Colette and Janis Joplin

I’m having a nice morning. I just finished re-reading Colette’s immortal autobiographical novel “The Vagabond” and danced around to Janis Joplin.

I can’t help but compare and contrast the two. “The Vagabond” is about giving up a comfortable but confining love for the freedom of the theatrical road. Colette’s life on the stage isn’t wildly successful or easy, but it is hers. Fascinatingly, this is a period where she self-reports as not writing—and yet she eventually does write “The Vagabond.”

One of my favorite Joplin songs is “Get It While You Can”—a motto I apply to everything from love to theater tickets, houseplants to useful ideas. Compared to Colette, Joplin seems self-destructive, hedonistic, Dionysian. Liberated in an emotional way—Colette after all is essentially post-Victorian—and raw. But that is what Joplin is aiming for, no doubt. I remember the look on Mama Cass’s face in “Monterey Pop” when Joplin opens her mouth to sing. It is the expression of someone unexpectedly seeing—and hearing—the divine.

Joplin died young, Colette lived to be old. Both were bisexual. Colette’s descriptions of love affairs with women are among the most authentic and personal ones of all time. Joplin could go to pieces in public. Colette danced almost naked on the stage. Both are adored to this day.

Colette, however, was eminently practical. When the Nazis invaded Paris her first move was to find some sources for eggs and milk in the surrounding countryside. Then she set about trying to protect her third husband, who was Jewish.

Colette was an anti-feminist, at least in terms of what she said politically. Joplin? Who knows she even thought about it. Both of them were fashion outliers, with an uninhibited style.

Both of them are icons for women making our own way in the world. Full of contradictions, artistic geniuses—I’m not sure either of them would make an easy friend.

But I’m glad I met their spirits when I was young.

More Responses To–What beliefs did you have about yourself that have now changed?

Janet Snyder Asher I always felt that I “can’t do it”. I was never encouraged to try, even if I might fail. Now at 65 I try my best and definitely sometimes fail! And it’s more than OK!!!!
Miriam Sagan Can you say more about what “it” might be?

Janet Snyder Asher Anything I was afraid of. I learned early on not to take risks. I believe that after my divorce I started living again. I met a man who I eventually married and he had so much confidence in me! I took a Swiftwater rescue class and became a river guide at 42! That’s just one example of something I never knew I could do.

Karla Linn Merrifield I always thought I wasn’t very musical, especially after 8 years of piano lessons that terrified me. Yes, I could play a modest Chopin and a few hymns, and I learned to read music, but what a fumbler I was. Now 50 years later I’ve picked up the guitar and a month later I’m feeling it happen. I can make music

Laurie Tumer I’m 68. I didn’t believe (as a girl growing up in the 50’s) that it was possible for a girl to be be an architect or doctor or geologist or or fireman or artist or musician or conductor or builder or even college graduate. Only boys were smart enough for that. I believed I was only capable of being a wife and mother as that is what I was told was my fate When I eventually studied music at the University of Arizona I loved my conducting classes and wanted to be a conductor, but the professor said: Do you see any women conductors? So I didn’t believe I it was possible to do that. So I changed majors and became a teacher because that was something girls were encouraged to do back then. I don’t regret being a teacher all these years. And I have gone on to an artist and a builder and a gardener and to fulfill many dreams and live happily ever after without a husband or children. I often hear in my head when I complete a project my father’s refrain when I’d do something that surprised him that he didn’t think I was capable of: “Not bad for a little girl!” A phrase he used up until he died when I was 35. Times have change in the U.S. for girls, though not for girls all over the world… I believe that will change too one day.

Teresa Fields I was raised to be a wife and mother. When I was in 2nd grade the teacher would hit me on top of my head with her wad of keys and call me a dumb Indian. I believed I could not do math. Then in high school my counselor told me I wasn’t College material.
After being married over 31 yrs and suddenly being widowed. I went to College, I got an ‘A,’ in College Algebra. I had a 3.99 gpa for my AA degree and almost the same for my BFA.

House Dress

I spent the majority of Sunday cleaning house and watering the yard, warring with the omnipresent Chinese elm seeds, and feeling virtuous. And I was properly dressed for the occasion—in a housedress. My grandma Sadie always wore a neat little flowered duster of a dress to do housework. It was practical, differentiated home from the outside world, and looked tidy. As I prefer unconstricted clothing—sometimes even drawstring pants are too much—I’m happy in my one piece items that range from classic housedress (snaps, pockets, puffy sleeves) to a colorful short caftan that works just as well.
My mother loathed the look. She hated Depression era fashion, particularly on me. We fought for years about my favorite dress—a black 1930’s styled cotton dress patterned with red cherries. She would have bodily ripped it off me if she’d dared. I wore it to college interviews against her imprecations—only to have interviewers say: what a cute dress! It was a cute dress, and flattering, and modest. In an era of micro mini skirts I have no idea what my mom was freaking out about. She just hated that it reminded her of her mother.
Before she died, my mom sent me a clipping of me receiving the first poetry award I ever acquired while wearing…the dress. In that photo, I recognize the girl I was, the woman I would become. My expression is pleased if bemused—I look happy if slightly confused by life. My hair is bad—lank and unstyled. My dress is sweet. This is how I will remain for the rest of my life—bad hair, good dress, nice smile, mixed attitude. My mother enclosed a note saying—I don’t know why I carried on about that dress.
I don’t know either. My grandma Sadie came from poverty and oppression in the Ukraine to Boston. She was a seamstress, a union organizer, and a woman who loved clothes. She could crochet and trim a hat and judge a garment by its seams. She had a beautiful heavily embroidered silk kimono that never fit any of us as she was well under five feet tall. My mother also loved clothes. But I think she was ashamed of her roots in some way—she disliked the handmade, and the fashions of her childhood.
My paternal grandmother Esther also loved clothes and wore brilliant brocades and rich fabrics and patterns as her family ascended the social ladder. From her my sisters and I inherited a love of massage,hot springs and exercise. Influenced by the European physical culture movement, she did calisthenics naked and swam in the ocean every day. When I went to massage school, my father was as upset as my mother had been over the dress. “It’s all Esther’s fault,” he said.
My parents wanted to be modern, assimilated, American. But the counterculture—and cultural style itself—brought back everything from Swedish massage to shoulder pads.
Thank you grandmothers for your influence and sense of style.