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Archive for March, 2019

This morning, I gave a talk titled “Religion?” at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Avenue in Northwest Philadelphia.  I discuss being at a workshop with the feminist witch Starhawk, my understanding of the differences between religion and spirituality, and how being raised secular enabled me to write my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books — New York/Lisbon).

You can see my words below on the YouTube video or read the talk below that.

 

 

Religion?

Some months ago, my partner, Barbara, and I were attending a nearby workshop with the feminist witch Starhawk.  At dinner I was sitting across from Starhawk when she was talking about the liberal theologians that she works with. A woman sitting next to me said that religious people are part of the problem.  She mentioned that religious people elected you know who.

I replied that it is true that religious people did put you know who in office but that they were CONSERVATIVE religious people and that there are plenty of liberal religious people.

Suddenly it was as if I was looking at myself from the outside:  Really, you’re defending religion? a voice hissed skeptically.  Maybe it was the ghost of my card-carrying atheist bible burning mother.  Perhaps it was the voice of my younger self that pretty much happily ignored all things religious.

In any event, the voice was so strong that I stopped defending liberal religions and went back to eating my dinner.

Five years ago, or so, when I became a member of this congregation, I recognized that I had found a religion that fit my values.  I knew that coming here worked for me – and that my partner and I love being part of the community here.  In fact, Barbara already knew many of the people here because of her job at the Mt. Airy post office, which she is now retired from. And we had a few long-time friends here such as the multi-talented Jane Hulting who many of you know as our music director.  Jane rescued us during a hard time and became our yoga instructor.  We are now taking qigong with Jane, and I still consider her my spiritual teacher.

But having been raised secular, a part of me was still wondering what religion was and where I fit into it. Of course, the Unitarian Universalists (or UUs as we are often called) encourage freedom of thought and value reading as evidenced by our well-known book sales.  And, of course, we came to a tradition that is welcoming of the LGBTQ community.  When I initially expressed surprise to my partner that the congregation was so open minded, she replied that we wouldn’t be here otherwise. Right again.

I’m sure this all factored into my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders which I wrote about five years ago and which was published by Adelaide Books.  In fact, as I mentioned at a recent reading, I probably would not have been able to write that book had I not been raised secular. In other words, had I been raised to regard the Bible as, well, Gospel rather than myth and story and had that Gospel instructed me to hate myself then I would had justifiably left and avoided religion for the rest of my life.  I know plenty of people who have had this experience and believe me, I do understand.

So, I was still left wondering what religion was all about – and why I am drawn to it. Then a while ago, I heard fellow member Wayne Boyd talk about the difference between religion and spirituality and what being a member of this congregation means to him.  He talked about the rules of religion being on the outside of him and spiritual development being on the inside. I sat in the pew and thought “Aha.”

A crucial piece of the puzzle fell into place.religion

For many reasons I have never cared for rules. And my early self-destructiveness aside, my adolescent 1970s motto that “rules are made to be broken” served me well: particularly in coming out as a lesbian in my early twenties and in becoming a creative writer – a field in which rules really are meant to be broken.

But in the spiritual journey of my inner self, I have come to value myself and others as important entities on equal footing. This is a value that I have long held, but in this UU culture where the first principle is — The inherent worth and dignity of every person – I value and believe in myself even more and that means that I value and believe in each one of you even more.

In my UU journey, religion must certainly mean something as different to me as it does to each one of you.  In fact, I think difference is a big part of what religion means to me.  And so, I go deeper into myself, through my yoga practice and through my Buddhist meditation — and through being a member of this community.

Is that religion?

 

Namaste

 

THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders is available online, through your local bookstore or library.

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

they_cover1_300

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Note: This piece is airing worldwide this week on This Way Out (TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show.  Click here to listen to the entire show.

(TWO is the first international LGBTQ radio news magazine.)

