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Posts Tagged ‘daughters’

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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For the past several years, I’ve been attending a Unitarian Universalist Church that has a tradition of Poetry Sunday.  Each week, poetry is included in the service. I was delighted to find out that a long time favorite of mine, Mary Oliver is a UU and that her poetry is often used. Of course, many other poets — from Rumi to contemporary poets — are often used also. One Sunday a year is dedicated to poetry’s role in UU and all spirituality.

For me especially — since I started my writing life as a poet — poetry represents a sense of the sacred (and the profane has a place in that!)

This year’s theme was empowerment — and I was honored to read from my collection “a woman alone” chronicling my trip to Greece. I read the following two poems:

a woman alone
hears the cooing of pigeons
and the flap of wings
folding air;
she hears Cathedral bells
answering one another;
and morning light
sputtering traffic
into existence; a
woman alone is a city
awakening.

a woman alone lives
in the house
of the double ax;
she enters her own labyrinth
and comes out amazed;
she is the minotaur
the earth womb
turned to a monster;
she is her own silver thread
leading herself to the center
of the maze that is her,
a woman alone.

 

Anne Arfaa, another featured poet this year, also read on the theme of empowerment. Listening to her, I was taken on a trip down memory lane. Anne and I were in a feminist writing group for many years — and from that we became fellow travelers on the road of life.

 

 

Last year, I was one of organizers of Poetry Sunday and here I am talking about the poetry of the late poet Audre Lorde who prophetically wrote “Poetry is not a luxury.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Note: The following is a talk I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration Sunday morning July 17 2016.  You can see most of the talk on YouTube be clicking here.

 

When I was a pre-teen, my mother gave me a book called Courageous Women, which was a young adult reader about women’s suffrage.

The book reminded me that not all people have always had the right to vote. The fifteenth amendment, passed in 1870 gave black men the right to vote.   A half century later, in 1920, the nineteenth amendment was ratified, giving all women the right to vote.

The passage of both amendments involved long, hard and violent struggles.

Frederick Douglas, a social reformer, orator, writer, statesman and former slave was a leading abolitionist.

Susan B. Anthony was a social reformer and feminist and one of the women who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.

There were many black women who also played pivotal roles in women’s suffrage. Anna Julia Cooper was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a commemorative postage stamp in 2009.anna

She was known for her statement: “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence or special patronage; then and there the whole black race enters with me.”

Only propertied white men had the vote until 1856 the year that it was determined that all white men could vote regardless of whether they owned property or not.

When as an adult, later in life, I became a Unitarian Universalist, I discovered a religion that embodies civic duty in all of its principles, perhaps especially in the second principle “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;” and also in the sixth principle “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

As Rev. Emily Gage, reflects on the Unitarian Universalist Assembly website, “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations points us toward something beyond inherent worth and dignity. It points us to the larger community. It gets at collective responsibility. It reminds us that treating people as human beings is not simply something we do one-on-one, but something that has systemic implications and can inform our entire cultural way of being.

“Compassion is something that we can easily act on individually. We can demonstrate openness, give people respect, and treat people with kindness on our own. But we need one another to achieve equity and justice.”

The larger community and collective responsibility. That’s what I learned about in my childhood book Courageous Women.

My mother was born in 1919 — a year before women won the right to vote. Perhaps having older parents gave me a different sense of history as well as an enhanced understanding that history is important.

In 1972, when I was thirteen, Shirley Chisholm ran for national office.  I paid attention.  Here was history in the making.  She was paving the way for African American people and women of all races to be presidential candidates.

Shirley Chisholm 1I grew up to have a close friend who not only voted for Shirley Chisholm but was a delegate. And it is not surprising that Chisholm made an appearance in my writing — Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage. It is fiction but definitely autobiographical when I wrote of my character:

“Five years ago Grace was watching the nightly news when Walter Cronkite announced that Shirley Chisholm, an African American congresswoman from New York, was running for the Democratic nomination for president against the incumbent Richard Milhous Nixon. Grace was just thirteen in 1972, but she remembered thinking things would be different.  She didn’t think she’d ever run for president.  But if Shirley Chisholm could, maybe girls could do anything.”

I voted as soon as I was able too. When I moved to Germantown in my early twenties, I was proud to stand in line with my neighbors — most of them African American men and women.  We were doing what was demanded of us.  Voting is not just a right. It is a responsibility.

Around that time, I came out as a lesbian. One of my favorite T-shirts was a black shirt with a pink triangle on it with black letters on the triangle that read:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This widely-known poem was written by Pastor Martin Niemellör about the cowardice of German intellectuals in Nazi Germany.

