An Interview with Bee Lavender
Stacey Greenberg: Why did you decide to move to England after spending most of your life in the Pacific Northwest?
Bee Lavender: By the time I was thirty-three years old I had worked my way out of poverty and into a stable, comfortable middle class existence. I owned a beautiful house on a hill with a view of the mountains, my kids were older, there was plenty of time to work and travel. We had the best health insurance in the country, paid for by my husband’s employer. I had everything I had ever wanted.
But as my life stabilized and I had an opportunity to live without poverty and fear, I started to feel deeply unhappy with my relative privilege. Those of my friends and family who could not afford health insurance were constantly in crisis; one of our friends had to call us in the middle of the night to ask to borrow an asthma inhaler, because she could not afford to go to the emergency room. I know people who have chosen not to have bones set because they could not afford the hospital and people who have been bankrupted caring for sick family members. Without exception these were all people who were working full-time and struggling against huge odds to make ends meet. And this doesn’t just include my working class community; I know college professors who face the same grim difficulties.
I was raised in the western United States, with all of the attendant beliefs about rugged individualism that implies. But while it is true that I was able to work my way through college, go to graduate school, and create a career, I do not believe in the bootstrap myth. I’m not smarter or better than anyone else — I just had a series of lucky breaks. I had a heroically brave mother who protected me, physicians and nurses who kept me alive, and a series of mentors who helped me figure out how to survive and navigate a different future than the one open to my friends and relatives. There are countless numbers of people who simply do not have the same advantages.
My husband, Byron is a research scientist who uses logic and math to solve industrial problems. He is also largely self-educated, having attended alternative schools in which he restored VW’s and studied Spanish language and culture. When he decided to do a PhD he had almost no background in the subject, but he has the gifts of confidence and curiosity. We share a contrarian belief that we can create a good life, no matter what the challenge.
The United States public health and public safety systems have been eroded and will in fact fail. What will happen in the next national crisis, if these systems are not available? Do we want to know?
I believe that a wealthy nation should provide free basic health care to all citizens. I moved to a place where that is true.
SG: I think most people associate you with Hip Mama and the Breeder anthology you did with Ariel Gore. Can you tell me exactly how you and Ariel met and how your collaboration started?
BL: I am an activist with a professional background in community development and disability civil rights work. After my younger child was born prematurely I decided to stay home with him. This choice made sense for my family and I enjoyed spending more time with both of the kids, but I also felt that a major part of my identity had been lost in the process. I had been a mother since I was old enough to vote, but that was just one element of my life. To suddenly be perceived as “just a mom” was strange and infuriating and also extremely lonesome. I started to think about the experience from a political perspective, looked around, and realized that there were lots of other women who seemed to feel the same way.
I had been a Hip Mama subscriber since the first issue; it was the only magazine I ever encountered that reflected my life at all. Like me, Ariel had been a teen mother, and had gone to grad school with a toddler at her knee. She was political and a feminist and defiantly dismissive of the mainstream voices telling her that her choices were wrong. I admired her work and the fact that she continued to publish the magazine as her situation changed, letting the editorial content evolve naturally. I volunteered to take over the community development aspects of the first version of Hipmama.com. When the company hosting the site pulled out of the process I became the publisher.
In this capacity I manage and maintain Hipmama.com and also create new projects to serve the community, like Girlmom.com, Mamaphonic.com and Yomamasays.com.
SG: Tell me a little bit about your vision of community development and what has come out of your efforts.
BL: I am a political person, and I have made a long-term commitment to working on projects with a social justice focus. But I’m not grim and dreary; I want to have fun as much as anyone else. The web sites I’ve designed, and the events I have thrown, attempt to combine a desire for political change with a passionate and decadent desire to throw as many parties as possible.
My fundamental goal is to create practical tools that allow people to build real-life communities. The internet offers an amazing opportunity for people to find each other, but from my perspective it isn’t enough just to have some people to chat with online. From the start, I have tried to connect people directly and in a substantial way. I want people to know there are others like them out there, yes, but ideally I would like people to find those others in their actual town. Or, if that is impossible, to have some other opportunity to meet and socialize and agitate and create social change.
