Tuesday, December 25, 2007

So who told me that I could turn off the magic?

It's Christmas morning, and all's well. Got through Christmas Eve -- the last minute shopping frenzy, the food prep for today; and no, I've not yet begun the wrapping process, but I'm ready.

The depression and rejection of all things Christmas came to a crashing end when I picked Dorian up at her apartment across town yesterday. She was carrying her precious packages of God-knows-what for friends and family. The excitement on her face was contagious. She lives all year for this day, and no all-powerful Mom was going to take it away on the pretext of common sense and rationality. Maybe Christmas isn't supposed to "make sense."

She'd fashioned beads and wire and tempura and bits of cloth and tongue depressers -- into loving gifts that made her own particular kind of sense. The wrappings were colorful and clumsy and tied up with bright ribbons with strangely-shaped bows and sometimes not ... .

I felt better. But could I tell her that we would skip trimming a tree this year? How?

But it got better.

First stop Supermarket. With all resistance put down (at least until later), I now feared that all of the trees would be gone and that -- now that I was ready -- I'd have to explain to her why I'd waited until it was too late? This would be a first and I knew that she lacked the capacity to understand how such an unthinkable thing could have happened.

We pulled up to the front of the supermarket and there -- as I remembered -- were the trees that were marked "$39.99 and up" only yesterday. I was ready to buy -- the spirit of Christmas and her look of happy anticipation had crushed all else.

As I pulled up to the curb where the trees were on display I asked only one thing, "...can you load one on my car for us?" The clerk grinned and said, "no, lady. We can't do that -- questions of liability, you know." And, no, I didn't know. A flicker of a tiny shadow of doubt returned for just an instant. This was followed by, "...if you'll open up the hatchback I'll help you slide it in. I believe it will fit nicely." And, "they're all free today, you know," he grinned as I offered my credit card.

Suddenly the magic had returned. The clerk saw the surprise and delight on my face and was thoroughly enjoying it. I would surely not be the first today to learn of the generosity. He may have remembered me and my sadness from yesterday.

After dropping Dorrie off at home with the tree that we'd happily lugged up the stairs without help, I returned to the Mall to complete gift-buying along with the Christmas Eve crowds. It felt different; less like greed and wastefulness and more like love and sharing. It's a heart thing, maybe... as advertised.

Dorian spent last night dragging out the boxes of ornaments and happily draped the lights, hung the bright varied and aged shapes; replaced dead light bulbs; sang familiar carols badly along with the radio while I candied the yams and readied the other side dishes for today. Everyone will be home; except for son, Rick, whose far too-early death still enshrouds the season. But I'm thinking that this may well be the last of the grieving. Maybe the gift of a 7 ft. tall evergreen from an unknowing corporate entity did the trick.

Who would have guessed?

Merry Christmas!

Betty and Dorian

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Historians take note: I have been reborn into Grinch form as of precisely 4:36 on this day... .

It's been coming on for several years; this total disillusionment with all things Christmas. Noticed the first signs the year Dorian accepted, finally, that there was no Santa (it takes a bit longer for the retarded so it was necessary to indulge in reality hints over the year leading up to full disclosure). That wasn't easy for either of us, but in time she bought into the notion that being Santa was almost as much fun as pretending.

Being one who didn't give up on the myth until I was about nine, (I know; my imagination blew away any signs that may have suggested otherwise). There were those years as a teenager when it was great fun to exchange gifts and swig the eggnog. There were those great years when being Santa for my children was just about the greatest dream come true.

The apex was probably the year that Mel presented me with a set of car keys for a brand new simulated wood-paneled luxury Mercury station wagon sometime in the Sixties. This would have been during my "pretty little brown Doris Day in the suburbs" period. It was a big year for the Reids. I believe the following year scored nearly as high when I opened up a huge gift box containing a magnificent Martin concert guitar which still leans (though now silent) against the wall in my living room; a reminder of a Betty who once was... .

Today is December 22nd, and the first day to begin the shopping ritual. What a disappointment! Rose early this morning to drive first to HoneyBaked fully expecting to find the cars wrapped around the block (should have suspected something was amiss) but a parking spot was waiting just beyond the entrance so I thanked the parking gods and slipped in. There were no lines out front. Thought for just a minute that the place may have closed, but no; someone was coming out as I looked around for an open sign. He was clutching the familiar large plastic bag.

Walked into the store that was only sparsely-filled. In less than 8 minutes I'd worked my way to the front counter only to discover at least part of the answer to the missing crowds. I asked for a medium-sized ham and was told that there were none left under 9 lbs. Sounded about right so I automatically offered my Visa card as one of the many clerks behind the counter said, "that will be $54.83! Something snapped. I wasn't sure just what it was, but life would not be the same again, and in that moment I knew that we (the economy and I) had crossed a threshold of some kind. Nor will Christmas. Then I remembered that last Christmas the ham cost under $40, but still a shocker at the time. It may have weighed less, but the cost was not as stunning as today for some reason. Maybe it was because I'd spent $3.36 a gallon for gas on my way to the store, this morning. Next year I'd need to put the ham on Layaway and pay it off in installments, if there is a next year, that is! It's about time to institute ham hocks with red beans and rice as the festive "traditional New Orleans" Christmas dinner of choice. And -- that old saw about "God willin' and the creek don't rise" is no longer a joke -- given the grave warnings of mounting evidence of radical climate change underway... .

The shock didn't hit me all at once, but this was like the beginning of a kind of long-delayed sobering up after years of drunkenness. I remember then how shocked I was at the announcement during the week before Thanksgiving that the stores would be open at 4:30 a.m. for the early birds! Some stores advertised that they would be open all night. I was appalled! What have we come to? What kind of people get up in the middle of the night to head for the department stores to buy "stuff" they don't need and probably can't use before recycling time?

Alright. Time to rationalize this ham thing. Decided while driving back to Richmond that I needed to frame the question differently. If I were to take my family out for Christmas dinner, it would surely cost far more than this. Comparing it to the restaurant bill (and the fact that I wouldn't need to bake it myself), it made a kind of sense; but only barely. But this would be the last year of commercially-baked hams. I would join those who have regained their sanity and prepared their own this year.

But common sense had now risen to the front of my brain and was not to be denied. It followed me into the Mall where I walked from rack to rack looking for wearable gifts for my pre-teen granddaughters. Awful! All of the fabrics had that woody feel to them -- the feel and smell of synthetics. Everything was poorly made and styled like miniature women's wear with plunging necklines on little girl's sizes 7-10 with spangles and logos and brand names painted, sewn, and stamped on everything! The prices were outrageous! Even at the markdowns of 50-60%, there was little worth owning. (Whatever on earth are young parents doing these days?) I could not pay these prices only to turn the girls into walking billboards for some offshore sweat shop.

Left the Mall and stopped in at Barnes & Noble (no independent bookstores are left in my community) to pick up a half-dozen classic books for the children -- no problem there. Then on to the Christmas tree lot to empty my wallet in the spirit of the season.

You know what? I realized as I drove into the lot that Christmas had died at around 4:36 Pacific Coast time, on this day of December 22, 2007. I have never in my long life ever not had a live tree. I hate the artificial ones. We have an 70 year accumulation of family ornaments stashed away waiting to be hung and admired, with all of the memories attached. I've never even considered not putting up a tree... .

