Because of schedules and timetables and prior commitments, I knew I would have one full day in San Francisco to spend on my own. So I got an early start. BART dropped me off at the 16th Street station shy of 8am, where I walked past businesses still sleeping behind graffitied metal shutters. I feasted on a soft red pepper quiche from Tartine and bagged up half of my morning bun before hopping on a MUNI heading west.
I’d read that the San Francisco Botanical Garden was free as long as you arrived before 9am, and that’s exactly what I did. I strolled across Lincoln Way, down the most beautiful Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive I’d ever been on, and walked right through the garden’s open gate.
There are a lot of benefits to getting to the botanical garden early.
Before 9am, you’ll have the place to yourself. You can wander from corner to corner, circling around cloud forests and through redwood trails without hearing so much as another footstep. The only people I encountered were staff: quietly deadheading, pruning, hosing down. And where the staff couldn’t reach, the irrigation system compensated. Hundreds of automatically timed sprinklers shuddered from behind wide leaves and brilliant inflorescence. As I went through the garden, I ran to dodge the great arcs of water. I shielded my camera from the unchecked droplets and watched the sun glitter in the periodic downpour.
Before 9am, you can wander the garden freely. Just up a short hill, beyond the sun-loving succulents, I found backstage. Plants-in-process. There were no elaborate planting schemes, or well-placed interpretive plaques. Back here, in the far corner of the garden, young plants sat tucked into their plastic trays, tagged with their scientific names, staked and tied in white plastic hoop houses. Under the shade of a row of giant eucalyptus trees and below the looming Sutro Tower, I imagined what it would be like to work in the gardens, to care for the greenery, to see the early morning sun touch their leaves every day.
That light, that unique light, is perhaps the best benefit to getting to the garden before 9am. The early morning sun is sly and generous, its angled beams streaming and pooling on the edges of silhouetted fronds. Before the sun reaches its midday high point, shadows are long and deep, pushing the bright colors of the foliage into even starker contrast. There’s a haze in the air, most likely still settling dew, that catches the light and turns it a warming yellow green. That light, like the morning itself, is a quiet secret: curling your lips at the corners; begging to be told; pressing on your lungs until they swiftly inhale and when you open your mouth, the sound that’s released is peppered with birdsong.
San Francisco Botanical Garden is 55 acres of walkable garden paradise, located in Golden Gate Park. It’s easily accessible via public transportation, many MUNI buses drive right by. If you’re planning to get there early in the morning, bring a jacket with you. San Francisco is beautiful, but it can get pretty chilly.
The end of the calendar year has always felt a little awkward to me, a little arbitrary. The line between December and January is so thin, almost indiscernible, save for the dwindling number of round fir wreaths on doors and hazy twinkle lights in windows. We go from love and ritual and celebration to stoic facial expressions and lists written in pen, I-resolve-tos and I-really-mean-it-this-years. I know the new year signifies a fresh start for many people, an opportunity to try each month, week, day over again. But I struggle to find new energy between one cold, snowy day and another.
On the other hand, the door between days in early May swings wide. 24 hours of sleet can be immediately followed by sun-warmed skin and a cloudless sky. Trees that were asleep on Monday can sprout on Wednesday and stretch wide to full leaf by week’s end. Spring was a subtler affair when I was growing up in southern California, but here in Chicago, in early May, it’s a 30-piece brass band: warming up with a rumbling din; a sudden, jarring racket of out-of-tune notes; a swelling, well-known tune played in perfect harmony, uncanny in its effortless perfection.
It’s easy to see this time of year as the time to start over, to brush off old plans and introduce new goals. The endless changes in the natural world almost demand it. “We’re in transition. What about you?” It’s not the beginning of the calendar year, but it is the time to visualize and resolve. As it turns out, it’s also the beginning of my personal new year. My birthday is in early May. The 4th, to be precise. So today, it all starts fresh.
Last night in my living room, as the sun set, I watched the thick gray clouds dissipate and uncover a hot, pink sky. The colors, almost impossibly saturated and strong, didn’t last for long — night draws its flat shade quickly this time of year. But as the afternoon disappeared into evening, the sky sizzled, burning through everything that had happened in the past 24 hours, and in the past 365 days. I saw the sky’s fire consume all I’d done and thought and lost and broken, won and created and accomplished and forgot, ignored, adopted, transformed, destroyed. It all fell away. The colors began to lose their heat, fading to a dustier range of hues, and as the day retreated, I put the old year to rest.
