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Reading Guapa

originally in The Huff Post

note: This review (in a modified form) will air on this week’s This Way Out, the international LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles.  To listen to the program, click here.

When I woke up and heard the news that 50 people in a nightclub were murdered by a gunman in Orlando, Florida my heart sunk. Then I heard that the club was gay and that the murderer was of Arab-American descent and publicly declared his allegiance to ISIS and my heart kind of caved in.

What can be said about such senseless violence? This is the kind of hatred that usually engenders further hatred.

One of the first things I heard on the news was the father being quoted about his son’s intense homophobia and the fact that the killing spree “had nothing to do with religion.”

Being the kind of person I am — I immediately thought it had everything to do with religion.

“People in churches and mosques need to think about what they are teaching,” I said to my partner over breakfast. “It’s not that different,” I said, “Christians, Jews, and Moslems have the same common ancestor Abraham who is in the Hebrew Bible.”

I read the Bible last year or so as research for a novel — and learned a few things about religion. I learned that modern culture is rife with biblical references. I also learned, to my surprise, that the Bible is not that anti-gay. I did find it to be extremely misogynist and violent, but I thought the anti gay parts were really taken out of context and greatly amplified. If you listen to Sarah Palin, for example, (who probably never read the actual Bible) you’d think the entire thing was an anti-gay tract.

My partner and I have been together for 31 years and you would think that there are no surprises, but I could tell she was impressed with my recently-acquired religious knowledge.

She is a deep thinker. “Of course it has to do with religion,” she replied. “Where do people learn about hate?”

Then I saw the photograph of the murderer (who was killed by authorities). To my mind, he looked gay. When I learned that he was married and had fathered a child or children, it still didn’t change my mind. There is a good chance that a man with that kind of rage inside him who specifically targeted a gay club and professed his repulsion at gay men holding hands and kissing on the street, was acting out in suppression of his deepest desires.

In full disclosure, I think far more people are gay who say they are gay. I have known more than a few gay men who specialize in straight married men. It works for these guys who don’t want to end up in a relationship. In fairness, I have known more gay men who are healthy enough to avoid men who identify as heterosexual. And through the years, I have rarely met lesbians who are interested in women who are married to men.

I’m not saying that all closeted gay people — or those who are bisexual and secretive — are gay bashers. But it is true that plenty of homophobic hate crimes, including murder, have been committed by men who can’t handle their own same-sex tendencies as was documented in American Honor Killings (2013, Akashic Books).

Granted there are also other issues at play here including gun control and the availability of automatic weapons colliding with mental health issues.

In the interest of not responding to hatred with hatred, I immediately thought of the fact that we are a human family. We have more in common than not and often there is considerable overlap between identities. I spent the day reading Guapa, a novel by Saleem Haddad (Other Press; New York; 2016).

In the novel, a man just under thirty living in an un-named middle eastern country, falls in love with another man and is walked in by his conservative grandmother with whom he lives.

The narrator is not from a religious family but he is grappling with homophobia in a deeply religious culture that includes check points, revolution, and a deep connection to family.

When the narrator reflects back on his adolescence, he gives voice to the same sentiments, unfortunately, that most young people feel regardless of their country of origin:

“I was different from everyone else.
I was doomed to be alone.
I was going to spend eternity rotting in hell.”

The narrator attends college in America — where he also grapples with homophobia and what he describes as his “Arabness” and all that that entails.

When he comes back to the Middle East and moves back in with his grandmother who raised him, he finally falls in love only to face more struggles. The narrator writes of his lover:

“He was right when he told me once that he had one foot in and one foot out. It was a balancing act, and he navigated it so effortlessly. But I was his one foot out, wasn’t I? In fact, he made sure I never met his mother. He introduced me to his father once, a few years ago at the wedding of his distant cousins. I remember being surprised at how tall his father was, but like Taymour he was very handsome.”

