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Prelude

 

Mickey Fineburg’s email brings everything back again.

Hi, Sarah. Remembering those good ‘ol days in the neighborhood. Saw your CDs online. Sampled the links. Wow! Impressive. How did you end up in California?

I kissed Mickey under a broken pool table in my basement. We were eight, his lips warm as play dough, pressing with earnest intention. I pressed back, happy and unafraid, oblivious to Mickey’s younger brother watching us. That night at the dinner table Mother looked stern and surprised. She said: Mickey’s mother called me. You’re too young to start, Sarah.

Start what? I wondered.

Preface

“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”

—LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN

 

Twenty years ago I attended a party at which a numerolo­gist offered to analyze my name. After performing what appeared to be complicated mathematical computations she told me my number was eleven—a “power number”—then looked at me quizzically.

“How strange,” she said. “This is the first time I have ever seen this.”

“What is it?” I asked, genuinely concerned.

“Your numbers tell me that you make money from war.”

I met her gaze steadily as I replied, “I do.”

As an only child growing up in 1950s Philadelphia, I occu­pied myself with warrior fantasies. My imagination soared with visions of knights, kings, and queens who populated the English history books I would get from the library. The dra­matic tales of battles driven by focused energy and height­ened danger excited me. It wasn’t conquest I was after; it was the warriors’ extraordinary sense of mission. I was moved by an empathic connection with the vulnerable and oppressed. I wanted to challenge a great evil power, to lead troops into battle for the most noble of causes.

Unfortunately, the world in which I was living allowed for few grand heroics. Rather than a battleground, it was a special kind of wasteland. I grew up at a time when one’s worth and acceptance as a female were measured by the width of a crin­oline skirt, when French kissing branded you a sexual outlaw, and when little girls’ dreams revolved around their weddings and lessons learned from watching Queen for a Day’s ritual of “improving” one’s life with domestic conveniences. It was a vast wilderness of mothers, teachers, and friends encircling me in traditional femininity, creating a suffocating loneliness that I could not name or understand.

I felt powerless to change my fate until Queen Elizabeth I, whose story I discovered at age ten, finally broke that silence. Her survival skills were legendary: her mother was beheaded when she was three and her stepmother executed when she was nine; she was sexually molested at fifteen; and she spent two months imprisoned in the tower, a hair’s breadth away from execution herself. She learned to carefully scan the political and emotional landscape for signs of potential danger.

She ruled sixteenth-century England by herself, refusing to marry or to bear children. The androgynous strategies of this woman who wanted to be “both king and queen of Eng­land” were unheard of for a female monarch of her time.

I kept the lessons I learned from Elizabeth close to my heart and my head when I broke free from Philadelphia and came of age in New York City in the 1960s. The time was ripe to pick up her gauntlet and challenge women’s tra­ditional roles. I became a child of one of the greatest social revolutions in history, at a time when it became politically possible for women to legally gain and exercise reproductive choice—the power of life and death. A time when the right to choose became the fundamental premise of the movement for women’s liberation, and when the expression of that truth was every woman’s entitlement. After years spent feeling I should have been born in some earlier, more romantic age, I have come to realize that my life’s work would not have been possible in any other era but this one.

In 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade, I opened one of the first legal abortion clinics in the country and thrust myself into a world that came with battles to fight (replete with inva­sions, death threats, and killings), opportunities for courage and heroism, and the necessity for bold leadership, strategic thinking, philosophical debate, and entrepreneurial skill. There were barbarians at the gate, self-identified as Right to Lifers (anti-choicers, or “antis,” as I call them throughout this book), waving pictures of bloody fetuses and sometimes hid­ing bombs or guns under their coats. My sword was a six-foot coat hanger held high over my head as I declared my sisters would never return to back-alley butchery. I raised a bullhorn to rally fellow soldiers, decrying the clinic violence that swept the nation. This was my historic stage. It was a war, and I finally felt I was living my destiny.

I helped midwife an era in which women came closer to sexual autonomy and freedom than ever before in history. The very idea that women could rise up and act in their own best interest electrified men and women alike during those years, and the foundational works of second-wave feminists inspired millions of my peers. But my feminism didn’t come from books or theoretical discussions. It came in the shape of individual women presenting themselves for services each day. I began to understand the core principle of feminism as I held the hands of thousands of women during their most powerful and vulnerable moment: their abortions.

