Sunday, October 21, 2007

“Raised like a son by Sallie Jenkins”

The phrase above is being inscribed on a bronze plaque covering the ashes of a good friend who died last Monday, along with his name and years of birth and death.

My friend and I practiced law in the same space for around eight years, before he moved away and married another dear friend. He was only 63 years old when he died, and it was a shock to me to hear of it. He had been suffering from advanced melanoma for over a year, but he didn’t want anyone to know. I won’t name him here because he was a private person and wouldn’t want that, but many of you will recognize his photo and know him for the true friend that he was and is.

A person of privilege like my friend has many options that most of us don’t enjoy, and that was my friend’s life until he reached a point of awareness in the 1960's. Like many of us, he turned from the traditions of his small Alabama town and sought answers elsewhere, leaving a post on the city council and riding off on his motorcycle, “Easy Rider” style. He had some connection with the American Indian Movement and then came to see the my priest friend (yes, the one in the orange jumpsuit below--most of my friends wear their politics well, don't they?), who introduced him to another side of life, that of the wealth of love among the poor black communities of West Alabama’s Black Belt area. He and I were mere acquaintances back then, as we both worked in a Congressional campaign for a progressive woman who eventually lost her race, but I didn’t really get to know him until years later. I had been practicing law a few years and was looking for office space close to home. I had my baby boy in a basket when I visited the house he had renovated for his own law practice space. There were a slew of other young lawyers there, also renting space from him. We hit a deal immediately, and he helped me outfit the office and get settled.

As we grew closer as colleagues, our friendship became more personal, and we spent time at the office discussing the law and politics. There were also fun times together with family and friends. He especially enjoyed the company of my young son and also his brother who was born a short time later. For the older son's first birthday, he gave him a Mr. T doll with such a fierce demeanor that my son tuned up and bawled. It was all we could do to stifle our chuckling as we consoled him. My second son got a more comforting gift, a red Radio Flyer wagon with detachable wood sides (here's a photo of one just like it--with somebody else's children).

I will never forget lying in the hospital bed just hours after giving birth and hearing those squeaky new wheels rolling down the hall.

He was a fierce believer in civil rights and had no use whatsoever for the racist institutions we grew up in. He had maintained a close relationship with an elderly black woman from his hometown who had reared him when his parents died early on, and he often made reference to things she had taught him. Others of his station would have treated her as merely a household servant, but to my friend Sallie Jenkins was his mother.

We seldom saw each other after he moved away, but when we did, he would quote Chief Dan George: “My heart soars like the hawk to see you.” He made all his friends feel welcomed in such a way.

Before he died, he instructed his widow to bury his ashes in the home town he refused to visit unless it was to see Sallie, and not to bury them in the segregated white cemetery, but in the black cemetery next to her grave.

We will miss this fierce warrior, who as I write as being welcomed into the tribes of the Big Sky.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The death of habeas corpus?

Lawbabe is the online moniker I chose several years ago when I realized that the Internet often demands anonymity. It was a phase, but it stuck with me. Now there are people all over the country who know me only by that name. My colleagues in the bar snicker at it, since they know that I haven't been a babe for a long time, and it seems a counter-intuitive handle for someone as serious as I can be about serious things.

Take human rights, for example.

Here is a photo of one of my personal heroes, walking in a Fourth of July parade as a handcuffed version of habeas corpus.

He is an Episcopal priest who guided me through a return to political consciousness after several years of being a sixties Hippy Babe. I will let him remain as anonymous as I am for now, since he is so well-hooded in this photo. However, he has never been anonymous in his years of asserting the case for human rights, and he actually seems to have even stepped up the pace lately.

This is patriotic action, in case you don't recognize it. Nothing is more precious to our U. S. citizenship than these words from the U. S. Constitution:

“The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”

A little elementary Latin in case you slept through Civics 101: Habeas corpus is translated as "you have the body." It is an ancient legal writ used by those imprisoned to seek their release when no cause for their detention has been presented. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 has permanently suspended this right in the post-9/11 "war" on terrorism. Many legal scholars believe that the suspension of habeas corpus violates the above provision from the Constitution, in the absence of an actual invasion or rebellion. Even the Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member, Arlen Specter, thinks Congress should rethink the issue of the legal rights of detainees.

