New Year’s Day in July

Photo by Anna-Louise on Pexels.com

My friend M reports losing five pounds since starting a new weight loss/mindfulness program. The next door neighbor is training for a marathon in the fall. Actually, I’m signed up to do the (virtual) Rabun Ramble 5K, having plotted an acceptable route in San Francisco not quite as challenging as the real Ramble’s North Georgia hills, but who’s  checking? Liz, one of my longtime best friends, is working with an editor on the memoir that many of us, not just her family, have been pushing her to do for years.

You’d think it was New Year’s.

Actually, that seems to be where we are: at the beginning of a new year, a new age. What kind of an age it will be is still anybody’s guess, as is how long it might be until we’re officially in it. All those unvaccinated people out there are sitting ducks for the coronavirus still roaming the country, and who knows how many variants are planning coming-out parties with their antecedents’ approval. It’s hard not to be grumpy about the unvaccinated. Granted, everyone has the right to choose not to be vaccinated, I suppose, but thank heaven for the millions who did get the vaccine and thereby made it possible for this New Year’s Day to dawn. Maybe some day the unvaccinated will at least find it in their hearts to appreciate the vaccinated.

Celebration in the pews

Those of us who have been trying to keep the literal faith throughout these dark months, with a little help from Zoom and Facebook and YouTube, have found that being back in churches and synagogues is particularly celebratory. This writer’s return to the Presbyterian pews coincided with Pride Week and couldn’t have been more rainbow-filled. We were even singing from behind our masks – with the blessing (or approval, at least) of the City of San Francisco.

And then there is the indoor dining-out business. Friends of mine on both coasts are absolutely giddy about discovering old restaurants feared long gone, along with new eateries popping up all over the place. In San Francisco, to the dismay of parking space seekers and absolutely no one else, parklet dining – the street spaces taken over by beleaguered restaurants during the pandemic – seems here to stay. But being able to sit inside a quiet (OK, more often noisy) restaurant and enjoy a meal without the accompaniment of traffic noise feels like a new day indeed. “Restaurant X is back!” as the subject head of a Facebook or Twitter thread suddenly morphs into a list too long to comprehend as one friend after another adds one returned eatery after another.

New Year’s Day, of course, seldom dawns without some residual hint of New Year’s Eve and the old year behind. This old one left us with a lion’s share of hangovers: friends and loved ones taken by the virus, personal and congregate losses too many to count, an entire year of suspended existence. But here’s a pearl of wisdom dropped by a very wise friend in a recent Sunday sermon: “Happiness is to joy as whining is to lament.” Work on that one if you want.

Meanwhile, here’s to the happiest of New Years for M, for Liz, and all the rest of us.

Mob Violence – Is it here to stay forever?

A TALE OF TWO CENTURIES

Her name was Joyce Almeida. An 18-year-old student, she was killed instantly by one shot through her lung. Joyce had been on the edge of the downtown crowd with her parents, who had fled for cover behind their car and at first failed to notice Joyce’s soundless collapse onto the pavement. One man in uniform, though, was seen at the exact same time, on horseback, galloping away but firing behind him in all directions at the crowd of mostly civilian men, women and children.

A sadly familiar story today. I was stunned to discover it, reported in a familiar script, in a letter written by my mother to my father on November 1, 1923 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

In the midst of digging through files of documents, mostly letters, that remain un-sorted even after countless moves and major downsizes, surprises keep showing up. On the date of this letter my parents were not yet engaged – that would happen the following spring, and they’d marry on November 18, 1924 – so where my father was is a mystery; probably just somewhere else in Porto Alegre. Phone calls were rare; notes and letters were the preferred means of communication. My mother had been in Brazil a little over a year, under the auspices of the Methodist church; her job involved teaching music and folk dance to preschoolers and young children while also teaching English at all age levels. She and her roommate Mary Sue lived in the girls’ dorm of a school that housed students from elementary grades into the equivalent of junior college. I think neither of them were trained to deal with protest mobs.  

“I ran a couple of blocks,” my mother wrote, “to catch up with the Red Cross people.” The Red Cross people had come to notify them of a student being wounded, but given the name Joycelina; moments later the two young teacher/chaperones realized it might be Joyce. “She had gone with her family to welcome Setembroio the Minister of War from Rio. The mob lost itself while he was making his speech and firing began. A stray shot struck her in the lung and killed her instantly. All this we learned later at her home.

