Being a Participant Observer in My Own Life

I have been a participant observer in my own life for a very long time. My first written notes about what I observed were in a diary that I received as a gift when I graduated from eighth grade. I was diligent about writing in my diaries. When I left home to attend college, my mother found my diaries, read them, and trashed them. I never could understand why she would do such a thing.

Except for brief periods, I continued to be a participant observer in my life. I kept journals of my every day as well as extraordinary experiences. Now, at this stage of my life, I have decided that time is too precious to write daily about what I observe and experience. It’s time to reflect on what I’ve observed over the years, to realize what I’ve learned, and to embrace all parts of the experience.

I wrote my journals to be aware of what was happening around me, to be my companion, to be my confidant. I didn’t write them to be read. So now that I am doing just that, I can take the time I did not have previously to discover patterns and themes. Reading my journals now, it is as if I’m excavating precious pieces of history that when put together will define my life as only I could observe it.

An obvious pattern is that change is constant. One day all is right with the world, and not long after that, the opposite is true. Sometimes the rise and fall of circumstances occur within a day or two, or within a week.

And, whether I use the word or not in my writings, love is a theme. When I read entries that I interpret as the love theme, I empathize with the self that I described then by being tender, kind, and loving to the self that I am now. I’m so glad that I have lived long enough to show myself the love that I think no one else could have given me.

Extraordinary Storytelling

My extended family invited me to go with them to see Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3. Though I didn’t voice this to them, this movie—among the plethora available—was not on my must-see list. On other occasions of wanting to be with family, I’ve seen similar blockbusters, but I’ve never been invested enough in the movies to retain who did what and what happened from one film to the next.

Perhaps you are a serious fan of superhero movies and will understand why our discussion following the movie was animated and seriously enlightening. I say enlightening because before seeing the movie and being part of the subsequent discussion, I didn’t think that it was about storytelling. I mistakenly assumed that this and other similar movies were all about shocking actions and comedic interludes. Intrigued by what I was hearing in the follow-up discussion, I left the conversation with suppositions and questions.

Storytelling, in whatever form, entertains, interprets, teaches, and stimulates the imagination to create possibilities that often need the space of the multiverse to be realized. Whether the heroes are in the form of humans, animals, or the inanimate, the throughline is wanting to do the right thing despite the improbability of success. The heroes believe and have faith that good will win out over evil.  

In one sense, these very loud and extraordinarily violent superhero films are like fantastical nightmares. But what is a nightmare? Might they be our way of being in the multiverse grappling with evil and fighting for what we believe in?

These movies and our fantastical nightmares may free us from ordinary planes of consciousness in order to help us gain insights through extraordinary ways of imagining what else there may be out there in the multiverse.

What Will Charles III’s Reign Bring?

King Charles III on Coronation Chair. (Licensed under the United Kingdom Open Government Licence v3.0.)
King Charles III on Coronation Chair. (Licensed under the United Kingdom Open Government Licence v3.0.)

While Charles III became king of the United Kingdom upon the death of his mother on September 8, 2022, the world just watched his coronation last week. Though he is a new king, Charles III is a veteran of the monarchy, with there being no doubt that he will have less time actually in his current role than the time it took to get there. The question is how he will he use the precious time that he has.

What will be the legacy of Charles III? Will he simply be remembered as the oldest person to become King of England, having been heir apparent for the longest time of any previous monarch, or will he shape the English monarchy according to his philosophy about humanity and the natural world we’re privileged to inhabit?

King Charles III is a 21st-century monarch. His interests in climate change, architecture, and sustainable farming that seemed ahead of their time when he first expressed interest in them are now priorities for other leaders. He created the Prince’s Trust to provide opportunity for those who seek it, including financial support for education, training programs, and professional advancement for youth and young adults who because they lacked financial means were at risk of becoming casualties of society. 

While living in the shadow of Queen Elizabeth II, times changed—and with them, Britain’s role in the world and in Europe. As many of us learned from the televised versions of the royal family and British monarchy, King Charles will have little-to-no coercive power to shape the country according to his philosophy and vision. He is in the unenviable position of finally attaining his place in the sun as king, while having less freedom to speak out about the causes that he championed as Prince of Wales. As a monarch that possesses no executive or political power, he in many ways must continue to live in the shadows.

Some say that his smoothest path might be as a transitional or think tank monarch where he can convene bodies of people to put forward 21st-century ideas while being careful not to be too provocative.

The world will be watching.

Journal entry: Monday, June 19, 2000

At the Holiday Inn in Philadelphia
Left the Stage Neck Inn at 1:00 p.m. yesterday
Driver of the car to take me to airport is a moonlighting very petite teacher
Alas, no help with heavy luggage

Arrived at Portland Maine airport
Stood in line 45 minutes waiting for delayed plane
Missed connection to Philly
Stood in line for over an hour to get later flight at 7:00 p.m.
7:00 p.m. flight rescheduled for departure at 10:30 p.m.
Flight finally cancelled

Stood in line for an hour and a half to get voucher for room at Holiday Inn
Told to pick up luggage at Carousel C
Waited an hour and a half at Carousel C
Informed that luggage went to BWI

Called the Holiday Inn for shuttle
Went outside to wait
My purse was missing
Made mad run for all the places I had been
Purse not anywhere
Went to service area
They kept my purse thinking it belonged to personnel
What a relief!

