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Archive for August, 2015

Note:  This review ran this week on the international LGBT radio syndicate This Way Out. Originally, it was published on The Huffington Post.

In reading two memoirs by members of the LGBT community, I was reminded of our similarities and differences. In full disclosure, I have to admit being a fan of the show “Orange is The New Black” — the popular Netflix series. I was delighted when I found out about the memoir Out of Orange by Cleary Wolters (2015; HarperOne). Cleary is the real life lesbian counterpart to the character Alex Vause on the series. Finally, I thought. The book details Cleary’s involvement in the high stakes world of international drug smuggling (very unusual for a lesbian) and her unfolding romance with Piper Kerman (whose experience the Netflix series is based on).

In prose that is brilliant (at times breathtaking), Cleary also offers us a story of regret and redemption. At one point when in jail and thinking about her future, Cleary reflects:

“I could see myself coming back, getting back to work in software. I might be close to forty-seven by then, but I would still have some good years left in me. My whole life wasn’t wasted. Maybe I could even write a book about the whole ordeal and save someone foolish from making my mistakes.”

Wolters father, who she was close to, died while she was in prison. She writes unflinchingly about her ordeals in the violent and overcrowded prison system. But ultimately she takes responsibility for her own mistakes and in the Epilogue apologizes to “generations of nameless families troubled by addiction.” Drug trafficking is not a victimless crime.

I was drawn to Bettyville (2015; Viking), a memoir by George Hodgman because it is a story of a gay man who returns to his hometown of Paris, Missouri to care for his mother when she is in her nineties. The writing is witticism taken to new heights. It’s not hard to see where Hodgman gets his own quirky sense of humor:

“I hear Betty’s voice from the hall: ‘Who turned up the air-conditioning so high? He’s trying to freeze me out.’

And here she is, all ninety years of her, curlers in disarray, chuckling a bit to herself for no reason, peeking into our guest room where I have been mostly not sleeping. It is the last place in America with shag carpet. In it, I have discovered what I believe to be a toenail from high school.”

Hodgman puts his life on hold when he finds his mother doing things like trying to put her sock on over her shoe:

“I am doing my best here. I will make it back to New York, but frankly, to spend some time in Paris, Missouri, is to come to question the city, where it is normal to work 24/7, tapping away on your BlackBerry for someone who will fire you in an instant, but crazy to pause to help some you love when they are falling.”

In the process of caring for his mother, this middle aged man, who is an only child, re-examines his childhood and adolescence filled with secrets and self hate as he came of age in small town America with zero role models for being gay. He examines his own young adulthood, including his relationship with his father. He also reflects on surviving the AIDS epidemic in the years when it swept through the gay community.

When I finished these two very different memoirs, I found it interesting that they both ended up in the same place with adult children taking care of elderly parents. As members of the LGBT community, we are different and but we are also are the same as anyone else. We often have elderly parents and we often take care of them. I chronicled my own journey in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books 2012). We often have pets and they often are important topics in our writings and conversations. We don’t fight for “special rights” but demand human rights.

To hear this review on This Way Out, click here.

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I presented this at the Unitarian Universalist Church as part of  Poetry Sunday” where I am a lay minister. The segment is also on YouTube. Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”)

"Poetry Is Not A Luxury" on church sign, Janet Mason standing next to it

“Poetry Is Not A Luxury.”

This is a quote from Audre Lorde, the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet,” who dedicated her art and life to social justice. Audre lived from 1934 to 1992.

I first came across her work in the early 1980s. I was in my twenties and was a freshly minted lesbian-feminist. I was fortunate to come out in a diverse cultural and political women’s community — which is what we called it then — which described a community based on the values of feminism and included lesbians, bisexual and heterosexual women and men of all stripes. I was fortunate to have seen Audre read in person several times, including in Philadelphia and at the Audre Lorde “I Am Your Sister” conference in Boston held in 1990 two years before she died of cancer at the age of 58.

Audre Lorde authored 15 books of poetry and prose.  She was Poet Laureate of New York State from 1991 to 1992.  She was a major poet. But because of racism, homophobia, and sexism, she was not taught in  the 1970s in the public high schools when I was a student. Audre Lorde’s work is powerful and is about empowerment.  If she had been taught, I know for a fact that her work would have saved plenty of lives. 

When I read her book Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches first published by The Crossing Press in 1984, it became a kind of bible for me.  All of her essays held resonance for me — especially “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”

But I always returned to her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”.  I’m going to share a few excerpts with you:

…..”it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are — until the poem — nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt.  That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.

…..

“For each of us …. , there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, ‘Beautifully/and tough as chestnut/stanchions against our nightmare of weakness/’ … and of impotence.

These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through that darkness.  Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The … place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient and it is deep.”

