Well. I arrived home on Wednesday night, August 9th. I didn’t go right home, i went to a meeting. you know. one of those 12-step deals. Better than arriving home alone right away, I thought. Some of my friends were there, and they were happy to see me. They asked when I’d arrived and were impressed that I’d elected to go to be with them instead of right home. I dunno if “impressed” is the right word, really. What’s home about my apartment, anyway, really? Home. I felt at home in the UK, and I feel at home when i’m driving alone in the prairies–and when i’m with my brother, even if we’re arguing. I felt at home where ever I was if I was with my mom, even if we didn’t always ‘get’ each other. I thought, in the first year or so of my last love affair that we would be ‘home’ for each other. I was wrong.
As I drove through the prairies, then the foothills, then the mountains to the coast I saw a deer–an uncertain doe gingerly tipping across the dusky highway. I saw an eagle swooping down across the sun, focused on some prey out of my line of sight but right by the road. I saw a vulture (!) snacking on some roadkill on the sultry asphalt. I’ve never seen a vulture in the wild before. And I’d never seen an eagle so close up before, either. Deer are as common as rabbits at Jericho beach, but it’s been a long time since I came across one on the highway like that.
When i was home, I visited with my friend Diana. We’d been friends since elementary school. We were both in the same Christian girls group, “Pioneer Girls” when we were, oh, I don’t know, 12 or so. I liked it because it was belonging to something, and it was all girls, and I had crushes on several of them at different times. I didn’t recognize my feelings as a ‘crush’ at the time, though. Diana and I went to the same schools too, and both of us name our Grade 4 and 5 teacher, Mrs. Neckay (then she became Mrs. Coene, but after she taught us, i think), as a positive influence. She was the teacher who inspired a desire to become a teacher myself. I got a bit derailed there for a while, but now I am teaching, and I still aim to uphold her standards. She had really high expectations of her students, did Mrs. Neckay, and she helped us to achieve those expectations too. Anyway, Diana. She’s living with her son again, and his wife, and their three young children. Her son is going to go back to school, and living with Mom will help to cut down expenses for everyone. I admire Diana for doing that, and it sounds like she’s bearing up really well and that she and her daughter-in-law are developing a pretty good relationship. It seems they are bonding, creating a space for each other and holding each other up as they hold the men, well, Diana’s son, to account. Sounds like her son is, um, asserting his dominance. Or trying to. The socializing force of patriarchy is extremely strong. I hope the women can stand their ground and that he will remember what his mom taught him about how to be fully human, rather than only masculine.
Speaking of the socializing forces of patriarchy — i went to a beautiful celebration gathering in honour of Joanna on Thursday the 11th. it would have been her 34th birthday. About 25 or 30 people came to Sarah and Justin’s home and we shared food and drink, stories and music to celebrate Jo’s gifts to our lives. And to remember her life, all the aspects of it. My job was to remind those gathered that she had been a feminist and a lesbian — and active and effective for those few years.
It seems impossible that someone so lively and smart, with such a bright spark, could have died. But she did. And it is up to us now to carry her story, each of us the bit of her story we have, into the rest of our lives. Even though Joanna turned away from a lesbian life in the last four or five years (I’d venture to say her feminism lapsed, too then), that is the bit of her story that I have to carry for her.
I remember, when we knew each other, she was one of only a small (infinitesimally small, one might say) number of young women (she was 26 when we became lovers) in her circle who were lesbian. Most women her age who foudn themselves attracted to other women seemed to resist even calling themselves ‘women’ — much less ‘lesbian’. Nope. They were queer. Maybe trans. “Gender-Fluid” wasn’t yet as ubiquitous a label then as it seems to be now. Still, there she was, a feminist and a lesbian in a world that rejected binaries and reclaimed slut and encouraged ‘self-identity’ because no one person’s experience was the same as anyone else’s, we are all individuals, and solidarity is hopelessly anachronistic. It was hard. I can only barely imagine how difficult it would have been for her. Her first female lovers were her age, and she told me about the struggles she experienced to find common ground — they were queer, and she couldn’t make that label make sense to her.
I’m not just making this up, either (i do tend to ‘invent’ my lovers to match my desires, no matter who they are in real life. it’s a problem) — Here are her own words, at 26:
“…There was a queer ringing in my ear that I couldn’t shake. It rang about the dangers of labeling, and the discriminatory nature of women-only space, and the empowerment in “sex work”. It rang about utter acceptance, and about choice.
