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

 

 

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

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

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

light-tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Julia says in her rendition of Thunder:

I am godless

I am Goddess

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

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

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

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

It is in that darkness where I find the light.

 

Namaste

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

 

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

read more at BlazeVox17

4x5 transparency

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

 

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

 

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Note: a version of this review is being aired this week on the international LGBTQ radio syndicate This Way Out, headquartered in Los Angeles. To listen to the entire news wrap, click here.

Just when I was starting to think that well, maybe religion gets a bad rap, I was jolted back into reality by reading three recent books on the theme of religion written by queer writers.

The moniker “queer” embraces LGBT (what a friend calls the alphabet people) — which stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender.” One thing we all have in common is that we are different — from each other and from the rest of society. This fits with the original definition of the word “queer” which meant strange or odd — “unusually different.”

An article in the Baptist News Global cites Pew Research Center’s findings that 62 percent now say “homosexuality should be accepted by society … 12 points higher than when the same question was asked in 2007, when acceptance of homosexuality stood at 50 percent.”

That religion is changing — and so rapidly — is a good thing.rainbow leaf

But imagine for a moment that you are a parent and the church you are in — and probably were raised in — tends to still be in the non-accepting 38 percent. Then imagine that your teenage child comes out as gay or lesbian. Or that your young child insists that he or she is the opposite gender.

Suddenly, your world is upside down. And the people in your congregation — the ones you would ordinarily trust in a crisis — have a good chance of being non accepting. You have the choice of leaving, of course. Or you could stay and help the people around you become more open minded — but this might possible hurt your child.

This may be part of the reason that young people — who tend to be more open minded about sexuality — are leaving religion in droves. According to The Christian Post, “a third of young adults in America say that they don’t belong to any religion.”

The reason that I thought that religion might be getting a bad rap is that I’ve been having a good experience as a Unitarian Universalist (and as one of the lay ministers) for the past four years.

But my secular upbringing undoubtedly made me more open to exploring religion and I found a “Welcoming Congregation” which means acceptance of all its members, including those in the queer community. In the case of the congregation that I joined, most of the congregants are straight and they are genuinely non-homophobic. But the fact is that we’re all different (and this is a good thing) so I would say that everyone is a little bit queer. And since, people are leaving religion in droves, perhaps religion itself is in danger of becoming queer in the original sense of the word.

Yet, we’re all spiritual people and religion does have something to offer. It can use its power to heal rather than to hurt.

The first book I read was To Drink from the Silver Cup: From Faith Through Exile and Beyond (Terra Nova Books) by Anna Redsand. As an adult, Redsand explored many of the same alternative spiritual traditions that have fueled me such as yoga and the Gnostic Gospels. But since she was raised fundamentalist (and encountered discrimination early on) she eventually found a Christian congregation that embraced her whole self. Redsand, who was raised by missionary parents in the Navajo Nation, is particularly insightful in her analysis of oppression.

Redsand writes movingly about the alternative reality that many, especially those from religious backgrounds, experience:

“Twenty-one when Stonewall happened [in 1969], I was then grieving the end of a guilt-ridden, clandestine affair with one of the nurses at the mission hospital.”

In Straight Face (Green Bridge Press) author Brandon Wallace writes eloquently about the reality of living a dual existence as a gay person who had entered the ministry of a fundamentalist religion that denounced gays. He shows us how this is extremely unhealthy. But he also explores how he felt called to come out of the closet, become his authentic self, and help others. This came after he read about a gay teen who had died by suicide:

“While I was reading, all of my past came screaming back at me. I thought about my own suicide attempts, and all the nights I Iay in bed and thought about doing the same thing.”

A Faithful Son is a novel by Michael Scott Garvin that explores the life of a young man growing up gay and fundamentalist in a small town in the South. “Boys like me grow up crooked…” he writes, and tells us the story of how and why the narrator had to leave the small town and move to Los Angeles. The narrator is devoted to his mother and writes movingly about her final days. Ultimately, he writes not about finding faith in the end — but about the narrator finding himself — and maybe in some ways that is the same thing

These three books are a testament to difference. These three author may all have come from fundamentalist backgrounds, but their stories are all different.

What they all have in common was that all three authors were raised in a strong faith that gave them something, but to preserve themselves, they had to leave.

This piece was previously published in The Huffington Post

 

sunset from inside a cliff.jpg

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This morning, Sunday August 13th, I co-led a Unitarian Universalist tradition called Poetry Sunday.  This is one of my favorite services because we are privileged to hear so many voices from the congregation as people read their own work and the poetry of other poets.  For this service, I wrote a reflection and read from my new novel titled Pictures and talked briefly about the early environmentalist and poet’s poet Robinson Jeffers. You can see my reflection below on the YouTube video or read the reflection below that.

If you are interested in reading/viewing other published excerpts of Pictures click here.

For more published excerpts of Pictures, click here.

For a post about previous UU Poetry Sundays, including a YouTube video of my reflection on the late poet Audre Lorde, click here.

