Saturday, September 04, 2004

Yesterday at the wedding I had the chance to reconnect

with Rachel's (the bride) parents, both east coast educators. Larry teaches at Harvard.

The last time we met, I was deep in ambitious plans to try to effect Arts & Culture in the city of Richmond, and had begun to circulate a paper I'd written with the hope that I could influence others to join my vision. As it turned out, her parents had recently visited one of August Wilson's plays and -- upon their return to the east coast -- sent the program to me that included a brilliant statement about the magic and importance of theater in African American performing arts.

Yesterday, he reminded me of that in a brief conversation, and I wondered where that dream had gone to?

Jennifer and I are still very much involved in trying to interest the powers that be to allow us to take over the Arts & Cultural aspects of this city so that we can bring some of the richness of the performing arts that we've both been involved with for many years. There simply is no permanent structure to city government at this point, so no souls with whom to commune around this critically important aspect of urban life.

Over the past six months we've met with the city manager (now resigned) and with four subsequent interim managers. Every important position in this city is presently held by temporary officers. Only about a month ago yet another interim city manager was hired on a six month contract - while a national search is held for a permanent one.

Our proposal has been shelved for the time being, because the arts will probably be the last area explored for reorganization. Yet, it's the arts and culture that serve as the glue that makes all else possible. I doubt if anyone of importance has even read our proposal, or that anyone has seen the need to. As I've often said to Jennifer, "...we keep running around this city with answers to questions that nobody is asking!"

This city has a civic center that was built about 40 years ago. These buildings were awarded historic landmark status on the basis of having been the first civic center in the nation that incorporated the arts and culture as integral elements. (Have a feeling that I've written about this before ...) The campus (surrounding a spacious green plaza) consists of the main library, the convention center that holds a television station and the arts center (classes and exhibitions), the city hall, and police and fire department administrative offices. Subsequent elected officials over many years seem to have totally forgotten that legacy, and there is little interest in using the center as originally intended.

Over a year ago, due to the need to retrofit city hall for earthquake safety, the administrative offices moved (temporarily) to a lovely building on the marina, abandoning the downtown civic center to growing weeds and neglect. There is some consideration by some citizens for making this shoreline site the permanent home of government -- to the dismay of many others. However, the convention center (art center and television station) remain in use though seriously under-utilized. Due to budget restraints (a polite way of saying that the city is in financial meltdown) the library's hours and staff have seen a severe cutback. This movement of the city's main offices out of the old downtown has increased the desolation that had already eroded economic life and discouraged development over many years. Still, more "empty nester" housing is presently under construction -- in a brand new transit village just a few blocks away from the old civic center. It is a peculiar kind of planning without rhyme or reason to an eye unaccustomed to the complexities of redevelopment; mine.

How does this effect my Arts & Culture plans? Everything depends upon our ability to convince this city that it is squandering one of the most important civic complexes in the county. We already have what nearby cities are crying for -- an important performing arts center -- and despite ambitious nonprofits giving it their best efforts -- other nearby cities may be years away from realizing their dreams of having just such an asset. And, we are using the convention center as simply a space to rent out and not as the marvelous venue through which to express the rich and unique cultural life of this city.

Find myself wondering at times -- when I look around at the decaying inner core of this city -- filled with historic buildings begging for restoration -- why?

About 30 years ago downtown was abandoned in favor of building a brand new shopping mall at the edge of the northern boundary. Just as Henry J. Kaiser Corporation walked away and abandoned the shipyards and all of its associated structures at the end of World War II, the city did the same for the historic downtown that had served that population so well. The theaters and department stores and banks and offices gradually were given over to storefront churches, used clothing stores; and eventually institutions that served "the poor." Sound familiar? The only truly viable operations in the old downtown district are Kaiser Hospital, the Social Security Building, and the Social Services Agency. There is a small strip mall but the air of impermanence hangs over everything like a shroud. Micro-businesses are born and die within months of inception, and dreams die from lack of the oxygen of pedestrian traffic in an area where fear overcame trust decades ago.

In those moments when I have the time to think about it, I find myself wondering if it might be possible to estimate the millions of dollars that have been lost over those thirty years? Lost tax revenue, public safety, poor civic image, etc., and if we could calculate those losses, how on earth can we continue to let those lovely old brick buildings lie in ruins, discouraging all attempts at change? Wonder what the daily losses amount to in today's dollars? And, can any city continue to sustain those kinds of losses without economic collapse? Can we afford to NOT create the vibrant Arts & Entertainment that I envision for those long neglected sites?

