Category Archives: Adventure

Are You OK?

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

Go.

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?”

 

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Sacred Space

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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.”

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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.

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Let Her Go

Let Her Go.

Let Her Go.

I went into Vivi’s room after she was asleep to pull the covers up on her shoulder and tuck Pengy under her chin.  I pushed a curl behind her ear.  So tiny, this girl.  The girl who is already asking me how old she needs to be before she can go to camp.  It’s becoming real to me, after all these years of watching her grow in baby steps–there will come a day when she goes off on an adventure without me.  There will come a night when she falls asleep, with Pengy tucked under her chin, and I will be somewhere far away.  She already wants to go.  And I will let her go.

All this camp talk got stirred up because Vivi and I took a little road trip this weekend to deliver our friend Abigail to three weeks of camp at the Duke TIP program.  Duke’s Talent Identification Program is a place for gifted teens to find their tribe.  Abigail’s mother Rachel and I met at a similar program–Governor’s Honors–back in the summer of 1985.  Rachel is one of the Elephant Painters.  When she found herself trapped by an impossible scheduling conflict, I jumped at the chance to take Abigail on this adventure.

I adore Abigail because she’s funny.  When I asked her if the students were allowed to leave campus, she said, “Oh, no.  They freak out if we even talk to a stranger walking by on the sidewalk.  They’re real worried about…wandering prodigies, I guess.”  Within 30 seconds, she and I had turned this into an improvisation skit.  I growled in my best police radio static voice “BOLO, we got a 1600 SAT on the loose.  Subject was last seen wearing a Doctor Who shirt and skinny jeans.”

That’s the kind of kid Abigail is.  Love.  Her.

But four hours in the car with a wandering prodigy and a seven year old tornado required some compromise, especially since some dumbass (ahem…me) has recently given Vivi the “Frozen” soundtrack.  So we came to an agreement–Abigail and I got to talk about books and music and angst and TV and movies and poems and nerves and books again for 15 minutes.  After our time was up, we listened to Vivi belt out “For the First Time in Forever.”  Then Vivi went back to reading her book for another 15 minutes while Abigail tried to convince me that Benedict Cumberbatch really is the most beautiful creature in the world and I tried to get her to admit that he looks like his parents were first cousins.  Then Vivi sang “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”  We talked about life in the small town and life in the big city.  Abigail told me that she was nervous about her time at camp.  I told her that I had felt the same way before GHP.  We talked about anxiety and coping and remembering that EVERYONE feels that way in a new situation.  Then we hit the Play button and Vivi sang “Let It Go,” complete with dramatic flourishes and hand gestures.

It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free!

Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry!

We stopped at a roadside peach stand in North Carolina so I could introduce Abigail to the wonders of Blenheim ginger ale. As we stretched our legs with a browse around the peanut brittle, peach cider, and fireworks, all three of us were humming “Let It Go.”  Abigail bemoaned, “I can’t show up to a COLLEGE singing THAT SONG.”  She feared that humming a Disney song might give her roommate the wrong impression, a faux pas that no number of Marvel Comics references could erase.  Lose all her cool points.

Remember that feeling?  That overwhelming excitement about joining a totally new group of people to do a totally new thing?  The chance to redefine, putting forth a curated version of your best self?  I do.  But the curated version of myself that I present to others and my authentic self have gotten a lot closer together over the years.

It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all!

The bottle opener for the ginger ales was mounted by the exit door.  I popped mine in the curve and with a twist of the wrist, the cap fell down into the receptacle.  I stepped aside so Abigail could open hers.

She froze. “I…don’t…know…how that thing works!”  She was truly flummoxed.

I said, “And they let you into GIFTED CAMP?  Girl, please.”  I talked her through it and she got the top off her Blenheim.  We stood there in the hot parking lot and each took a long slug of spicy ginger ale.  And winced.  Blenheim is HOT.  She loved it.  It made me so happy to introduce her to something new, to be part of her world getting a little larger.  To show her that it’s not the end of the world when you have to admit you don’t know something.

Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone!

After Abigail got settled in her dorm room with her new roommate, Vivi and I said our goodbyes and headed back to the car.  I took Vivi’s hand and said, “I’m a little sad that we have to leave.”  Vivi, in her second grade (almost) wisdom, said, “Well, we got her to the right place, got her the right kinds of snacks, put all her clothes on hangers, met her roommate, got them a trash can…now we have to leave so she can do the rest herself.”

“You’re exactly right, Viv.  I guess I’m partly sad because it makes me think about the day when you’ll go off to camp and I’ll have to leave you to have your own adventures.”

She squeezed my hand.  And started asking how many more years until she can go to camp just like Abigail.

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You Can Feel Safe Holding Hands

amsterdam-79417_640The first big overseas trip that my late husband Richard and I took together began in Amsterdam.  It’s a city that’s just as fun as you’ve heard–and that’s all I will say about THAT in this forum.  The second afternoon we were there, we were meandering around in the Red Light District.  Richard stepped into an exchange bureau to exchange some American money so we could buy more…souvenirs.  I waited for him outside on the narrow sidewalk by the canal.

When he stepped out of the tiny storefront, Richard took my hand and we continued on our walk.  Before we had gone 20 feet, a very stoned and twitchy man who looked alarmingly like Osama bin Laden approached Richard.  He stuck his hand out and muttered something about money.  Richard waved him off and said, “I don’t have any change.”  We kept walking with purpose, eyes forward.

Well.  That dude thought he had found an easy mark.  A short, slight American who had just stepped out of a currency exchange office and now had a lump in the pocket of his jacket?  The guy snarled, “I’m not interested in CHANGE!” and snatched as hard as he could at Richard’s pocket.  He was disappointed when only a pack of cigarettes fell to the cobblestones.  And when Richard gave him a sharp side elbow to the face.

It was on.  I expected the man to run away, but he was ready to fight.  The two of them circled each other.  The pickpocket kept waggling his hands at Richard in a “come at me bro” way and saying “Fucker mother!  Fucker mother!”  Richard kept his hands up and all his weight on the balls of his feet.  The thief took another dive at his pocket.  Richard feinted to the right and popped the guy in the head.  

Dude KEPT ON yelling “Fucker mother!  Fucker mother!” and swatting at Richard.  By that time, even in the sparse afternoon crowds, a few people had come over to see what was going on.  The pickpocket decided it was time to move on.

bicycle-2761_640I ran to Richard.  He was breathing heavy and shivered from adrenaline.  He knelt down and retrieved his Marlboros.  “Don’t mess with my cigarettes, right?”  We laughed in relief.  I turned and shouted at the pickpocket’s retreating back:  “It’s ‘MOTHER FUCKER!'”  

Richard took my hand and we ducked into the nearest bar.  I always felt safe after that when I was holding his hand, because he may have been small but I had proof he was fierce and wily.  Richard was 5’4″ of badassery if ever the need arose.

This story came back to me last night when Facebook displayed an ad in the sidebar for a trip to Amsterdam.  The trip is offered by Olivia Travel–the premiere lesbian travel company.  Sorry, Facebook ad algorithm. You misinterpreted all those Wesleyan posts where I talked about how much I love my sisters.  Still, I was intrigued by the concept of a lesbian travel company, so I clicked the ad to see what makes it different.  This line jumped out at me in the description of Amsterdam as a host city:  “You can feel very secure holding hands and being yourself while walking the streets of Amsterdam.”

homomo05052000lesbDang.  Going on vacation to a place where you can feel secure holding hands and being yourself.  That wasn’t in my Top 50 reasons to visit Amsterdam.  True, The Netherlands was the first country to legalize gay marriage.  It’s also the site of the Homomonument in Amsterdam–a series of pink granite triangles built in memory of those killed by the Nazis for being homosexual.  Jews wore the yellow star; homosexuals wore the pink triangle.  We went there on our way to the Anne Frank House.  But it never even crossed my mind.

The tagline on the Olivia ad was “feel free.”  They charter the entire ship, or rent out an entire resort, so that their clients can relax and be themselves.

My eyes were opened a little wider because of that ad and I’m glad for it.  I’ve never had to go somewhere other than my home just so I could be myself.  To do something as simple as holding hands as I walk down the street beside the person I love.  My experience of feeling safe holding hands in Amsterdam is very different from some of my sisters’.  I only had to worry about being robbed–not being judged and robbed.

I feel free to squeeze my partner’s hand, or give him a peck on the lips, or say goodbye with a hug wherever we are–PTO meeting, Kroger parking lot, cafeteria at work, airport curb.  Hell, I feel free to have a snarling fight with him in those places, too, because we’re just free.

Holding hands for a stroll down the beach, or for comfort after a robbery attempt, or during the prayer at church–that’s a simple thing so many of us take for granted.  And so many of us can’t.

olivia

 

What’s #1 On Your List?

go do them

Yep.

You should.

And you CAN!

What’s the number one thing on your bucket list?  Mine used to be “Be someone’s mother.”  Check!  “Go skydiving.”  Check.  “Sail the Greek Islands.”  Kinda Check (it wasn’t a sail boat!).  Right now, my number one adventure dream is to see the Northern Lights, preferably from one of those glass igloos in Finland.

I’ve learned four essential principles for crafting a bucket list over the last 13 years.  Click on this sweet kitten in a bucket to go over to my post at Work It, Mom! and get to the bottom of the bucket!

bucket kitty