We’d been exposed to COVID courtesy of a visiting home repairman whose brief stop to pick up a check led to receiving a call less than 48 hours later, courtesy of SF city health. We were to quarantine with testing and daily monitoring by phone for two weeks. Happily, our initial tests were both clear, and again just before our ultimate release. I chose to celebrate by daring to indulge in an experience few else were pursuing these days.
I’m calling to your memories. I’m asking you to think back as far as you can — a moment long ago when you sat with a roomful of mostly strangers, and the lights dimmed to darkness, and the room hushed as everyone around you became quiet. Perhaps you heard a fanfare, the curtains opened – revealing a shiny silvery screen, and beams of light bringing to your eyes a vision.
No one reading this today was present 125 years ago when, shortly after Christmas, two brothers created a public gathering that transformed the world. Louis and Augusta Lumiere charged one franc each to 33 Parisians to watch less than 10 minutes of silent film. They had not invented the film process but did create their unique mechanism for projection to a paying audience. This very first commercial film screening soon resulted in their opening a chain of local “cinemas”, and in time to the world.
Although I do not think it was my first movie, my first movie memory was going to the old Corona theater in 1966 with my older brother, I was 8, he was 10 and the scenes of the fire engulfing the forest ignited not only the screen but my imagination. In the more than 5 decades since I have no idea how many films I have seen; many in the theater, but also on Tv, or college retrospectives, then in time VHS rentals, laserdiscs, and DVDs – but always, always I knew movies were their best in a dark cinema.
The visions, dreams, stories and songs, were a place I could escape. Where I could find hope, joy, and worlds of adventure for a dollar matinee and a bike ride. In time, I would attend previews, revivals and world premieres; visiting Grauman’s Chinese, the movie palaces of downtown LA built by Charlie Chaplin and countless visits to multiplexes, many now converted to retail or RV showrooms or torn down.
I was often – correction, nearly always – alone, even in a crowded theater. Sometimes I would chat with strangers about the film as we waited, but most were with others, and I was more comfortable waiting for the lights to dim and to leave my neighbors behind. I learned about the artists of screenwriting, direction, production design, editing, scoring and of course the stars. My parents in shared their memories – my Mom of trips to see musicals (and going on a bowling double date with Mickey Rooney), my Dad of being terrified by Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. In time I took my younger brother to Superman and Star Wars; and his first R rated movie, Die Hard; more recently, with his wife and kids, and now my husband, to see even more Star Wars. Funny how I can remember many of these screenings, theaters, and those times when others enjoyed or hated the film along with me as we chatted after some blockbuster or art film. Too many memories to begin to share – and in recent years, new memories with my husband, a reality beyond even my own romance inspired imagination that no screenwriter could have sold to a studio.
But earlier this year, of course, no new memories could be created. Theaters like our beautiful Castro, dark for months for the first time in its nearly century long life. Others closed forever, now; chains in bankruptcy, studios ceasing production and deferring release, selling new films direct to Amazon that had been created for audiences to enjoy in the crowded darkness, their drinks and popcorn left in cases. The seats cold. Like so many lives and businesses – the future uncertain, but the present, silent – more so than any DW Griffith epic or Harold Lloyd comedy. The lights off, the doors locked.
Recently, the powers that be in their unknowable wisdom deigned it safe to allow some there to reopen. Sadly, here in SF most remain shuttered; unlike their neighboring cities, they are not being allowed to sell refreshments, which for years has been the only source of profits, especially for independent cinemas; the studios take most of the ticket cut, which is more meager than ever. Somehow, other sources of food and drink are safe, including restaurants recently reopened for indoor service, but that part of the cinema experience is not permitted here – and so our local theaters remain dark for now.
But nearby cities had been screening for a few weeks, and now that I could at last get out, I knew exactly what I wanted to see! With all the closures and delays in movie releases, most of the “summer blockbusters” were, well, either not summer, or bust. But one filmmaker whose works have always been creative, and sometimes breathtaking, insisted his project be released in theaters as planned – if delayed – and I wanted very much to see Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in IMAX. A theater nearby, south of the city itself, had it on IMAX matinee for the final day the first day of my “release” – and my husband having opted out, I drove to the BART parking structure adjacent. Usually crowded up to multiple levels, it was nearly deserted – as was the sidewalk past the some open, some closed eateries featuring pizzas, ice cream, sandwiches and more.My ticket was “touchless” with an assigned seat, no adjacent viewers – in fact, only 4 seats were showing as sold that morning out of the entire theater. The concession area was open, but semi deserted – and entering the theater itself, a hand cleansing station greeted me as I found my seat in silence. There was no typical “pre-show” with ads, promotions, etc. – but a few “previews of coming attractions” with dates that have now been pushed into 2021.
You don’t need my evaluation of the film itself – there are plenty of those online. Rather, I invite you to remember what it was like to go, perhaps with a date, or your family, or a group of friends, to see some film you love to watch even today – whether it was Forrest Gump or Star Wars, James Bond or a Disney classic. The joy you felt, or the fear or surprises you shared; the music that soared. These were magic carpets taking us to new worlds in the dark; showing us what life might have to offer, promising us a future we might never know, and for some, the promise of what discovering what it is to love, be loved, and even lose love. We may see ourselves, or perhaps not – perhaps we will get a glimpse of who we want to become. Films are not always a true representation of life, but they capture the energy of our spirit in a way that combines imagery, sound, story and more that is unique to sitting in that dark room, climbing on the carpet, and letting it take us where it will. When the ride ends, and we walk out, we may not remember those moments consciously – but they are a part of our common cultural heritage now.
Perhaps you recall the wonderful, Oscar winning theme music for “Chariots of Fire” created by Vangelis. He also had several albums as part of the team “Jon and Vangelis” – one, “The Friends of Mr. Cairo”, is titled for their evocative, and very lengthy, tribute to how film captures our spirits, our hearts, and creates a shared experience that can last a lifetime. Of course, it refers to “The Maltese Falcon” but moves into other moments that you may recognize as well.
Silent gold movies, talkies, technicolor, long ago; my younger ways stand clearer, clearer than my footprints. Stardom greats I’ve followed closely, closer than the nearest heartbeat; longer than expected – they were great. Oh love oh love; just to see them; acting on the silver screen, oh my. Clark Gable, Fairbanks, Maureen O’Sullivan; fantasy would fill my life – and I love fantasy so much. Did you see? In the morning light? I really talked, yes I did, to God’s early morning light – and I was privileged then, as I am to this day, to be with you.
Closing lyrics, “Friends of Mr. Cairo”, Jon and Vangelis, 1981.
I hope you will take the time to view this in one sitting, quietly – the creator of this video clearly loves the music, and the films, and melded the two into this hymn to how films find a place deep in our hearts.
My wish for you is that one day, perhaps soon but one day, you will again be able to enjoy a movie you love – whether new, or old – in a darkened theater full of strangers, on a screen larger than any in your home, without distraction, and with all the popcorn and soda you have missed. I hope Bob and I, with our friends and families, will have those moments ahead as well, at the Castro theater with it’s beautiful pipe organ and cavernous edifice, inviting passersby “Come, enter the temple – see the light dance and the hear the angels sing”. The flickering spirits are waiting for you to join them again in the darkness. As my old film mentors Siskel and Ebert used to say every Sunday evening on TV as they shared thoughts on what magic film offers us – save me the aisle seat.
Do you ever put off doing things? I sure do. Especially the things that I think I don’t know how to do, or may not do well. I put off starting this blog for a long time after the idea entered my head; I put off actually posting for nearly 4 months after I paid the WordPress subscription in November of 2019. I had just the month prior made the decision to end my ongoing job search and retire early; in large part that was driven by my desire to spend more time with my husband and building our life together rather than another few years of professional employment.
But, I finally started writing – six months ago, yesterday. And I knew that there were a few other things I had put off – like getting more familiar with WordPress “mechanics”, how to show things on the table of contents, how to make it a little easier for visitors to see what I was sharing. So, this morning, with a goal of getting that long on my to do list item finished, I toyed with WordPress a bit – exploring, getting lost, getting frustrated but … getting back on board and sticking with it.
You know, it’s a good feeling to do something you have put off. This summer I spent many hours on a home improvement project that most will never see or notice; but it’s just about done, and our life is a little better for it. I have a lot left to learn about using WordPress, and writing; about guiding people to my site, or promoting it (thank you, followers I have never met, I am humbled!).
But learning is what keeps life challenging, I think. As we have political discussions with friends – which unfortunately seems to be the gigantic gravitational center of all thought these days – I often remark that questioning what we believe, our priorities and choices is a lot harder than just doing what we did the day before. And hey, maybe that’s great for now – maybe that’s all we can do. I am grateful, and challenged, to have the luxury (or burden?) of time to reconsider my focus – how to spend the precious hours of this day, and the unknown number of days to come.
We cannot take the number of days ahead for granted – never could, but maybe we believed it and now realize that untruth. Last week, my husband and I were exposed to Covid, six months after all the guidelines we followed, and precautions we took, by a visiting home improvement representative who felt ill the next day and went for a test. Less than 48 hours after his short stop to check out our kitchen needs and plan for the beginning of work, we had each received a call from SF City health that we needed to quarantine for two weeks, and test; less than 6 hours after that call, we were at a Kaiser drive through for a memorable swabbing session, and soon on our way home.
For whatever reason, my husband’s negative test results arrived a little more than a day later – but mine did not. More than 30 hours after his email, I finally got a notice at 3 am on a Monday morning that I too was negative; it was a relief, but that gap in communication left me with many thoughts about its implications. Thankfully, we have no symptoms, and in roughly 6 more days we will again be “free” to roam our still mostly shuttered streets, and visit the socially distanced by reservation only gym, and maybe even in time to go see a movie. These are all things we took for granted a few months ago, and yet for some on our globe, are pleasures they might never know. If nothing else, this is a time to nature our appreciation for the gifts we hold today.
But I thought during those 30 hours, and since, again about my priorities. One of our cats has a habit of “campaigning” for his canned food dinner earlier each day – wandering, following, and letting us (mostly, me, since I open the cans) know that he is ready. For up to two hours ahead of time, some days – and then, in moments, his enjoyment of the food itself is over. And I see this in myself, and perhaps we all do it – waiting, yearning, longing and dreaming for something we so desperately want, or think we need – and then, perhaps that experience comes, that dream comes true – and it is over. We put so much time into it, and it passes – and life goes on.