 

I have long been fascinated by the figure of Alain Locke – who I knew as the first African American Rhodes Scholar (in 1907), the philosopher that the civil rights leader Martin Luther King spoke about, the influential Howard University professor (the historically black university located in Washington D.C.), and perhaps most importantly (to me) as the philosophic architect of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke was known for the fact that he championed such writers as Zora Neale Hurston.

That I had heard he was gay only made him more interesting. Then I learned that the long-awaited biography of Locke was coming out written by Jeffrey C. Stewart titled, The New Negro, The Life of Alain Locke had been published in 2018.  It was published by Oxford University Press and received the 2018 National Book Award for nonfiction.Alain Locke

Then the book arrived.  I have to admit that I was daunted by its 800 pages – 878 to be exact. Also, like many people, if not most, I rarely read biographies.  But once I started reading this one, I found it so fascinating that I could barely put it down – even though it is physically hard to pick up because it is so heavy.  So, even if you rarely read biographies, I would suggest reading this one.  It’s a real page turner and you’ll learn a lot of important historical information.

Locke – as Stewart writes – was “a tiny effeminate gay man – a dandy, really, often seen walking with a cane, discreet, of course, but with just enough hint of a swagger, to announce to those curious that he was queer, in more ways than one, but especially in that one way that disturbed even those who supported Negro liberation.  His sexual orientation made him unwelcome in some communities and feared in others as a kind of pariah.”

Some of the intriguing things that I learned was that Locke was very close to his mother, in fact after her death in 1922, left him bereft, and after a stint in travelling in Europe where he could be more sexually open, and after being fired for a time by Howard University for being too vocal on race relations (although he was later hired back), he poured himself into their shared love for art and commenced on starting the Harlem Renaissance, with the idea that there was liberation in art that was African American identified.

The Harlem Renaissance loomed so large in my mind that even though I already knew that it was basically over by 1929, when the American stock market collapsed, it was rather depressing to read about it again.  Harlem, long the African American section of New York City, was hit very hard by the Great Depression.  The Harlem Renaissance, however, remains an important part of history – and many African American identified visual artists and writers were influenced and inspired by it long after the 1920s, as Stewart writes.

Some of the things that I learned that intrigued me was that Locke was very close to his mother and that after her death, he replicated his relationship with her to some extent with several older women who were important to him.  I also found it fascinating that the campus of University of Oxford (where Locke found himself after he won the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship), was a hotbed of gay male activity – and that this was the same university that the gay legend Oscar Wilde was graduated from in 1878, three decades before Locke arrived.  I also learned that Locke faced less racism in Europe.  However, some of the major racist obstacles that Locke faced at Oxford were created by other American Rhodes Scholars.

Most of what I learned was that Locke, a black, gay man, faced major obstacles in his life because of racism and homophobia. Despite these obstacles he thrived, and he changed the course of history.

His life is inspiring.

 

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To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

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I still wonder – why would anyone want to capture me? Why didn’t they just leave me alone? Was I that important?

I have been revising my novel The Unicorn, The Mystery — so I thought I would do this new blog post about it.

In The Unicorn, The Mystery, we meet a unicorn who tells us the story of the seven tapestries, called “The Hunt of the Unicorn” from the 1500s on display in “the unicorn room” in the Cloisters (at the westernmost tip of Manhattan), now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tapestries tell the story of what is still called an “unsolved mystery.” The story is set in an abbey in France not far from the barn in the countryside where the tapestries were discovered. Pursued by a band of hunters, the unicorn is led along by observing birds (some of them chirp in a language that the unicorn understands), smelling and eating the abbey flowers and fruits (including imbibing in fermented pomegranates), pursuing chaste maidens (there is one in the tapestry) and at times speaks to other animals such as the majestic stag.

In The Unicorn, The Mystery, we also meet a young monk named Apolo who tells us his story. Once pure of heart, so much so that he saw the unicorn several times (most notably as a lad and then as a young monk), but when he comes to live in the abbey, he gets swept up in the politics going on around him. His betrayal starts when he tells the Priest he meets with regularly that he saw the unicorn.  The priest scoffs and says that the unicorn is both a mythical and pagan animal.  But then he suggests that if Apolo can prove the unicorn does indeed exists, that it would be worth his while. Apolo subsequently plots with the sundial wrist-band wearing Bishop who is eager to trap the unicorn to please the King. Realizing his error in betraying the unicorn, Apolo leads us through a labyrinth of the Middle Ages, including story, myth, philosophy, numerology and alchemy.  Can he regain his purity and at the same time get ahead?

