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Sunday, May 20, 2012

The magic of memory to guide destinies ...  back to Epiphany!


Does the name Lloyd C. Douglas mean anything to you?  He was an important author of my youth with The Robe, The Magnificent Obsession, and personally most meaningful "The Green Light" among his novels.  It took almost two hours of stubbornly probing memory to finally bring  his name to mind.  It wasn't until I was lying in bed mulling over the headiness of the commencement experience that the dots began to connect like metal shavings on a magnet, and Douglas emerged as a major influence for me .  How little we credit those people and incidents that have moved us through life over time.

Something jogged him into the forefront as I was emptying the pocket of my black crepe suit and as my fingers fell upon the string of cultured pearls I'd (without conscious thought) placed there just before choosing a small diamond star on a platinum chain -- to wear for this occasion.   For some reason I didn't return the pearls to their little black velvet case, but instead slipped them into my pocket ... strange, but in keeping with this eerie power I've always had to be out of sync and out of sequence with time; naturally.

They were a wedding gift from Mel, my husband and the father of our four childrens.  Over time they'd been relegated to non-use as the marriage began to deconstruct with all the attendant misery of mid-life.

Let's move now to the turbulent Sixties, and the night before the daughter of a friend, Don Sanford and a university student, was scheduled to leave for a stint as a teacher in a freedom school under the leadership of C.O.R.E. in Canton, Mississippi.  It was Freedom Summer, 1964, and I was hopelessly tied to the care and feeding of four children at a time when I envied young (white) Susan Sanford's ability to do this daring and revolutionary thing.  I'd been invited to share the farewell dinner with the Sanfords, and as it ended I secretly slipped my pearls into her hand with the words, wear them every day under your T-shirts and only return them to me when your work is done.""  


Susan's letters to her family were shared with me that summer and their words became embedded in my song lyrics in the creative cultural explosion in which I found myself.  The pearls were returned, but over the passing years have rarely been worn.  They'd taken on the patina of service and could no longer be mere "jewelry".  They were anointed by a life experience too painful and meaningful to be squandered as "ornament."  So there they have lain all these years.

By all rights, if memories were informing me as well they should, this would all have revealed itself with the Fannie Lou Hamer announcement. but it didn't.  It was tantalizingly close, though, because I'd picked them up -- finally -- as "jewelry' only to slip them into the pocket just before leaving for the commencement celebration.

Then "The Green Light" and Lloyd C. Douglas now enter the scene:

In it (as I recall) the premise upon which the novel rests, is that there is power in giving only if there is an unbreakable promise that neither giver nor receiver will ever disclose the source of the gift.  By so doing, power is endlessly multiplied, like compounded interest accrued by intent and sealed by silence.

... and I'm realizing that -- despite the fact that by wearing my magical pearls yesterday, and sharing this connection to Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Movement that she founded --  might have added drama to the proceedings, I chose to "keep the power," by holding it close on my body without disclosing the story publicly in my two-minute acceptance speech.  And it was done without conscious intent.  Yet when I removed it a moment ago from its velvet case and let the little necklace drape over my fingers, I found myself wondering how The Green Light may have influenced other moments in time?  Reluctance to allow myself to accept credit for what are clearly exceptional feats that have perhaps changed lives is surely related to this simple though profound concept.

Is this then, the source of the "updraft" that I'm experiencing in the dramatic arc of my life's trajectory in these days of tributes; the California College of the Arts honorary doctorate of last spring; and yesterday's prestigious Hamer Award?  Is this just all too "Hollywood-ian" to subscribe to?  Maybe so; yet it just may be hokey enough to demand a pause for wonder ... and to appreciate the fact that had I remained a practicing Catholic, I would surely have ended up doing daily postulations in some Nunnery!

...  the extent to which all of our lives are influenced by the creative acts of unknown others is probably immeasurable, yet much of it eventually defies logic and succumbs to gaps in memory. Popular culture may be wildly under-rated movers into futures most have not yet lived themselves into -- except maybe for a selected few of the lucky ones, yours truly among them.

Epiphany .... !

... it happens.  Mysteries unfold at the most unexpected times, and almost always without fanfare.

Yesterday I drove in to the university's Zellerbach underground parking lot, and after presenting my VIP permit to the parking attendant, found myself in the maze of campus shops selling Cal T-shirts and student supplies with the unrelenting compulsion to follow "just anybody" dressed in a cap and gown.  Not smart.  That lead proved untrustworthy as I found myself surrounded by those heading for the Asian students ceremony on the second floor of the Student's Union!  So much for that system.  No GPS could save me now.

I then took the stairs back to the ground floor and approached 3 African American women (one of whom was "capped and gowned," with a friendly "... since you're obviously heading for the African American graduation commencement ceremony -- may I join you since I have no idea where I'm going?"  The eldest of the 3 said, " of course, but we're heading for the restrooms but if you'd like to join us you're surely welcome to!"

A few more false starts that led out of the Student Union building (shudda knowed that, right?) back across the Quad and into Zellerbach auditorium where confusion ended as I was guided through the theater (had no idea there would be such a large crowd anticipated), up to the stage and then backstage to the Green Room to wait with black-robed and colorfully "stoled" members of faculty with whom I would soon march onto the stage and take my seat in the front row for the ritual of commencement as the Fannie Lou Hamer honoree.

It was then that I met Dr. Charles Henry, Chair of the African American Studies Department (and who had recommended my being named to this great honor), and was reunited with Dr. Hardy Frye, an old and greatly honored scholar and friend from at least 40 years ago.  He was former head of Black Studies, now retired.  Hardy and I both worked for the Berkeley City administration when he served as Mayor Gus Newport's Chief of Staff, and I was city councilman Don Jelinek's aide.  It was great to see him again.  Life has taken this scholar to the top of his field, and when he told that he had supported my nomination for the Hamer Award, I immediately felt both the weight of the honor, and -- in an odd way -- validated in receiving it.

It was not so long ago that I might have been totally demoralized by the experience, but you know what?  I seem to be finally getting the hang of this "honoring" thing.  In this context, it made a kind of sense.
Never having attended college, and, despite my ten years as a faculty wife of a UC professor (Dr. William F. Soskin) -- and the resulting "non-traditional doctorate in psychology" that came with the years I participated as a "graduate student" in his research program, this was an alien setting for me.  It's always been as though I was the camel's nose that slipped under the tent in such rituals; never quite legitimate, and despite the illusion of knowing I tend to send out, I knew that it was unearned.  My status as a card-carrying member of the unwashed continues to guarantee my sense of humility -- that and being the mother of Dorian Reid who has accomplished so much with so little ... .

As the procession was about to end, someone came up behind me on the stage to whisper in my ear, "the young man at the end would like for you to drape his stole, if you would be willing."  What an honor to be invited to participate in this precious moment in someone's personal history.  What a time!

... but to get back to the epiphany ... but now I need to stop for a cup of tea and another tissue ...  more later.


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