At the beginning of each summer, I excitedly make a list of what I want to read in the two and a half months I am free from reading hundreds of student essays.
Last summer, I read everything I could find by Octavia Butler and about the Vikings (no connection to Butler). The summer before that, I read books I had never read but knew I should, like My Antonia and Anna Karenina. This summer, I have an eclectic list, which is fast becoming an actual teetering stack with the help of the Denver Public Library, with the general theme of “lesbian.” It’s been awhile since I wandered the stacks of books by and about lesbians, and—since I’m attending the Golden Crown Literary Society Conference in Vegas this summer—I thought I’d immerse myself a little early. Here’s my list for the summer (a mix of new and old, compiled solely because they consider topics and/or genres that interest me):
A Thin Bright Line by Lucy Jane Bledsoe (the keynote at the GCLS Con!)
The World Unseen by Sarim Sarif (I’m re-reading that one)
The Ada Decades by Paula Martinac (I just finished it last week)
Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong
Art on Fire by Hilary Sloin
Hoosier Daddy: A Heartland Romance by Ann McMann
Lesbian Pulp Fiction: the sexually intrepid world of lesbian paperback novels, 1950-1965
American Romances: Essays by Rebecca Brown (a re-read)
My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years by Sarah Schulman
Zami by Audre Lorde
The Dime by Kathleen Kent
The PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson (a re-read)
Patience and Sarah by Isabelle Miller (a re-read)
Across an untried sea: discovering lives hidden in the shadow of convention and time by Julia Markus
Depths of Blue by Lisa MacTague
Bend by Nancy J. Hedin
Because lesbian lit considers a marginalized group of people in some way, it possesses its own unique qualities, which, I would argue, makes it its own genre. Lesbian lit almost always features main characters who are lesbian, it often seeks to subvert the dominant societal narrative, and it often does that subverting in a fascinating, cross-genre way. Some of the most experimental books I have read have been lesbian books. Consider everything by Jeannette Winterson, or Rebecca Brown’s essay (nuns, Oreos—wow).
Lists like this one move beyond a summer reading list for me. Already, just making the list made me feel more connected to the larger lesbian community out there (and the prospect of attending an lesbian literary conference in July makes me excited to be in that community awhile, too). Of course, my daughter Mitike rolled her eyes at me when I told her my summer reading plans: “So you’re just going to read romance all summer?” I tried to explain that these books are about all kinds of themes, from romance to oppression to politics to lived life to science fiction, but she shook her head. “Mom, all these books are about women who love women, right? That’s romance.”
Yes and no. The older lesbian books, like The Price of Salt (made into the 2015 film Carol) focus primarily on the love between two women, because the main conflict was that the women were trying to love each other at all. The same is true about historical fiction, like The Ada Decades, a lovely little book that carries the reader through eight decades of the life of a woman living as a lesbian in North Carolina, or The World Unseen, which considers a forbidden love between two Indian women in South Africa. However, some more recent lesbian books merely feature a lesbian main character, like the lesbian detective in Kathleen Kent’s The Dime. The more acceptable it becomes for women to love women, the more we’ll see this shift in lesbian literature.
Shelving lesbian literature as a separate genre matters most to women who have just come out. When I came out in 2005, at age 28, I felt incredibly alone. I knew only one other lesbian, a friend from college who had moved to New York City, fallen in love, and held a civil union with her girlfriend. I called her and she invited me to visit. It was late October; the gingko leaves in Central Park were turning yellow. My friend and her legal partner showed me around lesbian New York by bringing me to bookstores. At Oscar Wilde (now closed) and Bluestockings, I stood in the stacks and, trembling, picked up book after book after book in the section marked LESBIAN, my face hot because now everyone in the bookstore knew that I was a lesbian because I was touching and opening lesbian books. I bought my first Jeanette Winterson book (Written on the Body) and my first Sarah Waters book (Tipping the Velvet); I bought the classic Patience and Sarah by Isabelle Miller and I bought the classic Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden. When I returned home to Alaska, to my little apartment three blocks from the ocean, and started to read, I felt comforted. I wasn’t the only one.
Later, reading lesbian literature became more about research. What kind of lesbian was I, anyway? An Adrienne Rich contemplating the unfurling of fern fronds in the forest? A Dorothy Allison, swearing loudly through my fear? A Jeanette Winterson, diving into rabbit-hole wanderings? I wanted to know about the community I had joined. I read Joan Nestle and Lillian Faderman, to discover my history (and I learned the word “HERstory”). I subscribed to Sinister Wisdom and Curve.