“…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.  The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

When I am lucky, I find myself coming full circle with that wonderment I experienced when young — now combined with the wisdom of my years.  Revisiting Audre Lorde’s essay through a Unitarian Universalist lens was one of those experiences.  While this essay could evoke any of the UU Seven Principles, to me it is particularly evocative of the first:  “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Poetry is something that has always made me feel more fully alive. It sheds new light on our commonalities and differences.  It enters the mystery and enlarges what is possible.

For this reason, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury.”

This piece was originally on OpEdNews

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Janet Mason reading poetry at PII Gallery

Friday night, I was part of a group poetry reading at PII Gallery in Old City.  The marathon reading was organized by poetry maestro Dave Worrell who brought together 17 poets who read a total of 47 poems.  As the poets moved back and forth from room to room, I mentioned to fellow poet Bill van Buskirk  that this is good for poets — to be together to be moving. Bill replied that he agreed: “if the poets get in a rut, then what is the world coming to?”    Below are some photos of the event and a short poem that I read in honor of the artwork on the walls. 

Mike Cohen reading poetry

       

(from  a woman alone)

she colors her own fields
wide open with purple
and yellow bowing
to a prism of green
swept away
in a stampede
of poppies
a woman alone is
wild and red.

–Janet Mason

Barry and Ruth and Horses

Lester Mobley poet

Poetry marathon at PII Gallery

Sarah Gray Beal reading poetry from phone

poster in window of PII Gallery

Dave Worrell at PII

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Note: As a result of this talk, I was interviewed on the UU Perspective podcast by Sharon Marrell.  You can listen to the Podcast by clicking here.

(I presented this at the Unitarian Universalist Church where I am a lay minister. The segment is also on YouTube. Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”)

When I heard that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same sex marriage, I was sitting in a diner in Levittown with my 96-year-old father and his 91-year-old lady friend. The sound on the TV was muted when the news broke so I read the captions and then read them again to make sure that I wasn’t imaging things. I clapped and loudly exclaimed “we won!”

I was the only one in the diner who was paying any attention to the news. As my father and his lady friend quietly agreed with me, I noticed a white man about ten years older than me, with a bandanna on his head and who sported a grizzly beard, staring at me with a hostile glint in his eye as if thinking, “so you’re one of those.”

I stared back, pleasantly, until he lowered his gaze.

I grew up in Levittown — a working class suburb of Philadelphia. In the 1980s, several years after I had moved away, a young gay man named Anthony Milano who lived in the area was brutally murdered by two men who confessed to killing him and are still on death row.

I always thought that it was some kind of innate survival tactic that I came out after I moved to the relative safe haven of Germantown/Mt. Airy (liberal, diverse neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Pa.). My partner Barbara and I have been together for 31 years and during that time have occasionally come to this church — mostly for Folk Factory concerts. When we first started attending somewhat regularly several years ago, I mentioned to Barbara that it was nice to come to a church that was so accepting of gay people.

“If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here,” she replied without missing a beat.

I had to admit that — once again — she was right.

Lots of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) people avoid religion because we have experienced religious intolerance.

When I started attending this church in earnest, I learned that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have been marching for

marching for LGBT social justice as long as I have, if not longer.  The Unitarian Universal Association website states that, “As Unitarian Universalists, we not only open our doors to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, we value diversity of sexuality and gender and see it as a spiritual gift.”

When I heard that the theme for this month is abundance, I wanted to do something on marriage equality.  For me, there is an abundance in being yourself. This probably fits every UU principle, but it especially resonates in the First Principle of “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

It was, fitting, perhaps that I was in Levittown when I heard the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality.  I had no idea how amazed I would feel that marriage equality is actually a reality in the entire country.  And I am proud of my country because this ruling is having a ripple effect around the world: in countries where people are still being imprisoned because of who they love.

But the man staring at me with hostility was a reminder that much work needs to be done — especially in small towns and in the South, especially in the areas of discrimination in housing, employment, and for the rights of transgendered people.

In being myself, in being out, I feel the abundance of being able to change the world by being who I am. By being myself, I make room for others to be themselves.  Perhaps that is true for all of us — regardless of our sexual orientation. If we are ourselves and if we are secure in ourselves, we make it easier for others to be themselves.

In researching and writing my latest novel titled Art: a novel of revolution, love, and marriage, I explore how social movements in the lifetime of my characters (who are adolescents in the 1970s) overlapped to re-shape society. These movements include Civil Rights and racial justice, feminism and reproductive rights, labor and economic justice and gay liberation which became LGBT rights.

Add climate change, another UU priority, and it’s easy to see how these issues are all connected. We are all human and we live on this planet.

We are all connected.  We are larger than ourselves.

There is abundance in the struggle.

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