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About a year ago, I started learning modern Greek in earnest, using Greekpod101.com.  I like the way the coursework is organized, and I like the fact that I can hear the words spoken aloud.  I can’t say that I feel fluent in the language yet, but I have a system of learning that is helping me in more ways than I thought. I have long been fascinated with Greece (both ancient and modern). Twenty years ago, when I travelled to Greece, I bought of book of the fragments of Sappho that had modern Greek on one page that was translated from Sappho’s classical Greek words which are printed on the facing page.

“Sapfo? The Poetess?” The proprietor of a small bookstore in Athens asked me with arched eyebrows.

“Neh,” I responded affirmatively.

The proprietor disappeared into the backroom and came back with the slim volume of Sappho.

In those days, everything related to Sappho was kept in backrooms and spoken of in hushed tones. It was expected and it was the same way in the United States.

I had learned enough Greek to get around the country during my trip. I took the Greek island buses (which at that time were called the KTEL buses) and could read street signs on my long walks. So many of the Greek words that I began to learn again last year were familiar to me.

Since that day in the Athenian bookstore, my goal has been to learn both modern and classical Greek so I can read my volume of Sappho. As a working writer, wanting to learn Greek has long factored into my work. In my most recent novel The Unicorn, The Mystery (Adelaide Books – NY and Lisbon), one of my narrators who is a monk living in the Middle Ages aspires to learn Greek and to become a Priest which is a station above his humble background.

My novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books) is set in the Hebrew Bible and (in Book Two) in the New Testament.  The New Testament was translated into Koine Greek which is now close to modern Greek.

In my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books), I write about finding a spiral notebook that my mother had left for me where she linked my name with the ancient Greek lyric poet Korinna. Janet-Korinna, she wrote. I found a statue of Korinna in a small museum in the seaside city of Mytilini on the island of Lesvos when I travelled to Greece twenty years ago.

In a way, the Greek language has long been with me. As a working writer, I chose this language because it has been around so long and so many of the English words have their origin in Greek words. I chose to learn this language after going to a plant-based diet and I’m sure that both play a role in my improved brain power. It made perfect sense when I learned that learning a language can improve your memory.

I’m also sure that the learning of Greek (which I devote my morning hours too – about two hours a day – enters my writing in ways that are very deep and a mystery to me.

To learn more about my recently published novel — The Unicorn, The Mystery, click here:

The Unicorn, The Mystery now available from Adelaide Books — #amreading #FaithfullyLGBT

This morning, I participated in a service on difference during a month of storytelling at  Unitarian Universalists of Mt. Airy in Philadelphia. I reflected on story and led the following writing exercise. You can watch the reflection on You Tube (below) or read the text below. I hope it inspires you.

A story about difference

All my life, I have struggled with being different. Finally, in my sixth decade, I’ve made peace with the fact that I am different – that I am uniquely myself with the corresponding thought that it is good not to “fit in” anywhere.

For a long time, the only places I’ve felt comfortable are those that embrace diversity. Perhaps the reason why is that places where everyone is the same take me back to my childhood when I was bullied for being different or “other.” This was an intense experience, but the end result was that it did make me identify with others who are seen as different.

Decades ago, I found myself mistakenly in a gathering of lesbians who all worked for large corporations. They were talking about having to be closeted which at that time was the only way they could survive in a corporate environment. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that the entire thing – working for corporate America and being in the closet – was, in a word, “weird.”

So, my feelings of being different haven’t always related to being Queer, but that has usually factored into it. When I came out and found my tribe, I found myself among a group of lesbians in a woman’s book-store – many of whom all dressed the same in various types of jeans and tailored shirts usually with the collars turned up. Well, it was the eighties, and we had a uniform. So, I distinguished myself with a pair of trademark red high-top sneakers and dangly earrings.

I’ve been different in different ways over the years. I’ve been a lesbian-feminist (before the word Queer came along – even though I was always queer with a lower-case “q”). About six years ago, I found my way to this Unitarian Universalist congregation which is diverse enough to make me feel comfortable. Being a Unitarian Universalist for me means embracing more than one faith tradition and since this is different than most religions, I’ve often had to explain how this works.

