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My First Vision
By Sarah Schulman

My 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.

But, 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?

I described 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.

This 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.

And 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.

All 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.

This 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.

What 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.

Thirty years later, I was walking down the street with my seven-year-old friend, Martina. We passed a firehouse.

"Wow, Martina, this is going to be great," I said.

I felt 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.

"Come on, Martina. We can climb on the truck, ring the bell, slide down the pole, try on the hat."

I held 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.

"Girls can't be firemen," he said.

Oh 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.

"Of 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."

What 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 reality.

I still 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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