What on earth is it costing us NOT to restore those buildings -- and all those lives of African Americans who wait each day fearing gentrification? Of the city's 40% Black population that has resided in Richmond since the end of the great war, I'd probably guess that 90% live in that downtown area in the Santa Fe, The Iron Triangle and North Richmond districts. These are the areas of the city that are most effected by continuing and persistent poverty, high crime rates, and desparation.

Perhaps I'll dig out that paper and add it to my blog. You never know who will see it and say a resounding "YES!"

And, yes, I'd give up the National Park position quicker than you can say "Arts District!" But meanwhile, I'll continue to explore all things "Rosie" until there are signs that the city is ready to dream along with me.
Beautiful wedding!

The bride and groom had earlier invited me to participate in the "Blessings" part of the ceremony. I was to select something (or create something) about the subject of hope. That day a few weeks ago when she'd called to confirm that I'd accepted this assignment, I knew instantly what that would be. It was ordained somewhere in the annals of time as if waiting to be called up for just this occasion:

I must have been all of sixteen. My friends were probably reading the Ruth Fielding Series for girls -- but I'd discovered Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and had been spending every waking hour reading through every line. Can't recall whether I completed it that summer, but it was close. I was utterly fascinated by these snatches of larger pieces, and wondered about the writers and lovers and poets and orators and presidents and kings represented among those pages. I'd been guided to it by a wonderful librarian at the local library, and in the years that followed -- while building my own library -- this was one of the first books I bought to place on my book shelves -- along with the Pooh Series and a worn copy of Aesops Fables received as a birthday gift from a very loving Aunt Vivian. My well-worn copy with the dog-eared pages is still here within sight.

What did I choose?

It was from Letters to Abigail by John Adams:

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and the sciences, navigation, commerce and agriculture -- in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelane."

I can think of no more hopeful message in these dark days.

Since those of us chosen to give our blessings were also asked to present them to the couple for their memory book, I wrote mine on a lovely card then slipped that into a vintage invitation to a fundraiser banquet for 1984 presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. It was fitting since the bride is a young colleague with whom I'd worked under two members of the California State Assembly. The groom is the current Chief of Staff for Rep. Barbara Lee. Barbara and I were both blessing presenters, and sat together through the ceremony. The dinner invitation announced as Honorary Chairpersons, then Congressman Ron Dellums, and Guest Speaker, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters. Ron, of course, being Barbara Lee's predecessor in Congress, and (now) Rep. Maxine Waters being at that time Loni and Dion's predecessors in the State Assembly. It all seemed fitting.

There has not -- to this time -- been any way to pass along that beautiful bit of Adams wisdom. It was waiting there in some part of my brain to be reawakened at just this moment in time. About a year ago -- for a day or so -- it had flashed across my mind in fragments that I couldn't completely piece together. I recall asking online if anyone remembered that lovely piece. I'd been searching Bartlett's for it and -- try as I might -- it would not reveal itself. I'd leafed through page by page for hours in a fruitless search.

A peculiar thing happened at the time, and I took note of it. Somewhere in my memory bank or muscle memory, or someplace more metaphysically apt, it had been stored. I noticed that I was scanning with both brain and finger only the left page as I turned them. Somewhere I knew that it was in that book - on the left page -- and somewhere in the middle of the page -- only nearer to the bottom... and there it had waited for all those years.

It eluded me.

I went online and put out a plea. Someone answered with the full quotation. I was so grateful for having retrieved it, and wrote it out and attached it to the side of my computer with scotch tape; for what reason I did not know.

That is, until yesterday!

There is a feeling that comes more and more frequently these days. It is still ephemeral -- unsteady -- but nonetheless persistent. It is this; that at least some part of me (us?) exists in a dimension not effected by time and space. A place where there is only NOW, and all of life is simultaneous. In the course of things, I'll surely not live long enough to fully understand what that means, but someone at sometime will. Some have gotten close and called it "GOD." Einstein named it "e=mc squared, and the Quantum Theory and the discoveries of black holes in the universe all hint at it, but until life has been extended beyond present possibilities, it will probably remain as elusive as the beautiful continuum of life described by the hopes of John Adams for future generations.

Now I need to get back to the really important Saturday stuff like sorting laundry and matching socks and figuring out just what on earth to fix for dinner!

Friday, September 03, 2004

Another Friday has arrived,

and this day will be filled with the wedding of a pair of lovely young friends. I've been asked to participate in the wedding that will join in marriage two families across the artificial barriers of race -- She is Jewish and he, African American. His father, a minister, and her rabbi will co-officiate in the ceremony and many of the customs and rituals of both races are integral to the service. It should be another remarkable event in this remarkable and eventful life of mine.

