With the longest running lesbian music festival in the world, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, rumoured to be winding down for various reasons, I’d advise those who have never been or want to go again one more time to get along to the one scheduled for August 2015 because we’ll very likely never see its like again.
Oh, To Be In Michigan Now That Summer’s Here!
It’s 6.30am. All is quiet and still, apart from snores and heaving breathing of my companions in the DART (Disabled Access Resource Team) community tent, as I wake after a good night’s sleep in my surprisingly comfortable camp stretcher (cot) covered with a foam mattress. I dress quickly, slip my feet into my purple thongs and head outside. It’s not as dark as the previous morning when I was up at 5am but the lights guide me down past the DART office to the Porta Janes where I make sure there is toilet paper before I drop my pants. I walk back to the DART living room to get the electric kettle and fill it at the tap near the DART showers. I plug it into the electrical outlet where the sign says it’s to be used for essential medical equipment only. Fortunately, when I had checked at the Office earlier in the week, I was told a cuppa is considered a medicinal necessity.
Most of us who attend the Festival are aware of the carpeted and paved pathways where womyn who are in wheelchairs and those who are mobility impaired have right of way allowing them access to most of the main areas on the Land. But for those of us who perhaps know very little about Mother Oak and DART Central let me tell you it is the most amazing place. The Office is staffed 24 hours a day and has a volunteer group of womyn who answer questions, help set up and take down campsites, organise events such as fireside concerts and accessible tractor rides and generally are a friendly and companionable group of womyn. The lounge room is large enough for hanging out, making coffees and teas and for storing stuff.
As I drink my coffee I check the program to see what’s on for today. It takes a while to work out where everything is and while it’s obvious I can’t get to every single workshop, film, CD signing, concert item, dance and craft stall on offer, having come all this way from Melbourne Australia I want to maximise my time at this 35th MichFest. I note that if I’m to be at the Day Stage by 12 noon it’s very unlikely I’ll have time to get to any of the workshops today. If I want to also have brekky, a shower and do tai chi, that is. But I mark down a couple anyway, just in case.
Fortunately, I’ve already been to the Djembe Drum Workshop with Debra Kenya McGee first thing on Tuesday morning. And to the Hand Drumming for Beginners with Chris Gacsi on Wednesday morning (not that I had a djembe with me but each time someone kindly shared). As well as the Lesbian Revival Tent with Carolyn Gage on Wednesday afternoon where I was inspired all over again to continue living as a radical lesbian feminist activist. And Playwriting with Terry Baum on Thursday morning, another stimulating start to the day.
I go back to the DART tent to sit upright on my camp stretcher with my legs folded and as I have every morning for the past fourteen years I meditate for an hour using a Zen awareness technique. As I’m finishing I can hear the murmur and movements of some of the others as they too wake and get ready for the day. I do the back exercises I’ve been taught to strengthen my core muscles and hopefully prevent the reoccurrence of the extremely sore back I had a year or so ago.
Ardy is up and we walk down to the DART dining tent together. While she buys us coffees at The Saints, I collect my plate and utensils from the extremely crowded hanging area and put scrambled eggs with vegies on one side of the plate and granola, blueberries and yogurt on the other. I eat and chat with whoever’s there at the table before walking all the way back to the sink to wash my plate and cutlery and put them back in our bag. Not for the first time I wonder if it might be possible to have a sink as well as a hanging gadget closer to the DART dining room to save walking all that way back and forth at each meal time.
All of us who are mobile in the DART area are asked to use the communal showers to save the hot water in the DART showers for those who need it. It’s an unexpected pleasure to discover there’s hot water in the communal showers because that wasn’t the case when I was here last in 1999. I walk across Lois Lane to Water Works Way, undress and join the queue till it’s my turn to wash and clean my teeth. As someone took my yellow towel on the first day I use Ardy’s purple towel to dry myself.
There’s a sign designating that the area beyond the showers is Indian Land. I’m glad of the reminder. It seems to me that no matter where we are in the US we are on Native American Indian land and that paying our respects and acknowledging that the Indigenous people were here many thousands of years before we were is the least we nonIndigenous people can do to help counterbalance the terrible effects of the invasion and subsequent genocide of the First Nations people.
I’ve been doing tai chi as my only form of exercise every day for half an hour for over ten years but because I keep being distracted by womyn passing by, (the DART area is nothing if not popular), it takes me several go rounds before I properly remember the moves for the 42 sword and the bare handed 42. I’m resting for a bit (the thought of hauling my chair all the way over to the workshop area doesn’t really appeal) when it’s announced that an impromptu concert is starting near the DART fire pit at 11am. I wander down, find a seat and am entertained by a young lesbian singer with a guitar and a mouth organ for the next hour or so.