Still later, I just preferred reading lesbian stories to straight ones because they experimented more, dared more, surprised me more. Some of my favorite books are not lesbian ones, of course, but they are favorites for those same criteria (The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich, for example). I love the book in which a character suddenly time-travels into a different body, as happens in The PowerBook, and as I expect to happen in Sappho’s Leap. I love experimentation with language and structure; I love flipped roles and surprising historical details. Lesbian literature offers all of that.
This summer, immersing myself in lesbian literature is not about a desperate search for recognition or about research (although I expect to learn something), but a cozy familiarity. As I relax on the deck of our little rented cabin on the Oregon coast this June with my wife and our daughter, I want to lose myself in books about characters that look a little like us. And yes, Mitike, I’m excited to read a fair bit of romance, too.
On the evening of Mother’s Day, I stood gazing proudly at my sixty-four square feet of raised garden.
I love each plant: the green leafy broccolini, the heart-leafed French radishes, the purple-veined Russian kale, the climbing sweet peas, the glossy spinach and butterhead lettuce, the flowering yellow blossoms of the slender mustard greens, the clustered tender beet shoots, the open palms of the purple cabbage. Every afternoon, after I battle teenagers and bureaucracy all day, I greet my wife and my daughter and then slip out into the backyard to tend these vegetables, some of which I planted in mid-March. Every afternoon, I water each square by hand; I examine each leaf. Meredith teases me that most of the time, when she glances out the window, I’m just standing back there and staring at the garden, not doing anything. It’s true. I’m successful here, in this perfect 4 x 16 rectangle of sixty-four squares. I plant seeds in perfect soil (one-third peat moss, one-third compost, one-third vermiculite); I water; I watch the plants emerge and grow. It’s quite different from teaching, where I have no control over the soil and cannot always provide the right kind of water or sunlight. In the garden, my labor has direct, predictable results. Not so in my classroom. All day at work, I clench my teeth, but in the afternoon, I begin to relax. I touch the sun-warmed soil, and I breathe.
But then, at noon on the day after Mother’s Day, I half-listened to student presentations in my classroom as thunder boomed in a black sky. The students, trying to remain polite, looked nervously out the windows, probably thinking of their exposed cars in the parking lot. This time of year, Colorado thunderstorms usually bring hail, and sometimes that hail is frighteningly destructive. At the front of the room, Stephanie was talking about advances in medical technology, and we all nodded encouragingly, but the students thought about their cars—and I worried about my beloved plants.
The weather person had warned me on the radio that morning when I was halfway to school: thunderstorms this afternoon, with possible hail. I considered turning around. In ten minutes, I could have rushed to the garden shed, grabbed the PVC pipe and the floating covers, protected those tender shoots. Or I could have grabbed mixing bowls and large plastic pots and set them upside down over as many plants as possible. I considered, nearly veering onto the next exit off of I-25, but the twenty-four papers waiting on my desk to be graded pulled me north. My plants would be fine. The chances that they would be hurt by hail were slim. After all, they had survived a few heavy snows, many nights of frost, a hungry baby rabbit, seed-searching Northern Flickers, and spring winds. A little hail couldn’t defeat them now.
I didn’t even think to worry again until Meredith texted me about the “crazy” hailstorm that day that had backed up traffic and caused accidents and actually forced the city to pull the snowplows out of the garages. She was glad to be home, she said. I couldn’t ask about the plants. Instead, I endured my seventh-period class, twenty-nine seniors as burned out with school as eighteen-year-olds can be, irritated that I am still making them do work this close to graduation day.
On the drive home, I remembered my first spring in Colorado, when Mitike was four. It was the first week of June, we had just fled Alaska, and I was desperate to find some tangible joy. I loaded Mitike into our new used Subaru, and we drove to the nearest greenhouse, where we bought the sweetest profusion of pansies and herbs and vegetables. All afternoon, we worked with our spades (Mitike’s was purple) to turn and amend and plant the raised boxes and the large garden in our new Fort Collins backyard. Finished, we stood back and admired the little green leaves waving in the breeze, transplanted like the two of us, ready to thrive.
The hail that day came unannounced, in a wild rush of freezing wind and black sky, while the two of us ate dinner at our little table. “Oh, no, Mommy! The little plants!” Mitike cried, and we ran to the back door just in time to watch marble-sized ice balls rip our transplants to tiny shreds and then flatten the pieces cruelly into the cultivated soil. Both of us stood and sobbed, our noses pressed against the back door’s cold glass window.
That was almost exactly seven years ago. Now, driving home in sunshine (Colorado’s weather changes that quickly) after the booming noontime storm, I told myself such hail destruction couldn’t possibly happen twice to the same gardener.
Meredith met me on the porch of our house and gestured toward the irises and black-eyed susans and coneflowers in the front bed. “They’re fine, aren’t they? They’ll bounce back.” I kissed her and surveyed the torn leaves, the battered look of the plants as if some large creature had laid down on them. These were plants native to Colorado, hardy enough to survive hail. They would be fine.
