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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk on gender (including transgender and non-binary) and read an excerpt from my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders. I introduce the piece by giving a talk on gender –including transgender and non-binary — from a Unitarian Universalist perspective. The reading is an excerpt titled, “Becoming Thomas.” (This reading was part of a service on “Entering the Sacred.”)

You can view the YouTube video of the introduction and the reading of “Becoming Tnomas” below.  Or below the video, you can read the introduction and “Becoming Thomas.”

 

Several years ago, my partner became friendly with a young couple with two young children — at the time two boys — who lived down the street from us. The oldest child kept saying to my partner, “I am a girl, I am a girl.” At the time, the child was four years and old, and somehow knew.  Fortunately, she was born to open-minded parents and now she is a little girl — and I might add she is more of a little girl than my partner and I ever were!

Around this same time, I was becoming a Unitarian Universalist and taking a class here at Restoration and reading the Bible for the first time (this was not required). Soon the muse was descending on me and I was writing a novel based on biblical themes with gender-fluid characters.  At the same time, I was reviewing a book on transgender issues and remember reading a passage that if trans people saw themselves reflected in the Bible, we would live in a different world.

I titled the novel THEY. They is known as a plural pronoun in the English language– which is inclusive of both genders. They is also increasingly used as a singular pronoun to signify a person who does not identify with male or female. (It also has a history as a singular pronoun.) It is a pronoun of  choice for many who identify as non-binary — that is not male and not female.

Gender is a spectrum — and in my experience it ranges from extremely butch to extremely femme — and there are many options in between. As a lesbian over six feet tall — who on occasion is called sir — I have given gender some thought.  I have always believed that we are more a alike than different. Gender is not necessarily fixed at birth, some people are born intersex (that is with male and female sexual characteristics), many transgendered people feel like they were born in the wrong body, and increasingly many young people are identifying as non-binary.

To me, it all makes sense, including the non-binary choice. Behavior and clothes do not have a gender. When I was young we called this way of thinking androgyny.  As a very independent feminist friend said to  me when her niece became her nephew — “I’ve been gender non-conforming my entire life!”

We should be beyond gender.

But the recently released U.S. Transgender Survey, found that we as a society are definitely not beyond gender — or beyond making it extremely difficult for trans people.

The statistics are disturbing — and not unfamiliar to me. Much has changed since the early 1980s when I was coming out in my early twenties. But some say that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Enter Vice President-Elect Mike Pence. The incoming administration is extremely right wing –and is very anti-human rights on all fronts  (and also holds positions that are destructive to the planet).  So what can we do about it?  One thing we can do is to keep an open mind and heart and stand strong and be allies to each other.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have that opportunity as expressed in the first UU principle, we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We believe in the sacredness of ourselves and the sacredness of each other.

I have presented several excerpts from this same novel at Restoration. In this version, Tamar is reborn from the Hebrew Bible as the twin sister of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus.  In this excerpt, “Becoming Thomas,” Tamar transitions to Thomas.

There are many non-gendered pronouns that people who identify as non-binary use to define themselves. In “Becoming Thomas,” I use the following pronouns which may be new to you:

h-i-r which is pronounced (“here”)

h-i-r-self pronounced (“here-self”)

z-e which is pronounced(“zee”)

 

Becoming Thomas

Since Tamar had become Thomas, ze carried a small scroll. One of the benefits of hir twin brother Yeshua deciding to make hir male was that ze could write in public. It felt liberating.  Thomas unraveled hir scroll and wrote: “So this is how the one known as Tamar became known as Thomas and joined forces with hir twin to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead.”

First Yeshua gathered his apostles. It wasn’t difficult to transition from Tamar to Thomas, one of the twelve. The other apostles were more concerned about themselves — that they get good placements (Jerusalem was a popular destination) and with sitting closest to hir brother, Yeshua.  Thomas didn’t care.  Ze was quiet — even meek.  But ze was okay with this.  Ze had heard somewhere that “the meek will inherit the earth.”

Ze had been sitting next to Yeshua, but the others had jostled hir to the outer edges of the activity room at the Temple. Thomas rubbed hir arm.

Ze didn’t appreciate being jostled by the other apostles and questioned their motives in wanting to be close to Yeshua.  Ze pushed the thoughts from hir mind.  Now that ze was helping Yeshua, ze tried to follow the example of turning the other cheek.

