Sunday, December 27, 2009

Now for the job of getting back into the rhythm of my own life ...

...and that must take place soon, or I'll begin to waste away into merely existing. There is every reason to dig my fingernails into the accumulating muck and work my way back onto the planet. We've done it before so I know that the brain can handle what it must. I'm certain of it. That's one of the great things about aging. There is the ring of familiarity to it all, and the proof of one's ability to cope is right there in the mirror. As the inimitable Elaine Stritch said it musically, "I'm still here!"

Sometime this week a story in USA Today written by journalist Bill Welch will be published reminding me that I've done meaningful work and that the work is not yet completed. We did an interview sometime back before Thanksgiving featuring the announcement of Port Chicago Naval Weapon Station becoming the 392nd national Park. "It will run sometime after the Christmas holiday," his recent email stated.

Then there is the possibility of a way to begin to think about the restoration of the jazz and blues part of the World War Home Front story. Just before the holidays an idea for just how that might happen surfaced through two dear friends with deep and strong connections in the music scene. Their capacity to bring that into being is awesome -- one is a MacArthur Fellow with a great new book out that I'm planning to pass along to the other interpreters. The other two are professional classical musicians both members of the San Francisco Opera orchestra and the S.F. Symphony. One is the artistic director of a chamber music group. The potential for something really meaningful to be launched over this next year in that area is extremely high. I will connect them both with Jordan Simmons, artistic director for the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts here in Richmond, and then the Bay Area Blues Society of the East Bay. Maybe drummer E.B. Wainwright and S.F Jazz Festival's Josh Redman? A move into this area of park development is a natural and I'm the common denominator here -- the one who can ignite the spark for this new edge by bringing these artists together to brainstorm ... .

Though it's hard to admit aloud -- there is an element of security in knowing where Dorian is and that she is safe. I've experienced little of that in my lifetime. It dawned on me last night as I lay awake listening to the rain against the windows, that I am finally sleeping again and no longer careening through the mountains toward Willits and Highway 101 in my 3-D nightmare. As regretful as it is, there is some comfort in knowing that she is making her peace with life as it unfolds; that she's building what joy she can from the sparse materials available to her; that she continues to find purpose and caring in her days despite the physical discomfort she's experiencing.

2010 will be a long year of recovery for us both. I'll have to work hard to not feel guilty about my own good fortune in the face of the slow road back for her. But I also am certain that some of her resilience is dependent upon the signals coming from me. If I can manage to keep enough balance in my own life so that there is enough positive energy to share with her, then we will both survive and prosper.

Now I'm off to deliver more skeins of colorful yarn to enable her work to go on. Of the 23 staff members at the nursing home, she has 17 projects to go. And -- she's undaunted by numbers, or is her mother.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Feliz Navidad, Kwirky Kwaanza ... !

... as for me and mine, we'll settle for a totally non-traditional holiday that -- for the first time does not include a Dorian-decorated tree in its place beside the hearth, a turkey in the oven, wrapping gifts, and everyone gathered 'roun' for the festivities.

And it's okay. Not only okay, but really quite wonderful.

I've always been the center of the universe on this day, as was my own mother for most of our lives. Grandma was always the central figure on December 25th, along with the turkey. This year -- given recent developments -- it will be my thoughtful niece, Gail, bringing a restaurant-prepared pan of lasagna and a home-baked cake to which I'll add a tossed green salad, a pumpkin pie, and assorted goodies -- all to be shared with Dorian at the nursing home at 3:30. The family will bring our gifts to exchange in a brand new and unanticipated format. It will be what it is, and what it is begins to look like a day as memorable as those of the past; something to be talked about in years to come.

Dorian is in good spirits (though sounding a bit low when she made her morning call at around seven) and her mother is elated at the progress she's made over the past several days. She has handed out her handmade gifts to staff members who are obviously delighted with them. She's been choosing those who've been tending to her round-the-clock needs; the rehab specialists, the dietician, head nurse, those who answer the bell when she rings -- and she's bringing the spirit of the season to a place where it's surely welcomed.

She is now in less physical pain or perhaps better medicated, and is learning the important bed-to-wheelchair transfers that allows her to be up part of each day now. She has learned the first names of those who are taking care of her, and (surprisingly) in some cases their relationships to one another. "Lani is Jack's mother."

My initial fears at the quality of care in skilled nursing facilities -- memories of my mother's final days in same -- have given way to new criteria for what's important. I've been watching her bond with those who are tending to her needs and find myself wondering whether I should be as concerned about the room temperature (sometimes over 80 degrees), and other trivia and more aware of the relationships she's building with her caretakers. The fact that she's paying attention to her environment enough to know the names of those around her may be far more valuable than any other factor.

I'd been worried that -- upon checking out the ratings of local skilled nursing homes on the Internet -- where they rate on a scale of 1 to 5 -- this one is pretty unimpressive (rated 2). But what if the compensating factor is something other than that which can be measured on a scale of 1 to 5? There may be some immeasurable intangibles unaccounted for in these ratings; some kind of human connectivity that our instruments just can't pick up, at least not yet.

I need to give this more thought before I start making decisions about what I see as best for her recovery. This may be one of those instances when watching how she deals with her immediate environment is the wisest course to take before wresting her away from this new world that she's shaping for herself and introducing her into a newer and stranger place where the room temperature is reasonable and the Tower of Babel of languages more understandable. She's making the translations, or, making the accents irrelevant somehow. This is one of the wonders of life with Dorian, and is what will survive our time together on earth. This is what I've learned to watch for and to nurture. How she moves through this awful test of her resilience may be that all important teaching moment -- for me.

Today will be a fine day. Different -- new and strangely off-tradition for our family -- but it will be what it must be, and we're doing just fine, thank you.

Now I have some gift-wrapping to do and calls to return while I'm feeling this fragile sense of holiday spirit, and some new confidence in the future. My son, David, and grandchildren will be with us; with only Rosie, Bob, and Margaret among the missing this year. But this means that they're creating their own holiday observance. I remember how important it was for me to begin to establish my own nuclear family traditions long ago, and of how hard it was on my parents when that time came. It's all a part of letting go and allowing our own to grow into their own futures. And -- for the first time the holiday was not marked by the empty chair that our eldest son, Rick should have occupied. Perhaps it was because the peace plant that arrived the day of his funeral was not in this room. Maybe it's time now, to let him go, too.

Peace on earth may be a little hard too come by these days, but we're seeing an awful lot of goodwill toward men (and toward the rest of us, too).

Enjoy your day. There's every indication that we're in for an interesting day of our own. This is as it should be and often is -- if we keep faith in ourselves and in our ways of moving through the world.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

All's well -- or at least relatively so -- given time and patience -- and ...

