04/24/2014 04:22 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

What I Did Not Save

Listen, there are waters
Hidden from us
In the maze we find them still
We'll take you to them
You take your young ones
May they take their own in turn
But by your lives be you spirit
And by your hearts be you women
And by your eyes be you open
And by your hands be you whole

-- "Testimony" by Ferron, 1980

In the early-1980s, some dykes in Ann Arbor spray-painted these Ferron lyrics on the sides of buildings around town. The activists organized the lyrics into couplets, then dispersed the couplets around town with black spray paint. I did not live in Ann Arbor when the lyrics were visible; I never saw them in person. I saw only the photographic documentation of this radical activism.

When I worked at the Women's Crisis Center in the late 1980s, someone had donated a series of photographs, mounted and framed, that documented this particular moment of lesbian visibility and lesbian activism. I think that I even met one or more of the women who did this action. I think, but I am not sure. Even as I write this, I wonder, do I have the correct song? I can see those photographs in my mind's eye and they say, "But by your lives be you spirit / And by your hearts be you women" and "And by your eyes be you open / And by your hands be you whole." I think I can see them, but I could be wrong. It could be another Ferron song -- so many of her lyrics are memorable. So many of her lyrics speak about lesbian visibility. Could it be another? I wonder, too, about the timeline. Is the time frame correct? Was it the early 1980s? Was it the late 1980s? I cannot be certain that my memory is accurate.

This is what I do remember: When I was at the Women's Crisis Center, the photographs were curling with age; they were separating from their careful mount; the photographs were fading. The art that documented this activist moment was already, after a few short years, decaying. When the Women's Crisis Center closed in 1990, I wanted to take the photographs with me. Somehow the idea of these lyrics publicly visible in Ann Arbor in the early 1980s captured my imagination. I wanted to be among the graffiti artists, asserting the value of Ferron's lyrics. I wanted to be among the lesbians who saw the lyrics, walking through town, and felt affirmed by their power, who felt supported because of their visibility. I wanted to be a radical lesbian with a message; I wanted to be an ordinary lesbian hearing these radical messages.

I was neither of these women. I was 10 years old when Ferron released her album Testimony. I was born a few years too late to hear her performing at womyn's music festivals in the 1970s. I was born a few years too late to purchase this album when it was first released. Absent being a participant in this moment, I wanted to be a person who preserved these moments, these modes of radical lesbian activism. I wanted to take the photographs with me, re-matte them, preserve them, but I didn't.

I did not save the photographs. I think I did not because I was in the process of moving, because I saw how much I had already acquired in my short life and how heavy it was to carry from home to home. I think I did not want to be nostalgic for a type of lesbian activism from the past; I think I wanted to create my own radical lesbian future. I think I lost my nerve. I think I did not believe in my own ability to preserve.

I wanted to take those photographs, but I didn't. I did not save this moment in lesbian history. Now the graffiti has been removed and no one remembers how powerful Ferron's lyrics were and what a public role they played in Ann Arbor, Michigan for at least a few months in the 1980s. No one remembers how powerful it must have been for Midwestern dykes to be walking the streets of Ann Arbor and see those subversive lyrics by Ferron.

Maybe now, though, reading this story, you will remember: Ferron, "Testimony," Ann Arbor, "by your heart be you woman," spray-paint, radical lesbian activism. Do you remember?

Sometimes, I wake up in a cold sweat thinking about these lost photographs, about this lost moment of activism, of resistance, of assertion of lesbians' words. I think these photographs are lost because I did not take them. I did not preserve them. I think of the ways I have failed lesbians and lesbian culture. After the fear and sadness of this awakening, I want to redouble my commitment to preserving it. I want to tell stories about it. I want to invite others to join me.