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Note: a version of this review is being aired this week on the international LGBTQ radio syndicate This Way Out, headquartered in Los Angeles. To listen to the entire news wrap, click here.

 

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 when hard-won advancements in research and pharmaceuticals made AIDS a virus that people lived with rather than a disease that people died from.

It was an epidemic of massive proportions. As France writes:

“When the calendar turned to 1991, 100,000 Americans were dead from AIDS, twice as many as had perished in Vietnam.”

The book chronicles the scientific developments, the entwined politics, and medical breakthroughs in the AIDS epidemic. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a chronic infectious condition that is caused by the underlying human immunodeficiency virus known as HIV. The book also chronicles the human toll which is staggering.flags

I came out in 1981 and while the devastation France writes about was not my world, it was very close to my experience.

In my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012), I write about how volunteering at an AIDS hospice helped me to care for my mother when she became terminally ill:

“The only caregiving I had done at that point was tending to an old cat and reading poetry to the patients at an AIDS hospice, called Betak, that was in our neighborhood. A friend of ours, who was a harpist, had started a volunteer arts program for the patients. She played the harp, [my partner] Barbara came and brought her drum sometimes, and I read poetry. These were poor people—mostly African American men—who were in the advanced stages of AIDS and close to death. The experience let me see how fast the disease could move.”

In those days, the women’s community (what we then called the lesbian and feminist community) was mostly separate from the gay male community. Understandably, gay men and lesbians had our differences. But there was infighting in every group. Rebellion was in the air, and sometimes we took our hostilities out on each other.

Still, gay men and lesbians were also allies and friends (something that is reflected in France’s writing).

I’ll always remember the time my partner and I took a bus to Washington D.C. with the guys from ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an international activist group that is still in existence) from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to protest for reproductive rights. The women then went to protest with ACT-UP at AIDS-related protests. Remember the die-ins in the streets?

One thing that lesbians and gay men had in common was that we lived in a world that was hostile to us. At that time, many gay men and lesbians were in the closet because we were vilified by society and in danger of losing our employment, families, housing and, in more than a few instances, our lives.

AIDS activism necessitated coming out of the closet. Hate crimes against us skyrocketed.

There is much in this book that I did not know, even though I lived through the era. In 1986, in protest of the Bowers v. Hardwick ruling of the US Supreme Court (which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy – a decision that was overturned in 2003), about 1,000 angry people protested in a small park across from the legendary Stonewall Inn in New York City, where the modern gay rights movement was born after a series of riots that started after a routine police raid of the bar.

At that same time, Ronald Reagan (then president) and the President of France François Mitterrand were celebrating the anniversary of the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

“’Did you hear that Lady Liberty has AIDS?” the comedian [Bob Hope] cracked to the three hundred guests. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.’”

“There was a scattering of groans. Mitterand and his wife looked appalled. But not the Reagans. The first lady, a year after the death of her friend Rock Hudson, the brunt of this joke, smiled affectionately. The president threw his head back and roared.”

How to Survive A Plague is told in stories, including the author’s own story. This is apt because the gay rights movement was full of stories and — because of the epidemic — most of those stories were cut short.

Almost every June, my partner and I would be part of the New York Pride Parade and every year we would pause for an official moment to honor our dead. The silence was cavernous.

This silence extended to entire communities. A gay male friend, amazed when his test came back negative, told me that most of his address book was crossed out. He would walk around the “gayborhood” in Center City Philadelphia surrounded by the haunting places where his friends used to live.

And we were all so young then.

When I turned the last page of How To Survive A Plague, I concluded that this is a very well-done book about a history that is important in its own right. The plague years also represent an important part of the American experience. And an understanding of this history is imperative to the future of the LGBT movement

 

originally in The Huffington Post

 

pride-flag-in-alleyThis year we celebrated Pride by going to see the lesbian musical Fun Home.  The celebration started when my partner Barbara won free tickets from WRTI, the local jazz radio station.

