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Archive for February, 2015

Claire’s Birthday–February 11, 2015

ClairePortrait_face0Claire Myers (Spotswood) Owens was born in Rockdale, near Temple, Texas, February 11, 1896, and she died May 7, 1983, in Rochester, New York. She would have been 119 this year. With my uncle having turned 104 last October, it doesn’t seem that farfetched to wish she were still around today.

In a sense, she is still around, as she has been since the first moment I encountered her portrait in Elizabeth Snapp’s office at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) back in 1987. As Director of Libraries, Elizabeth had not only corresponded extensively with Claire while she was alive, the Director also had gone to Claire’s home in Rochester, NY, to collect her remaining effects after her death. Elizabeth and Claire had become close friends in their mutual endeavor to preserve Claire’s papers and memorabilia for the Women’s Archive at TWU.

When I arrived on the scene, green as the archival boxes turned out to be, her papers had been only partially catalogued. Eleven boxes out of the eventual eighty were ready for a professional researcher’s eyes; when I told Elizabeth that I didn’t “mind” that the papers were not completely catalogued and therefore not available, she realized just how green I was and tried to protect Claire’s life story from my naive vision. It didn’t work: Claire wanted me, and she let us both know it; Elizabeth and I have bonded over the years as a result of our mutual dedication to this unusual and enigmatic woman. We value one another as we value Claire and her impact on our lives.

But when we met, I’d never worked in an archive; indeed, I had only a vague idea of what one was and how it served for research purposes. I didn’t “mind” that the papers hadn’t been fully catalogued because, as I told Elizabeth, I worked well in “chaos.” I’d be happy to just “sift through them.” She was too polite to show her astonishment, too sophisticated to throw me out on my ear.

Here’s what I did know at the time. I had a Master’s degree in Humanities, having focused my thesis on women’s issues, defining the idea of heroics and courage in terms of women’s daily lives as portrayed in fiction and memoir. I had a goal to discover a “lost” woman writer—one whose work was worthy of republication and study, but whose writings and life story had all but disappeared. I knew when I saw Claire’s portrait, before I knew anything about her, that she was “my subject.”

Here’s what I didn’t know at the time: along with not fully comprehending the protocol of working in an archive, where papers must be listed and catalogued so they don’t “walk,” and so that researchers all over the world know what’s available, I had no idea that I would spend the next ten years examining the materials she’d left behind, interviewing people who had known her near the end of her life, publishing and lecturing about her and her work, learning for the first time, in depth, about mysticism and New Age metaphysics, the Human Potential Movement and Zen, writing her biography as my dissertation, and communing with a “dead” woman whose spirit haunts me even now, eighteen years after I first saw that portrait on Elizabeth Snapp’s office wall.

Here’s what’s still on my mind, as I celebrate her centennial plus nineteen: why did I fail to publish that biography after having it accepted by three university presses? My dissertation advisor, Dr. Tim Redman at University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) claims it was, for over ten years, the “best so far” he’d seen; he could not believe it wasn’t publishable with minor changes straight off the UTD press.

After several years of critiques by unnamed scholars from those university presses, followed by numerous attempted revisions, I succumbed to burnout! Discouraged to the core, I put my work away until I could find distance, regain objectivity, begin again.

As a result, my ravaged manuscript waits in a file drawer and on my computer, transferred from one hard drive to the next as computers come and go, and I have not looked at it for eight years.

When Thomas Wolf, a former “beau” of Claire’s, wrote, “You can’t go home again,” he may have been referring to the same kind of return I’ve not managed myself: a return to a project once hot, now grown ice cold.

So today, as part of my celebrating Claire, I’m asking myself and my old friend: where does that leave us now? Where do we go from here? We’ve been through too much together to just drop those 400 pages into obscurity. We’ve been friends too long for us to part ways permanently.

Each year on Claire’s February 11, birthday, I light a red, pink or purple candle and ask: what’s next for me, Claire. What’s next on my horizon? Twelve years ago on February 13, she answered me as I was driving to my office in Fort Worth at Tarrant County College. She whispered in my ear: “Call Bobby; it’s time now.” I did, and she was right—it was time. We have made a beautiful life together and we are happier than we have ever been since we parted in a horrific break up as teens. I thank Claire every day for those whispered instructions.

Now this year for some reason, it seems important that she answer again. Sometimes it takes a few days for her wisdom to clarify as a thought in my own brain. I send her this message:
“Claire, dear, Happy Birthday. I miss you; and I’m waiting for your thoughts. I’m waiting for your instructions. I’m waiting . . . for you. With love, Miriam”

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