Saint Marks Cinema, NYC—1979
My radical lesbian-feminist group chose to protest Thanksgiving by holding a public wailing circle. Although my intentions were sincere, my lack of personal clarity made this a less-than-effective social action. From my first book, Recovering My Voice:
Bummer of bummers, Thanksgiving Day was cold, rainy, and bleak. I was savvy enough in the ways of political action to know that our demonstration would not be cancelled. I moped around my apartment all morning, bored and trying not to smoke pot, wanting a fresh high for the kickoff of our noon action. I watched the Macy’s parade on tv half-heartedly. I just couldn’t settle down.
Wailing was on the horizon.
We met at Joyce’s at 10:30, all eight of us present. We put together our outer layers of black, to top off our black pants. I wore Matti’s mother’s black cape. It was heavy and smelled of mildew. Shatzi had sewn black material into veils, with tiny holes for eyes and mouth. I tried mine on, looked in the mirror, and snickered in embarrassed amusement. Bethia gave me a cool stare; I quieted down. Yikes, I thought. This is going to be hard.
We smoked some good hash before we left. I was relieved, needing the support. We offered a prayer over the pipe, that our actions be loving and powerful. I prayed to just get through. My head tingled with every inhale, resulting in escalating, incremental fuzziness.
Then we made our way across 7th Street to the busy, pivotal intersection of Saint Marks Place and Second Avenue. Tiny eye-holes made vision limited; walking and navigating were challenging. There was the spot we agreed upon—the southwest corner, by the newsstand. My nerves got tighter with each passing moment. My small, elaborately written cardboard sign read, “Return the Earth to its Rightful Owners”. Shaking, I held it tentatively in front of me, an ineffective shield, protecting me from any representative of the military industrial complex.
We gathered in a circle on the sidewalk, purposefully clogging the intersection. We made limited eye contact, due to our veil-constraints. Mine was already itchy and stiff due to the freezing condensation from my running nose. I was instantly cold and profoundly uncomfortable.
As decided in our interminable planning meetings, Shatzi began the wailing. Her voice went up like a shot of electricity into the cold, grey sky. It stopped crowds of pedestrians in their tracks. Her cry was plaintive, piercing, high-pitched and sustained. I was amazed that sound could emerge from such a spherical body. My other sisters joined in. The pedestrians gawked for a moment or so, and then continued their Thanksgiving pace—off to friends, restaurants and warmer destinations. The pace around us seemed to instantly return to normalcy.
I opened my mouth. No sound came out. I tried again, thinking of all the horrid things our government had done to native children. I conjured up murderous images and tried to wail. Only a little hum emerged. Again and again, I tried. Nobody seemed to notice my inadequacies, all being engaged in their own full-bodied participation. Passersby shuffled past us. I felt profoundly alone. No policeman confronted us; nobody seemed to even notice.
We just wailed and sobbed, pleading our case to the November sky.
I finally found a bit of a wail, a tiny humming wail and did my best to sustain it.
It was beyond-exhausting.
The hash wore off instantly.
It was an endless afternoon.
My frozen feet disappeared beneath me. The cape did not protect me from the icy drizzle, which intensified the smell and taste of mildew. My hands iced over. I was a physical wreck, each moment, grueling.
The day would never end. I had nowhere to put my body, nothing to do with my hands. I was sorry the earth was stolen. But I was cold and wet and longed for turkey. I imagined I would simply drop dead from the shame and embarrassment of my insincerity and wailing-incompetence. Death seemed easier than standing there, as such a shallow participant.
Finally, the two hours, without climax, just ended. I tearfully stumbled home alone, down Second Avenue. Once inside my steamy apartment, ripping off my veil, I saw the pocked splotches of dye around my face. Bedraggled, red-eyed, pink-cheeked, I confronted in the mirror a shallow and insincere citizen.
I didn’t go back to Shatzi’s for our debriefing that evening. Claiming sickness, betraying my political family, I longed for comfort and I ached for deliciousness.
I went to the diner on First Avenue, quickly ducking in. I didn’t want anybody to see me reduced to such superficial pleasures. I got a hot open-faced turkey sandwich and went to the Saint Marks Theater to see Manhattan. This was exactly what I needed. Looking all around the lobby for a face that might witness my superficiality, it seemed nobody cared but me.
Snuggling into the ripped seat, dry and warm, surrounded by the smells of marijuana and popcorn—my personal nirvana—holding the aluminum take-out container to my heart, I grieved the rape of the earth. In my own way, I really did.
Sorry, I thought. Sorry we stole the earth, I ruminated, as I bit into a fake cranberry, savoring its artificial sweetness.
I sighed, snuggled into the funky seat, and prepared to share the next two hours of my privileged, shallow life with Diane Keaton and Woody Allen.
Dear Readers, Surely, to authentically connect with another, one must be connected to oneself. In the realm of social/spiritual activism, what might this look like today? As I look back to this Thanksgiving wailing circle, I feel gently touched by the young woman that I was. And the older woman I am becoming? I struggle more with her.
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