I heard a lot of ringing about ‘choice’. I heard it at work in reference to the incarcerated women who made a choice to commit a crime. I heard it in the media about the murdered woman who made a choice to go running alone. I heard it about the dyke who made a choice to become a man. It was the sort of ringing that is so pervasive, you can forget it is even there. It was soothing, even..acceptance, no distinctions..choice choice choice.”
She knew there was something wrong with this inordinate focus on the primacy of “respecting women’s choices”. Particularly as it pertained to the women incarcerated at the prison in which she worked. She could see, she heard their stories, she could put two and two together, fer cryin’ out loud. Those women were there because they had no choice. Had they any opportunities at all, they would have taken them. But they did not. Most of them were conditioned from a very young age to accept the poverty, the neglect, the male violence and degradation as their lot–they couldn’t imagine anything else. Much less decide to choose it.
There was another sound though, it was harder to listen to. Deep angry challenging – it hurt my ears. It was the sound of context demanding recognition. I resented this sound. With it came work, struggle. I tried to ignore it, and succeeded for a while in shutting my ears to it. I couldn’t shut my eyes however, and I saw the lie of ‘choice’ everywhere I looked. Choice was only part of the story – it lacked context, analysis. It lacked a complete telling.
“I started to listen again, and I heard something more this time. There was anger – but also power and hope. The sound was more full, round. It offered a place to stand, a set for the story. It still brought work with it, challenge and struggle..but when I looked around again I could see my sisters standing firm, and heard them making this hopeful noise together […]
“I am 26, and I am a radical feminist.”(Joanna, 2009, emphasis mine).
In this piece she wrote, which she sent in to the lesbian journal Trivia on the topic “Are Lesbians Going Extinct?”, she wrote about the importance of having a context within which to define oneself as a lesbian, and a feminist. She talked about the political importance of relationships with women, especially women with whom she shared a commitment to liberation from male domination.
After we broke up, (which was, by the way, the best break-up in the history of lesbian relationships–we went out for dinner and gave each other appreciations for the gifts we gave–for helping each other become grown-ups), within a few months she began to date men again. We remained friendly, but we no longer had anything in common.
She had a difficult time dating men, by all accounts. I don’t know the stories, but apparently, they were hilarious. Sounds like she encountered some nightmare men. in early 2014 she met Sean, and he wasn’t a nightmare. In February of 2015, he proposed marriage, and she accepted. In May or early June of that year, she was diagnosed with oral cancer, and they decided to get married as soon as possible.
The last time I saw her was at the party my advisor threw in honour of my successful defense of my PhD dissertation (finally!). Joanna came because she was there from nearly the beginning, and she always believed in me. She told me about Sean then. Of course she knew what I thought of the institution of marriage, and what a shitty deal it offers women overall. It has its roots deep in patriarchy and capitalism, and though it seems (to many people) like a benign celebration of love and commitment now, I just can’t shake that deep mistrust of it. I see people signing papers and i think “chattel”. It’s an institution, is marriage.
Now, I like institutions, to be honest. Especially hospitals. I spent lots of time in hospitals when i was a kid and a young adult. i’m a very good patient. The “plucky, sweet” kind. It’s a lot like the institution of marriage, in a way –once you “know your place” you don’t have to make any decisions, besides what you want to choose for meals — it’s helpful if you’re med compliant, of course, and you can depend on the doctors and nurses to give you the right drugs and treatments at the right time. people who are not part of that institution also understand how to relate to you if you’re in that institution. They come to visit, and they bring flowers (unless you’re in the ward where you’re supposed to keep the allergens or scents away), and they keep to visiting hours, and they defer to the Health Professionals too, ’cause that’s how it’s supposed to be. In the hospital, i assimilate into that structure, the role i’m supposed to play, and it’s quite comfortable. I am no threat to that structure. Except when i’m outside of it and then I’m more dangerous. From outside of it, I can see the way that the power operates, I can see how class and race and sex determine where we are in the structure and how much our compliance or non-compliance is tolerated or punished.
