Catherine the Lion-Hearted

 

Where She Came From

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’re  x … “), 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

CNgrad (2013_09_21 09_09_57 UTC)
Catherine Nicholson, Flora MacDonald College graduation

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 begun  the 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She Is Still Burning 13 (May 2002)

The May 2002 installment below shows its age mostly in the letter to readers, where you can see me attempting to dredge up a bit of hope where there wasn’t much (the invasion of Iraq hadn’t happened yet, but the attempts to stop it would fail). The two following pieces do last, and both are meant to be read aloud (Barbara Mor’s “Suicidal Girls” would’ve made a great podcast, with sound effects, and my piece is a speech, to be delivered to a conference I never got to).

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #13
10 May 2002 

We are against war and the sources of war.
We are for poetry and the sources of poetry.
(Muriel Rukeyser, 1949)

All humanity today lives under one global god: the God of War, who is continuously empowered and enlarged by the religion of money.
(Barbara Mor, 1987)

Peace is a place where no war is held.
(line from children’s poems circulating the internet, 2002)

Dear Friends,

I’ve begun this letter three times in the past six weeks, and then gotten submerged in translation contracts, while events raced ahead, outstripping my attempts to understand them. My first try began like this: “It’s March 31st as I begin writing this, and two old, ruthless and cynical men who despise each other (a description of Ariel Sharon and Yassar Arafat stolen from Robert Fisk, Mideast correspondent par excellence) head towards their final confrontation in the Land of the Patriarchs. … I hate it when men play chess with human pawns, particularly when they’re playing on a board that’s already soaked in blood. I hate it even more when nobody stops them.”

Six weeks later, the civilian infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority is wrecked and Arafat sidelined, and now it’s Sharon and his Likud party versus Hamas and Hezbollah. But these players are also mirror images of each other: both want the same land, all of it; both think they can take it by force; both believe their god backs them in this endeavour.

Personally, I think the opposing sides in all the battles spreading over the earth are serving the same god, the one Starhawk calls “The God of Force” (secular types worship him too, under names like “full-spectrum dominance”). This god may have ruled the earth for the last 4000-odd years, but these are strange times and I suspect that he might have finally shot himself in the foot.

Force doesn’t work anymore—it may be as simple as that. Here we have, for instance, George W. Bush, the most powerful man in the world and the least free, with his heart set on bringing down Saddam Hussein. Can he do it? Only if he’s willing to lose 10-30,000 troops, use low-yield nukes and crash the U.S. economy.

Checkmate.

I’m thinking, in other words, that there’s something resembling hope at the bottom of this wastebasket. And if you’ll grant me a few moments and a little poetic license, I’ll try to explain why.

First, let’s say that the “God of Force” is shorthand for “dominant human belief and behaviour patterns under patriarchy.” When this god collapses in a bloody stalemate with himself, who’s left standing? Well, it’s probably (to use another of Starhawk’s phrases) the “Goddess of Regeneration.” She’s also shorthand, a metaphoric image for human potential (if you think of human beings as one body, then she’d be the soul—or, in scientific terms, the quantum hologram—of humanity). But she’s also a metaphoric image for the unity-in-diversity of matter/energy—hence, the soul of a humanity in sync with the rest of the cosmos.

And if we want to locate her prophets, we don’t need to look much farther than the Women in Black, with their week-by-week, year-by-year street-corner vigils for peace. Are they unrealistic and politically naive, these women? I don’t think so.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

1) “Suicidal Girls”: an Irish Crone rap by Barbara Mor, about which she writes, “i really want to bodily pick up women, in all this chaos, and set us back on the OldFeministRoad: Fuck Off, Stupids!”

2) “Some Reflections on Lesbian Culture, Feminist Thought, Jazz and Love” by Harriet Ellenberger (presentation written for the conference “Ruptures, Résistances et Utopies” to be held in Toulouse, France, September 2002)

Continue reading She Is Still Burning 13 (May 2002)

She Is Still Burning 8 (August 2001)

Republishing the instalments of She Is Still Burning is having a peculiar effect on my psyche: I’m moving constantly between the past and the present, between then and now.  It’s a little like rocking in a boat, just before you start getting seasick.