Together, Meredith and I walked through the house to the backyard, to the vegetable garden, Mitike and Fable close behind.
At the edge of the box, we stopped and gaped.
The damage was horrific, far worse than the hailstorm seven years ago. The plants I had been nurturing for two months had been flattened, beaten, stripped, broken—decimated. The hail, apparently the size of the peas I had so lovingly planted two months before, had pounded most of the leaf and stem fragments into the soil. A pea vine clung to its orange twine lead like some gruesome execution. The bared broccolini stalks pointed accusingly at the sky. No plant had escaped damage. The feathery tendrils of the asparagus lay listless beside a flattened and uprooted tomato plant. The sunflower shoots were ripped and torn, pieces hanging like severed limbs.
Meredith and Mitike watched me warily. The source of my calm destroyed, I could dissolve, or panic, or rage. They had seen all three. Mitike leaned toward the nearest broken, teetering red cabbage plant and murmured, “You’re okay. You’ll be okay! Just be strong.” Of course she was actually talking to me. That evening seven years ago, I said we were both sobbing, but that’s not true. I was sobbing about what (and whom) we’d left behind in Alaska, and she, only four, burst into tears because her mommy did not know what to do with all the grief. I’ve tried to be strong for her most of the time, but sometimes the hail damage has just been too egregious.
On this day, though, in the sunshine, a wiser Sarah than the one seven years ago, I felt not grief but acceptance. This happens. Hail. Wind. Death. Heartbreak. In the garden, the fragments of lettuce leaf and broccolini bud become compost for the next seeds. Maybe the beets will revive themselves from this flattened state, and maybe the pea shoots will climb out of this, or maybe not. In a week, I’ll pull out browning stems and replant. In three weeks, I’ll have a lush garden again, just in time for another hailstorm. And then I’ll replant again. I can be as stubborn as I am tender.
Later that night, I retrieved my scissors from the garden shed and began to chop away at the battered lettuce heads, the torn spinach, the shredded kale. They might grow new leaves, and pruning gives them the energy to try.
If only I could learn to approach a failed lesson plan or a rejected manuscript in the same way. Start over, start over. There are many more days of sun than hail.
The other day, as my wife and I drove north on Interstate 25 in our Mazda CX5 with our eleven-year-old daughter, Mitike, and our dog, Fable, in the backseat, I thought, “Why not get rid of all these safety features in our car?”
I mean, really, our car would have been so much cheaper without all these gratuitous extras—without the blindspot monitoring, without the brake assist or the traction control, without the air bags or the rearview mirrors or the windshield wipers or the daytime running lights. And if Mazda hadn’t been mandated to install seatbelts or spend its resources on IIHS or NHTSA safety tests, this car would be far more fun to drive.
I glanced in the unnecessary rearview mirror at Mitike, who bent over a book. What kind of world are we promising future drivers like her? All these regulations! These superfluous rules, like properly registering a vehicle, or paying for insurance on it, or passing vision and knowledge tests to get a license to drive. Fettered by decades of rules, we cannot enjoy driving. Someday, the government will probably just take away this right all together, and we will all be forced to take the public bus system.
“What are you writing?”
“I’m tired. Another school shooting, and no one’s going to do anything. I’m resorting to sarcasm.”
“But you’re not writing about guns.”
“Yes, I am. If guns could be regulated like cars are, we’d have far fewer deaths. Did you know that when states started requiring people to get driver’s licenses in the 1930s, they dramatically reduced accidents on the roads? And that after most states started requiring seatbelts in the 1990s, people’s injuries in car accidents decreased by half? And that when car companies started putting in air bags in the late 1990s, they reduced the mortality rate by 63 percent? A few rules, and we’re safer. I’m trying to argue that—”
“Mom, let me try.”
“Let me write your column this month.”
“Would you mind?”
Stop This NOW! A Guest Column by Mitike Iris Campbell, Age Eleven
Why do you keep letting this happen? You grown-ups are exasperating sometimes. You would not hesitate to protect your children and your family, but you hesitate at this, at choosing the safety of your family over your precious guns? The Second Amendment reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This does not mean that everyone just has the right to bear arms. It means we have the right to bear them in a well-regulated way. Technology like guns is always advancing, so laws must always be made and changed to protect us. Children are losing lives they have only just begun. Our future is being destroyed by your inaction here and now. Decide. Unregulated guns or continued tragedy? Danger or safety? Violence or peace? Injustice or justice? Death or life? Hatred or love? Please remember that the choices you make will affect the future as well as the present.
A question-and-answer session with the guest columnist, Mitike, who is in fifth grade and loves reading fantasy novels, considering fashion styles, playing volleyball, and relaxing with her family.
