Audre Lorde / On Learning Love By Living It Out



"[...] We were certainly the first to have tried to work out this unique way of living for women, communal sex without rancor. After all, nobody else ever talked about it. None of the gay-girl books we read so avidly ever suggested our vision was not new, nor our joy in each other. Certainly Beebo Brinker didn't; no Olga, of The Scorpion. Our much-fingered copies of Ann Bannon's Women In The Shadows and Odd Girl Out never so much as suggested that the perils and tragedies connected with loving women could possibly involve more than two at a time. And of course none of those books even mentioned the joys. So we knew there was a world of our experience as gay-girls that they left out, but that meant we had to write it ourselves, learn by living it out..."
~Audre Lorde, "Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name" (p.209-214)

This quote is a part of a greater passage from Audre Lorde's Zami, which I am currently reading. The passage follows, but the reason I'm sharing it is because I think in it is a lesson about where my generation (and perhaps those recent ones who've come before me) stands regarding love, family, relationships, sex, community, etc. So much of my discovery with these things has been learning by "living it out" as Audre Lorde suggests. Even though she writes in the context of a black lesbian experience, I find that I can relate to her despair at not having any REAL clear and honest instruction for how to reconcile all the emotions of love and lust. Of course there are instructions, but for me none of them seem to apply to how I really feel.

So, like Lorde, I've found that writing my own instruction book on love for myself is what has worked best. It's what has allowed me to live out my emotions and learn from them. I wonder if that is how emotions are supposed to be dealt with or if there is supposed to be some instruction. Ironically, the more I've had to survive without the instruction that a fully functional community might provide, the more I've come to embrace my strategy of learning my emotions through trial and error, which, of course, is the irony of survival mode -- the more you're forced into survival mode, the more you get used to defining yourself in terms of your survival instead of who you might have been before you were forced into survival mode. For reference: see "Tyson, Mike" (link) in the encyclopedia. While you're at it, look up "African American" too.

The rest of the passage is below, after the continued:

"Muriel and I loved tenderly and long and well, but there was no one around to suggest that perhaps our intensity was not always too wisely focused.

Each one of us had been starved for love for so long that we wanted to believe that love, once found, was all-powerful. We wanted to believe that it could give word to my inchoate pain and rages; that it could enable Muriel to face the world and get a job; that it could free our writings, cure racism, end homophobia and adolescent acne. We were like starving women who come to believe that food will cure all present pains, as well as heal all the deficiency sores of long standing...

[...]In June, Lynn came to live with us. We hadn't planned it that way, that's just the way it worked out...

[...] Muriel and I took Lynn into our home to live with us. For a while that summer, we had a vision and possibility of women living together collectively and sharing each other's lives and work and love. It almost worked. But none of us knew quite enough about ourselves; we had no patterns to follow, except our own needs and our own unthought-out dreams. Those dreams did not steer us wrong, but sometimes they were not enough.

I found myself day-dreaming over the library catalogue, imagining Lynn's malocclusion, and I had to finally admit to myself how physically attracted to her I was. I was frightened and embarrassed as well as perplexed by this strange and unexpected turn of events. I loved Muriel like my own life; we were pledged to each other. How could I desire another woman physically? But I did. Naturally, the thing to do was to examine this new state of affairs in all of its endless ramifications, and to discuss each one of them in detail.

That is what the three of us did, endlessly, over and over until all hours of the morning. Muriel thought it was an exciting idea, possible in a new world of women. Lynn wanted to sleep with us both and no more to-do about it. I knew what I wanted, which was everybody one at a time, and since my wants felt contradictory, I had to figure out some way I could have everything that I wanted and still be safe. That was very difficult, because we were in uncharted territory.

What we were trying to build was dangerous, and could have enormous consequences for Muriel and me. But our love was strong enough to be tested, strong enough to be tested, strong enough to provide a base for loving and extended relationships. I always used to say that I believed in sleeping with my friends. Well, here was a chance to put theory into practice. Besides, every time Lynn laughed her slightly hysterical laugh or wrinkled her nose, my knees turned to pudding...

[...] So all in all, I was rather relieved one day when I opened the door after work to find Muriel and Lynn just getting out of bed together. A piece of me was furious (What, another woman's hands on Muriel's body?), and another piece of me was afraid (Well! Now I'd really have to fish or cut bait). But a large piece of me was just relieved that we had moved beyond talking, and that the direction of that movement was out of my hands.

The three of us kissed and held hands and had dinner, which Lynn cooked for the first time. Then Muriel went to Laurel's for a beer, and I found out that Lynn was every bit as delicious as I had fantasized her to be.

Our new living arrangement called for a celebration, so I took the next two days off from work...

[...] Muriel and I decided that nothing could break the bonds between us, certainly not the sharing of our bodies and our joys with another woman whom we had come to love, also. Our taking Lynn to our bed became, not merely a fact to be integrated into our living, but a test for each one of us of our love and our openness.

It was a beautiful vision but a difficult experiment. At first Lynn seemed to be having the best of it. She had both of us totally focused upon her and her problems, as well as upon her little horsewoman's body and her ribald lovemaking...

[...] We were certainly the first to have tried to work out this unique way of living for women, communal sex without rancor. After all, nobody else ever talked about it. None of the gay-girl books we read so avidly ever suggested our vision was not new, nor our joy in each other. Certainly Beebo Brinker didn't; no Olga, of The Scorpion. Our much-fingered copies of Ann Bannon's Women In The Shadows and Odd Girl Out never so much as suggested that the perils and tragedies connected with loving women could possibly involve more than two at a time. And of course none of those books even mentioned the joys. So we knew there was a world of our experience as gay-girls that they left out, but that meant we had to write it ourselves, learn by living it out...

[...] Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't. Muriel and I attempted to examine why, endlessly. For all her manipulative coolness, Lynn was seldom alone with either of us for any length of time. Increasingly, she got the message that, try as we might to make it otherwise, this space on Seventh Street was Muriel's and my space, and she, Lynn, was a desired and sought-after visitor, but a visitor forever.

I had wanted it to be different. Muriel had wanted it to be different. Lynn had wanted it to be different. At least in all the places we consciously touched. Somehow, it never was, but neither Muriel nor I wanted to notice that, nor how unfair such a stacked deck was. She and I had each other; Lynn had only a piece of each of us, and was here on sufferance.

We never saw or articulated this until much later, despite our endless examinations and theme-writing about communal living. And by then it was too late, at least for this experiment in living out our visions.

Muriel and I talked about love as a voluntary commitment, while we each struggled through the steps of an old dance, not consciously learned, but desperately followed. We had learned well in the kitchens of our mothers, both powerful women who did not let go easily. In those warm places of survival, love was another name for control, however openly given."
~Audre Lorde, "Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name" (p.209-214)

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