Posted by: johannalee | November 5, 2015

Original White Rat

Once upon a time, Johanna Lee was a member of an all-leatherdyke ritual dance group called the White Rats Morris.  (Morris dancing is an ancient kind of ritual dance with the purpose of making the sun rise every year on May Day.  If you are curious, dig around a bit at or google “morris dancing”.)  Most Morris teams don’t have a rat as a signifier animal, they tend to go more for dignified sorts of creatures such as bears or horses.  Joe loved rats though, she used to keep them as pets (I did too).  Anyway, she drew this amazing antlered rat for the team… the first piece of her art that I’ve seen surface in years.  Still my bestest friend ever, and so much more.  Love you, Joe

Joe Rat original White Rat drawing

Thanks to Marian Phillips (also an OG White Rat, and self-described Chief Pack Rat) for hanging onto this piece, outstanding even for Joe.  Note the characteristic thick wooden sticks in each hand and strap-on rows of bells on the calves, characteristic for Morris dancing.

And who could forget the archly comedic wording, here coupled with classic comic-book style lettering in the poster the antlered rat came from?

Joe antlered rat poster

Dear friends of Jo,

Our friend Jo is unique.
Very rarely are we privileged to know such a mind.
Especially among my peers,
the walking wounded of the HarsherLoin.

Let’s hope some queer writers/journalists
will consider compiling a
NON-fiction anthology about Jo.
[And including Jo’s writings or tapes, if any exist.]

Fiction won’t work here.
Beacause Jo’s brief life was too unlikely;
so it lacks verisimilitude.

a tired turtle

Posted by: johannalee | November 24, 2009

The Day of the Dead

spirits walk

Ofrendas for Joe

In San Francisco every year as in many other places large and small people celebrate the Day of the Dead.  This festival comes from south of the border but bears an uncanny resemblance to the Celtic Fire Festival of Samhain.   The nature of San Francisco’s celebration in the Mission District has changed over the last couple of decades or so but it still seemed necessary for our Joe to be commemorated there – she spent a lot of time in the Mission.  (Click here for more background on how it is celebrated in San Francisco now.)  A procession of some thousands of people streamed by on this street, then it was quiet again.  Here are a couple of photos of the ofrendas (offerings) that were set up for Joe.

keeping vigil

keeping vigil

It was set up & guarded by a few people close to the old ways.  A few friends of Joe from different periods in her life came by – Hunter, X, Alix who remembered Joe from long ago gutterpunk days.  Though they are not seen in these images, there were marigolds, the traditional flowers for los muertos, among the offerings.

In these pictures, it appears as if La Llorona has come to sit and mourn for Joe.



Thanks to all who helped this happen.

Posted by: johannalee | November 5, 2009

in 200 words or less, attempt the impossible

at Chapel of the Chimes in a recent year

At last the day of our memorial for Joe is near.

There is an obituary for Joe published on paper in the Nov. 5th-12th of 2009 issue of the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco.  If you missed it, here it is:

•       •       •       •       •       •       •       •

Johanna Tara Wood Lee

May 10, 1968  –  October 1, 2009

We have lost a face long seen in SF, someone who evoked the Vikings, the Valkyries and Amazons, who transformed intense early pain into achingly funny satire as an offstage comedian.

Joe lived in south Florida and small town New Hampshire as a child, but after sprouting natural chin hair at age 14, didn’t stay long.  Many people tried persistently to get Joe to cut off the beard, but s/he was as proud of it as Sampson of his mane.  Although the top English SAT scorer at that high school, after an abbreviated academic stint in Northampton, Joe left for the Michigan Festival and California.

Joe was a talented cartoon and zine artist, a founding member of the White Rats Morris, and part of queercore band Tribe 8’s beginning.  Joe was especially gifted with animals, particularly dogs, and had been a valued Bird Rescue Center volunteer.  Joe had a caring heart and healing hands for humans as well.   An unlettered scholar of history, Joe delved deeply into the lore of transformative divination with Norse runes.

We miss you so much, Joe, you’ll never be forgotten.


