By Sarah Schulman
nursery school teacher, Alma, took our class of three-year-olds
on a trip to the fire station. This was 1961 in New York City. We
climbed on the fire trucks, rang the bell, slid down the pole, tried
on the hats. I remember it clearly to this day. I say "clearly"
but a better word would be "emblematically." I picture
myself, totally happy, in the driver's seat of the red fire engine.
I see myself being lifted by an adult, identity unknown, onto a
pole and then "sliding" with their protective hands around
my trunk. I see myself, three feet tall, lifting the huge helmet
and disappearing my little head into its crown.
if I did those things, why do I remember them observationally? Why
am I not remembering how it was to look out from behind the wheel,
instead of through the windshield at my tiny, delighted self?
this class trip to my mother in great detail and, impressed by my
enthusiasm, she complimented Alma on her creative outing. My mother
returned from that conversation destabilized. There had been no
trip, Alma said. I had just imagined it.
is a story that my mother has told about me repeatedly, in fact
compulsively. It is her emblematic anecdote about me. I say things
that are not true. I see things that are not true. I see things
that are not there. I am not reliable, truthful nor accurate.
yet, to this day, I remember that class trip. In fact, it is my
first memory and my first recorded experience. Truthfully, I believe
that trip occurred. It is possible that Alma wasn't the teacher
who took us on that trip. Or, that she misunderstood my mother's
comment. Or, that some other adult who shared pick-up responsibilities
with my mother and grandmother brought me into the firehouse. Or,
my grandmother did it. Or, a number of other explanations.
my life I have had a brain function that I now understand to be
very rare. I can look at a situation and see exactly how to cut
through it. I can almost instantly "see" (a picture appears
on the inside of my forehead) the end result and an accompanying
chart is instantly produced on how to get there. I can imagine a
novel and then write it. I can imagine lesbian content being accepted
as American fiction and what I have to do to help achieve that.
In other words, I have an instinctive ability to conceptualize complex
solutions to problems most people will not address, and I have the
energy and stamina to go through all the actions and obstructions
and punishments necessary to achieve them.
ability has made it easier for me to achieve my precise dreams than
it is for many people I have met. But when I encounter people with
the same instinct (the ability to fully imagine a transformed conclusion,
visualize how to achieve it and sustain the energy and commitment
over a long period of time until the goal is realized), the meeting
of these like-minded people is electric, ecstatic. It is enormously
productive as long as we both engage at the highest level of conceptualization
and application. An inability to follow through, either conceptually
or in terms of sustained application, results in unequal achievement,
which usually produces resentment. In relation to others, it is
a dialectical state of being.
I have learned, the hard way, repeatedly, is that there are very
few conceptual people in the world. Many people can learn to be
implementers, but very few can fully conceptualize a transformation,
a new paradigm, and how to achieve it. I know that this way of thinking
is rare, resented, feared, a point of contention, and I believe
it is also valuable. While I believe that I did go to the firehouse,
it is possible that I looked at a firehouse and conceptualized a
great experience for my classmates and me that easily could have
occurred. It could have been a vision. My first vision.
years later, I was walking down the street with my seven-year-old
friend, Martina. We passed a firehouse.
Martina, this is going to be great," I said.
a kind of ecstasy, a resolution bringing full circle that immense
feeling of fun I had as a three-year-old at the firehouse. My opportunity,
now, was to give the same experience to Martina while simultaneously
validating my own. It was constructive projection.
on, Martina. We can climb on the truck, ring the bell, slide down
the pole, try on the hat."
her hand and we walked into the firehouse. The fireman approached
us. He was much larger than the both of us. Holding hands united
Martina and me as both smaller, both younger, both female. Simultaneously,
I was anticipating a return to the original joy of my childhood,
and was in all ways infantilized, happily.
can't be firemen," he said.
no. This response, I was totally unprepared for. I couldn't believe
this was happening. What a cruel joke. Martina was having the primal
female experience of diminishment, right there in front of me.
course you can," I said immediately. "Don't listen to
him, Martina, he's stupid. He doesn't know what he's talking about.
Of course you can be a fireman. You can be anything you want. What
a dummy, let's get out of here."
I said to Martina was contradicted by her actual experience. She
had not been allowed to climb on the truck or ring the bell or wear
the hat, but the reason was not because the firehouse was a vision,
but rather, because she was a girl. My rhetoric could not undo that
believe that I did visit that firehouse. But if it was only a vision,
was it a prophetic one? That despite all efforts at diminishment,
I, in my life, would accomplish what women are not allowed to do,
consistently publish novels with primary lesbian content without
being intimidated into the closet of coding, sub-text, secondary
gay characters and innuendo? A reality that I envisioned the day
I started writing my first novel, first play, first article, and
a chart I have followed for 20 years despite many obstructions and
punishments. I grew up to be an exception. Long ago, rather than
enter into the firehouse, did I visualize and conceptualize my future,
as a woman who transcends socially imposed limitations? If so, my
life has been the road map guaranteed to get me there, to get me
into the picture, into the image of transcendence that I conceptualized
at age three.
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