Come along if you’re in Perth on June 9th!

 

Intro: According to Ro’s theory of relativity, having worked in a collective, shared two houses and worked on two books, Mag and I are some kind of sisters, definitely related.

 

It was a strange experience reading this book. I felt split. Between now and then. Between memory and reality. Between reality and fantasy, I felt a cleaving in my mind, to quote Emily Dickinson.

 

I felt a cleaving in my mind as if my brain had split

I tried to match it seam by seam but could not make it fit

The thought behind I could not join unto the thought before

But watched it ravel of Sequence like balls upon the floor*

 

This is a book about us, a book about you and me. It is an unusual book because it’s about a broad spectrum of life and also about the specificity of what it has been like to be a lesbian during this time: our choices, our politics, morals and ideology. It’s about life. It’s about death. It’s about floods and farms and families.

 

This story is both hard and good to read because it strikes one chord after another, and some of those chords are discordant. They are discordant because they are true. The characters are not universally loveable.

 

(I recognise myself in the worst of it – Did I really do/say/think things like that? Oh Gawd.) It raises questions like: did we construct our ideology, tailor our morals to suit our hormones? What tit for tat went on, what careless neglect, what sins did we commit against each other in the name of non-monogamy? Ah non-monogamy always so much easier when you were the one who was non-ing.

 

Here’s a thought I had about this book: It’s a coming of age story. Not only are the protagonists growing up, but they are growing beyond up to becoming old and surely that is the REAL coming of age? That is the literal coming of age. I mean can you even apply the word age to someone in their 20s???

And if you never imagined you would live to 40 because there would be a nuclear holocaust, then this is a journey you were not prepared for, yet here after all, some of us are.

 

And the fantasies we did have about getting old – Chloe and I thought we would be two old ladies sitting on a park bench smoking joints and having carefree, mad flights of fantasy. I remember reading a lesbian short story that waxed lyrical about the joys of toothless sex. Seriously. Gumming it.

 

Mag says this book is about community, the pleasures of tribal life. It’s not a romance, but it is about love. How we stay friends with exes, watch out for each other.

 

Lesbianism now seems to be old hat. But we were the rebels, the outsiders. These are the lives we invented, the lives that Mag has re-invented for us in this book. We fought for and created all sorts of things: women’s’ shelters, health centres, the Women’s Studies Resource Centre, the Migrant Women’s Centre, the title Ms, women’s bands, dances, choirs, theatre troops. The Women’s Art Movement, as in WAM. (Bam?)

The context: We did not want the lives our mothers had. Our post-war mothers who were forced to give up jobs, for the men home from the war. Vietnam, the 60s, Paris 1968 Situationism: Take Your Dreams for Reality.” One of my favourite revolutionary slogans. We did seem to think we could do that. Re-invent reality.

 

It’s not that we did any of this perfectly. Our zest for equality, our passion for fairness, also included in-fighting of every shade: the rad fem, rev-fem, anarcho-fem, separatist schisms. The Gold Star Lesbians who prided themselves on never having fucked a man. All passionately argued as if, in our little collectives, we actually had final control of the world. And how hard was this time for lesbian women with sons?

 

HOWEVER, the first lesbians I met impressed me because they were generous and enthusiastic about other women and their achievements, a phenomenon which I had never experienced before, I had never heard men or women speak like that. The lesbians liked women. Amazing. It felt strange. Good. Like the sun was shining on me, at last.

 

Solidarity. The sisterhood. We had to invent it. I remember Deborah McCullough telling me that as a femocrat, she never walked out of a meeting without some man sidling up to her and inviting her to criticise another woman who had spoken at the meeting. An invitation to gossip, undermine, discount something she had said or done. This observation made an impression on me. I started to notice it. It was true. There was this incredible power of naming things.

 

One of the great underlying strengths of us old hat lesbians, was that we took that solidarity with other women into every other struggle.

 

It’s easy to forget now, but many in the women’s movement were not keen to be tarnished by the image of lesbians. Those straight feminists wanted us to keep quiet about our sexual orientation for “the greater good.” It made them look bad and it scared the men. Our mere existence engendered an eventually crushing media stereotype that turned feminism into a four-letter word via descriptions like – hairy-legged, ugly, fat, ball-breaking, bra-burning, man-hating, needs a good fuck, lezzos.

 

So, I really enjoyed Ro’s white hot letter about the media depiction of women involved in Pine Gap as respectable.

