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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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(Note: the following is my fiction excerpt titled “The Artists” that was just published in Adelaide Magazine.  The piece of short fiction is excerpted from my recently completed novel Pictures. Following is several paragraphs of “The Artists” followed by a link to the full story at Adelaide Magazine. Below that is an excerpt from Pictures on You Tube that I read at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia. And below that is a link to some other published excerpts of Pictures.)

 

THE ARTISTS
By Janet Mason

(October, 1926)

After dinner,  Nan and George refilled their wine glasses with a deep red Bordeaux and went to the sitting room where they waited for their spouses to join them.  George put a record on his new Victor Victrola.  It sat in the corner on its own end table. Its sound horn with its fluted edges resembled a large silver lily. The opening was turned toward the wall.

Nan stared at the fluted horn.

“I turned it to the wall so that the sound would echo through the apartment,” said George.

“The music sounds turbulent,” said Nan.

“That’s the point,” replied George.  “Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring portrays the violence of the Russian pagan rites. A maiden dances herself to death in the sacrificial dance.  Stravinsky uses Russian folk music in the score.  He was sketched by Picasso, and Picasso undoubtedly influenced him.  They both discovered artistic primitivism at the same time — Picasso in his cubist painting and Stravinsky in his experimental music.”

Nan  cocked her head and listened to the strains of music amplified by the phonograph.   She imagined violin bows slicing air. She heard cubism in the music. The bass of kettle drums sounded.  She cocked her head so that one ear was turned to the sound horn as she listened intently to the high tones of the piccolo and flutes.

Despite what George had said, Nan didn’t care for the music.  She didn’t say so though — out of politeness to her teacher and friend.

Emma came in and joined them, sitting down on the burnt umber leather sofa next to her husband. Wilna was still missing.

She must be in the powder room, thought Nan.

“I hear that the piece started a riot in Paris when it debuted,” continued George.  “But that was because of the bad ballet dancing under the direction of Nijinsky.”

….read more here in Adelaide Magazine.

Pictures was, in part, inspired by my discovering and reading about Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason by Joseph P. Eckhardt (WoodstockArts).  I went to see the show in Woodstock at the Historical Society and here is one of the photos (Nan is on the left; Wilna is on the right:

 

 

Click here to see more photos Woodstock Hist. Society -- portrait of Nan Mason & Wilna Herveyfrom the show about Nan and Wilna at the Woodstock Historical Society.

 

 

Read other published excerpts of Pictures (and see other YouTube segments) by clicking here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This morning, Sunday August 13th, I co-led a Unitarian Universalist tradition called Poetry Sunday.  This is one of my favorite services because we are privileged to hear so many voices from the congregation as people read their own work and the poetry of other poets.  For this service, I wrote a reflection and read from my new novel titled Pictures and talked briefly about the early environmentalist and poet’s poet Robinson Jeffers. You can see my reflection below on the YouTube video or read the reflection below that.

If you are interested in reading/viewing other published excerpts of Pictures click here.

For more published excerpts of Pictures, click here.

For a post about previous UU Poetry Sundays, including a YouTube video of my reflection on the late poet Audre Lorde, click here.

 

 

Earth is our home. We are part of this world and its destiny is our own. Life on this planet will be gravely affected unless we embrace new practices, ethics, and values to guide our lives on a warming planet. As Unitarian Universalists, how can our faith inform our actions to remedy and mitigate global warming/climate change? We declare by this Statement of Conscience that we will not acquiesce to the ongoing degradation and destruction of life that human actions are leaving to our children and grandchildren. We as Unitarian Universalists are called to join with others to halt practices that fuel global warming/climate change, to instigate sustainable alternatives, and to mitigate the impending effects of global warming/climate change with just and ethical responses. As a people of faith, we commit to a renewed reverence for life and respect for the interdependent web of all existence.

–Threat of Global Warming/Climate Change, Unitarian Universalist Statement of Conscience

 

I was having lunch with my old friend and my first publisher the poet Jim Cory when the name Robinson Jeffers came up.  I was telling Jim about the novel I was revising, called Pictures, and about a party that my characters were attending at the home of the fine art photographer Edward Weston in 1926 in Carmel ,California.  It is a fictional depiction of historical people, most of them artists of varying kinds. Jim said that the poet Robinson Jeffers lived in Carmel at that time, and he most definitely would have been at the party.