When I saw the sign announcing "..all trees under 5 ft. now $39.00 it was over. I was not about to buy a dead tree for $40! And as I looked at them -- regularly trimmed with an electric pruning saw -- looking identical and without the familiar pungent fragrance of evergreens (since they were cut back in October and trucked in from Oregon). The second level of "snap" happened and I turned away to buy a large poinsettia ($17.95) and headed for home with my classics books in the trunk of the car and feeling sad for the end of a long era of believing ... only it's not Santa who's lost credibility, this time it's the entire economic system based upon greed -- and our unjustifiable all-consuming way of life in a world of such need.

Tomorrow I'll set out again to check out my Christmas "pulse" for any signs of life. If this is anything more than fatigue and/or a continuation of missing Rick, I'll let you know. I don't believe it is. It is my suspicion that a lot of folks are sobering up this year from decades of over-consumption, and that the economy will take a crushing dive come the New Year.

We may have permanently lost our "Peace on Earth Goodwill Toward Men" on the battlefields of the Middle East. I hope not.

Maybe all I'm needing is a good stiff eggnog and a few choruses of "Children go where I send thee."

Stay warm.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Lazy Sunday with insights ...

After a week that included a Wednesday evening party at my little condo -- welcoming young Charbonnets and meeting older ones again plus a Saturday 3-hour bus tour that included a fascinating group of "tourists." This time there was a party of 8 Japanese-Americans; the purser from the in-the-process-of-restoration SS Red Oak Victory; two local second generation homefront worker descendants; plus a woman writer of feminist literature who had been the member of the French Resistance during WWII in the European theater. This fascinating group might well have been more eligible for leading the tour than those of us in uniform. It was a great weekend that ended with a small dinner in front of a blazing fire in the grate and good talk last night ... and dishes left in the sink for a leisurely morning cleanup.

But -- instead of jumping out of bed quickly this morning to bring order to my living space, I lay there watching the Sunday morning pundits re-hashing the week's campaign activities -- which may be what set me up for some wildly creative thoughts that surfaced later in the day.

With only a small nudge of guilt -- I lay there after briefly rising to brush my teeth and what's left of my hair -- re-stacked the pillows and flipped the channels to pick up the Target Invitational starring Tiger Woods. Watched him slowly wipe out the field, including a brief threat from Jim Furyk, and suddenly my eyes popped wide! Watched those great golfers all playing for second place, as usual, as Tiger -- with his characteristic dogged concentration played on.

Of course! Was it possible that Tiger Woods, by singlehandedly overwhelming his sport to lead the field for the past 12 years, that this handsome young black man whose race is no longer mentioned -- that it was he who opened the door to universality for Barack Obama?

Race in the game of golf is no longer an issue. Is it possible that this can now be true in the field of politics, and partially because of Tiger's demeanor and character?

I watched as Tiger performed with perfection the final putt on the 18th hole then walk slowly over to where his mother held up Sam, his beautiful 5-month old daughter. She was held up to receive him (as his father used to do at the end of each match) and he lovingly planted a kiss on her cheek. I'm certain that everyone in the crowd noticed the symbolism in this act of love. He then turned to his lovely Nordic blond wife and they embraced for just a moment. And all this occurred before the hundreds of fans applauding in the background. This scene could not have played out without a causing a riot only a few decades ago. And while there are surely still remnants of smoldering resentment in pockets of bigotry here and there, Tiger's impeccable reputation; his accomplishments on the golf course; his grace and charm; his dogged determination to be the best and to compete with integrity ... all have served to overcome whatever vestiges of racism existed in this -- the most elegant of sports. Tiger has broken down the doors of the clubhouse, and done it with such grace that we're beginning to forgot that those doors were ever closed.

It is perhaps this that has served to overcome the barriers that held those of us of color from even considering the possibility of ever aspiring to the highest office in the land. Perhaps these otherwise unrelated worlds have collided, and Tiger's quiet dignity and total domination in his sport has served to soften the white world into considering the very real possibility that another young African American, handsome young Senator Barack Obama, just might be capable of doing the same for the country and the world.

Maybe Tiger Woods is important in more ways than we've ever perceived him to be -- important as a catalyst for the change that awaits us all. By his grace and elegance, he has provided a model of American manhood that transcends the limitations of race -- and by so doing may have opened another door -- the door to the White House -- for the other young man who may well deliver the hope and inspiration for a nation and a world desperately in need of both.

Now for those dishes ... .

Saturday, December 08, 2007

It has finally arrived -- that feeling of just being too old for something ... .

At the invitation of Lighthouse Community Charter School -- an interesting small school like many scattered throughout the city in the wake of the demise of public schools -- I arrived on Thursday morning to be their speaker. The class (perhaps 35-40 students?) were gathered together in a makeshift basement classroom tucked beneath a small office building in the heart of downtown Oakland. Beautiful faces on eager learners. That's what seems so special about these elective schools; there is that agreement made up front that this is the place where they want to be. There are no slackers here -- only the curious and the motivated combined with idealistic young educators; a winning combination.

These kids recently experienced a field trip to the Rosie the Riveter memorial in Richmond and were filled with questions about the time line embedded in the long walk (length of a Victory Ship) of the memorial. They'd read of Jim Crow-ism and racial practices that apparently needed clarification. Since I'd been the speaker at two national conferences hosted by the Lighthouse School over the past few years, their teacher placed a call to my desk a week or so ago to ask if I'd come to talk with their students who were ready to explore the WWII period and its social environment. Having had such a positive experience at Berkeley Arts Magnet only a few weeks ago, this was a no brainer; of course!

Why was this so different? I'm not really sure, but speaking with high school young people proved to be dramatically so. Either that, or, I was not prepared for what I found.

The distance between me and 9 year-olds was surmountable. It took only a few minutes to find the commonalities and to speak to them. Not sure where the match fell, but it was clearly there.

With adolescents, the difference was immense. There have been so many wars between the course of my life and theirs. WWII was the last declared war, and it was the last time we experienced war collectively -- as an entire nation; man, woman, and child. In the world these adolescents live in, governments go to war, not populations. Our nation's people are passive and only engaged incidentally. Some of them are warriors, more of them are victims, and few have any sense of the "why" of it. How does one speak of the present-day state of war? I found it impossible to do so. In that moment I could see no rational explanation for even the "justified" war of my generation. Standing before those young people, I was suddenly aware of how profoundly I simply didn't understand the inhumane concept of war. The words began to stick somewhere deep in my throat and thoughts were now a jumble of confusion. In some strange way I felt less mature -- less tested -- than they.

Yet, as I looked out on these young people (almost all youngsters of color and low income), it was impossible to not imagine that -- in a few short years -- they might well be the warriors of their time simply because their generation has run out of alternatives and the workplaces of the future has no need of them.

I wanted to cry... .My being there seemed almost incongruous. Were it possible to do so, the person sent to fill this engagement should have been someone whose age fell somewhere between their ages and that of their parents. I was simply too old. The years between were simply too numerous to span.

...so we talked about what Oakland was like when I was their age. They asked many questions, but few of them were about WWII or the Rosie Memorial or the birth of feminism brought on by women entering the work force for the first time in history. Such things were irrelevant to them and to their lives. How could these young people even imagine a time when women did not work outside their homes? Many of them come from single-parent homes headed by women.

The students were Latino, various Asian and South Pacific Islanders, a few African American students, a few white students, etc., with two white teachers. This is typical, of course, since we are still in a time when those coming out of the schools of education are still those who can afford to attend the universities in larger numbers. The effects of white privilege still prevail. It will be some years before that changes, I'm sure.

