I said i’d write about the memorials the past week. Two Gitksan women died within a week or so of each other, both well-known and well-loved of a certain neighbourhood in Vancouver–the notorious Downtown Eastside. you know it. it was “skid row” before it became a place on the margins of the direction from which the sun rises.
it’s its own town, that place, for sure. sometimes it might just as well be a different planet. But Phillipa Ryan was an intergalactic warrior, and you could find her at demonstrations for Palestine, Chiapas, at Take Back the Night (when there was TBTN in Vancouver–it’s been a few years now), the February 14 Women’s Memorial March–all over the down town; all over the up town. She was in the face of The Man.
She worked at The Dugout, a drop-in centre in that marginal downtown town, and organized with Grassroots Women and the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center Power of Women group and she wrote for The Dominion and she hollered at cops and she was filled with righteous rage, and not a shred of hatred. She said, “I will die undefeated” (according to someone’s facebook page, I don’t know that person, but she knew Phillipa, and it sounds like something Phillipa would say)–and she did. She died undefeated, the revolution not yet accomplished, but her belief in its aims and its eventual success undimmed. She was not everywhere, she did not protest for the sake of protesting.
She worked for freedom. She believed we could accomplish an end to racist imperialism–she knew women did not want to leave their homelands, she didn’t want to leave her homeland, but poverty brought her to the city, as it does many people from the reserves.
She believed we could accomplish an end to pimping and trafficking of women’s bodies. She knew we could end the flesh trade on the streets, in hotel rooms, in the sweat shops, from the docks–she knew that all women suffer when one of us is bought or sold; when one of us is beaten or raped. She knew we could do better. Knew it.
She believed we could accomplish an end to wealth, and equitable redistribution of resources. She herself lived redistribution. When the Dugout got more of something than they could use, she would walk it over to the Women’s Centre. When she came to a meeting, or a conference, or a roundtable discussion, she brought something to share with everyone–candy, or cookies or some sweet things. She was a participant in the Flesh Mapping Conversations (see http://www.rapereliefshelter.bc.ca click on “events” go to Flesh Mapping) in 2008. For 16 days she came, every afternoon, and brought a bag of candies to share. Not only that, she shared her prodigious knowledge of the history of colonization, and the traffick since contact with Europeans, of Indigenous women, and the links between the oppressed people of the Americas.
I was there, too, most of the days. A little intimidated by the women around me, not always confident that i deserved to be among them. But finally, little by little, I realized that full participation was not just a privilege (though it was certainly that) it was my responsibility to speak with authority. After all those years of answering phones and going on raids and writing speeches and going to court with women and opening the house at one a.m. for another woman and her kids and talking with women through pelvic exams and memories of incest and cooking meals with women from a half-dozen different nations and — there was a lot I had learned that it was (is) important to share with other women…
Anyhow. so I finally stepped up, and offered some serious and important contributions to the conversations. At the celebratory dinner on the final day of the conversations, near the end of the night, Phillipa and I were at the coat rack at the same time, and she grinned at me and said, “Well, looks like you grew up, eh?” I can’t remember if she said, “finally”, but if she did, it was kind, because she was, as Lee said of her, “kind and disciplined”.
She looked at everyone, and she saw them. She had regard for everyone, and treated everyone with respect–but she did not suffer bullies or fools. She was filled with rage. righteous anger. knowledge, understanding and unshakable faith that what she had to offer mattered. And so did her comrades in the glorious struggle. All of us–from the West Coast to the Nass Valley; from BC to Pakistan to Mexico to Palestine. At her memorial, women and men from all of those places spoke about her ferocious love, her bright humour, her anger, her discipline–all of what she meant to them. And weaving through all of those stories was her belief in the freedom we will make together.
That’s how she could do it, all those meetings, all those demos, all that talking and writing and hollering at the cops–she knew we will win. so now we’d better use what she taught us, the gifts that she offered.Continue to make freedom together.
And Marlene. Marlene’s memorial also featured The Women’s Warrior Song…sung by women, to lay the cedar boughs along the path for the deceased to follow to the next leg of their journey. Our voices quavered more singing Phillipa home, but for both women, our upraised fists were joyous, determined. Marlene had some trouble all along. her health was poor–lupus, arthritis–she died, apparently, of an aneurysm. Sneaky sudden devastating.
Marlene’s mother had also died young, when Marlene was still a child. She graduated high school, came to the big city, nearly got lost–found work (she always worked)–saw her kids on holidays and some weekends–fell to drinking for periods of time. The despair of poverty, the weight of her potential, the rage she could not acknowledge–class race sex inequality all of it squished her–
but she rose. Her colleagues and employers knew we could depend on her. Knew she would be level and fair. Knew she would do her best to lead and to follow with integrity. She worked and she went to school and she loved children and old people and she threw herself into learning and walked miles and miles to serve her elders, make a difference, love her children–she had a grandchild, too, a little boy named Thunder–her quiet son Chuck’s little boy. both of them were at the memorial, and her stricken daughter-in-law, Lisa.
We were there. the women she worked with, and the women she grew up with, and the women she drank with, and the women she learned with, and the women who supported her and the women who fought with her–all of us also women who loved her. Men too. Cousins and friends and colleagues and men who were of the Gitksan nation, too. Not her boyfriend, though. Nor her ex, the one I met. She deserved ever so much better than she got from men.
We all do. All that suffering? it can all be traced back to male domination of women. all of it. no surprise there, eh.
A week before she died, Marlene went on a kayak trip with some people from her work. She had never been in a kayak before, a little afraid of them, she was. There are pictures of her that day. She is shining joy. A fear faced–an adventure. The company of women. Sunshine, water, some space to breathe clean air.
Those were two women. Two well-loved and honoured women. Two of too many gone. I have the service folder from Marlene’s memorial. I have a scarf from Phillipa. I have these mementos. And the memories and the challenge to rise on their behalf, in their memory. To rise and make room. To make freedom together.