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Friday, November 28, 2008

Lovely Thanksgiving day with my nuclear family, (Bob, David, and Dorian) -- neither grandchildren nor friends were with us this year... .

It was a very special day which turned out to be particularly sweet. Maybe it was the background themes of the Bilal family being played out across town in ICU ... for whatever reason, my own deep appreciation for another year of closeness to my 3 living children was keenly felt.

There was a fire in the grate, turkey roasting slowly, yams a-candying in the warming oven, and a keen sense of my mortality -- aware that the fears of death are lessening with each accumulating year -- and a growing sense of the need to prepare for the day when life will end and forever will begin.

We talked at some length about legacy, estate planning, upcoming property tax payments due, and what about long range plans? I can't recall ever having had such conversations without having them accompanied by sorrow, regrets, punctuated by painful silences. This year it was different. Perhaps Thanksgiving is the appropriate time to delve into such matters; a time when the affects are muted -- softened -- when naturally combined with feelings of love and gratitude.

I have been and am being among the most insanely fortunate women on the planet. I'm still reaching for the brass ring ... and more often than not grasping it successfully.

Next weekend will be spent in Mendocino with a man who means much to me, and with whom I can share those things that can only hold meaning between peers. He's the grownup in my life; someone who knows what my words mean because we're traveling through the same thin slice of eternity together. There aren't too many miles left on either of us, but we're chuggin' along quite nicely, thank you.

There are real generational differences. This may be theoretical to the young, but we both know that those differences are critical to our ability to accepting our mortality and savoring the now as all there is, ever was, or will be.

We'll have supper together this evening (sent the leftovers out the door with the kids after dinner in anticipation) and I'll again enjoy the warmth of feeling cherished.

What a wondrous thing is companionship in these years... .



It's over. Rafiq took leave of this world in the dead of night -- sometime after four o'clock ...

Will post information about his memorial service when life has returned to what passes for normal in this extraordinary life of mine -- for friends who will want to know.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How the mind doth raceth ... .

At a time when I should be choppin' and bastin' in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner, instead I'm still lost in time -- back with that unlikely underground arts movement that so excited the active artist submerged not so deeply inside. In other lives I surely must have painted huge canvasses; sculpted magnificent shapes and figures; danced before kings in grand marble palaces ... (maybe sang in heavenly choirs?).

The sheer luck of having Rafiq and his world enter into my (temporary) life as a merchant in Berkeley awakened a part of myself that emerged (this time) in a support role that fit nicely into the current incarnation. (Ye doeth what ye canneth.)

(That kind of talk is surely going to threaten my standing in the Atheist/Agnostic community.)

One of the great benefits of being old and still standing is that one develops this amazing facility for dot-connecting; for knowing how all the stories turned out; and of being able to link together chapters of living that younger folks lack the capacity for. No fault of their own, donchaknow, they just haven't lived long enough yet. Some things require mellowing and just a tad more humility.

For instance, I've grown to the age where I get awards for being able to tie my own shoes while the young struggle for recognition and appreciation. I suspect that someone will want to recognize me for calling attention to this rich history of the Upper Room when my major role was one of seeing to it that there was always toilet tissue in the bathrooms and that all the lights were turned off as we left after an evening of celebration. That's what grownups were for in that enterprise; except for Rafiq and Muhammed Al-Amin who served as Gurus and Chiefs of Inspirations for the young, the old, and the in-betweens who were attracted over time to their imperfect Camelot. The Nu Upper Room was a youth driven impudent and edgy enterprise rare and deserving of nurturing and protection by the rest of us. At that we failed miserably.

Maybe it had to be underground in order to protect it from contamination by the unknowing; a question worth asking. Perhaps an element in its power was in its fragility. Maybe it was meant to flame high and bright then fade into oblivion, having sewn its seeds to be emulated elsewhere in the world. But there is tragedy in the fact that the history has been lost, and those who lived it have been dispersed to the winds with few knowing of its existence, though I suspect many who are still around will come together in remembrance soon.

I've wondered, from time to time, just what might have been the relationship (if any) between the loss of the Nu Upper Room and the emergence of the East Oakland Side Shows? Did some of that creative energy eventually move out onto to the streets in search of expression? Had anyone known, might it have been different? Is the timing all wrong for this to have been in any way connected?

