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Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia writing teacher’

Yesterday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Entering The Mystery.”  This talk was part of a larger service on “New Member Sunday.”

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

 

Good morning

 

“Janet?  Janet joined a church?”

I overhead this a few years ago when I was downstairs.  A woman I had known casually for a few decades through the women’s community was talking to my partner.

Her comment wasn’t judgmental or skeptical.  Rather it was innocent and incredulous — or maybe it was simply factual.  Was she hearing things correctly?

Could Barbara had said this? Was it true?

This was after a service when several members of the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir joined the Restoration Singers on Music Sunday. Our music director, Jane Hulting, formerly directed the Women’s choir and stays in touch with the “Annas.'”

Of course, I found the comments of this “Anna” amusing.

But I’m the first to admit that I’m an unlikely church member.

When I joined Restoration about four years ago, it was the first time I had joined a church.  I was raised secular – but always knew myself as a spiritual person.  Like many, I was distrustful of organized religion.

In one of my earliest spiritual memories, I remember standing on the beach as a child — having lost my parents — and looking out to the waves and praying to an amorphous and genderless “God” that I find them.  Then I turned around and my mother was walking toward me.

I played the guitar as a child, and in fifth grade sang “Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the stage. The song has always had resonance for me.  Then as an adolescent, I crossed my own troubled waters.  Perhaps it was my spirituality that got me through.

When I started coming to Restoration, the time was ripe for me.  I discovered a religion that shared my values.  I had a life-time of alternative spirituality behind me and found a place that wasn’t rigid or narrow where I could explore traditional spirituality.

I also found a spiritual home for my partner and I.

Last week she said to me after we came home from the service that it was really wonderful that we have such a nice church to attend together.

There are so many people from the wider communities that we belong to here at Restoration. And there are so many others — who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.  It is good to be together.

It is good for me to be connected to all of you, to this Beloved Community – and to be connected to hope.

Shortly after the election, I heard a short segment on National Public Radio about how people in the United States tend to be divided into red and blue states and experience sameness rather than diversity.  They often don’t know the stories of anyone who is different from them.

Diversity helps to build empathy.

It also creates hope.

I really cherish being part of the diversity here at Restoration.

As a writer and as a creative writing teacher, I know that our stories are sacred. I spend much of my time alone and am fortunate in having a partner who respects my need for aloneness.  Solitude is necessary for a writer but so is being in the world – to a lesser extent.

I’ve been a reader all of my life.  As a child, the whole world opened up to me when I learned how to read.  I was described as a bookworm – as a child and as an adult.

Restoration’s emphasis on books drew me in as did its diverse and welcoming community.  But coming here most Sunday mornings is different than spending my time writing and reading. By coming here, I am part of a community that is connected to the world and to the cosmos.

A year ago, I would have said that the diversity of the congregation was important – today I know that it is absolutely essential.

As I mentioned, I was raised secular. Religion is still a bit of a mystery to me.  Everyone’s reason for joining a church is different.  I suspect that each person joins Restoration for a reason that might end up being different from what they may have thought originally.

Welcome to the mystery.

 

 

–Namaste

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A version of this commentary was aired this week by This Way Out, in international LGBTQ radio news and culture wrap. Click here to listen to read more about This Way Out and to listen to the complete podcast.

In full disclosure, I often describe myself as not being a “kid person.” And it’s true — when I came out in the early 1980s, I thought I was off the hook for getting married and having children. Whew. I chronicled my young child-free lesbian life in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (2012, Bella Books):

“It was the early 1980s, a few years before lesbians were starting to take trips to the sperm banks. Most of the lesbians we knew with children had them in previous marriages — to men — and more than a few women we knew had been through painful custody battles.”

Things changed rather rapidly — but not for me. I successfully avoided the lesbian baby boom of my generation and some peer pressure to adopt. Now — safely past the child bearing and even the adopting age — I find myself wondering if LGBTQ people have changed the face of parenting — or if they what they do is any different than other (heterosexual) parents?

Society has changed, in large part, to accommodate us. But have LGBT people, in particular by parenting, changed society? Almost magically, recently published books started arriving in my mailbox to help my understanding.

Gay Fathers, Their Children, and the Making of Kinship
(Fordham University Press) by Aaron Goodfellow is the most academic of the books. It quotes Michel Foucault, the innovative French philosopher, whose work much of Queer Theory is based on. In a lay person’s terms, Foucault’s work emphasizes thinking outside the box and explains how society polices itself to maintain a conservative social order. As Goodfellow writes, Foucault

“has famously described it is not the specter of two men having and enjoying sex that unsettles the social order. Rather, it is the specter of two men who have had sex living happily and tenderly ever after that proves unbearable.”