Monday's dreaded visit to Eden Medical Center turned out to be reassuring in every way. Dorian will eventually recover fully, if all goes as anticipated. There was some fear that her "dropped foot" was a permanent condition. Not so. It looks like two broken legs is no longer the life sentence it once was, and that with 8 weeks of bed time and wheelchair plus continuing physiotherapy to strengthen her upper body for the transfers she must now learn, she will eventually learn to walk again. It does mean life in a skilled nursing facility for many months, but we can handle that. She will be given a brace for the left leg and an expectation for "...8 months to a year before recovery." Then it will be months of learning to walk again when she's ready for weight-bearing exercises.

After two weeks of recurring nightmares during which I'm still careening through the mountains in unending terror, on Saturday I disintegrated into a madwoman with absolutely no sense of where to turn or whom to trust, and a depression the likes of which I've not experienced for decades. It had a familiar ring, but not enough to let me know that it, as before, would come to an end about the time that I allowed myself to go with it and simply scream it all away! I'd become too fearful to allow myself to sleep for fear of the dreams, so after two weeks of driving to and from the hospital and the nursing home in (apparent) complete self control -- "crazy" took over and now I'm making sense if only to myself. And through it all I'd continued to work as though life was normal. My co-workers were understanding -- giving me the space and the time to try to absorb this cruel reality. Over the past two weeks I've worked 3 hours each day with 3 hours to deal with the demands of this emergency. I needed to hold onto my work to the extent that I could, for some kind of balance. That much was certain.

Finally picked up the phone on Saturday and called Dion who hit the ground running with all of the know how required to bring some sanity into the situation. As promised, on Monday morning she and Barbara swept their appointment calendars clean and met me at their Berkeley office where we went to Eden Medical Center together for the news. Last week at her first followup exam, the surgeon had been completely candid about his concern for the condition of her left leg which had become infected since she was discharged from the hospital. I was prepared to demand that she be re-admitted had that not subsided. I could see the relief in his face as he removed the bandages and exposed the wounds. This is a professional that we could trust. I felt certain that -- had it been necessary -- he would have been truthful with me about her condition as well as her future. This has not always been true, unfortunately. I was learning in this crucible just how little faith I have in those in whom we must trust.

On Tuesday we had a visit from four young music students (violas and violins) who came to the nursing home at noontime to perform a short concert of Christmas music for Dorian and the other patients. It was her first lunch hour in the dining room and her first extended time up in a wheelchair. This was a gift from my friend, Pam, who is their teacher among other incredible things. Dorian was so pleased!


...and she's still crocheting away such colorful afghans and scarves as presents for the staff of the nursing home. If ever there was the spirit of the season ... .

... should I be worrying about carpal tunnel syndrome?

Oh no!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A reality show I'd love to escape from ... but only if I can take Dorian with me ... .

We're still far from answers, and the grim reality is beginning to penetrate the recesses of Dorian's mind -- fears I believed she would be spared by her limited mental capacity. Not so. The words we're now dealing with are frightening to us both. I'm facing questions like "am I paralyzed, Mom?" And for the first time in this morning's wake up phone call at around seven, "the toes on my left foot are numb, Mom, and my foot is swollen -- will it be amputated?" The grim reality is beginning to set in, and I'm just not ready.

She has always had an unexpectedly varied vocabulary, and, given the nature of her brain damage, occasional signs of intelligence beyond her apparent intellectual capacity. These little bursts of "normalcy" have always been the source of pleasure for me, and enabled us to talk about abstractions in ways that demand complete honesty from me in order to continue to provide a dependable and logical base upon which she can grow. It has worked so far. We've maintained a close and loving relationship despite the difficulties we've encountered along the way in working in an often unsympathetic and unknowing professional medical/mental system.

I'm blogging now wearing blinders of a kind required in order to keep us out of an adversarial situation with others. I've retained an attorney since there are considerations beyond my capacity to deal. I'm calling in all of the markers possible, and my community of friends and neighbors and co-workers and associates are responding rigorously, and with the kinds of help needed in order for me to wade through all that must be lived out in the short term.

The police report is now ready but not yet released. We have a second follow-up appointment at the hospital on Monday morning. We'll be transported by ambulance, and I'll then know a bit more about her prognosis.

Her Kaiser Permanente coverage has been reinstated and will be re-activated on January 1st. It had been allowed to lapse as of August 1st by those responsible for the daily supervision of those who share life together in her group home; just one of the many glitches we've encountered since the accident. She's being covered as a handicapped person under Medical/Medicare -- and you can guess that I've been more than casually caught up in the Senate debates over the past week. Watching the idiocy played out on CSPAN day after day added to the nightmare that we're currently living. It is almost surreal.

Now I'm off to the nursing home to try to raise Dori's spirits a bit; just enough to get us to Monday morning's appointment at ten o'clock. I'll pick up a tiny Christmas tree along the way. Maybe that will buy us a few hours of joy and peace on earth, the moon, Venus or Mars, and most of all -- Vintage Estates Nursing Home, Richmond, California.

Now I'm off to see the Christmas Tree Wizard!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We're at a point where the unknowns are so threatening, and when fear outweighs all else ... .

I hesitate to put anything into words now since that old childish suspicion that giving voice to these awful thoughts will give them life ... so I'm carrying around fears that -- were I not so unsure of my ground, would easily be tossed off with the first breeze that wafts by. Reality is pretty stark right now, and all the bromides in the world won't make a dent in the gloom that lurks around every corner.

Except for Dorian. If you'll look at the photo in that last entry where she is just starting to crochet an afghan -- and compare that to the work she's completed over the past ten days (her accident occurred on November 27th, the night after the Thanksgiving Holiday -- you'll have some idea of just how productive and engaged she is. She is working on Christmas gifts for the staff of the nursing home. They're absolutely staggered at her generosity and busyness in the face of the pain and anguish she must be feeling when the meds wear off and she finds herself in that strange setting where she knows no one and where English is everybody's second language. The confusion she must be experiencing has to be an additional complication for her. But you'd never know it. She's adjusting in her own way, and a fine way it is.

I visit with her on the way to and from my office, and try to stop in at lunch time. I've given up all attempts at holding to any kind of separation. Now is not the time to work on "independence." To hell with being "best friend." I'm back in my mother's role with a vengeance, and I figure "the World" will just have to back off and adjust!

She did ask yesterday, " I going to be crippled, Mom?" She knows what that means. Her NIAD world is peopled with friends who are seriously physically handicapped. Wheel chairs are a fact of life in her everyday existence. Such thoughts must fill her nights in this strange nursing home with these strangers who "talk weird" but tend to her needs with care.

And at this point, I have no way to reassure her.

I truly don't know... .

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Life certainly has its way of keeping one humble ... .

Just in case I may have forgotten about whatever those governing forces might be, this week was a reminder of the tallest order.