SHC: So, Mitike, why do you think school shootings are happening?
MIC: Because of guns.
SHC: Does hearing about a tragedy like the one in Florida make you feel afraid?
MIC: Yes, it does when I think about it, but most of the time I’m so focused on my work, I don’t think about it.
SHC: What does your school do to prepare for emergencies?
MIC: We do lock-downs, lock-outs. In art class, we do a lock-down drill in the kiln room. And we do have talks about this kind of thing a lot. They talk about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to bring to school, and how you should report it if you see anyone with anything unsafe.
SHC: What’s an example of something that is inappropriate to bring to school?
MIC: Guns, knives, swords. I don’t know if swords really exist, but, you know. Daggers, bombs, but they don’t really talk about those. That’s mostly it.
SHC: What would you say to someone who says that if we allow the government to regulate guns more, the government will take them all away?
MIC: Well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if they do. If that’s the only way they see fit to keep us safe, then it’s probably a good choice.
SHC: Like what Australia did?
MIC: Yes, I think that’s great. They’re having a fine time down there—except they do have lots of poisonous animals threatening their population, instead.
SHC: What do you think of the idea of requiring licenses for everyone who owns a gun, as a place to start?
MIC: I think that is a good idea because if we had that, then we’d be able to trust that we lived in a little bit safer country, and a little bit safer schools. Kids should not have to worry that we’re going to die.
SHC: What are some other things you worry about?
MIC: Well … I hate snakes, komodo dragons, snakes in a pit, snakes chasing me on top of a cart that wants to run me over, finding out my house is on fire in the middle of the night and not being able to run away, losing my dog. I’m worried my cousins will get me in trouble. I worry that my cousin Ryland will break his head open because he’s not being careful. I worry about doing terribly on tests. I worry that I’m not getting enough information from the books my teacher wants me to read. I worry about forgetting my homework.
SHC: Wow, that’s a lot of worries. What would a peaceful life look like for you, then?
MIC: It would be a life where I would only worry about little things I have no control over, not about my life being threatened. Not in school, anyway, where I’m trying to learn.
NOTE: Call your senators now. Tell them to support the assault weapon ban and to push legislation that requires strict licensing and regulation of guns. Donate to and join Moms Demand Action. Please. Let’s allow our kids to worry about poisonous snakes, instead.
Trump, in a speech on Friday, February 23, 2018, to the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C.:
“Well-trained, gun-adept teachers and coaches [should carry firearms in schools]. I mean, I don’t want to have a hundred guards with rifles standing all over the school. You do a concealed carry permit. This would be a major deterrent, because these people are inherently cowards.”
Saturday, February 24, 2018, Trump tweet:
“Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them. Very smart people. Must be firearms adept & have annual training. Should get yearly bonus. Shootings will not happen again — a big & very inexpensive deterrent. Up to States.”
It’s March 24, 2020.
In Denver, Colorado, a certain English teacher with streaks of silver in her brown hair completes her final “Armed Educator Training,” which her school district has mandated for all educators, in compliance with SB1999 passed after Colorado endured another mass shooting, this time in a Colorado Springs high school in May of 2019. This time, nearly fifty students and educators died. This time, finally, enough Colorado legislators stood up to demand alternatives. Thus “Armed Educator Training”: six courses all K–12 teachers are required to complete before the end of this 2020 school year. Former military personnel or teachers who can demonstrate similar arms certifications are exempt if they complete the appropriate paperwork. Upon completion of the six courses of the Armed Educator Training, each K–12 teacher receives a standard-issue M&P 9, with a Picatinny rail under the muzzle. On this day, March 24, 2020, a stern army colonel with wire spectacles perched on her nose hands this English teacher her M&P 9. The English teacher holds the gun on the palms of her hands and does not look away.
Behind her, a kindergarten teacher breaks into quiet tears as she is handed her gun. A middle school math teacher accepts his grimly. A high school chemistry teacher grabs hers a bit too eagerly. The room is silent. No one says thank you. No one laughs or jokes with each other, as they have been doing in the dreariness of these evening classes and at the shooting range, where learning how to hit the targets felt more like a sporting competition than anything real. But now. They fit the new guns into the blue plastic holsters they have been issued, and they accept the paper certificates that confirm their completion of Armed Educator Training.
At home, the English teacher sits in her car in the driveway for several minutes, trying to grasp this brave new world. She will leave the gun in her glove compartment and transport it to school tomorrow, in the clear plastic bag (all bags and backpacks at her high school must be clear now) that currently holds her students’ research papers, three books she needs to skim to prepare for tomorrow, and various spoons and forks she has neglected to return to her kitchen. She refuses to bring the gun into the house. Not with her child in there. But then she shudders: her child’s teachers all carry guns now, too. Every teacher in Denver is required to, now.
