In a radio interview on September 18, Iowa senator Chuck Grassley said of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings: “You understand we’re talking about thirty-five years ago. I’d hate to ask, have somebody ask me what I did thirty-five years ago. And I think I look at it this way.”
As many commentators have pointed out, disturbed, Senator Grassley was a senator thirty-five years ago in 1983. He had entered the chamber two years before, elected by Iowa farmers like my father, who hoped Grassley would represent them as agriculture prices plummeted. Thirty-five years ago, Senator Grassley was fifty years old, an elected official who had served the public since he entered the Iowa House of Representatives in 1959. It is absolutely our right to know what he was doing thirty-five years ago.
But what about Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee? Do we have the right to know—or even to ask—what he was doing thirty-five years ago? Thirty-five years ago, Brett Kavanaugh was seventeen, attending the exclusive and expensive Georgetown Preparatory School, an all-boys Catholic school. He was captain of the basketball team, he was cornerback for the football team, and he might have sexually assaulted a classmate, Christine Blasey Ford, while his friend Mark Judge watched.
In hours of testimony from both Ford and Kavanaugh on September 27, senators in the judiciary committee attempted to determine what exactly happened in those moments when Kavanaugh was seventeen. Who was lying? Whose memory was flawed? And the shadow lurking behind the questions, echoed in that radio interview with Grassley: did anything someone did thirty-five years ago even matter?
Or, to phrase the question more baldly: if a man commits violence at the age of seventeen, should it harm his chances of meting out justice in the highest court in the land at the age of fifty-two?
Every day of the week, I spend hours in a classroom with seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds. Every day of the week, I pose questions to them, I listen to their observations and arguments, I read their written ideas. They are not children, though they clap their hands when I occasionally bring them treats, and they cheer on the rare day I give them a break from homework. They would surprise most of the men and women in the Senate Judiciary Committee with their adultness, with their sense of right and wrong. They are fully formed people at seventeen and eighteen: their emotions are complex, their awareness of the world deepening, their ability to express themselves strengthening.
A seventeen-year-old who forces a girl onto a bed and thrusts himself upon her, laughing, does so recognizing the violence. Maybe the next morning, he will regret it, maybe he will hate himself, maybe he will even apologize, but he is as responsible for it at seventeen as he will be at fifty-two. What it reveals about his nature is the same at either age.
However, what that seventeen-year-old does not have is a fully developed frontal lobe. That last part of the brain to develop—which does not finish developing until a person is twenty-five—is the part that governs judgment, emotional expression, and sexual behavior. It’s the part that stems our impulses. In a classroom of high school seniors, this means a boy will sometimes lob a ball of paper across the room, or a girl will blurt out an insult to someone else, or someone will throw a punch. Later, in response to that adult question “Why?” the answer is often, “I have no idea.” It’s true. Their filters aren’t fully operational yet. Give them eight more years.
Like most other seventeen-year-olds, then, seventeen-year-old Brett Kavanaugh had not yet developed an ability to control his impulses: his drinking, his anger, his sexual hunger. The future judge lacked judgment.
But maybe the person who exists before the filter is fully formed reveals exactly what we need to know. There is a purity in my seventeen- and eighteen-year-old students. They shimmer with the raw truth of who they are. A girl who will, in ten years, discover how to smile a certain way and dress with power and walk with assertiveness, now hides between the dark curtain of her hair and talks only to a few trusted classmates. A boy who will, in ten years, learn to defer to colleagues in meetings and to allude to pop culture at office parties, now unapologetically divulges his expansive vocabulary and poses complex philosophical questions in discussion. They straddle a divide, these seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, between the children they were and the adults they are not yet. They will learn to adjust, to adapt, to control—to judge. But not yet.
This makes some of them terrifying. A boy who barges forward with his impulse to hurt a girl reveals a true self. Yes, he will learn to control those impulses later. But there is still the truth revealed.
