Monday, January 19, 2015

From Black and White Grits to the Ferguson Events

Race is a touchy topic. But today, in celebration of Martin Luther King Day, I feel like it’s important that we address it.

MLK Day became a really important day for me ever since I began meeting with my senior buds for our weekly storytelling sessions in late 2009. I am a little embarrassed to admit it – but the truth is, as an Asian American, even as a minority, I couldn’t relate to the holiday before, not in my heart. I could only appreciate it from a distance, academically and historically. Hearing my senior buds tell me their experiences changed that. It just so happens that there is a large African American population in downtown Philadelphia where our sessions take place; many of the seniors I spend time with and are proud to call my best friends, are black.

I learned that many of them heard Dr. King speak before he became known. I learned that the struggle for racial equality – specifically the equality of black and whites – was a continuous process defined by everyday moments, not just defined by a single speech. My senior buds were part of the change. They put effort into it. They didn’t just happen to be there. Their college dorm rooms didn’t become desegregated in one day. They put on many protests as students to send a message to the dean, until the school took action.

I also learned that the struggle for racial equality is far from over. Last August, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on in Ferguson, Missouri reignited nationwide unrest, debates and protests about the state of civil rights today. Sparked by the news, my senior buds and I had some very candid conversations about their own experiences.

So you know what, the topic of race may be touchier than it’s ever been. But here, through stories, among friends, we are not afraid to touch it:

Dr. King Past and Present

Defending and Respecting Dr. Martin Luther King 
Dorm Drama

Different Like Flowers

Black and White Grits

Lives Have Value 

Let's read one more. Here's a recent one by Elliot:

Elliot Doomes
The Herd

I grew up with the “herd” mentality. There was a group of guys – myself included – who used to band together, which gave us camaraderie and protection.

When we left our neighborhood, we had to travel with the herd for individual as well as group protection. I would do just about everything and anything to protect the herd. There was no leader. We were all there for each other. That’s why I call it the herd.

There were many days when I was surrounded by violence and aggression. I have been shot, stabbed and ganged. And there was no police protection for me at that time, especially in certain neighborhoods because they just didn’t care.

I have been told by the police, “I don’t want to see you in this neighborhood.” It was because of my skin color. This was in Philadelphia. This stuff wasn’t just happening in Alabama. For example, I was afraid to go to certain schools and certain parts of the city because of the racial conflicts that were happening at that time. One place in particular – Southern High School at Broad and Snyder – is still there today.

If I had a fight with a white boy at the end of the school day, all his uncles would meet me outside, grown men. My older brother went there so I had to get the herd together to go down there, to make sure he was safe. He was older but I protected him, because he was so outnumbered there. It didn’t matter if he wasn’t actually in a fight. When the men showed up, they were just looking for the first black kid. Just guys, they didn’t bother the girls. Any black guy. They called it setting an example. It worked.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Frances (A Bus Rider on Bus 17)

It’s one week into January and the reality that it’s 2015 is settling in. Do you feel the same way too? As I get back into my personal routines, it’s fun to imagine myself riding Bus 17 with Frances. If we really pay attention, even in the confines of a bus, within the duration of a busride, there is so much to see and hear, so much living and learning to be done. Here’s to all the living and learning that 2015 will bring! Cheers!

Frances Bryce
A Bus Rider on Bus 17

My rides on the 17 bus are sometimes adventures in themselves . . .

I have achieved the best time to avoid the hours that I consider rush hours – between 4 o’clock and 5:30 pm – when the people who have toiled all day are anxious to get home. Also the 3:30 pm when the kids are out of school. Sometimes if I missed those windows I walked further down Market St to be near the beginning of the start of the run on 3rd St – 7th St.

There are some very kind and considerate riders, some senior citizens who have seats in the seats that are in the sections that are designated for seniors, they often will relinquish their seats for others who are in need for medical or physical reasons, and parents with infants. There are sometimes young people occupying these special seats who do not get up when an elderly person enters the bus, but this has been the exception not the norm. The cell phone users are the worst offenders, who carry on a conversation with the other person on the line loud enough for everyone to hear. We are the unintended audience.

One man who had his cane in the aisle, I reminded him that the woman who entered the bus was in peril from his cane, and might fall. He said he didn’t care. To say I was taken aback is not an exaggeration. I responded that she may get hurt, he again said: “I don’t care,” and if I wanted to help someone to go to the areas that need help with many problems. My final remarks were: “I try to be helpful and considerate in whatever area I find myself in.” He mumbled his discontent. I wondered what past or present events in his life had fostered such a non-caring attitude.

One of the great pleasures I have encountered is that some of the bus drivers are so pleasant. One lady driver I don’t see enough of greets every passenger with a smile that overshadows the few unpleasant people. We never know who and how their lives are affected. I thank these public servants who drive us to the many places we go every time I take the bus.

Another tactic is to take the bus to the end of the line in order to get a non-competitive seat. The gift of having a free pass for seniors.     

