the field, I’m making plans to return to my first love. I expect it will involve a massive pay cut, but I’m fortunate enough to have a partner who’s willing to take that risk with me — something I never expected or wanted, but for which I’m incredibly grateful. More will be revealed.

Beltane 2013: Union and Loneliness

Beltane fell on a Wednesday this year. It’s my favorite holiday, but even though it is a holiday of union, this year it leaves me feeling rather lonely. On Sunday I’d intended to rise early and make the trip across the river to my old church for the annual Beltane service — a tradition I resurrected when I was a part of the congregation and the Women’s Sacred Circle. It’s good to know that it still happens without me, but bittersweet. Even before M and I took the plunge and moved in together, I’d begun to pull back from the community at First Parish. It’s hard to say exactly why, although it’s definitely for more than one reason. Since the church is in Cambridge, there’s a regular turnover in membership. People finish their schooling and move away, or they pair up and move off to more affordable parts of the world. Once I’d looked on those people with disdain, but like so many of the people whom I’ve judged in my life, I came to find myself following that same natural progression.

I still remember the incredulity and joy I felt the first time I walked into the First Parish Cambridge Meeting House on a Sunday morning and heard an old, white man in a black robe saying things from a high pulpit that I actually agreed with. Things about the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnected web of existence, the importance of social justice, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. There was a banner above the door that said “Support Marriage Equality — We Do” — and this was long, long before the tipping point of public opinion on that issue.

Before I ever made it to the Meeting House on a Sunday morning, I’d attended the CUUPs rituals in the Barn Room. Two warm and wonderful Texans I’d met at a public ritual on the Boston Common brought me to my first Yule in the Barn Room. Then later, after I’d left Quick and moved to Cambridge, after I’d reveled in my freedom for a while and dated lots of people, after the rather disastrous end of a rebound relationship, I found myself sinking deeper into depression and isolation.

A woman I met on Craigslist–a recovering Southern Baptist–took me to the rounds of potlucks and parties in the winter. It sounds trite, but those potlucks and parties saved my life. At the time, I was looking up the lethal dosage of my medications, seriously considering death as an option. But I had a party to go to instead. One night, the movie I Heart Huckabees convinced me not to end my life. That same woman started rousting me out of the house on the third Friday of the month for Women’s Sacred Circle. I’d known about the group for years, but was intimidated by the fact that it was closed to new members except for once a year. And Fridays are tough in general, but Fridays in October, the month they open to new members, are brutal.

The community at First Parish was so cohesive and yet so varied. College professors, software developers, non-profit do-goodniks, menstruation rights activists, environmentalists, atheists, pagans, Buddhists, old-school UUs with Puritan pedigrees, a few token queers (I was one), believers and doubters and  folks who showed up for the community and the cookies — all these people came together to the Meeting House for a service where they sang hymns like “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and listened to sermons about Martin Luther King and the importance of comprehensive sex education. It was a place where anyone, even a woman, even a lay person, even me — sinner and witch and lapsed Catholic that I was — could organize a service. It was the first place I truly felt that I belonged since I moved to Boston from Hartford almost 5 years before.

After a year or so, though, the bloom came off the rose. Some members of the thirtysomethings group decided to invite all the “cool” people to a Christmas party the same weekend as one my girlfriend was throwing. I noticed the stranglehold of the current leadership of CUUPs; they said they wanted new members, but they didn’t actually let the new members participate in any planning decisions. Friends paired off, got married, moved off and had babies, never to be heard from again.

Even the Women’s Sacred Circle, with all its magic and mystery, began to feel like a chore instead of a place of union and spiritual growth. During my stint on the leadership council, it was not unusual for meetings to run for five hours. And I realized, as perhaps all of us realize as we push on into our late 30s, that my time and energy were sadly finite. I wondered where else I might be spending it.

I began to direct it elsewhere. Slowly but surely, M and I began the careful steps to bring our households together. Settling in took longer than I thought. I mourned my old life in Camberville: the friends an easy T ride away, the streets, the back way from Arlington to Harvard Square, the Trader Joe’s at the Fresh Pond rotary, the summer meadow just beyond it, next to the Fresh Pond Reservoir, the water itself enclosed in a chain link fence. Some of them I still keep in touch with, but the meetings require planning, long drives. Weeks and months might pass before we see one another. Sometimes one or the other of us cancels, and so more weeks and months pass. We keep in touch on the Intartubes, but there’s no substitute for physical presence.