More recently, for the past year and a half, I’ve belonged to the worldwide movement of going to a healthy plant-based diet. Of course, there is some overlap between my identities, such as the existence of the UU Animal Ministry. And I admit that I am happy when I find another LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) vegan!

You might say that I’ve worn lots of hats over the years. And the members of my tribe now? Well, I’d have to say that the people I’m most comfortable with are those who are most comfortable with difference – including their own!

We are all, in our own way, different.

–Namaste

To learn more about my recently published novel — The Unicorn, The Mystery, click here:

The Unicorn, The Mystery now available from Adelaide Books — #amreading #FaithfullyLGBT

I was delighted to learn that aaduna, an online adventure with words and images just published “Surveillance” an excerpt from my memoir The Lens of Eternity: Love from Two Pandemics that I wrote last year. Here is the piece and below that is a link to aaduna.

Surveillance

(-non-fiction excerpt from The Lens of Eternity: Love from Two Pandemics )

It is hard to find the strength to put one foot in front of the other and keep on marching through life. A good friend of mine calls it “soldiering on”— as in “we have to keep soldiering on” when someone dies. Life inevitably involves suffering and suffering is hard. It is to be endured.

            I imagined that keeping an open secret (such as the photographer Berenice and her partner, the writer, Elizabeth did by pretending they were not living together) must have been hard. It involved suffering and endurance. I imagined it also involved amusement in thinking that some (perhaps, many) people were so naive that they believed that two women who were linked together in their creative and personal lives, who hung out with other lesbians, progressive people, and bohemians, who looked and behaved like lesbians (in that they were their own people and did their best not to defer to men) just happened to live in adjacent studios and were not lovers.

            The photographer, Berenice Abbott was perhaps best known for her poignant photographs of New York City in the 1930s. Her long-time partner, Elizabeth McCausland was an art critic, the author of many books and someone who did not receive the credit she deserved during or after her lifetime.

            I imagined the open secret also involved some amusement in thinking that some, (perhaps, many) people were so naive that they believed that two women who were linked together in their creative and personal lives, who hung out with other lesbians, progressive people, and bohemians, who looked and behaved like lesbians (in that they were their own people and did their best not to defer to men) just happened to live in adjacent studios and were not lovers.

            When I came out as a lesbian in the 1980s, I was twenty-three. After a period of inner tumultuousness caused by no small part in knowing that by coming out, I would be stepping over a line in a society that, at that time, would deem me an outcast, I came out to myself, my parents (who resisted at first but ultimately accepted me), and an often-hostile world in which I had to find my rebellious tribe.  As coming out experiences go, mine was a fortunate story.  Many people, at that time, lost everything – including their families (often their children as well as their parents).

            I worked then in an office in a small town outside of Philadelphia.  The town was called Hatboro and seemed many more miles away (culturally) from the City than it was. It was known as a conservative place even up until several years ago when a trans woman I met at a gathering told me that she and her spouse had made an LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) community center on the main drag in town. It just happened that she had my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books – 2018) in the library. In the early 1980s when I worked in the area and had recently come out as a lesbian, I remember being astonished that more than a few people in the office assumed I was heterosexual. It was, in fact, laughable.

            In the mid-1940s when Berenice and Elizabeth were together when they were in their forties, things were radically different. This was especially true for LGBT movement or “homosexuals” in the parlance of the day. LGBT people were expected to be secretive and closeted or worse, to kill themselves and simply go away. Women were expected to marry men or to want to marry them. Sexism was rampant and lesbians, after all, were women. The mid-1940s was before the civil rights movement and things were drastically different for black people and other people of color, too.

