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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: The following is a talk I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration Sunday morning July 17 2016.  You can see most of the talk on YouTube be clicking here.

 

When I was a pre-teen, my mother gave me a book called Courageous Women, which was a young adult reader about women’s suffrage.

The book reminded me that not all people have always had the right to vote. The fifteenth amendment, passed in 1870 gave black men the right to vote.   A half century later, in 1920, the nineteenth amendment was ratified, giving all women the right to vote.

The passage of both amendments involved long, hard and violent struggles.

Frederick Douglas, a social reformer, orator, writer, statesman and former slave was a leading abolitionist.

Susan B. Anthony was a social reformer and feminist and one of the women who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.

There were many black women who also played pivotal roles in women’s suffrage. Anna Julia Cooper was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a commemorative postage stamp in 2009.anna

She was known for her statement: “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence or special patronage; then and there the whole black race enters with me.”

Only propertied white men had the vote until 1856 the year that it was determined that all white men could vote regardless of whether they owned property or not.

When as an adult, later in life, I became a Unitarian Universalist, I discovered a religion that embodies civic duty in all of its principles, perhaps especially in the second principle “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;” and also in the sixth principle “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

As Rev. Emily Gage, reflects on the Unitarian Universalist Assembly website, “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations points us toward something beyond inherent worth and dignity. It points us to the larger community. It gets at collective responsibility. It reminds us that treating people as human beings is not simply something we do one-on-one, but something that has systemic implications and can inform our entire cultural way of being.

“Compassion is something that we can easily act on individually. We can demonstrate openness, give people respect, and treat people with kindness on our own. But we need one another to achieve equity and justice.”

The larger community and collective responsibility. That’s what I learned about in my childhood book Courageous Women.

My mother was born in 1919 — a year before women won the right to vote. Perhaps having older parents gave me a different sense of history as well as an enhanced understanding that history is important.

In 1972, when I was thirteen, Shirley Chisholm ran for national office.  I paid attention.  Here was history in the making.  She was paving the way for African American people and women of all races to be presidential candidates.

Shirley Chisholm 1I grew up to have a close friend who not only voted for Shirley Chisholm but was a delegate. And it is not surprising that Chisholm made an appearance in my writing — Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage. It is fiction but definitely autobiographical when I wrote of my character:

“Five years ago Grace was watching the nightly news when Walter Cronkite announced that Shirley Chisholm, an African American congresswoman from New York, was running for the Democratic nomination for president against the incumbent Richard Milhous Nixon. Grace was just thirteen in 1972, but she remembered thinking things would be different.  She didn’t think she’d ever run for president.  But if Shirley Chisholm could, maybe girls could do anything.”

I voted as soon as I was able too. When I moved to Germantown in my early twenties, I was proud to stand in line with my neighbors — most of them African American men and women.  We were doing what was demanded of us.  Voting is not just a right. It is a responsibility.

Around that time, I came out as a lesbian. One of my favorite T-shirts was a black shirt with a pink triangle on it with black letters on the triangle that read:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This widely-known poem was written by Pastor Martin Niemellör about the cowardice of German intellectuals in Nazi Germany.

My T-shirt was lost in some long ago Laundromat but its sentiment stayed with me.

I could have done without the rocks being hurled through our bedroom window or the numerous instances of workplace harassment, but being a lesbian has given me some firsthand knowledge of oppression. For one thing, it may in fact be natural to respond to hatred with hatred — but it is not healthy, necessary, or productive.  I have not evolved to the point where as it says in The New Testament in Matthew, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

But I do think there might be something to that.

I also learned that we have more in common than we may think and it is very important for us to stick together. Civic duty and collective responsibility is certainly a big part of that.

Ecclesiastes in The Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Old Testament states in part:

“1  To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5  a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing   ….”

Now it is up to us. It is our time.

We have one vote, one voice. Think about your one vote and the difference it can make.

It’s time to be counted.

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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.

For women’s history month, I decided to read two books of fiction by women back to back. The two books that I selected — Loving Eleanor, The intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok by Susan Wittig Albert and Bull and Other Stories by Kathy Anderson — did not disappoint. In fact, the two books are both so well written that I remembered why I first fell in love with reading.

Reading has always been an important part of my life. It is how I’ve always learned about the world and the people in it. In Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, I write about my love of reading and how it shaped my life. This includes reading every book in the school library when I was a child and reading poetry to patients in an AIDS hospice as a young woman. Reading factored heavily into my coming out as a lesbian. I credit The Women’s Room, the classic novel by Marilyn French with turning me into a radical feminist and from there it was just a short leap to becoming a lesbian. As I write in Tea Leaves, my boyfriend (just before I came out) “ accused me of loving books more than him.”

Touché.

It is no secret that reading has taken a back seat to just about everything in our smart phone driven information age. But reading remains an important link not only to literacy but to thinking critically.

 

As Publishers Weekly points out the publishing industry is making necessary changes. In “The Future of Reading” the author states that:

“Smart bricks-and-mortar retailers have figured out that they not only sell books—they sell the experience of buying books, and they are selling it to a connoisseur consumer base that distinguishes between the book as physical object and the book as a container of information.”

