Note to readers:The essay that follows was originally my master’s thesis for Goddard College. In the fall of 1984, it was published in Trivia: A Journal of Ideas, the longest piece they had published and the one that received the most reader response.
Trivia‘s editor called it “the essay on everything,” and she may have been right. At the very least, it’s an essay on creativity, and that’s the reason I chose to republish it here.
Essays on creativity are intended to spark other people’s creativity, so if any part of what follows speaks to you—take it and run with it.
THE DREAM IS THE BRIDGE
In Search of Lesbian Theatre
For the past fifteen months, as a graduate student at Goddard College, I’ve been prospecting in an interface between disciplines: where theatre, theology, and political theory converge. I’ve been trying to discover how to make art, make religion, and make revolution in ways that come together, answering my deepest desires.
In the following essay I attempt to spell out what I have found and to spell it out clearly and vividly enough that it can be of use. I work in the writing as much with metaphor and image as I do with concepts. My essential themes resist expression in the form of propositions. But what I have been learning and saying leads me to the following conclusions:
Catherine Nicholson (no middle name) was born in Troy, a small town in the Scottish Presbyterian sandhills region of North Carolina, on August 7, 1922, but her father Mike, the town druggist, registered her birth as August 8th. Catherine celebrated both days.
When Catherine was four, her older sister, Edna Earle, died at home from an overdose of morphine given her during an asthma attack by a new doctor in town. The morphine had come from Mike’s drugstore, a hard fact which Catherine’s mother never forgave. She took to her bed for a year, and during that year taught Catherine to read. Catherine’s head-start on schooling and her love for literature were born out of her mother’s unassuageable grief.
To escape the thunderclouds at home, Catherine spent much of her time outside the house. She read the magazines and drank cherry cokes at the soda fountain in her father’s drugstore, and watched every Hollywood movie that came to town – for free, in her uncle’s movie theatre. She played long hours with Nancy and other friends in the neighborhood: one of their best games was Plike (short for “play like you’rex … “), a form of theatre that didn’t require adult supervision or resources. And, when her mother didn’t intervene in time, Catherine gave her toys to the other children.
Moving Out into a Wider World
Catherine graduated from a small woman’s college near Troy that had been named after the 18th-century Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, remembered by the Scots for her courage, fidelity, and honor. Then Catherine went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a master’s in English literature. She taught in Winston-Salem, and later showed me the campus where she’d asked WH Auden to read. He arrived on the train from New York City, and she and her roommate invited all the beautiful, intelligent young men they knew for him to converse with. Catherine herself was working seriously on poems, but Auden never knew that.
Catherine never told me when and why her passion shifted from words on the page to live theatre, but she took the extraordinary step of moving alone from North Carolina to Chicago, to study at Northwestern University under the great acting teacher Alvina Krause. Catherine earned an MA and a PhD in theatre and oral interpretation at Northwestern, writing her dissertation on the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy.
It was during those years in the Midwest that Catherine made three discoveries which would shape her life until its closing: she discovered that, though she made a good actor, she made an even better director; she discovered the books of Jane Ellen Harrison, intellectual revolutionary who uncovered the violent destruction of female-centered culture which lay at the root of Western civilization; and she discovered Barbara, then an undergraduate in sociology at Northwestern and Catherine’s first real love.
Making Theatre Live
When I met her at the Charlotte Women’s Center in 1974, Catherine had directed university theatre for nearly twenty years, first at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia, then at the new branch of the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, where she and the painter Maud Gatewood had begunthe interdisciplinary arts program. I knew that the old lovers and friends she introduced me to thought she was a great director, but I had no idea what that meant until after we were living together and she was directing what would be her final play at UNCC, “Twelfth Night,” cast irrespective of sex. I listened to her anguish night after day after night, and I watched as she created a whole world; I watched her slowly give that world over to the actors; and I watched her withdraw to let the actors in turn make that world live for their audience. I saw how what she did caused everyone touched by it to rise far above their ordinary selves. And I saw what happened when the play was done, the collapse of the collective extraordinary back into the individual ordinary.