Three short fiction excerpts of the The Unicorn, The Mystery were shortlisted for the Adelaide Literary Award  2018 (short stories, Vol. One).  To read the flip version of the 2018 anthology, click here.

I also included two excerpts of The Unicorn, The Mystery in my talks at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia. You can watch the YouTube videos of these talks below, or read the text below that.

By the way. unicorns did exist according to the bestiaries passed down from ancient Greece and unicorns are mentioned by name in The Hebrew Bible.  They can be seen depicted in images of collections from the Middle Ages when people commonly believed in the existence of unicorns. As my monk narrator says to a skeptical priest, also his Latin teacher, “God believed in the unicorn.”

 

 

From the talk in the first YouTube video:

the Unicorn Tap Middle

For me, forgiveness is a thorny issue.  I suspect I’m not alone.  I may forgive – but I do it on my own terms and this means taking the time that I need to understand the deeper reasons of why I was offended by someone’s actions. So, for me, learning to be more forgiving is wrapped up with protecting myself and having good boundaries.

As a practicing Buddhist, I understand that forgiving others is a way of forgiving yourself.  But as I did research on forgiveness, there were so many conflicting theories, that really the only thing that ultimately made coherent sense to me was this quote from Oscar Wilde:

“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

A few years ago, I was leafing through a slim book on Christianity and was surprised to read that forgiveness is expected in the Christian tradition.  As a tenet, this one is not so bad. But it did occur to me that a reason why traditional religion has never appealed to me is that, on principal, I would never believe what someone tells me I should believe.

So when it comes to forgiveness, I process things the way that I usually do – in my writing. The novel I am currently writing The Unicorn, The Mystery, is set in the late Middle Ages and addresses some religious themes.  I am going to read you a short excerpt of a monk talking with his Latin teacher, also a Priest:

purification

 

“One of the things that Augustine is known for is his ‘doctrine of love.’ He wrote about forgiveness – which of course is related to love.  In addition to forgiving others, it’s important to forgive ourselves. In fact, some argue that you cannot forgive another without first forgiving yourself,” said my teacher.

I smiled and nodded.  This all made sense. No words were necessary from me.

“He also was the first to write about loving your neighbor as yourself. In saying this, he infers that it is first necessary to love yourself. When you truly love yourself, then you can love your neighbor and you can love God unconditionally,” he stated.

The Priest was silent – and so was I for a moment.

My curiosity got the best of me and I asked, “What if you are ashamed of yourself – how can you find it in your heart to forgive yourself? And if you can’t, how can you ever love your neighbor and how can you love God?”

The Priest looked at me oddly.

“That’s a good question,” he replied finally. “I do not know the answer. Perhaps I am not the best person to talk about love. I take the Christian writings seriously.  I try to follow them.  I follow my heart and each time it is a disaster. I love teaching and I love my students. But each term, things go too far, and I have my heart broken again,” he cried.

I looked at him with sadness.  He had his reasons for hating himself. Perhaps that’s why he was snippy at times. How could he forgive himself, when the church told him he should be ashamed of himself?

This time I cleared my throat. I looked at him with tears in my eyes, and said, “Father – it is true that you know how to love and it is true that you are worthy of love – from others, from God. I came to your office that night after vespers a few months ago. I saw you bent over the desk with Gregory – I saw the love that surrounded you.”

The Priest looked at me as if he had seen a ghost.

