Finding the lights in San Francisco

“I think I scared your nephew,” Ernesto laughed as we got into his car. He added with a grin, “I mean, not as much as you seemed to be traumatizing him.”

I slammed my door.

“Where are we getting food?” I asked.

The ignition turned over with a cough and Ernesto’s battered silver mustang drove us out of the Village under boughs of bright green leaves and the bending rays of afternoon sunshine.

“I know a place in Oakland that’s really good,” Ernesto said as we puttered the quiet streets of Albany where my sister and husband live with their adorable, perfect, heavenly child.

Oakland? Not a chance,” I shot back.

“Why not?” Ernesto asked. His loud voice filled the car with a cheery ambiance impossible not to be affected by.

“Firstly,” I gritted at him, “We’d never get out alive. Secondly, I just can’t eat in Raiders territory.”

Ernesto laughed (probably at me, rather than with me. I wasn’t laughing, so I suppose that’s fair).

“I hear Oakland is getting kind of posh, actually,” he said. “Things change, Mary.”

We ate in Oakland. Clearly I lived to tell the tale.

And it actually was nice. Spring break could not have given us better weather. The sky was placidly blue with just the right amount of fluffy white stuff and the sun was warm and infectious. People were biking and basking on the grass by the (…um, whatever large body of water that was. Bay? Ocean?). And I was here with one of my oldest, greatest, most ridiculous friends, about to start another grand adventure.

Ernesto and I go way back. I try not to think about our choppy beginnings, but they come back to me slowly and sweetly on days like this when I get to see what a fine young man that frustrating little curmudgeon has turned into.

Since our days working together on the college paper, Ernesto has gone on to a bigger college paper at Chico State University where he was a (beloved? feared?) Editor-in-Chief, and then on to writing for actual newspapers. He also has a job that pays actual money (because journalism tends not to) and he seems to be good at that.

I’m back at the same newsroom where we first met. So of the two of us, he’s winning the race to adulthood.

“It’s a nice change to be the one to have it all together, though,” he said in the most affirmingly back-handed way possible. The Bay Bridge rose up before us, our pockets considerably lighter from our brunch and the bridge toll. (“Thank goodness those trolls didn’t make us answer a riddle,” he said with faked exasperation. “We’d have never made it over.”).

We sat on the water in traffic that inched by slowly for more than an hour before the steep streets and narrow neighborhoods of San Francisco spread out before us.

Parking was a tough find, but a spot opened up next to a middle school near Chinatown. We claimed it and began our adventure on foot.



Chinatown was a bit underwhelming.

“It’s just not like the movies,” I said as we stopped to take pictures beneath the paper lanterns. Ernesto and I are both photographers, which is ideal for adventuring because we both stop to take pictures at the same time making pacing much less of an issue for us. “Like, I guess I was hoping for a parade with one of those dragons or a CIA agent getting chased through the streets. Or like, a magic kitten? I don’t know.”

I mean, it was colorful and we did see some dried sea cucumbers. And at one perfect moment, I looked down an alley just in time to see pigeons rising in a flurry as two boys chased a red ball down the narrow, dimly lit lane between twin brick buildings. That was something.

Ernesto got us turned around looking for the entrance to Chinatown so we could see the archway. We ended up buying an armful of cheap rice snacks and jelly candies from a local market and winding our way back to the car instead.

“I guess things don’t always live up to our expectations,” I said as I divided our spoils in the dusty mustang. I unwrapped his candies so he wouldn’t get distracted kill us behind the wheel. Not that it helped.

Next stop: Fisherman’s Wharf.


By the time we found parking again, the sky had clouded over and a brisk wind had picked up off the water.

“Bring your sweater,” I said, grabbing my own from the backseat.

“Thanks, mom,” Ernesto laughed at me, ignoring my advice and sauntering down the hill with a jaunty spring in his step.

The Wharf was beautiful. Pungent smells of salt spray and algae mingled with the odor of the local catches. Crabs, lobsters and fish were being sold, raw and cooked, along the walkway. An abundance of tourist traps (some of which we fell into) laid out their merchandise in an entertaining display of the most basic marketing ploys.

“Okay, you were right,” said Ernesto when we reached the wooden railing that separated us from the large, gray bay. “It is cold.”

I smiled.

“When are you going to learn that I am always right?”

“I should know by now,” he agreed.

To warm up our hands, we got hot coffee before trekking back to the car. I was hungry but Ernesto wanted to get a picture of the Golden Gate before it got too dark. He was doing a photo project and needed a shot of the bridge and one of Twin Peaks at night for a light trail. So we hit the streets one more time, racing the oncoming fog bank.

