Feeding Bodies, Sustaining Souls

Many years younger, fairly well-traveled but still impressionable, I arrived in Berkeley during the 1970s: a relatively peaceful decade sandwiched between the tumultuous events of the University of California’s Free Speech Movement and the slightly less shattering Livermore earthquake.

Despite the unfortunate closures of the original Fillmore and Fillmore West prior to my arrival, there were consolations to be had. Afternoons, I lingered at Caffé Espresso, breathing in the scents of eucalyptus and French roast. Weekend trips across the Bay allowed for exploration of San Francisco’s tourist sites (Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Chinatown) as well as increasingly confident forays into neighborhoods filled with fabulous architecture, tiny galleries, and expansive views.

Atop the Berkeley hills, views were as varied and compelling as anything available across the Bay. To the east lay Mt. Diablo, wheat straw dry or dusted with sunlit snow. To the west, San Francisco’s skyline shimmered by day and sparkled by night. In season, tendrils of fog twined their way around and through the Golden Gate, wrapping the Bridge in silence and the easy breath of dreams.

Surrounded as I was by art, natural beauty, a vibrant, polyglot culture, and more good live music than I’d ever experienced, surprises were inevitable. When friends discovered that Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Mimi Farina would be appearing live in San Francisco, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. There was no question we’d attend.

At the time, I didn’t realize the concert had been designed as a fund-raiser for an organization called Bread and Roses.  Founded by Ms. Farina as a way of bringing live music to people confined in hospitals, juvenile facilities, nursing homes, half-way houses and prisons, it was a direct result of her disillusionment with the music industry.

For some time, she had considered giving up her art, saying:

It really pains me to see people who were inspired when they were young, who got chills all over at the sound of music or a piece of art, something that inspired them to want to do it themselves…to watch that go down the drain for the sake of the industry, for the sake of money. That is uninspiring to me, and takes away from the value of the art.

Aware of her struggles, her cousin Skipper Henderson, who happened to be a social worker, suggested she make use of her talents by performing at his halfway house. After some hesitation, she agreed.

In the course of a later interview, Farina said:

The visit [to the halfway house] was depressing, but it revealed a great need, and made me think about the potential value of performing in places like this. Music is powerful; it can relieve pain and inspire. The things that music once meant to me were beginning to come to life.
It took me about a year to formulate an idea. Then, one day at the end of a tour, I was sitting alone in my living room, my life in front of me once again, with no planes to catch, no gigs to make. I found myself picking up the telephone and calling some institutions and saying, ‘Hi, I’m an entertainer. Would you like to have some free entertainment at your hospital?’

More often than not, the answer was a resounding “Yes!”  Over the years, her organization flourished, supported by some of the brightest and best among musicians and entertainers.

The name she chose for the organization, Bread and Roses, came from a poem written by James Oppenheim, published in American Magazine in 1911.  Oppenheim’s working-class sympathies were reflected in his writing, and led to his poem becoming associated with a 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  Martha Coleman set the poem to music initially, but Farina gave it new music in 1976, and her version is the one most well-known today.

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!
As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes.
Hearts starve as well as bodies: give us bread, but give us roses.
As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten who toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.

Whether the song was included in the first Bread and Roses fundraiser, I can’t say. I did hear Mimi Farina perform it live in 1978, and for years I kept Judy Collins’ recording of the song on tape, until the tape disappeared, and the song was forgotten.

Then, in June of 2001, tropical storm Allison rolled through Houston. After making short work of the Texas Medical Center, Wortham Theatre, the Alley Theatre, Jones Hall, the University of Houston and the downtown tunnel system, she swept through individual homes, offices, and businesses with a breathtaking lack of discrimination.

In the aftermath of the disaster, as the shock of seeing four feet of water roll through the neighborhood subsided and cleanup began, it became obvious just how difficult the job was going to be. Mud and debris, the stench of flood water, fire ants, snakes, rats, and looters: all conspired with a lack of electricity and fresh water to make each day worse than the last.

If we had known what yet was to come — months of living in RVs or camping out with family and friends; waiting on contractors, permits, and adjusters; attempting to combine employment with the process of rebuilding; coping with assorted  surgeries, illnesses, and death — it would have been unbearable.  But we didn’t know, and so life went on, putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again.

From the beginning, one of my jobs was to travel to a restaurant outside the flood zone and fetch hot dinners for the work crew.  The food was good, but the ambience wasn’t.

One evening I found myself thinking, Who wants to eat from a styrofoam carton in the middle of hell?  The next day, I pulled out some good china, and served dinner as though nothing had happened.

In the midst of the chaos and filth, the porcelain gleamed. Looking at the plates, one fellow walked outside, washed up with a bucket and hose, and put on a clean tee-shirt.  Paper-towel napkins were folded. Ice chests were transformed into tables, chairs were pulled together, and we sat down to eat, instead of balancing ourselves on window ledges or sawhorses. 

As silverware clinked and rattled against porcelain, we ate, and talked, and regained a bit of our humanity. Only later did Oppenheim’s phrase come to mind and take on new meaning.  Bread, and  roses.

