Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The schedule for the Commencement if you're planning to attend:

You should plan to arrive and be seated by 9:30.  

Schedule for Mills College Commencement

Saturday, May 13, 2017

7:45am Car sent to pickup Mrs. Soskin at her home
8:50am                 Arrive at Mills College, met by Renee Jadushlever, Chief of Staff
8:50am-9:15am     Continental Breakfast, meet and greet trustees, platform party
9:15am                 Robing with Trustees, other Distinguished Guests (Mills will provide regalia)
9:30am                 Line up for Processional
9:45am                Processional  (Platform Party: Director of Spiritual
                                & Religious Life, Provost, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Commencement
    Speaker, President)
10:00am               Blessing, Welcome, Student Addresses, other speeches
                                           and ceremonial issues, Introduction of Speaker
10:30am-10:45am Presentation of Honorary Doctorate of Arts & Letters (3 minutes speech by Betty Reid Soskin)
10:45am              Commencement Speech - Lateefah Simon 
11:00am               Conferring of Degrees
12:06pm              President’s Charge to the Graduates
12:10pm               Benediction
12:11pm               College Hymn
12:15pm               Recessional
12:30pm               After recessional, take off robe and go to President's House for
12:30pm-2:00pm   Reception in the President’s Garden immediately
                                           following the ceremony.  (150 people - speaker, distinguished guests,
                                           trustees, donors, alumnae)

2:00pm Car sent to bring Ms. Soskin home

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Surprises abound!

Opened my federal IPad yesterday -- when the world was looking impossibly dark and unpredictable -- and there it was; a message from President Elizabeth Hillman of Mills College announcing that I'd been selected to receive an honorary doctorate at their May 13th commencement!  Can you imagine?  But of course you cannot.  No one could possibly understand how much this means.

I grew up at a time when college was only for the privileged.  Young women whose parents could afford to, sent them to higher education in order to enable them to marry well, though some were sincerely seeking higher learning in prescribed fields, getting an "Mrs." was worth far more than earning a Ph.D.,.

As a child of the depression era -- college was unthinkable, but being a part of the crowd heading into life-changing careers was important.  My parents saw to it that the young men I was dating were those who were on the ladder to great things.  That I would aspire to be a student was not encouraged in the least, and was generally thought to be a waste of time for girls.  Graduating from high school was, at that time, quite enough.  I'd fulfilled my parent's hopes by the age of 18.  That I would be married and a mother (in that order, hopefully), by the time I was 21 would surely not fulfill my own ambitions, but being educated beyond high school was simply not a part of the equation.

Yes, that's me -- top row.
I grew up in East Oakland at a time when there was little opportunity to even ride past Mills College unless the bus on which I was riding was within range of that campus.  At such times I would ride by and wistfully wonder what magical things went on behind those lush ivied walls.  I could barely see beyond those magnificent fortress-like gates just off MacArthur boulevard  that led into who knows what Secret Gardens ... .  Maybe the likes of Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison, the Bronte sisters, Amelia Earhart, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Georgia O'Keefe, Jane Addams, Clara Barton,  Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony and Cady Stanton, Rachel Carson, Helen Keller, Madame Marie Curie, Louisa Mae Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe et al, were waiting behind those walls.

There was that turn in the road that would bring the scruffy flatlands into view as we descended from the foothills to our home on lower 83rd Avenue -- where such names might be rarely heard, but who were already familiar names to this inquiring young mind.  But, of course, I grew up as a second generation Californian studying from an exclusive curriculum designed for a white and homogeneous America.

It would be decades still before the wisdom, voices, and likes of Phyllis Wheatley, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Zola Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Teri McMillan, Isabel Wilkerson, Sonya Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Olivia Butler, Bessie Coleman, Dr. Mae Jemison, Ida B. Wells, Fanny Lou Hamer and our own Rep. Barbara Lee, could be imagined behind those walls of a by now more inclusive institution of higher learning. I only learned of Dr. Katherine Johnson, the brilliant physicist/mathematician of NASA fame, on Netflix a few nights ago!  Or that I would be a middle-aged 46 year-old woman when, in 1967, the Lovings would be imprisoned for loving one another enough to marry in the state of Virginia, a State where such unions were then prohibited by law.

