Wednesday, August 07, 2019

I can barely see my computer through eyes tear-swollen from hours on end of sobbing ...

This day, like so many others of late, are filled with seemingly disconnected yet book-ended vignettes brought to life by events I'd never before seen as related ... .

It was the massacre at El Paso:

Upon watching the awfulness of the weekend's horrific killings I fell further and further into a deep depression without recognition of what was happening.  And it wasn't what was the unbelievably dreadful scenes on the screen, no, not at all.  Instead, the mind images were quite different -- giving me a feeling of being out of control -- out of touch!  I'd been here before.  There was a familiarity about this phenomenon; it was at this point that the convulsive sobbing began:

The year was 1935.  I was fourteen, and traveling to New Orleans as the West Coast family's delegate to the celebration of Mamma´s birthday in St. James Parish.  I distinctly remember my mother's telling me (as she pinned my ticket to my coat lapel at Oakland's beautiful 16th Street railroad station) to be sure to watch for the Pullman porter when we reached El Paso because that was where we'd cross the Mason Dixon Line and would officially enter the South.  That he would let me know what to do.

I would have had no reason to know that the Mason Dixon Line was that place where the Free States were separated from where the Slave States began,  and that it was at El Paso that this historic line was crossed.  I'd grown up in California and, though much of family lore involved stories of Southern bigotry, it was balanced off by a home life rich in Creole cultural traditions.

We'd been traveling for many hours, days, over a barren arid landscape of sagebrush and sameness hour after-hour, when the train noisily expelling steam lurched into the station at El Paso, Texas.  I'd gathered up my things and readied myself to watch for the porter without knowing just what would happen ... so it was with adolescent excitement, and little fear.

As I watched the porter approach in anticipation and eagerness for the next adventure, he paused at my seat, tapped me on the shoulder with the words (spoken quietly), "please follow me."  There were about a dozen Negroes of all ages lined up behind him in the aisle.   We were about 3 passenger cars back from our destination, and would continue adding to our numbers as we obediently followed.  We were being led to the Jim Crow car, a coach that was the closest to the engine, behind the mail and baggage cars, to where the smoke and noise would be greatest.

We, Negroes, were being marched past the "Privileged," the "Supremicists," to a separate space lest we contaminate, taint, those who were white-skinned.

I joined that little procession excited and expectant, but by the time we had walked through 3 cars of grinning, staring, or simply disinterested, white people, I'd gotten the message.  The lessons had been learned.  Shame and humility had been absorbed through every pore.  I would carry them the rest of my life after that long and awkward march of disembodied shame and inexplicable humility.  This would be the moment in history when my racial identity would be forever baked into my being; where my black identity would become irrevocably fixed.

It's interesting that what I took away from that experience was not that degrading and embarrassing lurching march through those passenger cars, but how wonderfully that trip came to life once we "colored folk" were together in that Jim Crow car; how the porters gave us extra pillows and blankets; how the waiters in secret plied us with the best from the diner (where we would not be allowed to enter through to the end of the trip); when those picnic baskets packed with fried chicken and sandwiches prepared lovingly by those southern folks who knew the drill and had come prepared for the sharing.  The warmth of the partying that went on, once the harmonicas and a battered guitar surfaced, is with me still. I remember no sign of resistance, no comment on what had just happened to us, I even recall the thought that -- if those white folks learned of how much fun we were having, they'd put a stop to it!  But we were bound together in a silent acceptance of "God's Will," or of whatever this was, but even at 14 I was made aware by that experience that I was part of a larger family, at least temporarily.  I believe that this is what sustained me through the Sixties, that feeling of an unbreakable relatedness to that greater cause.

This was the "We" of Me, and it was born in that Jim Crow railroad car just a few miles outside the City of El Paso, by benevolent Pullman porters, and that little band of "Strangers of Color", who shared enough love to take this pretty little stranger across the North/South barrier, the infamous Mason/Dixon Line.  A girl who was living proof of what white nationalist's fear most of all.  In my racial ambiguity -- my lightly caramelized skin color,  I was that mongrel that happens if you let those little white and black kids go to school together; if we don't keep 'em separated in every way, they might love one another!

I do remember several hours of paralyzing fear when two uniformed armed guards boarded the train in the middle of the night and entered our car with two manacled and ankle-chained convicts (white).  They were obviously being transferred to a prison somewhere along the run.  The four were seated behind a makeshift partition, but were clearly within sight of those of us not yet asleep.  Strange. Ironic.  As I recall, they were only with us for a few hours, but the fears ran deep, and to this day add insult of a kind that eats away at a young girl's fragile sense of worth.