We started the evening with dinner and then a short stroll through the back alleys of Philadelphia’s “gayborhood” — where I found out that the Bike Stop still exists (from my memories of coming out thirty some years ago.

Fun Home is based on the 2006 graphic memoir of the same name written and illustrated by Alison Bechdel.  It is a touching coming of age story based on the author’s lesbian identity and that of her father, a closeted gay man.  The play didn’t disappoint, but when my partner left, she had a puzzled tone in her voice when she said that the audience was mostly straight people. Thankfully, the world has changed.

bike-stop-sign

fun-home-marquee

 

Barbara-stage-in-background

 

Fun-Home-stage-colors

 

actress-at-end-of-Fun-Home

I’ve never met Alison but have long read her comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For” and have read her graphic novels. Then when my book Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters was published (2012: Bella Books), it was in the same review as one of Alison’s books in Curve magazine.

This blog post is dedicated to my late friend Toni Brown.Toni_Brown_author Toni was a wonderful poet and writer and you can hear her read her work by clicking here.

Before moving to Philadelphia, Toni lived for many years in North Hampton Mass. She may have told me that she once knew Alison Bechdel or it just may be that North Hampton (which I visited several times) was so very much like the “Dykes To Watch Out For” comic strip that I always associate it with her.  Thank you Toni.

Recently we went to see A Quiet Passion — the movie about Emily Dickinson.  The role of Emily was played by Cynthia Nixon. While there was some wonderful acting in the film — including by Cynthia Nixon and while anything that brings notice to Emily Dickinson’s life, the film left us feeling that some things never change.  There was such an absence of any lesbian content – including Emily’s long-term relationship with her sister-in-law Susan (written about in the New Yorker decades ago by Emily’s niece and Susan’s daughter — who described Emily as a “valiant knight” to her mother — that I returned to my earlier work on Emily Dickinson.  A longer essay titled, “The American Sappho: In Pursuit of a Lesbian Emily Dickinson” that I wrote was published in the Vol. 3, Number 3 2002 edition of the Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly (now out of print).

My shorter essays on Emily Dickinson is reprinted below.

It was previously published on Technodyke.com and aired on This Way Out, the Los Angeles-based lesbian and gay radio syndicate that airs across the U.S. and in 22 countries abroad.

Emily Dickinson and I did not hit it off on the first date. That is to say that on introduction to her work, I saw her–or rather was taught to see her–as a lady like poet writing of hearts and flowers, tendrils and vines, the stuff of which had absolutely nothing to do with my life. In junior high when I came across Dickinson’s work, I was already a hell on wheels hard drinking adolescent, a product of my 1970s working class environment that put me on a collision course headed toward disaster.

Emily Dickinson color

It was my love of language that got me through. I’ve often heard it said that poetry serves no purpose. Perhaps that is true if one takes a completely materialistic and emotionally bankrupt view of life. But the fact is that two lines of poetry saved my life: Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow/ creeps through this petty pace from day to day.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that I could recite this part of Hamlet at will, even if I was on my way to being blasted or hung over from the night before, embedded in my mind that I would have a tomorrow. A tomorrow was not a petty thing to have: a few of my friends didn’t make it.

I wonder if things could have been different, for myself and for the close-knit gang of teenage girls I hung out with. I wonder if a Lesbian reading of Emily Dickinson could have halted our self-destruction and consequently saved a few young lives. It took a few more years for me to grow up, stop drinking and come out as a Lesbian. And when I did I found myself falling head over heels in love with poetry. Emily Dickinson was someone I returned to again and again. There was something clever, yet profound, in her verses that I memorized. The lines were deeply personal, as if they had been written just for me. I found her public personae intriguing. She was portrayed as a spinster, a recluse dressed in white, the eternal virgin who had nothing to do with men.

