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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.)

trinity-two-2jpg

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.

 

trinity-three-blog

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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Note: A variation of this piece, originally on The Huffington Post, was aired this week on This Way Out, the international queer radio syndicate. To hear the piece on This Way Out, click on the link and scroll down on the page to ‘Now Playing” and click again.

 

Lately, I’ve been warming up to religion. Like many in the LGBT community, I had managed to avoid the whole thing. I haven’t so much run from it. Thank God, I was raised by a Bible-burning, atheist mother — something that I wrote about in my book Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters.

But I kept religion at a distance. Then I started going to a nearby Unitarian Universalist church. It started with a crisis, of course, like many religious conversions. I was laid off from a high-stress job. But it was more than that. I was a mess — physically and spiritually. I felt like I looked: fried. An old friend who was a yoga instructor suggested that my partner and I take her yoga class at the UU church where she is the music director. When my partner began drumming there some Sundays, I went with her. I liked it so much that I became a member and then joined the lay ministers.

To me joining a church was a major leap of faith. I was concerned how many I have known over the years, would take the news. Some were surprised. I overheard someone who we had known for many years saying, “Janet joined a church?” A close friend asked abruptly, “What gives, Janet? A church?” I told her that it was about community, and she could understand that. It’s also about diversity — including sexual orientation, age, gender and race as well as religious, or lack of, background. Fortunately, many of my friends calmed down when they heard it was a UU church the place where people sing Holly Near songs and Sweet Honey in the Rock on Sunday mornings. Becoming a UU has broadened my horizons. For one thing, I found out that many have been damaged by early religious experiences — even many who were not LGBT. This gave me pause.

I understood intellectually, of course, but it took me a while to really “get” that LGBTQ teens were killing themselves because they thought that they were going to hell. My secular intellectual background translated hell into mythology (starting with Greek mythological creation stories ) and literature (I’ve always loved the Divine Comedy). These teens, however, were told they were going to hell by their communities. And hell was real to them. They were told that their lives with not worth living.

Traditional Christianity is not my path. But there is hope. Rev. Al Sharpton writing on The Huffington Post addressed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that was signed by Governor Mike Pence last week, by stating that “My religious conviction compels me to fight for civil rights and social justice; I don’t divide the two. Each and every one of us must speak out against this egregious Indiana law.”

When I read Gay Conversations With God: Straight Talk On Fanatics, Fags and the God Who Loves Us All by James Alexander Langteaux from Findhorn Press, I had a little snicker. The author was a senior producer and host of the Christian 700 club. He writes that invariably after an “ex-gay” show (where men who had been through so-called reparative, conversion and ex-gay therapy all of which is condemned by the American Psychiatric Association), the “cured” men would hit on him. His response was that it sounded fun, but what would their lesbian wives and their 17 children think. My snicker at this hypocrisy stayed with me as a kind of joy that arose every time I heard anything about the 700 club. I came to think that maybe God (feel free to substitute any other word that works for you, Divine, Great Spirit and definitely She as well as He) wants me to feel that joy. The sad part of the author’s experience is that he was struggling with his own sexuality at the time and the ex-gay overtures only made him depressed. But he also talks about his faith in terms of “pure love:”

“Perfect love casts out all fear. And on that final day as you stand in the presence of that perfect love, the last thing you will feel… is queer.”

The book is written glibly but leaves no doubt that the author has been through it — as a result of being gay and Christian.

In The Peace Seeker (Peace Seeker Press) author Susan E. Gilmore goes deeper in relating her struggles between her sexuality and her strong faith in the Baptist religion in which she was raised which instilled her with “an unwavering confidence that the Bible was the infallible word of God and that every word was correct and could be relied on for spiritual truth and everyday wisdom.” The Peace Keeper talks about her observation from a young age of the church’s position that the role of women “was to be submissive to men.” The author is bright, intelligent and driven — qualities that any organization (including her church) should develop and put to use. Instead, she was thrown out of Bible college for having an “inappropriate” sexual and romantic relationship with another female student. Ultimately, she is accepted by another Bible college and goes abroad to do missionary work.

