Saturday, September 27, 2008

When I was working toward my MFA at Antioch University, I had the pleasure of meeting Patricia Harrelson, a finely-attuned writer with a vibrant, contagious smile. During our time at Antioch, Patricia fell in love with a woman named Cindy, and left her marriage of 33 years. I remember seeing her and Cindy dance together at a school party--there was such joy between them, such pure, clear love, I felt happy just dancing near them. Now Patricia has written a gorgeous book about that time in her life and how falling in love with Cindy turned her whole world upside down. Between Two Women: Conversations About Love and Relationships explores Patricia's journey toward understanding and embracing her new identity as a lesbian. In the process, she develops a beautiful friendship with a 69 year old woman named Carol, who knew she was attracted to women from the time she was a young girl, and begins to interview Carol about her life. The result is a fascinating, moving meditation on identity, culture, and the deep bond between women. Patricia Harrelson writes about her experience with such open eyes, such an open mind and heart; her book reminds me how powerful and healing sharing one another's stories can be.

I had the opportunity to ask Patricia a few questions about her book and her life. Here is the resulting conversation between these two women :)...

--Your book is so beautifully honest and brave--you tell the truth about living in a woman's body, about the fear and exhilaration that came with leaving behind everything you had known, with such grace and power. How does it feel to have your story out in the world now? I am curious to know how people in your life have reacted to seeing your story in print (has your ex-husband read it? Your children?)

My armpits dripped perspiration as the publication date approached, wondering what part of me had decided to be so self-disclosing. However, once the book was in print and I began to get readers' responses, I knew the story had hit a resonant chord. The reactions of my family are another thing. The discussions with my ex-husband and his new wife, both of whom have read the book, have been nothing short of remarkable—confirming and insightful. My children have NOT read the book, though one of my sons helped finance the publication. While we have come to a reasonably comfortable place of interaction, two of my kids share a significant ideological (religious) difference regarding my relationship with Cindy. We basically have agreed to disagree and we tiptoe around the issue very carefully. I don't know if those differences will be resolved in my life time, but I wanted my perspective available for my grandkids should they ever want to know.

--Along with your own story, you do such a lovely job exploring your friend Carol's rich and passionate life. What a gift to her (and to the reader) to be able to capture her experience on the page. I would love to know how she has responded to the book. I'd also love to know how she's doing now--what is she up to?

Carol also was nervous as the publication date approached. At the book launch, however, she had a shining moment when the audience of about 100 people gave her a standing ovation. She later said, "I'll live on that moment for the rest of my life." Carol, who is now 78, still lives alone. Along with advancing age, she is dealing with diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, but she gets a lot of help from three of her former lovers who live nearby and from her huge network of friends. She continues to go to a fitness class twice a week and she enjoys promoting the book and calling me with orders for more copies.

--You mention several books by and about women that were instrumental in guiding you through such a transitional time in your life and helping you understand your experience--Adrienne Rich, in particular. Could you talk a bit about the importance of reading in your life? Have you read any books recently that have rocked your world?

I'm a consummate reader and always have 2-4 books going at any one time. I listen to audio books in the car, when I walk each morning, gardening, and doing housework. I read for entertainment, insight, and information. My first inclination when faced with ANY question is to turn to books and that is exactly what I did when I fell in love with Cindy. I'm currently reading Anna Karenina for the first time, and I have to say it is rocking my world. Tolstoy was an unbelievable observer of the human experience. I'm impressed by his understanding of so many different perspectives, especially a woman's point of view, and I'm awed by his omniscient narrator. I adore the love stories, finding in their portrayal so many parallels to my falling in love with Cindy. Another book that I read recently was The Gathering by Anne Enright who creates fluid yet surprising prose, moving between real and imagined events, past and present with astounding grace and skill. I'm a huge fan of Margaret Atwood and just read The Blind Assassin, marveling at the way she continues to dive deeper and deeper into women's issues. An excellent non-fiction read of late was The Faith Club by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner, a provocative inter-faith discussion between a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian.

--I know your time at Antioch introduced you to many of the authors who became so important to you. I'd love to hear more about how your experience at Antioch has impacted your life as a writer (and a woman!)