I believe that all of these delays and this scare about my purse were warnings to slow down, be more deliberate, take care of what’s absolutely necessary, and stop feeling compelled to make every scene, to respond to every bell. I’m going to miss the trip to Region III in Orlando because my connecting flight in Baltimore is boarding now, and I’m still in room 554 at the Holiday Inn in Philly.

Beginning now, I’m just going to relax into this situation and take care of some work that I would not otherwise have had time to do. I’m happy to have a moment to take stock, to look at what I’m doing to determine my way forward.

Orange Mound Park

“I grew up in Orange Mound in the 1950s, and I lived right across the street from a park, which had a great swimming pool, a great recreation program and that’s where we went to have fun because every day all I had to do was walk across the street. I could either swim, I could play softball, I could play volleyball, I could do any of these things every day of the week except Saturday and Sunday.”

No, this was not my experience. I found this story narrative online as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s Museum on Main Street program designed to provide “access to the Smithsonian for small-town America.“

Orange Mound, six miles from Memphis city center, is purported to be one of the first subdivisions built specifically for Black people. Created in 1890, it is said to be second only to Harlem in having the largest concentration of Black people in the United States. 

My own experience must have been in the very early 1950s, and I’m sure that there was only one park in Orange Mound. That park was across the street from the cabstand where my Daddy had a taxi. On the days that I was with him, when I wasn’t in the little shack that housed the telephone and operator to receive calls requesting a taxi, I would be at the park across the street. Having never seen another park, I didn’t know that our park with its two sets of swings side by side, one glistening sliding board, a big pool, and a little pool was pitiful compared to the parks just a few miles away.

I recall the creaking noise the swings made that created a rhythm that matched the velocity of my swinging.  I remember that when I reached my legs back under the swing and pushed myself off, I couldn’t go very high. But if someone was giving me a push, I could eventually swing so high that the chains that I held onto on both sides of the swing would buckle.

This was both a thrill and a fright for me. I would scream “higher, higher, higher!” When my sight line was just about to skim the top of the cross bar, I would get scared and want to slow down. I would stretch my legs straight out in front and lean back pulling the chains to slow down. Always careful not to let my shoes drag in the dusty grooves at the foot of the swing,

I would disembark smiling, laughing, happy. Skipping to the side of Carnes Avenue, I would look both ways before crossing the street and return to the little shack where I would wait for my Daddy to return from a trip. 

On being transgenerational

What I fear about aging is becoming conspicuously and stereotypically old. I’m not talking about the natural physical and mental changes that accompany aging. What I fear is the calcification of my attitude and outlook on life. I want to avoid falling into the trap of thinking according to a generational divide and believing that I must stay on my side of the generation gap.

Each generation has its place in the continuum of time, and unfortunately there are negative comparisons coming from both directions. Past generations create myths that support their belief that they were stronger, smarter, bolder, cooler, braver than succeeding generations.

The younger generations, because they are more technologically advanced than previous generations, see a mirage that indicates to them that they are more savvy and capable than the generations that came before them.  

I want to know what I need to do to continue to be relevant and engaged in the continuation of human prosperity for all generations. I want to take a walk in the athletic shoes of younger generations to try to feel what it must be like to be facing an uncertain economic and social future in today’s world. I want to meet younger generations where they are in their interests.

I feel extremely lucky when I have the privilege to have conversations with the newer generations. I’m eager to understand their views on representation and culture; family and values; work and play; politics and human interactions. If they want to hear my perspective, I’m happy to share. However, I do not believe that because I’ve lived longer and have more experience in some things that I, and others like me in older generations, have the insights and knowledge to change the trajectory of the future. As in all things, I believe that shared knowledge among diverse groups is essential for optimal outcomes.

I do now believe–and always have–that our upcoming generations are our hope for the future. My hope for myself is that I can be a help and not a hindrance to the work that they must do. One way that I plan to avoid being conspicuously and stereotypically old is to be transgenerational. I want to cross the generational divide by accommodating to the new order of things. I want to lessen the distance of the generational gap by being in the moment with what’s happening now.

Are you lucky?

Recently, I have been thinking about the concept and nature of luck. Throughout time there have been omens, signs and symbols that purport to predict or indicate good or bad luck.  

Following are some common superstitions around luck:

If you break a looking-glass you will have seven years of bad luck.

If the palm of your right hand itches, money is coming to you. If your left hand itches, money will be leaving you.

If you see a shooting star, make a wish and it will come true.

If you find a four-leaf clover it is a sign of good luck.

If you can, don’t plan anything on Friday the 13th because if anything could go wrong, it will on this date.