Since her entire life is based in her religion, the author partners with other Christian women. This is during the late ’70s and early ’80s and there was a lesbian community in existence. At one point when she comes home and becomes involved with another partner, the two of them attend a church together, but stay in the closet. What follows is a harrowing tale of the couple being broken up by the church members and elders. Susan left that church, but at no point does she consider changing her religion or leaving it entirely. Her faith was that strong.

Susan finds love again with another Christian woman, and together they find a church that embraces them because one of the pastors’ mind and heart had been opened because he had a gay brother who had been treated badly by the church. This man checked in with the two women, encouraged them to come out, and accepted them as a couple. It would be nice if this part of the story ended there. However, this pastor’s acceptance created considerable division among the congregation. The church leadership, however, encouraged them to stay. Susan generously describes the situation: “Some church members fully accept us; others remain on the path to understanding.”

Coming Out in Faith: Voices of LGBTQ Unitarian Universalists edited by Susan A. Gore and Keith Kron was, as I anticipated, a breath of fresh air. The writers in this collection share their experiences of being amazed at being around straight allies who are genuinely not homophobic. Social justice is a strong component of Unitarian Universalism and LGBT rights are important among them.

One of the writers is Drew Johnston who identifies as “a queer bi/trans Unitarian Universalist.” Drew relates the experience of transitioning while being a UU minister. Drew attended a potluck dinner and took questions from the congregation. One person asked about gendered pronouns. “Did I prefer male or female …. Then I heard myself finally answer the question. I said I like it when people at least alternate. I said, ‘Then I feel seen.'”

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I presented this reflection as part of the November 15 service at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Stenton Avenue in Philadelphia.  To watch piece on video, click here.

 

Heroes, saints, and mythology all occupy the same space in my mind. Saints may be as old as the hills but they are a new category to me.  Last year, I started reading about female saints at Catholic.com as research for a novel I just finished — titled Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage. I was raised secular and was inspired to research the saints based on one of the conversations in the New UU, a group for new Unitarian Universalists held here at Restoration.

What I found on Catholic.com was fascinating.  The female saints, in today’s lingo, are often differently gendered. Often they were martyred with their particular, also female, friends.  Hmmm.

To give you an idea of the saints, I am going to read a short excerpt from my novel Art:

 

March wind gusted. Grace remembered that March thirteenth,  just a few days away, was the feast day for Saint Grace. When she was nine, she learned about her name saint in preparation for her confirmation.   Grace was mesmerized by the stories of the female saints. One escaped a violent marriage and became the patron saint of abused women. Another became engaged at the age of three and when the engagement was broken, was overjoyed to live a life of virginity.

The ones who were persecuted captured Grace’s imagination. She remembered looking at the images of martyrs holding tight to the stake where they would be burned, golden halos shining behind their heads. Saint Apollonia’s faith was so strong that she jumped into the flames.

…..

Grace did her essay on her name saint. Saint Grace lived in Spain where she died in three hundred and four A.D. …. If Spain had chilly March winds in the year three hundred and four A.D., it might have felt like this on the day of Saint Grace’s death. Grace remembered reading that Saint Grace was unmarried. She was arrested and tortured. Her breasts were cut off. She died in her prison cell from internal injuries. She was martyred in the Roman Empire’s Great Persecution.

 

The saints occupy a place in my mind that is as magical as it is necessary.

Imagine, for a moment, that we lived in a world with no strong female role models, such as the saints on Catholic.com.  I, along with many others, would have to be the saints rather than be inspired by them.

And so I am thankful to the saints.

Almost every morning, as part of my yoga practice and Buddhist chanting practice, I reflect on what I have to be thankful for.  I have a lot to be thankful for — including the fact that I am here at Restoration.

When Maria and I talked about today’s service, she asked me what it feels like to be a member of Restoration.  I came to religion later in life — after fifty — and from a secular background.  I never thought (even, or maybe especially, in my wildest dreams) I’d ever be a member of a church.  Becoming a member of Restoration is an inclusion of my past. So many here have been in the various communities that I have long been a part of.  It is also an expansion of my world.  I am exposed to much more now — including the saints on Catholic.com — than I was before.  And I feel connected to others in this Beloved Community.

