October 20, 2010

Anne Finger


On Sunday evening, I had the pleasure of speaking to Anne Finger on he telephone. We'd only met very briefly, several years ago, when she performed at a disability studies symposium at UC Berkeley. Then, last week, Herb Levine at Independent Living Center San Francisco told me that Anne taught a writing class at ILRC many years ago--just as I am looking forward to doing next week with Write To Connect. So I sent Anne a message on Facebook, wondering if she would be willing to chat with me, just a bit, about her writing workshop experience at ILRC. And then, just as I was pulling Sunday biscuits out of the oven (October is big biscuit phase in these parts), the phone on the kitchen counter buzzed. It was Anne! Facebook is so simple and magical sometimes.


Here is a passage from one of Anne's memoirs. I love the way she situates herself in history, so that national events also makeup the body in question--her body.


Those cycles of my childhood: a round of fall birthdays and a round of spring birthdays, my mother saying, "The uniform of the day will be the regular uniform of the day..." and "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers..." and, "If only we'd found that when we were collecting scrap metal during the war..."
The New York Times arrived at our house via mail a day late. In late August and early September of 1954, the Times spoke of the Red regime in Peiping, as Beijing was then called, while the ads showed line drawings of women in impossibly steep heels and with equally impossible thin waists, petticoats with tiers of ruffles, a "ribbon" girdle in six delectable colors, lemon, lime, pink raspberry, pale blueberry, vanilla white and licorice black. Children's summer camps would not be listed in the New York Commerce Department's directory unless a sworn affidavit was submitted as to their "non-subversive" nature. A Times Square raid had netted "rowdies, hoodlums, and undesirables." Noting that the price of coffee has risen sharply, a pound then cost between $1.18 and $1.42, an article entitled "A Thriftier Cup of Coffee" recommended mixing coffee with concoctions such as chicory or Buisman's Famous Dutch Flavoring. A novel called Chantal was reviewed, translated from the French, the story of the title character, "originally a vain, unscrupulous ignorant young woman...reformed by her experience of illness and suffering." Senator McCarthy was facing Senate censure for his conduct at the hearings investigating the Army. President Eisenhower, in an obviously posed photograph, gazed at the bill he'd just signed, outlawing the Communist Party. An Alabama school had barred twenty-three Negroes, paving the way for a court challenge to legal segregation. 
And, on Friday, August 27th, the Times noted that 2,207 cases of polio had been reported in the past week, a rise of 15 percent from the previous week. The National Foundation was rushing respirators and iron lungs to hard hit areas.
Summer was polio season. Air-conditioning was rare in those days. In the summer, you were hot almost all the time, and by August, nearly everyone had slipped into a state of languid torpor. Gaggles of folks sat on the porches of white clapboard houses, tenement stoops, country home verandahs. They ate summer fruit that the heat threatened to send from ripeness to decay in the space of an afternoon. Boys spit watermelon seeds at one another; flat-chested tomboys with dirty elbows snuck off to swimming holes; kids danced in the jets from opened fire hydrants. Everything was sun-drenched and freckle-faced. Only the threats of polio and Communism lurked. Every summer, the mothers told their children not to go swimming--they might get polio, not to drink from public water fountains, and if they couldn't wait until they got home, for heaven's sake, not to sit down on the seats of public toilets. The fathers told them never to sign a petition, your name might end up on some Communist list, especially not if the petition uses words like "freedom" or "justice" or "free speech." Watch out. Give to the March of Dimes, wash your hands with good, strong soap, and never sign anything except a loyalty oath.
Who is she, this girl who will be three in October, who I can only track with suppositions, I must have seen... My mother must have said... extrapolating backwards from later memories?
When I was in my forties, I received a writing fellowship and got to live in an ugly prefab 1950s cabin in one of the most beautiful places on earth, the ranch where D.H. Lawrence lived on a mountaintop outside of Taos, New Mexico. Every morning, I made a cup of strong, strong coffee and doused it with sugar and half-and-half, because I hate the taste of coffee and only drink it for its drug effect, and walked out onto the deck. I looked down at the scrubby yard in front of me, the split rail fence marking the field where Sassafras and Ebony, the caretaker's two horses, munched grass and flicked their tales lazily at flies. My friend Jeff, who later died of AIDS, talked about coming to visit me there, but ended up not making the trip. 
When I was anticipating his arrival, I imagined him standing there on the porch next to me, while I drank my coffee. We would have watched the horses ruminating in the field beyond the yard; seen the wild iris and heard the shrill chirps and clicks of mosquitoes and chipmunks. Later, after he'd died, I supposed that when I was eighty I'd have forgotten that he never actually made it. The fantasy would grow seamlessly into memory, and it would be no different than if he had come and stood next to me there, smelling the earth, looking out at Sassafras and Ebony and the wild irises.
Every morning on the porch, I looked up at a mountain in the distance, which appeared to be a color that occupied some equidistant space between purple and green and gray and imagined that on that opposite mountain, a woman stared at my mountain, which to her appeared as a clear, uncluttered form, a color equally distant from gray and green and purple. Maybe she stood on the deck of a 1950s prefab like me; maybe she was ecologically conscious and had built her house out of old tires or bales of hay. Were there trees on her mountain? Or maybe it was drier there with a few stubborn, scrubby pines clinging to rock?
That past is like the mountain: hazy, beautiful, almost an illusion. Who is that girl with my name, my birth date, my genes, my first (almost) three years of history; the girl with my mother and my father and my sisters, my brother tucked inside my mother? Who is that girl who in late August and early September of 1954 must have stood on the front porch of our house in Hamilton and looked past the six maples in the yard, past the line of weeping willows, at the house in the distance, which had once been red but was now-faded to gray mottled with red? Did she stick her nose in one of the Blue Willow coffee cups with a half-inch of cold black coffee in the bottom that my mother left here and there around the house? Did she take an experimental sip, then spit out the bitter liquid? Did she see the Indian paintbrushes, rust red and bright yellow, alongside the road? When, in late August, her parents took her out on a sailboat on Saranac Lake, did the feel of the wind on her face scare her, or did she laugh with a toddler's delight in the new? Did she believe her mother when she told her that everyone used to be a baby--not just her mother and father, but even her grandmother and grandfather? Did she really believe that her mother was growing a new baby inside of her?
Years later, nine month's pregnant, dreaming every night of schools of fish and stately vast houses, I will smell a rich fecund smell coming from between my legs, a smell my body has never given off before, yet familiar. Did I smell that smell when my mother stopped in at Streeter's to buy a spool of thread or a darning egg, and I pressed my face against her leg, clutching at her skirt, nose close to her crotch, while someone cooed, "What pretty blue eyes! How old is she?" and my mother answered, "She'll be three at the end of October..." "And when's the next one due?"
My brother will be born at the beginning of October; I will turn three at the end of October. But everything is about to change.
To read more from this excerpt and to purchase her books, go to Anne's website: http://www.annefinger.com/