Lately, my colleagues and I have had many conversations that begin, If I was held accountable for what I did at seventeen… We murmur about illicit drug use, lies we told our parents, pranks we played, risks we took. Sarah at seventeen, her own frontal lobe underdeveloped, stayed out too late, drove too fast on dark Iowa country roads, and trusted a boy too much. But. Sarah at seventeen—the core truth of her—was also a glimpse of me now, at forty-one. At seventeen, as now, I was often uncertain and awkward around other people; alone, I was self-assured and strong. At seventeen, as now, my strength and my flaw was my passion for everything to mean something, my sense that I was responsible for it all.
And Brett Kavanaugh at seventeen? Accounts emerge that point to an aggressive drinker, a fraternizer who joked freely about sexual exploits, a boy driven to succeed academically who cared little for gentleness.
The question before the FBI is what, exactly, he did at seventeen. But at the Supreme Court hearings on September 27, Kavanaugh revealed that, regardless of crimes he may have committed then, who he was at seventeen was a glimpse of who he is now, at fifty-two. At fifty-two, he is belligerent, rude to those who question him, simmering with an anger barely controlled.
Senator Grassley hints that actions committed thirty-five years ago matter little to him when he considers a person’s qualifications now. Then let him see the man before him, who, at fifty-two, in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, looked far less like a Supreme Court judge and far more like a wounded and offended teenage boy. Regardless of what the FBI investigation discovers about him at seventeen, Brett Kavanaugh at fifty-two has revealed himself as utterly unfit to act as a balanced, impartial justice for this grown-up nation.
When I realized I was a lesbian in the summer of 2005, I seriously thought I was one of the only ones in the wide world.
I had never read a book about a lesbian. I had never seen a movie about a lesbian relationship. I had never visited a lesbian bar, or attended a lesbian concert, or gathered in a house with a group of lesbians. I did listen to the Indigo Girls, but they were famous, and the Swamp Ophelia album only reduced me to more weeping. I was twenty-eight, married to a man, and in love with my best friend. No one anywhere had ever had my experience.
The internet told me something different. On Netflix, I found movies, which were delivered to my house in their anonymous red and white sleeves: When Night is Falling (Canada, 1995); Fire (Canada/India, 1997); Aimee and Jaguar (Germany, 2000); Tipping the Velvet (UK, 2002). On Amazon, I searched for “lesbian books,” and found Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Somewhere out there, there were other women who loved women. Their stories, often anguished, but almost always fiercely passionate and true, became my community.
In November of that year, I flew to New York to stay with a college friend who lived boldly in a civil union with her partner. They took me to The Oscar Wilde Bookshop (now closed, sadly) and to Bluestockings, and I loaded my arms with more stories, as if I could, with reading, ward off my fear and loneliness. Rebecca Brown, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Joan Nestle, Lillian Faderman, Elana Dykewomon. Tell me, I pleaded with these other lesbians, who I am. Tell me what to do.
Meanwhile, I wrote mostly about parenting and adoption, about Alaska (where I lived at the time), about climbing mountains. My own story as a lesbian was fragile, in the way a tinder-dry forest is fragile. I feared that if I wrote about my love for Lia, it would flame to ash. And of course, it did, far more violently than I ever imagined. That’s the story Grief Map tells, but Grief Map also tells the story of the lesbian who emerged from that ash, the living woman, writing now about allof her experience because she had no other choice.
But after Lia died in 2011, I once again felt like I was the only one. I crouched in my grief and wondered what it meant to be a woman who loves women all alone. And again, the community spoke to me: the movies and the books reminded me that I was not the only one to have lost, that I could survive. I wrapped myself in those stories. I breathed there. I kept writing.
And yet I still felt as much awed distance from the lesbian community as I did from the Indigo Girls. I was just an isolated lesbian writer in Colorado. When my wife Meredith and I first met in 2014, I was keeping a sad blog called “The Boulder Lesbian,” as if I was the only one. It still felt that way.
I discovered the Golden Crown Literary Society by chance one early morning, when I was taking a break from a scene I was trying to construct in a short story. I wanted connection. Where were the other lesbian writers in the world? I googled “lesbian writers” and Google offered me “lesbian writers conference.” I clicked—and GCLS was the top post. I found myself on a website offering “the premiere lesbian literary event” each year, and an ongoing mission of dedication to “the promotion and recognition of lesbian literature.” I told Brain Mill Press, Grief Map’s publisher, about it, and they submitted Grief Map for a Goldie Award in the non-fiction category. But I didn’t feel part of it. It was another famous place where lesbians gathered, somewhere else.
