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Archive for March, 2016

Previously published in The Huffington Post

 

Around ten years ago, I stood on the sidewalk and watched then senator of New York, Hillary Clinton march down Fifth Avenue in the midst of the Gay Pride Parade. What I focused on at the time was that she was the only person in the parade wearing high heels. The lesbians certainly weren’t wearing heels. Even the drag queens that year had started wearing sneakers with their dresses. What I remember now, of course, is that Hillary was there — before marriage equality, before LGBT rights were known as human rights.

Fast forward to the current presidential election. I am having dinner with an older, less out, lesbian friend who gives me a look and says that gay people will have problems if a Republican wins the presidency. She is right, of course. The backlash to marriage equality is already underway.

It’s not only publicly out people who will suffer. Now that so many of us are married, we have government papers identifying us. Too many gains have been made, to go backwards. That is why I am supporting Hillary Clinton for president. She has the best background for the job. She is ready on day one. As a relatively recent member of a Unitarian Universalist church and a lay minister, I am technically open to all religious faiths in a way that I have not been before. But I have to admit that the white evangelical conservative Christians in the middle of the country scare me.

It is because of them that I am writing the following three Tweets outlining the reasons that I support Hillary:

Supreme Court justices decided in the nxt pres. term will decide our fate — including LGBT rights http://tinyurl.com/j3ujxlh #VoteHillary

Prez Obama first friend in white house to LGBT community — #VoteHillary continue the legacy http://tinyurl.com/ja38xw5 @HillaryClinton

African American support buoys #Hillary http://tinyurl.com/jtgjh9x Let’s take their lead. The last thing we need is a divided Democratic Party.

Of course, there are many other reasons to support a mainstream Democratic candidate. These include reproductive rights which are already being eroded and will be influenced by the Supreme Court. Bernie Sanders has some good points. But the candidate who defines himself as a “Socialist Democrat” and uses words such as “oligarchy” will not win over middle America. Chances are slim to none that he will win a general election.

No one wants to dash the idealism of young people — or those who stand with the young. But in pointing out the obvious, we are helping the young people avoid the decades long (or more) struggles that affect them too. Yes, LGBT rights can be rolled back. Reproductive rights can be taken away.

Hillary Clinton is tough and more than competent.

And speaking as a second generation feminist descended from the working class (something that I talk about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters), I am thrilled that a woman candidate has a good chance of securing the presidential nomination. I am voting not just for myself, but for the women who came before me.

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Yesterday, a the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, I presented a “Dharma Talk” on ancestors and religion — how they intersect in my life.  I also presented some photo compositions that I shot and put together.  The photos are below and the presentation can be seen on YouTubetrinity-blog-one

What does religion mean to you?

I found this question in my home office. It was on a yellow Post-It note (which I often use) and it’s in my handwriting, so I know it didn’t drop from the sky.  But I have no memory of writing it.  It is a question that unconsciously I’ve been asking myself for a while.

To me religion at its purest is a connection to spirituality and spirituality is connected to the ancestors. My channel to religion/spirituality/myself has always been my writing. (My spirituality is now also connected to a regular meditation practice, yoga — with my gifted teacher the one and only Jane Hulting — and through attending services at Restoration.)

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My feeling of ancestry runs deep — and it makes me stronger. For example, when my mother was dying, my taking notes on our conversations (which I did not do in her presence) gave me focus.  I wrote my memoir Tea Leaves after she died. The writing of the memoir allowed me to keep my mother alive in my imagination — she had a wicked sense of humor — and at the same time it gave me the space to process her death.

Tea Leaves, which I just read from, includes stories about my mother, who was an office worker, and also my grandmother, who was a spinner in a textile factory in the Kensington section of Philadelphia in the 1920s and 30s. Later in life, she was a domestic. My mother and grandmother were artists at heart — just like me — so the book is full of mythology and dreams as well as family and labor history.

Ancestors are something that we all have, even if we have never known them. Like the Sweet Honey in the Rock song Breaths, if we listen more often to things than to beings, we can hear the ancestors speaking. In Santeria, and other religions in the African and Cuban traditions, there are rituals for communicating with the ancestors and seeking their wisdom.

In Native American spiritual paths there are many traditions that honor the ancestors.

All over the globe, ancestors are honored in Hinduism and Buddhism.

As extensive as these are, they are just a few of the spiritual traditions that honor ancestors.

Last fall, I started working on a project with an old friend and we are taking classes together at Temple University. One of the classes was on anthropology and photography and required field work. When I began classes, I was taking the bus and walking down North Broad Street.  I noticed that I was passing Glenwood Avenue, the street where my grandmother lived. She died when I was twelve and despite the fact that I attended the nearby campus of Temple when I was young, I never returned to her house.

