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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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

Good morning.

 

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

                      ________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————-

Namaste

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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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Yesterday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Entering The Mystery.”  This talk was part of a larger service on “New Member Sunday.”

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

 

Good morning

 

“Janet?  Janet joined a church?”

I overhead this a few years ago when I was downstairs.  A woman I had known casually for a few decades through the women’s community was talking to my partner.

Her comment wasn’t judgmental or skeptical.  Rather it was innocent and incredulous — or maybe it was simply factual.  Was she hearing things correctly?

Could Barbara had said this? Was it true?

This was after a service when several members of the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir joined the Restoration Singers on Music Sunday. Our music director, Jane Hulting, formerly directed the Women’s choir and stays in touch with the “Annas.'”

Of course, I found the comments of this “Anna” amusing.

But I’m the first to admit that I’m an unlikely church member.

When I joined Restoration about four years ago, it was the first time I had joined a church.  I was raised secular – but always knew myself as a spiritual person.  Like many, I was distrustful of organized religion.

In one of my earliest spiritual memories, I remember standing on the beach as a child — having lost my parents — and looking out to the waves and praying to an amorphous and genderless “God” that I find them.  Then I turned around and my mother was walking toward me.

I played the guitar as a child, and in fifth grade sang “Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the stage. The song has always had resonance for me.  Then as an adolescent, I crossed my own troubled waters.  Perhaps it was my spirituality that got me through.

When I started coming to Restoration, the time was ripe for me.  I discovered a religion that shared my values.  I had a life-time of alternative spirituality behind me and found a place that wasn’t rigid or narrow where I could explore traditional spirituality.

I also found a spiritual home for my partner and I.

Last week she said to me after we came home from the service that it was really wonderful that we have such a nice church to attend together.

There are so many people from the wider communities that we belong to here at Restoration. And there are so many others — who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.  It is good to be together.

It is good for me to be connected to all of you, to this Beloved Community – and to be connected to hope.

Shortly after the election, I heard a short segment on National Public Radio about how people in the United States tend to be divided into red and blue states and experience sameness rather than diversity.  They often don’t know the stories of anyone who is different from them.

Diversity helps to build empathy.

It also creates hope.

I really cherish being part of the diversity here at Restoration.

As a writer and as a creative writing teacher, I know that our stories are sacred. I spend much of my time alone and am fortunate in having a partner who respects my need for aloneness.  Solitude is necessary for a writer but so is being in the world – to a lesser extent.

I’ve been a reader all of my life.  As a child, the whole world opened up to me when I learned how to read.  I was described as a bookworm – as a child and as an adult.

Restoration’s emphasis on books drew me in as did its diverse and welcoming community.  But coming here most Sunday mornings is different than spending my time writing and reading. By coming here, I am part of a community that is connected to the world and to the cosmos.

A year ago, I would have said that the diversity of the congregation was important – today I know that it is absolutely essential.

As I mentioned, I was raised secular. Religion is still a bit of a mystery to me.  Everyone’s reason for joining a church is different.  I suspect that each person joins Restoration for a reason that might end up being different from what they may have thought originally.

Welcome to the mystery.

 

 

–Namaste

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“Light” a short fiction excerpt from my novel “Looking at Pictures” was just published by Five:2:One Magazine.  You can read a brief excerpt below which links to Five:2:One Magazine.

Light
(June, 1926)

On the left bank of the Seine, a boulevard wound around. It was lined with hotels and shops with tall windows and wrought iron railings. Tina turned down one side street and then another. Then she saw him again: the old bent over man with the large format camera on a tripod. He walked along the street like a crooked stick in his black cloth jacket. Tina hung back so he wouldn’t see her.

He stopped and set up the camera. Tina stood still and watched. He surveyed the scene in front of him. First he angled the camera toward the empty chairs on the street outside of the cafe. Then he moved it so that he was looking at the empty street in front of the cafe. Far in the distance was a street light. In front of the street light, black branches of a horse-chestnut tree filtered morning light. A dark wet spot glistened on the bare pavement in front of the empty chairs. The cafe owner must just have been outside with a bucket of water. The cafe would open in an hour or two. These chairs would be full of people having brunch. Conversations and arguments would ensue. The poor artists of Montparnasse would be renting tables by the hour because they couldn’t afford studios.

The old man seemed oblivious to what might happen — as if he were as captured by the moment as much as he captured it.

read more at Five:2:One Magazine…..

 

Looking at Pictures is the novel that I spent last winter writing. It gives us a glimpse into the loves and lives of well known artists and ordinary people, both queer and not, all of whom live outside the box.  It is a novel influenced by history — it takes place in 1926 — and by the people who lived in that time.  Many of the characters are actual artists, including fine art photographers.

This novel was inspired, in large part, by the work that I have been doing with Jeanette Jimenez on the archive of her father Alexander Artway (an architect and photographer who photographed New York City in the 1930s). The archive is extremely interesting and the photographs brilliant!

The first short fiction excerpt –titled Looking At Pictures — of my novel was published by devise literary and is partially excerpted below. Very shortly after I finished the novel last Spring, I heard from David Acosta (formerly known as Juan David Acosta) who invited me to be one of the readers at his new series at Casa de Duende. The piece that I read was a chapter set in Mexico which features the characters Frida and Tina.  The YouTube video, below, includes David’s wonderful introduction. If I were to rate this YouTube piece, it is definitely PG-plus.  It’s called “Ecstasy” and is influenced by lesbian sex, philosophy and LOVE.

 

Fiction: Looking at Pictures

Issue 1.2

by Janet Mason

(May, 1926)

Tina looked at the image in front of her and wished she still had her camera.

She was walking along the deepwater port looking into the hold of a ship that had backed up to the cement pier. She could see both levels. Initially she assumed that first class was on the top and that steerage was down below.  Then she noticed that the people below were almost all women and children.  They looked like immigrants from Europe wrapped in their drab shawls and holding their squalling infants.  None of them looked up.

……read more at devise literary

 

Ecstasy“@ Casa de Duende:

 

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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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Last weekend, my partner Barbara and I went to the DVD release party in Philadelphia of Sharon Katz and The Peace Train.  It was an excellent concert, complete with dancing.  It was a large extremely diverse (across the board).  Sharon and her partner/producer Marilyn are from South Africa where they began The Peace Train — taking kids of all races across the country on a train.  They did the same thing in this country just this past year and made a movie about the original Peace Train and another movie about the trip they just took.  One young person who was on The Peace Train with them talked about how empowering it was to meet Americans all of types who sang and danced with them.  Marilyn who introduced Sharon and the band said that she worked hard for the Hillary campaign and was very broken hearted but that now is the time to reach out across the divide to let people get to know us.  Diversity is fun! The Peace Train attests to this.  Below are some photos and some short YouTube video clips of The Peace Train. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

kids-dancing-with-sharon-katz

 

 

 

 

gloria-and-barbara

 

 

 

 

sharon-and-monette-on-stage-dancer

 

 

 

 

wendy-and-sharon-sharper

 

 

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