Thursday, March 30, 2006

The lofty feeling of being "We the people!" ... all of us ... .

Wednesday afternoon brought us to a delicious lunch at the Native American Museum, followed by a great multi-media show in a small circular theater on the top floor of this beautiful curved sand-hued building where we sat on tiered benches on 3 levels and watched multi-tribal images played against a mound at floor level; a screen that displayed evolving moving images while overhead on the domed ceiling -- changing scenes that took us through the seasons; under the ocean with the whales; surrounded us in caves and sweat lodges in rain wind and snow; involved us in tribal dancing; while the images before us on the screen played against the huge synthetic rock -- lit from within -- on the floor beneath the mid-level screen. It was an astounding experience that enveloped us in color and wrap-around sound. The entire event lasted no more than 15 minutes, but was so absorbing that the dimension of time dropped away. I wanted to experience it all again -- maybe 3 times -- in order to give full attention to each of the levels, but the trick was to try to take it all simultaneously, and I knew that. One day I'll go back and do it all again.

Martha, Kokee and I made our way separately down through the floors and the many tribal exhibits and -- just as she had the evening before -- standing in the Japanese Interment memorial -- I watched Kokee seeing for the first time the dramatic and hurtful lives of people other than African Americans. Slavery and human exploitation had not been ours alone to bear. The story of the Native American (something we also share as descendants of the Shoshone, the Seminole, and the Choctaw as well as Africans slaves) came alive for us both. I found myself wondering how she was taking these revelations that had been purely academic 'til now. This is a conversation we've not yet had, but will one day soon, I'm sure. This was the time for simply letting life flow over us, to be given context and understood in the days to come.

But it was our trip to the new and wondrous underground African Art Museum that proved to be the most moving -- and for reasons that will become clear when you click on the photo above and read the name of the artist being featured. It was another of those inexplicable moments that occurs from time to time and that have been the cause of wonder for my whole life.

The building shares land with the original Smithsonian Museum and two others. It has a relatively small footprint with most of its space on 3 floors, all underground. One can move between museums at the underground level -- a fact that almost lost us Kokee before she chose to surface and wait for us on a bench at ground level -- amid newly-planted crocuses and daffodils.

I've spoken in other stories of a time when my dearest friend -- from ages 6 into my teens -- was my grandfather, Papa George. He worked as a waiter at the exclusive Oakland Athletic Club at night, but together we planted and weeded and tied vine tendrils of the string beans to wooden poles and dug the root vegetables while he told the stories of Mammá and the little house in St. James Parish, Louisiana, beside the Mississippi, and sang those silly little songs that I thought he made up ... .That was Papa George. I'd speak of him and what he meant to me and of Mammá and her role as strong woman and midwife and protector of her large brood that evening upon receiving the award at the ceremony.

I'd been so aware that I was not alone last night -- but that I'd climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with all of them beside me -- Aunt Emily and Aunt Vivian and yes, Papa George. I found myself so aware that I can't recall ever mentioning the National Park Service nor thanking the National Women's History Project in my acceptance speech -- but back in time in some parallel universe where they still existed. It was strange -- but not disturbing in the least. I felt comforted by their presence and -- as a part of this strange collective -- I felt worthy of the honors being bestowed. We'd lived it and survived, and it was during my tenure on the planet that we now had arrived far from home to reach the nation's capitol to stand at the feet of the great emancipator!

But the most moving day of all would be tomorrow, on Thursday, when we would visit Anacostia and the African American Museum, and the home of Frederick Douglas.

But that is a story for tomorrow. I'm still recovering from the experience of finding -- finally -- our beloved Mammá -- as a class of African American women -- those who were really the "Builders of Communities and Dreams."

Photo: This is the brochure that I picked up just as we were leaving the African Museum. As I saw the name of the artist whose work was being featured (shown in the bottom half of this piece), I felt instantly the rightness of the honor being bestowed upon me as the representative of my family -- all those who preceded me in life -- and who had invested -- genetically -- in all that I am. It could not have been otherwise. This had been earned over generations by us all. Papa would not have had it otherwise!

