Lissa Donner died on November 8. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, but even so hearing of her death, at the relatively young age of 62, comes as a shock.
Lissa and I were close for a while, back in the 1970s: two youthful radicals trying to navigate a personal and political relationship during a turbulent time, a time that feels like – and now truly is – a lifetime ago.
After I heard of her death, I pulled out the letters we’d exchanged, and re-read them: well over 100 pages, many of them in her atrocious handwriting, some of the later ones blessedly typewritten. (My handwriting was admittedly even worse than hers, but I had a typewriter.)
We were often in different cities: I was in Toronto; she was, at various times, in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Kitchener, as well as sometimes in Toronto. A month or more would go by without us seeing each other, and long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, so many letters went back and forth.
Those were the days when one wrote a letter – yes, on paper – put it in an envelope, put a postage stamp on the envelope, and dropped it in a mailbox. A day or two later, Canada Post would deliver the letter to its destination. One or two of Lissa’s letters come with a P.S. apologizing for a delay in sending it, the delay being caused by the fact that she didn’t have any stamps. In another letter, she explains that she’d been delayed in finishing the letter because she’d run out of paper. It was not unusual for her to write a 10- or 15-page letter, so having enough paper on hand was important. In one letter she said (on page 11) “I think I’ll start a diary, so I can write you letters instead of books.” But I don’t think she did, and I’m glad.
Lissa and I connected originally through the New Democratic Youth (NDY), the youth wing of the NDP. Later we were both involved in a political formation called the New Tendency. Both groupings were, in different ways, quite dysfunctional, and frustrating to belong to. Our letters freely mixed political analysis, meeting agendas and organizational details, kvetching about the irresponsible people we had to deal with, and the intricacies of our personal lives and our relationship.
Lissa was precocious, and formidably intelligent. When she turned 16, she quit school, moved from Winnipeg to Ottawa, and started working in the national office of the New Democratic Youth. Even at that age, she was extraordinarily competent and well-organized, and pretty much single-handedly kept the organization functioning. Others in the organization, less dedicated and less competent, were only too happy to let her shoulder most of the work.
She knew this wasn’t sustainable, nor was it what she wanted to be doing in the long run. In one of her letters, she enclosed a copy of Marge Piercey’s poem “Metamorphosis into a Bureaucrat” which, she said, painted a picture of what she feared becoming:
My head is a wastebasket
of worn ideas,
Press my fingers
and in my eyes appear
credit and debit,
However, she added, she also feared “Metamorphosis into a Housewife.” In either realm, she says, “I have to get over my feeling that no one could do that particular thing ‘as well as’ (the same way as) me.” She stuck it out in the NDY office for a while, until eventually she’d had enough and walked away from the job. “I have officially quit my position as chief petty hack,” she told me when she resigned. “It feels amazingly good.”
Lissa c. 1972
Conscientiousness was something we had in common, and joked about. “At this point I really couldn’t say which one of us I thought was the more duty-ridden,” she writes, but then quickly adds “I think it’s you, though.” “Do you ever feel guilty,” she slyly asks, “knowing you’ve got no work to feel guilty about not doing?” I thought that insinuation was a bit of an exaggeration – maybe.
Certainly her observations were usually right on the mark. Lissa was always analytical: about politics, group dynamics, power, relationships, emotions. She was, as I learned when our lives became more entangled, always paying attention to what was going on, and thinking about what it meant.
A common topic, inevitably, given our political involvements, was what she called the “games of the left.” When she encountered them, she would try to understand what was really going on in those situations, and, if she thought there was any point, she’d lay out her analysis and try to offer constructive solutions. Given that she was often the youngest person in those groups, that took some courage, as well as real insight. I admired the way she confronted problems head on, although sometimes, I admit, my heart would sink a little when she announced that she thought we ought to talk about “the contradictions in our relationship.” She was not one to let things slide.
At the same time, she knew that not everything in life could work out as one wanted, and when the situation required it, she made the best of things with a certain wry resignation.
“Today,” she writes in one letter, “was going to be my day for creative cooking and sewing. I was even looking forward to it so much I got up at 8 a.m. I decided I would bake bagels (since you can’t buy them for love or money here [Kitchener]). I read Rosa Luxemburg’s address to the founding convention of the KPD to put me in the right mood and started to mix the dough around 10 a.m. (actually I had to read it for the study group). Either I’ve totally lost my knack at baking, or the recipe is the shits, or the oven wrecked them because the thermostat is broken and the heat fluctuates a lot. Whatever, at about 2:00, after baking two batches of bagels that could double as great rocks, I quit. I managed to rescue the remains of the dough, and now have some very strange looking (and tasting) cinnamon rolls."
In addition to poetry and reports on her baking exploits, a letter of Lissa’s might also contain the lyrics of a new song that she’d heard. She was always very connected to the world of folk music and protest songs. The first paragraph of one of my letters to her says “I haven’t heard anything about Pete Seeger coming to Toronto. But I’ll keep my ears open.” I knew to put the most important information at the beginning.
