Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Whiplash!  Out of total despair -- into sublime joy!

Yesterday, upon arrival at the Visitor Center for my first program of the day, the familiar big yellow school bus arrived from Vacaville, California.  Pouring out of it were 55 high school students with perhaps 5 instructors.  It had been explained that these kids were advanced placement students and had studied this era so were prepped for my talk.  Still  I was more than a bit apprehensive.  The inescapable feeling of late, that someone far younger than I should be interacting with teens -- that the distance between their ages and mine was simply too great for me to hold their interest.  I felt so inadequate.  These could be my grand- and great-grandchildren! Why did anyone believe that this was appropriate?  One of the younger ranger surely should be interpreting this history for them.

But this had been scheduled for me, and there was nothing to do but comply.  Later in the day, at my 2 o'clock presentation, I would have the grownups, and my confidence would return as before.

To add to the confusion, two members of the team who will be filming my talk had arrived and were standing at the back of the theater trying to scope out the existing lighting and to learn how to supplement ...

The kids got seated and I introduced the 15-minute orientation film without incident.  When the lights dimmed and I did the usual -- moved my wooden stool to a place against the wall just beyond the entrance and the black velvet curtain intended to dampen the sounds from the hallway.  It was then that the curtain was drawn back slightly and Wes, one of the docents, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered that there was an urgent telephone call from Tom, our superintendent, - and I must immediately go into Elizabeth's office to answer.

Mind you, I'm still wearing a lapel mike attached to my necktie and it was live!

I made my way across the short hallway; picked up the phone, and at the other end of the line was Director Jon Jarvis of the National Park Service calling from Washington to announce an invitation for me to attend the tree lighting ceremony at the White House with the First Family on December 3rd!  Not only that, but that I was being asked to introduce the president of the United States of America!  I was stunned.  I'm not sure where my feet were, but somehow they fell into place beneath me and took me back into the theater where the film was still in progress.  (Fortunately, Michael, who was serving as my techie had rushed into the office to cut off the mike just before the call came, but not before my voice had boomed out into the audience while en route!)  
Photo by Carl Bidleman
Climbed back onto my stool as "Home Front Heroes" drew to a close.  Looked out at those lovely young faces and said, "You won't believe what just happened.  There was a call from Washington, D.C., and ...", in a few sentences blurted out the incredible story.  "You're the first to know, and you'll just have to keep our secret until it hits the news cycle."   I didn't know at the time whether the news should be shared.  I simply could not have continued my talk with those words crowding out everything else.  They had to be voiced.  Surprisingly, after taking a few quieting breaths, I was able to pick up the next few sentences of my presentation, and allow the excitement to be quelled until the
work was done.  Time enough later to go out to the water's edge to stand quietly to let it all in.

As the kids took leave (after the usual round of picture-taking) I realized that those years between us made us miles apart, but that our humanity was the equalizer.  I don't think that I'll ever experience such fears again, at least not until the next time.  As a parting gift, each took the time to jot down on small slips of paper, their impressions and gratefulness for the experience.  This was surely planned in advance of their coming.  The notes were thoughtful and sincere -- they left me with more than 50 slips that I will treasure against the dark days.

It was then that the filmmakers (who'd followed me out to the water's edge) told me that they were planning to make the trip to Washington with me -- if the permissions were granted by Homeland Security, and for the first time -- I realized that I was probably the only person who didn't know that this was programmed to happen on this day ... .They'd filmed those moments of my explanation to the students in those words that I shall never be able recall ... but maybe it matters not.

... and maybe it was all for the best.  I could not possibly have endured the painful pleasure of anticipation.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Somewhere in the early days of this journal I'm certain that I wrote of "Betty's 500 ft. area of responsibility" ... .