Judging from my reaction to the Orlando massacre, if I ever had any doubt, the LGBTQ community is home to me. I agree with President Obama when he said that gay clubs are meant to be safe spaces. I remember the days when gay clubs were not out in the open and when people of the same sex did not dare to hold hands in public.

It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been in a gay club in a good ten or fifteen years. It doesn’t matter if those murdered were all young people who I will never meet. I grieve for them and their families.

The massacre is an American tragedy. It is a nightmare for the LGBTQ community. And it is a problem for people of faith. I was raised secular, but in recent years became a Unitarian Universalist — a faith that really does embrace all people, including those of us who are LGBTQ.

Being part of a religion occasionally puts me in contact with people from other religions who are not so welcoming. I usually don’t mind when I am the LGBTQ spokesperson — and I do understand that being myself and being out can change hearts and minds.

Religion is still evolving. I am sometimes astounded that traditional religions are changing at all — such as the time I drove by a church in my neighborhood and did a double take at a “Happy Pride” sign outside. But other times, I am appalled that many religions are not changing fast enough and the young people raised in them feel compelled to leave.

As we can see from the Orlando massacre, religion is not, in fact, changing fast enough for young people and their families who are found in all religions and denominations.

 

Where does hatred come from?

 

This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a reading from the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and  reflected on how reading this book impacted my own creative process — in particular with Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage which I have fine tuned and am putting out into the world.   To see the reading and the reflection on YouTube, click here. (You can also view the YouTube video at the bottom of this post. This was part of a larger service titled “Hope in the Dark.”

Reading from  Big Magic, creative living beyond fear

by Elizabeth Gilbert

I think a lot of people quit pursuing creative lives because they’re scared of the word interesting. My favorite meditation teacher Pema Chodron, once said that the biggest problem she sees with people’s meditation is that they quit just when things are starting to get interesting.  Which is to say, they quit as soon as things aren’t easy anymore, as soon as it gets painful,   or boring,   or agitating.  They quit as soon as they see something in their minds that scares them or hurts them.  So they miss the good part, the wild part, the transformative part — the part when you push past the difficulty and enter into some raw new unexplored universe within yourself.

And maybe it’s like that with every important aspect of your life. Whatever it is you are pursuing, whatever it is you are seeking, whatever it is you are creating, be careful not to quit to soon.  As my friend Pastor Rob Bell warns: “Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the most capacity to transform you.”

Don’t let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding.

Because that moment?

That’s the moment when interesting begins.

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth  what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.”  –Gospel of Thomas butterfly-on-bush-porch-july-2016

Recently, I entered a new chapter of my life. I have just started taking notes for a new novel — a long term project — that involves research on a mythical creature and learning Classical Greek.  Learning Classical Greek is a long-time goal of mine — spurred by a trip to Greece now almost twenty years ago.  In Athens, I purchased a book of poetry by the classical Greek poet Sappho — “‘The Poetess?'” said the bookshop proprietor with raised eyebrows before he disappeared into the backroom of the bookshop.  He came back with a slim volume that had contemporary Greek on one page and Classical Greek on the facing page. The book is still sitting on my bookshelf.  It has been my lifelong goal to learn to read Sappho in the original. I figured I would wait a few years.

Then I read Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, and was inspired to learn Classical Greek now. What was I waiting for?  Learning a new language can inform my writing.  Gilbert writes about the magic of creative writing — really of making any kind of art or change and the art of being in the world.  In my experience of what she writes about — which is remarkably similar — I think of it as listening to the muse.

She also writes about the hard work of writing — which I was relieved to see because writing is hard work.

I heard a mainstream writer on the radio describe writing as the business of rejection. This is true. But as I tell my students, if they don’t put themselves out there, they don’t stand a chance. In other words, it’s over before it started.  I also tell my students that writing and publishing are two different things — and by not getting them confused they will save themselves a lot of time, not to mention anguish.