Afterwards, I’m asked to make an announcement about the June Mazer Lesbian Archives in LA and hand out leaflets to encourage everyone to think about preserving our herstorical lesbian records for posterity. I’m a member of the Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives back in Melbourne and had done a reading of my book, Brazen Hussies: A Herstory of Radical Activism in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Victoria 1970 1979, at the Mazer on 19 June so it’s a project dear to my heart.
I have a quick lunch and lug my chair over to the Day Stage where I meet up with Ardy in the DART area under the shade of the tent where there’s a cooling breeze to take the edge off the heat of the day. The DART area at all three of the stages is a smallish but clearly marked carpeted area to the left and towards the front of the seating area in a no smoking and behind a no standing area. It is an area where womyn in wheelchairs and those like us who need an upright chairs can sit in relative comfort and without the height restrictions everyone else has to abide by so they don’t block the view of everyone else behind them. As getting up and down off the ground is becoming increasingly difficult we are glad of chairs that enable us to sit for a couple of hours and enjoy the music of Reina Williams who hails from Baltimore, Skim, a KoreanAmerican with wild music and an innovative style, Tender Forever, originally from France and now confidently an American and Bitch whose colourful costumes are only overshadowed by her untamed behaviour and her boisterously political and inspiring songs.
The seating for deaf womyn is always to the right directly in front of the stage. All the musicians have interpreters signing the words of their songs. As far as I, who am not hearing impaired can tell, these interpreters do a fantastic job especially when they have such a theatrical flair it becomes almost like a performance in and of itself. It did make me wonder though if there was any marked difference between signing a speech and signing a song. There were a couple of interpreters who moved to the music and seemed to give, to me anyway, a sense that music involved much much more than the mere words, a fact that might be lost on womyn who are deaf if the interpreter keeps strictly to the words without the rhythm. In fact, as it’s often difficult to hear the words in many of the modern songs anyway it might be an advantage to learn sign language to get the best of both worlds.
Afterwards, we take a shuttle to the Acoustic Stage to leave our chairs set up in the DART area. Dottie and Demming, the two old green shuttle busses that have been servicing the DART area for years, are much appreciated, especially by those who need to be lifted onto the bus wheelchair and all by the service lift at the side. Yesterday, we had been able to catch Dottie which had taken us all the way down and around to the bottom entrance, a much more convenient arrangement as it saved us lugging our chairs up hill and down dale. But as the other shuttle tractors have had flat tyres and engine trouble the DART shuttles are doing double duty and are not always available, unfortunately.
We walk back to the DART dining tent, pick up our plates and utensils on the way past, and sit on hay bales under the trees and chat while we wait for the food to arrive. We fill our plates and carry them back to the Acoustic Stage in time to find our chairs which are now in the shade and be moved to tears by the dynamic and political poetry and prose of Staceyann Chin from Jamaica. It’s another uncompromising reminder that even as we sit in that beautiful place there are womyn and children round the world who are living with unbearable violence under the worst of all possible circumstances.
Then Ferron, whose taped music I first heard through earphones while I was on the beach at Skala Eressou in the island of Lesbos in the summer of 1983. I had no idea what Bellybowl meant till I arrived in Michigan in 1999 but I loved it anyway. And finally the Dance Brigade, enacting The Tibetan Book of the Dead, take us on a dance journey par excellence.
As these three acts go well over time, (an unusual occurrence in the extremely tight and efficient stage management), it’s a quarter to 8pm before we wend our way towards the Night Stage. While Ardy carries the chairs to set them up in the DART area, I stop to wash our plates and put them away before I walk to DART to get our warm clothes as protection against the cool night air and take them back to the Night Stage. I buy an icecream in the well stocked Cuntry Store, I’ve already bought my tee shirt, and settle in to be royally entertained once again.
The comedienne, Karen Williams, is the MC. The first time I ever saw Karen perform was at the recent National Old Lesbians Organising for Change Conference in Cleveland Ohio, 14 18 July. One of the impressive things about OLOC, apart from the scores of old lesbians over 60 who are still politically engaged in changing the world for the better, is their policy on organising a scentfree gathering. All of us who participated were encouraged not to wear any scented makeup, perfume, deodorants, shampoos, sunscreen or clothes saturated with cigarette smoke and not to use scented soaps or laundry detergent for the sake of those who were chemically sensitive in order to avoid any allergic and lifethreatening reactions to the toxic chemicals in these products. On the other hand, chemical free spaces at the Mich concerts and the like mean no alcohol or smoking, there seems to be no awareness about or ban on scented products.