 

“There is no point for me in saving the earth if we, as lesbians have to give up the struggle for our sexuality. And being tolerated within the women’s peace movement is not enough if we are tactfully ignored when it comes to presenting a public image.

 

My lesbianism is directly relevant to my involvement in the movement. Both are expressions of my opposition to male power. I was not at Pine Gap because of my special bond with the earth. I was there because it is the same patriarchal system that fears and hates women, that oppresses me as a lesbian and that threatens to destroy my world.

 

And I oppose that system, and all the various manifestations of its power. I wish I had said (in more than a mutter): ‘I’m not a grandmother, or anything respectable. I’m a LESBIAN, and that’s why I’m here.’”**

 

Amen, Ro.

All those struggles and initiatives that have been mothballed in my memory: collectives, house meetings, house books, women’s land, women only anything, non-monogamy, ‘multiples’ and ‘inter-states’, language and the incredible power of naming things, including renaming ourselves with marvellous names like Zephyrine Barbarachild, Mystery Carnage, Silver Moon…

 

But Big Rough Stones is not a romp down memory lane. It is confronting and moving and feels real. It’s close to the bone and you will feel sure that you know (or are) one of these women.

 

Her characters will make you squirm. They will make you laugh. You will love them and take them into your heart. Mag has given us a unique opportunity to see and love ourselves, our community. The space we made for ourselves in a world that was hostile. We made mistakes but we made the world a bigger place.

 

So read the book. Buy the book. Buy a few, give them away to friends and relatives. They know we are here now, but maybe if your family is like some of mine, they don’t have much of an idea about how we live. Maybe they didn’t and still don’t want to know, but hey this is fiction. Not threatening, right? And perhaps they are more open-minded now and we are more quotidian: no longer proclaiming “I am your best fantasy and your worst nightmare.” Just human.

 

Chia Moan

Adelaide 13 April 2018

 

* Emily Dickinson Poem #937

** Big Rough Stones, p 246-7

Spontaneous collective remembering of Adelaide lesbian feminist herstory. Thanks to Chia Moan for setting it up at the launch of Big Rough Stones. Women added to it all evening.

RADIO LISTENERS – I’m talking about ‘Big Rough Stones’ on 5MBS (99.9FM) with lovely Emily Sutherland – Wednesday 11th at 6pm on Kaleidoscope – repeated Saturday 14th at 11am.
Official launch of book on Friday 13th at 6pm at The Joinery, 111 Franklin St, Adelaide. See you there!

While Sylvie, WOMAD volunteer, instructs James in the art of expressing his wishes, Sylvie’s girlfriend Bec has a tougher gig.
She is part of a young team recruited to help run a Community Consultation Day about flood prevention work on Brownhill Creek.
Bec is studying Marketing and this is a great opportunity to observe the negotiating process. Obviously the needs of the various stakeholders may conflict. She sees it as a matter of mediation, of compromise, of finding paths to mutual cooperation.
So far Bec’s main job has been to organize a sausage sizzle. Bec doesn’t approve of sausages, but she understands that in grass-roots work you have to respect the local culture. She’s compensated by recruiting a friend to make fruit smoothies in a blender powered by a bicycle. In this inner-city suburb smoothies are probably part of the culture.
The weather is good, the atmosphere cheerful. Bec and her young colleagues are fully briefed. They stand in front of displays relating to different aspects of the project: dams, culverts, rail crossings, roadwork, fencing. Bec has wangled revegetation.
Her first customer is James’ grandmother, though of course neither of them is aware of the coincidence.
‘I’m extremely concerned about the loss of tree canopy around here in the last few years,’ Anne says. ‘We can’t afford to lose any more trees in a time of global warming.’
Bec is prepared for this. ‘Yes …’
‘It’s not just about shade and summer temperature,’ Anne continues.
‘No …’
‘Trees are essential carbon-sinks and they also clean the air.’
‘The Council will be replanting …’
Anne snorts. “The Council can’t replant trees. There won’t be enough soil. The Council uses cement instead of soil to refill holes. Be lucky if they can grow grass.’
‘Uh …’
‘The cement manufacturers are pissing in the Council’s pocket.’
‘Er …’
‘Oh just give me the form to fill in.’
Bec watches Anne walk away with the piece of paper. That didn’t seem to go quite right.
But as the day wears on Bec becomes more confident and has interesting conversations with local residents about the open space they’d like: urban orchards, sensory gardens for the vision impaired, vegetables. Duck farming perhaps. Bec visualizes a happy creek-side community.
At the end of the day Bec packs up next to an older woman, and tells her about the experience with Anne.
‘I guess some people are just very negative,’ she says.
The other woman looks at her. ‘Probably seen it all before.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well you know it’s a done deal, don’t you?’
‘What is?’
‘This. This whole area’s going.’
‘The park? The open space?’
‘Yeah. Council’s already voted. Today was just window dressing. The creek’s going underground and the land is for in-fill housing.’
Bec is horrified. What about the ducks? On the tram home she does some serious thinking and by the time she gets home to Sylvie she’s made up her mind.
‘Let’s go and live in Tasmania. Off the grid. This city sucks.’