My experience at Antioch converged with falling in love with Cindy and leaving a 33 year marriage. I have trouble teasing the two apart. What I know is that I learned reams from my instructors (Elosie Klein Healy, Paul Lisicky, Louise Rafkin, Peter Levitt to name a few) and my classmates, including you, Gayle. You introduced me to Clarice Lispector and The Stream of Life, a mind-expanding read that I reference in the prologue of my book. I now move differently in the world than I did before Antioch and before Cindy, less afraid to move against the current but also much more sensitive to a multiplicity of currents that pull and push upon me. I also move easily and rapidly to writing as a creative outlet, be it in a poem, an essay, a blog post, a book or theater review. My time at Antioch helped me find and trust my feminine narrative voice—the lushness, quirks, and soiled underbelly of my stories.

--How are you and Cindy doing these days? I hope you're still dancing joyfully together! :)

We recently danced joyfully on the courthouse square of our small rural California town after getting married—a dazzling and delirious moment in our time together—one we are still floating high upon.

--Do you have any words of advice for aspiring writers?

For me having an expansive network of writer friends has been important. I've been in a writing group for over 15 years and I enjoy connections near and far with friends I made at Antioch and at writing workshops, retreats, and conferences around the country and internationally. My advice is to give generously to your writing friends—critique their work when asked, write notes of congratulations and support, comment on their blogs, buy their books, write reviews and letters of recommendation, and applaud loudly and long at their readings. At the risk of sounding corny or cliché, such generosity is truly an unbroken circle of love and respect that I'm certain sustains all writers.

--I know just what you mean, Patricia, and am so grateful to be part of the circle you describe. May you and Cindy continue to have a joyous life together, and may you continue to write with such courage and power!
I've been meaning to mention that there is a feature article about me in the newly launched DeQ Magazine (enter "20" in the page number window and press the "go to page" button, and you'll find the start of the article.) Thanks to my former student Pauline Moc for setting everything up!

Speaking of students, the fall quarter started at UCR this week--I am eager to see what doors I can open for my new/returning students, what doors they can open for each other in turn. I know I'll learn a lot from them!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sorry for the silence around here. I'll be back when I have more time and energy...

Monday, September 15, 2008

From my beautiful sister Elizabeth, a midwife in Toronto:
Dr. Phil is calling for homebirth and midwife horror stories. A campaign is underway to inundate him with positive stories instead and to pressure him to represent a more balanced perspective (at least).

Please circulate this link as widely as possible. Thanks!
Our culture medicalizes birth too much already; let's not let Dr. Phil scare women into thinking that homebirths and midwives are dangerous and irresponsible!
I was so happy to see all the wonderful pictures from the "Alaska Women Reject Palin" rally in Anchorage (click on the link for the full gallery, plus great video of the event).

When I was in Alaska a few months ago, I was in a bubble of writers, so it was hard to get a sense of the pulse of the state; I certainly didn't think to ask anyone about their governor. Anne Lamott's keynote address of the conference was a public event, though, and she held no punches when she spoke to the packed auditorium of her hatred of Bush and his cronies. A small number of people stormed out in protest, but the majority of people there seemed so happy to hear their own thoughts spoken out loud on stage. I know I was! It is always a relief to connect with like minded folk; it's always an inspiration to see like-minded folk banding together in the name of justice, in the name of a more hopeful future, as the photos of this Anchorage event so beautifully display.

I was in Oceanside this morning with my dad and my boyfriend, and saw a small demonstration of "secure our borders" Minutemen. I yelled "boo" from inside the car as we drove by, but I had to remind myself that they had every right to be there, that it is wonderful that in America, we (still) have freedom of speech. I intend to use that freedom tonight when Karl Rove comes to speak at Claremont McKenna College. Any suggestions about what I should put on my protest sign? I'm thinking something along the lines of "Rove Drove Us in the Wrong Direction", but that's not short or punchy enough. Maybe I could just have one that simply says "Shame"...