CoCoMaMa, a culturally diverse group of musicians from New York, opens the program and we know we’re in for another evening of worldclass lesbian music. Followed by Sia, an Australian singer from Adelaide I’ve never heard of before. When Sia invites friends up to dance on the runway during one of her songs I don’t get it till the following day when I’m told that this was a deliberate challenge to the womyn-born-womyn only policy. In order not to draw attention to this action the lighting womyn did not light up the runway and rumour has it that Sia will not be invited back again to perform.
It’s Sia’s choice but I’m sad that it’s an Australian lesbian who is flouting what I consider to be a perfectly appropriate ruling on the part of the organisers. I’m here because I much prefer to be in the company of lesbians and womyn only rather than have to deal with males who have been genderreassigned and then imagine they have a right to be here. I have seen womyn wearing Trans Women Belong Here tee shirts and have avoided making a comment not wishing to stir up the old unwinnable debate about who or what constitutes being a womyn born womyn as designated by the MichFest policy. We’ve had the same controversies in Australia. In fact, on two separate occasions trans people have taken the lesbian community to court for wanting to hold Lesbians Born Female only gatherings.
Karen and two others in costume have us laughing uproariously as they draw the raffle. We bought our raffle tickets on Monday soon after we arrived at the queue at 11.30am with three miles still to go to get the Gate. I couldn’t help thinking, as we finally arrived at the DART communal tent at 7pm, that after 35 years you’d think someone might have devised a simpler and quicker way of getting us all paid up, labelled, parked and signed up for our workshifts. I don’t win anything, not even the free ticket for next year’s MichFest and even though I did my bit on the Quilt I don’t expect to win that tomorrow night either. Every so often I turn round to admire the fivetiered high lighting tower, an act in itself.
When the fireworks start they are so stunning and glorious I forget for a moment how much these things cost and am stunned by their colourful ingenuity and then they go on and on, one sparkling burst and dazzling spray after another after another after another. Amazing! The evening’s entertainment finishes with Toshi Reagon and her band who play their inimitable mix of folk, rock and blues till 11.30pm and leave me with a feeling of deep and grateful satisfaction. This is what I have come for, this is the reason I am here.
For some the night is still young. We hear the music blaring across the way from the August Night Cafe as we arrive back at DART but are too exhausted to even contemplate some dancing, much as I love it. However, I can hear drumming around the DART fire pit and I can’t resist sitting in to listen to the drums and trombone and percussion instruments. I long to be able to join in but my bodhran is 10,000 miles away and even my spoons are too far out of reach.
The lights are still on in the tent and the womyn at the end of our row whose physical debilitation is severe, is being put to bed by her carer who also arrives to help get her out of bed each morning. I, who complain if I stub my toe, am in awe of her courage as well as the determination of all the other womyn in the DART area who are putting up with the most extreme conditions to be here. I mean, we’re talking about eating, playing, camping, cooking and playing music outside in the midst of 650 acres of forest with just the odd tent or two to protect us every now and then. And here are all these womyn with their lifesaving equipment, their machines hooked up to the electrics and their various infirmities in the face of enormously daunting odds all gladly participating in the greatest outdoor womyn’s music festival the world has to offer without complaint.
I discuss the logistics of the inadequate electric outlet with the carer. There are one electric wheelchair, an electric scooter and an oxygen machine in our tent that need to be plugged in overnight to the outlet which only holds three cords at a time when all the plugs are working. There is a sign on one cord to say that it’s for the oxygen and is not to be unplugged. If needs be, the electric scooter can be plugged in at the Office with all the other scooters to recharge the battery. I leave it to the carer to work it out for the best and to unplug the lights before she plugs in the electric wheelchair.
I undress, put on my nighty as some, albeit not very effective, protection against the ubiquitous mozzies and lay down on my camp stretcher. I pull up the sleeping bag that a very kind lesbian volunteer at the OLOC Conference (and also one of the crew here at Michigan) loaned us along with the chairs, pillows, blankets and what-have-you to make our stay here a tenable and comfortable one. Tomorrow, I’m thinking, I’ll do this all over again and then some. I’ll go across to the Craft area to buy Ferron’s CD, Testimony, (Lucy Records, 1980) and Staceyann Chin’s book, The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir, (Scribner, NY, 2009) and be at the Goldenrod booth by 11.30am for them to sign. I’ll listen to Cris Williamson and Holly Near. We’ll have dinner with a couple of friends from Australia. Tomorrow.
I’m nearly asleep when I hear one of the Office volunteers rolling down the sides of the tent that were rolled up this morning to let in the fresh air and sunshine. It feels as if by this caring gesture that she is tucking us all in for the night and I’m glad and grateful. Glad to be sleeping here with the dozen or so of my compatriots in the DART communal tent in DART Central and grateful to be here at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival in company with three and a half thousand lesbians and womyn in this unique womyn’s place.
© copyright Jean Taylor 2015