Vp Issue 3: “A Look at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival,” by Lauren Shields (2002)

Her kind eyes smiling, she reached over and braced my arm.

Her kind eyes smiling, she reached over and braced my arm. “You’ve made this your own, haven’t you.” Karen was a woman I met four years ago when I arrived at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival for the first time. She’d been a long time friend of my Aunt Sara’s, who was my reason for being there in the first place. Although unaware of it at the time, I’d come to the festival to unearth my ancestral roots, and to pay homage to a woman whose life and legacy had and would continue to have an extraordinary impact on my life. Little did I know, but this passage would introduce me to the rare and exquisite sanctuary I call home every August.

Sara was my mother’s youngest sister by five years. She was a womon of intoxicating presence and an even larger laughter. She was proud and unapologetic, and she single-handedly introduced me to what it meant to be a lesbian. In my adolescent gaze, she represented what it meant to live bravely outside of societal confines, and she exposed me to radical notions like vegetarian food, not shaving, and going braless. Her unconventional habits blazed a radiant trail through our northern Indiana town, and for that, I never got to thank her. In sixth grade, while proudly showing her off to my classmates during my basketball game, one of them turned to me and said, “Your aunt is a big dyke.” Puzzled, I wasn’t quite sure was she what talking about, but I was pretty certain that she had made an accurate statement.

When I was seventeen, Sara was diagnosed with breast cancer, and suffered an extremely rapid and severe deterioration. I spoke to her on the phone a few weeks before she died, and convinced myself everything was okay. Her death was a gigantic punch to the stomach, knocking the wind out of the whole family. She was only thirty-nine. I remember thinking that I hadn’t even begun to really know her yet.

On the heels of her death, I began the winding, twisting road of my own coming out. Being gay was somewhat of a surprise to me, and the further along I went, the grief I felt from her death multiplied tenfold. I craved her wisdom and laughter for my own relief and encouragement, and that of my parents as well. How unfair it seemed that I could feel this intense familiarity with someone I could not talk to. My life seemed to emerge as a parallel to hers, and this observation in her absence was agonizing.

At 21 years old, I decided to go to Michigan for the first time. Michigan was an integral part of Sara’s life for many years, up until the summer she died. Her ashes had been scattered there, and a relentless magnetism that pulled me there was finally too compelling to ignore. It was a trip I didn’t know how to prepare for, and a homecoming I never could have predicted.

Upon telling the festival-goers that I was Sara’s niece, the affection I was showered with was overwhelming, and felt wonderful. Daily, I was escorted to and from womyn wanting to meet me, hug me, and tell me how much they loved Sara, but more importantly, how much they missed her. Through the eyes of these extraordinary womyn, I was able to feel Sara right there on that land, living and breathing and laughing. It was a gift that filled an aching gap that until that point, I had not been able to breach. That chapter of life without Sara had finally come full circle, and a new narrative, with new characters, was about to begin.

After coming back to Michigan year after year, I discovered that my experience there was not unique. Perhaps other womyn don’t come with the same attachment to the land, but that didn’t prevent them from discovering one once they got there. Womyn often relate their experience at Michigan to a homecoming or family reunion. It seems like Michigan renders an environment of what our ideal homes would be like, integrating womyn of all races, classes, nationalities, backgrounds and experiences into one family. Societal standards don’t apply there. High premiums of wealth and status have no currency there. Instead, Michigan places value on human kindness and capability, compassion and wisdom. The wisdom and perspective we acquire there translates into all facets of our lives, and is something that manifests a permanent change from within. The experience at Michigan is equalizing, invigorating, comforting, and inspiring, to say the least.

Crucial to the continuation of the festival is the understanding that there is no age limit to this experience. Womyn in their 60s experience that same fulfillment as those in their 20s. The fundamentals of this festival remain the same, regardless of what changes on the periphery. Whether 18 or 78, everyone is equal despite their differences, and the same magnetism I felt that first year is the same gravitational pull that womyn feel when they return every year. Sure, the issues change and evolve, politics always have their place, but fundamentally things stay relatively the same. When asked, “Why do you come back year after year?” there are a multitude of responses, but really only one answer. Because it’s home.


Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 3 (Nov/Dec 2003), 9.