After a particularly busy week which included the Thanksgiving family obligations, on Friday morning I climbed into my little red car and headed north to Mendocino for another serene weekend at the ocean's edge. All weekend, however, I felt depressed and foreboding, as though I'd never actually reached my destination; that I was left suspended in space somewhere along the way. It was strange. I was subject to long periods of silence; felt reluctant to leave the house for any reason; even resisting a walk with Tom down to the seal rocks. I read for long hours (Martha had given me a copy of Bliss Broyard's "One Drop" which turned out to be almost a word-by-word accounting of my own Creole family's history.

It was strange to be reading about names and places of those I'd known from childhood. There was her uncle by marriage, Franklin Williams, a noted activist Civil Rights attorney here in the Bay Area; mention of the Broyard family home in New Orleans on Lapyrouse Street in the Tremé -- the first home that I can remember where my paternal grandparents lived and where my own parents returned to from Detroit when I was about 3 years-old. The names and places could have been drawn from my own. Her story turned out to be a real page-turner for me.

I'd tried to place a call to Dorian several times each evening while there to reassure myself that she was okay (but hasn't she always been?) but failed to connect. Her cellphone (I thought) was on the charger and she'd neglected to turn it back on, or something equally as easily explained. I'd been out of cellphone range since Friday morning and planned to try to reach her again just as soon as there was evidence of a signal. She knew that I was out of reach, but knew also to call her brother, David, should anything turn up that she couldn't handle. This was not a new circumstance, but one we'd experienced many times over many years.

On Monday morning at about 7 o'clock I rose; did my toast and marmalade with tea and took to the road. Upon reaching Fort Bragg there was suddenly an insistent beeping from my cell. I pulled to the side of the road and searched frantically for my phone -- pressed the button and heard a male voice with the dreaded words, "...if you are related to Dorian Reid, would you please call Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley immediately!" He then gave his name, "Zack," with the date (last Friday) and said that he would be going off duty within the hour. It was now Monday morning.

I knew not whether she was dead or alive, nor would I know for another 4 hours.

After the nightmare swerving drive out of the mountains to reach Highway 101 -- I pulled over again to the roadside and called the hospital, identifying myself ... someone on the other end of the line sounding impatient (hurried?) -- told me that she was not free to give me any information until I reached the hospital. The reason being that while I was claiming to be Dorrie's mother, I could be anyone -- and the hospital could not give out her status without my being there before them with proper identification. That meant driving from Mendocino to Castro Valley California (almost 4 hours) in a state of shock and disbelief -- not to mention the guilt of having gone so far away -- leaving her at the mercy of "the World!" Never mind that she lives independently in a group home with a layer of case managers, social workers, counselors, between us in the vain attempt at creating the illusion of independence we've striven so hard to achieve all of her life. This was pay off time.

I did reach the hospital to learn that while she'd been visiting friends in Hayward on Friday (adjacent to Castro Valley) and, while there, decided to walk to the mall to begin her Christmas shopping. She'd received a small check for some of her art work a day or so earlier. In the process she was involved in an auto/pedestrian accident which resulted in two badly broken lower legs, bruised ribs, a fractured nose, a bad bump on the forehead which was an indication of a small brain bleed (since absorbed), and a black eye.

When I saw her for the first time she was overcome with guilt (having been cautioned frequently by her mom to never be on the street at night alone) and could hardly be consoled. We were a mess! We were both suffering from remorse, each at the thought of having failed the other. And isn't that always the way?

She'd been immediately brought into surgery and by the time I reached her the worst of it was over. Her mental deficits protect her from much of the trauma since she is at least spared the concerns about prognosis (will I walk again, and how impaired will I be?), but lives pretty much in the moment. Not so for her mother, however, and that's something I've been wrestling vainly with hour-by-hour since.

A few days ago she was transferred to a rehab facility which is nearby here in Richmond. She is relatively close to NIAD (National Institute for Artists and Disabilities) where her days are normally spent in a world she knows and is supported by. The drive to-and-fro through heavy traffic to the hospital each day is now over. When her physiotherapy has progressed enough to warrant it, she will be picked up by ParaTransit and delivered to and from her program where her life as an artist among the NIAD teachers and community that she loves will go on. She is also now physically close enough so that visiting is convenient for me. She is a mere 10 minutes away from the Civic Center where our offices are located, so that I can stop by to and from work each day for short visits.

I've been told that she will spend the next 8 weeks in the nursing home in a wheelchair, and that after that time she will begin weight-bearing therapy that should slowly bring her back to her normal activities. Meanwhile, what to do with Christmas when my apartment is on the second floor with no elevator?

It looks like Santa will have to visit Vintage Estates Nursing Home this year, but that's a whole lot better than it might have been, right?

The hardest part may be that I'll need to begin to teach myself all over again how to allow her out there to function in a world not designed to support her. The tendency is to draw her close and over-protect. My new mantra is, "... this could have happened to anyone". I must resist the temptation to undo years of building the separation that has enabled her to live with as much independence as she has achieved -- and quite successfully. I must not die and leave her in the world unprepared for making her own way. The State's ever-increasing budget cuts have decimated the safety net originally created to support her life outside any institution. Governor Ronald Reagan deconstructed California's mental health care system and sent this population back to communities without that system creating the services that would make life on the outside viable. We're still living in the aftermath of those decisions. Our streets are filled with the developmentally-challenged, returning wounded veterans of our many recent wars, the mentally-ill, and the psychotic -- living under bridges and overpasses in enclaves of homelessness. I shudder to think of that possibility for Dorian's future.

The hard part is knowing in my heart that the risks are very real, but that it is necessary for me to let her face them, even while knowing that she may not make it. This is the part that there's no way to prepare for ... .

There are times when love hurts ... .

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Another week of living -- partly in the now and mainly in the past ... .

Careth and I spent all of Veterans Day working on the Joseph Collection, and marveling at the marvelous condition of these vintage negatives -- despite the many decades since these photos were taken. There have been relatively few of the thousands before us that are beyond salvation. Most are going straight from our hands to a volunteer photographer, Mr. Chan, who is giving them life by developing and printing them out to be attached to new packaging.

We're "re-housing" them in new manila envelopes after carefully clipping the front of each of the now crumbling original ones, making notes of the dates and number of negatives in each. We save any of his original notes; in some cases identifying the subjects and/or short articles he submitted to the press for newsworthy events or persons. We're using inner transparent envelopes into which we separate the articles and original envelope front and another for the negatives -- making a manageable packet ready for the next steps in the process.

Since E.F. Joseph was the photographer for the major Negro newspapers as well as the chronicler of every kind of event imaginable, and with War Department clearance for photographing sensitive government home front locations, you can imagine the kinds of pictures we're finding.