For all those reasons, I felt less than successful this time out. They wanted to know about the Black Panthers (whom I admitted supporting wholeheartedly in the Sixties) because they'd been studying them as a part of the Black Power Movement. I told them about having seen the Blackstone Rangers, a similar group out of Chicago. They wanted me to tell them how we handled drugs and violence ... and I had to admit my lack of experience with such evils in the Oakland in which I'd grown up at such a different period of the nation's history.

During the hour or so of my attempt at bridging the impossible gap, we made contact from time to time -- but I simply felt out of context. I did the best I could, but felt overwhelmed by the huge chasm between my life and theirs. I felt discouraged and -- most of all -- I felt old.

I ended the experience by reciting a poem, "Little Boy Black," I'd written at another time of confusion on a plane on the way home from that Black Caucus conference in Chicago in the Sixties. I attempted (with uncertainty) to connect with the poets in the room. Not sure I did, but it was the only bridge to them that I could find. I closed my eyes and tried to remember all of the stanzas. Not sure I did, but just maybe... .

It was a hard hour, but one in which I found warmth and a willingness to hear my words -- even when they were only slightly relevant to their perilous times.

Again -- they were so young, and I ... .

Photo: "Mac-10 w/Roses," (hot sculpted glass) by Alexander Sarkis Abajian. Exhibited at the Oakland Museum.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

What a crazy couple of weeks this has been ... a time of contrasts.

And, no, I was not decked by that last entry. A little chastened and made thoughtful, but really not in the least offended. It brought a couple of healing conversations that helped to work it through and let it go. It comes with the territory, I'm sure. If one is as open about one's life process as I've become in these later years -- then there is an implied vulnerability that is inescapable. Life goes on.

Thanksgiving has come and gone, and with it renewed feelings of regret that my late son, Rick, was not with us. I still miss him dreadfully at times of celebration, but am no longer certain whether I'm still actively grieving, or whether I've forever locked myself into the silent loss that I rarely speak of aloud anymore. Holidays were always less than advertised since we never knew whether he'd make it as promised because his drinking suppressed his need for us toward the end of his life. All those years of waiting for the phone to ring -- wondering ... Now connecting that trauma with the aroma of turkey baking in the oven and released each time I open the oven door to baste the bird ... The missing is a very complex issue that is mixed with the love and relief that this particular form of waiting is over. Another aspect of the holiday.

If age has brought anything of importance to my understanding of family dynamics, it is that this kind of helpless pain is shared with wives, fathers, siblings, of every race, color, and ethnicity where the disease of alcoholism reigns. It is now impossible to look across a room anywhere and not see aspects of myself; especially where there is/was pain.

Maybe by Christmas this year, I'll find myself closer to the relief side of the equation.

But there were better things to relish over the past week:

The future looks truly exciting in that my online activities have allowed members of my Katrina-scattered family to find me, largely through the Internet. The mails brought an announcement of a 2009 Charbonnet Family Reunion to be held in New Orleans. I have so longed for this to happen, and now it has. Under the leadership of three members whom I've never met, we will spend the year re-connecting across the nation for the sharing of the stories and collecting the history. As one young cousin stated, "...you can't tell the story of New Orleans without the stories of the Charbonnets." Unimaginable, surely. After all, we date back to the 1700s, before the Revolutionary War, and when it was still only the Louisiana Territory. You have no idea how important that fact has become as I age -- and how grounded it has allowed me to become. Wish I could transfer some of that to my grandchildren, but life seems to dictate that we each find our own landing places, and theirs will be far different from my own, having been carved out by lives so different from the years of my tenure on the planet.

I'm looking forward now to a visit from the team of family researchers who will be coming in a few weeks to gather my stories (and to see my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet's, engineering text books that sit quietly on my little bookshelf). I'm hoping that someone somewhere has a photograph of my grandmother (and his wife) Victoria Morales Charbonnet whom I only remember as "Mamaire" (not sure of the spelling).

Then I'm reminded that it was in the process of researching my own family tree -- the frustration of not being able to learn anything about the women -- only through the men -- that I made the decision to chronicle my own life here for my children and grandchildren.

Therefore the blog ...

and the vulnerability.


Photo: Photo taken by a friend, City Councilman Tom Butt who, as a member of a team of prominent architects, made an inspection trip to N.O. after Katrina. At my request, he photographed the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home - a family and New Orleans institution.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I've crossed some trip wire and received my first angry response from a reader... .

The letter came today from the director of the Richmond Museum of History. He'd been alerted by someone to an entry I made some months ago when I attended an exhibit and expressed (pretty negatively) my disappointment at the experience. I remembered it vaguely as I read his angry response. The letter was sent to my office and therefore I read it with my "ranger" eyes and felt real concern. My blog is simply not a part of my work life so it felt like an invasion of some sort. I'd written that entry (as I almost always do) while sitting in my pj's and bathrobe, usually barefoot and completely "Betty", with none of the trappings of my public identity. In that place I'm not defensive nor guarded and write pretty much stream-of-consciousness at all times. I rarely if ever edit my writings after the fact. In fact, I almost never re-read anything I've written, but tend to move ahead into whatever the next experience suggests. That's that way of journaling, I suppose. Had I received this letter as an email through the blog (while at home) it would have been far less jarring. At my desk at work it was out of context. It was disturbing.

After reading the furious letter (written in longhand which made it feel even more serious), I answered it by email. Not sure precisely what I wrote today, but it wasn't angry -- maybe a little sad -- I suppose, and remember now that I did suggest that I would go back into the archives and read what I'd written. I remember saying that whatever I'd written was probably an accurate description of what I was feeling at the time, and that I wasn't quite sure just how one can undo feelings. This particular bell would be hard to un-ring!

I've been home now for several hours, and have decided that to re-read that post with the idea of retracting what I wrote at another time didn't make a lot of sense. In all the years since I started writing there have never been more than a dozen readers in any 24 hour period, according to the counter. Usually no more than ten. I've always taken comfort in that figuring that my readers were probably members of my family, with an occasional stranger who may have stumbled in from time to time. Those numbers are pretty insignificant, especially since I've been blogging since September of 2003. So, I'm writing for myself and my nieces and nephews for the most part.

It is quite true (as I mentioned in my email to the museum director), that I carry around a lot of residual, disembodied, and justifiable rage, and that I'm at an age where I no longer feel compelled to hold it in. I'm not as apt to suffer in silence as I did for a lifetime. I'm hoping that I'm providing a balanced picture of life these days -- that I'm neither paranoid nor being unnecessarily combative, though I'm not sure that's always true. It depends a lot upon what I'm seeing around me on any given day.

It occurred to me as I sat at my MAC tonight, that the director and his informant might have fared better had they turned their energy toward exploring just why there were no African Americans in attendance at that event (except for me), and to wondering if anything I expressed carried a hint or two of just why race relations in this city are still so difficult to confront? His museum, after all, sits in the middle of a black community.

He mentioned that his board would be "...looking into the matter." I would hope that they would invite me to attend their meeting. If my writings -- however controversial -- have opened a long-stifled civic conversation -- how wonderful that would be. This might well be the greatest gift we can give to this troubled community. Perhaps he will read this (while looking for my response) and see the importance of using this opening as the best possible course to take -- and will be in keeping with my work life -- which has its controversial elements as well, at least if I'm doing it as it should be done. And ... I do believe that I'm doing my work well. Though I may be the cause of some discomfort for some.

