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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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I presented this at the Unitarian Universalist Church as part of  Poetry Sunday” where I am a lay minister. The segment is also on YouTube. Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”)

"Poetry Is Not A Luxury" on church sign, Janet Mason standing next to it

“Poetry Is Not A Luxury.”

This is a quote from Audre Lorde, the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet,” who dedicated her art and life to social justice. Audre lived from 1934 to 1992.

I first came across her work in the early 1980s. I was in my twenties and was a freshly minted lesbian-feminist. I was fortunate to come out in a diverse cultural and political women’s community — which is what we called it then — which described a community based on the values of feminism and included lesbians, bisexual and heterosexual women and men of all stripes. I was fortunate to have seen Audre read in person several times, including in Philadelphia and at the Audre Lorde “I Am Your Sister” conference in Boston held in 1990 two years before she died of cancer at the age of 58.

Audre Lorde authored 15 books of poetry and prose.  She was Poet Laureate of New York State from 1991 to 1992.  She was a major poet. But because of racism, homophobia, and sexism, she was not taught in  the 1970s in the public high schools when I was a student. Audre Lorde’s work is powerful and is about empowerment.  If she had been taught, I know for a fact that her work would have saved plenty of lives. 

When I read her book Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches first published by The Crossing Press in 1984, it became a kind of bible for me.  All of her essays held resonance for me — especially “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”

But I always returned to her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”.  I’m going to share a few excerpts with you:

…..”it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are — until the poem — nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt.  That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.

…..

“For each of us …. , there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, ‘Beautifully/and tough as chestnut/stanchions against our nightmare of weakness/’ … and of impotence.

These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through that darkness.  Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The … place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient and it is deep.”

“…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.  The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

When I am lucky, I find myself coming full circle with that wonderment I experienced when young — now combined with the wisdom of my years.  Revisiting Audre Lorde’s essay through a Unitarian Universalist lens was one of those experiences.  While this essay could evoke any of the UU Seven Principles, to me it is particularly evocative of the first:  “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Poetry is something that has always made me feel more fully alive. It sheds new light on our commonalities and differences.  It enters the mystery and enlarges what is possible.

For this reason, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury.”

This piece was originally on OpEdNews

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