Saturday, July 07, 2018

I was aware that the reunion planners had included a gathering for Sunday Mass at Corpus Christ ...

... how could we not?

I don't remember being particularly concerned, nor aware of any long-held trauma around the issue.  Those feelings had faded over time, and by 2018 it would be simply one item on the itinerary of a memorable weekend, and nothing more.

David and his two daughters, Alyana and Tamaya, and I, walked up the aisle to be seated by the usher in the third row from the altar.  I did notice that the pews were not as I'd remembered them (it's been a long time since I was last in this hallowed space as a teenager).  There had been no middle aisle, but a large middle section with aisles on either side, and side sections where people of colored were seated.  But, of course, over time those pews surely had been replaced, and the sanctuary reconfigured.

I sat, grateful to be in the home of my family, in the church of our ancestors, and surrounded by all that colorful Charbonnet history ... .

No matter how far life had taken us all, the Tremé was and would always be home.

While musing, I was startled by a tap on my right shoulder and looked around to see Wendy, a cousin I'd only become aware of over the past few days, but suddenly here she was, whispering in my ear, "You're to participate in the Offertory, Betty.

So much had changed since I was that teenager, and I'd left Catholicism so long ago that I  had no idea what the "Offertory," was.  Obviously, it had to be a part of the worship service, and was probably connected to the passing of the collection baskets in some ceremonial way.  So much had changed since I was that naive child -- applause at the end of the priest's sermon would have been unheard of.  The mass would certainly have been delivered in Latin, and with a far more mysterious affect.  Missing was the wafting from the gleaming brass canister with the attached chain -- the incense which gave the entire service an unworldly and exotic feeling.  There would have been much more kneeling as I remembered, and the priest would be offering the mass to the Lord Jesus, and -- with his back to the congregation -- simply letting us observe that process.  Always making our case before God, speaking in our names as an intercessor. This mass was unfamiliar and a great deal less formal.

(click to enlarge)
The image of my father suddenly rose to consciousness -- as one of the men who passed those long-handled baskets during the mass, and that it was he who -- as the president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society (men's group) at St. Benedict's in Oakland -- who was in charge of counting and reporting the amount of the collection to the priest at the end of the worship service.

Of course, there was no time to explain that I was no longer a Catholic, and why, so there was nothing to do but wait until summoned at that point in the ceremony.  Awkward.  But those facts paled in the face of the fact of "family," and of that honored role to fulfill.  This was all that mattered, so all else dropped away as I waited to be "called to service."

It was only a few moments before I was led from the pew near the front of the church, through the side aisle sections, to meet the few stalwarts who would form the small but important procession.

Behind a white robed altar person carrying a tall metal pole upon which was impaled --  the image of Jesus Christ on the Cross, and side-by-side with another elder, cousin Phyllis, carrying a flacon that held the wine to be used in the communion service, and I carrying "The Host," an ornamental small round box filled with communion wafers; the "body and blood" of Christ.  And suddenly, the sanctuary was filled with the heavenly music of the choir and there we were, there I was, marching up the center aisle toward the priest who stood waiting at the Altar.  I am bearing the most precious element of all.

And all in, Corpus Christi, my grandfather's church!

Not even the outrageous awfulness emanating from Washington could cut through the magic of that moment.  The centuries-old injustices and inequalities, the harsh realities that had destroyed my belief system completely since that fifteen year-old girl child had last visited that hallowed space.  Nothing could have diminished this moment in this year 2018.

The film that is being made about my life; the two filmmakers who'd come along to capture these moments of my most improbable life -- had no idea of the depths of this experience.  How on earth would they know what it meant?  Who on earth would believe this if written in a script?  I silently vowed to gain the footage and include it here, in this record of my remarkable life that seems almost too theatrical to ever be believed.

Was it enough to bring down the Gods from Heaven to reclaim this errant child?  No.  No blinding insight.  No contemporary version of the burning bush, thank you.  But there was a kind of peace that descended.  I knew instinctively that this may have been the greatest "book end" moment I would ever live, and that it was almost poetic in its simplicity.

Would I not absolutely LOVE to have been able to share that moment with Dorson Louis Charbonnet, my father, and his, Louis Charbonnet?

But maybe among those inexplicable moments that are beyond explanation and defy logic, they knew and had guided me toward my completion -- in this my final decade.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Book ends to a long and amazing life ... 

Long ago, when I was a curious and less than adventuresome adolescent, I was sent to Louisiana to  participate in the annual ritual of celebrating my maternal great-grandmother's birthday.  Since our fathers and uncles were largely employed as red caps and/or Pullman porters at that time, we enjoyed and took advantage of the Southern Pacific railroad company's family passes program -- few of us could have afforded those trips home otherwise.  It was my turn that year, to represent the West Coast branch of the family.

My parents prepared me for that visit to New Orleans with an itinerary that would include attending Sunday services at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, the Charbonnet family's great source of pride since my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet, had designed and built that great edifice as one of the last projects before he passed on in 1924.  He also built the high school that stood adjacent to the church.

Corpus Christi High School
I was reminded of his eminence in the Treme.  That his casket was held at the altar for two days before burial to allow the community to pay its respect for the prominence he'd brought through his many great works over many years as a leader of influence and service to all.

On the long train trip from the West Coast, I'd dreamed of seeing that structure, and made my way there on the first Sunday after arrival in that historic city.

Imagine the shock when -- after dipping my hand in the font of holy water and making the sign of the cross as folks were gathering for mass -- then entering through the heavy double doors to find the usher guiding  me to the side aisle where people of color were seated.  The middle section was reserved for whites, only!  This, in my grandfather's church!

What kind of God would allow this?  For a youngster who'd grown up as a second generation Californian, there was no way to process this outrage.  This was the birth of cynicism for me, and probably caused the disenchantment with religious orthodoxy in general, and with Catholicism, specifically, from that day forward.  With the innocence of youth, and the same kind of non-compromising attitude that probably characterizes my entire life, I could not accept what my parents had not seen as important enough to prepare me for -- prior to the experience.  There had been no warning.  Racial segregation was simply the reality, the "normal", that their generation had lived through and survived.  They did not question.  I could not accept.

Oddly enough, I can't recall ever mentioning how that encounter with the system of segregation had effected me.  Not then, not ever.  Perhaps that's a part of the problem, and the why it is that we've never quite conquered it.

When such practices become normalized, they become embedded in the culture, and are no longer questioned.  Maybe there's a lesson in there somewhere for what's occurring in this nation of today, maybe.  A caution to be ignored at our peril?

That would have been around 1936.

That was then.

Now scroll forward to June 24, 2018, and though I'd not ever visited Corpus Christi again despite the fact that I've been home to New Orleans several times since then.  Over the years the memory had grown to symbolize something abhorrent, and completely unacceptable.   This time I was there as a minor character, though the matriarch of my huge family -- participating in our first ever Family Reunion (245 attended from across the country).

... and what an experience it was!

Read on ... .

Monday, June 18, 2018

You would not believe ... .

... the emotional garbage that has been dredged up by the tragic situation at our southern borders.

It's all meshed together with the words that come at nearly the end of my Visitor Center talks -- those that refer to the fact that "... I don't believe that we've ever -- as a nation -- yet processed the Civil War."  It's where the talk winds down, just before closing:

"Though surely not created for the purpose, the National Park Service has evolved into a resource that enables the citizens of this country to re-visit almost any era in our history; the heroic places, the contemplative places, the scenic wonders, the shameful places -- and the painful places.  Revisit them in order to own that history; to process it, in order to make it possible for us to begin to forgive ourselves so that we may move into a more compassionate future, together."

I then add that I don't believe that we have ever -- as a nation -- processed the Civil War.

Tonight as I watched the CNN panels go over repeatedly the horror stories of those children crying uncontrollably for their missing parents -- from giant wire cages.  The pundits indignantly bewailing at the outrageousness of this atrocity.  The woman who heads the National Pediatric Association counting off the physical and emotional damages being inflicted upon these thousands of innocent children ... .

Suddenly the familiar words, "... but this is not who we ARE!" rang hollow.  Of course it's who we are! We've been here before.  This evil forced separation of parents and children was a practice for almost 300 years as children of color were sold on the block; families cruelly torn apart, and in many cases those children were being sold by their (slave master) fathers!  That horrendous history dooms us to relive it decade after painful decade because it's buried deep in our DNA and will be until it is faced and reconciled.

What were those "lifelong permanent damages" the good pediatrician was listing?  Emotional instability; depression, irreparable personality disorders, paranoia,  learning disabilities, etc., to name a few.''

What about those who suffered such emotional and psychological scars for several generations -- and in a nation of profound denial?  Is that not what we're seeing even into the 21st Century -- in our inner cities and still-needful rural areas?

Why was it so disturbing to me -- when the panel was likening the shame of the treatment of these innocent children to that suffered by the incarcerated Japanese and Japanese-Americans during WWII, the awfulness of this nation's blunder -- the lapse into the depths of immorality -- and this was not preceded by references to the Era of Enslavement?

Not to mention the period in our history when Native America children were removed from their reservation family homes and placed in special schools so that they could be "de-Indianized" -- stripped of their native languages and culture.  This is not new, only lost to memory and to denial of convenience.

Are we doomed to re-live that history until we face it squarely and prove strong enough to process that awfulness?

When will we stop uttering those vacuous and self-deluding words, "... this is just not who we ARE", so that the upsurge of the toxic element that continues to poison our culture won't continue to find resonance in a population that allows white supremacy to remain a force in our country?  So that now it has reached into our institutions and agencies, and threatens to become systemically beyond control?

Until we process our true history, we will continue to repeat the awfulness.

... and the tragedy that -- through my great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, and those who shared her fate when our women were classified as field slaves, house slaves, and breeders,  I am a descendant of all of it!  My ancestors were among both the sinners and the sinned-against.  White and Black.  

Yet -- I, too, am America!

In these final years, I'm empowered by that history.

But I look at it all squarely in truth and remain hopeful despite all, but at a time like this, just barely.


Sunday, June 03, 2018

Memories ...

Deepened by those of my dear friend, "sister," with whom I shared life at one of the most painful yet regenerative periods in my life.

Jewell Ford was a much-loved member of my church, the Mt. Diablo Unitarian-Universalist Church of the Diablo Valley.  We were both early members, long before we became the established church of today; at a time when we were just a group of young families meeting on Sundays in borrowed spaces -- on a common search for meaning at a time when the nation was in a stage of upheaval (the mid-Fifties and late Sixties), desperately needing to find at least temporary answers to pass along to our children until they could fashion their own ... .

We were on opposite sides of the racial barrier yet -- even then -- finding one another in a friendship that has sustained us throughout the rest of our lives.

After a long and productive life with Don, her late husband, Jewell died just a few months ago, and we're still between her death and the Celebration of Life that memorials have evolved into, and properly so.  That is scheduled for August, and I'll move mountains to get there if need be.

Son, Bob, was in Santa Rosa appearing in a concert with his partner, Judi, over the weekend and came home moments ago -- pressing into my hand age-yellowed papers -- news clippings culled from Jewell's collection ("Mamma kept everything") and among them was this one.  Her daughter Marcia sent them along with other relevant clippings that immediately nudged me gently back into those tumultuous shared years ... .

I remember the dress, and the pearls, but the event where I was singing has faded from memory ... but the memory of the love and warmth of Jewell will remain with me until time runs out, and there's only the hereafter -- wherever and whatever that may be.

And no, we never did find those answers, but I'm certain that we "don't know" at a far higher level than before.

So young ... .

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

This NatureBridge annual fundraiser brought us together ... .

These two young people are this  year's honorees at this  year's Gala in San Francisco.  They are 16 year-old Marisa, and an amazing 17 year-old Aztec/American activist, Xiuhtezcatl.  These two helped to inspire the raising of $600,000 for the NatureBridge scholarship fund for this year.

The opportunity to interact with such young people, and to (perhaps) influence their activism forward is something I've come to value as a privilege beyond all expectations in these final years.

The close relationship between the National Park Service and this extraordinary service organization has added to the growing diversity present in my work and life that now extends far beyond the borders of the NPS, and into a far greater depth of involvement in those Movements that may yet save us all.

Saving Planet Earth is basic to all else.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Commonwealth Club interview
Since September of 2003, there has never been such a long time between blog posts ...

but neither has there been a more event-filled period in my long life -- or a time when so much was happening that defied description ... .

Since I last posted, my book, Sign my name to freedom, was launched (February 6th) and the "phantasmagorical" began to happen!

Why on earth would anyone believe that -- since then, I've done many book signings (Pegasus, East Bay Book Festival, the Commonwealth Club in SF; Pixar (or have I told you about that one?), a trip to do the World Muse conference in Bend, Oregon, plus a return trip for a book signing);  a trip to Washington to receive the Robin Weeks Award from the National Parks Conservation Association; plus a side trip to NY to appear on The Moth (NPR) at the prestigious Lincoln Center as a storyteller; another to present before the Women of Nike in Portland; and this week's flight to appear as a cast member of 5 story tellers for The Moth in Seattle.  Add to that a book signing for the Berkeley Historical Society followed by another for the Martinez Historical Society next Sunday.

This is only a sampling of what life has been like over past weeks, only hitting the highlights, but it should give you an idea of the pace at which I'm now living.

I will try to look back over time and post photos, but I've simply lost track of most so will need to do some research before doing that.
Singing at Geoffrey's

One of the most exciting events is something that I've not mentioned before but that stands out as one of the most satisfying experiences the days have offered:

I've spent the past 3 weeks attending the practice sessions of a children's jazz band at the Community Music Center in San Francisco where Marcus Shelby, noted composer/arranger/conductor teaches.  Their ages are from 7 to about 16, the 7 year-old being a sweetest little violinist you'll ever meet!

There was an early evening concert ending their school year held last Tuesday -- hours before my flight to Seattle.  The audience was made up of parents and interested others, plus an augmented film crew to cover this segment for the movie.

Geoffreys Inner Circle book signing in Oakland
I'd so looked forward to this particular event since it allowed me to introduce a new generation to old issues, the generation in which those illusive answers might well be found.  That my music should be introduced in this way seemed fitting and right.  It is these children who may guide us forward into a more compassionate future.  If those kids in Parkland, Florida, are any indication, our democracy may finally be ready to face up to its potential as a world leader toward those long deferred promises.

They were being filmed as a part of the documentary now in production by filmmaker Bryan Gibel.  You cannot imagine how amazing it is to have those children playing 3 of my original songs from forty years ago.  They've been arranged by Shelby who has given them new life in an age where the issues they raise remain unresolved.  Jamie Zimmerman, 19 year-old jazz vocalist, breathed new life into the lyrics, and I was able to hear them differently, and -- because of the passage of time -- in the third
person without judging.  Those songs are brilliant!  It was as if I'm hearing them for the very first time.  It's the first time I've heard my music interpreted by other voices (the first was by Judi Jaeger, my Bob's partner, at the first book signing), and find myself wondering why I'd allowed them to become lost?

The songs will provide the sound track for Bryan's documentary, and will be released in album form when the film is released.

How much life can be crowded into this final decade?

We'll soon know, I suppose.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The San Francisco Main Library event was grand ...!

Shawna Sherman, Librarian responsible for the African American Division, was a fine interviewer who'd done her homework and asked questions that were probing and meaningful, and that gave me ways into the evening with confidence.

I'm gradually getting into  this book-signing thing, and feeling a bit more comfortable now that my "author" hat is becoming less an awkward fit, and more believable as the next step in this remarkable life of Betty.  Maybe there really is another place to stand as life continues into this final decade of unexpected successes and public attention.

Dorian -- months before we knew ...
Do you suppose ranger-ing is not the final chapter to be lived?  Do you suppose there may be time for Life with Dorian?  That's the book that might have been most helpful to me in facing her future and mine lo those many confusing years ago.  Maybe those things learned along the way, sometimes painfully, might help some young mother of a challenging child to get through the early (and later) years.  There's still a lot of murkiness that needs clarification in the world of the developmentally disabled -- and since Dorrie and I have now arrived at a place where we can now claim relative success, perhaps there is a legacy embedded here that can be left as a guidance for others coping their way through life.  Do you suppose there may still be time for yet another book?  Wouldn't that be something?  Too ambitious?  Maybe, but just as it was with this first book, it has not only all been lived, but also written.  Just needs editing, perhaps. We'll see.

But for now, I'm thinking of devoting some time to doing an audio book for Sign my name, and that must be sandwiched in between book signings and readings near and far, but if we don't plan for that soon, it will be lost.  With folks spending more and more time trapped in commuter traffic, or trying to remain relevant through books when (at least among those sharing these final years with me) are having vision deficits to deal with, so to have one to slip into a form for listening may be critical.  I'm dependent upon listening now, and enjoy those read by the author far more than others.

One might have thought that these years might offer fewer alternatives for how one spends time, but that doesn't seem to be true, at least not yet.  It is becoming clear that -- whenever the end comes -- it will be in the middle of my movie!