I would take this thought one step further to say that the joys of reading itself must be publicized and encouraged. Reading is not a necessary evil — it is fun and joyous. The turn of a phrase and a page registers on the conscious as an effortless activity. And, as when I was a child, the end of a book is a sad thing and often the characters live on in our imaginations.

The two books that I read definitely fit my description of everything that is wonderful about reading. Loving Eleanor, The intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok (Persevero Press), is a beautifully written and richly detailed historical novel that lets the reader fully enter the time span of journalist Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt’s love affair and intimate friendship. The book also chronicles the sacrifices that both women had to make to keep the rumors at bay about their relationship. Hickok left the Associated Press (where she was a highly regarded reporter) because of a conflict of interest with her relationship with Eleanor who was then the first lady. She took government jobs as a writer and was transferred to remote locations. We hear the thoughts of Hickok first hand in the writing of Susan Wittig Albert:

“I wasn’t to linger in Washington, where gossip still linked my name with hers. (I would later learn that Princess Alice had exclaimed loudly, and in a fashionable Washington restaurant, “I don’t care what they say, I simply cannot believe that Eleanor Roosevelt is a lesbian.”)

In Bull and Other Stories (Autumn House Press), lesbian author Kathy Anderson does not address a LGBT audience in most stories but she does explore the “queerness” in the thoughts of married couples toward each other, employees and bosses, of children to their parents and of parents toward their children. And she does so in such beautifully written and intriguing ways, that I was turning the pages without a thought to the world around me.

Her prose is often bitingly funny. In “Dip Me in Honey and Throw Me to the Lesbians,” Anderson gives us the thoughts of an upscale “foody” lesbian:

We are So not losers, Jane thought. This is proof. Look at us, in a fabulous restaurant enjoying ourselves. Take that, ex-lovers. She hoped they were all sitting at home wearing sweatpants and stuffing their fat behinds with pizza and beer, utterly bored with each other and their lives.”

Reading these two books reminded me that reading also helps you learn more about yourself, in addition to learning about the world in all of its time dimensions. Reading is like looking in a mirror and seeing things that not only have you never seen before but things you never expected to see.

originally in The Huffington Post

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Note:  The following is the introduction that I gave to my short play “Forty Days and Forty Nights” that I gave this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I presented the skit with actors Janice Roland Radway and Allen Radway and Barrington Walker as the narrator.  To see the piece on YouTube — after the introduction — click here.

Or you can view the YouTube video at the bottom of the post.

 

Several years ago I took the UU class offered here at Restoration and was inspired to read the Bible for the first time. At the same time I was reviewing several books on transgender issues and was deeply influenced by a neighbor’s child who had transitioned at the age of five.  I was also reading a book I had borrowed from Reverend Ellis about the Gnostic Gospels, something I had been long interested in — mainly through the music of my friend Julia Haines, a harpist and composer who has performed at this church.

In one of the books that I read on transgender issues, the author wondered what it would be like for a transgendered person to have the experience of learning about a transgender person as a character in the Bible.

I wondered too. What would happen if a person who is usually condemned by religion, is celebrated instead?  As Unitarian Universalists, we have that opportunity as expressed in the first UU principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

As a result of this confluence of ideas — perhaps spurred by my becoming a new Unitarian Universalist — I wrote a novel with a working title of She And He. The ideas in the novel may be ahead of their time — but I’ve always believed that there’s no time like the present.  Three excerpts were published and one was nominated for  a Pushcart Prize.  I also presented a different excerpt (titled “The Descent of Ishtar”) at Restoration last year with our own Janice Rowland Radway starring in the role of Tamar — a character from the Hebrew Bible.

In this version, Tamar is reborn as the twin sister of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus, played by Allen Radway. When I heard that this month’s theme was “Christology” — I thought it was a perfect fit — even — or especially — because it is an alternative view.  I wanted to bring it to you because I imagined it might encourage you to take your own journey.

You can also read an excerpt, written as standalone short fiction, in the online literary journal BlazeVOX15

Other excerpt is in the current issue of Sinister Wisdom — the fortieth anniversary issue

In aaduna literary magazine.

Another excerpt (also starring Janice Roland Radway as Tamar) “The Descent of Ishtar” can be seen on YouTube.

 

 

janet-and-sappho

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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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(I presented the following reflection this morning at UUCR in Philadelphia.  To view the video on YouTube, click here.)

 

“I doubt therefore I think. I think therefore I am.”

— René Descartes

 

In thinking about my journey to religion, I realized that skepticism played and continues to play an important role.

On my desk where I write every day is a small mirror — no more than two inches high with a black and white photograph of my mother on it — taken in 1928.

This mirror is the image on the cover of my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

mothermirhome

My mother was a feisty card-carrying atheist whose lifelong motto was Shakespeare’s “To thine own self be true.”

When my mother was dying of fourth-stage bone cancer, I was staying upstairs at my parent’s house where I woke up and had a mystical vision of her standing at the foot of the bed. At this point, she could no longer get out of her bed which was downstairs. The next morning, when I told her about the vision, she bawdily said, “Oh, that wasn’t me.  That was Jesus.”