Then I found myself at the GCLS Conference this July, listening to Lucy Jane Bledsoe and Rachel Gold and Elana Dykewomon and Dorothy Allison read from their work. I told myself, I am part of this community. And I was! For three days, I attended master classes and presentations and panels, readings and speakers in an all-lesbian space. I exchanged my card with other lesbian writers and readers. I discussed story ideas that revolve around lesbian lives. One woman told me she thinks of this annual conference as a sort of lesbian summer camp, and it did have that otherworldly shimmer. With its diversity of age and race and background and expression, the conference had the open-hearted kindness I’ve always imagined those circles of lesbians had in the 1970s communes. How wonderful, to move among these other lesbians in this lovely safe space, a literal haven from the smoke and crowds and din of Vegas.
Each morning, I walked through the Bally’s casino and breathed in relief to reach the conference rooms, where we lesbians retreated from the world awhile. Each evening, when Meredith returned to our room from her poker tournaments, I told her the stories I had heard people read during the day: a lesbian pirate, a lesbian doctor in a helicopter, a lesbian who disguised herself as a man in the 1890s, a lesbian who discovered her grandmother’s secret love had been a woman. I told her that Elana Dykewomon’s poetry made an entire room weep, and that Dorothy Allison was just as funny and wise in person as she was on the page. I told her that I had never imagined the power of an all-lesbian space, the way I literally felt all of us were embraced and held up there. Meredith smiled at me and kissed me tenderly and, because Vegas is like this, just outside our sixty-sixth floor window, the Eiffel Tower throbbed purple and blue with a party and the giant digital eyes on the Cosmopolitan reflected in the water in front of the Bellagio. We were in our own lesbian romance story.
At the GCLS Goldie awards ceremony on July seventh, I stood at the podium with Grief Map’s award for non-fiction in my hands, and I said to the gathered community of three-hundred and fifty lesbians, “Thirteen years ago, when I realized I was a lesbian, I thought I was the only one,” and a wave of loving, understanding laughter rolled toward me. I had never been alone at all. Later, when Meredith and I danced in each other’s arms on a dance floor full of only other lesbians, some in suits, some in dresses, some in wonderful ambiguous amalgamations of the two, I kissed my wife and I knew we moved, now, in the community, part of it all.
What’s next? At first, when I came home to Denver, the same slump threatened me that used to threaten me after summer camp when I was a kid, as if the world could never be as supportive and vibrant and connected as camp was. It really can’t. But the stories I tell in the next year can reach toward that energy. My new protagonist Sam can long for it. And then next summer, I can return to that all-lesbian space (in Pittsburgh in 2019) for a few days. I’m excited already.
The blue light from my computer screen illuminates my face as I scroll through my friends’ Facebook posts. This friend has just traveled to Hawaii with her husband. That friend has just hand-made clothes for her children. That friend has completed a Tough Mudder with his boyfriend. I click the thumbs-up icon, or I leave little encouraging comments. An hour passes. Two.
I joined Facebook late, considering that the company began in 2004. In 2007, the summer I decided to adopt my daughter Mitike, I created an account on the blue and white website people were talking about, and shared a photo of me, my mom, and my sister Katie tubing on the Upper Iowa River in Decorah. We are all grinning in the photo. Five people liked it, then ten. People with whom I had lost touch began to request me as their friends. At the time, I lived far away from all of them — all the way in Alaska — and my new cellphone (I was late to that trend, too) allowed me only a limited number of monthly minutes. Facebook was a free way to stay in touch.
A year later, when Mitike came home from Ethiopia, Facebook was a way I could stay sane, a way I could show everyone the sweet and astonishing little person I had promised to raise. I shared videos and photographs, and more people liked them, and more people requested friendships. I connected with adoptive parents’ groups and with Ethiopian culture groups. Every day at nap time, I checked my Facebook account — and I felt a little more connected in a life that, while beautiful, contained mostly cheese sticks and raisins and discussions about poop.
