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Posts Tagged ‘Tea Leaves a memoir of mothers and daughters’

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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originally in The Huffington Post

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 when hard-won advancements in research and pharmaceuticals made AIDS a virus that people lived with rather than a disease that people died from.

It was an epidemic of massive proportions. As France writes:

“When the calendar turned to 1991, 100,000 Americans were dead from AIDS, twice as many as had perished in Vietnam.”

The book chronicles the scientific developments, the entwined politics, and medical breakthroughs in the AIDS epidemic. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a chronic infectious condition that is caused by the underlying human immunodeficiency virus known as HIV. The book also chronicles the human toll which is staggering.flags

I came out in 1981 and while the devastation France writes about was not my world, it was very close to my experience.

In my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012), I write about how volunteering at an AIDS hospice helped me to care for my mother when she became terminally ill:

“The only caregiving I had done at that point was tending to an old cat and reading poetry to the patients at an AIDS hospice, called Betak, that was in our neighborhood. A friend of ours, who was a harpist, had started a volunteer arts program for the patients. She played the harp, [my partner] Barbara came and brought her drum sometimes, and I read poetry. These were poor people—mostly African American men—who were in the advanced stages of AIDS and close to death. The experience let me see how fast the disease could move.”

In those days, the women’s community (what we then called the lesbian and feminist community) was mostly separate from the gay male community. Understandably, gay men and lesbians had our differences. But there was infighting in every group. Rebellion was in the air, and sometimes we took our hostilities out on each other.

Still, gay men and lesbians were also allies and friends (something that is reflected in France’s writing).

I’ll always remember the time my partner and I took a bus to Washington D.C. with the guys from ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an international activist group that is still in existence) from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to protest for reproductive rights. The women then went to protest with ACT-UP at AIDS-related protests. Remember the die-ins in the streets?

One thing that lesbians and gay men had in common was that we lived in a world that was hostile to us. At that time, many gay men and lesbians were in the closet because we were vilified by society and in danger of losing our employment, families, housing and, in more than a few instances, our lives.

AIDS activism necessitated coming out of the closet. Hate crimes against us skyrocketed.

There is much in this book that I did not know, even though I lived through the era. In 1986, in protest of the Bowers v. Hardwick ruling of the US Supreme Court (which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy – a decision that was overturned in 2003), about 1,000 angry people protested in a small park across from the legendary Stonewall Inn in New York City, where the modern gay rights movement was born after a series of riots that started after a routine police raid of the bar.

At that same time, Ronald Reagan (then president) and the President of France François Mitterrand were celebrating the anniversary of the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

“’Did you hear that Lady Liberty has AIDS?” the comedian [Bob Hope] cracked to the three hundred guests. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.’”

“There was a scattering of groans. Mitterand and his wife looked appalled. But not the Reagans. The first lady, a year after the death of her friend Rock Hudson, the brunt of this joke, smiled affectionately. The president threw his head back and roared.”

How to Survive A Plague is told in stories, including the author’s own story. This is apt because the gay rights movement was full of stories and — because of the epidemic — most of those stories were cut short.

Almost every June, my partner and I would be part of the New York Pride Parade and every year we would pause for an official moment to honor our dead. The silence was cavernous.

This silence extended to entire communities. A gay male friend, amazed when his test came back negative, told me that most of his address book was crossed out. He would walk around the “gayborhood” in Center City Philadelphia surrounded by the haunting places where his friends used to live.

And we were all so young then.

When I turned the last page of How To Survive A Plague, I concluded that this is a very well-done book about a history that is important in its own right. The plague years also represent an important part of the American experience. And an understanding of this history is imperative to the future of the LGBT movement

 

 

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princess-sappho (2)This blogpost is devoted to my beloved Princess Sappho who died last week from complications of kidney disease which the vet said may have included cancer.