The current occupier of the White House wishes to preempt any potential rebellion and invasion to such an extent that we must be willing to set aside the very rights upon which this country was founded and pretend that it is true patriotism. Ah, if he had only an iota of the patriotic loyalty that my priest friend has.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

How shall we get there???

Have you ever tried to paint a room without prepping the walls first? Then you know the paint won't stick. It's hard work moving furniture, filling cracks in the sheetrock, sanding it down, scraping and washing woodwork, etc., but it's necessary if you want the paint job to look good. Oh, you can slop paint on the wall without doing all that, but you can tell the difference.

The folks who run the metropolis in our valley these days have not figured that out.

I've worked downtown for 41 years, and visited downtown since a child, so I've been watching Birmingham a long time. Downtown was a magic place when I visited as a child. The grand movie houses, like the Alabama and Lyric Theaters, were places of gilded wonder, and the department store windows at Loveman's and Pizitiz were like looking into a fashion magazine. Britling's Cafeteria was an immense eatery with dumbwaiters serving two floors. Joy Young's Chinese restaurant offered exotic tastes from lazy susans in the center of round tables. Terminal Station, with its Beaux-Arts glass windows and bustling passengers, was a marvel.

But downtown was also dirty. Steel was still king in the valley then, and the king belched mightily from his smokestacks in the steel plants of west Birmingham. It was said that in the bottom of the valley one breathed the equivalent of three packs of cigarettes a day. The trees, streets, and sidewalks downtown had a layer of soot on them that even a hard rain would not wash away.

In the seventies the city fathers decided to paint the town, but they didn't realize how important it was to prep first. They gentrified downtown with flowered medians and new light poles, and took the bus lines off the main drag, 20th Street, thinking department store business would make a comeback from the suburban mall trend. They hoped to lure white folks back, after the turmoil of the 1069's Civil Rights Era. But the white folks had already streamed into the suburbs, taking their school children and shopping lists with them. The main people who venture downtown now are those who have to because of work. The courthouses and banks are still centrally located. Parking garages hve gone up where distinctive landmarks went down. The Temple Theatre, old YMCA, and the Birmingham Terminal railroad station went down. Glass and steel replaced these original landmarks with buildings that have windows that do not open to the outside air that no one wants to breathe. Parking garages are attached to these new buildings so that it is no longer necessary to go outside on the street.

Such detachment only highlights the poverty on the street, where the displaced lounge on the prettified sidewalks and park benches designed for the ones locked up in their daytime buildings. The street people eat hamburgers and hotdogs, if they can afford food at all, while those in office towers lunch in their own private dining rooms on the top floors. Up there, the view draws the eyes to the spectacle of Red Mountain rather than the now-smokeless chimneys of the steel mills.

There's a developer in Atlanta that's figured this thing out, though. Tom Cousins is his name, and I read about him in a Leonard Pitts, Jr. column yesterday. Mr. Cousins understands that to bring an area out of entrenched poverty you must introduce poor people into the better environment. He took a hellish housing project and rehabilitated it, got its kids playing golf at the adjoining neighborhood golf club (which he had also restored), tore down a windowless school and erected a modern one. Residents' average income went from $4,000 a year to $18,000 a year.

Why hasn't Birmingham figured out this out? It's like painting without prepping first.

We have a mayoral race here on October 9. None of the candidates seems to understand that a chain is as strong as its weakest link, or if they do, they aren't talking about it. Everybody wants to talk about a domed stadium and tourist draws. What about the poor people who can't afford to come in there? Won't the crime of our poverty repel the tourists anyway? I wonder if we're just getting another bad paint job or if there is a chance we might elect a leader who knows how to paint the town.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

But. . . . it's not perfect. . .YET

This time six years ago I found myself spending the entire day in front of my computer, staring at images of the collapse of the World Trade Towers in New York City and rediscovering Middle East geography. Once the perpetrators of this crime had been identified as associated with Osama bin Laden, who was reputedly living in Afghanistan, I found myself searching for photos of that country and shedding tears, not only for our own slain countrymen but also for Afghanistan, which I suspected would quickly be decimated by the might of the U. S. military.

