Saturday, December 10, 2005

"Death comes in threes" has new meaning this morning ... .

In less than three months, three sisters; Dorothy Reid Pete, Florence Reid Lewis, and yesterday, Maybelle Reid Allen, ceased to exist -- at least in this dimension. They died in their birth order as it should be -- with Maybelle being the youngest. All lived long and productive lives. All left grieving progeny and a legacy of warmth and love.

This morning I called David to tell him of Maybelle's passing -- he was very fond of her. About ten minutes later the phone rang again and it was he. "Are you okay, Mom?" Of course he would be concerned. These were my contemporaries. The edge was coming closer. His concern for my state of mind was surely understandable. In fact, I really hadn't reacted to her death as one being pushed closer to the edge of existence, but with the sadness of loss -- as might be expected. Hadn't really identified with death in the abstract except in a casual way, I guess. Though each leaving diminishes us all, and fear of non-existence is surely a factor in creating the preciousness of life that grows with each day now. I'm acutely aware of my mortality -- but not with the kind of dread that might be anticipated if I spent much time thinking about it. In these years I'm far more involved with valuing the time left, and using it well.

I suppose it would be more frightening if I could truly imagine non-existence. I can't. Tried hard to experience "The Void" in those days when trying so hard to understand the Tibetan Buddhist belief system -- in support of Bill. Nothing took me there. No amount of meditation techniques worked for me, including the one time that he convinced me to try -- to meditate after sharing a joint. Nothing. Either my resistance was too strong, or, my intellect over rode the effects. I simply don't have the power to imagine non-being. I only know, for sure, what is here and now, and the here and now has always been quite enough.

After cradling the phone I sat quietly for a few minutes. Was aware that I'd tossed off David's concern rather casually. "I'm too busy living to worry about dying," and, "I live each day as fully as possible have no intention of leaving anything to bury!" "I plan to be all used up." Maybe it was too lightly said ... I wondered if he was reassured?

Where does this confidence come from? I don't truly know. Denial? Maybe. Each day of life now I'm aware that on that very first day of life I entered an imperfect world and that I will one day -- surely sooner than I'd wish - - leave one. I know that. I'm also convinced that there is but one life and that we're all living it. I know that the power is in the living of it with intentionality -- no drifting by -- with responsibility -- but not without mistakes or brief trips up wrong pathways. Without them we could not possibly learn to make the corrections necessary to live more productively, or to develop empathy or compassion. Such attributes come from experiencing the full variety of human experience and learning from them and moving through. That's the life process. For some (like Stanley Williams) that process is deeper and more wildly traumatic. For others, like me, it is relatively problem free in comparison, but not without its share of pain and suffering, but manageable.

Though my beliefs are still ever-changing, at the moment I'm sure that each of us born into this life stream from whichever "tributaries," have the power to either enrich the collective existence or impoverish it. We had no choice about how we entered, and through whom, but how we use the time is for each to determine. Had I been born in the first centuries or the Middle Ages -- had I been born to wealth and privilege or a life of peonage -- I would be someone else. And in a way, I was. We all were. Maybe that "star stuff" that connects us all is what science has named DNA. I carry the DNA of slaves; Celestine of No Last Name, Leontine "Mammå" Allen Breaux, but also (from one fascinating possibility that turned up in my research), Sacagewea's son, Jean Pierre Charbonneau; and that French Lieutenant, Louis Charbonnet, who fought Toussaint L'overture in the Haitian Revolution and who later settled in New Orleans to begin the long line of Creole Americans who contributed to history in ways both large and small.

I have little belief in reincarnation per se, but I do have a strong sense of having blood connections to the lineage out of which I've come, and of the character of the lives that I will have influenced upon leaving. My immortality is in the children and grandchildren whose lives will have been marked with the quality of my own life, for good or ill -- and how they remember me -- as have the lives of Mammå, and Aunt Vivian, and Aunt Alice, and my imaginings about the Sacagewea connection, and my father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet, and his steadfast pride in family; all contributors to mine.

