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The Sweetness of Growing Old Together

       Joan and Carole  

Monterey Butterfly Sanctuary

It was 1981 when my new love Carole shyly handed me a framed poster of this Robert Browning quote. Charmed as I was by the poetry and confirmation of her long-term intentions, I cast a skeptical eye at her gift: How could anything be better than our passionate, new love?


Our hormones surging, we couldn't get enough of each other's unfamiliar bodies or intriguing minds. Carole was a child of the Midwest, a serious runner, skier and softball player, an athlete who'd hit tennis balls for hours every day as a teen — years when all I'd wanted to do was read or ride in cars with boys. Now Carole, immersed in lesbian culture, was an evening law student intent on practicing civil rights law.


I, an Easterner and twice-divorced mother, a doctoral student moonlighting as a community college teacher, wasn't even aware a lesbian culture existed. Focused on raising my kids and my studies in multicultural education, I was squeaking by with Section 8 housing assistance for my budget apartment.

Yet from such different backgrounds, Carole and I found much in common. Both activists talking civil rights and gender politics nonstop, we were madly, eagerly in love.


My alarmed teens complained, "Ma, you can't be a lesbian. What will my friends say?" Carole's lesbian housemates, equally concerned, warned, "Joan's straight, she's experimenting, she'll drop you."


Still, we made it through those early stormy years, moved across country to California once my kids grew up and settled into married life long before it was legal. We bought one house, then another. Kept our same jobs. The decades passed, the hormones subsided, and here we are happily trundling along, Carole in her mid-70s, me in my 80s.


Every life stage has its joys and challenges. Yes, those early years were exciting, rolling around in bed with intense spasms of desire or exploring foreign cities hand-in-hand, eyes wide with wonder. Yet an unparalleled sweetness sings deep in the bones now after nearly half a century of committed love.


We've had much to celebrate over these years: The elections of President Bill Clinton and then — cheering in the streets! — President Barack Obama. Three grandchildren thriving to adulthood, fanning out on grown-up adventures. Our own workplace successes. Neighborhood gatherings. Friends' birthdays, anniversaries and healing moments.


We've been fully stress-tested, too, with the deaths of beloved parents, a sibling and friends. We've suffered through a daughter's estrangement and surgeries where survival was no certainty, followed by months of weakness.


We emerged from each trial more devoted and securely attached, loyal to the bone. The only love I can compare it to is that of a mother for a child, yet in that relationship one grows up and away from the other. In this time-proven love, even as we flourish independently we keep twining ourselves more closely around each other. It's a mystery I experience daily: the deep satisfaction of our two solitudes when we meditate or work or hike alone, and the even deeper joy of our togetherness.


Each evening we luxuriate in candlelight dinners, no matter our simple fare, and talk over our day, with its questions, struggles and delights. Later, spooning in bed —"I can't lie on that shoulder, it hurts too much, can you turn toward me?" — we savor the comfort, the security of each other's warm, familiar bodies as we squeeze together. "Don't be a stranger," I joke with Carole pressed against my back. "I'm not!" she laughs in reply. The knowledge that our days together are finite — always true but not as evident in our younger years — surely is one reason for this exceptional sweetness.

The strains of living have burnt off the dross until all that's left is goodness. I want only the best for Carole's every moment and would do anything to support her achieving her life's goals. She demonstrates the same for me, day by day.


Even if we could go back and relive those dramatic early years — out dancing late into the night, pitying our parents' pathetic 9 o'clock bedtimes — I wouldn't trade these current moments of liquid honey, when the pleasure of holding Carole's old hand in mine surpasses any peace I've known.


How fortunate we are to have it all: our memories of wild sex, exploring Paris and gawking at Amsterdam art. And now, the pleasure of watching red tulips streaked with yellow open on our sunny table. Or appreciating a full moon like one we recently saw, bright globe shining behind a mist. Arms around each other's waists we stared in wonder before we ducked inside, laughed at an Australian comedy series, and snuggled up in bed.


Yes, at 9. I can't imagine anything better.

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A shortened version of this blog aired on NPR's KQED Perpsectives Commenary


The Kansas vote affirming the state Constitution's protection of abortion rights affirmed my faith in people. The eighteen-point margin of victory in a socially conservative state showed that in our darkest hours we can always count on the dawn. As morning follows night, a new day inevitably breaks.


Supreme Courts will make cruel decisions like the recent one repealing Roe, but life keeps moving on. The folks in Kansas, in the biggest turnout for a primary election in the state's history, reminded us that unjust laws don't last forever, nor do they have the power to penetrate everywhere.


Kansas has a venerable liberation history. From 1854 to 1859 the state was a battleground: would it enter the Union as a Free or Slave state? Pro-slavery voters poured over from neighboring Missouri to rush through bogus elections proving Slavery sentiment. Northern Free Staters, led by abolitionist John Brown, flocked to settle in Kansas so they could vote Free Soil. Fierce battles ensued, with each side trying to oust the other, until the state became known as Bloody Kansas. Read More 

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Joan and Carole at ElderPride
Photo by Daniel Marquez, 2020

I'm staring out the window of my tiny writing cottage, surprised to see new rosebuds. I had thought, by July, they were done. But four small buds poke jauntily through a tangle of leaves. Spotting a sliver of pink, I smile.


Until I turn on the news: Bombs fall, shattering bodies. Women are doomed, our rights stripped away. The planet sizzles. Those who can afford air conditioning—and electricity--will be the new elite, further warming our world. Voting rights, democracy itself, are under attack.