Today, the new year begins. The 30-piece brass band is warming up. Their fingers fiddle nervously at valves and reeds, tightening and polishing the cool metal. When they’re ready, they inhale in unison before letting the first, clear note ring out, familiar and sweet.
Back in September, I took a trip by myself to northern California. Well, technically, I wasn’t completely by myself. My sister and her family live there, along with a handful of good friends from college. I admit, I had a free bed to sleep in, a familiar fridge to raid, and pickups and dropoffs at the airport. The goal of the trip was to spend time with my family and while I feel lucky that I was able to do that, people have lives and I don’t expect them to rearrange everything for me when I’m in town. So I ended up spending a good amount of time there by myself, walking new neighborhoods, mapping and planning, and taking long hikes.
The day I arrived, I put down my bags, ate a quick lunch, packed some water and snacks and headed out to the park. The public transportation near my sister’s house isn’t great but I love to walk, so the mile and a half it would take to get to Redwood Regional Park didn’t scare me. I’d hiked before, especially long distances in dense urban areas (which I believe counts as hiking). It was a beautiful, hot day, the sun was bright, and the sky was big and blue. I felt ready for the adventure.
I started strong, barreling down beside highway on-ramps, watching out for wayward traffic and feeling my legs remember what it’s like to climb hills. I followed signage that led to paved stairs overgrown with ivy, winding up and around grocery stores and law offices. The sidewalks soon melted into dusty paths, the sounds of the highway fell silent behind me, and I heard my rubber soles crunch loudly on the gravely trail. I was hiking. Really hiking! The activity I find myself longing for when I’m in the middle of my cold, concrete city. The activity I know calms and centers me. I breathed deep the smell of eucalyptus and weedy sage. Sandy old oak trees lined the path. I paused and turned to look behind me – and realized I was completely alone.
That’s when the tickle of fear brushed up against me. I was completely alone. What if someone did show up on the trail? What if they wanted to harm me? What if I fell and hurt myself and my phone cut out from connection or ran out of battery? What if I passed out from heat exhaustion? Whatifwhatifwhatif?
A man appeared on the trail in the distance. He slowly walked toward me and I felt my body tense up. I tried to size him up, still several yards away, wondering if I could outrun him if I had to. He padded closer and I held my breath as he came within arm’s reach. He nodded slightly as we passed each other, uninterested, unfazed, focused on his own whatevers and whatifs. I felt the blood redistribute throughout my body, my jaw unclench, my fists unfurl. If something was going to happen to me on this trail, on this hike, on this day, it would happen. But most likely, I would be fine. I exhaled and kept walking.
Many, many years of inherited and self-sustained training in Street Smarts has made me a savvy city resident. Not a minute goes by in my regular life when I’m not highly aware of what’s going on around me, what to keep an eye on, what to avoid. The mistake I made this day on my solo hike was to think I could put that armor down. Time spent outdoors is beautiful and breathtaking and relaxing, but it still demands attention and focus. It requires awareness of the outside world balanced with awareness of your own instincts and capabilities.
The tree-lined trail ended and opened onto a series of steep residential streets. I climbed and climbed until I finally saw the sign for Redwood Regional Park. Exhausted but elated, I sat on a bench overlooking the vast green canyon. Munching on snack packs and guzzling lukewarm water, I listened to hikers’ happy voices drifting up from the creekside trail. Feeling rejuvenated, I got back on my feet and chose a trail. The air around me cooled as I got deeper into the park, giant redwoods hurtling up around me, shielding the path from sun and rain. Ferns grew wild along the trail, covered in months of dust piled on from the waning California drought. There were other hikers that passed me on the way. This time I greeted them gladly.
I’ve done a good amount of reading about and listening to the stories of solo female thru-hikers. I’ve hiked a lot. I’ve never camped alone. I’ve never backpacked at all. The thought of thru-hiking excites me, and fills me with trepidation. I worry somewhat about being completely alone, and being able to handle potentially dangerous situations as they arise. I worry more about my fears of other people on the trail, about whether those fears will be unfounded or not, about whether those fears will protect me or hold me back. I’m not a person who trusts easily, and from what I’ve heard, trust is a thru-hike essential. You have to trust your sense of direction, and trust that your planning was adequate, and trust that the trail will throw the unexpected at you no matter how adequate your planning was, and trust that the other people you may encounter are challenging themselves to trust you, too.