When I first talked to Maria about today’s service, I told her about my day of throwing out query letters to literary agents into what feels like the abyss. When she suggested that I talk about this, at first I didn’t want to.  When I see my students — many of them middle aged and older — getting excited about writing, when I see them actually writing and making sense of their worlds, I really dread telling them about the hard work of marketing their work. In fact, I often wait until the last class to talk about publishing.

But I realized that my faith in sending out query letters into the abyss does relate to today’s service and also to being a Unitarian Universalist. I have faith that something will happen. Marketing a novel may at times feel like putting a message in a bottle and casting it out to sea.  But I have belief in myself and, more importantly, in my work.

Then I realized that something has already happened.

I wrote this novel that I fine tuned and am marketing — Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage — based on the landscape of my adolescence — even though it is straight up fiction.  The protagonist is based on someone I knew who rode a motorcycle and went to jail before the age of eighteen because she was convicted of drug dealing.  It’s a long story but this landscape of gritty working class America is one that I fled from. I wrote the novel out of a feeling of regret — most likely a kind of survivor’s guilt.

Art is short for Artemis. In the novel, the story doesn’t end when Art goes to prison.  She enters a vocational program and when she is released she becomes an auto mechanic.  Then she re-unites with the love of her life, Linda, and thirty years later, when marriage equality is the law the land, they marry.

For me, writing fiction was a re-considering of the facts. And in doing so, I created hope.

 

 

originally in The Huff Post

note: This review (in a modified form) will air on this week’s This Way Out, the international LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles.  To listen to the program, click here.

“To the queerest person I know.” This is how my childhood best friend signed my high school year book. I am now in my fifties and don’t remember that much from high school — that I want to admit to — but I do remember this comment.

She was right. I was different.  I read books rather than watching the TV.  I followed the news — and in a working class milieu this meant that I was an oddball.  Then in my early twenties, I came out as a lesbian-feminist.

It wasn’t easy being different when I was a teen in the 1970s. But being different is a good and necessary thing. People who dare to be different make change. As I write in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters, a few of us girls on the elementary school playground hung upside down on the parallel bars in protest of girls not being allowed to wear pants — before the women’s movement: “It was 1969. The following year, having learned the power of showing out (almost) bare asses, we were wearing bell bottoms.”

I came out in the early eighties. About ten years later, I began hearing the word “queer” in the gay and lesbian community.  This was before we had the term LGBT.  I had some resistance to the word “Queer” until I talked to a younger friend, who embraced the term.  She explained to me that “Queer” included everyone that didn’t fit the gender and sexual orientation expectations of society.  In other words, queer was not heterosexual — or het, as we said in those days.

We are still figuring out gender. A older friend who is a strong feminist began researching transgender issues when her nephew, who started out life as a niece, transitioned.  My friend had some old school feminist notions at first but quickly came around to supporting her nephew whole-heartedly. At one point she said to me,  “I’ve been gender non-conformist my entire life.”  So my friend (who is a celibate bisexual), her nephew, and I,  are all queer.

So I applaud the HuffPost for changing “Gay Voices” to “Queer Voices.”  Queer recognizes our commonalities — in the fact that we are all different.  We are a community and we do have enemies — although that is not the only thing that makes us a community — and there is strength in numbers.

I recently read two books about queerness back to back. One from the other side of the world — is called From Darkness to Diva by Skye High, a leading Australian drag queen.  The other, about a man who grew up near me in a neighboring suburb of Philadelphia, is Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times written by Samuel G. Freedman with Kerry Donahue.

In From Darkness to Diva (O-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd. in the U.K.) the tall gay man who took Skye High as his drag name writes of his growing up gay and being so badly bullied that he had to leave high school.  High writes unflinchingly about the beatings he endured, but also delves into the self examination and spiritual lessons that he experienced.  He also writes of the trials and triumphs of finding a gay community and of the liberation he experienced in entering the transformative world of drag.