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Elliot (Real Wealth)

Hey, look! It's suddenly New Year's Eve!! As I reread my senior buds' recent stories to find just the right one for you, to wish you the happiest of all new years, Elliot's words jumped off the screen and took my breath away again, just as it did when I heard it for the first time in our storytelling group. Whatever this year brings you, with all its inevitable ups and downs, I wish that you too can find your way to real wealth. Have fun celebrating tonight, and wishing you a very, very wealthy 2015!

Elliot Doomes
Real Wealth

Thomas Carlyle said that, “The sum of a man’s life is in his experiences.” I have experienced the love of a mother, father, brother. I have even had the honor and pleasure of knowing my dearly beloved grandmother. I have witnessed the seed of my sperm come forth from a woman’s womb and become a living soul. I have never possessed silver or gold, but I have experienced real wealth. I am a wealthy man.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Norman, Frances, Jana, Rachel, Joan, Elliot, Mo, Brenda, Loretta, Joe (We are Family)

One of my favorite things to do every holiday season is to reread stories my senior buds have told through the years, and this year, "We are Family" is the message that I feel like they are sending to me. Like lyrics to a perfect song, I can’t get them out of my mind.

These words take me back to the summer of 2010. Months into our founding, inner city teens who visited our senior storytelling sessions began calling us their second family. They were on summer break but chose to spend time with us at the senior center, week after week, bringing more and more friends.

These particular teens happened to be living in and out of foster homes-they know what family means biologically but we are the only feeling of family they have ever experienced. Soon, story by story, seniors began calling our group their family too.

"We are like a family, or like a rainbow." Beatrice wrote, "I love all of you."

"Different ages, different races, man & woman – we are all the same living in this wonderful world! Like myself, I came from far, far away, miles and miles away – China. That is why I learn a lot here, from all these wonderful people. " Robert wrote. “I try to come to our meetings whenever I can.  I love everyone here.”

We are family–not just because we love one another, but because we love one another despite of and because of our apparent differences. We are family–not just because we can share about our memories, but also, as Elliot calls them, our “dreams and fears.” Hundreds of seniors have joined our group since then, and given us their hearts through thousands of stories, and this family feeling deepens with every single story.

Norman Cain
My Grandmother's Laundry Room

My grandmother's laundry room was not located in a finished, attractive basement. It had no shelves (containing detergents, bleaches, and fabric softeners) that hovered above a modern washer or dryer.

And when clothes were washed, there was no humming coming from a washing machine. Likewise, there was no humming coming from the dryer and there was no choice about the drying cycle. No hot. No warm. No delicate.

My grandmother's laundry room was located in the back of the family house, in-between the well and smoke house and chicken coop and cotton field. Instead of a washing machine, there was a big black cast iron pot filled with hot water that was mounted by fuel chopped wood. There was no detergent in the water, but rather home-made brown lye soap. The clothes were stirred with sturdy ax handles.

There was no modern dryer but there was a natural drier – the sun, which beamed down upon the clothes that hung absolutely dirt free from clothes lines.

My grandmother did not have a modern laundry room, but her wash was always 100% clean.

Frances Bryce
Old Age Is Gaining On Me

Woke up this morning – sore as could be
Slowly crawled out of bed
No fast movements these days for me
Could it be true – old age is gaining on me?

Walked up the stairs
Heard loud creaking
Maybe someone is at the door
Or a loose board on the floor
Perhaps someone on the radio speaking
It couldn't be my knees
Tell me, tell me please
Could it be true – old age is gaining on me?

Entered a room to get something, I know
Returned emptied handed
With nothing to show
Could it be true – old age is gaining on me?

Drove to the store to buy some bread
Retuned home with tissues and batteries instead
It seems to be true – old age is gaining on me!

From my name I awoke
Rested and refreshed as could be
Which day is it now?
Better check the paper to see
It's all so true – old age has finally caught up with me!

Jana Henry, Volunteer
To Feel Is To Live

I've been reading this book with a group of friends from my church. The book has been talking about dealing and recognizing your feelings. I never realized how much I don't verbalize how I truly feel. Many situations I avoid feeling. It's strange how you don't think you act a certain way and then you read something and it slaps you in your face. If there was ever a good slap in the face, it would be a slap that helps you to be a better person. As a writer, I often write stories. I write myself out of these stories. This I have realized this week is not very purposeful. If I am painting these beautiful stories on pages and not telling my own, I am cheating myself. I choose to feel. I choose to write out the good and the bad. If only for the simple reminder when I read these stories I know I felt that moment. I was there. I recognize that I lived my life and not just took a look at it.

Rachel Hampton, Volunteer
Finding Home

I made a new friend! Her name is Cat, and she is a friend of my boyfriend, Serge. I am always nervous to meet new people, because when I went to a different school I had a very hard time making friends – I was very lonely. That was a hard time in my life. I have more friends now, but then I worry about losing them. I worry, about the loss of friendship I see around me. People move around so much, they lose contact, with family even – it’s like we’re losing the talent to live in community with each other. I feel like – okay, I’m not very adventurous, but I just want to live in one place with a bunch of people I love and trust – I want to have a home. And the way society is set up now, that’s so hard to do. You leave to go to school, you follow whatever work you end up doing, you move and move again and you’re supposed to put all this energy into your work, it’s so hard to put energy into just paying attention to other people. A lot of the relationships I see around me are superficial as a result.

