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Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

keeping our dreams intact when we are forced to work mind-numbing jobs

This morning, Sunday September 3rd, I co-led a Unitarian Universalist service on Labor Day Weekend.  The theme was labor.  As part of this service, I read from my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012).

You can view my reflection below on the YouTube video or read the reflection below that.

 

 

Good morning.

 

Today on Labor Day weekend our theme is labor.  I immediately thought of this section of my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters. This is a story about the survival of how we keep our dreams intact when we are forced to work mind-numbing jobs.

                      ________________________

My mother and I both stared at the iron legged ottoman, covered with a faded tapestry that my grandmother wove more than a half century ago.  Whenever I looked at the patterns of the ottoman, the faded edges and the lines of darker colors, I saw my grandmother, a single mother who worked in the Kensington section of Philadelphia in a textile factory.

My grandmother was a woman of great dignity.  The Episcopal Church, especially after she had divorced and returned to the city, was one of the major pillars in her life.  I don’t know, in fact, that she was particularly religious.  But I remember visiting Saint Simeon’s with her, and I could see the appeal of the church, especially to a poor woman who had little, if any, luxury in her life.

She might have been saying prayers that she no longer believed in as she sat there, her head bowed and covered, next to her two girls—my mother squirming in the aisle seat and my aunt sitting next to her daydreaming as she stared at the stained glass windows. The shiny brass organ pipes reached to the ceiling and looked as beautiful as sound.  The pews were polished mahogany, the wood smooth and cool. The scent of incense and flowers permeated the air.   All St. Simeon’s needed was some red-velvet seat cushions and gilded cherubs on the ceiling and it could have been easily transformed into the sensuous lair of an opera house or, perhaps, a bordello. Sundays at St. Simeon’s was a respite from the rest of my grandmother’s life.

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Her days in the textile mill encompassed her like the full spectrum of shadow falling from a sundial.  The morning light filtering through the small windows of the dark mill would have been diffuse.   Her hair would have been tied back into a bun as the light fell around her.  She would have bent over the heddles that kept the warp lines in place as she threaded the machine.  The colors on the ottoman— rust red, dusty blue, olive green, black—would have filled the spindles that unraveled furiously into the automated looms as her hands kept pace.  When the morning light turned into afternoon and the heat rose in rivulets of sweat dripping from her skin, my grandmother would have reminded herself that she was lucky to have found a job.  The soup lines were getting longer.  The unemployed and the homeless were marching in the streets.  Even if my grandmother didn’t know anyone who committed suicide, she would have read the listings in the daily papers.

I wondered what it was like for my grandmother, a woman with dreams and aspirations, a woman whose life dictated that her only option was to work in a mill or to clean someone else’s house, which was what she did after she left the mill. Did her dreams keep her going through the tedium of her life?  Or did knowing that her dreams would never come true make her life close to unbearable?  And if her life was unbearable, what kept her going?  Did the thought of her girls having better lives make it all worthwhile?

When my grandmother worked at the textile mill, she was a woman who was no longer young but not yet old.  She still had her girlhood daydreams as an escape from the pure tedium of her life.  At the same time, the features of her face would have been hardening themselves into the lines of her future.  Her lips may have opened easily in laughter, but they were on their way to becoming a stitch in the center of her face.

My mother told me that when she was a girl my grandmother would tell her stories about her own childhood when she and her cousin took bit parts in the People’s Theater, the local community theater.

My grandmother’s memories would have swirled through her mind as she stood sweltering in the textile mill, reloading the spools that needed to be filled faster than her fingers could go. Her back might have been aching and her fingertips numb—she might have been wondering how she could afford to pay the rent—but in her dreams she was stately as a queen as she stood center stage.  Her imagined green chiffon dress was a waterfall cascading down her.  A diamond tiara sat on her head, sparks of light reflected in Romeo’s eyes.