Today, we are all longing for something imminent – maybe for some it is the election and a hoped for change or end to whatever antagonizes us most at the moment; for others, a “return to normal” that probably is never going to be fully realized – the new world is going to be shifting in ways we cannot predict, and in ways we may not even see as they come to pass. I certainly have my frustrations with both; and yet the best I can manage my life right now, for me, my husband, and my loved ones who I cannot be with at the moment, is to just do what I can do now and move on.
So, six months in to my little blog, after 25 entries, and countless hours of thought and reflection, I feel a glimmer of anticipation of where “The New NormL” goes from here. Between thought, writing, reflection and the mechanics of creating a post (along with the learning curve), the amount of time I spend on these posts is, well, more than you might guess. Foremost, my priority remains our shared lives, building what we have and like everyone else just trying to manage the details; but writing here, for you few who read these words, has been in a way both clarifying and freeing for me. So, there will be more to share, although I sense I may be shifting my focus, or my approach, a bit over time. There is much to explore in our world, wonderful things to discover and give to others in turn, when we open our eyes. I will continue to write from the heart, about the present, past and future, and my weird little questions and peculiar explorations – in the hopes that some of what I share will resonate with those few who may find encouragement from my words.
A friend asked me recently if I had changed my blog format a bit, having noticed some of the photos, links etc. that I was tweaking (and which will continue). I think the most noticeable is probably the now routine inclusion of the portrait you see below, although I think I often used the words shown in closing many posts. Those words are both a sentimental wish, and an imperative I try to achieve – imperfectly. We all strive towards ideals we cannot reach, but in that effort, we get closer. Keep on climbing; lend a hand to others near you on that path, or their own – you may not share the same goals, or much else, but we all share the same hopes and needs. Thank you for spending some time with me here – I look forward to our next visit.
As I have written the past few months, I have been gifted with very kind and encouraging feedback. Strangers have started to subscribe to my blog; I hope it is because there is something that touched them or encouraged them. But my family and friends have, at times, expressed concern – that my sharing, my openness and recollection may be stirring more pain within myself. Their words are, I am certain, coming from love, and I appreciate and understand their responses.
It’s absolutely true that writing from the heart is sometimes very difficult; it takes a lot of soul searching, and sifting through repeatedly, trying to determine what is the hoped for “wisdom” that I might share from my experiences. My goal is not to evoke sympathy or pity, but by honestly opening up about some of my history, to provide you, the reader – whether you know me, or never meet me – something that you can grasp and use, that you can say – yes, yes, there is a truth here, a discovery that has meaning, in your life, now. My reward – your gain from the price I paid.
I have realized the past few weeks that one of the most difficult entries I shared needed … a sequel. A follow up to show that what I laid bare in those words back in May led to something better, in my life – peace, in my heart, and hopefully in time through that for others in my circle, through how we care for one another. Ripples in the pond between our joined lives, wherever they may connect.
The title of that May post, taken from one of my father’s letters to my Mom, revealed bluntly some of the less than wonderful, far from ideal facts about my relationship with my Dad. Some aspects, not all – there were chapters to our shared lives that there is no point in shining a light on here, which impacted not only me, but other family members. Our shattered natures often lead to chasms, and in my case, there was a period of several years where, except for my Mom, my direct family was not present in my life. But despite those moments, which were desperately painful in many ways – in time, there was healing. Today, I realize how important it is to share some of how that came about, with you – for whatever meaning it might have in perhaps not your own relationships, but possibly someone you love, or someone you have yet to meet.
We do things to protect our bruised and wounded hearts. We hide, we bury, we put on emotional masks and learn to present the self we want others to see, to love and accept. Yes, in my case there were elements that had not only to do with the deepest parts of how I connect with others, but also very old, and very fully woven into my spirit, habits of thought and feeling. In my work with the first counselor who helped me come to a place of greater acceptance and understanding of grace than what I had been taught, I grew into new freedoms. In time, I sought out another counselor, one who could relate more fully from his own experience and insight to my history; his name was Patrick. He passed a few years ago, but he gave me a gift to share, and I will do my best, today.
I make no apologies for my upbringing in faith, knowing full well that many have different backgrounds, beliefs and understandings – finding comfort in accepting that I will never have all the answers, and don’t need to beyond those which work for me, and bring me to a place of continuing to grow in caring and acceptance of others who enter my life. Patrick was not a particularly spiritual person; in fact, I would go so far as to say he might have described himself as agnostic. But he accepted that a huge portion of the challenges I faced to growth was reconciling what I had been taught, what I desired and felt, and that finding some balance between those was critical for my own peace of mind. He respected what was important to me.
What came as a surprise to me was his insights, in time, into my father’s alcoholism; Patrick was very experienced in addiction treatment, theory and related issues. I did not feel that addiction was a problem in my life; I had been studious to avoid drink for many reasons; I was well aware that studies indicated there were genetic factors that impact predisposition to intergenerational addictive behaviors. Eventually I came to realize that there were other escape routes that I had learned to embrace, that did not provide the answers I sought; they were not to be found in a bottle but had their own power over me. I suspect we all face those illusory mirages of hope at times; our culture, and many others, is filled with stories of miracles and magic that at their best create unrealistic desires for wish fulfillment, and at their worst, deception and destruction. Sometimes even in the “answers” that we turn to for hope, disappointment lurks. Turning from those false solutions to truth is not an easy process.
I did not think that my father’s alcoholism was an ongoing issue for me; by the time I began working with Patrick, it was maybe 6 years since Dad’s passing; I was “out”, I was making friends, and dealing with the stresses of everyday life. But Patrick recognized in me the echoes of the ravages of disfunction, and the coping habits which at the time seemed to protect me, which actually were now working against a fuller life. He recommended an extremely technical volume on addiction, and I am thankful for his faith in my intellect to work through it – I began to see that my own behaviors were built in some ways on a foundation of just surviving those problems that impacted me deeply at a young age, but which I still carried long after those years into my ongoing life – and they were not working for me, but against me.
But what really surprised me was his suggestion that I spend a week at the Betty Ford program in Palm Desert, CA.
Now, before you jump to conclusions (I sure did, initially), know this – he felt it would give me insight to attend “family week”, not the program itself – a sort of “day camp” for those whose loved ones were in the residential program could learn about their own behavior and how to support their family member after they left the facility. Of course – my father was not in the facility – but Patrick knew the administrator and after discussion with them, I agreed to attend for a 5-day program. We reviewed a lot of material about the nature of addiction, but also heard presentations by experts in the field, about codependence and how the family unit is impacted, short term and long term, by the damage and pain they seek relief from.
I felt out of place; I was newly “out”, trying to deal with a lot in my own personal life, and facing some pretty severe challenges in my career as well. The others in the program, well, they were pretty – “normal”, I guess – parents, spouses, children. I did not feel connected with them at all. And then, there was the fact that I was the only one who had no family in the program itself; once again, in more than one ways, I was reminded of my differentness, my outsider status.
One of the key components of the week, for everyone but me, was for them to sit down with their loved one who was a residential participant, and have an honest discussion – sharing their feelings; being open; being vulnerable; trying to find a bridge ahead for everyone in the family, patient and supporters. I was impressed with the program, and more so with their courage – but again, I felt – weird. The administrator had told me that participating in one of the central aspects of the program was up to me …. Did I want to have an opportunity to talk? Not with the other participants – we did some of that, for sure, in the program; but … with my father. No, not in some “séance”; but in a way that would allow me to express what I felt, what I carried inside, that I never had with him, fully, in real life.
In the last year of his life, after the passing of both my stepmother and mother, we had built bridges; my Dad had accepted my coming out, and as I will share more fully in another entry one day, he supported me in ways that no one else in my family could, or perhaps would, as we both dealt with our individual grief as best we were able. In a way, we healed together. After his passing, and all that had happened in my life in the years since, I didn’t think there was ground left to cover; but I talked with Patrick – and decided I needed whatever I could get from this program, from this experience, that I could take with me into the future. For me.
So I said “yes”. After the other “family sharing” times were pretty much complete – I sat down, surrounded by a circle of strangers who knew a little, but not much, of my life and challenges – facing an empty chair. I cannot tell you today exactly what came out of my mouth, or shall I say my heart – it was painful; there were tears. There was release. But I promise you this – for me, my Dad was sitting there. He heard me; we connected. As I told him from those deeply wounded parts of my own childhood spirit still hovering inside me, as they do for us all, the pain of what had happened began to be, somehow, released; and being surrounded by, as some might say, “clouds of witnesses” whose own journey might be not entirely similar but not entirely different – I knew, finally – I was not alone. There was nothing wrong with me, back in those years, or in that moment where we connected, somehow, even across the barrier of eternity.
And from there … I moved on; I grew, and still am. I tell you honestly, even just in writing this to you – there is healing. There are still tears, but I know now tears are not my enemy.
At the time, I did not talk of these events with hardly anyone in my life; family reading this now, may be disappointed I did not share with them. But I am sharing with you because …. In writing about my father’s pain; his issues, his failures – first, it was important to say there was more to him than those disappointments. There is more to all of us, even though we too have let others down; we have caused our loved ones disappointment. I was given a chance to find some peace in a way I would never have thought possible. Yes, there were moments of reconciliation while he was still living; but in a way, I believe, my experience illustrates that it is never too late to reach into our own hearts and search, through sludge and mire, through all the lies we embraced and the shadows we hid behind – to walk forward, in forgiveness.
As I get older, retired now, much of my life now consists of quieter times, especially staying at home and not seeing our family and friends as much; perhaps particularly because I am somewhat the family historian, and going through old papers and photos brings up memories. I appreciate the loving concern of those of you who read some of my entries and wonder if sharing these moments might not be worth the cost, emotionally, to me in writing them. My answer is a resounding YES – if only one person out there finds some encouragement, some hope in what you are facing today because my words somehow ring true for you – yes, yes yes. I did not always have someone in my life at the darkest times; I know what loneliness and desperation are. There is HOPE. I found it – believe me friends, you can too. It is there, waiting.
One does not have to be a member of the Christian faith, or part of that heritage that has become buried under countless traditions, arguments and myths – to see the wisdom of the words that have been called “the beatitudes”. I am sure there are similar passages in other faiths, perhaps some that have meaning for you that I will never hear. Those words, spoken on a hill to a crowd that came with their own hopes of miracles, freedoms, or promised deliverance – that did not, for most, come to pass they way they expected, and for the Teacher, led to a painful end of life – they hold for many a kind of mystical poetic power beyond understanding. This is why I am reminded of the passage in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, verse 9 – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God”. These few words are quietly nestled between similar blessings for those who are pure of heart, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. And yet – of all these words now called the “sermon on the mount”, of all the characteristics that are described and the outcomes promised for those who embrace them – I only now realize that only the peacemaker has the blessing of joining in harmony with the very nature, the essence, of God. Children, of God.