“Immediately then Mary Sue and I went to take home the few other externs who were here. All we have is a great deal of hearsay centered around a core of fact. It seems now, after things have quieted down, that 50 or more people were wounded, a number fatally, and one rumor says 18 killed.

“Of course the children were all very much frightened. Before going out, Mary Sue talked to them about the need for calm, and of the comparative safety of the college compared to other places. They took it all very well and after dinner settled down quietly to sewing – after calmly taking a collection to send flowers to Joyce. Only Mary Sue and I went to the Almeidas. It is very sad. Mr. Almeida looks so crushed. Igaleilita’s dress was still spotted with blood from the wound.

“Yet with all this the people continue to move to and fro on the street just as they have been moving to the cemetery all day. The federal soldiers have taken charge, and they have asked for an Estado de Sitio permission from Rio. Things are apparently quiet now – 10 PM. The school children went to bed calmly. Mary Sue and I are really more nervous than they – after the stress of going to the Almeida house and then carrying the news to many of the school mates. I folded up all the costumes of the ‘May Festa,’ to have come off on Tuesday, and laid them away.”

Photo by Terri Windling

My mother – a ferocious seamstress who could whip up a dress or costume in minutes – had started “May Festa,” a May Day celebration that continues to this day. It involved all-day singing and dancing and unfortunately had been scheduled for a few days after the shooting. “Joyce was to have a new white net dress for the festa,” my mother wrote – “and it was her shroud.”

The discovery of this century-old letter is fascinating on more levels than I can count: some things change; some never do. But it’s tempting to reflect on the similarity of mob violence whatever the century, and the difference of news reporting in the days before TV (or effective radio, for that matter.) Possibly the biggest difference? News transmission via pen-and-ink paints pictures of a singular sort. My mother’s letter concludes:

“Strange – Mary Sue and I sat taking coffee instead of dinner, and discussed the use of the basement of the other building in case of necessity – of barricading the spaces between the pillars at the back – you don’t think about being afraid when you are actually in it. Most absurd of all, I loaded the revolver – in case we should have trouble on account of absence of police.” I am satisfied that my mother never fired a gun in her life.

No amount of internet searching can confirm the details, so please don’t consider the above to be historical fact. Some things I don’t know – the correct name of the Minister of War, what the riot was about, how the students and families coped. But some things I do. My parents exchanged letters every day they were apart (a LOT of days) throughout their long and happy marriage – 1924 until my mother’s death in 1970 – and this story fits with their lives in Brazil and the low-key but thorough communications they exchanged. I am struggling over what to sort and what to keep, but I believe this story contains truths worth keeping.

Brazil’s history is not unlike our own – various European countries conquered and abused the indigenous people for centuries (beginning in the 16th.) The young Republic was established in 1889 and its democracy is still fragile. We’ve had better luck holding off dictators and autocrats than have the citizens of Brazil, but recent years have shown us all – north and south of the equator – how easy it is to distort or snuff out the Voice of the People.

Let’s hear it for the Voice of the People. Surely there’s still time to set things right in THIS century.      

Season’s Greetings — & New Year’s Hopes

Christmas letter w bowHoliday letters? I am definitely ambivalent. It is lovely catching up with old friends (many of whom, on our holiday list at least, I only hear from once a year.) I’m interested in what’s been happening in their lives over the past year. I’m somewhat less interested in what’s been happening in their children’s or grandchildren’s lives although they’re usually pretty spectacular. But too many paragraphs about the latter and my eyes tend to glaze over. I resist all political messages – whether I agree with them or not. I love the letters that include remarks about books the writer has enjoyed over the year.

This year my own greeting was a learning experience.

I send holiday letters for the reason given at the outset of ours for 2018: Having reached the point at which we figure we’d better keep in touch or somebody will say, Are Fran & Bud still around? . . .   And sometimes I break my own preference rules as happens at the end of this year’s letter from our house: Without getting overly political, we worry about the future of the ever-warming planet, and this being Christmastime we yearn for the day when our country will welcome the stranger, protect the poor, care for those less fortunate, all those things Jesus talked about.Interfaith symbols

Because many of our year-end missiles go to friends who are Jewish (not to mention agnostic, Buddhist, atheist, you name it) I usually include an expansion of some sort when I detour into my own strong Christian faith. This year, searching for accuracy, I mentioned to my pastor friend that I knew there was something very similar to that last line in the Jewish tradition. “Sure,” she said, “Tikkun Olam.” Ah, so. While Christians celebrate a Messiah who preached all those things not being done very effectively right now, Jews seek to prepare the world for a coming Messiah – by welcoming the stranger, protecting the poor, caring for those less fortunate. “Repairing the world,” is how my pastor friend put it, and she is best buddies with a nearby rabbi and both of them know stuff. So if I don’t have this theologically right, I will be happy to forward your comments to them.

