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November 12, 2009

Guen Gifford, 1972-2009

Guencloseup Burlington resident Guenever Gifford, 37, died in a paragliding accident in California last Sunday, November 1. Like everyone who knew her, I was shocked and saddened to hear it.

Guen was a staff attorney at Law Line of Vermont. She was a dedicated and outspoken community activist, and an athlete. She was an acquaintance of mine, but I didn't feel I knew her well enough to memorialize her here, so I'm grateful to Jen Matthews for sending her thoughtful remembrance, below.

Jen has been a community activist friend and fan of Guen since their early '20s. She's now living in Northern California. She invites others to share their memories of Guen in the comments attached to this post.

Jen would like to add that a memorial service will take place in Burlington this Saturday, November 14, at 2 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Society at the top of Church Street. All are invited to attend to celebrate Guen's life, and mourn the loss of her presence on this planet. If you are so inclined, please make donations to the Peace and Justice Center (802-863-2345) and/or to The Caroline Fund for Women in Crisis (802-862-9616) in lieu of flowers.

From Jen:

I’m sure that the scope of Guen Gifford’s impact on the Vermont community, as well as those thousands of miles away, is beyond what I can even imagine. As her recent obituary put it: "She is remembered by all for her full and fearless engagement with living, in her devotion to her work, the causes she championed and the pursuit of her passion. She will continue to be an inspiration to us all."

 An outstanding woman, Guen, 37, died on November 1, 2009 in California while paragliding, one of her greatest passions in the past decade. Guen lived a very thoughtful life – considering pros and cons, examining how her actions would affect those around her. She was one of the most thorough, pensive people I’ve ever known. But she didn’t allow thoughts of fear to get in her way.

Obviously, each person who met Guen will have unique memories of her. These are a few of mine, and a little bit about her life:

A native Vermonter from Brattleboro, Guen graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa in 1994 with a degree in Linguistics. She and I met at Chittenden Community Action in Burlington in 1995 when we were both in our early '20s. I still remember her explaining to me (diagrams and all) how the word “buffalo” could be the only word in a sentence and still be linguistically correct. Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo (Adjective, noun, verb, adjective, noun). Three more buffaloes could be added, actually, but I no longer can explain that. 

Guen loved sharing her passions. In the mid-1990s when I met her, she was often busy after work, heading to soccer or Ultimate Frisbee games, encouraging me and others to join her, regardless of ability level. I was reluctant to play competitive sports, but she would convince me to bike to North Beach and "just toss the Frisbee aroun"” in the water. Then she’d proceed to invite me to an Ultimate Frisbee practice, coaxing me yet again. Other times, bursting out into a song, she encouraged me to sing with her even though I was self-conscious of singing. But soon I’d join because she looked so happy singing along, again coaxing me to be free. 

It’s clear that a huge part of her life centered around outdoor adventures, nature, and sports. When Guen ran her first Burlington City Marathon, I would drive by her running down Riverside Ave. Then an hour or so later, there she was running on North Ave. Then I’d see her yet again before I went home for dinner. She was committed to giving things her best effort — constantly challenging herself to grow, learn on all levels, and expand what she thought was possible.

I primarily knew Guen in her unwavering dedication to social justice and equality issues, as well as queer and women’s issues. Coming out at age 12, she was one of the most out and proud dykes I knew. Together, we were active organizers of the intergenerational Dyke Talks, Dyke March, and Women’s Dinners in the mid-1990’s (and again in the early 2000’s). She was one of the co-founders of Fight Back!, a grassroots low-income activist group, and in more recent years, on the board of directors of the Peace & Justice Center and the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corporation. 

I have heard her recently described as inclusive and expansive, and these qualities certainly showed up in many areas of her life. When I met her, she was involved in anti-racism work in the local schools and was a housing advocate for many women in or leaving domestic violence situations. There are no doubt many, many roles I am leaving out, or filtering from my perspective alone.  (I encourage you to comment on this blog and help fill in the blanks).

Instead of going to an traditional law school, Guen chose to clerk under Tom Garrett, director of Legal Services Law Line of Vermont, a non-profit serving low and moderate-income Vermonters. She was admitted to the Vermont Bar in 2002, becoming a valued Staff Attorney at Law Line for the rest of her 12 years of service there. She was a smarty-pants, for sure. I loved this about her.Guen-gliding

While others will have much more to say about Guen, as do I, I know this: her adventurous and sharp mind, her open and inquisitive heart, and her calculated and carefree life all circled around love. And all I can hope is that love circled around her yesterday as she felt the air on her skin for the last time. She leaves us all with the ultimate metaphor:  Guen knew how to fly and would encourage us to do the same.

Thank you, Guen. I can feel the wind on my cheeks when I smile, thinking of you.

Thank you Cathy and Jen for writing this. We at the RU12? Community Center want to extend our deepest sympathy to you and all of Guen's friends and family. Guen was an awesome person and she will be missed in our community.

Jen, this is a wonderful tribute. I love that you mentioned the "buffalo" sentence. Guen explained this to me not so long ago, so I thought I'd try and re-explain it, in her honor. I was on a long drive back to VT last summer, and made that wrong turn near Albany where if you're not paying attention, you veer off 87 and find yourself on 90 heading for freakin' Buffalo and there's no exit for like 20 miles. I called Holly to whine because now I would end up going about 4o minutes out of my way. She was having dinner with Guen. Guen got on the phone and proceeded to tell me how a coherent sentence could be made by repeating the word “buffalo” eight times. "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo."

Actually, at the time it was a little annoying. Now I was not only physically lost, but confused by this insane word puzzle. I even made another wrong turn because I was so distracted. But I made it back to 87, and kept mulling over the sentence for the rest of my drive until I could hear it the way Guen said it. It helps to notice which words are capitalized.

Here’s a translation: A herd of buffalo from Buffalo who are being run roughshod over by another herd of buffalo from Buffalo are at the same time themselves running roughshod over ANOTHER herd of buffalo from Buffalo.

Not a very Guenlike scenario. But a very Guenlike delight in language.

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