Day two of WOMAD. James and Victoria are in Kidzone. They’ve been given white plastic bottles and invited to express their dreams and hopes.

Victoria is well away. Her first dream is to have the ceiling of her bedroom hinged so that she can open it up to see the moon, the stars, and passing owls. It would be good to take the roof off altogether. But maybe her parents would be cross if it rained and everything got wet. She also hopes for a bicycle that can fly. Victoria is the perfect participant in the Dreamstore project and is busy cutting out stars and bikes and clouds and sticking them on her bottle.

The activity is not working so well for James, in spite of encouragement from Sylvie, a student volunteer. James wants to have fun, but is finding the white plastic bottle uninspiring. He doesn’t really get the whole idea. It seems to be a supermarket or something and you go through a checkout. Sylvie is feeling discouraged too. She’s not sure herself about the whole buying and selling thing.

On top of that, James has a worry. Botanic Park is right next to the zoo, and some of the WOMAD music is very very loud. What about the animals? What if the pandas can’t sleep?

He asked his Dad about it the night before.

‘You’re right,’ Brett said. ‘It doesn’t need to be this loud. We should write to the organisers.’

Now, James sizes up Sylvie.

‘I have to write a letter,’ he says.

‘Oh that’s a lovely idea,’ says Sylvie. ‘You could put it in your bottle.’

‘Would the organisers get it?’

‘The organisers of Dreamstore?’

That doesn’t sound like what Dad meant. ‘The ones in charge of everything.’

Sylvie sees how it is. Some kids believe in Santa Claus, some in the Tooth Fairy. This one has put all his faith in the organisers of WOMAD. So sweet.

‘Sure,’ she says reassuringly. ‘They’ll get it.’

‘Wouldn’t it be better to email?’

Sylvie has had limited training for her present position, but the job, as she understands it, is to get kids to decorate bottles. Nobody said anything about internet access.

‘This will be best,’ she says firmly. ‘They’ll get it.’

James looks around at bottles covered in stickers and glitter and requests to become fairy princesses. It doesn’t seem very businesslike, but Sylvie has an official badge, so she must know what she’s talking about.

‘Okay,’ James says and in green texta on a sheet of paper he writes his letter.

Dear organisers maybe you didn’t think about it but it must be very hard for the animals to go to sleep when the music is loud. Can you turn it down? Yours sincerely James.

He folds the paper, puts it in his bottle. On the bottle he writes I hope the pandas can sleep. He hands it to a beaming Sylvie.

They both feel the achievement of a difficult job well done.

First night of WOMAD and Botanic Park is alive: world music, flags, colour, food. Anne and Julia stroll under the lights greeting friends.

But all is not well with Anne. She has had too many samosas for tea. And what’s more, she’s forgotten her usual reflux emergency kit.

They pass a St John’s tent. Just the thing. Embarrassing to waste their time on indigestion, but there are two young volunteers and no customers, so obviously they aren’t busy.

‘You go on,’ she says to Julia. ‘I’ll catch you up.’

‘It’s nothing really,’ she says to the volunteers. ‘Just a bit of reflux. You don’t have a Quickeze do you? Or some bi-carb?’

By way of reply the young woman pulls out a chair, and the young man sits her down. ‘We’d just better check,’ he says. Before she can object her attendants have rolled up her sleeve and are applying a blood pressure cuff. Oh well, good practice for them Anne supposes.

The man has a clipboard. ‘Any pain in your arms?’ he asks earnestly.

In her ARMS? Anne is puzzled. ‘No,’ she says.

‘Whereabouts do you feel it?’

Anne indicates a point between her breasts.

‘Anywhere else in your chest or back?’

Well honestly, Anne thinks, do they know where my digestive organs are located?