(The musings of an undisciplined mind.)

Probably not.

But then ... .

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

When last I wrote, death was still hovering ... and so he lingers ...

Aisha called a moment ago to say that -- though no longer on life-sustaining medication or breathing apparatus, Rafiq continues to cling to this world -- held to this dimension by his faith and great love of family, I'm certain. She sounded so tired ... her voice wooden with fatigue and concern ... .

It occurred to me yesterday that there could be no greater tribute than if we could somehow hold that reunion he so wished for last year and have it serve as his memorial -- and that we gather together in the old Masonic Temple (still standing and still waiting decisions about restoration or demolition after all these years - the usual fate of such institutions that get caught up in redevelopment projections). I suspect that the venerable old building is being used for storage and covered with dust and cobwebs, but just supposing... ?

Sent off an inquiry to a friend in government, emailed my newspaper columnist cousin with whom I shared some awesome on-site Upper Room experiences long ago, -- closed my eyes and twirled myself around 3 times, clicked the heels of my sturdy government-issued ranger brogues -- (this would take something far more substantial than sequin-covered scarlet pumps -- even if designed by Faragamo or Jimmy Choo himself) and made a fervent silent wish... .

On Friday I'll check into possibilities with the power of positive thinking ablaze and will dare the Fates to not comply!

(Will let you know how I make out with the Fates after I've completed my grandmotherly duties in my Thanksgiving kitchen.)


Photos: These imaginative drawings are the work of young Upper Room visual artist, Naven Norling, long since relocated to New York where I'm sure he's found great success over the intervening years. (click on these thumbnails for details)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Sadness reigns ... My dear friend, Rafiq Bilal, the green-eyed Avatar, is dying.

What wisp of life that remains (if any) will disappear in a few hours, surely ...

Yesterday I received an early morning call while driving to work. ("Sorry, Aisha, I can't answer now but will call back soon.") Upon reaching my desk and returning the call to learn that her father, Rafiq, was now beyond medical help. The dreaded words spilled out, "they're going to remove life supports today, Betty, and if you can be with us ... ". Of course.

I've seen Rafiq twice since our great Upper Room adventure over a decade ago. Once a year or two ago when invited to meet with him and those he'd summoned to talk about a possible Upper Room reunion; and again two weeks ago when I visited him in ICU a few days after the historic presidential election. He was lucid and excited despite the tubes and attachments we had to talk through. One of his friends had discovered my references to him on some early blog entries when she was looking for material for his obituary. She emailed me with the sad news. Fortunately, he rallied after being resuscitated 3 times, and when I visited with him, he was in high spirits. The fact that his family, friends, and I could come together so seamlessly after so much time has elapsed speaks to the intensity of our earlier encounter 10-15 years ago.

Quickly dispatching my morning calendar, I hopped back into my car and headed for Alta Bates Hospital in Oakland to join with family members and friends to encircle his hospital bed in ICU and wait for the end. I stood for a time at the foot of the bed with fingers wrapped round his unmoving right ankle; feeling the warmth that would soon bleed away with the ending of the "extraordinary measures" that were holding him in the room with us. Aisha saw faint signs of responsiveness from time to time - indicating that he was aware of our presence.

All of the trappings of the end-times were present; gauges and meters measuring life, respirator regularly keeping its fatal cadence; I recalled similar scenes from earlier times and tried oh so hard to push them away in order to give myself fully to this moment -- this transition into ... .

His is a devout Muslim family with women properly though hastily draping head scarves in accordance with religious protocols. I was out of sync with their reality in my uniform and distinctive NPS hat. It felt strange, but I took heart in the fact that my head, too, was properly covered as the Imam prayed in a language I couldn't identify. There had been no time to change out of uniform though I felt certain that no one took offense. Another example of NPS "in the community." It's also an African American family so there was the low and lovely voice of a young woman singing and humming, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," and "Oh Freedom!" almost inaudibly. The amalgam of cultures was fitting, beautiful, and magnificently "American".