My T-shirt was lost in some long ago Laundromat but its sentiment stayed with me.

I could have done without the rocks being hurled through our bedroom window or the numerous instances of workplace harassment, but being a lesbian has given me some firsthand knowledge of oppression. For one thing, it may in fact be natural to respond to hatred with hatred — but it is not healthy, necessary, or productive.  I have not evolved to the point where as it says in The New Testament in Matthew, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

But I do think there might be something to that.

I also learned that we have more in common than we may think and it is very important for us to stick together. Civic duty and collective responsibility is certainly a big part of that.

Ecclesiastes in The Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Old Testament states in part:

“1  To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5  a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing   ….”

Now it is up to us. It is our time.

We have one vote, one voice. Think about your one vote and the difference it can make.

It’s time to be counted.

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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.

For women’s history month, I decided to read two books of fiction by women back to back. The two books that I selected — Loving Eleanor, The intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok by Susan Wittig Albert and Bull and Other Stories by Kathy Anderson — did not disappoint. In fact, the two books are both so well written that I remembered why I first fell in love with reading.

Reading has always been an important part of my life. It is how I’ve always learned about the world and the people in it. In Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, I write about my love of reading and how it shaped my life. This includes reading every book in the school library when I was a child and reading poetry to patients in an AIDS hospice as a young woman. Reading factored heavily into my coming out as a lesbian. I credit The Women’s Room, the classic novel by Marilyn French with turning me into a radical feminist and from there it was just a short leap to becoming a lesbian. As I write in Tea Leaves, my boyfriend (just before I came out) “ accused me of loving books more than him.”

Touché.

It is no secret that reading has taken a back seat to just about everything in our smart phone driven information age. But reading remains an important link not only to literacy but to thinking critically.

 

As Publishers Weekly points out the publishing industry is making necessary changes. In “The Future of Reading” the author states that:

“Smart bricks-and-mortar retailers have figured out that they not only sell books—they sell the experience of buying books, and they are selling it to a connoisseur consumer base that distinguishes between the book as physical object and the book as a container of information.”

I would take this thought one step further to say that the joys of reading itself must be publicized and encouraged. Reading is not a necessary evil — it is fun and joyous. The turn of a phrase and a page registers on the conscious as an effortless activity. And, as when I was a child, the end of a book is a sad thing and often the characters live on in our imaginations.

The two books that I read definitely fit my description of everything that is wonderful about reading. Loving Eleanor, The intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok (Persevero Press), is a beautifully written and richly detailed historical novel that lets the reader fully enter the time span of journalist Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt’s love affair and intimate friendship. The book also chronicles the sacrifices that both women had to make to keep the rumors at bay about their relationship. Hickok left the Associated Press (where she was a highly regarded reporter) because of a conflict of interest with her relationship with Eleanor who was then the first lady. She took government jobs as a writer and was transferred to remote locations. We hear the thoughts of Hickok first hand in the writing of Susan Wittig Albert:

“I wasn’t to linger in Washington, where gossip still linked my name with hers. (I would later learn that Princess Alice had exclaimed loudly, and in a fashionable Washington restaurant, “I don’t care what they say, I simply cannot believe that Eleanor Roosevelt is a lesbian.”)

In Bull and Other Stories (Autumn House Press), lesbian author Kathy Anderson does not address a LGBT audience in most stories but she does explore the “queerness” in the thoughts of married couples toward each other, employees and bosses, of children to their parents and of parents toward their children. And she does so in such beautifully written and intriguing ways, that I was turning the pages without a thought to the world around me.

Her prose is often bitingly funny. In “Dip Me in Honey and Throw Me to the Lesbians,” Anderson gives us the thoughts of an upscale “foody” lesbian:

We are So not losers, Jane thought. This is proof. Look at us, in a fabulous restaurant enjoying ourselves. Take that, ex-lovers. She hoped they were all sitting at home wearing sweatpants and stuffing their fat behinds with pizza and beer, utterly bored with each other and their lives.”

Reading these two books reminded me that reading also helps you learn more about yourself, in addition to learning about the world in all of its time dimensions. Reading is like looking in a mirror and seeing things that not only have you never seen before but things you never expected to see.

originally in The Huffington Post

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originally in The Huffington Post

When I woke up and heard the news that 50 people in a nightclub were murdered by a gunman in Orlando, Florida my heart sunk. Then I heard that the club was gay and that the murderer was of Arab-American descent and publicly declared his allegiance to ISIS and my heart kind of caved in.

What can be said about such senseless violence? This is the kind of hatred that usually engenders further hatred.