That walk in that little procession of shame was tucked away for over a long lifetime in that mind space wherever we stow that which is impossible to understand or process.  Until a time in life when one has found enough strength to face the pain of the experience. Until now.  Until it explodes from within ... .
But there were also lessons learned by those we marched past in those three train cars,  lessons affirming the rights of white supremacy and privilege -- lessons that were/are so deeply embedded in our nation's DNA -- lessons that are false, deceptive -- lethal, lessons that have this day in August of the year 2019 robbed 22 Texans of their lives, and 9 Ohio-ans as well, and thousands and thousands of other innocent citizens across the centuries, plus 4000 black souls who were brutally lynched in the years following a never processed and still being fought, Civil War.  Six million Jews whose lives were lost in the ovens of Hitler's Germany.  Lives lost in endless wars against Terrorism.  Lives sacrificed upon the Altar of Racial Purity! Lives lost in the futile quest for White Supremacy.  
It is the children and grandchildren of those passengers, and others like them, who are now dying in a hail of bullets as suicide killers in these mass murders. 
How long must we live this horror?

Only through these tears do I begin to fully understand that young Betty who returned to California, and -- a year or two later -- would respond to the drama teacher's admonition after the moving reading of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset, Mariamne's love scene to a hushed audience of other teens, when, after class, she would say, "... we know you read that part very well, Betty, but you do know that we can't possibly cast you in that part?  You're playing a scene with Eddie Baptiste who is white, and his parents would simply not be pleased.  I'm so sorry."  My response (that I remember to this day but never quite understood until this moment) was, "Of course. Whatever was I thinking?"  That I would passively drop that class and join the public speaking class being taught by Mr. Bill McLaughlin, making myself complicit in the madness.  Shame and humility ... .

This Winterset story remains so deeply embedded that it was included in my book, Sign my name to Freedom.

Bookends.  So many book ends ...

That sense of shame and humility was shed long ago, as these pages surely show.

So why can I not stop crying?

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Oh how I wish that the full spectrum of memory was available to more of us ...

... longevity is causing me to gradually become out of sync with the generations below me.  That fact alone skews my reality and puts me at odds at a time when those memories could serve these chaotic times far better, as those lessons learned long ago might be renewed.  Instead they just go unheeded, and regrettably, re-lived.

For instance:

Long forgotten is a time (during the Fifties and beyond) when it took $47.25/wk to support a family of five.  Crazy?  No.  That was the prevailing wage in the economy of those decades of 40-50 years ago.   Look it up, don't trust my word.  But, of course, that's only true if you were white.  Black families were headed by men who were members of the service workers generation.  Our fathers and uncles were the Red Caps, the valets, bell hops, Pullman porters,  day laborers,  elevator operators, garbage men, handy men, cooks and waiters, none acceptable to the Labor Unions.  They earned $25-$35/wk.  Pullman porters earned $18 a week, plus tips, for a 12-15 hour workday.   The fight for entry into the labor unions was still ahead.  Even attaining supervisory levels was limited in most industries since black men were still considered unqualified and inferior to white workers.

My proud father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet, a trained and experienced millwright and builder, once he left the South, could not find employment except as a white-aproned sandwich hawker in a Southern Pacific railroad lunch car! In that role he earned $75/month for most of his life, and with my mother's help, supported our family of 5 and paid off the mortgage on our modest little home in Oakland.  Though he worked as a carpenter in later life, he could only join the Union after crossing the color line.  Though it was unspoken, I'm certain that he passed for white eventually, as many were forced to do in order to survive.

But what about those who were too dark-skinned to use this option?  Suspecting that Dad was passing was never mentioned, though the fact that we never met anyone of his co-workers, nor were we ever taken to visit his worksite, and the silence around the issue made for a climate of shame that worked to alienate my sisters and me from our parents for much of our lives.  Since both my sisters were lighter-skinned than I in the early years, I'm sure that the burden of keeping the secret was most deeply felt by me; as if just being "colored" in a hostile world weren't burden enough for a child.

Dorson Louis Charbonnet 1894-1987
Our mothers and our aunts were 35 to 50 cents/hr domestic servants, taking care of white folk's children and cleaning their homes.  It had always taken at least two wages to support black families; families who were deliberately and cruelly omitted from the Social Security System by the Roosevelt Administration. From a time when domestic service workers and laborers -- as a class -- were not included.  Look it up.  An Administration now remembered proudly as "Progressive", an administration that took the nation to war with a segregated armed forces.  An Administration that imprisoned 140,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans during that war, 70,000 of whom were American citizens.

This is who we were as a nation in those times; times now looked back on as "Great!", and the time when the "...middle class built this country!"  And now I may be one of the few still living who has lived long enough to remember -- at what cost to how many of us?

We tend to look back and measure social change in terms of values, but seldom do we look back on our lives contextually.  It's only when we do so that a true picture of just who we are can be found.  And it's only when we look back at those times that we can gain some sense of just how far we've come.

And, may I suggest -- that it is in these election cycles that those measurements can best be taken, but we must remove the blinders while assessing, and face up to our national truths as they were lived by those of us who lived them.