Posted by: johannalee | November 1, 2009

more from Anou

[starting in the late 80s, on through the 90s:]

Jo, Julian, and I used to get a bunch of magic markers and scrounge up all of our change for one ticket to a show, or if there were in and outs, look at someone else’s stamp and then just fake our stamps with the markers.  i used to love to dance in the pit with Jo and Julian, they were both big and strong enough and we used to fling each other around.

I used to work in restaurants and would always hook Jo up with food for free.  i remember her and Mona coming once and sitting down (like real people) (imagine it) and I just kept sending food to their table. Jo could eat some food.

Once Jo and I went to Hopland to some wimmins land and Jo and some other dykes wandered around and found a farm close by where there were experimental animals.. like lambs with 6 legs, they got chased outta there, and i didnt see them.. but we always talked about that.. it really freaked her out.

i remember when Jo was living in the old bank on 21st (i think ) and valencia.  it’s now the social security building.  they broke in thru the slide drawer for transactions.. i think it may have even been the door in and out.  That was always kinda a victory.

When she was real sick at the end .. she told me she saw my dog Mija (who died a long time ago) all the time in her dreams.  and that Mija was helping her.  I didn’t want to cry on the phone so she could hear.. but it meant so much to me.  I always knew Jo was good coz Mija loved her so much and always would go to her.  jo would share anything with you.. I saw her and Mija share food alot and I think just how we have visits of loved ones to help us cross over.  Mija was one of hers.  that was so comforting to me.

Posted by: johannalee | October 20, 2009

Starting at the Beginning

Some things I know about Joe:

Joe was named after that Dylan song, Visions of Johanna.

Joe was born in south Florida, but was moved to New England at age 6 – New Hampshire, to be precise. Joe lived in a pretty rural area of New Hampshire.  Joe first left the family home about age 14, may have come back for short stays for a while but never lived there again after age 16.

Joe had the highest English SAT score of anyone in that high school in New Hampshire.

Joe went to college for a short (really short) while, a good school, and lived in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Joe had literally dozens of jobs, generally none lasting, before becoming a “young senior citizen” on income subsidy.  For a while Joe was a bike messenger.

Joe came out to California as part of a wave of young radical women, a group of friends with a web of interconnections.  (more on this by someone who was there at that time here)

Joe visited Seattle & I think Portland as well, and loved it up there, even talked of moving to Seattle in mid 2009, but Joe really loved northern California, and San Francisco in particular, even though the cost of living – especially rents – made it very difficult.  Joe lived in Petaluma (twice) and in the wilds of Mendocino County for a season, and rented houses at different times in Santa Rosa and Guerneville; Joe also briefly stayed in Berkeley quite a number of times, and in Santa Cruz, the place Joe chose as where to depart from mortal life.

There’s a lot more, I will write further when logistics planning for the SF memorial becomes a little less intense, but in the meantime please add what you know, just hit the Leave A Comment link below right or e me.  thanks

Posted by: johannalee | October 19, 2009

Art & life

Just went to see Rent (somebody laid 2 spare tickets on me – good seats).  I knew it was about marginal city life + being homeless, nearly homeless, squatters… I’d forgotten that illness & death were major components, though I’d been informed on that at one time.  Beautifully done (here in SF), but couldn’t help crying & crying & crying…till most of my face was saturated…that must be what they mean about crying a river, feel like a watercourse.  Now temporarily dryeyed.

But what it was really about is how you’ve only got this moment, and it’s all about love.  Joe was aware of this more of the time than most people I know (including myself).

Posted by: johannalee | October 15, 2009

And in the end

“And in the end…the love you take

is equal to the love you make”                                [Beatles on mental radio]

Monday October 12th was a day of high cloud near Santa Cruz in the morning, just a bit chill.  The cemetery in Soquel is small and a beautiful place, with spreading California live oak trees.  seven women of a certain age and a stripling lad (son to two) gathered.  Names were exchanged among those who had never met before, then we centered ourselves to sing.  Sage was burned as is the way of the first people of this continent, a candle lit by Joe’s picture – the one with her in the park ranger shirt, as we heard how happy she was to find that shirt in a small second hand store, as she’d always wanted to be a ranger when she grew up…Joe’s picture was nestled next to a large old oak tree still laden with leafy green, leaning at about a 40 degree angle off the ground, the trunk held up by a stout wooden support.