Then she had a good snicker.

Religion was always good for a laugh in my house.

Of course, there always is some truth to humor — so maybe my mother really is Jesus or maybe Jesus is my mother.

It took me a while to internalize my mother’s motto about being true to myself.

First I had to get through being an adolescent in the seventies in a working class landscape. One thing led to another, and I was caught up in the whirlwind of substance abuse. Nothing was off limits.  A few of my friends did not live through this.

Although I did survive, I had and still have a fair amount of regret about this period of my life.

This led me to realize in retrospect that religion can be useful in keeping pre-teens and teens on track.

But as the saying goes “it’s all grist for the mill.” I wrote two novels based on my adolescence — the first more autobiographical than I usually admit.  The second novel which I recently completed is called Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage and is more or less straight up fiction based on the landscape of my adolescence.  The protagonist is a young, dashing, motorcycle riding lesbian who was someone I knew (not me) who went to jail for dealing drugs.

But I do believe in second chances — and third — and the novel has a happy ending. It’s not true — in the sense of nonfiction — but it has a core of emotional truth. In fiction, anything is possible.

I was the first in my family to go to college — during which I tried to fit in as a heterosexual and failed. (The less said about this period of my life the better.)

Then, finally, soon after college I came out. What a relief.  During this time I remember going to a women’s spirituality talk at a bookstore, and thinking well, I don’t need that!

Then the gay men I knew started dying. I went to a lot of funerals in those days and a lot of marches  and encountered signs that said things like “God created AIDS” and “[Derogatory word for gay men] will burn in hell.” This put religion into perspective for me.  Not only was it unnecessary, but it was barbaric.

Besides, I was a feminist of the “Hey, Ho, Patriarchy’s Gotta Go” variety.

This was another reason to be dismissive of religion.

But as the decades rolled by, I noticed that when things around me fell apart, I tended to fall apart also. Then in my forties, when I worked in Center City, I befriended a deeply closeted gay man who was a practicing Orthodox Jew. We butted heads on a few things, but I really respected his belief in God — truth be told, I envied it.

Then, as the saying goes, a few other things happened.

I didn’t know it, but I wanted — needed — to develop a stronger inner self.

And I have — thanks to my yoga teacher Jane Hulting, my spiritual teacher, really, who led me to this church and taught me many lessons along the way. I ended up here intuitively — without searching for a church. One day before I joined, I was sitting in the pew and experienced an opening inside of me.  I heard a low chanting — a rustling all around me as people recited “The Lord’s Prayer.”  Now, no one was actually saying the “Lord’s Prayer” — not in this church, not that day, not ever to my experience. But that is what I experienced.

So this is my story of religious salvation — even if the word salvation kind of makes me cringe. It would because I’m a skeptic and I’m being true to myself.

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Previously published in The Huffington Post

 

Around ten years ago, I stood on the sidewalk and watched then senator of New York, Hillary Clinton march down Fifth Avenue in the midst of the Gay Pride Parade. What I focused on at the time was that she was the only person in the parade wearing high heels. The lesbians certainly weren’t wearing heels. Even the drag queens that year had started wearing sneakers with their dresses. What I remember now, of course, is that Hillary was there — before marriage equality, before LGBT rights were known as human rights.

Fast forward to the current presidential election. I am having dinner with an older, less out, lesbian friend who gives me a look and says that gay people will have problems if a Republican wins the presidency. She is right, of course. The backlash to marriage equality is already underway.

It’s not only publicly out people who will suffer. Now that so many of us are married, we have government papers identifying us. Too many gains have been made, to go backwards. That is why I am supporting Hillary Clinton for president. She has the best background for the job. She is ready on day one. As a relatively recent member of a Unitarian Universalist church and a lay minister, I am technically open to all religious faiths in a way that I have not been before. But I have to admit that the white evangelical conservative Christians in the middle of the country scare me.

It is because of them that I am writing the following three Tweets outlining the reasons that I support Hillary:

Supreme Court justices decided in the nxt pres. term will decide our fate — including LGBT rights http://tinyurl.com/j3ujxlh #VoteHillary

Prez Obama first friend in white house to LGBT community — #VoteHillary continue the legacy http://tinyurl.com/ja38xw5 @HillaryClinton

African American support buoys #Hillary http://tinyurl.com/jtgjh9x Let’s take their lead. The last thing we need is a divided Democratic Party.

Of course, there are many other reasons to support a mainstream Democratic candidate. These include reproductive rights which are already being eroded and will be influenced by the Supreme Court. Bernie Sanders has some good points. But the candidate who defines himself as a “Socialist Democrat” and uses words such as “oligarchy” will not win over middle America. Chances are slim to none that he will win a general election.

No one wants to dash the idealism of young people — or those who stand with the young. But in pointing out the obvious, we are helping the young people avoid the decades long (or more) struggles that affect them too. Yes, LGBT rights can be rolled back. Reproductive rights can be taken away.

Hillary Clinton is tough and more than competent.

And speaking as a second generation feminist descended from the working class (something that I talk about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters), I am thrilled that a woman candidate has a good chance of securing the presidential nomination. I am voting not just for myself, but for the women who came before me.

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