I found out later that Weston photographed Jeffers. Robinson Jeffers by Edward Weston

My friend Jim then went on to describe Jeffers as a pioneering environmentalist/ climate justice activist, poet, seer.

I went home and promptly reserved the books of Jeffers from the library and opened one of his poetry books to “Distant Rainfall” – I’ll read it here – “Like mourning women veiled to the feet/ Tall slender rainstorms walk slowly against/ gray cloud along the far verge./ The ocean is green where the river empties,/   Dull gray between the points of the headlands,/ purple where the women walk,/ What do they want? Whom are they mourning?/ What hero’s dust in the urn between the/ two hands hidden in the veil?/ Titaness after Titaness proudly/ Bearing her tender magnificent sorrow/ at her heart,/ the lost battle’s beauty.”

I read a little more about Robinson Jeffers – who is truly fascinating – and then I was inspired to add several passages about him to my novel, Pictures, including the following passage where my character is hiking the cliffs of Carmel, California, overlooking the Pacific when he spots Jeffers:

 

Edward was usually looking for images. He imagined that Robinson was doing the same thing  — or looking for inspiration, doing whatever poets did.  Usually they just nodded or when they were close they exchanged a few words.  Edward had a feeling that Robinson was more reclusive than he was.  It was true that art required the artist to be alone, and that human beings were a distraction (unless they sat still and silent for a portrait).  One time, Edward had spotted Robinson on a trail above him, staring out at the ocean as the mist, turning into rain, rolled toward the shore.  The man’s gaze had been so intent, so singularly focused, that Edward was mesmerized. He wondered what was going through the man’s mind.  Did he see things in the mist — did he see leviathan women walking along the surface of the ocean as they heralded the storm.  Were the women his muses? Or was the mist itself the muse as it became rain — the wetness part of the mystery that became poetry.  As Edward stared, he was captivated by the cragginess of the poet’s face. He seemed to be as rough hewn as the rocks behind him. To look at him was as startling as seeing sheer cliff walls disappearing into sea. One day, thought Weston, I will photograph him.

 

Briefly, John Robinson Jeffers was an American poet known for his work on the region of Big Sur on the central coast of California.  Today he is considered an icon of the environmental movement. His father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a biblical scholar. He is known as a poets’ poet and has been written about by other poets such as Adrienne Rich.

In these surreal days of having to insist that science is real, it’s good to remember Jeffers.

Science is real and so is the mystery.

 

–Namaste–

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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Honoring the father as well as the mother.”  This talk was part of a special service on Earth Day.

You can view the YouTube video below.  If you prefer, you can read the piece below the video.

 

In the past month, my 98-year old father has been hospitalized three times.   Since I am an only child and a dutiful daughter, this has thrust me into a new chapter of my life – which feels at times disembodied and surreal and other times purposeful and grounded.

The night before one of his medical appointments, I slept in Levittown – the place where I grew up and is so much a source of strength to me as well as a considerable source of angst. I attribute my strong work ethic to my working class background. This is also the backdrop of two of my novels and partly of my memoir, Tea Leaves, about taking care of my mother when she was terminally ill.

In this conventional landscape, I found myself praying to a conventional God about my father. Now, I was raised secular. In the past four years of being a Unitarian Universalist, I have learned about traditional religions and at the same time deepened my spirituality through such alternative paths as Buddhism and yoga. I have always prided myself on being alternative.

To say that I have long had issues with patriarchy is putting it lightly.

One of my earliest memories is when my father and I walked to the neighborhood pharmacy – which is still there but now sells convalescence and medical supplies for the home instead of the chewy  Mary Jane candies of my childhood – and for some reason I stayed outside.  When he came back out of the store, I was putting the imprint of my finger in the pliant grout around the store’s window.  “What are you doing?” he asked me.  I truthfully replied that the group of boys who had just been there told me to do this. “Never do what a group of boys tells you,” he said gruffly.  I must have taken his words to heart, because this is how I have lived my life.

And so in this conventional landscape, I found myself praying to God the father to help my father.  When I told my partner who I was praying to, she gave me a quizzical look – that comes rarely in the lives of the long married — that said, who are you?