I attended the Episcopal Church until I was about five — when my mother became a card-carrying atheist.  It’s a long story.  I remember reciting the Lord’s Prayer. When I think about forgiveness, I think about the lines:

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive them that trespass against us;

As I did my research, I was fascinated to learn that in the “Book of Matthew,” chapter 6, of the New Testament, the line after the Lord’s Prayer says:

 

“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”

Of course, in my Unitarian Universalist interpretation, God the Father could be the Universe, the Great Spirit, or the Mother/ Father God or God the Father.  It depends on what day it is.

If I’ve offended anyone, please forgive me.

 

From the talk in the second YouTube video:

There are many types of love. I explore the many types of love in the novel that I just completed The Unicorn, The Mystery which I am going to read from briefly:

 “The point I was going to make is that romantic love is far from the most important type of love,” said the Priest with his usual authority. “Christians believe that pure love—the kind of love that is selfless and creates goodness—is the way that God loves us. This is why the saying, ‘love you neighbor’ is so important. There are numerous references to this in the Bible. But the most important is from the Gospel According to Mark in which he says ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than this.

“This kind of love is called ‘agape,’” continued the priest. “Agape is the highest form of pure, selfless love. It is the kind of love that God has for us—and the kind of love that we strive to have for our fellow man.”

“I recognize the word,” I replied. “It’s Ancient Greek, from the time of Homer.”

The Priest narrowed his eyes.

 Of course, many of the great poets have been inspired by romantic love, especially the Greeks.  But some may argue–and I do–that love (regardless of the kind of love) is the inspiration for all poetry.

Sappho statueOne of the poets from antiquity who greatly inspired me was Sappho, who lived around 600 B.C.E.  Of course, she lived before labels but many of Sappho’s love poems were written to women.  And she was technically a Lesbian since she lived on the Isle of Lesbos, now called Lesvos.  Most of what is left from Sappho is in fragments. One of the complete poems that survived is her “Hymn to Aphrodite” which I’ll read now: 

 

On your dazzling throne. Aphrodite,
Sly eternal daughter of Zeus,
I beg you: do not crush me
With grief

 But come to me now – as once
You heard my far cry, and yielded,
slipping from your
father’s house 

to yoke the birds to your gold
chariot, and came.  Handsome sparrows
brought you swiftly to
the dark earth, 

their wings whipping the middle sky
Happy, with deathless lips, you smiled:
“What is wrong, Sappho, why have
You called me? 

What does your mad heart desire?
Whom shall I make love you,
Who is turning her back
on you? 

Let her run away, soon she’ll chase you;
Refuse your gifts, soon she’ll give them.
She will love you, though
unwillingly.”

 Then come to me now and free me
From fearful agony.  Labor
for my mad heart, and be
my ally.

 

Almost twenty years ago, when I took a pilgrimage to Greece, including a stay in Sappho’s birthplace of Skala Eressos, a beach town on the Isle of Lesvos, I wrote the following response to Sappho’s hymn to the goddess of love.  The title is “Sapphics for Aphrodite” —

 

Aphrodite, in your blazing chariot,
I do not ask to be loved by anyone
against her will, to be fled from
or to be pursued. 

I do not ask for anything that will
sever my breath with anguish; I do not wish
to destroy or to be destroyed.
I do not wish for 

anything other than for the stars to blaze
in my pulse until breaking, shattered, and
incandescent, I am consumed: the moon’s rays
intent upon me. 

Aphrodite this is all I ask of you,
you who hold the Fates in my hands,
and you, of the golden winged chariot, in
whose temple I burn.

 The Priest in my novel has a point. Romantic love can have its limitations.  But love is love – regardless of what it is called. And love can lead to goodness.

 

Namaste

From the talk in the third YouTube video:

This morning, I took part in a Unitarian Universalist summer service. In my talk, I reflected on The Egyptian Cat Goddess the Goddess Bastet (a part of my novel The Unicorn, The Mystery) and on the spiritual practice of gardening.

In the summer, I garden.  This is a common hobby for many, especially writers.  It teaches patience, attention, and relentless hope.  Not everything that we plant comes back – especially after a long icy winter.  Not every seed sprouts and not every sprout makes it.  In this way it makes me focus on the positive – on what does come back and on what does sprout.