For instance: There are
  • 15 negatives of a hero of Pearl Harbor, Doris "Dorie" Miller, the messman who seized an anti-aircraft gun and brought down several Zeros when his commander was downed by incoming gunfire. Miller later died at Tarawa. Prior to the war he was an amateur boxer who trained in Richmond, California. Despite proven heroism, at the time of his death (ironically) he'd been promoted to 1st Cook. A black man could go no higher at that time in a racially segregated Navy.
  • We've found 11 negatives of the launching of the SS John Hope, named for the great educator and co-founder of the Seneca Conference with Dr. W.E.B. Dubois. The ship was built and launched at Kaiser Shipyard 2. These photos include many well-known African American dignitaries, people recognizable to both Careth and myself.
  • There are photos of the Buchanan Street, Vallejo, and Richmond USO dances -- photos where many of today's young can undoubtedly find their grandparents; and
  • a demonstration demanding presidential intervention in the trials of the Port Chicago "mutineers" that was staged in front of San Francisco's Fairmount Hotel.
  • We found a number of pictures taken at a Boilermaker's A-36 (Black union auxiliary) fundraiser given for the purpose of fighting for greater representation and union privileges.
  • There are several of labor organizers A.Phillip Randolph and C.L. Dellums in meetings having to do with the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters and or the NAACP for which Dellums served as Northern California Chairman for many years.
  • Great on-the-job scenes of men and women working at Oakland's Moore's Drydock.
  • We found several taken of "Rosies" working at Oakland's Pabco Factory, a subcontractor for Kaiser's Shipbuilding enterprise. Careth's mother was a worker there in a factory that was in the local headlines for years for problems associated with asbestos exposure of workers.
  • There are 30 or more negatives of pictures shot at the meetings at the creation of the United Nations at the San Francisco Opera House.
  • We have the wedding photos of the noted Orville Luster of the S.F. Redevelopment Agency where the eminent Dr. Howard Thurman conducted the ceremony at San Francisco's historic Fellowship Church during the war years.
I could go on, but I think this short list gives some sense of the historic nature of this collection, and of its value in the telling of the stories of the home front during WWII. I'm attempting to set aside for processing everything from 1941 through the end of the war in 1945 -- with some exceptions when an event such as the Port Chicago trials demonstrations that occurred a year after the war ended -- is clearly an extension of events that rose from WWII. There is an overwhelming number of packets to go through, and we're under no illusion that the two of us will ever accomplish this worthy goal, but it will be a beginning. I'll continue to devote at least one day of my work week to working with Careth in the firm belief that at some point, we will begin to scope out the next steps in the process.

With the catalog numbers Joseph assigned to each packet, we've found some that number in the 13,000 series. That means that Careth's original estimate as to the number (perhaps 10,000?) in these endless boxes and plastic garbage bags of countless packets was really quite low. I'm told that there are still countless bags and boxes at her place in San Francisco waiting to be transferred to her Oakland living room "Sorting and Re-packaging Laboratory." (... wondering if this is the way the Library of Congress started out, or the Schomburg... .)

One of E.F. Joseph's photos, that of African American Gladys Theus of the well-known upturned welder's mask that was taken at a Kaiser Shipyard 2 ceremony where she was awarded the prize as the fastest welder on the Yard, made its way into the Roosevelt Presidential Library where the Kaiser Permanente Heritage Department staff located it years ago.

We're now ready to hire Brian, Careth's grandson, a student currently attending Claremont College on a 5-year full scholarship and a tech wizard to begin to create a data base program (FilePro?) so that the cataloging can begin. Hopefully we will find grant funds for that. He'll spend his Christmas break setting that up for us and then we can continue doing the data entry into infinity!

You may one day hear about the birth of the E.F.Joseph Library of Bay Area history. It is now clear that it cannot be contained in the story of the local Black history since it is so much more than that. We've found a portrait dated in 1935 of the father of former California State Senator and Speaker Don Perata. The late Emmanuel F. Joseph was the cameraman for his times. Researchers will soon discover this treasure trove that I've been granted the privilege of previewing and processing over the past several months.

From such humble beginnings as the living room of my friend, Careth "Diddy" Bomar Reid, one day a new museum may begin to rise.

As you've undoubtedly already guessed, I'm going to leave this world kickin' and screamin'!

Photos: top left is 2nd Class Messman, Doris "Dorie" Miller, and yes, this is my wedding photo that we discovered among the packets. I now have the complete set taken May 24, 1942 in the garden of the home where I grew up in East Oakland, California. In these days of excess, can you imagine a cotton wedding dress? It was made of organdy by my sister,Marjorie, the Maid of Honor. Never had I felt so beautiful!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Well the gloom didn't last long ... .

Before the tears dried up I was in the advanced stages of absolute delight! Manic? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Two things happened to change the mood and sweep me up in the next wave of experience. First, a message came from Martha, our superintendent, who is at this very moment in New Orleans sitting in a jazz concert at the Louis Armstrong National Park there.

The first message said a simple, "...wish you were here!," and was written from her Blackberry. In a short time the second message arrived and I could read her excitement over the miles. She was charged up from watching a fantastic music program being conducted there that brings together older jazz musicians with young kids to learn and to play the songbook from old New Orleans.

And second; I then did something I rarely ever do. I looked up at the search bar on this journal (just above my picture over the archives) and entered the word "Jazz." Up came several posts that dated from around 2006, and that I'd totally forgotten about. I loved them! It was like rediscovering an old friend -- someone I've known but had let slip away. I felt all of the passion of the subject, and found little that I would not have written today.

It was cause to wonder if I've stopped growing, or, if this means that I've found a consistency that is at the foundation of a philosophy that I hadn't realized I'd adopted? Am I now drawing conclusions? Is this the place in life where I begin to summarize? Are there still areas of discovery open to me, or, am I closing down new avenues of personal development as the years pile on? I think that might be worse than death.

But there was such pleasure in reading my own words that it must be a good thing ... hopefully.

When she returns mid-week, we'll begin to scope out how we might bring such a program to Richmond -- a part of the Home Front story and WWII. This was where jazz and blues were transplanted to the West Coast as the historic African American migration swept musicians in and as the shipyard workers, and the City of Richmond and the Greater Bay Area began to develop new and reclaimed old sounds that today's young are probably totally unaware of.

A new edge to explore; and those earlier writings about jazz may provide the way in. I'll print them out and share them with our interpreters.

So many pieces coming together -- I'm hoping there will continue to be the time and the necessary energy ...

O what I would give for a Faustian bargain ... just another decade or two!

I would hate having to leave in the middle of this movie!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I should never have read them ...

Out of curiosity, I just went back to the Peter Fimright article in today's S.F. Chronicle to read the comments from the readers. I wasn't prepared for what was there. Within the first few minutes I was sobbing. Unsympathetic and vicious racist comments dominated the column -- and I couldn't stop reading. I clicked the forwarding numbers at the bottom of the screen 1, 2, but didn't have the courage to click 3. By that time I'd become completely unstrung. The emotions were coming from somewhere deep inside, and were beyond my control.