I am thankful to my partner Barbara.  Although she denies it — modestly,  I like to think — she is my anchor.  And all that she does to care for us — and our cats, Felix and Princess Sappho — makes everything possible.

At Restoration, the pews (and the seat behind the curtain and in front of the piano) are full of living saints who make it possible for us all to be here.  I am thankful for each and every one of you for all that you do and most of all for being yourself and for being here.

princess-sappho (2)

Princess Sappho (who sits on my lap as I write)

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Monnette Sudler in concert at the UU church on Stenton Avenue

Monette Sudler and

Lynne Riley on Alto Sax

"Ladies Night Out" Luciana Padmore on drums

Just last weekend at the Unitarian Universalist* Church of the Restoration on Stenton Avenue in NW Philly, Internationally renowned Monnettte Sudler and her band “Ladies Night Out” played a dynamite concert to a full house. The concert was part of Philadelphia’s Official Jazz Appreciation Month in April.  “Ladies Night Out” includes Lynn Riley on saxophone and flute, Noriko Kamo or Organ and Luciana Padmore on drums.

It was a big weekend at Restoration with guest minister, African American UU historian and author Mark Morrison-Reed was also at the church for a reading, workshop and as a guest minister.  He also gave the sermon at the morning service at the Unitarian Society of Germantown on Lincoln Drive in Philadelphia.  To read my Huff Post piece that mentions Mark’s most recent book  The Selma Awakening, How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism, (2014, Skinner House Books), click here

*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”.

Monnette Sudler and

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Note:  The following is a dramatic reading called The Descent of Ishtar — featuring Asushunamir the two-spirited, intersexed, trickster, that I presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Avenue in  Philadelphia where I am a lay minister. This skit was part of the Through the Gates:Transformation service that I gave with lay minister Annabel Grote. You can watch the skit on You Tube or read the text below. 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”.

Mythos is defined as “the body of customs, beliefs, stories, and sayings associated with a people, thing, or place.”  I think of it as story — and it can be a story or stories of your own invention or reinvention. 

Creating our own mythologies is a way of defining ourselves. 

We have created a dramatic reading of story based on mythology that is part of a novel that I recently completed. 

Mythology is one of the ways that societies over the eons have made sense of their world. In my story, human characteristics of jealousy, of not meeting the norms of society, encountering a “trickster,” and the timeless tale of regeneration and life ever after create an interesting journey. 

 The novel I wrote is, in part, inspired by the Bible and explores the fluidity of gender. When I was researching it, I was delighted to come across this Babylonian myth with a two-spirited, intersexed (male and female) hero.  The myth is based on the earlier myth from ancient Sumer (in 4,000 to 3,100 BCE) where the goddess Inanna descends to the underworld and enters its seven gates.  

Inanna is the more ancient counterpart to Ishtar.  Ishtar was an important goddess in Babylon which had its first dynasty a thousand or so years  later around 2,000 BCE.  Babylon was in the part of the world which is now Iraq. The Ishtar gate was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed about 575 BCE. It was excavated in the early 20th century.  A reconstruction using original bricks is now shown in a museum in Berlin. 

There was a lot going on back then including an overlap with Biblical history.  It is thought that Moses led the exodus of the Jews from Egypt around 1,312 BCE. My narrator is Tamar — a character from the Hebrew Bible. She is telling this story to her young nephews, who were actually born intersexed, or male and female. In public, they are referred to as male, because their father, Judah, was told that he had “sons.”  In those days, boys were valued more than girls. And we’re still changing things. 

 

It is my pleasure to introduce the cast of characters — 

Narrator/Janice Rowland Radway  as Tamar from the Hebrew Bible 

The twins — also from the Hebrew Bible 

Pharez — Sarah Skochko  

Zarah — Annabel Grote  

The Gatekeeper from the myth of Ishtar in ancient Babylon — Allen Radway  

 

 [narrator/Janice:] 

“Close your eyes and imagine the long ago city of Babylon, in a land called Mesopotamia, near the mighty Tigris.  A gentle wind blew.  There was a beautiful Goddess named Ishtar. She was also known as the “Queen of the Night.” 