And we must remember, that we are not living in the same reality -- and rarely if ever has that been true.  The America that I've lived in bears little resemblance to that of many others.  That's probably as it should be.  I don't argue with that.  It's from those variables that our richness as a Nation is forged.  But the variables should not rise from the inequities and injustices embedded in a flawed social system that bears the awful legacy of slavery, but from the adjustments and corrections we've lived through as a people guided by our founding documents and a heritage of freedom that ensues therefrom  -- as we continue the process of forming our "more perfect Union."

I'll be listening for truth in the upcoming debates over the months ahead, and hoping to live through another election cycle.

Just one more ... please ...

Sunday, June 30, 2019

I know that the Hatch Act prohibits any political involvements by a federal employee ...

... but to opine on things political without endorsing or otherwise supporting particular candidates or issues must be permissible, wouldn't you think?

I've surely not given up my right to respond to critical issues when they arise.  And ever since the debates in Florida this past week, my mind has been spinning!  I can think of little else ... .

The 1954 decision to desegregate the school system set in motion several decades of change that effected the lives of all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity.  Even for those of us who'd moved out of urban centers to the suburbs; the reverberations were inescapable.

Maybe the fact that my experience was unique in that I was living among the privileged during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, when those changes were so life-changing, and my perspective surely would have varied from the norm.

Though the lives and opportunities  of Black children were altered by the sudden exposure to a richer educational experience, there were also some unexpected consequences for white children.  Black kids were being forcibly pushed out into the hostile world of children who were learning hate from a generation of parents who shared their toxic beliefs around the family dinner tables each night, while their children were being gradually freed by new truths of black children they were learning to love and respect in the new social fabric being created by the inclusivity born of federal intervention.  For me, it was white kids who were deeply effected by the mandate against racial segregation of the schools in 1954, children who were suddenly catapulted into a new reality in which huge generational differences were being forged.

At least this was true for those whose social growth wasn't frozen at that level, those who would be forever damaged by the hatred -- and who would later become the troubled and troubling white nationalists of the country.

It was not only that Black kids were being broadened by the changes, but that the many white kids, as teens and young adults, who willingly moved their privilege to a back burner, becoming the nation-changers by joining with those being shut out of the American Dream.  They did so by setting their own dreams aside to join those courageous souls who were the Freedom bus riders at risk of their lives; who moved into the Deep South to do the perilous work of registering blacks to vote; who staffed those Freedom Schools (like my young friend, white Susan Sanford, who left college to do just that).  White kids who, later in the Movement, suffered the rejection of the very Blacks they'd sacrificed for -- who dismissed them by sending them back into their own communities to "change those white folks!".

It was the addition of white voices to the mix that empowered the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and 70s. The very reason that the federal mandate for school busing in the early 70s came into being was because the climate created by the skirmishes of the 50s and 60s was beginning to give way between generations --  resistance softened by the tumultuous times.

In the late Sixties, the Flower Children who rose to world attention in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury were not aliens who'd landed from some distant planet, they were the sons and daughters of my suburban friends and neighbors, kids who'd gone off to the colleges and universities of the nation, met and roomed with kids of color in many cases -- for their first exposure to otherness, and in the process had learned that they'd been hood-winked by that bigoted parental generation -- that many of those new friends and acquaintances were not only equal, but some superior to expectations.

In 1964 they'd joined with others from across the country to invade the South to bring change, and, upon returning, staked out their conditions for change -- which included not only de-segregation of the races -- but creating a world-changing Anti-Vietnam War movement,  supported the drives toward Ethnic Studies on the nation's campuses; and later -- in new more inclusive coalitions, the Women's Movement and of the L.G.B.T.Q wars yet to come.

Busing was not merely about changing Black folks, it was the culmination of a continuing regimen of change that opened a successive set of doors of opportunity; doors that changed white youth as much as it did those of color.

It changed us all.

What started such thoughts?

It was a message in my mailbox yesterday from a reporter, Seema Mehta, from the L.A. Times.  She wanted to interview me about the school busing issue (surely fallout from the debate).  I responded by answering that she needed to interview someone else because I was simply not qualified to speak on the subject since I was a suburban mother at that time with only one child in school; an all-white school, and that the busing issue was outside my experience.

Obviously not so, just seeing through a different lens.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Love across time, geography, and Space ... .
From: Betty Reid Soskin <>
Date: June 16, 2019 at 8:54:05 AM PDT
Subject: Re: Hello and thinking of you on the other side of the world
Am in Southern California for Alyana’s graduation from UC Irvine.

You’ve been on my mind for days.  Was with your Dad, Bob, on Thursday - asked if he’d heard from you lately.  No.  Thoughts of you persisted throughout the day ... .
Yesterday while getting ready to leave home for the airport, looked into my jewelry box and found this little necklace you’ created for the family reunion years ago.  Slipped it around my neck.  First time ever since that day, I would wear it.

Woke suddenly this morning at a Marriott Hotel In Newport Beach to a ding from my IPhone on the nightstand and quite suddenly and unexpectedly --  there you were!