There are few universals here. We each have lived and are living -- our own reality. Mine has produced what you read in these pages.

None of it can be un-lived!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A delightful memory of Miyoko ... .

It was some years ago while I was serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of Starr King School for the Ministry; a Unitarian-Universalist seminary and a member of the prestigious Graduate Theological Union on "Holy Hill" on the northern border of the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

Miyoko was a young woman and citizen of Japan who had been awarded a foreign student scholarship to study for one year in this country. In a moment of madness I offered to share my home with her until student housing could be secured nearer to the campus. Miyoko spoke no English. I, of course, knew not a word of Japanese. She was in her mid-twenties and I in my mid-seventh decade, I believe.

My mother had recently passed away and my fairly large 3-bedroom home had developed echoes and hollows I'd not yet become used to. After many years of caretaking, having a young person around again might be helpful while I figured out just what I would do with the rest of my life.

For about two weeks she went off to classes and I to my work. When we found ourselves in a room together we smiled a lot. I did a lot of stupid pointing and identifying objects and foods and ... and gradually the smiles turned into giggles as we struggled our way through the demands of communicating without words.

On the second Sunday after our adventure in living started I invited her out for a drive. On an impulse I drove to the University campus -- past the soccer fields -- the Memorial Stadium - through Strawberry Canyon and finally, into the parking lot of the Lawrence Hall of Science sitting on the uppermost ridge of the city's skyline. We stood together for a while looking out on the magnificent panorama of the entire Bay Area. No need for words here. Just wonder.

We then entered this magical museum -- filled with the sounds of happy parents and children going through the exhibits and experimenting with the hands-on displays. I'd spent times past here with my grandchildren, and felt in my soul that the magic would be communicated and that here -- age and language were mere conveniences and not essential to the experience. We still had few words in common, but had grown more content to share the silences.

As we rounded a corner at one point a large Grandfather's clock loomed into view. Miyoko pointed ahead excitedly and quickened her step. I followed. Suddenly she burst into song:

"O my grandfather's clock stood alone on the shelf
so it stood ninety years on the floor
It was taller by far than the old man himself
though it weighed not a pennyweight more
It was born on the morn of the day that he was born
it was always his treasure and pride
and it stopped - short -- never to go again
when the old man died"

Ninety years without slumbering (tick tock, tick tock)
His life seconds numbering (tick-tock, tick tock)

And it stopped -- short -- never to go again
when the old man died.

It was sung in perfect English! She'd learned the song phonetically at summer camp (where else?) in Japan. Her singing expressed all of the pent-up frustration of living in an alien environment where her words were not understood and where those around her were locked out. In that moment there was no one else in the room. She looked straight into my eyes and sang almost defiantly, beaming with the biggest grin she could muster!

By the time she reached the second line we were both singing loudly and continued through all of the verses without shame. By the time we'd reached the third line voices had begun to chime in from everywhere around us and smiling singers were gathering 'roun'! The many deep-voiced unself-conscious "tick tocks" from husbands and fathers in the hall were wonderful! Lawrence Hall of Science was transformed into one great summer camp reunion! It was a Sunday afternoon in Berkeley that I never thought I'd forget.

Miyoko had finally arrived in America! We spent the next few nights singing through her campsite repertoire and finding commonalities that we could experience no other way. She knew the entire score to The Sound of Music -- and we did a lusty and magnificent duet in harmony of "Climb Every Mountain", while preparing dinner and sorting laundry. And my pointing out of ordinary items as those words came up in the lyrics proved to be an invaluable tool.

I felt a heart tug when word came that dormitory space had been found and that our little adventure in international relations would now come to an end. I attended her graduation ceremony at the San Francisco UU Church that next spring -- but there had been a mix-up in communication and she was missing from the group when the others arrived from Berkeley. After a full year of study, Miyoko missed her Commencement.

She must have been crushed ... !

Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Speechifying" can be quite wonderful ...

Yesterday we laid Ethel to rest from Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond. The spirited celebration of her life would have pleased her. From the rhythms of the African drums that began the church service -- the magnificent gospel singing from her church members. It all set the stage for a four-hour long celebration (counting the service, the graveside ceremony, and the repast) that was worthy of this very special woman.

Met her son, Kariti Hartman, for the first time -- with plans to come together to explore what the future may hold for her little hotel and its colorful history.

Today I fulfilled a longtime commitment to be the luncheon speaker at Valley Bible Church in the nearby town of Hercules. What an honor to be the centerpiece of a well-planned event that -- obviously -- was built around you and your subject. The ladies brought artifacts related to World War II (i.e., vintage sheet music, miniature posters from the homefront, -- a trunk that held the army uniform, hat, personal papers from one woman's late father). Much thought had gone into this luncheon. Tables were decorated for Thanksgiving and a complete turkey with-all-the-trimmings dinner was served.

I spoke about the park for about thirty minutes to an audience of women who -- in many cases -- might have been the ages of my own children. It is often disconcerting to look out on the faces of older women with white hair and realize that -- except for two -- all had been born after World War II. It was their parents who served in the war and in the war industries. Strange ... .

Also, there were only two women of color in the audience; one Asian and the other African American. I changed not a word of my talk. The most important lesson I believe I've learned over this past year is that the trick is to talk until you run out of truth -- then stop! The truth for me is highly colored by my experience as a black woman -- so that's what forms the core of my stories. To the extent that I'm able to communicate the feelings of that experience -- those stories are universal. The knowing nods around the room, are enough to validate my life experience.

I'm more certain than ever that the secret is in being authentic. The women of the Daughters of the American Revolution were authentic. These women were pious, believing, born-again dedicated-to-Jesus members of the Valley Bible Church. They, too, are authentic. I share few of their beliefs -- except that -- I, too, am authentic. Agnostic, at times -- Atheist, but authentic. Therefore we had no problem communicating across the superficial barriers of race, religion, or politics. There is surely enough shared human experience to celebrate. Today -- as I did at Ethel's funeral -- I felt envious of the certainty I saw all around me. To be surrounded by the kind of faith that provides indisputable answers to the great questions of life leaves me in awe. I felt it again today as I joined the women of Valley Bible Church in singing hymns of praise and giving thanks. And I felt a deep kinship and an "at homeness" that has stayed with me throughout the rest of the day.

It was a beautiful afternoon.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

To hell with the vacuuming!

I'm in the midst of a major brainstorm here, and the imagination shall not be denied.

What if it were possible to secure the International hotel by getting the city to purchase it for safekeeping while we wade through these intriguing possibilities? This would allow Ethel's son to inherit the proceeds of the sale (the building surely has little value in today's market) in order to get on with his life. His needs must not get lost in any of this. There may be some way to get the Redevelopment Agency to turn its attention away from that long-neglected part of the community for a while longer ... maybe ... and restrain its tendency to bulldoze the site for the purpose of another scattered site project.

Then, supposing, if that were accomplished through the benevolence of the city -- we would be able to design a program that would bring together (for the purposes of educating the community and its young people to this important history) preservationists, union craftspeople, and the youth of the city to study and restore the building to take its rightful place in the colorful history of the Bay Area? The International Hotel could become the training laboratory for teaching all of the skills needed for careers in historic preservation where youth could be trained in electrical wiring, carpentry, masonry -- all of the skills associated with construction denied their parents and grandparents at the time when those two great union organizers and civil rights leaders made their life-changing contributions. What a way for the labor unions to become accountable for past sins, find atonement, and claim redemption. Alright, that's strong language -- a bit over the top -- but not too far from the reality as lived at that site at that time. The effects of their denial of equal opportunity for members of the black community are surely still visible in this city and others like it across the country.