A week later in the emergency room with my father again, I found myself again praying. There is much suffering in the emergency room. I could feel the pain around me – the squalling babies, the broken people wheeled in on stretchers, a gaunt and neglected old man leaning back, his mouth wide open.

I was sitting there breathing in and out. I was practicing Tonglen – the Buddhist practice of breathing in the suffering around you and breathing out peace.  But there was so much suffering around me – including my father lying back on his bed with a breathing tube in his nose.

Then the young dashing doctor came in. He kept shrugging and mentioning that my father was 98 – and that he could go home if he wanted to.   I could see him giving me a sideways glance.  I felt summed up as a big lesbian who his charms were lost on. More than that, I found his ageism appalling.  My father was in the emergency room because he had a hard time breathing.  (He is living with congestive heart failure.)

Fortunately, the nurse — who I liked — suggested that my father be admitted to the hospital.  As I write this reflection, he is still in the there. I am sitting with him – making sure that he gets the proper care.

My partner and I live our lives simply and fully as if every day is Earth Day.

Barbara is a drummer and we have attended many gatherings where it is chanted:

The earth is our Mother, we will take care of her.

This is true – the earth is our Mother – and I did take care of my mother.

But the earth that I sprang from is also my father – and I will take care of him.

 

 

NAMASTE

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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Meeting Hate With Compassion.”  This talk was part of a larger service.

You can view the YouTube video below.  If you prefer, you can read the piece below the video.

 

 

A few years after my partner and I bought our house, now decades ago, an angry young white man who lived across the street threw rocks at our second story bedroom window. I should say that this man was young but he was an adult.

I had seen this young man looking at me with hatred in his eyes and I knew it was him.  We also had been verbally harassed since we had moved into the neighborhood – by him and by others.

Initially, I wanted to throw rocks back at his windows.  But I couldn’t do that — since he lived with his grandparents.  So I called the police.  I reported this as a hate crime — which was the logical thing to do, except that in Philadelphia, at that time, lesbians and gay men were not protected under the hate crimes bill. I was upset – understandably so – and went through the range of emotions at being targeted, including rage and grief. The dispatcher and the officer were open-minded and supportive.  The officer encouraged us not to engage with the rock thrower (he said that this usually made things worse).

I’m a practicing Buddhist now, but I wasn’t then.  I never thought about it consciously but that experience must have been a major influence. As a wise friend once said, we are all victims of victims.  And if we are different, we run the risk of being victimized more.  But the point is that we all are different – and we should value those differences in ourselves and each other. Differences are what make a community interesting.  Take this one here at Restoration, for example.  Also, it’s oppressive to try to be like everyone else – especially if you’re pretending.

Years ago, when the rocks were thrown, I practiced compassion by looking out our bedroom window and noticing that the angry young man had the same look of hatred on his face when he looked at his mother’s husband — a man who was probably not his father.  His mother was severely disabled, is now in a nursing home, and her husband left.

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, my partner Barbara and I went to a gathering where one of the people, a former minister, said that we must have compassion for those who hate because “they are so broken that the only way that they can feel good about themselves is to hate others.”

King quote on refusing to hate

I knew with sadness that what she said was true. Perhaps I was a natural Buddhist years ago in that I took non-violent action. The police officer (and a neighbor) told us the young man’s full name. When I saw him on the street, I greeted him by name.  I told a neighbor who is related to the angry young man that “We were not going to take it, and already called the police.”  I also told his grandfather, who he lived with, the same thing.  The angry young man’s relatives agreed with me that I should alert the police.

After that, I kept saying hello to him by name whenever I saw him on the street, forcing him to acknowledge me.

The harassment stopped.

Over the years I have become a kind of a patchwork Buddhist. I chant every day, but am not formally affiliated with any group.  I learned Nam Myoho Renge Kyo — by watching Tina Turner on YouTube and going to a few Buddhist parties. The mantra is an expression of determination to embrace our Buddha nature and to help others achieve happiness.  For me, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is an ancient vibration that puts me in alignment with the cosmic energy of the universe.

Anger and hatred are at odds with the Buddhist philosophy. One quote, attributed to Buddha says that:

“Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased by love. This is an eternal Law. If one speaks or acts, with a pure mind, happiness follows one as one’s shadow that does not leave one.”

