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This morning, Sunday December 17th, I led a Unitarian Universalist service called Ringing in the Light.  I talked about my childhood memories of being touched by Hanukkah and my experiences in celebrating the Winter Solstice and with the Gnostic Gospels. You can see my words below on the YouTube video or read the reflection below that.

 

 

As far back as I can remember, the light beckoned.

The sun was a ball of fire in the sky.  The light changed into vibrant colors in the morning and the evening.  It filtered through the branches of trees.  The sunlight had, in fact, shined down and helped to form the trees.  So the light was in the trees (along with the rain and the earth).

Even when it was cloudy, I knew the sun was there. Sometimes I could see the ball of sun outlined behind the gray clouds.

light-tree

The first time I remember being drawn to the light in a religious context was when I was in elementary school watching a play about Hanukkah.

Despite its nearness to Christmas on the calendar, Hanukkah is one of the lesser holidays in Judaism. Hanukkah, also called The Festival of Lights, began last Tuesday at sunset and ends this Wednesday, December, 20th, at nightfall.

When I asked my partner what Hanukkah meant to her, she responded that it is a celebration of survival, hope and faith.

The holiday celebrates the victory of the Maccabees, detailed in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.

This victory of the Maccabees, in approximately 160 BCE –  BCE standing for Before The Common Era — resulted in the rededication of the Second Temple.  The Maccabees were a group of Jewish rebel warriors who took control of Judea.

According to the Talmud, the Temple was purified and the wicks of the menorah burned for eight days.

But there was only enough sacred oil for one day’s lighting. It was a miracle.

Hanukkah is observed by lighting the eight candles of the menorah at varying times and various ways.  This is done along with the recitation of prayers.  In addition to the eight candles in the menorah, there is a ninth called a shamash (a Hebrew word that means attendant). This ninth candle, the shamash, is in the center of the menorah.

It is all very complicated of course – the history and the ritual – but what I remember most is sitting in that darkened auditorium and being drawn to the pool of light around the candles on my elementary school stage.

I am not Jewish.  I say that I was raised secular – but that is putting it mildly.  My mother was, in fact, a bible-burning atheist.  Added to that, I was always cast as one of the shepherds in the school’s Christmas pageant since I was the tallest child in elementary school.

Also, I had Jewish neighbors – and as a future lesbian and book worm growing up in the sameness of a working class neighborhood — I may have responded to difference and had a realization that I was part of it.

Then I grew up, came out, thanked the Goddess for my secular upbringing, and celebrated the Winter Solstice with candles and music. This year, the Solstice falls on December 21st. The Winter Solstice (traditionally the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year)  is this coming Thursday in the Northern Hemisphere of planet Earth – which is where we are.

One of our friends who we celebrated the Solstice with is Julia Haines. Julia is a musician who has performed at Restoration.  She has a wonderful composition of Thunder Perfect Mind which she accompanies with her harp playing. You can find her on YouTube. Thunder Perfect Mind, of which I just read an excerpt, is one of the ancient texts of the Gnostic Gospels.

The Gnostic Gospels were discovered in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.  Originally written in Coptic, these texts date back to ancient times and give us an alternative glimpse into the Gospels that are written in the New Testament. They are so important that they are banned in some conventional religions.  And in my book, that’s a good reason to read them.

Reading them led me to think of myself as a Gnostic – meaning one who has knowledge and who pursues knowledge – including mystical knowledge.  The Gnostic Gospels have provided me with inspiration for my writing, particularly in my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders, soon to be published by Adelaide Books. And they also inspire me in the novel I am currently writing — titled The Unicorn, The Mystery.

I am inspired by the Gnostic Gospels in part because they let in the light.  In particular, they let in the light of the feminine.

As Julia says in her rendition of Thunder:

I am godless

I am Goddess

So how does finding the light factor into my experience of Unitarian Universalism? Later in life, after fifty, I found a religion that fit my values.  I found a religion wide enough – and I might add, secure enough – to embrace nonconformity.

In finding a congregation that is diverse in many ways – including religious diversity – I have found a deeper sense of myself.

And in that self, I recognize that the darkness is as least as necessary and as important as the light.

As a creative writer, I spend much of my time in the gray-matter of imagination.

It is in that darkness where I find the light.