I don't feel prepared to explain it now -- maybe later -- but the disappointment was more than was bearable tonight, but I do understand the feelings. I've been here before. And in the past I've always been able to transform those destructive feelings into something positive in some way. I suppose I'm still doing so with each day, but there is a cost; one that I've always been willing to pay.

Maybe I'm simply tired tonight ... and disillusioned.

I guess I'd begun to believe that we'd come further than we have.

Maybe ... .

Photo: Click to enlarge.
Veteran's Day at Port Chicago ... .

I knew during the photo shoot yesterday that these were going to be spectacular photographs. The man behind the camera, the Chronicle's Lance Iversen, captured so much with such a sense of composition that I could hardly wait to get a look at what he'd seen through his lens. These pictures are classics, and I feel so honored to have been invited to be a part of his imagery.

The most dramatic of these, for me, shows the shadow of my fellow ranger, Thaddeus Shay, captured with the dummy torpedoes that are a part of the monument. He is a stand-in for those who are gone -- but whose presence is still felt so powerfully at the site.The story was written by Peter Fimright, and can be accessed online at today's S.F. Chronicle, Bay Area section (D1), lead story. Title: Port Chicago a national park.

There are 5 photographs with the story. These are my favorites. The reflection of the flag captured by the marble monument against the names of the fallen men excited Lance. On the ride back in the van at the end of the shoot, he was reviewing what he'd photographed -- this was the photo that he seemed particularly excited by.

The magic of being able to see with the photographer's eye is something that I envy. Artists like Iversen undoubtedly see so much more than ordinary people do. Before he clicks the camera, he has already seen his picture. And I'm not talking about what is seen in the camera's window -- but before he even sets it up.

I could see his excitement grow as he worked yesterday, and knew in advance that this would be no ordinary shoot. I knew that I'd be grateful for having been invited into his art.

It has been a day of thoughtful quiet.

I worked for a few hours with my friend, Careth "Diddy" Reid, on the E.F. Joseph collection (an almost overwhelming job that neither of us will live to see the end of); painfully, ever-so carefully, separating the thousands of ancient negatives -- is becoming more and more intriguing. Careth's living room has long since become a laboratory of sorts, with packets of once manila packets now stained brown by time -- strewn about. They date from the late 20's through 1979 at the time of this prolific photographer's death.

There is an infinite number of school graduations, Lodge gatherings, church doings, weddings and baptisms, political rallies, sports and entertainment figures, and individual portraits of old friends and strangers who look vaguely familiar but who defy identification. There are the once famous indiscriminately tossed in with the ordinary folks -- but who knew at that time which of these would figure prominently in history? It's one of the joys of age -- the ability to connect our youth with the nation's important stories as they evolved over the decades. It's a bit like glimpsing one's life in reruns.

Then, every now and then, a treasure. This week it was a complete collection of eleven perfect negatives taken at the launching of the SS John Hope at Richmond's Kaiser Shipyard #2 in 1943. Hope was an educator and co-founder of Seneca with W.E.B. DeBois many years ago. Not only are the negatives clear, but we both recognized the participants -- we believe we have Walter and Elizabeth Gordon doing the honors -- he, who later became the Governor of the Virgin Islands.

This has been a week worthy of having yielded at least 10 days within the 7 it was responsible for.

Photos: Do take the time to click on these thumbnails. They're pretty dramatic when enlarged.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Recently I boasted that the value of my work lies in the fact that I'm old enough to know how all the stories turned out ...

Not so. Not completely. Not even close.

On Wednesday, October 28th, at the same hour -- eleven o'clock -- that I was standing beside the SS Red Oak Victory with the NIAD artists, the president was signing the legislation that brought the Port Chicago Naval Weapons Station into the National Park System system as the 392nd national park. I was keenly aware of the ceremonies going on in Washington, D.C. and mentioned to Chris Treadway of the Contra Costa Times that there was another story happening at that very moment, and that it was an important one. We stopped long enough in his covering of the NIAD story so that I could catch him up on what would be coming out of the Capitol. I promised to forward the essential contact numbers when I got back to my office so that he could follow the story. He told me that his father had lived in the little town of Port Chicago at that time and has memories of the blast. Then I put it away.

It was a few days later that a call came to my desk from the San Francisco Chronicle. The reporter had been sent by my supervisor who knew this story meant much to me. The paper wanted an interview about that day long ago when my young husband, Mel, and I had held an afternoon lemonade and hot dogs party at our little duplex in Berkeley where a dozen or so young servicemen from Port Chicago were present. It was the practice in our community to entertain servicemen and women on weekends (though I can't recall ever having an Africa American servicewomen in the mix) because the USO was not racially integrated at that time. We were living under a strict rule of segregation in most facets of our lives during WWII; something that we'd not known a lot about here in the Bay Area until the war came. We were aware of racial prejudice but it was mostly embedded in custom but only rarely codified into law.

That was the Saturday afternoon of July 17, 2004. That very evening the tragic explosion occurred and 320 men were lost, 202 or whom were black. The white men who survived were given 30 days off to recover from the trauma. The black men were ordered back to work immediately, cleaning up the debris and collecting body parts. Their refusal to do so brought 50 of them under court martial and imprisonment. Public response to those events brought about the desegregation of the armed forces under an Executive Order by President Harry Truman. That process took 5 years to complete, but it changed the course of military history.

I'd never met those young men before so there has never been any way to learn if any who'd been with us that day had survived. I'm assuming not. Since becoming a park ranger, each Day of Remembrance when I've participated in the ceremony at the memorial, I look carefully at the 302 names and wonder ... feeling haunted by the sharp memory of those young faces. The only fragment that remains is the name Richert. As I recall, he was only 16 years-old, having lied about his age to enlist to fight for his country. I'm not even sure that that name is the correct one since it is not among those carved into the marble of the memorial plaque.

Last Friday the Chronicle called to ask if I would be willing to be photographed at the memorial for the story which will probably appear in next Sunday's edition. Having relived the story again and again over the years, I was surprised at how much I'm still haunted by this unfinished story even after all the years since. It's freshened again and the feelings of never having known the ending will return in sharp focus tomorrow as the cameraman does his work. He'll never know how little of the trauma will show in his print -- and how deeply-etched are those memories still.

We were all so young ...

...and their lives ended so abruptly. Gone -- with no warning. And they were too young to have left survivors. I cannot recall that any of those youngsters were of an age to have been married.

They continue to live only in the minds of those of us who remember them ...

Again, tomorrow morning, I'll stand at those plaques and try hard to do just that. This is a story that needs desperately to be held in the collective memories of the nation. Now, with thanks to the hard work of Rep. George Miller and Sen. Barbara Boxer, Dr. Robert Allen, Rev. Diana McDaniel, and all the others who have worked so hard and so long to make this a place to be honored and revered. It is now designated as a National Park that will one day have full staffing and a Visitor's Center. Another of the sites that tells the story of our nation.

A story we dare not forget, but one I'm unable to fully remember --

... and I'm still haunted by it.

