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This morning, I took part in Poetry Sunday, a Unitarian Universalist summer service that is a tradition. The theme was social justice. In my talk, I reflected on the nature of poetry in creating empathy and talked about Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard is True about her time in El Salvador. I also talk Carolyn’s influence on me as a teacher and my migration from poetry to prose.

The YouTube video of my talk  is below. The complete text of my talk is below that.  The service took place at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Ave. in Philadelphia.

“Poetry makes nothing happen”

This oft quoted line is from W.H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” In our culture nothing is a negative word – but I posit that nothing is a good thing. It gives us a chance to pause, to reflect, to think for ourselves and to see what is in front of us.

I have observed that poetry creates empathy. It slows down time so that we can observe a detail and then feel a feeling. And since empathy starts with the self, it may be that almost all poetry is social justice poetry.

Recently, I have noticed that I am sighing and feeling depressed whenever I see a headline. There are lots of reasons to feel depressed – especially in the news. But as someone who actively combats depression by doing Buddhist chanting every day and practicing yoga, the feeling was strong enough for me to recognize it.  At the time that I was feeling this way, I was reading Carolyn Forché’s memoir of witness and resistance titled after a line in one of her most well-known poems written about her time in El Salvador in the late 1970s,What You Have Heard Is True. Carolyn, who was in El Salvador in the time that was building up to a civil war, is an internationally known poet and professor.

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It was during the reading of this memoir and possibly because of it, when I decided that depression was a luxury I couldn’t afford.  I am, after all, a writer.  And words matter. I first met Carolyn at a week-long poetry workshop at Omega Institute that I took with my friend Anne Arfaa (who is playing the piano today. Thank you, Anne.) I was twenty-nine — the same age as Gertrude Stein when she first started taking herself seriously as a writer.

There is a lot that I have forgotten about that workshop, since it was a long time ago. But what stayed with me was my daily discipline of writing and a line of poetry from a poet I had never heard about before but came to love: Mary Oliver. I didn’t know who Carolyn Forché was before the workshop, but my partner – Barbara – told me that she was an important poet and that I would love her work.  Barbara is usually right. This time she was very right.

The lines of my poetry became longer – and began to include dialogue – so I migrated from poetry to prose.  I didn’t think about it then, but the discipline and the lyricism I had learned in that poetry workshop was with me when I wrote my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (published by Bella Books in 2012) and my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books in 2018).

I remember Carolyn staring at me during the workshop when she talked about the importance of a daily writing practice. I may have imagined it, but in this moment of doing nothing – no words were spoken – it’s quite possible that I picked up the mantle of responsibility.  I was one of the students who would write daily.  And long before I was a Unitarian Universalist, I considered my daily writing practice to be a spiritual practice.

Carolyn Forché’s memoir brought this all back to me. What You Have Heard is True is particularly significant in light of the tragic mishandling of the crisis of immigration and asylum seekers we are witnessing at our borders. The memoir is a reminder that the poverty and violence people are fleeing in the South and Central Americas was created in part by the U.S. government. Our tax dollars helped the government support brutal corruption in the name of suppressing what the U.S. government called “communism.” What this really did was to keep the masses of people impoverished.

The information wasn’t new to me. In the old days there was lots of overlap between progressive communities. Still, I found the information to be as gripping as it was appalling.  I couldn’t put the book down.

Forché extensively quotes Leonel Gomez Vides, the man who brought her to El Salvador.  I will leave you with his words to ponder.

“You want to know what is revolutionary …? To tell the truth. That is what you will do when you return to your country. From the beginning this has been your journey, your coming to consciousness.”

Namaste

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

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Note: I am re-blogging this post in honor of World AIDS Awareness Day on December 1st, 2018.

This piece of commentary was previously aired on This Way Out, the LGBTQ news and culture syndicate headquartered in Los Angeles and published in The Huffington Post.

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 when hard-won advancements in research and pharmaceuticals made AIDS a virus that people lived with rather than a disease that people died from.

It was an epidemic of massive proportions. As France writes:

“When the calendar turned to 1991, 100,000 Americans were dead from AIDS, twice as many as had perished in Vietnam.”