I wasn’t immune to the physicality of abortion, the blood, tissue, and observable body parts. My political and moral judgments on the nature of abortion evolved throughout the years, but I quickly came to realize that those who deliver abortion services have not only the power to give women control over their bodies and lives, but also the power—and the responsibility—of taking life in order to do that. Indeed, acknowledgment of that truth is the foundation for all the political and personal work necessary to maintain women’s reproductive freedom.

My story is the story of women’s struggle for freedom and equality in the twentieth century, but it is also a personal story of obstacles, survival, and triumphs. Like Elizabeth, I did not want to give birth to my successor. I never dreamed of being a mother, nursing a child, shaping a young life. I wanted—needed—to give birth to myself. And, in the arms of the women’s movement, my delivery was aggressive, even violent, with pressures pushing down on me from every direction at times, crushing and battering me as I reached for the freedom to become. Most painful of all were my terrify­ing glimpses of the all-encompassing sense of being alone. Whatever one can say glowingly about the women’s liberation movement and our “collective problems requiring collective solutions,” this fact cannot be denied: becoming is nothing if not a solo journey. Yet my singular voyage has been enriched with allies, friends, lovers, and family, unexpected intimacies that bear meaning, depth, purpose, and joy.

Thomas Merton taught that there were three vocations: one to the active life, one to the contemplative, and a third to the mixture of both. This book is the story of my mixed life. I am an activist, a philosopher, a transgressor of boundaries. I strive to live in truth—or, perhaps, truths. I have not escaped this war unscathed; like all women who have gone into battle, I am scarred. But perhaps that is the definition of wisdom. Perhaps our wounds, the crevasses and cracks in our inno­cence of perception that come as the price of experience, are our marks of understanding.

A wall of wind at my back,
I steer November streets,
cracked by Jack Daniels, no sleep.
Dive bar behind, I stride, fearless
as eighteen years ago, although
I know bad things come to those
who wait. I refuse to heed good
advice: my reckless streak –
an unfortunate trait. Raised in
eight cities, habitual moves
got in my blood. These circadian grooves
are flawed by the drive to go go go.
Don’t test me. I’ll just make you sad.
Home is not a word I know.

Gypsies are too tight knit.
I feel kin with cowboys:
the open road, the grit
of no noise but coyote cries
and wind. In my element
anonymous or alone,
near imaginary tumbleweeds I sit
or rest my head on bone.
The country’s wide and wild.
I don’t buy the homestead bit.
I trust the moon’s guise, its wily
gaze, its light, bent. I sin while
dust collects in my red-brown hair.
I’ve never been from anywhere.

Tell you how I feel about my calculator—

I washed off its sad old plastic
gone grimy and nicked. Cleaned out the corrosion
from a battery gone bad.  Used WD 40 just to be sure
it would get working again, not just
decrepit incomplete zeros in a row,
because my calculator, let me tell you, has
been faithful to me for over twenty years.
I have lost some friends over that time span
but here is this stupid machine, making me think of them,
remember when I was a young pup spitting out my first
budget, manager of a profit center, big fucking deal.
So the little weighty machine has done time with me,
and I must honor its age.  After I scrubbed its front
and sides, and peeled away some old scotch tape
that held the door shut to its batteries,
and put fresh batteries in, I flipped the switch
and bingo!  a neon green zero!

Perhaps the most notable thing about the passing of essayist Christopher Hitchens was not that he retained his atheism to the end, but rather that he retained his love of alcohol. His esophageal cancer, which owes its appearance partially to genetic factors, was not aided by a lifetime of pre-noon scotches. But he never apologized for his drinking. He was born, he drank and wrote prodigiously, and then he died. At no point did he waste time with regret. A clean and sober Hitchens may have been humorless, or perhaps he would have reached Einsteinian levels of insight. Ultimately, his drinking was a choice he made that shaped who he was and how he died.

This is why Louis C.K.’s Live At The Beacon Theater is important:  he listened to the market and responded accordingly.

C.K. is a comedian. His popular, culty stand-up is known for pushing boundaries while also being incredibly approachable. His cameos in TV comedies bring the giggles. He directed Pootie Tang.

His latest stand-up special was self-produced and self-financed. He released the video online, but did so in a fashion antithetical to the status quo. In his own words:

Documentary filmmaking and the new wave of digital 3D technology make for a natural marriage, as 3D has the ability to submerge the viewer in the world of a nonfiction subject in ways that 2D rarely can match. As more filmmakers of note test the waters of 3D nonfiction features, the technology may prove to be even more of a revolution for documentaries than it has been for the studio blockbuster.