How We Got Together and Catherine Left the University
Catherine had become fascinated with me by reading my journal (she could quote chunks of it verbatim), and I had become fascinated with her by listening to her talk. Catherine’s mind was a library, and she could talk a blue streak – from morning coffee, when she would recount fabulously detailed, richly theatrical dreams, to the last drop of bourbon nearly twenty hours later. She was fifty-three, she was at the top of her game professionally, and she drank a lot. I was twenty-eight, I lived and breathed revolution and the Charlotte Women’s Center, and I was career-less, unless you counted a part-time job as a technical writer.
We were in complete agreement that an ongoing love relationship would be a terrible idea. We were in complete agreement that my moving into her house would produce a catastrophe. We agreed completely, and then in early 1975, we went ahead and did it anyway.
After the “Twelfth Night” performances a few months later, Catherine left her tenured teaching position, explosively. In practical terms, she could have stayed. The administration was upset about the sex discrimination suit she’d filed, but they still needed her. The gay male artists who surrounded her like a Judy-Garland fan club were alarmed by the women’s center and by me, but, given time and reassurance, they would have come around. The real reason she left, I think now, was that she had reached the limits of what the patriarchal theatre tradition could do. She’d directed Greek tragedy, knowing that the stories the old plays told were stories of the defeat of women. She’d directed Shakespeare, playing with gender roles even more than he had. She’d directed Brecht and Ibsen and Strindberg and the first North American production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” She’d been there, she’d done that, and she wanted to create something new.
An Amazon Culture Center on Paper
You’d think I could tell most excellent stories about the years (1976-81) that Catherine and I did Sinister Wisdom together, but it was like being picked up by a tornado. Memory pictures swirl in my head, both of us being turned and twisted and swept away, from North Carolina to Nebraska to Massachusetts. I remember the women all along the way, lesbian-identified and not – massive presences, startling presences, stellar souls. I remember the ecstasy of break-through conversations, the traveling from lesbian home to lesbian home, the cooperative labor (many hands are supposed to make light work, but there was so much work associated with Sinister Wisdom, it needed an army and a couple of generations).
Through it all, Catherine remained in some sense the director. It was her idea that we should publish a magazine together. The resources we burned up in the process were chiefly hers. She was, essentially, the one who made Sinister Wisdom happen and the one who kept it going, most especially when I was felled by an attack of Graves’ disease in Nebraska.
Catherine was the lion-heart of Sinister Wisdom, and it is for that, more than for any other of the many gifts she gave, that I honor her and wish her to be remembered.
note: I wrote this tribute to Catherine after Julie R. Enszer, the current editor of Sinister Wisdom, e-mailed me that Catherine had just died. The news was not a surprise because it had been over a year since Catherine had been able to remember who I was, and her goddaughter had told me a few weeks earlier that Catherine had suffered a massive stroke. Surprised or not, however, I was in a state of semi-shock when I started writing this, and Julie patiently waited while I struggled through to the end.
My piece appeared along with other tributes by Marilyn Frye, Beth Hodges, and Susan Robinson (aka Susan Wood-Thompson) in Sinister Wisdom 90 (Fall 2013).
The 111th book-length issue of Sinister Wisdom arrived in my rural mailbox a few weeks ago. Wherever Catherine is now (I’ve listed her in my address book as “free in the universe”), I say to her, Remember that project we started with such trepidation in 1976? Guess what—it’s succeeding beyond our wildest imaginings.
Reflections on Dark Matters: a novel by Susan Hawthorne
I am asking myself what accounts for the haunting power of Dark Matters, this latest in a long line of books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction by Susan Hawthorne. One clue may simply be the length of that trail of published work which precedes Dark Matters. No one creates a profound work of art by staying on the surface of life, but it is equally true that no can do it before they’ve taught themselves to be at home in their own language. Each sentence of Susan Hawthorne’s Dark Matters says what it says — and it also says, “my writer knew what she was doing.”