 

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I decided that I needed to see the house that she lived in. Fortunately, I still have my father. He is 96 years old and is in good shape aside from bad eyes and increasing aches and pains.  He has a mind like a steel trap.  He told me my grandmother’s street number.  He also confirmed the name of her church — St. Simeon’s Episcopal Church — at 9th and Lehigh. This is the church where my father and mother were married.

I took my camera and visited the church which was bought by an evangelical group in Washington D.C. several years ago, partially rehabbed, and from the looks of it abandoned again. Then I walked several streets to my grandmother’s old house.  I took the bus home and put the photographs together with a smaller portrait that my friend took of me and my memoir.

 

In Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov writes “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” That is why the background of this composite photograph is black with a drop shadow on the images of my grandmother’s old house and church as they currently exist (representing also their imprint in my memory).  And there’s me at the bottom with my book, Tea Leaves, tying the generations together.  The title comes from the first line in the book with my mother saying to me: “Your grandmother read tea leaves.”  My mother told me this when I was 35 and she was in her mid 70s and dying.  I never heard about my grandmother reading tea leaves until then.

Since I titled the photograph “Trinity” — I decided that there should be three of them. The second photograph shows the door of my grandmother’s church as it is now in a collage with my parents wedding photograph above it. Like memory, the photograph of my parents’ wedding is fading into the background.

Finding my grandmother’s old church was magical. I recognized the arched red door from an old wedding portrait of my parents. When I photographed the broken stain glass window, a scent of musty decay reached my nose.  It may be the scent of abandonment and poverty, but I remember that smell from childhood. I associate it with my grandmother’s house — in particular with her basement.

The third photo shows the church, the house and my grandmother.

If I had done this project five or more years ago, I would not have thought of returning to my grandmother’s church. Perhaps being a member of Restoration — and of finding a church that I could be a member of — gives me a stronger connection to my grandmother and to my ancestors.

I always thought that my grandmother’s strong attachment to her church was mainly social and not religious. Some years after my mother and father were married in Saint Simeon’s, my mother became a card carrying atheist and my father declared himself an agnostic. They both were, in many ways, ahead of their time. The secular upbringing they gave me was a gift.  Yet, here I am, a Unitarian Universalist, searching for religious significance.

I share my grandmother’s sense of the spiritual, be it be reading tea leaves or clairvoyance in finding a parking spot. Since my ancestry involves religion, I come back to my original question, “what does religion mean to me?”

One purpose for religion is to make the world a better place. For this reason, I am proud to be part of a tradition that honors social justice and the legacy of “deeds not creeds.”

Another purpose of religion is to explain mortality.

When I heard the UU belief that “everyone goes to heaven,” I thought as party lines go, that’s not a bad one.

There’s lots of room in this religion — enough for you and for me. As the UUA website says:

“We are Unitarian Universalist and: Atheist/Agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, and more.”

There’s room for my belief in karma — that what goes around comes around.

There’s also room for traditional beliefs. I heard someone say, in this church, of a departed loved one, that he is in a better place. I really began to think about it. It is comforting.  And if you look at the statement logically (even without a religious context) it is true.

I watched my mother and my aunt die slow agonizing deaths — there is no doubt in my mind that wherever they went is better than where they were.

I agree with the Buddhists that “we should always keep in mind the impermanence of life.”

I also have a kind of Buddhist theory about the energy or the consciousness of our lives continuing after death.

For example, my mother’s wisdom and acerbic wit is often in my mind.

So who do you see when you look in the mirror? I see my late aunt and mother. When I laugh I hear my grandmother. He is still living, but when I look in the mirror sometimes I see my father. Specifically, I see his hair. When he had hair, it was just like mine.

You don’t have to answer now, but think about it. Who speaks to you and what are they saying?

 

 

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Yesterday, a the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, I read a passage from my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mother’s and daughters as part of a service on ancestors that I presented.  Click here to see the reading on YouTube.  I’ll post the accompanying “Dharma Talk” and photographs tomorrow.

I am going to read an excerpt from my book Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters.  This selection is taken from a meditation that I did with my mother toward the end of her life.

I look beyond my mother and grandmother to the other women standing higher on the hill. Their arms outstretched, faces beatific. I turn around and lay back in my grandmother’s arms. A warm breeze rustles through the grass, bending the long stalks into a green wave. My knees relax as I go limp. I am weightless in the air, held securely in the crook of my grandmother’s arms. I feel the firm grip of her hands. The broad fingers, that in her life were calloused and cracked, now cradle me with gentle strength. She speaks to me without words, telling me I am going back…back…to a place where I have come from but have never been…

As she passes me back to the woman standing behind her, I look up into a face I have seen only in old faded photographs. My own features mirrored back to me: the same square chin and full cheeks chiseled from the triangular lines. A flash of recognition passes between us, filial. Her features have changed from the few old photos I have seen. Fear has fallen from her face like a mask. Her strong hands cradle me, the resilience of a woman who knelt and scrubbed and, when she could do no more, kept on kneeling and scrubbing. The features of her face that were once tense and drawn have softened into wrinkles that fold easily in on themselves. Her face is lined with immeasurable wisdom. Dissolved in the cadences of time, transmuted between life and death, is the contempt she felt for her only daughter: my grandmother, abandoned by her husband, who raised two children on her own and was destined to live out the same fate as her mother. Staring into her blue gray eyes, I feel the tension in my shoulders dissolve. Tensions that I have never acknowledged, passed down to me from my mother, and to her by her mother, back to my great-grandmother and beyond.

