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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

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This is my tribute to the holidaze — proof that #WeAreAmerica — and that diversity if fun!

In this first video we had Unitarian Universalist bookends on our day of festivities in Mt. Airy which began with an alternative xmas play (with my partner Barbara Drumming) at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Avenue where I attend services and am a lay minister. Afterwards we went to the Mt. Airy Art Garage’s holiday sale in the neighborhood where our friend Gloria regaled us with some really beautiful singing. And that evening we went to the Solstice celebration at the Unitarian Society of Germantown which is close to our house.

 

 

On December 24th (the first night of Hanukkah and Xmas Eve) we went to the Gershman Y event in Chinatown. Barbara who has always wanted to go was looking at a photo of the stand up comics in a mailing — and when she saw Julie Goldman she exclaimed — “Who is that guy? I know him.”  It turned out that the “guy” was Julie Goldman (who we first saw on The Big Gay Sketch Show on Logo — impersonating Liza drunk) and boy is she hilarious!

 

 

 

 

 

We saw Paint the Revolution, Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It is a truly awe-inspiring exhibition and is showing through January 8th.

When you get blue, remember that #WeAreAmerica and get busy making art and embracing your life!

Happy New Year!

 

 

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A version of this commentary was aired this week by This Way Out, in international LGBTQ radio news and culture wrap. Click here to listen to read more about This Way Out and to listen to the complete podcast.

In full disclosure, I often describe myself as not being a “kid person.” And it’s true — when I came out in the early 1980s, I thought I was off the hook for getting married and having children. Whew. I chronicled my young child-free lesbian life in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (2012, Bella Books):

“It was the early 1980s, a few years before lesbians were starting to take trips to the sperm banks. Most of the lesbians we knew with children had them in previous marriages — to men — and more than a few women we knew had been through painful custody battles.”

Things changed rather rapidly — but not for me. I successfully avoided the lesbian baby boom of my generation and some peer pressure to adopt. Now — safely past the child bearing and even the adopting age — I find myself wondering if LGBTQ people have changed the face of parenting — or if they what they do is any different than other (heterosexual) parents?

Society has changed, in large part, to accommodate us. But have LGBT people, in particular by parenting, changed society? Almost magically, recently published books started arriving in my mailbox to help my understanding.

Gay Fathers, Their Children, and the Making of Kinship
(Fordham University Press) by Aaron Goodfellow is the most academic of the books. It quotes Michel Foucault, the innovative French philosopher, whose work much of Queer Theory is based on. In a lay person’s terms, Foucault’s work emphasizes thinking outside the box and explains how society polices itself to maintain a conservative social order. As Goodfellow writes, Foucault

“has famously described it is not the specter of two men having and enjoying sex that unsettles the social order. Rather, it is the specter of two men who have had sex living happily and tenderly ever after that proves unbearable.”

Goodfellow’s book is a survey of many different gay men who have decided to become fathers. It emphasizes that gay men being fathers challenges the social order because there are two men — not one — in charge (as opposed to Father Knows Best).

Saving Delaney, From Surrogacy to Family (Cleis Press) by Andrea and Keston Ott-Dahl chronicles the story of a lesbian couple who gave birth to a daughter with Down syndrome. The two women were already parents of two small children when they began the journey of becoming what they thought was becoming a surrogate for another lesbian couple. Saving Delaney is an honest and compelling read. The author writes of coming full circle in facing her fears and prejudices toward disabled people to loving her daughter and becoming an advocate.

Which One of You is the Mother? by Sean Michael O’Donnell is a witty page turner with heart about the author’s true story of adopting two sons with his partner. I was fascinated by the book’s revelation that the fathers decided early on that neither child would share the fathers’ last names. In the case of the oldest son, adopted when he was around the age of nine, the author/ father who is Caucasian writes that there was no reason to change his son’s name, because it was part of his past. “It was connected to his Native American heritage.”

When I picked up Queerspawn in Love, a memoir by Kellen Anne Kaiser (She Writes Press), I was skeptical. Despite the fact of having of having four lesbian mothers (in a complicated arrangement), the author writes about a conventional girl meets boy, loses herself, and gets dumped scenario. But as I turned the well-written pages, I was drawn in by the story and by the fact that this self-described “queer spawn” had different mothers to turn to for different types of advice.