She comes from an academic family from Cambridge, MA., where her parents are still actively involved in teaching. He is the son of a prominent midwestern clergyman. They are both staffers for members of the state and federal legislatures. I love them both.

It should be a beautiful afternoon and evening, with activities round the clock. There are many who have traveled from far away places to share this day, so plans are many and varied.

The wedding is being held at another of the magnificent redwood forests high in the Oakland hills, Joaquin Miller Park, and promises to be a fitting end to a cram-filled week of the best kind of busyness -- the kind that completely blocked out the charade taking place in New York in Madison Square Garden. News of the vast numbers who marched and danced and protested on the streets was heartening. The irony of Medea Benjamin and her cohorts (Women in Pink) repeatedly getting through the barriers and onto the floor of the convention made a mockery of so-called "security." It was quite clear that -- unless one was clearly middle eastern in appearance, it was fairly safe to crash the party! I will spend tomorrow catching up and tamping down the anger and fears that lie so near the surface, and that cause me to catch my breath for a few seconds whenever I allow the space to think. I'm sure that I really didn't want to pay heed to any of it. Except for a momentary glimpse late some evenings, and doing my best to catch Jon Stewart's Daily Show each night, I managed to escape much of it.

Tomorrow I'll get back to world-saving. Today I'm off to stand with others in the filtering sunlight of those awesome redwoods while we join together in holy matrimony -- two young lives of significance.

Can't think of a more fitting way to end this week... .

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Audience? Readers?

I often forget about that aspect of blogging because I sit alone at my computer when the muse visits -- and write into it as though into a storage chest that will hold my memories until called up by my family years hence. Not so. Yesterday added an element that was both a pleasant surprise and that challenged my ability to continue to remain truthful and to honor candor and avoid the withholding of what's real for me.

Dorrie and I attended a family reunion at the beautiful Roberts Park high in the Oakland Hills. We sat among towering redwoods at picnic tables with members of Mel's family. I've retained a feeling of kinship with them despite the many years since our divorce and his death in 1987. Families are like that, I suppose. Since our relationship brought together two of the state's oldest resident families, it seems only right that we and our children remain steadfast members in good standing. Bob, David, Dorian, and I were all present and accounted at this, our second reunion in as many years.

Of the original Allen-Breaux-Turner-Galt unions, there have been four occasions when later generations combined lives through marriages. We're not only family members, but in many cases -- close friendships have been a continuing and valued renewing spark in our lives. I truly hope this continues far into the future across the generations.

There was talk yesterday of our coming together to recall and create a book on this black pioneer family of California's history. We bridge the period from the Civil War to the present in this state; a period in black history that has not yet been documented. We have the writers who can do that and the willingness to try.

Yesterday a young "cousin" (can't take the time to re-trace lineage on every meeting) approached me with a big proud grin to say how much she was enjoying this blog. She discovered it on an online visit to our family page (California Black Pioneers) when she followed the links that led here. She works at the university and told me that she's passed along the hyperlink to her co-workers who are also reading it. I was so touched by her pride, "...I tell them that's MY family!" And, "'re saying all those things that I feel and can't quite express about life." She was gesturing with her arms and legs and voice and full body -- punching the air, and flailing her arms as she spoke." I was so struck by her pride in me, so touched by something down deep that we shared as two black women -- and that -- across the years we shared feelings about gender and race and what a moment that was! Her name is Robin, and I knew in that instance that this is an important thing to be doing now. And, that I'm writing my truth for more than for my own children. I sensed, again, that each of us -- in living our independent lives has a unique responsibility to chronicle as truthfully as we can -- where that life has taken us.

We are one-of-a-kind creatures, and each history is important to the whole. Each choice made, each outcome, is critical to the creation of a life and has significance to everyone and everything else that life touches. If the years have taught anything at all, it is that the intricate web of interdependence that holds all of life together is maybe one aspect of that thing that we've named "God." Last night just before falling off into sleep I remembered something I'd almost forgotten. It is that I've come to believe that there is really only one life and that we're all living it... .

I also remembered dimly that insights are less likely to arise in the expected places (cathedrals and cemetaries), than in those moments of surprise -- like this one when a faintly remembered 3 year-old, a beautiful brown-skinned Robin, appears in the shadow of regal redwoods -- fully adult and vibrant(!) -- to help to celebrate this shared lifetime.

Thanks, Robin.