Musical memoirs chronicle lesbian's liberating journey

One-woman show takes on aging, burying a family curse

By Bridgette M. Redman

Age can bring a lot of surprises.

Some of the surprises, such as menopause-induced instability, are less than welcome, while others, such as the wisdom and courage to be someone new, can make aging an exciting journey.

Jeanne Mackey has spent her adult life on the music circuit, singing songs about social justice and women's issues at rallies, in coffee houses and at women's events. Until she was 50 years old, she sang other people's songs.

"I had never written my own songs," she says. "I had found other people's songs that said what I wanted to say."

But she decided that for her next milestone birthday, that would change.

"Sixty is a big one. I said to my friends, 'I'm going to do an all original show of songs and stories,'" she says, "which was a little brash, because up to this point there was no evidence I could do it."

She found a writing coach, Stacie Chaiken, who walked her through the process of turning her autobiographical information into a show - and thus "Drop the Knife" was created and premiered in Ann Arbor in 2010, when Mackey turned 60. After taking the show to her hometown and then the city where she spent much of her adult life, it is returning to Ann Arbor for a one-night performance April 21 at Washtenaw Community College's College Theatre.

The memoir-in-song centers around two major life events: the first a vision fast where she spent four days alone in nature in the mountains of California and the second a trip to Ireland to bury the hatchet and get rid of a family curse. Both events help her define herself and how she relates to others and the world around her.

"I experience my sense of spirituality through the natural world," Mackey says. "I believe that everything has a spirit and I am part of the natural world and it is part of me. I believe in magic. When I was on my vision fast, I experienced things that were magical. And just being in Ireland is magical. There is such a deep, deep history and the connection between the people and the land is so deep."

It is during the narration of the Ireland trip she explores her relationship with Pattie, her partner of 25 years. Pattie joined Mackey on the three-week journey and met her Irish relatives. One song in the memoir performance talks about Mackey struggling with whether she should reveal to her Irish relatives that she is a dyke, a pagan and wants to bury a hatchet on the family land.

"Through the miracle of technology, I sent (my Irish relatives) a YouTube video," of the song where she talks about them. "I didn't hear from them for quite a while. Finally my grandmother's niece's daughter wrote this lovely email saying, 'Yeah, we are Catholic, but it is clear you and Pattie have found true love and we celebrate it.'"

The memoir-in-song lets Mackey share her experiences with other older lesbians who are struggling with new ways to age.

"My aging process doesn't look anything like my parents," Mackey says. "My mom is 92 and in a cushy nursing home and has three kids to visit her. I honor my queer friends who have kids, but there are fewer of us who did have kids. We're not going to have that built-in support. It is a different world to be getting old in than the world of my parents, and we're kind of making it up. It helps to be able to look at each other...we can inspire each other and learn from each other's mistakes."

The more specific she gets, Mackey says, the more others are able to relate to her stories. During her vision fast, she said that she discovered her two sacred weapons are nakedness and mirth. "My sense of humor and being able to emotionally put it all out there, that's my saving grace. I've always been really comfortable talking about and revealing my own struggles at a very deep level. I had a writing coach who talked about microscopic truthfulness. I've found that as an artist, the more I reveal the intensely personal details of my life, the more universal it seems to be."

Mackey celebrates the challenges of aging with a partner, saying she was grateful that Pattie is 10 years younger than her so that they didn't have to go through menopause at the same time. She was disembarking the emotional roller coaster of menopause just as her partner launched into it.

"Someone ought to write a book about lesbians going through menopause," Mackey says. "I think for all of us, as we get older, we have to face disappointments. We have to face illusions that tend to crumble. What I'm finding is that when you really face the disappointments and go through that whole process, what is left is still good. There is still juicy, satisfying stuff about being alive that is still there when everything falls away."

Part of that juicy, satisfying stuff, Mackey says, is discovering new things about herself.

"A huge gift of aging is that I'm now a songwriter. I thought I didn't have songs...my inner critic was so loud, it took getting to this age and this level of maturity so those critical voices got soft enough that I could hear what is there."

Drop the Knife

7:30 p.m. April 21

Mackerel Productions at College Theatre, Crane Liberal Arts Building at Washtenaw Community College

4800 E. Huron River Drive, Ann Arbor

$15 adult, $10 student

http://www.brownpapertickets.com

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