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Saturday, May 28, 2005

It's all in the language of change ...

Over recent weeks I've been struggling -- not only with substantive issues like thoughts of giving up my condo in favor of a small studio apartment when Dorian leaves; and just what in the world will I do with all these books that I have no time to read and can't bear to part with? That will work its way out in time, I suppose. What I can't seem to come to terms with, however, is just how long it's taking for me to begin to think of myself as retired rather than simply unemployed? That's a sea change (and what in the world does 'sea' mean, anyway") and one that is purely attitudinal but oh so important. The day I manage to overcome that one I think that life will be far simpler.

Retirement seems more optional. One choice among many. Unemployment is a horse of another color altogether, and carries such negative baggage -- like being idle because you're not wanted anywhere, or, that your skills and talents are no longer seen as necessary to anyone for anything. Now, that's death! Being without meaningful work leaves so much of me unused -- left over. I can't seem to lose my need to be gainfully employed.

Will plan to work on that in the days to come. Retiring in order to write a book seems so much more fulfilling. Less involuntary. Especially if the book is one that no one else can write anyway. That's a calling, isn't it? That says that you're a central character in your own scenario, doesn't it? Maybe if I work on that -- I can make it through the next few years intact.

There's too much of me still vital and whole. I cannot imagine how others deal with moving off stage center while still in good health and spirits. I suspect that the secret may be in retiring early (if and when one can afford to) and looking at these as years for fulfilling deferred dreams. I suppose that's the intention. I just got started too late on my career path and stayed past all the exit signs. Besides, I don't seem to have had any deferred dreams -- all of mine have been aspirations ever unfolding into a continuing sense of future. It appears that I've lived them all and more. The pace has been breathless. I cannot imagine having been given more or that any more living (both good and bad) could have been squeezed into the years.

I just don't know ... but there are moments these days -- when I feel panic. It's subtle, but surely adding to that sense of urgency that comes with aging.

Time has never been more important; maybe to us all in these frightening days of unspeakable violence and death.

Photo: More mountains yet to climb? I was on a climb among the ancient cave dwellings of the long lost Annastazi in New Mexico -- where I found myself suddenly overcome by tears. Killing grounds? Don't know... . (1998)



Been giving some thought to this writing business ...

as a potentially serious author, that is. The keeping of a journal has its appeal I suppose, but one has to assume that an otherwise disinterested public wants to hear what one has to say. That's a big question. It takes a lot of ego to ascribe to that; maybe more than I have.

I understand and appreciate the appeal of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Terri McMillan, and Zora Neale Hurston. Their writings describe black life and in many cases in the vernacular of the black experience. I suppose that my admiration for their abilities has prevented me from even considering myself capable of consideration; as being worthy of the title "author." My voice may be so atypical with such an atypical story to tell that there will be no audience wanting to know. A hybrid of the times. After all, I'm still working my way out of feeling as though, racially, I'm nothing. But I've finally decided that, in fact, I'm really everything -- and a wonderful thing to be, after all. At least that's the way I see my beautifully blended grandchildren.

My life experiences are in many ways a mirror of countless other African Americans who are members of the middle class brought up to middleclass mores and values. We're often the beneficiaries of a wide variety of cultures by virtue of mescegination, greater access to socio-political life, and are often placed in positions that allow us to affect social change disproportionately -- if we opt to use it in that way. We find ourselves being sought after to validate racial diversity on boards and commissions everywhere -- often for the simple reason that we're seen as "not like those others." Many of us fall prey to ego by believing that we represent more than that. One of the most painful lessons learned in life as a black woman in white suburbia was that the concept of a middle class black exists only in the mind of a middle class black. To most of the rest of the country, a nigger is a nigger is a nigger! An architect designed home, a backyard swimming pool, a wood paneled station wagon, Armani suits and vacations in Hawaii or Palm Beach do not a member of the elite make, despite arguments to the contrary. Acceptance is invariably conditional.