Before the end of the story, I was rooting for Kellen. I certainly identified with her sentiments when she writes:

“What if I never got married, never found the right guy? I only had to look at my mothers’ lives for the answer, in the way they have found self-satisfaction outside of men — outside of partners, too, for the most part. They are happy for their own sake. Lesbians do not live in spite of or despite of men. They build their lives to their own specifications. I have learned to take comfort in the comfort they find within themselves.”

Initially, when I finished these books, I thought about the fact that LGBTQ people need allies — and one way to get allies is to parent them. But then I realized that the parents did not only influence the children. By becoming parents, the men and women in these books became more compassionate, loving people. Being a queer parent is learning to live outside the box. For one thing, they are living outside the queer box since so many of us are happily childless.

But when a child is raised intentionally, everyone involved is changed, including society.

And that’s what it’s all about.

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originally in The Huffington  Post

note: This review (in a modified form) will air on this week’s This Way Out, the international LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles.  To listen to the program, click here..

Just the other day, I was talking to a historian friend about a conversation she had with a lesbian friend who announced that she wasn’t voting. The friend told her that we’ll just have four years of Trump. This gave me pause. I know more than a few people who have announced they’re not voting. What these people, who call themselves progressives, have in common, is that they are white, mostly economically privileged (but not all of them), and straight.

Of course, I tried to talk some sense into them. But with each one, I was left frustrated and came to the conclusion that they are in denial. Even if they are white and economically privileged and straight, history can change on a dime and their lives will be changed also.

When I heard about Queer Identities and Politics in Germany, A History 1880-1945, by Clayton J. Whisnant (Harrington Park Press; 2016), I was immediately interested. It’s not an easy book to read. The first night I started reading it, I kept dreaming that the United States was sliding toward fascism. Then when I woke up I thought about the presidential election. I guess it’s safe to say that the book got under my skin and that it was published at exactly the right time.

The Weimer Republic and the openly gay culture in Berlin was embedded in my LGBT encoded memory. Whisnant writes about the “homosexual movement” launched in Germany in the 1890s and its various factions (and its scandals and political movements) that led up to the openness of the Weimer Republic in the 1920s.

The author recounts that in the heyday of the Weimar Republic, there were between 90 and 100 gay bars in Berlin frequented by gay men and lesbians. There we also many thriving publications for gay men and lesbians. I found it interesting that the lesbian publications addressed trans issues.

As open as it was, the Weimar Republic was far from being a utopia for LGBTQ people. There were anti-gay laws on the books but German police officers, for the most part, turned a blind eye to the bars. This is more than can be said for U.S. police conduct, before Stonewall when patrons were routinely rounded up, arrested and their names published in the papers (ruining careers and severing family ties).

The author writes about Christopher Isherwood, a prominent foreigner who frequented the sexual underworld of Berlin. Isherwood wrote a series of short stories — The Berlin Stories — which inspired the Broadway musical and the award-winning film Cabaret.

The book also chronicles the downfall of the Wiemar Republic.

This includes the rise of censorship laws that targeted gay and lesbian publications. The book also addresses infighting and factions in the “homosexual movement,” including the “masculinist” faction that abhorred anything feminine or feminist. Ultimately, many of the “masculinist” gay men joined the Nazi Party and were put in concentration camps and exterminated.

Things changed almost overnight. As the author writes:

“In 1930 the Nazi Party won a staggering victory in the federal elections: overnight it grew from a small fringe party with only twelve seats in the Reichstag to become the second most powerful political party in the land. Homosexual activists recognized that they were in trouble.”

The book also chronicles the persecution of gay men and lesbians in the camps and concludes with “Gay and Lesbian Life after 1945.”

Suffice to say that it took decades to repair the damage. Now, as well as historically, is not a time for skepticism, sarcasm or inaction.

There is a lot at stake in the upcoming election:

Think about what a Trump presidency would do to the Supreme Court. Trump has declared that if elected he’ll do what he can to roll back the marriage equality ruling.