Dark Matters vibrates through time, in part because the line of writing which leads to it includes more than Hawthorne’s own: that line begins with Sappho, the tenth muse, the rockstar of the Mediterranean, of whose multitudinous lyrics only fragments have survived the attempts to eradicate them, along with the memory of her and her companions. A whole machinery of cultural destruction has been brought to bear on the poet of love, and we are left with bits and pieces that nonetheless retain their power to evoke and to move.
Like the remnants of Sappho’s lyrics, the novel Dark Matters itself is made up of fragments. Its structure echoes the story being told as well as the background story of lesbian history, a zigzag trail through landscapes and timescapes of erasure and memory. Telling the love story of Kate and Mercedes in fragmented episodes allows for intensity (both in the scenes of beauty and in the scenes of terror), alternating with relief from intensity. And the fragments are arranged in such a way that the reader, along with Kate’s niece Desi, gradually moves through a mist of unanswered questions and mysterious gaps toward a feeling for what drew Mercedes and Kate together and a comprehension of the forces that tore them from each other’s arms.
The love story that is the heart of Dark Matters begins with Mercedes teaching Kate the tango, and from there they dance their way into a shared life. Mercedes’ family has fled torture in Chile to resettle in Australia, but when things go bad politically in her new home, the torturers show up again. In a dawn raid, armed and hooded intruders kill Priya (Kate and Mercedes’ beloved dog), shoot Mercedes, and seize Kate, transporting her to a remote detention center, where she is subjected to the textbook methods of torture, which few survive.
For Kate, the lesbian and feminist, however, there is an added twist. The most sophisticated of the torturers, the one she calls Velvet Voice, is a man who has gone beyond his job description. He’s been tracking Kate as obsessively as a rejected suitor bent on revenge: he’s read her poetry and her political writings; he’s gone through her library and studied her performances. When he grinds his heel into her left hand, breaking the bones, he calls her “sinister sister.” He knows Kate, and breaking her spirit along with her body is not only his work, it’s his pleasure. He intends to turn everything she’s ever loved against her.
Kate doesn’t know where she is, why she’s there, who authorized her being there, who else is being held in the building nor what is being done to them. She doesn’t know if Mercedes has survived. She doesn’t know what to expect next. She has been systematically robbed of situational awareness, the cues to orient herself in time and space blocked by her captors. All she has is her mind and her memory. And this is where the great richness of Dark Matters comes in because, as it turns out, Kate’s mind is very full.
There are the memories of her life as a child, memories of her travels to her mother’s Greek homeland, later memories of journeys and conversations with Mercedes, and then there are the memories extending back thousands of years, to the time of the Eleusinian rituals, to a time when women had not yet been de-authorized, to a time when the old goddesses were a living presence in the life of the Mediterranean peoples. Memory is the mother of the muses, and as Kate remembers, she begins to write archaic-sounding poems in her head and one night she dreams, like her grandmother, in the old language of Classical Greece.
To tell more of Dark Matters might be to ruin it for new readers, so I’ll stop here with one last thought: there is so much wisdom woven into this book, you can spend weeks teasing out the strands and pondering them. As Desi says, “Those goddesses are not dead. I mean not dead-dead! Not really dead! They keep coming back in cycles. It all depends on who you talk to.”
Note: Susan Hawthorne’s Dark Matters: a novel was published in 2017 by Spinifex Press, an independent feminist press in Australia that has been putting out cutting-edge books, winning awards for them, and distributing them internationally since 1991.
On 19 May 2013, my mother died, four days after her hundredth birthday.
She’d been living for weeks on ice chips and low-dose morphine, regularly leaving her body to walk and talk with my father, then returning to report to my brother at her bedside and to me via long-distance phone. No one knew when she would leave and not return, but everyone believed that her departure was imminent.
Five days before her centennial, however, she suddenly said to my brother, “It’s only a week away; maybe I can make it.” And she revived, sending the nursing-home staff into a frenzy of last-minute party planning. When the morning of her birthday dawned sunny and warm, they came to dress her for a convertible ride around the small town of Reinbeck, Iowa, and she said, “Hallelujah, I thought I’d never get out of this place alive.”
