DEMURRING: (UN)WALLING

* * * * *

A woman, digging into words that help make sense, that peer at the other sides, at the undersides of things wrote this:

I keep learning that fine distinction, in word and deed, between the adjective “demure” – quiet and serious, or pretending to be so – and the verb/noun  “demur” – to   raise objections, an  objection  raised. And I thrive on cultivating that discerning eye – sometimes astounding, sometimes frustrating those around me.

And, as I embrace this distinction, I venture to add a third locus of meaning – by pulling at the French word mur (wall) embedded within each word, by noting the subversive “de” which precedes it – the French “of,” the English “un” – where we can be of the wall while we are at the same time involved in unwalling it. But is the wall practice or theory? To this I answer, “Yes!”

The woman is practicing her theories, in theorizing her practices, through her body, on the world.

– Laurie Dickinson, “Wearing Thin: Rubbing the Wall Between/Among Practice and Theory” (1990)

Across these four passages, I am the woman digging into words. I am the woman metacognitively embodied by her then-new girlfriend as practicing theories while theorising practices. Laurie is the italicised speaker, the one venturing to add a third distinction by asking whether a woman might be the wall as well as be acting to un-wall.

And the lines Laurie cites in this Feminist Literary Criticism short paper are from a “Demurring” essay wrote for the 1989 issue of Iowa Journal of Literary Studies.

Now July 2021, I’m starting to rework that essay to understand how it might become a section of something bigger.  I’m including these passages as a note for myself and my first readers, a combination of reminder and preview as I explore this new urge to slash through demur to understand three denotations I now link to the word:

  1. c. 1200, demuren, “to linger, tarry, delay,” a sense now obsolete
  2. c. 1630, demurrer, “to raise objections, take exception, have scruples”
  3. c. 1990, de / mur, “to be of the wall while we are at the same time involved in unwalling it”

In rereading Laurie’s paper, I am reminded that the third links to our conversations about ways my search for a missing uncle was searching for my own self.

* * * * *

we have a dream
to live
to love
to be

marching forward
ever forward

hundreds of thousands
marching

all over   everywhere   here

– Jim Chalgren, “National Gay/Lesbian March on Washington” (1987)

“It’s just one of life’s little ironies,” Jim told me.

His voice was even, his eyes confronted mine. He leaned against the bar, an elbow resting on the edge, a hand curled in moving up for that usual gesture: thumb and forefinger tugging at the end of his moustache. I fixed my eyes on the left hand spoon ring, watching the rhythm of this familiar tic: Tug. Smooth. Repeat.

Watch. Hope the movement would pull words from his mouth.

Nothing.

I slipped from my bar stool, circled my arms under his letter jacket to lean my face against that familiar chest. Jim and I had never been without words. We’d sprinkle our 1970s and 80s conversations with “darlings” and giggles and gossip and great huge laughs. We’d focus on “real stuff,’ of course – going to classes with him as the “homophobia hurts families too” panelist, sitting together in Jim’s Alternative Lifestyles Office to decode my dreams of a fairy godfather gone missing, and meeting up as two small town friends socialising and strategising at Skanks, Mankato’s one queer- and feminist-friendly, activism-is-good bar.

We’d never lapsed into silence – the quiet of reflection, gathering thoughts, incredulity, yes – but never this.

But then, Jim had never before told me that he tested positive for the AIDS antibody.

* * * * *

As with so many others that go repeatedly missing, it wasn’t the fact that something had changed in his life that caused him to go: it was the fact that nothing had changed at all.

– Francisco Garcia, If You Were There: Missing People and the Marks They Leave Behind (2021)

Later that week, Jim is on the telephone making an appointment with a student who commutes to campus once a week. “Yes, we’re in the student union. Don’t worry,” he says to the anonymous caller, while dragging the long cord of his desk phone to meet me in the small entry room. “We don’t get much traffic on this hallway, and the office door is unmarked,” linking his arm through mine for moving into his office. He pauses and lights a cigarette. “Yes, we’re experienced in counselling the families of gays and lesbians.” He looks at me, I imagine that he’s probably thinking, ‘I’m about to begin one of those conversations.” He hangs up the phone. As the only two in the Alternative Lifestyles Office, his listening heart is mine.