 

Namaste

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Note: An excerpt of short fiction from my new novel, Pictures, was published in the Fall 2017 BlazeVox17.
Following is several paragraphs of “Cliff Dwellers” followed by a link to the full story at BlazeVox17.  Below that is an excerpt from Pictures on You Tube that I read at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia. And below that is a link to some other published excerpts of Pictures.)

 

They were going to see George tomorrow evening. He was throwing a small party to celebrate the completion of his painting, Nude With A Parrot. He had worked on it for years and said that it was much more complex than any of his boxing paintings, which of all his work had received the most acclaim. Nan couldn’t wait to see it. She first knew of George as an artist, then as her teacher and then as her friend. When she still lived in New York City, she went to the Art Students League on Fifty Seventh Street. She had intended on signing up for his class. But George’s classes in the City were always full. So she started taking art classes with George when she and Wilna moved to Bearsville near the town of Woodstock in the Catskills where he taught in the summer. He was taking on new students and as it turned out he liked her work. She couldn’t believe her luck! She knew of his work from her days in the City. She had gone to a group show of the Ash Can artists at a gallery in the Village. There, she had fallen in love with his Cliff Dwellers. She was enthralled by the large painting of overcrowded Lower East Side tenements with a street between them. A huddled mass of people filled the bottom of the canvass. Children played on the pavement in the foreground. Wearing white, their mothers bent over them. The mothers were young women harried beyond their years with too many children and even more worries. Four clotheslines were strung above the crowd between the tenement fire escapes. The thickly slanted brushstrokes brought the scene to life. On the left hand side of the canvass, a black man wearing a brimmed hat tipped his head forward. On the right, a white man sat on the railing next to a set of stairs that led from the tenement into the crowded street.

read more at BlazeVox17

4x5 transparency

“Cliff Dwellers” was inspired by the above painting  by the artist George Bellows in 1913. George is also featured in my piece of short fiction titled “The Artists” published in the latest issue of Adelaide Magazine.  Click here to learn more.

 

Read other published excerpts of Pictures (and see other YouTube segments) by clicking here

 

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keeping our dreams intact when we are forced to work mind-numbing jobs

This morning, Sunday September 3rd, I co-led a Unitarian Universalist service on Labor Day Weekend.  The theme was labor.  As part of this service, I read from my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012).

You can view my reflection below on the YouTube video or read the reflection below that.

 

 

Good morning.

 

Today on Labor Day weekend our theme is labor.  I immediately thought of this section of my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters. This is a story about the survival of how we keep our dreams intact when we are forced to work mind-numbing jobs.

                      ________________________

My mother and I both stared at the iron legged ottoman, covered with a faded tapestry that my grandmother wove more than a half century ago.  Whenever I looked at the patterns of the ottoman, the faded edges and the lines of darker colors, I saw my grandmother, a single mother who worked in the Kensington section of Philadelphia in a textile factory.

My grandmother was a woman of great dignity.  The Episcopal Church, especially after she had divorced and returned to the city, was one of the major pillars in her life.  I don’t know, in fact, that she was particularly religious.  But I remember visiting Saint Simeon’s with her, and I could see the appeal of the church, especially to a poor woman who had little, if any, luxury in her life.

She might have been saying prayers that she no longer believed in as she sat there, her head bowed and covered, next to her two girls—my mother squirming in the aisle seat and my aunt sitting next to her daydreaming as she stared at the stained glass windows. The shiny brass organ pipes reached to the ceiling and looked as beautiful as sound.  The pews were polished mahogany, the wood smooth and cool. The scent of incense and flowers permeated the air.   All St. Simeon’s needed was some red-velvet seat cushions and gilded cherubs on the ceiling and it could have been easily transformed into the sensuous lair of an opera house or, perhaps, a bordello. Sundays at St. Simeon’s was a respite from the rest of my grandmother’s life.

trinity-three-blog

Her days in the textile mill encompassed her like the full spectrum of shadow falling from a sundial.  The morning light filtering through the small windows of the dark mill would have been diffuse.   Her hair would have been tied back into a bun as the light fell around her.  She would have bent over the heddles that kept the warp lines in place as she threaded the machine.  The colors on the ottoman— rust red, dusty blue, olive green, black—would have filled the spindles that unraveled furiously into the automated looms as her hands kept pace.  When the morning light turned into afternoon and the heat rose in rivulets of sweat dripping from her skin, my grandmother would have reminded herself that she was lucky to have found a job.  The soup lines were getting longer.  The unemployed and the homeless were marching in the streets.  Even if my grandmother didn’t know anyone who committed suicide, she would have read the listings in the daily papers.