I have this insistent and inescapable feeling that the soul of an original ancestor, perhaps the ancestor of my great-greatgrandmother, Celestine, mother of my beloved great-grandmother, Leontine, the beleaguered soul who has been wandering the earth for centuries -- has finally found her way home!  That you are her embodiment in this century. The Celestine who is the "C" of my 21st Century username, CBreaux, whom I've given voice to in this blog, incidentally, and who had to be preceded in life by the woman who was brought in chains to this country -- and whose existence is shielded behind the slave curtain, and the excruciating painful time spent in captivity ... .  All I know about her is the fact that she had to be a musician, a singer perhaps (?) since she still lives in so many of those of us who still walk the Earth.
            Find myself wondering if you're still writing songs, and singing them as a part of your work? 
Crazy? Maybe.  But before a minute more passes I’m needing to take the attached picture— resisting the need to be “rational”, and explain the magic away.

More when I return home and back into a saner place.

Love to you both.


Monday, May 27, 2019

Another wondrous day ... beyond my wildest dreams ... .

On Wednesday, May 22, 2019, I was photographed by the great Annie Liebovitz, and what a day it was!

The car picked me up at around 8:15 that morning for the short drive to the Visitor Education Center of our Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front Historical National Park.  I'm taking the time to type this in as complete detail as possible in order to convince myself that it really happened.

After a brief greeting with this gracious woman, we were driven to a point on the scenic Richmond shoreline where I'd never before been.  This magnificent background is a mere 5 minutes, walking, from our Visitor Center. It is dramatic; unexpectedly beautiful, though anywhere along the Bay Trail can be surprising and wilder than one might anticipate.  The rock formations, though probably landscaped beyond what might find in a more natural state, are nonetheless beautiful and convincingly random.

This site would have served during WWII as Kaiser Shipyard II, where some of the 747 ships were built and launched in 3 years and 8 months. An achievement that helped to bring the war to an end by out-producing the enemy.

That history came alive for me on this day, alive in ways previously dimmed by time ... .

Fortunately, Bryan Gibel, producer/director of the upcoming documentary,  "Sign my name to freedom" came along to photograph Annie and me at work.  Depending upon what gets left on the cutting-room floor, this just might make it into his film.

I have no idea when this work will be published, or, what is its intended use, but at this point I can't say that I very much care.  It was the experience of meeting Ms. Liebovitz -- and "disappearing into the art of another" that sings to me!

She is on an assignment for Google (I believe) using the Google Pixel 3 XL, photographing men and women who are "having an impact" in their time (according to Blaine Edens of Soapbox Productions).  She'd come from a shoot at the Museum created by Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, Alabama -- where the history of lynchings is memorialized through those unforgettable heart-rending sculptures.

I'm hoping to visit there someday, and at the rate things are going ... .

Can you imagine that not happening?

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Feeling strangely depressed on this Mother's Day ...

... and there's a familiar cast to the feelings -- as though being re-visited from some deep place where we keep the unfinished business of life...

And, maybe I'm not alone, but simply one of the ba-zillion women, worldwide, who have lived into these later years -- having out-lived logic and bereft of the guideposts that we'd been led to expect would be there as we aged into our traditional roles in life ... .

It's those dim memories, hardly distinguishable from the others, memories of some lines we crossed from childhood through to some ill-defined adulthood within which we somehow survived to be mothers of the young who would succeed us in life.

I can remember -- at about seventeen -- wanting a little black dress, and being told by my mother that young girls do not wear black, that I must wait until I was a grown woman before that could happen.  I believe that I was in my mid-twenties, married, before I owned that little black dress.  Not certain of the reason, but I remember it to this day, it was black crepe, bias-cut, and slinky, and worn to a cocktail party hosted by The Woman, a social club I belonged to at that time -- at the Masonic Hall at 30th off San Pablo in Oakland.  I DO remember that it felt wicked and sophisticated, but that it in no way changed my feelings of not yet being old enough ... not even as a married woman.

Maybe when I became a mother ... .

Nah, not even then.

I now recall with sadness on this Mother's Day how -- somewhere in mid-life -- I dropped into a major depression marked by an unfathomable feeling of disappointment, of having been somehow tricked when I suddenly discovered myself caught between generations, being the acting-parent of 4 children, in a failing marriage, and facing squarely into a projected life of care-taking of aging parents, 'til death do them part.

I'd matured into the "sandwich generation" at a time when I was still needing a mother, only problem was that I'd slipped across some kind of generational divide where -- simultaneously -- life was demanding that I become a mother to my own mother ... and there was no conceivable way to reverse the process.

... and I rose to the occasion, as billions of others had done before me.

As my own mother had done.

... it's what women do.

But, you know what?  I truly believe I hit grown-up somewhere around 68!

Sunday, May 05, 2019

My return to Mt. Diablo Unitarian-Universalist Church in Walnut Creek ... 

Then and now.

