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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

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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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 morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I talked about my experience of work, writing, teaching, and the importance of telling our stories.  The theme of this week’s service was “Finding Balance.”

To see the reading and the reflection on YouTube, click here. (You can also view the YouTube video at the bottom of this post. Following is the text of my talk:

 

“The workplace is a conquering ground for neurosis,”

                                         –Dorothy Barenholtz

 

 

 

My friend Dorothy’s statement has stood in my mind for a long time. It is true – under the best and worst of circumstances. Dorothy is a friend — in her 90s who lives in New York City.  She worked as an administrative assistant across from the Central Park Zoo when my partner and I first met her at a woman’s spirituality festival where she was selling rubber stamps with some amazing patterns. Before her time as an administrative assistant she worked as a writer in various capacities.

I will always think of her as an excellent letter writer, which in our fragmented society of texts and Tweets, is a lost art.  Before she retired, she regaled us for years with work-related stories – all of which boiled down to how the issue of survival of the fittest is too often prevalent in the workplace, forcing us to extreme measures to retain our humanity.

But let me start with my own story.

A difficult job situation put me on the path to Buddhism. I would meditate every morning on the train to Center City in order to be able to deal with extremely difficult coworkers. I worked for a major nonprofit – and the work that I did brought me in contact with people with physical and intellectual disabilities who were truly amazing. I was very good at what I did and earned some major awards.

But the environment – a cubicle on Rittenhouse Square in Center City, Philadelphia — was not in keeping with my inner self. On that job, I developed a jolly outer persona – which I now see was a kind of survival. Every morning, I walked by the major bookstore next door to my office and looked into the window.  I was crying inside.  Not that I was anything like the writers in the window.  In that section of town, the books that were put in the window tended to be on the right of the political spectrum and far more conventional than I was.

I have written seriously since I was 29 – like Gertrude Stein – but I always wanted to do more with my writing – and I felt that I could, if only I had the time.

I wrote on weekends, holidays and vacation time. I wrote in the evenings when I came home from work.  I also taught in the evenings – and my grueling schedule is probably the reason that I was seriously burnt out by the time I was laid off.

In Life, Work and Spirituality, Dr. John W. Gilmore (a former ministerial intern here at UUCR),  writes that work is part of our identity (sometimes it is our identity) and we learn about work very early in our lives.  My father worked shift work in an industrial plant.  My earliest memory of work was driving to the plant with my mother at odd hours to drop him off and pick him up.  When I was in college, I worked summers at the plant and heard of more than a few old timers who dropped over dead in the guard house when they were clocking out.  I always thought it very unfair that they had spent their last hours at the job.

I never wanted a job to take over my life.

Nonetheless, decades later on Rittenhouse Square – when things had gotten very difficult – I said to myself (and out loud on at least one occasion) that when you have a good job, you don’t quit it – you just keep on going no matter what.

Deep down, I wanted to put my creative writing first. It was a desire that burned in me.  The universe heard me.  I had finally found a publisher for my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters and two weeks after I signed the contract, I was laid off.  Boom.  I had more time for my writing. Soon, I had a book to promote.

I managed to write and promote my book and also to job hunt – but the fact was that during this time I was a mess. A close friend, the wise poet Maria Fama, knew I was going through a period of extreme anxiety (to say the least) and gave me the advice to “put everything into your writing.” So I did. The result was that I have been doing what I consider to be my best writing.

I am also freelancing, coaching, and teaching and I am more of myself than ever.

Just last week, a student – a woman in her sixties – said to me that she always wanted to tell her story but she thinks that no one wants to hear it.

I’ll tell you what I told her.

There are people who will put us in categories. They may ignore us or think they are better than us.  But that’s their problem – not ours.  When we tell our stories we become more of ourselves.  We become larger and we connect – with ourselves and with each other.

Our stories are the glue that holds the universe together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a reading from the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and  reflected on how reading this book impacted my own creative process — in particular with Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage which I have fine tuned and am putting out into the world.   To see the reading and the reflection on YouTube, click here. (You can also view the YouTube video at the bottom of this post. This was part of a larger service titled “Hope in the Dark.”

