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Saturday, March 20, 2010

First rehearsal for the Vagina Monologues ...

...and what an emotional ride that was! I'd not had the time to read through the script before today, and though I thought I knew what it was about (having heard Eve Ensler being interviewed a number of times), the powerful words in the hands of a cast as capable of bringing them to life as the women on stage today I was simply not prepared for. It was the first read through, but the strength of the images evoked tears at several points even this early in the proceedings.

It just may be that I'm weary from the muchness of life right now; of the anticipation of next week's commitments; of Dorian's growing impatience with waiting for the next round of surgery and not knowing of what the future brings after her life-changing accident. Corrective surgery on both legs will happen on March 31st.

I've been using my work as a distraction from the incessant worry about how one deal's with life when it careens out of control from the barely predictable to the insane. With the complete breakdown of an aging washing machine without the time to shop for another; when there is the laundry to pick up and deliver each day to Elmwood Rehab Center (now washed and folded thoughtfully by a neighbor and left for me at my front door after she found me in total meltdown mode!) -- not because of incontinence, but because she's just not able to coordinate the urge to pee with the opening of the bathroom door while using the walker, the pulling down of the pants ... and with all that taking too long and the C&A too busy to come when you ring for her -- if you ring for her-- and if she's not busy ... .

Life is no respecter of status, even when one is featured in the national media; is the final chapter in a recently-published book by author Bruce Frankel, (and recommended by AARP); is chosen to receive an honorary doctorate next spring at California College of the Arts, and to give the commencement address; will be honored as one of 3 Women of Achievement by S.F.'s WAVE ceremonies in May; and when one is becoming recognizable in hospital waiting rooms and the supermarket checkout line. All that aside, today I would open another escape hatch. I would be an actor.

Having been the featured speaker at the monthly luncheon of the Historical Society in Martinez yesterday; after attending a retreat with the Friends of Port Chicago on Thursday night; I needed the distraction of something totally unrelated to my uniformed purposeful life. I wanted to play.
Eve Ensler's work is not something to play with. It is an emotional roller coaster.

I should have known.

Have I had acting experience? Not since eleventh grade at Castlemont High School -- and that would have been in the late 30's in the last century.

Another story that may explain why I agreed to do this -- and why it is important that I follow through with this uncompleted story line in the

"Book of Betty".

Sunday, March 14, 2010

About Marleen; from a casual conversation while waiting in line for tamales and taquitos at the Women's Day of Solidarity ... .

We were strangers. She approached as we waited to snake our way to the food tables. I'd been one of the morning's speakers and -- as is always the case -- was silently wondering just what I'd said and whether it was appropriate to the gathering; improvising doesn't always work and there's little time for anything else at this point.

What started out as small talk ...

"I'm so impressed with you," were her first words.
Something about the way she spoke them invited me to ask,
"why is that?"
I never am quite sure and she didn't appear to be the kind of person who was given to small talk, She might just tell me.
She did, but it was not at all what I expected.

"It's your age and fitness."
It was then that I noticed her cane.
She appeared to be about the age of one of my sons; surely of their generation.
She continued,
"you're from the last generation before DDT and Strontium 90 entered into the environment."
"I'm from the first generation to have received those toxins en utero."
"I've now had 8 surgeries."
"I have no breasts."
"I feel so guilty that my daughter received the toxins through my breast feeding."
"I'm from the first generation that will not live as long as our parents' generation."

I could hardly speak. There was not the least hint of resentment in her voice; only resignation. The words were simple statements of fact.

By now my mind was reeling -- remembering facts I'd learned while serving as a field rep in all of West County for Assemblywoman Dion Aroner -- words from Ma'at Youth Academy's executive director, Sharon Fuller, an environmental activist on whose board I'd once served. How could I have forgotten? (Recovered these sentences from one of Sharon's reports online a moment ago):

From current research findings:

A disproportionate number of toxic sites and polluting industries are located in communities of color and low income areas. More than 245 million pounds of industrial air pollutions were emitted near schools in California. The children attending schools in the heavily industrialized predominantly African American community of Richmond are within a one-mile radius of 355 toxic emitting facilities within the city's 56 square miles.

Marleen had grown up in Richmond. She is a white woman and an environmentalist working with APEN (Asian Pacific Environmental Network); one of the organizations that works hard to raise awareness of the issues and whose lives are passionately dedicated to the cause of environmental justice in West Contra Costa County.

This morning as I talked to the UU congregation in Walnut Creek (the upscale suburbs of East Contra Costa County are separated from working class West County by miles of water shed and scenic rolling hills). I heard myself saying, "...it occurred to me yesterday while participating in Women's Solidarity Day that those women gathered there were activists speaking to one another when those who should be hearing their message -- the policymakers, owners, and executives of those 355 toxic emitting facilities -- live here in the suburbs of the Diablo Valley and in Marin County just across the Bay." There are few if any industrial plant owners living in Richmond to my knowledge.

And it all made sense. As one of the bridges of connection between East and West County, I am in exactly the right place and at the right time to be able to amplify Marleen's voice by a few decibels and bring the message to precisely that population. This could be the message of meaning to the UU church as it is looking for the next directions in their social action planning for the coming year.