She sits in the driveway, and outside the March wind pummels her car. The car rocks. Mentally, she lists all that she still does not have as a teacher, though she now has a gun:
she does not have whiteboard markers
she does not have the students’ attention, since they are staring at their cellphones
she does not have a key that works in both classrooms in which she teaches
she does not have enough desks for all of her students when all of them attend
she does not have time to use the bathroom
she does not have a printer or a projector that work reliably
she does not have a reasonably sized class
she does not have enough books, or paper, or pencils
she is not paid enough to live in most of the neighborhoods in her city
she does not have adequate healthcare
she does not have regular assistance with her students’ mental health issues
she does not have reassurance that the district has invested adequately in her retirement
she is not paid enough to save for her own child’s college education
But she has a gun. On the passenger seat beside her, the gun in its ridiculous blue plastic holster, inanimate but not innocuous, waits for her to do something with it. She remembers other times she has held and fired a gun: as a child, when her father had reached around her and held the rifle with her so they could point and fire at clay pigeons the machine threw into the air over their cornfield. And she remembers the time in Alaska. In Alaska, where she trained to be a teacher, her program required all urban education students to do a one-week intensive in a rural school. She had flown to Kodiak Island, to a village of fifty, where two teachers led a K–12 school for eighteen students, lived together (though they were not a couple), drank tequila, and shot guns. For the entire week, the teacher had become increasingly dismayed by the ferocity with which the other two teachers wanted to finish the day so they could go shoot guns. Every afternoon, the three of them walked the short distance to the town dump, set up rusty cans on stumps, stepped back, and fired. Bang. Bang. BANG. The teacher wanted to know if they could hike instead. Ha, said the man teacher. Hike? There are Kodiak bears out there. THIS is all there is to do safely here. He lifted his pistol again, a little shakily, since he had been drinking. Bang! The other teacher, the woman, laughed bitterly, examining the pistol she held. Yeah, they say you have to be insane or be running away from something to come out here to teach. I think I’m doing both. She leveled the pistol at the man a moment, and they both laughed crazily. Bang! A tin can exploded in the distance, out by the dump where only the bears and the bald eagles could hear.
Until the mandatory Armed Educator Training, the teacher had not fired a gun since that moment in the Alaska. Some of the teachers in the training had reminded her of those two teachers on Kodiak Island: desperate, fierce, angry. Give me that gun, an eighth grade social studies teacher had said, his teeth gritted. No active shooter will think to bother my classroom, ever.
Now she sits in her car beside the gun, and outside, it has begun to rain: large drops splash rough-edged circles on her windshield, which is cracked. Where is she safe, if not in her classroom? Where is her daughter safe? She thinks of a cartoon she saw once, of a boy on a playground holding a stick. The teachers gathered around him, staring down at him, debating. Should we arm all the other children with sticks? Or should we take away his? The cartoon teachers frowned in their indecision.
The front door of the teacher’s house opens, and her wife steps out, peering through the gray rain. She wraps her sweater around her body and walks out onto the porch, down the two steps, across the driveway. She doesn’t hesitate: she opens the driver’s-side door and grasps the teacher’s hand. Come on, sweet wife, she says. Come inside. She glances at the gun on the passenger-side seat, but mostly she keeps her gaze focused on the teacher.
Shivering suddenly, though she is not cold, the teacher begins to cry. I don’t want this—I just want to teach writing—I hate living in America—I—
Her wife pulls on the hand she holds and guides the teacher out of the car. She shuts the car door, and the car, smart, locks itself with the gun inside.
Dinner’s ready, the teacher’s wife says quietly. Let’s just go inside.
Inside, dinner is already on the table, and the women’s daughter sits waiting, her dark eyes round with concern. The fireplace is on, and the dog greets them, wagging happily, as he does every day. The teacher lets her shoulders relax. Her daughter springs up from the table to hug her, and the dog wedges himself happily between them.
And the teacher gives herself permission, as she does every afternoon, to forget the world outside this one, to forget guns and inept politicians and deep gun lobby pockets that refuse to ban even semi-automatics and bump stocks and fear and students who jump at any loud noise and lockdown drills and lockout drills and the flashing red and blue lights of America.
Her wife locks their front door. Here, by the fire, the three of them settle into their chairs at the dinner table, and the dog stretches out at their feet.
But it is not enough. The teacher knows it: it is not enough.
The day after my wife, our daughter, and I returned from Scandinavia, we squeezed through the entrance gate to the Denver Pride Festival.
Repeat: the day after my family and I returned from taking a trip only a small percentage of Americans are privileged enough to afford, we sat on a hillside and waved a rainbow flag because my wife and I are still not privileged enough to trust our marriage will always be legal.
