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!

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