Photo: Betty at about the age of most of those lost in the Port Chicago explosion. This gives a sense of just how young those young men were.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Here 'tis! Ten feet of imagination and love -- in a direct line from the heart ... .

It's all there; the bridge, the ship, the people, the shoreline, the trains, the birds -- all of the essence of the city -- and, a ranger who shall be nameless.

Can't wait to see it installed in the waiting room of the Richmond Police Department. Should be quite a ceremony with everyone in attendance, including the mayor.

If you'll look carefully at the right side of the painting -- in right center, you'll see what is clearly a park ranger under a gigantic yellow hat. That's me -- just past that line of green trees. And all of the elements are there, hat, glasses, and, no, that's not a cigar growing out the left side of my head, it's my ponytail with nowhere to else to go but essential to my identify; clearly.

Oh to be immortalized in such a Picasso-esque fashion! Picasso, who took the essential elements of his subject and re-arranged them to his own liking and sense of art -- and the world said a resounding "yes!"

Dr. Elias Katz and his artist wife, Florence, believed that art was something buried deep in each of us; not dependent upon talent or education; simply lying dormant waiting to be released. Their aim was to open studios where people of any capacity or disability -- could find materials of every possible kind; clay, paint, needles and thread, rags, chalks, brushes, etc., and through which a staff of sensitive artists ... capable of resisting the temptation to "teach" but could help to open Aldous Huxley's "Doors of Perception" and bring into the world work of meaning and joy through people like my daughter, Dorian, and her community of "disabled" fellow artists.

Dr. Katz developed three such studios, I believe; N.I.A.D. in Richmond, Creative Growth in Berkeley, and another in San Francisco (though I'm not sure about the last one).

Dr. Katz is now in his 90's and rarely turns up at the arts openings anymore; in addition, I believe he is now blind. Mrs. Katz died some years ago, but her work is being featured this month in a special exhibit at the Richmond NIAD studio. Their gift to a population of artists who are finding themselves appreciated and celebrated through colorful and delightful work that is satisfying and which adds to their incomes through a 50% split on all sales of their pieces is a resounding endorsement of their worth.

Thank you, Dr. Katz, for your firm belief in the capacity of all human beings to be capable of expressing their internal spiritual lives in all of its forms -- if encouraged to. Through those beliefs, you've enriched us all.

Photo: click to enlarge thumbnails to view details. For more information on NIAD, check out their website online.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Field trip with the artists from National Institute for Artists and Disabilities ... .

A few months ago the Richmond Police Department commissioned a mural for the wall of their waiting room from the artists of NIAD. There was such excitement! And -- there has been growing interest at the studio in the Rosie the Riveter national park that is becoming more and more of a presence in the city. The fact that Dorian's mother is a ranger and often picks her up at the end of the day in full uniform has sparked additional interest.

Since the handicaps and physical and mental challenges of this community are varied and -- in some instances -- profound, there is little knowledge of the themes the park inspires. For the most part, there is little sense of past or future; most live completely in the moment. That means that WWII or Rosie the Riveter or the significance of the home front mobilization so central to our work has little relevance in their world.

However, when work on the mural began, bits and pieces of the surrounding civic environment gradually made their way into the work; and someone brought in the SS Red Oak Victory ship. And -- Dorian had mentioned in passing one day that I was also in the mural. I later saw a small figure in a far right upper section standing proudly under a huge yellow hat that was instantly recognizable as that of a park ranger. The proportions are interesting. The hat was equal in size to everything under it, so that my body takes up only about a third of the image. And -- that's about right in the scheme of things.

The staff of teaching artists whose dedicated work with these clients so enriches their daily lives, seized upon the inspiration bubbling up from their students -- went to the library for photos of the SS Red Oak Victory for them to see and work from.

After visiting over lunch at Ford Point recently with NIAD staffers Belinda and her co-worker, Brian, it was decided that it could be very exciting if we could arrange a field trip to the actual victory ship moored in the Kaiser Shipyard less than 3 miles away. Within a week, I'd received permission from my supervisor and plans were quickly completed. Our NPS bus and driver, Don Holmes, were available for the trip. It would involve 3 members of staff (2 of whom followed by car), 14 artists, plus two in wheelchairs; all excited and inspired and ready to even tackle the scary gangplank to be on deck of the historic ship for the first time. I'd not envisioned our actually boarding, but once there it seemed reasonable to make the attempt. Almost everyone rose to the occasion, though coming back down posed problems for at least one -- but we made a game of it and she prevailed in the end.

It was a delightful excursion!

The police chief was invited to meet us at the ship for a photo-op, but he had been up-ended by the awful situation at the high school that was suddenly drawing national media attention to Richmond and long hours defending the department and meetings with school officials and irate and frightened parents were making his joining our adventure impossible. However, the West County Times columnist and a photographer answered the call to cover the story despite the sensational goings-on across town -- and this weekend there will be a story out of Richmond, California, that will be ignored by that same national press, but that will include photographs of the mural as well as the field trip. It will also have brought together the National Park Service, the Richmond Police Department, and the Richmond Museum of History with the National Institute for Artists and Disabilities.

That's surely not an insignificant day's work, right?

Will post the mural when I receive the photographs in a few days.

Photo: And that would be my daughter, Dorian, in red.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I've been side-tracked ever since entering the lyrics to Ebony more than a week ago ... .

It occurred to me that somewhere in the blogger help feature I'd seen the instructions for adding audio to a blog. Suppose I could fix it so that the song begins as the button(?) is pressed. I happen to have in my I-Tunes library several songs I've written -- sung at different times under differing circumstances more than 40 years ago. I stopped long enough to listen to myself singing.

I've captured an online MP3 player and added it to my desktop along with the song I'd stashed in I-Tunes - but that's as far as I've managed to get in the process.

If you can dwell for just a minute on the pure magic of being able to listen to one's (much younger) self singing before an audience with the applause in the background as the song ends -- to drop back into your own history to such a moment ... well. It was something I'll not forget soon. I was mesmerized by my own voice. I felt no particular relationship to this young voice, though I knew it was mine. I was moved by my own singing ... how strange. There was no ego. I judged "her" not, but found myself able to just listen and be caught up in her music without the need to either cringe or exalt. Just to be with my younger self. What a rare experience to live myself into.

Then the frustration set in as I tried to figure out how in the world I could add that music to the blog entry so that you could hear it, too. The instructions were simply beyond me. The technical words meant nothing; it was about then that I realized how far out of my generation I've been living and working.

I flunked geek!

I then got lost for days and days in trying to decipher the language of the audio instructions, and nothing else mattered. If I continue to record my thoughts, that particular entry will move down the page and get lost in the archives before I figure out how to bring the song to life with sound. The little poem holds little meaning to me without the voice and the music, and all of the color drains away from the empty words on the screen.

Meanwhile, if you can help ... .