Not to be discounted is that fact that -- like so many of the make-work projects designed by well-intentioned social agencies and nonprofits for young African Americans -- this work could hold deep meaning to those who participate, adding dignity and self-esteem. A partnership with the Black Studies Department of the community colleges would be an exciting possibility.

There must be grants available -- perhaps from the unions -- that would underwrite such an undertaking. Do you suppose?

Perhaps this building, then, could house Richmond's first version of an African American history museum.

Crazy? Maybe, but I'll bet Ethel Dotson would say a grand "Amen!" to such dreams.

And now I really do need to make that trip to the dumpster and get another load in the washer ... . Such wool-gathering is time-consuming -- but I still have the entire holiday weekend in which to find a better use for time away from my desk. My non-ranger time may be slowly shrinking -- but the complexity of Betty Soskin still demands time and space -- and that's probably as it should be.

Photo: Ethel at a happier time.

Documented connections found between Randolph and Dellums ...

There is no question. Just located an interview online, "Conversations with Ron Dellums" which has this paragraph:

"...C.L. Dellums, as you know, joined with A. Philip Randolph. These were guys that came out of the twenties, these were the old left-wing guys in the twenties. The came together (Ed. at the International Hotel?) and organized the first African American trade union in the history of America, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. These were guys who placed a great premium on the spoken word as a way of organizing, to be impressive when they challenged people. You know, people thought A. Philip Randolph and C.L. Dellums and these guys were Harvard graduates, because they developed an affect that challenged the system to deal with them intellectually, at an eyeball-to-eyeball level."

Since Dellums was at that time leading the Northern California NAACP, that work of organizing must have happened here in the Bay Area. Where would they have met but in Richmond at a site that housed the very workers they were attempting to organize?

It has been a fruitful day, thus far. However, there's still the vacuuming to do and the mountain of trash (oh how the junk mail doth accumulate when you're not looking!) to tote out to the dumpster, but I'll feel much better at Ethel's funeral services on Tuesday knowing that the work is proceeding and that hope is not lost.

Still need help, though, everybody ... .

Photo: Taken at the unveiling of the statue of C.L. Dellums that stands at the recently restored 16th Street Southern Pacific station in Oakland, California.
The ultimate irony ... .

I'm not at all sure that Ethel Dotson's determination to save her precious historic landmark won't have been in vain. How sad! We discovered midweek that she died as one of the millions of the uninsured, and that there was a desperate need to quickly raise the funds to take care of her funeral expenses. And, yes, her friends and admirers came through, and her services are being held next week, as planned. A cemetery plot was donated anonymously, and her church congregation, her Neighborhood Council, and many friends, gave as generously as they could. You must remember that this is a very low income community -- but it takes care of its own.

This is not to say that the little landmark hotel won't need to be sold at some point to satisfy her creditors or to take care of her only son who surely can't be expected to hold it for posterity when his needs are immediate.

In the times (at home) that I give to blogging I need now to spend researching the connections between the Northern California chapter of the NAACP during the war years when it was headed by C.L. Dellums (yes, that would be the uncle of Oakland mayor, Ron Dellums) and his connections with A.Philip Randolph, creator of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. I've made an appointment to visit with the mayor next week to explore this. There must be some way to establish the historic value of Ethel's building so that its worth to black history will bring the help we'll need to get it purchased toward the goal of restoration. The Pullman Company figured powerfully in that era and (surely) in the life of the International Hotel. That history will be important now to the justification for national landmarking and eventual restoration. The International Hotel must first be saved.

In searching the web I found this from California Newsreel:

"...In response to the race riots of 1919, Randolph and Chandler Owen formed the National Association for the Promotion of Labor Unionism Among Negroes. Soon a group of Pullman car workers asked Randolph to help them organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The film revisits the group's bitter 12-year battle with the notorious Pullman Company, which tried repeatedly to destroy the union using spies and firings. The 1934 Wagner Act finally created a level-playing field, enabling the Brotherhood to win an organized contract in 1937, the first ever between a company and a Black union."


"...When WWII began, the federal government was still segregated and African Americans
excluded from all but menial defense industry jobs. Randolph leapt onto the national stage when he called for a march on Washington in protest. (According to CORE founder, James Farmer, "Roosevelt could not take the chance that 25,000 people would be protesting in Washington when he was calling the U.S. the arsenal of democracy." Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8002 banning such discrimination and the march was called off."


"...Later, as the Cold War heated up, President Truman announced the first peace-time draft. But he left the armed forces segregated. Randolph called on Black men to resist the draft until Truman relented, presaging the protests against the Vietnam War. Truman was furious, but in 1948 he issued an executive order integrating the military."

The piece ends with:

"...In 1963, Randolph called again for a march on Washington. He was the only civil rights leader who could unite other leaders in the movement. 250,000 came in response. When he introduced Dr. King, "symbolically, the torch was passed from one generation of fighters to another."
Would it not be incredible if this tiny (seemingly) insignificant International Hotel can be proven to have played a prominent role in the telling of the story of railroading as a change agent in African American life; could elevate this important labor history; and could become a critical factor in the telling of the story of this remarkable leader, Asa Philip Randolph?

Anybody out there want to help me make these connections? I believe much of what we'll need can be found online. We'll need to tie him to the War years and to a period spent in Northern California. His association with C.L. Dellums might prove fruitful in our search. The possibilities are tantalizing ... .

For Ethel Dotson ... .

For us all.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Requiem for a most courageous hero ... .

Let me tell you about this vital life force called Ethel Dotson:

She came to my attention only in recent years -- pressing environmental issues at city council meetings; speaking to the injustices and the constant dangers of ignoring the brownfields under our feet; toxic lands left over from war-related industries created during World War II. She was the bane of corporate interests -- the chemical laboratories and petroleum refineries that dominate life in this community. She challenged them all fearlessly on our behalf. Ethel watched as those poisonous lands were restored to use by ambitious real estate developers with short memories -- re-defining what brownfields means, and creating housing where her life experience would surely prohibit. Ethel and her siblings were born to WWII war worker parents in Seaport -- one of the temporary housing projects built on the lands of former chemical plant; a site that -- in the years since -- has produced a cell of cancer victims far above the national norm. She was relentless in her warnings.

Foremost of Ethel's concerns, however, was her almost obsessive dedication to the restoration of the tiny International Hotel that housed black railroad men on their layovers prior to and during the decades preceding WWII. She continually called out for whatever action might be necessary to save this important landmark. My ranger partner, Lucy, and I visited her there one day and got a tour of the 20 tiny upstairs single-occupancy rooms and the cluttered large reception room on the ground floor that reflected her personal taste for the flamboyant. She proudly showed us her collection of newspaper articles and vintage photographs that spelled out the history of her struggle to protect the building for posterity -- for the telling of this important Black migration story that preceded that of World War II. The stories of black waiters, cooks, and Pullman porters who discovered the West Coast and the Bay Area (as did the men of my own family) at the far western end of their railroad runs on the Acheson, Topeka & Santa Fe and Southern and Western Pacific rail lines -- decades before World War II.