In the midst of the struggle for bread– in the midst of every struggle for the basic necessities of life – the human hunger for beauty and graciousness may seem secondary, or even irrelevant.  Nevertheless, the need is real.  Hearts grown weary with suffering or struggle can become hard, or hateful. Even when the body is fed, hearts can wither away, becoming desiccated by cynicism or fear.

Mimi Farina understood it well:

One of the things that strikes me most about the prison shows is the realization that each of us has the potential of being an unlucky one.  Jon Hendricks put it very well. All of us share the universal fear of being locked up. We’re all prisoners of this planet, and we instinctively comprehend what that means.

After Allison, many of us shared that instinctive comprehension of what it means to be trapped, overcome by events, no longer in control of our own destiny.

Prisoners of a natural disaster, locked up by circumstance, lying sleepless in borrowed beds, we were most concerned with bread: with the necessities of life that required restoration and replacement. 

And yet, as people reestablished routines, rebuilt structures, and moved beyond the destruction of their lives, the instinctive yearning for a bit of beauty couldn’t be denied. In those days, any rose would do. A song or a smile, a slant of sunlight, a patch of blue or a freshening breeze could lift and feed hearts still hungering for the fullness of life.

For now, the floodwaters have receded, and the Massachusetts sweatshops are gone. Still, the realities of Oppenheim’s “million darkened kitchens, and thousand mill lofts gray” continue to exist, whatever form they may take.

The world is filled with struggling survivors of every sort. Victims of earthquake or crippling drought, displaced by war or genocide, overcome by waves of disease or sexual trafficking, many do require bread: the physical necessities of life.  But while food, water, clothing and shelter can sustain the body, truly human life requires more.

Decades ago, my grandmother often admonished: “A loaf feeds bodies. A loaf shared with love feeds body and soul.”  I’ve no reason to believe she knew Oppenheim’s poem, but in the end, it makes no difference. The spirit of her proverb is the spirit of the poem, and in this world, so often obsessed with bread and forgetful of beauty, the message of the song endures.

Hearts starve, as well as bodies….
Give us bread, but give us roses.

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Imagine a cup
rough-hewn and awkward.
Relic of an age less patterned,
its only gilt is memory,
its glaze a half-formed hope still dripping down the years.
Take the cup
and with your hand turn ’round
the shape of circumstance.
Recall the bitter wash of tides,
the lime-laden dust.
Remark sweet days blown free of darkness,
the wheeling flight of night-watch stars –
a heavens’ course secured by gods
more ancient than desire.
When dawn breaks among the olives,
silvering their still leaves,
and returning spring lies anchored fast
between cyclamen and almond,
whether we are there
or here
mornings once called common will cry for celebration.
Tip the cup!
In time, a timeless gesture
laving away centuries of civilized madness.
Lift your face
to laughter
spilling like sea-water over our limbs;
poured like sunlight into our eyes;
and tears,
the taste of ebbing time upon our lips.
                                                                              ~ Linda Leinen


Published in: on August 23, 2014 at 6:53 am  Comments (78)  
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Spelling It Out

“A man must be a damned fool, who can’t spell a word more than one way.”  ~ Nyrum Reynolds **

Even tucked into a thicket of dense, interwoven phrases, the word stood out. Spotting it, I circled back for another look, surprised by what I took to be an obvious misspelling.

It was March, 2009, and the blogger known as Aubrey was considering a bit of milkweed fluff.

Walking to work, I saw a very peculiar thing on the sidewalk.  Its color was soft and meek:  a whimsical fluff, a piece of delicate detritus which had somehow lost its way and now lay defenseless on the granite causeway.

The word that captured my attention was detritus. I’d lived for several decades knowing it as detrius, so my initial inclination was to believe that Aubrey had misspelled it.  Clearly, each of us was using it properly, and our spellings were close, but the different spellings meant different pronunciations — perhaps even different words.

I’d been reading Aubrey long enough to recognize her writing skills and admire her attention to detail, so a little exploration seemed in order. I didn’t expect to be the one who was wrong, but I was open to the possibility.

Published in: on August 16, 2014 at 5:27 pm  Comments (125)  
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Summer’s Iconic Sun

South Shore Harbor Lighthouse at Sunset  (click for greater clarity)

The Sun

Mary Oliver
Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful
than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon
and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again
out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower
streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you
as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world–
or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment, please click below.
Published in: on August 8, 2014 at 7:33 pm  Comments (75)  
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Real News for Real People

Finding a current issue of any magazine never was easy during my years in Liberia. In the 1970s, finding even an aging copy of The New Yorker was nearly impossible.

Living in the interior, I did my shopping  in open air markets and Lebanese stores that specialized in canned mackerel, Russian toilet paper, the occasional Heineken, and Chinese tomato paste. In those places, browsing the newsstand wasn’t an option.

Occasionally, I cadged a copy from expatriates with connections to the embassies or international agencies in Monrovia. Now and then, a Peace Corps volunteer would  have an issue to share, and there always was the possibility someone would step off PanAm 1 onto the Roberts Field tarmac with a copy tucked under one arm. (more…)

Published in: on August 2, 2014 at 7:42 pm  Comments (83)  
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