Perhaps my value and marketability as a writer will lie in the fact that mine may be a relatively unheard voice. Maybe it's one of the voices of the future; a forerunner of a nation forced to write new rules of conduct to cover a country going "beige" with new guidelines created to maintain white superiority in a nation where skin color or lack thereof is fast losing power to control governance; a revolutionary thought, and one that is already bending the rules of the game. There is hope in the knowledge that many ordinary Americans are now beginning to see the fallacy in white supremacy and that its protection cannot be maintained without sacrificing democrary itself.

There are millions of us out there growing up in a world forever effected by the revolutionary social changes of the past 50 years. They've already changed the world for the better, though if you don't know where to look, you won't know that.

One of the exciting signs for me is that when I'm sitting with other elders in organizations like BCA (Berkeley Citizens Actions) or the NIOT (Not In Our Town), I see good folks still working hard to bring about racial equality for all the right reasons. But it's still a goal to be attained at great risk and personal sacrifice. If I cross town to sit in a Poetry Jam at Black Dot or the Alice Art Center, or the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, young people of every color, racial or ethnic group, gender orientation, economic class, and educational background can be seen with their eyebrow rings, skull caps and baggy pants -- sharing their poetry in a world where those differences have been relegated to a back seat and equality is simply assumed. They're not really working at it anymore. It's called the Hip Hop world, and that world has already arrived. It's standing on spindly wobbly legs like a newborn colt, but it's here. The Internet is giving it strength. The arts are giving it form. And in many ways, I can recognize it because at the Nu Upper Room in Oakland, California, I along with others acted as midwives to its birth. We weren't alone. In many corners of the country it's been coming alive simultaneously -- struggling to be heard above the din of a war that wants to crush them out to still their voices.

It's a matter of stepping ahead with them into a future that they're busily creating. The young know. And, just as that remarkable group of socially venturesome intellectuals and spiritual gurus in the late Seventies and early Eighties arrived in the Greater Bay Area in large enough numbers to establish the Human Potential Movement in the wake of the Free Speech Movement and Freedom Summer of the explosive Sixties, there is now a critical mass of youth doing the same for racial equality, environmental, and criminal justice. It's the magic of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Through its magic the Bay Area has been transformed for the better and been radiating out into the country and the world ever since.

Maybe I'll be worth reading because mine is a voice of hope. I've seen the future in the faces of the young and my only wish is that I could hang around and live it with you.
Maybe -- as a translator of the language of social change over a great expanse of time -- my voice is one of the carriers of history and a reliable predicter of the future.
Maybe because, for whatever reason, I've remained politically and experientially Black despite the seduction of expediency and the quest for personal fortune.
Maybe because I've retained the ability to say and be what I am and what it is with candor and without restraint -- mine is another Black voice to be read and heard alongside the rest.
Maybe because a deviant voice adds breadth and depth to and expands the Black experience .
Maybe this is the time to speak beyond the listeners at my shoulder and in the board rooms before it's too late and time runs out ... and just maybe

this is a gentle way of avenging the cruel enslavement of my ancestors, Celestine "Of no last name," and Leontine Breaux Allen, into whose shoes I've stepped in my time -- by giving them legitimate voices beyond the grave and into the continuum of family and national history.

...and there it is!

My reason to write -- that which only I will have lived and documented because only I have lived their lineage down through all of the drama of all of the generations and into my humble shoes!


But where do I go from here ... ?

Friday, May 27, 2005

Time out in the Marin Headlands ...

The intensity of the past few days of writing demanded a break. I should re-word that -- it's not the writing but the thinking that is so troublesome. The writing comes easily, but with each new fragment upturned there are glimpses into things long forgotten, and when night comes I can feel my jaw muscles begin to relax. Hadn't realized how much energy gets locked up there until they're released ... .

I'd been looking forward to spending all day on Thursday with the board of directors of Ma'at Academy at the Marin Headlands Institute. This is an amazing program designed by its founding director, Sharon Fuller, to bring awareness and educational opportunities to the local minority community around issues of environmental injustice. This issue is of critical importance to Contra Costa County since recent studies show that there are 300 toxic-emitting facilities in the city of Richmond. There are 5 petroleum refineries in Contra Costa County, the most in any area in the nation. Despite the constant redefining of what constitutes a brownfield, this and surrounding cities are awash with them. The statistics on breast cancer, asthma, and autism are stunning. From a speech I wrote two years ago for my former boss, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock of the 14th Assembly District -- the alarming statistic for autism showed a 97% leap in four years and a chilling rise of 634% since 1987 (West County Times, Wednesday 5/14/2003).