Over the years, I, like you perhaps, have questioned most of what I was taught to simply accept, including translation, historical accuracy, documentation and the impact of mostly now forgotten ancient traditions in interpreting what we call “scripture”. But for me … I believe there is a special kind of peace in seeking reconciliation. With those in our life now; with those no longer in our life; and with that Power, however we define it, that exists outside the scope of our comprehension and understanding, for now at least, perhaps forever. We may sense those aspects of a larger spirit that we struggle to put into words, in whatever language – faith, hope, love, forgiveness; reaching out, to make peace, when we can – in what little way we are able.
We cannot always reconcile, or find peace, with everyone in our life; it’s not fully within our power. But our willingness to seek it out, is. The realization that the making of that effort is of itself a reflection of the very nature of the Eternal, of our spirit, and that which exists outside time itself – came to life for me, facing a seemingly empty chair, in a room filled with strangers I never saw again. Perhaps there is a chair you need to face – even if, like mine, empty for now.
Today I know and appreciate the love – imperfect but real – of my father in a way I was unable to grasp before those moments of healing. We each have our own seasons and paths in life; we must choose for ourselves as best we can and trust that in time good will come of it. I know there remain bridges to be built, and I have hope they can and will be. Thank you for taking the time to listen to this moment of my journey, as I continue hopefully to grow. Perhaps my words will give you hope, as well. Blessed be, indeed, the peacemakers, all of us, children of God.
Last week I shared about my solo sojourn through the heritage of “Cow Hollow” on what became a record-breaking hot summer Sunday. In my continued resolve to both explore San Francisco’s less familiar corners and to get out into our gradually opening city again, I looked into the recently resumed walking tours offered again by SF city guides. This wonderful program is slowly adding its newly revised offerings – outside only, 8 or less participants, masks and distancing – and I chose to begin with a tour of one of San Francisco’s Crown Jewels as it celebrates 150 years – quite unexpectedly on a day unlike any other within memory.
The “Mid Park Ramble” tour promised a look at hidden gems of Golden Gate park. I had spent many hours and miles running – well, jogging – through the park in early 2018 after my move here, preparing for my first “half marathon” in several years to celebrate my own 60th birthday that spring. But there were points on this tour I had not seen, and so I bought my advance ticket online and looked forward to sharing new vistas with you here. The plans for the sesquicentennial had been announced months before, and like every other expectation for this year, were derailed by the COVID restrictions; portion of the park streets were closed to traffic, but this journey outside scheduled for 10 am began not with the warm sunshine of just a few days prior – but near darkness – almost like a day long eclipse. The cause was a combination of smoke, weather conditions and fog, combining to create a deep orange haze that extended throughout the day. Oddly, the smell of smoke was not as noticeable as it had been a few days prior, with greater heat.
Before I begin reporting about the outing itself, I would like to share with you from a recent guidebook purchase – although it was the purchase that was recent, not the book itself. After all the insights I had gleaned in my prior excursion from the historic hikes book I shared from last week, I was inspired to look for older books that could give me an idea of the San Francisco that once was but is now, if still present, obscured. One of the first to arrive from my online shopping spree was the 1914 “Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco” shown here – featuring a photo of the statue of Junipero Serra that until recently stood in the Park itself. Let me share what this wonderful little book had to say about our exploration location more than 100 years ago –
“Here one sees the healthy life and leisure of the community. San Franciscans use their park. The drives swarm with fine equipages, fast motors, and ruddy-face lovers of good horse-flesh bound for the speedway in wire-wheeled sulkies. Youth rides the bridle paths. Groups of children are rolling and tumbling about the lawns, for there is not a “Keep -off-the Grass” sign in the whole thousand acres”.
The streets we traverse today bear names not known then – John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Nancy Pelosi. And some of the history and culture then celebrated and welcomed is no longer visible – the Park had been in the news prominently nationally just a few months prior, when a group of people took action to pull down statues and memorials that they found unacceptable based on their own values and similar actions happening around the country. I had watched the video on the news like many of you, seeing sculptures of various historical figures torn down and destroyed, but I admit – I had not paid them much attention on prior visits.
The effect of the smoke and still air, combined with the greenery of the Park, left the skies darker than twilight the evening before. Having arrived early, I took some photos in the open area between the DeYoung Museum and the previously added “Observation wheel” that was to be a hallmark of the year long festivities. A note on my photos, taken with my iPhone – many that were published online which you may have seen did not capture fully the eerie shades in the sky, due to the “auto correct” programming of most devices; those of mine that are “darker” were taken in panoramic mode, which I believe captured the color more fully. In that sense, I guess I got lucky!
No matter where you stand in the Park, there are echoes of history surrounding you. This panoramic shot of the central park area stretches from the observation wheel past the illuminated California Academy of Sciences erected in 2008 to the Music concourse which was added in 1889. As I looked towards the soon to reopen DeYoung Museum facing this area, I saw another statue that had previously escaped my notice – and I promise you, I didn’t even realize it was naked until I saw my photos at home, it was that dark! But I wondered about its origin, seemingly out of place near the modern museum – learning later that it was an 1881 bronze of a roman centurion commemorating the “first shovelful of earth” turned in preparing for the California Midwinter International Exposition here in 1893. The DeYoung itself celebrates 125 years in 2020 – having been established originally from the structure known as the “Memorial Museum” and greatly expanded in the years since.
As noted, some of that history is now absent, possibly forever. The destruction of the statues of Francis Scott Key, whose lyrics form our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”, was perhaps more noticeable since his monument still stands, but his figure is gone from its perch across from the DeYoung. Through that now empty space the observation wheel sits motionless, awaiting the “go ahead” like so many other features of our city and nations, and the grounds seemed certainly more silent and deserted as well as more dim than usual during my pre tour stroll.
When our group gathered outside the Japanese Tea Garden, we began our guided exploration, beginning with a walk along Stow Lake on our way to Strawberry Hill, which like most of the park had been created from the mostly barren sand dunes into lushly forested corners of nature. We learned that the artificially created “Huntington Falls” were funded by a donation from Henry Huntington, the “Big Four” railroad czar whose home and library down in San Marino which I have loved visiting many times. Note, all the “normal lighting” pictures here, gathered from the internet, are intended to give you a view that my own exploration failed to provide.
At the top, the early visitors to the Park could take the carriage route, or the walking path, to what was called the “Observatory” – not in the sense we think today, but just a flat, open space where on a clear night they could view the stars. I found this old postcard illustrating what you might have seen if you made the climb 120 years ago, before that 1906 earthquake destroyed the structure, never rebuilt, with little remaining. Of course, even though it was dark at 1030 am, the smoke prevented any enjoyment of the stars themselves – but the owls hooting at us along the way might well have been confused as to why their normal cycle had been so rudely interrupted. Thankfully, they did not attack in vengeance. But they might have been thinking about it …..
We continued past other notable features of the area, with groups of other hikers and children gradually appearing, but still in near dark skies – eventually arriving at a spot that even my husband who has lived in SF more than 40 years had not known of. Referred to now as the “Prayerbook Cross”, it is nearly 60 feet tall and barely visible until you nearly reach the top of the trail where it stands on one of the highest points in the park itself. A gift from the Church of England in 1894, resembling a traditional Celtic cross, it commemorates the first prayer service in 1579 following the arrival by Sir Francis Drake using the “Book of Common Prayer”. Unlike the damaged or destroyed memorials below in the more well-travelled areas, I observed only a few curse words sprayed on rocks nearby this silent sentinel that looks over our changing city still.
The moments and individuals commemorated in this city oasis cover a centuries long and world wide heritage. Today, our country faces divisions seemingly more deep and broad than those of any known in our lifetimes. They will not be resolved easily or quickly. I do not have the answers or solutions to offer, and I honestly question those who insist that their perspective is the only one worth considering, whatever position they take. I like to think we can build bridges between islands, but the daily turmoil erupting before us everywhere seems unending. I can only say that history has meaning – what meaning perhaps will always vary by the heritage of perspective of those sharing it or hearing it. It is up to us, individually, to work to preserve what we treasure, support the future we want to build for our children, and create traditions that they will cherish and which will give them strength and hope.
In a way I was glad I could experience the unique beauty of this amazing Park on such an unusual day – not to be repeated, hopefully, in our lifetimes. Soon, a limited number of visitors will, bearing masks, move through the galleries of these museums, as more will picnic on the grounds, and hear music in the air – some of the guardians who stood over them are gone, but the life of the Park itself cannot be contained, only evolve. Hopefully we shall, as well – and preserve all that which future generations shall remember, and perhaps treasure if not celebrate, under sunny, smoke free skies, again.
This past week brought my first opportunity in several months to discover new views of my recently adopted home town. The last six months have been crushing everyone in more ways than I can imagine – I am grateful to be with my husband, retired, and healthy. Nevertheless, the confinement has weighed on me, and I am sure on all you who read this, in different ways. In an effort to direct some of my newly limited energy towards a constructive end, and other projects completed, I had recently committed to increasing my cardio activity, for both mental and physical health, by exploring the city. But where to begin? When I awoke in the wee hours last Saturday night, I recalled buying a book on Amazon prior to my move here in 2017, and I dug it out this past Sunday morning.
The book was “Historic Walks in San Francisco – 18 trails through the City’s past” by Rand Richards. Perhaps you have avoided this bad habit, but I have many wonderful books that remain unread for years, and this is one. It inspired me, and I set out to explore an area I was completely whose background was little known to me – the oddly named Cow Hollow. Most of the historic background here, and all but a handful of the destinations, I credit fully to Mr. Richards whose book is unfortunately out of print. However, although his guide is based on geography, I want to share my stroll based on timeline – beginning with the earliest spot on my walk. Come along (masked, please) as we stroll through a kaleidoscope of history and humanity. (As it turned out, our stroll occurs on a day of record breaking heat!)
The Spanish expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza from Tubac (then Mexico, now Arizona) to the San Francisco Bay of Alta California arrived at the site of the Presidio in June 1776. You can read more about their journey in this excellent website. Soon, they found a water source which fed into the bay, and it became their spot for washing – known in time as “Washerwoman’s lagoon”. By 100 years or so later, it was filled in, and disappeared – now, the intersection of Grenwich and Gough represents what would have been its center. The shoppers and residents here for the most part may not realize their homes were once in the middle of water!