I think a thru-hike is something I’d like to do. My solo hike to, around, and back from Redwood Regional Park tallied in at 7 miles. When I got back to my sister’s house, I felt proud of what I’d accomplished physically and psychologically. And I felt like I could keep going. That’s got to be a good start, right?
Redwood Regional Park is an incredible public land parcel with winding trails and acres of towering redwood trees. There are even campsites available for folks who want to spend more quality time in the woods. The park is easily accessible by car, or you can take BART to Fruitvale Station and then catch the 339 bus. The bus ends at the Chabot Space & Science Center, an observatory that sits right between Redwood Regional and the adjacent Joaquin Miller Park.
At time of writing, I’m sitting on my back porch, wearing shorts. It’s mid-morning and it’s the first truly warm day of the year. The wind is pushing our spindly branches of our pear tree against each other, a rhythmic clacking, almost like the first few drops of rain against the window. The soft sound is interjected by the roar of speeding cars. After months of hearing the traffic muffled through closed windows, the rumbles are sharp again, sudden, surprising. The bird chatter, too, stretches easily to my ears — their calls, like laughter, ringing loud and close.
I’m sitting here, watching the air swirl around me, push the last of the petals from the leafing plum tree up into the air and across our weathered wood deck. The air itself sounds warm again: the sound of leaves brushing, sweeping, rustling. The smells are back, too. After winter’s dry, howling vacuum, even the pear tree’s overripe scent is a welcome reminder that things are alive. I light some incense. It’s what I do when I know I want to sit a while, linger. It’s the kind I can’t burn indoors because it’s too strong, too dusty, will fill the house and our lungs too much. Out here, on my back porch, on the first truly warm day of the year, the sweet clouds rise and twist, hanging on for a few moments before dissolving away.
It’s our nature to want more, to imagine things being different and therefore better. I remember longing for a morning like this, just a few weeks, days, hours ago. Now that it’s here, I feel my brain struggling to stay, focus, accept. I go backward, remembering what the plum tree looked like earlier this week, an explosion of white, pink-centered blooms, bright and clear among the foggy weekday haze. I go forward, spotting the new branches on treetops two blocks away, imagining them bobbing and dancing in full leaf. My eyes understand them to be bare but my brain knows it’s not for long.
How do we — how should we — process moments that we know are fleeting, that we know may never happen again? There are only so many photos to be taken. In the in between times, just being aware must be enough. On my back porch, a heavy gust of wind rushes through, waking up all the wind chimes in the neighborhood. As the wild, tiny orchestra pushes into action, I lean toward the sounds, let each tone sink into my ears, hold them tight, and then let them go.
What places exist only as images in your mind, clipped, collaged, and disjointed? What once bright and vivid colors, now locked behind lowered lids, have yellowed and browned with age? What smells stick sour to the edges of your nostrils, even though you haven’t breathed them in in years? What ghostly textures tickle your palms, even now, decades later?
People say New Orleans is a haunted city, a city settled and buoyed by ever-wandering souls. When I’m there, the spirits I sense are those I know and knew: ghosts of my younger selves, and ghosts of my family, the ones still alive and the ones laughing, talking, cooking, forever in my memory. I used to spend a lot of time in New Orleans: every Christmas and at least one slow, heavy summer, when I passed my days lying on a blue bed in a blue room watching hornets outside build and buzz. In spite of the storm and the flood, that old house in New Orleans East still stands, as colorful and dignified as it was then, the rooms now rebuilt in perfect order inside my mind.
Then and now, in New Orleans: shimmering orange light bounces off the gulf, weaving through canals in the low-lying streets like neon warp and weft. Humid air wraps its thick arms around me, tucking me in tight, pushing against my skin, filling my lungs, slowing me down. Things cling — Spanish moss to live oak branches, mardi gras beads to iron railing, centuries of grime to wooden floorboards and victorian detailing, short shotgun houses to soft ground, ground that opened up beneath them before and surely will again.
I just spent a handful of too-short days back in New Orleans. My family was there with me, some in body and some in spirit, as they have always been. There are more words to be written about this place, to help me sort out and understand the hazy images and sounds in my memory. But for today, at least, this is a start.
Winter’s first layer is white glitter. The thinnest sheen of barely solidified water. The flecks of snow are just visible, silhouetted against the nearest streetlight. The dots dust the sidewalk, echoing in a cold breeze like scattered grains of sand.
