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Florence in Words

In the Air after Los Angeles

I’m on JetBlue, flying east after a week in Los Angeles. Two hours out of L.A., the ground beneath the plane is snow-covered, seemingly flat, though in the distance, I can see small mountains and a river, frozen. I long for a map, but I will have to settle for a glance back at the week that opened a year of speaking about the memoir it’s taken so long to write. There it was, when I got to California, in my hands, the hefty volume I had been trying to write for 20 years. (The publication date is April 1, but books are available from www.feministpress.org.)

One session at the MLA (Modern Language Association) was called “Conversation with Florence Howe.” I read for perhaps three minutes after Gloria Jacobs introduced me. Then the panelists asked questions. Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, professor of English at the University of California/Santa Barbara; and Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. Rosemary asked how I managed to survive my mother; “Were there other women who sustained you and who encouraged you to disbelieve the lessons she was teaching you?”

I talked about the Dean at Hunter who placed herself between me and my mother, shielding me from her negativity. But I was too rattled to mention that Hunter College itself was a place where making change was possible, where students could petition to establish a nonsectarian social group rather than one confined to a single religious group or race.

Then Shirley suggested that the high school teacher who told me that I hadn’t a “creative bone” in my body was really echoing my mother’s view of life as static and fixed, without space for learning and change. She saw them as cut from the same cloth, and she returned to them, when I mentioned that I felt worried that my book might be “boring.” Shirley was horrified that I could still evince so little confidence in my writing. She had told me, she said, that there was not a boring page in the book. Hadn’t I believed her?

So my friends, old habits (old beliefs) die hard, and sometime not at all.

Shirley also gave me some useful tips about how to read from the book, and I followed her suggestions at the Ms. Magazine Book Party on Sunday. Held in their elegant editorial offices in Beverly Hills, the reading attracted some 50 people, only a few of whom were my guests¬--Shirley Lim herself, my daughter-in-law, AnnJ Gumbinner, and Susan Morgan, LA writer, and Tom Lawson, painter.

I read bits from the early part of the book—about me and my grandmother on a bus; about my mother’s claim that “life is unfair”; about my students on family sexism. Then I read from “Founding the Feminist Press.” I was astonished when people called for more. There were more questions about my mother and about the Feminist Press, and I talked about the need for raising money so that the important work could continue.

Almost everyone bought a book, and the esteemed activist, Dolores Huerta, who had driven for two hours to get to the reading, bought four books. I told her I was honored by her presence, and trusted that she was not going to Arizona any time soon. She said she had been scheduled to go there, but that the trip had been cancelled.

Since I’ve mentioned Arizona, I’d like to add that I heard President Obama’s talk last night while in a car with my daughter-in-law, AnnJ, enduring one of L.A.’s nightly traffic jams. The speech was speech memorable for its emotion, perhaps especially clear to us because we were not distracted by seeing him or the audience. We could hear the cheers, of course, and we felt like cheering ourselves, but we also heard the depths of Obama’s feelings, especially in his unusual use of repetition, and unusual length of his pauses.
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