I wondered what it was like for my grandmother, a woman with dreams and aspirations, a woman whose life dictated that her only option was to work in a mill or to clean someone else’s house, which was what she did after she left the mill. Did her dreams keep her going through the tedium of her life?  Or did knowing that her dreams would never come true make her life close to unbearable?  And if her life was unbearable, what kept her going?  Did the thought of her girls having better lives make it all worthwhile?

When my grandmother worked at the textile mill, she was a woman who was no longer young but not yet old.  She still had her girlhood daydreams as an escape from the pure tedium of her life.  At the same time, the features of her face would have been hardening themselves into the lines of her future.  Her lips may have opened easily in laughter, but they were on their way to becoming a stitch in the center of her face.

My mother told me that when she was a girl my grandmother would tell her stories about her own childhood when she and her cousin took bit parts in the People’s Theater, the local community theater.

My grandmother’s memories would have swirled through her mind as she stood sweltering in the textile mill, reloading the spools that needed to be filled faster than her fingers could go. Her back might have been aching and her fingertips numb—she might have been wondering how she could afford to pay the rent—but in her dreams she was stately as a queen as she stood center stage.  Her imagined green chiffon dress was a waterfall cascading down her.  A diamond tiara sat on her head, sparks of light reflected in Romeo’s eyes.

Sitting in the living room with my mother, I could hear the distant applause, replaced suddenly by the din of the mill.  The noise of the loom, the thud, the thwack, entwined with a ceaseless rhythmic tramp—the tread of hundreds and thousands marching through history.

————-

Namaste

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Yesterday, my father’s ashes were interred at The Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Newtown, Pa.  This is a relatively new cemetery – for veterans and their families — on an endless expanse of green — marked with tiny identical gravestones — and a series of walls — identical square vaults in each one — where my father would have his final rest.  After a moving service of two military representatives — two uniformed young men — who played taps and opened and folded the flag above that white square brick of my father’s cremated remains on the dais — who then presented me with the triangular folded American flag, I read the following brief remarks. My partner pointed out later that during the moment of silence at the end, there was a palpable presence of peace.

 

Albert Mason 1919 to 2017

I remember my father, Albert Mason, telling me that when he was a boy growing up in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia that a picture of the Parthenon hung on his family’s wall. When I was forty, about five years after my mother died, I visited the Parthenon, which is situated on the Acropolis, the highest part of Athens, Greece.

As I told a street vendor in Athens, a Greek man, this story – that even the humblest of Americans recognize and pay respect to the origins of Western civilization — he nodded thoughtfully.

After my father died – on May 7th — I found a postcard of the Parthenon at his house and it now sits on the shelf in my office along with a photograph that I took of him in Fishtown on a trip that we took more than ten years ago.

parthenon sun rays

 

Both of my grandparents on my father’s side, Albert Mason (also the name of my grandfather) and Florence Jones Mason died before I was born in 1959.  But it has recently occurred to me that my interest in antiquity started with my father as a child looking at that picture of the Parthenon on that apartment wall in Fishtown.

Since my father’s death – and somewhat before – I’ve been interested in different philosophies on the afterlife. Recently, in researching a novel set in the Middle Ages, I came across the writings of Augustine of Hippo, a Christian philosopher who was born in the year 354.

I thought of my father when I read Augustine’s words:

“….we say of the righteous … that he is dead according to the body but not according to the soul.”

And when Augustine (also known as Saint Augustine) quotes Cicero, the early philosophical statesman and orator, I thought of my father:

“…we may have good hope that although our power of feeling and thinking is mortal and transient, it will be pleasant for us to pass away when life’s duties are done.  Nor will our death be offensive to us but a repose from living; and if, however, as the greatest … of the ancient philosophers have believed, our souls are eternal and divine, then we may rightly suppose that the more constant a soul has been in following its own course, that is, in the use of reason and zeal in inquiry, and the less it has mingled and involved itself in the vices and delusions of man, so much the easier will be its ascent and return to its heavenly country.”

 dad-may-2017---fishtown

My father was 98-years old when he died.  There is much to be said of his life.  He was a good father and a good man.  Perhaps my biggest testament to him, was that I chose a life partner who is so much like him.  And after we were together more than three decades, he was able to say, “So you’re finally marrying Barbara!?”  He loved her like a second daughter or as my mother wrote in her journal decades ago, “an unexpected daughter-in-law.”