A few more years passed and I went to visit the Dickinson homestead in Amherst Massachusetts. I was there with a group of friends, some of whom lived in the area and were just visiting her home for the first time. It was ironic really– there we were a room full of Lesbian poets listening to the tour guide’s official wrap about the cloistered and asexual Emily Dickinson, trapped in her father’s house. There was something sinister about the house, foreboding. But behind the house, in the flower garden, was a beautiful wash of colors. And as I sat in the garden, on a white wrought iron bench, I peered through a shady grove to the neighboring house. I remember it being painted in the glowing hues of peach, at once golden and pink. There was something mysterious about this house, set back as it was from the road, directly approachable from the Dickinson homestead. If I were Emily I could not have resisted its magic lure.

I found out later that this house is where Susan Huntington Dickinson lived. She was Emily’s sister-in-law, married to Emily’s brother, Austin, and she was the love of Emily Dickinson’s life. She was Muse to Emily, her intended reader, thoughtful critic and, by more than a few accounts, she was Emily’s lover. In correspondence to Susan, Emily wrote that Susan was “imagination” itself. The two women were close friends for 40 years, and they lived next door to each other for 30 of those years.

In “Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson” (from Paris Press), the editors, Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, point out that over the course of their lifelong friendship and love affair, Emily sent countless numbers of letters, poems and a form of writing that Emily came to call the letter poem. And on many of these letters, placed for Susan to see when she unfolded them, Emily had written her careful instructions: “Open me carefully.”

Emily Dickinson lived at the end of the Victorian-era in New England from 1830 to 1886. After her death, any mention of Susan was carefully removed from her poetry and this essential body of correspondence was neglected. Still, even with this erasure of Susan’s name, which Emily had written at the top of so many of her poems, it is obvious that they are essentially Lesbian love poems. Consider, for example, the piece that begins with the line “Her breast is fit for pearls…”

“Susan, / Her breast is fit for pearls, / But I was not a “Diver”– / Her brow is fit for thrones / But I have not a crest, / Her heart is fit for home– / I–a Sparrow–build there / Sweet of twigs and twine / My perennial nest. / —Emily”

In Victorian New England, Emily Dickinson certainly could not mention her most intimate body parts. But she did a pretty good job of using the birds and bees as metaphor: “These days of heaven bring you nearer and nearer, and every bird that sings, and every bud that blooms, does but remind me more of that garden unseen, awaiting the hand that tills it. Dear Susie, when you come, how many boundless blossoms among the silent beds!”

To separate Emily Dickinson from her Lesbian passions is a cruel and unnecessary act. Not only does it do a disservice to Emily’s poetic genius, but it also deprives her readers of a deeper comprehension of Emily and therefore of a deeper understanding of themselves. That’s what literature, at its best, does. It leads us home.

It really doesn’t matter if Emily Dickinson ever made love with a woman. (Although my guess is that she did and most likely did so rather skillfully.) What matters is that she experienced deep rending passion, that must at times, under the circumstances, have been painful.

A Lesbian reading of Emily Dickinson places her firmly in the center of her own page. When I think back on my visit to her house, I can see her clearly now, sitting down at her desk after her daily chores were done, as she smoothed the white folds of her skirt and picks up her quilled pen. As she writes, her cheeks are ablaze with longing and desire, that essential Lesbian desire.

 

The following is a recent review that I wrote for the Alexander Artway Archive, a very interesting photo collection that I have been working with. Alexander Artway was an architect and photographer who photographed New York City in the 1930s. You can view the photos by clicking here.

We have decided to review photography books for the Alexander Artway blog — and this first book by David Freese documents that climate change is real.

Working with the Alexander Artway Archive inspired me to write the novel Looking At Pictures. You can click here to read excerpts (or watch me on YouTube).

The blog post/review is reprinted below:

artway blog

Last year or so when taking photography classes at Temple University (so that we could apply the learning to our photo archive ) we had the good fortune of taking David Freese’s course on World Photography.