We sang for a little while, then it was time, to meet a down-to-earth woman named Ellen who had brought the former fleshly housing of our beloved Joe…flowers, letters, good-byes & little drawings were inscribed on the paperboard box, which looked sturdy enough.  (We had been warned that delicate noses might detect evidence of the lack of any unnatural chemical embalming, but neither mine nor that of my travel-mate, nonsmokers both, noticed any such thing.)  And then we sang, a few short pieces that Joe knew too:

“…All that dies shall be reborn…”

and then one I learned from a beloved elder years ago, herself gone now

“Gone / Gone / Gone beyond / Gone beyond beyond / Hail the goer!”

Our brief time of close up leavetaking was complete.  We withdrew to an adjoining room.  Shortly a gentleman from the same place Ellen works for opened a shutter that swung down, opening the view through a window about 6 feet wide & almost 4 feet tall.  No mechanized conveyor belt at this small facility, the height of the table was adjusted up manually rather like an old-fashioned hospital bed, and they carefully slid the box through the opening and latched it.

We started to sing again as he set some controls, and sang for several minutes, some sobbing at times.  It grew very warm (even though all connecting doors were closed) and we opened the doors to the outside, welcome fresh air.

We sat and started to share, how had we met Joe, were there questions about her later life some of us could shed light on…but many of the most vivid things were about times long ago, like in Joe’s brief college days in Massachusetts.  Some songs that Joe loved to sing were sung:

Where The Soul Never Dies

Housewife’s Lament (more pithy than the title)

I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Everyday

Lovely Agnes

(There are some other songs that Joe loved to sing, like the Elizabethan song  Pastance With Good Company – by King Henry VIII no less – and the old traditional The Keeper, but there just weren’t enough hours to sing everything possible – mostlywe were talking, reminiscing for a couple hours, and then it was time to get something warm to drink, at the Ugly Mug there in Soquel, where Joe had a cup of…joe on September 30th, last time she went out.)

It was done well.  Still so sad.  I know a number of us were really feeling the pain, and the rest are probably mostly just perhaps a bit better at maintaining.  But a fitting celebration of a necessary passage.

Now to prepare the larger gathering, close in to the city Joe roamed most the last two decades.  Strength to the endeavor.

<late wednesday night the 14th>

Posted by: johannalee | October 12, 2009

When from hence / thou art passed

In a few hours we consign Joe’s mortal husk to the fire
still can’t believe it
but I think Joe was ready
that day
as ready as anyone ever is
(& much more ready than most of us ever are)

From an old song (a Celtic bardo):

When from thence
Thou art passed
Every night and all
To purifying Fire thou com’st at last
and Earth receive thy soul…

Posted by: johannalee | October 10, 2009

the goddess’ miracles

Besides the Vanir & the Aesir – the gods of the Vikings – Joe also had a special experience of Brighid, or Brigit, the Celtic goddess of healing, smithcraft, & poetry, as well as of fire and water.  One of the miracles that is attributed to Brighid in Ireland is that She turned a whole lake of water into beer…with all of her intractable difficulties with alcohol, Joe worked to substitute cravings for root beer for cravings for liquor.  We evolved the custom between us that she would ask me to bless it…I would bless the root beer or alcohol free beer (like O’Doul’s, say, at a party) in Brighid’s name and give it back to Joe.  She would proceed to drink it and feel pleasantly tipsy! We did this dozens of times the last several years.  Joe  called it “Brigit beer”.

She also a couple years back started writing a lot as a way to deal with the feelings that made her want to drink or use other drugs, and felt that writing poems as a devotional to Brighid, the patron of all creativity, was really powerful for her.

There is a poem by queer culture pioneering writer Judy Grahn that Joe spoke to me from memory more than once in late summer this year, in the last months, about the ancient Queen Boudicca, it starts:

I am the rock at the lip of the water

I am the wall that refused to be battered

I am the dyke in the matter, the other…

(from A)

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