It was not until 1847 that the first home was built in the area; long gone, it was built by Elijah Ward Pell, a member of a Mormon contingent who, according to the guidebook, was excommunicated for “licentious behavior” – shocking! He chose to settle here, far from his former brethren who gravitated towards what was then called Yerba Buena. Today, the intersection of Green and Laguna bears no apparent marker of this first location of residence, but I am guessing he would have appreciated the liquor store’s presence in his time.
The little community grew to support the growing broader population. What we now call Cow Hollow originally took its name from dairies which began in the area in 1853, growing to about 3 dozen of varying sizes until roughly 50 years later when the last closed. This lovely little home on Octavia is regarded as the last remaining “dairy home” in the area – the name remains, but thankfully, not the aroma.
From 1861, the Octagon house at the corner of Gough and Union is one of two remaining in SF, but in its era nearly 700 were built around the country – promoted as energy efficient and healthy due to greater light exposure. But originally, it was on the opposite corner – nearly a century after it was built, PG&E acquired the property and offered it for a mere dollar to whomever would move it. In the 1950’s the National Society of Colonial Dames purchased it and moved it to the current site, where it houses their display of period historical mementos, with a lovely park next door. On the day of my stroll, the park welcomed dog walkers, readers, and other socially distant friends to it’s sanctuary.
When Henry Casebolt built his stately home on Pierce in 1866, a mere 15 years had passed after moving to the city from Virginia with his wife and 11 children!! He was a blacksmith who had started his own carriage making company and developed several mechanical innovations for horse drawn transportation and, in time, cable cars. Imagine how lonely this majestic home looked 150 years ago, before it was surrounded by the residences of today. The guidebook says that 20 years after it was built, Chinese laborers could be seen across the street in their vegetable garden on the still empty street. Now, a posting on the fence describes a public hearing (virtual, of course) to be held regarding the homeowner’s wish to remove the palm trees, and the neighbors desire to retain them – they are incongruous, but San Francisco is not known for moving quickly on homeowners’ wishes for change.
This little alley, hidden behind a shall we say “budget motel” on Lombard, is Blackstone court – gated with a few homes which, like many, were moved here or repositioned over the years, but still date back over a century ago. The gate bears a marker noting its significance going back two centuries along a trail past the lagoon to the military encampment at the Presidio – and, in time, the home of nurseryman Charles Abraham, who reportedly imported the first bougainvillea (native to South America) to California! Everyone loves bougainvillea! Imagine nearly the entire block surrounding this home with greenhouses, a windmill for power, and his own water tower – now, all gone and built over, save his original 1885 home.
There are endless stories of the 1906 earthquake and associated fires to the city as a whole. I do not know if Cow Hollow was one of the most affected areas – but I found this wonderful account of a resident of the area, an “eyewitness to history”.
San Francisco has been a haven and perhaps a magnet welcoming many, shall we say, less mainstream faiths and beliefs, at least in traditional western society of that era. Can you imagine being a Hindu in 1905, and the excitement you would have at the first temple in the Western US, perhaps all the US, opening – a place for you, your family, your friends to gather safely and look for hope and encouragement in a rapidly changing world. Although the district is home to other beautiful churches and houses of faith, the architecture of this residence on Webster and Fillmore remains as both housing and a meeting place for its members. Like many buildings along the walk, it bears signs noting that classes and gatherings have been suspended due to Covid – but the windows above are open, and one day the doors will be as well.
SF is known worldwide for its role in the emergence of the “counterculture” – one might never guess that this little dining spot, for lobster rolls and burritos, once housed “The Six Gallery”, and it was here in 1995 that the “beat movement” was birthed at a public reading of works, including Allen Ginsberg and his draft of “HOWL”. The ideas, the passions and the energy that those minds and hearts generated reached across our continent in time – and the world. Our city still gives haven to thinkers, creators and those whose lives challenge our ideas of traditional.
The six plus decades since the Beat Generation, the 60’s “Summer of love” and events within our own memory brought more changes. Many of those impacted my life directly and continue to change lives worldwide. I walked about 4 miles last weekend on my little time travel; I saw families, couples, a few dogs, some skaters – new life continuing in this memorial to our shared heritage. There are many more beautiful homes along the way, not all necessarily historic or architecturally remarkable, but perfect examples of the varied eras that have come and gone through the nearly 250 years since DeAnza brought the Spanish expedition north to this then very different land. Here I passed a steep street with the carefully maintained homes standing like sentries in time, watching over the lives, the people, the vehicles that change decade by decade, remaining vigilant yet.
As I strolled along Broadway towards Franklin, the view down one of the famous steep avenues of the city towards the bay brings “Dirty Harry” to mind, and so many other films created here over the decades.
Until a few years ago, I knew SF only from movies, and stories, and rare brief visits. As I approach my car, I pass one of those sites that appear in tourist books, knowing that most of the stories I share with you today are less likely to be as well remembered as the fictional works of the silver screen.
As we reflect on our stroll, and I return to shelter in place once more, may I suggest this is not a time for wondering what we can regain from the recent past we have been denied for a brief moment, but rather what kind of future can we envision and work towards together. Today, I gained new appreciation for the ongoing power of this city, and its peoples, to attract an unending variety of dreamers and schemers, hopes and visions, sharing our epiphanies and dejections. That power exists everywhere, waiting to be embraced. Wherever you live, the history of your lives, and those who came before, can open hearts and minds to possibilities – we need them even more today.
Just think about the amazing variety of lives, dreams and cultures who lived within these few blocks over nearly 250 years. Catholics, Latter day Saints, Hindu faiths; radicals, entrepreneurs, immigrants; scoundrels, visionaries and like most of us, people just trying to get through it most days. From the few hundred who came from Mexico, to those who travelled by ship and wagon across oceans and continents for a chance for a better life, the “outsiders” who were viewed with suspicion by the more established cultures, and the emerging visionaries crying for change and meaning – this city, and our country, gave them – and gives us – a chance to grasp our dreams.
So thank you, Mr. Richards, for enlightening me on this delightful stroll – here is a link to a summary of his many books. I hope you will consider further explorations of your own, even if only remotely, through his work. I don’t know when my next “real life” excursion may occur (hopefully soon) – but here is a preview of one that I took just a few days later, by chance on a day unlike any other in recent memory, which will be in my next post. Stay safe, y’all, and keep on dreaming!
Like many of you, lately I have been missing my friends. I always loved the song “You got a friend in me” by Randy Newman, introduced a quarter century ago (!) in Pixar’s “Toy Story”. Even through all its sequels, somehow the spinners of animated tales still manage to imbue those little toys with heart and personality that capture our own feelings so well. Joy, hope, loneliness, uncertainty, change – that band of playthings went through it all, and we grew along with them. Woody and Buzz went through a lot – but not COVID. That was reserved just for us humans.
While we approach the six-month mark here in San Francisco of “shelter in place” – I have been missing so many of my friends. Having moved here in late 2017, most of my longtime friends are now hundreds of miles away. Since arriving, between getting married, work and other adjustments, social life has been squeezed in when possible – until it wasn’t, in March. There are new friendships forming, of course, but being retired and now having no “active” social life – I feel everyone’s ongoing absence more deeply. As much as zoom and Facetime and google meets and, well, even this blog are ways to stay connected – they cannot make up for human touch, for moments of laughter, for a quiet walk or a thousand other ways we find to be truly together.
Friendship is kind of an ethereal, mystical force in some ways, coming and going, unpredictable, always evolving. There are all kinds of friendships, they say – some for a season, a few hopefully for a lifetime. Growing up and for much of my “adult” life, I was never really good at feeling close to others, understandably from my personal history, but I have worked on it and continue to. It was not that I did not care, but that I did not feel I fit in, or could be fully accepted, or truly belonged. Yet, over the years, there have been friends that remained close, even now from afar. Still … as months pass, even pre COVID, those connections are somehow fading … and perhaps that is healthy. I have never moved away before – never left everything, and everyone, behind to make such a significant change in every area of my life.
It’s normal that I don’t want to “let go” – I don’t want those long term relationships to end, whether they originated from shared interests like Disneyland and movies, from work relationships that turned into trust, caring and closeness, from church and other community commitments, or from my more recent coming to terms with parts of myself I had to learn to accept, coming out, and making new friends in that process. Yet – the time comes, we must let go. And then, continue to reach out again, and again. I am learning to reach out here, not just to ask, but to give. I treasure all those friends, old and new, far and close.
There were, over the years, friends that drifted away, or relationships that ended on less than optimal terms. I realize in hindsight that I held an unrealistic expectation of some now lost friends – and vice versa. Sadly, some ended as I grew into being more of me, and less of what I thought I was supposed to be for others – becoming authentic; coming out was a part of that, but not all of that. Some wanted care, support, answers from me that I could not give – and likewise I wanted more than others could offer. A few wanted me to be who I used to be for them; some could not accept my life any longer, I had fallen from grace in their eyes, or lost my way. It wasn’t always direct – but the undercurrent was clear enough. And that’s just part of life – we move on. I hope, for all of them, they are finding their way to happiness still.
Funny, though, how some of the closest and most long enduring relationships come from my professional life – coworkers that in time became more. For many of us, we spend more time with our office team than with our family. We recently re-watched “The Office” finale which perfectly portrayed the awkward balance between tolerating and caring about those people and, then in time, moving from that “home” to a new, beckoning future. There was a song featured towards the end of the finale, actually written by Creed Bratton, actor and musician – called “All the Faces”. Here is a bit of the lyrics, and a link to a fan video with Office moments.
“I saw a friend today, it had been a while. And we forgot each others names.
But it didn’t matter cause deep inside the feeling still remained the same.
We talked of knowing one before you’ve met, and how you feel more than see,
and other worlds that lie in spaces in between, and angels you can see.
And all the faces that I know have that same familiar glow.
I think I must’ve known them somewhere once before
All the faces that I know.
