Breathe Deeply, Make New Resolutions

If you are a regular follower of this space – which would put you in a small but extremely erudite and observant group – you will have noticed an extended silence. An absence of Opinion. A voicelessness, one might say.

hope-v-despair-sign

It happens. For writers of a certain sort, it has come to this.

Waking up at 3 AM worrying about the erosion of our fragile democracy, the destruction of our fragile planet, the disappearance of civility, decency, respect and understandable syntax from our fragile public discourse – that’ll do it: render the brain unable to create. Plus, I don’t like writing about meanness, misogyny and narcissism, and what else is there in the un-fake news? Alternative facts?

Recently I decided to emerge from this bleak doldrum. OK, it happened accidentally, at my daughter’s beautiful winter wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where we sent wish lanterns into the night sky, and who can resist coming back to life amidst snowy mountains, wishes and true love?

wedding-lanterns-1

I’m not going into the specifics of the brightly lit wish turned resolution. But here are a few thoughts on Springtime resolutions – for what they’re worth, and/or for anyone who wants to consider making Springtime resolutions of their own.

Resolution #1: Calm down and do less. This space will now be the only space for this writer’s random thoughts. Goodbye, Huffington Post. This will please writer friends who were furious about my writing for Huffington Post (contributors’ pay? Zero) in the first place – but hey, I was trying to sell books when I started. My page remains up, but I noticed the last post (12/20/16) was titled “Talking Your Way Into a Better Death” – which seems a fitting final exit message.

Resolution #2: Revisit long-abandoned good ideas. Like that short story collection I keep saying I’ll publish if I live long enough. Or maybe some other brilliant projects. Several days ago a friend asked if she could buy a copy of my excellent Cooking for the Dentally Impaired book. Well, no. I never sold it. But after an exhaustive search I did find the hard copy. Maybe I’ll find some geek person who can help me find the computer files from whenever that was – 15+ years ago. I still think it’s a great idea, even if no publisher agreed and my agent thought I’d gone bonkers. Self-publishing has gotten downright respectable.

march-crowd

Resolution #3: Breathe deeply, stay vigilant. At the Women’s March, author Melissa Febos reportedly talked about the purpose of a vigil: “To keep awake during a time when usually asleep.” Until recently, this writer had drawn the line at marches, protests and vigils. Letters, emails, talks, phone calls etc okay – but showing up in person? Nahh. In the past year, however, I joined a vigil for black kids shot and killed just a few miles from my safely comfortable neighborhood and it was both a blessing and an eye-opener. Then I broke down and marched with the Women’s March in San Francisco and that’s the most fun I’ve had in years. So now? I plan to stay vigilant with StandUpSF among other groups, because I believe democracy, decency, inclusion, respect – all those things – are worth preserving.

This space has also always been about optimism. Resolution #4 is to keep that optimism. There will always be goodness, good intentions, good people – including good people with whom we disagree and whom we should listen to and respect. For the sake of my grandchildren, I will continue to search out them all.

On Being a Blessing

There was an invisible pall hanging over the banquet hall.

An annual feel-good celebration of a cherished cause, the room was filled with friends and supporters of the San Francisco Free Clinic. The Clinic offers medical care for the uninsured; the pall had to do with the new President-Elect’s pledge to increase the ranks of those uninsured by unknown millions by immediately repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act.

health-care

For 23 years, SFFC supporters have filled the same banquet hall. The annual event, initiated by the late San Francisco investor/philanthropist Warren Hellman and his wife Chris, generates the entire budget for SFFC’s operation. Not coincidentally, the San Francisco Free Clinic was founded 23 years ago by the Hellmans’ daughter and son-in-law, Tricia and Richard Gibbs, two young physicians who decided to throw over the prospects of their lucrative medical practices in favor of starting a free clinic for the growing ranks of uninsured in need of quality medical care.

(Full proud disclosure, this writer and her husband have been supporters of the Free Clinic since its opening day.)

A highlight of the annual event has always been brief closing remarks from the host, and after Hellman’s death, this task fell to the Drs. Gibbs. This year, Richard Gibbs said a few words and then turned the podium over to his wife.piggy-bank-w-stethoscope

“One thing I have now learned,” she said, “is never to write a speech the day before an election.” She went on to explain how the Free Clinic has made incremental progress in its mission every year since its founding, and she had prepared remarks about that narrative with the expectation that this would continue. With the election of Donald Trump, though, comes the realization that the story of ongoing progress – Clinic staff not only provide care, they regularly guide clients into finding affordable insurance – will encounter a speedbump. Acknowledging that many in the room probably voted for Mr. Trump, and that politics would be inappropriate to the event, Gibbs said she still had wanted to find a way her remarks could be relative and upbeat.

So she turned to the story of Abraham. Gibbs is a serious student of the Torah, and would not have had to spend extra time on recalling that story. She noted that Abraham’s narrative was not incrementally always upward, but had its own speedbumps.be-a-blessing

“God told Abraham to be a blessing,” she said. “And I realize that’s what we can do. You are all a blessing to (the Free Clinic.) We can all go out and be a blessing.”