You don’t have to be LGBT to have a lot at stake in this election, but it helps.

Think about climate change.

Think about our standing in the world.

And if you are still convinced that you have nothing to lose, think about voting for those who are the most vulnerable — such as the 11-year-old Mexican-American girl who lives in fear of her immigrant parents being deported.

Still, the life you save by voting may well be your own.

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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a reading from Maya Angelou’s poem “The Human Family” and a talk on “Difference” — the theme of this week’s service.

To see the reading and the reflection on YouTube, click here. (You can also view the YouTube video at the bottom of this post.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” — Dalai Lama 2 dala lamai petting cat compassion png

 

I am different, of course. We all are.  In my view that’s what makes life interesting. I would say I gravitate to difference.

I’m a lesbian-feminist who came of age in the early 1980s and I had the good fortune to hear and meet many of the icons and writers of that era — including Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.

It was at the celebration of Audre Lorde’s life — the “I Am Your Sister” conference held in Boston in 1990 two years before she died of cancer at the age of 58 — when I went to one of the conference’s “Eye-to-Eye” sessions. There, I really began to understand difference.

The idea behind the “Eye-to-Eye” sessions is that you break into a smallish group of people from a similar background and have  a heart to heart discussion.  It was based on Audre Lorde’s philosophy that she writes about in Sister Outsider, a collection of her essays, that we cannot love each other until we love ourselves.

This is the same theory that RuPaul, the internationally known drag queen icon, says every week on his televised program Drag Race — if you don’t love yourself, how the [heck] are you gonna love anyone else?”

(RuPaul is one of my sources of spiritual inspiration.)audre-lorde-1062457_H130420_L

At the conference, I chose the white working class women Eye-to-Eye session. The other Eye-to-Eye group that I could have chosen was white lesbians — but lesbians tended to be everywhere in my world back then and it seemed more important for me to focus on class.

I still remember being in that room with the tall windows and high ceilings — sitting on the floor in a circle of women. It was like being back in my high school bathroom.  But this time we were honestly discussing our lives instead of masking our pain with drugs and alcohol.

As I recall, the discussion that we had in that room was liberating.

To make a long story short, I have absolutely no connection with anyone from my background — except that my partner and I are lucky enough to still have my 97 year old father.

But in this election year, I was reminded of my background, every time I turned on the television news.

I found the racism at the rallies — and I think you know which rallies — to be painful. I also find it painful — and appalling — that someone — some unnamed someone in power — is fanning the flames of fear and hatred.  But I also do not think  that all of the people in the white working class will be taken in to vote against their own interests.  I also strongly suspect that the media is just showing us a slice of white blue collar voters who are racist — etc. — and that most people have neighbors and co-workers of all races including African Americans, Muslim-Americans, and Mexican Americans.  And even if they don’t, white working class voters can think for themselves and realize that racism and xenophobia are wrong.

This election is getting under my skin. The stakes are high, and it feels personal.  When people tell me they are not planning to vote — educated people, who might feel more privileged than they are under the circumstances — it kind of makes me crazy.  Of course, this is not a good feeling.

I meditate almost every morning — and it came to me during my meditation that I need to be more compassionate.

I was watching the Discovering Buddhism series number 11 on You Tube, when Richard Gere talked about a practice that was so helpful to me that I thought I’d share it with you. Years ago, Gere started wishing every being — insect, animal, or human — that he encountered with the greeting: “I wish you happiness.”

“I wish you happiness.”

Gere talks about the fact that there are times that this is difficult, and that these are the times when this thought turns a destructive emotion into love.

I have just started this practice and don’t know where it will take me. I suspect, though, that it will make me even more aware of the fact that as Maya Angelou writes in “The Human Family” that we are more alike, than unalike.

“We are more alike, than unalike.”

 

 

Namaste

Oh, and remember to vote.

“I wish you happiness.”

 

 

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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a reading from the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and  reflected on how reading this book impacted my own creative process — in particular with Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage which I have fine tuned and am putting out into the world.   To see the reading and the reflection on YouTube, click here. (You can also view the YouTube video at the bottom of this post. This was part of a larger service titled “Hope in the Dark.”