 

 

Earth is our home. We are part of this world and its destiny is our own. Life on this planet will be gravely affected unless we embrace new practices, ethics, and values to guide our lives on a warming planet. As Unitarian Universalists, how can our faith inform our actions to remedy and mitigate global warming/climate change? We declare by this Statement of Conscience that we will not acquiesce to the ongoing degradation and destruction of life that human actions are leaving to our children and grandchildren. We as Unitarian Universalists are called to join with others to halt practices that fuel global warming/climate change, to instigate sustainable alternatives, and to mitigate the impending effects of global warming/climate change with just and ethical responses. As a people of faith, we commit to a renewed reverence for life and respect for the interdependent web of all existence.

–Threat of Global Warming/Climate Change, Unitarian Universalist Statement of Conscience

 

I was having lunch with my old friend and my first publisher the poet Jim Cory when the name Robinson Jeffers came up.  I was telling Jim about the novel I was revising, called Pictures, and about a party that my characters were attending at the home of the fine art photographer Edward Weston in 1926 in Carmel ,California.  It is a fictional depiction of historical people, most of them artists of varying kinds. Jim said that the poet Robinson Jeffers lived in Carmel at that time, and he most definitely would have been at the party.

I found out later that Weston photographed Jeffers. Robinson Jeffers by Edward Weston

My friend Jim then went on to describe Jeffers as a pioneering environmentalist/ climate justice activist, poet, seer.

I went home and promptly reserved the books of Jeffers from the library and opened one of his poetry books to “Distant Rainfall” – I’ll read it here – “Like mourning women veiled to the feet/ Tall slender rainstorms walk slowly against/ gray cloud along the far verge./ The ocean is green where the river empties,/   Dull gray between the points of the headlands,/ purple where the women walk,/ What do they want? Whom are they mourning?/ What hero’s dust in the urn between the/ two hands hidden in the veil?/ Titaness after Titaness proudly/ Bearing her tender magnificent sorrow/ at her heart,/ the lost battle’s beauty.”

I read a little more about Robinson Jeffers – who is truly fascinating – and then I was inspired to add several passages about him to my novel, Pictures, including the following passage where my character is hiking the cliffs of Carmel, California, overlooking the Pacific when he spots Jeffers:

 

Edward was usually looking for images. He imagined that Robinson was doing the same thing  — or looking for inspiration, doing whatever poets did.  Usually they just nodded or when they were close they exchanged a few words.  Edward had a feeling that Robinson was more reclusive than he was.  It was true that art required the artist to be alone, and that human beings were a distraction (unless they sat still and silent for a portrait).  One time, Edward had spotted Robinson on a trail above him, staring out at the ocean as the mist, turning into rain, rolled toward the shore.  The man’s gaze had been so intent, so singularly focused, that Edward was mesmerized. He wondered what was going through the man’s mind.  Did he see things in the mist — did he see leviathan women walking along the surface of the ocean as they heralded the storm.  Were the women his muses? Or was the mist itself the muse as it became rain — the wetness part of the mystery that became poetry.  As Edward stared, he was captivated by the cragginess of the poet’s face. He seemed to be as rough hewn as the rocks behind him. To look at him was as startling as seeing sheer cliff walls disappearing into sea. One day, thought Weston, I will photograph him.

 

Briefly, John Robinson Jeffers was an American poet known for his work on the region of Big Sur on the central coast of California.  Today he is considered an icon of the environmental movement. His father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a biblical scholar. He is known as a poets’ poet and has been written about by other poets such as Adrienne Rich.

In these surreal days of having to insist that science is real, it’s good to remember Jeffers.

Science is real and so is the mystery.

 

–Namaste–

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

NAMASTE

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(I presented this novel excerpt at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I am a lay minister.  The segment is also on You Tube. Click here  to see the video or you can view the segment below and below that on this blog, you can read the excerpt. (At the bottom of this post is another video link to YouTube featuring me reading from a different part of Art — and talking about the Saints.)

Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.)

 

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

 Art, a revolution of love and marriage

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

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

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

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In this post, I wanted to give you a preview of my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders.  Three sections have been presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia).  The YouTube videos are below.  Short fiction excerpts of the novel have been published in several journals.  And one journal nominated a section for the Pushcart Prize.  The links to the journals are below the YouTube videos.

THEY is a novel based on the Bible (with some creative interpretations) and has gender fluid, intersex characters.  It also includes some strong female and gentle men characters who act on their passions and, in some instances, live as LGBT people.  But the novel (which also includes some carry overs from goddess culture) begins somewhere in the time period of 800 to 600 bce (before the common era) and that was definitely before labels!

The three YouTube videos below are excerpts from THEY  are in consecutive order from past to present.

 

 

 

 

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

Text excerpts from THEY and my introductions presented at UUCR (Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration) can be clicked on below.

To read the text to the “Descent of Ishtar” and the introduction (where I talk about ancient Babylon), click here.

To read the text to “Forty Days And Forty Nights” as well as my introduction, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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