UPDATE: While I still plan to vociferously protest Rove tonight, I almost want to kiss him today for saying McCain's ads have gone too far. As the linked article states: "When Karl Rove is saying your political ads have gone too far, you know you must be doing something dishonest." Bless you, Turdblossom.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

It was such a shock to learn about David Foster Wallace's suicide. He had been teaching in Claremont, about half an hour away from me, since 2002, and I had harbored the secret hope that one day we'd cross paths. I didn't think we'd become best friends or anything--he'd probably see me as annoyingly earnest--but I still wanted to meet him, this post modern legend, and let him know how much I admired his work. Now that I'll never have the chance, I wish I had been more bold--I wish I had at least sent him a fangirl email. I wish I had not assumed that I'd have years to bump into him.

His death and the recent Metrolink crash remind me how quickly and unexpectedly life can be taken from us, from those around us. It makes me want to savor each minute all the more, to tell those I admire how much I appreciate them, to hold those I love even closer to me in this brief beautiful time we have together. I think about the last lines in Mary Oliver's poem, The Summer Day:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I want to never forget how precious each moment is, how lucky I am to be part of this wild, amazing planet. And I will try to be more brave and not let opportunities for connection or action pass me by.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

This great letter is making the rounds--it's ended up in my inbox at least a dozen times--but I thought I should post it here just in case it hasn't reached everyone yet:
Friends, compatriots, fellow-lamenters,

We are writing to you because of the fury and dread we have felt since the announcement of Sarah Palin as the Vice-Presidential candidate for the Republican Party. We believe that this terrible decision has surpassed mere partisanship, and that it is a dangerous farce on the part of a pandering and rudderless Presidential candidate that has a real possibility of becoming fact.

Perhaps like us, as American women, you share the fear of what Ms.Palin and her professed beliefs and proven record could lead to for ourselves and for our present or future daughters. To date, she is against sex education, birth control, the pro-choice platform, environmental protection, alternative energy development, freedom of speech (as mayor she wanted to ban books and attempted to fire the librarian who stood against her), gun control, the separation of church and state, and polar bears. To say nothing of her complete lack of real preparation to become the second-most powerful person on the planet.

We want to clarify that we are not against Sarah Palin as a woman, a mother, or, for that matter, a parent of a pregnant teenager, but solely as a rash, incompetent, and all together devastating choice for Vice President. Ms. Palin's political views are in every way a slap in the face to the accomplishments that our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers so fiercely fought for, and that we've so demonstrably benefited from.

First and foremost, Ms. Palin does not represent us. She does not demonstrate or uphold our interests as American women. It is presumed that the inclusion of a woman on the Republican ticket could win over women voters. We want to disagree, publicly.

Therefore, we invite you to reply here with a short, succinct message about why you, as a woman living in this country, do not support this candidate as second-in-command for our nation. Please include your name (last initial is fine), age, and place of residence.

We will post your responses on a blog called 'Women Against Sarah Palin,' which we intend to publicize as widely as possible. Please send us your reply at your earliest convenience the greater the volume of responses we receive, the stronger our message will be.

Thank you for your time and action.



Quinn Latimer and Lyra Kilston

New York, NY
UPDATE: Be sure to check out the resulting website at How exciting to learn that a letter that was originally sent to just 40 friends ended up resulting in 100,000 women sharing their thoughts and feelings about this election!
On a sad day, this is making me smile: my kids having fun with stop motion photography.

Friday, September 05, 2008

I so wish I could have been at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions with my CODEPINK co-madres. How exhilarating and inspiring to see CODEPINK women stand up and speak truth to power during Palin and McCain's speeches. When McCain said "please don't be diverted by the ground noise and the static" as Liz Hourican and Nancy Mancias were hauled away, I thought about Bush dismissing hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest war as a "focus group." Mr. McCain, you have to know that the only thing static is you (even though you purport to promote change)--we will keep moving, keep speaking, and we will hopefully rise up together enough to keep you out of office.

I have posted this before, but it feels appropriate to share it again now--my essay Disrupting Power chronicles my own experience creating "ground noise" at a political event.