Nothing is lost, ever. At least not until the bomb is dropped and all life is obliterated from the planet. And, life will remain imperfect -- a laboratory for each succeeding generation to shape this wondrous collective existence through the living of it.

I truly believe that every day left on my Calendar of Destiny must continue to be lived fully and that the moment I stop -- I will be simply waiting to die. May I be blessed with a quick and relatively pain-free ending.

This is one of those days when I wish fervently that I believed in an afterlife and that Dorothy and Flossie have met and ushered Maybelle into their heavenly circle where, together, they will join the other Reid's who preceded them into eternity. And perhaps this is so.

Would that I, too, could believe ... .

Photo: Another picture of the lovely stained glass windows in the little Chapel at Sea Ranch. Spent some time this morning with eyes closed -- imagining myself there again -- recalling images of Maybelle and her family. She left to me the gift of a strong and loving friendship with her youngest son, who has become one of my closest and dearest friend -- across the generations.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Thursday, December 8th, another day to remember -- the anniversary of the death of John Lennon, the day after the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and ...

the completion of a park project that Naomi (my co-worker) and I have been working on for weeks. We conducted the first of two planned Leadership Tours of the identified structures that form the widely-spread Rosie the Riveter/Homefront National Historical Park. It was a total success that brought together a cross-section of community leaders and townspeople in a spirited 4-hour adventure that -- as it should have -- taught us more than we've previously known before about this city and its people history. Our goal was to begin to increase the awareness that this is a host city and that its people will soon be living in an urban national park. Richmond is in the process of becoming the place where the nation and the world will come to learn of and reflect upon World War II, a seminal event in world history.

We'd leased a 28-passenger tour bus, filled it with local folk who knew every building on our route but who may have never put them together into what is now identified and congressionally designated an urban national park. We started out with coffee and bagels at city hall, then an exhibit of the artifacts collection; proceeded to the marvelous woman-designed Rosie the Riveter Memorial, then headed out to view many structures: The supermarket of the day, the Greyhound bus terminal, Galileo Hall, the Park Florist, Winters Building, Carquinez Hotel, Old Post Office, Mechanics Bank Building, Old Main Library now housing the Richmond History Museum, the Whirley Crane and SS Red Oak Victory Ship at Shipyard 3, Atchison and Nystrom Villages, The Maritime Child Development Center, the Kaiser Permanente Field Hospital (now a Mosque), and finally the beautiful newly restored Albert Kahn Ford Assembly Plant that will eventually house the Rosie the Riveter Park's reception center. We left the bus for an inside inspection guided by a representative of the developer. The tour wound up at the Harbormaster Office building on the shoreline for lunch and a discussion about what we'd visited and to elicit their suggestion for further tours.

I saw "the Park" quite literally forming before us. These were the oldtimers, some nonprofit reps; the education specialist from the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, the project manager of the Macdonald Avenue corridor from the Redevelopment Agency staff; a woman from Point Richmond Neighborhood Council, an officer from the Police Athletic League; the president of the Main Street Initiative board and his wife, a pioneer dress shop owner; a community Activist from the Iron Triangle among others; plus our entire Park staff including interns and volunteers.

What surfaced was an almost fierce pride in their city as these structures began to evolve in their minds into the park. Naomi stood next the bus driver narrating what we were seeing and inviting comments -- a process that quickly evaporated as our busload of veterans of those historic times and long time residents began to takeover the telling. It was terrific! It was as if they were suddenly realizing what congress had given to us; that the mission of the National Park Service -- which is to tell the stories of the nation's history through the preservation of structures -- held great meaning now. That they were a critical element in that telling, and that we (our staff) would be the instrument through which that will happen.