For election week in California, it was a reassuring thought.

 

Loss, Love and Loyalty

broken-heart

Several decades ago a close friend of mine lost her only son in a senseless, tragic accident. He was in his late teens, on his motorcycle, on his way to work at a part-time Christmas season job. All of which added to the unspeakable sadness: a promising life cut short amidst the merriment of a season of joy.

Her friends gathered around to do what we could. We brought food, made lists of callers, tried to keep track of daily needs. My friend’s daughter, a best friend of my own daughter, suddenly found herself the middle child of three girls, all bereft of the one brother they had so loved.

In the large, shifting, changing, sorrowing group of those who came to the house  were a number of young men also in their late teens who had been friends of the one now gone from their midst. They said to the bereaved parents, “We’ll always be here for you. We’ll always remember Mark, and represent him in your lives.” The kind of thing people often say at such times.

These were teenagers. Ordinary kids starting out in life – who had been in their own share of ordinary teenage mischief. In the ensuing years they had their own share of ups and downs. But as it turned out, they were true to their word. They were there for Mark’s parents at Christmas and New Year’s, graduations he would have shared, special times he would have been a part of.

Time passed, Mark’s friends matured as his parents (and this writer) aged.

Recently, Mark’s father died. I happened to be back in town at the time – though like many of those young people I had gone on to life elsewhere – and was happy to be able to be with my old friend and her daughters at his memorial service. It was a bittersweet time: he had lived a full and honorable life; old friends had come to celebrate that life and talk of the good times we had shared. My daughter, still best friends with Mark’s sister although they live on opposite coasts, was there with me.

As I looked around the gathering after the service I slowly began to recognize middle-aged men I had known all those years ago. Several had married women I recognized — also from all those years ago. They were now telling stories of their own children who are starting college or launching their own new lives. They were Mark’s representatives. The stand-ins for their long-ago friend whose memory they would not let die, whose presence they would certify to the mother who lost him so long ago.clouds-stock-image

How to make sense of it all, young life cut short, long life come full circle? How, indeed, to make sense of life and death and loss and continuity?

Mark’s friends, I think, help answer those questions. Out of loss and tragedy come love and loyalty. Out of singular death comes communal life. Out of anguished sadness comes humanity. We all come and go, but we’re all in it together. For a few years or a few decades – but together.

 

Sewing Seeds of Peace & Justice

Rally 7.10.16-crowd

I have always drawn the line at public demonstrations. Writing letters to editors or legislators, signing petitions, calling representatives, even publishing blogs & the occasional tweet – those   reasonable, genteel efforts in behalf of justice – have satisfied my self-righteousness self-image just fine. Marching, picketing, that sort of in-your-face activity I have happily left to other more courageous friends.

Rally 7.10.16-G.L.

But now? Mass shootings, killings of seemingly innocent African Americans by police, sniper killings of police “in retaliation”? A dangerously polarized country facing a presidential choice between the two most unpopular candidates in history – one a widely mistrusted history-making woman and the other a scary narcissist egomaniac (IMHO)? No peace, little justice.

What can you do?

Rally 7.10.16-Do Justice

When a couple of guys who have become unlikely close friends decide to put together a rally on the steps of City Hall, you show up. One leads a mostly white, fairly traditional Presbyterian church in an upscale neighborhood, the other leads an African American Pentecostal congregation in a depressed area across town. Within a few days, at the end of a week that saw the shooting of an African American man in Minnesota and the killing of five policemen in Dallas, the two friends arranged an event to argue for sanity:

FAITH COMMUNITIES UNITED FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE. Nothing big, nothing political, nothing advertised as changing the world. A chance, though, for people from across the spectrums of race, politics and religion to show up and share their hope for a better world. For this writer, and strangers of assorted skin colors and garb (yarmulkes, hoodies, religious robes, flip flops) it was a chance to stand shoulder to shoulder, sign to sign, and catch one’s breath after recent weeks of tragedy and horror.

Rally 7.10.16-David Chiu

One of the ministers in attendance, who happens also to be a professionally trained singer, warmed up the crowd (which grew incrementally as the hour progressed) with a group sing-along to an old spiritual: I feel like going on. Though trials mount on every hand, I feel like going on.

An Asian American legislator told the crowd he had brought along his 4-month-old son. He and his wife have just bought a home in the depressed area. “so that my son can grow up,” he said, “with Black and Latino friends. I hope they will all be judged by their character.”

An interfaith leader quoted Martin Luther King, Jr’s phrase, “Returning violence for violence multiples violence.” He argued for turning this trend around – and drew applause when he said, “We need to support gun laws.”

A tall, young African American man holding an orange sign that read “LOVE & PEACE” spoke of his own father being shot by a policeman when the son was 16.

Rally 7.10.16-2 signs

 

A public official told of an incident several days earlier in which an armed man had been talked down from a threatening situation, “and no one was injured or killed.”

A rabbi quoted a Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue . . .”

One of the leaders of a Muslim organization that promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding spoke of the message of peace which is central to Islam.