Sitting in the living room with my mother, I could hear the distant applause, replaced suddenly by the din of the mill.  The noise of the loom, the thud, the thwack, entwined with a ceaseless rhythmic tramp—the tread of hundreds and thousands marching through history.

————-

Namaste

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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.

 

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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Becoming a feminist.”

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

 

 

Recently I was walking in Chinatown. It was an unseasonably warm night so I had my jacket open.  An older conservatively dressed white woman was walking toward me.  I saw her staring at me — trying to figure me out, a lesbian over six feet tall with short hair.

I saw her reading the large words on my t-shirt that read “Unite Against Hate.” She looked at me with disgust.  If the look on her face had words, it would have said, “Who do you think you are, uniting against hate?!”

Her look prompted me to glare back with the thought, “Really?! — you want to take me on?!”

fist_logoThe moment passed and we went our respective ways. Maybe it was because of my background in martial arts that I felt so empowered, so self-confident. I didn’t stop to remember that it was decades ago when I earned my second degree purple belt.

Since the election I have been filled with such moments of good old fashioned lesbian rage. But I am also a practicing non-violent Buddhist, so I have had a few things to figure out. One of them was why fifty-three percent of white women (including college-educated suburban white women) voted against their own interests.

There are some initially easy answers — these women are most likely married to conservative white men and they are identifying with their race and with their husband’s income rather than as women — an oppressed class.

Denial is strong. But reality is stronger.  More than a third of these marriages will end in divorce.  And a fraction of these women will end up in the already overcrowded and underfunded battered women’s shelters. I am not wishing this fate on anyone — I am merely stating a statistical reality.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. So I have compassion for those who voted against their own interests. I just finished reading Gloria Steinem’s latest book My Life On The Road. The book is full of revelations and I do recommend it.

When I read Gloria’s statement that you have to stand up for your own rights, before you can stand up for others — it gave me pause.feminist-fist

Gloria Steinem’s words made me reflect that I am fortunate to be among the women and men, along with those who identify with a different gender, who do get it about feminism.

Gloria is a lifelong beacon for me. It is because of her that all women are a little freer. I grew up with Ms. magazine in the house.  I went to rallies with my ahead-of-her-time feminist mother who I wrote about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

My working class, heterosexual, feminist mother saw to it that her only daughter would be a feminist.

Despite the fact of my gender-neutral childhood, I lived in the larger society. To counter the message that women are second class citizens, I had to go through a period of consciousness-raising. When I look back, I can recall a few “aha” moments.

 

  • In elementary school, I got into a fist fight with a boy who backed down because he didn’t want to risk punching me in the stomach, because in his words, “I wouldn’t be able to have babies.” Of course, this made me even more furious!
  • When I was in junior high, I had a math teacher who only called on the boys.
  • In my early twenties, I went to an exhibition of women artists at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. During the exhibition, it suddenly occurred to me that all of the art shows that I had seen previously had exhibited artwork that had been done mostly if not exclusively by men.

Aha!

It is my hope for all women to have their own “aha moments.” Maybe, for example, the majority of women might realize that reproductive rights (including abortion) should be a Goddess-given reality — rather than a reason that women should be imprisoned.

Hating others is not the same thing as standing up for yourself.

It is my practicing Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist informed hope that ALL will be able to truly stand up for their own rights and then stand up for others.

NAMASTE

 

 

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Through email interviews I have gotten to know Len Lear, who edits and reports on “Local Life” for the Chestnut Hill Local in Philadelphia.  As a result of his thoughtful questions, I not only have gotten to know Len but I have gotten to know myself on a deeper level. A young man in my Unitarian Universalist church, mentioned that we are all large gems illuminated by beams of light (the 0ther people) shining through us.  Len is a beam of light for me.  This is a thank you to Len for his support of my teaching and writing.  Len has interviewed me three times in the past five years.  The articles are excerpted below with links to the Local.

January 5, 2017

  • What are the mistakes most common among those who want to be published authors?