Thomas decided to leave since ze wasn’t waiting for a placement — ze would be travelling with Yeshua. Ze could sit next to him at any time.  They were both staying with their Mother. Tamar had told the Mother that she could now call hir Thomas and that ze would be helping Yeshua.  The Mother just smiled.

In the Temple, Thomas grew tired of waiting for Yeshua. He would be flanked by apostles when he was leaving anyway. Peter and James and John were always vying to walk next to him. Thomas yawned.

Ze wondered what the sun dial said. It seemed like days had passed. But it was probably only a few hours.  Ze slipped out the back door.

“Thomas?”

Startled, Thomas jumped.

It was Mary Magdalene. Thomas had met her once before.  Ze recognized the angular planes of her dark face.  Her large hands. Her smooth dark skin. The strands of her dark hair fell in narrow plaits past her shoulders.

“I recognize you. You’re Thomas, the twin,” she said.

The transformation from Tamar to Thomas felt natural. Ze had wrapped a piece of cloth tightly around hir small breasts.   Ze wore a tunic and a brown linen robe that ze borrowed from Yeshua.  Hir breasts didn’t show.  The tightness of the fabric pressing into hir breasts reminded hir to lower hir voice. Ze wore a shawl around hir head, of loose woven linen, draped over hir shoulders just like Yeshua’s.  The shawl fell over hir tunic. As Tamar, ze had usually worn a blue robe like the Mother’s. When Yeshua first saw Tamar as Thomas,  he said that he had always known that ze would make a righteous brother.  Thomas took it as a compliment.  Ze didn’t feel like ze was impersonating a man. Ze felt more like hirself.

Yeshua had told hir to smile less, because it would make hir appear more masculine. It was true.  Ze trained hirself not to smile.  The Mother smiled all the time.  Sometimes it was a distant smile.  A tired smile. A mysterious smile. At times an inquisitive smile. Tamar had to remember to drop hir voice when ze was dressed as Thomas — even though the Mother had named hir Thomas when ze was born.  Thomas was Greek for twin.

“I wasn’t allowed in the Temple, so I took off my head scarf,” Mary Magdalene explained apologetically.

Thomas kept hir voice at a low register:

“What do you mean, you weren’t allowed in?”

Mary Magdalene responded:

“When I came to the Temple to attend the meeting that Yeshua called, Peter met me outside and told me that the meeting — because it was being held in the Temple — was closed to females.”

Thomas replied:

“That is not true. I used to go … I mean the Mother comes to the Temple all the time. Yeshua invited you, so you are welcome.”

“If only all the men were like you,” replied Mary Magdalene. “I had a feeling that Peter was up to no good when he sent me away.  He had evil in his eyes.”

Thomas replied:

“Yes. Peter is jealous of you and Yeshua.”

Mary Magdalene looked dejected.

“It does not matter,” Thomas said. “You and I are Yeshua’s favorites. We’re the only ones he trusts.  He told me himself that there is no way to know that the apostles won’t abandon him in a crisis.”

“That’s true,” said Mary Magdalene.

Thomas replied:

“Besides, we’ll be travelling with Yeshua when he performs his miracles. There’s nothing that Peter can say that will change that.”

Mary Magdalene nodded and said,   “Peter treats me like an adversary. But I am trying not to respond with anger. For one thing it would tarnish the feeling that I hold for Yeshua.  I do feel that he can truly save us.”

Thomas had an idea:

“I’ll walk with you to your destination. Yeshua would want that.”

Thomas felt bad about deceiving Mary Magdalene. Ze wanted to tell her that ze was born as  Yeshua’s female twin.  But then ze remembered the pact with Yeshua in the desert — when he had declared that they were beyond gender.

The next day Thomas and Mary Magdalene travelled with Yeshua and the Mother to a marriage in the town of Cana in the tribal region of Galilee.  It was a hot day and a half a day’s journey. The Mother had borrowed some camels so that they could make the trip.  When they arrived at the dusty grounds outside the tabernacle, Yeshua  poured himself  a cup of water from one of the stone water jugs sitting in the shade.

“It’s a shame that the wedding party has no wine,” said a man standing nearby.

Yeshua drained his cup, wiped the arm of his robe across his lips, and spoke:

“But the water is cool and refreshing. And it is infinitely better for a body than wine — especially on a hot day like this.”