Though still under a system of informal racial segregation, the Bay Area provided a sanctuary for black families where these men might bring their wives and children out of a hostile south. Ethel purchased the little crumbling building some years ago, knowing that it would some day be important to the telling of those stories. She knew that one day Richmond would be an important destination in Black Tourism. She was preparing for that. The development of Rosie the Riveter World War II/ Home Front National Park might well lend importance to those stories, and she gave her life to saving this critical element for the preserving of that history. But it is important to note that her work on saving the structure predates the existence of the park by some years.

The tiny hotel lay just across the street from the vast Pullman Yards where those famous sleeping cars would pull in for cleaning and restocking before being coupled to trains that would take travelers back across country. The Pullman company maintained -- only a block away at the corner of South Street and Carlson Boulevard -- a standard full-service hotel for whites, only, (conductors, brakeman, engineers, etc.), but did not accommodate black workers. That "white" hotel was torn down years ago as the neighborhood changed. The huge Pullman yards currently house a number of warehouse-type discount businesses. The train tracks leading into the huge buildings have long since been filled in or paved over for parking. Ethel's little hotel has little to identify it, except for her persistent reminder of its importance to the telling of the African American story. It was probably built sometime in the 1920s or before. She had succeeded over the years, in getting the City to grant it historic landmark status. Federal recognition is yet to be achieved. She'd gotten herself named to the Commission on Historic Preservation in the hope of advancing that goal over time.

Because of her instinctive sense of its future importance, she lived in it, alone, without utilities (no gas service) and therefore no heat for years. I'm sure that she saw the need to protect it by taking up residence against the day that the wrecking ball would descend upon a building that would be marked for abatement as abandoned property at some point. She never could hope to be able to afford, financially, what would be needed to fully restore it. Meanwhile, she was determined to hold it by sheer moral force until the cavalry arrived to save the fort!

Lucy and I (with the full support of our superintendent) were able to include Ethel as one of our informal "docents" on a later bus tour, and to add the International Hotel to our interpretive agenda as one of Richmond's historic points of interest. She was so proud! At some point there may well be ways to create culturally-specific tours that will allow us to tell the multiple stories this developing park has to tell. At that time, Ethel's little hotel will be as important to African American history as the Maritime Child Development Center is as the progenitor for Head Start programs in the field of education, or, as the Kaiser Field Hospital marks the birth of the HMOs.

A member of city staff came to my cubicle one day recently to tell me that Ethel was at Alta Bates hospital -- that her cancer had progressed beyond hope of recovery. That she was expected to die within the next two weeks. They didn't know our Ethel. That was at least two months ago. On that very day I drove in to visit -- in full uniform, hat, badges, and all. This visit was meant to give at least a hint of how important she was not only to me as a friend, but officially, as a sister non-traditional historian, and that she and her quest for recognition of that little hotel would be fulfilled somehow. That there were many who had heard her plea over the years and that the issue was vital to us all. I counted upon not having to say the words that would make a promise that I had no power to keep in any real sense. She knew that and made no demands. Instead she gave me contact numbers for her son, told me that she had given him her Power of Attorney, and that I should get in touch with him upon her death. She never actually uttered the word, "death," but only "after ... ".

I need to tell you that I'd never seen her looking so radiant. Her hair was not massed atop her head as usual (creating its own unique turban), but snaked its way across her pillow in unbelievably intricately-woven thick wooley braids that would have reached her waist had she been standing erect. Her smooth cinnamon-brown skin was free of cosmetics -- with not a scintilla of her bright red rouge. No lipstick. No dangling earrings nor rings-on-every-finger. No floor-length colorful ethnic gown or multiple bracelets. Just Ethel. Lovely against the pillows and so pleased to see me. She was comfortable and glowing from somewhere inside. This was an Ethel I'd never met. She spoke of having been "...close to death only the day before and then brought back." She believed she'd experienced a miracle. She told me that she was in no pain and that she was expecting to be going home to her mother's Parchester Village house that very afternoon. Ethel was at peace. It made me recall the words of a wise friend at the time of my mother's passing. "No life is complete without a death." I believe that Ethel knew, and gracefully accepted the inescapable truth that life is finite. She had used her time on the planet well, and I believe was keenly aware of that -- deep in her soul. Seen as a Cassandra by many, I truly believe that her persistent warnings with regard to environmental injustice were heard and that some will quietly carry on her work as collectives of the concerned over the years.

I leaned over and kissed her cheek and took leave after our brief visit. This would be the last time I'd see her.

...now we'll need to get to work on restoration of the International Hotel -- as we celebrate the life of one of Richmond's heroes. The late Northern California NAACP president and union organizer, C.L. Dellums; the legendary creator of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A.Phillip Randolph; and yes, former Pullman porter and later Justice of the US Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, were there to welcome her home -- a fantasy that came to mind as I dropped off to sleep last night ... .

Arrangements pending.


Friday, November 02, 2007

Who turned off the stars?

As always, the thoughts continued into the night. I'm convinced that the reason that elders sleep less is due to a subconscious awareness that time is winding down -- and that -- regardless of our physical well-being -- sleep is a total waste of time. There are so many opportunities to travel back over time and reconsider what we settled for as Truth, and that a second look may be important in these changing times.

The lively questions in yesterday's classroom wakened the answers (just before sleep) that I was unable to find while sitting before those wonderful children.

"How is the world different for you than it was when you were our age?"

My answer was superficial -- at the level of cell phones, ballpoint pens, and jet travel. It was too large a question to deal with in that little classroom. But the wheels began to turn just before sleep last night. And -- how I wish for the time to tell them where their innocent questions took me in the quiet of the night... .

When I was nine there were no bridges across San Francisco Bay. We took ferries to San Francisco, so it seemed so much further away and much more of an adventure. There were open creeks that meandered through the city, occasionally opening up into small ponds draped in willows that held springtime tadpoles to be taken home in jars of creek water -- pollywogs to watch grow legs and slowly draw tails into tiny bodies (miraculous!) as they grew into tiny frogs. There were open fields that would later hold more houses than were comfortable for any community -- which would later begin to rise into apartments and condos to hold more and more new Californians. Those open fields would host summer baseball games with homemade bases and fathers or uncles with the time to umpire and settle disputes about whether one was "out" or "safe." And -- because safe held a different meaning then -- we all played "One Foot Across the Gutter" and "Prisoner's Base" under the street lights (and without adult supervision) -- until bedtime and beyond. And -- there were small Mom & Pop grocery stores within walking distance of anyone's homes -- with owners who knew your parents and sometimes helped to stretch the budget with a loaf of day-old bread as a gift. There were ice-men in rubber aprons who came in trucks carrying blocks of ice for the kitchen icebox -- icy blocks slung over their back with menacing-looking tongs; and milkmen with glass bottles that would often be set just inside the never-locked back door out of the sun, if no one was at home to receive them. There was trust.

Those open city lots also brought us wild anise and milkweed upon which cocoons of the Monarch and lovely white Cabbage butterflies were attached -- and that one could very carefully break off the small branch to which it was attached -- to be brought home to watch in awe for the weeks it took for the miraculous mature beautiful creatures to suddenly appear to be released into the rose bushes to begin the fully-developed adult lives of all such creatures. What a powerful metaphor -- one I remember from about that age when a wise and sensitive young teacher made the connections for me. It was in this lesson that I learned the necessity of struggle -- metamorphosis may have been the earliest huge word that I truly understood. It may be the place where language became important. It was almost a private word since I doubted that my parents owned it (and even then I knew that one had to use a word in order to truly own it). It was all mine (and Mrs. Rhineger's), of course.

