Breathing Room

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January 17, 2023- Fifteen people graced the Founders Room, in Prescott Public Library’s main building, this evening, as Prescott Peace Builders presented a documentary on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The film reviewed what each of us present have lived, with regard to Civil Rights era and Dr. King’s role in the attainment of Civil Rights for African- Americans. What those rights boil down to is space for a physically, economically and politically hobbled people to breathe, to live full lives.

No one has said that anyone is entitled to a perfect life; no one IS. There is, though, plenty of space for freedom from being the target of assumptions from those in power and those who enforce that power. I was raised to not cross the street, when approached by a person of colour, or a person dressed in tattered clothing, or any given individual who was not acting in an obviously menacing manner. I was taught that when anyone asked for directions, they were to be given clear directions, in the most polite language possible. Essentially, every human being who crossed my path was to be treated fairly.

Those teachings became part of my being- and made getting over the subliminal messages, from the wider community, a whole lot easier. I have made my share of mistakes and have had to root out many microaggressions, but the foundation I got from my parents has eased the recognition of the Oneness of Mankind. It also made incorporating the admonition about never ASS-uming anything, about another person or group, a whole lot easier.

The day as a whole was marvelous: Safe drive to Phoenix and back; excellent dental check-up; three great meals-breakfast at Wildflower Bakery, lunch at Local Jonny’s and a bowl of soup for dinner, at Mob Burger-each served by a congenial soul. Then, there was the above-mentioned gathering, the second of three such meetings, honouring Dr. King and his legacy.

There is much breathing room, for yours truly, so far this winter.

“All Means All”

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January 16, 2023- The process tends to loop around in circles, sometimes spiraling forward and other times heading back the other way.

April, 1959- A tough-looking boy, a bit older than me, rode up on his bike as I was walking back from the south side of town. He said his name was Richard; that he was a Creole from New Orleans and that I looked like a money man. I was eight, Richard was probably ten. I showed my empty pockets and he sniffed and rode off. “Next time, Money Man!” I didn’t see him again until we were in Junior High. He was into other things by then, and never bothered me. I later learned, from another Black child, that Richard no one in his life, except his Grandma, who was a custodian at the high school.

June, 1963- A seasoned jazz saxophonist, named Wilton Felder, sat down and recorded a re-arrangement of “Lullaby by JS Brahms”. It was nothing close to a lullaby, when he was finished. Mr. Felder was expressing his rage-at the murder, in 1956, of Emmett Till; at the murder, a few days before the recording, of Medgar Evers; at the many instances of cruelty towards people who looked like him . He was in no mood to offer gentle comfort-and so he made the piece soar to the heavens-loud and angry. The performance was terribly prescient. Three months later, four young girls, dressed in their Sunday finest, were blown to bits by a crazed bomber, as they waited in a Birmingham church.

April, 1968- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a group of sanitation workers and others who were gathered in their support. He remarked that the people were “headed to the Promised Land”, and that he “may not get there with you”. That night, as he took in the night air of a Memphis spring, he was sent to the hereafter. Far to the north, in the mostly white town where I was coming of age, a few of my friends mused aloud, about going over to a black neighbourhood in the next town, and stirring things up. The father who overheard those remarks forbade his son from taking part-as my father would have, if I had even wanted to be part of such a thing. As it was, I only wanted to see black people treated fairly and my heart was broken. I went on home.

June, 1969- Communication was not my strong suit, as I entered Basic Training in the U.S. Army. Having had little direct experience with African-Americans, I found that I had committed a few faux pas. Lavern was already a beaten-down, world-weary soul, at age 19. He desperately wanted to be understood, and had a hard time expressing the ways in which people like me had hurt him. A sharp-eyed friend advised me that some other black trainees were talking with Lavern, and looking my way. I spoke with a mutual friend, who was also black; the two of us sat down with Lavern, and got things amicably settled.

September, 1969- One cold morning, at Advanced Individual Training, in Indianapolis, I was having a hard time waking up and must have had a sour expression on my face, as we gathered at the latrine sinks, to shave our faces. Wayne was spring-loaded and outspoken. He thought my scowl was directed at him-and put me on notice that this was not acceptable. A more even-tempered black colleague explained that this was how African-American men communicated with one another-direct, full-in-the-face. In this way, I was being let inside. I had no further issues with Wayne, or with any other person of colour, the rest of the time I was in the Army. Direct, and to the point, always worked.

July, 1995- I was getting ready to cross a busy street, in St. Louis, with my wife, son and our hosts. Of a sudden, a hand grabbed my arm and pulled me back-just as a car came speeding along in the inside lane. The man who saved me had appeared to be on drugs-but he was aware enough to keep a stranger safe. This gave the lie to our hosts’ musings about black people being worthless. There was no further racist talk coming out of their mouths during our visit.

All these years later, one of the main speakers at today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service asked, among other things, how many friends of colour each of us had. It was a rhetorical query, intended to get us thinking. My unspoken answer is, “Many, but nowhere near enough”. The keynote speaker then underscored this question, saying that ALL people’s lives indeed mattered. To that African-American, female pastor, everyone was due respect and accordance of dignity-even if they act despicably.

All people means all people.

.

That Freedom We All Want, and Deserve

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January 17, 2022- About a hundred people marched from Prescott College, to and around Yavapai County Courthouse and back to Prescott United Methodist Church, as the first part of a celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , in mid-morning today. There were both impromptu, and well-known, songs being offered by local musician-activists. and people of all ages gladly joined in, as best we could.

Each year, as this observance approaches, I think about the way Dr. King was regarded by many in my once-ultraconservative childhood hometown. Many adults, including some in my extended family, swallowed the fiction that he was a card-carrying member of the United States Communist Party. When he was murdered, there were some in my high school class who joked and cheered. I personally was disconsolate. It was clear, even then, that he was working for the good of everyone.