When we heard that David was introducing his new book at the Print Center in Philadelphia (formerly the Print Club), we were delighted and went to the lecture and to buy David’s book, East Coast: Arctic to Tropic, Photographs by David Freese with text by Simon Winchester and Jenna Butler.

After Hurricane Sandy — when Freese saw the devastation first hand — he was, as he writes in the book on a mission to “show the connection between a warming climate and these fragile and vulnerable low-lying areas.” The result was this coffee-table sized photography book with stunning black and white images.  The images (most of them aerial) are so visually appealing that many to us were reminiscent of trips we had taken or evocative of places we had read about.

That these images are important is underscored by the fact that this coast line with be vastly different in a generation or two. In other words, people living in the future will not see what we see if global warming is to continue its cataclysmic course.

 Freese  — who writes that he “did a lot of research on the topic” of climate change – shows us the pristine beauty of ice and cloud in Greenland at the start of his journey.

As he writes, “water, water is everywhere” and we see that this is true – not only of glacially pure remote areas but major cities as he descends down the Eastern Seaboard in his book coming to the conclusion that “the albatross of global warming and a rising sea is around our collective necks.”

Among other places, the images take us to Quebec, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia where the heavens seem to shine down in sun rays from above. Freese also shows us remote views such as “Bubble Rock and Eagle Lake,” Acadia National Park, Maine.  The image, dominated by a boulder atop a mountaintop under a sky that is palpable startles with its bold simplicity.

 The book ends in Florida with images that are as equally beautiful and stunning.  The photography is done with such skill in the tradition of landscape photographers (think Edward Weston and Ansel Adams) that at times it’s easy to forget that everything might be underwater soon.

East Coast: Arctic to Tropic is published by George F. Thompson Publishing – www.gftbooks.com

 

 

“When my father died, it felt like a library burnt down.”

–Laurie Anderson

My father, Albert Mason, Jr., died on May 7, 2017. He was ninety-eight years old.  He was born on March 28th, 1919. There is much to be said of his life which lasted nearly a century.   A decorated veteran of the US Armed Forces (Army/Air Force), he served in World War II where he unloaded the dead and wounded off of helicopters.

H e was already legally blind in one eye – a surgery to correct his cross eyed condition blinded him at the age of eight. (As my mother always said, the military at that time would take anyone who could hold a rifle.)

He also (my mother told me with a shudder decades ago) was a passenger (as a soldier) on an unescorted ship in Japanese territory.  I remember the photographs of him as a young man serving in the armed forces in Guam and the Philippines.wedding-picture-dad-may-2017-207

After coming home from WWII, he married my mother.  They were both twenty-five years old.

After a stint as a roofer’s assistant and a plumber’s assistant, he took a job at Rohm and Haas (since bought by a different company), he worked shift work his entire career – more than thirty years – in the boiler room at the plant. (My mother told me to say he was a ‘stationary engineer.’)

He was one of the Great Generation and one of the lucky ones.  He got a union job when unions were still in vogue and was able to support his family. A few years ago, a childhood friend of mine (really a friend in adolescence) Alec Klatchko, read my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters and remarked that the life I led was made possible by having a stable and secure father.

I acknowledged that this was true – but it really hit me after his death.  Even though he was ninety-eight, he was mostly independent and wanted to live a few years longer.  He told me this in the hospital on his where he went the third time that he was having problems breathing.  He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a condition that people can live with – at least for a while.

I lobbied for him to go to a physical rehabilitation home which is where the hospital discharged him to.  There he started to get better. He was able to walk with the help of a walker and he did well in his physical therapy sessions. He was a lifelong walker (except in recent years when his eyesight worsened drastically due to glaucoma and he was afraid of falling) and he was very strong.  But he lost his ability to swallow in the rehabilitation home – and was losing weight drastically.dad-may-2017---fishtown

My partner (who is my rock and who is remarkably like my father) and I were with him on the Saturday of May sixth. (He loved Barbara like another daughter.)  He was rushed to a nearby hospital (St. Mary’s) late that night and died Sunday afternoon.  I went to the hospital that morning. Before his death, he told me he was not in pain. He was very emphatic about this. After he passed, the house doctor came in and told me that when he “went to heaven” he was not in any pain.