And the prize goes to ...

How to tell the story ... particularly when I'm still so caught up in the wonder of it all?

Wide-eyed granddaughter, Kokee (young "Miss Ginglehopper), and I met Molly (NWHP Executive Director) at the Oakland airport at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am for the 6:50 flight to Washington. It was comforting to see her since I was taking off with no idea of what would happen once we landed in Baltimore and not even which hotel we'd be staying in for the next several days. Having been in Los Angeles until less than 24 hours before, all of the instructions for the flight to the east coast were sitting on the hard drive of my office computer and I was quite literally flying blind! Molly couldn't know that I'd not received word of the arrangements. It all worked out.

We arrived five hours later after a relatively smooth flight across country, and took the shuttle to the Hyatt Grand Hotel -- and how grand it was!

Martha Lee had arrived a bit earlier and called our room to announce plans for the evening. She picked us up in a borrowed Prius (terrific), and we headed for the Japanese Internment memorial. It was so moving ... even with the water features turned off for fear of freezing. With most of the tourists gone for the day and the tour buses gone to wherever tour buses spend their nights -- we had the streets to ourselves. We then visited the Washington Monument and thrilled at the sight of the lagoon under the night skies -- envisioning Martin Luther King's timeless oration -- and the great Marian Anderson's defiant concert at Lincoln's feet with Eleanor Roosevelt at her side in that shameful but triumphant event meant to shame the Daughters of the American Revolution, and did.

We walked silently through the Vietnam Memorial alongside the late night visitors who were equally and quietly trying to cope with the countless names of those whose lives were sacrificed in that duplicitous war that saw the erosion of faith in our leaders that has never quite healed. Not too far away is a most astounding memorial to the veterans of the Korean war -- those dimly-lit larger than life figures of a company of fighting men on the field of battle. They stand in various poses in full battle regalia with guns drawn and fear and courage etched into their faces. They are chalk-white and bring death chillingly close -- especially when visited in the sequence of Lincoln (Civil War), the names of the Vietnam War dead, and then -- those of the Korean "Police Action."

It was at the Korean Memorial that I first started to experience the disturbing sense of our nation's glorification of war -- and though that may be an over-statement -- it is nonetheless real. We'd not yet visited those places where some of that might be mitigated by the softness of the arts and science (the Smithsonians, the Space Museum, the National Archives, the Supreme Court, etc.) and the feeling that we were simply about war and the sacrificing of young lives came to the forefront and I couldn't shake it off until far into a sleepless night. Those feelings would again overwhelm me while standing on the steps of Arlington House overlooking the eternal flame at the Kennedy graves and the endless field of the stark white grave markers of those whose lives have been sacrificed to a succession of wars that continues to this day.

Maybe tomorrow it would be different. After all -- this was only the first evening and the next day would bring the NWHP celebration at the historic Hay Adams hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue (across the street from the White House), and the company of the other wayfarers with whom we share the planet, the nation, and -- for whatever it's worth -- the next stretch of time that may test our ability to save ourselves and the world from known and unknown perils.

Went to sleep at some point while pondering just how we'd managed to squander so much greatness? Remembered just before dropping off to sleep -- the press conference being aired on the radio of the shuttle that took us from the Baltimore airport to our hotel. How on earth does one think about the powerful and moving words that graced the walls of the Lincoln Memorial compared with the babble that was coming from that broadcast -- the exchange between White House correspondent Helen Thomas and the boy-president? How had we come to this?

Maybe tomorrow would hold some of the clues and provide some comfort ...

...and it did.

Photos: That is a shot of the interior of our hotel -- only about six minutes away from the Hay Adams Hotel in the heart of the White House area. The other is a moment I'll not forget soon -- as shared with Kokee who was seeing Washington and the nation's treasures for the first time. It was an unexpected privilege through the auspices of the NWHP for which I'll be eternally grateful.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Autrey Museum Celebration lives up to the reviews ...