In any event, it is worth considering. Perhaps as we emerge from the darkest days (I’m talking Solstice here) we may still welcome a stranger, try to help someone less fortunate, repair the world. Worth a try.Books

Oh, and books. On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World (James Srodes) somehow gave me hope for years ahead, and After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet (Julie Dobrow) is fascinating. All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) is a treasure.

Happy New Year to us all.

New Year SF

 

 

A Thankful Day in San Francisco

Thanksgvng 2018 programMy favorite Thanksgiving thing has been – for the past 14 years – the San Francisco Interfaith Service. This year it was hosted (every year it’s a different faith community) by the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist in the city’s Tenderloin District, primary locale of the homeless and the down-and-out. Thanksgvng 2018 Church plan(The Christian Scientists have been in their historic building there since 1923, and after endless years of negotiating have recently gotten the green light from the city to build a multi-use high-rise including below-market housing on the site, keeping the façade and interior details –with the church itself staying put.)

Thanksgvng 2018 group
Faith leaders posing after the service

One gets to give thanks, at this event, in every known faith tradition. This year we had a little Greek, a little Hebrew, but I missed the Buddhist bell that’s usually rung and the Muslim call to prayer – both very much present, though, at the Interfaith Prayer Breakfast two days earlier. A few years ago a member of a Native American tribe spoke briefly at he prayer breakfast, opening with the comment, “I want to welcome you to my country.” I told him afterward I’m not sure he should’ve welcomed us. But anyway.

Thanksgvng 2018 Alcazar
The Alcazar

California is giving thanks for the approaching end to wildfires that have ravaged the state, destroying lives and property in the worst such events yet seen. In San Francisco, after days of smoky skies and streets filled with masked walkers, an overnight rain left the city washed clean. So it was a joy to walk the short mile home under brilliant blue skies, past historic buildings such as the Alcazar Theater.

But there was also the sad underside of life: the guy shouting into the sky, the mentally ill man tossing bottles from a recycling bin at passing traffic.Thanksgvng 2018 homeless (Another passerby said he had already called the emergency line to get help.) One can at least give thanks for helpers.

When I reached the corner near our building, another few blocks away I was rewarded with this view of Old Glory against the blue skies.

Thanksgvng 2018 flag

What’s not to love about a Thanksgiving Day in San Francisco?

 

 

 

It’s a Happy New Year in Ethiopia

Ethiopia 9.14.18
Some of the host crew

Happy Enkutatash (that’s እንቁጣጣሽ in Ethiopic) to us all. Ethiopian New Year actually fell on September 11th, but we’re still celebrating in San Francisco.

A group of gorgeous young Ethiopian women (and a couple of handsome guys) who work in the dining room of the geezer house where I live put on an Ethiopian New Year’s festival today, complete with a vast assortment of delicious, spicy dishes I cannot pronounce, a coffee roasting demonstration* (see below,) an exhibition of traditional dance (intermittently joined by a few nontraditional American geezers) and one precious but disinterested two-year-old.Ethiopia3 9.14.18

We also got a lesson in international understanding. So herewith, some facts you might not have known about our faraway neighbors:

Ethiopia, founded in 980 BC, is one of the oldest nations in the world, and the only country in Africa that was never colonized. Its citizens had to beat back the Italians twice, but remain independent to this day.

Ethipioa1 9.14.18The official Ethiopian language is Amharic, but more than 80 languages are spoken. None of them are easy for English-speakers – although this writer is proud to have mastered the Amharic word for “good morning” (which I cannot spell.) This may be as far as I go. Ethiopia is also the only country in Africa with its own indigenous alphabet, but there are 33 main alphabets with each containing a row of seven different pronunciations . . .  The Ethiopians I know speak English with beautiful accents.

Ethiopians are famous for being great runners. Some of us are old enough to remember when Abebe Bikila won Africa’s first Olympic Gold Medal in 1960, setting a world record when he ran the marathon – –  barefoot.