Nine months after the move, I joined a poetry workshop one of my circle sisters has been attending for years. The critiques were tough, but I appreciated the focus on concrete results — publication — and the practical tips given and shared to help us all achieve the same goal. In December I had my first success: my work was accepted at Lyrical Somerville and will be published next week. In April I read at Porter Square Books, and I am scheduled to read again at the Newton Public Library in October. After the reading, the workshop leader said “you surprised us!” She’d never seem or heard my finished poems, only the unfinished ones I brought to workshop. Buoyed by the praise I’d coveted for so long, I submitted to two journals.

Finances demanded that I take a hiatus from the workshop for a few months. With the world’s sap rising, I find myself composing more and see how my own eye has changed, my writing more careful — sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.

As I write this, the sun shines in the back courtyard on the forsythia bushes, all yellow in the bright spring light. Birds come and go from the feeder I installed last year; this spring I know most of their names. The leaves and spines of my garden wave in the breeze. The cats wander in and out of the treeline. For the first time ever in my life, I have a room in my home that is three walls open air, the solid brick behind me. The oaks have just begun unfurling their leaves, but for now the sun shines unimpeded on the bed I planted one week ago, on the pots I brought with me from Camberville. A nature-worshipper, I have access to more actual nature than I’ve ever had before. It’s right outside my door, front and back, and yet I’m a five-minute drive from Jamaica Plain, Boston’s answer to Cambridge.

It’s not the same, though. I am too far from my old circles. It’s a distance through both space and time. We’ve scattered and settled elsewhere. The bonds grow weaker. And I’m not sure I have the energy, the strength, or even the inclination, to build another circle from scratch around me here.

I don’t regret the union I entered into when I moved to this new green and alien place. I bathe in it every day, and the water is sweet. But I do regret the interconnected web of existence I left behind in Cambridge.

Rest in Peace Adrienne Rich: Fellow Poet, Feminist, Queer Woman, Trail-Blazer

Last week, I was about to board a plan to San Francisco when I saw Adrienne Rich’s obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

It’s hard to describe Adrienne Rich’s impact on my life with grace and brevity. That’s because my relationship to her work mirrors my relationship to the literary establishment as a whole. I first heard of her when I was a junior in high school, young poet full of promise and bereft of friends after the class of 1989 graduated and scattered off to college. A precocious freshman named Deborah, with reddish hair and presumptuous mannerisms, was shocked to learn I hadn’t already read and loved her work. What Deborah didn’t know (and neither did I) was that I’d been raised on the literary canon, comprised then as it is now almost exclusively of men. Five years later I wrote my senior thesis at Vassar on her work and the arc of her life. Seventeen years later, Margalit Fox‘s obituary said it better than I ever could.

Reading Rich’s obituary in the Times last Thursday, I had two startling and humbling realizations: first, that Rich’s life paralleled and sometimes intersected with my own in odd and surprising ways; second, that she too was deeply troubled and even embittered by the literary establishment. From her New York Times obituary:

For Ms. Rich, the getting of literary awards was itself a political act to be reckoned with. On sharing the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 (the other recipient that year was Allen Ginsberg), she declined to accept it on her own behalf. Instead, she appeared onstage with two of that year’s finalists, the poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker; the three of them accepted the award on behalf of all women.

In 1997, in a widely reported act, Ms. Rich declined the National Medal of Arts, the United States government’s highest award bestowed upon artists. In a letter […] she expressed her dismay, amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” that the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Art, Ms. Rich added, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

In addition to our avocations, the odd parallels between her life and my own have to do with geography and also with love. In college, folks used to refer to me and my girlfriend as Adrienne and Audre. Quick used to go to parties in Boston with Audre Lorde, Rich’s girlfriend. Both Rich and I traveled between the coasts. We both railed against facts of American society that most people seem to take for granted.

The biggest difference, of course, between Ms. Rich’s life and my own is that she succeeded in storming the walls of the literary establishment — the same walls that have rebuffed my own advances.

Five days after her death I stood on the beach in Santa Cruz, the town she died in at the age of 82. I wonder what weird twists of fate wove our lives in parallel to one another, never quite intersecting, and called us both to journey from the placid waters of Long Island Sound to the crashing waves of the Pacific. I never even dared to hope to meet her in person. But that doesn’t stop her from being my ancestress, the one who dove into the wreck before me, found some way to navigate the murky waters, and held up a light for me to follow.