As my job description suggests -- Community Liaison -- next steps were suddenly as bright as day. Can you imagine a series of bus tours that each carried a member of the district school board, a member of city government, two public school teachers, and the rest of the bus split evenly between elders and teens? Rather than a few outside experts boning up on the history of World War II and then conducting traveling lectures for the locals; we would put together 80-year olds with young people -- take them on the same tour -- and simply allow history to be transmitted live! by those who lived it. We don't have much time to take advantage of their presence -- but can you imagine the richness of such an experience? We might tape or film these events against the day -- and quite soon -- when we will no longer have access to that living history. I cannot imagine that funding could not be found for such a venture after yesterday's resounding success.

However, that was only Thursday from 8:30 to noon. By 12:30 I was off to join the vigil at San Quentin through two o'clock, then back to check email at my cubicle, and catch some impressions from the rest of staff on our morning bus tour. It was all enthusiastic.

Left for home around 3:00 to shower and get ready to be a guest at the Kaiser Permanente 60th anniversary celebration where -- with other survivors -- I was to be again "honored at" as a Rosie the Riveter. This would mean another celebratory coffee cup this time with "Thrive!" painted thereupon, a Rosie dogtag, a little plastic 60th Anniversary bracelet, a photograph with dignitaries, and then home by 8:00 and a final check-in to see what had happened in Sacramento and how the wind might be blowing in the clemency matters.

Today I'm at home -- to listen for word from the governor -- to rest up from yesterday's marathon - to absorb as much as possible from reflecting on events that are moving me much too fast through time ... and to get ready to drive out into the valley to a sanctuary with Tom who drove down yesterday for the weekend -- then to return to San Quentin for a sunset vigil -- if there has been no word from Sacramento on Stan's fate. I'll drive Paul Sawyer to the Oakland Airport for the red eye late in the evening since -- after a week of living out of his car at the prison gates -- he fly across the country for a ministerial conference in Boston before returning to Pasadena. He and the others will return to the prison gates in February, in time for the next scheduled execution -- and a month later, another.

But ... I must tell you about a woman whom I've met at the prison who is an Evangelical Christian against the death penalty. She came here on November 30th from Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas. She lives in Colorado. She's not left the prison vigil -- but has been at the gates -- day and night since that date. She has college age children and is spirited and dedicated to her cause. She told me yesterday that prison people (I'm assuming spouses of employees) have wandered down to talk with her from time to time, offering her a chance to take showers and to bring fruit and water. She's been offered sleeping space on a boat harbored nearby as well. People do respond to dedication of others, even when we disagree. She told of stories of how many prison people stay away on nights when executions are scheduled, out of their own discomfort. I loved meeting her and will see her again tonight. Yesterday most protesters had gone to Sacramento for a demonstration on the steps of the capitol -- and only she and Paul Sawyer were still at hand holding the vigil.

My small world continues to be well-peopled, despite all.

Photo: My newfound friend, Barbara Barker -- from Colorado and Camp Casey where she stood with Cindy Sheehan until the camp disbanded for the move to Washington. She's one of the heroes of the movement to abolish the death penalty.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wavy Gravy as "Sanity Clause" and other clowns I've loved ... .

Yesterday dawned like springtime -- except for the warning of an early morning chill that strongly suggested layering for the trip to the prison gates. Today's version starts with panty hose under blue jeans; great solution. Now to find ways to dress properly for a morning of ordinary daily job stuff and also to be ready for a quick noontime drive over the Richmond San Rafael bridge to meet the others. Today would be Wavy Gravy Day and from past history, it would surely hold some surprises.

As I parked and walked up the road toward the gate I could see a small group gathered around the prison post office entrance -- with several members of the media hovering nearby - waiting for some good footage they were sure they'd catch today.

Today there were fewer protestors, but those few who have formed the Alliance Against the Death Penalty to which Paul Sawyer has belonged since it was reinstated in the mid-nineties. But there he was -- Wavy Gravy now renamed "Sanity Clause" dressed in a tie-dyed rainbow-colored santa suit with an awful synthetic beard that he kept having to shift in order to clear his mouth for speaking. A bit later in the proceedings he renamed himself again, this time it was "Escape Clause." He was holding a bag filled with lifesavers, packages of Twinkies in which files had been placed very visibly, and Paul was out looking for a life preserver that Wavy would announce as a gift to be offered (on camera) to the governor. It was Wavy nonsense at its best.

