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Posts Tagged ‘Janet Mason Tea Leaves’

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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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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sharon-and-monette-on-stage-dancer

 

 

 

 

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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: This morning I gave this reflection as part of a service on transitions at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.  To view the YouTube video, click here.

 

In my early twenties when I studied women’s self defense and then karate, one of my favorite t-shirts was a sky blue muscle shirt that had the Chinese character for crisis. This character shares characteristics with the symbol for opportunity.  This was the early eighties.

crisis character

I have no idea what happened to this particular t-shirt, but the saying stayed in my mind.

Undoubtedly it was something that fueled me as I studied martial arts and became a self-defense instructor to women — and also to people of all genders with intellectual disabilities.

My students showed great progress. They held their heads up high and looked people in the eye. They defined the space around them.   They connected with the life force inside of them — called “Kiai,” a Japanese word used in Karate which describes the shout delivered for the purpose of focusing all of one’s energy into a single movement.  In studying self-defense, they were becoming more self confident.

Many were transforming from former victims into survivors and thrivers. They were healing.

I took pride in being their teacher. We were on the journey together.

I have long known that change is good. Not only is it good, it is necessary and unavoidable.

“Change is the only constant in life,” as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is quoted as saying.

My delightfully progressive late aunt (my mother’s sister) was known to say to her more conventional relatives (mainly her husband and her son): “The universe is always changing and so am I.”

Change is necessary — but it also can be scary.

Personally I have found that in that scary-space — in the free fall over the abyss — it is possible to do the necessary good work that reinvention requires.

One thing that I have learned over the years, is that things rarely go back to the way they were as much as we might want that.

I tend to stay in the present — which is good in many ways — but the downside is that I can forget some of the spiritual lessons that I’ve learned in decades past.

Remembering that change is good and necessary is definitely one of those things.

We tend to expect things to last forever. Perhaps this is part of the survival instinct that is wired into us.

In my last major transition, I went from spending my days in a cubicle to doing my best writing — and perhaps to being my best self. I had been in a high-stress job for five and a half years and my major saving grace was that I was using my days off to pursue my own writing.  This also may have contributed to burn out.

Now I knew that this was an opportunity for me and my writing but still I suffered from severe anxiety when I was laid off.

But because of this experience, I know what it feels like to walk through life like a robot. I understand job stress and burnout.

I recently had dinner with an old friend who is also a retired therapist who tactfully said to me, “You just weren’t taking care of yourself when you were in that job.”

That’s an understatement and I shudder to think of what may have happened to me if I hadn’t changed everything.

Fast forward to five years later, and I am still reinventing myself, but I am much stronger — in large part thanks to yoga — with our music director Jane Hulting — and a spiritual practice that includes attending worship here at Restoration.  In yoga, Jane often quotes from the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, in particular from her book When Things Fall Apart in which she writes:

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life.”

Her words bear repeating:

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life.”

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Note: This morning I gave this reflection as part of the Tikkun olam (repair of the world) service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.  To view a YouTube video, click here.

Good morning

After I talked to Maria some weeks ago about today’s service, I went to teach my adult creative writing class and a new student — a retired nurse — talked about her struggle with breast cancer (which she is still battling) and why she wants to write a book about it, not only to chronicle her own experience but to help caretakers and medical professionals know what to do and what not to do.

I encourage my students to write about the hard stories in their lives — to go where the energy is and to protect themselves by setting down boundaries. Having written out several of my own hard stories, I have experienced that the energy of the subject matter will change after the story is written.  At the very least, the act of writing the story will give the writer more perspective.

In this way the writer experiences more whole-ness in her or his own life. And the telling of the story is healing for the world.  When I have heard from readers about the books I have written — both prose and poetry — that the work has meaning for them because they have had remarkably similar experiences, their remarks are a gift.

I’ve been teaching creative writing for nearly twenty years and consider it an honor. Just recently, because of the work that I am doing with Restoration, I have begun to consider my role in coaching students of all ages to tell their story an extension of the ministry that I do here.

When Maria asked me the question of whether what is inside of us influences the outside world, I had to think about it. That this church has such a strong focus on social justice is something that appeals to me.  Obviously, we are connected to the world and have a responsibility for healing it.

But — as a writer — I spend far more time inside my head than I do in the world.

Wholeness is something I have long struggled with — for a variety of reasons. My daily practice of yoga and Buddhist chanting helps — as does attending worship at Restoration.  On Tuesday morning, my yoga teacher (the one and only Jane Hulting) reminded me that all we have to do to connect with our inner selves is to take a deep breath.  That’s something we can do now. Breathe in as I count to four and then breathe out as I count to six.

If the whole world were to take a breath at the same time, then things might change. At the very least the people of the world might be able to pause, reconsider and change the course of their actions.

My relatively brief time here at Restoration has given me that pause. I have been more open to religion — or what is thought of as religion — and yet I have become more in touch with my secular self.  My Unitarian Universalist journey has also coincided with my best and most productive years as a writer — something I’m sure is no coincidence,  especially given the UU mission of restoring wholeness. Creative writing has long been my channel to spirituality and to myself.  I have long recognized that there are lots of unhealed people in the world who oppress others.  I can’t say that if they were healed, all the social ills would go away.  But I can say that I have a commitment to my own whole-ness.

But I — along with everyone else — am connected to the world and I am concerned about it.

 

The Dalai Lama picture and quote "The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred."

I came across this quote from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

It bears repeating:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

The quote made me smile and it helped me realize that there are things that we all can do:

We can belong to a congregation like Restoration that has a strong focus on diversity and social justice.

We can decide where and when not to spend our money — or as my mother said — “vote with your dollar.”

We can support elected officials who support the same values that we do. We can also vote against candidates — those trying to be elected officials — who don’t share our values.