No longer am I invisible or unrepresented.

I am worthy.

Education was generic then, and did not yet reflect the changing racial and cultural demographic of the City of Oakland that we've since grown into, though at that time (pre-Proposition 13) our state system of public instruction was the envy of the country and the world.  That I've experienced a long lifetime of an ever-evolving curiosity and always an avid reader probably harkens back to that early training under the guidance of a succession of strong white teachers who cared enough to nurture the spark evident in my questions despite the flawed social system imposed by the times.  Fortunately, to their credit, I was never forced to perform under the heavy burden of low expectations, though there are the lingering effects of cultural deprivation and expropriation still to be overcome.

I would be a young adult before Ruth Acty would become the first African American woman to be hired to teach in the public schools of California.

It was much later in life when -- in the early months as a new and untested member of staff of our park -- Martha Lee, our superintendent, received an invitation for someone to participate on a panel sponsored by the National Women's History Project's annual national conference to be held on the Mills campus, and no one else was available to send.

The assignment would present my very first opportunity to be behind those beautiful ivy-covered walls and storied historic buildings -- and I could hardly wait.  That was in spring of 2006, and as the result of my participation on that panel, I was named as one of ten of the Women, Builders of Communities and Dreams, honored nationally in ceremonies both at Griffiths Park in Los Angeles, and in Washington, D.C. at the historic John Hay Hotel -- just across from the expansive grounds of the White House.  This would be my introduction to the nation's capitol, and life was never the same thereafter.

Mills College and I now have a shared history, and that this beautiful campus should now become the site of this ultimate honor caps the dream that was so far beyond imagination of that little girl of color riding so wistfully by on the MacArthur Avenue bus line so long ago, dreaming the impossible dream ... .

Those little girls of color are still riding past ... past those seemingly forbidding gates that, symbolically, stand for the unseen forces against which so much energy must still be expended.  To some those gates may still be perceived as protecting those within from those without.  There is still little awareness of the depths of unexplored potential, or, that the barriers of old have lost much of their power to exclude the curious, or limit the reach of those who aspire to greatness.  Over time, Mills College has contributed much to the lessening of the obstacles to fulfillment for so many.  In all of our names, I thank you.

... and, it is true that all things are possible, even if one has to wait a very long lifetime for the fantasy to become breathingly, livingly, and lovingly real!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

In our little theater in a moment of reflection post-talk (Getty image)
Interview with Richard Dion from The Soul of California, Podcast from Germany ... .

... went well, I think, though I have no way of knowing, actually.  I have no idea what audience it will be aired for, or -- since it was in English and not German -- whether the intended audience is in Europe or the United States.  The Internet had made the world so small that one can originate programming from almost anywhere -- including outer space.  The direct connections have been obscured irreversibly.

It occurred to me that -- when I'm giving my talks in our little theater with its limited seating capacity (48) the intimacy is so clear -- that it's possible to deal with sensitive subjects easily, and that fact colors my presentations, and keeps my truths fresh for me.  As long as I can see faces that are hearing my words for the first time, those words continue to be alive for me.  Were that not true I think my talks would not be possible without gradually going predictable and boring.

My talks tend to vary over time, with differences in stresses and accents because my audiences continue to bring newness and freshness with them each time they enter into my small circle of listeners.  New questions give rise to new or changing memories; the dynamism goes on.

It is hard for me to establish those conditions with a radio audience.  If I allow myself to stray from the singular voice of the person on the other end of the telephone line -- it tends to become diffuse and I lose focus.  On the other hand, if I simply stay with that voice (an audience of one) maybe  something gets lost ... .

I'm so dependent upon the ambiance provided by my setting that it's hard for me to judge whether my effectiveness comes through when the access to those faces, eyes, questions, are not possible -- as in radio interviews -- that these are a waste of time and yield little but noise.

