Wednesday, May 02, 2012

An auspicious moment of discovery ...

On the weekend -- at the invitation of the Rosie the Riveter Trust board -- I attended a Gala in the Craneway Pavilion at Ford Point.

The evening opened at six with a preview of the Visitors Center that has been under construction (restoration) for the past year, followed by a banquet for several hundred guests and supporters; political and corporate leaders, representatives from industry, and National and Regional Park Service folks, and representatives from a number of Labor Unions.

The invitation had come in a casual phone call from my supervisor saying that the Trust would like me to attend.  No big deal.  Some of our rangers would be attending, either as guests or support staff, so there was no preparation for what lay ahead.

Small talk at receptions has never been my favorite past-time, so I wandered around feeling awkward for the better part of an hour, stopping just long enough at clusters to touch lives but not too deeply.

There came the point where it was time to move into the grandeur of the Craneway for the fancy dinner.  I'd not been told where to sit, and had no idea who might have the chart.  No place cards -- but this was a formal banquet so seating must surely have been planned ...

Then I saw him, Mr. John August, head of all of the Kaiser Permanente unions, based in Washington, D.C.  He's a wonderfully warm human being with whom I felt personally connected through my work. Having served as his tour guide on at least two occasions over the years, he'd requested a copy of "Of Lost Conversations,"  (created with Ranger Naomi Torres) the little DVD on the Black experience as lived on the home front during WWII.  The irony of my having started out at the age of twenty as a file clerk in a racially segregated Boilermakers Union hall in Richmond, and in these senior years to have served as an interpreter to the Leader of all of KP unions is mind-boggling!  What this says about social change in the nation over a single lifetime is truly awesome.

When John Austin noticed me idling in space, he indicated that I was to be seated at his table.  There was nothing to signal that he was the guest of honor who would be delivering the evening's keynote speech, or that this was the head table.  (Are you still with me?)  My work didn't involve any of the planning meetings.

As the formal part of proceedings opened with introductions of dignitaries in the room (Rep. George Miller, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, among others), and the usual tributes -- things gradually built to the place where Austin was being introduced.  He gathered up his notes and headed for the dais.

His speech was brilliant!  Most noteworthy, it got through to me -- finally -- that  I could actually hear my influence woven through his words.  My name was cited several times, so it wasn't my imagination.  He got it! 

The words I remember most clearly were in the place where he spoke of visiting Ellis Island for the first time; very early after its designation as a national park, when it was little more than decaying physical artifacts that would someday tell its stories.  This is the state our park site was in (and still is, though much further along) when first he visited several years ago.  I'll never forget his words, "... the stories of these emerging parks are under the hats of the rangers."  We, the interpreters, are entrusted with that national history, and we're being effective in that work.

I felt the tears begin to well up as I heard myself in John Austin's words.  

This, then, is the reason for the honors? I truly am helping to shape a new national park, and the public also gets it.  What a privilege we've been given.

About those tears:

It should be noted that on the drive home they were released with a cascade of giggles as I noticed something quite new.  No longer were they flowing down my cheeks and dripping sloppily off my chin but some of them were ending up in my hair led by wrinkles that now re-direct the flow!  It's surely not perfect, but it's novel.  Maybe that's the function of crow's feet.  Do you suppose?  Imagine still discovering newness at my age!   


Sunday, April 29, 2012

Will wonders (and honors) never cease?

This past week a call came announcing that I've been selected to receive this year's
        Fannie Lou Hamer Award

at the African American student's graduation ceremony at Zellerbach Hall, at the University of California, Berkeley.  That will be on the afternoon of May 19th.

Never having understood how these selections are made, there's genuine surprise and humility -- and sometimes puzzlement.  For instance, I've never fully understood how the choice was made for the honorary doctorate(!) at the California College of the Arts last spring, and was never satisfied that it was deserved.  Having never watched the DVD of the ceremony  --  it still doesn't seem to fit somehow, though I'll be ever grateful for having been so honored, for whatever reason.

But this one is less mysterious:

This followed an event of a few months ago at which I was a panelist for a service organization, Senior Moments. The engagement had naturally grown out of having served as the Black History Month speaker for the African American Employees Network at Safeway Corporate offices.    It was a good working day.  After all, I'm engaged in outreach assignments from time to time, and this is my busy season.