So much has been lived through by now, and the chance to update that process with an almost totally different congregation -- fascinating!

The sermon below occurred on a recent Sunday morning, just before taking off on Alaska Airlines for the trip to participate in the conference at the Getty Center hours later the same afternoon.

But despite the changes, it felt like home.

Sunday,March 24, 2019 Talk by Betty Reid Soskin "A Legacy of Love: A Ser...

Monday, April 15, 2019

Lessons learned ... even in these late years ... .

... and they're seemingly unrelated, yet ...

One week ago, I was a participant in one of the annual Google ICloud conferences in San Francisco.  These occur in 3 places, London, Tokyo, and San Francisco.  I'm told that there were 3400 gathered in the Moscone Convention Center for 4 days of workshop sessions, and mine was in one of the smaller meeting rooms that held, maybe, 250 people.  It was a "Fireside chat with Betty Reid Soskin."

It was during the Powerpoint presentation that I learned for the first time that there is a room at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley named for yours truly!  Can you imagine?  It was then that I recalled giving a talk there a few years ago, but had no idea that this had happened.

Lessons learned?  Simple one in this case.  We're leaving tracks even when we're unaware ... .

The other?  This one was a bit less comfortable:

I was aware that one of my songs, "Your hands in mine", that had been introduced in December at the Paramount theater in Oakland, would be featured in the spring concert of the Symphony's Freedom Choir.  What an honor!  And Saturday evening was that time, and I was picked up by Ken Saltztine, a member of the choir, and driven to a lovely church site for the event.  I could hardly wait to hear how it would be arranged, and presented.  This was another of those rare occurrences that are now happening with some regularity, accompanied by a course of elevated adrenaline splashes and sleepless nights for days preceding.

Arriving early, I would sit in a pew with a hand-drawn sign announcing that this was "reserved" for V.I.P's, status I'd never quite found myself formally a member of -- with wired nerve ends, alone, waiting ...

Just before the clock struck eight, Maestro Michael Morgan slipped in beside me, the choir of 108 voices began to file in; the stately choir director, Dr. Lynne Morrow, entered down the center aisle dramatically taking her place at the podium ...

I'd checked the program and found the title of my little song just past the middle and before the intermission, following directly the great hymn of the Civil Rights days, "We shall overcome."

The program was absolutely brilliant!  It consisted of Negro spirituals, all familiar and much-loved.  We proceeded through Ain't got time to die, Kumbiya, Ain't nobody gonna turn me 'roun' etc., then one of the most beautiful arrangements of "We shall overcome" (5 choruses), that I've ever heard, and sung with the passion of professionals with a message.

Then Dr. Morrow introduced my simple little song-- all 2 minutes and 26 seconds of it -- giving the explanation of why it was written and under the circumstances of my response to the treatment the courageous Fannie Lou Hamer faced at the 1964 Democratic Convention -- and I suddenly felt uncomfortable -- embarrassed, wondering how on earth I ever had the audacity to believe that I could ever write anything worthy enough to take the place of that amazingly powerful song that had brought us together at a time when our courage as a people may have been wavering; when our lives were being threatened, and when our voices were providing the sound track for the tumultuous Era of the Sixties?

The soloist, who stepped out of the choir to be me in this moment, did a wonderful job, and pain of it was quickly over; both the feelings and the song.

Maybe, what was familiar about these feelings of discomfort was the reason my music had been hidden away in the back of my closet for fifty years, this feeling of unworthiness.  Yet, at the Paramount theater in December I'd felt triumphant in sharing this song before that audience of friendly strangers.

Why had I not felt this way the night before when this same little song had been sung by children of the Oakland Performing Arts School?  It felt so right just 24 hours ago!  Fitting.  Those middle school kids did such a wonderful job, and the song was so well received by their parents and teachers in that audience.  What made this different?

Why did I have this feeling that somehow, all those many years ago, I'd stepped inappropriately over some line, and my private war with President Lyndon Baines Johnson had spilled over into some V.I.P. "reserved" territory where, I forgot that I was not a composer, but an interloper daring to enter a world that lay far beyond my capacities.


Find myself wondering which of these feelings will prevail as we go forward?

Sunday, April 07, 2019

"In your face", a photo by Carl Bidleman's cameraman, Stefan
Just returned from Missoula, Montana, and my third appearance as a part of the cast of The Moth ..

Our audience was at capacity in the historic Wilma Theater in downtown Missoula, a town with more cowboy hats than I've ever seen in one place--and I'm a lifelong resident of the furthest reach of the West Coast!

I tend to forget that the San Francisco Bay Area's cosmopolitan character has lost its western flavor entirely.  One has to travel inland to find John Wayne's America; I'd forgotten that.  It's easy enough to do since we're now characterized by skyscrapers that boast the most phallic skyline on the West Coast, shouting "My building's bigger than your building" in aluminum, steel, glass, and towering structures that defy logic or most people's budgets!  Looking at the landscape as we approached the landing strip makes one conscious of how densely we're now populated in the urban areas, and how much open space there is just beyond our borders.  It made a mockery of our leader's insistence that the southern borders be shut down immediately since, "we have no more room to share with immigrants."