My preoccupation with words would set me apart from both my peers and my parents over time. I loved words with a passion, and often used them inappropriately -- though there were few at home who cared about words enough to make the corrections, but who managed to make me feel self-conscious and as if rudely "putting on airs". (I suppose today such a child might be accused of "acting white") And even at the tender age of 9 I knew that really long words (like disestablishmentarianism) were really trick words and not really interesting at all. But metamorphosis was real and true and described a dramatic life process that fascinated me. That one I continued to own well into my teens, when I discovered that it belonged to more thinkers than Mrs. Rhineger and me. Maybe this is where I began to learn about intellectualism and to respect knowledge for its own sake (...and Bartlett's Quotations, and Roget's Thesaurus, and the World Book Encyclopedia -- and Edna St. Vincent Millay!).

But the aspect of my life as a 9 year-old that I most miss would have to be stars. I don't know when we turned off the skies of my childhood, but -- over years and years -- they disappeared. I remember the magic of lying on my back in the grass and watching the night sky for hours. I could look deep into space and see billions and billions of tiny lights and that I was aware, even at nine, that children all over the world were sharing this magnificent sky with me. That it mattered not whether they were looking up from a yurt, a tent, a hogan, an igloo, a fire escape, a thatched hut, from a sled, or the back of a truck or wagon, or from the deck of a ship at sea, out of an attic window or from a city rooftop, or from the window of a train, we were sharing the beautiful night sky. It was the earliest miracle that I can remember, and the first thoughts of the internationalism that would guide my life and my politics since that time. One simply cannot make war with grownup children with whom you've shared the miracle of the skies. I knew that we spoke of it in different languages, but -- if we could just stand together looking up -- it wouldn't matter. We would all understand in the jumble of sounds or -- even in the silence -- what a wonder this was. This I knew. The night sky was probably my very first awareness of "Truth," truth that has remained constant over a lifetime.

Perhaps one light switch at a time, year after year, decade after decade, we turned off the miracle. I'm not sure when it happened. But somehow the night sky began to close in -- light pollution eventually blocked out almost every star leaving only the brightest of the planets, the sun and the moon, and the depth of the night vanished, and with it something vital was lost.

The night sky was a universally-shared experience. It is no longer. It only exists in those places where the city lights have not yet invaded the atmosphere. The children in Ms. Merz's fifth grade classroom must be taken by car to a Planetarium to look at the night sky through a telescope in order to witness this -- the oldest of the natural wonders.

I will have some of the wonder restored in February when I'm enrolled for two weeks at the Grand Canyon's NPS Training Site. I cannot believe that the star thieves have stolen away the night skies from that holy place. On some nights, there are still echoes of Van Gogh's Starry Night in Mendocino when the incoming fog creates patches where single stars are isolated and therefore appear slightly fuzzy, distorted, and even more brilliant as viewed through the bedroom skylight , --- but even in that Eden the night skies have been dimmed by the pollution of city and coastal lights -- and, it all happened so-oo-o gradually that I'm not sure that too many have noticed; or that most of those who do still remember are now coming to the end of life... .

I will think of Tamaya's classmates while in that wondrous Grand Canyon National Park, and know that -- if ever the question arises again -- I'll know the answer... .

It is the miracle of the night sky -- the stars and the planets -- that I miss above all else -- and that defines the difference between the worlds of 9 year-old Betty Charbonnet and of Ms. Alison Merz's fifth graders.


Tamaya's Grandmother the Ranger

Thursday, November 01, 2007

What a lovely afternoon ... spent in a most unlikely place ... .

Today I was invited for a command performance as the subject of "Show and Tell" at my bright and charming 9 year-old granddaughter, Tamaya's, fifth grade classroom. The audience was made up of two combined fifth grade classes, 48 students in all. I'm not at all sure where the rumor got started that children were universally out of control and that educators were unhappy campers. Not so. Surely not at Berkeley Arts Magnet School in the heart of North Berkeley. In that holy place there were eager learners, rabid payers-to-attention, and about the most bright-eyed and busy-tailed children one would ever want to meet.

I'd received a telepone call about a week ago asking if Tamaya's grandma would like to meet with the fifth graders for a presentation on whatever I'd like to talk about. Again, it was the uniform here that is the magnet. The ranger's dimpled felt stetson gets' em every time. I was surprised by a passerby as I was parking my car in front of the school. This smiling woman stopped to admire my uniform -- but clearly had no idea just who I was or what on earth I was doing on Virginia Street in Berkeley. Obviously I was out of context here. I admitted to being a genuine park ranger, and she grinned broadly with the words, "...and you're going to meet with the kids? How wonderful! You're about love and caring for the planet!" I realized then how rare is the sight of the National Park Service ranger here in this sophisticated urban city, and of how important it is that school children be introduced to one of the more exciting and humanizing aspects of national life.

Having arrived about 15 minutes early (as planned), provided a chance to visit for a few minutes with Tamaya; to scan the binder that holds her year's work to date; to see a lengthy essay that she is preparing for posting out among the exhibits in the long corridor on the first floor. It's a journal of her trip last spring to the Philippine Islands with her family. It was a reunion that would bring my two little granddaughters into the exotic world of their mother's large family. She is obviously still absorbing that 3-week adventure. I have been gifted with hours on end of scenes taken with their video camera -- from San Francisco International to Manila and the islands of their maternal homeland. I wonder at times, at how differently the world must look to this globe-trotting generation. In my lifetime, it was exciting to simply travel from one coast to the other, and I didn't do that until I was fifty. In my parent's generation, that must have seemed daring indeed. Their lives had been confined to three states, Louisiana, Michigan, and California.

At no time during today's visit was there ever a moment when the young teacher, Ms. Alison Merz, did not have total (gentle) control over her class. It was also true that tucked in among her lessons at the university had been the key to that process, "...we learn to respect by being respected." At no time was there the slightest hint that her students were either coerced or acting out of fear. They wanted to be here with her, and the courtesy shown to me was extended from her relationship with them.

The questions were polite but real. They wanted to know - not just about my ranger life, but about me. "What was the world like when you were our age?" "What do you like least about your work?" "Were there ever any bad times?" "Do you still know any of the people that you knew way back then?" Real questions requiring real answers.

Upon questioning I learned that many of those children had visited Yosemite and that some had seen Yellowstone. I wondered if the questions asked in Richmond as opposed to Berkeley might have presented quite a different picture. I must visit a comparable group in West County soon. This, too, is an important outreach activity that cries for attention.

We talked about what a park is and why we set land apart. "Because people need them to go to when they're stressed." (This from a 9 year-old.) We talked about why civic, state, and national parks, and I hope I was clear about the answers. I asked many questions, too. There were many raised hands. I sensed their openness and willingness to participate. There was genuine interest in the subject.

While waiting for the class to begin -- a young boy brought a black box 3-dimensional display for me to inspect -- he'd created it to memorialize his deceased father. It contained a place for a candle and a photo of himself at about 3 sitting in his father's lap. It was a touching moment. He'd removed it from a window-sill exhibit the class had produced for the Day of the Dead celebration. "Ms. Merz won't like that I moved it," he told me as he returned it to its place with the others. She'd left the room for a minute to check on the other class that would arrive soon.

