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Ghost Stories

From my talk at SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment), New York City, May 16, 2005*

Aging in a Time of War

I now live under a different sky since last we met, walk different streets: Melbourne’s West Brunswick streets that are lined with old workers’ cottages turned into family homes, with grey green slivers of gum tree leaves above my head and the red and green flashing wings of King parrots lighting up the sky. The houses here are made of wood, mostly, and sit low on their lots of land—no basements, no concrete slab, just the old stumps, buried deep in the clay, holding up their burden of house. Small gardens front the streets, marked by longings for other worlds—the original lands of our neighbors—Calabria, Hong Kong, Chile, Vietnam. Tiny hot red peppers and purple salvias, walnut, olive, lemon and fig trees carry their histories of scent and fruit to this older island continent. Red kangaroo paws and yellow wattle, pepper trees and banksias, the native flora share their sun with them and even more, the precious root water of this arid land. And I, too, am given life by this intermingling of yearnings.

When I come to New York now—and this is my second visit since my world changed, since the gritty streets of Manhattan, the grit I have loved for forty years and more, fell away in a flood of love, fear and the most mundane thing of all, a landlord’s greed—I have to reorient myself. The streets still teem with conversations, some spoken, others not, with workers and owners and sellers and the homeless who sleep in neighborhoods in which they could never afford to live, all the vitalities and losses that are the city’s breath; but now I am part of the stream of impermanence and I turn to my comrades’ faces, their New York faces, to give me purchase for the weeks I am here. Leni, Linda and Dawn, Deb and Teddy, Naomi and Eva, Liz and Bobbi, Marcia and Liza, Jonathan, to your faces, and to all of you gathered here, my comrades—I will not say “family” because of the corruption of that concept by the conservative political and cultural forces that are the greatest source of my despair in this my 65th year, because the concept of family—like that of “nations,” “borders,” like “gender,” like “race,” like “faith,” like the very concept of “home” itself—are orthodoxies I want to use all my life’s last energies to question and, in so doing, change what some think “old” should be, what being a citizen of the world is.

I have only a month in which to take hold here again, to be part of the immense and complex history of New York. Before I left Melbourne’s softly beginning winter, I thought what must I do to touch the life of my past life here, and two sites came to mind: the old wooden dining room table that had been the heart of the Lesbian Herstory Archives when it was in my 92nd Street apartment and a public meeting place at the LGBT Community Center on 13th Street, in the company of faces that have been known to me for so many years. We arrived on Sunday night, May 1st and after recovering from the 21 hours of flight and time changes, I made my way to the Wednesday night coordinators’ meeting of the Archives collective, sitting once again at the old table, now in Brooklyn, but still pulling us all together. Food, papers, cups of tea, scraps of telephone messages, all pushed aside as we took our place—the image of the Knights of the Round Table just flashed in my mind—but we had no swords, no dynasties, no mythic operas waiting to be born—just lesbian women committed to making possible a more inclusive human history. Deborah and Paula and Maxine and Saskia, the old-timers who have kept so much going for so long, joined by faces I did not know—Lisa and Jane, the next generation of grass-roots archivists. As we sorted out the agenda, reported on the accomplishments of the book group—all our holdings now on the computer, from comic books to self—made poetry collections and all the wonders in between, as we recognized the death of two women in the New York community—Nancy Johnson, the printer who published our first Archives’ poster, and Marge Barton, an activist who kept organizations like the 1970s and 80s Gay Women’s Alternative alive—I felt the wonder of our own histories, the 60s and early 70s, those times of re-visioning that put such undertakings in our heads—without money, without cultural or political permissions, those times so reviled now by the Right, the would-be conquerors of collectivist possibilities.

And now I am at my second port of call, this public room, in this Center of our own making, to share our words on being queer and aging in this time of war. Old and war, old and killing, old and the young dying, old and the closing down of dissent around us, old and a right-wing youth intent on consolidating their powers, old and progressive youth refusing the weight of the Right’s deadly certainties, old and queer and worrying about housing and health care, about generations brainwashed into thinking one generation must lose social securities for another to have them while money washes over the State like an oil spill, old and watching the sparkling complexities of secular thinking dim in the fog of religious nationalisms, old and watching terror become the politics of unity, old and with our bodies often weakened just by time and illness, we watch torture become a national legal procedure, we listen to debates over how much body breaking is allowed in an illegal patriotic jail.

Aging in a time of war is to feel the very real grasp of history in our hearts. We have seen wars, we have witnessed how manipulated national terrors can make sane people accept the murder of their children and their children becoming murderers, how decades of alternate visions can be emptied of meaning, becoming the cause of all things bad. Right-wing columnists call us intellectual thugs, call us the chattering classes because we talk about ideas and we dream of other ways of being human, other ways of being American. We are the new aging enemies of this State. Let us not betray what we have seen, let us in our older years speak for complexity, not cheap safeties. I know that aging is not an answer to anything, and that is one of its wonders. This body knows its luck—for 65 years it has had enough to eat, a place to live, medicine to take, books to read, breasts to touch, students to teach and learn with, ideas to tumble in and moments of human solidarity where old and young spoke “no” to a ruthless and certain State. Old and queer and full of questions, but connected to historical possibilities, to knowledges that hint that Bush and Rumsfeld and Rice and Cheney will fall victim to the very orthodoxies they have empowered. Aging in a time of war is to watch armor and rockets deny what we know about the preciousness of flesh.


* See the account of this talk in the SAGE newsletter: as scanned image or as text in html format.
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