We all have different memories of Albert Mason and in those memories are slices of his life. I want us to take a moment to remember Albert  — and in particular (since he had such a good sense of humor) to remember him making us laugh.

Then let’s take a moment to promise him that we will take care of ourselves to the best of our abilities and then release him to the universe and to his heavenly rest.

 

 

Peace 

Here is my first remembrance of my father, Albert Mason, after his death in May.

 

“When my father died, it felt like a library burnt down.”

–Laurie Anderson

My father, Albert Mason, Jr., died on May 7, 2017. He was ninety-eight years old.  He was born on March 28th, 1919. There is much to be said of his life which lasted nearly a century.   A decorated veteran of the US Armed Forces (Army/Air Force), he served in World War II where he unloaded the dead and wounded off of helicopters.

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dad-may-2017--baby-pic

 

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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Honoring the father as well as the mother.”  This talk was part of a special service on Earth Day.

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

 

In the past month, my 98-year old father has been hospitalized three times.   Since I am an only child and a dutiful daughter, this has thrust me into a new chapter of my life – which feels at times disembodied and surreal and other times purposeful and grounded.

The night before one of his medical appointments, I slept in Levittown – the place where I grew up and is so much a source of strength to me as well as a considerable source of angst. I attribute my strong work ethic to my working class background. This is also the backdrop of two of my novels and partly of my memoir, Tea Leaves, about taking care of my mother when she was terminally ill.

In this conventional landscape, I found myself praying to a conventional God about my father. Now, I was raised secular. In the past four years of being a Unitarian Universalist, I have learned about traditional religions and at the same time deepened my spirituality through such alternative paths as Buddhism and yoga. I have always prided myself on being alternative.

To say that I have long had issues with patriarchy is putting it lightly.

One of my earliest memories is when my father and I walked to the neighborhood pharmacy – which is still there but now sells convalescence and medical supplies for the home instead of the chewy  Mary Jane candies of my childhood – and for some reason I stayed outside.  When he came back out of the store, I was putting the imprint of my finger in the pliant grout around the store’s window.  “What are you doing?” he asked me.  I truthfully replied that the group of boys who had just been there told me to do this. “Never do what a group of boys tells you,” he said gruffly.  I must have taken his words to heart, because this is how I have lived my life.

And so in this conventional landscape, I found myself praying to God the father to help my father.  When I told my partner who I was praying to, she gave me a quizzical look – that comes rarely in the lives of the long married — that said, who are you?

A week later in the emergency room with my father again, I found myself again praying. There is much suffering in the emergency room. I could feel the pain around me – the squalling babies, the broken people wheeled in on stretchers, a gaunt and neglected old man leaning back, his mouth wide open.

I was sitting there breathing in and out. I was practicing Tonglen – the Buddhist practice of breathing in the suffering around you and breathing out peace.  But there was so much suffering around me – including my father lying back on his bed with a breathing tube in his nose.

Then the young dashing doctor came in. He kept shrugging and mentioning that my father was 98 – and that he could go home if he wanted to.   I could see him giving me a sideways glance.  I felt summed up as a big lesbian who his charms were lost on. More than that, I found his ageism appalling.  My father was in the emergency room because he had a hard time breathing.  (He is living with congestive heart failure.)

Fortunately, the nurse — who I liked — suggested that my father be admitted to the hospital.  As I write this reflection, he is still in the there. I am sitting with him – making sure that he gets the proper care.

My partner and I live our lives simply and fully as if every day is Earth Day.

Barbara is a drummer and we have attended many gatherings where it is chanted:

The earth is our Mother, we will take care of her.

This is true – the earth is our Mother – and I did take care of my mother.

But the earth that I sprang from is also my father – and I will take care of him.

 

 

NAMASTE

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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Meeting Hate With Compassion.”  This talk was part of a larger service.

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

 

 

A few years after my partner and I bought our house, now decades ago, an angry young white man who lived across the street threw rocks at our second story bedroom window. I should say that this man was young but he was an adult.

I had seen this young man looking at me with hatred in his eyes and I knew it was him.  We also had been verbally harassed since we had moved into the neighborhood – by him and by others.