(Use the link on the left just under my photo where it says, "email me.")

Photo: Taken in concert in Cleveland (circa 1965).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

An evening at the California College of the Arts -- a panel experience ... .

Some weeks ago a call came from a faculty member from the college asking if I'd participate in a panel before their students in Community Arts. The subject of the evening would be "Are we living in a post-racial era?" This sounded like a reasonable request, but first we needed to determine whether this was something being asked of me as an employee of the National Park Service, or whether (in this case) it was an invitation to my personal self? Being firmly identified in both worlds after all these years and in many roles, I don't always know. It's an important question in some instances, since without establishing the context in which I'm functioning at any given (public) moment -- quite rightfully -- I may not feel free to express opinions that might be seen as "political;" not permitted when in uniform. It was clear in this instance, that the persona being called upon here was Betty, a private citizen in simple black suit, with no need to be circumspect, but full-voiced and unrestrained.

Upon entering the building where the panel was to take place I was immediately faced with a two huge blowups of a familiar photo of President Obama and his family, set apart by some 12' feet but on the same wall was another of Prof. Henry Louis Gates handcuffed on his front porch surrounded by police in the now-famous incident of his being charged with breaking and entering his own home. These photos set the stage for the evening which was to deal with the subject of whether we were now in a post-racial era. No problem, right? This would be a cake walk. Or would it? Where on earth was the argument? There could be but one answer.

Dr. Chiang, the psychologist who was the other panelist, was new to the faculty, a member of another minority, and someone who would be working from a professional position; from an acquired store of knowledge and a distinguished academic record. This is always a little scary since I'm always working off life experiences with all the biases and the limitations that so often come with the lack of academic credentials. There is no way to prepare for this since I'm always speaking from life experience and what I've gleaned from them, and often with not much more. I tend to simply show up and depend upon an ability to listen closely then draw my presentation from whatever precedes "my turn" at the lectern. Risky, but it seems to work. It's probably an extension of the candor I work with each time I enter anything into this blog.

After an introduction by the school's president, Dr. Chiang rose to speak. We'd each been given 20 minutes -- then would entertain questions from those gathered. I'd learned from his bio that he'd recently published a book on hate crimes in America, and had joined the faculty after teaching for some years at the University of Iowa. (Would I be able to live up to expectations again by the skin of my teeth, or would this be the night that I bombed disgracefully?) What on earth was there to draw from except age, experience, and goodwill extended by the community?

Dr. Chiang rose to stand at the lectern with his briefcase close by, his notes nicely organized, the little gadget in hand with which to move through his well-prepared PowerPoint presentation. He started his talk with the large white screen behind him suddenly coming to life with a large "NO!" and we were off. This was his answer to the question of the day, and he would spend his next 20 minutes very effectively justifying that powerful graphic.

I listened closely; trying to form my response. Working hard to figure out just what on earth I could possibly say that would not simply be "ditto!," "me, too!" But as he spoke I found that I really didn't feel in total agreement with his presentation. In listening intently, I found myself not nearly as certain as he, about where we were/are in history.

As he ended, having made his case, it slowly dawned that my answer had to be "Yes, no, and, maybe." I realized that the experience of the Inauguration last January held the answer. That being that all of those states of being exist simultaneously -- perhaps each in its own dimension -- out of which I'd always had to find my way in order to create my own reality depending upon which dimension was dominating my life at any given moment in time.

Case in point: After several days of moving about Washington, D.C., walking the Capitol Mall among 2 million people of like mind, it felt as though I could have started a conversation in the middle of the 5th paragraph with anyone within arm's reach. And I did. I recall walking up to a total stranger, a woman in an ankle-length silver fox coat (it was 17 degrees!), asking if she would take a picture with me? Her arm quickly wrapped around my shoulder and we embraced as old friends while Martha snapped the photo.

We remained for a couple of days after the ceremonies in order to visit the museums, the galleries, the Department of Interior, and the National Park Service -- and over that time all of my new "very best friends," the revelers, boarded planes and buses; climbed back into their cars, and left the Capitol. Their places were now taken over by an estimated 20,000 Americans who had come to Washington on the occasion of the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade to demonstrate for their cause. It was as though a genie had swooped in during the night and transformed "Yes we can!" into "Oh no you don't!". There were signs and posters everywhere with bloody fetuses and shoutouts of angry rage at anyone supporting a woman's right to choose. They'd been there all the time. These realities exist as powerfully as all others, and with just as strong a sense of the "rightness" of those beliefs. We returned to the airport in a completely different dimension than the one that had brought us into town only a few days before -- at a time when -- upon landing -- the pilot welcomed the planeload to Washington and everyone on the plane applauded!

  • So, yes, we have entered a post-racial America -- if we choose to see only those positive aspects of how far we've come without recognition of what is still left undone.
  • No, we have a long distance still to go before post-racialism is fully realized, despite great strides achieved over the recent past. And,
  • maybe, since our place on the trajectory of change could suddenly shift into a future not yet defined, and cynically conceived.
Which dimension we choose to inhabit is still dependent upon our capacity to trust and to love. And it's quite possible that the dynamism of our Democracy is driven by the constant clashing of realities; the waxing and waning of all of those social forces that constantly redefine who we are and what kind of future we're forging every moment of our existence, and out of which comes the vitality that stokes the fires of our passions. Maybe the secret is to make the most of those times when we're delivering on our best hopes, and pray that we'll be allowed enough time to create a mutually beneficial reality that most of us can share. Perhaps the opposition is necessary to keep us honest and ever-reaching toward the forming of that "... more perfect Union."

This Democracy is still a work in progress. Perhaps it must always be; each succeeding generation with the mission to rise to the task of nation-building, based upon our founding documents, traditions, and dedicated to the common good.

So these thoughts and words formed the gist of my presentation (though I never remember the exact words), and it felt right for the moment. But then that was the dimension in which I was living in that hour in that place.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that my presentation wasn't nearly as coherent as it appears to be here. I'm sure that I struggled with it on my feet; finding the right words at the right time to make my case. In the days that followed I've had time to clarify for myself and come to a fuller understanding. But the feelings are real, and were I to have a second run at the subject -- I'm more than ready.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"We Did it!

Joined with Susan Wittenberg (assisted by Barbara Johnson of Rep. George Miller's staff) of Building Blocks (a nonprofit affiliated with Jeffrey Canada's "Zone" program out of Harlem) to provide for a group of local youngsters their first experience of live theater. It was a smashing success! They loved every minute of "This World in a Woman's Hands" and so did we.

Ranger Elizabeth Tucker and I served as chaperons; giving the on-the-bus briefing and serving as interpreters for 56 youngsters and some parents. I could overhear many Spanish speakers as I moved through the group, so have no idea how much may have been lost in translation; but for the sake of their kids, it may not have mattered.