Goodfellow’s book is a survey of many different gay men who have decided to become fathers. It emphasizes that gay men being fathers challenges the social order because there are two men — not one — in charge (as opposed to Father Knows Best).

Saving Delaney, From Surrogacy to Family (Cleis Press) by Andrea and Keston Ott-Dahl chronicles the story of a lesbian couple who gave birth to a daughter with Down syndrome. The two women were already parents of two small children when they began the journey of becoming what they thought was becoming a surrogate for another lesbian couple. Saving Delaney is an honest and compelling read. The author writes of coming full circle in facing her fears and prejudices toward disabled people to loving her daughter and becoming an advocate.

Which One of You is the Mother? by Sean Michael O’Donnell is a witty page turner with heart about the author’s true story of adopting two sons with his partner. I was fascinated by the book’s revelation that the fathers decided early on that neither child would share the fathers’ last names. In the case of the oldest son, adopted when he was around the age of nine, the author/ father who is Caucasian writes that there was no reason to change his son’s name, because it was part of his past. “It was connected to his Native American heritage.”

When I picked up Queerspawn in Love, a memoir by Kellen Anne Kaiser (She Writes Press), I was skeptical. Despite the fact of having of having four lesbian mothers (in a complicated arrangement), the author writes about a conventional girl meets boy, loses herself, and gets dumped scenario. But as I turned the well-written pages, I was drawn in by the story and by the fact that this self-described “queer spawn” had different mothers to turn to for different types of advice.

Before the end of the story, I was rooting for Kellen. I certainly identified with her sentiments when she writes:

“What if I never got married, never found the right guy? I only had to look at my mothers’ lives for the answer, in the way they have found self-satisfaction outside of men — outside of partners, too, for the most part. They are happy for their own sake. Lesbians do not live in spite of or despite of men. They build their lives to their own specifications. I have learned to take comfort in the comfort they find within themselves.”

Initially, when I finished these books, I thought about the fact that LGBTQ people need allies — and one way to get allies is to parent them. But then I realized that the parents did not only influence the children. By becoming parents, the men and women in these books became more compassionate, loving people. Being a queer parent is learning to live outside the box. For one thing, they are living outside the queer box since so many of us are happily childless.

But when a child is raised intentionally, everyone involved is changed, including society.

And that’s what it’s all about.

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Last month, I read “When I Was Straight” from my collection of poetry by the same name published by Insight To Riot Press in 1995.  I read at Jim Cory’s poetry salon in Philadelphia.  Jim was the founder of the collective.  Below is a photograph from Thom Nickels book “Literary Philadelphia” of founding members of the press, Jim Cory, CAConrad and myself. It felt good to remember/revive that incendiary rage!

 

 

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Looking at Pictures is the novel that I spent last winter writing. It gives us a glimpse into the loves and lives of well known artists and ordinary people, both queer and not, all of whom live outside the box.  It is a novel influenced by history — it takes place in 1926 — and by the people who lived in that time.  Many of the characters are actual artists, including fine art photographers.

This novel was inspired, in large part, by the work that I have been doing with Jeanette Jimenez on the archive of her father Alexander Artway (an architect and photographer who photographed New York City in the 1930s). The archive is extremely interesting and the photographs brilliant!

The first short fiction excerpt –titled Looking At Pictures — of my novel was just published by devise literary and is partially excerpted below. Very shortly after I finished the novel last Spring, I heard from David Acosta (formerly known as Juan David Acosta) who invited me to be one of the readers at his new series at Casa de Duende. The piece that I read was a chapter set in Mexico which features the characters Frida and Tina.  The YouTube video, below, includes David’s wonderful introduction. If I were to rate this YouTube piece, it is definitely PG-plus.  It’s called “Ecstasy” and is influenced by lesbian sex, philosophy and LOVE. (A photograph of all the readers is below the YouTube video.)

 

Fiction: Looking at Pictures

Issue 1.2

by Janet Mason

(May, 1926)

Tina looked at the image in front of her and wished she still had her camera.

She was walking along the deepwater port looking into the hold of a ship that had backed up to the cement pier. She could see both levels. Initially she assumed that first class was on the top and that steerage was down below.  Then she noticed that the people below were almost all women and children.  They looked like immigrants from Europe wrapped in their drab shawls and holding their squalling infants.  None of them looked up.