Maybe that uncertainty is the reason that I tend to never listen to those programs after the fact.  Maybe I'm afraid that I've not lived up to expectations -- the reason my opinions are sought by
"the World," and that I must not trust this publicity-manufactured celebrity at all.

I truly don't know.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Singing at UU Convention, Cleveland - circa 1968
Under the heading that reads Invincible, there has always been, "of course" ... .

... but then that was at a time when the days, weeks, and months were not yet measured, and all things still possible.  In this final decade the traffic is horrendous as items such as End of Life Issues are bumping up against a still vibrant and active everyday life of park rangering, giving interviews for podcasts and publications in faraway places.  This week it's a 43-minute piece to be aired in Germany by host Richard Dion who is on my schedule by phone on Thursday afternoon at 12:30 (PDT).  Also am the subject of one half-hour film based on my life as a ranger and another 90-minute documentary on our family leading up to those 85 years that came before.  The longer film is planned for a PBS airing in February of 2018; or at least that's the goal of our young filmmaker.

There is some irony in the fact that I lived in obscurity for such a long time before the world discovered that I was here doing all the ordinary minuscule acts of normalcy that everyone does just to keep the world's sanity in check, and weighing in on those things where my small life touched with the lives of others in meaningful ways.  I've never known that all those scattered moments of passion, joy, sadness, and rage acted upon, represented history, and that I was creating the nation's narrative along with the rest of humanity whose lives coincided with mine.

Two filmmakers, Bryan Gibel and Carl Bidleman, and their teams have been at work on documenting that history for over a year now, and in the process have created work samples to support their grant funding applications that have exposed segments of my life long forgotten while hidden away in storage boxes and moved from place to place as life demanded, never anticipating ever surfacing into my re-created life as Betty the Ranger.

There was, for instance, a box holding 30 large reels of audio tapes, contents unknown.  The hardware on which to play them had long since disappeared. The entire collection is in the process of being digitized and archived.  That means that 50 years of my life will soon be ready to be scrutinized at a time when it brings me in direct confrontation with a far younger self.  It's mind-boggling!

The long-hidden artist Betty has sprung back into existence and with an unexpected older Betty now in charge.

For a few days now I've been watching a few minutes of a fragment of young Betty singing 3 original songs while being videotaped by a team of at least 3 cameras.  It's a work of art -- and I'm watching that performance in the third person -- free of ego -- and able to see and hear the undeniably great talent of that youthful self.  There is no audience; no sound beyond my own voice, obviously performing for cameras in a professional studio somewhere -- but there is no memory of the experience.  Only of the dress that I'm wearing, and the strong memory of feeling pretty in it.  I have no idea who created this piece, or why it was done, or for what purpose? I wonder why the smiles when watching and listening, and the conscious checking and wiping my face of expression each time I play the tape, even though I'm alone and unseen ... .

What an experience ... .  Strange!  I'd 50 years ago slammed the door on any possibility of emerging into the world as an entertainer, only to have this younger Betty rise up now ready to re-enter the world in this final decade.  Of course this is happening when any possibility of being swept up in that world has been eliminated by age.  Maybe it's safe now.  It almost feels too unlikely to be true, yet it is, and I'm no longer running away.  It's no longer necessary. It's the final blending of all of the women I've ever been through my music, and this time it feels right.

The documentary will feature an unknown number of original songs written and performed in the 60s and 70s, and that collection of music will form the sound track for the film.  There is a proposal for an album to be released with the film.

Aboard the USS Hornet where I would, decades later, give the International Women's Day keynote address as a ranger
The music carries an accurate record of those historic decades, documenting all of the drama that we were living through as We the People changed the nation -- the  Civil Rights struggles of the late 50s through the 60s; Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964, the Vietnam War Peace Movement, the birth of "Black is Beautiful," and the beginnings of the feminist movement; all still relevant and still largely unresolved.  In listening to those songs I'm so aware that they could well have been written yesterday or last week.  The content is relevant to today's headlines.  The sad truth is that so much remains unaddressed.  The songs are 40-50 years old, but remain as fresh and as poignant as tomorrow morning.

Hay House, NY, will publish my memoir for a February release with their Black History Month listings.  Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor is editing the book from this blog, so the writing has all been done.

International Women's Day aboard
the USS Hornet in 2006
Young Betty was left in the suburbs when I returned to urban life in the early 70s.  Given the eucalyptus curtain that exists between those places -- separated by the Oakland hills -- as well as by the social policies and strategies that created and maintained the division between the haves and have nots; it was easier to leave than one might imagine.  To some extent it had been like decades of life in a kind of Disneyland with mortgages!

Returning to the east side of those hills was easy once I realized that life in the suburbs was truly and tragically culturally-deprived, though the truth of that is still not realized by most.  It was increasingly obvious that my kids had grown up with a distorted system of values -- that the nation was slowly but surely waking up to that fact, and that the glitz and glamour of the "burbs" needed to be balanced by some of the urban grittiness and harsher realities in order to grow into the grownups they needed to be in a fast-changing country.  We were ready for the change, painful though it proved to be.

Rick, now 21, was living on his own in an apartment in Berkeley.  Bob was hitch-hiking his way across Canada (with my permission) on the return trip from a Unitarian-Universalist annual conference we'd attended together.   We'd moved David to live with our dear friends, Jean and Roger Moss, to complete high school in Berkeley.  Dorian was safely enrolled in St. Vincent's Academy in Santa Barbara, and Mom was now a free woman about to start a new career as an administrative assistant on a research project at the University of California, upon return from the Democratic Convention at Miami as a delegate.  It was a year of major life changes in the lives of each of us; a year that began with that critical and long-delayed divorce decision.

I'd rejected any notion of a career in the entertainment industry due to the primary responsibility to continue to provide a safe place for my 4 children at a time when my marriage was crumbling.  Dorian's intellectual deficits were not going to ever allow her to have a full life, and our eldest son was struggling with gender issues complicated by problems generated by racial prejudices he'd had to endure throughout his young life.  I've always believed that it was Rick who paid the price of his well-meaning young parent's attempts at declaring full freedoms for their children, and that his death from alcoholism that brought on the fatal cirrhosis will haunt me through the rest of my days.

I chose to move back into the city when my boys had weathered adolescence and Dorrie was in the care of those progressive and loving nuns at St. Vincent's where she spent the following 4 years of the critical training that would prepare her for as much independence as would be possible, given her limitations.

For me, it was time to develop new edges to grow from.  Fortunately, there were enough of those to make possible a completely new life.

I've never looked back.

... nor did I ever regret those decisions.

Young Betty has re-entered my life just in time to provide -- through generous advances and royalties from these almost forgotten works -- the potential capacity to sustain Dorian's life without interruption into a future without me.  How's that for love's power to reach back even from the grave?  Her Dad, Mel, died in 1987.

From now on we will co-exist, young Betty and me, and quite comfortably, finally.

How poetic is that?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Another item to cross off on my bucket list ... .

Made it to Hamilton!

Yesterday at promptly eleven in the morning a limo arrived at my door to deliver me to San Francisco's Orpheum theater for the one o'clock matinee.  I could hardly breathe as the  hour grew nearer and nearer.   Hadn't slept a wink all night with anticipation of what this day might bring.

I was expecting an Uber or Lyft to swing around the corner any moment, and was completely overwhelmed when around the corner of our apartment parking lot there was suddenly a luxurious "mile-long" pure white stretch limo with the driver attempting to maneuver the sharp turn required to reach my condo.

As was true in my adolescence, I was not properly waiting in my living room until the driver called to announce his or her arrival, I'd closed the door behind me at least ten minutes before and was waiting outside at the bottom of the stairs in eager anticipation.  Could hear my mother's voice in the background as 16 year-old Betty of long ago waited on the front porch for her date to arrive -- mother would plead with me to "come inside and wait like a lady so you will be able to make an entrance and not look too anxious, please" -- to deaf young ears.  I was always eagerly waiting for my most current boyfriend with every nerve ending exposed and ready for the next adventure.  Some things never change.

As the magnificent limo made its way around the corner, I could see the driver's face and vaguely recognized him as someone, somehow, some place or other with whom I'd crossed paths.   I've by now lived in this area for such a long lifetime, everyone within a radius of about 30 miles is beginning to look vaguely familiar.

As he brought his elegant "chariot" to a full stop and got out to open the rear door to seat me, I spontaneously threw my arms around him and kissed him on the cheek!  He was totally surprised, but good natured about this unexpected greeting and allowed me to feel totally comfortable.  He was the "ten white mice with his great pumpkin chariot", even if I am the only one who knew it.

I have no idea what any startled neighbors thought about all this, but at the moment they were standing in for my mother of long ago, and I didn't give a fig about what they were thinking.  I live in a low-to-moderate income apartment complex where limos are not an everyday sight by anyone's calculation.

I got into the back seat with its bench on one side and a full bar on the other; with the heating and cooling controls just above on the ceiling; with James Moody playing his mellow tenor sax that memorable arrangement of These Foolish Things on KCSM radio --  softly somewhere behind my head, and the driver up there at least a half block ahead, we took off to pick up Amy Orton who -- with her husband, Eddie, were my hosts for the afternoon; then straight for Hamilton in San Francisco.

Do not be put off by the fact that this is the road company and not the original Broadway cast.  The magic of Hamilton is in its complexity; its choreography, music, language, research and writing, in the voices, the imaginative characters, the mind-capturing stage settings which includes descending staircases and turntables, the totality, the brilliance of the ensemble where the balance of all those aspects come together flawlessly! This is theater at its best.

And here we are with the non-existent curtain about to rise; with the pit orchestra now fully tuned up, and here 'tis;


... and now I'm going to begin to plot my next visit to the Orpheum before this great show picks up its toys and closes in August.  Once seen is only the beginning of a relationship with this ground-breaking experience of theater -- it is Shakespearean, operatic,  triumphant in its celebration of dance, and all as neo-contemporary in verbal expression as is dawn of tomorrow morning!

Monday, February 13, 2017

If End of Life is defined by whether or not one has ceased to have first time experiences, I'm here for the duration ... .

Yesterday I got to see myself depicted as one of the main characters in an original play performed by a company from Southern California.  It is entitled, Dare to Remember, and tells the tragic story of the 1944 Port Chicago Explosion and mutiny trials during World War II.  The play was written by David Shackleford, and was taken from various sources; Dr. Robert Allen's great book called The Port Chicago Mutiny, and (from what I can tell) perhaps some references from my blog.  But that's only a guess when I make an attempt to explain to myself how I got into their story.

About two weeks ago I received a telephone call from the playwright inviting me to attend one of the performances in the city of Pittsburgh, California, and -- since Port Chicago is one of the sites of our 4-park consortium (John Muir in Martinez, Eugene O'Neill in Danville, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond are the others) it didn't strike me as odd, but something I was mildly curious about.  I agreed to try if time allowed ... .

Then, a week later there was another call from Mr. Shackleford, this time more insistent.  "Can we offer transportation?  We'd love for you to be there."  Then he revealed that I was one of the lead characters in his play and that they'd love the chance to pay homage to me if I could attend.  This cast a new light on everything, and I agreed to attend the Sunday matinee."

That was yesterday:

The program listed me as Betty Reid Soskin in the first scene, Act One.

Suddenly there I was, a 35-ish voluptuous woman standing behind a living room bar with liquor bottles lined up beside her elbow.  She was chatting with two soldiers about (... couldn't tell because they were not miked) but it was clear that she was a "Mother Earth" character doing her best to comfort boys away from home.

At first the transformation was disturbing.  Found myself picking away at the obvious:  In 1944 at the time of the tragedy I was in my early twenties, still "wet behind the ears" and looking forward to having my first drink.  I'd been married just 3 years to Mel -- the assistant recreation direction at San Pablo Park where young servicemen would gather to share time with the locals on weekends.

Given the fact that the USO (United Service Organization) was not yet racially integrated, those of us who were not a part of the great migration to defense plants tried to host those young people in our homes -- just a part of the war effort and as an expression of patriotism.

Saturday afternoons were set aside for lemonade parties in our small living room in Berkeley where our neighbors and friends would join us to extend friendship toward our fighting forces.

It was an innocent activity with punch and cookies, records on the turntable, conversations that consisted of small talk of family and "home", mostly, for those who were homesick with few ways to express it in the macho social climate of a nation at war.

I was yet to become Betty Reid Soskin, a surname that I would acquire many years ahead.  I now know that I have little control over how I'm to be remembered.  If I'd been as defined in this play (a far older woman) I would surely have been long dead by now, yet here I sat watching one of the leads being the "Betty" of years ago.  It wouldn't be until the early Seventies that I would have become Mrs. William F Soskin.

So there I sat in the audience trying to make sense of the transformation I'd gone through in the interpreting of my history.  But there is that thing called poetic license, right?  I had to let reality go and focus purely in the now.

Before the play ended and I'd relaxed into this new reality, I found reasons to celebrate.

Here was a new generation of young artists exploring that dark history, bringing this long forgotten story to life at a time when the nation and the world are experiencing another of those cyclical periods of chaos -- something that I, alone, in that theater, was old enough to fully realize.  Only I, one of the few (probably) still living, who had lived through enough such times before now so that the pattern is recognizable.  The Democracy has survived many such periods, starting in 1776.  These troubled times happen when life has become so tense and confused --  are times when the meaning of Democracy is being re-defined.  Times that give us ordinary people (the We) the opportunity to bring significant and sometimes radical change.  This art form with these players was something to grab onto as we steady ourselves for another round of "... forming that more perfect Union."

Yes, that's me, sitting in front of the woman holding the microphone
I fell asleep hours later bathed in the scent of the dozen beautiful scarlet roses in a vase on the  nightstand beside my bed -- providing the much-needed balm of recovery after viewing the disturbing evening news.  Felt satisfied and  deeply honored -- one more time.   Allowing the fact that today had brought another  of those first time experiences to a woman of 95 years, and I knew just before drifting off that I will return a call from the producer/director, Kathy McCarthy, for a repeat performance reading of the great Eve Ensler's groundbreaking Vagina Monologues, and tell her that I will indeed be there on Sunday afternoon February 26th for the reading with the others at two o'clock for the benefit of Planned Parenthood.

It all goes together, however patchwork and unrelated it may seem ...  .

We will form that more perfect Union, eventually ... come hell or high water!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

There's is a memoir in the works, and I'm beginning to become excited ...

It is being edited from this blog combined with my oral history that has been collected by the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.  The publisher is Hay House out of New York.

Apparently, this collection of brief essays that started out rather aimlessly, has yielded several books over time, and I've now been assigned a fine editor, author J. Douglas Allen-Taylor, who is combing through for at least one such, and then pulling it all together for publication in September of this year.  In looking back, there's a lot of living chronicled here since September of 2003.

It had never occurred to me that there was anything here worth publishing.  The original goal of leaving a record of my life for my kids has always been the dominant theme, and these notes to myself -- mostly written stream-of-consciousness with a glass of milk and a few cookies at my elbow as I sit at my MAC at the end of the day in my pj's and well-worn slipper socks with the right foot big toe threatening exposure any moment -- who knew?

I had no idea that my hands had become tools -- that is -- until a member of my audience sent this photo (taken with his iPhone) about a week ago, and at first I cringed with embarrassment at what looks like a display of outrageous histrionics.  The more I lived with it though, the better I liked the image.  I have no idea at what point in my talk this occurred, but it is not posed, nor is it meaningless.  The point I was making naturally demanded emphasis, I guess, and old ladies have earned the right to be outrageous; if that's what it is.

Given what's happened over past months, weeks, and days, on the national level -- I'm going to need all the ego-strength I can muster.

... as are we all.

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