The Scandinavian countries we visited — Finland, Sweden, and Norway — approved same-sex partnerships in the mid-1990s and legalized gay marriage in 2009, six years before the U.S.; that knowledge faded the colors in the rainbow flags all around us at Denver’s Pride Festival. But in Scandinavia, Meredith and I never knew where it was safe to hold hands or kiss in public; at the Denver Pride Festival, we kissed long in the midst of hundreds of people, our arms wrapped around each other, our daughter exclaiming, “EWWW!”
A black man working at a gas station in Sweden in 1927 was such an anomaly of difference in that country at that time that people drove for miles just to glimpse him. In 2017, we walked through a more diverse Scandinavia, but most of the people of color we saw were in service positions, and everyone of every color turned their heads, curious, to see Mitike between me and Meredith. It was a relief to walk unremarked through the Denver Pride Festival.
In Americanah, which I started reading on IcelandAir on our flight home, Chimamanda Adichie asks me again and again to hold my privilege up to the light and examine it carefully like an Icelandic sunstone. Her sharp voice is tinged with humor, but it cuts. Who are you, American white woman, to travel so freely through this world? No one looks askance at you. In the Copenhagen airport, a man conducting a survey on an iPad speaks to you in Danish because your height, your skin color, your hair and eye color (every gene that you inherited from ancestors who farmed only two hundred miles southwest of there in Schleswig-Holstein) tell him you are Danish. Do you imagine it will ever be this easy for your Ethiopian daughter? You make her a world traveler, teaching her how to easily flash her blue U.S. passport; you teach her to try cold-smoked salmon, to whisper inside the medieval stave church, to revel in the sea spray in the Norwegian fjords, but you cannot teach her to glide through the world the way you do, because her skin color, hair, and eye color (the genes she inherited from her ancestors seven thousand miles southeast of Copenhagen) will be barriers. Customs officials will often ask how long she has been a U.S. citizen; they will speak slowly in clearly enunciated English, though English has been her primary language since she was eighteen months old. They will carefully scrutinize her visa. And you will be staying in our country for how long? And you plan to do what? Back home, at the Denver Pride Festival, people grin at our family of three because we are diverse; we are the dream so many LGBTQ people dream. Their eyes linger on Mitike’s face. She is the daughter they want. She is so beautiful, so exotic. They say to us, You must be very proud of her. She has such lovely features, not African at all.
In Stockholm and Oslo, but also in the Norwegian port city of Bergen, we walked past immigrants who have resettled in Scandinavia. I guessed at their stories, based on what I have heard from my refugee students. I imagined the Somali woman and her children who strode past us in Oslo had first spent years in a refugee camp in Uganda. I imagined the Syrian men who stood talking at a bus stop in Stockholm had paid a boatman to take them on the risky crossing of the Mediterranean. I imagined the Afghani man and woman talking in the Bergen fish market had escaped their village and the Taliban, as one of my students did, on horseback. The world knows that the Scandinavian countries are welcoming to immigrants, and that my country — historically the most welcoming of all — is abruptly not, as Trump works to halve the number of refugees we accept. And how odd, that Trump’s supporters are mostly descendants of immigrants who came from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy. How quickly we forget. At the Denver Pride Fest, I waved my flag in gratitude, as usual, that my country’s highest court has insisted that my marriage to my wife is legal, but I also thought of the times in these past few months that I have stood in this same spot in front of the Colorado Capitol Building, holding up signs that plead for openness to immigrants. What kind of nation do we want to be in the world, anyway?
We went to Scandinavia because I wanted to travel somewhere where we would be safe, and all the guidebooks promised that nowhere is more open and more tolerant. In city after city, we stayed in hotels that cheerfully gave me and Meredith a double bed, glanced at our common last name, welcomed us with a bright nod and (always) breakfast the next morning. I imagined living in one of those cities, never returning to the U.S., happily enrolling Mitike in one of those reputable Finnish schools or dropping her at camp in the Norwegian mountains as Meredith and I prepared for a holiday in some quaint village. To be born American and to be liberal is to be always embarrassed abroad, ashamed of the president (in 2003, Bush invaded Iraq just as I rode a bus into Nicaragua — now, in 2017, there is Trump), ashamed of fellow Americans who are too loud and too certain they deserve preferential treatment, ashamed of a history that has included slavery and Native American massacres and now continues into modern times with acquitting Philando Castille’s killer and withdrawing from the Paris deal on the climate and refusing to provide health care to all its citizens. Traveling, Meredith and I taught Mitike to speak quietly, attempt words in other languages, show extra gratitude. Maybe they’ll assume we’re Canadian. It jolted us to walk into the cheerful fray of the Pride Fest in Denver, where scantily clad people shouted and waved rainbow fans, flags, underwear, boas, posters, pinwheels. We were quiet, too European. We sat on a grassy hill and observed, and fit in nowhere.