Being a Unitarian Universalist gives me a spiritual context in which to think about gardening. Many of our flowers attract bees – such as bee balm, lavender and the butterfly bush. And bees, of course, are good for the planet.

Every now and then, a plant from my writing appears in my garden – seemingly out of nowhere but probably from a seed dropped by a bird.  Last year it was a tall flowering weed known as a “sow’s ear” which was also in the manuscript I just finished writing, titled The Unicorn, The Mystery which is set in the 1500s in France.  I was amazed, of course, at the sow’s ear in my backyard.

Recently, I planted catnip.  Cats love our backyard and often we see one sleeping there – most often in the shade of the young hazel nut tree that my partner’s sister sent us. Inside, my office looks out to the backyard where the garden is. Our old cat Felix has taken to sleeping on the inside back windowsill – no doubt protecting his territory.

I have long been fascinated by the Egyptian Cat Goddess Bastet. In my novel, The Unicorn, The Mystery, my monk character (who in many ways is a Unitarian Universalist at heart) prays to the Goddess Bastet.

I stepped slowly and softly as if the soles of my feet had ears.  I took another step. A branch snapped under my foot.  I winced. That would never do.  If my beloved unicorn heard that she would assume there was a human nearby – big enough to snap a branch under foot – and hide.  It seemed like I would never find her.  I decided to pray.  But I had prayed to the One God before and it hadn’t worked.  Who would I pray to? Who would help me?

Immediately, the Goddess Bastet leapt to mind. Bastet was an Egyptian Goddess who was half woman and half cat. I knew about her because when I was a boy, my mother would tell me the stories that her father had told her.  He had loved Greek mythology and found out that the Goddess Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, was related to the earlier Goddess Bastet from Egypt who came from the even earlier fierce lioness Goddess Bast, the warrior goddess of the sun.

The followers of Bastet ruled ancient Egypt for a time in the land where cats were sacred.  I remember that my mother’s emerald green eyes gleamed as if she were a cat herself when she told me about the Goddess Bastet who kept away disease and was the protector of pregnant women. The stories she told me about the fierce, soft, cat Goddess Bastet were so vivid that she made me want a cat for my very own pet.

My mother cautioned me, however, not to mention cats to anyone but her. People with cats were looked on with suspicion, she warned me. For some reason cats were looked down on by the Church as wily creatures associated with Satan. Again, my mother told me that it was very important never to anger the Church.

Surely, the Goddess Bastet would help me find my beloved unicorn. She of all the gods and goddesses would understand why I had to find my beloved unicorn to save her.

I closed my eyes tightly until I saw a slim woman, standing tall.  She had very good posture, with the head of a cat.  I knew it was Goddess Bastet, just as my mother had described her.

 And so, the Goddess Bastet and other worlds – real, imagined and both – is something for me to mull over as I tend the soil and do the spiritual work of gardening.

Namaste

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To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

 

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I was delighted to find that World of Gender, a site on Twitter that defines itself as “An exploration of cultures around the globe which understand that gender is so much more than binary” selected my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books — New York/Lisbon) as one its suggested top two reads of the year.  World of Gender suggests that people celebrate International Women’s Day by picking up a copy.  The Tweet, they sent is below the photograph of THEY and Transfigured.
THEY World of Gender
@WorldofGender

 

My favorites this year. From authors

&


Celebrate
#InternationalWomensDay

with these books.  #FridayReads
I like them so much I grabbed the links for y’all.
#Books2Read
THEY –
amzn.to/2H8UBVt
TRANSFIGURED
amzn.to/2zu9QFu

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Note: This piece is airing worldwide this week on This Way Out (TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show.  Click here to listen to the entire show.

(TWO is the first international LGBTQ radio news magazine.)

One of the things that I value as a lesbian, is being connected to the rest of the world. Hence the rainbow flag and the saying that we are everywhere. We are. That fact led me to the novel that I was recently immersed in called Disoriental by Nagar Djavadi published in 2018 by Europa Editions.  It was translated from the French by Tina Kover.