But I digress.

One of the films in which my personal life is being depicted, is almost ready for release.  Carl Bidleman's long awaited work is nearly ready to be submitted for approval to the Committee on Ethics at the Department of Interior.  Since it is based on my life as a park ranger with the National Park Service, this is a necessary step before approval for public release.

Can't help but wonder how it will be once that happens ... when even during the last two trips, due to the recent bursts of public exposure caused by the Glamour Magazine award, I was recognized in two airports -- once by a security agent!  That's to be expected when in uniform, but when not ... I'm always taken by surprise, and a mixture of pleasure and dismay.

I'm so conflicted upon arrival at airports when ordering my wheelchair (yes!) as my physician has directed me to do with the words, "you've earned it, Betty.  At 97 you should not expect yourself to navigate through the long lines at security or the endless trek to the Gates."  In response I've developed a convenient slight limp to justify the request, then pray fervently that there's no one in that crowd who will recognize me as, "the oldest park ranger in the National Park Service!"  Anyone who really knows me will surely know that I'm capable of one hell of a lot of activity in any one day without even breathing hard!

On my 90th birthday
But the fact that my "handicap" was not evident (I'm assuming), and as my chair was wheeled to the place in the security line where one must be checked for metal, this time I was taken aside for a "pat down".  A strange thing occurred there that surprised me.  A young woman, apologetically and gently, passed her  gloved hands over my body and--rather than outrage--I found myself smiling and pleased, reminded of how long it has been since I'd been touched in quite this way by another human being ... and when living alone in these final years ... how little reason there is for that to happen.  I'd almost forgotten ... .

What is not known is that continuing to travel comes at a cost.  I really am experiencing a level of fear and confusion in those long lines of travelers in their bare feet and rushing past to heaven knows where ... .  It's hard to admit that I may not be any longer in control of whatever it takes to find my way through international airports, and that doing it alone may no longer be either practical or safe.  Were it not for my daughter, Diara, following my wheelchair ready to re-direct in the case of problems, my gallivanting days might well be over.  But, for the moment, we're still ready to go wherever life takes us.

Thank heaven for wheelchair service!  It takes much of the fear away, and makes it possible to continue to travel to adventures and experiences that would otherwise be beyond reach.

Not ready to give up quite yet ... .

Friday, March 29, 2019

Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu and John Legend
This statement welcoming the participants to the Conference is an important one to share, I believe ... .

According to Nielsen, Americans watch an average of 36 hours of television every week, making TV writers, producers, and executives among the most influential change makers of our time.  By determining whose lives are reflected on screen, storytellers who work in TV directly impact, more than ever in history of the medium, our shared perception of what's real and what's possible. 

Few opportunities exist for members of the content-creation community to gather and discuss how to better wield this far-reaching cultural impact.  That changes today:  The purpose of A Day of Unreasonable Conversation is to "interrupt your regularly scheduled programming" with new ideas and interlocutors.  Our hope is that the conversation will carry far beyond this gathering as you return to your writers rooms, energized to move the story of progress forward.   
Thanks you for being here.

                                        Greg Propper,  Founder
                                        A Day of Unreasonable Conversation, 
                                        President, Propper Daley

host committee:

click to enlarge, to make readable
Yes, this is Stacey Abrams with Unreasonable Moi!
I can't imagine that so much time has passed since I last sat down to post ... .

... but the blame is with the impossible pace of my life these days, and surely not because there has been  nothing to say.

Since the experience with the Oakland Symphony, I've faced into the winds of changes unimaginable only a year ago.

The publication of Sign my name to freedom has opened the gates wide into the world of authors where I'm a complete stranger but eager student.  Having been graciously accepted into the new worlds of technology through participating in events for Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Adobe, Nike, etc., in recent months, and having now stumbled into that of Virtual Reality through the artistry of Gary Yost, it feels almost surreal.

But all of that pales in the face of last Monday, spent as one of many Change Makers from all over the country at the Unreasonable Conversations Conference at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

This was a gathering of the writers, directors, producers, funders, for the television industry.  By invitation, only, these 350 communicators were brought together as audience to those of us considered the change-makers of our times to inform the work of those who will influence the public discourse over the next decade through their work and artistry.  What an assignment!

Taken from the brochure of the sponsoring agency, Propper Daley:

"Reasonable people adapt to the world; the unreasonable ones persist in trying to adapt the world to themselves.  Therefore, all progress depends on unreasonable people."
                                                            George Bernard Shaw  (adapted)

Sunday, January 20, 2019

With Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic convention
I never dreamed that the day would come when words would fail ... .

... yet that day has arrived, and the effects upon my psyche are unimaginable.