One of the first things I heard on the news was the father being quoted about his son’s intense homophobia and the fact that the killing spree “had nothing to do with religion.”

Being the kind of person I am — I immediately thought it had everything to do with religion.

“People in churches and mosques need to think about what they are teaching,” I said to my partner over breakfast. “It’s not that different,” I said, “Christians, Jews, and Moslems have the same common ancestor Abraham who is in the Hebrew Bible.”

I read the Bible last year or so as research for a novel — and learned a few things about religion. I learned that modern culture is rife with biblical references. I also learned, to my surprise, that the Bible is not that anti-gay. I did find it to be extremely misogynist and violent, but I thought the anti gay parts were really taken out of context and greatly amplified. If you listen to Sarah Palin, for example, (who probably never read the actual Bible) you’d think the entire thing was an anti-gay tract.

My partner and I have been together for 31 years and you would think that there are no surprises, but I could tell she was impressed with my recently-acquired religious knowledge.

She is a deep thinker. “Of course it has to do with religion,” she replied. “Where do people learn about hate?”

Then I saw the photograph of the murderer (who was killed by authorities). To my mind, he looked gay. When I learned that he was married and had fathered a child or children, it still didn’t change my mind. There is a good chance that a man with that kind of rage inside him who specifically targeted a gay club and professed his repulsion at gay men holding hands and kissing on the street, was acting out in suppression of his deepest desires.

In full disclosure, I think far more people are gay who say they are gay. I have known more than a few gay men who specialize in straight married men. It works for these guys who don’t want to end up in a relationship. In fairness, I have known more gay men who are healthy enough to avoid men who identify as heterosexual. And through the years, I have rarely met lesbians who are interested in women who are married to men.

I’m not saying that all closeted gay people — or those who are bisexual and secretive — are gay bashers. But it is true that plenty of homophobic hate crimes, including murder, have been committed by men who can’t handle their own same-sex tendencies as was documented in American Honor Killings (2013, Akashic Books).

Granted there are also other issues at play here including gun control and the availability of automatic weapons colliding with mental health issues.

In the interest of not responding to hatred with hatred, I immediately thought of the fact that we are a human family. We have more in common than not and often there is considerable overlap between identities. I spent the day reading Guapa, a novel by Saleem Haddad (Other Press; New York; 2016).

In the novel, a man just under thirty living in an un-named middle eastern country, falls in love with another man and is walked in by his conservative grandmother with whom he lives.

The narrator is not from a religious family but he is grappling with homophobia in a deeply religious culture that includes check points, revolution, and a deep connection to family.

When the narrator reflects back on his adolescence, he gives voice to the same sentiments, unfortunately, that most young people feel regardless of their country of origin:

“I was different from everyone else.
I was doomed to be alone.
I was going to spend eternity rotting in hell.”

The narrator attends college in America — where he also grapples with homophobia and what he describes as his “Arabness” and all that that entails.

When he comes back to the Middle East and moves back in with his grandmother who raised him, he finally falls in love only to face more struggles. The narrator writes of his lover:

“He was right when he told me once that he had one foot in and one foot out. It was a balancing act, and he navigated it so effortlessly. But I was his one foot out, wasn’t I? In fact, he made sure I never met his mother. He introduced me to his father once, a few years ago at the wedding of his distant cousins. I remember being surprised at how tall his father was, but like Taymour he was very handsome.”

Judging from my reaction to the Orlando massacre, if I ever had any doubt, the LGBTQ community is home to me. I agree with President Obama when he said that gay clubs are meant to be safe spaces. I remember the days when gay clubs were not out in the open and when people of the same sex did not dare to hold hands in public.

It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been in a gay club in a good ten or fifteen years. It doesn’t matter if those murdered were all young people who I most likely would have never met. I grieve for them and their families.

The massacre is an American tragedy. It is a nightmare for the LGBTQ community. And it is a problem for people of faith. I was raised secular, but in recent years became a Unitarian Universalist — a faith that really does embrace all people, including those of us who are LGBTQ.

Being part of a religion occasionally puts me in contact with people from other religions who are not so welcoming. I usually don’t mind when I am the LGBTQ spokesperson — and I do understand that being myself and being out can change hearts and minds.

Religion is still evolving. I am sometimes astounded that traditional religions are changing at all — such as the time I drove by a church in my neighborhood and did a double take at a “Happy Pride” sign outside. But other times, I am appalled that many religions are not changing fast enough and the young people raised in them feel compelled to leave.

As we can see from the Orlando massacre, religion is not, in fact, changing fast enough for young people and their families who are found in all religions and denominations.

Where does hatred come from?