Oh! When i was in the Ancestral Homeland, one of my new feminist friends there talked about her analysis that marriage, weddings, are the ultimate in narcissism. Sounds right to me. It’s all nice to be in love and everything, but then you go and make all your loved ones come and bring presents and attend a big party that’s all about you and your love life. During this conversation, i confessed that I had MC’ed a wedding last year, and i’m pretty sure i came down a peg or two in her estimation. “Why did you do that?” she asked. I was a bit embarrassed. it was the audience, (speaking of narcissism) and i brought the Accordion of Love (not Ruby, i didn’t have Ruby yet), there were many opportunities to provide a humorous critique of the institution, and, well, it was fun. I nearly backed out, But yes–much as I love my friends who got married, it was the attention I did it for. Well…I also liked meeting her parents, and his brothers–and their friends from away, and I liked hanging out with Steph, who was partnering with me on the MC gig — we were both pretty cynical about looooooove a the time, seeing as how we were both in various states of breaking up with our lovers, and kinda cynical overall. Anyway. weddings. Narcissism, compliance, assimilation…I did cave to the social pressure to conform to this celebration of patriarchal and capitalist dominion, and, well…it was a fun party.
anyway, back to my dear Joanna. and institutions of power….She turned away from lesbianism, and from active feminism, too. Especially once she received her diagnosis. how can you keep pushing against patriarchy when there are no lesbian feminists around you anymore and you’re facing a deadly disease? how? I don’t know. she had to decide. she’d already left feminism and lesbianism behind, it wasn’t a big step to erase it from the Joanna she showed the world from then on.
I kinda took it personally at first. Of course it wasn’t personal, I’m nearly sure of that. She knew what she was doing. She didn’t invite me to her going away party when she moved to be with Sean, we hadn’t been part of each other’s lives by then for about four years, nearly five — and she knew what i thought of marriage. I assume she didn’t want to put me in the position of either telling her why I wouldn’t be coming, or coming and being all awkward and weird. Nor would she be all that comfortable if I did go, I’m pretty sure. It was protective of her to do that.
She was a bright spark. While she was in my life, I could see the difference she made to people who were on the margins. she opened a space for them to at least glimpse a place of belonging for themselves. She was a brilliant communicator and could find a way to get practically anyone to step up to greater responsibility for themselves, for others. She made a difference. I kind of can’t believe she’s dead now. I wrote her a few times, in her last few weeks. the last time, I wrote bunch of stuff about what i was doing, and planning to do. I said, “I don’t know why i’m telling you all this stuff. Maybe i’m kind of hoping for a miracle, that if I tell you about my plans for the future, somehow that will keep YOU here long enough for a cure, or something. Never mind. The miracle is that you were here at all, that you did what you did, and you befriended and helped all those women, and that you had an effect, a good effect, on the people you met and loved and worked with and played with. Including me. Thank you, Jojo.”
It seemed so small and pale to just say “thank you”. She set up a trust fund at the end of her life, called “Celebrating Home”, for agencies that provide housing to use for celebrations. Kind of the roses part of ‘bread and roses’. but also the bread, because people who get together to share a meal, mark an occasion, celebrate a birth or an accomplishment, well — they are glued together then.
Like we were, all the different people gathered to honour Joanna, and each other, on the day that she would have turned 34. We were there because at some point in our lives, we knew and loved Joanna, and now we know each other a little bit, and our lives are a bit bigger, and better, on that account.
ah. it’s too bad that she figured she had to go away from feminism and being a lesbian in those last years. It’s too bad for us, and too bad for her. I think I get it, we are certainly not in a time of women’s liberation, far far from it — and i think when you’re young, and without a context of a vibrant movement, when things get really scary like they did for Joanna, I think you’re gonna go for the relative security. I don’t know. Maybe. But whatever it was, I do know that she was carried to her death in many loving arms — her mom, her sisters, her brother (who I may add was particularly threatened by her lesbianism, I’m sure he was most relieved of all of them when she became heterosexual again), her husband, her dad, her aunties and uncles and cousins — friends from around the world, too. Louise made a beautiful slide show of Joanna’s Vancouver years, which of course showed her at Michfest, and the folk fest, and the Lesbian Feminist Dinner Party (for a while a few of us hosted a monthly dinner party together, a little political, but mostly just social. lovely lovely). It was almost like she was with us. And because of the pictures and stories and mementos, in a way she was.
She had a home. One she was born to, one she created, and she merged these together. In honouring her memory, we created a little home space for each other too.
I’m better now. When i left for the UK, i was very lonely. I know i have friends and colleagues and many people around me who love me. But I felt restless, unsettled, sad. ‘Away from home’, you know? Something happened when i was away, though, and as I returned to Vancouver. Joanna’s party added to that feeling, too. It’s like now i have home with me. I don’t need to be somewhere in particular. It’s here. I found a place to belong everywhere i went in Alberta, Saskatchewan, London, Cornwall, Wales, Edinburgh — I walked on those old streets and through parks and museums and shops and pubs, and I was all alone surrounded by the ancestors. They’re with me still. I’m home.