SINCE I FIRST HEARD the news last week--a short, sad radio report announcing that activist and folksinger Mimi Farina had died of cancer at age 56--my mind has been drifting back, at odd moments, to the brief but unforgettable conversation I once had with the groundbreaking founder of Bread & Roses, the organization that brings music into the lives of prisoners and other people cut off from the mainstream of society.
It was January 1996. I'd called the Bread & Roses offices in Mill Valley to invite Farina to see the film Dead Man Walking, a true-life story about Sister Helen Prejean and her controversial friendship with a convicted killer marked for execution. The invitation was part of my ongoing project, a collection of taped conversations with interesting individuals, responding to the emotions and ideas within challenging movies. Farina graciously accepted.
After the film--through which she cried, openly--we took a walk along the streets of Mill Valley. Farina was determined to come up with an explanation for why people like Prejean--and herself--would turn their lives to the needs of others.
"When I look at the whole work of Bread & Roses--performing for convicts in prison, seniors who are isolated, children in kids' wards who may never come back out again--I realize it comes from my deep, deep need to try and make some sort of community for them. Sister Helen does it by bringing them a sense of God," she said. "I do it by bringing them music."
"But what do you get out of it?" I asked.
"It's not that tangible," she replied, with a sigh. "It's not the money, certainly. Bread & Roses is not driven by the bottom line." She continued walking, musing silently before adding, "I think it's just so I can rest within myself, within my soul. Also, sometimes, I know it's so I have a place to be, that I'm proud of. And literally a place to go during the day, a place that I've created and that is meaningful to me."
At that point she stopped. Smiling an enormous, face-brightening smile, Farina laughed. "Oh, I don't know why I do this. And I've just decided that it doesn't matter. Sister Helen says she didn't know why she was doing what she did--and neither do I.
"I'm just thankful, so thankful, that I get to do it at all."
From the July 26-August 1, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.