……read more at devise literary

 

Ecstasy“@ Casa de Duende:

 

 

 

 

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The readers at Casa de Dunende’s queer reading series last Spring at the Da Vinci Art Alliance: (first row — left to right) David Acosta; Susan DiPronio; Lamont Steptoe; (second row – left to right) Cyree Jarelle Johnson; Janet Mason; Thom Nickels; (third row back Maxton Young-Jones.

Many thanks to David Acosta, Artistic Director for Casa de Duende, for bringing us all together!

 

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originally in The Huff Post/Fifty

I am parked at a light when I notice a bumper sticker on the SUV in front of me. It reads:

Does this ass/make my/car look fat?

The words are stacked on top of each other and to the right of them is a small circle with the clownish face of Donald Trump.

I am running errands with my elderly father near his home (where I grew up) in the working class area of lower Bucks County and Bristol. It’s an area where the Trump signs outnumber the Hillary signs — about three to one. Actually, there aren’t many signs for either of them. And signs for third party candidates are nonexistent. This is the land of the silent majority. To counter it, I have a large blue bumper sticker for Hillary prominently displayed on the back of my red car. The bumper sticker on the SUV in front of me is, in fact, the only other bumper sticker I have seen all day even though I have been on at least five major highways.

My father is 97 and a Trump supporter. The bumper sticker in front of me has made my day and I can’t help sharing it with my father. He is blind in one eye and has severe glaucoma in the other. He used to be liberal (thank you President Nixon) but since 9-11 has become increasingly conservative. When I describe the bumper sticker, he laughs and says “I guess that means they’re not voting for him. Even I can see that!”

In my early 20s in the early 1980s — more than 25 years ago — I came out as a lesbian to my parents. My father said being a lesbian was just one more thing I was doing to “buck the system.” I couldn’t disagree — though I would have changed a critical consonant. I was always rebellious, but I really was a lesbian. Eventually, he came around and loves and accepts my partner as my spouse and as a second daughter. (I am an only child.) Times were different then. I “escaped” from my background, was the first in my family to graduate from college, and then moved to a nearby city about an hour away. Since I left, I notice that things have changed. For one thing the “white” working class is increasing racially diverse.

After the errands on the way to his lady friend’s house, I note a few Hillary signs displayed prominently. On one street, two houses side by side display political signs. One is for Trump and one is for Hillary. I have a private moment of glee imaging the interactions between the neighbors.

On the front lawn of a house near our destination, a Hillary sign is displayed on the front lawn. In the front window, rainbow letters from the Hillary campaign say, “Do the most good.” I know there is no talking to him about politics, but decide to give it another try. I mention the sign to my father, who quotes Fox news to me. Loudly. (This is the only news he watches — when he is not listening to conservative talk radio.) I counter his statements by asking a few questions starting with “How do you think Trump made his money?”

My tactics don’t work. My father changes the subject. He is hard of hearing and refuses to wear a hearing aid so he repeatedly says “ha?” and I spend a lot of time repeating myself. My father is a decent person. He may live in an area that is mostly white and tract house but I never heard him utter a racist word. When my feminist mother was alive, he was pro-choice. I helped him take care of my mother 20 years ago when she was terminally ill, which I chronicle in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters. When my mother’s hospital bed was delivered to the house by a young black man, my father spoke to him respectfully and invited him into the house.

When we pull up to his lady friend’s house, she comes outside and I show her my bumper sticker. She agrees that the blue sticker against the red car looks very nice. Then she says “Who are you going to vote for?” She looks sincere and bewildered. She is a tiny, white haired 92-year-old woman, a retired seamstress, who still gardens and keeps an impeccable house.

She tells me she was just talking to her son about this. (Her son is a non-college educate white male — who lives with his wife and daughter and told his mother that he is voting for Hillary and that she should too.) “I was going to vote for him,” she says referring to Trump, “but he’s turning out to be crazy.” I reassure her that he was always crazy.

In the house, over a dish of strawberry ice cream, my father’s lady friend laughs when I tell her about the bumper sticker and then she turns to me and whispers (so my father won’t hear) “I think he’s guilty.” I nod in agreement and when my father states that “He is a smart business man.” I point out that another Trump casino in Atlantic City has just gone belly up.

My father’s lady friend has compassion on her face for the people who lost her jobs. Then she nods with concern at my father. She is telling me silently that he is 97, and I shouldn’t say anything to upset him. She is right. As my late aunt once said (about seven years ago), “At his age, it’s good he has any opinions.”

She was right. I promised my mother, when she was on her deathbed, that I would take care of my father. But it is more than that. I love and respect my father. I wouldn’t be here without him.

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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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