Since the memorable experience of the Paramount theater concert, I've met Gary Yost and his magical camera and brilliant artistry with results that are truly indescribable.  But I'll try, while knowing that I'm attempting the impossible.

In this photo taken about a week ago at a film shoot backstage at the Paramount theater and received only today, I'm sitting on a stool being filmed in Virtual Reality.  When completed, I will be describing , in a short piece, the story of the experience of singing with the symphony two weeks ago while watching myself surrounded by the orchestra and 3 choirs!  Gary Yost and Bryan Gibel, the producer/director of the documentary , "Sign my name to freedom," now in progress and to be released early next year, have combined talents to create this 8-minute mind-boggling VR piece that will accompany the documentary when shown at film festivals and elsewhere.  The footage of my performance with the Oakland symphony would be superimposed upon this new scene of Betty the Elder sitting on that stool re-living the unforgettable experience of December 12th in this historic landmarked space.

Watching oneself (and, yes, I've acquired an Oculus headset that allows for that) in this manner is about as close to living an out-of-body experience that one possibly can have, short of a hologram.

By pre-arrangement they'd brought together several theater staff to open the theater early in the day to meet with us, to grant access to the backstage area, and to provide the necessary lighting for the filming.   It was all accomplished in a single take and, with a "thumbs up" signal and within about 40-minutes, we were finished and on our way to our various homes.  Had those highly-talented professionals not become engaged in animated side chats about the cameras, exposures, possibilities of the new technology, with the fascinated theater folks, we might  well have accomplished it all in even less time.

The  dramatic results (downloaded from a computer in his Marin County studio and uploaded into a headset in my home in Richmond after step-by-step instructions by cellphone) I've now viewed and wept over the fact that I'm not only contained in that headset, but along with the likes of Ram Dass and Peter Coyote and, when completed, 98 others, and that I'm now able to watch myself as the world sees me, and listen to myself as the world hears me, and that my descendants will do so as long as there's a planet to stand on ... .

At a Salesforce Diversity Conference
on a VR "Serengeti Tour" with Smokey

in the year 2017
And, if you insist upon asking just how in the world I was included in that list, then we'll just have to part company.  That would mean that you'd be questioning Al Jazzera, Der Spiegel,  The Guardian, Glamour Magazine, The National Parks Conservancy Association, the National Parks Service, CBS, British Airways, United, the South Korean National Parks, the National Women's History Project,  the Sierra Club,  People for the Global Majority, etc., etc., etc, and were that to happen it would bring down the entire House of Cards!

I have no idea, but no longer question the workings of the God of Whomever Makes Such Decisions, and simply accept them with as much grace as can be mustered through the grins of disbelief at the sheer audacity of the young in this technological  and competitive world of lightning-quick advances and Lists of What- or Whom-ever for What-ever!

What I do know is that Gary Yost is collecting "Wisdom Leaders" of this century in VR to be archived for later viewing by succeeding generations.  Later, meaning that my great-great-great-grandchildren, centuries from now, will be able to sit in a room with me in this process that is shot with one of the 14(?) such cameras in-the-world that takes 360 degree images with its 10 camera coverage -- (see what I mean?).  Indescribable.

How thrilling it would be if I could sit for just a few minutes at the feet of my great-grandmother, Leontine, who was born in 1846 and enslaved throughout her childhood and adolescence -- but who lived to be 102, surviving until 1948.  I knew her, and was 27 years-old when we received word of her death.  What I would give to have been able to listen to her stories as I live out my time on the planet ...

That -- and this defies logic -- combined with the fact that this is all sponsored by the Long Now Foundation, who is creating the beyond one's wildest imaginings, the 10,000 year clock housed in a cave somewhere in Texas -- funded by Jeff Bezos.

See what I mean?

Sunday, January 06, 2019

It has now been over two weeks of the governmental Shutdown ... .

... and I'm slowly leaving my park ranger identity and assuming the role of private citizen.  The fact that -- not only has the break in the daily routine of going to work been upsetting -- but that I have need now to remind myself by sneaking peeks at my cellphone to see just what day I'm in the middle of.  Reminding myself that I'm old and that not remembering what day this is may be the first symptom of the dreaded Alzheimers!

I'm also beginning to disconnect from the need to never speak harshly of anyone in federal government since I'm an employee of same.  That means that I listen to our fearless leader responding to questions from the inquiring press when asked if he ever thinks about the federal workers now idle and without paychecks ... "most of them are in support of my position!"  Not!

I miss not only my paycheck, but those friends with whom I spend my days, the audiences who come to hear my presentations, those moments before entering our little theater when I sit behind the exhibits at the windows facing the waters and watching the soaring gulls and brown pelicans, the sassy crows, the cormorants and  other unidentified birdlife, the graceful sailboats, the Bay Trail cyclists, and the wind in that giant eucalyptus that stands just off the entrance to our Visitor Center.  I miss the interrupted rhythm of my life and work, in this, the most important and final period of my life.