We can also go through life with an open-mind and open-heart. This may be difficult in our increasingly fractured world, but it is more important than ever — for our insides and for our outsides.

 

Namaste

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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.)

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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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Note: A variation of this piece, originally on The Huffington Post, was aired this week on This Way Out, the international queer radio syndicate. To hear the piece on This Way Out, click on the link and scroll down on the page to ‘Now Playing” and click again.

 

Lately, I’ve been warming up to religion. Like many in the LGBT community, I had managed to avoid the whole thing. I haven’t so much run from it. Thank God, I was raised by a Bible-burning, atheist mother — something that I wrote about in my book Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters.

But I kept religion at a distance. Then I started going to a nearby Unitarian Universalist church. It started with a crisis, of course, like many religious conversions. I was laid off from a high-stress job. But it was more than that. I was a mess — physically and spiritually. I felt like I looked: fried. An old friend who was a yoga instructor suggested that my partner and I take her yoga class at the UU church where she is the music director. When my partner began drumming there some Sundays, I went with her. I liked it so much that I became a member and then joined the lay ministers.

To me joining a church was a major leap of faith. I was concerned how many I have known over the years, would take the news. Some were surprised. I overheard someone who we had known for many years saying, “Janet joined a church?” A close friend asked abruptly, “What gives, Janet? A church?” I told her that it was about community, and she could understand that. It’s also about diversity — including sexual orientation, age, gender and race as well as religious, or lack of, background. Fortunately, many of my friends calmed down when they heard it was a UU church the place where people sing Holly Near songs and Sweet Honey in the Rock on Sunday mornings. Becoming a UU has broadened my horizons. For one thing, I found out that many have been damaged by early religious experiences — even many who were not LGBT. This gave me pause.

I understood intellectually, of course, but it took me a while to really “get” that LGBTQ teens were killing themselves because they thought that they were going to hell. My secular intellectual background translated hell into mythology (starting with Greek mythological creation stories ) and literature (I’ve always loved the Divine Comedy). These teens, however, were told they were going to hell by their communities. And hell was real to them. They were told that their lives with not worth living.

Traditional Christianity is not my path. But there is hope. Rev. Al Sharpton writing on The Huffington Post addressed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that was signed by Governor Mike Pence last week, by stating that “My religious conviction compels me to fight for civil rights and social justice; I don’t divide the two. Each and every one of us must speak out against this egregious Indiana law.”

When I read Gay Conversations With God: Straight Talk On Fanatics, Fags and the God Who Loves Us All by James Alexander Langteaux from Findhorn Press, I had a little snicker. The author was a senior producer and host of the Christian 700 club. He writes that invariably after an “ex-gay” show (where men who had been through so-called reparative, conversion and ex-gay therapy all of which is condemned by the American Psychiatric Association), the “cured” men would hit on him. His response was that it sounded fun, but what would their lesbian wives and their 17 children think. My snicker at this hypocrisy stayed with me as a kind of joy that arose every time I heard anything about the 700 club. I came to think that maybe God (feel free to substitute any other word that works for you, Divine, Great Spirit and definitely She as well as He) wants me to feel that joy. The sad part of the author’s experience is that he was struggling with his own sexuality at the time and the ex-gay overtures only made him depressed. But he also talks about his faith in terms of “pure love:”

“Perfect love casts out all fear. And on that final day as you stand in the presence of that perfect love, the last thing you will feel… is queer.”

The book is written glibly but leaves no doubt that the author has been through it — as a result of being gay and Christian.

In The Peace Seeker (Peace Seeker Press) author Susan E. Gilmore goes deeper in relating her struggles between her sexuality and her strong faith in the Baptist religion in which she was raised which instilled her with “an unwavering confidence that the Bible was the infallible word of God and that every word was correct and could be relied on for spiritual truth and everyday wisdom.” The Peace Keeper talks about her observation from a young age of the church’s position that the role of women “was to be submissive to men.” The author is bright, intelligent and driven — qualities that any organization (including her church) should develop and put to use. Instead, she was thrown out of Bible college for having an “inappropriate” sexual and romantic relationship with another female student. Ultimately, she is accepted by another Bible college and goes abroad to do missionary work.

Since her entire life is based in her religion, the author partners with other Christian women. This is during the late ’70s and early ’80s and there was a lesbian community in existence. At one point when she comes home and becomes involved with another partner, the two of them attend a church together, but stay in the closet. What follows is a harrowing tale of the couple being broken up by the church members and elders. Susan left that church, but at no point does she consider changing her religion or leaving it entirely. Her faith was that strong.

Susan finds love again with another Christian woman, and together they find a church that embraces them because one of the pastors’ mind and heart had been opened because he had a gay brother who had been treated badly by the church. This man checked in with the two women, encouraged them to come out, and accepted them as a couple. It would be nice if this part of the story ended there. However, this pastor’s acceptance created considerable division among the congregation. The church leadership, however, encouraged them to stay. Susan generously describes the situation: “Some church members fully accept us; others remain on the path to understanding.”

Coming Out in Faith: Voices of LGBTQ Unitarian Universalists edited by Susan A. Gore and Keith Kron was, as I anticipated, a breath of fresh air. The writers in this collection share their experiences of being amazed at being around straight allies who are genuinely not homophobic. Social justice is a strong component of Unitarian Universalism and LGBT rights are important among them.

One of the writers is Drew Johnston who identifies as “a queer bi/trans Unitarian Universalist.” Drew relates the experience of transitioning while being a UU minister. Drew attended a potluck dinner and took questions from the congregation. One person asked about gendered pronouns. “Did I prefer male or female …. Then I heard myself finally answer the question. I said I like it when people at least alternate. I said, ‘Then I feel seen.'”

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