            In 2020, human rights – at least legislatively and with U.S. Supreme Court appointees becoming more conservative — had started to move backwards. As Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party that was formed in Russia in 1903, said, “It is necessary sometimes to take one step backward to take two steps forward.”  I hoped human rights were not going to go back to what they were in the mid-1940s. They probably weren’t. But if it came to pass that things returned to what they were, then there was another thing I could learn from the life of Berenice Abbott. Most things — including surveillance and the threat of prosecution — are temporary.

            In the 1940s, Berenice did many things. She was taking on freelance assignments, teaching, and she had become an inventor with her ill-fated economically but interesting company which she called the “House of Photography” that she operated out of her studio apartment. 

            She made inventions that were intended to help the serious photographer such as an extremely large camera called Abbott’s Projection-Supersite camera that produced sixteen by twenty-inch contact prints, resulting in deeper tonality and overall crispness. Her detailed notebooks also revealed ideas and sketches for non-photographic purposes, such as a metal detector (unusual at the time) for protection against assassins.

            Berenice also published a few books including one of the first “how-to” books about photography that was published in 1941. It was titled A Guide to Better Photography. It was written by Berenice and contained photographs by other photographers including Lewis Hine. For a time, Berenice had championed his important documentary photography, some of which was used to change child labor laws in the United States. Also included in Berenice’s book was her long-time friend the Austrian American photographer Lisette Model, known for capturing humanity in her street photography. Berenice also included the work of her colleague Margaret Bourke-White who was known for her documentary and industrial photographs. As Hank O’Neal noted in Berenice Abbott American Photographer (published in 1982 by McGraw Hill) these photographers were not widely known at that time although they proved to be historically significant later.

            In 1944, Berenice published her second how-to photography book, The View Camera Made Simple, which covers large-format cameras. In 1948, her photographs were published in a book titled Greenwich Village Today and Yesterday. The book chronicled the neighborhood she called home for more than three decades. It also featured many of the other artists who lived there. The book with her photographs of Greenwich Village was never that well known, but toward the end of her life, in text that she read and approved in Berenice Abbott American Photographer, (published when Abbott was eighty-four) Hank O’Neal wrote, “The seventy-two illustrations include obviously commercial work and some of the finest photographs that Abbott had ever done.”

            In the mid-1940s, Berenice worked full-time for the magazine, Science Illustrated. The position seemed promising at the beginning. But after it was sold to a major publishing house and revamped, her job became part-time and subsequently uninteresting to Berenice. She resigned.

            Of her many activities – freelancing, teaching, inventing, publishing – that she pursued in the 1940s, Hank O’Neal wrote that, “It was in books, however, that she made her greatest contribution in the 1940s.”

            Around this same time when President Harry Truman announced the start of the Cold War in 1947, Berenice was uncharacteristically nervous all day. She may have been justifiably concerned about what might happen to her and Elizabeth.

            For years, they concealed their personal lives because they feared that someone may be watching. As it turned out someone was watching — the U.S. government.

            Of course, there were other reasons than them being lesbians that caught the FBI’s attention. Both Berenice and Elizabeth had long championed progressive causes, such as civil rights for African Americans.

Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan (before “renovation”) Photograph by Berenice Abbott

            In the early 1930s, Berenice had taken portraits of A’Leila Walker, well known for her Harlem literary salon The Dark Tower held in the 1920s. (The salon hosted emerging Harlem Renaissance writers, musicians, and artists.  A’Leila, the daughter of Madam C.J. Walker who is considered the first self-made female millionaire and one of the first African American millionaires, established her home as a meeting mecca and performance venue for creative artists.). Berenice had also photographed the jazz drummer Buddy Gilmore who gave lessons to the prince of Wales, and singer Taylor Gordon, an African American Harlem Renaissance singer who wrote about his upbringing in Sulphur Springs, Montana in his book Born to Be

            The portraits were used, with courtesy of Berenice, in the 1934 anthology titled Negro edited by Nancy Cunard who went on to become a communist. Cunard, born into a British family, lived in Paris in the 1920s (where she and Berenice most likely met), had a background in literature and ran Hours Press in the late 1920s, publishing such literary giants as Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound. Cunard spent her life fighting racism and fascism.

