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.