Creed Bratton, “The Office” finale – All the Faces that I know
2020 has been a year of challenge we could never have expected. In the past nearly half year, I have seen friends lose jobs, lose family – yes, even lose their lives, leaving loved ones behind grieving. Sell their homes, move away to new ones, or risk losing all they had to fire. Some started new lives; their children graduate without an audience, their spouses have been hospitalized and hopefully recover; others are thinking about leaving the country of their birth in frustration; one has welcomed a new grandchild to their family. But I see people turning on one another daily – on the news, in my own circle of relationships, and online. Sometimes over politics, or faith, or some position on an issue that they feel strongly about – whatever the reason, some doors are closed, perhaps forever. All this and more happened in the lives of my friends since we entered this strange era. These events would mostly have happened apart from Covid, but somehow, we all seem to be carrying an extra weight, a longer shadow. These are the times they – all of us – need one another more than ever. We must not burrow into our caves, but reach out, even more – it takes work.
True, some friendships endure a lifetime – but most fade. We don’t want to let go, sometimes – we need one another; but it happens. Like the tender strands of a web that stretch in the wind, and in time – are loosed, and eventually unwind except in our memory. That friendship connection is a force of mystery, it’s lifespan unknown, its purpose uncertain – do we nurture it? Do we make it a priority? As we see gaps between ourselves, I can only offer you this suggestion – don’t throw away what you have. Try to build on it; try to keep it alive. Yes, there are times that moving on is best – knowing those moments is kind of hard right now, when no one is really themselves, and everyone is in a personal pressure chamber with the steam building every day. We need each other, friends, now and past, future and yet to be.
Nearly a year ago now, I took a trip to see old friends down south – not knowing of course that it would be the last trip away from my new home for a yet to be determined time. I’m grateful I had the chance. A kind of reunion tour, not being able to see everyone in that short time, but having moments with many, seeing faces light up, remembering what we shared and setting aside what might have been. Here are some moments, and faces, from that trip that I treasure – we may not meet again.
There is a kind of longing, a yearning in my heart and perhaps yours hearts that seems to remain; we may learn in time that others cannot be, never could be, everything we needed or wanted. We start to see not a glass half full, or half empty – instead, seeing no glass at all, just an appreciation for what is there, now, today. Letting go of the longing for “more”, to treasure what is in our lives at this moment – choosing to say “yes – this is enough”. And to work on being a channel to others of what we seek ourselves. We become part of a living network of souls, rising, falling, reaching out and for a moment dancing together, parting and moving on.
Which brings me back to our friends, Woody, Buzz and all those little toys, and most recently Toy Story 4. Spoiler alert, folks! I saw this in the theater last year – in a way, it felt almost like an existentialist reflection on what does it mean to be alive, but maybe that was just me. In any case – at the end of the film, Woody has to make a choice. He chooses a new path, but in that – realizes he also must choose to, for now, say goodbye to those who became his family for so long. In a way, I think COVID, and distance, is forcing that for some friendships. Here is the end of that film, which, if you haven’t seen it – might give you some joy for a couple of hours.
My friends – present, and past – I miss you dearly. You have taught me so much; your gentle kindnesses, small perhaps to you, encouraged me to accept myself the way you did. Your open minds and hearts showed me that people who are different can still truly care for one another without expecting change. Your courage in the face of trials and challenges inspired me to find strength to stand for what I work for. Your openness to different ways of thinking helped me to escape my own narrow vision and tinier world for a greater reality. Perhaps most of all, the fact that you showed me love does not have to be perfect to have worth, helped me to work towards finding my own voice – and now, in the days ahead, to try to share these lessons with others. God knows there are many surrounding each of us that just need a little love.
We are trying our best to stay afloat in the winds of change, and we may not be together again, certainly not in the foreseeable future. So let me say this clearly, from my heart. I hope you are well, and loved, and finding hope. And, I miss all my friendships that, for whatever reason – deliberate, their choice, my choice, or just “happened” – aren’t there anymore. I wish I could say to them, and I say to you who read this – thank you.
Thank you,friends, for being a special part of a chapter in my life, and even though it is closed, you are still there, always in my heart, not forgotten.
This week, in the events happening in Portland Oregon, among others – a man was brutally beaten senseless in the street; his head viciously kicked after he lay helpless, some cheering, followed by others trying to help. A suspect is arrested, blame is being placed – but it won’t be the last. Perhaps we have reached a place where this is not as newsworthy as other stories – certainly, there is a lot of chaos poured into our eyes and ears daily, along with promises and blame and threats. It seems to never end.
That news footage brought to my memory a story, initially from my childhood, and later … much later .. arising from other events in my life. Perhaps you know it, or at least the major elements of it, from Sunday school lessons about “how to be good”. It has more meaning to it than usually is shared, lost simply because the historical context is less familiar to us. It’s always interested me, and so .. let us revisit that possibly familiar tale. You may recognize it, but I suggest there are some aspects that a little more background can add to its meaning.
First, though … a memory from my own past whose connection will become apparent later. In 1984, early in my quest to somehow find freedom from my “personal defects” according to church teachings, I took a trip to Israel – not just a routine trip, but an archeological study tour. Here are two pics from that trip – the first, a very young and thin me at the Sea of Galilee; and, a shot of me with the trip leader, on the “dig” at Tel Qasile in Tel Aviv, where I did actually uncover the small jug you see (no, I did not get to keep it, it was centuries old, and intact!) I will admit, after seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, I was praying to uncover that relic, but did not.
It was a wonderful trip – and it included stops at sites associated with all aspects of the region’s history, not just Christian. Among them, what is known as “Jacob’s well” in Samaria, where according to New Testament writings in the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke to the “woman at the well”, promising her that if she knew to whom she was speaking, she would ask for and receive from him “living water”, “welling up to eternal life”. We did not stay long – this was the early 80’s, and there was what was described as “rock attacks” in the area. But we did make another stop, because the children of that area, due to inbreeding, were known for their susceptibility to genetic defects, and the tour organizer would always stop along the way to greet them.
A photo of “Jacob’s Well”G about 100 years ago
The tale that comes to mind originates in this region. As in most faith traditions, there are people who like to point to their own “good housekeeping seal of approval” – they follow the rules, they “do the right thing”, and are generally pretty pleased with themselves. Another common feature in many faith traditions is pointing to compliance with specific rules, policies, traditions and doing one’s utmost to always be strictly obedient. In this story, one described as a “lawyer” – an educated man, familiar with religious laws, intellectual and respected in the community – asked a spiritual teacher what he could do to be guaranteed entry into eternal life. The teacher responded not with an answer, but a question – what does the law say? After the lawyer faithfully quoted scripture – to love God with all your heart, soul and strength – and your neighbor as yourself. The teacher acknowledged that the lawyer was correct – but the lawyer, perhaps not unlike some we know today centuries later, wanted to be sure he knew all the angles. And so, he asked again – who is my neighbor?
The teacher responded not with an answer, but with a story. A man, on a specific road that those from the area knew well – a steep, treacherous, winding road in the wilderness, where dangers were known to be common – fell victim to those laying in wait, who robbed, stripped and beat him, and left him for dead. That passage is still in use today – in fact, in his “Mountaintop” speech the day before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. described travelling down that very road – knowing it’s relevance to church teachings – and seeing how dangerous it was still, centuries later.
It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing….. That’s a dangerous road”.
Martin Luther King Jr.
As the story continues, there is a sign of hope! A priest is coming and surely sees the beaten body by the side of the road – broken – abandoned – helpless. But no … the priest crosses to the other side – seeing, but avoiding, perhaps thinking he is dead but – not getting close enough to see if maybe, he might have survived. Sometime later – another respected, public man of faith, one especially trained in the details of its intricate laws and traditions, so much so that his judgment was sought in matters of “right” and “wrong” – approaches … but he, too, crosses to the other side of the road, moving along his way – the body again, alone. But, a 3rd passerby stops, sees the body, and chooses to help – described only as the Samaritan.
Now you probably recognize this as the story of the “good Samaritan”. The teacher, Jesus, or in the original Hebrew more properly Yeshua or Joshua, was an itinerant preacher whose growing crowds and reputation for miracles was growing, becoming a threat to established practice, and a symbol of resistance to his people, occupied by the invading Roman forces. He (or more properly, Luke) never described the Samaritan as “good”, only by his tribe. Because – the idea of a Samaritan being of good character was completely alien to his audience. You see, Samaritans were viewed as “outsiders” by traditional Jewish culture – a rebellious sect who had abandoned the revered practices of their ancestral faith, who had attacked the symbols and were ridiculed and treated as dirt by the majority population of that region. Samaritans were, for many, the lowest of the low – worthless. Without value.
What the road between Jerusalem and Jericho looks like in this century.
Samaritans, like the “woman at the well”, were descendants of ancient Hebrews who had not been taken into captivity during an earlier occupation, who in time developed different sacred beliefs. There are minimal other references to Samaritans in the Christian New Testament we know; in another Jesus healed 10 lepers, but only one came back to give thanks – the Samaritan. With both examples, Jesus – a Jew – was interacting with someone who, according to Jewish traditions, was to be avoided at all costs, unholy, unworthy. He defied expectation.
As Jesus finishes his parable, despite their ancestral traditions of mutual hatred – it was this man, who bandaged his wounds; carried him on his own beast to an inn, and paid for his care, until he returned again to pay the remainder owed. We do not know what the wounded traveler learned of his rescue; or if he ever met his benefactor. In finishing his example, Jesus did not answer the lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbor” – instead, responding only with a question in return.
Who was a neighbor to the man lying on that wilderness road,
left for dead, beaten and alone?
For a Jewish teacher to suggest that a Samaritan – members of two very different yet related tribes and traditions – would respond to the need when the victims more direct brethren ignored it, for reasons unspoken and unknown – was a radical challenge to the questioner for self-examination. Would he have responded to the need of someone who not only had he been taught, all of his life, to hate – and, by all expectations, would have hated him as well? Could he had even known that this man lying in the road was a member of that larger group who treated his people as dirt – was it obvious somehow from his appearance, his dress, his skin, his features? We do not know. It is, after all, a parable – an allegory.
Yet, the seed within the story is one of hope – that individuals can choose to set aside what they have been taught; how they have been treated; to show mercy and love, instead of shutting doors, and leaving those in need, behind. That choice is present for us, today. Perhaps it is needed most for us to offer to the people that we would ordinarily despise, reject, condemn, “cancel” and write out of our lives – for their sakes, and for ours as well.
I have not always been a good neighbor; I don’t have the purest of hearts nor do I do all that I can to help those in need around me. Few of us make the choice to fully commit to a life of service, such as Mother Theresa. I certainly don’t expect anyone to consider me a saint or even a good example of tolerance. But that Samaritan, defying his culture and the expectations of those around him, gives us all a reminder to ask ourselves – how can we, even in just a little way, be part of the answer to the needs of those discard broken, rejected and alone? Are we embracing hate, labeling, casting aside “others” – for whatever reasons we consider perfectly justifiable in our own reasoning – instead of simply, reaching out? Especially in these times – where daily we see chaos, if not in our neighborhood, on our screens – and need, if not in our homes, well within our ability to impact, somehow.