Consider that ours is a city with a large population dependent upon public assistance due to joblessness. In order to supplement what foods are available through food stamp programs, a good number of folks still try to grow their own vegetables in small kitchen gardens only to find the ground in which they're grown is highly contaminated by pesticides -- and that serious illnesses came along with nourishment. Much of the bay water is now so contaminated by mercury and other toxins that the fish caught are no longer edible without treatment. The most popular fishing spots sit over what has been long designated as Superfund sites. It's been a major job to get the state to post warnings to that effect; an effort that Ma'at Academy has worked to encourage for years.

The problems of environmental justice are major issues in communities of color. This is true across the country. It will be a growing issue as awareness of the dangers loom larger in years ahead. Ma'at is at the forefront of the struggle to educate the local minority community to the hazards ahead through a variety of approaches, including conducting afterschool programs in the local high schools. It is important work. I'm honored to be a part of it.

It was a good meeting, scheduled to end at four o'clock in the afternoon -- but we were actually on the road back to Richmond by two. It's that "road back to Richmond" that I found so exciting. As we drove up the backside of the headlands -- up the hillside to the cliffs that overhang the ocean side of the Golden Gate bridge there comes into view the most astounding vista that I have ever seen. And that in an area of the world where stunning vistas appear framed by your windshield with such frequency that those of us who've lived here all our lives simply yawn and drive on.

It is only matched by my first view of Mt. Shasta experienced only a short time ago. Maybe it's even better than that, because it brings together the magnificence of nature with the magnificence of human-produced architectural splendor and incomparable beauty! It gives one the best of both in ways that affirm our ability to be a part of creation.

And I knew that somewhere not too far away -- but out of view -- I was about as close to the Farallons as ever I'd been from land -- and that I'd played a part in both the creation of the GGNRA (Golden Gate National Recreational Area) by having served with others on its founding board and that I'd had a role in that remarkable film on the automation of the light on the Farallon Islands that saved it as avian habitat.

I'd just spent the day (for the first time) here where hundreds of school children can be seen with teachers and guides hiking the trails and sitting around in small study groups learning about the environment and biota of this beautiful area. How privileged have I been over time! How wondrous that I've lived long enough to witness the full bloom of those activities entered into so long ago by those of us with little sense of the impact of sitting in those beanbag chairs in Berkeley livingrooms with other dreamers and planners -- drunk with our ability to make real for some future generation the vision of "swords into ploughshares!" We'd just come through Vietnam, after all. It was the drama of our Ann vs. the Department of Interior -- and Ann won the Presidio, the Marin Headlands, and actualized the first urban national park in the nation!

It's possible that there are young people now sitting in trees, around campfires, and working in labs, creating the answers to global warming -- without any idea that their efforts will someday be rewarded in just this way. Each adding their small piece to the whole that will bring an end to the greed of over-consumption, pieces that may slow the melting of the glaciers and the rising of the oceans. Maybe those redwoods will not be lost after all, and some 80 year-olds in the far distant future will know (only in retrospect) that placing their bodies against those chainsaws and hanging banners across freeways really worked.

That's the way it felt when I climbed into bed last night. Those feelings were not stated on the drive home -- it was just that I was filled to overflowing with words that got pressed behind the words that made it out of my mouth! I felt as though I dominated the conversation all the way home by answering every question raised by anyone and holding back on the feelings that were causing my breathing to be shallow and thin and my voice to sound reedy with echoes in my head as I heard the sounds of my far-too-many words fill the van.

I think that Ma'at Academy will be one of those Bay Area wonders that will someday sweep the nation as a replicable model and that those involved will be the elders of tomorrow looking back in wonder.

I won't live long enough to reap the benefits of their work, but at my age I have the ability to see how it all fits together and to try to voice that for those caught up in and discouraged by the hopelessness of the struggles of the moment.

Maybe this describes the progress of civilizations ...

But what explains wars?


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Endless games of Solitaire ...