Despite the GPS (global positioning system) female voice (we named her Mabel) in our rental car we managed to get ourselves lost on the way from the L.A. County Art Museum and the Autrey Museum in Griffith Park. Only after several wrong turns with Mabel having to re-calibrate our course each time before we could move, did we reach the NWHP event a mere 10 minutes late.

I'm not too high on cowboy stuff, and this place screams that history with the subtlety of Dolly Parton in full hooker regalia! Was feeling the laugh crawling up from my belly to my throat when NPS superintendent Martha Lee popped up out of the crowd (with her delightful mother in tow) and announced that my family had arrived earlier and were waiting anxiously for me. At that point irreverence was all I could feel -- and the absurdity of all of it.

David and my grandson, Rhico, plus his lady suddenly emerged from somewhere with grins all around and a big presentation bouquet that I'd receive later in the proceedings. They'd left the Bay Area at six in the morning to be here for the 3:30 ceremonies. They would leave immediately afterward to arrive back to Berkeley at around 1:30 am! No greater love hath a son for his mother. David was bursting with pride and delight. I thought of Bob and missed him terribly. Thought of Rick who died enough years ago and who should have retired to the background long ago but who continues to rise to the front of my mind at times such as this. Dorian was back home -- this would have been too much for her to deal with, given her level of understanding. Today it was David representing the family -- and stepping in to do it with such warmth and dignity.

He greeted me excitedly with, "...Mom, come see! Our ancestors are shown here in a mural in the museum gallery." Followed him and found a depiction of the Louis and Clark trek with their guide and interpreter, the Shoshone woman called Sacagewa and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, who led the expedition west and the opening of the Northwest Passage. Charbonnet is the spelling of our paternal family surname -- part of the family having moved to the Louisiana territories with the spelling, "Charbonnet," while others went into Canada where the name changed to "Charbonneau." This was one of the many cul de sacs that turned up in our family history project that has yet to be followed to some conclusion. But it was so exciting for David and Rhico to get this glimpse of why I find this research so exciting. The tantalizing possibility of an bloodline link to Sacagewa makes me tremble just thinking about it.

When the presentation began, it was obvious that I would have to make some kind of acceptance speech and that was a problem since I rarely think ahead and tend to say whatever comes to me as a response to what is happening around me. This time was no exception. I found the words, somehow, but can't for the life of me recall what it was that got expressed.

The crystal "Oscar" is so beautiful! It is an abstract shape of curves and planes, 8" x 9" by 2", with my name, the date, and the National Women's History Project logo etched into the surface at the back. When the light comes through it is awesome -- but I'm not sure just what I'll do with it. Can't take it to work. A bit ostentatious, wouldn't you say? Have it in my bedroom beside the lovely clock received from the staff of Assemblywoman Loni Hancock's office when I left a few years ago. To feel deserving of such a magnificant award was again a challenge, and in the company of women of such stature shook what little poise I could command. I still had the tendency to want to look behind me for the woman it was really intended for.

It would take the flight all the way to Washington, D.C., two days later, and visits to the Japanese Internment Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the moving Vietnam Monument so stunning in its simplicity; to the Lincoln Memorial at night when the tourists were gone; the unbelievably moving memorial for FDR; the WWII memorial (a bit disappointing), the majestic but unabashedly phallic Washington monument upthrusting from the earth surrounded by briskly waving flags; the Jefferson monument seen at night with cherry blossoms about to burst into color against snow falling gently seen through the amber light; all of that before I started to feel deserving. But that feeling did come, finally, and when it came it was stunning! I now understand the why of it -- and that it was meant to be; and how humbling that was.

But that's for later. I need to savor these powerful though fragile feelings just a little longer before sharing.

Photo: Isn't this about the loveliest ...!

