Dorothy Allison: “In the Stories We Share and Those We Have Not Yet Crafted—We Live Forever”

It is a wonderful thing to be told that the work to which you have devoted your time, energy and passion has found an audience that understands the difficulties and accomplishments of transforming a lifetime’s experience and struggles and making all that over into story. Story is how I understand life.

My family’s struggles, the fear and shame inherent in living on the margins of what everyone sees as everyday life, has always seemed to me to be the great secret of our society. Understand me, I was born into the working poor, watching my mama pull off her waitress garb and make dinner out of pork scraps and pinto beans. She would chop peppers and onions to add to a pan of cornbread that was not only filling, but colorful. She could make a cream pudding to rival the best soufflé, then toss in a streak of crushed berries to puddle and entice even the most resentful angry child.

I was that terrified resentful child dodging my stepfather’s angry hands and grinding my teeth at wearing my cousins’ hand-me-downs, watching mama give home permanents to neighbor ladies for a few dollars to buy shoes or blue jeans or the paperback novels she and I devoured like printed candy. I listened to my stepfather shatter coke bottles the way I knew he hoped to break my stubborn head. I watched my cousins dragged off to the county farm where they would be taught to hate themselves and breathe in shame so deep, they could never again be free of it.

What if life really was a story? What if you could alter the plot? Assign meaning to the most brutal contempt? Claim passion and glory while walking away from the spit and rage everyone seemed to aim at the poor, the disdain of the well-off and their bland disregard for the not-pretty, the exhausted uncertain girl children struggling to be seen as full human beings, the tender soft-eyed boys who wanted only what we all wanted—vindication, hope, love and meaning.

What if life really was a story? What if you could alter the plot? Assign meaning to the most brutal contempt?

I knew we were not merely disposable workhorses, but hopeful determined souls coping with almost insurmountable violence, contempt and grief.  Those I loved seemed to me to be sensitive, hard-working and desperate to live fully, to love across barriers of gender, age, and personal identification. But my people—my sisters, cousins, best friends, lovers, and cultural heroes—we were seemingly animal, a category of human somehow not quite worthy of that category. That story was so mean it could have soured me on life itself.

But what if story was a way out? A path out of self-hatred to soul-sustaining sympathy? What if the simplest most effective act of resistance was to refuse self-hatred and claim meaning, purpose and vindication in love itself? What if there were a way to redefine how any one individual creature could revise what it meant to love another and build a personally meaningful satisfying life? What if I am a girl who wants to cross the line and live my life as an independent, perverse human in resistance to all that being a girl is “supposed” to mean?

I was instead taught to hate myself, to hold my desires contemptible, my fears contemptible, and all that I desired or hoped to experience shameful and yet more evidence of my essential worthlessness. I was a girl who loved girls. I was and am an outlaw, dreaming of her indrawn gasp, her sharp-toothed stubbornness and awkward reach for my hesitant stubborn grip.

You want to do what? And with who? How can you stand yourself?

Day by day, breath by breath, embrace by embrace, her hand on my neck, my mouth tasting her skin, the sweet sweep of her tongue along my earlobe while her hipbone pressed my thigh then slipped up along my belly to where my lungs were pulling her scent deep into my soul. She was heat and hope, meaning and courage and desire—yes, the most exquisite experience of the human soul, touching the soul of another. I will celebrate her with every pulse of my heart, the sensation of my teeth on my own skin, every deep enriching pull of her breath into my belly. The flash of her eyes when she was treated with contempt, the pure satisfying laugh rising up into the air when she lifted herself off my body, and the resonating exclamation she would give when I drew my teeth up her inner arm and nipped delicately at her throat—we were remade, vindicated and celebrated. We were unstoppable. We were lesbian—revolutionary, aspirational and deeply confrontational.

I know who and what I am. I know what survives even when I find myself alone to remake my life. I am the reflection of every glance she ever turned in my direction, every assessment she made of the extent of my courage, the power of my desire, and the way I could reflect back to her the heat of desire.

I know who and what I am. I know what survives even when I find myself alone to remake my life.

No matter the meanness of the world, the bitterness of those who hold us in contempt, or the denial and cold-eyed dismissal of our love, tenderness, and hopes. We are not what they name us. We are neither hateful nor contemptible. We are brave and full of love and that most meaningful act of the human—the ability to look into another’s eyes and see the reflection of our own souls.

Remaking ourselves and those we treasure in story is our revolutionary transgression. We reach out of, and past, our isolated human bodies to the essential soul connection. We are not alone. We live in the tribe, in story, in lyric and meter and song that does not end.

In story—the ones we share and those we have not yet crafted—we live forever. We may be animal, but we are spiritual as well. Alone, we are never alone. In lyric, in epic tale, in stubborn retelling of what happened, or did not happen, but should have happened, or still might—we live past ourselves and those we have lost but can never lose.

I am she who she loved. More than my stepfather named me, greater than the weight of my bones without my soul, greater even than the soul shaped around my infinite desire, fear, and hope. I have been foolish, fearful, stubborn, and determined. I know the value of my female soul, my lesbian desire, and the intensity of naming as human what the world disdains as animal, lesser, or contemptible.

Story is a way out, a way past, a hand in the dark, a whisper of hope, the hope I have for all of us.

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