That the narrator identifies as a lesbian, one could legitimately argue is a sub-layer of the book. But looking through this same prism through a different angle, one could argue that the narrator’s sexuality is critical.  Being a lesbian from an extremely homophobic culture gave the narrator an extra layer of courage to tell this important story.

disoriental

Disoriental, a finalist for The National Book Award, is the story of a young girl who grows up in revolutionary Iran and goes through the Iranian revolution with an inside view provided to her by her revolutionary father.  As a North American who was in college in the time of the Iranian revolution, I remember the media coverage and knew some of the facts including that the Shah was backed by the United States, but I did not know everything and have long been puzzled at the repressive outcome of the revolution.  As a result, this novel which was written with a protagonist who lived in Iran with her family who later were all forced into exile, was – for me – filled with “aha” moments. The protagonist’s revolutionary, intellectual father was opposed to the regimes of both the Shah and Khomeini.

The story is told through the lens of an adult woman, who is going through the medical process in France (the country she and her family was exiled to) to become a parent. The narrator writes that she always valued childhood as the best part of life and has long been determined to continue her line through giving birth.

I was particularly impressed with Djavadi’s handling of the importance of history and how personal history intertwines with world events. The writing of this novel caused her to reflect on the human rights violations against LGBT people in her native land:

“In Iran, homosexuality is considered a supreme violation of God’s will, and is a crime punishable by death. Women as well as men, sometimes only teenagers, are blindfolded and hanged from cranes in public. Homosexuality is generally not cited as the main reason for these executions, due to pressure from Western countries and the fear that these acts will damage their complex relationships with Iran. In any case, it’s estimated that, since 1979, more than four thousand of these public hangings have taken place.”

Reality is rarely comforting, but it is necessary. I was riveted by Disoriental and turning its pages I pondered the mysterious forces of fate and existence and the importance of familial bonds – in particular, the book raises the bonds between fathers and daughters.  Ultimately, I found it to be not only a very good read — but a work of literature that brought me to reflect more keenly on my own life.

 

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

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Pissing off the religious right has long been a given in my life. But I have to admit to being a little rattled by the following retweet on Twitter of my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret gender (Adelaide Books – New York/Lisbon) :

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll.” Revelation 22:18. (I know you don’t believe any of it but you’re in for a big shock. Enjoy your diseases!”

I have to admit that I don’t understand all of it – but it does sound unmistakably right wing.  I didn’t check the accuracy of the “prophecy” so I don’t know if it actually exists or if someone made it up.

But I do understand the phrase “enjoy your diseases.”

This is one of the times, I remember the words of my long-time friend the poet Jim Cory, who wrote in a poem, “It’s not me, it’s you.”

Think about it.

What is it about LGBTQ rights that makes you uncomfortable? Really think about it.

I wonder why I received this message today.  THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders was published in 2018.  It has been out for a while.  But why today – is it because the “United” Methodist Church decided to strengthen its bigotry against the LGBTQ community?

I wasn’t surprised to learn that its membership has been declining for some time now.  I’ve known more than a few Methodists over the years. They are good people who are praying for the fate of the LGBTQ people in their church. I’m not faulting individual Methodists.  At the same time, I’ve never been able to figure out how they can support such a rigid and bigoted hierarchy. I remember the 2005 inhumane treatment and defrocking of Beth Stroud, a former lesbian Methodist minister and neighbor. I remember the televised Methodist trial.  It was truly abhorrent.

It’s true that time will change everything, but in the meantime many children will suffer in thinking they are sub-standard human beings.

I will continue to lobby for the rights of those in my LGBTQ community. I will continue to be on the right side of history.  I am a Unitarian and Unitarians don’t believe in hell.  I can’t be threatened with it.

I’ll pray for you.

 

Here’s my tweet that was retweeted with the message.

Pleased to announce that my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books NY/Lisbon)(print & e-Book) is now available online & @ bookstores!

#Pushcartnominee
A
#queer bible story, #UU inspired

 

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