Reading from  Big Magic, creative living beyond fear

by Elizabeth Gilbert

I think a lot of people quit pursuing creative lives because they’re scared of the word interesting. My favorite meditation teacher Pema Chodron, once said that the biggest problem she sees with people’s meditation is that they quit just when things are starting to get interesting.  Which is to say, they quit as soon as things aren’t easy anymore, as soon as it gets painful,   or boring,   or agitating.  They quit as soon as they see something in their minds that scares them or hurts them.  So they miss the good part, the wild part, the transformative part — the part when you push past the difficulty and enter into some raw new unexplored universe within yourself.

And maybe it’s like that with every important aspect of your life. Whatever it is you are pursuing, whatever it is you are seeking, whatever it is you are creating, be careful not to quit to soon.  As my friend Pastor Rob Bell warns: “Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the most capacity to transform you.”

Don’t let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding.

Because that moment?

That’s the moment when interesting begins.

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth  what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.”  –Gospel of Thomas butterfly-on-bush-porch-july-2016

Recently, I entered a new chapter of my life. I have just started taking notes for a new novel — a long term project — that involves research on a mythical creature and learning Classical Greek.  Learning Classical Greek is a long-time goal of mine — spurred by a trip to Greece now almost twenty years ago.  In Athens, I purchased a book of poetry by the classical Greek poet Sappho — “‘The Poetess?'” said the bookshop proprietor with raised eyebrows before he disappeared into the backroom of the bookshop.  He came back with a slim volume that had contemporary Greek on one page and Classical Greek on the facing page. The book is still sitting on my bookshelf.  It has been my lifelong goal to learn to read Sappho in the original. I figured I would wait a few years.

Then I read Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, and was inspired to learn Classical Greek now. What was I waiting for?  Learning a new language can inform my writing.  Gilbert writes about the magic of creative writing — really of making any kind of art or change and the art of being in the world.  In my experience of what she writes about — which is remarkably similar — I think of it as listening to the muse.

She also writes about the hard work of writing — which I was relieved to see because writing is hard work.

I heard a mainstream writer on the radio describe writing as the business of rejection. This is true. But as I tell my students, if they don’t put themselves out there, they don’t stand a chance. In other words, it’s over before it started.  I also tell my students that writing and publishing are two different things — and by not getting them confused they will save themselves a lot of time, not to mention anguish.

When I first talked to Maria about today’s service, I told her about my day of throwing out query letters to literary agents into what feels like the abyss. When she suggested that I talk about this, at first I didn’t want to.  When I see my students — many of them middle aged and older — getting excited about writing, when I see them actually writing and making sense of their worlds, I really dread telling them about the hard work of marketing their work. In fact, I often wait until the last class to talk about publishing.

But I realized that my faith in sending out query letters into the abyss does relate to today’s service and also to being a Unitarian Universalist. I have faith that something will happen. Marketing a novel may at times feel like putting a message in a bottle and casting it out to sea.  But I have belief in myself and, more importantly, in my work.

Then I realized that something has already happened.

I wrote this novel that I fine tuned and am marketing — Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage — based on the landscape of my adolescence — even though it is straight up fiction.  The protagonist is based on someone I knew who rode a motorcycle and went to jail before the age of eighteen because she was convicted of drug dealing.  It’s a long story but this landscape of gritty working class America is one that I fled from. I wrote the novel out of a feeling of regret — most likely a kind of survivor’s guilt.

Art is short for Artemis. In the novel, the story doesn’t end when Art goes to prison.  She enters a vocational program and when she is released she becomes an auto mechanic.  Then she re-unites with the love of her life, Linda, and thirty years later, when marriage equality is the law the land, they marry.

For me, writing fiction was a re-considering of the facts. And in doing so, I created hope.

 

 

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originally in The Huff Post

note: This review (in a modified form) will air on this week’s This Way Out, the international LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles.  To listen to the program, click here.

“To the queerest person I know.” This is how my childhood best friend signed my high school year book. I am now in my fifties and don’t remember that much from high school — that I want to admit to — but I do remember this comment.