In the light of the unbelievable savagery experienced in Paris this weekend, I could feel myself shrinking back into the desperate mindset of those days:

On the streets outside our little store in South Berkeley the drug trade had claimed territory and our building was right in the middle of it.  We were at ground zero.  Within a few weeks -- at different times -- I witnessed 4 young black men brutally shot down on the streets; it was a turf war. A police car in fast pursuit in the middle of the night crashed through our plate glass windows.  On a quiet Saturday afternoon with customers browsing the record bins, a bullet screamed through our window from a police action across the street -- and was embedded in the wall behind the counter.  A meeting held by the tenant on our second floor -- a meeting which included the police chief caused the suspicious drug dealers to affix barrel bombs to our 8' plate glass windows and blasted them out in the middle of the night leaving us vulnerable to looters.

Another dark day, due to the indescribable fetid odor of decaying flesh reeking from our dumpster, the garbage collectors found the remains of a fetus that had been festering for a number of days -- from some unknown troubled young soul, surely.

Over time I developed the ability to imagine that there were buttons just below my rib cage, and that I could press one of them as I got out of my car each morning -- to enable the ability to dumb down to a level of insensitivity that would allow me to exist over another work day on the street -- before climbing back into the driver's seat on an exhale upon closing.  Just another day of survival in my state of existence as 3/5ths of a human being (as an African American).  And I suppose, another 5th might be knocked off for my status as woman

At that time I had more money invested in irons bars on my doors and windows than in merchandise for resale.  It was then that -- when I attempted to buy insurance coverage the agent told me that if I could lift our building up and set it down 3 blocks in any directions, they would be happy to write a policy, but where it stood there was simply too much risk.  I could not count on help, either from the insurance company or the police department who were reluctant to clean up the area,  "... because when something happens in other parts of town, we know the most likely place to pick up the culprit!"  They were using our neighborhood as a catchment area for their own purposes. 

Though I've never shirked my political activist role, it was during those years that I stopped trying to change the world and made a commitment to limit my personal area of responsibility to changing just 500 feet!  It worked.  The world would have to take care of itself but everything that lay within my self-imposed boundaries had better shape up or ship out!  It only was then that life became manageable, and the awful panic subsided.  That familiar feeling of a chronic state of panic has returned since Paris ... .

Over past years I've allowed my self-determined sphere of influence to expand unrealistically; to gradually take in city, state, and at times national issues; rarely international.  Currently, my activism includes work with the National Park System, and in that work I've had some real successes.  That is, until Friday's horrific headlines from Paris.

Woke Saturday morning after a sleepless night of agonizing over the brutality -- the unbelievable savagery of ISIS in the unprovoked attack on innocent people in a bloody massacre that defies the imagination! My breathing is not as measured as before, and I have to keep reminding myself to stop the occasional dry sobs so that my palms will be less sweaty and my heartbeat can ease into a more reasonable rate.  I'm experiencing even greater fears as in those dark and frightening days when forced to reduce my world to a more manageable size.

I'm willing to be responsible for my 500 feet, again, if the rest of you will take up those on the East, West, North, and South of mine.  You'll need to recruit for the footage beyond those you designate as your own, though, if we're going to pull this off.  Maybe we can still make it work.  I have to remind myself that -- before turning the store over to my son, David, some years ago -- I had brash young drug dealers standing on street corners with clipboards in white shirts and ties - registering voters!

It's conceivable that ISIS will pose more complex problems, but I'm game if you are.

Meanwhile, I'm simply terrified.

It's this awful feeling of profound helplessness ... and the deep down gnawing suspicion that the known world has spiraled out of anyone's control.

... but this morning as I listened to our young capable President Barack Obama, I was able to lean on just a few moments of confidence in his leadership, before it evaporated into the somber sound bytes coming from NPR.  I can imagine no one in whom I have greater trust in these dark days of fear and uncertainty.

He obviously can't limit his world to 500 feet.  He has the awesome responsibility of the nation and all of the people of the world, who like me, are hungrily looking to him for guidance and assurance that life will go on even as it veers so tragically off course.  Dr. Carson?  Really?  Who else would you suggest?

Would that those who are manning those roadblocks that prevent him from fully governing would stand aside and allow his wisdom to prevail -- is there really anyone else in sight with the power and the purpose to lead us toward a more compassionate future?

Think about that, then take the 500 ft. that abuts mine (east, west, north, or south) and see that everyone who is an eligible voter is registered.

That's how we begin to re-create Democracy in our time.