 

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Note:  The following is the introduction that I gave to my short play “Forty Days and Forty Nights” that I gave this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I presented the skit with actors Janice Roland Radway and Allen Radway and Barrington Walker as the narrator.  To see the piece on YouTube — after the introduction — click here.

Or you can view the YouTube video at the bottom of the post.

 

THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders ( published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon) is available as a print or e-Book on Amazon (and other on-line booksellers) as well as from bookstores.

THEY a biblical tale of secret genders

Several years ago I took the UU class offered here at Restoration and was inspired to read the Bible for the first time. At the same time I was reviewing several books on transgender issues and was deeply influenced by a neighbor’s child who had transitioned at the age of five.  I was also reading a book I had borrowed from Reverend Ellis about the Gnostic Gospels, something I had been long interested in — mainly through the music of my friend Julia Haines, a harpist and composer who has performed at this church.

In one of the books that I read on transgender issues, the author wondered what it would be like for a transgendered person to have the experience of learning about a transgender person as a character in the Bible.

I wondered too. What would happen if a person who is usually condemned by religion, is celebrated instead?  As Unitarian Universalists, we have that opportunity as expressed in the first UU principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

As a result of this confluence of ideas — perhaps spurred by my becoming a new Unitarian Universalist — I wrote a novel with a working title of She And He. The ideas in the novel may be ahead of their time — but I’ve always believed that there’s no time like the present.  Three excerpts were published and one was nominated for  a Pushcart Prize.  I also presented a different excerpt (titled “The Descent of Ishtar”) at Restoration last year with our own Janice Rowland Radway starring in the role of Tamar — a character from the Hebrew Bible.

In this version, Tamar is reborn as the twin sister of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus, played by Allen Radway. When I heard that this month’s theme was “Christology” — I thought it was a perfect fit — even — or especially — because it is an alternative view.  I wanted to bring it to you because I imagined it might encourage you to take your own journey.

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

Other excerpt is in the current issue of Sinister Wisdom — the fortieth anniversary issue

In aaduna literary magazine.

Another excerpt (also starring Janice Roland Radway as Tamar) “The Descent of Ishtar” can be seen on YouTube.

 

 

 

 

janet-and-sappho

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Previously published in The Huffington Post

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hillary Clinton is tough and more than competent.

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

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

What does religion mean to you?

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

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

trinity-two-2jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

trinity-three-blog

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another purpose of religion is to explain mortality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

…..

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

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

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I recently had the honor and privilege of having a Conversation with William E. Berry, Jr., Publisher & CEO, of aaduna literary magazine.  The journal published my novel excerpt “The Mother”  and nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.

Below is an excerpt from the Conversation and a link to the full piece in aaduna:

Janet Mason:

First off, thanks bill for your compliments about my work in aaduna.  I feel honored that you described it as having an “intriguing intensity,” “subtle edginess,” and a “provocative premise.”  The inspiration for my novel She And He, which “The Mother” came from, reflects several sources.  I review books for The Huffington Post and the radio syndicate “This Way Out” based in Los Angeles, and three of the books I reviewed that influenced me were on transgender topics.  The other major influence was reading the Bible pretty much for the first time which gave me a fresh take on it.

I wanted to write something fun and upbeat based on this landscape — and come to think of it, I did put a fair amount of myself into it.  I am tall and because of my height and angularity, I am frequently called “Sir.”  And though I identify as female, I have always identified with male and female interests.  When I was a child, I had an imaginary friend who was a boy my age who lived in my mind.  I actually didn’t think of this until now, but this must have influenced my thinking of having a line of intersex characters that are born in “The Mother” and the intersexed twins Tamar and Yeshua.  Tamar, the narrator of the story, indentifies primarily as female but is born intersexed.  And her brother, Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) identifies as male but was born intersexed.

I think my life is pretty normal — normal for me!  I spent a lot of time alone writing and I also garden (this summer I planted and harvested a lot of pumpkins and carnival squash).  My partner, who I live in an old farmhouse with, is retired from the postal system, and is a fabulous cook.  I take long walks everyday and do yoga and a Buddhist meditation practice almost daily, so my day to day is pretty tame but it suits me.

to read the rest of the Conversation, click here

“The Mother” is an excerpt from my novel in process, She And He.  It is loosely based on a character (Tamar) from the Hebrew Bible, and is told from the spin of how independent women and gender-variant characters not only survived but thrived in ancient times.

You can see a skit from She And He on YouTube .  The skit was done at the Unitarian Universal Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.

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

Another excerpt is forthcoming this year in Sinister Wisdom —coming out in April.
janet-and-sappho

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