Thomas was helping Mary Magdalene with her bags and turned around and looked at the man to whom Yeshua was speaking. The man was dressed in a white linen robe woven through with strands of gold.

He narrowed his eyes, looked at Yeshua, and spoke: “I don’t recognize you.  You must be a traveler. Allow me to introduce myself.  I am John, the son of the governor of Cana.”

Yeshua responded:

“Then, your father is a Roman?”

“No,” replied the man. “He’s a Jew — a well-respected Pharisee.”

“I see. I’ll tell you what. I can change this water into wine,” replied Yeshua.

The man cocked his right eyebrow, looked amused, and asked:

“And you are?”

“Yeshua, the son of God.”

Thomas had a sinking feeling in hir stomach. Yeshua was acting  sincere, but ze knew that he had something to prove. It occurred to hir that Yeshua might be going around saying that he was the son of God because he wasn’t sure that Joseph was his real father. Thomas had a moment  of feeling sadness for hir twin.  The bad feeling that ze had felt when she heard Yeshua saying that he was the son of God, didn’t go away.  It got worse.

“The son of God?” asked the man.

“Yes. I will prove it to you by changing this water into wine.”

THE END

 

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

Another excerpt is in the recent issue of Sinister Wisdom — the fortieth anniversary issue

A diffenent excerpt is also in the aaduna literary magazine  (this excerpt was nominated for a Pushcart Prize)

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

To learn more about THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders, click here.

 

 

 

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(previously in The Huffington Post /Religion)

I had a spiritual revelation in my polling place last week in the presidential election. My partner and I chatted with others in line. There were many familiar faces and also many new acquaintances. It was a diverse liberal crowd. I smiled at a man wearing a blue “I’m With Her” T-shirt in the line that snaked around behind me.

madame-president-hillary-newsweek-2016

When I got to the registration table, an African American woman sitting behind the table gave me a smile when she heard me exchange names with the woman next to me  — someone in the neighborhood who I had never met before. In the hour in which we stood in line to vote — we discovered we had much in common. It was then I realized, this is like part in church where people pause and greet each other. The minister in my church calls it a “radical welcoming.”

When I joined the Unitarian Universalists several years ago, I quickly became a lay minister — called a worship associate in Unitarian lingo. As I recently explained to a vehemently atheist friend (there are many atheist Unitarians), my Unitarian Universalist experience has helped me learn about religion (I was raised secular), be open to people of all backgrounds and above all to underscore that no one group “owns” spirituality/religion.

Before I joined the Unitarians, I avoided religion all together since the religious right put me off — including the white Evangelicals who, according to The Huffington Post, voted for Trump, for the most part. They voted for him in record numbers based on hypocritical un-Christian hate filled values.

One of the epiphanies that I had in line at the polling place was that as a lifelong democrat, I have always voted, and I have voted for more than a few guys (and they were all guys) who I personally did not like. (President Obama was, in fact, the first candidate who I actually liked.) I have always strongly felt that there is a difference between the two major parties — enough of one that people’s lives will be affected.

Of course, this epiphany that I had at polling place the morning of the election was before we would see the devastating effects caused by people not voting.

If you stayed home and didn’t vote or effectively cast your lot for now President-elect Trump by voting for a third party — it is now time to wake up, suffer the consequences and step up to help those, especially the most vulnerable, who are now threatened by this administration. It’s time to cast away smugness and entitlement, and to put yourself on the line. Those (of all ages) who sat out the vote and are so apathetic they plan to do nothing are part of the problem.

As a practicing Buddhist, I meditate almost every morning. (The Unitarian faith includes and supports many spiritual paths.)

My emotions quickly cycled through me after the election results came in. On election day, spirits were high. After voting, I volunteered for the Democratic Party and went and knocked on doors. The people I talked to — almost all African Americans — had already voted. At the watch party (in my liberal neighborhood), I was stunned. By the following morning, I was devastated and depressed — so much so that I didn’t think I could get out of bed. But then I realized that anger was more healthy. Then for about two minutes, I felt deep grief — a necessary letting go and a relief — and returned to nothingness in my morning meditation.

Since then I keep going to back to anger.

Anger is linked to survival and I am blessed to have a strong streak of both. Perhaps it is my class background that makes me unafraid of my anger. I am the first in my family to have graduated from college and I have strong opinions (they may be different opinions from others from my class background but they are still strong). I am also a second-generation feminist and it may be my mother’s feminist rage (something I talk about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters).