I recalled that bulging manila packet in my files holding remnants of the Nu Upper Room artifacts collected hastily as Jennifer and I were closing the old historic meeting place down for the last time before the old building (recently so festive) again went dormant until the scheduled demolition would take place in preparation for the construction of the long-anticipated transit village.

It all seemed so very long ago -- the Nineties. Remembered how long I've waited for the right place to act as a repository for the collection of colorful and descriptive flyers, posters, articles, Rafiq's manuscripts that so well described his life, his hopes, and his vision for the future.

(Where would the world be without its dreamers?)

I tried to remember why I'd always attributed genuis to this dear friend -- after all what on earth had he personally accomplished during a wildly varied and occasionally troubled life journey?

Among my souvenirs is a manuscript of an autobiography he'd sent to me to critique -- but which I'd chosen to simply enjoy. Then it struck me. What he meant to us all was not so much what he'd done, but what a generation of young people had accomplished because of his unwavering belief in them.

This was the precious gift of

Rafiq Abdul-Malik El-Bilal - 1942-2008

We were all the better for having had him enter our lives and for the sharing of those unforgettable years of creativity, passion for justice and fairness, and communal love.

One day his legacy will find its way into the cultural archives and the world will learn of his positive influences on a generation that is currently infusing the art world with the magic we nurtured together at the Nu Upper Room at the corner of 34th Avenue and International Boulevard in Oakland, California. Rafiq's was the very soul of Hip Hop at its finest.


Sleep well, friend ... .

Note: For more information about The Nu Upper Room, insert title in the search bar at the upper left corner above the archives, and the link will take you to more flyers, art work, and information about this fascinating experiment in arts and culture in the early days of Hip Hop.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Holiday season started yesterday with the artist's reception at N.I.A.D. (National Institute for Artists with Disabilities) ... .

followed by a trip to the Richmond Museum of History that was featuring a new exhibit of the city's WWII years with many items I'd not seen before, and with especial emphasis on the home front stories. It's a fine show.

When I arrived at the museum and walked past the refreshment table I could hear my own voice being amplified above the conversations of the guests. Couldn't quite make out what I was saying, but the voice drew me deeper into the gallery to find my image; a huge projection against the wall of the darkened room. Directly across and facing mine was an equally large image of my young interviewer, Rodrigo. We were in earnest conversation across the space now opened up to public view. It was magical!

The gallery was empty except for a row of about a dozen chairs lined up against two opposing walls for those who wanted to experience "The Richmond Voting Project," designed by artist Sanjit Sethi for the Richmond Art Center's Public Arts program. This was the multimedia exhibit that I'd participated in with Rodrigo a few weeks ago. Ours was one of four conversations between teens and elders presented in the work. On the north/south walls were projections of our "talking heads" in a most interesting multimedia art piece.

Since the invitation to participate had come early on that Friday morning with no preparation for the late afternoon taping -- I couldn't recall just what we'd talked about except in broad strokes. Given my active civic life, enough time has past that I've forgotten all but the purpose of the piece; sharing our earliest experiences as voters with the young people. Yesterday I wanted nothing more than to be able to sit with the show and hear myself and my young interviewer -- to have some sense of what I'd projected to the many viewers who would experience this work. It was not to be. I'd arrived late (having come from the NIAD reception), and there were few people still around. The sound system was such that it was impossible to make any sense of it with the ambient sounds interfering -- but I do recall that -- on that day -- I'd come away with strong positive feelings about what we'd done, and was perfectly happy to have whatever the "it" was shared with the community.

But I'd still give a lot to know something more about the content ... maybe I'll be able to convince someone to allow me to be in the museum alone, one of these days, so that I can have some sense of just why I felt so good about it. Maybe it's one of those things one shouldn't re-examine. Maybe feeling good about having done it is all that's needed.

Seeing oneself projected large enough to fill a entire wall of a gallery is pretty overwhelming, but seeing that beautiful young face of Rodrigo looking interested from the opposite wall -- and quite involved in our conversation compensated for outrageously magnified age spots, wrinkles, stray hairs, and anything else that my ego may have wished were otherwise.

Yesterday was a good day.

Photo: Holiday card by NIAD artist Sylvia Fragoso. I look forward each year to the sale of the artist's work - these cards are so fine! You may find more on the NIAD website and can order by mail, I believe.

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