Phoenix from the Flame

By Lola Wilson-Kolp

The Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon):

Judith Arcana has four tattoos: a leaping dolphin on the back of her left shoulder, a delicate bracelet of flowers around her forearm, a black rose on her chest and a fiery phoenix on her inner right wrist.


Judith Arcana: (Coutesy Judith Arcana)


“Every now and then someone much younger than me is surprised that a person my age has tattoos,” she giggled. “I mean, at least I don’t have a Donald Duck on me, all of my tattoos are very personal! I mean, I suppose if I had gone to the Ducks, the Oregon Ducks school that would have some larger significance to me, but as it is…” She gestures to get me more water, but I shake my head and resume my note-taking stance. She leans back into her chair and launches again into her lyrical oration: “I got this phoenix years ago, well, it was at first just the pentacle,” she bares her wrist to me, and I can make out a black star in a circle under the rainbow mess of feathers and flames. “It came from my time reading the tarot, you know tarot? I was doing it for a while, just a way of making a living in those scrambly years after being fired from teaching. But I always identified with the pentacle: strong, solid, the rock, the stone… Well, as a design I felt that it wasn’t doing justice to the emotional and spiritual desire that I had put into it, and ten years later right about I had a dream of an image of a phoenix rising from the flames, and I thought, that is so who I am! I’m always setting myself on fire and rising out of my own ashes!” She moves in and smacked the tablefor emphasis.

Arcana speaks like the rich women with diamond necklaces in old movies, the ones who exaggerate each syllable, relishing every word, but with a fun, grounded conversationality that more appropriately fits her bright blue circular glasses and Patagonia vest. There’s a joy in her voice that hangs slyly by every word, something that lets on her work in poetry as well as her lively past; she slows at moments of epiphany in her stories, gesturing with her hands or leaning so far over her dining table as to grasp mine at emotional highs. She’s adapted to Portland life with vigor, complete with a map of the MAX stations on the wall above her bed and a deep affinity for Bernie Sanders. When I first knocked on her apartment door she greeted me, immediately apologizing for a somewhat clunky cast– the “Big Boot”– on her foot. “This thing hasbeen more hassle than I thought! I’m having to slowly, gradually learn how to ask for help.”

Arcana is an incredibly accomplished woman, though she would surely be too humble to say anything more than “I’ve done my best to aid those that needed aide.” She began her long career of activism at Niles Township High School in Cook County, Illinois, where she taught English for six years in Room 148. During that time, the mid-sixties, a lot was changing politically in the US, and Arcana was a big supporter: “there were people in the streets, all the time, in the 60’s. the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, it was huge, and I was moving with it all, I was totally into it.” However, due to the strict and conservative school system in Illinois at the time, Arcana and two of her close friends and fellow teachers (John and Nancy) were in the vast minority. In the fall of 1969 the students of Niles Township stageda walkout, finally giving the administration a reason to punish her and her friends, claiming that they had instigated the protest. “They couldn’t believe, they couldn’t let themselves believe– they had no respect for the students. And this, of course, was insulting to the students, and insulting to us, in two different ways.” Eventually, after continuous buildup of political tension, they were fired, despite having tenure, supposedly for not keeping proper attendance records, not giving grades that were appropriately figured out, and “a third stupid thing, you know, these were so obviously made up.” Arcana rolled her eyes. “They wanted to fire us. We were, you know, outta there from the first time I spoke honestly, openly, to my students.”

According to Arcana, this experience was what really pushed her into her later activism, saying, with some sadness in her voice, that the “closemindedness” of the school administration was what “opened [her] eyes and widened [her] brain,” regardless of how difficult it was of an experience. “Don’t get me wrong, it was painful… It was part of my life, and then they expelled me in this ugly, painful, terrible way. When graduation came, John and I snuck over even though we were ‘breaking the law’… and we heard the speech being given by the valedictorian of the senior class, who was one of ‘our kids’ so to speak, and he, because he was the valedictorian and because he had dignity and integrity, in the middle of his speech he said, ‘and the people who should be here today are not all here… John, Judy, and Nancy,’ and there was nothing they could do, he had already said it, plus he was, you know, accepted to every school in the world, and he was hot stuff, and so of course that made us cry, standing there outside the fence.”

She and John fought the firing– since they both had tenure and had been fired in an illegally secret administrative meeting, they were entitled under Illinois law to call a public city hearing. “We thought it would be, like, an hour orsomething, and we were prepared to stand up and say ‘you people’, you know, ‘are oppressive, and not really doing the right thing for your kids, and goodbye!’, but it went on and on and on.” The hearing lasted from May to October, three to four nights a week, with parents and students coming in regularly to fight both for and against them. She still has the transcript, which is held in a mass of bound volumes that fill the bottom shelf of one of her many bookcases, 3000 pages of “‘we’re right, you’re wrong.’” She used the phrase “primary experience” thrice when describing this trial.

