Feeds:
Posts
Comments

originally in The Huffington Post

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

 

 

(I presented this novel excerpt at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I am a lay minister.  The segment is also on You Tube. Click here  to see the video or you can view the segment below and below that on this blog, you can read the excerpt. (At the bottom of this post is another video link to YouTube featuring me reading from a different part of Art — and talking about the Saints.)

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”.)

 

This excerpt is from a novel that I wrote recently titled Art: a revolution of love and marriage.  The novel is based on the working class landscape in which I grew up and takes place in the seventies.  The main character is named Art and is based on a real person (who is not me). So here is a short excerpt from her story. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality is a good hint at the happy ending.

 Art, a revolution of love and marriage

Art strode from the counter, past the grill and the fryers and into the backroom.  She tore her yellow headscarf off triumphantly as she clocked out.  Then she put on her sweater and her padded royal blue jacket. She slammed the metal back door behind her.

The sun was setting. It was about ten after five.  Her brother was scheduled to pick her up at five thirty. Art stood behind the building. She put up her hood and looked up. The sky was streaked with violet.  Long white wisps of clouds unfurled like banners. A single bright star came out from behind a cloud.  She watched it for a moment.  It stayed in one place so she knew it was a star, not an airplane.  It was bright enough to be a planet: either Jupiter or Venus.rainbow love

She thought about the fact that the star was light years away.  Maybe her junior year physics teacher was right.  Perhaps they were made from the stars they wished on. Most of the atoms spinning around in her body were made from stardust. Art would never admit it — in physics class last year, she had just rolled her eyes along with the others — but the fact was that she did have dreams.  She wished that she could be with Linda forever. She wished that Linda’s mother would stop telling her daughter that it was a waste of time to study trigonometry and that she would stop telling Linda that her life was going to turn out just like hers. She stared at the star.  It was so bright that it seemed to be burning a hole in the winter sky.  She wished she and Linda could make a life together.  She wished they could get married.  She wished that they could even have a kid or two. But first they had to get through this last year of high school. Getting into the trig class would be easy compared to the rest.

princess-sappho (2)This blogpost is devoted to my beloved Princess Sappho who died last week from complications of kidney disease which the vet said may have included cancer.

I was broken hearted — extremely — and also feeling a tad foolish for feeling this way.  Then just last weekend, I was in Manhattan for a photo conference at the International Center for Photography and on Monday I spent the afternoon at the New York Public Library (on Fifth Ave. with the stone lions in front). Two separate instances occurred — which convinced me that my feelings were real and true and that I should share the story of Princess Sappho.

In the first instance, someone I was talking to at the conference said (in response to hearing about my beloved’s departure) — that she couldn’t hear anymore because “it’s like losing a person.”  In the second instance, a sign in front of the Berg rare book collection of the NY Public Library — mentioned that one of the archives of a famous writer from history (I forget his name) included a pussycat paw on a letter opener that he used to remember his beloved pet.

Now I think the latter is absolutely garish and even if I did use a letter opener, I would never do this or suggest it.  But the mention of it gave me pause.  Often,  there is a strong bond between a writer (and others) and her or his pet.  If a love between two humans is sacred, then a love between a feline familiar and her or his human is also sacred. (The metaphor continues for dog lovers.)

I am a practicing Buddhist and believe in the concept of energy — and that the energy continues in some form after death — so I have been imagining Princess Sappho (who in life was extremely feisty) prancing around in the sky. But nonetheless I am still extremely sad at losing her.

janet-and-sappho

Princess Sappho came to us nearly five years ago as “Baby Girl” with her brother Felix “Baby Boy” because their father Dan’s fiancé was allergic to cats.

Dan’s young son had chosen the brother and sisters when they were kittens and named them.

When Dan decided to put them up for adoption, our friend the poet Maria Fama sent their picture to us in an e-mail.

[This photo, on the right, was used last year by The Chestnut Hill Local in an article on my teaching and writing.  ]

My partner renamed Baby Boy “Felix” (which means happiness in Latin.) The brother had picked Barbara as his person immediately and to my delight, his sister chose me!