Stripping off shoes and socks and slinging camera equipment over our shoulders, we left our car in a gravelly lot and walked the sandy beach toward a pile of rocks that jutted out into the bay.





The tide was coming in and, already, light was leaving the sky in a thin, dimming exodus. We clammered across the rocks (not an easy task. I almost died. Twice). Up the slippery sides of the sleeping giants, we scampered until we found ourselves nestled between two large rock faces with no view of the bridge and no way forward.

“That’s a disappointment,” said Ernesto cheerfully.

Ernesto is not easily disheartened.

A little more slowly, and more acutely aware of how hungry we both were, we walked back to the car through the sand and the foamy tips of the bay waters. Silver air caught the curling green waves and lifted them into the evening breeze.

“Mary, if you were a pirate, what would your name be?”

I thought for a moment, letting tied waters run over my feet as they plodded through the mushy sand.

“Seablood Mary. Captain Seablood – that’s what they’d call me.”

“That’s not bad,” Ernesto said with a nod. “I’d be Longsworth Stickybeard, because my beard would always be sticky from rum. I could be your ship’s cook. Or your first mate?”

“Of course you’d be my first mate, Ernesto,” I said. What a stupidly obvious question. As if I’d sail the high seas with anyone but Ernesto.

Ernesto’s phone told us there was an Irish-Western fusion pub that served a kimchi reuben, so we cranked up our Taylor Swift playlist and drove through the darkening streets to get to the grub.

The pub was nearly deserted when we got there and both food and drink were divine. We sat and talked about school and life and plans.

And then we were back in the car to get to Twin Peaks for Ernesto’s final photo opportunity. Winding around the hill, we knew he wasn’t going to get his light trail. San Francisco’s fog had rolled during dinner. Some lights were still visible through the mists and they twinkled and scattered like a kaleidoscope as the rays hit the water particles in the air.

Never one to be disappointed, Ernesto plucked up his smile and got back in the car to drive me home.

Being twenty-something is weird. One minute the whole world seems open before you, the next minute you’re double checking the Ones in your wallet to make sure you can pay for dinner. College plans are not the same thing as life plans, and neither guarantees fulfillment. And, like San Francisco, a lot of it is underwhelming, disappointing, and a little bit colder than you expected. Perhaps that’s why we have friends to remind us to bring jackets or to keep our spirits up and find the rays of light when things get foggy.

We let Taylor Swift take us all the way back to Berkeley. Ernesto has basically all of her albums and I knew which songs to skip and which to replay.

“I’ve never seen San Francisco at night,” I said as we crossed back over the Bay Bridge. Lights reflected off the satiny black water, much the way they do back home in San Diego, but without the familiarity and friendliness.

“Well, you’re only twenty-four,” Ernesto reminded me. “There will be plenty more firsts for both of us.”

And I suppose that’s true.

More firsts. More adventures. More memories to add to our growing collection of golden days, so that when the years darken our sight and the fog rolls in, we will still see bright spots shining through like so many lights of a beautiful city.



Dandelion Boy

I’d forgotten about this.

I’d forgotten that there’s a physical adjustment period when you move somewhere new and your immune system is hit with a host of little bugs it hasn’t had to deal with before and it has a meltdown (not unlike the ones I have on a semi-regular basis). It packs a bag, grabs the last of your dignity, and says, “See ya’, pal. I’m checking out.”  

I tucked my legs in the space between the seat and the airplane window, wishing I could figure out how to my make seat recline, and sneezed pathetically into a goopy paper towel.  

All things considered, it’s been worse. The first time I went to college I got Whooping Cough. Twice. I was basically sick for an entire year. This I attributed mostly to jumping from 18 years of being home schooled (where the few germs that missed Mom’s weekend bleaching routine were basically on a first-name basis with us kids already anyway) to spending 10 hours a day on a public campus.

Then I moved to Europe two years ago and spent another 10 months with violent fevers and a perpetual cough. My neighbors told me it was the weather – always wet, always cold. My Czech friends told me it was probably just that I wasn’t used to European germs yet. My fellow teachers told me that this happens to most first-timers who haven’t yet built up their immunity to the biological minefield that is a Middle School. It was probably a bit of everything.

Three weeks into the semester and I’m remembering now. . . The American Germ Association has had two years to regroup in my absence and they’re throwing me quite a ‘welcome home’ bash.