            The Negro anthology — which published such important Black writers as Alain Locke (known for his role in starting the Harlem Renaissance), W.E. Burghardt DuBois, and Zora Neale Hurston (a widely-known author associated with the Harlem Renaissance) — was published by what looks like Nancy Cunard’s own publishing house in London.

            Because it was an election year, I was intrigued by the article in the anthology that James W. Ford wrote in 1932 about Frederick Douglass. Douglass, who was born in 1818, was a former slave who went on to become a social reformer, writer, orator, and abolitionist.

            In 1872, Douglass was chosen to run as a Vice President on the ticket of the Equal Rights party. The Presidential nominee of the party was Victoria Woodhall, a leader in the suffrage movement. Ford wrote that “The convention took place at a time when the Republican Party was already beginning its betrayal of the Negro masses.”

            In his article in the Negro anthology, Ford wrote that “capitalist historians” silenced the fact that Douglass was the nation’s first African American vice presidential or presidential candidate nominated by any party. He also wrote that the Equal Rights party was a collaboration of women for women’s suffrage, workers, and Black people — and that “historians” of the “capitalist class” feared such coalitions.

            Elizabeth McCausland, too, had a background supporting radical causes. Since the 1920s, she had defended Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants and self-identified anarchists who were wrongly accused of murder and executed in 1927 by the state of Massachusetts. It didn’t matter that it was widely held that anti-Italian immigrant and anti-anarchist attitudes were at play. It didn’t matter that intellectuals around the world had come to the men’s defense or that investigations into their defense lasted well into the 1940s. In the 1950s, Elizabeth’s support of the two men was all that the FBI needed.

            In 2020, I thought of racial equality and pro-immigrant sentiment almost as mainstream values. But were they? They were mainstream — in my world. I happened to be a blue person in a red state that I hoped would become blue again. In late summer of 2020, I watched the Democratic National Convention with Joe Biden, as the presidential nominee, and Kamala Harris (the first African American female vice-presidential nominee of a major party).

            The convention, which was done remotely for the first time because of the pandemic, restored hope in me. Because it was done remotely, the viewers got to see areas of the country that the delegates lived in. People were all races, all ethnicities, all genders, and sexual orientations. To me, the DNC represented the diverse America that I felt comfortable in.

            I had a liberal bent all my life. Things were bad before the pandemic, but afterwards they seem to have gotten worse. Even the wearing of masks had become politicized. Bleached blond women who were supporters of forty-five were frequently on the news for spitting on someone in a supermarket or another store because the person who they spit on had the audacity to ask them to wear a mask. 

            Wearing the mask did not protect the mask wearer. It protected the people around you. Wearing the mask stopped the novel Corona Virus from spreading — in the case that you were sick and had symptoms or if you were infected and had no symptoms. The virus could still be spread by people with no symptoms. So, wearing the mask was an act of empathy. It meant that you cared about the health and well-being of others. It also showed that you believed that the germ existed — that you believed in science. Apparently, empathy had a political party. It was sad that it had come to this.

            Hate crimes were on the rise. I knew there were good cops, who did their jobs and protected people, but it seemed like more police were allied with the right wing. The Klan had come back in the form of younger people who called themselves members of the “alt-right.” But there wasn’t anything alternative about it — attitudes were the same.

            For this reason, I decided that I wouldn’t watch the Republican National Convention. I used to watch it, but it wasn’t the same anymore. It used to seem like it represented a part of America that I respected — even if it didn’t represent my values.  

            With the election of forty-five, it seemed to me that the RNC began to represent the worst of America — meaning people’s fears of what would happen if the country didn’t return to straight white male rule. It was the kind of fear that could lead to violence and fascism.

            The RNC probably would have made me ill. I decided that I wasn’t going to risk my health by watching it. 

            In my way of thinking, hatred of others always involves hatred of the self. So, it was hard not to judge but I tried not to. I also tried not to return their hate. I wished everyone true happiness. I wished them so much love for themselves that they would find themselves unable to hate others.