Before considering my question about whether or not you’re lucky, it may be helpful to first consider a definition of luck that may have common agreement. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, luck is “the force that causes things, especially good things, to happen to you by chance and not as a result of your own efforts or abilities.”

Starting with the premise of good things happening—hence being lucky—do you think that being lucky is solely by chance, a proverbial roll of the dice? Or do you think that nothing happens serendipitously?

While enjoying a lovely dinner and an enviable view of Camelback Mountain at sunset with a dear friend, I asked my friend to tell me her thoughts on being lucky. Her cogent and assured response was impressive. As I listened, it seemed that the idea of being lucky was not something that she would ordinarily forward as the cause of good fortune. That became clear as she used three powerful terms to elucidate her idea of having good fortune: faith; surrender; and free will.

We were in complete agreement and harmony on the idea of faith or belief as a foundational requirement for positive outcomes. Having a strong faith is a touchstone of both of our lives. However, I needed to have her tell me more about what free will and surrender meant to her in responding to the question about being lucky. Though I dare not attempt to relay or summarize her ideas about free will and surrender, I was inspired to think about what these concepts meant to me in regard to luck.

As I continue to mull around with ideas about being lucky, I encounter big questions about the universe and our very existence. What I’m finding is that to live as a human, if we’re lucky—and though some of us may be uncomfortable with this kind of thinking—we will be open to conflating the ideas of logic, chance, serendipity, synchronicity with faith, free will, and surrender.

Jews of the Wild West

On Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023, I went to the Scottsdale Museum of the West to see a screening of the documentary film, Jews of the Wild West.

As I watched the film, I kept thinking about how the stories of Jewish people who immigrated to the United States and later to the Western United States appear to be missing from American history. The absence continues to be perpetuated in books and films today. A special thanks is owed to the nonprofit production company and to the filmmaker, Amanda Kinsey, for uncovering and sharing such a significant part of American history.

Notable Jewish migrants to the West are Levi Strauss, who we can thank for the jeans we wear; Isaac Shwayder, whose son, Jesse, founded the premier luggage line Samsonite; and Meyer Guggenheim, patriarch of the philanthropic Guggenheim family whose wealth came from the mining and smelting business. Women such as Golda Meir were also prominent in establishing a Jewish presence in the West. To say that these families had humble beginnings is an understatement.

They used their ingenuity, persistence, grit, and desire to make a life without persecution—one in which they not only survived the hardships of the frontier but thrived. They found that the Wild West had less antisemitism than New York City. In general, people who moved West had one thing on their minds: taking advantage of the riches the frontier would eventually offer.

The Jews who migrated West, for the most part, were not panning streams and mining for gold. They understood that people needed practical products and clothes as they pursued their dreams of a better life and their road to riches. The Jewish migrants may have started out as peddlers who made enough money to open a dry goods store as in the case of Shwayder. Eventually, they found markets within their communities and beyond that became their road to success. Because they were usually the only people in the community with a business, they often became the mayors of these frontier towns.

Jews of the Wild West is rich with the personal stories of the Jews who struck out for the Wild West and made good. Check out streaming platforms and American Public Television to see this film.

The slap STILL being heard around the world

Everybody has an opinion on the slap heard around the world. The Oscars on March 12 reignited conversations about two of entertainment’s most celebrated men. They were the butt of jokes by the 2023 Oscars host, fodder for every journalist who can write an opinion, and a major topic of discussion among some of us Black people.

I had a double dose of Smith and Rock the night before the Oscars. With some other film lovers, I watched Will Smith in Emancipation. Though not on our agenda, we could not help but talk about the slap. That same evening, I watched the Chris Rock Netflix special, Selective Outrage. Seeing these two men back-to-back exhibit their talents in such stunning ways, I ached for them and for all of us who are witnessing this episode in their lives.

Two rich and famous Black men torn asunder by an ill-conceived act of chivalry. They say that chivalry is dead. On the night of the Oscars in 2022, many of us wish that chivalry would not have been awakened. After a period of absence from the public, Will Smith made what I thought was a contrite and sincere video apology to Chris Rock. He apologized to everyone and took full blame and responsibility for what he did. He also said that, “If you hang on, we can be friends again.” Chris Rock obviously didn’t accept the apology and said so by calling it a “hostage video.”

Chris Rock put his response to the incident in his Netflix special, Selective Outrage, and timed the release to correspond with the anniversary of the slap. Before Selective Outrage, there may have been hope that, in time, the two men would get beyond the unfortunate and unforgettable incident. Now, I fear that there may never be a proper reckoning or any kind of sorrow and forgiveness.

Rock waited until the final minutes of his hour-long routine to clean his spleen about Smith. The unvarnished feelings that he conveyed were more than anger. There was fury. I felt that the anger he showed was not just for theater. His feelings of outrage seemed to be a fresh wound and not a bruise left over from a year ago. The bitterness of his retaliation was stunning.

Though the audience laughed at the revenge monologue, I want to believe that, upon reflection, many of them felt sympathy for both men who at the pinnacle of their careers are the butt of jokes and ridicule. Sadly, these two great talents have become a cliché.