It bears repeating:

“Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased by love. This is an eternal Law. If one speaks or acts, with a pure mind, happiness follows one as one’s shadow that does not leave one.”

 

Nam Myo Renge Kyo

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(I presented this novel excerpt at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I am a lay minister.  The segment is also on You Tube. Click here  to see the video or you can view the segment below and below that on this blog, you can read the excerpt. (At the bottom of this post is another video link to YouTube featuring me reading from a different part of Art — and talking about the Saints.)

Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.)

 

This excerpt is from a novel that I wrote recently titled Art: a revolution of love and marriage.  The novel is based on the working class landscape in which I grew up and takes place in the seventies.  The main character is named Art and is based on a real person (who is not me). So here is a short excerpt from her story. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality is a good hint at the happy ending.

 Art, a revolution of love and marriage

Art strode from the counter, past the grill and the fryers and into the backroom.  She tore her yellow headscarf off triumphantly as she clocked out.  Then she put on her sweater and her padded royal blue jacket. She slammed the metal back door behind her.

The sun was setting. It was about ten after five.  Her brother was scheduled to pick her up at five thirty. Art stood behind the building. She put up her hood and looked up. The sky was streaked with violet.  Long white wisps of clouds unfurled like banners. A single bright star came out from behind a cloud.  She watched it for a moment.  It stayed in one place so she knew it was a star, not an airplane.  It was bright enough to be a planet: either Jupiter or Venus.rainbow love

She thought about the fact that the star was light years away.  Maybe her junior year physics teacher was right.  Perhaps they were made from the stars they wished on. Most of the atoms spinning around in her body were made from stardust. Art would never admit it — in physics class last year, she had just rolled her eyes along with the others — but the fact was that she did have dreams.  She wished that she could be with Linda forever. She wished that Linda’s mother would stop telling her daughter that it was a waste of time to study trigonometry and that she would stop telling Linda that her life was going to turn out just like hers. She stared at the star.  It was so bright that it seemed to be burning a hole in the winter sky.  She wished she and Linda could make a life together.  She wished they could get married.  She wished that they could even have a kid or two. But first they had to get through this last year of high school. Getting into the trig class would be easy compared to the rest.

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Note: This piece of commentary was written as part of a tribute for President Obama for This Way Out (TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show. Click here to hear this week’s tribute to President Obama on TWO.

 

My partner, who ordinarily is allergic to the news, and I sat rapt in front of the television, the first time when President Obama first said LGBT and then the words “lesbian” and “transgender” at one of his state of the nation addresses.

Of course, by then we knew this president was on our side. We were on his side, too.  We stayed home from work to watch his first inauguration.  I still remember watching President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.  We both held our breath because we knew that not everybody would be happy to see the first African American president.

 

president_obama_portrait_rainbow_usa_flag_

Between our moments of awe, my partner tended to be nonchalant. “It’s about time,” she remarked drily when I told her that the because of the Obama administration hospitals that took money from the federal government had to honor the medical power of attorney papers of same-sex couples. She was right, of course. It was about time that we had some protections under the law.

We are of that generation of lesbians who were used to not having any rights. My partner is a drummer and to be honest we came to enjoy marching in the streets. There always seemed to be a drum contingent to hook up with.  At the time, I was a performance poet and I could count on offending people at my readings at the more conventional venues.  It was no secret that I rather enjoyed it when people walked out.  Okay, I bragged about it.

My partner and I never imagined we’d be legally married some day.

The morning after President Obama won re-election in 2012, I was working on a literacy project in an elementary school in an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia. An African American first grader looked up at me with large brown eyes and shyly said, “I know who the president is.”

At the second inauguration for President Obama, we learned about a poet named Richard Blanco. He was the first Hispanic person and the first openly gay poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. I reviewed several of his books for This Way Out.

President Obama made history again at this inauguration on the Capitol steps after he was sworn in, when he stated:

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

He also mentioned the Stonewall Inn riots — the pivotal LGBT rights rebellion in 1969 when gay men, lesbians, and trans people stood up against police intimation.

Thank you President Obama for eight years of your service, for your personal sacrifices, for the wonderful example you set with your beautiful family, and for being a secure man. Thank you also for your commitment to the LGBTQ community.  Because of you, we are stronger and ready to take on whatever comes next.

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