The woman has finished measuring Anne’s blood pressure and pulse and is now listening to her front and back with a stethoscope, tapping as she goes.

‘Have you ever had this trouble before?’ the man asks.

‘Yes,’ says Anne, ‘often. Whenever I eat too much.’

‘Oh,’ says the man, and the woman rolls up her stethoscope.

Suddenly Anne realises what’s going on. They’ve been checking her for a heart attack.

‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make a fuss … ’

At that moment Julia sticks her head into the tent.

‘Are you okay?’

‘I think so,’ says Anne, though she is beginning to have doubts. Is it a heart attack? Would she even know? She feels even more stupid than she did when she first came in wanting Quickeze.

The young man smiles reassuringly at her, as though she is in her dotage.

‘Everything is normal,’ he enunciates clearly, patting her on the shoulder. ‘We just like to be sure. If you do get any other pains come straight back.’

‘I’ll just wait outside,’ says Julia, also enunciating clearly. Anne glares at her.

The young man holds out his clipboard for her to sign. She has no idea why, but she isn’t about to quibble.

‘And do you have any … ’ she asks diffidently.

The young woman rummages in a first aid tin. ‘We can only give you one I’m afraid.’

Anne emerges from the tent clutching her single Quickeze. Perhaps that’s what she signed for. She’s never thought of  Quickeze as a dangerous drug, but what would she know?    Perhaps if you ate enough of it …

Here it is – and you didn’t even know you were waiting for it! BIG ROUGH STONES – forty years of a little known lesbian world. That’s specific, but the themes are universal. Whoever you are, whatever bunch of people you fall in with, you have to work out how to do it – how to do love, how to do life.

Come to the launch! Chia Moan will do the honours – 6pm on Friday 13th April at The Joinery, 111 Franklin St, Adelaide (the old bus station). RSVP by 9 April to maddy@wakefieldpress.com.au, or order the book at http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au.

If you aren’t in Adelaide, then I hope to be somewhere closer to you later in the year!

The next laborious circuit around the edge of the ice rink is very slow, but Victoria manages it without falling over. Julia skates back and forth nearby, offering encouragement. When they reach the entrance gate they find Anne waiting.

‘Looking good,’ she says.

Victoria looks at her doubtfully. Gran is usually honest, for a grown-up.

As if she has read this thought Anne smiles. ‘Well it’s only your first try,’ she says. ‘Do you want to go out in the middle? We could hire one of those walker things.’

Victoria’s concentration has been so fierce that she has not registered anything but the guard rail that she clings to. Now she looks around, even turning her body a little. This time her feet do not slide away and she manages to stand upright.

She sees what Gran means. In the middle of the rink people are pushing themselves around on individual frameworks that slide over the ice.

‘Yes please,’ she says.

Anne gets a walking frame and pushes it onto the ice. Gingerly Victoria transfers her weight from the guard rail to the frame. But now what?

‘Push it,’ calls Anne helpfully, but she is safe on land.

Victoria pushes carefully at the frame and feels her feet slide backwards.

‘Hang on,’ says Julia. She skates up behind Victoria and put her arms over Victoria’s so that they can push together. In this fashion with Victoria half-pushing and half-dangling between Julia and the frame, they manage about twenty metres. Even Julia is puffing now.

‘What say I go round the front and pull you.’ she says.

For some heady moments, with Julia pulling, Victoria feels herself whisked across the ice. This is it, she thinks, this is how it was in Frozen. She does not see the shed they are in, badly in need of a clean-up and a coat of paint. She replaces it with the snow-capped mountains and icy lakes of her imagination.

Three girls not much older than she is whisk past laughing. Victoria begins to smile. That will be her soon. Julia, encouraged by the smile, speeds up. Victoria’s feet move more slowly than the frame and she falls flat on her front, banging her nose.

Julia pulls her up and helps her to the gate where Anne is waiting to hug her.

‘Had enough?’ she asks, checking the poor nose.

Victoria nods miserably.

‘That’s good,’ says Anne, ‘because I’m freezing. Let’s go and get a drink.’

 

Mel is watering the front garden when they pull up. ‘How was it?’ she calls, coming over to the car. All three women turn to Victoria.

‘All right,’ she says.

She sees her mother’s expression. ‘Thank you Grannies,’ she adds.

She turns and trails into the house.

 

Anne rings Mel later that night to see if Victoria has recovered.

Mel laughs. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘Vic’s had a better idea. Next time she wants you to take her rock climbing.’

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