We walked into Oslo’s Vikingskipshuset, the Viking Museum, and gazed in awe at the grandly renovated Oseberg, a Viking ship from 834 CE that was discovered and dug up on a farm in 1903. Two women had been buried in the ship, in state, along with horses and dogs and cows, armor, kitchenware, clothes, tents, a wagon and a sled. The Vikings honored their chiefs in this way, since they believed that they would be able to use all of these objects in the afterlife, in Valhalla. I loved the mystery of who these honored women had been. Days later, at the Denver Pride Fest, I wondered what might remain of us one thousand years from now. Mitike’s plastic beads, maybe, some of our metal tooth fillings, the matching rings Meredith and I wear — the hard diamonds still sparkling. In this era that overdocuments everything, will any document remain? Something will have replaced the Internet, rendering it as inaccessible as floppy disks and VHS tapes are now, or all of humanity will have been catapulted backward by climate change trauma to survival — campfires, carved wooden tools, pictures painted on stone walls again. And someone will find some fragment of evidence from 2017, one thousand years before, and wonder about our lives, how we lived them, who we were.
An older acquaintance hears we traveled to Scandinavia and exclaims, “You took Mitike there? To the most racist countries in the world?” I was speechless for a moment. Racist? The 2017 UN report includes all of the Scandinavian countries through which we passed in the top ten happiest countries in the world. Norway is first. Maybe Sweden is only tenth because it has struggled with race relations as Sweden invites more and more immigrants across its borders, but our family’s experience in all of Scandinavia was positive, or at least no different from our experience in the U.S. Women of color did a double-take to see Mitike with us; they often studied her hair (perfectly done in neat microbraids and beads, scalp oiled, thank you). Small children stared. But the mostly blonde and blue-eyed residents of Scandinavia were unfailingly friendly to all three of us. What I wish I’d said to my acquaintance: Being white doesn’t mean you’re racist. What I did say: Have you been to Oslo? It’s quite diverse. A true but weak answer. The Denver Pride Fest was whiter than Karl Johans Street in Oslo. The summer camp in Keystone where I just dropped off Mitike is the whitest place I’ve seen in a long time. It’s all more complex than what we see.
My wife and I stood in a green mossy forest of tall spruce trees (are they called Norway Spruce in Norway?) and watched our daughter search in half-serious earnest for fairies in the shadows of the clover leaves. And then, one day later, we stood in Denver’s blue-sky sunshine with our arms around each other’s waists, our daughter close. Oh, yes. I know to be grateful for this life.
For my fortieth birthday, I wanted to travel somewhere I had never been before. On the way home, on IcelandAir, Mitike leaned her head against my shoulder and murmured, “We’re lucky to be able to travel to places like Scandinavia, aren’t we?” I nodded. Unbelievably lucky. Guilt nagged at me. Look at us with our blue passports and our resources, hopping on planes and trains and boats, wandering cobblestone streets, posing for pictures in front of medieval towers. Look at us and our comfort, our ability to leave our secure little house in south Denver and peer into others’ windows. Even at Pride back in Denver, I continued to feel this mix of luck and guilt. Yes, we are a minority, and yes, maybe my wife is right to be cautious in certain neighborhoods and certain situations about how out we are, but after this parade ends, we’ll walk back to our car and drive home to our dog, who will greet us with his curly wagging tail, and we’ll make dinner in our kitchen together and hold hands before we eat, the little circle we make a protective shield for our family. We’re lucky to be together in this complicated world, right now, no matter where we are wandering.
In 2010, my father and his siblings discovered Ancestry.com, that website that allows a person to search birth, marriage, military, census, and death records to construct a family tree.
And because an Ancestry.com tree becomes more accurate as users add more relationships to it, my father and my uncle and my aunts sent me, my sister, and my cousins email invitations to add our own families to the growing tree.
I opened the tree and studied it with growing resentment. According to Ancestry.com, I was a divorced single mother of one daughter, but that did not describe my actual life at all. My daughter was adopted from Ethiopia, with a family tree all her own, difficult (or impossible) to trace because her biological parents’ births had not been recorded in any official way. And I was not technically a single mother, since I lived with Ali, my partner of three years, and her two children.
With a few swift clicks, I added Ali to the tree as my spouse, though same-sex marriage was not legal in Alaska at the time, and Ali had never been interested in marriage, anyway. Another click: I added Ali’s two biological children. With my divorce branching off in one direction and Ali branching off in another, I tangled the neat lines of the Hahn family tree.