He is a serious clown who runs a clown school, Camp Winnarainbow, in the Santa Cruz mountains, where the clown tradition is faithfully taught and practiced. He is in the Emmett Kelly mold -- but with a social conscience. He is one of the Pranksters from the Ken Kesey crowd. Paul, Wavy, and I lightly touched lives many years ago. In my copy of Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion" is a small bunch of dried wildflowers gathered on the beach at Asilomar in Pacific Grove by Ken and presented to me on a day when he was wandering around the dunes with a piece of adhesive tape over his mouth bearing the word, "hello." We were attending a UU Conference where he was the keynoter. He found me sitting on the dunes between workshops, playing my guitar, and silently motioned me to sing a song. I did. He listened quietly and when it ended -- he jumped up and -- like a small boy -- ran to the nearest cluster of wildflowers and gathered up a bunch then -- very formally -- presented them to me with a flourish. It was a delightful moment that I'll never forget. Those little dried blossoms are still with me. Ken died a few years ago. I thought of him and of his Merry Pranksters, and of Wavy and Paul and me, still here and still caring about humanity and willing to do whatever it takes, including dressing up in a clown suit, tucking his now white hair into a Santa's cap, and demonstrating at the gates of a prison to stop state murder in our names. There's just a bit of whimsy about it -- even under these oppressive circumstances. Wavy is sensitive to just how far to push the limits and the ways to maintain the necessary serious note to balance the nonsense.

It's the way of the clown, I suppose.

But that was yesterday. Today my workday didn't allow for a visit to the vigil. Tonight I came home to a message from Paul on my answering machine -- saying that Barbara Becnel, Lynne Whitfield (who played Barbara in Redemption,) and Snoop Dog had visited the prison. He told me that 25 demonstrators had engaged in acts of civil disobedience, had been arrested, and that they were mostly women. He asked that I call two members of the clergy that he hoped would join the vigil tomorrow, but he didn't have their phone numbers ... would I call? He sounded a little forlorn. The weather has been wet and cold with darkness falling early. They're sleeping in their cars and have been since Sunday. I felt guilty. Tomorrow I'll try to bring hot coffee, but most of all -- another witness -- myself.

Tomorrow I have an impossible schedule but there's a hole in the middle of the day that I will use to again visit the vigil and lend moral support. He flies out tomorrow night on the red eye to return to southern California. Others will carry on at the gates until either there is executive clemency, or, the unthinkable takes place on December 13th.

I lack the heart to wait it out at the prison. I cannot. But I will return on Saturday and Sunday. Not sure I'll try to make the march from the Palace of the Legion of Honor to the prison. Let's hope that the governor makes his decision before Sunday at eleven so that we can transform that march into a victory party!

... I cannot spend that last night at the prison gates. I just don't have the heart for that. This would be the first time that I will see the life of one I've come to know -- destroyed by lethal injection -- in my name and that of every Californian.

I can't think of a single thing to do now, except hope ... .

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Hope for the future embodied in a lovely young girl named Yaminah ...

At a point late in the proceedings today, a woman stepped out of the crowd to tug ever so lightly on my sleeve. "I'm Mira. We met recently at Flossie's family memorial service at Geoffrey's." Flossie was the Florence Reid Lewis whose life we celebrated only two weeks ago. The young woman continued, "...Yaminah remembered you (she's standing over there). She's Flossie's granddaughter. I'm Yaminah's mother."