More than a century of forgiving and forgiveness passes between us. I am safe, secure in her arms, feeling waves of compassion flow over me as she passes me back…

…..

I am passed back to great grandmothers and great great grandmothers before that. I go back before the rise of feudalism resting on its foundations built by the greed-driven church fathers, back to the green pastures lush with fruits of plenty growing next to clean waters. I think of my mother reciting the Twenty-third Psalm and suddenly understand her tears:

Yes, there was a time when we feared no evil.

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My partner and I, over breakfast, were discussing what a leap year is. The only consensus that we were able to come to was that time is an artificial construct. For this reason, Black History Month and Women’s History Month, etc., are also artificial constructs. It is helpful to bring our respective histories to the forefront.

I explored my family history, overlapping with the labor movement and Philadelphia history in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books). My life with my partner who worked for, now retired from, the U.S. Postal Service is also a big part of Tea Leaves as well as my relationship with my mother, especially as I cared for her in the final months of her life. Close to thirty years ago I went with my partner to her African American co-worker’s church on “men’s day.” As I wrote, the end result was that this co-worker liked me so much “she’d stopped praying for Barbara.” That is how change is made — when we enter each other’s lives.

We all live in a world where the history of the many is larger than the history of the few (that of privileged straight white men). And the fact is that the history of privileged straight white men is also impacted by the history of the many. By many I mean those of us all races, those of who identify as queer, the more than half the population that is female, as well as the rest of the many. All of our lives touch.

When I first heard of Foresaken (NewSouth Books) by Ross Howell, Jr., I was intrigued. The novel is about a sixteen year old black girl who actually lived in Hampton, Virginia, who one day retaliated against her overbearing white woman employer in her home and murdered her. The story is told from the point of view of an eighteen year old white male newspaper reporter. The protagonist, Charlie, has gone through connecting with people on a human level, befriending blacks as well as whites. This historic novel is a compelling read, and as I turned the pages, I found myself drawn into a prism where the reasons for the girl’s crime — pent-up rage — unfolds as the protagonist talks to her elderly lawyer, a former slave who is now blind.

Foresaken is a novel where the toll that societal and institutional racism takes on whites (while less oppressive and vastly different than the effects of institutional racism against black people), specifically on white people who dared to speak up on behalf of the humanity of black people, is taken into account. As the author writes:

“I felt I would never meet another man like Mr. Fields. He had been a slave. Now he was free. He once had sight. Now he was blind. Was I feeling what he felt when he heard the whip on his mother’s back? I flicked the cigarette into the street. I sat down on the curb. I was so angry that it was hard to breathe. Who does Jim Crow leave free?”

Another historical novel explores the true story of a seamstress slave from Norfolk, Virginia. The Treason of Mary Louvestre is written by My Haley (Koehlerbooks), the widow of Alex Haley. My collaborated on his groundbreaking book of African American history, Roots, and the subsequent miniseries released in 1977. As it says on the book jacket, “Now My has returned to her own roots as an author with The Treason of Mary Louvestre.”

My deftly brings the reader into Mary’s world as the plot unfolds and Mary copies the plans for the CSS Virginia (a confederate warship) and enters a world where she must take a long journey and face certain death as a spy.

Mary Louvestre is an important historical figure and a strong woman character, some might say a feminist hero.

Raised like “the daughter” of white slave owners, Mary sees the writing on the wall — if they fall on financial hard times or die, she will be sold as a slave. This is the turning point for her. She can stay and let others decide her fate or she can leave and influence history:

“What a fool she had been! …. Not only had she trusted that someday she was to be free, that she would transcend being a Negro slave, she had convinced herself she’d have financial control over her life, real power over her future.

In reality, she was special only as a special pet of her owners. They didn’t physically beat her. Nor did they board her on slave row. She didn’t eat from a peck of rice and throwaway saltfish. Yet, she still felt insignificant.

Her life testified to other Negroes that, if they worked from dusk to dawn every day of their lives to “serve the South” and “make their master’s proud,” they got to keep on doing it for the rest of their lives. That was their prize. Regarded as second-class no matter how hard they tried was the message that she had received. It was galling — and so unfair.”

We all face turning points in our lives. It might be to accept ourselves or to realize how society perceives us. Sometimes that turning point is the realization that we are all connected. Always, it is powerful.

This review was previously in The Huffington Post.

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