I was on the journey with him — as someone who was a teen who was bullied (to a lesser degree) and as someone who came of age and found my place in the world. But at no point was I more riveted as when he stood up to a bully in his second high school. He had to leave his first high school because he was bullied and after working several for several years returned to another high school for his degree and was bullied again.  High explores how he felt as he eventually stood up to the bully: “I now had the power over him. I was in control.  In that moment, I finally felt vindicated. It was as though my actions would have been justified had I wanted to snap his neck and kill him.”  But ultimately he showed mercy on the bully and let him go, explaining that he felt “saddened by the sight of him helplessly lying on the floor.”

Dying Words, The AIDS Reporting Of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times (CUNY Journalism Press) is a moving tribute to Jeff who died at the age of 39.  It is arranged in the form of interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives (including his sister the literary agent Wendy Schmalz Wilde) of Jeff’s and by the time the book presents his reportage on the AIDS epidemic, the reader feels a kinship with him.

“I think often of the dozen friends who have died of AIDS, and I feel them with me. It’s not that I am writing editorials, avenging their deaths.  It’s that I feel their strength, their soothing me on.  They are my conscience, their shadows with me everywhere: In the torchlight of the march.  Over my shoulder. By my desk.  In my sleep.”

Jeff had to break out of the box of the Times impeccable third-person reportage into the finding of his own voice. Participant-journalist doesn’t quite describe it, but it comes close.

Former Times colleague  Samuel G. Freedman writes eloquently in the foreword about the reasons that he put the book together:  “For a lack of a better term, I felt survivor guilt.  And beyond it, I grieved that as the years passed, fewer people would remember who Jeff Schmalz was and what tremendous work he had done.”

What impressed me about both books was how different they were — yet universal to the human experience. Who isn’t different in some way? In my view, anyone who says they are the same as everyone else is either lying, extremely boring or both.

 

 

 

 

 

For the past several years, I’ve been attending a Unitarian Universalist Church that has a tradition of Poetry Sunday.  Each week, poetry is included in the service. I was delighted to find out that a long time favorite of mine, Mary Oliver is a UU and that her poetry is often used. Of course, many other poets — from Rumi to contemporary poets — are often used also. One Sunday a year is dedicated to poetry’s role in UU and all spirituality.

For me especially — since I started my writing life as a poet — poetry represents a sense of the sacred (and the profane has a place in that!)

This year’s theme was empowerment — and I was honored to read from my collection “a woman alone” chronicling my trip to Greece. I read the following two poems:

a woman alone
hears the cooing of pigeons
and the flap of wings
folding air;
she hears Cathedral bells
answering one another;
and morning light
sputtering traffic
into existence; a
woman alone is a city
awakening.

a woman alone lives
in the house
of the double ax;
she enters her own labyrinth
and comes out amazed;
she is the minotaur
the earth womb
turned to a monster;
she is her own silver thread
leading herself to the center
of the maze that is her,
a woman alone.

 

Anne Arfaa, another featured poet this year, also read on the theme of empowerment. Listening to her, I was taken on a trip down memory lane. Anne and I were in a feminist writing group for many years — and from that we became fellow travelers on the road of life.

 

 

Last year, I was one of organizers of Poetry Sunday and here I am talking about the poetry of the late poet Audre Lorde who prophetically wrote “Poetry is not a luxury.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Byard Lancaster was a Philadelphia legend and internationally-known jazz performer who passed away several years ago. I knew Bayard through my partner Barbara McPherson who met him at the Mt. Airy post office (she is now retired!) where Byard came in and played the piccolo. Barbara started drumming with Byard and I took the video below at City Hall at the African-Carribean Affairs Counsel where they performed each month.

This week we attended a concert that Byard’s sister Mary Annn Lancaster Tyler (an accomplished musician herself) produced at the Settlement Music School in Germantown, Philadelphia. Following are some photographs that I took.