“My uncle’s social security account is officially listed as inactive.” Jim shifts to the edge of his chair as the phone rings again. Another session on his calendar. I lean back and cry, forming the questions I need to ask: Am I now looking for a disappeared person? Or am I looking for a gay man who is living with, or dying from, AIDS? Phone down. Questions asked. Just one response, the honest, “Both, honey, both.”

By the time we’d arrived at this 1986 moment, I’d not seen my uncle for a dozen years. His 1973 California to Minnesota road trip via a lightly-packed oddly-purple Gremlin became a year of living in the 5-bedroom homeplace, sharing space with his parents and older brother – and the four of us who were regular visitors: my parents, me, and Gram’s brother Dave.

In that year, Puz – a nickname that stuck from my dad’s puz-uhr coming out in place of brUHTH-uhr – dazzled my world: We spent early evenings beneath the backyard apple tree with poetry collections from the downstairs bookcase; on hot days, the front porch became a mini-classroom where I learned about European impressionist and modernist painters, and more contemporary US painters and photographers – sometimes from my uncle’s recall, sometimes from books I’d brought from my local library. I was a teenager, fully in love with images – whether in poems, paintings, songs, or novels – and captivated by my uncle’s ease in the world beyond this shared space. With Puz, I didn’t watch my feet on long walks, and easily moved among genres, ideas, worlds. In his company, I stopped being a movement-clumsy girl who stumbled when watched, and sometimes couldn’t speak the full sentences taking shape in her head. Most of all, I was comfortable recognising my own young queerness.

It came as no surprise that my uncle’s sudden departure after the 1973 Thanksgiving weekend was acknowledged with a clipped, “Your uncle’s moved back to Redondo Beach” from Gram, and a mumbled “We’re better off without him” from the oldest brother. He was gone, and for my family, that was usual.

When Christmas passed without a card, I told myself that Puz was reintroducing himself to life in Southern California, simply setting up a house and job, maybe reconciled with his husband, and certainly would welcome a goddaughter’s summer vacation visit the next year – if he’d just send a postcard saying, “The beach is wonderful. I miss you, and will send a plane ticket so you can visit. Here’s my address.”

For the first years of my life, I’d seen my uncle only periodically – summer visits, mainly, with conversations about shared interests, with him working to feed, extend, nurture my love of ideas and culture. Then he’d go missing for long stretches. Again and again.

By that 1970s point, Pops, Gram, Grumpy were well used to his disappearances, and Harold was glad of this one – having an opening gay brother is fine when you’re both living outside LA, one with a girlfriend and one with a husband, but not so good when you’re both single and back in the same small southwestern Minnesota town, in the same house right off main street.

1970s me? She let it be. To talk with any of them more personally would mean coming out, and on that thought I became word-clumsy again in realms of self identity. The goddaughter who had pieced together her own queerness during that year together, and was bursting to share the insights with her uncle – her fairy godfather – during the summer visit that didn’t happen, she let the walls stay.

1980s me? She talked with Jim and Tracy, the gay men from high school and college who’d become fairy godfathers by proxy. In their company she could find new ways to search, could picture how he might be living in other cities, could start finding ways to be out in a shared family of origin. Most of all she could grieve and rage at the loss that came of one brother saying to another, “Get out of town you god damn queer, or I’ll kill you.” Words a great uncle would share in a 1980s conversation as the ones that prompted Puz to leave.

* * * * *

Much Madness is divinest Sense ­
To a discerning Eye  –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness­ –
Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane ­
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous
And handled with a Chain  –

– Emily Dickinson, circa 1862

“It is you!” I hear from the aisle.