Yes, I'm home again -- trying hard to absorb the past ten days in some reasonable fashion and not succeeding very well...

I've sat down at my computer a number of times and given up before my fingers could take over. It's hard to describe -- this sense that my brain and the rest of me are operating at different levels -- barely related -- and at differing speeds.

Returned home on Friday after what seemed an endless flight across a nation made up of little more than cloud cover. Beautiful -- but the ephemeral billowing grey-white below us added to a sense of non-reality. Would I be able to hold it all without losing my sense of balance? Wasn't all that sure at times. Landing in Oakland at the end of the exhausting flight (had to help hold the plane up, of course) in a pouring rainstorm brought me back to some stability. The stormy weather cooled whatever magic spell I'd been under and life was quickly brought back to whatever normalcy I still enjoy.

Shall we start with Los Angeles on Friday, March 17th? Tom accompanied me to Southern California where we managed to visit the Armand Hammer Art Museum in Beverly Hills on Friday afternoon. What a collection! Saw the old masters again (Van Gogh, Matisse, Manet, Sargent, Chagall, etc.) and for a few minutes there couldn't see how on earth they could ever be equated with the modernists (Jackson Pollock, Warhol, Picasso, etc.), and shouldn't we have some other category through which to describe their works?

On Saturday we took ourselves out to visit the Getty Center high in the hills and overlooking the "river" below, that was the San Diego freeway and conceived as a part of the "art" presentation by the architect, Richard Meier. One has to ride a tram up the hillside to reach the museum made of Italian alabaster stones cut into a beautiful repetitive series of structures composed of squares. It is totally white except for a lovely violet arbor holding wisteria now dormant but beginning to bud. I had the feeling of what it must be like to visit the pyramids. The grandeur of the site and the magnificent buildings that make up the center are overwhelming.

We took the architectural guided tour. The hanging artworks were quite wonderful but were almost secondary to the edifice itself. Would like to return someday when I'm not so awed by the structure and can better lend myself to the art.

On Sunday, early in the day, we visited the Los Angeles County Museum for another great tour of the exhibitions. Despite the marvelous reputation of San Francisco's impressive museums and art collections, it was quite obvious to me that -- when compared to that of Southern California -- we're still in the throes of beginnings. Here we saw many of the modern masters, and, I had the feeling that the visit to the Getty had served to "clear the palate" and allowed me to better appreciate the modernists than if we'd gone straight from the Impressionists to Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein's cartoon art. That Campbell soup can just couldn't do it for me except as I could see it as a rebellion against tradition and a much-needed pushing of the envelope that freed us to see the world a bit differently.

Maybe it was because of the reason I was in Los Angeles at all -- for the ceremonies of the National Women's History Project later in the day -- I became very aware of the absence of women artists. In neither the extensive collections of the Hammer, the Getty, nor at the L.A. County Art Museum did I see the work of more than a single female artist. Only one Mary Cassatt was exhibited -- and that as part of the Hammer collection. Thought for a minute that I'd seen two, but the other turned out to be male with an ambiguous name.

The need to "...write women back into history" as stated in the written materials of the NWHP suddenly sang out to me as of critical importance. That I was going to be honored that very afternoon at the ceremonies at the Autrey Museum took on greater significance. I was going to become a part of that long-neglected history -- not only for myself, but for women as a class. The ten of us were going to be helping to make a place for women everywhere; a great honor, indeed. This feeling was reinforced as we visited the nation's capital a few days later and found ourselves overwhelmed by the glorification of war and the devastation of lost lives of the thousands of grave markers for the nation's young in Arlington Cemetery, the Korean War Memorial, that of World War II, and Vietnam. Testosterone reigns in what we've chosen to honor as national heritage -- and women and their participation and sacrifices for the country seemed only dealt with as an afterthought.

My comfort level with the process was beginning to grow -- and with any luck at all would increase enough to take me to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

And it did.

Photo: Vincent Van Gogh's "Irises," one of my favorite paintings.