When Barbara asked me if I wanted to rename her, I replied that I had always wanted a cat named Sappho.  So Sappho it was. But then she started acting like a Princess (for instance, she really didn’t like it –narrowed eyes and flattened ears — when I would pet her brother) so we named her Princess Sappho.  She also went by Princess. Barbara gave her nickname of Princess Pi Pi — and sometimes we just called her “Girlie.”  She didn’t seem to have a preference for her name — she always came when she was called and she even came when Barbara was calling her brother — sometimes she especially came then.  Names didn’t seem to matter to Princess Sappho: she knew we were hers.

One day when we came home from the art museum, Princess was jumping from the bed about four or feet straight up in pursuit of a buzzing fly — which she eventually caught.

For almost the entire five years that she lived with us, Princess Sappho would sleep on my chest or my hip every night.

I have done my best writing in the past four years, with Princess Sappho perched in my lap or sitting beside me.

 

authoress-and--Princess-Sapph

Farewell Princess Sappho.

 

 

 

 

 

 

originally in The Huffington Post

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.aids-memorial-quilt

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.

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.

 

In this post, I wanted to give you a preview of my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders.  Three sections have been presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia).  The YouTube videos are below.  Short fiction excerpts of the novel have been published in several journals.  And one journal nominated a section for the Pushcart Prize.  The links to the journals are below the YouTube videos.

THEY is a novel based on the Bible (with some creative interpretations) and has gender fluid, intersex characters.  It also includes some strong female and gentle men characters who act on their passions and, in some instances, live as LGBT people.  But the novel (which also includes some carry overs from goddess culture) begins somewhere in the time period of 800 to 600 bce (before the common era) and that was definitely before labels!

The three YouTube videos below are excerpts from THEY  are in consecutive order from past to present.

 

 

 

 

You can also read an excerpt, written as standalone short fiction, in the online literary journal BlazeVOX15

Another excerpt is in the recent issue of Sinister Wisdom — the fortieth anniversary issue

A different excerpt is also in the aaduna literary magazine  (this excerpt was nominated for a Pushcart Prize)

Text excerpts from THEY and my introductions presented at UUCR (Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration) can be clicked on below.

To read the text to the “Descent of Ishtar” and the introduction (where I talk about ancient Babylon), click here.

To read the text to “Forty Days And Forty Nights” as well as my introduction, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Entering The Mystery.”  This talk was part of a larger service on “New Member Sunday.”

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

 

Good morning

 

“Janet?  Janet joined a church?”

I overhead this a few years ago when I was downstairs.  A woman I had known casually for a few decades through the women’s community was talking to my partner.

Her comment wasn’t judgmental or skeptical.  Rather it was innocent and incredulous — or maybe it was simply factual.  Was she hearing things correctly?

Could Barbara had said this? Was it true?

This was after a service when several members of the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir joined the Restoration Singers on Music Sunday. Our music director, Jane Hulting, formerly directed the Women’s choir and stays in touch with the “Annas.'”

Of course, I found the comments of this “Anna” amusing.

But I’m the first to admit that I’m an unlikely church member.

When I joined Restoration about four years ago, it was the first time I had joined a church.  I was raised secular – but always knew myself as a spiritual person.  Like many, I was distrustful of organized religion.

In one of my earliest spiritual memories, I remember standing on the beach as a child — having lost my parents — and looking out to the waves and praying to an amorphous and genderless “God” that I find them.  Then I turned around and my mother was walking toward me.

I played the guitar as a child, and in fifth grade sang “Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the stage. The song has always had resonance for me.  Then as an adolescent, I crossed my own troubled waters.  Perhaps it was my spirituality that got me through.

When I started coming to Restoration, the time was ripe for me.  I discovered a religion that shared my values.  I had a life-time of alternative spirituality behind me and found a place that wasn’t rigid or narrow where I could explore traditional spirituality.

I also found a spiritual home for my partner and I.

Last week she said to me after we came home from the service that it was really wonderful that we have such a nice church to attend together.

There are so many people from the wider communities that we belong to here at Restoration. And there are so many others — who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.  It is good to be together.

It is good for me to be connected to all of you, to this Beloved Community – and to be connected to hope.