After yesterday's post I found myself unable to disengage from the past. For more then 3 hours I sat playing Solitaire; absently, tearfully. For just a while there the lapse back into time caused by the sudden reminder of our anniversary totally blocked out the present ... . Strange. May 24th has slipped by unnoticed for many years now, pushed aside by anniversaries being amassed by time and events more worthy of celebration. After all, that marriage ended painfully long ago, and another had replaced it fairly quickly. Yet, here it was; delivered by a fragment of notepaper from some place deep in my subconsciousness -- and freshened into the present as if summoned.

It was that oddness that I'd struggled with during the years diagnosed as a period of "mental illness" -- that feeling of being out of sync with time and place. Was there some knowing place in me that guided my movements over the past weeks into these old papers? I'm tearful and when not, I'm feeling dry sobs that cause quick intakes of breath from time to time, as if I'm forgetting to breathe... .

One thing is becoming clearer with each new revelation. Those strident lyrics must have come near the point where I was still searching hungrily for strength from outside myself. I was still without a sense of having control of my own destiny. Still looking for my man to deliver completion. For all the brave words in this anthem of defiance, I was still a very lost young woman screaming for self-definition. I was forced to do that in the midst of also learning the hard lessons of racism and irrational societal rejection, and all while trying to meet the challenges of motherhood. The convergence of traumatic events was devastating and had to be vented somehow. Had I not found a way to express the pain my personality might have splintered hopelessly. I had to find a way to travel great distances in such a way that my brain-damaged 3 year-old could cling to my skirt and not become lost. The only possible escape was to move ever deeper into myself.

By virtue of hindsight, I'm beginning to see that the mental break may have marked the point where I came to terms with the fact that the source of all power was internal. Where I stopped looking for completion from outside myself. This may have been the place where I grew up, so-to-speak. The imaginative idealist and deeply-knowing little girl of six reappeared (disguised as psychosis) and took over control, eventually. She'd survived into the Sixties -- a childhood lived in a poor but proud black family during the uncertainty of the Great Depression; an adolescence supported by 2 or 3 imaginative and caring school teachers (that's all it takes, really), and those few remnants of her were still there to save me when the persona that I'd so carefully created to cope gave way. She was the one with the magic and the ability to survive, I truly believe, and still is.

It was at the age of 7 that First Communion training took over and all power was relegated to "God!" That is undoubtedly where the quiet acceptance of male dominance emerged and where I dared not ever even think that a lowly little girl could create anything of note. After all, creating was the province of The Almighty! The concept of Divine Intervention worked against my need to claim my own 'edges;' to know what I could or could not control, create, or define. I'd grown painfully into the ability to assume personal responsibility for my own life. I'd grown out of orthodoxy and into I knew not what, but whatever it was, it was mine.

I wonder if it's really this simple? Could be. For all those reasons and more, I shut that little girl down early in life, though she surely remained in the subconscious and learned to sing Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry in secret behind the garage at around age 11, and to read Maxwell Anderson and cry with Maria in Winterset; and to pretend the world of Camelot into being when the real world became too painful. I probably shared all that as sins to Father Kelly in the confessional on some misguided Saturday afternoon before receiving Sunday morning communion. What foolishness! How on earth is a child to know?

And now, here she was -- meditating while ironing his shirts ... .

I know that at some point early in life I put a lid on my own spirituality -- my individuality -- and settled for being an appendage to others. That, fortunately, ended when it was no longer sustainable.

I don't think that I can blame anyone for that.

Except maybe those guys at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, who still believe they hold the keys to the kingdom and the rights to define power (god) in their own image.

Guess you can count me among the uncompromising feminists.

...and how on earth could I have not ended up an atheist?



Tuesday, May 24, 2005

What a find!

Still foraging through these boxes and in the process happened upon two additional verses of the lyric included in the entry of Thursday, May 19th. They include a reference to my young husband, Mel Reid, and some indication of the loneliness that balances off the defiance. It's all there.

the gods (if there be) surely knew in their infinite wisdom
that life's gifts are safer in storms held in branches that bend
trees rooted in earth cradling seedlets of life gone before it
a Woman am I - and the day of my dawning is now!