So, there were other reasons for the FBI to put Berenice and Elizabeth on their list of potential communists but once it found out they were lesbians and carrying on a “homosexual affair” with each other, it seemed to have sealed the deal. The FBI report noted that Berenice “wears slacks constantly.”

            When Berenice was away on assignment, an FBI agent came to Berenice’s and Elizabeth’s home on Commerce Street in the Village and interrogated Elizabeth. She told the (white male) agent that she was just a woman with no knowledge of communism. I imagined Elizabeth sitting at the kitchen table or maybe on the couch in her living room and telling the agent this. She was short and squat with cropped hair. She was described as “mannish” but was what I would have described as “butch” — right down to the fact that she was a good cook.

            Elizabeth must have been terrified and she must have felt very alone, but she knew how to play to this guy’s sympathy and sexism. He was obviously oblivious, and I could imagine that she found that sad but also slightly amusing.

 <><><> 

To read the entire piece in aaduna, click here:

https://aadunanotes.blogspot.com/2021/05/mason-creative-nonfiction-aaduna-in.html

To read another excerpt fromThe Lens of Eternity: Love From Two Pandemics click on the following:

To learn more about my recently published novel — The Unicorn, The Mystery, click here:

The Unicorn, The Mystery now available from Adelaide Books — #amreading #FaithfullyLGBT

After gardening, enjoying my birthday celebration with a vegan brownie treat and topping that my partner Barbara made for me with the help of our local food co-op.

Going to a healthy plant-based diet is the best thing I ever did — and I’ve done a lot.

It feels good to not be exploiting the animals, the environment— and to be healthy in the process!

To learn more about my recently published novel — The Unicorn, The Mystery, click here:

The Unicorn, The Mystery now available from Adelaide Books — #amreading #FaithfullyLGBT

Writing and the making of art — not mutually exclusive — has always been for me an act of collaboration between myself and the universe. It is a kind of conversation between my subjects, a way of understanding myself and the world.

Fortunately, for me being a creative has always taken place in community. For many years, I was in a feminist writing group which taught me the value of giving and accepting feedback.I was also part of a poetry publishing collective that was extremely important to my development as a writer. My classes have functioned as communities where writing became important to us.

In recent years, I have been part of a Unitarian Universalist community that has been important to me as a writer.

The community that bill berry, jr., has created through aaduna, an online adventure with words and images is also extremely important to me.  This year the literary and arts magazine has been experiencing technical difficulties so the Spring 2021 issue will be published through aadunanotes.

My piece “ Surveillance,” excerpted from the memoir I wrote last year titled The Lens of Eternity: Love From Two Pandemics, will be posted on May 20th.

Following is the statement that bill wrote on aadunanotes and below that is a link to the full list of contributors from the Spring issue:

“The 2021 issue will be presented on the “aadunanotes” platform where each artist will be presented solo. This approach will not change the content or vitality of any published work nor alter the contributor’s bio. It will enable readers to pause, reflect and savor a creative person one at a time.”

https://aadunanotes.blogspot.com/2021/05/aaduna-in-exile-spring-2021-issue-vol.html

To learn more about my recently published novel — The Unicorn, The Mystery, click here:

The Unicorn, The Mystery now available from Adelaide Books — #amreading #FaithfullyLGBT

aaduna, the literary and arts magazine, (an online adventure with words and images) has been having technical difficulties so the Spring Issue (which includes my creative nonfiction piece “Surveillance” — excerpted from the memoir I wrote last year) will be posted on aadunanotes May 20th. Check this space for more information.

Meanwhile, I was interested to learn through aadunanotes about the artist Ellen M. Blalock who is especially interested in the use of different artistic mediums in story telling, particularly in the African American community in the United States.

I’m looking forward to attending her talk through the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. The talk, “Conversation Through Creation,” May 13th, 6 p.m., is on Zoom and free and open to the public.