Shortly after the election, I heard a short segment on National Public Radio about how people in the United States tend to be divided into red and blue states and experience sameness rather than diversity.  They often don’t know the stories of anyone who is different from them.

Diversity helps to build empathy.

It also creates hope.

I really cherish being part of the diversity here at Restoration.

As a writer and as a creative writing teacher, I know that our stories are sacred. I spend much of my time alone and am fortunate in having a partner who respects my need for aloneness.  Solitude is necessary for a writer but so is being in the world – to a lesser extent.

I’ve been a reader all of my life.  As a child, the whole world opened up to me when I learned how to read.  I was described as a bookworm – as a child and as an adult.

Restoration’s emphasis on books drew me in as did its diverse and welcoming community.  But coming here most Sunday mornings is different than spending my time writing and reading. By coming here, I am part of a community that is connected to the world and to the cosmos.

A year ago, I would have said that the diversity of the congregation was important – today I know that it is absolutely essential.

As I mentioned, I was raised secular. Religion is still a bit of a mystery to me.  Everyone’s reason for joining a church is different.  I suspect that each person joins Restoration for a reason that might end up being different from what they may have thought originally.

Welcome to the mystery.

 

 

–Namaste

proxy

 

 

“Light” a short fiction excerpt from my novel “Looking at Pictures” was just published by Five:2:One Magazine.  You can read a brief excerpt below which links to Five:2:One Magazine.

Light
(June, 1926)

On the left bank of the Seine, a boulevard wound around. It was lined with hotels and shops with tall windows and wrought iron railings. Tina turned down one side street and then another. Then she saw him again: the old bent over man with the large format camera on a tripod. He walked along the street like a crooked stick in his black cloth jacket. Tina hung back so he wouldn’t see her.

He stopped and set up the camera. Tina stood still and watched. He surveyed the scene in front of him. First he angled the camera toward the empty chairs on the street outside of the cafe. Then he moved it so that he was looking at the empty street in front of the cafe. Far in the distance was a street light. In front of the street light, black branches of a horse-chestnut tree filtered morning light. A dark wet spot glistened on the bare pavement in front of the empty chairs. The cafe owner must just have been outside with a bucket of water. The cafe would open in an hour or two. These chairs would be full of people having brunch. Conversations and arguments would ensue. The poor artists of Montparnasse would be renting tables by the hour because they couldn’t afford studios.

The old man seemed oblivious to what might happen — as if he were as captured by the moment as much as he captured it.

read more at Five:2:One Magazine…..

 

Looking at Pictures is the novel that I spent last winter writing. It gives us a glimpse into the loves and lives of well known artists and ordinary people, both queer and not, all of whom live outside the box.  It is a novel influenced by history — it takes place in 1926 — and by the people who lived in that time.  Many of the characters are actual artists, including fine art photographers.

This novel was inspired, in large part, by the work that I have been doing with Jeanette Jimenez on the archive of her father Alexander Artway (an architect and photographer who photographed New York City in the 1930s). The archive is extremely interesting and the photographs brilliant!

The first short fiction excerpt –titled Looking At Pictures — of my novel was published by devise literary and is partially excerpted below. Very shortly after I finished the novel last Spring, I heard from David Acosta (formerly known as Juan David Acosta) who invited me to be one of the readers at his new series at Casa de Duende. The piece that I read was a chapter set in Mexico which features the characters Frida and Tina.  The YouTube video, below, includes David’s wonderful introduction. If I were to rate this YouTube piece, it is definitely PG-plus.  It’s called “Ecstasy” and is influenced by lesbian sex, philosophy and LOVE.

 

Fiction: Looking at Pictures

Issue 1.2

by Janet Mason

(May, 1926)

Tina looked at the image in front of her and wished she still had her camera.

She was walking along the deepwater port looking into the hold of a ship that had backed up to the cement pier. She could see both levels. Initially she assumed that first class was on the top and that steerage was down below.  Then she noticed that the people below were almost all women and children.  They looked like immigrants from Europe wrapped in their drab shawls and holding their squalling infants.  None of them looked up.

……read more at devise literary

 

Ecstasy“@ Casa de Duende: