Saturday, November 01, 2003

Imitiation of What?

Lordy ... Philip Roth has done a retread on "Imitation of Life," complete with Anthony Hopkins playing Peola. Guess "The Human Stain" was more than that, but not a hell of a lot more. Nicole Kidman was superb in her role as aristocratic trailer trash (truly). The cast was marvelous. The editing faulty, or, the story sensationalized something that to this mixed-race woman is pretty ordinary. That American writers are still caught up in the drama of passing for white came as a surprise to me, and to find this the dynamic dark secret upon which a feature length film is based seems hardly worthy. The Roth book may be more compelling than the movie, but Louise Beavers and Nina May McKinney (I believe), and later Lana Turner did at least as well by the theme, I think. One has only to walk through downtown Berkeley to see every possible combination of racial mixtures. But then maybe it's still big news in Montana or Indiana.

But it does lead into telling you a bit about Dad:

Dorson Louis Charbonnet, 1894-1987, son of Louis Charbonnet (French Creole) and Victoria Morales Charbonnet (Islenos), was the third of 13 children (7 boys and 6 girls). He was blond and hazel-eyed as a child, fair-skinned and as handsome as Paul Newman (whom he closely resembled in his later years). He was third from the eldest of the brothers. His father was a noted engineer and millwright who designed and erected the huge cranes that loaded and unloaded cargo from South and Central America (bananas and coffee, chiefly) on the Gulf ports at Memphis and New Orleans. The sons were all craftsmen and builders of one kind or another. As with my Mother, I don't recall ever hearing my dad speak of school, though he was obviously educated.

Here on my bookshelves is a library of about 2 dozen very old leather-bound books that belonged to my grandfather. They are what is left of his engineering texts. There are old fading photographs of him on a number of jobs, one or another with dad or his brothers standing in the background. Among the projects is a huge New Orleans baseball stadium, Corpus Christi Catholic Church, The convent of the Holy Family Sisters (first black order of Catholic nuns in the US), all places still standing. The Charbonnets were a proud and accomplished family.

It was usual in those times for young people to complete the 8th grade and to then either continue to college (Xavier or Dillard universities, historically black) for a career in medicine or education, or, to enter an apprenticeship. Dad picked up his slide rule and trained under his father until the end of the 1st World War when he moved to Detroit for work in the auto industry.

Like my grandfather, he was a perfectionist. Dad was a very proud and formal man who was not easy to know, but was someone I knew as a man of real integrity who set a very high standard, but of a very special kind. He was a Creole. In New Orleans, that was enough to be.

Skip now to the Great Depression:

Dad had a few years in Detroit before news came of his father's death. Upon returning home to care for his mother, he joined his brothers in a rice mill that was a family enterprise. When that was destroyed by the great hurricane that sent us to California, he was temporarily employed at the Chevrolet Plant in East Oakland.

A huge piece of machinery that held the conveyor belts had dropped from the ceiling, taking a workman's life, I believe, and dad was hired to design and install the replacement. When the job was completed he was immediately fired. Someone had reported to the supervisor that Dorson Charbonnet was a negro. He'd not passed for white, as far as I know (or at least he never included such an admission in telling the story), but one would never have guessed by his physical appearance. That would never have given him away.

There were simply no jobs at the time, not for anybody. For a while, Papa George got him hired as a waiter at the Oakland Athletic Club. Dad in a white apron, I can hardly imagine it. But it was to get worse. Mother's brothers, Lloyd, Fred, and Herman -- were all working for the Southern Pacific Railroad as Red Caps and dining-car waiters. At their urging, Dad went to the hiring hall in hope of getting a job on the railroad, but they wouldn't hire him at first because he wasn't dark enough. After convincing personnel that this was, indeed, their negro brother-in-law, he was hired as an attendant on the lunch car and traveled for years as such. My proud talented capable engineer/millwright father was now "Boy!"

It wasn't until the mid-forties that he was allowed to join the carpenter's union. I suspect that he by that time was crossing the color line for the purpose of employment. He later returned to work as a millwright and was in charge of rebuilding the machinery at Albers Mill after a huge fire. Then to Grosjean's Rice Mill, also on the San Francisco waterfront, where he designed the process and machinery that coated rice with B-vitamins. He again came into his own in his field of expertise, but it had taken a lifetime, years of humiliation, and a second World War.

But then, in looking back, I'm not sure I did either. My kids and I are still improvising our way through life -- only I now feel a little less responsible for outcomes, but that's a fairly recent development.

In tonight's film there was a brief sequence about (Hopkins character) Coleman Silk's father. It made my skin crawl as a shiver ran through my body. It depicted a proud light-skinned black man waiting tables in a dining car -- being called "Boy" by a white passenger. I'm not sure I'd ever really appreciated the depth of anguish and humiliation that must have caused my proud father. My reaction was visceral -- the feeling is still with me as I write.

We became closer as he grew older.

I loved him.

On the night that he died, I was lying at the foot of his hospital bed listening for his last breath -- and when it came, I recognized it instantly -- long, steady, and ... final.

Photo: Dad's funeral. He lived to be 95. I loved him.

Written from inside "The Human Stain" ...

Last post, written almost an hour ago has not yet posted. Started to write a piece about Dad, but in the meantime the phone at my elbow rang and it was Jackie. "Wanna go to a movie?" "Sure," says I (untypically). Heard Terry Gross interviewing author Phillip Roth on "Fresh Air" yesterday and was intrigued by the story, "The Human Stain." As it happens, so did Jackie -- so, having showered and wrapped myself in Saturday sweats -- am off to Berkeley to see Anthony add yet another brilliant portrayal to his long list of improbable characters.

Jackie and I are both African/American/"Immigrant"/Californians/who arrived right behind Sir Francis Drake, and I'm sure that both have had family members cross the color line over the years so the premise is one of deep interest. Our hero (Hopkins) plays a man who left his black identity behind years before the period shown, and surely will be revealed sometime during the film's 148 minutes. That's more than we can say for our relatives, so maybe we can spend a few hours imagining their lives over the years since they disappeared across chasm of the racial divide.

It's tantalizing to think about. Something we don't usually do, since I've rarely if ever seen anyone being judgmental about such decisions made by others. They just drop away into their own lives, and little is heard from them again. A kind of psychological curtain drops, and life goes on. I'm sure that Roth has drawn something pretty melodramatic from such situations, otherwise why a book at all? But, the drama of racial politics continues to hold us its powerful grip as does little else.

So, I'm off now to pick her up and -- if I get home early enough -- will write about Dad tonight. Either that or he'll surely pop up in dreams to remind me of the omission.

(It's perking away in the background, and I'm enjoying the memories.)

Photo: My favorite Aunt, Vivian Allen Jernigan at 19. This photograph was taken at her graduation from Xavier in New Orleans, before she joined my grandfather to live the rest of her life in Oakland, California. She attended U.C. Berkeley for three years where she played basketball. Then came the Great Depression and she left to work in San Francisco. Vivian would have laughed anyone out of the room had she been assumed to be anything but Creole (Colored). I suppose she was my model. For both, being a proud Creole was enough to be. Crossing the color line was/is unthinkable.
Dedication of the Lucretia Edwards Shoreline Park ...

went marvelously well with all of the leaders -- city, county, and me (State) gathered together under a great tent raised there along the water, especially for the occasion. Lucretia was lovely in a deep turquoise pants suit and enough joy to fill up the tent and then some. Her kids and grandkids were sprinkled through the crowd, all beaming! These are such treasured times. I don't think that we share enough of them. But then, maybe it's just that I've grown old enough to see those being honored -- my contemporaries -- who've lived long enough to have their contributions plentiful enough to be noted for posterity. This is 180 degrees from seeing the likes of Brittany Spears et al writing memoirs! But maybe the candle burns more quickly these days, and the rate of change (now measured in generational cycles of five years) no longer allows for "vintage" to happen as readily as it did when the world was spinning with less urgency. I use the word "urgency" advisedly here. Over the past few years we seem to have drifted back into the "...before the bomb drops" mode again after several decades of ignoring the Dooms Day Clock... .

Later met with the Richmond city manager re Prop. 40 funding possibilities (Parks and Recreation) -- but we quickly moved on to other issues -- my concerns about the Barbara Alexander Academy and its regaining charter school status, and, the possibility of the city council reclaiming the rotting, crime-ridden, and abandoned urban core for the new civic center (a move I'm opposing). We sparred for a bit, but found soon enough that we were actually on the same side of both issues. He's a hard-working and dedicated public servant whom I've grown to respect greatly, though we have occasional good-natured sparring matches, but always ending up in agreement. Either that, or he's mastered the art of keeping me in a persistent state of hopefulness without really committing to anything of substance. I waver between extremes here, but over time have learned to not let it deter me from my goals.