Why two history books, Boone: A Biography and now Lions of the West, after publishing fourteen books of poetry and eight volumes of fiction?

I have always been interested in history. My dad, who did not have much formal education, loved to read history and tell stories about Daniel Boone, the Civil War, the Revolution, Cherokee Indians, George Washington, David Crockett. Growing up on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina I found arrowheads and pieces of Indian pottery while working in the fields. The very ground seemed haunted by the Indians. I always felt that intimate connection to the frontier past.

 

Why did you write Lions of the West as ten linked biographies?

There are literally thousands of figures one could write about in the story of the westward expansion. My plan was to tell the story through the lives of ten representative and significant figures, implying the much greater whole story. What Bernard DeVoto called “history by synecdoche.” I like the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is properly no history, only biography.”

 

The subtitle of Lions of the West is Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion. Who are the heroes and who are the villains?

As it turns out they are all both heroes and villains at different times. Except for John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed. He is mostly a saint. They all did things we are ashamed of. Even the great Thomas Jefferson recommended to William Henry Harrison that he let the Indians go deeply in debt to the government trading posts in Indiana so they would have to pay off their debts by ceding more land to the United States.

 

Which genre do you prefer, poetry, fiction, or nonfiction?

Whatever I am working on at the time seems the most important.

 

How would you compare biography writing to novel writing?

Obviously there are great similarities between biographies and novels. Both are about lives, both are prose narratives, both require some research about geography and history. Both require the use of the imagination. But fiction writing requires a different kind of sustained imagination, where the writer often lets the characters and story take over, unfolding with their own surprises and revelations, whereas the imagination in biography writing has to bring alive actual events in
already known sequence, with already known results.

 

Do you think your experience as a poet and fiction writer has influenced the way you
write history?

I hope my experience with poetry has influenced my use of word choice, economy, and cadence in language. Poetry teaches us that what is implied is often more effective than what is stated. Writing fiction gives a strong sense of structure, and a feeling for narrative dynamics, the way a story has to move, keep unfolding, with something wonderful about to happen around the bend, on the next page, or the next. I think all those things have influenced the way I write biography.

 

What is the central theme of Lions of the West?

When I started writing the book I thought the central subject was the complex combination of poetry and beauty with the brutal story of Indian removal and the Mexican War. But as I proceeded with the book I came to see several sub-themes. One was the way deeply flawed and mostly ordinary people grew into greatness at the right moment in history. For example, Sam Houston was a bully, a drunk, and a dueler, when he was young. Yet in the Texas War for Independence he sobered up and became the great military leader and statesman that history recognizes. These leaders were made by history as much as they made history.

Another theme that emerged as I wrote was the way many leaders used westward expansion as a way of avoiding the unpleasant issue of slavery. Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed that expansion of the country into the western territories would cause slavery to wither away naturally. Other politicians, instead of confronting the thorny issue, chose to divert attention by the annexation and settlement of the West. When California was acquired there was nowhere farther to go. The events of the next decade, the 1850s, culminated in the Civil War.

 

What was the greatest surprise to you in your research for Lions of the West?

There were lots of surprises. For example, I didn’t know before that Jefferson was an inch and half taller than George Washington. Washington is always portrayed as a physical giant of a man. I did not know that Jefferson was so shy he almost never spoke in public. He never spoke at the Continental Congress, yet he wrote the Declaration of Independence and is the voice of the Continental Congress and the American Revolution.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was Kit Carson. I did not know that he never learned to read or write. For all his fame he had to dictate his letters and have letters read to him. Yet he had a photographic mind, could remember any land or trail he’d ever seen, and knew many Indian languages as well as Spanish and Canadian French. He was physically small, but probably the greatest scout and mountain man of them all.

 

Are there any themes in Lions of the West that seem relevant to contemporary issues?

Many of the controversies of the first half of the nineteenth century are still with us. The battles over “internal improvements” is still being fought between those who believe the federal government is the only institution that can build infrastructure, highways, canals, railroads, harbors, airports, versus those who want less government, arguing these things will somehow take care of themselves if the federal government will not interfere. Of course this controversy is closely tied to resistance to taxation. Disputes about involvement in foreign wars then are echoed in the arguments in our time about the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

What are your future projects?

I have just finished the sequel to the novel Gap Creek, called The Road From Gap Creek. And I’m thinking of a new novel also, set on the Appalachian Trail.