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Archive for April, 2016

(I presented the following reflection this morning at UUCR in Philadelphia.  To view the video on YouTube, click here.)

 

“I doubt therefore I think. I think therefore I am.”

— René Descartes

 

In thinking about my journey to religion, I realized that skepticism played and continues to play an important role.

On my desk where I write every day is a small mirror — no more than two inches high with a black and white photograph of my mother on it — taken in 1928.

This mirror is the image on the cover of my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

mothermirhome

My mother was a feisty card-carrying atheist whose lifelong motto was Shakespeare’s “To thine own self be true.”

When my mother was dying of fourth-stage bone cancer, I was staying upstairs at my parent’s house where I woke up and had a mystical vision of her standing at the foot of the bed. At this point, she could no longer get out of her bed which was downstairs. The next morning, when I told her about the vision, she bawdily said, “Oh, that wasn’t me.  That was Jesus.”

Then she had a good snicker.

Religion was always good for a laugh in my house.

Of course, there always is some truth to humor — so maybe my mother really is Jesus or maybe Jesus is my mother.

It took me a while to internalize my mother’s motto about being true to myself.

First I had to get through being an adolescent in the seventies in a working class landscape. One thing led to another, and I was caught up in the whirlwind of substance abuse. Nothing was off limits.  A few of my friends did not live through this.

Although I did survive, I had and still have a fair amount of regret about this period of my life.

This led me to realize in retrospect that religion can be useful in keeping pre-teens and teens on track.

But as the saying goes “it’s all grist for the mill.” I wrote two novels based on my adolescence — the first more autobiographical than I usually admit.  The second novel which I recently completed is called Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage and is more or less straight up fiction based on the landscape of my adolescence.  The protagonist is a young, dashing, motorcycle riding lesbian who was someone I knew (not me) who went to jail for dealing drugs.

But I do believe in second chances — and third — and the novel has a happy ending. It’s not true — in the sense of nonfiction — but it has a core of emotional truth. In fiction, anything is possible.

I was the first in my family to go to college — during which I tried to fit in as a heterosexual and failed. (The less said about this period of my life the better.)

Then, finally, soon after college I came out. What a relief.  During this time I remember going to a women’s spirituality talk at a bookstore, and thinking well, I don’t need that!

Then the gay men I knew started dying. I went to a lot of funerals in those days and a lot of marches  and encountered signs that said things like “God created AIDS” and “[Derogatory word for gay men] will burn in hell.” This put religion into perspective for me.  Not only was it unnecessary, but it was barbaric.

Besides, I was a feminist of the “Hey, Ho, Patriarchy’s Gotta Go” variety.

This was another reason to be dismissive of religion.

But as the decades rolled by, I noticed that when things around me fell apart, I tended to fall apart also. Then in my forties, when I worked in Center City, I befriended a deeply closeted gay man who was a practicing Orthodox Jew. We butted heads on a few things, but I really respected his belief in God — truth be told, I envied it.

Then, as the saying goes, a few other things happened.

I didn’t know it, but I wanted — needed — to develop a stronger inner self.

And I have — thanks to my yoga teacher Jane Hulting, my spiritual teacher, really, who led me to this church and taught me many lessons along the way. I ended up here intuitively — without searching for a church. One day before I joined, I was sitting in the pew and experienced an opening inside of me.  I heard a low chanting — a rustling all around me as people recited “The Lord’s Prayer.”  Now, no one was actually saying the “Lord’s Prayer” — not in this church, not that day, not ever to my experience. But that is what I experienced.

So this is my story of religious salvation — even if the word salvation kind of makes me cringe. It would because I’m a skeptic and I’m being true to myself.

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previously in The Huffington Post

I have to admit that I find history fascinating.

This hasn’t always been the case.

I first came across history in the way that most of us are “fed” history. It was forced on me, it was exclusive, and it was boring. In fact, my high school history teacher was nicknamed “Boring Barry.” I don’t remember much, if anything, that he taught us. No doubt it was just more of the same thing — the white, male, heterosexual, view of the world. Facts and figures. Dates of wars.

But as a young adult, I discovered Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States. I used this book, first published in 1980, extensively when researching my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

Although my book ended up being more of a personal one — chronicling my family history that dovetailed with the labor movement, feminism (my mother was first generation, I was second), and coming out as a lesbian in the early 1980s.

I’ve seen a lot of history — especially in the LGBT movement. But even so, I find it helpful to have a refresher now and then. This is particularly true with LGBT history — which sadly to say has been erased with a few notable exceptions. It was in this spirit that I read three books on history. It made me reflect that knowing your history is necessary — but reading about it can also be enjoyable.

In The Right Side of History, 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism by Adrian Brooks (Cleis Press; 2015), which is put together as a collection of lively essays, many by well-known LGBT activist, writers and public figures, including Barney Frank, I learned more than a few things.

I was particularly taken with New York Times bestselling author Patricia Nell Warren’s essay on Bayard Rustin. Rustin spoke out about gay rights in the 1940s and he went on to become a major Civil Rights activist and Dr. Martin Luther King’s right hand man. Warren gets to the heart of why history is important when she writes about teaching LGBT students of color in Los Angeles who “were hungry to know that they had some towering historical role models like Rustin.”

“To a black kid who was one of the school district student commissioners at the time, I gave a copy of a biography about Rustin. He devoured the book and told me that he cried all the way through it.

“‘It’s just awesome,” the student said, “that an openly gay black man was Martin Luther King’s head guy.’”

Mark Segal’s book And Then I Danced (Akashic Books; 2015) is a historic memoir, chronicling his life in the LGBT political scene in Philadelphia where he the founder and the head of the Philadelphia Gay News, New York where he lived for a time, and on the national front. In addition to chronicling his role in LGBT history, including his important and pioneering role in housing for low-income LGBT seniors, Segal also presents his personal and family life in a warm, engaging manner and this writing extends to his interactions with public figures. Writing about meeting Hillary Clinton for the first time, Segal says:

“She gave me a warm hug and said, ‘You’re more tenacious than me!’
Coming from her, it was the ultimate compliment.”

In Literary Philadelphia (The History Press; 2015) by Thom Nickels, I particularly enjoyed the insights that Nickels a gay writer and activist provides. This includes the mention of Walt Whitman (the bearded poet was a familiar site on Market Street), along with lesser known gay writers along with non-LGBT Philadelphia literati such as James Michener and Pearl S. Buck.

In the chapter called “Poetdelphia,” he writes about poet Jim Cory and quotes him extensively about his stumbling across The Mentor Book of Major American Poets:

“‘It was sacred text. It explained everything. I still have it. Five year later, it was all about the Beats and Bohemian rebellion. Fast-forward ten years and a lot of what I was writing was gay poetry. In my sixties, I write in different modes to satisfy different ends. Short poems appeal because of the challenge of getting something complicated into seven lines, cut-ups and collage because they’re fun and with any luck can be fun for the reader too.’”

Jim and I were part of a poetry collective that he founded in the early to mid-nineties called Insight To Riot Press. We published the late Alexandra Grilikhes (among others) who is mentioned in the book. Nickels muses “If Philly poet Alexandra Grilikhes were alive today, would her various poems to female lovers in books like The Reveries …be deemed too risqué?”

In this same chapter, I was surprised to come across a photo of myself, Jim Cory, and poet CAConrad (also an Insight To Riot! collective member) taken in 1994. We all look much younger.

You know what they say. It’s a small world.

 

previously in The Huffington Post

literary-philadelphia

 

 

 

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