When Ali died a year later, I did not have the heart to update the Ancestry.com tree. I barely had the heart to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Then, this past June, the Vikings led me back to Ancestry.com. In June, I learned at the Oslo Viking Ship Museum that one of the Vikings’ major trading settlements, Hedeby, was located in today’s Schleswig-Holstein, a state in northern Germany from which half of my ancestors (all of my father’s side) emigrated in the mid-1800s. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why the sight of the Oseberg ship jolted some familiarity in me (is that why I’m so drawn to spirals?). When I started asking these questions, my uncle Jim, our family archivist, sent me a DNA kit from Ancestry.com, and, out of curiosity, I logged in to the website again.
A family tree hides as much as it reveals. I “cleaned up” my part of the Hahn family tree by deleting the fake marriage to Ali and adding the real, legal marriage to Meredith. I added Mitike’s legal adoption by me in 2008 and her adoption by Meredith last December, and I added the names of Mitike’s birth parents. I traced Meredith’s family awhile, out of curiosity, discovering that one ancestral line zigzags all the way back to the 1500s in Alsace, France. Then I studied our section of the tree, noticing how our marriage is an end to our two lines in our families, how the appearance of Mitike as the daughter of two mothers could confuse someone who failed to notice the adoption records. How disconcerting, the reduction of entire human lives to small rectangles that contain only a first, middle, and last name, a birthdate, and a death date.
What does that branching tree explain about me, about Meredith, about Mitike? What does it reveal about Rachel Banta, my grandmother’s great-great grandmother, who was born in 1780 in Pennsylvania? What does it hide about my wife’s grandmother’s great-great grandmother Charity Brewer, who was born in 1805 in North Carolina? How much does it refuse to explain about Mitike’s ancestors, who weathered a struggle between Muslim settlers and Ethiopian Christians in the early 1800s, and who witnessed battles between feudal kings?I am still dissatisfied with the story Ancestry.com tells, but I appreciate now that it is one place to begin.
Lesbian historians like Lillian Faderman (especially in Surpassing the Love of Men, 1981; and To Believe in Women, 1999) have argued that lesbians must discover and build their own sense of heritage. That means that Patience and Sarah, that wonderful straightforward 1969 book by Alma Routsong about a lesbian pioneer couple, is as much a description of my ancestry as my genetic map is. That means that discerning the truth of historical relationships — Susan B. and Anna D., Virginia and Vita, Eleanor and Lorena — is as crucial to understanding who I am as the 1847 passenger list of the ship that carried my ancestors Wulff and Gretje from Hamburg to New Orleans.
On Ancestry.com, the self is the first rectangle. Click the green plus sign, add a relationship. Connect. Add another relationship. Intertwine. The lines seem to tangle, but they barely whisper the outlines of deeply complex stories.
This summer, I began creating a new book — part trail guide, part history — on the 60+ Colorado peaks and lakes named after women. I’m calling it “Remember More Than Their Names,” and I’m blogging about my hiking and research discoveries at http://remembermorethantheirnames.blogspot.com/. I think of these historical women as my ancestors, too, though we only have our gender and Colorado in common. Determining the identity of each woman has been surprisingly difficult, since maps have traditionally used only the first name of a woman honored. Again and again, it has been Ancestry.com that has given me the outline of the story. Then it is up to me, the storyteller, to fill in the rest. For example, Ancestry.com told me that Helen Rich of Breckenridge, the namesake for Mount Helen, died a single woman with no children, but local records and her own papers reveal that she lived for decades with the poet Belle Turnbull. In Turnbull’s poetry, I found reference to forbidden passion, to domestic bliss. And the two women are buried together. Another piece of the heritage told.
I know the danger of looking backwards too long. I know that it is as important that I live my life now, in 2017 Colorado, as it is for me to discover and tell the stories of these women who lived in the past. But I believe I can learn to make of my life something deeper if I can pull these stories from the shadows. This other way of tracing and building heritage matters as much as the genetic map of my bloodline.
When I stood gazing at the Oseberg ship in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum in June, my blood thrummed with the familiarity of the curves of the ship, the intricate carvings, the spiral on the prow. I touched the silver spiral I wear at the base of my neck, and I leaned closer to my wife and my daughter. What did I recognize? Maybe Ancestry.com would deny a genetic connection between me and the two women — one 25–30, one 50–55 — who were buried together, in state, in the Oseberg ship in 834 CE, but I am certain they are part of my heritage, too, if only because they were women. Maybe the elder was a queen (some have suggested she was Queen Åsa of the sagas) and the younger was a sacrifice. Maybe the elder was a völva, a seer, a holy woman, and the younger was her lover or her apprentice or both.
We will never know. But with each fragment we find, we discover ourselves more deeply. The mystery is my heritage. The seeking is what I want to trace.