She Pushed Me

10712475_10204160137356691_7861090945178605088_o“Hey, she pushed me!”

“Ashley’s using my hairbrush!”


“Get OFF of me!”

That’s how my sister and I talked to each other when we were growing up–the way sisters do. Now that I’m back home from a fantastic Adventure Girls trip to San Francisco, I’d like to report that my sister pushed me. AGAIN. A couple of times.

1782499_10204160137556696_6295599819005434958_oMonday night, she pushed me out of a cable car. It was her idea to take a nighttime cable car trip to see the city lights in the first place. We got on the Powell Mason (or Powell Hyde? I dunno, she’s the one with the sense of direction) and rode up and over the hills of San Francisco. From one end of the line to the other. When the car was crowded, we stood inside the glassed compartment. But at the first chance, we got some seats out in the open air. Vivi kicked her feet against the side of the seat and stuck her boots out into the wind. I sat there next to her, ready to grab her by the collar in case of sudden stops, untoward jostling or…earthquake.

Gay said, “Come stand on the running board and hang on.”

Me? With my sensible purse and imperious shelf of matronly bosom? Why, I don’t even color my hair anymore and I am wearing Dr. Scholl’s shoes for goodness sake.

But she pushed me.

I hung my ass out in the wind and it was GREAT. I couldn’t stop grinning as we sailed up and over, down and around all those wonderful hills. When I looked out over the Transamerica Pyramid all lit up in orange for the Giants’ World Series win, I got that deep seated feeling of joy in my heart–that place where my sense of adventure lives. All because my sister gave me a little push.

And Vivi? Vivi got to see her mama being bold. She got to see two women having fun in the wide world.

My big sister isn’t one for limits. I had decided to change my grand plan of renting a car and taking Vivi to see the redwoods on our last day. It was just too much hassle. Instead, we rented a tandem bike and set off around the marina. Gay went off to her surgical conference to earn some CME hours.

Then right when Vivi and I were getting saddle sore, I get a text: “Want to rent a car?”  By the time we got back to the house, Gay had us a car and a Plan. We took off over the Golden Gate (and Lynrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” happened to be playing on the radio) and up into the woods. Muir Woods, to be exact.

10712561_10204160136796677_596909291184890860_oI would have been happy to walk along the wooden boardwalk under the giant sequoias, but Gay decided–in her flipflops–that we should go for a little hike. We went up to the top of the valley on the Canopy trail so we could look down from the tops of the giants. I never thought I would be teetering on the edge of a gorge filled with ancient redwoods, but my sister pushed me and there I was.

We wanted to go to the beach–she found Muir Beach. Vivi played in the cold water of the Pacific for the first time. I picked up striated rocks I had never seen before and old shells tumbled by the sandy waves. 10623298_10204160136516670_2485446281195265282_oWe had to leave before sunset to get the car back, but Gay was already ruminating. “Next time, we come PREPARED to hike! We’ll stay until sunset! We’ll…”

She busted it back to San Francisco through evening traffic. Didn’t even need the GPS for directions. I was ready to get Vivi back to the apartment. Gay assured me there was time for one detour.

Our route was so circuitous that I was sure she had gotten lost. Then she turns up a hill so high that it looked like a wall in front of us. She starts giggling. “Ready?”

Ummm…for WHAT?

fixed gay darkI couldn’t even BREATHE. She floored that little Kia and we shot straight up into the air. Both of us leaned forward instinctively, as if we could urge the car up that precarious angle. Gay had her face pressed so close to the windshield, I snorted, “You look like Aunt Eula!” That got us tickled.

When we made it to the top, she slowed to a crawl so I could look out across the vista of lights and down into the bay. The three of us paused there in that moment, the whole world spread out below us. Vivi squealed from the back seat, “Whoa!” when she had been getting whiny about dinner just seconds earlier. Aunt Gay said, “See, Vivi? You gotta trust me!”

She hit the gas and pushed us over the edge of the hill. It was so steep and dark, it actually looked like the road had disappeared beneath us and we might sail out straight to Alcatraz. We hurtled down Taylor Street as the lights of the city whizzed by our windows. I laughed and laughed and laughed. I couldn’t quit clapping like the Mama in “Nutty Professor”–Herc-a-LES, Hercales!

Gay popped me on the leg with the back of the hand and asked, “When are YOU going to learn to trust me?”

I trust her. My sister pushes me, and I let her, because I know she’s also the one who would never let me fall.

Thanks, Gay. I love you.




Are You OK?


Once in a lifetime experience today: Ai Weiwei’s @Large art installation on Alcatraz.


Find a way.

If you can’t get to Alcatraz to see it, click that link up there and explore.

"My words are well intended and innocent."

“My words are well intended and innocent.”

Because of Ai Weiwei’s message, I have been talking to my second grader about political prisoners. We explained how Ai is held captive by his government. How he designed this exhibit without ever having come to the prison island. How he uses his notoriety to call attention to others held by their governments. It’s a lot to take in when you’re seven. It’s a lot when you’re 46. I want Vivi to have experiences like this so that one day, she will say, “Ah. I see.”

The exhibit begins with a Chinese dragon kite made up of the words of people held for speaking out. In the next room, the expansive floor is covered with portraits of dissidents–made of L10443270_10204143099690760_4507446045742884007_oego. Gay and I taught Vivi how to find a name of a prisoner, look it up in the index books, and learn more about why they are held. We found two young girls who are held captive in North Korea because their father didn’t return. We found a long list of prisoners in Bahrain and talked about the Arab Spring. We explained dictators and juntas and freedom of speech. And there we were on Alcatraz, where we also talked about bad choices that reap bad consequences, like when you shoot someone or don’t pay your taxes like Mr. Capone.

A later part of the exhibit is called “Yours Truly.” In the Alcatraz 10562503_10204143104650884_8705653949776895557_omess hall, where prisoners assembled for meals three times a day, visitors like us could write postcards to the political prisoners we had learned about in the earlier exhibit. Each card was decorated with an image inspired by the country in which the prisoner is being held. Vivi wanted to write to the little girls, but their address is unknown. After she processed that information, she chose a card with a falcon on it. I chose a bumblebee for Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu.

Vivi’s pen paused over the white space on the back of the card. “Do I write in English? What if they don’t speak English?” The volunteer guide by our table overheard Vivi’s question and said, “Many of these people do speak English. Even if they can’t, the fact that they’ve received a card and know they aren’t forgotten is powerful.”

Vivi ruminated for a few more moments.

“You could draw a happy picture for him,” I suggested.

She shook her head. “I want to write something.”

She leaned forward to focus on making her letters evenly and clearly. When she sat up, I read the message she had written to Abdullah al-Hamid, an imprisoned human rights activist in Saudi Arabia:

“Are you OK?”


10575118_10204143105010893_6079293836464210895_o (1)

Sacred Space


This Sunday morning, I tried to recreate a special experience from my past. Turns out–you can’t do that.

Vivi and I took the cable car up to the top of Nob Hill early this morning. As we climbed the steps to Grace Cathedral, I reminded her that this was a real church. She needed to be quiet and respectful. People were here to enjoy a sacred space.

It was a beautiful blue sky morning. I couldn’t wait to walk the labyrinth again. Nine years ago, when my heart was still broken open, that labyrinth gave me a moment of peace so rich that I cried. The moment when I walked the path with a sincere and open heart, so that when I got to the center, God said “duh” to me.

Vivi began to run towards the center, but I grabbed her elbow and pulled her back. “There’s a special way to do this, sweetie. You focus on your feet and you follow the path slowly and carefully. You breathe quietly and you think about a question. When you get to the center, God might answer your question.” She nodded.

“You ready?” She nodded again. I gave her a little nudge and she started her walk. I waited a few beats and started walking the rose stone path myself.

She skittered ahead. I opened my mouth to be a mom then decided against it. A gaggle of gray-haired Chinese ladies gossiped in Mandarin on the terrace above us. I tried to ignore it. Vivi whizzed back to the start to try again. She ended up behind me, scuffing her boots across the stone. I tried to ignore it. A man propped his foot on the low wall around the labyrinth and proceeded to slap his thighs vigorously, three minutes each leg. I tried to ignore him. Car horns and cable cars. Pigeons. Three tourists holding cups of coffee stopped to watch me walk. I tried to ignore them.

My frustration reached the point where I felt like shouting, “I AM TRYING TO BE CONTEMPLATIVE HERE!!! KINDLY SHUT THE FUCK UP.”

By the time I reached the center of the labyrinth, I had just about given up on carving out any sacred space for myself in the midst of all these raucously living beings. But when I did step into the center, I closed my eyes and let the sun fall upon my face. I stood there breathing in the fresh air at the tip top of the city.

Even though I had been too distracted to meditate on a question, an answer came to me.

It’s All One Life. One crazy noisy bumping together life. I accepted it, imperfect as it has to be, and made my way back out. Back into the world of Mandarin gossip, coffee cups, scuffing boots and pigeons. That is the sacred space.

As I made my way back out by the winding path, two girls about Vivi’s age exploded up the steps and screeched to a halt at the labyrinth courtyard. They watched me for a few seconds then one yelled, “It’s a maze! You have to figure out how to get out,” like she was at Uncle Buck’s Punkin Patch and Corn Maze.

Vivi took a few steps towards them and said, “You walk the path and when you get to the middle you get to ask God a question.” They didn’t quite seem to care what she was saying and went on jumping from one row to another and spinning across the center. I felt that protectiveness flare up–someone might be dissing my baby.

And that moment made my inability to recreate the magic of the labyrinth OK.

The first time I walked this labyrinth, my heart lay in slivered shards. Now it’s feeling whole again, but it’s been placed inside two small people who careen around the world in their noisy and carefree ways. My heart, walking outside my body, dragging its feet and going too fast and really not paying attention to The Rules. My heart, out there, is the reason I have to make room for the world.

Oh, I asked Vivi if she had gotten an answer to her question when she walked to the center of the labyrinth. She scrunched up her face and slowly shook her head.

“No? What was your question?”

“I asked God why humans have to think so much.”


Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers

On our adventures, I hope Vivi learns that people are kind and we delight in delighting each other. I also hope she learns that some of the best moments in life are happy accidents. A few examples from our second day in San Francisco:

  • 10704199_10204120747051958_1141551543564970483_oWe settled for breakfast at the cafe across the street from our house just because it had the closest coffee. We got homemade cranberry scones, a bagel smeared with fresh avocado, black bean burrito…and enough crumbs to make the sparrows‘ lives a little richer.
  • On the steep hike up Lombard Street to show Vivi the crookedy part, I heard a strange buzzing sound and stopped to investigate. A tree filled with hummingbirds! Aunt Gay found a stray tennis ball by a tree. She carried it all the way up to the top of the hill then gave it to Vivi. A crowd gathered to watch as Vivi wound up her arm then let it fly to roll back down the sidewalk. It bounced off two trees and one bumper (parked car) to make it all the way to Taylor Street! Science!
  • 10003589_10204120755732175_6433563699803989697_o (1)At the beach, Vivi took off her shoes then rolled up her pants. She walked straight over to the only other little girl on the beach and said, “My name is Vivi. I’m seven. Do you want to be friends?” Zoe said, “Sure.” They held hands and played in the frigid waves for 10 minutes. Then Zoe had to go.
  • 10658891_10204124614548643_3861216549478961679_oBased on an article that asked local chefs where they like to eat, we took a cab over to Cow Hollow to have lunch at a noodle house…that only serves dinner. Oops. But thanks to Aunt Gay’s Magic iPhone, it turned out that we were right around the corner from the restaurant owned by that chef. We stopped into Causwell’s for brunch in a sunny window. Omelet with pork belly, pastrami hash with fried egg. Vivi got herself two sunny side ups with toast and homemade butter. The waiter brought us a couple of fresh mimosas on the house because he had forgotten our silverware for a few minutes. Ahhhh. Ain’t much that brunch can’t fix.
  • 10547881_10204120759812277_5458591061637365250_oWe wandered past a garden shop display of Halloween themed floral arrangements. Aunt Gay liked the sugar skull with succulents for eyes. I voted for the fanged bunny. Vivi liked the gnome buried head down in moss.
  • 10700767_10204124614988654_1929921929882242682_oThe cab driver for the trip back home heard “805 Lombard” and asked Vivi, “You want to go through the crooked part?” She grinned. When we got to the top of the switchbacks, he told her to hop in the front seat and put her seatbelt on. She giggled the whole way down.
  • A nap in a bay window while trolley bells ring on the street below. A two hour nap on a sunny day in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. That’s more decadent than homemade butter!
  • W10662126_10204124616228685_4069884386381843768_oatching the sunset from a sidewalk table at Park Tavern. Food that is art, prepared with such finesse. A glass of California Chardonnay paired with seared scallops. The waitress surprised me with a slice of coconut birthday cake with a thin blue candle sparkling on top. I made a wish.
  • 10380662_10204124617948728_4759393187716436339_oThe Cowboy Junkies on TV when we got home. Sitting there with the windows open, listening to the city celebrate every time the Giants scored. Watching a fireworks show a few blocks away without having to change out of our pajamas!

She’s asleep now, worn out from all this adventuring. Her beloved stuffed Pengy tucked under her cheek. The noise from the street doesn’t wake her. Tomorrow…we try the bus.

Getting High and Gay Walking in San Francisco

Today I realized that, even after all our adventures, my daughter is a Country Mouse. You know the old story of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse?

Up and up then up some more!

Up and up then up some more!

Vivi doesn’t know much about navigating a city. She thunders down the sidewalk and manages to slam into the only other pedistrian on the block. She doesn’t know which way to face when we stand on a curb waiting for a light. And the light? Good grief. Two years ago when we went to DC, I tried to explain to her that the red hand means stop and the white man means walk. That turned into “White man! Walking!” Which she proceeded to SHOUT every time we crossed a street. That’s now become an inside joke with us.

My sister lives in a busy city, so this stuff is second nature to her. She knows which direction of traffic has the right of way, even without the White Man Walking. She glides across streets whenever the notion takes her (or she smells coffee). Today, she stepped out into the road so many times I decided we would start calling it Gay Walking instead of jay walking.

And by the way? San Francisco is a funny town when your name is “Gay.” I learned that last time we were here after I was trying to get her attention in a crowd and yelled, “GAY!” Half the place turned around.

Call a damn cab!

Call a damn cab!

It takes me a while to adjust to a city, too. Vivi comes by her Country Mouseness honestly. There are so many sounds and I lack some filter that blocks out the unimportant ones. Everyone walks so fast and no one is lost. There are people here who actually know how to ride BUSES. I can’t even.

New York is easy–when I’m lost, I just hail a cab. Here…no cabs. I’m sure there are some, but I can’t find them. Because lost. And we’re staying in an apartment instead of a hotel, so no taxi stand or doorman to help. Good Lord…did I just say that?

Traveling with my sister has spoiled Vivi and me rotten. She got tired today and whined, “Can’t we just get a taxiiiiii?” I pretended that wasn’t a fantastic idea. Thanks to Aunt Gay and the Uber private car app, Vivi now thinks that large black SUVs with very clean interiors just magically appear for us when we wait by a curb. Last year when we took her ice skating at Rockefeller Center, I got a deep sense of foreboding after Vivi stood on the crowded curb and said, “Is our car here yet?” Girl, please. I’m going to have to teach her how to ride the bus. Or find someone who can.

I have a pretty good sense of direction, but San Francisco discombobulates me. I think it’s because the water is east even though the Pacific Ocean is west. And the hills upon hills upon hill10714357_10204112596008187_7555641961668401898_os–can’t see anything! With all this newness to navigate, only one solution came to mind: we needed to get high.

We climbed allllll the way up Telegraph Hill (seriously, it’s like a 60 degree slant) to the fresh breezes and blue sky around Coit Tower. From the pinnacle, we showed Vivi Alcatraz, the piers, the Golden Gate. Gay traced back through the maze of streets and pointed out the house we’re renting.

Vivi wanted to see the house for herself. I pointed off into the distance. “See that gray house there? Find the diagonal street then go up a couple of blocks and that’s it, past the tennis courts at that playground we walked by.” She grew frustrated when she still couldn’t find it.

Then I realized–Vivi has no idea what a tennis court looks like from a quarter mile away. She doesn’t know how to measure a block. It’s all so much, so new. And she’s still learning. The only way to learn about the great wide world is to get out in it and explore.

We came back down to earth from the tower height. We did a little more Gay Walking and managed to get back home. Here we sit, back at the apartment in the room we are sharing. Vivi’s already asleep. I can’t shut out the noise from Lombard Street.

All of it–all of it–is turning into stories that we will share together.



Happy Birfday, Mommy

balloon-406208_1280Today was my birthday. It was happy.


The alarm went off. The kids had to be fed. The socks are never where they’re supposed to be. The dog wants out. The dog wants in. I wasn’t expecting much, but dang. G was the only one who had acknowledged my birthday in any way.

Finally, from the kitchen, he asked the kids if they had wished me a happy birthday. From the dining room, Victoria spoke in that perfectly flat teenage voice, “happy. birthday.” Vivi didn’t even look over from the couch as she echoed the sentiment with the same enthusiasm.

OK, it’s early. But dang.

Then Carlos, sitting beside me on the couch, looked me straight in the eye. “Hap-py Birfday, Mommy!” The kid who gets speech therapy. The kid who wasn’t connecting with people.

What color pony do you want, little boy? Because right now? Mommy wants to give you anything you want. I made such a fuss over him and he giggled and wiggled.

Three little words. The gift of those three tiny words carried me on through the business of the morning.

A while later, I met a man who looked familiar on the sidewalk outside my office. His son and Carlos are in class together. We introduced ourselves and started talking about our kids. We got deeper into the Spectrum Talk, about how our ideas of who our kids will be have to shift as we learn more about how they live in this world. This dad said, “I used to hope for throwing the football with my son. That’s OK if that doesn’t happen. But I would like to hear him call me ‘Dad,’ just once.” This beautiful son, who holds his father’s hand as they walk into school, has never called either of his parents “Mom” or “Dad.” Those words aren’t gifts that he can give just yet.

My boy’s birthday gift to me grew even more precious after that chance meeting on the sidewalk.

It was a lovely day, filled with kind messages, lunch with friends, sweet gifts and so much laughter. G had offered to fetch all three kids after school so I could take my time. I drove home with the windows down and the sun patting the top of my head. Simply happy and feeling loved.

Then the strangest thing happened.

I turned onto a little street where Richard and I once looked at a house that was for sale. It belonged to an older couple who were eager to sell so they could move closer to their daughter. The father had become ill and the mother needed her daughter’s help. The small, tired woman had told us this as we stood under a kiwi vine in the backyard. I remember it so vividly because I knew already that we didn’t want this house, but neither Richard or I was going to leave while she still had things to show us. She was enjoying having someone to talk to. We admired her yard and promised that we would call the realtor for more information. Then we left and went on with our lives.

So today, as I was driving past that same house, I caught a glimpse into that yard through the patchy hedge. Tables and folding chairs sat scattered across the grass. Pink tablecloths and bunches of balloons shifted in the breeze. Paper plates and ketchup bottles, bright bags and wrapped boxes. A birthday party.

I got this odd feeling, it being my birthday and all, and me having once thought of living in that house with the person I loved then–I got the strange idea in my head that it WAS a birthday party for me, for the me in a parallel life who bought that house and made a life there.

I drove right by that other me, having a party, and it was strange but OK. Maybe I don’t know how to explain this, but my life has taken such drastic turns that I sometimes cross paths with a ghost or a memory or a maybe of what might have been my life. Like that time I got the letter from the retirement company that listed Richard’s age as 46. He died when he was 38. But for a second, looking at that letter, I had the feeling that he was off somewhere on one of those parallel tracks. Maybe throwing a football with his son. Even that was strange but OK.

Every one of us who has made any choice or survived any kind of change or gotten any surprises along the way has felt that shadow of the other life that might have been. We’re going about our day, but out of the corner of the eye, just a glimpse through a gap in the hedge.

My car kept going and it wound up at home, in this life with the three kids and G and the house that Richard gave to us.

When I walked in the door, Carlos pointed to the fruit snacks G had given him and said, “I ate red AND blue!” (Mean old Mommy makes him choose one or the other, but Daddy…Daddy has his own ways.)

Then that son–the one I got and not the ones that I imagined–my son looked at me and said, “Happy Birfday, Mommy.” Unprompted.

What a gift. May I always treasure it.


Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

alice0042dspng“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I was in a funk this morning, so I started looking for Six Impossible Things to Believe Before Breakfast. It wasn’t difficult. It only took me about a half an hour:

  1.  Sunday night, I woke up and glanced at the clock. It was 2:22. I remember laughing and rolling over to go back to sleep. Monday night, I woke up and looked at the clock. It was 3:33! I thought, “Oh, mysteries of life” and fell back to sleep. I woke up again and immediately looked at the clock. It was 4:40 and all I could think was, “Dangit! Four more minutes and I would have nailed it!”

deer-212737_12802.  As we backed out of the driveway and turned up the hill, I stopped the car and said, “Carlos, look! Two deer!” Two small does stopped at the corner of Miss Sarah’s yard to look at us with their ears perked up. We didn’t appear too threatening–just another clunky metal purring thing with heavy round feet. They tiptoed across the road and into Mrs. Hodgson’s azaleas. Carlos whispered, “deer!”

10658710_10204082009963555_7281379235282340952_o3.  When I got back home after dropping him off at school, I stepped out on the deck. There’s a sourwood tree out there that I tried to cut down many years ago. My saw was too small and my arms too weak, so I gave up on it. Now, the sourwood tree grows up and over the deck, giving us shade from the heat, a perch for chickadees, and brilliant red leaves in the fall. As I admired the leaves, I remembered–leaves don’t “turn” colors in the fall. The colors that we see now have always been there, but the green chlorophyll that the plants need to make fuel overpowers the color during the spring and summer. When the year turns to the months of rest, the chlorophyll dies away and we can see the colors that have been there all along.

10679498_10204082009723549_2392038021595593732_o4.  Then my eye fell down to a row of shells that we found on our vacation this year. Oysters, whelks, conchs. As they bleach in the sun, all those plain grayish shells start to show their colors too. Pink and brown, orange and cream. From the bottom of the sea to right here on my deck. Then I remembered that half of my state used to be at the bottom of the ocean a long time ago. And the water in that river that runs through the backyard is the same water, recycled from the ancient ocean, the Mississippi, the Ganges, the Jordan, the Nile. Nothing is so far away after all.

10733867_10204082009443542_5464091185153558402_o5.  I went back inside to load the dishwasher. And who do I spy outside the kitchen window? It’s another writing spider. This one is much smaller and browner–the male of the species. If all the pretty yellow girls are “Charlotte,” I decide he will be named “Charlemagne.” Welcome, spinner, to our space. When I stepped back outside to get a better look at him, the dewdrops made his web sparkle in the gray morning haze.

10661655_10203813515051350_6537100019182294571_o6.  Time to make breakfast. I stirred together some oatmeal and milk, then added a dash of salt. I diced up a Honeycrisp apple to throw in before cooking it. I put a sliver of that apple in mouth and the flavor was so perfectly what I wanted at that moment, that my first thought was, “I don’t care if they cost $5 a pound. I’m going to buy these every week until they’re gone. This is why I went to graduate school–to afford these apples.”

Six impossible things before breakfast. Impossibly sweet, impossibly strange, impossibly magical.

I sat down on the couch and booted up my notebook computer while my oatmeal cooled. In a house built of bricks in 1961, on a hill that was carved by that river over a few million years, under an impossibly blue October sky from which leaves of red and orange fall with a whisper, I tapped my finger to a glass screen and connected myself to every other part of the world. I saw Catie standing in a field of orange marigolds in Bhutan, the cinnamon rolls that Beth’s daughter had made in France, and Lucy’s brand new baby down in Dublin.

It’s ALL impossible yet so precious and close. And here we are, right in the middle of it.