Barbara-and-dancer-on-stage-july-2016

 

Barbara-and-Maryanne

barbara-monette-on-stagebarbara-on-stage-with-dancer-two-july-2016

barbara-walker-song-july-2016lisa-chavous-silence-july-2016

barbar-on-stage-piano-july-2016

 

Note: The following is a talk I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration Sunday morning July 17 2016.  You can see most of the talk on YouTube be clicking here.

 

When I was a pre-teen, my mother gave me a book called Courageous Women, which was a young adult reader about women’s suffrage.

The book reminded me that not all people have always had the right to vote. The fifteenth amendment, passed in 1870 gave black men the right to vote.   A half century later, in 1920, the nineteenth amendment was ratified, giving all women the right to vote.

The passage of both amendments involved long, hard and violent struggles.

Frederick Douglas, a social reformer, orator, writer, statesman and former slave was a leading abolitionist.

Susan B. Anthony was a social reformer and feminist and one of the women who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.

There were many black women who also played pivotal roles in women’s suffrage. Anna Julia Cooper was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a commemorative postage stamp in 2009.anna

She was known for her statement: “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence or special patronage; then and there the whole black race enters with me.”

Only propertied white men had the vote until 1856 the year that it was determined that all white men could vote regardless of whether they owned property or not.

When as an adult, later in life, I became a Unitarian Universalist, I discovered a religion that embodies civic duty in all of its principles, perhaps especially in the second principle “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;” and also in the sixth principle “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

As Rev. Emily Gage, reflects on the Unitarian Universalist Assembly website, “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations points us toward something beyond inherent worth and dignity. It points us to the larger community. It gets at collective responsibility. It reminds us that treating people as human beings is not simply something we do one-on-one, but something that has systemic implications and can inform our entire cultural way of being.

“Compassion is something that we can easily act on individually. We can demonstrate openness, give people respect, and treat people with kindness on our own. But we need one another to achieve equity and justice.”

The larger community and collective responsibility. That’s what I learned about in my childhood book Courageous Women.

My mother was born in 1919 — a year before women won the right to vote. Perhaps having older parents gave me a different sense of history as well as an enhanced understanding that history is important.

In 1972, when I was thirteen, Shirley Chisholm ran for national office.  I paid attention.  Here was history in the making.  She was paving the way for African American people and women of all races to be presidential candidates.

Shirley Chisholm 1I grew up to have a close friend who not only voted for Shirley Chisholm but was a delegate. And it is not surprising that Chisholm made an appearance in my writing — Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage. It is fiction but definitely autobiographical when I wrote of my character:

“Five years ago Grace was watching the nightly news when Walter Cronkite announced that Shirley Chisholm, an African American congresswoman from New York, was running for the Democratic nomination for president against the incumbent Richard Milhous Nixon. Grace was just thirteen in 1972, but she remembered thinking things would be different.  She didn’t think she’d ever run for president.  But if Shirley Chisholm could, maybe girls could do anything.”

I voted as soon as I was able too. When I moved to Germantown in my early twenties, I was proud to stand in line with my neighbors — most of them African American men and women.  We were doing what was demanded of us.  Voting is not just a right. It is a responsibility.

Around that time, I came out as a lesbian. One of my favorite T-shirts was a black shirt with a pink triangle on it with black letters on the triangle that read:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This widely-known poem was written by Pastor Martin Niemellör about the cowardice of German intellectuals in Nazi Germany.

My T-shirt was lost in some long ago Laundromat but its sentiment stayed with me.

I could have done without the rocks being hurled through our bedroom window or the numerous instances of workplace harassment, but being a lesbian has given me some firsthand knowledge of oppression. For one thing, it may in fact be natural to respond to hatred with hatred — but it is not healthy, necessary, or productive.  I have not evolved to the point where as it says in The New Testament in Matthew, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

But I do think there might be something to that.