You can read more about her and register for the event by going to aadunanotes:

The Blalock…past. The Blalock…present. (aadunanotes.blogspot.com)

From aadunanotes:

“From January 15 to March 15, 1993, bill berry during his tenure as executive assistant to the college president, served as chair of the Rockland Community College (SUNY) African American History Month Committee. In that role, he developed and brought to life, “There is A World Through Our Eyes: Perceptions and Visions of the African American Photographer.” Curated by photographer, Collette V. Fournier, the exhibition was mounted throughout Rockland County using exhibition space at the Rotunda of the college, Rockland Center for the Arts, Arts Alliance of Haverstraw, Arts Council of Rockland, and the Blue Hill Cultural Center.  Featuring 23 African American photographers, 5 Black lithographers and one sculptor, a native of Hungary, this show helped transform the overall cultural landscape of that county is terms of the diversity of creatives who were eventually given exhibition space. One of those “There is A World” photographers was Ellen M. Blalock.”

To learn more about my recently published novel — The Unicorn, The Mystery, click here:

The Unicorn, The Mystery now available from Adelaide Books — #amreading #FaithfullyLGBT

I was inspired to write this by a service at the Unitarian Universalist church that I attend. (My partner and I now participate in services virtually.) This story is, in many ways, an addendum to my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters published by Bella Books. So here it is, a Mother’s Day story. The story is on my YouTube channel and the text is below that.

What’s in a name?

My mother told me that I was named for a woman in the office where she worked. The woman was named Janet. She was tall and had a long flame of red hair, like Boudica the fierce British warrior queen who led an uprising against the conquering forces of the Roman Empire in 60 A.D.

Janet was probably a secretary because that’s what most women did who worked in offices in those days.

“She wasn’t a friend,” my mother told me. “I just liked her, so I named you after her.”

My mother also told me that my name Janet meant that I was an extension of her. She was named Jane. Her mother used to call her plain Jane. I was a little Jane or a Jane-ette. It’s true that I am a lot like my mother – even if I did turn out to be not so little. But probably I am not as much of a live wire as she was.

I come from a small family. Now that almost everyone is gone, I have come to feel that I am part of the human family.

I also consider myself to be part of the family of other (non-human) animals on the planet. But that is a story for another day.

–Namaste

To learn more about my recently published novel — The Unicorn, The Mystery, click here:

The Unicorn, The Mystery now available from Adelaide Books — #amreading #FaithfullyLGBT

This morning, I participated in a service titled “Telling Our Stories” at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in the Mt. airy section of Philadelphia. I reflected on story and led the following writing exercise. You can watch the reflection above or read the text below. I hope it inspires you.

We all have a story to tell – at least one story if not more. It may be the story of how we got here, the story we know that can help others, or the story that we’ve always wanted to tell. The story encloses us in a world, we discover that world, and we learn things. Often, one of the things that we learn is that we are not alone.

As a writing teacher, I tell my students to write down their stories.  It’s true that if you write down your story and hold it up to the light you will experience it differently.

I often think of the quote from the Gospel of Thomas (in the Gnostic Gospels).

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

The saying is attributed to Jesus and some say this is heresy which makes me think there is something to it. Regardless…

I encourage you to think of myth and re-create yourself with it. It might be a myth that you remember from childhood. It could be the story of the tooth fairy or a bible verse. It could be any story that helps to get you through life. I encourage you to be positive and to be strong in your story.

As a working writer, I often think of my life as aligned with the myth of Sisyphus.

This is the story in Greek mythology of a man rolling a boulder up a hill. According to this myth, Sisyphus received a punishment in the underworld condemning him to roll a boulder to a mountaintop only to have the boulder roll back down again. 

There are few variations, but for the most part the myth fits me – except that in my case a woman is rolling the boulder up the mountain. Perhaps this is my way of remembering that good things come to those who never give up.

When you include myth in your story, you can rewrite that myth or put yourself into an existing myth. You may find yourself feeling larger and stronger.