 [twin Pharez/ Sarah:] 

“What night, Auntie?”  

[Pharez is sitting nearby — on the floor up front or in a chair] 

[Janice/narrator:] 

“Ishtar was called the Queen of the Night because she was known as the goddess of love and … well of love.”  

…Ishtar was the goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality.  And she may have been a sacred prostitute.  But the twins were still too young to hear about war and sex. 

[Zarah — Annabel — also sitting on the floor or in a chair up front] 

“What did the goddess look like, Auntie?”    

[ Zarah looks up with wide eyes.]  

[narrator/Janice:] 

“She was tall and beautiful and she had wings. She had wide set eyes shaped like almonds and a high forehead under a crown that was piled very high in ridges like a fancy temple. She held her arms up and  grasped two loops of rope that also may have been hand mirrors. Her two pet owls were usually by her side.” 

 [both Annabel and Sarah/ Zarah and Pharez]: 

“Ooooh owls!” 

 [Pharez/ Sarah]: 

“Do you have a picture?”  

[narrator/Janice:] 

“I have one that we can look at later, but first I want to tell you the story of someone called Asushunamir who was both male and female, just like you.  Asushunamir was a spirit guide and a trickster who rescued the Queen of Heaven from eternal death…” 

 [Zarah/ Annabel ] 

“What’s a trickster?”  

 [narrator/Janice:] 

“A trickster is someone who gets his or her way — or his and her own way — by playing tricks on someone.” 

 [Sarah/Pharez] 

“What’s eternal death?”   

 [Janice/narrator:] 

“We cease to exist eventually.  But don’t worry, it won’t happen for a long, long time. And if you meet a spirit guide, it might not happen at all.”  [Different tone of voice] Tamar told herself that lying was okay if it made people feel better — especially children. 

“Ishtar had never gone to the underworld where her evil sister, Ereshkigal, ruled.  First Ishtar had to ask the other gods if she could go. They ignored so she asked again and then again. Finally, they said she could go.” 

[narrator/Janice pauses]   

[Janice/narrator] 

“The underworld had many gates.  There were seven in total.  Ishtar came to the first gate and rang the bell. Claaanggg. There was one ring for the first gate and two for the second gate and so on. Ishtar rang the bell and waited.  She tapped her foot.  Finally, the gatekeeper came. 

[Alan/ Gatekeeper] 

[The Gatekeeper is old with a creaky voice] 

“Hello [sounds like he is just waking up ] … Who goes there?” 

 [Narrator/ Janice] 

But he did not open the gate.  Ishtar told the gatekeeper that if he didn’t open the gate, she would smash it down. 

[Alan / Gatekeeper] 

Wait one minute. I’ll go talk to the Queen of the Underworld. I can’t  do anything until she tells me what to do.” [muttering] 

 [Narrator/Janice] 

“The gatekeeper was old and walked with a cane.  He was used to dealing with demanding people who came down to the underworld.  He decided that Ishtar was not so bad.  She was beautiful and he liked looking at her. 

“So the gatekeeper went to Ishtar’s evil sister Ereshkigal and told her that Ishtar was coming.  Erishkigal was already mad at her sister for  being a beautiful goddess. And now she had to deal with her sister coming down to her kingdom.   

[Janice/narrator continued] 

“Ereshkigal told the gatekeeper that Ishtar could only enter if she agreed to obey the laws of the Underworld. In death all are equal, so the dead who came to the underworld had to leave their possessions behind, including clothing and jewels.  Since there was no food, the souls had to eat clay and dust.” 

[twins/ Annabel and Sarah:] 

“Ewww.”  

 [Pharez/ Sarah] 

“I could never eat clay and dust. My favorite meal is figs and almonds, sometimes locusts and honey.” 