But I am determined not to live like that – I want the people in my life to be the most important part of my life. And I hope that if I focus on that, I’ll be able to find my own kind of happiness and love.

Joan Bunting
Was It Puppy Love? I Don’t Think So

I met Gerald Blake in 1949. My sister Doris and I had been living at a new location. From Mrs. Chamberlin Smith to Ms. Eunice Jackson. We were also reunited with three of our siblings: Bernice, Eugene and Paul.

We had been living there about a year when I met Gerald. We were both only nine years old but knew right away that we liked each other.

Gerald was gifted with a beautiful singing voice. He had the prettiest white teeth and was very shy (we both were). We never even kissed.

When Gerald was seventeen years old he joined the army. We would write letters to each other and sometimes write poems.

In one of his letters he asked me to marry him. I had not graduated from high school yet and told him that I was not ready to marry. His mother found out and stopped speaking to me.

When Gerald came home he married someone else. When his cousin Brenda married my brother Eugene, Gerald attended the wedding with his wife. Of course I felt jealous but I got over it.

Elliott Doomes
Dreams and Fears

I have recurring dreams about my visions, dreams where my vision is clear. But then I wake up and it’s the same. I live in fear now, because I can’t see on the right side. When someone’s walking behind me I stop and let them pass so I can see them. And I bump into things now. People try to help me, but I wave them off, because I don’t want to be helpless or useless. I worry about something happening to my other eye, so I didn’t let them operate on it. They messed up my eye and couldn’t tell me what went wrong, why I can’t see out of it now. That disappointed me – I don’t want to talk to doctors now, I’m so upset.

I still hope it will get better – a drowning man grasping at straws, but one day maybe I’ll get enough straws.

Mo McCooper
The Dark Side

Sometimes in the elementary school years, I would notice that some of my classmates’ mothers would look very tired when I was in their house after school. Sometimes some of them had black eyes. I never asked my friends how or why but we never stayed inside to play any games or read any comic books.

When I grew up, I was sometimes in a bar where their fathers drank. It was obvious they were not enjoying their shots and beers anymore but just killing time before going home. One man would start to softly sing, “I only want a buddy, not a sweetheart, for sweethearts always make me blue.” It was awful to hear him.

Brenda Scantlebury
Here Today

Today is the Best Day of My Life So Far: this week! I say that because, for the past two weeks, I’ve been working with little people again! I thought I was finished a couple years ago, when I was no longer working at the preschool that I had worked at for nineteen years.

I am in charge of several two year-olds. A set of twin boys --whew! Talk about energy! I am quite sure you can imagine. These twins remind me of my own, who are now grown men and have children of their own.

I left my class early today so that I could go to a doctor’s appointment and to also participate in my storytelling and writing class! I really miss my group of friends.
It is a pleasure to be in their company and also to hear all of the wonderful stories that they tell!


P.S. I am Here Today --Amen.

Loretta Dotson
Fruitful Labor

I learned at a early age you work for what you want and need. In order to help out I would after school scrub steps and earn 25 cents. There was a couple from Germany struggling to learn English. I would for three days after school spend time teaching and tutoring them for $1.00 an hour plus they would give me a banana sandwich on buttered rye bread.

Ground beef was not expensive about $1.50 a lb. Long grain rice was 10 cents a lb. I would buy dinner about two nights a week. My mom and dad were proud of me for helping out. My older sister married and my older brother were in the service. It was no problem helping younger sister and brother with homework and assigning chores.

There were 10 of us and we were very close. Because of the responsibility patterns we grew up and it was easily transferred to our adult life. Some of our younger relatives haven’t quite seen in our way yet, but we’re hoping. When you work for something needed or wanted there is a sense of joy and pride. It might be something you cherish and plan to keep or it could be a gift for someone special. When you earn is it’s a keepsake in your heart.

Joe Garrison
My Dream

A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about how my meeting Benita in April 2010 made me comfortable and motivated me to keep coming to this writing class. A lot of memories of this class have stayed with me, even the birth of her baby, Kian.

About four months ago I was reading a Western novel and one of the characters was a nine-year-old boy called Keelan. Keelan is pretty close in sound to Kian. Then about a month ago, I had a dream that Benita’s little boy was eight years old, and was the leader of a junior detective agency.

I don’t remember the case he was involved in, but whatever it was, he solved it. I couldn’t wait to tell Benita about the dream, and she got a big charge out of it. He was about 4’11”, and was telling Benita all about the case he had solved. He was wearing jeans and a buckskin vest. I can’t see, so I can’t see colors and light in my dreams, but I can imagine textures and shapes. What’s funny is, in real life, Kian was only about eight months old, and was just starting to crawl. He definitely doesn’t know how to talk yet. But that dream felt real!

The reason I am writing down this story is that people you like can have a great influence on what you remember and dream about. I really believe that if something or someone is an important part of your life, it plays itself out in dreams.