In the August 2001 “Dear Friends” letter below, I’m reporting on a trip to North Carolina to visit Catherine Nicholson, with whom in 1976 I co-founded the journal Sinister Wisdom.  In 2016, Sinister Wisdom celebrated its 40th year of publishing, but Catherine didn’t live to see that anniversary happen. She would’ve been so pleased about it.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #8
8 August 2001

“Women and poets believe and resist forever:
The blind inventor finds the underground river.”
– Muriel Rukeyser, “Letter to the Front,” published 1944

Dear Friends,

It seems a long time and a lot of mileage since the last installment of She Is Still Burning. The first two weeks of May I spent in Durham, North Carolina, visiting Catherine Nicholson, voraciously trying to read everything in her apartment, browsing the bookstores on 9th Street, seeing an exhibit of Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s paintings and a new play about Lou Andreas Salome, being wined and dined by old friends and new friends, listening to life stories of every woman I met, enjoying sun and warm air and the scent of flowering magnolia trees.

At one point, Wynn Cherry, who is completing a book about Southern U.S. lesbian writers, asked to interview me about the experience of publishing Sinister Wisdom with Catherine in North Carolina in the mid-70s. When she arrived with her tape recorder at the sidewalk café, I had a sudden vision of myself as a dinosaur who had somehow escaped extinction (I’m not used to being interviewed), but then I forgot the tape recorder and we were launched into one of those long passionate conversations that to me have always been the hallmark of Real Life: 1976 … 2001; then … now; what has changed … what remains the same. At the end she asked me, after my wild hand-waving attempts to convey what it was like to live for a movement, Was it worth it? It took me a few moments, but finally I said, Yes, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And that felt like the true answer.

One of the books I discovered on Catherine’s coffee table (a prime source for reading material I’m unlikely to run across in Saint John) was Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly, edited by Sarah Lucia Hoagland and Marilyn Frye (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2000). Marilyn and Sarah are old friends from Sinister Wisdom days, but, more to the point, both are philosophers who have written feminist classics (Frye’s The Politics of Reality and Hoagland’s Lesbian Ethics). And Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father was a primary inspiration for the creation of Sinister Wisdom in 1976, while her most recent book Quintessence was likewise a primary inspiration for the creation of She Is Still Burning twenty-four years later. So a volume titled Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly and edited by Hoagland and Frye was guaranteed to capture my attention. It lived up to my hopes too. It’s philosophy done in a way I used to dream that philosophy might be done (ought to be done) when I was a thoroughly lost, mute and alienated undergraduate, majoring in philosophy.

The book on Daly’s pre-Quintessence work is part of an entire series published by Pennsylvania State in which feminist philosophers reinterpret the works of Hannah Arendt, de Beauvoir, Foucault, Derrida, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, the list goes on. Scanning that list, I felt half-ecstatic and half-anguished. What if this series had existed in the mid-1960s? I would have cried for joy at discovering it in the university library; it would have set my mind on fire; I would have flung myself into the collaborative making of meaning like a young Fury. It would have altered the world for me. But in the mid-1960s there was no such series (the closest thing I could find to inspiration was the later Wittgenstein and a few fragments from the pre-Socratics), and there were no feminist philosophers. Imagine how precious, how precious and how fragile, their existence now is.

Speaking of the precious and the fragile brings me to my second key discovery on Catherine’s coffee table: the glossy March 2001 issue of Girlfriends, with its excellent article by Kathleen Wilkinson, “The Closing of the Feminist Press,” wherein I learned that Feminist Bookstore News had ceased publication, for lack of revenue. Merde, I thought. Carol Seajay, the moving force behind FBN, has done as much as one human can in a single lifetime to help create and sustain the international networks of women writers, publishers, librarians and booksellers that have been central to the transformation of feminism into a global movement. That FBN has run out of support is, to understate the matter, not a good sign.