1987 is a new everything – I am in a new college town to complete a new degree with new research and teaching questions, with new communities. I have just spent eight hours on a bus, two hours in a car, four hours sleeping, and an entire day drinking coffee with these friends on this home campus before landing in a familiar auditorium to retreat into the music of a favorite performer. In the company of feminist friends we welcome oneanother with Tracy’s “Honey, you’re home!” On this night the performance would raise money for Tracy. We had all hoped tonight Tracy would feel well enough to join us, but the AZT tires him out.

It is Jim at my elbow, squatting to sit on the stair whispering in my ear, “Let’s have a date.” As the house lights fade, I can only nod my answer, knowing we’ll meet in the lobby to fashion a plan. Yes, I’m thinking, there’s so much more I am beginning to understand about mending or tearing down walls that serve to shore up my family, but fracture my beliefs, history, community; my self; my integrity. This has been a journey toward genuinely liking the person I am: queer, working class, more rural than urban, educated, and a woman with dyspraxia who has discovered ways that teaching unfolds word-clumsy sentences into considered presentations and urgent discussions.

On this night, I tuck too-long bangs behind my ear, lean back in the seat, and know that I will see Tracy yet that week for a conversation to plot my trip roving the hills and sidewalks, cafes and art galleries of my uncle’s California towns. If I can’t find him, I can find his places – perhaps even some of his people.  But first, lunch with Jim tomorrow where I will share the ways I now dream of Puzzy, and plan for telling my parents and a cousin about a class I will teach in the fall – Lesbian Lives in the United States.

I want to head back to Iowa City and my summer teaching job not demurring in the way of delaying the telling. I want to be done with the ways that fears from my uncle’s life underscore my life. I want to tear down that bit of the wall that keeps me from saying to my parents and cousin that I am personally as well as publicly and pedagogically part of the then-GLB, GayLesbianBisexual, community. With them I want to be appeared rather than allow my own self to be disappeared.

And yet I know that even in these actions – the talking at home and the course planning in Iowa City – I am not fully appeared, that I’m not “all in” with the demurring, for in the telling and the teaching, I will be out as a lesbian rather than as queer, as bisexual. Not yet ready as a graduate student to de / mur, to unwall, the slash between lesbian and bisexual, between queer and female.

In that 1986 to 1988 journey, I would keep learning the fine distinctions, in word and deed, between the adjective “demure” – quiet and serious, or pretending to be so – and the multiple connotations that come with that verb/noun  “demur.”  I will need more cultivating of Emily Dickinson’s discerning eye – sometimes astounding, sometimes frustrating, sometimes joining with those around me – to unwall it all.

* * * * *

The truth is often painful and I know that the truth of [his] fate is likely to lead me to places I’ve not always been sure I wanted to go to. But I cannot help feeling that a debt needs to be paid to his story and his memory, just as there is a duty towards the missing more generally.

– Francisco Garcia, If You Were There: Missing People and the Marks They Leave Behind (2021)

In creating the 1989 published essay and this 2021 revising, I’ve had to think about what could count as a stopping place, an ending, for a piece I know is nowhere near its final drafting. Then and now, I come back to lines Gram wrote at the end of a June 1979 letter, especially her three last words:

As far as Puzzy goes we haven’t heard anything – There’s some people that live out there [in California] and he lives with their son. I wrote to them & they never answered. So, I figure he’s O.K. & if anything should happen these people would write me. Anyway, I hope.

And in this 2021 moment, a 1989 realisation shifts a bit: Whenever I write about Puz, I am piecing together the story of my gay uncle’s disappearance, and my 30 year search for him, in order to understand years of our silences, and to discern when, where, how, and why, to demure – to delay, to object, and <slash> or to unwall.

* * * * *

You are dying

and I am writing on this page because the way to show you your death

matters

is to

live

my life

—Anne Rickertsen, 11 September 1985

This is revision 2.0. My original “Demurring” essay appeared in the Iowa Journal of Literary Studies in 1989 (10: 82-89), and is available at: https://doi.org/10.17077/0743-2747.1304.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.