While the majority of Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians, the country embraces practitioners of all three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam.Etheopia2 9.14.18

*About the world’s most popular breakfast drink – Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia! Legend has it that a sheep herder in the 11th century noticed his sheep having a fondness for a particular bush, and decided to try a nibble. The coffee industry took off from there. Ethiopia is now the largest coffee producer in Africa.

And finally, Ethiopia and Eritrea are about to sign a peace agreement ending a bitter, long-running dispute. Could we learn something here?

Peace and joy and Happy New Year!

dove of peace

Prayer, Peace & Song to Start the Day

world-peaceOK, this is San Francisco: love and peace reign. But it’s also Thanksgiving: gratitude and community. Celebrations of love, peace, gratitude and community are taking place not just on the left coast but across the country, as we begin to exhale after a bitterly troubled few months. Exhalation in community can be a great way to start the day.

“Hope,” said one speaker at the recent Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast, “is right there where it’s always been, between faith and love.” There was plenty of all three. Some 385 early-risers were gathered for the event, sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council and billed as “The Soul of the City: Faith and Social Justice in San Francisco.”

Marsha Attie
Marsha Attie

It all began with the sounding of a Buddhist Ceremonial In Kin Bell – a successful attempt to bring a little quietude into the amiable masses – followed by Pacifica Institute’s Fatih Ferdi Ates’ recitation of the Muslim Call to Prayer, in a voice that certainly reaches to the heavens. Brahma Kumaris Sr. Sukanya Belsare read the interfaith statement of the sponsoring SFIC, which is read at all board meetings and events and says, in effect, “Whatever your faith or faith tradition, it’s okay. We’re here to learn, and understand.”

Led by Cantor Marsha Attie of Congregation Emanu-El, the crowd then launched into a rousing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Throughout the two-hour scrambled-eggs-&-mixed-fruit breakfast there were songs, honors, laughs and commentaries. Not to mention prayers in virtually every known faith tradition. A few highlights are encapsulated below:

SFIC Executive Director Michael Pappas: “The interfaith community will always stand for human rights, social justice and equality for all.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (to a standing ovation): “San Francisco will remain a sanctuary city.”

Kat Taylor & Tom Steyer
Kat Taylor & Tom Steyer

Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of California, introducing event honorees Kat Taylor and Tom Steyer to the audience and audience to the honorees (loosely paraphrased): “Bringing the mind effectively into the heart to do good works can result in reverence, compassion, forgiveness and courage.” Andrus then did a warm-up exercise, reciting a litany of actions such as feeding the hungry, protecting the oppressed and helping the poor, to an enthusiastic audience response of “We’re Still In!”

Honoree Tom Steyer, Founder and President, NextGen Climate (and major donor to progressive political causes – San Francisco is still San Francisco): “Troubled times give everyone a chance to lead a meaningful life. (A) challenge is to embrace our full humanity. The. U.S. didn’t start with full humanity for everyone.” Steyer then deferred to the co-honoree, his wife Kat Taylor, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Beneficial State Bank and a ferocious advocate for changing the food and banking systems for good through business models and philanthropy.

Mark Leno
Mark Leno

Honoree Taylor: “You knew I would sing” – launching into the Christian hymn standard “Here I Am, Lord,” with several hundred of the guests joining in.

Presented a proclamation by SFIC Board Chair G. L. Hodge – who said he relished the opportunity, since the recipient was famous for issuing proclamations himself, termed-out California State Senator Mark Leno: “I recognize this frame, from something I sent earlier. But I always say, ‘Reuse, Recycle, Re-elect.’”

Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, after leading the crowd in reciting “The Prayer of St. Francis”: “Ministering to God’s creation is an act of worship. We must affirm the dignity and worth of every person, and we all have to be instruments of God’s peace.”

 

 

 

A Ramadan Birthday Dinner

Ramadan - dinner crowd

Dates, rice and eggplant moussaka for birthday dinner? It works.

A recent birthday of mine happened to coincide with a long-planned Ramadan Interfaith Iftar Dinner co-hosted by Pacifica Institute and Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Since I was minimally involved in the planning and execution of the event, and maximally involved in the birthday, it made sense to combine the two. Plus, I got a lot of mileage out of responding to questions about birthday plans with news we were expecting 225 or so friends for dinner.