 

“One of the most common mistakes is in giving up before you get started — or giving up at any point, actually. Another mistake is taking rejection personally. Read the journals you submit to and make sure your work fits, but always understand that the business of writing is just that. It is not personal.”

Click here to read more in the Chestnut Hill Local

March 18, 2016

“Tea Leaves” also received a “Goldie” award from the Golden Crown Literary Society, and Janet received an extremely prestigious Pushcart Prize nomination recently “out of the blue” from a publication called aaduna (aaduna.org), which published an excerpt from Janet’s novel that she is currently revising titled “She and He.”

The novel is inspired by the Bible, goddess-oriented cultures in ancient Babylon, Janet’s practice of Buddhist mediation and her reading on transgender issues. Many of the characters are intersexed (born with both male and female sex characteristics).  The excerpt published in aaduna is titled “The Mother.”

Click here to read more in the Chestnut Hill Local

Click here to see a video of Janet reading from THEY (formerly She and He) at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration where she is a lay minister (in Unitarian language a “worship associate”).

Click here to read an excerpt of THEY titled “Becoming Thomas.”

May 2, 2012

“I have always been a writer,” said Mason. “It is almost as natural to me as breathing. As a child, I was always making up stories, and often I wrote them down. I think writers experience the world differently than other people; we escape into imagination and then come back and explore what intrigues and haunts us. We make sense of things by writing about them. This was very true in the writing of ‘Tea Leaves.’ I wrote about my mother’s final months and my experience in caring for her.”

click here to read more in the Chestnut Hill Local

 

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Note: This short reflection is airing worldwide this week on This Way Out(TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show in honor of its anniversary of fifteen hundred episodes. Click here to hear the entire show.

 

This is Janet Mason.

I’ve been writing and recording commentary for This Way Out for almost two decades. I’ve long been intrigued by the intimate nature of radio.  I have memories of being shaped by the radio — whether in the car, in the house or early in my life as an adolescent, alone in my room in my parents’ house but connected to the world through the magic power of radio.

It was through radio that I heard the voices of my favorite writers — often people I would come to read, and sometimes — when I was lucky — people I would later meet and on at least once occasion take classes with. As a child, I discovered the world through books. It makes sense that I would want to keep those worlds alive by writing and recording commentary on literature, particularly literature that reflects queer life.

When I first came out — or a few years before — I would listen to my local lesbian-feminist radio show. Yes, I said lesbian-feminist.  It was that long ago.  A lot has changed.  But some would say the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Occupying queer space on the radio airwaves is as important now, as ever, to the LGBT community.

It has been my privilege to work with This Way Out, to provide you with queer literary commentary over the years. Every now and then I hear from a listener and always I am moved.  Not only do I get to be part of a very important worldwide LGBT news wrap and vehicle for queer culture, but I get to be part of the listener’s world also.  In being connected to the world-wide LGBTQ movement, I feel larger than myself.  In the words of the great gay bard Walt Whitman, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

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Last weekend, my partner Barbara and I went to the DVD release party in Philadelphia of Sharon Katz and The Peace Train.  It was an excellent concert, complete with dancing.  It was a large extremely diverse (across the board).  Sharon and her partner/producer Marilyn are from South Africa where they began The Peace Train — taking kids of all races across the country on a train.  They did the same thing in this country just this past year and made a movie about the original Peace Train and another movie about the trip they just took.  One young person who was on The Peace Train with them talked about how empowering it was to meet Americans all of types who sang and danced with them.  Marilyn who introduced Sharon and the band said that she worked hard for the Hillary campaign and was very broken hearted but that now is the time to reach out across the divide to let people get to know us.  Diversity is fun! The Peace Train attests to this.  Below are some photos and some short YouTube video clips of The Peace Train. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

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(previously in The Huffington Post /Religion)

I had a spiritual revelation in my polling place last week in the presidential election. My partner and I chatted with others in line. There were many familiar faces and also many new acquaintances. It was a diverse liberal crowd. I smiled at a man wearing a blue “I’m With Her” T-shirt in the line that snaked around behind me.