[Janice/narrator:] 

[smiles at the children and continues] 

“Since Ishtar agreed to obey the laws, she could visit the Underworld even though she wasn’t dead. To pass through the first gate, Ishtar had to take off her crown.  She took off her earrings at the second gate and her breast ornaments and her necklace at the fourth and fifth.  At the sixth gate, she removed her shining silver bracelets from her arms and her legs. Then at the seventh gate, she removed her white tunic, so she was…” 

 [Pharez/ Sarah:] 

“Naked!” 

 [Annabel/Zarah] 

“We’re not supposed to be naked. Mama told us so.” 

 [Janice/ narrator:] 

“You’re both right.  Ishtar was naked. And after she had passed through the sixth gate, her sister confronted her and asked her why she came.  ‘If you want to know what it is like to be dead, I can show you,’ said the evil sister.”  

[Narrator/Janice raises her eyebrows and unleashes a cackle] 

[Narrator/Janice — continued] 

“Ereshkigal told her soldiers to torture her sister — by afflicting every part of her body. But Ishtar was favored by the gods and they were watching over her from their thrones in the sky.” 

Annabel/Zarah  

“Just like our God. He lives in the sky.” 

[Janice/narrator:] 

“Hmmm. Kind of…but in this story there are many gods and goddesses. Some of the gods decided that as long as Ishtar was in the underworld, the trees and plants would stop bearing fruit. No children or animals would be born either. All of creation would die if Ishtar stayed in the Underworld much longer. The god of all things that grow and the moon god got together and made a plan.” 

 [Annabel and Sarah in unison] 

“And then what happened?”  

[Janice/Narrator]   

“Ishtar’s brother was the god of water.  From the dirt under his fingernails, he created Asushunamir , a spirit guide.  Asushunamir was both male and female and very beautiful.  The plan was to send Asushunamir to the underworld so that Ereshkigal would forget about her sister.  When Asushunamir knocked on the first gate, the gatekeeper went down and told Ereshkigal that a beautiful man was coming — just for her.  Ereshkigal’s right eye drooped. Her cheeks were sunken. And because she was Queen of the Underworld, she wore a drab dress with a large belt buckle that was a skull.” 

[Annabel and Sarah in unison /Zarah and Pharez] 

“Ooooooh.”  [They shrink back] 

[Janice/narrator:] 

“Ereshkigal rarely met anyone in the Underworld who wasn’t already dead, so she was very excited about meeting this beautiful man. So the gatekeeper hobbled back up to the first gate.  

[Alan] 

“I got the go ahead from the boss lady. Come on down!” 

 [Janice/Narrator] 

“Just as the gods had planned, Ereshkigal forgot all about Ishtar. 

Ishtar started coming back up.  She left the Underworld and returned through the seventh gate first. Her clothes were given back to her and she  put them on so she was no longer naked.    At the same time,  Asushunamir entered the first gate. Just as Ishtar left the first gate and was given back her crown, Asushunamir passed through the seventh gate and was forced to give up all clothing.   

Ereshkigal saw that Asushunamir was a man and a woman, not just a man as she was expecting.  She was furious. The gods had tricked her! Ishtar came back from the dead, and the land flourished. Because of Asushunamir, Ishtar was resurrected and lived forever. 

 [Pharez/Sarah] 

“Why was Ereshkigal upset that Asushunamir was a man and woman instead of just a man, Auntie?”  

[Janice/narrator:] 

“Because…Ereshkigal liked men better and she wanted one as a… playmate.” 

[ Zarah/Annabel] 

“And what happened to Asushunamir?” 

[Janice/narrator:] 

I actually didn’t know.  The myth that she had heard just ended with Ishtar coming back from the Underworld. But these two children wanted to know what happened to the spirit guide who was two sexes, like them. I decided to make up a new ending. 

“Ishtar had her powers restored.  She was a goddess again.  She blessed Asushunamir and freed hir from the underworld.” 

[Zarah/Annabel] 

“Did they live together forever and ever?”   

[Janice/Narrator] 

“Yes.  They lived together forever and ever, and … Asushunamir was grateful not to have to stay in the Underworld with Ereshkigal.” 

[Pharez/Sarah] 

[stamping foot] 

“I don’t believe that story. Whoever heard of someone coming back from the dead and living forever — even if she is a goddess!” 

 

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