And so she rose to the occasion of her changing country, moving to Chicago to join a group of women known as the Jane Collective. This is certainly Arcana’s most well-known claim to fame; the Jane Collective was (and is– “once a Jane, always a Jane”) an underground organization that helped provide abortions and more to the women of Chicago when abortion was still illegal in the US. She took on many of the jobs at the collective, often answering the phone calls of prospective patients (“the ‘Callback Jane’”) and counseling the women beforehand, as well astaking care of the children while their mothers were busy, aiding in the abortions as a midwife, and driving the cars from location to location. When working the phones, for each woman who called she would make a notecard with their information and then at the next Jane meeting she would pass them out and they would all decide who would help each woman. “The Mob would always take a cut of businesses and operations in Chicago at that time but they never hit on us because we were so cheesy cheap!” While other organizations like this charged $1000 per abortion, the Janes charged $100 or whatever you could afford, which meant $20, sometimes nothing. “So the Mob didn’t care about us.” The police also didn’t want to intrude because they knew that the Janes weren’t hurting anybody “and, word was, sometimes their wives, daughters, sisters, mistresses, girlfriends came to us. And it has to be true, how could it not be true?”

And so it went, safely and soundly, until one day in the spring of ‘72. The sister-in-law of a woman who had an appointmentwith the Janes called her local police department and reported the crime, which most likely only elicited a response because the woman lived in a different district, one where they didn’t know about the Janes and their good work, and one that was more Catholic: “the Catholic Church was very against us, and there is a big Catholic presence in Chicago, with a big, big, big, big archdiocese.” Arcana was the driver that day, taking the women from a designated pick-up area to a waiting and preparatory building and then again to the procedural building, “‘The Place’.” “When we drove, we drove as if we were being followed, always little shortcuts and you double back, and since I was doing that but didn’t even know I was, in fact, being followed, in court, later, the cop testified that they had been following me but that they lost me a couple times.” But still, they found her again, and the police came in and arrested everyone in both buildings, because, “as they said, they couldn’t tell who were the ‘victims’ and who were the ‘perpetrators’ because we were, you know, all just girls.” Seven of them, all of the Janes working there that day, were sent to the lockup. She was sent home earlier than the rest because she was, at the time, a nursing mother.

The mugshot from that day is the cover of one of her books, Keesha and Joanie and JANE. Her button-up is rumpled under a dark sweater and her face is defiant and almost bored, eyebrows up and eyes near-blank, staring right ahead, hair pulled up and the sign around her neck. Keesha and Joanie and JANE is about abortion now and in the near future when it will most likely be banned. An excerpt: “And we know all their “pro-life” talk is fake… their movement’s not against the death penalty, they’re not against war or police shoot-to-kill, they don’t say a word about torture, they don’t care much about poverty, they haven’t set up a system to take care ofabandoned kids… they don’t even seem to be working to clean up the planet; they’re not stopping that kind of destruction-of-life. So, what is it, really, that makes them hate abortion so much? I’m serious – what is it?” Arcana struggles with this question throughout her work, using abortion, her experience as a Jane, motherhood and tattoos as her main fodder for her poetry and fiction writing. In one of her poems, “The woman who hands you a gun,” she explores her age in relation to learning, to memory, to her experiences:

Right now I’m on my way, leaving

town to be a carny, a barker
at the tattooed lady’s tent flap
or the woman who hands you a gun
at the shooting gallery or hoops
to toss over baby dolls.

“I’m a word woman,” she comments throughout our talk, sometimes as a disclaimer for a long string of stories coming up or as an apology for the same, but more often as a banner of pride.

Eventually, as everything does these days, the conversation turns to the current political state of the US and our newly elected president. Arcana, like myself, was confident that Trump was going to win over Hillary right from when the UK voted to leave the EU: “My friends were so sure, they were almost blithe, that she would win. They were saying, ‘how could people vote for him, howcould people vote for Trump?’ These were people who had not thought about it very much.” We both laugh but fall silent. “I was never a big Hillary person, but I think she’s very smart and of course a real candidate for political office, I respect that… He is so inappropriate for anything, except, you know, clowning.” She sighs. “Everyone should be thinking, ‘I thought I was a good person, and I probably was, and I did these good things, you know… and now I just have to ratchet it up a little bit more.’ A lot more is good, but certainly a little bit more. I have to think, ‘What’s the thing I haven’t done but thought about doing, should I start to do work at the food bank, should I think nationally, should I think about my own neighborhood? What seems most possible for me?’ We have to assess ourselves and test ourselves, say, ‘What’s the thing I can add?’” Once a year, she stuffs her pockets and backpack with hand-baked cookies and printed copies of one of her poems and offers them to everyone she meets, including strangers on the bus and in the street. “I’ve baked cookies and put them and a poem of my choice and given them to everyone in my building, and it’s just kindness, it’s something I like to do.”

After we part ways, I sit in the café on the ground floor of her apartment building, nursing a coffee and savoring the last dregs of her presence, replaying us saying goodbye and hugging, leaving the warm comfort of her kitchen table for brisk winter air. A day or two later she emails me: “I’m smiling at the memory of our excellent connection,” she writes, her automatic signature set as a Bertolt Brecht quote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

And so we sing, by communicating, by learning, by growing, and by rising. “It’s the most important thing, it really is– you must, must, must, learn to grow, to take it all in like an overload and then slow down, process… This is how we rise.”

Photo Credit: Camila MP

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