The first layer usually comes and goes a few times before making the decision to really stick. That first real snowfall is magic. The kind of snow that feels almost imaginary, the kind that only exists in fiction, or theater, or in our memories. Accumulation comes next. It raises car roofs several inches and expands the girth of spindly bare tree branches. The individual particles float to the ground and collect in soft mounds, drifts, miniature mountains.
The days pass and the snow accumulation eventually turns to ice. The dream of that first flurry dulls and hardens. The layers of winter grow, burying the concrete sidewalk under months of city dirt and ragged black crystal. Psychedelic bursts of neon rock salt encircle doorways and slippery porch steps. Dried and dirty dust puddles stay splashed up on the sides of buses, caking the windows and obscuring views of steel building skeletons half-dressed in wind-ripped tyvek.
The months pass and the layers of winter become so thick, so unmoving, that nothing seems possible but ice cold. The memories of spring, or warmth, or soft grass underfoot, or hot red sun glowing through closed eyelids become sandwiched between the crust of slush and sleet. But not this winter.
This winter, snow last fell and stuck in early December, ice was last seen on the ground the day after Christmas, and since then, the weather’s been tolerable, mild, at times legitimately warm. Despite the groundhog’s best guess, spring appears to have come early. Last weekend I saw trees beginning to bud and bloom. Yesterday I noticed my tulip bulbs and strawberry plants sprouting on the back porch. Birds chirp and chatter from every old tree. Neighbors run slow errands in track shorts. Friends ride bikes for leisure, not necessity.
It’s a strange feeling — the pull to enjoy the weather, take a long stroll, drink lemonade on a park bench — all while the date on the calendar still appears to suggest that it’s February. I feel the familiar Warm Weather Impulse, the now premature push to go outside and take advantage of the high temperatures. But meanwhile, my body still feels sluggish and tired, still in need of a long winter’s rest, despite the fact that winter may already passed.
Having lived here in Chicago for as long as I have, I thought I understood the cycles of winter, its shades and layers. I could anticipate the turns and stalls of the weather, I had memorized the patterns of steps drawn in fresh snow fields, and could envision how they’d sully over time. This winter, the layers have all melted away, and my memory alone is what gives the season its shape.
Many months in the making, I’m proud to announce that an expanded version of my essay about Los Angeles is now live in the Spring 2017 issue of Waxwing Literary Journal. If you’ve ever asked me about the place where I grew up, or if you keep an eye on my instagram, you probably know that I have a complicated relationship with L.A. I try to unpack some of that in this essay. If you’re into southern California and rich plant-based imagery, read on.
No, I’m not immune to the fear. It follows me throughout the day and it’s one of the last things I think about at night. I struggle to identify what to do, how to act, who to reach out to, when to protest, what to say when I do speak up. I worry, hunched over a twitter feed, mind racing through what possibilities remain. But in the moments in between, I seek out the small stuff. It builds me up. It restores me with power I thought had disappeared for good.
These are the things that helped calm my mind, refocus it, sharpen and soothe it, strengthen my resolve to do good, reenergize my will for change. Now, just reminding myself about what’s good in this world isn’t the thing that will make progress imminent. But I definitely believe it could be part of the equation.
So I’m grateful for the small, feathery seed that made its way onto my city bus; catching the wind from the heat vents and the back door swinging, floating down the center aisle past stainless steel grab bars and leathery hang loops, looking for a spot to sit like the rest of us evening travelers. I’m grateful for people are who aren’t afraid to ask questions, even if it may reveal a lack of knowledge or experience within them. People who aren’t afraid to start over, and hold themselves and their neighbors to a higher standard of shared responsibility. I’m grateful for unexpected messages of love and support, the recall of old memories, the observance of the past, and the celebration of the possibilities of the future. I’m grateful for the giant, twisting flock of pigeons that live at the intersection where I catch my ride every morning. Their synchronized turns and dips, the organization and spontaneity of it. The endless iterations of their flight and landing and disappearance and relaunch into the thick, gray sky.
I’m grateful for two unknown neighbors, walking hand in hand down the street. Watching them shuffle up their front stoop, and into their home. Quiet and graceful in care and movement. And I’m grateful for a roomful of now known neighbors, standing together to let themselves and each other be heard, speaking up against the erasure of their needs and rights as citizens. I’m grateful for information being dispersed, books being lent, passages being copied and pasted, power and resistance being split up and passed around between households and generations, like a sourdough starter, or a packet of heirloom tomato seeds. I’m grateful for a most well known voice, a perfect and specific range of tones that wake up with mine every morning. A voice that drifts down the hallway from the back room, finding my ears and filling me with the gentle realization that I’m not alone.