Telling our story helps us define ourselves. As the late poet Audre Lorde said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Writing your story requires listening. Listen to the silence. When all is quiet listen to the voice inside of you and write down what it says. 

If you like, you will have a chance to share a story with us this month – during this month of story.

Since, we don’t have time for you to write during the service, jot down a few ideas after this and if you feel like it, return to your ideas later.

We’ll have some music after this for about five minutes, so you can reflect on your story and write it if you choose to.

Think about your favorite myth. What is the character in the myth that you relate to the most.? Maybe myth doesn’t work for you. Maybe myth irritates you. You are invited to rewrite the myth.

If myth doesn’t work for you, you can write a story that doesn’t include myth. Maybe you would like to write the story of how you got your name or of how you got here.

Namaste


To learn more about my recently published novel — The Unicorn, The Mystery, click here:

The Unicorn, The Mystery now available from Adelaide Books — #amreading #FaithfullyLGBT

I just found out the The Unicorn, The Mystery is featured in the Philadelphia Gay News and I’m excited to share the article with you. Special thanks to Victoria A. Brownworth .

“The Unicorn: The Mystery” hits all the universal notes

The collection of seven individual hangings known as “The Unicorn Tapestries” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at The Cloisters in New York City are, for all who have seen them, a magnificent experience of another time, place and world view. 

As The Met describes them, “these are among the most beautiful and complex works of art from the late Middle Ages that survive,” and “vividly depict scenes associated with a hunt for the elusive, magical unicorn.” 

It is these beautifully wrought pieces that Philadelphia writer Janet Mason has used as the background and impetus for her latest novel, “The Unicorn: The Mystery.”

Well-known in the queer, feminist and literary communities in Philadelphia, Mason’s work spans various genres. Her poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and essays have appeared in literary journals including the “Brooklyn Review” and the “Exquisite Corpse.” She has been reading her work locally for years at various venues, like Giovanni’s Room, Penn, and the Big Blue Marble bookstore in Mount Airy.

Her work includes the poetry collections “When I Was Straight,” “A F*cking Brief History of F*cking” and “A Woman Alone.”

Mason has been writing complex narratives for years. Her last novel, “They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders,” was an exploration of gender fluidity set in Biblical times. Mason’s award-winning memoir, “Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters,” explored the factory-worker lives of her mother and grandmother in working-class Philadelphia during her mother’s final illness.

Mason’s latest tells the tale of the unicorn, a young (and heretical) monk, some lesbian nuns and their secret cat, and the medieval world they each inhabit in a vivid and complicated thread of alternating perspectives and voices.

This is a world of magic and magical realism that Mason opens in the museum itself: A young child dressed as a princess notes how much blood there is in the tapestry they are viewing — and it is the unicorn who begins that story of violence, threat, redemption, spirituality and life beyond the story of the tapestries.

Unicorns have been an almost universal image of difference, exoticism and magic for centuries. It is, then, unsurprising that men would want to capture and kill one — the original big game hunt of old. But in Mason’s narrative, the monk seeks to protect and rescue the unicorn, which in turn leads to more drama and unintended consequences.

Mason spoke with PGN about her new novel, explaining its genesis, which has roots in some familial history. Her father, who had seen the tapestries with Mason’s mother years earlier, “suggested that I visit The Cloisters — now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art — when I was in New York City. I went and was captivated by what is commonly called ‘The Unicorn Room.’ The room contains seven tapestries telling the story of what happened to the unicorn. To this day, the story of the tapestries is called ‘an untold mystery’.”

That room sparked Mason’s interest, intriguing her and setting her on a complex narrative path. “I see everything through a feminist and a queer eye. That’s just the way it works for me,” she said. “The unicorn is a symbol of the queer community because it is elusive and different.” 

Yet people bring their own stories to that symbolic creature, as Mason explained. 

“In traditional literature, the unicorn is always referred to as a ‘he,’” she said. “Some readers identified the unicorn in the novel as a ‘she,’ since I wrote it. And that is fine. However, if you read between the lines, though, gender is not used in regard to the unicorn and the unicorn is non-binary.” 