I was broken hearted — extremely — and also feeling a tad foolish for feeling this way.  Then just last weekend, I was in Manhattan for a photo conference at the International Center for Photography and on Monday I spent the afternoon at the New York Public Library (on Fifth Ave. with the stone lions in front). Two separate instances occurred — which convinced me that my feelings were real and true and that I should share the story of Princess Sappho.

In the first instance, someone I was talking to at the conference said (in response to hearing about my beloved’s departure) — that she couldn’t hear anymore because “it’s like losing a person.”  In the second instance, a sign in front of the Berg rare book collection of the NY Public Library — mentioned that one of the archives of a famous writer from history (I forget his name) included a pussycat paw on a letter opener that he used to remember his beloved pet.

Now I think the latter is absolutely garish and even if I did use a letter opener, I would never do this or suggest it.  But the mention of it gave me pause.  Often,  there is a strong bond between a writer (and others) and her or his pet.  If a love between two humans is sacred, then a love between a feline familiar and her or his human is also sacred. (The metaphor continues for dog lovers.)

I am a practicing Buddhist and believe in the concept of energy — and that the energy continues in some form after death — so I have been imagining Princess Sappho (who in life was extremely feisty) prancing around in the sky. But nonetheless I am still extremely sad at losing her.

janet-and-sappho

Princess Sappho came to us nearly five years ago as “Baby Girl” with her brother Felix “Baby Boy” because their father Dan’s fiancé was allergic to cats.

Dan’s young son had chosen the brother and sisters when they were kittens and named them.

When Dan decided to put them up for adoption, our friend the poet Maria Fama sent their picture to us in an e-mail.

[This photo, on the right, was used last year by The Chestnut Hill Local in an article on my teaching and writing.  ]

My partner renamed Baby Boy “Felix” (which means happiness in Latin.) The brother had picked Barbara as his person immediately and to my delight, his sister chose me!

When Barbara asked me if I wanted to rename her, I replied that I had always wanted a cat named Sappho.  So Sappho it was. But then she started acting like a Princess (for instance, she really didn’t like it –narrowed eyes and flattened ears — when I would pet her brother) so we named her Princess Sappho.  She also went by Princess. Barbara gave her nickname of Princess Pi Pi — and sometimes we just called her “Girlie.”  She didn’t seem to have a preference for her name — she always came when she was called and she even came when Barbara was calling her brother — sometimes she especially came then.  Names didn’t seem to matter to Princess Sappho: she knew we were hers.

One day when we came home from the art museum, Princess was jumping from the bed about four or feet straight up in pursuit of a buzzing fly — which she eventually caught.

For almost the entire five years that she lived with us, Princess Sappho would sleep on my chest or my hip every night.

I have done my best writing in the past four years, with Princess Sappho perched in my lap or sitting beside me.

 

authoress-and--Princess-Sapph

Farewell Princess Sappho.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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originally in The Huffington Post

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.aids-memorial-quilt

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 when hard-won advancements in research and pharmaceuticals made AIDS a virus that people lived with rather than a disease that people died from.

It was an epidemic of massive proportions. As France writes:

“When the calendar turned to 1991, 100,000 Americans were dead from AIDS, twice as many as had perished in Vietnam.”

The book chronicles the scientific developments, the entwined politics, and medical breakthroughs in the AIDS epidemic. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a chronic infectious condition that is caused by the underlying human immunodeficiency virus known as HIV. The book also chronicles the human toll which is staggering.

I came out in 1981 and while the devastation France writes about was not my world, it was very close to my experience.

In my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012), I write about how volunteering at an AIDS hospice helped me to care for my mother when she became terminally ill:

“The only caregiving I had done at that point was tending to an old cat and reading poetry to the patients at an AIDS hospice, called Betak, that was in our neighborhood. A friend of ours, who was a harpist, had started a volunteer arts program for the patients. She played the harp, [my partner] Barbara came and brought her drum sometimes, and I read poetry. These were poor people—mostly African American men—who were in the advanced stages of AIDS and close to death. The experience let me see how fast the disease could move.”