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When I got to the registration table, an African American woman sitting behind the table gave me a smile when she heard me exchange names with the woman next to me  — someone in the neighborhood who I had never met before. In the hour in which we stood in line to vote — we discovered we had much in common. It was then I realized, this is like part in church where people pause and greet each other. The minister in my church calls it a “radical welcoming.”

When I joined the Unitarian Universalists several years ago, I quickly became a lay minister — called a worship associate in Unitarian lingo. As I recently explained to a vehemently atheist friend (there are many atheist Unitarians), my Unitarian Universalist experience has helped me learn about religion (I was raised secular), be open to people of all backgrounds and above all to underscore that no one group “owns” spirituality/religion.

Before I joined the Unitarians, I avoided religion all together since the religious right put me off — including the white Evangelicals who, according to The Huffington Post, voted for Trump, for the most part. They voted for him in record numbers based on hypocritical un-Christian hate filled values.

One of the epiphanies that I had in line at the polling place was that as a lifelong democrat, I have always voted, and I have voted for more than a few guys (and they were all guys) who I personally did not like. (President Obama was, in fact, the first candidate who I actually liked.) I have always strongly felt that there is a difference between the two major parties — enough of one that people’s lives will be affected.

Of course, this epiphany that I had at polling place the morning of the election was before we would see the devastating effects caused by people not voting.

If you stayed home and didn’t vote or effectively cast your lot for now President-elect Trump by voting for a third party — it is now time to wake up, suffer the consequences and step up to help those, especially the most vulnerable, who are now threatened by this administration. It’s time to cast away smugness and entitlement, and to put yourself on the line. Those (of all ages) who sat out the vote and are so apathetic they plan to do nothing are part of the problem.

As a practicing Buddhist, I meditate almost every morning. (The Unitarian faith includes and supports many spiritual paths.)

My emotions quickly cycled through me after the election results came in. On election day, spirits were high. After voting, I volunteered for the Democratic Party and went and knocked on doors. The people I talked to — almost all African Americans — had already voted. At the watch party (in my liberal neighborhood), I was stunned. By the following morning, I was devastated and depressed — so much so that I didn’t think I could get out of bed. But then I realized that anger was more healthy. Then for about two minutes, I felt deep grief — a necessary letting go and a relief — and returned to nothingness in my morning meditation.

Since then I keep going to back to anger.

Anger is linked to survival and I am blessed to have a strong streak of both. Perhaps it is my class background that makes me unafraid of my anger. I am the first in my family to have graduated from college and I have strong opinions (they may be different opinions from others from my class background but they are still strong). I am also a second-generation feminist and it may be my mother’s feminist rage (something I talk about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters).

I also am a lesbian-feminist who came of age under a fierce patriarchal system and I remember the quote from The Woman-Identified Woman By Radicalesbians:

 

“What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”

I am empathetic but concerned about the stories I am hearing about people — especially young people— being emotionally stymied by sadness/devastation and fear. Vulnerability is a good thing but too much of it leaves us open to attack. Remember, they want us to be fearful.

When I heard a friend talking about a young gay man who said he felt like he should go back into the closet, my immediate response was, “NO! — We have to be more out than ever.”

I am with Senator Elizabeth Warren who said in an interview on the Rachel Maddow show that now is the time when “We stand up and we fight back.” She advised people to volunteer for the causes they care about, to stay connected, and to stand our ground.

Despite my spiritual beliefs or maybe because of them, I do not have any optimistic words about the future. I do not advocate acceptance and I do not buy into the theory that anything is “God’s will.”

But maybe it is the goddess in my heart that gives me joy when I see the protestors on the street (#NotMyPresident).

Now is the time to prepare for the worst (even as we may hope for the best). We have to be centered and strong — to fight for our own rights and to help those who need help.

As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

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