Oft-Jailed Activist Receives Final Release

Theresa Carr was praised for her daring, outrageousness, and creativity in the name of causes ranging from gay rights to nuclear disarmament.

Then, as part of a Tibetan Buddhist end-of-life ceremony, her lifelong partner lit the corner of her photo, chanting “Namo, Amitabhaya, Hri”  until the image was burned to a cinder.

That was the final gesture of farewell at a sukhavati ceremony for Carr that drew 40 of her friends and admirers to the New Haven Shambhala Center on Willow Street Tuesday evening.

Allan Appel PhotoCarr, who was also a carpenter and a naturalist, died on Thursday at the age of 59 after a two-year battle with breast cancer. She embraced Tibetan Buddhism five years ago.

The center’s senior teacher, Frank Ryan (pictured), said Carr’s body was watched over for three days.

That’s because in Buddhist thought, some quality of “mind” may still be retained in the physical body for that period of time. Her body was cremated Tuesday morning.

The final stage of the Buddhist farewell was about to unfold as participants entered the brightly decorated and incense-filled shrine room of the center. They sat down on mats and pillows before the altar, where Carr’s photograph was set beside a small vase of flowers.

Click on the play arrow to see the symbolic transition of Carr on to, in Buddhist thought, the next state of her journey.

Before the ceremony and after, people shared memories of Carr, a proud lesbian activist who let her facial hair grow.

It seemed only natural that toward the end of her life she embraced the faith that is committed to supporting what Buddhist doctrine calls “all sentient beings.”

“We threatened to send Theresa to a yoga retreat” decades ago, recalled one colleague from the pioneering New Haven Women’s Liberation Center. ” She thought that hilarious, absolutely ridiculous. Plus ca change ...”

Joan Cavanagh (pictured) and others recalled Carr’s participation in a group called Spinsters Opposed to Nuclear Genocide (SONG) during the 1980s. Once they paddled out to protest the launching of new nuclear submarines in Groton. On one occasion SONG, with Carr in the lead, showed up sprinkling a combination of glitter and creamed corn to evoke radiation sickness.

“She was very creative about props and theater,” said Cavanagh, who most recently worked with the Greater New Haven Labor History Association on a pioneering exhibition on the history of the Winchester Rifle Factory.

In Carr’s memory, Cavanagh read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Conscientious Objector,” which contains these lines:

I shall die, but that is all I should do for Death
... I am not on his payroll.

Activists Paula and Frank Panzarella recalled Carr’s work protesting the United States’ meddling in Nicaragua in the 1980s, working on campaigns for Puerto Rican independence, and helping to form the New Haven Coalition for Justice in El Salvador.

If you ended up arrested and in a cell with Carr, she’d be the one to climb up to remove the batteries or somehow disable the surveillance camera above you, another friend recalled.

One of her oldest friends, Steve Rowley, was an undergraduate with her at the University of Massachusetts in the early 1970s, where Carr created what was called “the liberation corridor.”

“She was a Marxist-Leninist lesbian; this was new to the world at the time. I was in awe of her. She was incredibly bright. She had the power to influence people without being condescending,” Rowley said.

On Tuesday it was time, in Buddhist practice, to let her go with finality. Though there is no real finality in Buddhist thought, Ryan added.

First Ryan led participants in a tonglen exercise. On the in-breath they evoked Carr and how they connected with her. On the out-breath they sent her love, compassion, or insight and extended it toward her.

Tonglen is “empathy and love through space,” Ryan said.

Then he lit the candles on the shrine and struck the gong, the reverberating sound symbolic of the never-endingness of the Buddhist’s concept of the mind’s journey.

The sukhavati ceremony concluded with the lighting of the photograph—a stark symbol of the key Buddhist notion of impermanence—and the chanting of “namo, amitabhaya, hri.”

Those words mean “right now,” “compassion,” and “go forth,” according to Ryan’s translation.

After the service, Carr’s life partner Alessandra Nichols led a group down to the Mill River, where the ashes from Carr’s photograph were to be tossed on the water.

Another friend and protege, Jennifer Miller (pictured), said Carr’s archives, including flyers and materials pertaining to the New Haven Women’s Liberation Center and SONG, are being sent to the Sophia Smith Collection, the archive of women’s history at Smith College.

“She knew,” Miller said, “it was important to understand history.”

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posted by: SandyMalmquist on April 2, 2014  5:11pm

One day, walking by the Superior Court courthouse, I noticed a purple headband on one of the statues.  Looking at my partner, we both smiled and said, simply, “Teresa was here.”  Yes, indeed, Teresa was right here in New Haven and we are all better people because she was.  Graffiti artist, carpenter, and spokesperson for all progressive causes ... we will miss you, Teresa!

posted by: Joan M. Cavanagh on April 2, 2014  8:19pm

Thanks for the beautiful story about Theresa. For her, every detail was important. So,I offer several factual corrections:
1. She was a carpenter and master naturalist, not the other way around.
2. She was 59 (not 57), just under 2 months short of her 60th birthday on May 23, 2014.
3.She died on Thursday, March 27th (not Sunday.) In accordance with her Buddhist practice, her body lay undisturbed and watched over by her friends for three days and a bit longer, until Monday morning, March 31st.
4. The protests of Spinsters Opposed to Nuclear Genocide in Groton against Trident submarines took many forms. Only one was a water action involving “paddling.”
5. The referenced action at the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in New Haven was a protest against U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, intervention aimed at subverting the Sandinista government. It didn’t involve any evocation of radiation sickness, which is attributable to the use of nuclear weapons. The latter occurred at a demonstration at the British Trident office in New London.

Theresa’s strength, humor, clarity of mind and creativity were a great gift to all of us who worked with her to plan and carry out these nonviolent actions that not only called for peace and justice but brought our own government to account for its disastrous and inhumane policies at home and abroad. We were a collective. The open exchange of ideas, shared decision-making and responsibility,  while often frustrating and difficult, was crucial to the process, as Theresa well understood.

Theresa defended the rights of all beings. In her later years, she helped to rescue beached whales. She truly understood the interconnectedness of all life. May she soar fearlessly and with joy, forever. 

Joan Cavanagh

[Editor: Thank you for the corrections. They’ve been made in the story.]