In those days, the women’s community (what we then called the lesbian and feminist community) was mostly separate from the gay male community. Understandably, gay men and lesbians had our differences. But there was infighting in every group. Rebellion was in the air, and sometimes we took our hostilities out on each other.

Still, gay men and lesbians were also allies and friends (something that is reflected in France’s writing).

I’ll always remember the time my partner and I took a bus to Washington D.C. with the guys from ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an international activist group that is still in existence) from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to protest for reproductive rights. The women then went to protest with ACT-UP at AIDS-related protests. Remember the die-ins in the streets?

One thing that lesbians and gay men had in common was that we lived in a world that was hostile to us. At that time, many gay men and lesbians were in the closet because we were vilified by society and in danger of losing our employment, families, housing and, in more than a few instances, our lives.

AIDS activism necessitated coming out of the closet. Hate crimes against us skyrocketed.

There is much in this book that I did not know, even though I lived through the era. In 1986, in protest of the Bowers v. Hardwick ruling of the US Supreme Court (which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy – a decision that was overturned in 2003), about 1,000 angry people protested in a small park across from the legendary Stonewall Inn in New York City, where the modern gay rights movement was born after a series of riots that started after a routine police raid of the bar.

At that same time, Ronald Reagan (then president) and the President of France François Mitterrand were celebrating the anniversary of the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

“’Did you hear that Lady Liberty has AIDS?” the comedian [Bob Hope] cracked to the three hundred guests. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.’”

“There was a scattering of groans. Mitterand and his wife looked appalled. But not the Reagans. The first lady, a year after the death of her friend Rock Hudson, the brunt of this joke, smiled affectionately. The president threw his head back and roared.”

How to Survive A Plague is told in stories, including the author’s own story. This is apt because the gay rights movement was full of stories and — because of the epidemic — most of those stories were cut short.

Almost every June, my partner and I would be part of the New York Pride Parade and every year we would pause for an official moment to honor our dead. The silence was cavernous.

This silence extended to entire communities. A gay male friend, amazed when his test came back negative, told me that most of his address book was crossed out. He would walk around the “gayborhood” in Center City Philadelphia surrounded by the haunting places where his friends used to live.

And we were all so young then.

When I turned the last page of How To Survive A Plague, I concluded that this is a very well-done book about a history that is important in its own right. The plague years also represent an important part of the American experience. And an understanding of this history is imperative to the future of the LGBT movement.

 

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Note: This piece of commentary was written as part of a tribute for President Obama for This Way Out (TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show. Click here to hear the piece on this week’s This Way Out — which includes President Obama’s words and music from Emma’s revolution. The lead story is on President Obama’s good news about Chelsea Manning.

My partner, who ordinarily is allergic to the news, and I sat rapt in front of the television, the first time when President Obama first said LGBT and then the words “lesbian” and “transgender” at one of his state of the nation addresses.

Of course, by then we knew this president was on our side. We were on his side, too.  We stayed home from work to watch his first inauguration.  I still remember watching President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.  We both held our breath because we knew that not everybody would be happy to see the first African American president.

president_obama_portrait_rainbow_usa_flag_

Between our moments of awe, my partner tended to be nonchalant. “It’s about time,” she remarked drily when I told her that the because of the Obama administration hospitals that took money from the federal government had to honor the medical power of attorney papers of same-sex couples. She was right, of course. It was about time that we had some protections under the law.

We are of that generation of lesbians who were used to not having any rights. My partner is a drummer and to be honest we came to enjoy marching in the streets. There always seemed to be a drum contingent to hook up with.  At the time, I was a performance poet and I could count on offending people at my readings at the more conventional venues.  It was no secret that I rather enjoyed it when people walked out.  Okay, I bragged about it.

My partner and I never imagined we’d be legally married some day.