Life is a balancing act, always, but lately it seems to have become even more so. Perfected the art of keeping enough balls in the air at any one time to insure myself a reasonable number of sure successes to measure against the certain flops. But you need at least a few of those, or you'll find yourself never taking those growth-producing risks. Even the duds yield lessons of some sort, if only to point up the pitfalls to avoid next time. Having a sense of humor helps in those cases, plus the certain knowledge that little in life is more than transitory, even misery and/or excruciating embarrassment. "This, too, shall pass" is more than a simple mantra.

And what does that bring up?

A stellar evening in San Francisco. We were at the Curran Theater on Geary Street for a performance of something or other that I was desperate to see and now can't remember. The show had just ended and we were wending our way down the staircase with a mob of theatergoers. The heel of my chic black suede strap-backed pumps caught on the carpeting and I fell forward into the crowd. However, as I was falling, I reached out instinctively for something to take hold of -- found it! I landed at the bottom after bumping into a number of folks -- but holding tightly to a mink jacket that had obviously been on the arm of some woman above me on the landing! I sat there red-faced waiting for an embarrassed Bill to find me and for that woman to call for security! My plight must have been obvious because in the moments that followed, the ridiculous situation hit me with full force. As the crowd on the stairs that had parted while all this was going on slowed to see what on earth...? Bill popped up with great concern written all over his face -- a smartly-dressed extremely outraged blond woman right behind him -- and me, unhurt, laughing so hysterically that I could hardly speak! She began to laugh, too. I returned her fur (unharmed), but -- except for that momentary sense of having been seen if only for an instant as thief, then victim, then nutty lady, little was lost.

One of life's many pitfalls; one of the lesser ones. There has been the occasional abyss or two to climb out of, but as the song says, "I'm still here!"

Thursday, October 30, 2003

I want to tell you about my father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet ... .

He's been deep in the background of this story until now. He popped up in a dream last night, almost as if to nudge himself into my consciousness ... but this is a day filled with events that will take me out of myself and into civic life ... so we'll wait. Maybe tomorrow... .

Attending a ground-breaking ceremony for the newly developed Lucretia Edwards Park at the Marina Bay Shoreline. Lucretia is a lovely fragile tiny doll of an elder who has spent her lifetime living in Pt. Richmond in the shadow of what was once the Standard Oil Refinery but now flies the flag of Chevron-Texaco. She is being honored for having fought successfully over many years to keep public access to that magnificent shoreline.

Then to Oakland, later in the day, to attend a fundraiser for someone we're endorsing for public office.

In between I'll do some writing and prepare for prepping Loni for participation on a panel before the Disabilities Council -- (developmental and autism) on November 12th. Will do some followup on some environmental issues we're following, and then home again.

Now that I've consumed all of the "Hersheys Variety Pack" that I'd picked up for Halloween, I need to do something about replacing it. Bought it too early, again, and I really ought to be ashamed. I'm not, but I swear that my trousers are just a skosh tighter this morning. I do believe that I read something about the benefits of chocolate just a day or so ago, but in order to receive those one has to never bite down. Just let it melt on your tongue... .It was a simple experiment. Honest.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Surely fall has come ...

This morning there was the unmistakable scent of decaying leaves in the air, surely not as heavily sweet as it will be after the first rain, but evident nonetheless. The changing of the seasons -- even when as subtle as it is here on the west coast -- still signals the time of abbreviated days and lengthening periods of darkness. I love autumn.

Last night the moon was the thinnest of slivers against a sky of deep velvet blackness. Here on the edge of the Pacific, a blanket of fog often separates us from moon and stars, and makes the sky appear very close to Earth. At times, that separation disappears completely, and it feels as if the world has collapsed in upon itself, and I feel claustrophobic. At other times (especially when I'm walking) I enjoy seeing the world in the shapshots that magnifies subjects in the foreground by separating even a single leafless tree to stand alone -- stark... black ... framed against the all-enveloping mist. But that only happens on days when I'm at peace with myself.

Then I remember that one October, years ago, when I experienced my first New England "Color!" Driving from Hartford to New York ... seeing the brilliance caught in our headlights as we wended our way down the turnpike ... even at eleven o'clock at night ... magical! And beyond the roadside color display, stars! Millions and millions of stars! I recall wondering just how long it had been since I'd noticed the stars....?

I was in Hartford to spend two weeks working with music director Paul Neves, a fine Boston jazz pianist, in preparation to auditioning for Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard. But that was another Betty, and it was sometime during the late 70's when the I was flirting with fame, before I closed that door for all time... .And, no, that decision wasn't nearly as painful as one might imagine. Other doors opened as if on cue. The time had come to slip into the next "Betty," and I did.

Today, I turned on my car radio -- listening to the horrors being lived out this day in Southern California. Fire! Homes gone! People dying. Nature unleashed, and at its most destructive. All of those human beings now without places to lay their heads tonight, and exposed to elements in ways too frightening to dwell on for more than a few minutes at a time...

This is "Fall color" of a most frightening kind. Seeing the stars because there was no longer a roof over you to shut them out ... I can't imagine what that must be like. My heart goes out to families who are blessed by the numbness that descends -- when one needs protection against an unacceptable reality. I've never experienced that -- at least not all in an instant. It does seem, though, that there have been periods in my life when hints of horror and the possibility of death came in shards of agony, ragged edges, torn places, but never actual.

Like the period in 1987 when the three leading men in my life, my first husband, Mel, and the father of our children; Bill, the man I chose to share life with as a fully mature women; and my father, Dorson, who had become very dear to me over the last quarter of his life. All three died over a brief three month period in 1987. I was devastated. Up to that time I'd been defined by the men in my life. Had no idea who I was or could be without them.

One morning a few months later I woke as if coming out of a fog. Right behind the grief was emancipation! How could I have known? Here I was moving into another period of becoming at a time when I might least have expected it... .

So I became, yet another time, and another -- and another -- and ...

Mother's Obituary ...

      Lottie Allen Charbonnet
       1894 - 1995
You will be remembered as a single bright feather aimed heavenward-- on a pink silk hat ...
three-inch heels on moire sandals with small red rose on toes
as a single fragile butterfly in a windswept world of those too caught up to notice
your need for touching and loving and caring -- and most of all --
for seeing your beauty.

Bereft of world views, books unread, causes unserved,
your time on earth was spent in simple ways --
ways suited to a temperament shaped by your motherless
beginnings that brought no models for your own mothering
but instilled a deep appreciation for family in its broadest sense.
The legacy of that love-filled cabin in St. James and your own dear Mama
who nurtured her brood with enough intensity to last a lifetime.
It is that larger family that will most miss your presence on this earth --
family and friends of all ages -- many of whom stayed with you through a long life as a replacement for those lost ...
until the end came ...

I will miss you deeply.
as we came full circle during your long lifetime ...
reversing roles until -- near the end when reality had become shadowed,
you quite seriously introduced me to others as "mother."
Perhaps I became the mother you couldn't remember, "Minette," returned.
You invariably made the correction,
but I sensed that no error had been made.
In those final days you may have re-created her through me.

I honor you in death as I loved you in life.


Photo: Mother at the age of 95 participating in a luau in Hawaii. She lived to be 101.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

For reasons unknown,

the changing from daylight-savings-time back to standard plays havoc with my being. I get caught up twixt time and tide and phases of the moon and I'm lost for a time, at least until inner and outer synchronize again, and I return to "phase." Silly? Maybe, but I don't believe so. There is something so basic in the concept of time, the dimension is so fundamental to existence ... I'm just never quite ready, whether spring or fall. It's the change that's the problem. Makes me wonder if I'm alone in this, or if others notice?

I'm just a little tentative in everything; not quite able to make firm decisions. Miss appointments and have a feeling of suspension that makes planning difficult at best. It will all settle down in time, but meanwhile, I've learned to not expect too much of myself, and to spend more time on the balls of my feet -- ready to pivot in whatever direction is called for by circumstances. Disquieting.

Some of the tension can probably be traced to the recent Recall election that unseated the governor. There are so many unknowns, and the sense that the entire rational underpinnings of governance -- at all levels -- is disintegrating. Wonder how much of that can be attributed to the downside of aging?

There's something to be said for what it does to the psyche when all of the judges, the physicians, the governors, those who rule the world, are younger by far than you are. It's a little like realizing at a very young age that you are out-thinking your parents, and how frightening that can be ... Who will protect you, then? The world becomes a pretty fearful place.