In the more recent event, the lectern was shared with an old friend, Jerry Lange, a former PBS talk show host, journalist, and author; and also a professor from the Black Studies Department of U.C. Berkeley.  The audience was warmly responsive.  Apparently, it was the professor who is responsible for this important nomination for the Hamer Award.

... and this one feels good.  Fannie Lou Hamer, the courageous political organizer who headed the Mississippi Freedom Party that dramatically challenged the Democratic Convention in 1968 by demanding seating for her delegation to represent her state.  Her daring move -- 4 years later in 1972 -- made possible Shirley Chisholm's historic run for the presidency of these United States as the first woman to make the attempt -- and with yours truly seated with the California delegation in Miami's huge Convention Hall.  And, having been elected to represent my congressional district by people who had threatened our very existence as we moved among them to become the first black family in the community through some 20 traumatic years before!  That's how fast social change was occurring at the time.

Having been found worthy of this award is such an honor!

I'm expected to make a two-minute acceptance speech to the graduates -- and this time we're ready.

"The future is formed by what we do or fail to do, individually, in the present." 
... and will finish with a grateful "thank you" and have one-and-a-half minutes to use elsewhere!

Whoever dubbed these "the Golden Years" wasn't just blowin' smoke through his ears. This is serious stuff!  Could this be compensation for thinning hair, sagging everything, and a creeping suspicion that one day I'll wake up to find that lots of folks have made some glaring errors in judgment and all these wonderful tributes will have to be returned to the proper honorees?  Meanwhile, I'm lining them all in a row on my library table -- and when I'm feeling unappreciated I can point to them and say, "See?"

Dorian Reid - "Colorful Cats"
I know that I've been among the missing since late in March ...

... and I don't think that I was fully appreciating how traumatic the separation from Dorian might be.  Not that she's gone out of my life, but our relationship has (necessarily) changed since I've turned her life over to a Trust, a legal/social services/team that will provide future guidance as I prepare for what should surely be my final decade.

I'd convinced myself that doing so would give me back my life (meaningless concept, that), and would provide the opportunity for me to watch (while I'm still living) just how she will fare after my death.  Sounds neatly managed, doesn't it?  Don't be fooled, guys.  At 90, it's hell to be staring into the Abyss of Non-existence when, ironically, my personal life's trajectory has caught a wild and turbulent updraft that is dizzying!  The contrasts of highs and lows have never been more stark. I'm feeling off-balance, and often on the verge of tears.  An appropriate response to the situation?  I think so ... .

I'm pleased with the decision; am assured that she is in good hands; that we've gotten most things right over the years.  I'd filled the balance of my life with meaningful work that has brought public acclaim and deep satisfaction, so what's wrong?  My work with the National Park Service has brought adventure, challenges, and a family of young friends who have enriched my life and brought great pleasure through days filled with newness undreamed of.

That all happened over the past months, and went smoothly as planned.  Dorrie talks very factually about "when you're gone," which stings a bit -- though is softened by her obvious innocence.  Haven't I worked toward this for all of our lives?

I discovered while searching for her permanent living space that, ironically, many of those security measures that used to exist for the mentally-disabled over years of state and federal cutbacks -- are now available to her in senior housing complexes.   She'd aged into eligibility (now 55), and the benefits that come with that are considerable.  How ironic!  We are truly investing our resources in the wrong end of the  life-line!  Therein lies madness.

Nonetheless she has just been confirmed for a 2-bedroom apartment within walking distance to the Mall, to her mother's condo, and across the road from "Cat City," the home of a community of feral cats that she's shared the responsibility for with other women in the neighborhood.  The care and feeding is a labor of love, and provides her with women who share her passion for felines.

So -- she and her two domestic cats will be moving within the next couple of weeks, and her mother will probably figure out just what is different about this move, and why it feels so final?  She's been living semi-independently for some time now, after spending many months hospitalized from injuries suffered in her 2009 accident.  Maybe it means that I'm trusting the world just a little less with my daughter since that time; maybe ... .