We don’t know, fully, what the attorney who asked how to be guaranteed eternal life interpreted the story. Luke, in his account, merely gives his response to Jesus’ question – who was the neighbor – as “The one who showed him mercy”. Did his life change after that encounter? Perhaps what we should ask ourselves is – does ours need to? Whether you believe in a divine force in whatever form – I think it is worth considering. But, I will leave the final word, to the final words attributed to Jesus in the account.
“Go and do likewise”.
“The Quality of Mercy is not strained” – Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
Note -Today, the small Samaritan community still survives and is more open to learning how to use science to reduce the risk of genetic defects in future generations. I found an interesting entry about the genealogical and DNA factors for this small group, here –
On Tv this week, we saw a 60’s engineer use a slide rule, and I wondered how many viewers might not have any idea what it was. I never learned to use one myself – but I sure remember how expensive those Texas instrument calculators were before they became more commonplace in the 70s. So much of life seems to be about measurement – starting with learning our numbers in elementary school, or maybe standing in the hallway or garage to have our growth commemorated and celebrated.
I loved storytelling and the library from my earliest years, and music – and eventually the old musicals on TV, like Danny Kaye in “ Hans Christian Anderson”. The great Frank Loesser wrote several original songs for that picture, all lovely – but today, the one still performed by artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, the Muppets, and John Coltrane. Apparently, unlike “The Ugly Duckling” or “Thumbelina”, “Inchworm” was not derived from one of Hans’ stories, but it resonates for many through the contrast of school children sadly singing “two and two are four, four and four are eight” while Danny Kaye sings his suggestion the inchworm stop measuring the marigolds, and consider instead their beauty.
Of course measuring is very important to life – my career was based on it. I chose accounting as a career path, learning to categorize, measure, trend and forecast – almost like a psychic with a calculator instead of a crystal ball. Two of the greatest 20th century minds of business management both emphasized the critical nature of measurement to success. W. Edwards Deming used statistics to reinvigorate production models- but also acknowledged the limits of measurement.
I had the wonderful opportunity to study under another great mind of management theory – Peter Drucker, famous for declaring “what gets measured gets managed”. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, and was known for his ability to accurately read trends and their implications. But I vividly recall his words that his secret was simple – he simply would look out at what was happening in the world around him as it passed by, and consider the implications. His principles of leadership are still studied, taught and practiced today, not only in business. In fact, at one of his annual Claremont graduate university alumni events, evangelist Rick Warren, author of the bestselling “Purpose driven life” paid tribute to Peter as a mentor and friend whose teachings helped him in his own ministry. Drucker’s principles of leadership are still studied, taught and practiced today, not only in business.
Often we seek to treat everything as reducible to a numeric value – our grades, our weight and blood pressure, our income and budget. But we also measure, compare and in other ways – “measuring up”, “fitting in”, conformity, meeting expectations of our social circles, our parents, and even using our children as somehow indicative of our comparative value. Yet every milestone we have achieved eventually leads not to a place of rest, but a quest for the next goal. It can become a constant cycle of trying to prove our worth – that we “made it”. But what is – “it”?
It’s interesting to me that my writings occasionally lead to comments from friends that there are elements of Buddhist perspective in my writing. I am unfamiliar with Eastern or Buddhist traditions or thinking; my child and early adult religious traditions varied from standard denominational Christianity to evangelical, and beyond. But for me, and many others, unfortunately the emphasis in those lessons and standards was heavily weighted towards measurement, striving, achieving, conforming. I have come to believe and accept that striving to be something we are not yet needs to be balanced with accepting and sharing honestly who we are right now. And, a hand in hand – learning to offer that same acceptance to others.
Our desire to measure ourselves against one another can lead to more than just faulty reporting. This week, in a zoom meeting of a few dozen LGBT individuals trying to work together towards meeting needs in our community, we were abruptly and viciously “bombed” by intruders. Loud music, shouted curses, ugly expletives and hateful labeling made speech for a moment impossible. It was shocking. But what struck most deeply was the power of 3 words – an old and deep lie – God hates faggots. The stain remained after they were disconnected. It remains in their hearts.
I don’t consider God to be a four letter word. But I know and respect that many – including myself – have been scarred, abused and rejected by those who claim to speak in the name of what they consider to be the ultimate authority, by whatever name they think of it. Yet I feel sad for anyone, for all of us, who have put any hope of a loving creative force aside in a box and labeled it as poison, or something destructive to be not embraced but avoided. In our pain, anger, or fear – we limit the ability of a greater spirit to what we have experienced and seen, closing it off from our hearts, or like the voices of hate on that zoom call, using a twisted version of it to tear down those different from ourselves. Their limited vision is not the truth. Simply put – their God is too small. Do we, with our desire to measure, to limit, to contain and define and control – do the same?
Humanity and societies across our globe throughout centuries have looked beyond what we “know” for a framework to understand that which is perhaps unknowable – the truths outside of our intellects, that we sometimes sense in a way words cannot express and numbers cannot define. Might it be true that that which is eternal is beyond measure in the senses which our culture and society have hammered into our ways of thinking? That the forces we cannot see or understand are inherently bigger than any box or structure, paradigms or writings might try to reduce it to? Could it be that someone in BCE 400 might experience that eternal Power in a way different than someone on the other side of the globe in CE 1200, or than you do where you are in 2020, and how I do today? Is it that hard to stop trying to put God in a box where we control Him/Her/Them, and instead – just try to listen? It’s hard to hear much when you’re doing all the talking.
Perhaps what we consider to be irrational is based in a different kind of knowledge – not scientific is the traditional sense, but an understanding that cultures and generations have reached towards without ever truly fully grasping – because it is beyond our ability to encompass with our intellects, beyond being able to capture it in words or images. In my youth choir and years of seeking my own sense of peace for the questions that have both limited and freed me, my traditions have included many of the old hymns that were common more than a century ago. One such hymn was written by a Frederick M. Lehman, who as I discovered as I researched for this article, was surprisingly born in the same small region in Germany where my great great grandfather William Granzow emigrated from in the 19th century – Mecklinburg, Schwerin. That hymn, “The love of God”, is most famous for its final, third stanza. By his own account, more than 100 years ago Lehman heard an evangelist quote those words, as found on the walls of an asylum cell. To me, this simple analogy captures the futility of measuring, and the immense beauty of that unknown infinite –
Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the sky of parchment made; were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade; to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry; nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky.
Frederick M. Lehman, “The Love of God”
Interestingly, other background articles on this verse show striking similarities to Hebrew sacred texts dating back to the 11thcentury, and also to a passage in the Quran dating to the 7th century. Perhaps beyond the limits of our precepts there are commonalities in the yearnings of our souls.
Whoever wrote these words, and however they knew them, scrawled on the walls of an asylum, found meaning, and hope from them. For all, our quest to make sense of life – in essence, to obtain what may be only an illusion of control through knowledge – we inevitably reach a juncture where answers fail but questions remain. One of my favorite obscure films is “They might be giants” with George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward from 1971. Scott is a brilliant judge who has retreated after his wife’s death into seeing himself as Sherlock Holmes; his therapist is, perhaps coincidentally, a Dr. Emily Watson. “They might be giants” of course refers to Don Quixote, fighting his windmills who he sees as threats in a quest to become the hero. Holmes tells Watson that only by looking at the things we think we “know” and considering the possibility that they might be something else, do we find the opportunity for new discoveries, new truths. Watson tries to “cure” him as they seek Moriarty in 70’s NYC, featuring an exquisite score by John Barry.
Do they defeat Moriarty, or does he even exist? The film in some ways asks the same questions we all face – or avoid facing. The final words on the screen always struck me as simple, yet profound-
The human heart can see what is hidden to the eyes, and the heart knows things that the mind does not begin to understand.
“They might be giants” screenwriter William Goldman, who also wrote “The Lion in Winter”, “Robin and Marion” and “Nicholas and Alexandra”
There are elements in all our lives that may defy measurement or understanding, yet have for more significance than all the seemingly pressing demands that scream for our attention. I’ve reached a place where questions without answers are ok. Where measuring still plagues me at times, but is balanced with an awareness that a greater love reaches out to me, and all of us, not limited by the words that demand more from us, but instead offer grace to us. This passing era – when all we have taken for granted seems uncertain, when there are no answers – brings a hidden gift. For a moment – we can choose to pause, cease seeking to know – and to listen. Not perhaps for answers – but for new questions. And like the inchworm, to stop measuring, and see the beauty that shimmers around us, in awe – listening, silently.
Today, July 26 2020, marks a significant anniversary for me, and you’re invited along. Perhaps some readers may recall Billy Pilgrim, from Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut; he became “unstuck in time”. Like Billy’s journey, I realize that my sharing of my life here is nonlinear, but I write about what is on my mind, and what I think matters and might have meaning for someone out there today. Although the overriding theme of my blog is “my journey to authenticity”, today, rather than the “New NormL”, I think perhaps what I have to share is a bit of the “True NormL”. But before I go on – friends, this is going to be a long one. I do hope you will agree it’s worth it; this is from my heart, like really everything I post here, but this is the post it has taken me a lifetime to create. I hope it won’t seem that long to read!!!!
I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep”.
Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse-Five”
Like many of my generation, church was a foundational factor in my upbringing. In childhood, growing up in circumstances that brought many blessings but also brought me to a place of separation and isolation, I attended Sunday school, like most “good families” of that 60’s era, even though mine was profoundly broken. I imagine today that the trappings of those gatherings are mostly forgotten – little “story boards” with felt figures of Bible folk to illustrate stories, songs we would sing together, craft fairs and choir practice. I was raised Protestant, but in my teens my mother – disabled and facing challenges beyond her means – sought comfort in pursuing the Evangelical movement. She clung to the shouted words of healers and held on for a miracle. I followed, in time – I wanted to belong, and to be accepted. Of course, the big hurdle in my truly feeling loved, accepted, “saved” or whatever other term you might pick was just one little problem – I was attracted to other boys.
