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.
While rereading my 1974 journal, I found a brief and very girly expression of Pure Self-Pity. At first I was embarrassed by the four-line poem and even more by the sentiment it expressed. But then I thought, hey, self-pity may be the human equivalent of crawling into a hiding place and licking your wounds after a spectacularly unsuccessful hunt. A natural thing, in other words. Even a good thing.
Why in 1974, however, I chose to express my wounded creature-ness through the voice of a Victorian housemaid, I don’t know. Any more than I know why I still love to write, when it’s clear that writing has created more problems for me than it has solved—and it doesn’t save the world either.
Maybe people read and write because they’re lonely for companions. If so, I offer the following tiny poem to accompany you in your own oh-gawd-I’m-so-inept-I’m-gonna-starve, I-should-go-away-and-die-already moments.
The Housemaid’s Lament
Little gimcracks are what I’m worth,
Nothing big or sweeping.
Little needles, little pins,
Little bits of weeping.
In dreams, the Rapist says,
Nothing is possible,
I will kill you,
I have already killed you,
She will not come for you,
You cannot have love,
There is only money
in this man’s world— and (he hisses in my ear) she knows it.
She is French, and practical.
There is only money
and you don’t know how to make it.
There is only rape
and you are the rape-ee.
We serve up girls like you
for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Your bird of love is a gull
who eats and shits our garbage.
His buddies join him:
Sex-crazed witch, they say,
your phantasming mind
will not save you from us.
when has it saved you in the past?
This is a description of Them.
They have the facts,
all the news that’s fit to print.
I have language and the spirits.
Both abandon me the moment
I balance my checkbook.
A wealthy friend once told me
I was the most impractical person
she’d ever met.
She hurt my feelings,
but she was only telling the truth.
I wish I were her.
I wish I were anybody but me.
I wish I were the poet
from a moneyed background
who said, when I solemnly announced
that I must put writing first,
“But, Harriet, how will you eat?”
Damned if I know.
The practical nurse who was my grandmother
had a mantra for me: If wishes were horses,
poor men would ride.
I do not want, I do not want,
I do not want what is.
I want to stay child.
I want a childhood I never had.
I want adventure
and the youth that passed me by.
I want my horse,
and a white banner flying.
Il n’y a pas de magie,
a friend informs me.
We wish magic were real,
she continues firmly,
but it is not.
Lucky her, she appears to derive
a measure of satisfaction from this.
If wishes were horses,
poor girls would ride, you told me in so many words.
Everyone, in fact, from the beginning,
has been telling me the Same.
A Greek chorus.
Five thousand years of plunder
are not, I admit,
on my side.
In dreams, I am being raped.
It hurts in my vagina
and in every particle of my bones,
that goes on and on and on …
Just a bloody minute!
I suddenly say to myself.
The practical thing to do,
when being raped,
is to go for the jugular.
And, with the sharp teeth
of my phantasming mind,
in the nightmare that begins my new day,
God rest his soul, I say,
and let me be.
– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 1989, revised 2015
note: The image of Leda and the swan, an Italian 16th-century bronze casting, was found on images.nga.gov. “Confrontation with the Rapist” was first published in Trivia: Voices of Feminism, issue 17, “Radical,” Winter 2016.
It’s been over a year since I published anything on “River Song,” and during those months I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. What do I want to write about now, with fifty-odd years of writing behind me?
For more of those years than I care to remember, my burning question has been the question of human survival. Will human beings learn how to take care of the earth and each other? Or will we refuse to learn, thereby becoming one more memory in the vast memory-stores of the cosmos.
My crystal ball was broken in the last windstorm, so I can’t see what’s coming next. At the moment, however, it looks as if some of us are learning, some of us are adamantly refusing to learn, some of us are immobilized by war and poverty, earth upheavals and political upheavals, and for some of us, the world begins and ends with our own skin.
The future of human children lies in the hands of this motley crew. Am I the only one who thinks we’re in need of an extraterrestrial intervention?
The following remembrance and celebration of Mary Meigs’ life and friendships was also the final installment of She Is Still Burning, a fitting ending to a project that I’d begun simply because Michèle Causse sent me an e-mail saying, “Harriet, do something.” I don’t always rush to comply with the wishes of friends, but in this case, because it was Michèle issuing the order, I swung into action, and am glad of it. Thank you, Michèle. Thank you, Mary. And thank you to everyone who contributed to the brief fiery life of She Is Still Burning.
SHE IS STILL BURNING An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers Installment #17-18 21 June 2003
Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.” (Mary Meigs, 21 March 2002)
This installment is a dual tribute: to Mary Meigs and to the powers of friendship. In it, you will hear her voice in the last year of her life, accompanied by the voices of friends grieving the loss of her and conjuring her presence back among us through their words.
There are many ways to know someone, even when it’s too late to phone her, send her a fax, mail her a letter or land on her doorstep. I hope you will enjoy coming to know Mary through these words and images, or coming to know aspects of her that you might not have known before.
Bon courage (and happy reading),
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
note: Painter and writer Mary Meigs (1917–2002) was born in Philadelphia, but lived the latter part of her life in Montreal. Talon Books in Vancouver published all five of her books: Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait (1981), The Medusa Head (1983), The Box Closet (1987), In the Company of Strangers (1991) and The Time Being (1997).
Those who never had the chance to meet her in person can still see her on film, playing herself at age 70—the witty, compassionate, outspoken lesbian artist who is the driving force in Cynthia Scott’s film In the Company of Strangers (NFB, 1990). The film is available on DVD or video as part of the “Modern Day Classics” series, under the title Strangers in Good Company.
“Who She Was,” a charming comic-strip story by Eve Corbel about her friendship with Mary, appears in the Winter 2002 issue of Geist magazine (Vancouver).
IN THIS INSTALLMENT
1) Betsy Warland: “A Remembering of Mary Meigs”
2) Suniti Namjoshi: “Mary’s Dream” and an extract from “The Good Witch Sycorax”
3) Claire Saint Aubin: “À bientôt Mary”
4) Sylvie Sainte-Marie: “Elle est apparue dans ma vie” and “Soledad”
5) Verena Stefan: “Agitation on a Brick Wall”
6) Cynthia Rich: “Seeing Mary”
7) Lise Weil: “Freewriting with Mary”
8) “Feathers”: correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger
9) Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”