Conceptualizing life in the Middle Ages was a wholly new experience for Mason. “The Middle Ages was pretty much a big gap in my consciousness, although I had been aware of some things,” she said. “I started wondering what it was like to be queer in the Middle Ages and the story was born.” 

Mason said, “The story takes place in a monastery where the unicorn lives and near where the tapestries were actually found in a barn–where they were used to wrap potatoes — in the French countryside.” 

She said the details of her story evolved with a panoply of characters. “I started writing the subplot about two nuns who live in the monastery and who happened to be in love with each other,” she said. “The nuns end up keeping a secret cat in the monastery.” 

But, Mason said, “Cats were frowned upon in the Middle Ages and considered agents of ‘Satan.’ I found out after I did the writing that nuns often did keep secret cats. So, I had some fun with the research and let the muse lead me along.”

The complexity of the narrative draws on Mason’s interest in theology and the spiritual, as well as her fascination with myriad layers of the literary. It’s a highly poetical and myth-based tale. Mason is a lay minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of The Restoration in Mount Airy and that personal theological connection also imbues “The Unicorn: The Mystery” with verisimilitude. 

Mason said, “I think this novel relates to my other books in that I felt like I needed to learn about something. With “Tea Leaves,” I needed to learn about my family lineage of working class women. With “They,” I needed to learn about the Bible by relating to some of the stories in it.” 

And in “The Unicorn: The Mystery,” Mason said, “I needed to learn about the Middle Ages so I could tell the unicorn’s story.”

“The Unicorn: The Mystery” hits all the universal notes — it is about passion and longing, desire in its myriad forms and the eternal quest for belonging and connection. Lush, lyrical and always surprising, it is a compelling addition to Mason’s body of work, and your own library.

To read the article in its entirety in the Philadelphia Gay News, click on the following link.

https://epgn.com/2021/04/28/the-unicorn-the-mystery-hits-all-the-universal-notes/

To learn more about my recently published novel — The Unicorn, The Mystery, click here:

The Unicorn, The Mystery now available from Adelaide Books — #amreading #FaithfullyLGBT


For the second year in a row, I am listening to The Food Revolution Summit hosted by the father and son duo John and Ocean Robbins.

This year’s Summit is the 10th Annual Summit as well as my second year of attending. I’ve been vegan/plant-based now for about a year and a half. I can attest to the fact that I feel better than I have in decades — perhaps ever.

I was motivated to go to to a healthy plant-based diet with a medical scare that left me with a strong motivation to take care of myself so that I would avoid (when possible) another trip to the hospital. My partner and I had gotten to know some cows on a dairy farm, so we had been wanting to go vegan for a few years before we did, out of compassion for the animals. Then I read up on how a going to a plant-based diet is the best thing we can do to reduce our carbon footprints for the planet.

My partner who has been mostly vegan for the past year and a half, feels great also.

Because I am no longer a “new” vegan, I was surprised that I learned so much already from my second Summit. What was really brought home to me was the fact that our bodies are so well designed to heal themselves given the right fuel. (I have known this intuitively since my acupuncturist suggested going to a healthy plant-based diet, but it’s nice to have my feelings confirmed.) I also was heartened to hear that a healthy plant-based diet can actually reverse the aging process. And I also took note when someone said that the nutrition inherent in plants has so many benefits for us. ( From my reading on how meat is processed, including fowl and fish, I could see how the eating of flesh causes disease.) But I really did not think (at least not consciously) about the healing nature of the plants that I ate and loved everyday.

The Food Revolution Summit is free and available to the public. There are a few days left. I believe you can just go their website to register and they will send you a link. It is worth listening – whether you are new to the plant-based lifestyle or an old hand. Not only do have nothing to lose, you have everything to gain!

To learn more about my recently published novel — The Unicorn, The Mystery, click here:

The Unicorn, The Mystery now available from Adelaide Books — #amreading #FaithfullyLGBT