I also learned that we have more in common than we may think and it is very important for us to stick together. Civic duty and collective responsibility is certainly a big part of that.

Ecclesiastes in The Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Old Testament states in part:

“1  To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5  a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing   ….”

Now it is up to us. It is our time.

We have one vote, one voice. Think about your one vote and the difference it can make.

It’s time to be counted.

originally in The Huff Post

note: This review (in a modified form) will air on this week’s This Way Out, the international LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles.

For women’s history month, I decided to read two books of fiction by women back to back. The two books that I selected — Loving Eleanor, The intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok by Susan Wittig Albert and Bull and Other Stories by Kathy Anderson — did not disappoint. In fact, the two books are both so well written that I remembered why I first fell in love with reading.

Reading has always been an important part of my life. It is how I’ve always learned about the world and the people in it. In Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, I write about my love of reading and how it shaped my life. This includes reading every book in the school library when I was a child and reading poetry to patients in an AIDS hospice as a young woman. Reading factored heavily into my coming out as a lesbian. I credit The Women’s Room, the classic novel by Marilyn French with turning me into a radical feminist and from there it was just a short leap to becoming a lesbian. As I write in Tea Leaves, my boyfriend (just before I came out) “ accused me of loving books more than him.”

Touché.

It is no secret that reading has taken a back seat to just about everything in our smart phone driven information age. But reading remains an important link not only to literacy but to thinking critically.

 

As Publishers Weekly points out the publishing industry is making necessary changes. In “The Future of Reading” the author states that:

“Smart bricks-and-mortar retailers have figured out that they not only sell books—they sell the experience of buying books, and they are selling it to a connoisseur consumer base that distinguishes between the book as physical object and the book as a container of information.”

I would take this thought one step further to say that the joys of reading itself must be publicized and encouraged. Reading is not a necessary evil — it is fun and joyous. The turn of a phrase and a page registers on the conscious as an effortless activity. And, as when I was a child, the end of a book is a sad thing and often the characters live on in our imaginations.

The two books that I read definitely fit my description of everything that is wonderful about reading. Loving Eleanor, The intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok (Persevero Press), is a beautifully written and richly detailed historical novel that lets the reader fully enter the time span of journalist Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt’s love affair and intimate friendship. The book also chronicles the sacrifices that both women had to make to keep the rumors at bay about their relationship. Hickok left the Associated Press (where she was a highly regarded reporter) because of a conflict of interest with her relationship with Eleanor who was then the first lady. She took government jobs as a writer and was transferred to remote locations. We hear the thoughts of Hickok first hand in the writing of Susan Wittig Albert:

“I wasn’t to linger in Washington, where gossip still linked my name with hers. (I would later learn that Princess Alice had exclaimed loudly, and in a fashionable Washington restaurant, “I don’t care what they say, I simply cannot believe that Eleanor Roosevelt is a lesbian.”)

In Bull and Other Stories (Autumn House Press), lesbian author Kathy Anderson does not address a LGBT audience in most stories but she does explore the “queerness” in the thoughts of married couples toward each other, employees and bosses, of children to their parents and of parents toward their children. And she does so in such beautifully written and intriguing ways, that I was turning the pages without a thought to the world around me.

Her prose is often bitingly funny. In “Dip Me in Honey and Throw Me to the Lesbians,” Anderson gives us the thoughts of an upscale “foody” lesbian:

We are So not losers, Jane thought. This is proof. Look at us, in a fabulous restaurant enjoying ourselves. Take that, ex-lovers. She hoped they were all sitting at home wearing sweatpants and stuffing their fat behinds with pizza and beer, utterly bored with each other and their lives.”

Reading these two books reminded me that reading also helps you learn more about yourself, in addition to learning about the world in all of its time dimensions. Reading is like looking in a mirror and seeing things that not only have you never seen before but things you never expected to see.

originally in The Huffington Post

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