I also am a lesbian-feminist who came of age under a fierce patriarchal system and I remember the quote from The Woman-Identified Woman By Radicalesbians:

 

“What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”

I am empathetic but concerned about the stories I am hearing about people — especially young people— being emotionally stymied by sadness/devastation and fear. Vulnerability is a good thing but too much of it leaves us open to attack. Remember, they want us to be fearful.

When I heard a friend talking about a young gay man who said he felt like he should go back into the closet, my immediate response was, “NO! — We have to be more out than ever.”

I am with Senator Elizabeth Warren who said in an interview on the Rachel Maddow show that now is the time when “We stand up and we fight back.” She advised people to volunteer for the causes they care about, to stay connected, and to stand our ground.

Despite my spiritual beliefs or maybe because of them, I do not have any optimistic words about the future. I do not advocate acceptance and I do not buy into the theory that anything is “God’s will.”

But maybe it is the goddess in my heart that gives me joy when I see the protestors on the street (#NotMyPresident).

Now is the time to prepare for the worst (even as we may hope for the best). We have to be centered and strong — to fight for our own rights and to help those who need help.

As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

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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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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: This morning I gave this reflection as part of the Tikkun olam (repair of the world) service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.  To view a YouTube video, click here.

Good morning

After I talked to Maria some weeks ago about today’s service, I went to teach my adult creative writing class and a new student — a retired nurse — talked about her struggle with breast cancer (which she is still battling) and why she wants to write a book about it, not only to chronicle her own experience but to help caretakers and medical professionals know what to do and what not to do.

I encourage my students to write about the hard stories in their lives — to go where the energy is and to protect themselves by setting down boundaries. Having written out several of my own hard stories, I have experienced that the energy of the subject matter will change after the story is written.  At the very least, the act of writing the story will give the writer more perspective.

In this way the writer experiences more whole-ness in her or his own life. And the telling of the story is healing for the world.  When I have heard from readers about the books I have written — both prose and poetry — that the work has meaning for them because they have had remarkably similar experiences, their remarks are a gift.

I’ve been teaching creative writing for nearly twenty years and consider it an honor. Just recently, because of the work that I am doing with Restoration, I have begun to consider my role in coaching students of all ages to tell their story an extension of the ministry that I do here.

When Maria asked me the question of whether what is inside of us influences the outside world, I had to think about it. That this church has such a strong focus on social justice is something that appeals to me.  Obviously, we are connected to the world and have a responsibility for healing it.

But — as a writer — I spend far more time inside my head than I do in the world.

Wholeness is something I have long struggled with — for a variety of reasons. My daily practice of yoga and Buddhist chanting helps — as does attending worship at Restoration.  On Tuesday morning, my yoga teacher (the one and only Jane Hulting) reminded me that all we have to do to connect with our inner selves is to take a deep breath.  That’s something we can do now. Breathe in as I count to four and then breathe out as I count to six.

If the whole world were to take a breath at the same time, then things might change. At the very least the people of the world might be able to pause, reconsider and change the course of their actions.

My relatively brief time here at Restoration has given me that pause. I have been more open to religion — or what is thought of as religion — and yet I have become more in touch with my secular self.  My Unitarian Universalist journey has also coincided with my best and most productive years as a writer — something I’m sure is no coincidence,  especially given the UU mission of restoring wholeness. Creative writing has long been my channel to spirituality and to myself.  I have long recognized that there are lots of unhealed people in the world who oppress others.  I can’t say that if they were healed, all the social ills would go away.  But I can say that I have a commitment to my own whole-ness.

But I — along with everyone else — am connected to the world and I am concerned about it.

 

The Dalai Lama picture and quote "The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred."

I came across this quote from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

It bears repeating:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

The quote made me smile and it helped me realize that there are things that we all can do:

We can belong to a congregation like Restoration that has a strong focus on diversity and social justice.

We can decide where and when not to spend our money — or as my mother said — “vote with your dollar.”

We can support elected officials who support the same values that we do. We can also vote against candidates — those trying to be elected officials — who don’t share our values.

We can also go through life with an open-mind and open-heart. This may be difficult in our increasingly fractured world, but it is more important than ever — for our insides and for our outsides.

 

Namaste

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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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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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