I was raised secular. My father was an agnostic, but before I was born he was a lay reader in his church (a branch of Protestant-ism).  I always considered my secular upbringing a gift, even in recent years when I have become a Unitarian Universalist and a lay minister.

My father’s death hit me like a ton of bricks.  I just turned fifty-eight years old and that’s a lot of time to have had my father. He was a good father and a good man. The goodness in me was born from the goodness in him.

One way I’ve been coping is to keep a list of the memories of my father – things both my father and mother told me and things that I remember. Like my father and mother, I am a walker.  I am also strong.  According to my partner, I am obsessive as my father – except about different things. I attribute my success as a writer to this streak of stubbornness and obsessiveness that I inherited from my father.  (Sometimes it’s important to persevere and not to take no for an answer.)

Also to heal from this loss, I’ve been laying on the floor doing yoga and at the same time listening to Buddhist videos on YouTube.  Tich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, was very helpful in talking about life and the afterlife.  He talked about the life of a cloud – how it doesn’t die but just changes energy.  First it might be a pond evaporated to the cloud.  After it is a cloud it may become rain.  It never dies – it just goes away. It changes energies.

My father was my cloud.  He rained down on me and I grew from the earth that he watered.

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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Honoring the father as well as the mother.”  This talk was part of a special service on Earth Day.

You can view the YouTube video below.  If you prefer, you can read the piece below the video.

 

In the past month, my 98-year old father has been hospitalized three times.   Since I am an only child and a dutiful daughter, this has thrust me into a new chapter of my life – which feels at times disembodied and surreal and other times purposeful and grounded.

The night before one of his medical appointments, I slept in Levittown – the place where I grew up and is so much a source of strength to me as well as a considerable source of angst. I attribute my strong work ethic to my working class background. This is also the backdrop of two of my novels and partly of my memoir, Tea Leaves, about taking care of my mother when she was terminally ill.

In this conventional landscape, I found myself praying to a conventional God about my father. Now, I was raised secular. In the past four years of being a Unitarian Universalist, I have learned about traditional religions and at the same time deepened my spirituality through such alternative paths as Buddhism and yoga. I have always prided myself on being alternative.

To say that I have long had issues with patriarchy is putting it lightly.

One of my earliest memories is when my father and I walked to the neighborhood pharmacy – which is still there but now sells convalescence and medical supplies for the home instead of the chewy  Mary Jane candies of my childhood – and for some reason I stayed outside.  When he came back out of the store, I was putting the imprint of my finger in the pliant grout around the store’s window.  “What are you doing?” he asked me.  I truthfully replied that the group of boys who had just been there told me to do this. “Never do what a group of boys tells you,” he said gruffly.  I must have taken his words to heart, because this is how I have lived my life.

And so in this conventional landscape, I found myself praying to God the father to help my father.  When I told my partner who I was praying to, she gave me a quizzical look – that comes rarely in the lives of the long married — that said, who are you?

A week later in the emergency room with my father again, I found myself again praying. There is much suffering in the emergency room. I could feel the pain around me – the squalling babies, the broken people wheeled in on stretchers, a gaunt and neglected old man leaning back, his mouth wide open.

I was sitting there breathing in and out. I was practicing Tonglen – the Buddhist practice of breathing in the suffering around you and breathing out peace.  But there was so much suffering around me – including my father lying back on his bed with a breathing tube in his nose.