SG: Some of these connections must have evolved into the Mama Gatherings in Portland and Paris. What were they like?
BL: When my son was born I tried to go to normal mother-baby events, and met a few people in my neighborhood, but never managed to connect with parents who shared my interests. That summer I started to organize parties that reflected what I wanted socially. At first these gatherings were small; but after a few summers we had a sizable public party every year. Eventually people from other regions were interested in joining, so a group of volunteers came together to help set up the original Mama Gathering. The plan was to host two parties, in Portland and Paris, to let the international community meet up.
Everyone thought that this would be a small-scale endeavor, and we made promises to feed, house, and entertain whoever showed up — and give scholarships to those who could not afford the entry fee, which was under twenty dollars for the weekend. I was astonished and amazed when we opened the door at registration and over seven hundred men, women, and children had turned up. Over the course of three days the volunteers had to deal with endless amounts of chaos; I didn’t sleep at all and called in favors from countless people to make food, set up venues, look after children, run workshops, and keep everyone happy. The event was brilliant, but also not something that could be sustained as an institution; the liability insurance alone took up most of the operating budget. In contrast, the Paris Gathering was very relaxed, with lots of walking around the city and eating gelatto. I enjoyed both, and decided that it would be best to encourage the community to create their own Gatherings, reflecting what each group or region most wanted to do.
SG: How does being a parent influence your activism?
BL: I was a poor single teen mother with a serious, potentially terminal, illness. It was a struggle to get appropriate prenatal care because the medical establishment that I interacted with did not place a high value on my worth as a person. I felt like my life and baby were disposable. I looked at the system in front of me and understood that if I wanted good treatment, I had to be my own advocate. I also realized that it wasn’t enough to save myself. I wanted systemic, societal change, based on the concept of equal human rights for all parents. In my professional work I’ve taken up the cause of other marginalized mothers — the poor moms, the young moms, the single moms, the queer parents, people with disabilities, people of color, anyone who might be discriminated against, anyone who feels that they do not fit in.
If I hadn’t become a parent it is likely that I would have limited the scope of my career to disability activism. Having kids helped me understand the simple things we all have in common.
SG: How did Breeder get off the ground? What have it and later anthologies like Mamaphonic done in terms of community building/social justice?
BL: For several years Ariel and I traveled around doing public readings and talking to other parents about their lives. During those trips we started to talk about how our experience, as young feminists with kids, was different than what our mothers or other generations had experienced. The idea for Breeder came out of this idea that their was no literature documenting a fairly transgressive choice; we were young, ambitious, political, and we chose to have kids instead of following the rules.
Mamaphonic came about in a similar way. Everywhere I went, the most common question people asked was “how do you find the time?” There was a constant conversation about how to remain creative while raising kids. I knew the answer for myself (I’m an insomniac) but started to wonder how other people would answer the question. I set up Mamaphonic.com to give creative women a place to talk about the very diverse and interesting ways they deal with the challenges. Eventually it became clear that a book was the next logical step. Maia Rossini joined the project as co-editor and we were absolutely stunned when our call for submissions received over four hundred compelling replies.
SG: Tell me a little bit about how you went from doing anthologies to writing your memoir, Lessons in Taxidermy. Did it grow from your zine series “A Beautiful Final Tribute?”
BL: I started working on the stories that became Lessons in Taxidermy five years ago with an idea that it would be a traditional memoir. One day someone broke into my house and stole the laptop, which contained the only complete version of the manuscript. It was a horrifying experience, and a major reminder to make multiple copies of critical work. I was so upset by the whole experience I had to retreat to a friend’s cabin in Colorado, where I decided to abandon the project and work on other things.
The remnants of the lost book were published in a couple of other anthologies (Without a Net and Pills, Thrills, Chills, and Heartache) and after awhile I serialized bits of it, along with new writing, in a zine I called “A Beautiful Final Tribute.”
The zine happened in a backwards, felicitous way. People would hand me old pamphlets and say, “I thought of you when I saw this” and I would think about each for awhile and then create small cut-and-paste booklets. The series was not planned or calculated; I didn’t go out looking for images to match the writing, or contrive to make it on a certain schedule. I just responded to each pamphlet as though it was an assignment.