I couldn't have been more than six when I learned that there were many things that my parents could not help me to understand. I can't recall my mother ever mentioning school. It's quite possible that she never attended, but was taught at home by young aunts and uncles. She was born when her mother was only 14. Her mother died when she was but 7 months old. She grew up in St. James Parish, raised by a grandmother in a home shared by several families.

I can't say that she didn't love me. She quite obviously did, but loving and understanding are very different concepts, and she was probably as lost to deal with me as I was to understand her. This may explain my closeness to Papa George, and the loneliness I remember in those early years.

Mother's need for love and attention was insatiable, and in her last years (she died at 101), our roles had become reversed. Maybe they always had been, at least from a lot earlier in life than either of us realized.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Funny, after all these years ...

-- I'm still aware when I'm not going to church. Had intended doing so yesterday, but at the last minute opted for a walk along the Bay Trail, instead. The stretch along the Marina Bay yacht harbor is so lovely. It looks out to Brooks Island in the foreground, the Golden Gate and S.F./Oakland bridges to the south and the Richmond/San Rafael bridge to the north. Angel Island and the San Francisco skyline -- Mt. Tamalpais, so beautiful! Richmond has 32 miles of uninterrupted shoreline, a treasure that many are only now beginning to discover. This was to serve as this morning's "church."

Walking along I found myself wondering when I'd become an atheist, and if so, why am I so aware of Sunday mornings - in that special way? "The Sabbath" is to be honored, even in the "not keeping" of it. It's in my DNA.

Remembered that my earliest memory was of being terrified (two years old, maybe) and clinging to my mother when the great rumbling sound swept the sanctuary -- the scent of incense, the color (stained glass windows?). Can recall at some point of being fearful of looking directly at the man on the cross with blood coming from his hands and feet -- the spikes... .

It was sometime later that little girl Betty became aware that the thunderous sound that filled the sanctuary to the vaulted ceiling was the congregational response to the chants of the priests as they made the Stations of the Cross. That must have been in New Orleans at Corpus Christi,  the church that my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet, designed and built long before.  This was our parish church before coming to California.

Preparation for Holy Communion came when I was seven, but the fear from those early years was still playing in the background, nuns in black habits and the thought of an all-seeing God the Father gave little comfort, but were ever the silent threat of eternal damnation. I can remember as a child going to Confession several times without receiving communion. Didn't feel cleansed enough. Remember, it is possible to "think" venial sins, and I did, especially about my sisters.

Much later in life, right after leaving home as a young bride (at 19), I simply stopped attending mass. Guess I figured that was okay since my parents -- though in their own way devout -- had stopped going to mass except for weddings and funerals many years before. They were practicing birth control and couldn't receive the sacraments. So now I was married and -- for the same reasons -- church was no longer mandatory.

When my mother questioned this, I told her that Mel and I didn't want a family immediately, therefore ... But her answer was, " just go. Some things are simply none of the priest's business!" She simply couldn't own her own rejection of the Catholic faith, nor could she handle mine.

This morning on my walk, I thought about all that. Wondered if I had ever intellectually outgrown my faith, or if it didn't really go way back to that terrified 2 year-old and the timid 7 year-old who had simply "failed" at organized religion? The rest, the readings of the Jesuits, de Chardin, the Transcendentalists, conversations with the more rebellious activist priests of my middle years -- the Berrigans, of the exposure to Unitarian-Universalist "saints," Thoreau, Emerson, et al, may have allowed me to give words to those very early fears -- present in me long before I had the language to express it? I think, at times, that -- had I truly believed -- I would surely have ended up a Carmelite nun. My inner romantic might have drawn me to the contemplative life. Instead, my very rational mind led elsewhere, and for that I'm grateful.

I am an Atheist, but one still aware of something deep inside myself that defies logic and reaches far beyond the known. Orthodox religion in all of its forms seems to me to have become -- over the centuries -- the way humankind has explained that phenomenon of spirituality. I have no expectation of understanding it fully during my lifetime. But something in me (in everyone, I suppose) is ageless, timeless, genderless, and limitless, and whatever that essence of Betty may be, it came into the world with me, will leave behind bits of that stardust in my progeny, but upon my death I will again become one with all of matter. There will only be one of me, ever. The gift of my tenure upon the earth is a random accident of Nature. To deserve the privilege of life is enough reason for being.

I drove home feeling renewed.

And now it's the beginning of a new week, and I'm late for work.