But I could not accept that in myself; it wasn’t something I could embrace or act upon. By my twenties, entering the professional world after college, my heart was a lonely cave where the air was thick with shame. I attended bible rallies and went forth for prayer for deliverance, for laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. I travelled to the Holy Land and prayed to be changed; I remember asking the leader of the tour, a very knowledgeable, loving and well learned man in many faiths, what I could do to be “fixed”. His reply – “just stop it”. I recall listening to tapes about demons being cast out where the speaker “saw” frog like spirits beings released from those possessed by homosexuality. When I finally moved in the mid 80’s from the isolation of my mother’s home to have a degree of independence, my search for what I thought was love got me into trouble; after being held at gunpoint in my apartment and calling the police to report the attack by someone I had brought into my home, I heard their snickering behind my back, and I shrunk in humiliation. Without a car or wallet, I called my father to please come bring me back to my mother’s home. I told them what had happened, but no one else could know – I remained silent and solitary.
Hallelujah! After the exposure to my family, my secret was “out”, and it seemed that I could finally get help. I began working with a counselor for “reparative therapy”; I dated a girl from church and to this day regret the pain I caused her with a breakup, but realize I did her a favor. I attended “ex gay” programs offered by “Desert Stream” at a church in Pasadena, riding from the “Inland Empire” more than an hour each way with a fellow church member who worked for Campus Crusade. There, I met others, including men who worked for “Focus on the Family”, and a few women – all seeking “deliverance” through Christ. To somehow become – normal? Good enough? Or at least, celibate, and less self-hating. I even visited the “Love in Action” program in San Rafael, which became notorious in later years and eventually moved from California. There are many destructive forces in life, and shame is one of the most insidious, and deeply rooted in our souls. Shame is like climbing into your own coffin and nailing the lid shut from inside. Hiding from the only thing that could really bring healing – light.
The greatest gift you have to offer is the real you – don’t hide it, let it shine!
Thank God (and I do mean that), those programs, books, prayers and meetings – failed. I didn’t realize this was a blessing instead of a disappointment. For years, I fell deeper into my cave; I did not know any other life, and my existence centered around work and escape. But, in time, particularly after the passing of my parents in my late 40’s and the end of the family structure that I depended on to have a sense of purpose, I realized that I needed to find a way to accept myself. That unless I did, the loneliness that engulfed my life would only grow until there was no life left. I found a wonderful counselor; he tried to convince me to accept being gay, but I fought it for a long time. Eventually, the walls that had been built with years of indoctrination crumbled, and I began to see that the love that I sought was already there, it was just up to me to accept it – no one else. In 2010 that I finally found courage, and reached out to the only two gay people I knew, to ask for help.
In my 50’s, I joined the “Men’s coming out support group” at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, driving more than an hour and a half to West Hollywood weekly to share, learn, and listen. I started exploring the admittedly unfamiliar world of bars and more. I made friends, slowly – there wasn’t a lot of gay life in Perris, CA! I would drive nearly an hour to Palm Springs and used to tell people I lived in the Perris without croissants. Many had never heard of it – especially when I joined the Gay Men’s Chorus of LA in 2012 and started “coming out” to friends and family. It was both rewarding – and painful. Because, as I started to be more honest with those around me, along with the new friends I made, and the support I found from old friends and family – I lost dear friends. People who could not see past the same teachings that had kept me bound and alone most of my life. Teachings that in spirit were meant to bring life but had been twisted to crush the hearts of many, leading to families that were broken and lives that ended. Many have been deeply burned by actions done in the name of love, and turned away. I do understand why so many see religion as bringing death rather than life; I am not ashamed to admit that I do not have all the answers, but I still find comfort in reaching for faith, which like me, is evolving.
Gay Men’s Chorus of LA 2014 concert “I Am Harvey Milk”, Walt Disney Concert Hall
Thinking back on it, there were 3 stages to my “new life” – “Ex”; “Ex-Ex”, and eventually, yes, XXX. One of the really surprising things, to those who knew me, was that I bought a motorcycle. Never mind that I didn’t know how to ride – I had seen an Indian Chief parked near my home and I just wanted to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. I had always thought that bikers were “hot”. Now, we all have our fantasies, ok? I learned to ride, taking my licensing class in pouring rain just before Thanksgiving, soaked to the bone. I had a deep respect for history and learned that the Satyrs Motorcycle Club of LA – one of the oldest gay organizations in the world – invited all riders to join them on periodic “runs”. In 2012, I rode my 2001 Chief for the first and only time to San Francisco – my first visit there as an “out” gay man – clumsily making my way to the Castro, and the South of Market area, where my Satyr friends had recommended a cheap hotel. I visited some of the bars, feeling completely out of place; and then I rode on to the annual “Badger Flat” gathering the Satyrs held in the Sierra National forest; I was welcomed by all. In July 2015 a friend from the Satyrs run invited me to stay in his San Francisco home while he went to the Sturgis Bike Rally. That visit led to the life changes that today I celebrate.
San Francisco was known for decades as a refuge for countless men and women who were “different” in many ways. In the 80’s, the community began to lose thousands of lives to AIDS. I remember reading about the mysterious diseases emerging in the Advocate, a gay newspaper that my college had in the library, and later in magazines that would give me a (unrealistic) window into the world I wanted to be a part of but was not. In response, the core gay and lesbian communities around the world – New York, LA, SF and more – turned to fundraising events to support the needs of organizations trying to help the infected, and their families. One such gathering was held on a small block in the South of Market area in August 1985 – nearly 35 years ago – called “Up Your Alley” on Ringold alley. It grew – and in 1987, was shifted to nearby Dore Alley, off Folsom.
The Castro was what the world saw, perhaps, as the center of “gay” life – certainly it had the bars, the parties, the music, the lights and political focus. But South of Market – it had its own crowd, flavor, energy – and reputation. John Rechy in 1977 wrote of the LA chapter of this subculture in his book “The Sexual Outlaw” – more people would recognize it from the popularization of the “Leather Man” Glenn Hughes from the Village People. It was this community in South of Market that created, supported, and celebrated their lives in Folsom – at the bars, the clubs, the alleys and more. Over the decades, there were less bars, but the reputation still lingered, held up by a few residents and businesses – part of the kaleidoscope of cultures in what used to be called the “Baghdad by the bay”. And the “Up Your Alley” fair endured, along with the larger “Folsom Fair” held annually – these were the raucous gatherings that evangelicals used to portray the “perversion” that they could use for fund raising and fear mongering, condemnation and shaming those who were different.
A vividly expressive ad for the 2015 Dore Alley Street fair – perhaps unrealistic?
That July 2015, the Dore Alley street fair – “Up Your Alley” or “Folsom’s dirty little brother”, as it was promoted, was literally outside my door. Of course I had heard of these events – I had visited the bars on prior trips to the city, and similar bars and gatherings in LA and the desert. But attending was something like this was a first, for me. The street fair attracted thousands to the small area that bordered on my friend’s home on Folsom. I was, for the most part, alone – I didn’t know that many people in San Francisco, and even though I could pass for a “biker” in terms of my gear – I could “look the part” – I completely felt out of my element. I don’t enjoy loud music, crowds, and am a non-drinker – but this was the SF of my fantasies from decades past, and I was “out”, and I was going to take the leap. As I strolled down Folsom, a young lady asked if she could take my photo – I was flattered and said yes. A few weeks later, a friend in LA said they saw me on the event website – so, here is what I looked like midday on Sunday, July 26, 2015.
About an hour after that photo was taken, I walked into a reception at a local boot store, “Stompers”, where party goers could escape the noise, relax, socialize – as long as they had boots on. Which, of course, I did! It was crowded with men in leather – everything I had imagined about the San Francisco I saw in magazines decades earlier! Suddenly, I saw a stunning man (yes it was a “lightning bolt” moment), one I immediately wanted to meet – just as a friend called and asked if I could join them outside (they did not meet the boot requirement). I reluctantly left, hoping I might return soon. Trying to keep my eyes on the door while we visited, I noticed the object of my attention had walked outside … and when I walked up to say hello – he said words I had not anticipated ….
“Norm … it’s Bob”. In 2013, while on he was in LA on business we had met briefly. I knew at the time he was married and living in San Francisco, and to be honest, I had not recognized him (we won’t go into the circumstances, folks!). Bob’s husband had passed just a few months earlier after a long illness, and visiting friends had coaxed him into joining them at a brunch, and then at the street fair, briefly. He had seen me in Stompers, but lost track of me until, as it happened, there we were at the concession stand. One year later, Dore July 2016; Stompers had closed, Bob and I had been dating long distance, and I joined him and many friends at the annual brunch reception before heading to South of Market, and the crowds. As we strolled through Dore together, eventually we stopped near where, a year before, we had – accidentally? – reconnected at Stompers. It had closed a few months prior, but we paused nearby for a burger, where he had invited friends to quietly gather. Moments later, we were engaged.
It’s a lot easier for me to write a narrative history than to somehow discern what from those experiences I am feeling a need to express. In some ways, like Billy Pilgrim, and perhaps like you or someone you love, my life was largely fragmented into pieces I kept separate, some buried deeply, many that only with time could I learn to accept and even embrace. I am hardly the first human to “come out” late in life, nor fundamentally unique in any other characteristic; but “coming out” applies to all of us, not just GLBTQ individuals who still face unique challenges around our globe. Perhaps my story illustrates how critical it is for ALL of us to reach a place where we accept ourselves perhaps not fully, but enough to say “this is me, I know I am not perfect, I am still working on me but I would like to let you get to know me”. When we hide in the shadows – when we let shame, or fear, bury us and keep us from sharing our hearts with others – everyone loses. Our world loses.
Shame has deep roots, sometimes invisible. It takes more than any single action to be free of that pile; it requires ongoing and severe honesty; the hearts and hands of people who accept us as we share our truths; and, I believe, faith in that which is larger than ourselves, however we may come to see that source of life. 5 years after that “chance” meeting that changed my life, that has become our life – I am still “coming out”. Being open with this post today is another step for me; I share my path with you because it has been a curious merging, a graceful dance between desire that I was taught to suppress and deny – and a sense of the power of faith in a greater source of love, grace, and forgiveness. It took me most of my lifetime to realize that my definition of that power was too small. I had kept it in a box, and tried to fit my life into it, blaming myself that I could not conform. But the truth was bigger than my box; bigger than me. I just had to let my eyes move beyond the borders, and let my heart be open, to move beyond those limits. I had to have faith in what my spirit heard and what called to my heart. Now, I continue to work on integrating those fragments of my heart, spirit, and mind into my own coat of many colors.
Be your own creation – the best of what you are given, and the rest of your dreams.