Signs were waved – they carried words and phrases like: Walk Humbly. All Lives Matter. Light Overcomes Darkness. – and – Imagine all the people living life in peace.

Rally 7.10.16-Keith

 

When the crowd disbursed, stepping out of the shadow of the City Hall steps and back into the summer sunshine, there was a demonstrable sense of light overcoming darkness. The word is that rallies and demonstrations for peace were taking place across the country on the same day. Out of them all, perhaps, will emerge a few seeds of justice and compassion to push back against the anger and hostility that has claimed every news cycle of recent months.

Because, as another widely quoted saying also heard from the rally lectern goes, You have to give them something to hope for.

Philanthropy begins . . . at three

My friend Oli, age three, is a philanthropist. Maybe not on the scale of Bill and Melinda Gates, but what were they doing when they were three? Probably not donating 100% of their disposable income to their favorite charities.

Oli with bankWhich is what Oli did recently, making him my current favorite philanthropist.

This adventure started when Oli’s bank, something that gives him great pleasure, reached its saturation point. Oli’s bank is an apolitical elephant bank. Oli had been stuffing it with coins received in Easter eggs (the Easter bunny has taken a capitalist turn since I last knew him) or acquired when there was small change from the dairy store, etc. So he enlisted his grandparents to accompany him to the bank, where the bank was relieved of its coinage. The elephant lived to start a new collection career, and Oli took possession of $32.60.

Next, Oli conferenced with his parents about the highest and best use of his $32.60. Right off, he chose his two favorite charities as beneficiaries: the local library that is one of his all-time favorite places in the world, and Mount Nittany Medical Center, which he refers to as “My Hospital.” Oli came into the world at Mt. Nittany, and a few months ago his baby sister Helena did the same. The first experience was significant to others, but the latter was the high point of Oli’s year.

Oli has already had a thank-you letter from the director of his hospital, advising him that he is officially their Youngest Donor. His $16.30, the director said, will be used to buy needed equipment to help the nurses and doctors who deliver babies there.

A grown-up fan of Oli’s, who knows a little about nonprofits and fundraising, subsequently matched his gifts. Thus the elephant bank’s impact has doubled, and the library and hospital have now netted $32.60 each, for a total economic impact of $65.20.Coins

Admittedly, $65.20 won’t change the world today. And Oli may well find something more entertaining to do with his overstuffed elephant bank by the time he turns four. But this seems to me what philanthropy is about: choosing to forgo some small pleasure (half of $32.60 could, after all, have bought a nifty toy and an ice cream cone) and instead show support for some worthy cause that is near and dear to your heart.

Feel free to send a check for $32.60 to your favorite cause, with or without a note that it is an Oli matching gift. Who knows? The elephant bank movement could make the world better

 

 

 

On Jazz, Optimism and World Peace

Some of the things in short supply these days: optimism, compassion, comfort and joy and the conviction that light will always overcomes darkness.

Dave Len Scott Photo by Nicholas Wilson-nwilsonphoto.com
Dave Len Scott
Photo by Nicholas Wilson-nwilsonphoto.com

Two San Francisco-based musicians are quietly at work to advance all of the above. Dave Len Scott and Vernon Bush lead multi-pronged lives that are exhausting to consider, but they offer a strong endorsement of the energy that derives from choosing this particular line of work.

Occasionally the two get together to reinforce the notion that faith, hope and love continue to win out.

Scott, who teaches at Sonoma State University, is a trumpet player, pianist, composer, conductor and dispenser of peace and joy. His bio explains that he is “equally comfortable in improvisational/jazz and ensemble/classical idioms.” Bush, noted for his “Inspire Choirs” that are premised on the African proverb, If you can speak you can sing, is a singer, composer and performer who works closely with San Francisco’s historic Glide Memorial Church. He is also co-founder, with Marybeth Tereszkiewicz, of Tree of Life Cross-Cultural Arts Camp, a yearly two to three week summer program for children in the small school communities of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Both Scott and Bush make a respectable living through their art, but what they do essentially for free, for the benefit of their brothers and sisters on the planet, sets them apart from many (happily by no means all!) of their fellow musical professionals.

The two get together occasionally (and will do so regularly throughout the spring of 2016) for “Live at Five” evening services at another San Francisco church, of which this writer is fortunate to be a member. Scott advertises the musical segments of the events thus: “Vernon Bush is a gentle soul and a gifted choir leader. To shine positivity and love is just Vernon’s way. Anyone who comes to sing with Vernon (first Monday of every month, 7 pm) at Calvary will come away feeling better about everything, feeling loved! I am certain!”

Certainty of goodness (and feeling loved) might be added to the things in short supply today. But a recent “Live at Five” service led, musically, by Scott and Bush, featured a chorus-with-drums rendition of this Chinese proverb:

Where there is light in the soul

There is beauty in the person

Where there is beauty in the person

There is harmony in the home

Where there is harmony in the home

There is honor in the nation

Where there is honor in the nation

There is peace in the world.

Vernon Bush
Vernon Bush

It may be an unfortunate fact that there is not a lot of peace in the world. But thankfully there are people like Dave Len Scott and Vernon Bush out there bringing light to the soul.