The convertible was a bright yellow muscle car with the top down, and the route had been planned so that town residents could come out on the curb to sing “happy birthday” to her at various stops along the way. It all worked like a charm, and she made the driver stop three times in addition, to listen to the birds singing and to watch squirrels run up and down the tree trunks. After a half-hour ride, they returned to her room, which had been transformed into a festival of balloons and cakes and flowers and visitors with cameras.
The next morning, she slipped into a coma and was gone three days later. And the morning following her death, I woke with the realization that there was no one left but me who knew the stories of her early life. In a rush to send something to my brother before her grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered for her funeral, I wrote the following:
Some Things You May Not Know About the Young Kathryn Louise Truitt Ellenberger
When she was four years old, the family doctor told her parents that she would not live to grow up and all they could do was make sure that her childhood was happy. After that, her father stopped drowning the barn cats’ new litters, and soon she had over thirty kitten playmates.
She rode her own pony to school, trying to keep up with her older brother Keith’s horse.
When she was eight, her father died and their farm was sold, and her mother’s parents built a second story on their house in town to make room for their daughter and her children. The house was full of books, and there were large flowerbeds, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees.
She was an avid tennis player. When she was thirteen, her mother became alarmed at the amount of time she was spending with older boys on the town’s tennis court, and sent her to work for the summer as a hired girl on a relative’s farm. Kathryn did not like working in the kitchen from dawn until the supper dishes were washed, followed by a pile of mending until 10 p.m.
Kathryn thought she might like to be an interior decorator, but everyone assumed she would become a country schoolteacher, following in the footsteps of her older sisters Mabel and Lucile. She did not do this. After high school graduation, Lucile gave her the money to go to business school in Des Moines.
When she graduated from business school, she was offered a job in the Des Moines Public Library system. She worked in the downtown library and lived in the Brown Hotel with several roommates.
One of her roommates, Bunny, wanted to take the civil-service exam and asked Kathryn to take it at the same time, as moral support. Within a few days, Kathryn received a telegram offering her a job in the Navy Building in Washington, DC. She immediately sent a telegram back, accepting the job. Only then did she tell family and friends, and soon she was boarding a train for the East Coast.
Her boyfriend Carl Ellenberger was classified 4-F because he had lost the thumb on his right hand in a corncob-crusher accident. Kathryn’s boss, an admiral, waived a few bureaucratic rules and soon Carl was in Naval Intelligence.
When Kathryn delivered certain materials to other government departments in DC, she was driven in a chauffeured limousine and carried a revolver in her purse.
Kathryn was well-dressed in wartime Washington because she cut out magazine photos of the clothes she wanted to wear, and mailed them to her mother in Iowa. Her mother designed the pattern, found the fabric, sewed the outfit, and mailed it back to her.
Carl Ellenberger had first asked Kathryn to marry him when they were both seventeen. In 1942, when they were both twenty-nine, he told her it was the last time he’d ask and she believed him. She said yes.
The specifics of what Carl and Kathryn were doing for the Navy during World War II are known only to them. Kathryn and my partner had a tacit telephone understanding: she knew that he knew that she knew that … But I remain clue-less.
Postscript, October 2013
Despite over sixty years of conversation with my mother, it’s not only her wartime activities I’m in the dark about. We had a meeting of the minds on two things: the allure of good food and the beauty of Chopin’s waltz in C# minor, op. 64, no. 2, which she liked me to play for her. With most everything else — politics, religion, the nature of reality — we tended to be stationed on opposite sides of the barricades.
I couldn’t fathom what drove my mother, and she had the same difficulty with me. But we kept on talking. And — judging by the evidence of my dreams — the conversation, in some mysterious way, continues.
note: This essay was published first in Return to Mago on 28 October 2013.