Yesterday's revisit of the events of the past six years hardly gives the impression that "all's right with the world." Funny how that very proclamation can bring on sudden realizations of the turmoil all around. The past two weeks have been anything but peaceful, on all fronts, from personal to global. Where is peace in all this? Where is God?

Imagine Mother Teresa lacking faith! Her letters and diary have revealed that for the entire time she worked among India's poor she doubted the existence of God. Yet she kept on, with all her doubts. My favorite quote from her is this: "In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love. " Oh, why not another one: "It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start. " Go ahead and read them all if you like. Yes, these are from a woman who doubts God exists but whose example of life is more God-like than anything I know. I can't resist one more:

"I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world. "

Let's all sharpen our pencils today.

Friday, August 31, 2007

It's all happening perfectly

Lately I've had a distinctly growing feeling that all's right with the world. Incredible, huh? There's war, killings and robbings, disease, and global warming--all the bad stuff going on under our noses. The news seems to get worse every day. I usually watch PBS's News Hour with Jim Lehrer. At the end of the nightly newscast, he posts photos of the soldiers who have died in Iraq. It has become a solemn time at our house to watch as these faces flash before us. Two nights ago there were 26 faces.

Yes, the news gets worse, and some may think I am a Pollyanna for feeling better and better every day about "things" and my place among them. It's fun to encounter others who are on this road with me. Today I chanced upon a piece by Susan Jeffers on BeliefNet entitled "Nine Ways to Find Peace of Mind" and was delighted to see way number 7: Embrace the Thought "It's all Happening Perfectly." Another way I have heard this same concept expressed is "Everything you need is flowing toward you."

May your Labor Day weekend find you in peace!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Music and Trains

This heat has driven the neighborhood whippoorwill to parts unknown. It's been awfully quiet this August, with temperatures over 100 degrees most days. Whippoorwills sing mostly in the early dawn hours. Because they are ground birds and highly camouflaged, you rarely see them. I have never seen my own personal whippoorwill, and I haven't heard him in a month, whereas in June and July he was a regular morning presence. The human voice cannot even begin to imitate his variations in pitch.

Here's a couple more songs about peace. Check these lyrics from Elvis' version of the old gospel hymn "Peace in the V

Well the bear will be gentle
And the wolf will be tame
And the lion shall lay down, down by the lamb, oh yes
And the beasts from the wild
Shall be led by a child
And I'll be changed, changed from this creature that I am, oh yes

Do you reckon Elvis saw Edward Hicks' artwork?

And how about Yusuf Islam's (aka Cat Stevens) "Peace Train":

Now I've been happy lately,
thinking about t
he good things to come
And I believe it could be,
something good has begun.
I like Cat's song because it combines two interests: peace and trains.

Trains run in my family (hahaha). Both my grandfathers had jobs associated with trains, but they could not have been more different men. My mother's father worked in the Southern Railway yards near the Fan District in Richmond, Virginia, where I was born. I cherish memories of him in his black and white pinstriped overalls and railroad cap. My paternal grandfather was a lawyer for the L&N Railroad and had an office in Union Station next to the Alabama River in downtown Montgomery. James William Patton, although from a south Georgia farm family, did well in the law, and old photos confirm my memories of him as a dandy dress er. He and his diminutive wife, Trudy, reared a family of five children, my father Sam being the middle child, in a big house on McDonough Street, across from the Episcopal Church of the Ascension. I was told that my grandmother actually knew the Fitzgeralds (Scottie and Zelda).

On the other side of the family, GrandyPa, as we called my mother's father (his actual name was Elwood Raeford Hines), was a quiet man who grew figs and grapes in a tiny urban backyard on Floyd Avenue. In his spare time he tended that small garden and did carpentry work with ancient-looking hand tools in a dank basement where my grandmother's wringer washer took up the other half of the space. GrandyPa was a widower with several other children when he married "Dandy" (as the eldest grandchild, my nickname for her stuck with her remaining grandchildren). Clarissa Jane Lewis reared his children and bore him four more, three girls and a boy. My mother Margaret was the eldest daughter. "Janie" was a school teacher before becoming a full-time homemaker and mother. She and her younger siblings had been orphaned when she was only eight years old, so her early hardships fit the life of a railroad worker's wife. She died at the age of 96 after outliving GrandyPa for many years. At the time of her death from an automobile accident she was still living at home and had never spent a day in a hospital in her entire life. Dandy was a major force in my life. Her appreciation for Transcendentalism and Women's Suffrage was passed along to me via gifts of books by Louisa May Alcott, which I devoured immediately upon receipt. Her favorite Bible verses became mine (the Beatitudes), and she hummed hymns like "Peace in the Valley" as she went about her daily home chores.

