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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Reclaiming Independence

Few of us remember our first birthday, or even our second. Those celebrations were less for us than for our parents, joined perhaps by a few siblings or other relatives. Presents mattered less than the party itself, with its cake and ice cream, memories, smiles, and photos to share.

By our third or fourth birthday, we began to participate in our own celebrations. We asked questions: “What time was I born?” “Why did you give me this name, rather than that?” “Can I have strawberry cake this year?” (more…)

Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons

Stern. Reserved. Strict. Perhaps even judgmental or cold.

So she appears in this photograph from an indeterminate time and an unknown place, but as she herself might have said, appearances can be relieving [sic].

To her cousins, she was a caution.  To my mother, whose great-aunt she was, Rilla was just slightly dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, a strange, self-possessed woman whose refusal of rules and wicked sense of humor made her a favorite among the children.

She returned the children’s affection, although she often scandalized more conventional relatives with her baby-sitting techniques. Confronted with a passle of bored children, she was capable of sending them to the back yard with a stack of 78 rpm records and a hammer, essentially saying, “Have at it.” From what my mother recalled of the unfolding events on one such afternoon, “It was fun.” (more…)

Published in: on January 19, 2014 at 6:25 pm  Comments (112)  
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Circles of Commerce, Circles of Life

Like all great migrations it began slowly, in fits and starts, ebbing back toward the known, the comfortable and familiar before once again surging forward into uncertainty.

Driven by curiosity as well as by commerce, enticed by rumor or persuaded by reason, traders and caravaners, mountain men, shopkeepers and scouts followed in the footsteps of men like Zebulon Pike, overcoming first one obstacle and then another as they created the collection of loosely-bundled routes we know today as the Santa Fe Trail. (more…)

Published in: on January 13, 2014 at 7:55 am  Comments (78)  
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The Great Acorn Storm of 2013

Flung across the  landscape by autumn’s rising winds, acorns bounce and tumble, the sound of their fall exploding into the air like the percussive chatter of  firecrackers.  

If you’re standing near a car when the first gust strikes and an acorn-laden oak lets fly her seed-crop, the racket is astounding.  If you’re sheltering beneath a tin roof, the amplified sound is deafening.  A storm of ripened acorns may be less destructive than hail, but it’s no less impressive.

I experienced my first “acorn storm” in the Texas hill country, an area of valleys and ridges threaded through with several varieties of oak.  The sudden swell of redbud in spring, the extravagant yellow blooms of prickly pear, the color-turn of Virginia creeper climbing toward true red may delight the eye, but the oak has its own capacity to surprise the inexperienced or unprepared. 

(more…)

Published in: on November 23, 2013 at 7:41 am  Comments (116)  
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