In the fall of 1964, I was a freshman scholarship student at a small liberal arts college in the midst of the Iowa cornfields (no drought then—the tall-grass prairie that had been broken to the plow turned green with lustily growing rows of corn from horizon to horizon). I wasn’t paying attention to the surrounding crops, nor even to the weather; I was avidly searching for signs of the life of the mind, which I had imagined would flourish in that place.
I didn’t find what I was looking for, but one remark by the professor teaching us “Introduction to Philosophy” did turn my attention in the direction of studying philosophy. We had just spent fifteen minutes of classroom time on the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, who taught that everything was water, when our teacher said, Consider how extraordinary this is—to look at the multi-form ever-changing world and see flowing through it a single invisible unifying “something.”
I considered, and I was hooked.
The word philosophy comes from the Greek philos (loving) combined with sophia (wisdom; also the goddess of wisdom), so it means literally “loving wisdom” or “loving Sophia.” But, as I would find out the hard way, academic philosophy in 1960s middle America had strayed far from its roots. There was little love, not much wisdom, and most assuredly no goddess in it. It was not a way into the life of the mind; it was intellectual jousting for the purpose of determining who was the smartest guy in the room (by definition, that wouldn’t have been me).
Four years of extreme study in philosophy departments did, however, give me a built-in bullshit-meter—I could tell almost instantly when someone was saying or writing something that made no sense. Through constant use of analytic reason, I learned what a handy-dandy all-purpose tool it can be. But a tool is no more than a tool. It doesn’t guide you, and it doesn’t inspire you. And I was becoming increasingly disillusioned and unhappy. So I gave up my fellowship for graduate study and turned my attention to more pressing matters, like the bombing of Cambodia instigated by Henry Kissinger.
My first metaphysics lesson had to wait for another twenty years, until the mid-1980s, when my friend Debbie and I decided to eat two little dried-up fungus-buttons another friend had passed on to her. We thought we were ingesting the sacred mushroom used by shamans, but who knows what those wrinkly things really were or where they’d come from. We were both, however, all set for our trip into Big Mind.
It was a bitterly cold and clear full-moon night, and we were inside Debbie’s cabin, situated halfway up a snow-covered mountain in Vermont, and surrounded by woods. We each ate our “mushroom,” bundled up, and went outside. I looked at the full moon and saw it as I usually did, perfectly clearly, but over it and surrounding it was a see-through diaphanous creamy-pink lotus blossom. I blinked, and saw the full moon as usual. I blinked again, and there was the moon with her see-through lotus-double. I blinked again and again, and the lotus-moon appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in the same way.
Then I looked at the bare trees in the moonlight, and saw see-through lithe young women lying along the branches. Only they were too tall and too beautiful to be human. I blinked and they were gone. I blinked again and there they were; I could see the solid branches through their shimmery bodies. I cried out to Debbie, “Metaphors are Real!” and felt as if I’d just made a momentous philosophical discovery.
By this time, though, Debbie’s dog was yipping and biting at our heels, having had enough of the great outdoors. We went back inside, and he plopped down on the rug in front of the door. Debbie put another log on the fire, and then I saw her little dog’s see-through body sit up, trot over to the woodstove, and curl up beside it. A split-second later, his wet furry normal-little-dog’s-body sat up, trotted over to the woodstove, and curled up in exactly the same spot. Oh, I thought, so that’s how it works: dream-body leads, touch-body follows.
The next morning I woke up feeling as if I’d been kicked all over by a horse, which abruptly ended my enthusiasm for dried-up fungi. But for more than a year afterward I could see the lotus-and-moon on clear nights when the moon was nearly full, if I bent my knees. And since that night, although I’ve managed to doubt almost everything else, I have not doubted that the world is double, and that the more powerful, initiating part of it we have been conditioned not to perceive.
There is nothing ordinary about reality: that’s what my first metaphysics lesson taught me.
Note: When Helen Hye-Sook Hwang asked me to contribute to the new “Return to Mago” blog, I got all excited and wrote this little philosophy story for her. She published the first version of it on 9 September 2012 at http://magoism.net