In 2011, when Ali died, Facebook became a place I haunted in my grief. I studied our old posted photographs for clues, and I left cryptic messages on a Facebook page that had outlived its face. The blue website no longer connected me, but encouraged my drifting, alone. For hours, I zoomed in on photographs to examine a smile, a look in the eyes, the clues I had missed. I ignored all my friends’ happy updates, and I dwelled in the darker places.
And then, still later, there were the years — the recent ones — when Facebook functioned as a joyful declaration: I survived! I have found love again! Hey, everyone, this is Meredith! We’re married! We’re happy! I posted photos and videos, links and updates. Mostly, I checked and checked Facebook. What had people said about my photo? Had people commented on my column? Had others liked my link? Facebook was part virtual scrapbook, part live feed into my life. I engaged with friends’ posts; I found and shared exciting events; I shared pictures of the dozen pink pussy hats I had crocheted; I vented my anger about the Trump administration. Morning after morning, I clicked on the little white “f” in the blue square on my phone, and it was like walking into a crowded room — look at this photo of my quinoa plants, have you seen what Trump’s done now?, can you believe how much my daughter’s grown?, there’s a rally downtown next Saturday and I plan to go.
This past June, when my family and I traveled west to stay in a rented cabin on the Oregon coast for a week, I decided, on a whim, to take a sabbatical from all technology. For seven days, I did not access the internet in any way; I used my phone only as a camera, on airplane mode. And…I began to take photographs so I could remember the moment, not so I could share it with five hundred strangers. At night, I reflected purely on the conversations I had had with Mitike and Meredith, not on the chatter of that crowded blue room. My mind was clearer, like a desk I had sorted.
For the few months after that, I returned to posting and checking and liking, but my brief sobriety had taught me something essential: I didn’t need Facebook. It distracted me from living my real life. Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened, and former Facebook creators and executives began to admit that the site is deliberately designed to addict us to more clicking and to direct certain companies’ ads at us, and, like Montag (Fahrenheit 451 is frighteningly apt here), I shouted, “No more!”
I deleted the app. It took seconds. I stopped logging on to Facebook every morning as I ate breakfast. I stopped visiting the page when I needed a break from my writing. I stopped scrolling through the 515 “friends”’ posts at stoplights on my way home in the afternoons. I just stopped, cold turkey.
And — I missed it not at all. For the months of September and October, as I moved through my life without Facebook, I did not once wonder what all the posters were posting, or what the likers were liking. When a November New York Review of Books article revealed some of the darker, far more serious reasons we should all free ourselves from social media like Facebook, I happily breathed my free air.
Then, in mid-November, I needed a few photos so I could craft our Christmas card. Like many people, I have not printed photos to store in shoe boxes or leather albums for years; instead, I have stored them on Facebook. Until I spend hours one day downloading all those photos (and Mitike’s baby and toddler videos) and burning the files to a CD, I cannot actually delete my Facebook account. That day, when I logged on to grab the photos I needed, the 6 messages, 68 new notifications, and 2 friend requests nearly seduced me to start scrolling.
But I held to my resolve. Facebook does not improve my life. It does not connect me more deeply to anyone. It does not inform me better than my daily reading of The Guardian and The New Yorker. It may announce events, but mostly, it pulls me away from real engagement in my community. Again, I say: no more.
I have been accused at several junctures of my life of Luddism, mostly because I resist texting everyone constantly, because I watch little TV, and because I have seriously restricted Mitike’s screen time (at age eleven, she still only gets three hours a week; we bought her a flip-phone for emergencies when she started middle school, but her iPhone is years away). Now I am deleting Facebook. However, like the original Luddites, I do not oppose the technology itself, but its threat to genuine human skill and human interaction. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter claim to better connect us, and yet the hallways of the high school where I teach are crowded not with boisterous teenagers but with solitary figures hunched over their iPhone screens, shuffling forward as they scroll through friends’ Snapchats. When I pass these zoned-out kids, I call out “Look up!” to startle them back into their real lives.