I am sure there are many more learned minds than my own that can espouse at great lengths the connections between spirituality and sexuality, so I will not even try. But for me, they are kind of like Astaire and Rogers – each beautiful on their own, but together, truly divine – far more than the sum of their parts, and dare I say, incomplete without one another. In my church days, much of which I still treasure and reflect on and am grateful for – we often were taught about the “Holy Spirit”, or in Latin, “Spiritus Sanctus”. It was always mysterious, and kind of pushed away – probably because it could not be explained. I like to think the Spiritus Sanctus just as easily wears a leather jacket and boots as it might for others be in priestly vestments. We find a connection to the Eternal in our own ways, and we need to respect that others do as well – but the common thread is one of our basic humanity, our need for love, acceptance, hope and forgiveness, as we work our way through a very uncertain world. I am more at peace, now, not having an explanation, but accepting that it is no longer needed; just like I cannot explain how all the moving pieces of two separate lives brought us together on a crowded street during a leather “kink” festival. But it did. And I am thankful for it, and grateful for the love that continues to grow as a result.
Words of “The Little Flower” of France, one of the most popular saints of Catholicism.
Since that day, I left Perris behind, put my home on the market, said goodbye to what had really been my entire life there since 1962, and moved, as I put it, not to San Francisco, but to Bob. In August 2018, we were married; our two-year anniversary next month will be a quiet one – no dinner out, no parties. No gathering with friends and loved ones, or at least, only “virtually” this year. For many of us, Dore, Folsom, Pride, and other annual gatherings are sometimes half-jokingly referred to as gay “high holy days”. Like church services, they are gone, for now; there is no Dore “Up Your Alley” gathering in Folsom this year; there will not be thousands of men and women walking in the sunshine, wearing all kinds of clothing (or little to none), buying and selling all kinds of interesting devices, demonstrating skills you don’t learn about in Boy Scouts (or, maybe you do), and raising funds for charity. There won’t be loud music or the “Twister” booth, and all the other activities that get covered in the media – you can see all those images from prior years online. What the pictures cannot fully capture is the energy, acceptance, belonging, joy, and yes, love which brought those thousands of celebrants together, for so many years. I look forward to coming together again, somehow, some day.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Suess – a wisdom that touches all ages.
Dr. Seuss had a gift for sharing truth through simplicity. I never read many of his books, except when waiting in medical offices as a child. But that quote from “Oh the places you’ll go” harmonizes deeply with a realization that continues to grow in my own awareness – that only bY being genuinely ourselves – warts, failures, flaws and all – can we offer authentic love, caring, and acceptance to others. And only in accepting others as they are, can we climb, together. We have to get there from where we are, not by pushing others down to where we think they are supposed to be. Early this morning, July 26 2020, Bob and I briefly strolled down those familiar streets – Folsom, Dore and Ringold. There were no crowds, or booths, and the bars were silent. Others may gather later, not willing to let traditions go – I respect that, truly. We happily returned to our little blue house with two cats, together.
With Bob this morning, at the intersection of Folsom and Dore, remembering.
Bob and I are together because somehow the many intricate moving pieces in our separate lives brought us to the same noisy, crowded street during a gay leather festival. We love each other, imperfectly but truly, and we try to share our love with the others in our lives, when we can. I am grateful to say that I felt the call of the spirit in a leather jacket, and I said YES to that call, and seek it still. I hope that when you sense something calling to your own spirit, in that deep place only you know, you will find the courage and strength and acceptance to say “yes” – leave that safe nest you know only too well, spread your wings, and fly. I’ll look for you out there, soaring through the clouds.
These days, when many of us are spending far more time at home than we might have planned – it’s an opportunity to clean up, sort through and toss out. I can attest that not everyone embraces this vision with vigor, but there is something about digging into old boxes that has always held a sense of adventure and discovery for me. Growing up, my Mom had a bedroom that was basically “off limits” – filled with boxes and old furniture, but more importantly I think for her, filled with memories she did not want to be reminded of, yet could not find a way to let go.
When her lifelong health problems ultimately reached a point where she was unable to care for herself safely, she seemed to be at the end of her days – and I went through a period of desperation to find a housing and care facility. Ultimately, she improved – and I felt the “right thing” to do was to sell my home and return to that childhood tract house, where so many of my formative years and experiences still hung in the air. Being raised by a disabled single parent who had no earnings, no car and little interaction with the outside world had shaped me in many ways, so returning to living alone in a home drenched in memories was not much of a change.
Surprisingly, Mom hung on for eight more years, and during that time, I took on what I came to view as a “redemption” of the house, which had always needed much in the way of repairs and care that was never without our means. I wanted it to be a home that someone would be delighted to call their own, knowing the time would come that she would move into eternity, and others would make the house their own. As I began digging through the closets filled with old clothes and more, I began to uncover something I had not expected – shadows of the past that had not been viewed in decades.
There were photo albums from my parents, grandparents and boxes containing images from unknown ancestors. I unfolded faded letters dating back decades (including my father’s as shared previously), greeting cards, travel brochures and more. Going through them with first my parents, then in time other cousins and family members, opened a window to my heritage but, in time, also to a fuller realization of my own worth, and hope.
But today I am sharing about a member of the family in particular who met me in my infancy and passed not long after – my maternal grandmothers second husband. Grandma Jean had divorced my grandfather Richard before WWII – a pretty uncommon act back then. High school sweethearts in Denver, they’d both lost their mothers as teenagers, and after marrying in Oregon, raised her younger brother and sister and had two children – my uncle, and then my mother. Sadly, Jean passed a year before my birth. My mother had issues with her father until his passing – he lived out of state, and I never knew him either. But Mom loved her mother dearly – in fact I am named for Jean’s younger brother Norman who died during the 1918 flu epidemic.
Mom had told me that at some point grandma Jean had remarried, and they were seemingly quite happy until her own passing in the late 50’s. As with her not so socially acceptable in those days divorce, she again made a choice that in her time was rare – as an Episcopalian, she married a man of the Jewish faith. There were photographs, and even color slides, of their many trips together and with families – including strangers that were apparently his own. Other than a few unfamiliar names mentioned in passing in those old letters – there was only one other fact that many in my extended family recalled quite clearly. And it was not a pretty story.
Grandma passed in spring 1957, and he remarried shortly thereafter. Following my own birth in spring 1958, he had stopped by my parent’s home in Vacaville, near where my father worked at the state prison. Less than six months later, at the mountain cabin where he, my grandmother, mother, cousins and other family members celebrated summer vacations and winter getaways, my mother’s uncle found his body, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. My mother’s cousin David, still alive today, clearly recalls the incident, but with more expressive verbiage.
It was just one of those family stories, about people I never knew. But I looked through the photos and slides to see strangers faces from 50 years ago or more, and wondered what had happened to them. Now, after retiring, and in this time of isolation where I finally am trying to piece together so many little fragments of my heritage, my family’s journeys, for those who will follow – I came across those color slides with strangers faces and unfamiliar names again. I thought of another cousin who maybe 3-4 years back had gotten a call from descendant of his 3rd wife – they had found some of our grandmother’s items in boxes and wondered if we wanted them. To my ongoing regret, that never led to us reconnecting and recovering those pieces of the past.
With all the amassing records and resources available to us online today, you’ve probably seen programs on PBS or elsewhere about “discovering family”. Well, perhaps at least part selfishly – knowing that it might possibly reconnect me with other records from my grandmother – I decided to see what I could learn about this gentleman and track down someone who might want to preserve these photos of strangers that I had found, who might be their ancestors. At this point, I should explain I am taking care to not mention names, due to privacy – I generally do not share photos of living persons other than myself (with one exception). However, I do feel the photos of those long gone, in many cases of family I knew little or none at all while they lived, bring the stories and discoveries that I share here a little bit more “to life”.
As I scoured Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com and other site, knowing little more than his name and profession, to see if I could find reference to my grandmother’s second husband, some interesting facts appeared about his subsequent marriage and death – social notices, mainly, but then – an obituary. And in time, another article – describing his death, not from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, but – “an overdose of pills”? I was not surprised that the harsher truth of his passing had been softened, but i was not expecting another revelation. The memorial service article mentioning and naming children from a prior marriage – one that neither my Mom, nor her cousins and family, ever knew of.
Among them, a son – and from the date, and with his name (because, of course, the daughters might have married, and I would not have as great a likelihood of finding their “trail”) – I found a high school yearbook from southern California with his picture. From there – articles about his life, incidentals really – and with a bit more digging, I find several addresses. I realize some percentage, maybe a high percentage, of you might think why I am doing this – reaching out to a stranger who is not a blood relative, may not even know my grandmother married his father, and that I might be opening doors that he or his family prefer to leave shut?
I can’t tell you for sure that I know reaching out is the right choice – but I did. I wrote a letter; I made a call. At this point, there has been no response – possibly by choice, maybe by chance. But I do know that if someone were to reach out to me with an offer of photos of family that I had never seen, and maybe to learn a bit about their lives from someone who knew them – I would jump at the chance. Would I bring up the circumstances of his father’s passing?No, I would not – but if he asked, I would share what I knew.
Because in my life, at least, learning the truth – the facts, the hard history rather than the pretty fairy tales – has given me strength. Courage – to accept myself, and others, imperfect as we are – working on that every day, believe me. Knowing that those who came before experienced not just joy and summer vacations and new cars and baby showers of the photos now faded, but also disappointment, uncertainty, and yes – failure – gives me hope, because I face those, we face those – every day. Especially now.
There is a conflict erupting in our communities, country and world, between so many fragments over so many divides. I understand, in part, the rage of those who see the emblems of a past that brings pain even now and want them to be gone. I can listen to the words, the hearts of others who truly believe that it is better to bury the past. Yes, the dead are gone from us- but while we have their memories, their past remains. We each must decide – for ourselves, and for those who follow, in our family whether of blood or of choice – what memories will we preserve. What steps will we take to pass on those pieces of the past – whether in our garage in a crumpled box, or in a remote corner of our memory? Will we decide to let them go? Or will we choose to let those who follow make that decision for themselves.
I am not ready to throw away these pictures of stranger just yet – but the time will come. It does not cost me to save them still; it is not a burden. But their knowledge will end with me, I am certain. My focus must be on preserving the lives, hopes, dreams and memories of those truly dear to me, for those who like me, one day, will look at them perhaps with a sense of awe, and wonder. Perhaps in time, even the lessons of my life will somehow speak, after I am gone, and as was the gift to me, provide a doorway to a greater faith, a stronger hope, and a deeper love.