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Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia writer’

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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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.

 

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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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This morning, for Palm Sunday, 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.

Although I was raised by a card carrying atheist mother and an agnostic father, I always loved Palm Sunday.  I loved the pale green palms.  I loved the story. I loved the donkey.  Maybe it was the pagan origins that drew me in.  Even as an adult, Palm Sunday held its appeal.  Still, I thought that religion had nothing to do with me. And over the years, I came to think that I had dodged a bullet.  Still, I wanted to believe in something — maybe I wanted to believe in myself more.

A few years ago, I experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of coming to this church.  My first thought was that “they don’t own it.” ‘They’ being the Christian right and ‘it’ being religion.  Last year when I read the Bible — I was actually surprised to see how little anti-gay material is in it, except for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, and some rules in Leviticus — that also include not eating shellfish or wearing garments made of linen and wool.

As a second generation feminist coming of age in the seventies, I lived by  the motto that rules were made to be broken.  As a creative writer, it is not unusual for me to view the world through  my characters. When I heard that the theme for worship this month was Brokenness and Resilience I thought of my maternal grandfather, Joseph.

His brokenness and resilience is something that has been passed down to me. He was a Merchant Marine, a lover of opera (he was Anglo not Italian), an alcoholic and a batterer to his wife (my grandmother) and his daughters (my mother and my aunt). I developed my own theory about him and when I told my gay male friends about him, they gave me knowing nods.

I am going to read an excerpt from my novel Catwalk which is set in the late 1920s in the Prohibition era.  Joseph, the protagonist, is a gay man and is also the son of a Baptist deacon. My grandfather, Joseph, was raised in Biloxi, Mississippi.  The fictive Joseph is in love with his boyhood friend Vince, who he was separated from and who he pines for. Joseph, my grandfather, abandoned my mother (and the rest of her family) when she was seven.  I never met him. I always wanted to know more about him — even if I had to make it up.

I’ve been working on this novel for ten years and when I was in the revision process, I noticed that it was full of religion.  I realized then that religion has always been with me — as a fact and as a fiction. Palm Sunday, which Rita will tell us more about, was my pathway to religion.  Religion fueled Joseph’s demons.  But in this section where Joseph falls asleep under the stars on the beach of the Mississippi Sound — religion enters his subconscious in a good way.

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Joseph lay down on the sand and curled into a fetal position. It was a hot summer night.  He shut his eyes and listened to  waves wash over pebbles.  He fell asleep and dreamed that he was standing in the cemetery with a shovel, digging into the sand.  A familiar voice called to him. It was deep and pleasant.  But it was distant. The voice brought back everything that he had ever loved.  They had been boys together, sitting next to each other in church, swimming through the waves to a deserted isle where they could pretend they were shipwrecked sailors. Vince was a part of him.  His voice brought everything back — Vince being bullied when he was a boy — the scar that was left on his cheek when Joseph had defended him. The two of them becoming fast friends, boys growing to men. He remembered the first time they had made love.  Memories of sea foam.  Their shared experience of being fathers was part of their love, too.  Vince was at his happiest when he had become a father, twice over.  Joseph had been happy for him. He had almost been as happy when his own children were born.

Vince called to him in a deep, melodious voice that was separate from Joseph but part of him, too.  The voice was louder with every shovel full of sand that Joseph dug up and flung over his shoulder.  He dug faster and faster – but still the voice was far away.  Eventually the hole he dug was so deep that he could no longer reach the bottom.  Joseph saw translucent arms reaching toward him from the hole.

Suddenly the apparition became filled with blinding light.  As Joseph stared into the light, he saw that it was a tall figure with wings the span of an Albatross.

It was Vince disguised as an angel — like one of the angels who came to visit Lot in Sodom.  There were two angels that visited Lot.  Joseph could be the other angel. The neighboring men from the town had knocked on Lot’s door, saying that they wanted to “know” the angels. But in Joseph’s version, the angels would leave together — hand in hand.

They would fly to a land in the clouds where two men could love each other.  Their love was bright and true.  Their love was so strong that it would change everything — including a world that denied they existed.

Joseph cast down his shovel and dove into the hole.  When he reached the brilliant angel that was Vince, he fell right through him.  He realized then that the dazzling light was fire.  Yet the flames did not burn or scorch him. The fire cleansed him.

The Bible said that Godly fire would consume the wicked, but not the righteous.

His love for Vince was as pure as the fire of God, and Vince returned it.  Together, they would spread the gospel of love.

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