It was a delightful and moving hour with tomorrow's grownups. It felt like being in a room with not-quite-mature young adults who were in these very moments growing into the leaders they will surely be in time.

Tonight I'm feeling such a strong sense of faith in tomorrow.

We must hold the world together until they can take it over, right? I do wish we'd done a better job on our watch ... .

...and let's hear it for these valiant young teachers who are molding the future even as we speak!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Another symptom of the aging process?

I'm experiencing an interesting phenomenon that may not have been noticeable in former years. I appear to be entering a place (a mind space) where former life lessons are colliding with current ones, with the result that newer experiences are being crowded out of consciousness in many cases, leaving me with a head wallpapered with question marks! As crazy and convoluted as that sounds, it appears to be quite true.

It's as if I'm being forced to accept new values that contradict old ones -- yet a part of me refuses to give up the old. I'm tending to hold all of the conflicting truths in equal status -- and it all appears to be at least tolerable. It means that I'm sure of less and less as time passes -- with the assumption that this (inconsistency) is the nature of life, and that when I begin to draw conclusions based upon these fragments of truth, it will be the end.

Example: My experience with the Daughters of the American Revolution two weeks ago. I brought so much angst into the experience with me -- so much of which was associated with a past that I did not live -- a past that was the legacy of long dead generations. (And could they not echo these very words?) That legacy didn't hold up in the presence of today's DAR reality--at least not in that meeting room in San Francisco. But one might wonder -- if blame is never assigned or acknowledged -- what happens to accountability? What happens to atonement? To reconciliation? To redemption?

Yet, the noose symbolism is a direct descendant of that old "Constitution Hall - Marian Anderson" history, and is undeniably relevant to what we're seeing today. Those echoes of racial bigotry have found their way into the legislation that governs our lives -- and continues to color our times and pollute our national domestic and foreign policies. Racism remains an unresolved national dilemma. The cancer is by now so well-buried in our national psyche that the everyday effects are hardly recognizable anymore, except in the extreme. The cancer may have by now become who we are in the world. What a frightening thought!

In the middle of the experience at the War Memorial I was totally unable to bring those collective memories forth -- so was only able to see the immediate scene before me -- and that scene was benign; dear well-dressed ladies in a time warp. I was as much an anomaly in their lives as they were in mine. Probably not one of us in that room would hold the experience in mind for long but would move on as if it never occurred. They would remain as an interesting surprisingly pleasant experience for me, and I -- on the other hand -- would perhaps simply become this one-of-a-kind African-American woman in a park ranger uniform who appeared out of the blue -- and is surely "not a bit like those others ... ." And we will have all survived the Saturday afternoon experience at the San Francisco War Memorial without having to alter our values or our notions about one another or the nature of our shared national Life one iota.

Is there something that is necessarily protective that enables us to re-arrange "mind matter" in ways that saves us from having to question our sanity at such times? Could I have handled the memories of those searing images of the Ethel Waters performance had it been necessary to hold those competing realities in mind simultaneously? I suspect there is. As surely as I was able to compartmentalize those two entries only inches apart here on this screen. It is as if they rose from two different lives -- from two different minds -- and several generations apart. But both lives are contained under one skull -- sharing a brain -- living my life.

But are they?

I thought again today about " e=mc squared", and of these curious bursts of intellectual energy that appear without warning from time to time -- about the relevance of the time continuum ... and about over-lapping realities .

If this all seems inconclusive -- it is. This is another Saturday -- two weeks hence -- and I'm still chewing on the dramatic contrasts life continues to present.

...there's something telling about the way my mind has separated these experiences. In a way they really are not related, except in my head.

Sunday morning: Last night I was rudely awakened by a flash of insight. The third paragraph above does a fine job of describing (in microcosm) just what may have happened to that long-awaited apology for slavery -- and reparations. You have to read it as a Reader's Digest condensed version, of course. Or maybe a Fox News or Hard Ball sound bite, but the elements are all there, I think. This may describe our national amnesia on the subject of race relations. But, of course, that's silly. Or is it? Dreams and middle-of-the-night insights have their way of collapsing wisdom into ridiculously simplistic bits and pieces -- but sometimes ... .

Yet can this huge rubber-band ball of a mind of mine be stilled -- ever -- or will my conflicting truths continue to build until I'm no longer sure of anything at all?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

About those nooses ... and ... I would have been only about twelve when she was soaring on Broadway ...Her name was Ethel Waters, one of the earliest of black Broadway stars -- the very first to receive equal billing with whites. Later I would remember her co-starring in Member of a Wedding with Julie Harris and singing "Happiness is just a thing called Joe" in the old movie, Cabin in the Sky. But one of the memories that burned its way into my brain was from stills I once saw of the Broadway revue, As Thousands Cheer. In it Ms. Waters was featured in a number written especially for her by the celebrated Irving Berlin. It was highly controversial, as it would surely be today. It is this image that rises to the surface when people speak of nooses as pranks, let me describe it for you:

There she would stand alone in the spotlight dressed in a traditional plaid gingham dress covered by a long apron -- with hair tightly wrapped in a print kerchief. The stage was completely dark -- except for the giant silhouette played against the back curtain -- the shadow of a man's limp and contorted dead body hanging by the neck from a noose attached to an extended tree branch:

Against this chilling backdrop she would quietly sing:

Supper time I should set the table cause
it's supper time

Somehow I'm not able
cause this man o' mine
ain't comin' home no more

Supper time, kid's 'll soon be yellin' for their supper time
How'll I keep from tell'in 'em
this man o' mine
ain't comin' home no more.

How'll I keep explaining when they ask me where he's gone?

How'll I keep from cryin' when I bring their supper on?

How can I remind them to pray for their humble board?

How'll I be thankful when they start to thank the Lord, O Lord!

It's supper time I should set the table cause it's supper time
Somehow I'm not able cause this man o' mine
Ain't comin' home no more.

The year was 1933. The number of lynchings in the decades prior to 1930 was approximately 50 blacks annually. In 1933 Irving Berlin dared to risk reputation and economic well-being to bring this statement to the Broadway stage. In much the same way Yip Harburg would risk writing Strange Fruit for Billie Holiday to perform to stunned nightclub audiences. Both would pay heavily in years to come. Harburg would become one of the defiled Hollywood black-listed writers.

I find myself wondering whether it is really ever possible to separate out black history from our national history when so much or our fate has been facilitated by others; in this case two Jews with the determination to defend the lives of others at the expense of their own well-being.

This all came to mind upon reading today's article in the New York Times about nooses turning up across the country in a variety of settings and institutions ... .

"... Nooses have been looped over a tree at the University of Maryland, knotted to
the end of stage-rigging ropes at a suburban Memphis theater, slung on the doorknob of a black professor's office at Columbia University in New York, hung in a locker room at a Long Island police station, stuffed in the duffel bag of a black Coast Guard cadet aboard  a historic ship, and draped around the necks of black dolls in the suburbs.  The hangman's rope has become so prolific, some say, it could replace the Nazi swastika and the Ku Klux Klan's fiery cross as the nation's reigning symbol of hate ..." .


In case we've forgotten -- as recently as June 14, 2005, 20 members of the U.S. Senate (19 Republicans and 1 Democrat) refused to sign anti-lynching legislation. They refused to do a roll-call in order to avoid being on the public record.