Photo:  Put Corpus Chrisi Church into my search engine and this image came up -- at the same address on St. Bernard in New Orleans -- but by now the original church of my grandfather's may have long since been torn down and another built to replace it.  Just don't know ... it's been such a long time.   I know that the school that adjoins it is still standing

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Which reminds me of another such time:

Bill and I were lying in bed. He'd dropped off to sleep and I was still very much awake with a mind that wouldn't shut down -- except in its own good time.

At some point I nudged him awake and asked, "...Bill, was it you who told me that -- there are two simplicities; one that comes before and one that comes after -- complexity?" He (generously) woke enough to give it some thought and said, "No. I didn't, Hon, but that's an impressive statement. Wish I'd thought of it."

Still troubled, I worried it for a bit longer than dropped off to sleep.

About two weeks later I was spending an overnight in Big Sur country, visiting with son, Bob and his lady-of-the-moment and her very young baby daughter, Gretel. I was sitting -- comfortably tucked into a blanket as I was left to listen for the sleeping baby while they drove in to pick up dinner in the village. Picked up a magazine that was lying on the low table. While absently leafing through, my breath was stopped for an instant when I read one of those tiny inserts that sometimes appears in the middle of the page of a magazine -- it said, "In life there are two simplicities, one that comes before and one that comes after complexity." It was credited to the Monk, Reindl-Nast, of Canada.

Dialed Bill in Berkeley and read it to him.

It's that thing that happens, the inexplicable. The sense of being out of sync with time. It's like knowing the date of Rick's death when his body wasn't discovered for three weeks... .

One day I'll tell you about that, but not yet.
"Come Sunday."

(It's playing on my favorite jazz station as I write...)

That brilliant and very moving composition of Duke Ellington's nudged one of those anomaly's that's has haunted my life; and one that should be shared.

A year or so ago (maybe two?) I was invited to speak on a Sunday morning at a church just outside of Santa Rosa, in a very rural area in a redwood forest (enchanting place!). My friend, Jewel, is a very active member of her congregation, had issued the invitation. Years before we'd moved out of the Diablo Valley, our families had been early members of the Mt. Diablo Unitarian-Universalist church in Walnut Creek. I'd moved back into Berkeley in the Seventies and Jewel and her family moved north where they built their beautiful country home in the forest. We've remained in contact, but only rarely these days do we have physical contact.

Tennyrate, she'd given me no particular topic to speak on, but trusted that I would have something to say of interest. For me, it was a chance to get away for an overnight with my friends, and the rest was just the cost of that opportunity. I'd think of something.

I'd decided to talk about aging, I believe, but -- except for a few minutes after dinner, spent little time thinking about my talk. Had decided to just talk about "life" and the aging process, I think, but it was of so little importance that I can't recall for the life of me just what I shared that day; except for this:

Jewel let me look through her music collection the night before, to choose whatever might be appropriate for my "service." It was easy. Among the tapes and cd's there was a copy of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday." It was one of my very favorite pieces of all time, and would set the mood for me as nothing else could.

Next morning we got out of bed, dressed for church, climbed into the cars (as I recall, Don drove separately). Arrived at church to find people already filing in. Met members of the board, Jewel and Don's friends, hugged and kissed her daughters. Took a few minutes to step away from the people -- to breathe in some calm before we gathered in the sanctuary. It was then that I noticed that we'd left home without the music. "Come Sunday" was missing. The drive was too far and we were just ten minutes away from the beginning of the service. I signaled to Jewel -- told her that we'd have to improvise something, or ... .

Nothing. I'd have to go it without. Felt a little naked, but would do my best anyway.

I held an Order of Service in my hand. Those moments of panic were just beginning to shorten my breathing, but they always provided the edge that I needed in order to get into the "performance" space. There was a rustling sound and that of chairs sliding as about a dozen people were suddenly moving to the front of the sanctuary (obviously not on my program). They took their places in what was obviously "choir" formation. Nothing in my program accounted for their presence. (Good. I'd try to find clues in their hymn to use as a lead-in.)

The choir director raised his arms; the choir burst into the first chords of

"Come Sunday!"

It was the last thing I might have expected. After all, this was a White congregation with an all-white choir (naturally), the last place I'd have expected to hear this composition. It was another of those serendipitous moments that occurs without warning -- throughout my long life. Their choice of song was in no way related to me or to my subject since not even I had any idea what the content of my talk would be.

It went well. I felt grounded.

They couldn't have known, yet ... .