Then the young dashing doctor came in. He kept shrugging and mentioning that my father was 98 – and that he could go home if he wanted to.   I could see him giving me a sideways glance.  I felt summed up as a big lesbian who his charms were lost on. More than that, I found his ageism appalling.  My father was in the emergency room because he had a hard time breathing.  (He is living with congestive heart failure.)

Fortunately, the nurse — who I liked — suggested that my father be admitted to the hospital.  As I write this reflection, he is still in the there. I am sitting with him – making sure that he gets the proper care.

My partner and I live our lives simply and fully as if every day is Earth Day.

Barbara is a drummer and we have attended many gatherings where it is chanted:

The earth is our Mother, we will take care of her.

This is true – the earth is our Mother – and I did take care of my mother.

But the earth that I sprang from is also my father – and I will take care of him.

 

 

NAMASTE

This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Meeting Hate With Compassion.”  This talk was part of a larger service.

You can view the YouTube video below.  If you prefer, you can read the piece below the video.

 

 

A few years after my partner and I bought our house, now decades ago, an angry young white man who lived across the street threw rocks at our second story bedroom window. I should say that this man was young but he was an adult.

I had seen this young man looking at me with hatred in his eyes and I knew it was him.  We also had been verbally harassed since we had moved into the neighborhood – by him and by others.

Initially, I wanted to throw rocks back at his windows.  But I couldn’t do that — since he lived with his grandparents.  So I called the police.  I reported this as a hate crime — which was the logical thing to do, except that in Philadelphia, at that time, lesbians and gay men were not protected under the hate crimes bill. I was upset – understandably so – and went through the range of emotions at being targeted, including rage and grief. The dispatcher and the officer were open-minded and supportive.  The officer encouraged us not to engage with the rock thrower (he said that this usually made things worse).

I’m a practicing Buddhist now, but I wasn’t then.  I never thought about it consciously but that experience must have been a major influence. As a wise friend once said, we are all victims of victims.  And if we are different, we run the risk of being victimized more.  But the point is that we all are different – and we should value those differences in ourselves and each other. Differences are what make a community interesting.  Take this one here at Restoration, for example.  Also, it’s oppressive to try to be like everyone else – especially if you’re pretending.

Years ago, when the rocks were thrown, I practiced compassion by looking out our bedroom window and noticing that the angry young man had the same look of hatred on his face when he looked at his mother’s husband — a man who was probably not his father.  His mother was severely disabled, is now in a nursing home, and her husband left.

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, my partner Barbara and I went to a gathering where one of the people, a former minister, said that we must have compassion for those who hate because “they are so broken that the only way that they can feel good about themselves is to hate others.”

King quote on refusing to hate

I knew with sadness that what she said was true. Perhaps I was a natural Buddhist years ago in that I took non-violent action. The police officer (and a neighbor) told us the young man’s full name. When I saw him on the street, I greeted him by name.  I told a neighbor who is related to the angry young man that “We were not going to take it, and already called the police.”  I also told his grandfather, who he lived with, the same thing.  The angry young man’s relatives agreed with me that I should alert the police.

After that, I kept saying hello to him by name whenever I saw him on the street, forcing him to acknowledge me.

The harassment stopped.

Over the years I have become a kind of a patchwork Buddhist. I chant every day, but am not formally affiliated with any group.  I learned Nam Myoho Renge Kyo — by watching Tina Turner on YouTube and going to a few Buddhist parties. The mantra is an expression of determination to embrace our Buddha nature and to help others achieve happiness.  For me, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is an ancient vibration that puts me in alignment with the cosmic energy of the universe.

Anger and hatred are at odds with the Buddhist philosophy. One quote, attributed to Buddha says that:

“Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased by love. This is an eternal Law. If one speaks or acts, with a pure mind, happiness follows one as one’s shadow that does not leave one.”

It bears repeating:

“Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased by love. This is an eternal Law. If one speaks or acts, with a pure mind, happiness follows one as one’s shadow that does not leave one.”

 

Nam Myo Renge Kyo