If any of you are in the Riverside area on the evening of 9/11, we are planning a much more peaceful event. The Other 9/11, held in front of the Gandhi statue at Mission Inn Ave. and Main St. in Riverside, will commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s first nonviolent action for justice on September 11,1906 in addition to honoring the victims of September 11, 2001 and exploring alternatives to violence. There will be music, speakers, poetry (including some from yours truly), and plenty of information to help you promote peace in your life and community. It should be a lovely night.
Super late notice, but I wanted to let you all know I'll be reading from Self Storage at the Murrieta Public Library tomorrow, Saturday, September 6th, at 2pm. The address is 24700 Adams Ave in Murrieta, CA.

I was recently lamenting the loss of the Murrieta Hot Springs Resort--it was a beautiful spa, with wonderful old buildings from the 1920s, plus a great vegetarian buffet; my mom and I went there together once when I was in college and she was visiting me from Chicago. We each took a private mud bath--very relaxing, but then an attendant came into each of our rooms, barked for us to get out of the mud, and sprayed us down with cold water from a garden hose, as if we were zoo animals. That part, not so relaxing. Over all, though, a lovely, rejuvenating stay. The resort is now a bible college--I hope they haven't plugged all the "devilish" hot springs up with concrete or anything silly like that. Anyway, it will be nice to be in Murrieta tomorrow (especially if I get to see my friend Cindy who lives there!) and I promise not to hose anyone down. ;)

Thank you to everyone who left comments about finishing the draft of my novel--I am so grateful for all of your kind words. I know your support will sustain me as I muck through the revision process. The initial glow of finishing the draft has faded, and doubt has set in--I find myself worrying that the book is no good, that it's flat, full of cliche, etc. I have to keep reminding myself that this is part of the process, that there will be time to flesh it out, give it more dimension and freshness, etc. Ah, the ups and downs of the writing life!

It probably doesn't help that I recently received my first one star review at Amazon (the fact that it was posted early last month and I didn't see it until now tells me I'm not obsessively checking my Amazon rankings any more--that's progress, at least!) I know not every reader is going to like or connect with my work, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't smart a bit to know that someone absolutely hated it. It appears that this reader mainly objected to Self Storage on an ideological level--one of the lines of the review is "I'll sum it up. America BAD. All Muslims GOOD", which of course is not how I would sum up the novel, but once the book is in a reader's hands, it becomes their book, not mine. At least the reviewer advocates recycling--the headline is "Store this one in the recycle bin". ;)

As I launch into the revision process of my new novel, I'll try not to worry about potential future one star reviews. I'll try not to worry about pleasing anyone. I'll try to stay as true to the characters and their story as I can, to give them the respect they deserve by spackling up holes and trimming off excess and keeping their hearts beating with these imperfect human hands.

Monday, September 01, 2008

I finished the first draft of my new novel today.

I am excited and relieved and surprisingly at peace. The wholeness of the story is settling inside of me now--I feel full to bursting with it and wonderfully emptied of it all at the same time.

There is still much work ahead of me, of course--this is a very rough first draft--but I didn't know how the story was going to end, didn't know where the random scenes I had written were going to fit (if they were going to fit at all). It was great fun to see the puzzle pieces come together as I wrote, to let the questions answer themselves as the story unfolded. When I realized I was nearing the ending today, I started to cry. I cried through the last few paragraphs, cried when I wrote the final sentence. I always tend to cry when I finish a novel, but this was the first time the tears began before the last word. Tears and delicious shivers. I hope that final page isn't utter nonsense--I could barely see the screen as I wrote!

I have been flooded with ideas for new writing projects over the last few weeks--I can't wait to see which one will muscle its way to the top of the heap. It's been a while since I've felt so open to inspiration. I thought for sure it had to do with the fact that I could see the end of this draft in sight, but I was able to hang out with my friend Peggy Hong recently, and she said that she's been feeling full of inspiration lately, too. She thinks it's because the Bush presidency is almost over. Under Bush, poetry felt insignificant to Peggy; she felt there was more urgent work to be done. She thinks our country is still suffering from PTSD from the trauma of the Bush years, which makes total sense to me--everyone I know has been traumatized by the reign of this administration. "I think an Obama presidency will be great for poets," she smiled as we sat on the beach and watched dolphins play in the water. I certainly hope she's right!