The morning after President Obama won re-election in 2012, I was working on a literacy project in an elementary school in an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia. An African American first grader looked up at me with large brown eyes and shyly said, “I know who the president is.”

At the second inauguration for President Obama, we learned about a poet named Richard Blanco. He was the first Hispanic person and the first openly gay poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. I reviewed several of his books for This Way Out.

President Obama made history again at this inauguration on the Capitol steps after he was sworn in, when he stated:

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

He also mentioned the Stonewall Inn riots — the pivotal LGBT rights rebellion in 1969 when gay men, lesbians, and trans people stood up against police intimation.

Thank you President Obama for eight years of your service, for your personal sacrifices, for the wonderful example you set with your beautiful family, and for being a secure man. Thank you also for your commitment to the LGBTQ community.  Because of you, we are stronger and ready to take on whatever comes next.

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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Becoming a feminist.”

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

 

 

Recently I was walking in Chinatown. It was an unseasonably warm night so I had my jacket open.  An older conservatively dressed white woman was walking toward me.  I saw her staring at me — trying to figure me out, a lesbian over six feet tall with short hair.

I saw her reading the large words on my t-shirt that read “Unite Against Hate.” She looked at me with disgust.  If the look on her face had words, it would have said, “Who do you think you are, uniting against hate?!”

Her look prompted me to glare back with the thought, “Really?! — you want to take me on?!”

fist_logoThe moment passed and we went our respective ways. Maybe it was because of my background in martial arts that I felt so empowered, so self-confident. I didn’t stop to remember that it was decades ago when I earned my second degree purple belt.

Since the election I have been filled with such moments of good old fashioned lesbian rage. But I am also a practicing non-violent Buddhist, so I have had a few things to figure out. One of them was why fifty-three percent of white women (including college-educated suburban white women) voted against their own interests.

There are some initially easy answers — these women are most likely married to conservative white men and they are identifying with their race and with their husband’s income rather than as women — an oppressed class.

Denial is strong. But reality is stronger.  More than a third of these marriages will end in divorce.  And a fraction of these women will end up in the already overcrowded and underfunded battered women’s shelters. I am not wishing this fate on anyone — I am merely stating a statistical reality.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. So I have compassion for those who voted against their own interests. I just finished reading Gloria Steinem’s latest book My Life On The Road. The book is full of revelations and I do recommend it.

When I read Gloria’s statement that you have to stand up for your own rights, before you can stand up for others — it gave me pause.feminist-fist

Gloria Steinem’s words made me reflect that I am fortunate to be among the women and men, along with those who identify with a different gender, who do get it about feminism.

Gloria is a lifelong beacon for me. It is because of her that all women are a little freer. I grew up with Ms. magazine in the house.  I went to rallies with my ahead-of-her-time feminist mother who I wrote about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

My working class, heterosexual, feminist mother saw to it that her only daughter would be a feminist.

Despite the fact of my gender-neutral childhood, I lived in the larger society. To counter the message that women are second class citizens, I had to go through a period of consciousness-raising. When I look back, I can recall a few “aha” moments.

 

  • In elementary school, I got into a fist fight with a boy who backed down because he didn’t want to risk punching me in the stomach, because in his words, “I wouldn’t be able to have babies.” Of course, this made me even more furious!
  • When I was in junior high, I had a math teacher who only called on the boys.
  • In my early twenties, I went to an exhibition of women artists at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. During the exhibition, it suddenly occurred to me that all of the art shows that I had seen previously had exhibited artwork that had been done mostly if not exclusively by men.

Aha!

It is my hope for all women to have their own “aha moments.” Maybe, for example, the majority of women might realize that reproductive rights (including abortion) should be a Goddess-given reality — rather than a reason that women should be imprisoned.

Hating others is not the same thing as standing up for yourself.

It is my practicing Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist informed hope that ALL will be able to truly stand up for their own rights and then stand up for others.

NAMASTE

 

 

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