Time and more information have combined to moderate the notions that many have about Martin Luther King, Jr., his life and his work. Revelations of his less than chaste activities have long since come to light, but without having the effect-on most people of negating the larger body of his work. It has never been shown that he was anything less than loyal to this country and to its government, despite the best efforts of those opposed to full citizenship for people of colour to discredit him. It has never been shown that he was anything less than committed to the rights of all, even those who opposed him.

There are still people who promote the notion that freedom is a finite thing. Those who crave power, above all else, variously spread the word that, if Black and Brown people are given a full seat at the table, freedom will be taken from those of European and West Asian descent. Others appeal to conservatives of all racial groups, saying that mandated collective action is inherently evil, when it bumps up against individuals creating and pursuing their own destiny. Conversely, there are those who do seek to exclude even those conservatives who are merely seeking to forge a life for themselves, without government largesse. I believe Dr. King would want us to work to overcome our self-imposed limitations, much as he did in his own life.

We all want and deserve Divinely-endowed freedoms and rights. These come with responsibilities-among them the duty to care for one’s children and family members, the trust to take part in the affairs of community, to exhibit a sane and intelligent patriotism towards the country in which one has taken citizenship and beyond that, the care and protection of our planet.

As I later walked with my hiking buddy, in her first foray into nature in several months, the notion that there should be no barriers to a full life, for every human being, other than those they impose on themselves, came to my heart. That there need be no exclusionary elite, but that each should be able to choose working with others or forging on alone, but without throwing up barriers to others who wish to achieve their goals in a different, and ethical, manner, remains my paramount wish.

Freedom is never a zero sum game.

Blue Star

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December 18, 2020, Sedona-

The tower of strength walked in to the room, where four of us were having an earnest conversation about stars, planets and the Earth-bound, and calmly introduced herself. Her first act after that was to bond with the thirty-ish woman in our group, sharing photos of herself at a younger age, of her grandmother and great-grandmother and of her late first husband, a World War II veteran.

Blue Star is still formidable, at 91, has traveled far more broadly than I and has established herself somewhat, in the literary world. After a fashion, she blessed me and the other men in the circle, and told fascinating stories of her Lakota ancestors, as well as of all the experiences she’s had, driving several times across the nation, and abroad-in Europe and in South America. Self-care, she said, has made much possible, as has looking beyond any current upheavals or mischief at a high level.

The luminous presence has, among other things, operated a coffee house on Charles Street, in Boston, and said the late Ted Kennedy was one of her regulars. She spoke of having walked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a few of the marches he organized and of having met Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, in Newport, Rhode Island, at that city’s Folk Festival, in 1962.

I had a newly-bestowed drum with me, showed it to her and gave it a couple of taps with the drumstick, drawing her approval. A scowl from a fellow Baby Boomer across the room put a stop to the tapping, (Why is it that men who are my contemporaries are so often the wet blankets in a group?), as we place harmony over self-satisfaction. Blue Star quietly assured me that the rhythm was good and that there would be many occasions for the drum to aid in my self-expression.

She has a sense of celestial energy about her, and imparts a re-assuring message: ‘It is a restorative thing, to treasure the people and spaces where one happens to be. If the person for whose presence one makes a journey is not available, then those whom one is INTENDED to encounter should have full attention. There are no wasted journeys.’ She was alluding to her own having come to Synergy to visit with the owner, who happened to be elsewhere this evening. The message was apropos for each of us, as various people sat in the circle for a while, then got up and went to an impromptu Blues guitar session in the next room, or wandered outside for the night air.

Blue Star showed me what may well lie ahead, should my fate, as another friend recently wished for me, be one of “iron longevity”. I look forward to seeing her again, at one of the gatherings here.

This Living Dream

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February 4, 2016, Prescott- It’s been nearly three weeks since the nation took time to honour the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It’s been three weeks, since we heard this year’s iterations of the speech he gave, sharing his dream of a nation whose people were at peace with one another.

I have thought, long and hard, about the years that have passed since then, and the years that have passed since his slaying.  We no longer, thankfully, have full-on urban riots, at least not since Los Angeles, and 25 other cities, in 1992.  We no longer tell people of colour that they cannot live in certain neighbourhoods, or parts of the country. We have, on the one hand, made an attempt to include people of colour more fully in the outward cultural fabric of our world-with HipHop and rap becoming de rigeur, worldwide.  On the other hand, there is so much unfinished, and even some progress at risk of being undone.

I have to say this, sans hard hat:  There are still several areas of daily life, mostly involving how I, and people who look like me, are perceived by law enforcement, especially on the road at night, that are not experienced the same way by people of colour.  As a nation, we buy too easily into stereotypes, still.  It was not so long ago that I would lapse into a lilt, when speaking with African-Americans.  That had to rankle the people with whom I was speaking and I apologize, profusely.  It said volumes about my own gap in self-identity and deficit in self-confidence.

I am over that personal roadblock.  The Dream that Dr. King shared with us, while speaking at the National Mall, those 53 years ago, was meant for all of us.  It was meant for Blacks, Native-Americans, Latinos to claim a place in the true life of the nation.  It was meant for women to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men.  It was meant for Caucasians to recognize that sharing the full life of the nation with people of colour, in no way diminishes who we are as a dynamic force in the progress of mankind.  It was meant for those of both sexual orientations to be afforded the opportunity to share their God-given strengths and talents, in making the world a better place.  It was meant that the Dream be truly universal. I believe the Dream is alive.  I believe that this is truly the Day that will not be followed by Night.