My gifts from the patrician side of the family were also memorable. My grandmother Patton taught me and all my girl cousins how to play bridge, canasta, solitaire, and all sorts of card games, as well as the finer skills of hand embroidery. She could recite James Whitcomb Riley's "Little Orphan Annie" from memory and scare the socks off us.

Even the trains I associ ate with the two sets of grandparents were different.

The Hummingbird passed through my hometown of Decatur, Alabama, crossing the Tennessee River before its circling headlight lit the track coming into the depot at dawn. It ran from Kentucky to points south, but my stretch was only from Decatur to Montgomery, where I would visit my grandparents. A favorite family story is my tale of ordering breakfast in the dining car and not understanding the waiter's question, "How you want your eggs?" It sounded to me like "Ow yoo wan yo aig," an unintelligible recitation of vowels with not a consonant to be heard.

The Silver Comet br ought my maternal grandmother from Richmond. She had a lifetime pass, a perk of being married to a railroad worker. I have vivid recollections of trips on its sleeper car along the Atlanta seaboard to Richmond, tucked into an upper berth. Its nearest stop to Decatur was in Birmingham, at the former Terminal Station, a Beaux Arts work of architecture that unfortunately did not survive urban renewal:


Thursday, August 23, 2007

How shall I begin?

The title to this new blog seemed just to pop up, probably because it is the screen saver on my computer. Edward Hicks (1780-1849) is the artist--he's a distant cousin whose Peaceable Kingdom concept appears in several of his paintings. One of these paintings hangs in the Montgomery (Alabama) Museum of Fine Arts on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival grounds. The image above is the last of his paintings to deal with this subject matter.

Being equally obsessed with finding peace, in my own life and in the world, it seemed a suitable start for someone with no idea where this blog will go. Unlike my crafty friends, I have only a few show-and-tell items to display. Probably I will post photos from my travels in the U.S. and from family life at home. Mostly I intend to share with you life in Jones Valley, where I live. It was once hallowed ground for Native Americans, full of free-flowing streams and waterfalls. It's known lately as Birmingham, Alabama, and muddles between two ridges that are the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains at their southernmost point. The hallowed ground was converted in the latter part of the 19th Century into an altar t
o industry, beginning with iron cannon balls used in the Late Unpleasantness. Today it is a soupy bowl of hazy industrial wastes floating in the summer's hot air. Still, it's where I search for peace these days, and sometimes find it.

First-time visitors observe that we have trees. Even downtown, cropping up between stone buildings. Oaks, maples, hickories, magnolias, dogwoods. From the air, Birmingham is green, except for the cleared areas outside the suburbs where coal has been surface mined and the rusty industrial sites in the western area where steel was once king.

I live on the afternoon side of Red Mountain, with my husband of 27 years and our two unlaunched adult sons and two cats. It's called Red Mountain because of the reddish cast of the iron ore hidden in the diagonal seams of its ancient soil. Our house backs into a city park that overlooks Jones Valley to the north. We will always have trees behind us. And a little rocky path that zigzags up the mountain
and crosses a brook that in this late summer heat has been bone dry for weeks. The path has its own story, as you may later learn.

Through the middle of the valley run the train tracks that marked the crossroads where Birmingham was born in 1871. From my office on the tenth floor of an old downtown building, I can look out the window at those tracks and hear the squealing brakes of freight trains. With the windows open at home at night, the low whistle blasts are audible. I've learned the meaning of the combinations of whistles, amusing on a sleepless night and reminiscent of a Hank Williams' tune:

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry

Words and music by Hank Williams

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I'm so lonesome I could cry

I've never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
Like me he's lost the will to live
I'm so lonesome I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry

I'm not feeling so lonesome just now, but one short whistle just signaled: time to stop.