The women interviewed by Wilkinson point to a variety of reasons for the unraveling, at least in the States, of a women-in-print network, but the remark that struck me most was made by Nancy Bereano, former publisher of Firebrand Books, who said, “I think we underestimated the capitalist maw and we were swallowed up by it.” In the brief time since October 2000, when I put out the first installment of She Is Still Burning, that same capitalist maw has 90 percent swallowed up the Internet too, in great part thanks to a predatory Microsoft monopoly. (Ho, Billygate, you win again: those millions spent on wooing politicians … ) To put it briefly, we’re in merde up to our ears and on all fronts. Add to that my belated discovery that publishing on the Internet can be as complex and arduous a process as publishing on paper, and you have the reasons for a brief plunge into the bitter-bitter-blues on my part.

My spirits picked up again, though, when my partner, Bert O’Brien, solved the 5-megabyte problem. (Five megabytes for a personal website is what you’re allowed when you pay for your e-mail address; 5 megabytes is comparable to a broom closet, but paying for a larger, commercial-size website was out of the question.) In a technological tour de force, he redesigned the entire website, still within that 5-megabyte limit, so that you can now read and VERY easily download to your computer all installments of Burning. In other words, She Is Still Burning becomes on the web what I’d originally intended it to be: an expanding reader.

In closing, let me say that I habitually keep one ear to the ground, and it seems to me I’m detecting the beginnings of a faint rumble. Though I don’t have “proof” beyond that furnished by intuition, I think that the next volcanic eruption of women is coming, it’s coming soon, it’s coming in the midst of circumstances that are the most dangerous humans have yet faced, and few of us will be able to rely on our usual paper or electronic or telephonic means of communication. Wherefore, let’s polish up our survival skills, dear friends, our telepathic skills too. And let’s create up a storm, because when we create, we’re in synchronicity, one with the other.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•Notes on Our Time (excerpts from Maureen Dowd, Toni
Morrison, Mary Daly)
•Reader Response
•”Three Slaves by Michelangelo Buonorotti” (poem by Camille Norton)


Continue reading She Is Still Burning 8 (August 2001)

She Is Still Burning 1 (Oct 2000)

And the blast from the past continues … below you will find the first SISB installment, sent out to friends as an e-mail in October 2000. I re-formatted to make it look prettier, but the words are exactly as they appeared then.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #1
22 October 2000

Dear Friends,

We’re just at the beginning of this project, and already I’ve managed to confuse everyone, including myself. This is because I was trying to go back to the 1970s days of publishing Sinister Wisdom with Catherine Nicholson, when we put out issues that were designed like books and included original artwork. Real publishing, in other words.

In my imagination, the HTML version of She Is Still Burning was elegantly book-like too. But when I translated imagination into computer reality, the resulting e-mail was huge, unlovely, and took forever to send/receive—like stuffing a pig-in-a-pinafore through a narrow mail slot. Hence, oh sad revision of my original announcement, She Is Still Burning will appear in everyone’s e-mail box as “text only.”

But she will appear, and SHE WILL BE FREE, something that real publishing can’t offer.

That said, let me welcome you to the beginning installment of She Is Still Burning. The first writer to respond to my request for submissions was long-time friend Lynn Martin, a poet who works for the Brattleboro AIDS Project in Vermont. (We were born on the same day, in different years, so it seemed natural to me that she would immediately comprehend my intentions.) Below, you’ll find a poem and short-short story by Lynn; they go together, illuminate each other.

Next comes a sample of Suzanne Cox’s “Suzy Q. Reporter” pieces, which she e-mails to a group of friends and which, along with her letters, were a major inspiration for She Is Still Burning. Suzanne Cox is a poet and painter who lives in New Hampshire and works at the Dartmouth College library.

On 9 October 2000, the day I sent out the invitations to subscribe, the world experienced its first ozone alert. The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, already as large as three continents, had extended for the first time over land inhabited by humans, the southernmost part of Chile and the island of Tierra del Fuego. In the NASA satellite photo, the hole looked like a gigantic blue teardrop. I don’t think words exist to adequately respond to this, but the final poem in this installment of She Is Still Burning at least speaks to the causes of the event. It seems more timely now than when I wrote it in 1989.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Michèle Causse for years and years of encouraging me to keep on writing, and for her e-mail last spring pleading with me to DO SOMETHING again—which provided the impetus for this project.

With best wishes,
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick

Continue reading She Is Still Burning 1 (Oct 2000)