The original Luddite movement began in Nottingham, England, in 1811, when a group of angry factory workers smashed textile machinery in protest against low wages and too little work. In the months that followed, the British government deployed soldiers; the Luddites set fire to factories and broke more machinery; the soldiers fired into mobs; people died. Mostly, the Luddites feared, in the words of the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1829, a world in which “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”
In 1996-97, I lived in the Luddites’ Nottingham, in a second-story flat with eleven other American college students. There I knew a far better balance between my humanity and technology. Our flat possessed a single Apple computer that was good only for slow word-processing, a single land-line telephone, and a single television set. Sometimes, I took the bus early to the university so I could send electronic mail to my mom with my new Yahoo account, but that was it. My flatmates and I spent most of our time hanging out, attending plays, frequenting pubs, venturing into the green countryside. I wrote more, sketched a little, took photographs of crumbling walls and pubs on a film camera. When we couldn’t think of an answer or a definition, we engaged in fierce debate, because Google was still an idea in a Stanford dorm room. Except for the parents we called periodically, no one received daily or hourly updates about the pints we drank or the castles we visited.
And yes, I am saying that Luddite life was a better, healthier existence than this one. This fall, when my Nottingham roommate, Sarah, and I decided to move our friendship back into handwritten letters, I was astonished. Sarah and I have remained close for the entire twenty years since Nottingham, but these letters! In our rushed handwriting — while her kids slept, while Mitike did her homework, with early-morning coffee — we dove more deeply into reflections about our lives than we have in years on email and on Facebook. Paper and pen, actual envelope, the imprint of one page’s writing on the next: I read and re-read her letters like I have never done with her digital communication. True, I caught myself wondering why she hadn’t responded yet just an hour after I tucked my letter to her into the mailbox, but these habits are difficult to smash immediately. True, I considered posting a photo of my steaming cup of coffee next to Sarah’s letter with a caption like “Old friends, and a return to real communication,” but I resisted.
Oh, Facebook. I will not grow mechanical in head and in heart. I will not “take things at second or third hand.” I will see this world with my own eyes, experience it as it is, read more actual books of paper, connect with real friends face-to-face. I will look up.
When I was my students’ age — seventeen, eighteen — I didn’t know what a strike was.
I had never witnessed one. In U.S. History, a teacher must have mentioned one of the famous ones — the labor strikes of the 1800s, maybe, or the post-WWII auto strikes. But to me at seventeen, a strike sounded simple: the workers refused to work, the owners tried to hold out, the workers kept refusing to work, the owners tried extreme measures (police, water, threats, firings, replacements), and usually, the workers won. The end. I was a farmer’s daughter when I learned about strikes for the first time, the daughter of a man who daily labored for himself and for his land, and who could not refuse to work a single day, because the hogs would suffer, the corn plants would wither. It seemed a kind of privilege to refuse to work.
On the Friday before the Denver teachers finally went on strike on February 11, I stood before a class of high school seniors and tried to explain to them why I would not be standing there on Monday if the district could not reach an agreement with the union. The students listened quietly, a little warily. The Denver Public School PR machine was regularly cranking out emails to the community insisting the teachers were refusing “millions” on the table and demanding more. The real story — that Denver teachers wanted a traditional salary schedule with dependable annual base pay, limited incentives, and respect for what we already do as professionals — was a more nuanced and thus more-difficult-to-craft soundbite.
I told the students I wanted them to apply to the events of the strike all the college-level research skills we’ve been learning: stay curious, formulate your own deep questions, evaluate each source for credibility and originality, question everything again, compare what you’re finding so you can discern the truth. Still, they watched me from the corners of their eyes.
“You’ll remember this,” I said finally, “far more than you’ll remember any college research skill I could teach you.” This made them laugh, and the room relaxed. Because of course they would. All their teachers were marching out of the building and refusing pay, starting Monday. They’d be in these classrooms with district-paid substitutes, staring out the tall historic windows at us on the picket line. I told them I’d wave, which made them laugh again.
It is a privilege to refuse to work. My family had enough in savings that I could afford the pay cut for a few days, but what I meant was more profound: I work as part of a collective group. I am no single farmer cultivating fields alone. I show up every day to teach in a classroom that is next door to ninety other classrooms, and our school is united with 161 other schools in the district. I’m not alone. When working conditions are unacceptable, it’s our great right to link arms together and demand more. Alone, it would be impossible. That’s what I didn’t understand at seventeen — what my students, each engaged in his/her individual battle for college and future, do not understand.