Coming in over San Francisco was breath-taking (not that I had much left to spare). Soupy clouds spilled out around the feet of the mountains that stuck out into the bay in jagged, broken lines. A patchwork of marshes, flats and waterlines rolled away beneath us as the plane lowered in elevation. To our left, a Delta flight was descending in sync with us. Sometimes we were ahead, sometimes we were behind, but the sleek airliner never left the small frame of my window, finally touching down on the runway four seconds before our own wheels thumped onto the solid ground of San Francisco’s airport tarmac.  In my head, I counted down the minutes standing between me and my nephew.

My phone buzzed with alerts as I turned it back on. People following up on school assignments, someone inviting me to a concert, a friend asking me about my thoughts on the Syrian conflict.

Coughing and sneezing, I inched my way into the aisle, avoiding eye-contact with the guy who had asked me earlier which seat I was in, to which I had replied, “Number A” (You are in college, Mary. You know ‘A’ is not a number).

I stared at the BART map for ten minutes (unable to find the very clearly labeled SFO airport), before buying a twenty dollar ticket and asking someone how to get to Berkeley. In the haze of my exhaustion-wracked mind, directions weren’t processing well and I ended up halfway to Bay Point before realizing I had missed a connection.

To add to the general stress of things, because having your lungs leak out of your nose in public isn’t traumatizing enough, I forgot to add money to my pre-pay account this month, so my phone wasn’t doing so hot. Between me, my immune system, and my poverty-stricken phone, we were one miserable mess on the Richmond-bound train.

Deborah picked me up at the train stop with a hug and a baggy of homemade cookies (at least one of us is figuring out adult life). Her son (my incredible, adorable, perfection-incarnate nephew) giggled at me from the back seat of the car. He is eleven months old but we have been acquainted for only the last two. It’s a budding friendship.

I told Deborah bits and pieces about the trip (she was curious to know why I was so late and hadn’t called her, etc), but the desire to breakdown in the comfort of her clean car with a mouthful of cookie seemed out of place. Perhaps part of me was still enjoying the gentle rocking and sweeping views from the train window, perhaps I was just too sick to care anymore. I like to think that a small piece of me still hasn’t given up on the struggle to one day turn into a real adult.

I remember the night Ilias was born. I was still in Prague – nine hours ahead of the rest of my family. He actually graced our planet with his presence in the morning, I’m told. But past the first message or two that he was officially on his way, I didn’t end up on the loop of family text messages that were circling space for several hours. That happens when you live on a different continent. No hard feelings, fam.

He’s the first grandbaby in the family and we’re all a little twitterpated.

After waiting patiently for about six hours, I finally sent several pathetic messages to various family members, begging for information. My own evening had stretched on past my usual bedtime in the hopes that I’d know something for sure before going to sleep.

My brother-in-law sent me a quick note with Ilias’ weight and time of birth. Family filled me in on the details in waves over the next few hours, but I was already asleep. All I had needed to know was that first assurance that a new life was in the world.

I find it amazing how much a baby makes the world seem bigger and brighter, like the road is open and endless.

We got back to Deborah’s apartment just before noon – the train station was only about a ten minute drive away. Her husband is a student at Berkeley and the family-oriented neighborhood they live in off campus is packed with children riding tricycles and young parents bouncing fussy babies to sleep along the winding sidewalks.

Deborah gave me something from the medicine cabinet for my fever and I collapsed on a bed for several hours.

I think I needed that nap, regardless of the coughing, semi-comatose state that I was already in. I barely had time to get settled at home before I lept into community college courses and coaching commitments. I went from getting up at 5:30 to teach darling little Czech children every morning to waking up at 5:30 to drool in pre-dawn college classes every morning. (Not a fair trade, in my mind). I’ve spent weeks figuring out San Diego’s bus system, countless days trying to put my finances in order, and at least an hour and a half wondering what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life. Like, at least.

It’s hard, not knowing what happens next. There is a huge (mostly self-inflicted) pressure not to waste the life you have and there are so many things to do. How is one supposed to pick just one direction? Especially when one still struggles to follow basic directions on a color-coded transit map?

I came back to America and realized how few people know about the Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Europe. I was bombarded with two years of pop culture that I missed while away and I found it shallow and embittering. And I am still blown away by the phenomenon that is the American Drinking Fountain. FREE, CLEAN WATER and it’s EVERYWHERE!

I want to be useful. But with a world that needs so much help, where does one even begin? What could I really do? So I dig wells in Africa. So I teach English in Asia. So I work in orphanages or hospitals or poor houses. So what? Tomorrow will bring another drought, another war, another problem. And I won’t be there then.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give my body over to hardship that I may boast, but have not love, I gain nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:3

Admittedly, and this is important, the desire to help others is inherently selfish. The urge to do great things is born from a very small need to have value. To be needed is to have purpose. And to have purpose is in a tiny way to keep yourself from disappearing into the vastness of time.

