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Dreams Walking

07 May Posted by in • Guest Writers | Comments Off on Dreams Walking
Dreams Walking

When I moved to Maine from New York, I didn’t introduce myself in terms of sexual identity. I wasn’t hiding. The question just didn’t feel pressing. A relationship of fifteen years had ended, and I didn’t want another. I had come to Maine to finish several manuscripts begun over my years of activism, scholarship, and love. And that would do, I felt.

The stance served me well my first Maine winter but as days shortened & the temperature dropped below zero for the second time, my mind began concocting intense curiosities regarding distant friends & flirtations. I didn’t yearn for New York or my former loves. But something was off. I took a Paris break. It didn’t help.

As a third Maine winter came on, the intense curiosity that seemed to emanate from the cold & dark luckily shifted — perhaps it was a decision — from the living to the dead — and among other topics I began to research lesbians & independent women who had come to Maine late in life – in particular, the great photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) How had she survived in Monson, Maine, after New York and Paris? It was new work, forbidden in that sense. But it wouldn’t take much time, I lied to myself. Gradually living sources surfaced, and I began to meet people who had known my cantankerous ghost of a special friend. One – I could call her my primary informant were there anything that formal about the endeavor — was approaching her 90s. Sharp as a diamond blade, with the carriage and grit of Katherine Hepburn, Miriam “Mimi” Colwell reasonably cared far less about the past than the caustic manuscripts she herself wrote decades earlier and was republishing and in some instances publishing for the first time. Circumspect, determined to uphold her concepts of sexual and gender identity and propriety, she was also committed to preserving the legacy of her life partner, writer, painter, and sculptor Chenoweth “Chennie” Hall (1908-1999). We began to tussle over the concept of identity. (She hated the word “lesbian.” I began to relish it anew.) As she became a dear friend, a few names became familiar from our conversation, among them Ruth Storm (1888-1981), a NYC teacher who vacationed in Maine for many years and ultimately retired here with her end-of-life partner, Almeda “Meda” Benoit (1910-2007).

While I was learning more than I could reasonably have hoped about these women, there was a natural limit to the enterprise. Most scholars’ interest in Berenice Abbott did not extend to her years in Maine, and Mimi would only say so much.

And then something amazing happened. Film surfaced that brought the women I’d been hearing about to life: 16mm moving images shot between 1935 and 1964 by Ruth Storm and, in some instances, I believe but may never manage to prove, Berenice Abbott. This footage showed the subjects of my winter voyeurism—my dream friends—walking around in celluloid daylight. Thrilled, I began to show the footage to the few Maine lesbians I knew and then to take it on the road. Incredibly, more and more footage surfaced—16mm, 8 mm, super 8—so much film that it required a non-profit project to collect, digitalize, and preserve it. That’s the Lesbian Home Movie Project (LHMP), which began in 2008 and currently holds almost twenty collections in cold-storage at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, ME. The collections include footage of a few celebrated writers, painters, and singers. But to my mind, what makes them treasures is that they are home movies, rare glimpses of women-loving women from long & not-so-long-ago, having unexpectedly wonderful times despite the oppressive limitations of their times.
The next chance to see footage will be at the Old Lesbians Organizing for Change 2012 conference in Boston (7/18-22). And if you have some old film or would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to saving these delicious moving images, get in touch with us at LesbianHomeMovieProject@yahoo.com.

Sharon Thompson co-edited the feminist classic  Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality & is the author of Going All the Way: Teenage Girls’ Tales of Sex, Romance & Pregnancy. She currently directs the Lesbian Home Movie Project (LHMP) & has just completed a novel centered on  women in the real estate industry, Closing.

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