The eventual total number of guests will remain a mystery, because so many kept showing up without reservations and we were simply told not to turn anyone away. Attendees were Muslim and non-Muslim, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Buddhists. (“You know the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist?” quipped Rev. Ron Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco; “The non-Buddhist thinks there is a difference.”)

This was not just a celebratory dinner, it was an Iftar dinner, the sunset meal at which Muslims break the fast they have observed since sunrise. To be clear about it, sunrise on June 8th in San Francisco was at 5:48 AM, and sunset was at 8:37. That is considerably longer than this weak-willed Christian generally goes without sustenance. Having had a perfectly good lunch, and  swiped a half-dozen or so dates while putting bowls on the tables, I still had to sneak a glass of milk from the kitchen to keep from fainting away at the welcome table.

Given that dinner would not be served until after the call to prayer at 8:37, the program preceded the meal. It included a video about Pacifica Institute, which was founded in 2003 by a group of Turkish Muslims dedicated to social justice, interfaith cooperation, relationship-building and partnership for the common good – any tiny advancement of which would make a pretty fine birthday present for anybody. Pacifica is aligned with the worldwide Hizmet Movement (“the Service”) which promotes service to humanity regardless of faith, tradition, gender or ethnicity.

Fatih Ferdi Ates giving the call to prayer
Fatih Ferdi Ates giving the call to prayer

We also saw a video about how fasting strengthens one’s spirituality in multiple ways. Muslims observe the fast – abstaining from food, drink, smoking, sexual activity and bad behavior including lying or cursing – every day during the month of Ramadan; which does not exactly compare with giving up chocolate for Lent.

Keynote speaker Dr. Scott Alexander, Assistant Professor of Muslim Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, spoke to the evening’s theme: The Art of Living Together. “Sharing the joy of fasting,” he said, “fills us all with hope. It stands in opposition to the strident voices of hatred that want us to believe our troubles are the fault of others.” Alexander ended with a prayer that “God will allow others different from ourselves in all ways to touch our hearts.”

One of the co-leaders of the event, who served as MC along with Pacifica Institute’s Fatih Ferdi Ates, was Calvary member Robin Morjikian, whose father is Armenian. Ates, when thanking her, noted that the evening involved the daughter of an Armenian working with a group of Turkish Muslims on an event held at a Presbyterian church and featuring a keynote speech by a professor from a Catholic University. Buddhist Rev. Kobata presented awards to three honorees.

In lieu of birthday cake, dessert consisted of mixed fruit and baklava. I’m not sure how next year’s birthday will stack up.

A Memorable MLK Day Celebration

MLK on darkness

Dr. King would, I think, have approved.

One celebration of his legacy involved a collaboration between members of a fairly mainline Presbyterian church in an affluent area of San Francisco and members of a soul-spirited Pentecostal church in the city’s Bayview community, where crime and poverty run rampant. The partnership – and friendship – between the two unlikely groups has been growing ever since its beginning in response to the mass shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church in June of 2015.

For openers, the African American Pentecostal pastor preached (only minimally more reserved and shorter than is his custom) to the mostly white Presbyterians. His message was primarily about the Biblical admonition to welcome the alien and show hospitality to strangers. He also had a few words about justice rolling down like a river, and about Martin Luther King Jr’s assertion that love will overcome racism, materialism and militarism.

MLK Day cable car

After the service some fifty or so Presbyterians boarded motorized cable cars and sang their way across town to the Pentecostal church. There the white pastor preached to the now-multicolor congregation about the Biblical suggestion that nothing much is required of believers other than to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Creator. He also had a few words about some of the ads he had noticed on the trip over. Dr. King, he suggested, probably didn’t live, work and die primarily so there would be three-day mattress sales, or a 25% MLK Weekend discount on leather jackets.

During the second service, which another minister termed Presbycostal, there was a generous amount of rousing hallelujah music led by the hosts and several gospel pieces from the visitors, whose choir director and trumpet-playing musician in residence made the trip.

MLK Day Dave & choir

After the second service the hosts surprised their guests with lunch in the adjacent social hall: homemade salads, chips and dips and plates of fried chicken. A dozen or so small children, varying shades of white, brown and black, snagged their fried chicken early and set to entertaining themselves by jumping up and down a stairway below a banner that read “The Audacity to Believe.”

One of the visitors remarked to one of the hostesses, as everyone dispersed, “I think we had a lot more fun than anybody at the weekend sales.”

MLK Day lunch