I can hardly imagine a more rewarding Sunday afternoon. The kids were ages eleven through high school age, and as well-behaved as any group we've ever accompanied.

It was pleasing to note that not one word of the script was altered because the audience was young (there is some profanity), making it clear that this was a grownup experience not watered down in any way for them, thereby honoring their ability to deal with it.

I noticed in passing, though, that during the Q&A with the cast after the performance and during the de-briefing en route home only the boys asked questions. Though the girls outnumbered them by far, all were silent. Is this a teen thing? I can't recall at what age I became assertive. The boys were not only highly verbal, but their questions had an aggressive quality -- and were not always on target. There's something about the need to establish a male presence that dominates. Will be interested to learn how others read this.

The Shotgun Players donated their Sunday afternoon performance to these children of the troubled Iron Triangle district of Richmond, including the rental of the huge bus that brought us to Berkeley which was donated by one of their benefactors. We shared a light dinner on the trip to Berkeley (sandwiches and fruit) courtesy of Building Blocks.

I've now seen this amazing play enough times to be able to understudy all nine of the roles, I suspect. And each time I've seen it I feel enriched by the truths this remarkable work reveals. I feel affirmed in my efforts to support those revelations in my work as an interpreter of that historic era.

I'm hoping that these children will grow into this experience; that they will understand gradually but in significant ways, that many of them are the descendants of those heroic characters so richly drawn by playwright, Marcus Gardley. The frustration is that I'll never know if we're making a difference, certainly not in the immediate future.

This week our staff will be meeting with a film crew from the east coast who will arrive to spend 3 days with us developing the scenario for the National Park Service film to be shown in the Visitor''s Center when completed sometime within the next two years. Found myself wondering how yesterday's experience will inform that work? If it doesn't, then perhaps we've missed something ... .

Photos: Remember; these are thumbnails and clicking on them will expand for better viewing.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The stirring of the creative spirit upon return from the first of 3 National Black Caucus conferences held over the succeeding 3 years; this one in Chicago in February, 1968 ...

Ebony, the Night

As I lie 'neath the stars on this night of my day
playing the game that some poets play,
find synonyms for black, both poetic and good.
Sounds simple? You try. I do wish you would.
The world made the rules
and established the ante
proclaimed white as sinless,
and black straight from Dante ... .

Ebony, the night
Ebony, satin bright!
Star jewels held in black velvet hands
of Ebony, the night.

Onyx, set with a dream
that weaves through my mind 'til I seem
kiss warm and black born,
jet jazz of love.
Onyx, the dream.

Black image cries behind shuttered eyes
trying so hard to be good
glaciers and skies of ebony lies
I'd sing them away if I could.

Ebony, the night
Cradle me, O night!
Dark chin cupped close in black velvet hands
of Ebony, the night,
Ebony, Ebony, the night.

(copyright 1968, Betty Reid)

These are the lyrics to a song written upon return from that life-altering Chicago conference; one of many inspired by the experience of moving into my black identity fully and completely and without apology or regret.

I am still grateful to those African American brothers and sisters with whom I shared those days of confusion, discovery, and dedication to an American experience far greater than we ever might have imagined. And to those UU's (especially those from my own church) who supported that fateful journey at a time when it truly mattered. I'm convinced that throughout the ages there has always been those who were trying their utmost to "get it right." Unfortunately, much of history has been written by those who thought otherwise.

Witness to Revolution ... the year was 1968.

Received an email this morning from Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed, Unitarian Universalist professor at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, and a noted Canadian Unitarian author. (I can't recall that we ever actually met.) He was seeking permission to include in his new book something I wrote many years ago. I'd totally forgotten about this life-changing experience in Chicago at the dawning of the black intellectual response to the Civil Rights struggle then at its apex. I recall being totally awed by being in the presence of the widow of the poet, Countee Cullen; writer-publisher-historian, Lerone Bennett; "Eyes on the Prize" creator, Henry Hampton; young and ambitious Jesse Jackson, Alex Poinsett; poets and artists and progressive theologians and educators; all humanists. It was for me like being a part of a new "Harlem Renaissance". I came home completely committed to changing the nation and the world. I suppose this has been my obsession ever since that time; if passion is any measure.

Reading this excerpt taken from a much longer piece published at the time, I found myself weeping helplessly this morning, remembering the excitement of those days, and wondering about those with whom this experience was shared.

(October 10, 2009)

Following the formation of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus in October 1967, during the Emergency Conference on the UU Response to the Black Rebellion, the first National Conference of Black UUs was held in Chicago, IL in February 1968. Afterwards Unitarian Universalist Betty Reid Soskin (b.1921) a cultural anthropologist, writer and community activist who in 1995 was named“Woman of the Year” by the California State Legislature, who was a member of the Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, CA wrote the following in a letter which reflected upon what the gathering had been like for her.

Mark Morrison-Reed

Witness to Revolution

February 1968

It has something to do with all of the people that I am.
My black. My woman. My mother. My person.
I arrived in Chicago pretty well integrated within my being.
Now: My black wants to
I can feel the weight of the brick in my black hand
and black muscles straining to
hurl it!

My woman, to love,
and to somehow bring about manhood through my womanhood.
My mother, to pick up my children and leave the country
to protect my young.
My person, my human, to bring all those I love
(black and non-black) together
and tell them that the me who lives behind my eyes,
real me, and the you, behind yours,
are placing
far too much emphasis
upon the housing we are encased in;
black, brown, and white.

That we're falling into the trap
which humankind has constructed for its own destruction.
Perhaps my fear has a great deal to do with this inner revolution
which is perhaps where the real battles are fought,
the outer revolution being only the physical manifestation of this.

I shall not forget
Mwalimu Imara and the “Requiem to a Black Prince.
Val Gray Ward and letting myself get lost in her beauty in
What Shall I Tell My Children?”...
The “Happening” of Gospel Singing for well over an hour
on Sunday morning which started timidly
and swelled in meaning until we were weeping
with the power of the old songs.
I shall not forget.

My perception, which is keen,
saw people bursting from the womb,
still wet and shining...
What an awesome sight!
Night found me exhausted, unable to sleep,
crying with the sadness of the days which surely must follow
and the joy of witnessing the new birth of blackness...

for the sadness of the white liberal,
whose work in past years has allowed
the first stages of our blackness to emerge ...
and who are now being asked to bear the pain of our growth;
and the rejection of them now,
and the bewilderment ...
the fear, yes, the fear,
yet I sense the pride they feel at our release.

I cry for them.

This was written as a letter, but I found (as I was copying it this moment) that turning it into a poem may be more fitting.

I'd love to see the complete letter at some point. These were the opening lines, but I remember writing far more. I believe it was published by the magazine of the Layman's League or UU World. I'll ask to have it sent to me at some point. I do still have notes I made at that conference somewhere in my files, and perhaps they should be sent to the repository (I believe that's at Harvard University) to add to other works archived there.