At one point last week I found myself sitting on the edge of the living room coffee table, crying into my hands as my Dad looked on helplessly from behind his book. (He should basically be used to this by now, but I think he may have expected me to be past this particular mode of expression by this point).

“I just want to be useful,” I blurted out. Between shaking fingers, I clutched several torn-up pieces of paper with lost opportunities inked into their margins. I may pretend like I’m living the hobo dream, but it’s really just to disguise how badly it hurts to walking barefoot and blinded down a road you don’t know.

“You will be useful,” my Dad reassured me simply. He would know, I imagine. Who can spend their evenings reading the short stories of James Harriot and not know that life will eventually work itself out.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a real nap. I woke up to the flushed-red feeling of a broken hibernation and the sounds of my sister chattering away somewhere nearby. Navigating myself through their tiny apartment, I found her on the patio with a phone to her ear and a child on her knee. She was talking with our brother and Ilias was chewing on a basil leaf.

“Yeah, she’s here,” Deborah said. “She finally woke up.”

I grinned. I have a bad habit of visiting my siblings and spending most of the trip asleep in various corners of their respective abodes. This brother had an especially comfortable bean bag…

Berkeley is much cooler than San Diego right now. The Bay Area is chillin’ around the mid-seventies, which is a lot more reasonable than the sweltering crock pot that is currently my home town, thank you very much.

Deborah wrapped up the phone call as Ilias crawled his way into my lap. We both sat on the concrete beside the sliding door to the small, square patio, his little hands tugging at my bigger ones. I hope I don’t get you sick, pal, I thought. (Spoiler: I did).

“Ready for dinner?” Deborah asked, picking up the toddler clinging to my shirt and leading the three of us inside. She’s a good mom to all of us.

As my sister chopped and peeled and washed and simmered things in a chorus of perfectly timed kitchen-esque pirouettes, I grabbed the little guy and took him outside. Beyond the knee-high wooden gate circling their small patio, over the cold sidewalk, our barefeet found a patch of green grass with dandelions.

Ilias sat between my knees as I picked one flower after another. He’d crumpled the gifts between his chubby fingers and let the lacy seeds grab onto tendrils of the Autumn breeze and lift off, leaving us on the earth below.

Afternoon sighed one last warm breath before fading into a silver evening with cool winds and rustling leaves. The pale light brushed through our baby’s hair and he smiled as a handful of dandelion tufts left his palm in a flurried dance onwards and upwards.

The sunshine stroked my face softly and I thanked God for Vitamin D.

I remembered the night he was born. How immense and beautiful our futures had suddenly seemed because he was in them.

It’s easy to get lost in the mire of tragedies that carpet the world over. It’s easy to fall into despair, to lose your road, to lose your faith. It’s easy to see yourself as a dandelion – here and then gone in the impossibly fast skip of a heart beat. And as a dandelion, what can you really accomplish anyway?

But Ilias makes the world look different to me. He has great grandparents from Europe, from America and from the Middle East. His ancestors are a collage of stories from varied points around the globe. Some had harder lives than others. Some ended in joy, others in sadness. But would any of them have guessed that a hundred years after their own births, a little boy with twinkling eyes and an ineffable grin would sit on the grass beside the San Francisco Bay? A boy with an entire life of opportunities ahead of him.

No, just a life. A life that is his.

A friend of mine reminded me today that growing up is a gift denied to many.

I’ve never really cared for the idea of growing up – especially since I’ve not proved to be particularly good at it. But it is a gift.

Every breath that comes from lungs which pump air with blood that races from warm hearts to warm hands, every flicker of light that dilates our eyes, every sound that sends melodies ringing through our souls, it’s all a gift we don’t deserve.

We will help. We will find ways to save the world, one day at a time.

I hate to say it, but love is the answer. The love of a mother, a neighbor, a friend. The love of a God who sent His Son to die for a people who refuse to love Him back.

There is a change that is lasting, a water that doesn’t dry up, a shelter from the fray. The love of God.

My Dad would know better than anyone that heroes are not always the people who slay the biggest dragons. That being useful can mean spending your life as someone small and unnoticed in the same corner of the world you were born in. For that matter, my sister knows this too. They are the ones who teach and build, live and learn and die. They are the ones who love. They are the dandelions, spreading pieces of themselves across a vast period of time, planted deep within the hearts and minds of those around them. And even though they may seem to disappear in the wind, they will grow again.