It’s what the Denver Public School District did not seem to understand, either. It’s what any group of powerful bosses does not understand. They tell us what to do, what to accept, what to swallow, until one day, we rise up as a group and shout “No!” and the bosses realize they never actually had power, that their power all along was dependent on our acquiescence.
On the Tuesday of the strike — day two — hundreds of teachers dressed in red marched down Denver’s Colfax Avenue to Civic Center Park, where we gathered with more hundreds, our signs aloft. The signs said it all. “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.” “I choose to change the things I can no longer accept.” “More education, less administration.” “Pay us a living wage.” The one I carried asked, “What is the value of your child’s education?” On the other side, I alluded to the 1912 Massachusetts textile workers’ strike: “Teachers deserve both bread and roses.”
On all sides of us, members of other unions marched, too: firefighters, steelworkers, truck drivers, plumbers. My colleague Nick, from Michigan, often insists that ours is a blue-collar job, which seems strange, since we all have college degrees and many of us have master’s degrees and PhDs, but in these days of marching miles and miles through the city, chanting for fair pay and respectful working conditions, I understood how right he is. The teachers who marched on either side of me just wanted the chance to buy a house in this city; they wanted to have some money to save for their children’s college educations; they wanted to emerge from three decades of teaching other people’s children and find some kind of rest. They are also the most hard-working people I know. They are people who stay late to tutor students, who step out into the hallway to comfort students, who wake early to give students meaningful feedback on papers, who spend all weekend planning lessons that will light learning in students’ minds.
Without teachers in the schools in Denver, the city was eerily silent. True, the schools are open, but most students stayed home, waiting for us to return. Some marched with us. One student’s sign read: “I march because our teachers love us.”
I didn’t know how difficult it would be to strike. It was far harder than teaching all day. Every day, I woke early and put on my long underwear and then my jeans and my three sweatshirts, stocking cap, two pairs of gloves. On the picket lines each day in the cold, we walked nine, ten miles. My hips and lower back ached. And yet: every day it became clearer that if we did not strike, the bosses would continue to do as they please. This was our reminder of who was in power.
In the end, the Denver strike was the shortest in the city’s history: only three days. The district awarded us the salary schedule, and raised everyone’s salaries to meet surrounding school districts’ levels. By Thursday, we stood in our classrooms again, exhausted and exhilarated. By the middle of Thursday, it seemed we had never left; we were badgering students about turning in assignments on time; we were trying to motivate a whole class to care about our content areas; we were again fighting the relatively smaller battles between teachers and administrators. But there was this difference: starting in August, the pay we receive for this hard work will actually allow us to put down payments on houses in Denver, save for our kids’ college years, and maybe travel a little. In Denver, teachers will have enough to buy both bread and roses.
A few naysayers visited us on the picket line. One man squealed the brakes on his shiny silver BMW and jumped out, shaking a fist and shouting, “Get back to work! Get back to work!” I’m sure he believed his tax dollars fund our salaries and that we shouldn’t complain. I’m also sure that, if he had chosen to make a living as a teacher, he would have likely been out there marching with us, too.
The Friday before the strike, a student in one of my colleague’s classes rolled his eyes at her and said, “I don’t know why you’re so upset about the pay. You chose this job.”
True. And most of us teachers, at some point, frustrated by student apathy or by parents’ vitriol or by administrators’ hoops or by the long hours of grading papers and planning lessons, have said we wish we could quit. It’s a small salve sometimes in this hard job we chose. But it’s also true that most of us don’t quit. Most of us keep slogging on, because of the shining moments when a student gets it, and cares, because it is actually wonderful to plan educational experiences for teenagers each day — far better than working in an office would be.
Now, in Denver — and in Los Angeles, and in West Virginia, and hopefully soon in Oakland — we’re paid fairly for that work, too, because we chose to walk the picket lines for a few days. It’s connected us. When the bell rings to start each class, we wave at each other down the long high school hallways, and then step into our classrooms, to begin.
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.