And here she stood. The personification of "Youth on Crusade." Except for Michael Franti's little boy, Yaminah was the youngest demonstrator in sight. But she was here after much thought, obviously, since -- deep into the proceedings after many had testified -- she asked to speak. She was articulate, clear and dedicated to a strong belief in the democratic principles of justice and fairness. She spoke as only a young person can of the predictable effects we can anticipate should clemency be denied and Tookie's life taken. She was Betty at 15-16, and it's hard to express how much her presence meant to me seeing her there. On the drive home across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" imagined itself into my head and played softly behind our conversation.

Later Yaminah's mother told me of a march for clemency and a moratorium being planned for next week that will start at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and end up at San Quentin. "She would like to participate, and we'd love to have you join us."

We exchanged email addresses after I learned from Mira (Yaminah's mother) that this beautiful young cousin had read our family history website (California Black Pioneers) ... and maybe this journal....?

I do hope I can do this ... if work allows ... and if the aging body holds out under new and crushing demands. If not, it's just possible that the young woman replacement I've been waiting for these past years may now be in the wings preparing for an entrance when the time is right ... .

Photo: Yaminah Abdur-Rahim making her statement -- perhaps her first public stand but certainly not her last. Mira is standing just behind and to Yaminah's left -- head down with face showing just above the eyebrows.

Home again, and the tension has broken ...

In all of the days leading up to this one, I've not known just what to expect of our San Quentin Prison gate protest.

The Stanley Tookie Williams case has shadowed my life for about five years, ever since meeting Barbara Becnel and through her, moving closer to the prison and judicial systems than I could ever have anticipated. In the abstract, capital punishment was indefensible to me -- but after meeting Stan -- it was no longer an abstraction, but had living breathing corporeal reality -- all leading up to this day.

I've wondered over the years how it would feel when someone I'd come to know was facing the death penalty? Wondered how Barbara would fare in the aftermath -- when the cause of saving this life had dominated her own over the past ten years? She is stronger than anyone I know. A statuesque black woman of unique beauty and brilliance. But would she be strong enough for what this week may bring?

Today I'd committed myself to silence. There were lots of people who might be anxious to be on camera and to make statements. I mentioned to my friend, Marilyn, that I would not risk my position by being too visible here at the prison. I insisted (when she protested) that there would surely be no pressure brought against me for stands I may take on my own time, but that I wanted to be sensitive to public image in light of my work and the doors that were just now opening up to so many dreams I've held for so long.

I listened for a while -- sure that anything I might have said would surely be expressed by others and that it wouldn't be necessary for me to be more than one more supportive smiling face in the crowd. But it didn't happen. I hadn't counted on the fact that I would be the only person in that crowd with the distinction of having actually met Stanley Williams, and could speak firsthand of what that might mean in this context.

I asked for the mike and all of those cameras suddenly turned toward me. It was not intimidating. It was as though all I could see were the faces beyond them. I don't remembers my exact words, but whatever it was must have been effective since those faces smiled and heads nodded in agreement and it all felt right.

Country Joe Macdonald sang, Paul read from Walt Whitman and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Justice Brennan. But we were from the old revolution for social change. Beautiful young dreadlocked Michael Franti appeared from the edge of the crowd with his lovely little boy, bare feet despite chill and the hard pebbles underfoot, guitar slung carelessly over his shoulder, and I knew that the baton has been passed and that our revolution continues toward changing this recalcitrant world! His music was all the more inspiring in his presence. I've only heard his voice on the air. Joe and I exchanged knowing glances and relayed them to Paul. The revolution is in good hands.

I was glad to have thrown caution to the winds and said my piece. I won't watch the newscasts tonight. Whatever words I spoke did their job and to try to edit myself at this point would serve no purpose. I just don't want to know.

It was a good day.

I'm hopeful.

Photo: Singer Michael Franti whose songs were the highlight of the experience for me. His lyrics were chosen for relevance and were a strong reminder of the period in history when Paul Sawyer, Joe Macdonald, and tomorrow's vigil participant, Wavy Gravy, held the same magic and power for change that is emanating today trom a new generation. Was reminded that I, too, was one of them.