Since I had officially abandoned the idea of writing a book, I was unfettered by most of the anxiety people have in making a large piece of work. I also sold the project in an unusual way. After a reading a publisher walked up and offered me a deal based on what he had heard in the previous fifteen minutes. I said yes, and then took the zines and started over again, essentially writing the book again for a third or fourth time. Until the day the final book came in the mail I honestly did not believe that it was real.
SG: What do you like about doing readings? How do people react to your stories?
BL: I always read sections of the book that are funny, and this is surprising to the people who show up expecting something grim. I love to read in public — it is tremendously fun for me to perform. The best part is the first time the audience laughs; the most difficult bit happens during the signing, because so many people have known me via the internet or the books and they’ve built up expectations about what I will be like.
SG: In rewriting the memoir three or four times, how did it evolve from one writing to the next?
BL: It got shorter! The original manuscript was three times as long. While preparing the final version, I was most concerned with being extremely honest without violating the privacy of my family members — or enemies. I also reduced the graphic descriptions of violence and illness. It seemed excessive to use more blood and gore than was strictly necessary, and besides, how many words are there to describe excruciating pain? I wouldn’t read a book that was gross and depressing. I wouldn’t lead a life ruled by those themes.
SG: After having read the zine series, I found it interesting to see how you pulled everything together into the book. I like the way you weave the past through the present experience in the emergency room. How did you decide to do it that way?
BL: The structure of the book occurred to me while I was recovering from surgery. I wrote the introductory halves of the chapters all in one sitting, the day after I left the hospital. I was really in tears by the end, but they were happy tears.
SG: You’ve said that being an insomniac helped you get your writing done. Tell me a little bit about your process.
BL: Insomnia was definitely an asset when my kids were young. My daughter was born during my first year of college, and she was four years old when I finished my master’s degree. I know that I could not have accomplished so much if I had needed to sleep.
With two children and a two-career household it can be complicated to find enough time to have a private thought, let alone work. It is imperative to be flexible, but sometimes that means letting some things slide in favor of others. I think that it is more important to spend two hours writing than two hours cleaning — and I stick to that premise. My household is organized in a strictly egalitarian way. This means we are rather chaotic and rarely have matching clean socks, but all four of us have substantial and rewarding projects to work on.
In terms of my writing process, I spend a great deal of time thinking, walking around making notes on scraps of paper, starting and abandoning endless projects, reading, and worrying. I squander vast amounts of time checking email and doing online research.
SG: I love how you made a list of things you had always been afraid to do and just started doing them one by one. Are you still doing this? If so, what is left on your list?
BL: I’m still working through my list. We moved to England, which was a big risk but has been a lovely and interesting adventure.
I’ve evolved from a very tentative, wobbly, and occasional bicyclist to riding everywhere. Six months ago I could barely keep my balance crossing a park, but now I ride in traffic with full confidence.
I’m afraid of heights and get dizzy changing light bulbs. But recently during a trip to Estonia I climbed the Oleviste Kirk tower to see a view of the city from what was once the tallest church spire in the world. I felt sick and wanted to flee, but the view was phenomenal and my son had a great time.
I’m still a careful person — I wear helmets and seatbelts and exercise caution when making choices — but life is too short to live in fear.
SG: Any advice to writers on balancing mothering and writing?
BL: There are no rules, no tricks that you can learn from other people. What works for one person might be an abysmal failure for another. We received over four hundred submissions for Mamaphonic, and the most striking thing I noticed was the diversity of solutions women employ. You have to do what is right for your family, and for you as a person, which involves compromise but does not require sacrifice. The picture is different for everyone, and might change over time – kids get older, people change.
Beyond that, just enjoy life. Even in the midst of muck and exhaustion, you are learning and growing all the time. Make the best of it.
1 reply on “An Interview with Bee Lavender”
Hi, it’s Ariel Gore, founder of Hip Mama. Just to be clear, I met this person MANY year after she claims to have worked with me. As she has noted she was exceptionally privileged with her husband and had the resources to steal the work of actual low-income single mothers and did so.