The book chronicles the scientific developments, the entwined politics, and medical breakthroughs in the AIDS epidemic. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a chronic infectious condition that is caused by the underlying human immunodeficiency virus known as HIV. The book also chronicles the human toll which is staggering.aids memorial quilt

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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Note: I am re-blogging this post in honor of World AIDS Awareness Day on December 1st, 2017.

This piece of commentary was previously aired on This Way Out, the LGBTQ news and culture syndicate headquartered in Los Angeles and published in The Huffington Post.

 

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 when hard-won advancements in research and pharmaceuticals made AIDS a virus that people lived with rather than a disease that people died from.

It was an epidemic of massive proportions. As France writes:

“When the calendar turned to 1991, 100,000 Americans were dead from AIDS, twice as many as had perished in Vietnam.”

The book chronicles the scientific developments, the entwined politics, and medical breakthroughs in the AIDS epidemic. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a chronic infectious condition that is caused by the underlying human immunodeficiency virus known as HIV. The book also chronicles the human toll which is staggering.aids memorial quilt

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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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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previously on The Huffington Post

Decades ago — in the eighties, when I was in my early twenties — a bumper sticker on my tan economy car read: “A Woman’s Place Is In The White House.”

Then one day after work I went out to the office parking lot and found that someone had taken a razor blade and cut out the word “White” so the bumper sticker read “A Woman’s Place Is In The … House.”

What I remember about the co-worker who I strongly suspected of doing this (but who never admitted it) was that he was extremely racist and sexist and that he was a closeted gay man who made hateful remarks about other gay people. His internalized self loathing frequently spilled outward at the people around him, and that included me.

Fast forward forty years and we have finally have a candidate who has a strong possibility of becoming our first woman president who I am supporting for many reasons — including the fact that she supports many of the same issues that I do, the U.S. Supreme Court appointees coming up in the next presidential term, and because she is a woman with lots of experience who is qualified to do the job.

Of course, it would help if the president had a Congress she could work with. The Pennsylvania (the state in which I live) Senate race between incumbent republican Pat Toomey and Katie McGinty has been in the national spotlight. As CBS News reports, the democrats need five seats to regain the senate — “four if they win the White House because a Vice President Tim Kane would break any 50-50 tie.”

I was familiar with this race because as a lifelong democrat, a progressive, a second-generation feminist(something I write about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters), and a member of the LGBT community, I’ve been itching to vote against Pat Toomey — who is conservative on the social issues that I take personally. I was also familiar with this race because of the nasty television commercials that Toomey has been running against McGinty — all of which have prompted me to say to my partner and to the television that “I can’t wait to vote against Toomey.”

Then I was driving one day when I heard an interview on the radio with Katie McGinty — and I liked what I heard. I liked her stance on the issues, her background, the fact that she was endorsed by Emily’s List, and that she talked about the women in the senate collaborating on the last budget crises and “getting the job done.” Then she added that “I hope to be privileged to join that group.”

After the interview, I realized that I would be voting for someone rather than just against someone in the Pennsylvania senate race.

Some of the negative ads run against Katie McGinty call her “shady” Katie. The parallel between this and “crooked” Hillary (which Hillary’s opponent calls her) left me fuming. Then one day I was sitting in a local eatery with my partner when another nasty television commercial against Katie McGinty came on. This time the word “trust” grabbed my full attention.

Could it be that someone is telling us that women are not trustworthy in political office because we have had 2,000 years of male leaders in the history of the world (and therefore the powers that be are telling us we can’t trust women)? Could this have something to do with the white, male, cowboy origins of this country?

My partner was casually keeping her eye on me. I have lost it several times during this election, and she is in the unusual situation of having to be the peacekeeper. Maybe I am being overly sensitive. There are some women on the right and left who act like sexism does not exist. I think they are in denial. But the most important issue in this election is whether we can choose the best candidate for the position — regardless of gender.

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This Halloween we handed out treats and talked to parents to find out if they were voting for Hillary.  We got more than a few vehement “yes” es and as one mother pointed out, “isn’t everyone on this street?” Even one of the little trick-or-treaters ran down the street yelling “Hill-a-ary — Hill-a-ry”!

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scary-pumpkin

 

As one of the father’s pointed out, he hopes this is as scary as it gets!

 

 

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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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