Initially, I wanted to throw rocks back at his windows.  But I couldn’t do that — since he lived with his grandparents.  So I called the police.  I reported this as a hate crime — which was the logical thing to do, except that in Philadelphia, at that time, lesbians and gay men were not protected under the hate crimes bill. I was upset – understandably so – and went through the range of emotions at being targeted, including rage and grief. The dispatcher and the officer were open-minded and supportive.  The officer encouraged us not to engage with the rock thrower (he said that this usually made things worse).

I’m a practicing Buddhist now, but I wasn’t then.  I never thought about it consciously but that experience must have been a major influence. As a wise friend once said, we are all victims of victims.  And if we are different, we run the risk of being victimized more.  But the point is that we all are different – and we should value those differences in ourselves and each other. Differences are what make a community interesting.  Take this one here at Restoration, for example.  Also, it’s oppressive to try to be like everyone else – especially if you’re pretending.

Years ago, when the rocks were thrown, I practiced compassion by looking out our bedroom window and noticing that the angry young man had the same look of hatred on his face when he looked at his mother’s husband — a man who was probably not his father.  His mother was severely disabled, is now in a nursing home, and her husband left.

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, my partner Barbara and I went to a gathering where one of the people, a former minister, said that we must have compassion for those who hate because “they are so broken that the only way that they can feel good about themselves is to hate others.”

King quote on refusing to hate

I knew with sadness that what she said was true. Perhaps I was a natural Buddhist years ago in that I took non-violent action. The police officer (and a neighbor) told us the young man’s full name. When I saw him on the street, I greeted him by name.  I told a neighbor who is related to the angry young man that “We were not going to take it, and already called the police.”  I also told his grandfather, who he lived with, the same thing.  The angry young man’s relatives agreed with me that I should alert the police.

After that, I kept saying hello to him by name whenever I saw him on the street, forcing him to acknowledge me.

The harassment stopped.

Over the years I have become a kind of a patchwork Buddhist. I chant every day, but am not formally affiliated with any group.  I learned Nam Myoho Renge Kyo — by watching Tina Turner on YouTube and going to a few Buddhist parties. The mantra is an expression of determination to embrace our Buddha nature and to help others achieve happiness.  For me, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is an ancient vibration that puts me in alignment with the cosmic energy of the universe.

Anger and hatred are at odds with the Buddhist philosophy. One quote, attributed to Buddha says that:

“Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased by love. This is an eternal Law. If one speaks or acts, with a pure mind, happiness follows one as one’s shadow that does not leave one.”

It bears repeating:

“Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased by love. This is an eternal Law. If one speaks or acts, with a pure mind, happiness follows one as one’s shadow that does not leave one.”

 

Nam Myo Renge Kyo

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(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 or you can view the segment below and below that on this blog, you can read the excerpt. (At the bottom of this post is another video link to YouTube featuring me reading from a different part of Art — and talking about the Saints.)

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”.)

 

This excerpt is from a novel that I wrote recently titled Art: a revolution of love and marriage.  The novel is based on the working class landscape in which I grew up and takes place in the seventies.  The main character is named Art and is based on a real person (who is not me). So here is a short excerpt from her story. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality is a good hint at the happy ending.

 Art, a revolution of love and marriage

Art strode from the counter, past the grill and the fryers and into the backroom.  She tore her yellow headscarf off triumphantly as she clocked out.  Then she put on her sweater and her padded royal blue jacket. She slammed the metal back door behind her.

The sun was setting. It was about ten after five.  Her brother was scheduled to pick her up at five thirty. Art stood behind the building. She put up her hood and looked up. The sky was streaked with violet.  Long white wisps of clouds unfurled like banners. A single bright star came out from behind a cloud.  She watched it for a moment.  It stayed in one place so she knew it was a star, not an airplane.  It was bright enough to be a planet: either Jupiter or Venus.rainbow love

She thought about the fact that the star was light years away.  Maybe her junior year physics teacher was right.  Perhaps they were made from the stars they wished on. Most of the atoms spinning around in her body were made from stardust. Art would never admit it — in physics class last year, she had just rolled her eyes along with the others — but the fact was that she did have dreams.  She wished that she could be with Linda forever. She wished that Linda’s mother would stop telling her daughter that it was a waste of time to study trigonometry and that she would stop telling Linda that her life was going to turn out just like hers. She stared at the star.  It was so bright that it seemed to be burning a hole in the winter sky.  She wished she and Linda could make a life together.  She wished they could get married.  She wished that they could even have a kid or two. But first they had to get through this last year of high school. Getting into the trig class would be easy compared to the rest.

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