She was right. I was different.  I read books rather than watching the TV.  I followed the news — and in a working class milieu this meant that I was an oddball.  Then in my early twenties, I came out as a lesbian-feminist.

It wasn’t easy being different when I was a teen in the 1970s. But being different is a good and necessary thing. People who dare to be different make change. As I write in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters, a few of us girls on the elementary school playground hung upside down on the parallel bars in protest of girls not being allowed to wear pants — before the women’s movement: “It was 1969. The following year, having learned the power of showing out (almost) bare asses, we were wearing bell bottoms.”

I came out in the early eighties. About ten years later, I began hearing the word “queer” in the gay and lesbian community.  This was before we had the term LGBT.  I had some resistance to the word “Queer” until I talked to a younger friend, who embraced the term.  She explained to me that “Queer” included everyone that didn’t fit the gender and sexual orientation expectations of society.  In other words, queer was not heterosexual — or het, as we said in those days.

We are still figuring out gender. A older friend who is a strong feminist began researching transgender issues when her nephew, who started out life as a niece, transitioned.  My friend had some old school feminist notions at first but quickly came around to supporting her nephew whole-heartedly. At one point she said to me,  “I’ve been gender non-conformist my entire life.”  So my friend (who is a celibate bisexual), her nephew, and I,  are all queer.

So I applaud the HuffPost for changing “Gay Voices” to “Queer Voices.”  Queer recognizes our commonalities — in the fact that we are all different.  We are a community and we do have enemies — although that is not the only thing that makes us a community — and there is strength in numbers.

I recently read two books about queerness back to back. One from the other side of the world — is called From Darkness to Diva by Skye High, a leading Australian drag queen.  The other, about a man who grew up near me in a neighboring suburb of Philadelphia, is Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times written by Samuel G. Freedman with Kerry Donahue.

In From Darkness to Diva (O-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd. in the U.K.) the tall gay man who took Skye High as his drag name writes of his growing up gay and being so badly bullied that he had to leave high school.  High writes unflinchingly about the beatings he endured, but also delves into the self examination and spiritual lessons that he experienced.  He also writes of the trials and triumphs of finding a gay community and of the liberation he experienced in entering the transformative world of drag.

I was on the journey with him — as someone who was a teen who was bullied (to a lesser degree) and as someone who came of age and found my place in the world. But at no point was I more riveted as when he stood up to a bully in his second high school. He had to leave his first high school because he was bullied and after working several for several years returned to another high school for his degree and was bullied again.  High explores how he felt as he eventually stood up to the bully: “I now had the power over him. I was in control.  In that moment, I finally felt vindicated. It was as though my actions would have been justified had I wanted to snap his neck and kill him.”  But ultimately he showed mercy on the bully and let him go, explaining that he felt “saddened by the sight of him helplessly lying on the floor.”

Dying Words, The AIDS Reporting Of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times (CUNY Journalism Press) is a moving tribute to Jeff who died at the age of 39.  It is arranged in the form of interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives (including his sister the literary agent Wendy Schmalz Wilde) of Jeff’s and by the time the book presents his reportage on the AIDS epidemic, the reader feels a kinship with him.

“I think often of the dozen friends who have died of AIDS, and I feel them with me. It’s not that I am writing editorials, avenging their deaths.  It’s that I feel their strength, their soothing me on.  They are my conscience, their shadows with me everywhere: In the torchlight of the march.  Over my shoulder. By my desk.  In my sleep.”

Jeff had to break out of the box of the Times impeccable third-person reportage into the finding of his own voice. Participant-journalist doesn’t quite describe it, but it comes close.

Former Times colleague  Samuel G. Freedman writes eloquently in the foreword about the reasons that he put the book together:  “For a lack of a better term, I felt survivor guilt.  And beyond it, I grieved that as the years passed, fewer people would remember who Jeff Schmalz was and what tremendous work he had done.”

What impressed me about both books was how different they were — yet universal to the human experience. Who isn’t different in some way? In my view, anyone who says they are the same as everyone else is either lying, extremely boring or both.

 

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