When Lissa sent the lyrics of a new song she’d heard, I knew that I could count on her to sing the song next time I saw her, and perhaps a few others as well. Lissa had her insecurities, but she had no inhibitions about standing up and belting out a song.
Her obituary recounts one such occasion: “At the 1975 Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, Lissa attended a workshop on protest songs. When no one at the workshop knew the lyrics to the union classic, Bread and Roses, Lissa stood up from the crowd and belted it out, acapella, for the entire crowd.”
Lissa c. 1972
Lissa and I both left the NDY at more or less the same time, or, perhaps more accurately, the NDY left us. The NDP kicked the left-wing Waffle group out of the party, and simultaneously cut off funding and organizational support for the Party’s youth wing, the NDY. Those of us who had found a network of like-minded people in the NDY were compelled to find new outlets for our political energies. (Lissa eventually returned to the NDP and even ran as an NDP candidate in 1984; I maintained my critical distance.)
The Left in Canada was in a state of reformation at that time, as the generation of Sixties radicals sought to create forms of organizing that would be sustainable in the long run. Lissa and I both gravitated to a loose formation of people, based mostly in Windsor, Kitchener, Toronto, and Winnipeg, which became known as the “New Tendency.”
The New Tendency was a strange concoction. It somewhat resembled the failed bagels that Lissa described in her letter: the ingredients and recipe (the people and the theory) seemed to be good, but the results were not. It’s a complicated story which has drawn some academic interest in recent years. Gary Kinsman, a sociologist at Laurentian University who has been doing research on ‘Autonomist Activism in the 1970s,’ interviewed me about my experiences with the New Tendency, and I then put him in touch with Lissa, whom he subsequently interviewed in Winnipeg. Hopefully his future work will incorporate her words and her reflections on her days in the New Tendency.
The New Tendency was a textbook example of what Jo Freeman called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” A handful of men connected by personal relationships made all the important decisions while blocking every attempt to create a more accountable structure. The idea of electing a steering committee, for example, was rejected as too bureaucratic and dangerously close to Leninism. Even attempts to get people to stop smoking in meetings failed because there was no ‘consensus’ – i.e. the smokers, who included several men in the leadership group, wouldn’t agree to stop. People like Lissa and Joy S., who were severely affected by cigarette smoke, were out of luck.
On of the key concepts that emerged in the New Tendency was ‘refusal of work.’ The observation that industrial workers resisted work in various ways, such as slow-downs, walkouts, calling in sick, sabotage, etc., was presented as the basis of a strategy for workers to assert their power. To a group of men who put male industrial workers at the centre of their theories of social change, this seemed to make sense.
Most of the women in the New Tendency, however, were not in such jobs. Lissa had taken a job at Sunbeam, a home for children with severe mental and physical disabilities. Her friend Betty Burcher, with whom she shared an apartment in Kitchener, worked at a nursing home nearby. Workers in those homes certainly faced issues with working conditions and low pay (Lissa’s pay was $1.88 per hour), but equally certainly, ‘refusal of work’ was not an option, not when your job is feeding, diapering, helping with getting dressed, and providing emotional support. Deep empathy was always one of Lissa’s foremost qualities, and she agonized over how little time there was for interacting with the children beyond taking care of their physical needs.
Lissa and Burcher did both become involved in attempts to organize unions at their respective workplaces, with some hesitations, since both were critical of union bureaucracies. As Lissa told me in a letter when she was trying to decide what to do, “I’m very leery of being the initiator of union activity because I think it would leave me in a position of being seen as very pro-union, and I would not be able to criticize it at all. But on the other hand, if I don’t start it, it probably won’t get done.“ So she took it on. The campaigns were successful, and Lissa and Burcher co-authored an article on the experience: “The Winter of Our Discontent, or: Experiences Organizing Nursing Homes.”
The contradictions in the New Tendency reached the breaking point when Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James came to Canada on a speaking tour. Co-authors of a paper “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community,” Dalla Costa and James were developing a perspective which became known as “Wages for Housework.” In a short period of time, almost all the women in the New Tendency left, and most of them, including Lissa, joined one of the emerging Wages for Housework groups.
At the same time, I was moving in a different direction politically and personally. When Lissa left Ontario to move back to Winnipeg, the opportunities for seeing each other regularly evaporated. The growing political divergence between us (underlined by a critical article I wrote about Wages for Housework), coupled with the geographical distance, took its toll, and over time our exchange of letters, and our friendship, gradually came to an end.
In one of her letters, written after the sudden death of her uncle, Lissa wrote:
“Somehow death always makes me more conscious of being alive. I become more and more convinced that just being happy is important – and no matter – a sad revolutionary isn’t going to bring about a joyous revolution. But in less romantic terms, if all I’ll leave behind are memories, I want them to be good and happy ones.”
I think she surely did that.