If I could but know in my soul of these truths I am singing
if he could but show in his living of time that he sees ...
and if we could but grow toward this light that these years might be bringing
this woman could cry - that the day of my dawning is now!

© Betty Reid 6/1961

And today is May 24, 2005. I was married to Mel on this very day in 1942 -- only months after Pearl Harbor and the beginning of more milestones that are undoubtedly stashed here in these papers -- waiting to be rediscovered ... .

It should, but it doesn't strike me as odd that I would have discovered this never-sung, long forgotten psalm on this day. I sit with tears of obscure meaning coursing down my cheeks quietly as I remember him and the innocence of those years, and the hunger for I knew not what ... but that I knew in my heart that he could never fulfill. My suspicion was that no one could because I could neither name it nor recognize its source ... .

Find myself wondering if you've noticed that I was witness to so many of the major social, political, and ceremonial events of my century. I've not really been aware of that until now. It's like knowing the taste, feel, and exact time of the tragic assassinations of the Sixties. All of the affect comes up for me in the act of fingering letters, fragile news clippings, song lyrics, poetry, sketches in margins.

Wish I'd thought to do this long ago ... but I would not be in my years of summation, I think. Maybe introspection takes considerable aging and mellowing before candor kicks in and one can step outside oneself and look back without a sense of involvement except as an observer. Don't think I could have done this before now.

Now back to foraging ... .

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Lost in a reverie of times past ...

Finally took the time to read back into time through these pages. I've been fearful of doing that for fear that I would become self-conscious and the writing would become stilted -- losing spontaneity. This, after all is intended to be stream of consciousness journaling, with no pattern except for whatever the momentum of memory creates. I do see that the words ring with authenticity. Because they're moving freely without needing to honor any prescription, they're providing triggers into the past in ways that bring my own laughter and tears in the writing of them. That's good, I think. Fortunately, I'm a touch typist and the thoughts flow from my fingertips as quickly as they form in my brain.

Decided to try to give some form -- style -- to my "book," in the hope that it might read more smoothly to eyes of strangers who may have expectations that I haven't met. Not sure what to do about that, though.

You'll notice that I've introduced color and type size for emphasis. Nice? Or have I now simply added an element of "cuteness?"

In reading back there is a pattern that didn't show up before in the living of it. I've been defiant all my life, haven't I? Throughout all of the pain and sorrow, the good days and the bad, I've refused ever to yield to mediocrity and/or false promises. I've possessed a remarkable nonsense detector that has sifted everything that entered my brain for what modicum of truth might be there, and tossed everything that didn't "scan" properly. There's been a healthy amount of skepticism that's shielded me from deception, even when I didn't recognize it. And, it truly does appear that I live by my intuition, even when there's little evidence that this was advisable. And, as I grew older, willingness to trust myself above all others has prevailed. Crazy? You're right.

I've been lost in these blue plastic storage boxes now for several days. There is so much there -- notes from experiences that would have disappeared into oblivion had not those scraps been squirreled away in these fading manila folders. Not sure how I can ever organize them into sentences and paragraphs that aren't reductive. Some evoke stories that would make entire chapters in a book, and that defy abridgement.

Since that last post (Thursday?), I've spent many hours wandering around in the past -- remembering events that have become real again, and that are so important in the continuum of this life. I've been hardly sleeping, at least not soundly, waking with new revelations triggered by a scrap of paper with a few sentences jotted carelessly long ago. They flesh out during dreamtime, and become whole again -- with the urgency and potency of the original experience. I pop out of bed, creep to the kitchen to not wake Dorian, and pour myself a tall glass of cold milk ... .

I may need to stop writing for a few days, and just spend time with the photos and writings of old -- not trying to make anything of them until my mind can do the initial editing, leaving me with essences of experiences rather than fullblown replays. I suspect that this is where real authors excel and separate themselves from the novices. They've learned to suggest, to imply, to use words as surgical instruments -- coaxing with a few words pictures of entire experiences.

Maybe I'm already doing that to some extent ... but I don't really know.

...but I'm beginning to seriously consider the possibility that writing professionally may be my next calling ...

Do I hear an amen?


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