I’m grateful for hard frozen ground, and still green grass, peeking out from between flattened piles of leaves and crosshatched mats of fallen twigs. I’m grateful for flowers, growing on cacti and floating in bowls of hot, shared soup. I’m grateful for the briefest patch of sun, and the perfectly placed leaf that rose to catch it. I’m grateful for new roots, and old growth, low lying clouds, and hot, dry air. I’m grateful for fog, dense and wet; the all-encompassing haze, and holding tight to my faith that soon enough, it will lift.
I can’t remember the last winter when it rained this much. The weather’s been swinging wildly from deep, sub-zero freezes to nearly-mild and reminiscent of early spring. But mostly, these past few weeks have brought a lot of winter rain. Usually, I don’t open my arms wide to freezing cold precipitation, the kind that leaves the hand gripping your umbrella frozen in an ice-wet fist. But I realized that, while still cold and mostly uncomfortable, wet weather makes everything look beautiful.
In this stage of winter, the city usually looks crusted over with a thin layer of soot and salt. Colors are dull, energy levels are low, the plants (and the people, for that matter) are hibernating in plain sight. Snow piles up, covering everything in white and eventually, in a range of tints of gritty gray. But rain and water, wet and flowing, bring the colors back to the city. Everything looks alive again: dark, rich, saturated. Even if the sun stays hidden behind the clouds, light feels reflected off of every surface.
I didn’t have to wander far to find shapes and forms that caught my eye again. Blocks I’d walked a thousand times before looked new. I stumbled down misty alleyways with fencing soaked in long and changing patterns. Evergreen blades and weather-cured petals turned to mirrors poised to catch every falling drop. Last summer’s hostas pressed snug against black, water-logged mulch, their puddle-drunk leaves rendered lithe like tea-stained paper.
The rain, collecting in the uneven asphalt, dribbling down drains and through miles of lakebound pipeline, breathes life back into the air, the ground. The possibility of spring feels nearer when the water falling from the sky looks and smells and sounds more like the stuff we drink, the stuff we’re made of. The possibility tickles our brains that this rain might be just what those underground flower bulbs need, the ones waiting down below for the annual cue to start growing.
It was refreshing, all of it. The sights, the soft thudding rhythm, the ability to walk outside again without risk of frostbite. But most entrancing were the raindrops themselves. The way they collected in branches overhead, their low-hanging bellies sloping toward the rising river below. The way the rain adorned each common twig with a necklace of jewels. The way the perfectly formed droplets magnified the muted light of winter, turning the skeletal tree canopies into earthbound translations of the starry night sky.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting the past few weeks. With the end of the year in sight, I’ve been thinking of the things I’ve accomplished, the work I did, the people I met, the food I ate. I have a kind of insane habit of writing everything I do down. Yes, everything. I keep a highly detailed calendar, where every day of the year, I keep note of the places I go, the things I do, and the people I see. I have a pretty good memory regardless, but there are always the tiny moments that you forget: that certain coffee shop, the unexpected record store, the surprise six hour hang with a close friend. Keeping the calendar helps me hold onto it all.
Recently I pulled up my entries from 2016. Every month was filled with weird and wonderful experiences. 2016 was difficult, no doubt about that at all. Every day felt like a turning point, a door we weren’t always sure we wanted to walk through. But also, when going back through my calendar, I realized that 2016 was a year of beauty and strength and discovery. I feel grateful for what I’ve been able to do, see, try. I went on long walks in beautiful places. I ate incredible meals with kind, hilarious people. I refocused and accelerated.
There are many things I want to do next year, an ever-expanding list of goals to tick off. But before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to spend just a little more time thinking about 2016. So here are a handful of my favorite experiences from the year.
Best way to ring in the new year: at the Boston wedding of two dear friends
Best classic diner meal: Deluxe Station Diner, Newton Centre MA
Best alternative housing structure I sat in: a huge wooden teepee built along the path near Fresh Pond
Best family vacation: Los Angeles
Best cappuccino: Balconi
Best lunch: Superba
Best sunset hike: Ernest E. Deb’s Park in Highland Park
Best wine to drink three bottles of at Thanksgiving dinner: Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc