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Saturday, March 27, 2004

I feel somewhat shaken ...

Heard my cell phone ringing somewhere in the distance -- buried in my purse way off in the livingroom -- but couldn't reach it in time. The little screen flashed the "unanswered" message but when I tried to reach the voice mail feature, it was busy. Finally I reached the unfamiliar number after going through the process and there was a woman's voice -- sobbing wildly! She could hardly get the words out, but it was clear that she was responding to an email she'd received that announced my death! Of course it was a tragic mistake.

My friend Jane (whom I rarely see these days), is a marvelous satiric writer. She's also an avid peacenik and activist who lives her truths with fervor. About a year ago she actually went to Washington, D.C., to the White House to place an eviction notice on the fence! Her stream of clever and profound writings have been worthy of publication, and I often forwarded them to others who shared her passions. One of those was Betty Smoot, a virtual friend from Seniornet with whom I'd corresponded through emails for years. We'd never met. She's spent her final years in a nursing home in Ohio, I believe, and continued her political advocacy to the end. She was a natural for Jane's newletters.

This morning I along with others received notice of Betty's passing from her daughters. Jane must have been on Betty's mailing list. Obvious mistake.

Jane's hysteria was there in my voice mail, but it was I who was shaken! She spilled out her fears and regret in a lengthy message --regret at not having spent nearly enough time together of late, etc., it was totally unexpected, and no little upsetting. It was also reassuring of her caring and of my not being alone -- ever. What a wondrous thing... .

This was not the first such incident in my life. It comes of being a "Betty." I suspect that there are few bearing that name who are under 60, but in the older age range, we're plentiful! In the earlier case -- it actually was another Betty Reid (a relative of my first husband's).

It was an early evening performance of the band of Johnny Otis, rhythm & blues artist of my youth. He'd grown up with my Mel in South Berkeley where (Greek) Johnny Velliotis' father ran the corner grocery store. Johnny spent his youth in a small group of otherwise black kids who played sports together at San Pablo Park, or, for those who were into music (Bernard Peters, Jerome Richardson, Vernon Alley, Curtis Lowe, etc.) jammed on many a Saturday afternoon in garages around the neighborhood. Johnny (name now changed to "Otis") wanted more than anything else to be one of the "brothas," Black!

Like Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Vanilla Ice, among today's rappers, Johnny took on the language, dress, attitude, etc., of the guys he ran with and does to this day. Eventually, he formed his own R&B band and toured nationally. He married a Berkeley girl, beautiful Phyllis (African American) to whom he is still wed. For a time he was a "Reverend" in a Black church he founded in East Los Angeles. The Otis's have since moved to Santa Rosa, I believe, where Johnny -- now a deejay -- still hosts a Saturday afternoon radio R&B show for Pacifica Radio.

A few years ago -- and long since Mel's death -- I learned that Johnny was appearing with his band at an Emeryville jazz club. My son, David, and his lady invited me to attend the opening with them. It had been years since I'd seen Johnny -- couldn't recall how long it had been. He'd been Mel's friend, and I only knew him slightly. Nonetheless, it would be fun to hear him again. "Hand Jive" was one of his big numbers, and Little Esther, blues singer one of his discoveries.

We sat at a table some distance from the stage, with dancers scattered in between. At intermission, I walked to the stage and motioned to him -- to simply say "hello" -- not really sure that he'd remember me -- and he blanched! He could hardly speak. I noticed that he was tense but attributed it to his struggling to recall just who in the world I was. After all, we'd aged considerably. After a few awkward moments, he backed away and disappeared into the green room.

Some time later, he came over to our table and apologized for his behavior. "I was stunned, Betty. You may not know it, but a few months ago I learned of your death. I did a long eulogy on the air (KPFA) in honor of you and the work you've done over all these years. Almost fell off the stage when here you were -- standing in front of me -- right here -- resurrected!!!

I remembered then that Betty Reid, wife of Mel's uncle, Bob Reid, had died of breast cancer after a long illness. I'd lost track of that branch of the family after Mel and I parted -- so her passing was relatively remote for me. Hadn't occurred to me that anyone would confuse us. Obviously Johnny had.

Thought of him today, and of how hard that shock must have been for him. I received a lovely letter from him a week or so later. "After seeing you, I wanted to give you your flowers now." (Or words to that effect.) Ran across that note only a few days ago while trying to organize my thoughts for an attempt at more writings of the past. Funny how these things run together ... like an omen.

How I wish I'd written my friend, Betty Smoot, more often while she was still here to read words of support. But I'm sure that's the way it will always be.

What I CAN do is pick up the phone and reassure Jane that all is well and that I love her, too!

Ressurrected, yet another time!

Thursday, March 25, 2004


Have been doing a lot of thinking ...

about a critical of period of great change that drew me out of the suburbs and back into the city in the early Seventies. Trying to deal with that before taking on the writing of history of my participation in the Black Revolution poses some problems -- is not easy to do. It's a matter of organizing my thoughts a bit more, I suppose. Those were such important eras in both my own life and the lives of the entire country. We, together, underwent such earth-shaking social, cultural, and political change... .

To do it justice, I'm trying to plow through files and notebooks, carbon copies of letters written and received from others, pouring over old photographs, newsletters and announcements. Each invites remembrances that both pain and elate. One thing is certain, my life was "well-peopled," as it continues to be. Over all the years there have been Avatars (guides) and close companions who've softened the hard places and enriched even the most rewarding experiences for savoring later (in these years).

Having Dorian return to live with me means that I'm having to make space and discard a lot of items that had been difficult to part with before now. That means that I must examine the contents of all those boxes that I've carefully hauled from place-to-place in my last moves -- something I've purposely neglected to do because I feared looking back... now I must do just that. There are just so many under-the-bed and top-of-the-closet storage devices available, and the square footage of this small condo can accommodate just so much memorabilia, and Dorrie comes with her own brand of "must saves."

Just ran across a newspaper article that might serve as a place to begin. Maybe I can start with that and work my way back through what brought me to that point, just a thought. There are other clippings of my years as a small merchant in our family business in Berkeley. Those years seem so far in the distant past now. Those were the years of becoming?

Perhaps one of the sure signs of aging is that we begin to think of ourselves as fully formed, with not much time left in which to continue the shaping of a life. Though I must say that I've not yet lost the sense that I experience a pattern of major change with each succeeding decade, a kind of reincarnation without leaving the world. I'm still more aware of beginnings than I am of endings, and wake each morning with all senses open to any signs of newness in the air. Perhaps that's the last thing to go ... maybe.

Photo: Lost in thought at a meeting at the home of Archdeacon John Weaver of the Northern California Episcopal Diocese in San Mateo, California. These were the early "Bill Soskin" years when we were deeply involved in the Vallombrosa Conference that served as a think tank for the Diocese under Bishop J. Kilmer "Kim" Myer.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Met yesterday with the campaign consultant who ...

(we're hoping) will run my young candidate's campaign for the city council. The meeting was at her invitation, and since she is one of the top campaign organizers in the state, this is really significant and suggests that the "buzz" out there in the political world is causing excitement, enough to attract her attention.

First met Catherine Lew, Esq. when we were both working in the Jessye Jackson campaign for the presidency, his first run. She was campaign boss and I was serving as Northern California co-chair with former Berkeley mayor, Gus Newport. She has since gone on to handle candidates all over the state, including two successful runs of my former boss, Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, Mayor Irma Anderson of Richmond, several city council members here in this city, plus a host of other city and state campaigns for both office holders and initiatives. Her firm is presently working on about 50 campaigns throughout the state. She has an enviable record of successes. We'll wait for the two of them to assess their prospects and then decide if this is a match. I know that he was impressed, and now we'll wait to see if she felt the same.

Having mentored my young friend for about three years, give or take a few months, it is rewarding to see others beginning to see what I sensed about him many months ago. His integrity shines out of his eyes. He is one of those young people who is seen by his own community as a natural leader. He is not the product of a political machine. His community support is broad and deep. Without any significant outreach, his campaign coffers already boasts over $7000 in contributions, and we've not yet held fundraisers.

You might like to check out his web site -- put the name Eddrick Osborne into your browser and take a look.

I so enjoy our one-on-ones and frequent luncheon conferences. He is a bright, eager, and willing student, and I need to pass along a lifetime of political experience to someone -- the perfect "marriage." It's a rare privilege to be able to mentor one who will follow, the only real immortality there is, I believe. The chance to influence the next generation through the passing along of whatever wisdom was gleaned from my own life experience is a gift to be treasured. (Such thoughts come more often these days.)

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Recalled a pearl of wisdom this morning ...

The familiarity of the words woke me with a start.

It was during a session of the Board of Trustees meeting of Starr King School for the Ministry - a seminary member of the consortium known as The Graduate Theological Union on the northern boundary of the University of California, Berkeley. GTU is made up of ten or so theological schools of as many denominations (Buddhist, United Methodist, Unitarian-Universalist, Episcopalian, Baptist, Jesuit and Franciscans, The Pacific School of Religion, etc.). Served two three-year terms on the board that was selected from a national pool of UUs. We met several times each year in marathon 3-4 day sessions that brought together some of the most exciting thinkers I've known. It also provided some of the richest intellectual experiences of my life. We were both clergy and lay participants, with differing religious beliefs and political persuasions all within the context of UU-ism. When compared with the general population, I would have to say that within that context, we are universally considered liberal.

Not sure what the context was ... I believe that I was trying to explain just what it was that I'd learned of value during those years as a merchant in the Black (mostly) low-income community of Berkeley. My response to a question was, "...I learned that if I was going to change the world in which I found myself, I would have to BE what I wanted to see." At the time it seemed a tiny truth. It obviously wasn't.

One day recently, at the suggestion of a friend, I entered my name into my search engine (this had never occurred to me) and -- aside from links to my blog and some other sites -- was one to a major speech presented at a general assembly of the denomination. It was delivered by Starr King School president, Dr. Rebecca Parker. She'd quoted my simple words in the body of her keynote speech. In addition there were several sermons from ministers in pulpits from other parts of the country, people who were total strangers. I was stunned! That I may have guilessly said something of religious significance was awing to me, and stunning because it was so simple -- that "simplicity that lies beyond complexity."

I closed my eyes and could visualize the fireside room where the group gathered, hear the sounds of movement along LeConte Avenue; childrens' voices from a daycare center nearby, and feel again the rightness of those words. They'd spilled out of a very young and unpolished Betty (another of those who lives behind my eyes still), one not yet old enough to question the truth of them, nor self-conscious enough to censor their elegance, and trusting enough to accept the fact that those sophisticated thinkers would understand what they meant. That's what woke me this morning. One of those rare moments of truth. This has has been a driving force in my life, a personal philosophy, these few words define it well.

I suspect that the reason for the guilt feelings yesterday about not participating in the demonstrations is related. I think that it matters little just how many others are acting in ways that support my beliefs, the fact of my not "being what I want to see" weakens ever so slightly my own effectiveness in the world, and leaves me feeling diminished. This, I cannot delegate. And -- only I will know when I've failed to live up to my own guiding principles... .

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