Reading from  Big Magic, creative living beyond fear

by Elizabeth Gilbert

I think a lot of people quit pursuing creative lives because they’re scared of the word interesting. My favorite meditation teacher Pema Chodron, once said that the biggest problem she sees with people’s meditation is that they quit just when things are starting to get interesting.  Which is to say, they quit as soon as things aren’t easy anymore, as soon as it gets painful,   or boring,   or agitating.  They quit as soon as they see something in their minds that scares them or hurts them.  So they miss the good part, the wild part, the transformative part — the part when you push past the difficulty and enter into some raw new unexplored universe within yourself.

And maybe it’s like that with every important aspect of your life. Whatever it is you are pursuing, whatever it is you are seeking, whatever it is you are creating, be careful not to quit to soon.  As my friend Pastor Rob Bell warns: “Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the most capacity to transform you.”

Don’t let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding.

Because that moment?

That’s the moment when interesting begins.

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth  what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.”  –Gospel of Thomas butterfly-on-bush-porch-july-2016

Recently, I entered a new chapter of my life. I have just started taking notes for a new novel — a long term project — that involves research on a mythical creature and learning Classical Greek.  Learning Classical Greek is a long-time goal of mine — spurred by a trip to Greece now almost twenty years ago.  In Athens, I purchased a book of poetry by the classical Greek poet Sappho — “‘The Poetess?'” said the bookshop proprietor with raised eyebrows before he disappeared into the backroom of the bookshop.  He came back with a slim volume that had contemporary Greek on one page and Classical Greek on the facing page. The book is still sitting on my bookshelf.  It has been my lifelong goal to learn to read Sappho in the original. I figured I would wait a few years.

Then I read Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, and was inspired to learn Classical Greek now. What was I waiting for?  Learning a new language can inform my writing.  Gilbert writes about the magic of creative writing — really of making any kind of art or change and the art of being in the world.  In my experience of what she writes about — which is remarkably similar — I think of it as listening to the muse.

She also writes about the hard work of writing — which I was relieved to see because writing is hard work.

I heard a mainstream writer on the radio describe writing as the business of rejection. This is true. But as I tell my students, if they don’t put themselves out there, they don’t stand a chance. In other words, it’s over before it started.  I also tell my students that writing and publishing are two different things — and by not getting them confused they will save themselves a lot of time, not to mention anguish.

When I first talked to Maria about today’s service, I told her about my day of throwing out query letters to literary agents into what feels like the abyss. When she suggested that I talk about this, at first I didn’t want to.  When I see my students — many of them middle aged and older — getting excited about writing, when I see them actually writing and making sense of their worlds, I really dread telling them about the hard work of marketing their work. In fact, I often wait until the last class to talk about publishing.

But I realized that my faith in sending out query letters into the abyss does relate to today’s service and also to being a Unitarian Universalist. I have faith that something will happen. Marketing a novel may at times feel like putting a message in a bottle and casting it out to sea.  But I have belief in myself and, more importantly, in my work.

Then I realized that something has already happened.

I wrote this novel that I fine tuned and am marketing — Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage — based on the landscape of my adolescence — even though it is straight up fiction.  The protagonist is based on someone I knew who rode a motorcycle and went to jail before the age of eighteen because she was convicted of drug dealing.  It’s a long story but this landscape of gritty working class America is one that I fled from. I wrote the novel out of a feeling of regret — most likely a kind of survivor’s guilt.

Art is short for Artemis. In the novel, the story doesn’t end when Art goes to prison.  She enters a vocational program and when she is released she becomes an auto mechanic.  Then she re-unites with the love of her life, Linda, and thirty years later, when marriage equality is the law the land, they marry.

For me, writing fiction was a re-considering of the facts. And in doing so, I created hope.

 

 

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originally in The Huff Post

note: This review (in a modified form) will air on this week’s This Way Out, the international LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles.  To listen to the program, click here.

“To the queerest person I know.” This is how my childhood best friend signed my high school year book. I am now in my fifties and don’t remember that much from high school — that I want to admit to — but I do remember this comment.

She was right. I was different.  I read books rather than watching the TV.  I followed the news — and in a working class milieu this meant that I was an oddball.  Then in my early twenties, I came out as a lesbian-feminist.

It wasn’t easy being different when I was a teen in the 1970s. But being different is a good and necessary thing. People who dare to be different make change. As I write in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters, a few of us girls on the elementary school playground hung upside down on the parallel bars in protest of girls not being allowed to wear pants — before the women’s movement: “It was 1969. The following year, having learned the power of showing out (almost) bare asses, we were wearing bell bottoms.”

I came out in the early eighties. About ten years later, I began hearing the word “queer” in the gay and lesbian community.  This was before we had the term LGBT.  I had some resistance to the word “Queer” until I talked to a younger friend, who embraced the term.  She explained to me that “Queer” included everyone that didn’t fit the gender and sexual orientation expectations of society.  In other words, queer was not heterosexual — or het, as we said in those days.

We are still figuring out gender. A older friend who is a strong feminist began researching transgender issues when her nephew, who started out life as a niece, transitioned.  My friend had some old school feminist notions at first but quickly came around to supporting her nephew whole-heartedly. At one point she said to me,  “I’ve been gender non-conformist my entire life.”  So my friend (who is a celibate bisexual), her nephew, and I,  are all queer.

So I applaud the HuffPost for changing “Gay Voices” to “Queer Voices.”  Queer recognizes our commonalities — in the fact that we are all different.  We are a community and we do have enemies — although that is not the only thing that makes us a community — and there is strength in numbers.

I recently read two books about queerness back to back. One from the other side of the world — is called From Darkness to Diva by Skye High, a leading Australian drag queen.  The other, about a man who grew up near me in a neighboring suburb of Philadelphia, is Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times written by Samuel G. Freedman with Kerry Donahue.

In From Darkness to Diva (O-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd. in the U.K.) the tall gay man who took Skye High as his drag name writes of his growing up gay and being so badly bullied that he had to leave high school.  High writes unflinchingly about the beatings he endured, but also delves into the self examination and spiritual lessons that he experienced.  He also writes of the trials and triumphs of finding a gay community and of the liberation he experienced in entering the transformative world of drag.

I was on the journey with him — as someone who was a teen who was bullied (to a lesser degree) and as someone who came of age and found my place in the world. But at no point was I more riveted as when he stood up to a bully in his second high school. He had to leave his first high school because he was bullied and after working several for several years returned to another high school for his degree and was bullied again.  High explores how he felt as he eventually stood up to the bully: “I now had the power over him. I was in control.  In that moment, I finally felt vindicated. It was as though my actions would have been justified had I wanted to snap his neck and kill him.”  But ultimately he showed mercy on the bully and let him go, explaining that he felt “saddened by the sight of him helplessly lying on the floor.”

Dying Words, The AIDS Reporting Of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times (CUNY Journalism Press) is a moving tribute to Jeff who died at the age of 39.  It is arranged in the form of interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives (including his sister the literary agent Wendy Schmalz Wilde) of Jeff’s and by the time the book presents his reportage on the AIDS epidemic, the reader feels a kinship with him.

“I think often of the dozen friends who have died of AIDS, and I feel them with me. It’s not that I am writing editorials, avenging their deaths.  It’s that I feel their strength, their soothing me on.  They are my conscience, their shadows with me everywhere: In the torchlight of the march.  Over my shoulder. By my desk.  In my sleep.”

Jeff had to break out of the box of the Times impeccable third-person reportage into the finding of his own voice. Participant-journalist doesn’t quite describe it, but it comes close.

Former Times colleague  Samuel G. Freedman writes eloquently in the foreword about the reasons that he put the book together:  “For a lack of a better term, I felt survivor guilt.  And beyond it, I grieved that as the years passed, fewer people would remember who Jeff Schmalz was and what tremendous work he had done.”

What impressed me about both books was how different they were — yet universal to the human experience. Who isn’t different in some way? In my view, anyone who says they are the same as everyone else is either lying, extremely boring or both.

 

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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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