Marleen had brought the gift that made it all a coherent whole. The words were not new. The problem has been growing for a very long time, for at least two generations. But in those few minutes while waiting for my paper plate to fill, her story became a beacon. There should have been an aura of light surrounding her because of what I learned in those few moments. Perhaps the only thing new was that her few devastating words transmitted such powerful and disturbing truths with such quiet dignity. No polemics here. She signaled a pathway that allowed me to send them into places where they just might make a difference. Perhaps activist women in the Diablo Valley might be moved to assume the work of raising awareness among their friends and neighbors toward constructive change. She told me that she'd testified before industrial boards and commissions but that she did not feel heard. That, though she'd done many interviews over time, they were summarily edited into 10 second sound bytes and little more. Storming the gates of the refineries has its dramatic effects, I suppose, but human interactions of real meaning -- particularly between women -- may hold more.

By now our plates had been filled with rice, refried beans, and mixed fruit and the decision of just how to manage the grape punch and work our way back to our separate tables had to be made. We set them down long enough to exchange cards and I wished her well. It had all taken but a few moments in time. Her last words to me were, "...I'll not live long enough to see the effects of my work." O how I wish her more of a future than she expects to see.

And on the drive home, I thought of Dorian and her new status as a physically disabled person in addition to her mental deficits -- and despite all -- felt lucky that she is and will be alive into the days ahead. Then I remembered that she, too, is of Marleen's generation ... and that the cases of autism have risen over 600% since 1985.

The Marleen Mosaic is almost in place and order in my head is slowly being restored ... .

Note: This has been a private citizen Betty day, and it felt good to remember that there is life still even out of uniform. I often forget.

Her name was Marleen Quint, and she neatly pieced together all the disparate bits that I've been struggling with over the past days and made of them a mosaic of reason ...

One might well wonder what the traumatic and life-changing injuries that Dorian sustained have to do with that wild ride back into my Unitarian-Universalist past with Ken Kesey and the Pranksters, and well you might ask ... .

Over the past weeks I've been on a kaleidoscope of mind-bending dreams and images that -- when combined with a pretty exhaustive work schedule have been defying all attempts at making sense. Learned long ago that when confronted with this much stimulus that won't fit into any kind of order -- that I need to slip into neutral and coast for a while. It all tends to sort itself out at some point and patterns begin to come into evidence and sanity returns. A brilliant Jungian therapist once taught me that allowing my insanity is, at times, precisely the way to go. Since Dorian's accident I've been living my life an hour at a time, and sometimes in even shorter increments.

On Saturday I was one of the speakers at Richmond's all-day celebration for International Women's Day where several hundred of the community's women met for a day of singing, dancing, drumming, filmed presentations, and speeches. I noticed at the time that gathered in that auditorium were many nonprofits; activists working for women's rights, against rape, violence against women, rights for women in prisons, Solar Richmond, for sustainable food security, for Haiti, and "Free the Cuban Five!," etc., all communities of need, and that they were in dialogue with themselves. The greater community was not represented in that room, though it was our mayor who brought us together for this wonderful event. Beyond making the observation, I had no idea what to do with it. The thought followed me home, and would not be stilled.

On Saturday evening of last week I'd spoken at the Mt. Diablo UU church in Walnut Creek. It was a strange evening in a room where I was more aware of those missing than of those present. This was a church I'd belonged to for about 20 years. It was in this UU community that I experienced the Civil Rights Revolution and the turbulent years that both preceded and followed it. Most with whom those years were shared are now gone, with many markers in the Memory Garden that lies beside the Gilmartin Building. This is where my middle years were spent as a young mother; as a full-fledged black American in a white world; and as an emerging emancipated woman. I returned to live in Berkeley about the time that my first marriage ended and my children left home.

I rarely return to the valley these days. The psychological, economic, and political distances between the suburbs and the inner city community where I've chosen to make my home are simply too great to transcend. Going back to Walnut Creek has some of the feeling of visiting Disneyland, only with mortgages. I've become far more at home with the grittiness, the reality of the inner city where life may be harder, but where it feels more real, and where there is so much to be done that it's easy to make a difference.

I'd been invited by the ministers to return this morning for another round of participating in a workshop created to sort out new directions for the congregation.

A dear friend forwarded an email the day after my talk, a message written by the adult leader of the church's youth program. It said that a few of the teens had been present when I spoke on Saturday and had returned to their group announcing that "Betty Soskin is one BadAss UU!" They then paraphrased my remarks for those who'd not attended (how I'd love to have been a fly-on-the-wall for that one). I printed out the message and posted it in my cubicle. Maybe this is what brought Kesey and the trip to Carmel to mind ...something about the generational divide ... ?

The paradox is dramatic in that my racial and political awareness and activism were developed in the white suburbs where -- for a time -- my entire everyday existence was marked by racism and bigotry, and where I'd found a community within that was accepting of me and my family unconditionally; were willing to learn from us; to bear the pain of my growth at a time when I could have been lost, or forced to alter myself to fit a "norm" of whiteness. My values were shaped by that living experience of being thrust by the times into deep blackness while living in the heart of whiteness. The dramatic contrasts defied logic, but I'm still out in the world spinning off lessons learned while in that community of seekers at a time of unprecedented social change. Friendships formed during those critical years have endured through time and were/are the closest in my experience.

But now let me tell you about Marleen ...

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