Then -- as I allow my mind to wander -- I think to myself that this nation is protected by not only the southern border, but by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on the East and West, plus a one-third longer northern border that stands undisputed and open!  Were I a terrorist, where do you suppose I'd choose to enter?

And why, do you suppose, have I never seen a chart where "illegals" from above that northern border were quantified and challenged?  We've been told almost daily about the estimated 22 million "illegals" who are in this country from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, etc., but never have I seen a figure for those from Canada who've over-stayed their visas or who are in this country without the required permission or authority.

The "elephant in the room"?

You don't suppose ... .

Nah.  It's just that we don't want those from s--t hole countries!  Denying entry to our democracy by skin color would be unthinkable, right?

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Thoughts are still a-jumble despite the attempts to arrange the words in some kind of logical order so that they make sense ... 

They come from different time periods in my life, and are a testimony to the fact that life is not linear; that lessons come in bunches divided by time in irrational ways.

There's the piece that serves as an important backdrop to my childhood and youth -- that piece where, underlying everything else was the rage that would go unrecognized for decades.  Rage around the lack of fulfillment of America's promise of "Liberty and justice for all" as recited regularly in the Pledge of Allegiance, or, as those stated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  The words were meaningless to me, expressing little more than the empty visions of slave-owning white men whose wisdom stopped at the door of their great plantations and blinded them to the humanity of so many who would survive the brutality of slavery and the dehumanizing lifetime of racism and bigotry, of lynchings and Jim Crow, all still lived out in more subtle forms in contemporary life in our country.

That rage had served me well, it straightened my spine and enabled me to face into the winds of the continual unfolding of ever-changing patterns of discrimination as I aged into adulthood and the need to recreate a world that my children could live in with others in way that would serve the common good.

What came to me on that 7-hour flight home from NY was that there had always been a missing piece -- one so obvious that at my advanced age I wondered why this epiphany had not appeared earlier in my long life?

     There is no Office of Fulfillment, Commission on Fairness, Department of Peace, Deity, Avatar, Bureau, Committee, Board or Secretary of Fulfillment.  That must come from us all.  And -- it was clear that -- just as I'd crossed some threshold in mid-life when I claimed my right to self-identify; to stop waiting to be shaped by the men I'd chosen,  I've always been free to be self-defined; to claim my right to express my woman-ness.  It was simply that the culture in which I was living had failed to inform me of this important right, so I'd lived a life of being simply negative space to the positive space provided by the men in my life.
With the Emmett Till Family in a visit to
the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington
At SUNY Broome I'd moved into the realization that -- somewhere over past decades I'd crossed another threshold, an important one.  I -- without knowing how or when -- had become a "Fulfiller!"  And it was critically important to know that each of us, with any luck at all, matures into the role -- and this may be the hidden secret of how the "Democracy" is maintained and nurtured over time.  We each carry a tiny piece of it, and that spirit is what sustains each of us, but lies silently in the wings awaiting the "claiming".

It was also revealed on that long flight over those "... amber waves of grain" that victimhood is incompatible with "Fulfiller-ship".  I'm not certain when that changed, but that my life today -- unlike that of earlier years -- is no longer being lived as a victim.  Oh, how one might wish to know the prescription for that outcome!

I came home in dread of the following week when I would be filmed as a "singer".  Being presented in the annual holiday concert at the Paramount Theater in a sold-out theater.  I would be standing on a stage backed up by 3 choruses and a full symphony orchestra for my 2-minute 26-second song!  I was terrified!  But I'd learned in the wake of SUNY Broome that I'd become a "Fulfiller" and that it was in that role that the positivity of what happened in that small auditorium, the warmth in those hugs, the selfies, had all come from the fact that I'd brought that role into the room with me, and that I'd made some small difference in the lives of those students. I did not come as a justifiably enraged Betty, but as something else not yet identified. That all I had to do was to own that truth, and to allow that realization to grant me the power to self-define; and to claim my right to do so.  To define my terms for performing as the storyteller that I've grown into, and not the "singer" envisioned by the filmmakers or others -- something I'd never aspired to be.

And on all scores, I'd found and granted -- fulfillment ... .

An unanticipated gift from the students and faculty of SUNY Broome.

Maybe the simple fact that  -- as a long-lived adult in the room, one who had survived the tests of a people struggling to perfect that "...more perfect Union," and who still believes in the dream of democracy ... gave some hope to those young people.  Those who will help to find the answers to the unfulfilled promises of the future ... for those who will follow.   As had we who'd stepped into the footsteps of those generations who preceded ours.  For those who have yet to learn that Democracy is a process that will never stay fixed.  That it was never intended to be. That each generation has to re-create it in its time, or it will surely die.  And that each of us born into it has a responsibility to enliven the dream as we move through our time on the planet.

It was a memorable evening that is still with me when I close my eyes and revisit ... but no more so than  on that 7-hour flight over those spacious skies ... .