How can I hold the joys of rosebuds with the awareness of a cruel planet--and remain engaged without falling into despair, like so many friends? Read More 

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With my wife Carole (on right) at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Photographer unknown.

(This essay first appeared on CNN, August 18, 2022)


In 1981, long before the legalization of same-sex marriage, I committed to living for the rest of my life with Carole, the woman I loved. But when Carole and I introduced each other to friends, we had no language to describe our relationship.  


If I referred to her as my "partner," many assumed business partner. "Lover" felt too intimate, "life-partner" too clunky, "special friend" an abhorred remnant of a closeted era.


"Wife" would have made our relationship absolutely clear, but it was a word denied to us at the time.


The penalties for this extra-legal union were severe: Carole's adored father, fearing his Catholic priest's condemnation, refused to speak to her. We both faced potential job losses if found out. Carole, working for the federal government, had to maintain an especially low profile since we'd heard of lesbians being fired once they were "discovered." Read More 

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Nude Self Portrait by Alice Neel at age 80!

This self portrait by the late painter Alice Neel so inspires me. Remnants of the "beauty myth" females are fed all our lives – i.e. we must be conventionally beautiful to be accepted and loved – still cling to most of us, even in our elder years. As our bodies inevitably sag, thanks to the wonderful power of gravity which holds us firmly to earth, it becomes harder to look firmly in the mirror without turning away. Read More 

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Joan on "Black Lives Matter Plaza," aka her driveway. Three powerful word--Black Lives Matter--ignited a long-smoldering movement.

They initiated a new intensity, with sustained national commitment.

Photo by Tim Wagstaffe, 2020

 The written word has ignited revolutions, toppled dictatorships. A well-told narrative, activating the story-telling DNA lodged deep in our bones, has the power to heal rifts or pour balm on festering wounds. With it we can foster new visions about who we are as a people--or who we might become. Writing is one of our most robust artistic instruments for deep social impact, at its best fostering empathy for people we might never meet, inspiring us to compassionate action. Writing can lead us deep inside, altering an internal landscape. How many of us have been forever changed by something we've read at a critical juncture? 


While we hear often how influential writing can be for readers, less is said of its impact on authors. The act of composing can also resolve questions within the writer. Even the process of tapping computer keys or placing Read More 

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Photo by Joan Lester, March, 1977, NYC

Made into a postcard by Mardi Steinau

 Read More 

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Our rag-tag group slept on the pews in our sleeping bags, jammed together, giddy, singing freedom songs half the night. "We shall overcome, some day." My sleeping bag, borrowed from a friend, was damp with sweat while I lay in the hot, muggy church, fervent with hope.


 Read More 

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Cariol Horne, Former Buffalo
Police Officer

Cariol Horne is my newest social justice hero.  A Black Buffalo, New York police officer in 2006, she forcibly intervened when her fellow officer Gregory Kwiatkowski was viciously beating Neal Mack, a Black man.


Cariol Horne reaffirms my conviction that no matter the obstacles, if we hold fast to a vision of justice and keep moving toward it, we will indeed overcome.She heard Mack gasp, "I can't breathe" after Kwiatkowski put him in a chokehold, with a knee to the neck.


"Let him go!" she screamed.


But Kwiatkowski didn't move. Read More 

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Mildred Jeter Loving and Richard Loving




After three years of marriage, my writer husband Julius Lester and I had worked out a good arrangement: He wrote in our grimy New York apartment, taught a few guitar students and cared for baby Rosa while I attended City College graduate school. My fellowship funded it all.


But late one January night he stood in our kitchen, stirring diapers boiling on the stove, and told me he'd decided to move South. He wanted to be a cultural worker for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. I looked at him in disbelief.


"We said we'd never be apart," I told him while I rocked Rosa, asleep in her carriage.  


When he said he had to go, I responded "Take me with you." Our baby could come too.


But he said he couldn't take a white wife. It was too dangerous. We might be arrested or killed. For him, the South was home. I would be a tourist. He said it was his revolutionary duty. "I'm called to go," he said. "By myself." Read More 

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Next to my driveway, aka Black Lives Matter Plaza 
Photo by Tim Wagstaffe.


I used to think I was among the wokest of the woke.  Naturally I wouldn't have said so aloud, but after all, I, a white woman, had married a Black man before that was even legal, nationally. Raised our biracial children. Trained anti-racist leaders. Published pro-equity books and op-eds. Marched and chanted.


But after May 25, 2020, when George Floyd screamed for his mama and people poured out of lockdown, something new broke open inside me. As well as inside everyone I know.


Black friends grew bolder. Scorched by racism all their lives they'd adapted, these successful women had perhaps grown a bit cautious. Now I'm watching folks I've known for decades become fervently political. They're expressing rage, loudly, plus their fierce pride. Read More 

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Cover of my 6th book, a memoir



When people ask me what do you do, for the last twenty-five years I've answered, "I'm a writer." Sometimes I add, "An author." 


If the questioner still looks blank, I'll say, with authority, "I'm a professional writer."


I've learned to define myself in a powerful tone because so many people have odd assumptions about a woman writer. Several years ago, for instance, a chipper young teller at the bank window asked me, "What are you doing today?" 


Eager to get moving, I replied somewhat crisply, "I'm writing. Like I do every day. I'm a writer."


"Oh, how nice," she said, with syrup in her voice. "It gives you something to fill your time." Read More 

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